Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Rami Malek channels Freddie Mercury's hurt in "Bohemian Rahpsody" (2018)

More than most bio-pics, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is carried by the performance of its lead actor, because Malek offers more than a skillful impersonation—he offers an imaginative interpretation. Malek does an impressive job of re-creating Mercury’s moves onstage, but the core of the performance is Malek’s intensely thoughtful, insight-rich channelling of Mercury’s hurt, his alienation and isolation even at the height of his fame. While watching the movie, I found his performance eerily reminiscent, as if based less on Freddie Mercury himself than on some other movie actor’s performance. Then it struck me: Malek wasn’t just channelling hurt; he was channelling Hurt—Malek’s quiet and nearly abashed delivery of lines, in a way that emphasizes both Freddie’s extra teeth and the emotional effect of being singled out for them, reminded me of John Hurt’s performance as John Merrick, in David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man.” “Bohemian Rhapsody” makes the case that Mercury is more interesting than his music—and, by extension, that popularity itself, the ability to become a mainstream star and hitmaker, is itself no fluke or by-product but a conscious creation and a mark of genius. Source:

Rami Malek gets asked whether Freddie Mercury as a ‘Gay Icon’:  The team behind “Bohemian Rhapsody” have already been accused of “straightwashing” Freddie Mercury; now, Rami Malek has made headlines because of his response to a question about the singer’s sexuality. Malek, 37, was asked by Into magazine whether he saw the Queen frontman as a “gay icon,” and his answer left fans rather confused. The actor shared, “What’s really great about him is he never wanted to, or thought of himself as being boxed into anything. He just was. I’ve heard him say, when asked, he says, ‘I’m just me.’ If he’s an icon to one there’s no reason that it requires another adjective.” Mercury spent most of his life battling the public, the press and even some in his personal life about how he chose to identify himself. Many labeled him as gay, and very few chose to validate his inherent bisexuality. So is Mercury’s bisexuality erased in that scene with Mary Austin? No, it is made to be real. Source:

With her apricot hair, green eyes, and Bambi lashes, Mary Austin — who he once called the love of his life and who inspired Queen's song "Love of My Life"— was the embodiment of a Hulanicki Biba poster. When the fashion designer founded the Kensington emporium from which a flourishing fashion movement arose, Barbara Hulanicki might have chosen Mary as her muse. Petite and fine-boned, what Mary lacked in terms of stature and confidence she more than compensated for with almost textbook seventies style. “Freddie was already living with Mary when I met him, so I got to know and love them both equally,” Mick Rock says. “I was always popping round to their little flat to hang out with them at teatime. At the height of the glam rock scene, Mary was a really cute-looking lady who could have had anyone, done anything. But she never saw herself as anything special. She never wanted to put herself forward in any way. She was self-effacing, sweet, and charming. You just wanted to give her a cuddle.”

Pale, coy, and peering through shiny tresses, she had the demeanor of an earlier namesake, Mary Hopkin—the fresh-faced prodigy of Paul McCartney who’d had a hit with “Those Were the Days.” What would later be dubbed “the Stevie Nicks look” after the Fleetwood Mac singer was already common on Kensington High Street: midi dresses, maxi coats, suede platform boots, chiffon scarves, velvet chain chokers, purple lips, and smoky eyes. “She’d had a tough background,” remembers trusted journalist David Wigg. “Her parents, who were deaf and dumb, and who communicated through sign language and lip-reading, were poor. Her father worked as a hand trimmer for wallpaper specialists, and her mother was a domestic. But that wouldn’t have bothered Freddie. He somehow preferred people a little below his own level. He did like people in his life who were artistic, or who had come from nothing. Artistic and amusing were the key: he loved to laugh. Mary was shy, but she could make him giggle.” Mary also knew that Freddie had suffered, since childhood, something to which he rarely admitted: a persecution complex. That is, he worried that people were making fun of him behind his back, and that he was indeed ridiculous. It was to remain one of his fiercest inner demons until his death.

Despite her shy demeanor, Mary found herself caught up in London’s rock scene. Having pestered Brian May for an introduction, Freddie landed the girl of his dreams. The attraction between them was immediate, mutual, and would last a lifetime. The pair became inseparable and almost immediately began a sexual relationship. Their relationship would take precedence over every affair, with man or woman, in which Freddie would later indulge. Over the years, Mary became Freddie’s rock. He would rely on her to be strong for him. Whenever Freddie felt his sex/drugs/rock ’n’ roll lifestyle spiraling out of control and was unable to cope with the pressures of recording and touring, it was to Mary that he turned. They soon began living together, in a cramped, shabby £10-a-week bedsit in Victoria Road, just off Kensington High Street—the London neighborhood to which Freddie would always return. Today, the street is officially the most expensive for property in England and Wales, the average residence having an estimated sales value of £6.4 million. “I liked him and it went from there,” Mary would recall. “It took about three years for me to really fall in love. I’ve never felt that way before or since, with anyone. . .  I loved Freddie very much, and very deeply. I felt very safe with him.” 

Mick Rock remembers Freddie being “beside himself” over his issues with sexuality. “He was not exclusively gay, and that screwed him. He was torn. It was almost as if he had to know whether he was one thing or the other for sure, but he was caught in this middle ground, in a kind of no-man’s land. He loved women. He enjoyed their company immensely. Later in life he may have been more promiscuous with men, but he loved to get with the girls. Mary, of course, was the love of his life . . . the closest emotional bond he had ever known. Perhaps that had more to do with the woman in question than sexual preference. There was a real true love there between him and Mary. The sexual thing wasn’t nearly so important as their emotional and spiritual bond.” In 1976, Freddie decamped to an apartment at 12 Stafford Terrace in London’s Kensington and bought Mary a place of her own.

