Spinout

October 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

Spinout switches up the Elvis formula by–wait for it–giving us three potential love interests instead of two! It also more or less dispenses with the plot–which can be summed up as “Elvis just wants to play in his band, race cars and never get married”–in favor of the romance. That might be necessary, given that each of the three women is in a love triangle of her own. Six love stories, nine songs, and a car race (fairly derivative of the one in Viva Las Vegas) in 93 minutes–no wonder there’s no time for plot!

Elvis gets his two usual suspects, the sweet young thing and the seductive older woman (see Blue Hawaii, Tickle Me). The sweet young thing is a spoiled daddy’s girl–played by Shelley Fabares in her second of three appearances with Elvis–who runs his car off the road in the opening scene and later insists that her rich father blackmail Elvis and his band into playing at her birthday party. The rest of the band is considerably less affronted by the blackmail than Elvis, given the hefty paycheck they’ll receive, but Elvis insists he can’t be bought. The seductive older woman is played by Diane McBain, an author of books on male psychology, who insists that her stalking Elvis is “research” after she chooses him as her representative of the The Perfect American Male for her upcoming book of the same title. Beach movie star and former Gidget Deborah Walley plays the third love interest, a new type: the tomboyish drummer of Elvis’s band who nurses a puppydog crush on him. He never notices her longing looks and the gourmet meals she whips up for him–until the party at the end of the film, when–post-makeover–she comes down the stairs in a red dress and heels . . .

In contrast to the froth of Spinout, Elvis’s off-screen life was taking a different turn. He was focusing on the gospel album he wanted to release and reading about religion. On the set, he and Deborah Walley formed a friendship centered around motorcycle rides and religious discussion. Like Elvis, Walley had never been fully comfortable with the trappings of stardom–some sources claim she went so far as to try and convince Columbia Pictures execs that she had leukemia in order to get out of doing Gidget Goes Hawaiian. Walley credited Elvis with introducing her to spirituality and changing her life; while it may not have been related, she quit doing beach movies shortly afterward. Elvis also introduced Diane McBain to the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi, whose philosophy Elvis tried to follow, and gave her copies of his favorite spiritual books. Throughout Elvis’s life, he constantly struggled with the idea of his fame, asking spiritual teachers why God had chosen the path He had for him. Elvis considered himself a “searcher,” someone who wants to “know the truth, to know and experience God.” His explorations ranged from mainstream Christianity–he once told Pat Boone that he wished he could go to church like him, but that he was worried about distracting the church-goers from the preacher’s message–to Judaism and Taoism, Hinduism and New Age philosophy. He was always looking for spiritual answers to the problems of his fame, but they never came.

Of course, none of this was reflected onscreen. Instead, the ending of Spinout plays like an homage to the Tao of Elvis. Rather than settle down with any of his three prospects, he summarily matches each of them up with other men, then finds a cute girl on the dance floor and vows to stay single forever–setting us up perfectly for the next Elvis movie, and on it goes.

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Game of Thrones: Mulled Wine

November 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

Like everybody else right now, I’m making my way through the Song of Ice and Fire books. (I know everybody else is reading them because it took six months before the first book showed up in my library queue despite the library having 50 copies.) I’ve dedicated the last two months of my life to the first two books in the series. This is a new experience for me, since I don’t usually read adult fantasy. All my previous forays into the genre have been kid lit–all the Harry Potters and His Dark Materials, a slow and still-incomplete journey through the Narnia books, an even slower slog through The Hobbit which scared me away from The Lord of the Rings books for life, a deep and unyielding adoration for the Wizard of Oz books, a dip into The Once and Future King. My hesitance about fantasy has less to do with the actual trappings of the genre–I can get down with elves and magic wands and epic battles between good and evil, as my devotion to kids’ fantasy suggests. What has scared me off from the genre itself is the Tolkienism of it: a bunch of manly men tromping through the woods, doing manly things like going on quests and fighting bad guys, getting dirty and eating dead animals cooked on a spit and testing their strength and becoming Christ figures and ugh, enough with the testosterone already.

The up side of spending all my autumn nights curled up in a chair with a blanket and A Clash of Kings is this: I’ve developed quite the taste for mulled wine. I’m a sucker for hot alcoholic drinks in general–some of my fall and winter go-tos include apple cider with brandy or hot buttered rum–but mulled wine is quickly taking over as a favorite. My recipe is just a bottle of Cabernet, a generous splash of brandy, and some cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves heated together with a sliced & peeled orange and half a cup of sugar, but I’m excited about trying some of these recipes too. God, I love wine.

