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.

Bunheads

February 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m pretty sure that I wrote this novel when I was in high school. Then I threw it out because I realized it was too much like Center Stage. And then Sophie Flack dug through my trash, changed some names and rewrote a couple scenes, and handed this over to a publisher.

Side note: Seriously, the problem with Center Stage is that it used four of the five available ballet-related plots and thus ruined ballet story-telling for anybody else, lest they want to look like they’re ripping it off. And who wants to be caught ripping off Center Stage, of all the things? The Five Ballet Plots, for the record, are as follows:

  1. Girl tries to make it in the competitive world of ballet, but does she have what it takes? Often involves eating disorders or other health problems to up the ante.
  2. Unconventional ballet dancer (too mouthy, too overweight, whatever) chafes against the harsh restrictions of the ballet world. Often resolved by having her turn to modern dance or ending up at a less traditional ballet company.
  3. Ballet dancer is torn between the all-consuming world of dance and her other interests (usually these “other interests” involve “having sex with people who aren’t ballet dancers”) . Always resolved by her leaving the dance world.
  4. One or more “nice girl” dancers compete against the resident bitch (who is almost always a better dancer than they are). If this is a story aimed at children or young adults, the resident bitch usually turns out to be not so bitchy after all.

Number five is “ballet dancer goes mad due to the pressures of the competitive ballet world,” which obviously The Red Shoes and Black Swan have cornered the market on, so if you’re not ripping off Center Stage then you’re ripping off one of those. There are also the stock characters that turn up again and again: the charismatic but emotionally distant (or manipulative) head of the company, the strict former dancer and current instructor, the naive blonde ingenue. I’ve been writing a story set at the San Francisco Ballet for, oh, about six years now . . . Every three months I realize what I’ve written sounds way too much like Center Stage and am forced to start from scratch. It might be time to just give up entirely.

Back to Bunheads: It also uses the same four plots as Center Stage and most of its stock characters, albeit in a more condensed form, as it follows Hannah, a young corps dancer at a New York ballet company. Hannah is torn between staying with the demanding dance world or giving it up to go to college, and has a love triangle to match (college student versus balletomane). The ending is never really in doubt; the story is more about how Hannah will get to that conclusion. Sophie Flack’s main draw is ostensibly that, as a former professional ballet dancer, she’s in the position to give us some inside knowledge. Unfortunately that insider’s knowledge largely consists of “Ballet dancers are always on a diet and they hate dancing the snowflake piece in The Nutcracker“–the latter of which can be discerned from basically any dancer’s autobiography and the former of which is obvious to anyone with eyes.

Ms. Flack herself was famously fired after several years dancing for the NYCB, and a handful of interviews make it clear just how autobiographical Bunheads is. But Sophie’s Hannah isn’t fired; she chooses her destiny on her own terms. You can sense that this book worked as a kind of therapy for Flack, allowing her to write herself a happier ending, allowing herself more power than she actually had. Nothing wrong with writing a book as therapy, except that they generally do more for the authors than for the readers, and that’s certainly true here. Maybe I’m being a touch harsh–this book probably worked just fine as a guilty pleasure for the young adult audience it’s aimed at. I would have loved it at 15. (Then again, I had a raging eating disorder at 15, so of course I would love this.) As for the adult me, I guess it’s back to watching Center Stage.

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 Marriage Plot

December 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

Jeffrey Eugenides’ first novel, The Virgin Suicides, is written in the style that prompts many critics to use the words “dreamy,” “evocative,” “meditative.” In it, a group of boys watch as their neighbors, a quintet of blonde stair-step sisters, kill themselves off. As the dreamy, meditative, depressed 16-year-old I was when I read it, it should have spoken to me . . . but it didn’t. I was frustrated by the presence of the boys, who served to distance the reader from the Lisbon daughters. Who cares about the stupid boys? I kept thinking. I want to know more about the girls! But they remained frustratingly elusive.

Later, in college, I found out that there was a name for this: the male gaze. That distance was a stylistic device that Eugenides had, apparently, employed on purpose. But its purposefulness didn’t make it any less annoying. In fact, the fact that he had intended to discount the more interesting girls’ narrative in favor of giving us the blander boys’ perspective made me even more irritated than when I thought he’d done it by accident. No matter how beautifully the book had been written, I couldn’t get past that, and I’ve avoided Eugenides since then, even after all the praise for his second novel, Middlesex. If he couldn’t get women right, how was he going to handle a character who was intersex?

Reviews of his most recent novel, The Marriage Plot, piqued my interest enough to hesitantly come crawling back, though. Starting out on graduation day at Brown University in the early ’80s, the book covers a love triangle between the brilliant-but-bipolar scientist Leonard, the romantic, book-obsessed yuppie Madeleine, and the globe-trotting religious scholar/seeker Mitchell. And I really enjoyed it, despite not wanting to enjoy it. I flew through the book’s 400 pages in three and a half days, a feat that–at least with literary fiction–usually takes me much longer. I liked the books’ parallels between religious ecstasy and madness, the heroine’s preoccupation with Victorian novelists, the voyeuristic travels in the world of 1980s WASPs. But the entire time, I just couldn’t shake the idea that Jeffrey Eugenides was really benefiting from being Jeffrey Eugenides here–had the book been written by a female author, especially an unestablished one, it wouldn’t have gotten a crumb of attention. Women who write love stories–no matter how self-aware, no matter how good–are treated as silly, unambitious, feminine. Eugenides only gets away with it because he’s a Serious Writer and a man. Not his fault, of course, but it still hampered my ability to like the book without reservations.

And the problems I had with The Virgin Suicides still existed here. Even when we were supposed to be in the heroine’s head, his descriptions of her still felt disturbingly male gaze-y. Her character development largely seems to exist in the form of a first-page listing of the contents of her bookcases (a writing device I hate, for the record). Even the two men who want to marry her consider her a bimbo. (In an early scene, Mitchell actually says to her face, “You’re not attracted to me physically. O.K., fine. But who says I was ever attracted to you mentally?”) And the book’s most revelatory scene is one that she’s excluded from entirely–it takes place between the two male leads, who have, up until this point, not been able to stand each other. Leave the serious plot to the menfolks, honey, is the takeaway message here. Madeleine is just a contrivance–one we can use to compare the religious Mitchell with the scientific Leonard, one that can force them to talk to each other and relate to each other when they’d have no reason to otherwise. She’s not an individual, just a plot device.

William Deresiewicz, in his review for the New York Times, articulated a number of the concerns I felt but didn’t put words to while I was reading:

“As for Madeleine, she is given nearly half the novel, including its longest, opening section — not surprisingly, considering her creator’s fascination with female experience — yet she somehow recedes behind the screen of Leonard’s needs. Her character is almost wholly reactive; even the ways she resolves her relationships with Leonard and Mitchell are reactive. To put it in Hollywood terms, she doesn’t have a “journey” as the others do. You could see this as the point — it’s how young women often are [Editorial comment: ew.]— but the novel doesn’t seem to be aware of what it’s doing. In fact, Madeleine is the one character who does discover her vocation and, even more ironically, it’s to be a feminist scholar of the Victorian novel. Yet despite the topic’s supposed thematic centrality, we hear very little about this development. (Among other things, we never do find out what those “thoughts on the marriage plot” are.) “They didn’t once ask if she had a boyfriend,” Madeleine happily thinks about a couple of fellow aspirants who befriend her at an academic conference — yet it is all the novel asks. “

The treatment of manic-depression is equally shallow. The character of Leonard–who many view as a thinly veiled ode to David Foster Wallace, although Eugenides swears this was not his intention–displays basically every textbook symptom of bipolar disorder, each in the most textbook way possible. Yes, I know this was the early ’80s. I know treatment of bipolar disorder was not what it is today. I know plenty of people with bipolar disorder do display similar symptoms to Leonard’s. And yet it seemed that Eugenides had done most of his research by reading an article in a ladies’ magazine about how horrible it was to be married to someone with the disorder, because Leonard displays every horrifying manic symptom that could possibly exist, often simultaneously: binge-drinking, gambling away huge sums of money (and giving away the rest), molesting teenage girls, proposing marriage, jumping off balconies. It all just devolves into one long bipolar caricature with no nuance.

But like I said, I finished the book in three days. So I guess that, despite what I think, I just really like sexist books about love triangles.

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 . . .

Holiday Affair

December 4, 2011 § 2 Comments

This is a cute little confection of a holiday movie, although–in my admittedly biased opinion–it suffers from the same problem as a lot of holiday movies, which is that it’s overly reliant on a Cute Kid to tug at our heartstrings and move the plot forward. I’m biased against Cute Kids. I want them out of my movies. As children go, I suppose this one isn’t that bad, though, and the lightweight little love triangle works for me. Janet Leigh tries to decide between just-fired toy salesman Robert Mitchum and steady boyfriend/lawyer Wendell Corey–although, as Mitchum points out late in the film, it’s really not just a triangle since Janet’s dead husband is still just as alive to her as any of the men courting her. Throw in a little bit of Christmas shopping, some roasted chestnuts, and a picturesque snowfall or two, and you’ve got a solid movie to watch while you curl up with a mug of hot cocoa and a blanket or two.

And this is how you do a love triangle, folks. No making the original partner an obviously weaker option than the secondary partner. No making the original partner a jerk, leaving the audience to wonder what the protagonist saw in them in the first place. No last-second personality whiplash on the original partner’s part, justifying the protagonist leaving them. No killing off one party or forcing him to cheat or moving him halfway across the country. You just have two equally “worthy” candidates and you let the protagonist choose the one she likes best. The one who loses bows out gracefully–or, in this case, bows out gracefully in anticipation of a loss. This is a love triangle for grown-ups.

Of course, the risk you run with a grown-up love triangle is that it doesn’t successfully convince your audience that your protagonist made the right choice. I like to call this Sleepless in Seattle Syndrome. “But Bill Pullman was such a nice guy!” they say. “Why would she leave somebody she’s stable and comfortable with? He didn’t cheat on her, he treated her well, he supported her. She’s going to regret that.” The answer, being, of course, that sometimes people fall in love with people for no logical reason whatsoever. That’s love. It’s what it does.

Valley of the Dolls

June 6, 2011 § 1 Comment

Some books are just so indelibly etched in your mind, you’ll never forget when you first read them. I bought Valley of the Dolls in a British bookstore in Nerja, Spain, when I was 14, and devoured it on the train as the Mediterranean, the Alhambra, the aqueducts of Segovia passed by in the background. My connection to the book is so intense that, for years, I’ve had little interest in the movie. Its reputation as a horrendously campy cult classic didn’t help, but even had the movie been an Oscar-winner, I’d still be reluctant to have the Neely, Anne and Jennifer in my head replaced by the ones onscreen. I love the book so much that, despite its lack of literary merit, I get mad when people claim they don’t like the book. Prescription drug abuse, casting couches, Golden Age of Hollywood roman a clef–what’s not to like?

The plot, for the uninitiated, follows three young women who become friends over the course of their show-biz careers: the demure secretary-turned-model Anne, the spunky Broadway hoofer-turned-Hollywood star Neely, and the stunning chorus girl-turned-European “art” film actress Jennifer. Although Susann primarily focuses on their multiple engagements, marriages and sex lives, the thing that bonds these ladies together through the decades is their mutual dependence on “the dolls” (prescription pills) of the title. Jacqueline Susann was a minor actress in her youth, and at the time of the book’s release, it was well-known for being a thinly veiled portrait of several major stars she’d both worked and played with. Jennifer North is part Carole Landis, part Marilyn Monroe. Her husband, Tony Polar is a Dean Martin/Frank Sinatra hybrid. Neely O’Hara was a little bit Frances Farmer and a lot Judy Garland. The aging Broadway star Helen Lawson was based on Susann’s one-time lover, Ethel Merman. Anne, who hails from a small-town and is new to New York City itself, let alone the glittering world of the stars, is the only one without a real-life counterpart, and that’s mostly because she exists as a stand-in for the reader.

All of that art-imitating-life stuff made for a bestselling book (and in my opinion, an extremely compelling one, especially for anyone interested in Old Hollywood or Broadway). But it also makes for a terrible movie, because even if the script had been any good in the first place (which it isn’t), anybody who’s read the book can’t help but imagine how much better Garland, Landis, or Merman would have been in the roles.

Oddly enough, Sharon Tate as Jennifer comes closest to being actually well-cast in her part, even though she’s given the least to do. It’s hard to combine the two essential aspects of Jennifer’s personality–the Marilyn Monroe and the Grace Kelly, the kittenish sexiness with the European poise–but she manages it in a way that it’s hard to imagine many actresses of the period doing. But Patty Duke is no Judy Garland and thus no Neely O’Hara, and her overacting overwhelms the film’s second half. And while Barbara Parkins is miscast as Anne, the problems go beyond the casting to the writing–Anne is written as far warmer and perkier than she should be. Anne’s appeal is in her coolness, her levelheadedness, the way she slowly weighs one option against the other. We, the audience, are intended to like her specifically because she manages to resist the lifestyles the others succumb to (and that we already know will be their undoing).