She would remain his devoted assistant at his side almost daily until his death fifteen years later. In a 1985 interview, Freddie Mercury said of Mary Austin, "All my lovers asked me why they couldn't replace Mary Austin, but it's simply impossible. The only friend I've got is Mary, and I don't want anybody else. To me, she was my common-law wife. To me, it was a marriage. We believe in each other, that's enough for me." In his will, Mercury left the vast majority of his wealth, including his home and recording royalties, to Mary Austin and the remainder to his parents and sister. —"Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography" (2011) by Lesley-Ann Jones

Sunday, November 04, 2018

"Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc" (Review)

Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc (2018), directed by Matthew David Wilder (Your Name Here, Dog Eat Dog), is the latest of a long list of film adaptations of Joan of Arc’s legendary story. The real Jeanne d’Arc (1412-1431) was a French martyr and canonized Catholic saint. A descendant from a peasant family at Domrémy, Joan of Arc had a prominent key role in the liberation of France that had fallen under English dominion during the Hundred Years’ War. In 1415, King Henry V had taken advantage of the internal divisions and many French nobles were conspiring with the English crown against the Armagnac faction. In 1430, Joan was captured by the traitorous Burgundian faction and she was handed to the pro-English Bishop Pierre Cauchon, who declared her guilty of heresy and other charges in a rigged trial. 

Joan of Arc (nicknamed 'The Maid of Orléans') was burned at the stake in 1431. The trial transcripts were used as evidence for her canonization in 1920, previously having become a symbol of French nationalism impulsed by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803.

In a recent interview with Alain Hertay, Wilder acknowledged his inspiration from Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) and Jacques Rivette’s Joan the Maiden (1994). Undoubtedly Wilder is following the tempo structure of the trial and interrogations and use of the semi-static camera that gave Bresson’s film a theatrical yet realist tone. In Tony Pipolo’s book Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film (2010) we learn that influential critic Susan Sontag judged Bresson’s film a failure because his “experiment” had reached the “limit of the unexpressive,”  his aesthetic “moving in the direction of documentary.” 

In contrast with the poetic silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Pipolo posits that in Bresson’s version all conflict stems from the language used by Joan and her judges during the trial: “the very rhythm of questions and answers creates tension and suggests the persistent danger of Joan’s falling into the traps laid by her interrogators. Florence Delay’s performance seems perfect, an unsentimental embodiment of a singular historical figure. Joan embodies the human figure not just as a noble creation, but as the projection of the filmmaker’s elusive idealized self.” Delay adds a naturalism to the sacred figure of Joan that rivals Maria Falconetti’s poeticism, Sandrine Bonnaire’s belligerence, Ingrid Bergman’s radiance in Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc (1948), Jean Seberg’s vulnerability in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957) – an adaptation by Graham Greene of George Bernard Shaw’s play – and Milla Jovovich’s lunacy in Luc Besson’s Joan of Arc (1999).

Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc updates the events into a dystopian USA where alt-right activists are rampant. These religious zealots have developed a gullible fanbase whose gatherings are celebrated around their mysterious saviour Joan, who has been detained and charged for acts of domestic terrorism. Nicole LaLiberté is certainly a revelation as Joan of Enid, Oklahoma – she is also known as Joan of Arc, Joan Doe, or Joan of Waco, aliases that strengthen the notion of her mythical dimension and, at the same time, typify her as a more local personality who belongs to the modern and traumatic history of the USA.

Her supporters want to reinforce the more traditionalist principles of Christianism. Seemingly devoid of intellectual curiosity or scientific rationality, they aim for a white, rural, intolerant, and inescapable fate. As Wilder points out, Joan is very much one of the so-called Trump “deplorables,” despite her name’s origins: Enid may well mean Eneit, “spirit, life” in Middle Welsh dialect.
We witness a military trial set in a Guantanamo Bay-like prison, where Joan is spied upon and tormented on a daily basis by Major Calhoun (Christopher Matthew Cook), a stand-in for Richard Beauchamp, 13th Earl of Warwick, the English commander responsible for prosecuting the real Joan of Arc. In fact, it was Beauchamp who after Joan’s execution ordered her ashes thrown into the Seine.
Indelible scenes highlight the loneliness, mystical fervor, and possible mental illness of our post-modern Joan. Oddly, both Wilder and LaLiberté manage to elicit sympathy and understanding toward this self-obsessed martyr figure, who evokes a defiant melancholy and other-worldly magnetism.
Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc is a tortuous portrait of a self-appointed saviour of so-called Christian values. Through her very powerful performance LaLiberté makes you believe Joan is pure, incorruptible, even magical. Wilder has successfully avoided the postmodern cliché of coloring historical fiction with the brush of learned cynicism, which only would have disfigured Joan of Arc’s memory. Despite her terrible flaws, Joan of Oklahoma is fundamentally devoted to her creed and mission of spiritual salvation. There is a subtext of mordant irony too. The real Joan of Arc was a descendant of French peasants who opposed the English occupation despite being surrounded by England’s Burgundian sympathizers. In this case, it’s Joan from Oklahoma fighting ferociously for reestablishing the fabled English Puritanism in the land of the free.

