Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Untold Want

I am twenty-six years old. In my lifetime, I’ve already interviewed Oscar winners, award-winning authors and filmmakers and written about many amazing people, places and things. I know if I keep at it, I will write and teach professionally one day. Unfortunately, tomorrow is not that day, next week is not that week and next month probably won’t be that month. I will be the happiest gal in the world when that magical day happens. Until then, I have to figure out how to mentally and physically handle the very real frenzies, tortures and miseries involved with what I have to do to survive. It’s not in my nature to talk or move constantly and I’ve never developed the ability to switch my brain off. My work anxiety is debilitating. I might feel like a bloody, decapitated car crash victim on the inside and will probably feel that way as long as I’m not doing what I love to do, but I can’t give up. I just can’t. I’m going to spend the next few days soul searching, healing and preparing for what lies ahead. Because, as a wise man once said, un-slumping yourself is not easily done.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

From Jungle Red to White Bread: The Women (1939) to The Women (2008)

Today would have been Joan Crawford's 107th birthday. As I was walking to the train with my arms full of groceries in the pouring rain, I couldn't help but think of Joan Crawford and her amazing contributions to the women's picture. I love her dearly and hope many other people around the world thought about her today as well.  

As a tribute, I would like to share an essay I wrote close to three years ago after watching the needless remake of The Women. What's your favorite Joan Crawford picture? I'm partial to Mildred Pierce, The Damned Don't Cry and Johnny Guitar.

"There is a name for you, ladies, but it isn't used in high society... outside of a kennel." - Crystal Allen, The Women (1939)

When Clare Boothe Lace wrote The Women in the mid ’30s, she had one main objective: to satirize the hell out of all the rich, petty women surrounding her in high society. Ms. Boothe Lace worked for a living, married an intellectual equal, and only joined in on the malicious sewing circle of death out of sheer curiosity and disbelief. She found that the female upper crust managed to avoid mass suicide by stockpiling up on soap opera shenanigans in order to keep life interesting. Tabloid affairs, cat fights and pop fashions added the spice while gossip, lunches and parties added fuel to the fire. No one really liked each other and yet they were always together, flitting about like ruffled hens in a barnyard. Clare Boothe Lace saw the dramatic and comedic potential in satirizing their lives as well as knocking the bourgeois down a peg or two at the height of the economic crisis. Needless to say, the all-female play she ended up writing was a smash hit and MGM quickly nabbed the rights to the story in 1938.

After being fired from Gone with the Wind (despite filming its best scenes) famed women’s picture director, George Cukor, stepped on the set of The Women and immediately got to work. Jane Murfin and Anita Loos, who penned Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, adapted the play for the screen and “jazzed up its lingerie” with naughty sexual innuendo. Together, Cukor, Loos, and Murfin faithfully brought the story of Mrs. Stephen Haines (Mary), a darling, rich housewife whose life is turned upside down when her husband has an affair with a perfume salesgirl, to life with all of the zest and zing of the original play. The film starred Norma Shearer as Mary, who was finally free of creative restrictions because her husband, producer Irving Thalberg had died that year. It also starred the adorably gawky Rosalind Russell as catty Sylvia Fowler, Joan Crawford as sultry perfume girl Crystal Allen and Joan Fontaine and Paulette Goddard as two more hens in the hen house. These five ladies headline an entire female cast that delights as well as destructs. All bets were off with this throng.

And yet, despite the scrumptious catharsis one feels while watching these dillies do their dallies, Cukor also manages to make us feel empathetic for their plights as well. He was the best women’s picture director in the biz because he, as a gay male working in the industry, understood the feeling of being an outsider housed in polite casings for mass consumption. Though he clearly dislikes most of the women in The Women, he still recognizes their own brand of persecution at the hands of patriarchy. For instance, if the film had been placed in the hands of any other director, I think the character of Crystal Allen would only have hit the “slut” note and backed away. Cukor admires her sexiness and daring for going after what she wants and he and Joan Crawford make her a three-dimensional character. Like Scarlett O’Hara, Crystal Allen isn’t afraid of ambition and hunts for success the only way she knows how: by conniving and clawing her way into a solid, wealthy marriage. I think the real threat she instills in the rich bitches around her isn’t that she’s going after Mary’s husband. No, they hate and known her down because she uses those jungle red nails to grasp what they did once upon a time, except she’s doing it from a lower social status and succeeding all the same.

