This Film Is Not Yet Judged, Criticized, Torn Up, Shamed, Sanitized, or Otherwise Ribbed For Your Pleasure

After the conference, I dug into one of my new Netflix titles: This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Kirby Dick’s documentary explores the history and controversy of the Motion Picture Association of America’s seemingly misguided ratings system, taking issue first and foremost with the fact that all the film raters’ identities are kept secret.

Through illuminating interviews with filmmakers, Dick tries to articulate the difference between an R rating and an NC-17 rating, the latter being considered a box office “kiss of death” for filmmakers because it turns off middle America. Filmmakers discuss feedback they received from the MPAA in light of their NC-17 rating and what they can do to get down to an R rating, proving, to some degree, that the MPAA has an awareness of its influence and impact over the filmmaking community.

The director of Boys Don’t Cry, for instance, explained that it was fine to show Brandon Teena being shot in the head, but not fine for her to film Lana’s face as she orgasms for about a full minute. The film is full of such comparisons, including an extended montage that posits that heterosexual sex acts, no matter how explicit, often capture the R rating, while homosexual sex acts generally lead to an NC-17 rating, even if the characters are fully clothed and, in the case of But I’m a Cheerleader, only masturbating.

Dick makes the point that in America, the only two organizations that work in secret are the CIA and the MPAA. To that end, he hires a team of private investigators to uncover the identities of the raters.

Through surveillance and good old fashioned detective work, the team track, follow, and unearth the identities of the raters, all of whom are purported to be parents of children up to age 18…but most of whom have adult children only. Dick discovers the ratings board’s appeal board is made up almost entirely of studio executives and theatre chain owners, who, through the appeals board, are able to effect undue impacts on the filmmaker’s creative decisions–and the general public’s moviegoing options.

Of all the documentaries I’ve seen, I think this is one of the most chilling for the insidiousness of its subject. It points out yet another hypocrisy in the nation of free speech and free thought, neither of which seem to be in good health these days.

The Anachronist’s Cookbook: Jesus Christ Superstar and Marie Antoinette

It seemed an unlikely pairing this weekend, when I watched both Jesus Christ Superstar and Marie Antoinette, but I found the juxtaposition of these two films especially fitting. While both maintain a connection to an historical past, they both engage in felicitous and creative use of anachronism to create a further commentary on their source texts.

Superstar is a passion play detailing the last weeks in the life of Christ and the events leading up to the crucifixion. Norman Jewison’s 1973 film version features hippies, heavy artillery, pipe scaffolds, and even picture postcards in the temple. The film opens with a bus full of hippies arriving in Israel, unloading their props and costumes, and then beginning to act out the rock opera from there.

The musical itself is a fairly modern critique of celebrity and American culture, laid over the familiar story of the events that led to the martyrdom of Christ. “What’s the buzz? / Tell me what’s a-happenin,” one song chants over and over, while another connective piece features reporter-like characters sticking their fists in Christ’s face, as if holding a microphone, while they ask a series of invasive questions. Even the lepers, wrapped in black bandages as they crawl over the rocks and beg for Christ’s healing, bear a strange resemblance to starfuckers and autograph seekers you see on, say, That particular number concludes with Christ sinking deeply into a sea of lepers, who pull him down into their circle. It resonated oddly with footage I saw on Best Week Ever this week of the paparazzi swarming Britney Spears’s car—in traffic—ambushing her.

Antoinette is anachronistic, too, but mostly in a non-diegetic way. Coppola takes her straightforward filming of the ill-fated queen’s rise to the throne and puts down modern rock tracks. While the music is obvious, it does not detract from the film, but draws attention to Antoinette’s youth and rebellious nature (as portrayed in the film). By linking Antoinette to the modern culture of youth while showing her engaging in the decadent partying, drinking, gambling, and seduction that were her ultimate downfall, Coppola locates a renewed humanity in her story, a way we can understand her—and her failings.

Dunst’s Antoinette is capricious, barely able to keep her mouth shut, and she speaks not in the stuttered tones that affect the French around her, but in a nonchalant and flowing tone that bespeaks her confidence. Contrast her to Judy Davis’s Countess, who can barely wrap her teeth around her carefully enunciated lines and you see the difference. Dunst’s line delivery is also playful and sort of seductive in and of itself. It’s an interesting performance for a costume drama to say the least. A breath of fresh air, if you ask me.

Superstar is one of my favorite musical dramas. I’m not sure why. I do enjoy the anachronism present, but I also think the staging and choreography are brilliant, and Judas turns in a star-making performance here, particularly in the final number that solidifies the show’s primary themes:

“Could Muhammad move a mountain
or was that just PR now?
Did you mean to die like that, was that a mistake,
or did you know your messy death
would be a record breaker?”