There’s also a lot of humor in the dialogue: “Do you see the angel…when you look at the President?” Joan is asked. A prison official snickers: “You know Calhoun tried to get a gig on Fox off this? They said he wasn’t a true believer enough.” Amidst the serious and austere mise-en-scène, a subtext of irony pervades, sometimes in the form of an over-conscientious Human Rights Watch agent or a self-righteous Breitbart reporter: “You can play along with these Elites. Truth is gonna get out there.”
Although the tone is sometimes claustrophobic during the court proceedings and the waterboarding room scene. Other times it turns comically absurdist, as in the cat-and-mouse game where Joan’s prosecutors show their different degrees of manipulation and political opportunism, represented (among others) by the two-faced NSA director (Erin Aubry Kaplan).
Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc really works out to be a metaphor for the current radicalization of Republican Christians in the USA, especially their hardcore faction and those advocating the use of violence to restore their alleged supremacy. It’s a brilliant allusion that Joan’s people, who lament the new “decadent urban sensibility” taking over their country, have become the embodiment of human decadence. As one of the court interrogators asks Joan: “If the Devil came and took the form of an angel, how would you know the difference?” Joan evades the question and later reveals ominously: “Truth makes a traitor in a time of scoundrels.”
Personally, this is one of my favorite interpretations of Joan of Arc's storytelling, and its inspiration confirms Matthew Wilder as a necessary auteur and visionary. The final post-credit visual coda is magnificent, giving you a chilling effect by adding a futurist premonition that will provoke complex thoughts about our exasperating present and unpromising future. These dark, menacing, complex, compassionate thoughts will certainly persist through time.
Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc premieres on Thanksgiving at IFFI, the International Film Festival of India (20-28 November 2018).
Article published previously as Movie Review: ‘Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc’ on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

A Star is Born vs Vox Lux

The enduring appeal of A Star is Born is apparent in Cooper's rendition. Two lovers connect for a brief moment in time, inspiring one another to creative and emotional heights, only to burn up in a cloud of inescapable self-destruction. Jackson Maine woos Ally with his philosophy that success comes from "having something to say in a way that people want to hear it." She's helpless to resist his Southern drawl and aching vulnerability. Most of Ally's ascension is observed at a distance through Maine's drunken haze. One particularly painful scene finds Maine watching from offstage as Ally performs on SNL. Flanked by gyrating back-up dancers, Ally wags her finger at a pretty boy sitting on the stage, chastising him, "Why'd you come around me with an ass like that?" All Maine can do is take a swig from his beer bottle and die a little bit inside. If he wasn't depressed before this debacle, he certainly is after watching Ally debase herself on national television.

This is, perhaps, the most compelling (and untapped) theme swirling around A Star Is Born; one must smother their artistic integrity in order to become a pop star. The genuine girl slugging her way through life – the girl Maine fell in love with at the cabaret – is long dead by the midpoint of the film. All that's left is a fashion model, meticulously crafted to maximize the bottom line. Indeed, re-visiting each version of A Star Is Born and tracking what constitutes stardom in that particular era is more fascinating than the films themselves. If 1954's version was a celebration of Hollywood glamour and the 1976 update was a celebration of sleazy excess, this modern edition is a celebration of selling out. Ally can't wait to succumb to the trappings of stardom. She manages only a tepid refusal when her image-obsessed manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) enrolls her in dance classes and encourages her to abandon heartfelt songwriting. "I don't want to lose the part of me that's… you know… talented," Ally insists, only to completely abandon all substance in favor of style.

Unlike the 1954 and 1976 versions of A Star Is Born, Ally seems perfectly willing to not stand by her man. Visiting Maine during his hospitalization for substance abuse, Ally casually drops the suggestion that he might not want to come home again. In this moment, the audience (as well as a clearly shaken Maine) realizes that Ally has become the embodiment of all that she once despised. Had Cooper focused on this surprising trajectory for Ally, A Star Is Born might have found some much needed energy in its final act. Lady Gaga undoubtedly soars during her vocal performances, displaying a startling range, particularly in the film's pop chart single "Shallow", but she isn't asked to do much heavy lifting in the acting department. 

Bradley Cooper is more problematic, particularly when compared to the previous incarnations of his character. James Mason's 'Norman Maine' from the 1954 version is a raw nerve; a snarky buffoon who transforms into a 'mean drunk' at the slightest provocation. Even edgier is Kris Kristofferson's portrayal of 'John Norman Howard' in the 1976 revival. Compared to these burnouts, Cooper's version of Maine looks like a misunderstood angel. He gets drunk and passes out after the show. Sometimes he'll smash some pharmaceuticals into dust with his cowboy boot and then snort them. Otherwise, we aren't troubled with the ugliness of addiction. Maine's decline is precipitous and contrived, culminating with his nadir at the Grammy Awards. His edge is further dulled by an unnecessary backstory involving his stage manager/brother (Sam Elliott) and the ghost of their alcoholic father; all designed to make an implausible ending seem slightly more plausible. Source:

Cooper delivers one of his most emotionally rich performances yet as Jackson Maine, a character who could have easily come off as creepy and self-entitled but is charismatic and sympathetic in Cooper's hands - making it all the easier to believe that people would flock to him, despite his self-destructive behavior. Cooper the director offers a window into how unnaturally charismatic even the sloppiest rock stars are, and why the people who know them best usually seem to take a kinder hand. Ally helps Jackson’s embattled brother/roadie Bobby (Sam Elliott) drag him into bed after he drinks himself unconscious, and they share a knowing exchange about the magnetism of his talents, even as both remain aware that he’s burning every candle at every end. A Star is Born is refreshingly unsentimental about what a come-up in the entertainment industry looks like, and the film carries itself knowingly when it comes to lingering over the things people force themselves to do, just for the sake of maintaining comfortable illusions. Curiously, A Star is Born feels like a tighter version of what La La Land was trying to do, a melancholic musical about how the realization of superstar dreams usually comes at a great personal cost. Source:

A Star is Born never complicates the idea that the further from Jackson’s influence Ally gets, the worse her music becomes. What makes a star isn’t just talent, Jackson argues. You have to have “something to say.” And as an anguished Jack reiterates to Ally in front of an airbrushed billboard of herself, it has to come from deep down in her “fucking soul.” In music criticism, the turn of the 21st century was marked by the struggle between rockism, which Kelefa Sanneh defined in the New York Times as “idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; and 'poptimism,' which Saul Austerlitz fretted in the Times a decade later, had replaced the exacting standards of rock with the glib worship of artifice. A Star Is Born treats Jackson’s suicide as both a noble act of self-sacrifice and the ultimate validation of his tortured lyrics.