Romeo + Juliet

November 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

After watching MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet ballet, I was struck with the urge to watch Romeo + Juliet and see how it had aged. Despite watching both it and the (much more critically acclaimed) Zeffirelli version at the same age, I still have vivid images of the former imprinted on my brain while all scenes but the latter’s morning-after bit have been neatly excised. (And that only because we had to watch it in English class–the experience of watching bare-assed actors in front of your 14-year-old classmates was too emotionally traumatic to bear.) I was counting on it to have aged badly, in the same way Moulin Rouge! once felt so emotionally resonant and deep and tragic and I cried at the ending every time, etc. etc., but now just feels like a cheap carnival. I am a perennial setter of low expectations.

It’s funny how, at the time, Leo and Claire seemed like a relatively well-matched pair. He was known more for his teen heartthrob status than for his middleweight acting skills, and she was (fairly) fresh off My So-Called Life. I recall her being the Thinking Boy’s Hollywood Crush in those days: accessibly pretty, smart or at least capable of appearing so in interviews, could act, more or less. Nowadays, if you go to the IMDB message boards (always good for a diversion), you get a lot of hysterical 13-year-olds wondering why they cast someone SO UGLY opposite Leo, and how it should have been someone more famous. His respective star rose exponentially after this proof of his likeability as a romantic hero anticipated the next year’s Titanic; hers has been falling ever since she was declared persona non grata during post-Brokedown Palace interviews.

At any rate, the acting was even more cringe-inducing than I remembered it being. Even at 14, I still remember watching it and occasionally thinking, “This is just Too Much.” A number of the actors yell their lines as opposed delivering them. (On the plus side, all the yelling probably gave Mercutio’s Harold Perrineau good practice for his incessant “WAAAAAAAAAAAALT!”s on Lost.) But if there’s one thing Baz Luhrmann can do, it’s fully commit to an artistic vision. Neon crosses flanking pews in a church aisle, Christ the Redeemer rip-offs, priests with tattoos, “When Doves Cry” washing over you from the choir loft–the blend of the holy with the profane permeates every crevice of the film. (This academic paper more fully explores the subject, if you’re into that kind of thing.) There’s not a single scene here that could belong in another movie. Even the “two characters provide exposition in the back of a car” scenes are punctuated by the cross that dangles behind the two. In fact, crosses are so ever-present that they even appear in the + of the title.

It’s that commitment that makes the movie work for me, even when the actors’ delivery is all wrong (WAAAAAAAAALT) or when they don’t appear to know what they’re saying. It’s the same reason that Moulin Rouge! worked despite the 1980s pop songs appearing in a turn-of-the-previous-century setting. In both films, Luhrmann attends to the commitment to his “vision” (eye-rollingly pretentious as that is) so completely that the films become fantasies. Romeo + Juliet isn’t set in our world any more than Moulin Rouge! was; it’s set in an alternate universe with an alternate history all its own. In that world, maybe the actors’ over-the-top line delivery is just how people speak. In that world, maybe Danes’ delivery of Shakespeare actually makes sense.

The Rise and Fall of the College Widow

May 27, 2011 § 1 Comment

While watching A Yank at Oxford, I spotted a real, live endangered species of the film world: the college widow. TV Tropes refers to the college widow as a “forgotten trope,” in that it was once a commonly accepted cinematic shorthand but has fallen out of favor. Originally “college widow” referred to a single woman–not necessarily a widow–who hung out with the college men year after year, sometimes hoping to find an educated husband after she had graduated without snagging an engagement ring, sometimes just looking for a good time. On film, directors sometimes made her into an actual widow in order to make her promiscuity slightly more palatable to the audience. Thus the Hollywood college widow is usually a woman whose husband (often a member of the university faculty) died young, leaving her all alone in the full flower of her beauty and sexual experience–which, of course, attracts the attention of the young college men that surround her. This being the first half of the twentieth century, though, the college widow is usually painted as predatory rather than preyed upon, with the men who get involved with her treated as innocent victims.

The reason this trope was invented seems obvious, the reasons it disappeared even more so. Filmmakers had to assure us that our heroes were healthy, red-blooded American men, who would never resort to all that Brideshead Revisited stuff that was rumored to go on at many an all-male campus. Obviously in the 1910s-1940s (the heyday of this trope), prostitution couldn’t be depicted on screen, so our protagonists couldn’t get their kicks that way. Once the Hays Code came into effect, adulterers must be punished. And for a hero to seduce an unmarried young woman would be caddish. So the college widow served as an effective outlet for all of our heroes’ wants and needs (and those of the writer): it proved the protagonist was straight, sexually desirous and desirable, and yet still a gentleman. Of course, the trope began to be played for laughs even more often than it was played straight, in movies like Horse Feathers. With the rise of co-education and the fall of the production code, the college widow found herself expelled from campus in favor of flirtatious co-eds.

