Tuesday, September 27, 2011

That Touch Of Mink (1962) Directed by Delbert Mann

I could laugh at the old-fashioned attitudes towards women and homosexuality that pervade That Touch Of Mink. I could point at the fact that the picture's main obsession is sex and how to get it and how naive that seems now. But then I could tell you about what I read was happening today: the pop star Rihanna taking her clothes off in a field for her new video and how interested we are in that. Or how I read a Tweet today by RuPaul that declared "Homosexuality is found in over 450 species. Homophobia is found in only one". Or could I point out to you that as I write this, American Amanda Knox is being tried for murder in Italy and during the trial has been compared to a witch (you know, the medieval variety) with multiple personalities. So in 2011, I can attest that we have really moved on from the old fashioned sentiments of That Touch Of Mink and will view That Touch Of Mink's mild homophobia and sexism is so beneath us as to be disdainful.

In reality, the kind of film that That Touch Of Mink represents is being made regularly in 2011(with he same attitudes) and will appear at a cine-plex  near you very soon. The modern version will invariably star Jennifer Aniston as an approaching-middle-aged-woman, unmarried and looking for the incredibly wealthy and suave Mr Right (erm, Ralph Fiennes perhaps?) Sounds like a regular idea for a movie, yes? It's just that That Touch Of Mink stars Cary Grant and Doris Day, and is a star vehicle for actors who are effortless. No complications or depth in analysis needed here.

Grant retired a few years after That Touch Of Mink and Day didn't make so many more films after this either.  They are easy on the eye and ear. Professional. Mann directs like the TV journeyman he really was. This film is in many ways pointless but I still laughed out loud at a couple of gags. Doris Day really is the Queen of soft focus and Cary Grant still is the best looking man to grace a cinema screen. Light nonsense with a touch of class.

It's all about sex. Unbelievably so, the whole point of That Touch of Mink is the yearning to have sex and the social obstacles on the path to the bunk. Isn't it annoying when the woman wants to be married first? Isn't it funny that men get nervous too, about the first time (even Cary Grant it appears). I guess it might have been back in 1962. Now it's just silly. What could be a film about class and about the power that money brings, a satire of sorts, is finally only a comedy about the extent to which these people have to go to get some. Sex.

From the perspective of Wednesday, the 28th of September 2011 it is refreshing to remember that obsession with getting laid is not something new, something rotten poisoning the minds of us internet-housed cyborgs. We have been sex-crazy forever. At least for the last 150-something years, if Foucault is to be consulted.

That Touch of Mink is a little sinister still. It suggests that rather than being about love, hetero relationships are a transaction – money-for-your-eggs kind of thing. The most terrifying thing of all is that when the film ends with a little baby being pushed in a pram – the happy result of Doris and Cary finally making it to bed – I smile contently. Yuck.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Lust for Life (1956) Directed by Vincente Minnelli

Lust For Life is a 1950s movie about an artist, or a genius, as they would have definitely branded Vincent van Gogh then. In 1956 Western culture was at a crossroads: youth culture was rearing its unreliable head threatening with rock and roll, questioning the old ways on all levels of society, yet, the portrayal of an artist was still drenched in the masculine cult of the genius (with a long romantic history to back it up). Lust For Life portrayed a rebel of his own time, but the portrayal was not drawing similarities between now and then – the plight of the social misfits – it saw van Gogh almost as if through the eyes of a child.

Also, the film treated its subject, van Gogh, as a child-like innocent creature. As if the artist was never quite aware of his talent, his persona, or anything much around him (except of course when he painted). Life just happened as a chain of events, and their arbitrary connections seemed to throw van Gogh further into insanity. It is too bad that the film's emphasis on events of his life overshadow any imagining of what the artist might have been feeling or going through in his mind. A distance between the main character and the audience thus never goes away, which is always disappointing in movies.

I have rushed excitedly to a few big museums in the world just to catch a glimpse of a "genuine van Gogh" – I love his vision, yet I know very little about the man. Of course I heard about the ear cutting and the mental illness, and the interesting fact that he was never successful and now there's nothing we cannot buy with his painting printed on it. I remember the first time I had a chance in Chicago in 1999 to go see a van Gogh and how sophisticated I thought I was – the others were going to Sealife while I went to see art. Mostly though, my love for van Gogh comes from post cards and the stuff that was written on the other side of the pictures. There's never enough time to stare at a painting in a museum.

Twenty years since the release of Nevermind, Nirvana's mainstream grunge breakthrough album, the tortured, anguished short life of band leader Kurt Cobain comes back into focus. The consummate, non-commercial artist as young man, bringing cultured sounds to the masses. Of course, ultimately Cobain could have done without the attention and the success. He paid the heaviest price for being at the center of a media shit storm. As article after article about the Grunge explosion starts to celebrate 20 years of the quiet/loud dynamic and the rehabilitation of the plaid shirt, am I the only one having a nightmares at the prospect of a Cameron Crowe documentary celebrating 20 years of Pearl Jam? That's a bottom barrel team up if  ever I heard of one. Artist Vincent van Gogh wasn't afforded any real attention or fame during his short lifetime. Van Gogh is possibly the quintessential tortured artist, a front runner for Cobain. Eddie Vedder's got a lot to learn before being 4REAL.

There is a stiffness and quaintness to Minnelli's van Gogh bio-pic which is redolent of the times. This is its major flaw. Otherwise, Lust For Life is top quality and a genuinely strange picture posing as a Hollywood star vehicle. There is no real attempt in the film to come to terms with van Gogh's mental problems, which eventually cost him his life. Instead, we get lots of shots of Kirk Douglas (as van Gogh) looking anguished, lost and in pain. This is truly strange cinema. It's as if Minnelli gave Douglas a simple instruction: "Emote!" and left Douglas to get on with it. But the opulence of the direction (everything is in, ahem, broad strokes), the use of color, the sets and production values, all suggest money. Anthony Quinn brings energy to the picture with his portrayal of rebellious painter Gauguin.

Still, despite its shallowness and almost embarrassment with its subjects mental condition, Lust For Life is top draw. Douglas is brilliant, overacting at every turn, it's fun to watch. Minnelli knows how to use color and design: many of the shots do correlate with van Gogh's paintings. Minnelli is a master director, responsible for some of the all time greats movies, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Bad And The Beautiful, An American In Paris (in fact, a Martin Scorsese wet dream?) Lust For Life finds all participants on top form and is a classy picture, which deserves rehabilitation.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Funny Lady (1975) Directed by Herbert Ross

New York New York (by Scorsese) is one of my favorite movies because it tells the story of a creative couple in the period setting of musicals, big bands and elaborate hair-dos. I got a little excited then, in the first five minutes of watching Funny Lady, realizing that it might be a related film about similar subject matter. Unfortunately, despite being a 1970's film, it turned out to be a rather conservative and cheesy effort. It dealt out some promising strands of plot and lines, then taking things to nowhere interesting.

Barbra Streisand plays a successful musical star and a recording artist in the 1930's New York. She just has bad luck with men, who appear to only be interested in (her) money. Left by one of these gold diggers (Omar Sharif), she forms a working relationship with another (James Caan) and eventually, the relationship becomes more than a working one – it becomes a dysfunctional marriage. I have no clue why though, as there is obviously never infatuation, love, sex or any kind of chemistry between the two. The guy needs the rich lady to further his career. That's all.

The mid-1970s was a time of active feminist voices everywhere. It was a time when Hollywood produced some subversive cinema, even questioning the portrayal of women only as props and property. Erica Jong had a hit with her novel Fear of Flying already in 1973. In this context, Funny Lady is a poor and stuck-up movie offering a rusty vehicle to its superstar Streisand. Seeing her in almost anything else would have been more interesting than this.

Herbert Ross is somehow related to the naming of our blog. He directed Play It Again Sam, the Woody Allen movie that quotes from the Bogart/Bacall picture The Big Sleep where we picked our blog name. Unfortunately, Ross would have a rather unremarkable career post PIAS. Funny Lady shows the director as  a yes-man to the stars, a safe pair of hands to guide the superstar vehicle: in this case, the whims and ego of Barbra Streisand. Streisand really was/is the last actress (save Lisa Minelli?) who could pull off the old-style Hollywood musical.

Funny Lady starts with promise. Although Astrid really didn't pick up on the period detail, it's one of Funny Lady's pluses for me and the movie evokes the 1930's depression era with fervor. There is also a chance that the movie will develop along the lines of Scorsese's amazing old-style musical homage New York, New York and inhabit the landscape of songwriter (James Caan) and muse (Streisand). It's sad to report that Funny Lady shies away from this at every opportunity. Instead it treads musical convention in every way with a series of uninspiring musical numbers that relate neither to plot nor charachter. It becomes very clear that this is all about Streisand and that amazing voice of hers.

Funny Lady is the sequel to Funny Girl (which I recall from my misspent youth) and does tell the real- life story of Fanny Brice (original Ziegfeld Follies girl). The first film has a certain zest, this sequel is a mess. But still, there are moments when Streisand's voice and presence carry the film and you'd hope that some substance would be given to her relationship with Caan (playing songwriter and producer Billy Rose). Caan seems to be reprising his role of Sonny in The Godfather, which considering Funny Lady is a lighthearted musical comedy, suggests he was slightly miscast. Streisand is good here but is let down by poor direction, a patchy script, flat directing and – worst for a musical – unmemorable songs. Lightweight in every sense.