The first time he sings to Ally, he’s foreshadowing his own death alongside the “old ways” he represents, framing the world as “one big old Catherine wheel” of endless torment. In the bluesy duet “Diggin’ My Grave,” he looks forward to a time when “I’ll be gone from here/ and you’ll all be dressed in black,” and in “Too Far Gone,” he proclaims, “I can’t go on if I ain’t livin’ in your arms.” One hopes “I’ll Never Love Again” isn’t true for Ally, as moving as the rendition she sings at Jackson’s postmortem tribute is, but it’s certainly true for him. It doesn’t take much to imagine Jackson Maine’s death casting an ineradicable shadow over his work, the way it has for Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse. Perhaps Jackson was always doomed, and the best Ally could ever have hoped for was to slow his descent. But it’s telling that his final act effectively sets her back on course. After Jackson dies, Ally appears at a concert in his honor. Having dropped her surname to go pop, she takes his on for the first time, introducing herself, “I’m Ally Maine.” She’s a star, but the song is his. Source:

Brady Corbet's latest film Vox Lux, which had its North American premiere at TIFF 2018 and boasts original music by Sia, is almost definitely going to be overshadowed by Bradley Cooper's A Star Is Born, even though the two have almost nothing in common. While the crowd-pleasing A Star Is Born is about a pop star who deals with fame and addiction, Vox Lux has a pop star, and fame, and addiction, but focuses instead on political and philosophical questions about what we're doing to ourselves as a culture. Vox Lux was a true surprise – an almost antidote to A Star Is Born. Just as Corbet really goes for it as a director, showing zero fear of haters, Portman gives a big, loud, unrelenting performance as the adult Celeste that's bold in all the right ways, while teetering on a bit too much. She captures the confidence of a woman who takes for granted that she's always the most talented, interesting, powerful person in the room, but isn't unusually smart or empathetic. During one of her very best scenes, Portman's Celeste answers questions from reporters about why international terrorists have started wearing masks from one of her videos, and we can tell that she both believes and doesn't believe what she's saying; that she's impatient with the questions, but feels a professional responsibility to be polite; that she's trying to hit the talking points her managers gave her, but she really doesn't care and wants the whole thing to be over. Source:

Vox Lux (2018) is a roiling satire of post-traumatic popsploitation, where perhaps the cruellest joke of all here is that Celeste (Natalie Portman) is a somewhat unremarkable performer, reliant as much on pyrotechnics and costume changes to dazzle her fans as she is raw musical talent. Under the questionable guidance of a gruffly jaded manager (Jude Law), she’s dragged all too roughly down the path to stardom, and sent on a recording trip to Stockholm that rapidly hastens her loss of innocence. Portman’s outrageously over-the-top turn may still come as a shock. Channeling the performative theatricality of Lady Gaga and the imposing feistiness of Madonna, she’s gratingly cartoonish in her early scenes, delivering not so much a character as a physical manifestation of the corrosive effects of superstardom. But gradually, a more troubling vulnerability comes to the fore. Corbet's film steers away from glamorising the notion of suffering for one’s art, ensuring that his sharp social satire remains on firm moral ground. Source:

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Levittown, "A Star is Born" progression

The surging size and increased emphasis on style and luxury in American cars were just one sign of the new abundance of the era. After World War Two most Americans had a vision of a better life just ahead. At the core of it was owning one’s own house—and as Henry Ford’s invention and a rapidly improving network of roads and highways opened up the vast spaces of farmland surrounding American cities, the vision started to become a reality: Suburbia. Indeed, people knew even what they wanted to pay for their first house: $5,000, which was then roughly equal to an average family’s wages for two years. Right after the war, auto workers made about $60 a week, or $3,000 a year, while workers in other parts of the manufacturing sector made about $2,400. If the first great business figure of the American Century was Henry Ford, the second, arguably, was William J. Levitt.

It was Bill Levitt who first brought Ford’s techniques of mass production to housing, up to then the most neglected of American industries. Until he arrived on the scene, builders were small-time operators, employing multiple subcontractors (“graduate carpenters and bricklayers”). The typical prewar builder put up fewer than five houses a year (few put up more than two a year since the Depression). Levitt revolutionized the process of home building with remarkable planning and brilliant control procedures. These techniques made it possible to provide inexpensive, attractive single-unit housing for ordinary citizens, people who had never thought of themselves as middle-class before. As much as anyone, William Levitt made the American dream possible. As Paul Goldberger of The New York Times noted years later, “Levittown houses were social creations more than architectural ones—they turned the single detached single-family house from a distant dream to a real possibility for thousands of middle-class American families.” It was, Levitt liked to boast, capitalism in the most personal sense. “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do,” he once said. No industry had suffered more than housing during the Depression and World War Two; housing starts fell from 1 million a year to fewer than 100,000. But during the same period the marriage rate and, not surprisingly, the birthrate increased sharply, the latter reaching 22 per 1,000 in 1943—the highest it had been in two decades. Estimates placed the number of new houses needed immediately at over 5 million. In 1944 there had been only 114,000 new single houses started; by 1946 that figure had jumped to 937,000: to 1,118,000 in 1948; and 1.7 million in 1950. Levittown was an astonishing success from the very beginning.

The first Levitt house could not have been simpler. It had four and a half rooms and was designed with a young family in mind. The lots were 60 by 100 feet, and Bill Levitt was proud of the fact that the house took up only 12 percent of the lot. The living room was 12 by 16 feet. There were two bedrooms and one bathroom. A family could expand the house by converting the attic or adding on to the outside. The house was soon redesigned with the kitchen in the back so that the mothers could watch their children in the yard. In his book Crabgrass Frontier, Kenneth Jackson noted that in their simplicity, durability, and value, the early Levitt houses were not unlike the Model T. The basic Levitt Cape Cod sold for $7,990; an expanded ranch-style house sold for $9,500. In the beginning the Levitts threw in a free television set and a Bendix washing machine as incentives. By July 1948 they were building 180 houses a week, finishing thirty-six houses a day. The homebuyers themselves seemed quite pleased with Levitt homes, which over the years proved unusually sturdy. Yet the very nature of what Levitt was doing and the scope of his success made him a target for those who disliked and even feared the new mass culture of postwar society.

The most relentless critic of the new suburb was Lewis Mumford, one of the most distinguished architectural and social commentators of his time. Mumford did not stop with one or two articles. His attacks were persistent and more than a little cruel. It was as if Levitt and his subdivision came to symbolize all that Mumford hated about the homogenization (and democratization) of American culture then being wrought by the combination of increasing affluence and mass-production technology. In 1961, some ten years after the completion of the first Levittown, Mumford described it as “a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances on uniform roads, in a treeless command waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same incomes, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold manufactured in the same central metropolis. Thus the ultimate effect of the suburban escape in our time is, ironically, a low-grade uniform environment from which escape is impossible.” Other critics agreed. The original version of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, noted writer Ron Rosenbaum, was “about the horror of being in the ’burbs. About neighbors whose lives had so lost their individual distinctiveness they could be taken over by alien vegetable pods—and no one would know the difference. And those evil pods that housed the aliens and stole the souls of the humans: Were they not metaphors, embodiments of the Cape Cod pods of Levittown and the like, whose growth and multiplication came from sucking the individuality out of the humans housed in them?”

But others thought that Mumford was not quite fair; the young sociologist Herbert Gans, who decided to buy a house in the third Levittown with his young family, was surprised by the rich and diverse quality of life there. Levitt loathed critics like Mumford. When people spoke to him of the texture of a community, he turned cold: He was in the business of putting up good low-cost housing; he was not in charge of human relations after the building was finished. It was the classic confrontation of the doer and the critic, of the older America and the newer, entrepreneurial one. The criticism was, for someone of Bill Levitt’s background, like being told that no matter how successful he was, how much money he made, and how many good houses he built for people who wanted them, he was somehow not good enough for acceptance by the privileged, educated classes. When in 1956 the Levitt group decided to offer a greater variety of houses, Levitt said at the meeting, “Now Lewis Mumford can’t criticize us anymore.” In the press release on his third Levittown, Levitt wrote, “We are ending once and for all the old bugaboo of uniformity.... In the new Levittown we build all the different houses ... right next to each other within the same section.” (Almost thirty years later, when Ron Rosenbaum wrote a piece for Esquire magazine celebrating the most important men and women of the last half century, he called Levitt, only to discover that the builder was still angry about Lewis Mumford. “I think by now we’ve shown that critics like Lewis Mumford were wrong,” Levitt told Rosenbaum. He thereupon launched upon a bitter diatribe that concluded: “I think that Lewis Mumford has been shown to be a prophet without honor.”)  "The Fifties" (1994) by David Halberstam

The first A Star Is Born (1937), directed by William A. Wellman, starring Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, emerged from an era when the city of Los Angeles, teeming with delusional newcomers attracted to the nascent movie industry, wanted to discourage vulnerable young women from seeking fame and fortune. “From the teens onward, droves of young women went to Hollywood to make it as actresses. Young men too,” says Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the U.C.L.A. Film & Television Archive. “It was a bit of a plague.”

Judy Garland hoped A Star is Born (1954) would be her big comeback, and though it secured her an Oscar nomination, she didn’t win and much of what people remember about her interpretation of the film is the parallels to her life. But as this take on Esther Blodgett, the script actually takes the time to deconstruct the nature of addiction. In one scene, Esther discusses how much she loves Norman who “tries” to keep drinking, yet she “hates him” for continuing to lie and fail her. It’s a powerful moment none of the versions, then and since, have attempted to recreate. There are lines of dialogue that recur in some of these movies but not others; the only one that pops up in each and every one of the films is “Just wanted to take another look at you”. It’s a key element of the story’s tragic climax — a line said in the first flush of love becomes a kind of farewell.

Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine is a combination of all three takes on the character: possessing March and Mason’s drunkenness, alongside John Norman’s musical background. But what he does differently than the other three is examine how his character has been shaped like celebrity, a facet that holds more in common with the 1937 version which emphasizes how tightly Hollywood controls a star’s persona. Lady Gaga’s Ally is certainly the most divergent, being a blend of Gaynor’s sweetness, Garland’s tenacity, and Streisand’s feistiness.  When Ally performs her final song at the end, it isn’t about showing that her husband gave her a career, nor is it perpetuating the idea they were partners. It’s a romanticization of all that’s come before, and seems more at home in 1937 than 2018. Will this be the final A Star Is Born? It seems unlikely. As long as there is Hollywood, there will probably be more versions of the same old story. The shape they take and the details will morph with the times, but the core story — a love story, a melodrama, and a tragedy all wrapped into one — seems to hold unending appeal. Source: 