The next mistake the director made with the movie was to update the timeline: instead of spanning the mid-’40s to the late ’50s, it only takes place in the mid-60s. This forced the screenwriters to cut plotlines, and it made the plots that they saved seem rushed–events that are supposed to unfold over the course of years do it in the span of months, which sort of butchers characterization when even the most deliberate, cautious characters seem to jump into bed together immediately or make decisions on a whim. But the more important aspect of this is that we lose the 1940s glamour. While a difference of ten or fifteen years might not have seemed like much at the time of filming, to a modern viewer it’s extremely jarring. The 1960s aesthetic is extremely present and totally absurd here–À Bout de Souffle pixie cuts, Annette Funicello flips and big Ronnie Spector-style falls are everywhere, as are shag carpeting and bizarrely patterned wallpaper. Everything looks a little tawdry–the musical that, theoretically, stars one of the biggest actresses on Broadway appears cheaper than a church basement production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Sticking to the original timeline and making this a period piece, as it was meant to be, would have left us with a far more aesthetically pleasing film, even if the writing and casting had remained the same.

But more importantly, in the film, we lose the book’s big theme–the way show business chews women up and spits them out.  What elevates this book above the level of similar potboilers designed solely to titillate is that Susann was trying to make a larger point about the nature of the fame game and how it destroys women. This use-’em’-up-throw-’em-away approach is true today, too, of course, but what people obsessed with The Golden Age of Hollywood often forget is that it was equally true back then. In fact, that was the major benefit of the studio system–you could force a star to bend to your every whim, and at the point where she’d passed the peak of your beauty or simply refused to comply with your demands, there was someone new, ready and waiting to take her place. In Valley of the Dolls, Jennifer receives everything she has–fame, love–on the basis of her incredible body and face, and yet when she grows older, she also begins to feel like she no longer deserves that fame or love because she’s in danger of losing the body that won them. Anne, too, despite having other good qualities (her intelligence, her loyalty) only ever gets anything–from her secretary job to her lovers–because she’s beautiful. Neely, on the other hand, truly does get where she is due to talent rather than looks, but when the Hollywood producers push her to lose weight, she embarks on a regimen of pills (uppers to lose weight and keep working hard, downers to relax and fall asleep) that will haunt her for the rest of her life. By the end of the book, each of the women ultimately relies on the pills to cope with the pressures of their chosen lifestyles, and the pills lead to their individual downfalls.

A common misreading of the book is that it’s anti-feminist, focused only on men-obsessed bimbos, pushing the idea that if you’re not pretty, you’re nothing–and that ultimately, the author punishes the protagonists for ever wanting anything beyond a small-town life with a husband and babies. In reality, though, the book seeks to condemn the anti-feminist culture in which it’s set. The women aren’t reduced to their looks because they want to be; they’re reduced to their looks because the men around them insist upon it, and the men are the ones who call the shots. This is true even in non-sexual situations–for example, Anne’s future boss is reluctant to hire her, although she’s a competent secretary, because she’s so attractive that he’s worried some man will instantly propose to her and he’ll have wasted all that training. Do the girls behave like men are the most important things in their lives? Yes–but that’s hardly surprising given that they were raised in a world that told them that their men were the most important things in their lives. Despite this, they do display surprising flashes of independence. Anne breaks away from her small-town upbringing (and likely husband-to-be) because she wants more out of life (including a career); later, she wants to stay in New York City so badly that she sacrifices the man she loves for it, when she could have kept him by moving home to the small town she grew up in. A theme that comes up multiple times is that the women lose their husbands and lovers because they end up being the breadwinners, and their men can’t cope–a legitimate fear for women in the 1940s and ’50s. And at the end of the story, the women aren’t punished because they wanted to “have it all.” They’re punished because the sexist world they lived in wouldn’t allow them to have it all. Their downfalls–all linked to the pills that allowed them to escape the pressure of their day-to-day lives–occur because they’re trapped in a society that attempts to thwart the realization of their dreams, not because Susann herself thought that they deserved to have their dreams thwarted.

The movie, however, loses this nuance. (As little as Jackie Susann was capable of nuance, director Mark Robson was even less so.) Robson’s camera lingers on the girls’ successive downward spirals with the intensity of a lover but the empathy of a stalker, which gets uncomfortable after about two minutes. Given that these crack-ups take up the better part of the movie’s second half, it’s secondhand-embarrassment overkill. His lack of comprehension extends to the final minutes:  the film’s Anne, instead of staying in New York at all costs because that’s what she wants to do, ultimately returns home to her boring small-town life after her boyfriend cheats on her . . . and this is presented as a happy ending! Dear Mr. Robson, the point is somewhere in the vicinity of Mars; that’s how much you’ve missed it by.

So does that mean I couldn’t enjoy the film, even on the level of camp? It was that tedious? . . . Well, life is short and one must appreciate the opportunities to watch movies featuring sequined, flowered leisure suits and glittery caftans when they arise. Beyond that, though, in a word: yes.

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