The Apartment

April 26, 2012 § 2 Comments

I watched The Apartment early on a rainy morning when I couldn’t fall back asleep. Raindrops were dripping off the trees outside, and as I watched the sun come up, the sky only lightened from black to a stormy gray. And that was the perfect atmosphere to be introduced to this movie: accentuating its moodiness, its melancholy, its theme of how we go through life bumping into people and bouncing off of them until we find somebody that sticks. It’ll always be a rainy day movie for me.

It’s a classic, so you probably know the plot, but on the off-chance you don’t: Bud Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a bachelor aiming to climb the corporate ladder at the insurance company at which he works. Rather than stick to conventional ladder-climbing methods, Bud allows more senior executives to use his apartment when entertaining their mistresses. And it works–until he realizes that personnel director Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) is using it to woo Bud’s own object of affection, elevator attendant Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). That realization is that catalyst for Bud to reassess his priorities, unfolding in a way that’s strangely reminiscent of another movie about love triangles . . .

When I was a freshman in college, Almost Famous was one of my favorite movies. One of the things I loved most about it was its relatively unconventional–to me, at least–take on the characters’ relationships to each other, and how that led to plot turns you wouldn’t expect. I loved the idolatrous relationship between William and Penny that eventually evens out, the constantly shifting boundaries between Russell and William, the way that the audience–like Penny–is slowly seduced into believing that maybe Russell truly cares for her after all, making it that much more devastating when you’re all forced to confront the fact that he doesn’t. It all seemed new and fresh to me, a perfect balance of bittersweet. But while watching The Apartment, I kept thinking of how much it resembled Almost Famous, how the relationships and certain plot elements and the tone of the film itself seemed to have been lifted wholesale from Billy Wilder. And when I went online afterwards and looked it up, I learned that that was no coincidence: The Apartment is one of Almost Famous director Cameron Crowe’s favorite movies.

This is my favorite part of watching old movies. To see something made half a century ago that set the mold for things I later grew to love, to be able to independently draw connections between two works, to broaden the way I thought the world had worked–it’s the best feeling.

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Top Hat

January 22, 2012 § 3 Comments

I’m probably going to lose all my musical-loving street cred by saying this, but I’ve never been the biggest fan of Fred Astaire musicals. This has less to do with Fred himself than it does with the form the musical took at the peak of Astaire’s career: pre-Oklahoma!, they’re intended to be nothing but trifles with spun-sugar plots and no character development, no emotional journey. While plenty of people love them, it’s not my favorite era of the musical’s development. Most of the Fred Astaire movie plots seem to take the same basic format: either he or his romantic interest (or both) are involved with other people, but they fall in love instead. This is a solid enough plot with enough variations to base a handful of movies on, but not an entire career, sorry to say.

Still, it’s not just the musical’s fault. There’s a line in movie-musical fandom that says you’re either an Astaire fan or a Kelly fan, never both, with the implication always that Astaire’s dancing was the purer version of the art form. Astaire was sophisticated, made it look easy, was always in a top hat and tails while he did it. Gene Kelly wasn’t a dancer, he was an athlete. He did musicals where he wore a baseball player’s uniform or a sailor suit or a terrible mustache. You see him sweat! You never see Astaire sweat. The idea that I have to pick just one seems overly restrictive to me, but if I have to limit myself, I’m a Gene girl all the way. The problem with Fred is that even here, when he’s young, he just comes off as old. Fussy. Ineffectual. I can never suspend my disbelief enough to buy the idea that women are chasing after him, fighting over him, can’t stay away from him. It’s a problem I have with Fred, with Bing Crosby, sometimes even with Frank Sinatra. Sometimes the qualities that made someone a star don’t universally translate over the decades. Seventy years from now, I imagine classic film fans will wonder why we were so hot for George Clooney.

But the biggest hurdle for me to jump is that Astaire always plays the same character. Always lovesick, always walking that tightrope between smarmy and charming. Never convincingly hot-blooded, never in over his head. Refusing to be seen in anything other than that damn top hat and tails. Would Astaire ever wear a terrible mustache or a baseball uniform if it fit the character? Never. Astaire’s a dancer, not an actor. And certainly there’s some comfort to be derived from that, a comfort that was probably more welcome during the Great Depression when Astaire’s career was at its peak. If you went to an Astaire film, you knew what you were going to get: Astaire, always in fancy dress, always calm, cool and collected, always twirling you away from your problems. It’s these traits that many Astaire fans still love in him to this day. Just not me.

With that introduction in mind, I enjoyed Top Hat more than most Fred Astaire films. Astaire is the same as ever–put-together, tuxedo-clad, head over heels in puppy-love. The plot is similar to other Astaire plots, albeit with a mistaken identities twist that I enjoyed more than most–while Astaire is trying to romance Miss Rodgers, she’s convinced that he’s the husband of her close friend. A comedy of errors ensues. But despite the same ol’ Fred and same ol’ plot, the movie has other charms. First there’s Ginger, whom I love anywhere. Then there are those absurd, amazing Art Deco sets, culminating in the wonder of a Disneyland-esque Venice pictured above. I could love this movie for those sets alone, and of course the highly artificial Fred & Ginger films work better on highly artificial sound stages than they would have on location. And the costumes–Ginger’s riding pants, that infamous feather dress during the “Cheek to Cheek” scene! The dancing, it goes without saying, is phenomenal. The supporting cast is stellar, the script is funny–basically everything except Fred works for me here. Sorry, Fred.

While the film is intended to be wholly superficial, the mistaken identity plot functions here as it does in many Shakespearean comedies, allowing the characters to allude to sex and adultery in a way that never could have been addressed in a 1935 movie if played straight. At one point, Ginger believes that her friend Madge is literally offering to share her husband with her–and Ginger, if we’re to take the movie seriously, considers it (despite being slightly appalled). The Breen Office only allows this because we, the audience, know they’re actually in love with different men. I’m not one of those Hays Code afficionados who believe that the Code made everything better by forcing filmmakers to allude to things and audiences to use their brains rather than having things spelled out for them, but Top Hat is a perfect example of films that are made better by implication only.

In the Mood for Love

January 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

I want every single dress in this movie.

Love Actually

December 22, 2011 § 2 Comments

I have an ex-boyfriend who hates this movie. It’s unrealistic, he claims, and cheesy. We get so little time with each character that we have no reason to invest in any of them, which doesn’t matter because everyone is a thinly drawn cutout anyway. Other complaints I’ve heard, from other people, include but aren’t limited to the following: Karl (the dude Laura Linney is interested in) is a first-class asshole for bailing on her after their failed hook-up, Keira Knightley is a first-class asshole for kissing her husband’s best friend when she’s supposed to be a  blissful newlywed, the 9/11-referencing opening is manipulative, nobody can learn to play the drums or speak Portuguese in a month.

Well, duh. A romantic comedy that’s overly sentimental, manipulative, and cheesy, with occasionally unlikeable characters and unrealistic plotlines? What is the world coming to?

I put this film on every holiday season, largely because it’s one of the few that accurately captures the anticipatory buzz of the holiday season for me. Jacqueline recently wrote that one of the reasons classic movies get Christmas so much more right than modern ones is that they put Christmas in the background rather than the foreground, wallpaper decoration for the movie rather than the point of the movie itself. Love Actually is one of the few modern movies I can think of that follows the classic holiday film formula instead of the modern one–the only plot that actually centers around Christmas itself is Bill Nighy’s Billy Mack storyline, where he’s aiming for the Christmas number one single slot. Everything else in the movie could have  happened at Easter, on Veteran’s Day, on a random Thursday in July. And that’s why, despite its seemingly modern conceits (porn star stand-ins! interracial marriages! going to America to get laid!), this is the only holiday movie created in the last fifty years that’s perennially on my playlist.

And despite my ex-boyfriend’s claims, the movie also gets love right–or at least righter than most romantic comedies. (Let’s be fair: that’s not setting a terribly high bar.) While certain scenes are straight fairy tale, no chaser (Colin Firth’s proposal, Hugh Grant and Martine McCutcheon’s backstage kiss), generally the movie presents a much more realistic and complex portrait of love, in its infinite variations, than many of its rom-com brethren. In this movie, love doesn’t end at the wedding. The Alan Rickman/Emma Thompson and Keira Knightley/Chiwetel Ejiofor relationships both depict love within marriage (as does, tangentially, Liam Neeson’s storyline). Romantic love isn’t elevated well beyond every other type–various plot lines running throughout the film give just much weight to love between family members, friends, and even between employer and employee (note: I’m talking about Bill Nighy here, not Alan Rickman). Love is presented as infinitely more complex than in most romantic comedies: Keira Knightley can kiss her husband’s best friend for reasons other than wanting to have an affair with him, Alan Rickman can cheat on his wife for reasons other than not loving her, and Laura Linney can love her brother while also wanting to kill him sometimes.  And while every plot line gets some sort of conclusion, not every one is a happy one. We get just enough fairy tale endings to keep the film upbeat, but just enough that aren’t to confirm that love is not an effervescent glittery rush all the time. Let’s go and get the shit kicked out of us by love, indeed.

There’s one thing I can’t forgive the film for, though–and no, it’s not that nobody can learn to speak Portuguese in four weeks. It’s the fact that Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve never would have existed without Love Actually, which inevitably would have been titled Christmas Eve had it not been created before the days where plot descriptions sufficed for titles. Still, that’s a small price to pay in exchange for the only modern Christmas movie on my list. Or is it? Is it?

Christmas in Connecticut

December 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

The set-up for this movie is utterly ridiculous, but the pay-off is so adorable I can forgive it. The first time I watched Christmas in Connecticut, I texted my best friend, “I’m watching this bizarre movie where soldiers pretend to propose marriage to nurses, solely to get home-cooked meals out of them.” And that’s half the premise for this movie: sailor Jefferson Jones, rescued from a raft after his ship was sunk by a u-boat, flirts with his nurse so that she’ll hook him up with better food. He eludes her suggestions of marriage, though, which she ascribes to his “never having had a real home” growing up–so she arranges for him to spend the holidays at the home of Smart Housekeeping columnist Elizabeth Lane, a home front Martha Stewart type. And here’s the other half of the movie’s premise: while Mrs. Lane depicts herself in the magazine pages as a model housewife, complete with doting husband, bouncing baby, and Connecticut farmhouse . . . in reality she’s an unmarried New Yorker, dependent on take-out and putting off marriage offers from a long-term boyfriend. After her publisher forces her into the bring-a-soldier-home-for-the-holidays publicity scheme, she’s forced to cobble together something resembling domestic perfection on the fly. Screwball antics ensue, but Elizabeth doesn’t find it quite so funny when she starts falling for Mr. Jones . . .

Old comedies can be touchy–to modern eyes, the humor can be too hokey, too dated, too wacky. But the humor really worked for me here; it was enjoyable without going to too far over the top. And while I liked the two leads together, the film did, unfortunately, strike one of my old movie nerves in regards to its love triangle.  In 1930s and ’40s movies, and occasionally even into some later ones, a woman is generally considered “single” until she’s married, with the unattached partner in a love triangle free to guiltlessly pursue her until the moment she actually says her vows–and even then it’s no serious moral failing to keep pushing her to stray, as Jefferson Jones does here. (Of course, if they do actually stray, then by Hays Code injunction, they must be Severely Punished to Discourage Copycat Offenders. But here it’s okay because even though he thinks she’s married, she’s not! Nothing wrong with that!) To a modern viewer, this comes off as mighty cold–modern rom-coms generally require a little more compunction for chasing after a taken woman. I should be used to it by now, fan of golden-era musicals (in all their partner-swapping glory) that I am, but it still always throws me for a loop, as it did here. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to shake my preference for the men who stand politely on the sidelines until their number’s called, so to speak.

To make up for it, though, we have all that glorious food. I love to cook, butone of my niche obsessions is cooking history–the trends and dishes associated with a particular era–and for that, Christmas in Connecticut is a goldmine. A few years back, Raquelle put together a menu based on the movie: Chicken Maryland! Plum pudding! Strawberries Chantilly! They don’t make food like that anymore . . . which, in some cases, is probably for the best.

The Opposite Sex

December 14, 2011 § 1 Comment

One of the 1950s’ cinematic quirks was taking straight movies from the 1930s and ’40s, and making mediocre musicals out of them. It’s how we got High Society (The Philadelphia Story), Silk Stockings (Ninotchka), and She’s Working Her Way Through College (The Male Animal), just to start. It’s also how we got The Opposite Sex, derived from the 1939 classic The Women, about a Susie Homemaker type whose husband leaves her for a showgirl, and the group of friends who surrounds her in his wake. The Opposite Sex takes about 70 percent of The Women’s wit and charm, and replaces them with a bizarre mish-mash of musical numbers. “Dere’s Yellow Gold on the Trees”? What is this? And why is it mixed in with a singing cowboy number and a couple of smoky ballads?

