Monday, March 9, 2020

Doctor Sleep; or, Mike Flanagan, How Could You?

Includes spoilers for The Shining and Doctor Sleep (the novels and the movies)

I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in the fall of 1994, my Freshman year of college. My knowledge of Kubrick would have been very limited at this point. I’d watched A Clockwork Orange in high school (in large part because I’d heard the angst-ridden trombone player I pined for mention it), but I probably could not have told you the director’s name. So I don’t know if I even thought of The Shining as “A Stanley Kubrick Film,” but I did know it was based on a Stephen King novel, and I was a little more familiar with him. I’d read a small selection of King’s work - mostly short stories off my sister’s bookshelf when I babysat for her. I remember reading “The Boogeyman” after putting my nephew to bed one night and being properly unsettled. And I’d read The Eyes of the Dragon, the fantasy novel King wrote for his daughter, Naomi, because she wasn’t into the horror stuff. Mostly, though, I’d watched miniseries adaptations of King’s work. There were so many of them in the late eighties and early nineties, and I feel like I saw them all. I tended to give actual cinematic adaptations of King a wider berth, though, as they were legitimate, grown up R-rated horror, and I never thought I could handle them. The two part made for TV version of IT was about as gnarly as I was willing to get, but I thought that was pretty rad. I would come into Economics class, raving in earnest about part five of The Stand  or whatever I’d seen the night before, and the dude who sat behind me would sort of roll his eyes and repeat for the hundredth time (but not unkindly) “You should just read his books. They’re so much better.”

The Shining was my first big girl King adaptation, and probably the first truly grown up horror film I watched from start to finish. It flipped my lid, to be sure. I loved it, but it did a number on me. Partly because I was a highly sensitive lass, prone to overblown reactions and outbursts of emotion, but also because the dorm I lived in that year was conjoined with a second building which was not in use at the time. There was no way to block off access, though, so you’d just walk down to the end of the hall, turn the corner, and find yourself in this completely vacant ghost-dorm space. At night the overhead lights shut off in both buildings, so the only illumination was the red glow from the exit signs. Also the attic was said to be haunted by Sally, the melancholy spirit of a student who died in a car crash in the seventies. So you tell me how I wasn’t supposed to anticipate those pale, pinafore-clad Grady girls waiting for me in all their leering, watery, Diane Arbus glory at the far end of every late night, crimson-hued corridor.

Kubrick’s movie scared me, but it didn’t traumatize me. I wasn’t fearful for my life so much as I was in awe of the film’s ability to burrow into my subconscious and create a forever home for itself. There are moments in The Shining, images and sounds and moods, that are deeply and indelibly branded onto my psyche, so much so that I still consider it one of the most genuinely frightening movies I’ve ever seen. But it’s also one of the movies that helped me to understand that I enjoyed being scared, that some part of me craved - needed - that sensation, and the release of pent up emotion and nervous energy that it afforded me.

As much as I adored Kubrick’s adaptation I had no desire, as I often do with movies I love, to familiarize myself with the source material. But in February of 2018, in the throes of a serious love affair with Stephen King’s writing, my husband gifted me a copy of The Shining for Valentine’s Day, and I tore through it at breakneck speed with the same rapt enthusiasm I had applied to a recent reading of IT. Though they share the same bones The Shining the novel and The Shining the film are different beasts for sure. The most obvious distinction, like everyone had told me before I read it, is in the characterizations. King’s Wendy is a bit more robust than in Kubrick’s version, and the Jack of the novel does a better job of hiding his darker impulses, and maybe fights back a little harder against the Overlook Hotel’s malevolent influence. For me, though, the biggest revelation when I read The Shining was the book’s version of Danny. Preternaturally intelligent, intuitive and empathetic, I found him to be so full of life he practically bounded off the page. And the first time I revisited Kubrick’s film after finishing the book I’ll admit I looked at the movie I’d always loved with a more critical eye. But I could not deny the film’s power, and its ability to rattle and enthrall me at some sort of cellular level that had nothing whatsoever to do with the characters’ depictions. Kubrick’s Shining is a sort of primal examination of the nature of fear, whereas King’s story is about one particular family’s descent into their own private hell. For me Kubrick’s take is universal, while King’s is specific and much more personal.

Reading The Shining didn’t scare me like watching the movie did, though I was constantly scared for the characters. Though it is a terrible story of addiction, insanity and abuse I do think there’s a hopefulness to King’s story that is much more difficult to discern in Kubrick’s version. There is warmth there, and humanity, and - a word I regularly associate with King’s protagonists - a core of decency in the midst of all that wrongness and rot and evil. I can honestly say I love both the novel and the film. While they approach the story from different places I think they both have something worthwhile to offer, so I don’t need them to be the same. In fact I am so glad they are not the same. They are both really special to me.

My affection for the novel Doctor Sleep is entirely wrapped up in my affection for the character Dan Torrance. The story itself is fine but not quite as captivating - or relentlessly harrowing - as the yarn King spins in The Shining. And before I read it I was not entirely convinced I needed another chapter in the Torrance family saga, but - at the same time - when presented with an invitation to join Danny Torrance on a new adventure there was no way I wasn’t gonna wanna tag along. For me Doctor Sleep works because King does right by this character that I love, a character who started off as a brave, bright, gifted little boy who loved his daddy, but couldn’t save him. A boy who endured unimaginable horrors and somehow survived but was still, as an adult, trying to hide from his haunted past. In Doctor Sleep King forces Dan to stop hiding, to confront those childhood demons and finally put them to rest so that he can go on - not only surviving, but thriving. I don’t need every story I read to have a happy ending - in fact most of my favorites end in tears - but I needed Dan Torrance to be alright. Because his story is about survival, about breaking free from the traumas, both present and past, that tether him, and moving forward and living in the light. I know that sounds maudlin but King, and Dan, earn that ending in Doctor Sleep. So much so that the idea that Dan would meet any other fate was impossible for me to fathom. Clearly, Mike Flanagan felt differently.

While I don’t think he’s a bad filmmaker at all, Mike Flanagan’s visual style leaves me cold. To me his movies look too flat, too smoothed out, as if they’ve been airbrushed. There’s an artificial, inaccessible quality that I find distracting in his work, but it’s not a dealbreaker because, unlike his aesthetics, Flanagan’s characters, and his empathy for them, always draw me into his stories. And since the characters were my favorite thing about the novel Doctor Sleep I initially thought this made Flanagan an ideal match for this adaptation. And for the first hour or so the movie sticks dutifully close to the spirit if its source material. Which is to say it’s a fairly engaging tale, with some very compelling players.

We catch up with an adult Dan Torrance, using all manner of drink and drugs to suppress his ability to shine and tamp down the memory of his troubled past. We see him hit rock bottom and finally begin to rebuild his life with the help of a new friend, Jimmy, and a new support system. The emotional beats in this first half of the story ring true, and these scenes are infused with warmth, and what feels like genuine concern and affection for Dan and the other characters. This early part of Doctor Sleep is such a compassionate movie, so it makes what happens at the end feel like an even bigger betrayal.

It’s not just that Mike Flanagan kills a character I love. What infuriates me about his ending for Doctor Sleep is that Dan’s death is completely unnecessary and makes no fucking sense. Maybe that’s because Flanagan didn’t create a new ending for his adaptation at all: He took the original ending of the novel The Shining and grafted it onto his version of its sequel. The result is not a seamless blend of Kubrick and King’s visions with a different, but equally satisfying, conclusion to The Shining saga. It’s a Frankenfilm clusterfuck. A cobbled together mess of images and ideas that were better implemented by their original creators. Worst of all it forces Dan Torrance into the role of martyr - dying for the sins of his father - when I thought the point of King’s novel was to show us that it absolutely did not have to be that way.

Why Flanagan thought this conclusion was appropriate is beyond me. If he’d changed the ending entirely, and brought something else altogether to the table - like he did so brilliantly with his spin on The Haunting of Hill House - this movie could have worked. But what he chose to do defies common sense and just looks lazy, confused, and uninspired. Such a disappointment.

Dan Torrance deserves better.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

(A Not at All Review of) The Goldfinch

Years ago my best friend Sarah (who has a particularly impressive knack when it comes to gift giving) gave me a goldfinch pendant. I was wearing it this past Sunday when I went to see The Goldfinch, John Crowleyʼs big screen adaptation of Donna Tarttʼs 2014 novel, which was inspired, in part, by a painting Carel Fabritius painted in 1654 (the same year that he was killed in The Delft Explosion).

I was wearing the pendant on Sunday, August 25th, 2013, when I attended a Days of Our Lives fan event in Atlanta and first met Blake Berris, an actor whose tremendous talent is matched by his enormous capacity for empathy, which makes him both compelling to watch onscreen and wonderful to be around in person. Tarttʼs novel was still two months shy of publication and I had no idea at the time that Fabritiusʼs painting was hanging nearby at the High Museum, as part of the exhibition Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis (my husband and I had initially intended to visit the museum that day, so that we could see Vermeer’s Girl for ourselves, but we scrapped the plan when we realized how pressed for time we’d be).

Until Donna Tartt published her Pulitzer Prize winning tome - a massive, meandering, marvelous bildungsroman that prominently features the titular masterwork - Fabritius’s little bird had never appeared on my radar, because my knowledge of the Dutch masters pretty much begins and ends with Vermeer (and even then I don’t know much apart from that very - deservedly- celebrated girl). I could have visited the High that day in 2013, seen the Vermeer, and walked right past the tiny goldfinch, possibly pausing to give it a cursory glance, possibly overlooking it altogether. There’s probably a parallel world that exists somewhere where this exact scenario plays out. It’s not what happened here, but it’s fun to think about.

I was not wearing the pendant the following spring, when I returned to Atlanta for another Days event, which, to me, was really just another opportunity to see Blake. By then the girl, the bird, and all the other Dutch masterworks had gone back home, but we discussed Tarttʼs novel, which I had read (and fallen hopelessly in love with) by that point and which Blake was about a hundred pages away from finishing. “I am loving The Goldfinch!” he happily exclaimed after weʼd hugged and exchanged hellos. A future cinematic adaptation felt inevitable, and I was dead set on Blake being a part of the cast (Iʼd imagined him in the role of my favorite character, Boris, as Iʼd read).

The irony that we were both in Atlanta, again, discussing a novel inspired by a Dutch masterpiece that had been on display a few miles away while weʼd both been in Atlanta the previous fall, was not lost on me. But, then, a coincidence like that wouldnʼt mean anything to anyone else. Because it doesnʼt really have any meaning for anyone else. Itʼs still fun to think about, though, right?

In 2017 I finally saw Fabritius’s Goldfinch for myself when I visited him in his permanent home at Mauritshuis. Heʼs pretty humble and approachable. He certainly has his admirers, but Vermeerʼs Girl with a Pearl Earring still draws the biggest crowds and the most ardent gawkers. I know heʼs well cared for but standing there, looking at him two years ago, I could understand why Tartt would be inspired to write a story about a boy who steals that particular painting. “The urge,” I posted on Instagram at the time, “to pluck him off the wall was damn near overwhelming.” Itʼs not that I wanted him for myself. Itʼs that I didnʼt want to leave him. Walking away I felt like I was abandoning him, and he seemed so alone, tethered to his tiny perch, and - him being so much smaller than the other works on display - very vulnerable. But I guess the girl keeps an eye on him. And, truth be told, if I were a painting, the Hague is probably where I’d wanna live.

Unlike Donna Tartt’s novel, the reviews for John Crowley’s adaptation of The Goldfinch have mostly been negative. Having seen the movie for myself I can say that I enjoyed it very much, that I think my appreciation for it will probably deepen after a second viewing, even, but I understand why some viewers might be put off by it. For the first hour or so I’ll admit to being a bit confounded. I had read that the narrative had been taken out of chronological order, and the seemingly random order in which scenes were playing out made the story feel deliberately inscrutable. I knew what was going on only because I already knew the story; had I gone in blind I don’t know that I would’ve had any idea what was happening, or that I would have had the patience to stick with it long enough for the movie to find its groove. But I like to think I would have. Because while I enjoyed Tartt’s novel from the outset it really started to come alive for me during the Vegas section, and it was that same section of the movie where I felt things really beginning to come together. The narrative that I’d first found so frustrating smoothed out, the story more or less progressing in a chronological fashion but with crucial moments either withheld or inserted earlier in the timeline to generate a desired impact. It’s not how I would have chosen to adapt Tartt’s novel, but it’s a fascinating approach, one which ultimately allowed the filmmakers to stay faithful to their source while also establishing their work as a separate entity with its own unique sort of energy.

At seven hundred plus pages Donna Tartt covers a lot of ground in her novel, but has a lot of time to cover it in. At a hundred and forty nine minutes John Crowley’s movie hits all the high points; I’m reluctant to say it feels rushed because there’s a dreamy, almost lackadaisical quality to the The Goldfinch onscreen but, by the end of it, I certainly felt as if I’d experienced a lot. There’s just so much to take in: so much plot, so many characters, so many locations and notions and meditations and subtleties. And maybe some of it could have been excised, maybe it isn’t all essential. But I can’t think of a single second I’d cut from the movie. And while I would happily watch a much longer version I’m not sure that extending the length would necessarily make for a better or more worthwhile viewing experience.

My reaction to Crowley’s film was always going to rest on whether I felt like certain things had been “done right,” by which I really just mean “to my own satisfaction.” Would Jeffrey Wright embody the qualities that I loved about his character, Hobie, when I read the novel - his compassionate, nurturing, accepting nature, and his appreciation for both the history and the beauty of objects? Of course he would. And every time Wright turned up I was delighted to be in his company, and always sad to see him go. Would cinematographer Roger Deakins capture the hazy, hallucinogenic wasteland atmosphere of the Las Vegas suburb where Theo languishes for the middle section of the story with Boris, his closest friend, confidant, and partner (in crime, as well as other things)? If you’re at all familiar with his work you’ll know there’s nothing I can say here that could adequately convey the visual alchemy that Deakins is able to conjure onscreen, and his aesthetic is perfectly wedded to a story where the interplay of light - as it stirs dust motes in a still room, as it falls across the corner of a tiny, purloined masterpiece - is such an essential component.

More than anything I was anxious to see the onscreen version of Boris, a character I feel deeply attached to in the same highly personal way that I do all my favorite fictional characters. Happily, like the novel, Boris was one of my favorite things about the movie. Finn Wolfhard comes uncannily close to replicating the young Boris of my mind. For me he could not have been more perfect in the role if I had conjured him fully formed from my own subconscious. Aneurin Barnard, who has far less screen time, is excellent as well, and I mostly believed the two actors were playing the same person. I’ll never be able to let go of the idea of Blake Berris as grown up Boris but, luckily for me, nobody’s asking me to.

All this to say I can’t tell you if you’d enjoy this movie or not. I mostly felt compelled to write about it because seeing the story play out on the big screen stirred up so many memories for me, and I enjoyed revisiting them, and being reminded of how much I enjoyed reading that book, and seeing that bird for myself, and being able to share those experiences with other people. And it’s interesting to me to see the way in which other artists have interpreted something I have such a strong attachment to, and I’m sure they feel a strong attachment to it as well. I think there’s an audience out there for this movie, that it will speak to certain people, whether they’ve read the book or not. Or maybe those who haven’t read it will feel compelled to seek it out after seeing the movie, and maybe they’ll take some comfort and some inspiration from it the way that I have. I guess I feel like art is meant to be shared - even though we sometimes want to keep the things we cherish most just for ourselves - and I hope this movies finds its way into the lives of the people who need it. At least it’s nice to think it will.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

My First Opera

Who knew I'd love the opera so much? I, for one, should have, when you consider how many movies, songs, books, and works of art I love that have been influenced by it or described as "operatic." How many figure skaters have I swooned over while they glided across the ice to excerpts from Tosca, La Bohème, or that singular right of passage for virtually every solo female athlete, Carmen? And I have been known to get quite involved at times with various soap operas, both the daytime and nighttime varieties, and they don't call them soap "operas" for nothing. I love The Phantom of the Opera! I adore The Umbrellas of Cherbourg! What was holding me back from a full blown infatuation with actual opera?

I guess, in my mind, it always seemed a little fusty. Too dated, too dull, too highfalutin. The language barrier shouldn't have been an issue, but it probably wasn't a selling point, either. I never actively disliked opera, I just didn't seek it out. My knowledge was essentially limited to Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, because my mother owned the record album and, from the first time I heard it as a child, I've always found it enchanting. But it was commissioned by NBC for television and it's sung in English; It's contemporary, and it's very accessible. It's essentially a kiddie opera (and I mean no disrespect when I say that). It never inspired me to seek out older, more sophisticated works.

I never really thought much about my subconscious bias against opera until I had a chance to see Verdi's La Traviata at the Met last weekend. I'd been to The Met once before, to see the radiant Misty Copeland in Giselle, but those were nosebleed balcony seats. Still great, but very far away for someone with no opera glasses. We had box seats this time around, reasonably priced because of the partially obstructed view. Much closer, and much cooler. You go up to the balcony, then back down a side flight of stairs, then "behind the red curtain" to get there. "Like a Baz Luhrmann movie," I gushed. It would be the first of many times that night that Luhrmann would cross my mind. The second came moments later when I looked towards the stage and saw a sheer screen emblazoned with a single, giant camellia. Very dramatic, and maybe a little modern?

"What's this?" I asked my husband, when I noticed a small bar affixed to a stanchion in front of my seat. The translator. Oh. Honestly, it hadn't occurred to me that there would be subtitles. I figured it'd be like when Edward takes Vivian to the opera in Pretty Woman, assuring her that she wouldn't need to understand what the performers were saying, because the music was "very powerful." Fun fact: Edward and Vivian attend a performance of La Traviata. I didn't know that beforehand, but I recognized the music almost immediately (I may not be an opera aficionado but I've seen Pretty Woman a lot).

The translator took a little getting used to, because it's almost like watching a subtitled film, but I hated to tear my eyes away from the action even for a moment. Because once the lights dimmed and the screen lifted I didn't want to look anywhere but that stage. I adapted pretty quickly, though. And not every single line is translated. You get the gist, and you don't need much more than that.

The story's a fairly simple one. Violetta, a celebrated Parisian courtesan, is committed to her rock 'n roll lifestyle, even though her health is suffering because of her hardcore partying. A long-time admirer, Alfredo, declares his love for her. At first she rebuffs him, swears love is not for her, but then she warms to him. They become an item, but Alfredo's father Giorgio disapproves of his son shacking up with a woman of ill repute. Fearing her notoriety will tarnish the family name, Giorgio implores Violetta to break things off with Alfredo. There are tears, a public shaming at a fancy party, and an eleventh hour reconciliation between the lovers before the big, tragic finale.

Placido Domingo is the superstar here, the big name draw, and the crowd appropriately went wild for him when he made his entrance in Act II. Anita Hartig plays Violetta, and though all three leads have ample time on stage she's the one who does the heaviest lifting, because it's her story. I could talk about how astonishing the singing is, how technically impressive and emotionally resonant. I could talk about the work that goes into creating the sets and costumes, which are equally astonishing. It's like a Disney movie come to life. So much color, detail, and splendor. But that stuff is surely a given when you attend an opera at the Met. And while I can't speak to how this production measures up to others I can only say that, for me, it was exhilarating.

The love story in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! hits all the same beats as La Traviata. Like Pretty Woman, I have seen Moulin Rouge! many times, so I had a good idea how the plot would play out. And that familiarity with the subject matter made La Traviata more approachable and accessible than I ever could've imagined it would be. So much of popular culture derives from opera; The grandeur of the production and the performances can seem daunting, but the stories themselves are familiar. I'd always thought opera was not for me, but opera's influence has actually been a part of my life for years. How wonderful to finally realize something I'd held aloft for so long was actually there, waiting to welcome me and give me an extraordinary experience. I just had to let it in.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Norma Jeane Baker of Troy

Norma Jeane Baker of Troy was written by Anne Carson and stars Ben Whishaw and Renée Fleming. Performances at The Shed run through May 19, 2019.

How do I even write about this play? While I was watching it I was constantly saying to myself "I get this . . . I think," but I really wasn't sure. I felt emotionally engaged but intellectually out of my depth. Anne Carson, who penned it, is a Classics scholar who teaches ancient Greek for a living. She's also a poet and, more than anything, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy feels like a poem written for the stage. I made a point to find out as little as possible beforehand, but I almost wish I could see a second performance, knowing what I know now. What I knew going in was that it starred Ben Whishaw, who I am absolutely enchanted with (yes, he's the reason I bought the ticket), and renowned soprano Renée Fleming. I'm not well versed in opera but I know she's a big deal (she was, after all, on the Lord of the Rings soundtrack). I knew it was a melologue - partly spoken, partly sung - and that its intention was to draw parallels between Helen of Troy and Marilyn Monroe. I knew Whishaw was "sort of" playing Monroe, even though promotional photos showed him in a suit with slicked back hair, looking more door-to-door salesman than blonde bombshell. It sounded fascinating, ambitious, and a little peculiar. 

The abstract from The Shed's website states: 
It is 1964. An office manager has hired one of his stenos to come in at night and type out his translation of Euripides’s Helen, but his obsession with the recently dead Marilyn Monroe kidnaps the translation.

The scene is a drab office, after hours. It's snowing outside and the space is cold. The two characters never identify one another by name. Whishaw's character arrives first, fiddles with a cassette recorder, and begins tacking images of Marilyn Monroe onto a cork-board behind his desk. Fleming enters a few minutes later, and the two get right to the business of transcription, with Whishaw alternately dictating, or playing cassette recordings for Fleming. At the outset Fleming's character is very much the subordinate in the scenario. There are no perfunctory pleasantries to ease the audience into the action, we are just dropped into the situation. In this regard Fleming is almost our proxy, because, like us, she doesn't appear to have much intel going in - she's just there to do a job. She doesn't speak, but her thoughts are occasionally conveyed to the audience via audio track.