One Yalie described the college widow thusly:

“For the college widow had a depth and richness of emotional experience never developed in American life of that day outside of a few metropolises, and seldom there. She began at sixteen or eighteen, as a ravishing beauty, the darling of freshmen; she passed on in the years of her first blooming from class to class of ardent youngsters, until, as her experience ripened, she acquired a taste, never to be satisfied by matrimony, for male admiration, abstracted from its consequences; and more subtly, for the heady stimulant of intimacy with men in their fresh and vigorous youth. By her thirties she had learned the art of eternal spring, and had become a connoisseur in the dangerous excitement of passion controlled at the breaking point, a mistress of every emotion, and an adept in the difficult task of sublimating love into friendship. The students lived out their brief college life and went on; she endured, and tradition with her, an enchantress in illusion and a specialist in the heart. Twenty, even thirty years might be her tether; when suddenly on a midnight, a shock of reality, or perhaps only boredom, ended it all; she was old — but still charming and infinitely wise. To smoke a cigarette with her when cigarettes were still taboo for women, and drink her coffee and liqueur, was a lesson in civilization.”

The Student Prince

March 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

Back in the first half of the twentieth century, when most people didn’t go to college, it held a certain mystique that it’s since lost. College, to outsiders, wasn’t about academics. It was about fraternity rituals and goldfish-swallowing, phone booth-stuffing and raccoon coats–with a side of copious drinking. Most people saw college as a bourgeios waste of time, a glorified finishing school for rich kids. But for those who had the money to attend, it had an entirely different appeal: college was where you went to become a man. (See: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise.)

The Student Prince makes it clear that this is not just an American thing. The film, based on an operetta taking place in 19th-century Germany, follows the prince of a small German kingdom as he’s forced to attend one of Europe’s oldest universities in Heidelberg against his will. In the silent film adaptation that preceded this, he’s sent by his family to finish his education before he can take over the country, but in this film–playing up its more romantic recital of the story–he’s sent to develop his charm because his princess fiancee finds him stilted and contentious, trained for war rather than wooing. Unfortunately for her, at the university he finds himself developing a little bit more charm than she probably had in mind, ifyouknowwhatImean and I think you do.

At the inn where he’s spending the semester, Karl falls immediately for the sweet barmaid Kathie, who serves as his guide to student life at Heidelberg, which he initially finds baffling and raucous. The fact that nobody there gives him the full respect that his title commands is another wound. But with Kathie beside him, he quickly adapts–eating knockwurst like the other students, slamming his mugs of beer like a champ, following her advice on which student “corporations” (the German equivalent of fraternities) to join. In fact, he soon realizes that he’d rather hide his royal identity altogether.

Some things about college haven’t changed.

The Student Prince goes surprisingly deep into the traditional trappings of German student life. (This is all in the source material. What, you thought 1950s MGM would do historical research?) While the silent film largely had glossed over the depictions of college life in order to focus on the romance, The Student Prince goes so far as to integrate the German university traditions into the plot of the film. Two rival student corps fight over him–the snobbier of the two only once they learn that he’s a prince, the down-to-earth one from the very beginning. When the leader of the snobby Saxo-Borussians is offended that a prince would rather join the less prestigious Westphalians, they even settle the matter the same way turn-of-the-century corps members would–in a fencing duel. The winner is the one who manages to leave a permanent scar slashed across the loser’s cheek! Kathie’s fear over the result of Karl’s duel with the leader of the Saxo-Borussians is what forces her to acknowledge her heretofore hidden love for him.

One can’t talk about this film without talking about Mario Lanza’s beautiful voice, which–due to a casting dispute–handles the singing while Edmund Purdom appears on-screen. Purdom actually does a phenomenal job of the lip-syncing–I wouldn’t have known it wasn’t him had MGM not plastered Lanza’s name all over the bill. Ann Blyth is often underused, and this film doesn’t give her a whole lot to do besides look pretty and sing pretty, but she brings a sense of warmth and intelligence to Kathie’s character that I didn’t find in Norma Shearer’s silent version.

The film’s ending is surprisingly touching. The silent film gives the romance a different treatment: while watching the romance unfold is fun, you’re always aware that it’s a diversion, that at the end of the day he’ll have to go home and own up to his duties. But–unsurprisingly for a 1950s MGM musical–The Student Prince puts Karl and Kathie’s romance on display. You understand why they fall for each other, even after his nastiness at the beginning, and it’s genuinely crushing when you realize, right along with them, that they have no chance.

But despite the focus on the romance, that was never the point of the story in the first place. The point was that Karl had to leave home to become a man–to shift from his rigid, immature views on war being the focus of life. Through Kathie and his time at the university, he didn’t just learn about love. He learned about people. And when he returns home, ready to marry the princess and run the country after his grandfather’s death, we know he’ll be a success. (At least until World War I rolls in and kills off half his subjects.)

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