All of Cukor’s characters have that gray matter feel to them. The ladies’ start out at one extreme and gradually gravitate toward the middle of the spectrum by the film’s end. Though they’re all weak, somewhat awful people in one way or another, the film still manages to celebrate the camaraderie of the female soul through so many different types of powder puffed trixies. We don’t watch the film to see Mary get her husband back; we watch it to see women interact with one another on an even playing field that usually involves witty banter, fabulous clothes (Adrian is a saint), and equal doses of social backstabbing and friendship.

Diane English doesn't understand that.

With her first feature film, English successfully pecked out all aspects of the original Women that made it so timeless. Now, it’s just Sex and the City with better source material. Before directing, English’s previous claim to fame was writing and producing the somewhat feminist hit show, Murphy Brown, with Candice Bergan. She’s been tinkering around with this remake for over a decade and finally released it last year. And yet, her efforts are no more artistically apparent than your average run-of-the-mill director for hire job. Go figure?

In the updated story, there are fewer female characters and fewer bouts of feminine bravado and brassiere blazing. Mary Haines (Meg Ryan) is a happy-go-lucky rich hippie chick living in NYC’s suburbs with her tween daughter and Wall Street bound hubby. Her best friends are Sylvia Fowler (Annette Benning), a fashion magazine editor, Edie Cohen (Debra Messing), an artsy stay-at-home mom with four daughters and baby #5 on the way (she wants a boy, of course), and Alex Fisher (Jada Pinkett Smith), a stereotypical lesbian with one published book under her belt. The bland as balls Crystal Allen in this version is played by the usually funny Eva Mendes, who has the right look for the part (...I guess), but none of the pizzazz or personality of her originator. Well, that’s kind of unfair because few people could live up to Joan Crawford’s personal laundress, let alone one of the parts she played. But both Mendez and the direction English took with her character are about as interesting as white painted walls. Fortunately, Cloris Leachman, Candice Bergan, Bette Midler and Carrie Fisher in supporting roles make up for some of the wishy-washy main characters, though they can hardly save the day. 

No, the remake fails to live up to the original’s bite because it’s just too nice. Too nice and too phony. While it’s always a pleasure to see women on screen get their groove on in the workplace and bond with one another, there’s just nothing earnest or potent within the film’s narrative to make it worthwhile. These modern women may pursue goals when they’re not around their men, but the male characters are still the driving force of their actions. By taking out the apparent satire of the original to make her version more friendly, Diane English has also taken out the emotional resonance and chemistry of the characters as well. The original film’s tagline may be “It’s all about men,” but it’s really about the women and how we use society’s perceptions of ourselves to manipulate certain situations and ideas. The women in the remake have little to no original thoughts and only pursue life by bouncing off the invisible male characters dealings.

On one of the documentaries included in the DVD, Diane English gives a guided tour through the history of her relationship with the remake and why she wanted to do it in the first place. She thought it was a good story, but “women don’t act that way anymore” and the original’s “camp value” detracted from its social message. How can someone so passionate about a project miss the point so thoroughly? Many terrible remakes have been created by modern Hollywood to eliminate the so-called camp/antique feel of classic cinema. How is the original campy? Just because they wear big hats and yell occasionally? It’s truly ironic and sad that a female director and mostly female crew managed to be just as unfeeling and convoluted about the female role as everyone else in Hollywood these days.

What might have been a golden opportunity to update a classic was truly wasted with English’s The Women.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Little Memories - On Cukor's Little Women, Film Studies, D.W. Griffith and Canine Companionship

When I was twelve or thirteen, I watched Cukor’s Little Women for the first time on Turner Classic Movies. I vividly recall sitting cross-legged in front of the 19” tube TV my mom bought me for my birthday with my then one or two year old miniature Dachshund, Libby. I don’t remember my exact thoughts or feelings about the movie, except that I loved it dearly, but it must have moved me tremendously because I marched down to the local library and checked out Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel shortly after.

About a month ago, I revisited the film for the first time in over a decade and it opened up a flood of memories and ideas for me. I never realized it before, but watching Cukor’s version of the film inspired my initial inklings in film studies by simply helping me connect one film to another. I watched his movie, which made me want to read the book and seek out the 1949 and 1994 film adaptations. Alas, I didn’t do anything worthwhile with these comparisons, other than perhaps writing a book report or two, and my brief love of All-Things-Alcott obviously fell to the wayside. I don’t want to try and make this memory more than what it seems, but it’s funny to think that I almost forgot about such an important film in my cinephile life.

Over the years, I’ve come to love the work of George Cukor and Katharine Hepburn and will happily watch any ol’ thing they conjured up during their respective careers. Little Women was an early film for both of them (or early-ish for Cukor) and marked the second of their ten wonderful collaborations. Revisiting the flick last month made me appreciate Cukor’s aesthetic appreciation of D.W. Griffith. Each film version of the book stays true to the warmth and strength of the homestead in Alcott’s novel, but Cukor’s quiet, almost blissful representation of the March domain is almost straight out of a Griffith film, kittens and all.