The movie might still have worked, though, with a more charismatic lead. This was the only real failing of The Women, too–it was hard to root for Norma Shearer, and grows harder by the year as the views espoused in the film grow more and more outdated–but The Women had a lot to fall back on. The Opposite Sex needed a heroine we could root for, and June Allyson was not it. Or maybe it’s just me–Allyson’s “perfect little wifey” persona has always bugged the hell out of me, and her whiskey-&-cigars voice just frustrates me, hinting at a darker, more interesting side that never comes. While watching The Opposite Sex, I found myself hoping that her showgirl rival, played by Joan Collins, would win out. Probably not what the filmmakers were going for . . .

Your Cheatin’ Heart

December 11, 2011 § 1 Comment

Hank Williams was an alcoholic and a drug addict. His relationship with his wife, Audrey, was marked by infidelity and abuse, physical and emotional, on both sides. Naturally, somebody decided his life story–centered around this relationship–made good material for a schmaltzy 1960s musical helmed by Gene Nelson, most famous for directing two of Elvis’s more insipid films, Harem Scarum and Kissin’ Cousins. Picture an insipid Elvis musical where the King plays an early country music star with a drinking problem, and Your Cheatin’ Heart is pretty much what you get.

Of course, not all of this was MGM’s fault. Audrey Williams, who controlled Hank’s estate and served as technical advisor on the film, had final say on what flew. The version of the story she okayed was highly whitewashed. While Hank’s alcohol abuse is shown, his drug abuse is not. It doesn’t explain the reasons for his death at 29, which were likely drug and/or alcohol-related–in the film, he’s supposed to be clean, refusing to drink anything harder than soda in the last few moments of his life. The film barely depicts any abuse and hardly hints at their separations–in the movie, at the time of Hank’s death, he’s still married to Audrey! (In real life, the two of them had divorced for the second time six months before, and he had impregnated another woman before marrying a third.) Audrey did allow a flawed picture of herself to be presented–she comes across as a profligate spender, buying new fridges to replace month-old ones, which stresses Hank out so much he turns to the bottle. But despite this, the film is still biased in her favor, showing her mainly as the driving force behind Hank’s stardom, pushing him to succeed because he had no faith in himself.

We think of the musician biopic cliches as being relatively modern developments–discussion of them flared a few years back as Ray, Walk the Line, and Notorious were released in quick succession–and rarely anyone bothers to trace them back beyond The Buddy Holly Story in 1978. But almost all of them are in place here: opening with a tragic childhood event, the underprivileged upbringing, a whirlwind of newspaper headlines to denote a rise to fame, a slow descent into alcoholism and drug abuse, the rocky first marriage, using songs to comment on the action, the recovery from addiction (presented largely off-screen). Had someone told me that the script for Your Cheatin’ Heart was an early draft of Walk the Line, I would have no trouble believing them.

Audrey has been much maligned by Hank Williams fans over the years, and the fact that this film was released ten years late and presented such a varnished account of her relationship with Hank has–like many other things–been blamed solely on her. Maybe it’s my tendency to root for the underdog here, but I’ve got to go to bat for her, just a little bit. Being married to an addict is no picnic even under the best of situations, and when the addict in question is both abusive and untrue . . . well, that’s bound to put some stress on your relationship. Maybe the most interesting thing about Your Cheatin’ Heart was how it made me consider Audrey in a way that I hadn’t before. Here was a chance for her to rewrite history–not to completely alter the truth, just to massage it a little bit. To give herself the happy ending that she and Hank were denied in real life. She could write the other women out of the picture–not just the insignificant affairs, but his second wife and his unborn child with another woman. She could write away his addiction, putting him through a recovery that never stuck in real life. She could make clear her intentions for his life–that regardless of how it actually played out, she wanted the best for him. She could create her own ending: the two of them, happy together, with Hank sober and successful and appreciated, if only for a little bit. Wish fulfillment, all of it. But understandable.

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