After about ten minutes or so, Whishaw produces a bottle of bright pink nail polish and begins casually painting his fingernails (and this was absolutely the moment where I realized I was not just interested but really interested). Fleming does not acknowledge the action, and neither of them says a word about it. A few minutes later he removes his dress shoes and puts on a pale pair of feather heel slippers. Over the length of the show's ninety minute runtime Whishaw gradually transforms "sort of" into Marilyn Monroe, applying makeup and swapping out his suit for a padded bra and girdle, Monroe's signature Seven Year Itch halter dress, and, finally, a blonde wig. The end result is far from perfect - patches of Whishaw's own dark hair are still visible beneath the wig, and he never quite manages to get the padded inserts properly situated inside his undergarments. The actor could've been made up off stage in advance, or an intermission could've been written in to allow for a costume change, but the transformation itself, and its imperfectness, seem to be the point. 

As he transforms physically, Whishaw's voice and manner also become more feminine; It's as if he's being kidnapped by Marilyn along with the translation of Helen. And as his character's voice is slowly subsumed by a facsimile version of Monroe's, Fleming's character begins to assert her own voice. At first she mostly repeats lines of transcribed dialogue back to Whishaw, but eventually she's interjecting her own insights and ideas into the narrative. Sometimes they're spoken, sometimes (and almost entirely by the end) they're sung. 

Is this some sort of symbiotic witchcraft? Is the male voice being muted so that women can finally have agency in their own narratives? The dialogue often has the cadence of a spell or incantation, with several lines repeating at various points, taking on new meaning each time they are spoken or sung, but the relationship between the characters does not come across as an adversarial one. In fact there are several tender moments that suggest a mutual sympathy, an understanding, between the pair. Like when Whishaw begins applying foundation to his face and Fleming fishes through her handbag to find a compact to lend him, or when he first offers her a drink from the flask he's been tipping into. If I had to choose a single moment from the performance that resonated with me it would be the one where Fleming helps Whishaw apply his false eyelashes. It's so gentle and intimate. As Whishaw becomes more Marilyn he becomes more vulnerable, and Fleming becomes more maternal and protective towards him, even as her character is asserting her own autonomy. And because their spoken exchanges are not structured like traditional dialogue (it's more stream of consciousness built around ideals of celebrity, womanhood, and the devastating destruction of the male gaze - and the characters talk at one another more than they speak to each other), it's their unspoken interactions that must build their relationship. 

Ben Whishaw has a reputation for playing fragile, ethereal characters and, on occasion, he's played female and gender fluid parts as well. His role here, while not quite like anything else he's done, slots in nicely amongst his impressive and intriguing body of work. I love to watch him because he plays all his roles with great empathy, but there's sometimes an elusive, ephemeral quality to his acting as well. He can be very present but also, somehow, somewhere else. He does this in Jane Campion's Bright Star as the consumptive, lovelorn John Keats, and he does it here as well. As if he's both transforming and receding before your very eyes. Watching Whishaw it's not hard to believe that Carson penned the role with him in mind. For a play that deals with the notion of celebrity as subterfuge -  it's all just smoke and mirrors, baby - he's the perfect embodiment of the tangible made intangible. 

Renée Fleming is a great foil for Whishaw - at turns subdued or commanding depending on what the role dictates - and the two play off one another beautifully. Because it's just the two of them, and because the actions they're performing are often so private, I had the sensation more than once of being a voyeur, like I was seeing something I really wasn't meant to be seeing. "How did I manage this?" I thought more than once, because at times it felt completely surreal, and a little unnerving (in a good way), to be witnessing something like this so up close and personal. I won't pretend to know what all of it means from an academic or historical standpoint, but then I'm reminded of what Whishaw's Keats says to Fanny Brawne about poetry: It's not meant to be worked out. "It is an experience beyond thought," he tells her. "Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery." Perhaps Carson's Norma Jeane is not something that's meant to be worked out. It exists to be experienced.

I can say that the performance moved me tremendously, and I appreciate the risk involved in presenting an unconventional, at times inscrutable, piece of work to an audience. I'm glad work like this exists and that performers like Whishaw and Fleming are willing to take the creative risk and bare their souls for their art. Ultimately I am left with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I am so very grateful that I was able to experience this.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Piercing

What to make of Piercing? The kinky psychological thriller, about an anxious would-be murderer and his unwieldy victim, certainly boasts an impressive pedigree. It's directed by Nicolas Pesce, who made 2016's The Eyes of My Mother, an assured and uncompromising movie about a traumatized, isolated young woman who works through her grief and loneliness in atrocious ways. It's based on a 1994 novel by Ryû Murakami, who also provided the source material for Takashi Miike's Audition, another effectively unsettling movie about a young woman committing heinous acts that's gleefully nihilistic in its depiction of male / female relationships and power dynamics. It stars Mia Wasikowska, a fine, understated actress who can play a beloved literary heroine like Jane Eyre with intelligence and conviction, and can just as easily imbue a budding serial killer or an impulsive teen vampire with those same qualities. How did this combination of bold, provocative talent manage to produce a movie as tepid and underwhelming as Piercing?

Reed (a twitchy Christopher Abbott), away from home for a weekend "business" trip, checks into a hotel and hires a prostitute, intending to murder the unsuspecting woman when she arrives at his room. Reed's never done anything like this before, though, so he's extremely anxious about committing the act itself. After he settles in at the hotel he studiously play acts his impending crime, stabbing and slicing at the air, taking into account all the possible outcomes, considering all the scenarios. He'll suggest they experiment with S&M, giving him an excuse to tie his victim up. Then he'll produce an ice pick and stab her to death. What if she struggles or screams once she figures out what he's planning? He'll have to muffle the sound. He'll need a change of clothes, cause there'll be a lot of blood. He'll have to make sure to clean up after himself very carefully. The more time the movie spends with Reed, the more inept he seems to be. Maybe an aspiring murderer with this level of performance anxiety should find another way to exorcise his demons and get his kicks? 

Enter Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), Reed's would be victim, who is introduced into the story not when she shows up at the hotel, but at her apartment, before she gets the call to go to Reed's room. By introducing her this way, off work, passed out on her bed in a top and granny panties, she's presented as a character in her own right. She's more than a stylized glamazombie dropped into the narrative to satisfy the male lead's bloodlust or bring about his demise: This is her story, too! And once Jackie and Reed meet and begin to interact the focus and intention of the film starts to splinter. It's a deadly game of cat and mouse where the roles constantly shift, but it's also a deranged seduction story. And every time Reed's uncertain predator loses the upper hand to his volatile, unpredictable prey, it feels less like a fight for survival and increasingly like a type of foreplay between two demented individuals who may have found what they needed (but didn't really know what they were looking for) in one another. 

Unfortunately, neither character is fleshed-out enough to make a love story between them compelling or palatable. Reed is neurotic and deranged in a non-specific way, driven by impulses he doesn't seem to understand any better than the viewer does, and Jackie is essentially reduced to a broken-mirror version of the manic pixie dream girl, devoting her time and energy to trying to suss out what the "damaged" male protagonist needs so she can be that for him. Wasikowska, usually so dependable, is wasted here. Like her character, she tries every approach, there just isn't anything substantial for her to work with, so she's limited in what she can actually accomplish. Jackie's erratic, inscrutable actions don't exist to illuminate her character's thoughts, feelings or motivations; they're a plot device designed to drive the story from one fucked-up destination to the next. 

When Jackie first arrives at the hotel, as she's making her way to Reed's room, there's a split screen shot (the first of many) and the soundtrack starts blasting Goblin's Profondo Rosso. "This one is trying awfully hard," I thought to myself. Piercing certainly wears its giallo aspirations on its sleeve, and if its foundation had been a little sturdier, a well-placed visual or musical homage could have worked to its advantage. But because the original content the film offers is so lukewarm the homage feels like a cheat, a shortcut meant to evoke a reaction from a crowd who recognizes those beats from dePalma, Argento, even Tarantino. And since they don't feel earned, these flourishes disrupt the story far more than they enhance it.

Piercing is a semi-coherent assortment of rough character outlines and imagery that feels tiresome when it should be titillating, with one or two compelling and disconcerting moments thrown in to keep you hoping that it's all going somewhere interesting. At 81 minutes it might have benefitted from a longer run-time, but, short as it is, the movie still manages to overstay its welcome, because it just spins its wheels, uncertain of exactly where it wants to go or how it wants to get there. As a viewer I had absolutely no idea how to react to what I was seeing, or if I was meant to react at all. I wanted to feel something while I watched, even if it was something entirely unpleasant. I mostly felt nothing, and just when I thought the story might be getting around to having some sort of purpose or intention, the closing credits started to roll. 

Piercing did, finally, manage to offend me, though. Not because it traffics in taboo subject matter, but because its handling of that subject matter is so cavalier, and pales in comparison to the work of other filmmakers who have explored dark sexual urges and proclivities with far more thoughtfulness and empathy. It would be a tall order, an impossible one, perhaps, to present the motivations at the heart of this story in a way that could normalize them, or even make them relatable, but Piercing's conclusion seems to suggest that this was the movie's intention. And if it was then it fell terribly short, owing to a tone that lacks any real sensitivity towards the characters or their impulses, opting instead to construct an inscrutable narrative mostly out of garden variety kink and gore-soaked imagery. 

Maybe this wasn't Pesce's intention at all, though. Maybe he just wanted to make a raunchy exploitation flick. If that's the case, Piercing still comes up short for me, because it never pushes the boundaries of extreme cinema enough to be truly shocking or surprising. It has so much potential, it just can't seem to go far enough in any direction to deliver a unique or satisfying experience of any sort. There are some intriguing ideas knocking around in Piercing and I would like to have seen them more fully explored. Ultimately this movie feels undercooked, immature, and callous. It doesn't seem to care. So why should we?

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

McQueen

This past Sunday, March 17, 2019, would have been Alexander McQueen's fiftieth birthday. The designer committed suicide in 2010 at the age of forty.

I've never been particularly fashion savvy. On my most ambitious days I have a vague personal aesthetic, inspired largely by Tori Amos's look in the early-mid 90s, the warm-up wear and costumes of modern dancers like Martha Graham, and the cool lesbian girls I was infatuated with in high school, but my knowledge of fashion largely derives from the same source as my knowledge of most other things: film. I'm on more familiar footing talking about costume design than I am runway shows, and I'm apt to think of clothing as a narrative device; It's about more than just the garment, it's about the character wearing it, and the story they're telling. And the grander the gesture, the more dramatic and outrageous, the more I love it. When I really set myself to thinking about clothing design my mind will almost always go straight for grand, dramatic gestures (Eiko Ishioka's designs for Dracula or Kate Hawley's for Crimson Peak) or romantic period perfection (Janet Patterson's work on Bright Star or The Piano); I love looking at clothing like that and daydreaming about wearing clothing like that, but I'm not gonna make an effort to replicate those outstanding confections; When it comes to my personal wardrobe I need choices that are practical and comfortable for me as well as stylish.

So I don't know all that much about fashion and, unlike film, I've never been motivated to educate myself on the subject. I think of fashion like I think of Broadway: it's a cool thing that largely happens in bigger, more progressive, cosmopolitan areas. When I was in college pursuing a degree in art, though, I began to develop a strong aesthetic interest in female bodies and, by extension, I became interested in ways to adorn the female form. I wasn't so much interested in wearable clothing, I was more into the idea of creating sculptural pieces that were informed by the body, or art that was built around the body, transforming it into a component that works in tandem with the garment to create a tangible work of art. After college I started buying Vogue magazines on a fairly regular basis. I can't remember what prompted me to begin doing that, but I'm pretty sure it had more to do with the women who were gracing the covers than it did the designers themselves. Basically if an actress I liked turned up on the cover of the latest Vogue rather than the latest Vanity Fair I would buy the Vogue; I really just wanted to look at beautiful women I admired. But, at some point, I began to realize that I was drawn to particular pieces of clothing, and they were all made by the same designer: Alexander McQueen. With his flair for the dramatic and his gift for storytelling McQueen would be the obvious choice to truly bring me around to the idea of fashion as an art form in its own right.

My earliest memory, the thing that first caught my eye and truly captured my interest, were some fall/winter 2002 pieces that combined filmy pastel material, very fitted up top, almost like gauze bandaging, with leather harnesses. Sometimes the skirt would be an abundance of ruffles, layers and layers of them, very ephemeral and romantic and feminine, but paired with those severe, almost punishing looking harnesses. They were sexual, and maybe that didn't fully register with me on a conscious level initially, but the fetish implications - the rigid, constrictive nature of the harness dominating the delicate, yielding material of the dress - seem glaringly obvious in hindsight. McQueen wasn't just creating clothing. He was crafting a character, a mood, a statement. This was a garment that could be worn by a dominatrix, a gothic heroine, a bride of Dracula. I was in thrall.

And so I developed a fondness for McQueen, but it never really went beyond that. I have a habit of going overboard with my admiration, obsessing at times to a degree that is all-consuming, bordering on pathological. My love for McQueen was never like that, though; his work was always just kind of percolating in the back of mind, informing my artistic sensibilities in subtle ways. Though my admiration for McQueen was always kind of low key I was certainly a big enough fan to make a trip to New York in July of 2011 to see the posthumous retrospective Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to see this show, and it remains one of the most thrilling, and emotional museum experiences I've had. I remember black walls, and music, and in some rooms there would be a wind machine going to make the fabric billow. If there wasn't a headpiece of some sort the mannequin models were often headless, to minimize distraction and keep the focus entirely on the garment that was being displayed. Guests wound around the space, from one room to the next, experiencing each collection in an atmosphere that tried in subtle ways to approximate the feel of an actual McQueen runway show. Like the clothes themselves, the exhibition was transportive and a bit overwhelming. It cast a spell, for sure.

Last year a feature length documentary about McQueen was released. As a piece of cinema McQueen, directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, is pretty straightforward, chronicling the designer's humble beginnings as the son of a London taxi driver, his ascent through the echelons of the fashion industry, and the toll that both his professional and personal demons take on him, culminating in his suicide at the age of forty. Bonhôte and Ettedgui utilize an abundance of candid, behind-the-scenes recordings, footage from McQueen's remarkable runway shows, and interviews with family, creative collaborators, friends and lovers. The first time I saw the film I was underwhelmed by it from a movie-making perspective, but I loved having access to such a wealth of information about McQueen the man as well as McQueen the artist. Having seen the documentary two more times I can say that my appreciation for the directors' creative choices has increased, and their matter-of-fact approach - with the addition of a series of artfully rendered skulls specially constructed for the film to introduce each chapter of McQueen's story - feels right. They know enough to exercise restraint, allowing McQueen and those who were close to him to tell the story with minimal embellishment or artistic frivolity. If the movie comes close to tipping into sentimentality towards the end this can be forgiven, too. It's a movie that was obviously made with a considerable amount of care, respect, admiration, and affection. And every time I see it there's a new insight I pick up on, another perspective or idea that sparks my interest.

Before watching McQueen I knew next to nothing about the designer's beginnings in the the world of fashion, that he got his start working as a tailor on Savile Row and possessed an innate talent for the work. I've never even operated a sewing machine but, even though I'm not capable of fully appreciating the skill that goes into this sort of work, it really impresses me. McQueen had a grand vision, and he also had the practical skills to back it up. There's a great moment in the movie when McQueen's older sister Janet tells a story about her teenaged brother making a skirt for her, one so form-fitting she could barely walk in it . . . but she always received compliments on it when she wore it. McQueen had technical savvy, an understanding of the female form, and he was interested in making clothing that was personal, and one of a kind. So much thought and care went into both the look and the crafting of the garments, there was an intimacy to what he was doing. This intimate, personal approach extended to the concepts for McQueen's runway shows, which he said were largely autobiographical.

Drawing inspiration for his collections from literature, film, history, and current events, McQueen's work was also informed by the natural world, and non-traditional materials like flowers, shells and antlers often found their way into his creations. He was accused of misogyny but maintained that he wanted to make women look strong, formidable. Having witnessed the horrific abuse of his sister at the hands of his brother-in-law (and been the victim of abuse from the man himself) he wanted to create clothing that empowered women. What I love about his work is that it often transforms the models entirely, turning them into fantastical, otherworldly creatures. The combined sense of pageantry and storytelling in his collections could turn the women wearing his clothing into noble Scottish war widows, wild animals, woodland nymphs, or futuristic human-sea creature hybrids. His work may have been idiosyncratic and highly personal, but the more fantastical it becomes the more compelling and, indeed, accessible it is to me. His astonishing talents combined with his dark romantic sensibilities and seemingly boundless imagination make me positively giddy. What a gift his work was. What a treasure. Looking at his clothing, watching footage of his runway shows, I appreciate the time and skill that goes into it all on a practical level, but I don't have words to express what the work means to me emotionally. It just makes me feel so much.


For someone who was drawn to the macabre and melancholic, who created work he often referred to as dark, gothic, and death-obsessed, the McQueen we see in the film's earlier archival clips is surprisingly jovial. He liked to push people's buttons, wind them up, get them out of their comfort zones, and there was a playful quality to his provocations. He was a trickster. And a punk. He also comes across as someone who was down to earth, took his work very seriously, and valued the time and effort his collaborators put into helping him realize his vision. And he seems quite tender hearted, with an endearing, almost child-like affection for his pets (he dedicated one of his runway shows to his beloved dog, Minter, and set aside a generous sum in his will for the continued care of the three bull terriers who survived him). But he had a mercurial temperament, and was apt to push people away and alienate himself as often as not. One gets the sense that he felt most at home in his own skin when he was working, and one of my favorite moments in McQueen is when stylist Mira Chai-Hyde talks about how often the designer would stay up, late into the night, sewing and listening to Michael Nyman's score for The Piano. McQueen and Nyman eventually struck up a friendship (McQueen even commissioned Nyman to compose a piece for his Widows of Culloden show), so it's not only appropriate but very touching that the film uses Nyman's music as its soundtrack.

The second half of the film chronicles McQueen's steady rise in the industry, and the personal descent into paranoia, self-loathing and depression that paralleled his professional ascent. Watching this brilliant, charming, lovable man essentially waste away as he becomes more famous, while the people he was closest with recount some of their heartbreaking exchanges with the designer during this time period, is incredibly difficult to watch. It made me feel helpless, and incredibly sad for McQueen and all the people who loved him. It's during the final act of the film that I most appreciate Bonhôte and Ettedgui's straightforward storytelling style. Death was often the subject, directly or indirectly, of McQueen's work and another filmmaker might have been tempted to romanticize McQueen's self-destructive actions and his death. But the film never crosses that line. Nothing about what happens to McQueen is sensationalized or glamorized. McQueen is with us, and then he is gone. And it sucks.

But how fortunate we were to have had him for the time that we did.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Fright Night

How fun is the original Fright Night? What a terrific love letter to campy, late-night creature-feature cinema. You can practically feel the warmth and affection radiating off of this movie, which is smart, sexy, funny and gleefully disgusting. I saw Craig Gillespie's remake back in 2011 (in large part because I wanted to see David Tennant on the big screen) and it's a perfectly decent movie but it takes itself too seriously. I much prefer the humor and charm of Tom Holland's original version.

When high schooler Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) realizes his charming new neighbor, Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon), is a vampire he tries, in vain, to warn the people closest to him of the danger. Charley's mother (Dorothy Fielding), preoccupied with work, doesn't have time to indulge her son's fantastical imaginings; his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) and his friend "Evil" Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) both think Charley has lost his mind. The desperate young man finally reaches out to the one person he thinks will believe and help him: Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), legendary horror film star and host of Charley's favorite show, "Fright Night," a serialized showcase of B movies. It never occurs to Charley that Peter might not be as skilled at vanquishing the undead as his cinematic counterpart. In Charley's mind Peter Vincent is a fearless vampire slayer, not a burned-out, past his prime actor who's cash-strapped and desperate for work.

Like many of my favorite horror films, Fright Night holds up well, in large part, because its characters are memorable and appealing. There's an every-boy quality to William Ragsdale's Charley that makes him relatable and a bravery, along with an inherent sense of decency, that makes him admirable. The same could be said for Amanda Bearse, who's so fresh-faced, sweet and sassy that it's easy to see why Charley is crazy about her. Chris Sarandon is equal parts charming and oily as vampire-next-door Jerry and Roddy McDowall is absolute perfection as Peter Vincent. Like Charley, there's a sense of decency at the core of McDowall's character; it's heartening to see these two underdogs find their inner reserves of bravery and join forces to protect their community and the people they care about. And speaking of underdogs I have a particular soft spot for Charley's pal Evil Ed, a character who starts out as obnoxious (but effectively amusing) comic relief and becomes something much more unforgettable and tragic by the end of the movie. Stephen Geoffreys is adept at projecting Ed's false sense of bravado as well as his vulnerability. 

Another thing I love about this movie is the variety in the vampire death scenes. Just like The Lost Boys two years later, no two vampires go the same way in Fright Night. The effects during the blood-sucking bloodbath at the end of this movie are gory, goofy and wonderful. Vampires transform into wolves, bats and one of them, after being staked dissolves into a pile of green goo and, inexplicably, sand. Like everything else about Fright Night the ick factor is equal parts horror and humor. But the hijinks never come at the expense of the characters, who are the heart of this great movie.