The Leopard (1963)

This post originally appeared at The Essential.

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“This isn’t the end of anything. It’s the beginning of everything.”

The Leopard continues to epitomise Italy’s legacy of ambivalence with regard to its unification. It is not only a monument of cinema, but a representative of long-held beliefs that the unsuccessful (or only unceremonious?) attempts to break down or conveniently forget class distinctions, and to assimilate the Southern states into the kingdom of the North comprise a timeline of battles and wars that replace one ruling class with another. Today these states and these social classes, though no longer composed of those noble by birth, are still separated by gaping cultural divides. Based on the historical novel of the same name penned by Sicilian aristocrat Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and adapted for the screen by Luchino Visconti, a descendant of Milanese aristocracy, The Leopardchronicles about two years in the life of a fictional noble Sicilian family following the landing of Garibaldi in Palermo in 1860.

At the centre of the narrative, and seen largely with his thoughts and observations the pivotal point for the story, and for Visconti’s camera, is Don Fabrizio, the Prince of Salina and patriarch of the illustrious House of Salina. He is played by the blue-eyed, statuesque Burt Lancaster whose physical performance embodies the fading monuments of his noble ancestry and provides a kind of tent pole to so may of Visconti’s deep compositions.

Garibaldi fought to unite Italy under one monarchy, instrumental in the fall of the Bourbon Empire which then ruled most of the Southern regions of Italy, known as the Two Sicilys. It is important to observe that although Garibaldi was a revolutionary, his fight was not one against the concept of a ruling class, but to promote unification under a single empire with Victor Emmanuel, of the House of Savoy, as King.

The introduction of Tancredi, Fabrizio’s nephew, played by Alain Delon, is an integral part of Visconti’s vision. Tancredi is first seen in the reflection of the Fabrizio’s shaving mirror. He is a reflection of his uncle, and also a reflection of the next generation, a modern Italy, but perhaps most importantly, he is reflective, transparent. Tancredi is fickle. He adapts himself to suit his own ambitions, taking up first with the Garibaldini or Redshirts and later allying himself with the Royal army, as an officer, which was an advantage of many of the upper and middle class young men. “He follows the times, that’s all,” argues Fabrizio in a conversation with one of Donnafugata’s peasants. The poor did not join Garibaldi, as he was interested in upholding the social hierarchies, not dismantling them.

There are several dichotomies of social nature at work and how they are represented, and create and collapse on each other is expressed in a melancholic conversation between Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster) and a visiting representative of the House of Savoy, paying a visit to seek the Prince as a member of the new Royal senate. The Prince, who does not believe Sicily or its people capable of any real change, attempts to explain that his place as aristocrat would not be possible without Sicily’s poor, “one is derived from the other”.

The film contains one battle scene early on, fought in the slums of Palermo, with Tancredi leading one of several groups of Redshirts against the Bourbon soldiers. In this scene we can also see the peasants of Palermo, including many women, fighting a separate battle against the ruling class, their oppressors. They chase a lone nobleman, possibly the mayor (he wears a top hat and sash) and hang him in the piazza. Here we see the chaos of the two battles that Italy is divided in, one between two monarchies, lead by Garibaldi, and the other (largely overlooked in terms of coverage in the film) of the fight of the plebiscite against the aristocracy. One battle must be won, in order to suppress the other.

Visconti’s frame is one of anarchy and fury, but the two battles occurring, though overlapping each other on the screen, are not in conflict. Tancredi politely requests of a peasant woman, in which direction has his enemy fled.

Visconti uses a recurring motif of chipped and decaying statues, still beautiful and ceremonious, however merely an echo of their former splendour to represent the ruling class. He also, in effect, paints them into frames or has characters moving into their still portrait positions. The only undamaged idols we see are those in chapels. The role of Don Pirrone, the Prince’s priest, is an important one in the film, as he represents the church, that which traverses the social classes, and whom they must ultimately answer to. The church, however, has the same sense of custom of the aristocracy. We see the two united in the chapel at Donnafugata, where the family take their summer vacation. They sit still, covered in dust like relics or ghosts of themselves upon the eve of the referendum. Visconti and Lampedusa were both at odds with what exactly is lost in the overthrow of an aristocracy and there is a large contrast of movement and vibrancy in the final ball scene, and the elliptical dance between the Prince and Tancredi’s middle-class bride to be.

It is perhaps important to consider how Visconti, whose socialist sensibilities were in conflict with his birth right, managed to play out the ironies of Italy’s situation. Of course, he does so from a pedestal, and in effect his relationship to the character of the Prince, who is as often amused as he is saddened by the rise of the middle class, and whose point of view is one of condescension and not affection, is shared by the director to a degree. The film’s comedy is at the expense of the middle class who appear to be striving, and failing, to imitate aristocracy.

Italy remains a divided state with several distinct regions, speaking very different dialects and with separate, culturally rich histories. The Northern regions still think themselves superior, and the Southern regions are largely understood to be under mafia regime. The relationships between North and South remain, in many circles, to be that of a contentious nature. We see this identity crisis played out in programs like The Sopranos and in modern Italian cinema. Most recently Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah (the title suggesting both the “camorra” or mafia, and the biblical story of Gomorrah and Sodom) shows us that the Milanese fashion industry would not be booming without the mafia-run imported Chinese sweatshops in Naples. One continues to derive from the other, and the legacy of i gattopardi endures.

Gloria (2013)

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A version of this post first appeared at The Essential

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When it comes to romance for the mature-aged — but more specifically sex scenes — there is often contention as to whether the subject is handled tastefully, and with care. Thankfully, writer/director Sebastián Lelio is not so stupid to consider such trivial things, and his splendid Gloria (Paulina García), a free spirit who attracts a trapped man, is a character in a love story, told with an urgency that any lovelorn adult can relate to, but which is truly a story about Chile.

Living in Santiago, Gloria spends days at work and nights out at bars and clubs, dancing with men she meets and sometimes taking them home. Both her children are grown and have their own families and romances to occupy them. Her neighbour rages at all hours of the night, while she cares for his hairless cat and her closest friends are a happily married couple. Gloria, despite being a woman with an insatiable lust for life, is very much alone.

One night at a club, she meets Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a man newly separated from his wife. They fall in love but it is not long before Rodolfo’s complicated sense of duty to his ex-wife and daughters keep him from giving himself fully to Gloria who, unlike him, has been independent for 12 years.

Many women can learn from something from Gloria (though she is actually Lelio’s stand-in for his homeland), faced with the anxiety of distance from her own family, and spending much of her dates with Rodolfo convincing him that she is enough for him, she maintains a youthful spirit, and does not compromise herself. Her efforts with all people are based on trust and love, and not the terror of being alone, or feelings of hopelessness.

Lelio has some neat structural tricks up his sleeve too, putting things in places where you’ll forget them until they can be executed for a particular effect. He also places Gloria in the very real situation of a socially energetic woman, who brushes upon all kinds of people and generations and families on a daily basis. The film achieves a great sense of community and family, engaging with the unifying condition of lost affection, broken tradition and new beginnings.

There are some small details that could have been better explained, mostly that of the specifics of Gloria’s occupation and what she has been doing in the last 12 years since her divorce but the film does show us that Gloria is living in the moment, listening to the latest pop music, dancing till all hours of the night — she is the present. She is Chile now. The details of the South American nation’s political climate are accessible enough but customs and social norms involving divorced women are a more shady area. In any case, Lelio has made a film for a modern Republic of Chile, celebrating a people with a zest for life, who need to mindful of, but perhaps leave behind, those afraid of change.

Love Hurts

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A version of this post originally appeared at The Essential

We often equate break-ups with listening to lame tunes with lyrics that we suddenly relate to, and then months later those lyrics and that melody still burn us despite regaining some sense, dignity, self-respect, taste etc. Perhaps they hurt because they embarrass us now. Because we’d never have succumbed to the allure of that little ditty if we hadn’t been in a state of disarray or temporary madness. Excuses, excuses.

Break-ups are sentimental, probably more sentimental to some than the relationships that preceded them, so I’m going to get sentimental.It is with mixed emotions that I’d like to discuss “Love Hurts” as performed by Roy Orbison – yes! – uberlols! – but there is merit in its design, particularly in its love lexicon. And hey! It’s great, albeit hammy, and the kind of thing someone would probably auto-asphyxiate to in a 90s movie.

Without getting too personal, I had a bad break-up, some years ago now. Like two years. One of those situations where you have no idea it’s coming and it hits hard and you feel very stupid, very crazy, and all your doubts about the relationship that you’d been stewing in for months are suddenly forgotten and you’re convinced, only because they’re no longer interested, that you’re meant to be together, so you make yourself insane trying to convince them of that. And unfortunately I did, and we went through it all over again about 2 months later. You live, you learn.

Love hurts. It was really hurting. I didn’t want to eat. I smoked like a chimney. I stayed in my room for an entire weekend. I screamed over the phone until I lost my voice.

I don’t like to wallow in it, friends will attest to this. I’m more of a ‘these things happen’ type (outwardly) but the only times I’d get to sit and sulk and feel sorry for myself was listening to Sun Records artists, but most frequently, by the multi-octave, tender, heavy, and occasionally yodel-y voice of Roy Orbison. (I hope my use of the word ‘outwardly’ in parentheses, twice now, will not go unnoticed.) “Love Hurts” was not a huge success for him back home. It was Australia that first put it on the radio and made a hit out of it in 1960. Previously, it had appeared as a track on an Everly Brothers album, but Orbison’s version made it a single.

The music and lyrics were composed by Boudleaux Bryant, half of a song writing team with his wife, Felice Bryant. They had written over 80 songs together before they made it into the business, in Nashville Tennessee, composing country songs for scores of white musicians.

The song, now that I have the lyrics straight, is lovely and melancholic. I used to make them up. I think “love is like a flower / holds a lot of rain” was just as nice as the accurate “love is like a cloud” but anyway, when you’re heartbroken, you hear what you want to hear.

I like words, and I don’t have a vernacular for the discussion of music that extends beyond making impressions of sounds, which I can’t convey in writing in to any great effect, so let’s look, together, at the second verse, which begins with an augmented key shift and the words “I’m young, I know”

(I’d like to congratulate Lyrics Freak for almost accurately laying out the lyrics. Most sites try to print them like a sonic translation, overuse of the return key. Idiots)

“I’m young, I know, but even so
I know a thing or two, and I learned from you
I really learned a lot, really learned a lot
Love is like a stove, it burns you when it’s hot”

I AM young, I know, but here the magic is not in this coincidence, but in the coupling of “love” and “stove”. It’s poetry. No, they are not pronounced in the same way by Orbison, “luv is like a stove”, they retain their usual oral separateness according to most English speakers after the 1930s, but I’d like to think that Yeats may have read it a rhyme, back when ‘love’ was so assonantly close to ‘loathe’.

I’m also completely beguiled by this, which I’m going to call ‘the refrain’, being not at all confident that it is one of those:

“Some fools think of happiness
Blissfulness, togetherness
Some fools fool themselves I guess
They’re not foolin’ me”

The repetition of “ess” overlapped by variations on the “fool” verb is exquisite. And “fools fool themselves I guess” is almost too much, but you’re carried off by Orbison’s crying, “me”.

The song’s physicality, its “scars”, “mars”, “burns” are all injury of an intimate, subtle, and yet, permanent nature. The most obvious antonym would, I suppose, be Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” which, I have no doubt, is working for a lot of girls going through explosive, demolishing break-ups at the moment – maybe they’ll be embarrassed later, and maybe they should be now, and maybe they shouldn’t be? I can’t weigh-in on that.

I like “Love Hurts”, but I think I’m a total cornball, and love is cornball anyhow. And it doesn’t hurt me to say that, despite whatever remedy works for you, wallowing in a mid-tempo country song, helped me stabilise somewhat. Until the next thing, anyway.

Muriel’s Wedding 20th Anniversary

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A version of this post originally appeared at theessential.com.au

The nineties are remembered as a time in Australian cinema of camp vibrancy, of colourful, loud films that embraced and celebrated otherness. Along with The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and Strictly BallroomMuriel’s Wedding launched the careers of its cast and makers, made us laugh, got us singing and dancing, moved us to tears — plus, they all featured Bill Hunter (he actually filmedPriscilla and Muriel at the same time).

These three “quirky comedies” are grouped together because they were released within two years of each other and they had commendable box office and international success. They also filter Australian culture through a feminine eye and are about performance, singing and dancing, the love of fabulous costumes and gowns, gossip, romance and getting married. All three films were actually written and directed artfully and lovingly by men, but it isMuriel that has a female lead.

Muriel Heslop (Toni Collette) is an unemployed, unmarried, overweight, socially awkward and dishonest 22-year-old with a well-known father in local politics, and a group of pretty friends who think she is cramping their style. She lives at home in the Queensland beach town of Porpoise Spit and has two obsessions: ABBA and getting married. After being arrested for theft, and publicly humiliated, Muriel steals money from her father (Bill Hunter) and takes a holiday to an island resort. There she meets Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) a freewheeling, outspoken, and adventurous girl who attended the same high school as Muriel. Rhonda defends her, she loves ABBA, they dance to “Waterloo”, sing to “Fernando” and become instant friends. Muriel runs off to Sydney to live with Rhonda, and the two reinvent themselves. It is not long, however, before her past catches up with her, and when Rhonda is suddenly diagnosed with cancer, Muriel can’t cope and retreats back into her obsession with weddings.

P.J. Hogan’s superb script is one of well-structured satire. Tania Degano and her chorus of twit friends are mean and thoughtless to shy, odd Muriel, but that cruelty offers the film’s finest comic dialogue, and also a diving board for Rhonda’s triumphant shut-downs.

The characters all have their own moments of habitual oddity, and they are all charming. Betty (Jeanie Drynan) makes tea by putting a tea bag in a cup of water and placing in a microwave. Perry (Dan Wyllie) kicks an empty carton of milk around, while commentating an AFL grand final of which he is the champion.

The film is also devastating. Watching Muriel fill an album with Polaroids upon Polaroids of potential wedding dresses is immensely sad and then there’s Betty, whose confusion and inattention slowly unravel into a mental breakdown. Hogan is able to switch from colourful comedy, to deathly sterility with care. He loves his subjects, even Muriel’s despicable father, Bill Heslop, earns our sympathy when looking out over his barren, smoking backyard, which Betty set on fire before taking her own life.

Hogan’s magnificent ending sets Muriel aside from its contemporaries. It combines the journey of Priscilla with the coming-of-age quality of Strictly Ballroom in a famous reversal of James Stewart’s excited return to his hometown in It’s a Wonderful Life. Here, the girls bid farewell to the hideous, “progressive” structures that men like Muriel’s father have littered the beachfront with, while ABBA’s disco hit “Dancing Queen” carries them out of Porpoise Spit forever. What is so special about Muriel’s Wedding is that the women rescue each other and manage to find a happy ending despite being broke, paralysed and divorced with no career prospects or romantic interests. Muriel and Rhonda are, to this date, unrivalled as the freest women in Australian cinema.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

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This post originally appeared on TheEssential.com.au January 29http://theessential.com.au/reviews/film/2014/the-wolf-of-wall-street

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A place where a drug trip is odyssey, sex an orgy, eating: gorging, spending: splurging. No, this is not the purge of Ancient Rome (Caligula would have blushed) but the insatiable appetite of the New York stock exchange in Martin Scorsese’s glorious The Wolf of Wall Street.

Scorsese delivers, from a screenplay by Terence Winter (of The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire), a three-hour memoir of stockbroker Jordan Belfort, based on his autobiography. There’s a lot of interest in Belfort’s small helping of justice, remaining a free man where others that he stole from or handed to the FBI have been less fortunate. That being said, the criticism is not of the content of the film, which is mostly comprised of parties, sex, drug use and near-death experiences. Some are angry about what is missing, his comeuppance, the lack of a moral equilibrium. As though we’d expect it from Scorsese, who has spent much of his career endearing us to criminals. If Belfort were dead, these arguments might falter, and yet, is it not his dumb luck that makes his story so thrilling, so nauseating, and so damn fun?

Belfort has more survival stories than could form an entire season of I Shouldn’t Be Alive, and, to be honest, hearing them would be reason enough to see him speak in public. At the 90-minute mark, which is the end of the first act, gearing up for the launch of Stratton Oakmont’s first initial public offering – a lucky chance that designer Steve Madden happened to go to school with Belfort’s business partner Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) – Belfort’s climactic speech is one of both Leo’s and Scorsese’s finest scenes. The orgiastic fury of a hyped-up room of stock brokers screaming and flailing on and under their desks, as the camera billows out of Belfort, bungeeing back, capturing the extremes and, to a degree, the eroticism of getting dirty rich. He also impresses upon his team that “there is no nobility in poverty”, but add up these three hours and you’ll find zero or even negative count of nobility in the rich.

Belfort’s first day as a stockbroker on Wall Street saw the crash of ’87. This stroke of bad luck did not follow him, but shows us early on that he, like the risk involved in the stock exchange, is subject to an unpredictable fate, determined by chance. Fate, it would appear, has favoured him. Belfort is a drug addict, womaniser, and thief whose empty pursuits of cash and power can only be sustained on a diet of day-to-day physical highs but he maintains this balance and continues to take pleasure in his addictions, and make loads of money.

Matthew McConaughey’s brief but memorable appearance in the film, as Belfort’s spiritual guide, doesn’t know if stock will go up or down. “It’s a fugazi… fairy dust”, he explains, but there is opportunity for stockbrokers to make money either way, and that it is necessary for one to console oneself with drugs and regular masturbation in order to stay grounded in a world that doesn’t trade in the physical; that trades in fairy dust.

Leo is magnificently physical. The young Belfort bursts with naive flourishes of pleasure, as though he had been watching his own films, regressing into former roles. While Di Caprio’s career has been staid by passionate, vibrant or mad characters, Belfort is just a prick, and Leo does well to keep us at a distance, and keep himself at a great physical distance from his fellow actors. Belfort can rile his team to simulate fraternity or community on the sales floor, but he cuts a line straight through them. And his showmanship does not subvert a tortured soul, or sexual dysfunction, or fetishistic habits, mental illness, or an abuse history. We don’t sympathise with him when he throws tantrums in his bedroom, and even the most dire circumstances for Belfort (save one case of attempted kidnapping) are the wildest and funniest scenes in the film. He and Jonah Hill – another fabulous prick (that’s a prosthetic by the way) – writhing on Belfort’s kitchen bench, coiled in phone cords and tripping the “cerebral palsy” phase of a Quaalude overdose is sublime.

In Goodfellas, Scorsese omitted the epilogue of criminal Henry Hill from Nick Pileggi’s Wiseguy. Hill, at the expense of universities and other organisations, would fly all over the US as a public speaker, still making decent money and living under protection of the federal law. The final sentence in Wiseguy describes Henry Hill as “the ultimate gangster” but this accolade was not conveyed in the final scene of Goodfellas.

Belfort isn’t a mid-level gangster, nor does his story represent the 1% of the American self-made ruling class. What he does represent is the indefatigable appetite of free-market capitalism, a system that cannot be heaved or moved by any moral codes, and which has so few legal codes to regulate it. His immunity is his triumph, which is a combination of luck, accident, the same fairy dust/fugazi that McConaughey’s fingers twinkle into nothingness. Making money – for any person – is still going to be a matter of chance, but Belfort’s is a market of chance and he now makes his life work keeping the faith in fortune’s phantoms. By nearly all accounts, he should be dead. If there is a moral lesson, it is simply that we are not learning any moral lessons; we’d still “choose rich every fucking time”.

Adoration (2013)

This post originally appeared on TheEssential.com.au 14 November, 2013. http://theessential.com.au/reviews/film/2013/adoration

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Set in beachfront condos, somewhere north of Sydney, Adoration is about the years shared between two women, Lil (Naomi Watts) and Ros (Robin Wright) and their love relationships with each other’s teenage sons, Tom (James Frecheville of Animal Kingdom) and Ian (Xavier Samuel). It is based on the late Doris Lessing’s The Grandmothers, part of a short story collection published in 2003.

Lil and Ros are beautiful, fit and foolish women approaching middle age who have lived as neighbours and friends since they were children. They are both creatures of habit, and one shift here or there, usually the interference of men, must be smoothed out, regulated and habituated. They are anchored to their lifestyle, like the buoyant wooden raft that they spend long idyll hours lying about on. Men cannot compete with the bond of these life-long friends. Sons of course are privileged, as they exist in their mothers’ reflections, “did we do that?” asks Ros, marvelling at Ian and Tom’s physique, “they’re like Gods” she replies.

As in a high school movie (Tom and Ian just out of high school) the four of them get drunk one night and Ian makes a move on Ros. Tom, in what is the most interesting moment in the film, decides out of jealousy, hurt, licence or curiosity, we can’t be certain, that he should do the same with Lil. The next day they are all honest about it, and it is no longer taboo. After the initial surprise, the affairs become habit, relationships, until Ros’ son Tom (Lil’s lover) becomes infatuated with a woman his age and Ros decides she too should end it with Ian.

The film relies on some suspense about them being caught out by Ros’ husband Harold (Ben Mendelsohn) or the guy trying to court Lil, but Harold conveniently takes a job in Sydney and the latter decides for himself that Lil and Ros are lesbians. The women have little to say on the subject of their romance. They laugh. They use words like ‘happy’ to describe the experience. We can see plainly their interactions with men, but this great friendship that is the most important of the film, is lived out mostly in wide angles, where their frames are miniature, and their conversation inaudible.

Both Wright and Watts do an exceptional job of appearing bewildered, and much of the dialogue is bewildering. Watts’ use of the word “bloke” is less the Luxembourg-born director Anne Fontaine’s attempt at Australian authenticity and more a reminder of how foreign men are to Lil. Ros similarly refers to her husband by his name, ‘Harold’, so often that it was as though she were meeting him for the first time in each of their scenes together.

Adoration does touch on a potentially lesbian relationship that can’t express itself sexually. The boys inherit the love that their mother’s have for one another, and it is natural that they, in turn, would develop love feelings for these surrogates. It is also natural that Lil and Ros, not being lesbians, should be able to take each other’s handsome young male counterparts to consummate their love. For Lil, Ros and their sons, trying to live within any singular definition of love or desire or sex will end it. This all screams at you for the film’s duration, but it isn’t carried off to any performative effect. The lovers all speak in turn; the criss-cross of the love affair is never mirrored in drama. Watts’ big confessional monologue is given to no one – Wright sits listening, motionless in split dioptre on the edge of the screen.

The gardenias in David Lean’s Summertime (1955)

This post first appeared at TheEssential.com.au 21 December, 2013. http://theessential.com.au/features/objet-dart/gardenias-as-a-symbol-for-love-and-sex-in-david-leans-summertime

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Before David Lean was to give new meaning to the word “epic”, the term could easily be ascribed to the love relationships that blossomed full and passionate within his frame. In Summertime, his last film before his triad of wartime sagas, love and sex become a relative warzone for a middle-aged spinster, Jane Hudson (Katharine Hepburn) while holidaying in Venice, Italy.

A film of few characters (based on the play The Time of the Cuckoo by Arthur Laurents), the recurrence of a delicate gardenia, to symbolise their fleeting, floating, wilting romance carries with it limitless possibilities in terms of its representing several characteristics of Miss Hudson herself.

Her lover, Renato Di Rossi (Rossano Brazzi) asks her to choose a flower from the basket of an elderly merchant who cradles a bountiful bouquet across the Piazza San Marco. Jane selects the gardenia to fulfill a girlish fantasy of wearing one to a ball when she was a teenager. She is uncertain, when recalling this wanting of a gardenia, as to the reason for that particular flower. It had to be a gardenia, and she didn’t get it, and still feels this disappointment.

Here we see the flower represents her dissatisfaction with her life and her choices, and the little control that she has over the dreams that are fashioned by her desire. Why the gardenia? Why a rich handsome husband and children? Why Venice? Jane, on arriving with Venice, has acknowledged that her dreams, many of them behind her, are unrealistic. So when she finally gets her gardenia, her romance with Renato, she can only be disappointed by its guise or its eluding her all these years.

Jane accidentally lets slip the flower from her fingers, into the canal. Renato tries to reach it from the stone embankment, but the flower floats away, in a floating city. Jane is hurt again by the unattainable gardenia, but it is in fact its symbolism that drifted from her. She now has Renato.

The gardenia is both a symbol of and a distraction from Jane’s virginity. The metaphor, if seen as metaphor, is easily discernable but it is also the 1950s, and the nature of a woman’s sex life, particularly that of a woman over 40, must be supplanted with beautiful objects. Blanche DuBois, who is often described as a fragile, faded or wilted flower is scarcely remembered as a woman.

There are distinctions between romance and sex, but what exactly it is that Jane wants and what she expects is not always a secret we are privy to. Sex is plain and enormous in Summertime, a shared secret that everyone in Venice is in on. When Jane and Renato have sex, it’s epic. The film’s climax is climax; fireworks flourishing and bursting in the night sky.

The resemblance between Hepburn and the flower is unmistakable. Her dresses frill about her stem legs, and her blouses climb and bend up her slender neck. She wears white, country gowns, decorated like a debutant attending a farm dance. She screams virginity, as if an attempt to conceal it would make her look foolish. She stands idyll by the water, she drinks in the sunshine, she and the gardenia both fall accidentally into the canal, and they both float. Jane and the gardenia also share a foreignness to Italy; she, an American, and the flower native to Oceania, Asia, and a group of countries less often referred to as Australasia.

It is the film’s final scene when Renato again presents her with a gardenia. After a whirlwind romance, Jane decides that it is time to depart and return to her ordinary, lonely life. The decision doesn’t translate to the modern woman, who might seize this newfound love and live it out in all its romantic potential. Jane still does not believe herself to belong to Italy and remains a woman out of sorts with the open love that she associates with Venice. She boards a departing train, looking longingly for Renato who she hopes will see her off. The train departs, and she sees him running toward her. He carries a small box in his hand, extending his reach as he runs to meet her carriage. Jane reaches as well, but the platform ends and Renato stops. Jane the gardenia was always unreachable to him. He lifts from the box a delicate, white gardenia, holding it high in a love salute. Jane sighs gratefully and waves goodbye.

Man-made woman: What we can learn from Ja’mie Private School Girl

This post originally appeared on RogerEbert.com 11 December, 2013 http://www.rogerebert.com/balder-and-dash/on-jamie-private-school-girl

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Many of the guys I know who concede to the merits of “Ja’mie: Private School Girl” do so falteringly, as though they stand to lose something by that admission. Critic Phil Dyess-Nugent of The AV Club tells us he can’t take Ja’mie, the heroine of “Ja’mie: Private School Girl,” imported from Australia and now playing in the United States on HBO, for more than six minutes. Such distaste is to be expected. This is a program that, to a degree, humiliates men; they are manipulated, waxed of their body hair, and expressed in “dick pics”—of which Ja’mie has compiled an album. Thus far, however, the show’s critics, most of whom happen to be men, do little to engage with the significance of its star and creator Chris Lilley becoming Ja’mie, a girl who reflects chauvinist criticism and is also its poster child.

Drag was once a common sight in vaudeville and in TV comedy derived from it. It has become a rarity on TV and in film, and when we do see it, it’s often coupled with a social critique or an inspirational message. In the popular incarnations of “Tootsie” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” for instance, the male protagonists become older women out of some necessity, and learn the double standards faced by women while retaining their perspective. Ja’mie, however, is not that kind of character. She’s a teenaged girl who is incidentally played by a member of the opposite sex, and the TV character she most resembles is probably Eric Cartman of “South Park.”

This series and Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s animated satire have at least one other quality in common: their brand of comedy invites viewers to think the show is celebrating behavior that it’s actually mocking or exposing. If a series is about racism or sexism, it is not inherently racist or sexist. If a man puts on a dress and gives a curious impression of a teenaged girl, we can be torn as to where to focus our attention. I can forget, for the most part, that the character is a man in a school dress; I can also appreciate the accuracy with which he captures a feminine side of the teen experience. To say I know this girl is not to say that I’m her friend, but that recognition certainly makes me laugh. This shock of recognition carries over to the things Ja’mie says. She’s funny because she is ridiculous, not because she is racist. Lilley, who does dominate the screen time—this is the Ja’mie show—reminds us that outside of her insular clique, she is simply a loudmouth and a bore.

Ja’mie is a character caught in the push-pull of rebellion versus a desire to be worshipped. Her life is a performance, a big show that betrays an underlying difficulty with intimacy. Yes, she is racist and, yes, her views of women are misogynistic, though she admits, for example, that she doesn’t understand why she hates the girls who board on the school grounds. She can only call them fat or lesbians, when it is obvious that Erin, a boarder, poses a threat to Ja’mie’s chances of winning the Hillford medal. Add in her contempt of Asians—the students she feels are academically superior to her—and it’s clear Ja’mie suffers from a need to be the best at everything, a competitive conflict which she masks with bigotry and bullying, and which echo a masculine reductionism in the face of challenge.

The trouble with Ja’mie is that she, a teenaged girl, should identify so thoroughly with male chauvinism, and despite her socio-economic advantage and attending the best girls school in Sydney, be so poorly educated. She is one of the most complex women on Australian television, featured in a series constructed and contained within an active—and often aggressive—feminine gaze. Where Chris Lilley is an exceptional impersonator of women, Ja’mie, unfortunately, can impersonate men just as well.

Her lasciviousness, her laughable provocations, her inert childishness betray a profound discomfort with sex. When she gets in a scrape with the vice principal of her school, she flirts with him; she nibbles her father’s shoulder by way of persuasion; she exposes herself to boys, but can’t quite manage a kiss; she boasts an album of “dick pics” but is repelled by Mitchell’s erection and dishonest about her experiences with him; she hates lesbians, but is perhaps somewhat ambivalent about her own sexuality. She calls it a ‘bi-sexual phase’, but we can’t be sure what it really is.

In the final episode, in a scene that showcases the pathos that we have come to expect from Lilley, Ja’mie voices her true regard for her father. It’s a demoralizing insight, meant to console her defeated mother. Jhyll has something to learn from her daughter, who adds ‘nobody f—s with me and gets away with it.’ When Ja’mie challenges her school’s dismissal of her, based on the emergence of a scandalous YouTube video of her and a Ugandan boy, Kwami, the challenge is self-serving: revenge for a wounded ego. However, for the first time in the show, Ja’mie’s outrage is not misdirected. Hillford Girls Grammar School officials do not debate with Ja’mie over any of her bigoted slurs, and not even in defense of Erin, another Hillford girl who bears the brunt of them. The school’s criticism is of inappropriate language and sexually suggestive behavior, and their interests are not in educating girls on race and gender or punishing them for bullying, but in upholding the institution’s reputation as Sydney’s best girls’ school.

Ja’mie’s revenge, a defiant act that will get her expelled, is a brilliant example of her potential, her ability to organize, her writing of her own history, her ‘learning to be me’, a few steps toward freedom. Through Lilley, we get an impression of how men create women, but he can also create a woman’s viewpoint. Women dominate “Ja’mie: Private School Girl.” Women’s interests and concerns are the center of its conflict. The construction of female gaze is radical, revolutionary. Through naïve, troublesome Ja’mie, we learn that young women are not simply what our culture has made of them.

 

Enough Said? Notes on James Gandolfini

This post originally appeared on RogerEbert.com on 4 November, 2013. http://www.rogerebert.com/balder-and-dash/enough-said-notes-on-james-gandolfini/ 

james gandolfini pic

Turning and turning in the widening gyre of 2014 Oscar predictions, a nomination for James Gandolfini in Nicole Holofcener’s “Enough Said” is making the rounds as choice gossip. Already a decorated actor, who died suddenly of a heart attack in June this year, Gandolfini was yet to play a love interest in a romantic comedy—with perhaps the shady exception of “Romance & Cigarettes “(which is excellent). If you were fortunate to know the actor outside of the nefarious family man Tony in David Chase’s operatic “The Sopranos,” you may have observed with what equanimity he played tough guys and military men who were impaired by their shortcomings or haunted by personal failures. He didn’t become Tony until he was in his late thirties, but placed on either side of his smaller roles in film, Tony becomes the centerpiece—a life of compromised masculinity that the performer both deliberately and inadvertently channeled through his craft.

When he wasn’t a wise guy, Gandolfini undercut martial stature with a series of soldier parts. In “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” Big Dave Brewster is a buffoon whose every gesture he flitters out like a punch line, sparring with an invisible opponent. At this stage (2001), well into his status as the Don of New Jersey, it is an impressive feat to find a distance from Tony. The Coens, aware of this task, make his size a little more ridiculous; he sits small in his suit, the cigars are bigger. He is also briefly featured in a frilled apron, which I take as a little wink to Edward G. Robinson’s uncharacteristic attire in “Scarlet Street”.

In “The Last Castle,” opposite the impossibly virtuous Robert Redford, Gandolfini plays bureaucratic prison warden, Colonel Winter. He wears glasses that magnify his eyes to a cartoonish dimension. His speech is so precise on every consonant—every syllable issued with such desperate control—that his buttoned-down repression makes him figure pathetic, wound so tight that his shame in Redford’s war-hero shadow, is screaming from behind his pursed lips. We feel everything he doesn’t say.

In Armando Ianucci’s sensational “In The Loop,” he is another military man whose experience and jurisdiction is constantly called into question. His vitriolic encounter with Peter Capaldi sees him again made a fool of and his playroom war strategies with the gorgeous Mimi Kennedy reflect how ludicrous it is that anyone should project expectations onto a man based on his position, or his battle history. Kennedy warns that he tread with care in that child’s bedroom. He picks the paper up off the floor and dolefully (and delightfully) scrunches it between his hands.

Apart from Tony Soprano, “Killing Them Softly” was the first of his roles to magnanimously swathe esteem and place an aura of splendour around the actor. It wears its homages to gangster films and “The Sopranos” like scouts badges, which in itself is a kind of mimicry of the show. He plays Mickey, a hired gun on parole, recruited by Jackie (Brad Pitt) to help him carry out a hit. The warm tones of the restaurant’s décor are coloured around his tinted steel frames. He gives a monologue—about his wife wanting a divorce, and him wanting her back—and the camera keeps with him, drawing us into his sorrow without actually moving. He moves us. His body turned away from Pitt, his brow flexing as he loses his argument with himself, his gaze falling to another place, a different conversation. His gestures imply the space between New Orleans and his home. We imagine that this place is New Jersey.

In “The Sopranos” pilot, Chase and Gandolfini were still configuring the episode structure, tuning tonal kinks—they knew not what it was. They use voice-over for the first and last time. Tony Soprano hadn’t yet that buttery, heavy-tongued Jersey accent that Gandolfini perfected by the time the show was picked up. He is already an intimidating figure, standing taller than all of his co-stars. When Christopher boasts that he should go to Hollywood, Tony violently pulls him up from out of his chair, as if his nephew were made of straw. According to Chase, this was Gandolfini’s suggestion. It bears a striking resemblance to Brando’s sudden accost of Al Martino early in “The Godfather” (also a conversation about Hollywood). Brando was a method actor. He gained weight. He wore weights in his jaw to sag his cheeks. Gandolfini didn’t need to accessorize his volcanic nature; just illuminate it, with the occasional cigar.

Learning Tony’s tells is part of the engagement that “The Sopranos” offers. Tony is a prolific liar, to everyone he knows, including himself. In the program’s fifth episode, “College,” he lifts that awed expression to Hawthorne’s words, “No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” Gandolfini is, like Tony, an excellent liar, most particularly when viewers are in on it, when we know the truth, whether Tony does or doesn’t. Tony understands Hawthorne’s words. His look is not one of confusion, but of a concealed fear at his impossible situation. What truths these lies reveal about the character are headily immersive—enormous—and it’s probably the point at which “The Sopranos” became cinema, and it was partly because Gandolfini could lie to us convincingly and unconvincingly at once.

He met with a challenge early in the third season of the show when actress Nancy Marchand (who played Tony’s mother Livia) died during the hiatus, causing a major story restructure and the need for a graceful cover-up. Tony visits Livia to discuss her recent arrest for trying to use stolen airline tickets that he had palmed off on her. Gandolfini has a conversation with a body-double in a chair, and a digital patchwork of Marchand’s shining moments gather some likeness of her being. It isn’t entirely a success, but Gandolfini is still marvellous. Tony’s anxiety at the possibility of his own mother testifying against him is conveyed with abrupt despondency. He is rushed, flustered, pacing and grabbing for all kinds of props and conversation to fill a significant void. It also recalls their first argument in the pilot episode, and is orchestrated beautifully, considering the mournful circumstance.

In the final episodes of “The Sopranos,” when Tony’s monster is revealed and then abruptly banished from Dr Melfi’s office—a harsh farewell that forces us to engage the criminal—Gandolfini made the transformation seamless. All these feelings toward this sociopath have been dormant within us, glimpsed on several occasions but concealed, seen through the eyes of those who love him much stronger than those averse to him. We were suddenly accountable. Our desire for a positive outcome for Tony finally appears perverse, wrong, and impossible. In the last moment, we finally learn what it is to be Tony. What the world looks like to him. What every scene must have felt like for its star. There again, for the last time, was that awed expression. And then the light went out on “The Sopranos”.

It is difficult to distill such an immense performance—in terms of substance, not just duration—into a few paragraphs. Gandolfini was his best opposite Edie FalcoMichael Imperioli and Vincent Curatola. All altercations and sentiments shared between he and them, those breaths between words, when his eyes would gaze into theirs, those fleeting seconds of silence, full of passionate intensity, those forlorn endeavours to placate one another, hard blinking, truth striking, truth erupting, are when his sad eyes can hold the entire room in orbit.

With few exceptions, James Gandolfini played men who were in conflict with the limits of their masculinity; a gangster who has panic attacks (“The Sopranos”); a military man who has never been in combat (“The Last Castle”, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and—in some sense—”Not Fade Away”); a monster who fears abandonment (“Where The Wild Things Are”); a hit man whose addictions have numbed him (“Killing Them Softly”); a brute whose first kill haunts him (“True Romance“); a kidnapper who befriends his hostage (“The Mexican“). His legacy offers years of a man’s life and the sum of his parts form a vivid, and beautiful semblance of modern manhood. It is a rare combination of choice and accident that an actor’s roles should narrate such an assemblage. He was an artist. He had something to say.

 

Film Review: Pain and Gain

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pain and gain
It’s 1994. Bodybuilder and personal trainer, Daniel Lugo, takes a rundown gymnasium and turns it into a resort with tight, tanned strippers at poolside and oiled-up buff guns pumping iron, all shining and shimmering in Miami’s rippling eternal day. Lugo, despite his flair for physical makeovers, wishes to extend his eye to painting his entire world as a reflection of his personal, physical success but he doesn’t have the dough that his clients do, and his “thoughts” – if you can call them that – are incapable of penetrating the cosmetic. Danny, though he doesn’t know it, is a moron.

After convincing fellow trainer Adrian (Anthony Mackie) that he should have a life worthy of his body, the two encounter a third accomplice, ex-con/weight lifter/born-again Paul (Dwayne Johnson), and devise a plan to kidnap Lugo’s wealthy client, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), and extort his property and wealth by torturing him until he signs it over. Though the enormous Doyle is reluctant, partly convinced that what Lugo suggests is perhaps not a good idea, he is pacified by Danny’s “I’m a doer” attitude, and inspired, by the immortal (and wonderfully potent/transparent) words:

“I’ve watched a lot of movies, Paul, I know what I’m doing.”

It is no particular flex for Wahlberg to play dumb. This role was practically written with his credits in mind. In Lugo he combines the naïve, underclass Derk Diggler of Boogie Nights with the wily, however manic Tommy Corn of I Heart Huckabees but it is actually his own invention – and not so much his cinematic history of affectionate folly, that most suits him to Daniel Lugo – that of 90s rapper-come-Calvin-Klein-model (or was it the other way around?), Marky Mark. Wahlberg did himself live what Daniel Lugo would consider the high life in the mid-90s before P.T. Anderson extended an opportunity. And there is a wink to those white briefs that’s hard to miss.

Bay is all style, and often to the point that his films are un-viewable, and like Danny, his intentions (if any) rarely penetrate the cosmetic surface of his craft. However, here, the style not only informs that content, the two are completely, artfully inspired by one another. Such a marriage was likewise achieved in another recent Floridian film, Soderbergh’s Magic Mike.

The use of Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ is profound. The tragedy of the song’s lyrics works beautifully with the fate of the film’s subjects and the song’s own reputation, or misrepresentation by (some) fans – based largely on its style – is so cleverly camouflaged by Bay’s 90s artifice. The entire film looks like a music video, from slow-motion strutting to camcorder Jeep cruising to fluoro-thonged booty-watching.

Though it appears to come as a surprise to some, Pain And Gain is largely a comedy – in the precise way that The Sopranos was. The dialogue is full of malapropism and wordplay, but delivered with such humourless, heartfelt persuasion by Wahlberg, that many of the lines – certainly in the theatre I viewed it in – were not met with the laughter they deserved.
Lugo, with a sense of purpose that enables him to lie his way through every stockade they meet, navigates fearlessly through a myriad of fuck-ups. The film piles the fumbles and failures of these men on so high that it’s dizzying, and then the way in which they address these hurdles – exchanging a chainsaw that was used to dismember someone at a hardware store – is excruciating and hilarious.

Ironically, the film’s comic compliment is dislocated by the presence of comedians Rebel Wilson and Ken Jeong, who belong to an evolution of humour that not only doesn’t suit the true-to-life story or genuine convictions of the criminal trio, it doesn’t suit the 90s and unfortunately these two are, at times, distracting. However, their talents elsewhere forgive them this trespass.
Dwayne Johnson doesn’t appear to get the joke, which is the best compliment to his performance. The arrival of Ed Harris as Ed Du Bois and Michael Rispoli (essential Sopranos cast member) as king pin Frank Griga give the film its second wind after a brief cool-down following the torture scenes. Harris, the only throw back to the golden age gangster flick, is a handsome, retired private eye with a voice so rich and sweet, it will rouse an attraction in the actor that even his long-time admirers haven’t felt before. Du Bois is also the narrator, whose mysterious vocals introduce the film into a noir framework, swathing Bay’s gangster’s paradise with even more Miami heat. Pain And Gain, though a small-scale story for Bay, is cinema on steroids and it sweats style.

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