Friday, September 28, 2018

Breaking Bad, Ozark, Suicide of the West

Life and Death on Breaking Bad by Jonah Goldberg — When we meet Walter White, he is an overqualified high-school chemistry teacher who works part time at a car wash for extra money. (In what becomes a crucial plot device, Walter worked for a tech startup but took a stupid buyout for $5,000. The company went on to be worth billions.) In the first 20 minutes of the first episode, he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Impeccably decent and upright, Walter is confronted with the horror of leaving his wife, teenage son (who has cerebral palsy), and unborn daughter destitute. He gets the idea that he could use his skills as a scientist to cook methamphetamine (crystal meth). The once-promising professional (The Dr. Jekyll of Walter White) slowly turns into the Mr. Hyde of his street name “Heisenberg” (an homage to the author of the uncertainty principle). When we meet him, Walter White is not an antihero; he’s even a hero in the small ways good fathers, dedicated teachers, and faithful husbands are. And what he becomes is not an antihero but simply, straightforwardly, a villain. What begins as a kind of play on the Thomistic principle that it is moral for a man to steal bread to feed his starving child grows into a painfully realistic tale of how a good man becomes evil.

Over time, Walter’s definition of self-defense grows beyond any moral justification, and his reluctance to kill shrinks to almost nothing. Once you step outside the borders of morality and the law, self-interest becomes self-justifying. Indeed, this is how pragmatism unchained from moral principles simply becomes a Nietzschean will to power. But the choices Walter makes have tragic consequences. The lies he needs to tell to his wife, Skyler, ultimately destroy his marriage. She cannot abide the deception, and when she finds out about Walter’s new profession, she wants a divorce. This plotline is absolutely brutal to watch and is easily the best treatment of a family coming unglued in any television show. Skyler, too, finally becomes seduced into Walter’s world. Personal corruption is infectious. What the viewer has only dimly suspected, thanks to Cranston’s incredibly subtle portrait, is now coming to the fore: Walter enjoys being Heisenberg.

One of the reasons he enjoys it is that, unlike the underachieving high-school chemistry teacher of his former life, Heisenberg is the best there is at something. While he could once live with the fact that his former peers have gotten rich in the private sector (off his ideas, he tells himself), it is now a source of seething resentment. The sins of pride and envy — not greed — are the secret to Walter White’s character. The arrogance of Walter’s intellect, married to the bitterness of not fulfilling his potential, seduce him to the idea that he can set the rules, that he is smart enough to control all of the variables in life. Untethered from traditional morality, he’s set adrift, believing that he can chart his own course through raw intellect alone. Now that he’s cancer-free, the money is meaningless to him save as a measure of his ability and superiority. Gilligan and the other writers brilliantly draw out how envy of the success of others fuels a sense of superiority and entitlement. In one telling scene, White tells his students the (true) story of how the inventor of the synthetic diamond was rewarded by GE with a $10 savings bond. The subtext is that Walter never got the recognition he deserved as a scientist, and he yearns to correct that as a meth cooker.

“I just feel like I never had a choice in any of this,” he explains. “I want a say, for once.” As Jackson Cuidon writes, “When you first watch the scene, not knowing the kind of person Walt is going to choose to be, it’s a poignant moment. Walt wants to spend his last months with his wife on his own terms, rather than as a powerless and weak and hollowed-out shell of who he used to be.” When Walter says this in the first season, he means it. The problem is that, over time, he takes this desire for control over his own life and externalizes it to society. His response to cancer transforms him into a cancer in his family and in his community. Cuidon is entirely right that the essence of Breaking Bad is choice: Walter chooses to become evil. Breaking Bad is not a religious allegory (though it could be seen as one). The lies Walter hears are not coming from the Devil, they’re coming from Walter himself. (Gilligan has said that while he can believe there’s no Heaven, he can’t abide by the idea there’s no Hell.) An even more striking aspect of Breaking Bad is the omnipresent backdrop of the horrors of drug addiction. Meth is particularly evil, ravaging not just addicts but whole communities. Walter becomes evil as he rationalizes away that fact.

And here is where I think Gilligan himself has it wrong. “Walt has behaved at times in what could be regarded as an evil fashion, but I don’t think he’s an evil man,” he told the website Vulture. “He is an extremely self-deluded man. We always say in the writers’ room, if Walter White has a true superpower, it’s not his knowledge of chemistry or his intellect, it’s his ability to lie to himself.” But what is evil if not the ability to delude yourself into believing you are the sole arbiter of what is right and wrong based on your self-interest? Freedom itself is not evil, but freedom devoid of conscience is very close to the definition of evil. Hitler, Stalin — the historical figures we use as stand-ins for metaphysical evil — believed they were acting on their own personal definitions of the good. They didn’t feel constrained by the “slave morality” (Nietzsche’s term) of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Of the many conservative themes in Breaking Bad, the one I appreciate most is the fragility of civilization: Preserving it requires a constant struggle. When I say “civilization,” I don’t mean just the particular swath of time and culture we call “Western Civ”; I mean families, communities, and individuals. These can be healthy only when individuals are willing to take on faith that some moral laws are there for a good reason. As Chesterton tells us, pure reason doesn’t get humanity very far. The merely rational man will not make commitments to causes greater than his own self-interest.

We need binding dogmas to constrain us even when our intellects or appetites try to seduce us to a different path. Long before one gets into the partisan or ideological precepts and dogmas, there is at the irreducible core of conservatism the idea that human nature is what it is. Nation-states, technologies, cultures, even religions come and go, but what remains is humanity. Breaking Bad is one of the great novels of our age because it grapples with the crooked timber of humanity as it is, and painfully demonstrates that, once you choose to break out of the cage of civilization, you are not so much free as lost. Source:

Our moral expectations in the world of art differ from our expectations in the real world around us. The people we are at work, at the grocery store, play by one set of largely artificial rules: the rules of civilization. But beneath—or perhaps beside—the person of manners, custom, and law resides a different being. The moral universe of cinema sometimes mirrors the real world, but just as often the actors on the screen play roles more consistent with the moral universe of our inner savage. It’s like a scene in some science fiction movie where the protagonist develops a roll of film and finds that the people he photographed are different from those he saw with his naked eye. Art captures a reality that we tend to deny in the “real world” around us. In novels, movies, TV, video games, and almost every other realm of our shared culture, the moral language of the narrative is in an almost entirely different dialect from the moral language of the larger society. When we suspend disbelief, we also suspend adherence to the conventions and legalisms of the outside world. Instead, we use the more primitive parts of our brains, which understand right and wrong as questions of “us” and “them.” Our myths are still with us on the silver screen, and they appeal to our sense of tribal justice. We enter the movie theater a citizen of this world, but when we sit down, we become denizens of the spiritual jungle, where our morality becomes tribal the moment the lights go out. When we lose our civilizational confidence—and pride—in what it has accomplished, we are committing a suicidal act on a civilizational scale.  —"Suicide of the West" (2018) by Jonah Goldberg

Martin 'Marty' Byrde (Jason Bateman in Ozark):  If I want to put all $7,945,400 into a hot tub, get buck naked and play Scrooge McDuck, that is 100% my business. You see, the hard reality is how much money we accumulate in life is not a function of who's president or the economy or bubbles bursting or bad breaks or bosses. It's about the American work ethic. The one that made us the greatest country on Earth. It's about bucking the media's opinion as to what constitutes a good parent. Deciding to miss the ball game, the play, the concert, because you've resolved to work and invest in your family's future. And taking responsibility for the consequences of those actions. Patience. Frugality. Sacrifice. When you boil it down, what do those three things have in common? Those are choices. Money is not peace of mind. Money's not happiness. Money is, at its essence, that measure of a man's choices. Half of all American adults have more credit card debt than savings. 25% have no savings at all. And only 15% of the population is on track to fund even one year of retirement. Suggesting what? The middle class is evaporating? Or the American Dream is dead? You wouldn't be sitting there listening to me if the latter were true. You see, I think most people just have a fundamentally flawed view of money. Is it simply an agreed-upon unit of exchange for goods and services? $3.70 for a gallon of milk? Thirty bucks to cut your grass? Or, is it an intangible? Security or happiness - peace of mind. 

“The question of whether America is in decline cannot be answered yes or no. Both answers are wrong, because the assumption that somehow there exists some predetermined inevitable trajectory, the result of uncontrollable external forces, is wrong. Nothing is inevitable. Nothing is written. For America today, decline is not a condition. Decline is a choice.” —Charles Krauthamer (1950-2018)

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Ozark's Marty Byrde vs Breaking Bad's Walter White: American dream down a dark tunnel

As a weary, desperate husband and father in Netflix’s “Ozark,” Jason Bateman is terrific. He plays a mild Chicago money manager named Marty Byrde who launders cash for a Mexican drug cartel and wants to get out of it. Bateman is nicely restrained on the drama, giving us a man who controls his panic, a pot always just about to boil. In his precarious position, other men might be screaming and shooting and running away; instead, Marty contemplates and plots. You can feel the chill of his existential struggle, as he seems to constantly wonder if he’d be better off dead than taking on a cartel. On the one hand, he’s a sympathetic guy who has made bad choices, ultimately putting himself in the sights of the nasty cartel strongman, Del (Esai Morales). On the other hand, he’s charmless, very unlike Bateman’s best-known role as the endearing straight man in a pack of freaks on “Arrested Development.” Marty is a drab fellow whose best quality is his ability to lie his way out of disaster.

The last time a comic actor was so transformed by the right dramatic role, we were watching Bryan Cranston in “Breaking Bad.” And to some extent, “Ozark” works like “Breaking Bad” in reverse, as Marty tries to get out of the world of crime without meeting the fate of his business partner, who is liquefying in a big barrel of acid. Both White and Byrde are ordinary family men who face evil men with guns, devastating deceptions, and plans that never seem to go right. The two shows strike a similar tone, giving us remarkably specific characters and locations while nodding to larger themes about money, America’s failing systems, and masculinity. Source:

There are shocking moments that establish a constant tension throughout Ozark — this is horror, plain and simple — it’s Marty’s unbearable emotional arc that keeps us in his reality. From watching his wife’s sex tape, again and again, torturing himself in silence, to begging for his life at gunpoint after watching his friend and business partner die, to choosing whether or not his philandering wife — who just betrayed him, again, by trying to steal his money — will live or die, Marty’s ability to compartmentalize is astounding. What keeps it from being unbelievable, aside from Bateman, is his breakdown. This is a family story. This is a romance. This is unparalleled perseverance; brought on as a result of a bad decision, yes, but motivated by the purest of intentions. Marty loves his family. He lost them. And he’s not going to lose them again. Source:

When the camera panned away from Walter White’s cancer-struck, bullet-ridden body spread eagle on the floor of a Nazi meth lab, you could say it was a dark spirit of American ambition leaving its vessel. Consumed with his drive to financially provide for his family, Breaking Bad’s protagonist had descended into an amoral pit. He made a few attempts to pull himself out, but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth his efforts. He saw his American dream with tunnel vision, and irreversibly destroyed lives in his peripherals. Only his dream was compromised, having sacrificed too much – his family and humanity – to ever fully attain it. He had become a supremacist kingpin with no real home.

Ozark’s Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) is chasing the American dream down a dark tunnel. In essence, Marty Byrde is an outsider. When his partner Bruce starts skimming off the top, Marty is forced to concoct a plan to pay the drug lords back. He invents a desperate scheme to move his entire operation to the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri to cash in on tourism and property as well as the potential for distribution. Then we start to see the self-destructive urges churning beneath Byrde’s mannered exterior. The Byrde family: wife Wendy (Laura Linney), fifteen-year-old daughter Charlotte and thirteen-year-old son Jonah are immediately hit with culture shock. Lives uprooted to the Bible Belt, a wild country of hills, lakes, and dark woods, populated by townies, tourists, hillbillies, rednecks, and every type of lowlife. 

Off the bat Marty and Wendy become entangled in the fabric of the Ozarks. A momma’s boy real estate agent who hires Wendy; Rachael, the mysterious and attractive owner of the Blue Cat Lodge; the preacher who gives his sermons on the lake; Buddy, the dying old man who lives in the basement of the house they buy; and the Langmores, the white trash low-level criminals are just a few of the characters into which the Byrdes crash their lives. How many deals with how many devils can Marty make? The local people who have lived in the Ozarks since before the Power Company flooded the area to build the lake do not forget. It’s something that Marty continues to overlook. 

Early on when Marty and Ruth meet (Ruth robs Marty’s motel room while working as a maid) there is an instant connection between them. Without much explanation Ruth sees right through Marty when she says to him, “I do have this feeling, we both know, you’re better off dead.” Ruth sees Marty as her ticket out of the mud. Marty sees Ruth as his way into the Ozark community and as someone who is smart enough to keep up with him. Like in the Bible, Ruth will have to choose where she belongs. Jason Bateman takes his dry comedy style and turns it into a darker, more bitter interpretation. Jacob Snell pushes Marty down a path where it seems unlikely he can return. Walter White introduced us to a protagonist who slowly changed for the worst to provide for his family, but he struggled with his actions along the way. Marty Byrde, however, is riding quietly in an elevator going down, and we have no idea which button he is going to push next. Source:

Monday, September 17, 2018

Marilyn Monroe, Same-Sex Attraction

Many men prefer women who are occasionally attracted to other women, according to research that examined preferences for same-sex attraction across different cultures. “I am an evolutionary psychologist and same-sex attraction constitutes a major puzzle that remains to be solved by evolutionary-minded scholars,” said study author Menelaos Apostolou of the University of Nicosia. Specifically, about one in four heterosexual Chinese men and two in three heterosexual UK men preferred mates who were not exclusively attracted to the opposite-sex. Most of these men preferred women who were mostly attracted to men but occasionally to women, rather than women who were attracted both sexes equally or women who were more attracted to women than men. “Across different cultures there are many heterosexual men who find same-sex attractions in women desirable,” Apostolou said. However, men preferred same-sex attraction in a partner much more than women. The male participants were 6.49 times more likely than women to prefer a partner who was attracted to both sexes. “Men find same-sex attraction in women much more desirable than women find same-sex attraction in men,” Apostolou told PsyPost. “I believe that same-sex attraction in heterosexual women constitutes a normal variation in sexual attraction, and it is not something abnormal that women should feel shame for or worry about,” Apostolou added. Source:

Marilyn Monroe had a secret lesbian affair with her domineering German acting teacher, newly unearthed documents reveal. They show that the actress lived as ‘man and wife’ with Columbia Pictures drama coach Natasha Lytess for two of the seven years they worked together from 1948 to 1955. When they first met in 1946 when Monroe was 20. Speaking in the 1962 interview, Lytess said: 'She couldn’t speak, she didn’t know how to open her mouth, and she feared everything.' She also claimed the actress was 'always naked' in the home they shared. But, she added, the actress was also crippled with insecurities. 'She was afraid of giving up all that had made her as Marilyn the sexiest girl: dresses, make-up, moves. Because she thought she had nothing to give except sex appeal. In fact it’s interesting because she really hated sex!' Natasha, who died from cancer in 1964, said she was with Marilyn for ten years and they were so close the actress would often insist that they held hands, even when they were filming a scene. 'On the set I was always very close to her,' she said in the interview. 'I had to be so close to her that she was always asking: "Can she be a little bit closer to me?" The director answered, "Yes but we see her in the camera."

'Very often, during close-ups I had to hold her hand. I had to support her every time. 'Thanks to the specificities of the close-up - which films only the head or the shoulders - I could hold her hand without being filmed by the camera. I had to do it to give her some courage.' The acting coach also claimed to have saved the famous actress from death after discovering her in bed with a bottle of sleeping pills. 'I saw Marilyn in her bed, her hair was uncombed, she was not really covered up and her face was awfully pale. Her cheeks were swelled and she had a vacant look. I said, “What have you done Marilyn?" In her recent book, Marilyn: The Passion And The Paradox, author Lois Banner wrote: 'Natasha and Marilyn lived together as husband and wife, although Marilyn often simply wanted to be held. 'She was like a child in her need for physical affection.' 'Miss Lytess made me free,' Monroe would say later. 'She gave me balance and made me understand life. I owe everything to her.' Source:

Some Kind of Mirror: Creating Marilyn Monroe (2019) by Amanda Konkle offers the first extended scholarly analysis of Marilyn Monroe's film performances, examining how they united the contradictory discourses about women's roles in 1950s America. Amanda Konkle suggests that Monroe's star persona resonated with audiences precisely because it engaged with the era's critical debates regarding femininity, sexuality, marriage, and political activism. Furthermore, she explores how Monroe drew from the techniques of Method acting and finely calibrated her performances to better mirror her audience's anxieties and desires. Drawing both from Monroe's filmography and from 1950s fan magazines, newspaper reports, and archived film studio reports, Some Kind of Mirror considers how her star persona was coauthored by the actress, the Hollywood publicity machine, and the fans who adored her. It is about why 1950s America made Monroe a star, but it is also about how Marilyn defined an era. Source: