Saturday, October 30, 2004

Recent Rentals: Documentaries

I love a good documentary, and many of my recent rentals have been within this genre. Here is what I watched:

SICK: THE LIFE & DEATH OF BOB FLANAGAN, SUPERMASOCHIST (1997): This doc follows the late performance artist Bob Flanagan through the last year of his life. Flanagan, who was in his forties when the film was made, had the distinction of being one of the oldest survivors of cystic fibrosis, a genetic lung disease that normally fells those afflicted in their youth. Experiencing a life of pain and sickness out of his control, Flanagan believed that by inflicting pain upon himself, he was regaining a small bit of control over his body. The film is a poignant, yet celebratory look at a person who defied the odds and turned his life into art. I highly recommend this film, but be warned: it is not for the squeamish. The film is very graphic it its depiction of Flanagan’s masochism. I physically gagged at one point.

HOW TO DRAW A BUNNY (2002): This is another artist doc, this time focusing on Ray Johnson, a somewhat obscure yet highly influential artist at the forefront of mid-century modern American art. Iconoclast Johnson, whose peers included James Rosenquist, John Cage and Andy Warhol, worked with collage and pioneered the concept of “mail art”. Johnson lived and breathed art, and even his final act—his suicide—was as carefully constructed as one of his collages. The DVD also contains a full “gallery” of the artist’s work. I knew very little about Johnson, so this was welcome viewing. A very interesting film.

VAUDEVILLE (1997): This doc from the PBS “American Masters” series explores the history of American vaudeville. The film is fairly straight-forward, with interviews and rare film clips that trace the popular entertainment’s roots up to its ultimate demise with the rise of the film medium. The fun part for me was seeing interviews with some of the few remaining vaudevillians, including June Havoc (whose life as “Baby/Dainty June” was a central element in the musical GYSPSY) and Rose Marie, who most know as “Sally” from the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, but was also a big child star on the vaudeville circuit. Who knew?

SUPER SIZE ME (2004): This highly popular doc follows filmmaker Morgan Spurlock as he eats only McDonald’s fast food for a month and charts the damage done to his body. It is a disturbing, yet funny, indictment of the fast food industry on Americans’ health. The DVD has a couple of great extras; one being an interview with Eric Schlosser (author of FAST FOOD NATION) which explores the effects of the fast food industry on the global society, filling in some areas that fell outside the main focus of the documentary. And after watching “The Smoking Fry”, you will never want to eat another fast-food French fry ever again!

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat: Some Notes on Carmen Miranda

I think a lot of “Gen-X” people like myself became acquainted with the image of 1940s film star Carmen Miranda through cartoons. Any time Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck knocked over a food cart or crashed into a waiter, they would stand up, dazed, with a stack of fruit on their heads. Then—for a few seconds—they would break into a samba dance and a “boom-chick-a-boom” song before continuing the slapstick mayhem.

Carmen Miranda’s look and sound were indeed distinctive: towering fruit-decorated headdresses and platform shoes in service of the music of her beloved Brazil. There was, of course, much more to Miranda than the image she created and Hollywood propagated. Recently, I watched a compelling documentary on Miranda by filmmaker Helena Solberg called BANANAS IS MY BUSINESS (1994). Using photos, archival footage, interviews, and fanciful re-enactments, Solberg (Brazilian herself) created both a poignant portrait of Miranda and personal memoir exploring the central question—why was Carmen Miranda’s image so compelling?

Surprisingly, Miranda was not actually Brazilian but Portuguese, born there in 1909. Her family moved to Brazil when she was just a child, becoming part of a thriving immigrant community. Miranda left school at fifteen to work in—coincidentally enough—a hat shop designing headwear for Brazil’s upper-class women. She would sing while she worked, and this would lead to her eventual “discovery” and record contract. By age twenty-one, she would have a hit record and would maintain stardom in Brazil throughout the 1930s. In 1939, for a performance in a Rio de Janeiro nightclub, Carmen concocted a flamboyant costume based on the women of Bahia: blousy, off-the-shoulder tops, long skirts, and turban-wrapped head. It was a look she would refine and maintain for the rest of her career. Both her outfit and the songs she sang were steeped in Bahia’s African roots.

It was this nightclub act that caught the eye of Broadway impresario Lee Schubert. She was immediately cast in the musical STREETS OF PARIS and sent to New York City. Miranda was a huge hit, packing in audiences every night and influencing the New York fashion scene. Hollywood took notice, of course, and she was cast in the musical DOWN ARGENTINE WAY (1940), making a splash across America.

After a heady eighteen months in the U.S., Carmen returned on Brazil to what was initially a hero’s welcome. She had conquered America, but as with many public figures, those that built them up began to tear them down. Things quickly took a nasty turn: elite society audiences (attuned to the fact that one of the “immigrant class” was representing Brazil abroad) were cold at her public performances, critics lambasted her as “Americanized”, the newspapers editorialized that she did not deserve her accolades. The general public feeling was that she was no longer, “our Carmen Miranda.” This would deeply hurt and embitter Miranda for the rest of her life. Although she would always proudly assert her Brazilian identity, Miranda soon left for Hollywood and would not return to Brazil until fourteen years later.

Miranda quickly signed a contract with 20th Century Fox and began appearing in a sting of successful Hollywood musicals, each Technicolor extravaganzas with flamboyant costumes and musical numbers. This was, by most accounts, a happy time in Miranda’s life. She bought a home and brought her family to live with her. She was also a fixture on the Hollywood social scene and a generous host to visiting Brazilian dignitaries.

It is here that Carmen’s life—and the documentary film—takes an intriguing turn. Her fame came at the height of World War II. As European markets were being closed by war, the Roosevelt administration crafted the “Good Neighbor Policy”, designed to open Latin American resources to American markets. Hollywood, long in service of the war effort, created an image of Latin American in film and cast Miranda as the “Ultimate Good Neighbor”. As one commentator in the documentary diplomatically states, “a lot of mistakes were made.” Latin Americans did not like the way they were portrayed on screen, some later questioned the effect Miranda’s character had on existing stereotypes of Latinas. She was once again an object of derision in her home country. Miranda, herself, was in a precarious situation: she was under an iron-clad contract and had to please the studio and her American fan base. This was not the first time she was used for political gain. Before her first send-off to Broadway, the Brazilian president personally pressed her into the role of “ambassador” of Brazilian culture. While Miranda embraced that role at the time, it ultimately backfired on her, as noted above. Commenting on Miranda’s “Good Neighbor” image, one Brazilian critic lamented, “Our greatest star has been occupied by a foreign country.”

Miranda became increasingly restless after the war. She was starting to tire of her act. The studio, however, had strict control of her image, and as she was still a money-maker for them, would not let her try other things. After a long struggle, she bough out her studio contract and struck out on her own. Around this time, she entered into a marriage with a man who was physically and emotionally abusive. While she was still popular in nightclubs and on the new medium of television, Miranda was ill and depressed and increasingly turned to pills to keep herself going. A full nervous breakdown followed. Miranda eventually rallied, and she continued a vigorous work schedule. While on the Jimmy Durante television show, Miranda briefly collapsed on camera. Always a trooper, she picked herself up and fined the show. She died later that night from a heart ailment—she was forty six years old. Her body was taken back to her beloved Brazil and thousands thronged the streets to get a view of her flag-draped coffin. Turned away from Brazil in life, she was welcomed with open arms in death.

Filmmaker Helena Solberg narrates, “She could never meet all the different expectations people had of her. [Miranda] had an incandescent talent and her talent was used by many to further many different ends.” Comprising complex underpinnings of race, class, and politics, Carmen Miranda’s public image overtook the fun character she initially created, ultimately trapping the woman inside it. Solberg’s film, Bananas Is My Business, celebrates Miranda and her talents, and begins to uncover the woman from beneath the iconic image.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The Sad Remains of Veronica Lake

In his highly popular HOLLYWOOD BABYLON books, Kenneth Anger documents the dark, murky bywaters of celebrity. This recent CNN article on actress Veronica Lake would be right at home in Anger's world.

Lake was a 1940s screen siren, with an iconic look that was famously copied by Kim Basinger's character in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997). Lake eventually faded into a life of alcohol-soaked obscurity, and--according to the article linked above--continues to suffer the indignity of neglect even in death.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Recent Movie Rentals

With the start of the fall TV season and the general busyness of my life recently, I haven’t rented as many films and have thus gotten off track with my “Weekly Rentals” blog entry. To make up for some lost time, here is a rundown of the movies I have rented over the past few weeks:

ANGELS IN AMERICA (2003): This six-hour miniseries from HBO recently swept the Emmy awards---justifiably so. Featuring a crème de la crème cast, this drama based on Tony Kushner’s play follows three interconnected stories set in Regan-era America at the outset of the AIDS epidemic. The screenplay is also by Kushner, and I found myself awed at the electric, high-caliber dialogue. While the “marquee” names Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson definitely shine, the performances of actors Justin Kirk, Ben Shenkman, Jeffrey Wright and Mary Louise Parker carry the film. Angels in America does require a major time commitment—2 discs, each 3 hours in length—but it is well worth it.

SWINGERS (1996): I needed a lighthearted antidote after Angels in America, and this comedy featuring John Favreau and Vince Vaughn hit the spot. Swingers follows a group of hipster guys as they struggle with life and love in modern day Los Angeles. Favreau and Vaughn are so “money” in a film that sparkles with witty dialogue and hilarious moments while showing a lot of heart. This is one of those films that I just never got around to seeing when it came out—and I can’t believe that I’ve waited so long to do so!

THE STATION AGENT (2003): This independent film features Peter Dinklage as a dwarf named Fin who moves into an inherited train station in rural New Jersey. The film quietly follows Fin as he forms an uneasy friendship with a gregarious Bobby Cannavale and an emotionally damaged Patricia Clarkson, and attempts to make his place among the townsfolk. I have not seen Dinklage in other roles (although his Internet Movie Database profile shows he has several films in the works and a solid resume of stage roles), but his brooding, introspective performance here points toward a long and stereotype-shattering career.

THE LADYKILLERS (2004): I was very disappointed I this film. I recently viewed the original British version and loved it, and since this re-make is in the hands’ of the Coen Brothers, I had reasons to be optimistic. The 2004 version transfers the action to the rural South and employs Tom Hanks in the role of the dandified leader of a bumbling gang of crooks. It just doesn’t work. The biggest flaw for me was turning the Louisa/Marva character from a sweet innocent to a sassy force of nature. The Coen Brothers are usually so reliable, but this was definitely a misfire.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Forgotten Star: Jackie Coogan


Jackie Coogan (1914-1984) Posted by Hello

Perhaps it is a bit of a misnomer to call Jackie Coogan a “forgotten star”, for he will forever be remembered as the kooky Uncle Fester in THE ADDAMS FAMILY television show. That role, however, came at the end of a long career. What may be forgotten about Coogan is that he was one of the first—and definitely most famous—child stars at the birth of American cinema.

Coogan was born in to 1914 to a family of vaudevillians. While performing on stage at the age of five, Coogan was spotted by actor Charlie Chaplin and quickly cast in his first role, A DAY’S PLEASURE (1919). Chaplin was so taken with Coogan that he planned the film THE KID (1921) especially for him. Success soon followed and by 1923, Coogan—age nine—was one of the highest paid stars in Hollywood and, as some sources state, the youngest self-made millionaire in history at that time.

Coogan’s career trajectory, however, was one that is now familiar to those who follow the lives of latter day child stars. As he hit puberty, roles began drying up. In 1935, his father and best friend were killed in a car accident, with his mother marrying his business manager soon afterwards. Now in his twenties, Coogan asked his mother and stepfather for access to the millions he made as a child star—they refused. Coogan sued his family, but at that time, there was no law to protect him. He received a paltry $126,000 settlement. The publicity surrounding the case, however, caused a public outcry, and the California Legislature swiftly passed “The Child Actors Bill”—known as the “Coogan Act”—that required trust funds to be set up for any child actor in order to protect their earnings.

Between the late 1930s through the early 1960s, Coogan drifted about. He served honorably in World War II, enjoyed a brief marriage to pin up icon Betty Grable, and appeared sporadically in a string of B-pictures and television shows. By the 1960s, Coogan was in his fifties and nearly broke. In 1964, Coogan was cast as the zany Uncle Fester in THE ADDAMS FAMILY, which enjoyed a popular run from 1964 to 1966 and thereafter became enshrined as a classic of American television. Perhaps it was the universe’s way of paying him back for all the turmoil of his youth—Coogan never wanted for money or work ever again. He passed away in 1984 at age 70 of a heart attack.

Friday, October 01, 2004

The Films of Director Wong Kar-wai

The New York Times > Magazine > The Director's Director

It is Friday, and with the craziness of the week, I am only now doing my first post of the week. My apologies....

This is an in-depth New York Times Magazine article on the great director Wong Kar-Wai. I have seen three of his films--CHUNGKING EXPRESS (1994), IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000), and my sentimental favorite, FALLEN ANGELS (1995). All three boast beautiful, haunting imagery supporting moody tales of love and alienation--I highly recommend them. I know very little about the director, so I was very pleased to come across this article.