Cukor's whole movie just reeks of Griffith. While watching the other day, I kept expecting Lillian Gish to dash across the room with Katharine Hepburn. Was genuinely surprised when it didn't happen. I would kill to see an adaptation of the book directed by Griffith. Perhaps he would have, too:

It’s hard for me to say this in 2012, but Griffith’s techniques and preferences must have still been fresh in the minds of filmmakers since his last film, The Struggle, was only released two years prior to Little Women. I only wish more filmmakers would so lovingly borrow from Griffith.

This will sound absolutely ludicrous to non-pet owners, but revisiting Little Women also shed light on another facet of my relationship with Libby. I believe I watched this movie on February 10th, 2012, which was a week before she severely injured herself falling down our flight of stairs. Following the film, I took her for our nightly walk and thought about how similar she and I are to Jo and Beth in Little Women. Libby, like Beth in the novel and films, has always been kind of sickly and accident prone. When she was a wee pup, she contracted parvovirus and it stunted her growth. She weighs five lbs, has a kinked tail and one tooth to her name. She’s also had a lung infection and a few bad, painful spills in her fifteen years of life, but you’d honestly be hardpressed to find a happier, peppier Dachshund than my Libby Alaina.

Few people understand how attached we are to one another. She has been my best friend and confidante since I was eleven years old and I love her like my own child. She’s playful, demanding and simply lives for a few good scratches on the side of her head. I’ll never forget the utter hopelessness I felt when she contracted parvo and I had to wait at home and do nothing but hope and pray for her to get better, just like Jo does with Beth in Little Women. The sisters have a special bond that goes beyond traditional sibling friendship. They are seemingly unalike because Jo is so outwardly strong and boisterous and Beth is so quiet and demure, but they’re actually both brave, fierce women. Beth inspires Jo to write, dream, be kind and, through her death, displays the true courage and honesty Jo needs to push forward with her writing. Libby has done this for me, too, minus the dying, of course.

I thought about all of these things when Libby hurt herself last month. She could barely walk and yelped loudly whenever I tried to pick her up. She wasn’t even interested in playing with her favorite toys, Marcello the penguin and Moe Skunk. It was just like she had parvo again. I imagined myself saying goodbye and thanking her for everything she had done - - the writing she helped me with, constantly standing by my side, all the times she snuggled up to my neck when I cried, the oodles of movies we watched together and the many years of happiness she brought to my life. Though she was in pain, she braved the situation like a champ and tried her best to reassure me despite her horrible injury, just like Beth would have with Jo. 

Thankfully, as I’m writing this, she’s flinging her skunk toy around and trying in vain to tear it apart with her one tooth. It took a few weeks, but she’s now in top form and ready to take on the rest of her life. She always bounces back stronger than ever. Perhaps she's more like Jo than I thought. 


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

My Friend Crush on Drew Barrymore + Best Coast's Our Deal Music Video


Today is March 20th and it's currently 85 degrees outside. I'm wearing a sundress and my dog is sprawled out on her window seat basking in the warmth of the day. I've been sipping iced tea and wishing for a Popsicle since 10 this morning. As a pessimist, I'm inclined to think that we're all going to be severely punished for this lovely turn of events in the coming months. I don't know if that means we'll have a terribly hot summer and start smelling rotting flesh drift in from cemeteries or we'll get hit with a comet the size of Jupiter sometime in September, but I'm going to try and cautiously enjoy this sunny wonderment as long as possible. 

Part of my enjoyment comes from the music video above, which has music by the band Best Coast and stars Chloe Grace Moretz of Hugo and Kick-Ass fame. I've watched approximately twenty-five music videos in my entire life (I'm not really into contemporary anything, but especially not contemporary music) and only watched it last summer because it was directed by Drew Barrymore, who is, quite simply, the coolest gal in Hollywood. One of my many pet dreams is to become best pals with Drew Barrymore and work for her feminist-minded production company, Flower Films.

I've written about Barrymore and her movies on a few wonderful occasions and will praise her directorial debut, Whip It, until the day I die. This music video is her follow-up and it definitely doesn't disappoint. It vibrates with wistful, edgy energy and those first love-major crush-belly butterflies that stem from the summer romances of youth. With Best Coast's She & Him/Beach Boys inspired soundtrack, the obvious Rebel without a Cause influences and Moretz's freakin' amazing hairdo, Barrymore's Our Deal music video is the perfect cinematic accompaniment to these fleeting summery days. 

And just because: