Monday, February 21, 2005

When Stars Die in Threes

It’s an old saw that celebrities die in threes. Sometimes the proverbs actually come true, as evinced over the weekend with the passing of three famous figures from the worlds of stage, screen, and print media.

Sandra Dee was the “Queen of Teenagers”. She was Gidget and Tammy, she was a girl “in trouble” in A SUMMER PLACE (1959) (that scene where the evil mother character made her submit to a virginity exam so disturbed my childhood mind!). I later remember seeing her in the DUNWICH HORROR (1970) trying to play a teenager, looking old and haggard. A local TV station used to run the old Fantasy Island TV series, and I recall her guest appearance, painfully thin and looking so frail and vulnerable standing next to Mr. Roarke. She led a very rough life, and hopefully she found a little bit of piece in the end. You can read her obituary here.

When most people mention John Raitt nowadays, the reference point is “Bonnie Raitt’s dad”. That’s unfortunate because Raitt was an immensely talented stage performer. He originated roles in theater classics “Carousel” and “Pajama Game”, with a raw acting style that anticipated Marlon Brando and James Dean by ten years. Raitt had a handful of movie credits in the early 1940s and turned to TV in his later years. You can read his obituary here.

This is a sad one. Hunter S. Thompson, the passionate articulator of America’s underside, famously portrayed by Johnny Depp in FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998) and immortalized as Uncle Duke in the Doonesbury comic strips, committed suicide over the weekend. You never really know why people make the choice to end their lives in this manner. It is such a shame because we need his voice now more than ever. Reading message boards about his death, I came across a fitting epitaph. I don’t know who said this and where it was originally quoted, but it captures the essence of Thompson perfectly: “Too weird to live, and too rare to die.” You can read his obituary here.

A Trip to Nollywood: Nigerian Videofilm Culture

Recently, my local museum, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, hosted a talk by Nigerian filmmaker Tunde Kelani, as part of a citywide celebration of contemporary African art. The lecture was an incredible change to lean about an emerging cinema culture from one of its leading practitioners.

Nigeria is one of Africa’s most populous and diverse nations, with about 100 million people amongst 250 ethnic groups. Emerging into democracy from a military dictatorship, Nigeria has a remarkably productive film industry. Today, Nigeria cranks out approximately 600 titles annually, making the country one of the world’s top film-producing nations and earning it the nickname “Nollywood”. The medium of choice (and of economic circumstance) is video, and most of its practitioners are unapologetically dedicated to making a quick buck. Olaf Möller in a recent Film Comment article describes the qualities of a typical production: “Absurdly ardent acting, the absence of anything remotely resembling craftsmanship beyond keeping the actors in frame (forget focus), dialogue-drowning soundtrack noise, sub-amateur-porn production values, and above all…ultra-twisted stories…always ending with a moral so heavy you would need a crane to lift it.” Möller later sums up Nigerian videofilm culture as thus: “Here’s the African experience in all its violent contradictions: corrupt cops paying a visit to a witch doctor in a BMW, curses that can turn a woman into a vagina dentate, jolly jesters and born-again Christians, occasionally all-signing, all dancing. It’s sheer invention, born of utter poverty, from people desperate to tell themselves stories, to forge a cinema culture of their own, like the one they know from TV or video—but rooted in their own experience.”

Tunde Kelani, who took two days to travel from Nigeria to Houston to show his films, is an anomaly in the Nollywood culture. Classically trained as a photographer and cinematographer in Great Britain, Kelani is one of the few actual “filmmakers” in the Nigerian videofilm culture. Indeed, he is considered an “auteur” in many circles. A recent recipient of a small retrospective at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, Kelani has made it his life’s mission to document the Nigerian/Yoruba ethnic culture. At the lecture, Kelani showed nine clips of his work. Shot on video and film, Kelani’s work explored the impact of AIDS, depicted the abuses of political power, and dramatized the conflict between traditional values and contemporary society—all with engaging, and sometimes quite humorous, narratives, many adapted from Nigerian literature. The following weekend, the museum’s film department presented his film AGOGO EEWO (2002) a thinly veiled allegory critiquing Nigerian politics.

Kelani is excited by the possibilities offered by new digital technology, and by his current role as a leader in the Nigerian film industry. Reminiscing about when he first decided to become a filmmaker, Kelani said that he believed that his photographs would be more powerful if they moved. He further states, “There’s a tremendous need to see stories about our own culture…like a revolution, someone has to start.”

Olaf Möller’s article “A Homegrown Hybrid Cinema of Outrageous Schlock From Africa’s Most Populous Nation” explores current Nigerian videofilm culture, its history and its practitioners. You can read the article here.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Movie Rentals, Week of 2/15/2005

HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986) This “late-period” Woody Allen film was perfect for a recent rainy Sunday afternoon. Starring Mia Farrow, the film follows the romantic entanglements of Hannah and her two sisters, played by Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey. Michael Caine (who won his first Oscar for this role), Max von Sydow, Allen, and Sam Waterston co-star and the befuddled husbands and lovers. I have a real sense of nostalgia for this and earlier Woody Allen films. I discovered his films as a teenager, and as a kid trapped in a rural northwest Texas town, I longed for the jazz, urban conversations, and even the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that color Allen’s films. Hannah and her Sisters also introduced me to one of my all-time favorite poems, e.e. cummings “somewhere i have never traveled…”

HOME MOVIE (2001) This short documentary comes from Chris Smith, the filmmaker who brought us the hilarious and touching doc AMERICAN MOVIE (1999), a chronicle of one man’s passion for filmmaking. Home Movie takes us on a guided tour of six of the most unusual homes in the country, from a grand tree house in Hawaii, to a converted missile silo, to a charmingly retro “house of the future”. The phrase “home is where the heart is” takes on a quirky new meaning with this piece.

THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD (2003) Isabella Rossellini announces, “ If you’re sad and you like beer, I’m your lady!” in this film from the unique mind of Guy Maddin. Rossellini plays Lady Port-Huntley, an amputee beer magnate in Depression-era Canada. Wanting to drum up business, she sponsors the “Saddest Music in the World Contest” where top musicians from around the world descend upon Winnipeg to duke it out for the title. I really can’t begin to describe the surrealness of this tinted and filtered black & white film that seems to take inspiration from such sources as silent movies, German Expressionist sets, and Hollywood musicals, among others. Maddin blends these diverse sources with bizarre storytelling to create a singular work, not some random pastiche of styles. I was first introduced to Maddin’s films through CAREFUL (1992), featuring an Alpine village whose populace had to whisper due to the threat of an avalanche. I like Careful better than The Saddest Music, but that could be due to the shock-of-the-new I experienced. I would definitely recommend seeing both films if you want to see one of the most interesting directors working in film today.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

When a Film Collapses: "Eucalyptus"

The New York Times > Movies > Peril of Star Power Is Seen in Collapse of a Fox Film

Moviemaking is a rough business. The pitfalls are legion: hijacked creative control, unchecked egos, failed financing, among many others. It's a story as old as Hollywood...

This article discusses the recent collapse of the planned-film Eucalyptus. Intended as an "art house" project to revive the Australian film industry, Eucalyptus is a study in what goes wrong when a superstar (in this case, Russell Crowe) signs on to make a small film

Monday, February 14, 2005

Happy Valentine's Day

Valentine postcard, circa 1920s Posted by Hello

I found this adorable postcard at an antique show last fall. Dating from the 1920s (or perhaps even earlier?), the card likens the new medium of "moving pictures" to fond memories of a loved one. It reads, I've a Moving Picture of You in my heart, with images of a love-struck little boy and girl along with a film projector showing a movie featuring songbirds.

Although the card was never mailed, there is a cryptic letter written on the back:

To Lucille, from Grandma and Aunt Zora.

Dear Lucille,
Grandma is here and we are writing to you and we want you and your mama to make your papa get away from down there or you won't have any papa very long. You just keep after him until you get him started.

If you enjoy "found" items from flea markets, estate sales, thrift stores, and such, please check out my friend Angie's blog Swapatorium.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Some "Raging Bull" Reading

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Martin Scorsese's RAGING BULL, with a two-disk special edition dvd of the film arriving this week. There has been a lot of fanfare surrounding the dvd's release, with special screenings and retrospective articles rightfully touting the greatness of the film. Here, however, are three articles that look beyond the standard subjects of Scorsese and star Robert De Niro:

  • I was quite surprised to discover that Jake La Motta is still alive, and a spry 83 at that. In this article, La Motta reflects on his notoriety after the release of the film in 1980.

  • Vikki La Motta, Jake's teenaged wife portrayed in the film by Cathy Moriarty, passed away last month at the age of 75. Her obituary covers her life beyond her turbulant marriage to La Motta.

  • Johnny Barnes was a young boxer hired to play Sugar Ray Robinson in the film. This poignant article catches up with an aging Barnes, who can't quite escape the shadows of his past.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Movie Rentals, Week of 1/31/2005

FREAKY FRIDAY (1976) This is the original Disney tale of mother/daughter body switching starring a young Jodie Foster and a hilarious Barbara Harris. The story has been told so many times (was this movie the first? I don’t know.), and while it is dated, I think this 1976 flick is the best version. I watched this movie while in bed recovering from a wicked case of food poisoning. The film is perfect for the sick-day blues—it’s comforting retro fun.

I’LL SLEEP WHEN I’M DEAD (2003) This British film stars recent Academy Award nominee Clive Owen as a retired criminal who returns to London to exact vengeance on those responsible for his brother’s brutal demise. The film is an exercise in dark and moody noir aesthetics—although the storyline of male rape is an unexplored topic within the genre. The pacing was a little slow for my tastes, but it is an interesting-enough film—if only to see the ascendant Owen at work. The film contains a stellar supporting cast, including Charlotte Rampling, Malcolm McDowell, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.

THE OFFICE SPECIAL (2003) Continuing with the British theme, this is the two-part series finale of the brilliant BBC comedy set in a bleak paper company. How will David Brent cope without his job? What happens to Tim and Dawn? How is Gareth adjusting to the role of boss? All of these questions are explored with the show’s trademark cringe-inducing and often poignant humor. A lot of times, wrap-up shows like this feel a bit forced and slapped together. Thankfully, this finale is pitch-perfect and a fitting end to one to the greatest comedy series ever made.

Friday, February 04, 2005

R.I.P. Ossie Davis

The New York Times > AP > Arts > Ossie Davis, Actor, Is Dead at 87

What a loss....

At his memorial service, Maya Angelou said that when Ossie Davis died, "the heaviest door in the universe slammed shut, and there are no knobs." On Davis' commitment to civil rights, Harry Belafonte eulogized, "the performing arts became his rebellion to tyranny." Davis was one of those rare individuals who perfectly melded his art with a strong social conscience. To read about his extraordinary life, please click on the above link.