It’s also fun to watch this song evolve while Judas wears a bright white bellbottomed jumpsuit with arm-to-floor fringe, backed up by Solid Gold-style dancers.

Antoinette, on the other hand, is an intensely internal film. Coppola tries to invite us not only into the decadant world of her heroine, but into her psyche as well. Echoing the imagery of her version of The Virgin Suicides, Coppola shows us Antoinette’s disembodied hand gliding over the tall grasses of the fields beyond Versailles, Antoinette lounging in the grass, filled with ennui and disillusionment. The conceit, for me, was effective and moving; a departure from the stereotypcial portrayals we historically see.

Crimson and Cloverfield

I am posting in spite of my blog’s messy look. Sorry for that; Adam helped a bit, but I can’t get it tweaked quite right yet and I’ve been superbusy (it’s that time of year for us), so I haven’t been able to tinker.

Anyway, I want to tell you about this (danger: spoilers ahead):

Because I’m a fan of Lost and watched Felicity religiously (shut up), I was eager to see the J. J. Abrams-produced feature Cloverfield, the plot of which was shrouded mostly in secrecy lo these many months, although it was made obvious from the teaser trailer that something attacked New York City during an all-out hipster goodbye party, but that was about it.

The film is, at heart, a basic Orpheus/Eurydice retelling in a very contemporary version of Hades with one pissed off (and hungry) hellgod wandering around. Boy secretly loves girl, boy loses girl, boy treks through semi-destroyed metropolis to rescue girl from her burning apartment while large creature systematically kills everyone he knows.

(This is my “oh shit” face.)

What makes Cloverfield strong, in my opinion, is some of the conceit that made it noteworthy to begin with. The first-person camerawork is strong and well done here. The limited perspective does add a lot of tension and suspense, and the audience is encouraged to identify with the likeable and usually nervously humorous character holding it, whose only role is to film the entire thing. We like Hud because he reminds us of ourselves: well-meaning, kind, really into a girl who doesn’t realize he exists, loyal, etc.

(Is it Cloverfield or Flashdance? Or both?)

Even though Cloverfield seems to be about an extraordinary event changing people’s lives forever, it smartly keeps actual danger on the periphery, in the vein of Jaws. For much of the film the characters aren’t in actual danger, but the threat–like the idea of terrorism in our America–is always present, always looming. And when people die, they aren’t forgotten. Witness, for instance, one character’s phone call to the mother of a character who died, having to explain it to her during a brief lull while they hide out in a subway station. The film remembers what it means to be a person, that even under supernatural circumstances, we don’t lose our humanity; we retreat into it.

Much has been written already of the film’s liberal use of shaky handheld camera; narratively, the entire film is shot in near-real time using a characters’ digital video recorder; for the viewer, this means when he runs, you feel dizzy and disoriented. Only in a few scenes did this bother me. The true strength is the way the camera resists omniscience: you want it to move back, to look at the horror dead on, but it can’t, it won’t. It turns the film into what film theorists would call “pure spectacle.” It reduces the viewer to a powerless victim of the film rather than participant in it. There is no power for the viewer here.

The cast of unknowns intensify the sense of reality television that exists here. As an audience, Americans are becoming too comfortable witnessing trauma second-hand through the cameralens, and Cloverfield knows this about us, wants us to both love it and hate it about ourselves. Anyone who watched on television as the second plane hit the World Trade Center understands the powerlessness of watching disaster strike; we understand it in a way real witnesses won’t—-and vice versa.

I left the theater feeling both shaken and shaky–in fact, it took me a few minutes to relax after the film ended. I didn’t feel scared, really. It was a stressful film to watch, but the emotion was legitimate, not constructed. I appreciated that.

And I’m even going to go see it again.

OMG (Oh Myra God!)

Last weekend I finally watched the much-reviled film version of one of my favorite novels, Myra Breckinridge, starring Raquel Welch as the titular “T” and film critic Rex Reed as her masculine alter-ego. Rounding out the wonderful—but odd!—cast are Farrah Fawcett as the bland and stupid Mary Ann, John Huston as former film star and “happy ending” enthusiast Buck Loner, and Mae West—yes—as the foul mouthed sexaholic talent agent Leticia Van Allen.

First, I thought Raquel was absolute genius as Myra. To wit:

Myra is a classic Hollywood-obsessed instructor at a hippy-dippy acting school in LA. She wears outlandish, drag queeny outfits (a pre-cursor to Ugly Betty‘s Alexis Meade, perhaps?) and seeks to “destroy the American male in all its forms,” which she does in the butt:

The novel is brilliant, and while the film has its troubles, I think audience response to it—widespread panning—was due primarily to its frank confrontation of sexual mores and sexual liberation. A homosexual member of the school’s faculty talks openly about being gay and at one point, even dismisses himself by saying he has to finish putting his make-up on. Was America ready for this then? Probably not. Nor were they ready to see a studly young man get ass-bumped by a beautiful woman who may or may not be anatomically correct.

But I’m ready. At least, I was ready.

“I am Myra Breckinridge, whom no man shall possess!”

The Flower of My Secret

Over the holiday weekend I was pleased to find Netflix sent me an Almodóvar film from my queue. The Flower of My Secret tells the story of Leo, a highly successful romance novelist with a nom de plume that protects her from worshipping fans. Leo’s husband Paco is serving in the army in Brussels and they never get to see each other. It has turned Leo’s usually “pink” world “black”—her romance novels, which once flowed quickly and easily, have turned into books like her recent manuscript The Cold-Storage Room, about a wife who kills here husband and hides him in a neighbor’s restaurant freezer after she discovers he committed incest with their daughter.

The film begins with a simulation run by the National Transplant Organization. A woman is being told her teenaged son has been killed in a traffic accident and has no brain activity. Would she like to donate his organs to save lives?

If these sound familiar, it’s because the first aspect is the plot of Almodóvar’s most recent film Volver and the second, the basis of the film All About My Mother.

It’s in Secret that we first meet Manuela, the grieving heroine of Mother, in a prescient setting: signing away her dead son’s organs. The simulated grief in Secret becomes the real, unbearable, unlivable grief of Mother and even Marisa Pareides, who plays Leo in Secret, appears in the later film as world-weary, love-lorn actress Huma Rojo.

And the story of Volver has uneasy coincidences with Secret too. In Volver,, the film opens with heroine Raimunda cleaning off the grave of her dead mother in their remote village. In Secret, Leo’s mother begs to return to the village where the family once lived, and by the end of the film, she does, taking Leo with her. These sets are the sets of Volver, this house, this courtyard, this village. It’s the setting of Leo’s unpublished novel.

Like the other films, the color red is crucial in The Flower of My Secret. Here, it is a marker of passion, both artistic and romantic, and probably also insanity to some degree as Leo’s grief over losing her husband envelops her.

It’s why Almodóvar is a genius, these nested films butting up against each other in his oeuvre in an odd, surprising way. It gives me a new concept of body of work. His work is a single body.

(Wo)mano a (wo)mano

As I watched last night’s premiere of NBC’s new Bionic Woman, I was reminded of a lecture I sat through in undergrad, in which one of my film professors distilled the plot of Wizard of Oz into a simple and true statement:

“The film is, at heart, the story of two women fighting over a pair of shoes.”

Fabulous though they are, those ruby slippers probably wouldn’t create quite the same fuss today, but that doesn’t mean our entertainment values have gone up at all. Bionic Woman, to wit, is the story of two women fighting over which one of them is—simply put—superior.

That they both look like supermodels (one more an Eastern European type—shocking that Tyra Banks didn’t call her first on any given cycle of ANTM) is no miracle, but the fact that Jaime Sommers works as a bartender but lives in a spacious San Francisco loft, drives a fancy luxury car, and supports her teenaged sister is.

But I’m being a little coy. I loved the first episode; I thought it represented the start of what is hopefully a new achievement in serial television. I’ve never been a fant of episodic television. Even as a child, I never understood how the events of one episode didn’t impact future episodes. But I love The Simpsons, where this convention is frequently turned on its ear to comic effect (as perhaps the only ongoing plot change was the death of Maud Flanders). But shows like Bionic Woman, shows that build to a seasonal climax through ongoing and smaller plot arcs, have more payoff for loyal viewers.

But back to the Bionic Women. Like another unassuming young woman, Buffy Summers, Jaime is plucked from relative obscurity by an act of fate (wrong place/wrong time) and thrust into unusual and exceptional circumstances. Whereas Buffy was imbued with supernatural strength passed down through a lineage of girls like her, Jaime is “built” in a laboratory to be, in the words of the leading paper towel commercial, stronger and longer-lasting.

When the first Bionic Woman, Sarah, aka the crazy Eastern European one with the charming German consort who asks her to kill people, discovers Jaime exists, the two face off in a rooftop battle to the…well, battle to the escape! Jaime wants to fight, but all Sarah wants to do is exchange specifications. “What did they replace on you?” she wants to know, bragging, “They replaced both legs and both arms on me. They only did one eye, so I did the other myself.” Sarah’s that annoying overachiever who can’t just complete the assignment, she needs to revise the textbook too. Jaime puts her in her place after Jaime’s strength and combat prowess are questioned. “How am I doing now?” she asks Sarah, but I wish she would have asked, “How d’ya like me NOW??” with a little more sass. After all, the girl works in a bar. I know she’s got it.

I make fun, but here’s no joke: I’ll tune in again next week, and probably ever week after that, even after the show jumps the shark, because I’m not afraid of a little commitment. Especially when I get to edit out the commercials with my fast forward button.