Category Archives: Film Commentary

Film Commentary

"Untouchable" Documentary Film

“Untouchable” Documentary Interview w/ Director David Feige and Editor Jay Sterrenberg

Helen, Highly Alarmed by the Shocking Revelations in Untouchable, Interviews the Documentary Director and Editor.

Ricocheting from the halls of power to the cardboard homes of a marginalized pariah people, “Untouchable” is an enlightening documentary that defies expectations and challenges assumptions to argue for a new understanding of how we think about and legislate sexual abuse.

Shawna Baldwin, sex offender, watches her children board a school bus.
Shawna Baldwin, sex offender, watches her children board a school bus.

Interview by Helen Kaplow, writing as HelenHighly

Untouchable Film Synopsis: When the most influential lobbyist in Florida discovers that the nanny has sexually abused his daughter, he harnesses his extraordinary political power to pass the toughest sex offender laws in the nation. Untouchable chronicles his crusade, and its impact on the lives of several of the 800,000 people forced to live under the kinds of laws he has championed. 

Attorney-turned-filmmaker David Feige delves fearlessly into a confounding and taboo issue, weaving together stories of sexual abuse victims with those of sex offenders as well as the advocates and academics who argue the many sides of the situation. The result is a strange sort of documentary-thriller that reveals a surprisingly twisted public health crisis where the victims and perpetrators are inextricably linked by a legal system gone awry.

HH: A film about sex offenders. Not exactly an appealing outing to the movies. Why did you choose this unlikable topic, how did you get funding, and do you really expect people to go and see it?

Feige: Why this issue? Because I didn’t think anybody else was going to pick it up. I worked 15 years as a public defender, and even as the Trial Chief of the office, I tended to take on the most difficult cases. That’s what I do. Look, there are lots of people who are willing to take on certain issues – innocence, the death penalty, the drug war. All of these things already have a built in constituency and already have a lot of people who are willing to write and talk and make movies about them. In a way, they are the low-hanging fruit of the criminal justice reform discussion. This is not.

David Feige, Director of "Untouchable"
David Feige, Director of “Untouchable”

This is about as difficult a subject as you can find. It is complicated terrain and few people are willing to venture out into it. For that reason, the film was nearly impossible to fund. Basically, no one would fund it. But I made the film for exactly the reason that nobody would fund it – because I was interested in the most complex and most difficult questions. I was interested in the hardest questions in the criminal justice system, not the easy ones. The film is still in debt but… at least it got made.

Will people see it? Well, when people do see the film they react positively and strongly and they recognize the value of what we’ve done here. It’s an extremely thought-provoking film that makes you see the entire subject in a new way, and I believe that despite the subject matter, it’s really engaging and emotionally satisfying, which makes it absolutely worth seeing.

HH: And what is the status of the movie now? You won the Best New Documentary Director award at Tribeca. Has the film been picked up for distribution or broadcast yet?

Feige: Nope. We are still looking. We are talking to distributors, and we are also interested in finding a broadcast partner. It’s my hope that the film will have a wide release and a vibrant life and reach a huge and diverse audience. That’s my hope.

HH: Jay, talk to me about the structure of the film. When watching it, it was almost like a thriller in that you saved the most powerful punches for the end. I mean, I was so profoundly shocked by all the “twists” that come late in the film that I almost wanted to go watch it again because I felt I had been watching it wrong, or with the wrong assumptions. Why did you opt to keep the audience in the dark for so long?

Sterrenberg: It’s interesting that you saw it that way. That was not specifically our strategy. But it’s a very complicated issue, and people tend to come into it with preconceived notions and very strong feelings. So, we thought it was best to meet people where they are. We wanted to leave room for the audience to have a lot of different opinions and perspectives and then bring them along slowly, through the complexity, point by point.

We bring you in through Ron and Laura’s personal story. They have had this nightmare experience where she is repeatedly sexually abused by her nanny, and as her father, he has a desire to punish the offender as harshly as possible and forever. And it’s a sensible and legitimate desire. And any audience can totally relate to that — the horror and outrage. So, we wanted to start there. And then we slowly take the audience on this journey down the rabbit hole of part of the criminal justice system that no one wants to engage with.

Jon Cryer, Admitted Pedophile
Jon Cryer, Admitted Pedophile

Feige: You gotta remember, we’re making a movie, which has to have a narrative and an emotional flow to it and so you can’t just… I could make a movie like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and just do a PowerPoint with a bunch of numbers, but that’s not going to be effective with this subject. So, we do present a lot of data, but this film is fundamentally character driven. It’s about delving into the life experience of people. It’s not a science lesson. It’s not a polemic. It’s a very complex and emotional look into the lives of people on several sides of this issue, who have all suffered tremendously.

Sterrenberg: It needed to be a carefully paced process, introducing these people who are considered monsters by society and looking at them as if they are human. It’s not that we are showing these sex offenders as sympathetic as much as human. That’s why we have three characters (real people) who are parents of children who have been abused as well as three characters (also real people) who are sex offenders. And it’s a dramatic evolution, the way these characters themselves transform in their own stories and their own attitudes. And different people watching will have different reactions, but we do take them through a range of perspectives.

HH: You talk about transformations, and one of the most jolting is Patty Wettlerling, who is the mother of a boy who was kidnapped at gunpoint by a masked man, never to be seen again.

Sterrenberg: Right. That case resulted in the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children Act — the first national sex offender registry.

HH: But after we go through her heartbreaking story and see how she had dedicated her life to advocating for the memory of her son, we finally learn that she has changed sides in the legal battle; she no longer supports the law that was named for her own son. That felt like a bomb exploding in my brain.

SterrenbergYes, she says that she feels that the law named for her son has been “hijacked” and that now it has become counter-productive. The Wetterling Act was about police notification. It was later that Megan’s Law and other public notification laws were enacted, and those have become extremely controversial.

Against Myth-Based Sex Offender Laws
OnceFallen Rally Against Myth-Based Sex Offender Laws

Feige: I want to be clear that I’m not advocating any particular position on this. It’s important to me that when I’m talking about this I’m talking about either what the science shows or what the experts in the film argue rather than my own point of view. I want to raise the questions, flag the social science, and then I want people to agree or disagree as they see fit. That said, the social science is quite clear.

HH: Yes, but the misunderstanding has been enormous. So, the data the film presents is truly amazing. Astounding, actually.

Feige: Right. And so many people want to discount these numbers by saying they were done by some, you know, some pro-sex-offender social scientist or something, but what’s so amazing about these numbers is that they are almost all done by departments of corrections, and probation departments and such.

HH: And the irony is that the opposite of that suspicion is true. The facts as we all think we know them – have repeatedly been told are facts – are actually completely erroneous and unsubstantiated. The movie explains that the phrase “frightening and high recidivism rate” for sex offenders came from an old Psychology Today article in 1986, which was simply invalid and dead wrong.

Feige: Exactly. 80% was the number that was in the Psychology Today article. And that recidivism rate, and that exact phrase, is still used today to justify, over and over and over, these very, very stringent laws – hundreds of laws across the country, which have enormous impact on people’s lives. And that article had no backup data at all and was not even written by a social scientist. The guy was a “rehabilitation counselor.” But he doesn’t have a PhD, and he’s not a social scientist. And there was no study.

That is why, in every place in the film that we quote a statistic, I felt it was extremely important to make clear where we were getting it, so we actually show the cover page for each report that we quote in the film.

HH: And the actual recidivism rate, according to recent, legitimate studies is not even close to 80%. It’s not even double digits.

Feige: 3.5% is the most reliable number. We took the biggest study – that’s the 1994 DOJ study that followed literally everybody released in 15 states, and that had a number of close to 10,000, so that is really the best three-year recidivism number around, from the study with the biggest sample size. It’s the study done by the United States Department of Justice.

HH: And you’ve explained to me that this 3.5% recidivism rate is the lowest recidivism rate for any crime other than murder. Lower than any other violent crime.

Feige: Correct.

HH: And this is information that wasn’t even included in the movie. The movie is full of dramatic statistics, and still there is more.

Feige: There are a lot of other subjects – related subjects that we cut out of the film, which deserve their own treatment. We didn’t dig into all the data because … as I’ve said, it’s an extremely complicated story.

Sterrenberg: And it was most important to follow the characters and understand their diverse experiences. That’s what makes the numbers make sense.

HH: Okay, so the film does address the issue that we have a completely different category of restrictions and continued punishment for sex offenders after they have been released from prison than we do for any other type of criminal, even other violent offenders, all based on false beliefs.

Feige: Today, a large part of the misunderstanding comes from the way people count. If you count re-incarceration due to “technical violations,” you get a much larger number. Technical violations might be drinking alcohol, associating with another sex offender, not having compliant housing, staying at an unapproved address, or if you’re still getting polygraphs, there is one called “masturbating to an unapproved script,” where if they don’t like what you thought about when you masturbated, you are in violation – you go back to prison. In the movie, we show one man who was eight minutes late arriving home (he was wearing a GPS ankle bracelet), and he was sent back to prison for four years.

Homeless sex offenders squat in an industrial zone on the outskirts of Miami.
Homeless sex offenders squat in an industrial zone on the outskirts of Miami.

HH: I remember that. He was late because he was on a bus that was running late, and he was returning from his low-paying job that was two and half hours away, due to the legal restrictions that prevented him from living anywhere near civilized life. And he actually phoned his parole officer at the time, while on the bus, to explain that he would be a few minutes late. And still he was sent back to prison. For a ten minute delay. It seems unbelievable.

Feige: It was actually only eight minutes, to be exact. And that’s not an isolated incident. His story is fairly typical.

If you’re counting actual sex-crime convictions for previous sex-crime offenders… For every 100 sex-offender prison releases, 70 are sent back and only one of those is for a sex crime. That’s according to California Department of Corrections data.

HH: You turn on TV any night of the week and there is an episode of Law & Order or such, and they are always telling us this misinformation – that the recidivism rate for sex offenders is dangerously high; they will always re-offend. We hear that over and over, so we believe it. It’s mind-blowing to realize that these people are essentially being forced into a lifestyle that is unlivable, where it’s nearly impossible not to have some sort of technical violation.

SterrenbergThere are multiple areas of misunderstanding. Let’s say you’re a 17 year old teenager dating a 15 or 16 year old teenager. When you turn 18, and your girlfriend or boyfriend is now 16 or 17, suddenly you are a sex offender. And you are treated by the law the same as a violent rapist, and you will live under these same sex-offender restrictions for the rest of your life. These laws are forever. And they paint all offenders with a very broad brush.

In the film, we meet Shawn Baldwin, who is an example of this type of situation, and we see her many years later, now trying to raise her own children but unable to even accompany them to the playground because of her sex offender status.

HH: I think the general public has no idea that this type of confusion is going on. And what I learned in the film is that there is a significant shame factor that prevents people like Shawna from speaking up and arguing for her own justice.

Feige: And these miscalculations and misunderstandings have severe consequences, because they are used to validate these draconian laws. Residency restriction laws in particular – for example, sex offenders cannot live within 2500 feet of a school or park, which often leaves little to no viable real estate where these people can live. This is what pushed a lot of folks under bridges and into makeshift homeless encampments. These laws have a devastating and destabilizing effect on the population because they are so effective in preventing people from forming relationships, getting homes, keeping jobs, etc. They actually decrease the ability of released convicts to be successful. And so that perversely suggests that they are increasing the likelihood of recidivism.

In addition, it appears that Megan’s Law and public notification have essentially no effect on suppression of sexually related violence, and what that in turn means is that we are subjecting three quarters of a million people to some very serious penalties for no real gain.

That begs the question: Then why are we doing it? And it may be that it’s because it feels good. And it also may be that that’s not a sufficient answer to justify what we’re doing.

HH: The details we’ve discussed here are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the insights and revelations in your film. (Truly: I want readers of this interview to understand that there are so many pieces to the story this film tells, more than even an educated person can imagine, and each is more startling than the next.) You have really succeeded at shattering this mass of misinformation and misconception and then intricately examining all the shards.

Your background as a criminal attorney definitely makes its mark on this movie. The film has an indisputable logic to it, and a kind of relentless veracity that threads through the various emotions and personalities that are presented. You are quite the legal mind and also quite an excellent writer.

Feige: I jokingly say that I’m one of the only people in America who made more money as a writer than as a lawyer.

HH: How would you compare your two roles? Do you feel you’ve had more impact as a lawyer or as a writer and filmmaker?

Feige: Being a public defender, I had a profound impact on a relatively small number of lives. Being a writer or filmmaker, I have a much more diffuse and tangential impact but on a far larger number of lives. I think a robust democracy relies on civil discussion and honest debate, and there is real value in promoting that, especially on topics as complex and emotional as this one.

HH: And you have truly made this an honest discussion. It’s not manipulative; it’s not a tear-jerker.

Feige: I didn’t want this to be one of those movies the viewer has to suffer through.

HH: Well, your intention to involve the audience in a legitimate conversation is apparent. And it is indeed compelling. I’m writing about it because I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

Feige: Most people come away saying “It was challenging and interesting and I couldn’t stop talking about it.” Everybody who has written to me says they couldn’t stop talking about it.

Watch the Trailer:

Update: Untouchable Documentary Doesn’t Go Far Enough & Ron Book is A Monster Yet to Be Slayed, According to OnceFallen.com

I recently saw an online comment about this film, posted by Derek W. Logue, founder of the Sex Offender Advocacy Site OnceFallen.com — a group that fights against what it considers to be unfair and unconstitutional laws, such as those championed by Ron Book, who is the central figure in this documentary. (A Newsweek article called Book, “The Lobbyist Who Put Sex Offenders Under a Bridge”.)

Logue is also shown, briefly, in the documentary; he is the one who organizes the sex-offender rights rally. But his own story is not shown in full in the film. A visit to the OnceFallen site shows just how passionate and hot a topic this is, and gives an indication of how scary-powerful Ron Book is as a lobbyist and political force. The website has an extremist tone (understandably), but it definitely merits a look. And Logue’s comment also merits a read, so I am posting it here (as I found it on the web — without any fact-checking), along with my own comment back to Logue:

Logue: I was in this film briefly, protesting the Book family. This film didn’t do anything to challenge those monsters. The Books are responsible for forcing hundreds of Miami’s registered citizens into homelessness. It is disgusting to see clips of Ron Book attending fancy dinners, eating steak tartare and getting his shoes shined knowing his policies force hundreds of registered citizens to live by the railroad tracks behind a warehouse.

The film fails to discuss Ron Book’s plea of no contest to a theft charge in the 1980s and a guilty plea for illegal campaign contributions in the 1990s. Ron Book was recently under FBI investigation. Lauren Book is literally BUYING a senate seat, yet she can’t even answer her own questions during a post-screening Q & A. Lauren is inept and nothing but a puppet for daddy Ron and his political cronies.

It is here where Feige fumbled the ball worse than Cam Newton in the Super Bowl. In order to guarantee he wouldn’t get sued by the Books or have them pull their support of the film, Feige had to cater to Ron & Lauren. Thus, instead of any direct challenge to the Book family, Feige’s film dances the issue around them. The Books are never grilled about anything in the film. Feige minimized my rally in the film out of concerns that our message was “too harsh.” He asked me to be nice to Lauren Book because she is “skittish.” I guess it was because Daddy wasn’t there to do the talking for her.

Ultimately, this movie was an utter disappointment. The Books get away again like the bad guys from a Saturday Morning cartoon to return and continue their wicked ways.

Sex-offender humor from OnceFallen website.
Sex-offender humor from OnceFallen website. But…not so funny because it’s true.

HH: I don’t doubt that much of what you say about the Book family is true. But the Books are revealed in this film to be something very different than they originally appear. Feige handles their story, and others, with amazing sensitivity, while carefully and slowly building his case that essentially everything we think we know about this subject is FALSE. When you come into the issue cold, like most of us do, and watch it from beginning to end, the film packs a powerful punch. But it’s smart and dispassionate, which leads to a kind of meticulous fairness that is bizarrely unsettling. In my mind, Feige is like Solomon, but he actually cuts the baby in half. 

Peggy Guggenheim Art Addict

Peggy Guggenheim & Janis Joplin in “Art Addict” & “Little Girl Blue”

Gotta Gotta Gotta
or
Shipwrecked: Degenerate Damsels in Distress

By Helen Kaplow, as HelenHighly

Peggy Guggenheim, "Art Addict"
Peggy Guggenheim, “Art Addict”

Surrealism is to Peggy Guggenheim as Heroin is to Janis Joplin?

I happened to see Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, a documentary about famed art-collector Peggy Guggenheim, directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, back-to-back with Janis: Little Girl Blue, a documentary about rock-and-roll star Janis Joplin, directed by Amy Berg. I never would have put the two together in my mind, but seeing their stories so close together, I was amazed at how many unlikely similarities there are. One film makes the case that Peggy Guggenheim was addicted to art itself, and I think the same can be said about Janis Joplin. And the parallels continue, adding up to a sort of double-wide (and double-deep) insight.

Initially, I had planned to compare Peggy to Diana Vreeland, whose daughter, Lisa Immordino Vreeland made an excellent documentary about her mother, called The Eye Has to Travel. And now Lisa Vreeland has made this documentary about Peggy Guggenheim, using never-before-heard interview tapes of Peggy – with her classy, haut monde dialect (and this is reason enough to see the film). Given their shared filmmaker, it seems impossible not to compare the two female, trailblazing, cultural tastemakers from the same era – Guggenheim and Vreeland.

 

Janis Joplin, "Little Girl Blue"
Janis Joplin, “Little Girl Blue”

But the comparison between Peggy and Janis is more surprisingly and offers a different type of angle.

{For those who want a simple thumbs up or down: Yes, both films are worth seeing. The Hollywood Reporter writes that the film is “so stuffed with connections and allusions to fabled eras that it’s hard to imagine any [arthouse enthusiast] being bored.” Which film are they referring to? That enticing statement easily applies to both equally. These are both important and fascinating women who lived in legendary times. And both women could fairly be called “feminist pioneers,” although the films about them have a tone that is less historical and more gossip-column.

Neither film will win a Best Documentary award, because they cannot escape being dressed-up biopics, but if you care about art or artists, you will want to look into the lives of these women. And if you already have looked at these lives – through previous films or books, this is an opportunity to refresh your amazement. And both of these films do an excellent job and add new perspectives, or at least new interviews (or newly collected personal letters).

The Guggenheim film is a bit more studied and the Joplin film is a bit more sexy. Neither is as comprehensive or complex as it could be, but… still. Whether you are a fan of modern art or music, or just someone who couldn’t get in to whatever else is playing, Helen Highly suggests you see either or both films. You will be highly entertained and hardly even notice that you are also being educated.}

Now, let’s get to what is interesting:

The fundamental concept in both films is that “art is a drug” – whether making it or collecting it.

Janis Joplin, on stage
Janis Joplin, on stage

The Peggy Guggenheim documentary is actually titled Art Addict, and in it Peggy herself says “I became an addict and couldn’t help it” (and she’s maybe 1/3 joking).

Peggy Guggenheim, Touching her Calder
Peggy Guggenheim, Touching her Calder

A friend of hers says, “She had an intense hunger for life, and an undertone of unbeatable sadness.” Then Peggy explains how she literally is “most happy when connected, physically, with art,” and demonstrates by actually clutching a sculpture. Similarly, in the Joplin documentary, it is repeated again and again that Janis was happy only when on stage. The stage was a tangible touchstone for Janis, the way a thing of beauty was for Peggy. Nina Simone, whom Joplin highly admired, said that “Janis became an addict because she got hooked into a thing, and it wasn’t drugs. She got hooked into a feeling.” So, both these women felt a bodily attachment to their experience of art. (It was under their skin.) They reveled in these attachments; they lived in them.

But here’s where the plot thickens:

It was widely known in her day (and since then has been extensively written about and discussed) that Peggy Guggenheim had sex with many of the artists she patronized, as well as others in her literati circle – all the more scandalous because of her homeliness. 

Peggy Guggenheim was homely.,
Peggy Guggenheim was homely.

“Peggy was in bed with Samuel Beckett for four days!” we are told. “She had an affair with Brancusi!” And Ms. Guggenheim made no effort to hide her sexual escapades. In the film, she calls herself “a nymphomaniac.” She claims (not entirely convincingly) to be proud of her immoral exploits, counted at roughly 400 in her own memoirs, and she doesn’t care that her friend Mary McCarthy wrote a very thinly veiled story that essentially called her a slut. The film provides torrid details such as “Peggy Guggenheim lost her virginity at age 23” (printed in text on the screen) and “Peggy had seven abortions.”

Peggy Guggenheim, Sex Addict
Peggy Guggenheim, Sex Addict

But Peggy explains in an interview that she loved these men because they were artists; for her, sex and art went hand in hand. (She collected both art and artists.) So: she was an art addict and a sex addict. And all these sensational details of Peggy’s sexual compulsions are relevant because…? Well, bed-hopping with artists + sexist backlash = damaged reputation. And this brings us to one of the central messages of this film:

Peggy Guggenheim’s addictive lust for art (and artists) cut into her credibility and ultimately obscured her accomplishments.

Janis Joplin, Junkie Singer
Janis Joplin, Junkie Singer

And the same is true of Janis Joplin, who is perhaps best known for being a drug addict.

Janis drinking on stage
Janis drinking on stage

Her heroin-and-amphetamine-and-bourbon fueled performances were the signature style that made her famous. And that drug use may have made her great. She was great, but certainly her reputation and legacy as an addict obscured her accomplishments, same as with Peggy. She’ll always have the word “junkie” attached in front of the word “singer.”  And finally, her addiction killed her; she died from an overdose in 1970.

In a way, both these women sacrificed their lives to their addictions … to art.

Both documentaries tells us that these women were defined in their youth by their unattractiveness and lack of desirability, and each is described as “insecure,” “vulnerable,” “self-conscious,” and “full of suffering” as a result. (The identical words are used in both films.) In both cases, the women’s indelicate and unconventional looks pushed them to explore new ways of defining themselves and gaining acceptance.

Janis Joplin was profoundly hurt, over and over.
Janis Joplin was profoundly hurt, over and over.

Janis Joplin was teased mercilessly by the boys in grade school, and as a cruel joke in college, the student newspaper named her “Ugliest Man on Campus.” She is described in the film as being “profoundly hurt, over and over.”

Peggy Guggenheim said, “My childhood was excessively unhappy. I have no pleasant memories.” In a classic Peggy story,  we are told that she grew up with a nose she hated, and when she finally tried to have it fixed, the plastic surgery was botched and she was left even more unpleasant-looking than before.

Peggy Guggenheim "gutsed out" her bad nose.
Peggy Guggenheim “gutsed out” her bad nose.

She decided not to fix the failed repair and just “guts it out.” She ignored her lack of beauty from then on and focused on her work – her work as a champion and collector of beautiful things. Even then, the documentary explicitly states that she was “the subject of ridicule and disparagement,” due to her perceived desperate attempts at recognition. She was called a narcissist, a pushy rich girl, etc.

Early on, both Peggy and Janis sought to escape their bourgeois lives. Janis called herself “a misfit.” She moved from Texas to San Francisco as a way of breaking out and being free. Peggy moved from the U.S. to Paris and became a bohemian as a way of finding herself. Peggy found herself in modern art, and Janis in music. Both dropped out of college in pursuit of an alternative life. Both were self-educated and self-made.

In the film, Peggy calls herself a “lost girl,” looking for something to fill her life. She was “the wayward Guggenheim.” She tells us that she used modern art to express her inner world and her emotions (and, we assume, to escape the outer world of social expectations and judgment). Peggy is described as “always a rebel,” so it makes sense that in Paris she started her art addiction with Dadaism – the language of disillusionment. Dadaism rejected logic and reason and prized the abstract and psychological. Dadaism was Peggy’s gateway drug into surrealism, which was similar in what it stood against, but was more a language of freedom. (Surrealism is to Peggy as Heroin is to Janis?) It is said that Peggy sought art that was “strange and outrageous.” She wanted to feel “the cutting edge.” (The same edge that appealed to Janis.)

Kandinsky
Kandinsky

Yet, there was no precedence for women working in the art world; this was Peggy’s own liberation. She created this new identity and purpose for herself. And she didn’t just follow movements; she followed her own intuitions and tastes. The film does make much of the fact that Peggy was advised by some very savvy artists – such as Marcel Duchamp, but Helen Highly suggests that being given advice is a very different thing from selecting which advice to accept (and then implementing it), as Peggy had already proved when she rejected her docile, dignified upbringing. Whoever first had the notion that a certain genre might have potential, is mostly irrelevant; history belongs to the one who Highly Devoted herself to it, who pursued the outlandish, developed the bizarre, and brought them to fruition. While some critics are questioning this film’s gossipy chatter about Peggy’s sex life, Helen is Highly concerned about the film’s continuous insinuation that Peggy was “perhaps” a dilettante who was molded by the men around her rather than a true guiding force in defining what we now call Modern Art. (The fact that Peggy suggests this herself is not valid evidence; self-report is never a credible source, especially when we know that Peggy was quick to tarnish her own reputation.)

Let’s just take three examples from the many artists that Peggy helped introduce to the world, who are now recognized as modern art’s greatest talents (a list very swiftly breezed over in the film):
1) Peggy gave Kandinsky his first show at her gallery. When she tried to persuade her uncle, a prestigious art collector, to purchase a Kandinsky, he foolishly refused and called it “trash.”
2) Peggy also presented the first Rothko exhibition.
3) Peggy is credited with discovering and essentially inventing Jackson Pollock.
Right there alone… (okay, let’s add in Mondrian, Dali, Calder, Miro, Magritte, and more), it’s almost as if without Peggy Guggenheim, there would be no modern art.

Peggy Guggenheim with Jackson Pollock paintings
Peggy Guggenheim with Jackson Pollock paintings

And that statement is not entirely far-fetched, because one chapter in the loose and lascivious life of this Jewish-American princess is the tale (which is told in the film all too briefly) of Peggy remaining in war-time Paris as others fled, and assembling a collection of 125 modern masterpieces that Hitler officially deemed “Degenerate” and sought to destroy, and then narrowly escaping Paris two days before the Nazis marched into the city, and getting the art out too. Note: Ms. Guggenheim had first asked the Louvre to help her by storing the paintings and sculptures (which included Picasso paintings, btw), but they declined, saying that these pieces were not worth saving.

Brancusi "Bird in Space"
Brancusi “Bird in Space”

Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” sculpture was among the pieces Peggy saved, and I personally would like to thank her for that one. Rumor has it that Peggy had to sleep with Brancusi in order to negotiate a price she could afford, and again I say: Thank You for Your Service.

Peggy didn’t just devote her heart and soul to modern art; she put her life on the line for it. In addition, Peggy saved her lover, Max Ernst, who “didn’t give a damn for her,” by marrying him to get him out of Europe and into America. This makes her a noble figure – a savior of art and artists, even if she was a lonely lady with a disastrous romantic life.

Yes, in her day, she ruined her reputation by reckless fucking (a word Peggy used herself). But in today’s day, I would expect the documentarian to challenge the legitimacy of those judgements. (She liked to get it on with brilliant and talented men. That doesn’t make her stupid, or inept.) Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland tries to stand neutral at a place where Helen Highly believes she should assert her opinion. But I digress.

Peggy and Max Ernest
Peggy and Max Ernest

Let’s go back to: Peggy made a trailblazing transition in her collection and patronage – from surrealist painting, anchored in WWI, to abstract expressionist painting, anchored in WWII – bridging the divide between Europe and America, and she took the art world with her. She discovered new artists who were thinking and working in new ways, and she funded them and encouraged them and presented them to the world. She was a kind of collector that never existed before.

Peggy and Max at her gallery.
Peggy and Max at her gallery.

In Little Girl Blue, we learn that Janis Joplin made a similarly significant transition from folk to blues to rock. She started singing folk songs like Joan Baez and Judy Collins, but their gentle sound did not suit Joplin. In San Francisco, Joplin hooked up with Big Brother and the Holding Company, and it wasn’t long before she assumed a leadership role in the band, where she became a pioneer of psychedelic rock. Big Brother and the Holding Company’s appearance at the now-legendary Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 received immense acclaim – particularly for their version (Joplin’s) of “Ball and Chain.” Janis’ wild style and raw, gutsy sound blew the collective mind of the audience. But all of the attention on Janis caused tension between her and her bandmates. Janis Joplin finally went out on her own and has been labeled “the first lady of rock and roll.” She was a kind of singer that never existed before.

Janis Joplin, Raw and Gutsy
Janis Joplin, Raw and Gutsy

Ottis Redding also appeared at the Monterey Festival, and Janis has said that she was strongly influenced by him and his “gotta gotta gotta … try a little tenderness” when she later sang “try try try … a little bit harder.” Both songs share a sense of urgent emotion, but Janis takes it to a whole new level.

Richard Goldstein wrote for the May 1968 issue of Vogue magazine that Joplin was “the most staggering leading woman in rock… she slinks like tar, scowls like war… clutching the knees of a final stanza, begging it not to leave… Janis Joplin can sing the chic off any listener.”

Stevie Nicks considers Joplin one of her idols, and says, “She sang in the great tradition of the rhythm and blues singers that were her heroes, but she brought her own dangerous, sexy rock and roll edge to every single song. She really gave you a piece of her heart.”

Janis Rocks Hard
Janis Rocks Hard

It’s worth noting that this documentary does not include a lot of Janis Joplin music. Unlike the recent movie about the Beach Boys, Love and Mercy, which had an inspiring and extensive soundtrack of true Beach Boy tunes, this film relies more on commentary and quotes, such as those above. And at its core is a collection of letters that Janis wrote to her family and friends, which do indeed provide a candid view of the troubled and tender person behind the famous name.

According to the two movies, Peggy had a lot more sex than Janis did (surprisingly). But both women were haunted by the same distressed efforts to find love and affection. Both suffered many romantic disappointments and are said to have lived very sad lives. Janis is seen onscreen saying:

“I want to be happy so fucking bad.”

And at another point in the film she explains that her career ambition is all about her “need to be loved.” One widely quoted critic wrote that Joplin had “desperate mating calls from every song.”

One more thing united these two unique women – their honest individuality. Janis said that her artistic ambition was to be true to herself. She sang raw because that was how she felt, and she wouldn’t pretend anything prettier. The film makes a point of insisting that Janis refused to “lie” in her music, or follow anyone else’s rules.

Of Peggy Guggenheim, her film stated that for all her eccentricities, she was a woman “without guile.” Her yearning and her passion were sincere, and she held herself to a high standard of honesty, especially because her mentor, Marcel Duchamp, preached the merit of being a self-actualized individual without artifice. The film quotes Duchamp as defining his code of “individualism” as “everyone for oneself – like a shipwreck.” It’s ironic that Peggy’s father died in a shipwreck; he went down on the Titanic, when the ship sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912. Peggy was barely a teenager, and she was forever traumatized by the event. (Just an interesting detail.)

So, where does this leave us?

  • Both women were sad and lonely and desperate for attention.
  • Both women were addicts.
  • But their insecurities and addictions propelled them to greatness.
  • They each accomplished something never-before done.
  • In response to their own addictions, each changed the world of art (otherwise known as “the world”).
  • And then their addictions ruined them.

And Helen Highly suggests that the least we can do, as recipients of their greatness and inheritors of their legacies – Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” and all the soul-searching music that has been inspired by it since, and the war-and-peace-making avant garde art that Peggy Guggenheim nurtured and saved and promoted and shared, and all that came after and was inspired by those works…  the least we can do is remember them with appropriate respect and appreciation, and without judging with our traditional conventions and morality.

They suffered and we reaped the rewards. When we think of them, we should try a little tenderness.


Click For News: January is Janis Joplin’s Film, Birthday & “Pearl” Anniversary Month

Click For News: Janis Joplin Documentary “Little Girl Blue” to Air on PBS’ American Masters Series

News Update: “Janis: Little Girl Blue” will premiere May 3 on PBS, a day before the DVD and Blu-ray will be available via FilmRise. The companion album, Janis: Little Girl Blue (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack), is on sale now.


For Fun: Who Was the Bigger Addict? Janis Joplin & Heroin vs Peggy Guggenheim & Art  Click the image below to VOTE and see results:

Carrie and Co-Stars When They Were Young

Carrie Fisher and the Star Wars Review I Didn’t Write

Helen Highly Recommends Carrie Fisher Quit Twitter
or
Am I THAT Guy?!

by Helen Kaplow, as HelenHighly

Carrie Fisher has aged.
Carrie Fisher has aged.

Q: Is it true that HelenHighly, a self-professed socially-and-politically-conscious woman, walked out of the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and immediately made a comment about Carrie Fisher’s body?
A: Yes. (Should I feel guilty? Not sure yet.)

Q: Was it rude and inappropriate for journalist Kyle Smith to publicly suggest to Carrie Fisher that she give up acting if she didn’t like continually having her body scrutinized and criticized by everyone and anyone due to the way she aged?
A: Yes. (I think we can all agree that disrespect is always the wrong approach for a professional when speaking about one’s subject, and certainly the wrong way to speak about a beloved Princess.)

Q: Did Carrie Fisher show us all up by replying with simultaneous wit, candor, and bada-bing punch, thus reminding those who criticized and/or gossiped that she is better than them (us), and that she still has it – “it” being bright, lively talent?
A: Yes indeed. Go Carrie!

Carrie Fisher Is Defiant
Carrie Fisher Is Defiant

But the harder question remains: That nasty reporter guy judged Carrie Fisher’s body, and HelenHighly also judged Carrie Fisher’s body. Am I that guy?!*

Here’s the story:

I am no Star Wars fan. However, I got an assignment to write about the new movie “Star Wars:….mumble.. whatever.” The assignment was for The Film Box, the mostly action-movie website where I occasionally post commentary. (I provide balance.) To counter the geek perspective, I had been asked to write from a non-fan woman’s point of view. But until now, I have not completed my Star Wars assignment, because I couldn’t think of anything interesting to say.

“Do I feel guilty? Hell no; Lucas made $4 billion.”

Correction: In an effort to deliver something, I did write a news blurb that unfairly attacked George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, for jokingly using the term “white slavers” in regard to the Disney Co., to whom he sold the franchise for $4 billion in 2012 and now is criticizing for their handling of his “kids.” And then I wrote another news story announcing that he had apologized, but I doubted his sincerity. So, I got two articles out of Lucas, both based on over-blown nonsense. Do I feel guilty? Hell no; Lucas made $4 billion selling overblown nonsense (named Star Wars). He’s filthy rich; his feelings don’t matter. (Although, it might bear mentioning that during this attack on what Lucas said, no one commented on what he looked like.) But back to this story:

I did want to see the movie just because it got so crazy-much attention in the media that I felt I was obligated to see it, as a U.S. citizen and occupant of our galaxy. I admit that the film itself did nothing for me, but I did enjoy watching the audience respond enthusiastically each time one of their old favorites (and old, favorites – with comma) – be it actor or spaceship – made an appearance.

The Beloved "Star Wars" Trilogy
The Beloved Star Wars Trilogy

These old favorites, brought back from the cult trilogy (1977 – 1983), include male leads, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill. And also there is the female lead, Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) – the adventure-heroine and super-hot It-Girl of the original Star Wars, and an idolized icon because of it. I am told that a generation of teenage boys grew up with posters on their bedroom walls of Carrie Fisher in a gold bikini– the same metal bikini she wore as a costume in the second film. That poster is from a photo-shoot Fisher did with Rolling Stone, back in 1983, when she was a 27-year-old starlet. (Pretty hip to be on the cover of Rolling Stone – twice, actually.)

Carrie Fisher Rocks with "Rolling Stone"
Carrie Fisher Rocks with Rolling Stone

Fisher has gone on to have a successful career in the industry – as an actress, producer, and screenwriter, including writing the semi-autobiographical film Postcards from the Edge, (based on one of her own hit books) in which the Carrie-ish character is portrayed by none other than Meryl Streep (the best actress ever). Carrie Fisher is Somebody.

Carrie Fisher: Once She Was Beautiful
Carrie Fisher: Once She Was Beautiful

But to the people in the movie theater with me, watching the latest Star Wars film-phenomenon, Carrie Fisher is and always will be Princess Leia, the great and legendary… (I don’t know; this is where they lose me). And those people literally cheered for Carrie Fisher – not only with excitement when they first saw her in this new film, but also after each scene in which she appeared.

So, Carrie: People love you. They love seeing you on screen. Don’t doubt that fact.

And I will say that, for me (and I believe for most others as well), Carrie Fisher brought an authentic warmth and humanity to a movie that is…  mostly metal. Okay, I probably stand alone with my “mostly metal” comment, but I challenge anyone to say they did not both enjoy and respect Fisher’s performance in this film.

“For Carrie to escape the unfair cruelties of this world, she would have to get on a spaceship and find another galaxy, far, far away.”

Well, I never wrote the film review because I decided that I am not Star-Wars-knowledgeable enough to say anything intelligent about the movie. And I was going to walk away and start writing my next commentary – slated to be a combo-review of two different documentaries about great women– Peggy Guggenheim and Janis Joplin (who seem to me to be surprisingly similar). But then, I couldn’t escape the buzzing news about the great Star Wars woman. Here’s what:

Carrie Fisher, Then and Now
Carrie Fisher, Then and Now

On Tuesday, January 29th, Fisher, age 59, sent a message to her 850,000 Twitter followers, asking them to stop scrutinizing and criticizing how she has aged over the past 30 years. Apparently there had been a relentless stream of unkind and insulting comments.

Oh. My. God.
Oh. My. God.

To those haters she shockingly said that they could “blow us”. (!!!)
(“Us” means Fisher, her body, and her character Leia)

“Please stop debating about whether or not I have aged well. Unfortunately it hurts all 3 of my feelings. My body hasn’t aged as well as I have. Blow us.”
[Twitter text abbreviations and jargon have been translated, but that was her message.]

Then Fisher re-tweeted statements from supporters who claimed that her co-stars, Harrison Ford – age 73 and Mark Hamill – age 64, do not face the same level of scrutiny. In another tweet, Fisher shared her sentiments that “youth and beauty are not accomplishments, they’re the temporary happy.”

Okay, my first thought was: That’s a Twitter Win for Carrie. Good for her.

But, my second thought was: Eegads. I remembered (and here I confess) that the first words out of my mouth when I left the theater were about Carrie Fisher’s body. (Am I a hater, like those others?!*) I commented that the film almost never showed her full body. As I recall (and I could be wrong, because honestly, the movie did not hold my close attention), it seemed to me that she was always in close-up – just her head. And at one point they (awkwardly, I thought) cut to a close-up of her hand. The few times that we did see her body were in distant wide-shots. So, I concluded, they must have used a body double for Fisher – someone thinner, and then only used her for head-shots, and hand-shots.

Carrie Fisher Before She Lost Some Weight
Carrie Fisher Before She Lost Some Weight

I noticed this because I had recently seen Fisher do the talk-show circuit and had observed that she had become a large woman (which is perfectly understandable; she is no spring chicken anymore). I hear tell that Fisher lost weight for the film and then unfortunately gained it back before her publicity tour. Hmm…even if true…Obviously, her starlet days are behind her (it’s been 38 years!). I was just wondering about why they chose not to show her true body in the movie – why they made her look thinner than she really is, or was. Are Star Wars royalty not allowed to gain weight?

I did also make the somewhat snarky comment that Carrie obviously “had a lot of work done” and it doesn’t look real. She’s so smart; I thought she would be wiser than to go that route. And so I judged that Carrie Fisher is vain and definitely looks worse for wear. And Disney is shallow (duh) and doesn’t want fat heroines. The company probably only cares about profit (as Lucas later accused). That was my brilliant sidewalk analysis.

I could think of nothing to say about the movie itself because… it’s not my thing. However, I personally have repeatedly gained and lost (and lost and gained) weight throughout my many years, and now I am almost as old as Carrie Fisher, and I have indeed considered the possibility of plastic surgery. I have nothing against it in principle. I just worry that it usually doesn’t look good and ends up making the person look older. My point is this: The Empire and/or The Alliance mean nothing to me. And the thing I could most relate to in the film was how Carrie Fisher (and I) have aged. (Am I her in this story?*)

Carrie Fisher Has Had "Work Done"
Carrie Fisher Has Had “Work Done”

A few days later, Kyle Smith, some nasty troll from the New York Post, responded to what he called Fisher’s “Twittantrum” (Twitter-tantrum) with a message to Carrie that she should “quit acting” if she isn’t prepared to put up with her looks being judged. And he wrote:

“Fisher is a public figure. If she didn’t want the public to talk about her, she could have spent the last 40 years teaching kindergarten. As for whether it’s ‘messed up’ for Hollywood to prefer pretty people to appear in its films, Fisher made millions off being pretty. Far from being bitter about this, she and other actresses who profited nicely from their looks should be grateful they had a turn at the top.”

OUCH!!!
OUCH!!!

Ouch. That’s hard-core. (But doesn’t the part about “if you get rich off your work, you are fair game for unfairness” sound a bit like what I thought about George Lucas? Is this unfairness exclusively allocated to women?)

Carrie did not back down. She then tweeted:

“Ok, I quit acting. NOW, can I not like being judged for my looks? Tell me what to do & who to be, oh wise New York post columnist, you GENIUS.”

Ha! Carrie wins again!

She won because she has gotten smarter and funnier as she has aged (due to her years of experience), so she out-wits the brat reporter, and she out-earns him too. In the contest between brains and beauty, I always prefer brains. Although, clearly, Disney always prefers beauty. And also Hollywood at large. Does Carrie’s winning against the troll and even Disney mean that she will be spared hurt feelings? Alas, that responsibility is hers. I am sorry to drag out the hackneyed advice, but dear Carrie Fisher: “Other people can only hurt your feelings if you let them.”

Carrie Fisher, Young and Old
Carrie Fisher, Young and Old

You did have your turn at the beautiful top (and you rocked it – with Rolling Stone), and then you also went on to be a writer and a true creative talent. And in your old, unattractive age, you actually got paid an awful lot more to appear in Star Wars than you did when you were young and beautiful, didn’t you? If you will only click your heels three times, you will see that you had already won, before this twitter war started.

Helen Highly suggests that you quit your twitter account (rather than acting) and stop listening to the peons, and then continue with whatever career you choose.

Note: I am sure that if a full media search were conducted, it would be proven true that more people were more quick to comment about Fisher’s age and looks than they were her co-stars’. However, Helen Highly asserts that the second thing out of her mouth upon leaving the Star Wars movie was an unflattering comment about the appearance of Mark Hamill and his bad facelift. (C’mon.) And then, soon after, Helen also Highly analyzed the dilapidated appearance and infamous personal life of Harrison Ford (who, over his many years, has been gossiped about at least as often as he has been praised).

Is it true that ageism and sexism continue to exist in Hollywood as well as throughout the worlds of business and romance? Yes. Is it true that some inferior people will take every opportunity to say something nasty about those better? (sigh) Yes. And will those problems be corrected during Carrie Fisher’s lifetime? No. For Carrie to escape the unfair cruelties of this world, she would have to get on a spaceship and find another galaxy, far, far away.

"Star Wars" Galaxy
Star Wars Galaxy

*Footnote: Am I that guy? Am I a hater? Am I Carrie Fisher? Well, as they say, you are actually everybody in your dream.


Carrie Fisher died unexpectedly 12/27/2016, and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, died one day later. Read my combo obit and film review of their recent documentary, “Bright Lights: Fat Ghost Lying in the Sun.”

Click for News: George Lucas Says Disney White Slavers to Charlie Rose.

Click for News: George Lucas Disney Apology for White Slavers Comment.

 

hateful eight stagecoach

Quentin Tarantino’s “Hateful Eight” Review

Hateful Eight: Horror in the Wild West

By Helen Kaplow, as HelenHighly

"The Hateful Eight" with Cowboy Font
“The Hateful Eight” with Cowboy Font

I will follow Quentin Tarantino’s lead, and like this movie, The Hateful Eight, I will allow this review to be indulgently long. And like Tarantino, I will break it into “chapters,” using titled headers.

Prelude: It’s dreadful and wonderful

 “Damn. Tarantino never fails to amaze,” I wrote in my book, breathless (having just gasped my heart into my lungs). It was only intermission, and I was already getting high off the crazy-violent depravity-fumes that Tarantino was releasing into the theater. I was glad for the break, to get some fresh air. But hey, he went more than an hour and a half (the running time of most other films) before a shot was even fired. He (and Samuel Jackson) made us wait. And it was hot-blooded, high-tension waiting – like the most highly-charged sexual foreplay that brings you right up to the edge of the cliff, and then, still not giving what you crave, hangs you perilously over the side, where you are clutching for your life and consummation. It’s dreadful and wonderful.

Part One: The Eighth Movie by Quentin Tarantino

First there is an orchestral overture. This movie is being presented as an old-fashioned 70-mm cinematic roadshow, complete with overture and intermission – in limited release. (Only about 40 venues will get this added razzle-dazzle, which adds up to 3+ hours. Most theaters will show the 35-mm version, without the intermission, and slightly shorter.) The grand-opening music is by Ennio Morricone, the legendary Sergio Leone collaborator and the iconic master of scores for the most famous old Westerns (including The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Fistful of Dollars). The much-discussed twist of the movie is its underlying mystery plot, but the biggest mystery might be how Tarantino got this musical giant, who is now pushing 90 years old, to create a score for one of Tarantino’s unabashedly bad-taste, gore-fest films. For this alone, Tarantino is amazing.  

The film opens big – a sprawling view of snow-covered mountains as wide and vivid as you’ve ever seen. And a six-horse stage coach is racing across the white, barren landscape, trying to outrun the howling blizzard that pursues it. Tarantino got at least this one epic shot from his much-touted, Ultra-Panavision 70mm-format camera. (“These are not the same kind of lenses used to shoot Ben-Hur; they are the same lenses,” Tarantino has boasted.)

Click: More about the 70-mm format, from Tarantino, including, “Man, that is going to the movies, and that is worth saving, and we need to see more of that.” – interview with Mike Fleming Jr. at Deadline Hollywood (2nd paragraph)

Click: What Is 70-mm Film, and Why Is It Worth Seeing on the Big Screen? by Sarah Gorr

When the opening credits are plastered up on the screen – static, not scrolling, they are bold red and black, vintage, cowboy-movie lettering against a bright white background, like an old-style movie poster. The Hateful Eight (nod to Leone), along with an intro line: “The 8th Movie by Quentin Tarantino.” Wow. This guy is proud of himself, and in addition: This guy loves movies! He is putting himself all-in and relishing every classic going-to-the-movies moment. And it works; I start off excited, like I am going on a cinematic adventure, led by someone who definitely knows the way.

"The Hateful Eight" with Tarantino
“The Hateful Eight” with Tarantino

So: The dazzling, white-snow wide-shot is held for a long time – plenty of time to take it all in, and then he cuts to a tight close-up of an old, rotting skeleton hanging from a wooden cross (in 70-mm vibrant enormity). Snow blows across the skull as Tarantino pulls the camera out very, very slowly, finally showing the cross standing isolated against the immense, empty landscape. “Think about it,” I can almost hear him saying. “It’s a skeleton, and a cross, and snow – primal.” (Tarantino does actually take to narrating his own film in the second half, which is surprising and quirky.)

"The Hateful Eight," a rare extrerior shot
“The Hateful Eight,” a rare extrerior shot

Part Two: The Door is Nailed Shut

What follows the grandiose and traditional opening is a crazed mash-up of Wild-West cowboy-hats-and-shotguns (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and an Agatha Christie whodunit-mystery (And Then There Were None), an over-the-top blood-splattered horror flick (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), plus another blood-soaked film for good measure (the revenge-horror classic, Carrie), lines of dialogue as witty and well-crafted as Shakespeare (let’s go with Titus Andronicus, his bloodiest tragedy), and Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential play No Exit.

About the latter: Characters are punished by being locked in a room together for eternity. The original title of this 1944 French play is actually the French equivalent of the legal term “in camera,” referring to a private discussion behind closed doors. English translations have also been performed under the titles No Way Out, Vicious Circle, and Dead End, all of which would have been appropriate titles for this movie.

“Hell is other people” – Sartre

The movie begins vast and spacious, as I have described, and then quickly goes indoors and claustrophobic. The travelers from the stage coach take shelter from the storm in a remote, one-room roadhouse, which already holds some questionable characters and is now filled with a motley assortment of killers (some outlaws, some lawful). The beloved owner of the roadhouse is suspiciously absent, and the only door is literally nailed shut. (The latch has recently been broken, so wood planks must be nailed across the door and the wall, to keep the blizzard winds from blowing in.) No one can enter or exit without breaking the boards away from the door. And it’s a full house. Sartre’s famous line, “Hell is other people” might as well have been painted on the cabin wall in blood – Charlie Manson-style.

And this is the brilliant and evil genius of the film. It starts as a customary, wide-screen Western (with what one would wrongly assume are stoic and laconic cowboys) and converts to a theatrical, dialogue-driven parlor drama (with a sadistic twist). And that spectacular 70-mm camera, made for the broad, epic outdoors, is used to create a small, interior, human-face epic, depicting a brutal, cabin-fever-dream that is sweating with saturated details.

Does this story offer an insightful socio-political look into the heart of America – then and now? Is it saying, as Matt Singer writes, at Screen Crush, that America is “a melting pot where everyone gets burned”? Or is it a giddy, gruesome mess full of miserable mayhem, that goes on for way too long? Yes. And Yes. And toss in a few more theories, and it’s those as well. It’s a gluttonous feast of rich genres and saucy conceits– just in time for the holidays, where gluttonous feasts are the way we roll.

Click: Tarantino talks about how TV Westerns were his inspiration, more than movies, especially in terms of the guys-trapped-in-a-room storyline. – interview at Deadline (4th paragraph)

Part Three: Abraham Lincoln is a BFF

Introduce Samuel Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and you need not even mention any of the other excellent cast members (although they all kick ass); these two steal the show. One highlight is when Samuel Jackson delivers a long, slow (+ slower, + longer) monologue that is increasingly horrifying and devastating and ultimately beyond-beyond shocking and unbearable. And it is magnificent. I don’t think I can reveal the big, shocking element without spoiling it. But I will say that it is a deadly monologue. Jackson literally destroys a man with these words. And you see that man – a one-time great army General, melt down in front of Jackson, like the Wicked Witch melted and burned when Dorothy poured the lethal bucket of water on her. It’s one of the most astonishing speeches I can remember hearing – masterfully written and masterfully delivered.

Samuel Jackson in "The Hateful Eight"
Samuel Jackson in “The Hateful Eight”

I don’t think I will be spoiling anything by revealing that Jackson’s character, Major Marquis Warren, a Civil War ex-Union officer turned bounty hunter, is a brutal and pitiless man. We learn early on how he burned down an entire jailhouse where he was imprisoned, killing both his captors and his fellow soldiers, so that he himself could escape. And this Major Warren carries with him, throughout this Civil War interbellum (turmoil-continues) story, a letter written to him by Abraham Lincoln. That letter is reverently kept inside Warren’s breast pocket, close to his heart.

During the course of the film, the letter is admired, spit on, chased through the snow, and so on. Then, in what I will call the last great moment of the film, after Warren has completed a series of bloody, ruthless acts, the full letter is read aloud. And as I watched Jackson’s face – silent and listening, I felt myself tear up. Minutes before, Jackson had wreaked ferocious havoc, and with a quick shift, I was deeply moved by and for him (and by Tarantino’s poetic writing). That’s the way this movie goes; it is savage and then touching and then hilarious. And Samuel Jackson plays a major role in all of those emotional leaps and pirouettes. It is a stunning performance.

“It’s a big, splashy thriller, and a wild ride.”

And then there is Jennifer Jason Leigh. If she doesn’t win an Academy Award for this role (and she won’t), there is simply no justice in the world (a truth that Tarantino woefully keeps telling). She plays Daisy Domergue, a spitting, snarling, murderous outlaw-turned-prisoner who begins the movie with a swollen eye that has been punched purple. Kept in chains, she continues to be arbitrarily and mercilessly beaten and abused throughout the movie; her teeth are knocked out, her nose is broken, and her jaw is fractured. Eventually, she is covered in blood – both her own and the blood of others, and even has some brains splattered on her, yet she remains magically (black-magically) defiant. She can take a punch and come back seething. She is terrifying, she is sympathetic, and she is funny.  And no, I don’t believe that because Tarantino makes the only female character the punching bag of the movie, he is a misogynist. Daisy is the smartest character in the movie. And the most fascinating. And Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the Hell out of her.

Just for fun: Compare Jennifer Jason Leigh in Hateful Eight to Sissy Spacek in Carrie. below:

Jennifer Jason Leigh in "Hateful Eight" and Sissy Spacek in "Carrie"
HelenHighly compares Jennifer Jason Leigh in “Hateful Eight” and Sissy Spacek in “Carrie”

Click: There is an actual thing called Quentin Blood! Fake movie blood is a niche specialty. Ethan Sacks at New York Daily News explains the range of colors and viscosity that different directors want in different films and for different purposes.

Click: A Brief History of Fake Blood, including a pro’s movie-blood recipe, plus Tarantino asking for “Samurai blood” in Kill Bill, Vol. 1. – Forrest Wickman, Slate

Part Four: The Bull Doesn’t Really Die

The details of who kills whom and when and how and why… it’s Quentin Tarantino. Why say more? People will always argue about the issue of gratuitous violence in Tarantino’s movies, no matter what. Nonetheless, I want to add: It’s no spoiler alert to say that far more people die in the new Star Wars movie than in Hateful Eight. But no one will ever accuse Star Wars of being overly violent.

Yet, more-criticized, the violence in Hateful Eight is better, because it is cathartic. It’s stylized and perverse and comically outrageous, but still – you feel it, and deeply. (That’s why it’s so repulsive to so many people.) Spaceship battles in the sky may be entertaining, but they are not cathartic. In Tarantino’s film, blood gets on you. And that redeems it. It elevates the film (despite its apparent depravity).

"The Hateful Eight" have trails of blood.
“The Hateful Eight” have trails of blood.

Let’s review our Aristotle: Catharsis is an emotional purge through which one can achieve a state of moral or spiritual renewal or achieve a state of liberation from anxiety and stress. By watching an exhibition or imitation of fear and violence the audience is able to cleanse themselves of their own repressed fear and violence. Aristotle used the term to explain the impact of tragedy on audiences, saying that catharsis was the ultimate end of a tragic artistic work and marked its quality.

For me, Tarantino is like a watching a bullfight. Consider the bazaar, stylized reality of a prized bull being stabbed for mass entertainment, and bleeding and falling and dramatically dying. And yes, bullfights are controversial too, largely because there is never any doubt that the bull will die; it doesn’t have a chance. It’s the same. There is never any doubt that people will die in a Tarantino film; it’s only a matter of how and when. And it may indeed be unfair to the bull, and inappropriate for modern life, but I don’t think a solid argument can be made against the tragic catharsis that the audience experiences at a bullfight. It’s something that people have felt and acknowledged for centuries. However, the wonder of art is that you can imitate violence and get the same emotional cleansing. In a movie, the bull doesn’t really die.

“There is an actual thing called Quentin Blood!”

And no one understands this better than Quentin Tarantino, who is constantly reminding his audiences that they are watching a movie; what you are seeing is not real. It is a make-believe game that nonetheless has powerful effect. And Tarantino loves to play with that paradox – the tension between what you know is not real and what you really feel. And he takes that to the most extreme and extraordinary places he can go. He’s outrageous, but he’s mindfully so; he knows what he’s doing. And that’s what his fans love about him. He’s smart. His movies are smart, even when they are low and dirty and ugly. (And yes, even because they are low, etc.)

Plus, in modern American life, we have “evolved” to a point where we are numb to so much ordinary and expected violence. It has lost its potency. So we need something more frightening and more terrible to help us achieve that catharsis. And art can offer that, while still being safe.

"The Hateful Eight" is Violent
“The Hateful Eight” is Violent

So, when Tarantino stages a bullfight, you feel as if you are right there, watching the real thing, and then, just as the bull is about to die… suddenly the most unpredictable and terrifying and absurd thing – the thing you could never imagine… happens. And that’s when you get that crazy, horrifying-and-also-satisfying shock; that’s when you gasp your heart into your lungs. And I challenge anyone to watch The Hateful Eight and not gasp in full at least twice.

Conclusion: It’s Sexy

HelenHighly: I'm just saying.
HelenHighly: I’m just saying.

I’ll go one step further and say, not only is it cathartic…  it’s sexy. This is not late-breaking news: sex and death go very well together. And even though the movie has no actual sex in it whatsoever, I think it’s a turn-on. It’s hot. And, btw, there was nothing sexy about Star Wars – romantic maybe, but not visceral. I’m just saying.

Epilogue: Killer Coffee Pot?

HelenHighly is Highly interested in the things in movies. I love it when an object becomes a key part of a film plot, or when it makes such an indelible impression that it changes the way people think of or feel about that thing.

Click: See my commentary on “Holiday Shopping in the Movies: Where to get the goods to make your classic Christmas-movie memories come alive,” in which I write about iconic Christmas gifts that were defined by movies.

In Hateful Eight, there is an object that is central to the plot – the blue-speckled cowboy-style coffee pot, and investigation uncovers an amusing irony. I won’t say exactly how the pot enters into the film’s intrigue, but I will wonder aloud if the pot’s infamous history was an inspiration for that detail of the story (and I’ll give a small clue).

“People started to become suspicious of poisonous ingredients.”

Cowboy Coffee Pot: Enamelware
Cowboy Coffee Pot: Enamelware

The type of pot used in the movie, which was historically accurate, is called enamelware. It was invented in the mid-1800s, when people wanted a way of coating iron to stop metallic tastes or rust from getting into food. They wanted something acid-resistant and easy to clean without laborious scouring, and something more durable than the tin linings used inside copper. So, manufacturers of kitchenware started coating everything from cast iron to steel with enamel. When fired, the enamel glazed, creating a non-porous surface that was easier to clean than exposed metal. Plus, it had a smooth, glossy finish that looked appealing. Originally, enamelware was bright white because it looked most sanitary. Then, speckled blue became popular because it was more cheerful.

But: Were enamel-lined pots really as clean and safe as they seemed? After a while (actually, Helen is Highly amazed at how many years it took) people started to become suspicious of poisonous ingredients leaching into their food. Unfortunately, it turned out, enamel surfaces were prone to cracking, which would expose the metal beneath, causing it to rust. Ultimately, consumers were scared away from both the metal and the enamel, due to claims of lead, antimony, and arsenic turning up in their food and coffee.

Today, modern science has solved the poison problem, and enamelware is still used in country kitchens and vintage-chic homes. And because they can handle a direct flame and don’t require electricity, enameled coffee pots are still a staple at well-equipped camp sites. (Just don’t ever let Quentin Tarantino anywhere near your coffee pot.)

Finally

Yes, we have just crossed the three-hour mark. And I will stop writing. But Helen Highly encourages YOU to drink some strong coffee (maybe with a shot of booze in it) and high-tail it over to your local theater and see The Hateful Eight. It’s a big, splashy thriller, and a wild ride. 


Click for News: The Hateful Eight Opens Big with $1.9 million on Christmas Day

Click for News: Hive CM8 Leak Pirated Copies, Then Apologize (sort of)

Click for News: Hateful Tweets About Hateful Eight 70mm Roadshow Projection Problems

Cate Blanchett, Perfection as Carol

Best Film Review: “Carol” vs “Brooklyn”

HelenHighly Critiques the Film Carol and Compares it to the film Brooklyn

Cate Blanchett in "Carol"
Cate Blanchett in “Carol”

The movie Carol, a lesbian romantic drama that is based on the book The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, is getting named Best Film of the Year by just about everyone, it seems, and making all the award short-lists. And Helen is Highly disappointed. Let me add up front that the film was costumed by Sandy Powell, art directed by Jesse Rosenthal, and filmed by Edward Lachman, who will all likely (and deservingly) receive awards for their work here. But in this review, I have issues with director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy.

Mundane, overly precious, pointlessly detailed movie.

I saw Carol at the 53rd New York Film Festival, where just about every film was more interesting than this gigantic slice of Boring. After watching the film, I assumed most people would dislike it as much as I did, so I was shocked when I did a quick Google search and saw the Variety review pop up saying “High expectations don’t quite prepare you for the startling impact of Carol, exquisitely drawn, deeply felt…” No way! (I usually like Justin Chang, but I disagree with him and nearly everyone else about this film.) My first order of business is to change Variety’s intro line: “High expectations don’t quite prepare you for”: the slow emptiness of this mundane, overly precious, pointlessly detailed movie.

Listen, I adore Cate Blanchett as much as anyone. And no one can say she is not gorgeous. At one point in the film – at a party, her estranged husband concedes to her that she is the most beautiful woman in the room. Well, that never changes. She is the most beautiful and the best dressed and best accessorized and best groomed person in every scene. So, let’s all agree to put Cate Blanchett’s face in the dictionary under the word Perfection, and then we can all go home and save ourselves two hours of lifeless artifice. And if Cate were selling lipstick, or stockings, or fur coats, I would buy them all. But I would not recommend this movie to anyone.

I’m happy for Blanchett that she got such a glamorous star vehicle in which to show off. But why is no one else stating the obvious – that this is essentially a vanity project for Cate Blanchett? Unfortunately however, in this movie, we cannot see Cate’s rich inner life through the heavy cover of makeup and fur.

Blanchett as "Carol" in fur
Blanchett as “Carol” in fur

Remember the final season’s opening episode on Mad Men, where Don Draper is trying desperately to find the ideal,  alluring model to put in his fur coat ad? Todd Haynes’ Cate Blanchett should get that job! She is precisely what Don was looking for – an impossibly beautiful fantasy of aspirational glamour and exquisite opulence. Women want to be her and men want to have her, exactly because she is so flawless and empty; you feel nothing for her or from her as a character – no complicated emotions to ruin the high-gloss facade. And honestly, Cate, you are better than this; you don’t need to advertise your quintessential (surface) beauty. That Don Draper gig, and this movie, are beneath you; you can act.

The book was ground-breaking and radical; the movie is strictly conventional and banal.

This brings me to the lesbian theme of the story. Helen Highly objects to Haynes’ portrayal of Carol and her younger lover (played by Rooney Mara) as a Hollywood male fantasy of woman-on-woman sexuality. Due to Haynes’ decision to maintain the look-and-feel of a 1950s flick, the movie refrains from overtly explicit sex scenes, but still it has the tone of cheesy pin-up porn – made for men, and not about real-life women who have ambiguous thoughts and difficult feelings. Highsmith’s 1953 book, The Price of Salt, became a lesbian-love cult-novel, due largely to its being the first authentic expression of a lesbian relationship that did not have the punishing ending that was prescribed by 1950s morality. Highsmith was a lesbian herself (a fact she denied throughout most of her career), and this story is semi-autobiographical, telling the tale of when she was a shop girl who fell into a romantic obsession over an older married woman who was a customer at the store. But let’s stop there for a moment. (Well, there’s not much else to tell; the movie mostly repeats variations of the same scene.)

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in "Carol"
Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol

Part of Helen being Highly annoyed is that so many people are eager to say how this film is “important for women” – as if it were still the act of sexual bravery and social revelation it was in the 1950s. And that is simply not the case. Today, the storyline reads as old news and naively obvious. The book was ground-breaking and radical; the movie is strictly conventional and banal. And this is the fault of the screenplay and the direction, which do not capture the emotional intensity or poetic eroticism of the book. (Watch Dec. 19th’s Saturday Night Live and see their skit about how a male director is ruining an otherwise good 1950’s movie about two lesbians. Ha.)

Blanchett gazes
Blanchett gazes

The book meticulously detailed the inner lives of these two, passionate yet confused women; the film, instead, meticulously (and ploddingly) details a story that was only loosely referenced in the book — because Highsmith was interested in tortuous desire and fearful loneliness, not a who-gets-the-kid divorce case. In the movie that Nagy and Haynes made, the tale becomes a simplistic, self-righteous, politically-correct after-school-special. Haynes attempts, it seems, to depict the women’s emotions with an endless series of long, silent gazes. The film becomes tedious quickly, as we see the same posed, passive expressions played over and over – against a range of sumptuous backgrounds. And so it seems that Haynes cares more about his visual style than he does the psychology of his characters.

Todd Haynes is no Hitchcock.

Now, because of all the unwarranted hoopla about this movie, it becomes important to discuss Highsmith’s other books, several of which were made into highly successful movies, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train among them. Highsmith published The Price of Salt under another name and disowned the book for many years, not wanting to derail her career as a successful mystery writer. Other than this one-off erotic lesbian tale,  Highsmith wrote thrillers. Margaret Talbot, at the New Yorker, recently wrote a fascinating article about the background of the movie, in which she explained: “In 1952, Coward-McCann published The Price of Salt. Harpers & Bros., which had released Strangers on a Train two years earlier, turned it down, perhaps because it wasn’t another thriller.” So, for all you devoted Highsmith fans, just be aware: this one is not like the others — not the book, and definitely not the film. By the way, The New Yorker article is very worth reading and includes many quotes from the book, which are strikingly different from the minimal, stilted language of the film.

 And to my smart-yet-in-this-case-incorrect friend, and others, who like to say that Carol is comparable to the brilliant and classic Strangers on a Train, I say two things:

1) Haynes is no Hitchcock. Yes, Hitchcock and Highsmith shared an affection for frosty blondes (and perhaps Todd Haynes does as well). But Hitchcock was a master. He knew how to make an ice-queen come alive on the screen.

2) Carol is no thriller. Hitchcock also understood plot; he knew what was a compelling story and what was not. Carol is not.

So, Cate Blanchett and Todd Haynes can wish she were Grace Kelly or Kim Novak all day long, but she’s not going to touch a hair of their blonde locks with this script and this director.

It takes a drag-queen to understand what is wrong with this movie!

The other night, taking a break from writing this review, I went to Joes’ Pub at the Public Theater to see a wacky Christmas cabaret by Justin Vivian Bond, called Angels We Have Heard When High (HelenHighly was highly intrigued.)

Justin Vivian Bond
Justin Vivian Bond

To my surprise and delight, much of the comic element of the show was based on the movie Carol. It takes a drag-queen to understand what is wrong with this movie! Bond smartly comments at one point, “The Price of Salt was at least based on something real.” Bond scoffs at the notion that there is anything true or sexy in the film and hilariously explains that despite the director’s meticulous efforts to create 1950s verisimilitude, he neglects the important detail of Cate Blanchett’s fingernails.

Bond says that it’s clearly apparent that Carol has a gel manicure – something only recently invented and very different from the nail polish the character would have worn in her day. Ha! That is so true! (Gel “no-chip” polish and processing essentially bake the color onto the nails and have been a game-changer in the world of manicures. The color lasts for weeks instead of days and is a major 21st-century advancement, which would have been nothing but a sci-fi fantasy to any 1950s woman.) Bond goes on to insist that at least during the several-day-long road trip, where Carol is living out of a suitcase, she would have had a couple chips in her perfect nail color. But Haynes did not allow that, keeping Carol a phony character instead.

Bond also bemoans the film’s false portrayal of the “May-December romance” (which is important in the book). Mx Viv is all for older men or women getting it on with young, hot things, but alas she was once the May and is now the December part of that equation. And she knows what that feels like and looks like (and so does HelenHighly), and there is no way that “December” looks like Cate Blanchett’s perfection. Bond resents now having to live up to Todd Haynes’ unrealistic depiction of a December lover. Once again: Helen Highly agrees!

In Brooklyn, the design supports the characters instead of glossing over them.

While watching the screening of Carol at the New York Film Festival, I made very few notes in my book, because there was nothing interesting to write down (IMHO). But soon after, there was a screening of the film Brooklyn, another historically-accurate, sentimental love story that was adapted from an acclaimed book (screenplay by Nick Hornby). I made quite a few notes about that movie. Remarkably, the two films take place in the same year and in the same city (New York and its environs) and both generally deal with the problems of pulled-in-two-directions love and related family pressure. The big difference: I care about the characters in Brooklyn!

"Brooklyn" movie poster.
Brooklyn movie poster.

 In the movie Brooklyn, the main character is Ellis Lacey (played with heart by Saoirse Ronan), and like Carol, she struggles with a love dilemma and is nearly torn apart by it. Both stories also include a theme about secrets and spies who reveal those secrets, plus the themes of betrayal and nasty gossip. Watching Ellis, I ached for her. Carol’s plight left me cold.

Both films have been critically applauded for their lush cinematography and vivid, vintage design. But in Brooklyn, the design supports the characters instead of glossing over them. Interestingly, in an interview after the screening, director John Crowley explained that he wanted the film to “seem artless,” and he did not cast the roles “for looks,” but rather for “inner truth.” And that inner truth is indeed expressed in the film, which rises above its sentimentality by letting the characters earn their emotions. Crowley brings the audience close and lets us follow the inner workings of the characters. Haynes maintains a cool distance throughout.

"Brooklyn" looks real.
“Brooklyn” looks real.

There is a scene in Brooklyn where Ellis takes her first trip to the beach at Coney Island, and when she comes out from behind her towel and reveals her “swim costume,” it is a glorious moment. I felt myself beaming for her. I wrote in my notes, “rapture!” And the feeling of rapture is exactly what was needed and missing from Carol. When Ellis’ sister dies, I was devastated. I felt her pain. For Carol, I could only yawn (and sneer at suffering that seemed so fake).

Todd Haynes, I know you are a skilled and well-regarded filmmaker (and thank you for the movie I’m Not There, where Cate Blanchett is put to much better use, btw), but Helen Highly suggests that you watch the movie Brooklyn and take a few notes.


Click: Get News about the awards and accolades that “Carol” has received.

Click: What do you think? Cast your vote: Is Carol Best Movie of the Year, or is Brooklyn better? Click this image to vote and see the results so far:

OR: Don’t love Brooklyn (or didn’t see it) but want to stop the insanity about Carol?  Vote for Carol vs ANY OTHER FILM as Best Movie of the Year. Click this image to vote:

 

 

5 Flights Up film poster

“5 Flights Up” Review, with Helen-Gets-a-New-TV Commentary AND Holiday Greeting to My Readers

5 Flights Up Film Review, with Helen-Gets-a-New-TV Commentary AND a Holiday Greeting to my Readers

by Helen Kaplow, as HelenHighly

Diane Keaton and her dog.
Diane Keaton and her dog.

I recently got a new television. My friend helped me set it up but didn’t have patience to go through all the detailed settings with me.

So, one day, the day after Thanksgiving, it was quiet and peaceful, even in my apartment where it is usually busy and stressful. And I took the time to carefully, meticulously yet leisurely, adjust the complex color settings in order to get my ideal picture on my new TV.

I sat in my newly furnished, all-white bedroom, in my TV-watching seat — the sleek white leather-and-chrome chair I have in my “parlor area.” And I put my feet up on my new big furry ottoman – covered in grey-and-white super-long fake-animal hair, standing on lucite legs. That was the first time I’d sat there for more than five minutes. But that day, I sat for hours and watched a whole movie. It just came onto TV while I was flipping channels. I’d never heard of it and had no idea what I was watching at first (and I missed the first few minutes).

The movie was 5 Flights Up, with Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton, and it was shot in New York and is about living in Brooklyn, and maybe moving to Manhattan. So despite not being a commercially well-received film (or I would have heard of it, right?) I thought it was perfect for me, who just moved to New York. It’s a movie about a borderline-elderly couple (where does one draw the line?) who put their apartment up for sale – a classic, old, 5-story walk-up in Brooklyn. (My uncle, who is beyond borderline and is fully elderly, explained to me that long ago there was a law dictating that any residential building over five stories must have an elevator. Thus all those 5-story walk-ups — the max allowed without an expensive elevator.) Morgan and Diane – who, it seemed to me, didn’t bother to play characters and were just themselves – have lived in that apartment all their married lives, from the time they were college kids together. So it’s a sentimental tale about Brooklyn and the idea of “home” and how an apartment itself becomes a member of the family.

“Thanks Diane Keaton for looking beautiful and real.”

I enjoyed the movie, despite it being unambitious  and overly sweet. In addition to the topic that was personally relevant to me, I have always liked both those actors – Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton, and it was good to see that they have both grown old gracefully. They have no visible signs of plastic surgery, and they both have a comfortable calm about them that comes from having lived long, accomplished lives. Now I Googled 5 Flights Up and found these quotes that say what I might have written about the film except that someone else already has:

“5 Flights Up would be nothing without its stars (very true), whose humanity warms up a movie that otherwise portrays New Yorkers as coldblooded, slightly crazy, hypercompetitive sharks.”
Stephen Holden, New York Times. Click for full review.

I agree with Holden about the actors, and my impulse is to also agree about his objection to the portrayal of stereotypical New Yorkers. But a new friend who is a longtime New Yorker keeps telling me how hyper-competitive New York is, and how I better be ready. So I will consider the possibility that he and these filmmakers are correct. Although, of course my friend is intensely competitive himself, and insists he must be in order to “make it” here, so even if the competitive environment is a figment of his imagination, he helps to make it true just by believing it’s true and behaving in a coldblooded manner. But that’s another subject.

“Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton have unexpectedly great chemistry in this warm and funny comedy.”
Lou Lumenick, New York Post. Click for full review.

Yes, they are a pleasure to watch together, and they helped me to calm down and sit quietly and watch this very pleasant movie.

“It weasels its way into your heart and ultimately claims sweet, sentimental victory over your better judgment.
Stephanie Merry, Washington Post. Click for full review.

Yes, normally this is the kind of movie I would dislike on premise. But… right time right place and it worked for me.

BUT… my point – and I do have one (who said that?), is that I used the natural, soft and variable face of Diane Keaton, with her multi-faceted expressions and inconstant, dynamic complexion, to set the picture features of my new Vizio TV. And I like that I got to do that. And I think that now I do indeed have a subtly refined Perfect Picture on my television screen. So, thanks Diane Keaton for looking beautiful and real. And I wanted to point out just how complex and intricate those settings are.

I have outlined a list of each feature about which I was able to individually make a choice (and not just an on-or-off binary choice – usually multiple or full-spectrum choice). The list below has more than 50 lines – 50 options and choices to make about my Vizio television picture. And keep in mind that as you change one option, you need to go back and adjust the previous options, because they now look different. I recall now that a friend of mine once hired a specialist, paying him $150., to come to his home and program his television screen for him. Now this is beginning to make sense to me. Perhaps this concept of a fine-tuned screen picture has become an industry in itself. I wonder if that is intentional.

Anyway. Here is the list of options that I leisurely strolled through, with Diane Keaton’s face on freeze-frame, watching her appearance subtly shift, as she contemplated her existence in New York.

“The better to see you with, my dear Diane.”

Picture:

Mode

Standard

Calibrated (I chose this one.)

Calibrated Dark

Vivid

Game

Computer

Auto-Brightnesss

Off

On (I chose on.)

High

Med (Went with medium.)

Low

Backlight (Number range: I chose 95 out of 100)

Brightness (Number range: 50)

Contrast (80)

Color (50. But when you adjust one option, then all the others look different, and you want to go back and adjust them again.)

Tint (0)

Sharpness (50)

More (Yes of course, more.)

Color Temperature

Normal (I want to be unconventional, but Normal is the only reasonable selection here.)

Color

Computer

Black Detail (Must research what this is and come back.)

Off

On

Low

Medium

High

Active LED Zones

On (Hell yes; this was the reason I selected this Vizio TV – for it’s much-touted “active LED zones.”)

Off

Clear Action

On

Off (I chose off. I’m getting tired, and I think this is a sports thing.)

Reduce Noise (Again, not sure and losing interest.)

Reduce Significant Noise

Low

Medium

High

Reduce Block Noise

Low

Medium

High

Picture Size and Position (It’s fine the way it is.)

Film Mode

Auto (Ok. Whatever.)

Off

Gamma (Really?!)

1.8

2.0

2.1

2.2 (Chose this. Don’t ask me why.)

2.4

So. What a complex ecosystem my TV screen is. The better to see you with, my dear Diane. I hope your real life is as lovely and happy as your life in this movie. And I hope the same for me. My new life in Manhattan (not Brooklyn), among the sharks, should be warm and interesting like Diane Keaton’s, as well as bright and active and clear, with deep blacks and bright whites. This sounds like a holiday wish on a greeting card. So, I say to you, patient reader:

May your new year (and your TV screen) be bright and active and clear, with deep blacks and bright whites. And may you always have the best Gamma value.

Lionel Train Set

Gift Guide to Holiday Shopping in the Movies

Lionel Train Set
What is better than a train running on its track around a Christmas tree?

Movie Gift Guide: Where to get the goods to make your classic Christmas-movie memories come alive.

by Helen Kaplow, as HelenHighly

“The stuff that dreams are made of.”

The unforgettable hat, the shining toy train, the pair of ice skates, as depicted by cinematic magic – these items have come to represent Christmas Joy itself. Don’t just watch them on television, bring them home for the holidays (or get them online and have them delivered while you stay home and watch old movies on TV). This guide points you to the websites that sell the items that our cherished old-movies made symbolic of Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Men.

A Miracle on 34th Street
This film has been a perennial holiday favorite since its debut in 1947. No one has ever played Santa Claus more convincingly than Edmund Gwenn. And it’s a movie filled with the exciting clamor of Christmas shopping and our yearning for just the right gifts.

Kris Kringle: What do you want for Christmas, Peter?
Peter: A fire engine, just like the big ones only smaller, that has a real hose that squirts real water. I won’t do it in the house, only in the backyard. I promise.
Harried Mother: Psst! Psst! Macy’s ain’t got any. Nobody’s got any.
Kris Kringle: Well, Peter, I can tell you’re a good boy. You’ll get your fire engine.
Peter: Oh, thank you very much! You see? I told you he’d get me one.
Harried Mother: That’s fine. That’s just dandy. Listen, what’s the matter with you? Don’t you understand English? I tell you nobody’s got any. I’ve been all over. My feet are killing me. A fine thing, promising the kid.
Kris: You don’t think I would’ve said that unless I’m sure? You can get those fire engines at…

Bruder Toy Fire Engine
Peter’s dream fire engine.
  • New York or Chicago Fire-and-Cop Shop websites: ChicagoFireAndCopShop and NYFireAndPolice. These stores sell a big line of fire-and-police-related gifts, including T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, Christmas ornaments, and toy police cars and fire trucks. It’s good to buy local and authentic, so these websites are worth a visit, but they don’t actually sell the exact fire truck that Peter wanted.
  • To get a fire engine with a working pump, as Peter specified, you must find the Bruder brand, which is sold at Target and Amazon. The Bruder water-spraying truck comes in a range of sizes. Do a Google search for: “Bruder MAN Fire Engine with Water Pump.” If you want the biggest and best – with a 3-stage telescoping ladder that extends to over 4 feet tall and swivels 360⁰, plus a realistic driver’s cabin with doors that open, you’ll find it online when you search for “Bruder MACK Granite Fire Engine with Water Pump.”
  • If you want a true, detailed replica of a fire truck from your city – from New York to Chicago to L.A., plus many more, go to the Code3FireTrucks website. These metal, die-cast trucks are more than just toys; they are limited-edition, historic collectibles – for the little boy in our hero-loving grown men.

The other item that a child requested from Santa in Miracle on 34th St. was a pair of ice skates. These skates are what set the story of the movie into action, as Kris, the store Santa working for Macy’s, dares to tell the mother of this little girl that she’ll find a better pair of skates at the competition, Gimbel’s. That puts Santa in trouble with his bosses, but it ultimately proves ingenious, because customers like this one wind up loving Macy’s all the more.

Shopping Mother: Imagine a big outfit like Macy’s putting the spirit of Christmas ahead of the commercial. It’s wonderful. I never done much shopping here before, but from now on, I’m going to be a regular Macy customer.

Get your daughter high-quality skates, because as Kris says, “their little ankles want protecting.”

  • For a traditional figure skate with a classic look (rather than the latest styles that look more like ski boots), look for DBX Traditional Figure Skates, which are sold at Dick’s Sporting Goods.
  • For a full selection of traditional skates made from real leather, such as the top-notch Riedell brand, along with detailed information on choosing just the right skate, go to  FigureSkatingStore.


The Bishop’s Wife
Maybe you can’t have Cary Grant and his angelic charm, but you can get a charming hat like the one he bought for Loretta Young in the 1948 film, The Bishop’s Wife. In this timeless Christmas tale, a bishop, played by David Niven, is trying to get a new cathedral built, which depends on the financial support of a domineering and selfish old woman. The bishop prays for divine guidance. An angel (Cary Grant) arrives, but his guidance isn’t about fundraising. It’s more about paying attention to the bishop’s lonely wife and tending to her happiness, which includes the purchase of a hat that she admired in a store window but was too meek to buy for herself. The hat is purchased and the strained marriage is re-ignited. We are all mere mortals after all, and mortal flesh likes a pretty hat. To get a life-changing hat for your loved one, visit:

  • America’s oldest hat maker, Bollman Hat Company, which is now celebrating its 145th year and offering an exclusive vintage collection of women’s headwear. They have chosen one hat for each decade since their inception in 1868 in Adamstown, PA, USA, beginning with an 1860s bonnet, and including a 1920s flapper hat, a 1930s aviator hat, and even a 1960s Jackie hat. Their 1940s hat, however, is based on “Rosie the Riveter” and not exactly the type to make a woman’s heart melt.
  • To find a fancy hat that might have been worn by a beautiful woman like Loretta Young in 1948, go to Village Hat Shop. The site also includes a History of Hats section that is fascinating and fun.


Holiday Affair
This 1949 romantic comedy stars Janet Leigh and Robert Mitchum. Leigh plays a war-widow with a wistful devotion to her child, an adorable tousled tot who covets an expensive, electric train. Set during the Christmas shopping season, both main characters are working in department store jobs and struggling financially while they fall into a love triangle that involves the buying and returning of the train set – twice. Finally, it is little Timmy who takes his train back to Crowley’s department store and tearfully asks for a refund so that Steve (Mitchum) will not be penniless. The story ends with the child not getting the gift he originally wanted, but instead getting a new father who he loves. If your child already has a father he loves, maybe he could use an electric train set:

  • Lionel has a Christmas Dream Kit train set, complete with all the train cars, tracks, and accessories you will need, including Christmas Wreath Clock Tower, plus train-themed stockings and ornaments for your home.
  • For a more year-round and high-end electric train set, go with the Bachmann brand. The Rail Chief Ready To Run Electric Train Set has 130 pieces that include a diesel locomotive with operating headlight, open quad hopper car, gondola car, plug-door box car, and off-center caboose. It features a 47” x 38” inch oval of snap-fit E-Z Track, signal bridge, 36 miniature figures, 24 telephone poles, 48 railroad and street signs, power pack, and speed controller. Sold at the Bachmann Trains website and also at Toys R Us.


An Affair to Remember
This 1957 film, starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, is universally considered to be one of the most romantic movies of all time. In the final, tear-jerking scene, on Christmas Eve, Cary Grant brings his dead grandmother’s shawl as a gift to Deborah Kerr, who has been hiding herself (and her paralysis) from Grant for six months. Grant plays a painter, and he has painted a portrait of Kerr wearing the shawl that his grandmother wanted her to have. The entire impossible love story turns on this beloved shawl; due to the gift, the painting is revealed, the wheelchair is revealed, and the couple’s true love is confirmed. To wrap someone you love in a magical shawl this year:

  • Try Etsy and search for “lace shawl” and then refine your search by selecting “Handmade” on the left sidebar. There are lots of people selling handmade shawls that you’d never find in a mainstream retail store. Some will even make custom shawls to order. On Etsy, you get to see who makes the item, so you can select a sweet old lady like Cary Grant’s mother, if you want.

Shop Around the Corner
This classic holiday tale has been so loved that even Tom Hanks took a chance at a re-make, updating the role that Jimmy Stewart originated. But the initial version took place in a Budapest gift shop, where Stewart worked as the head salesman, Alfred Kralik. The shop owner and Kralik get into an argument over the owner’s idea to sell a cigarette box that plays music when opened. Kralik thinks it’s a bad idea. Then, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan) enters the gift shop looking for a job. Kralik tells her there are no openings, but when she is able to sell one of the musical cigarette boxes, the owner hires her. This sets the two romantic leads at odds and begins the adversarial love affair that ends, of course, with Christmas joy and unity. To get a musical cigarette box for your strong-willed love:

  • Go to MusicBoxAttic, where they sell all sorts of music-playing boxes, even those with twirling ballerinas, like so many of us adored as children.
  • Or search on Etsy or eBay to find a vintage music box that was actually designed for cigarettes, some with nifty, carousel dispensers. I bet you can even find one made in Hungary or Austria, similar to the one in the movie.

There is a way that only cinema can engrave on our hearts and make magic of mere objects. It’s more than just another gift; “It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.”


Click: More Christmas Gift Ideas for Movie Lovers

Click: Another clever gift guide to check out, by Jennifer Picht at TimeOut New York. I especially like the suggestions for Your Drunk Uncle.

 

Mia Madre movie poster

Nanni Moretti’s “Mia Madre” Review

“Mia Madre” by Nanni Moretti: An Essay (more than a review)

by Helen Kaplow, as HelenHighly

Italians understand Life and Death in "Mia Madre"
Italians understand Life and Death in “Mia Madre”

“Those Italians, they understand Sorrowful Life and Comical Death in ways that Americans just do not.”

When was the last time you heard a great last line in a movie? So great it made you burst into tears? The final line in Nanni Moretti’s “Mia Madre” is not a brilliant sentence in itself. (Then again, is “rosebud” profound in itself?) But in context – the way it references an earlier conversation in the film, as well as sums up the theme of the movie, and most importantly creates a definitive and meaningful end to the story (and endings are always difficult, even for the best filmmakers), in that way, this was an enormously powerful and stirring end – probably the best final line to a movie that anyone heard at the 53rd New York Film Festival. And it literally made me cry out loud.

Basically, this is a story about a woman whose mother is dying. But, don’t imagine grim or depressing. Those Italians, they understand Sorrowful Life and Comical Death in ways that Americans just do not. It’s like writer/director Nanni Moretti (“The Son’s Room”) is tapping into an ancient source of pure emotion. And he does it so gracefully. The film is gently, deeply astute. The lyricism in the language adds to the effect; Italian is such an elegant language. It’s all part of this organic sensation that comes from the film – this gorgeous feeling that grows out of my stomach and blooms in my chest.

“Death is breathing life while life is killing her.”

In conversation after the screening, Moretti actually says that he wants the audience to feel that the movie is digging inside of them. That’s exactly what I felt. Or, I felt the movie carving into me. As I watched, I felt like I was being sculpted. I felt as if a great master, Michelangelo, was carefully cutting, chiseling into me, and so he – the sculptor, the director, the writer – is making us – the audience – into his magnificent carved creation. And in that way, Moretti is elevating us with his talent, his vision. He is making us sublime.

Except it really wasn’t “us.” It was just me alone and that movie. It was so intimate. I start off watching the movie from outside and thinking about it – thinking I will “review” it, and then I am in the movie. I am living it. It is living me. I am not audience observing a film; we are involved in each other in some palpable way. It’s almost physical – like I can literally feel it touching me. It brings me to life in an odd way; I can feel my heart inside my body.

Of course, the death of a parent is a universal experience, but this film manages to make it feel uniquely personal. I feel as if this director has been watching me in my life, with my family, and is now explaining myself to me. Although, I suspect it’s an explanation that will feel relevant or resonant to nearly every adult. Perhaps the film score helps me to feel so fully enthralled – a variety of music from Leonard Cohen, Philip Glass, Nino Rota, and Arvo Part.

Other critics may focus on the story that binds the film’s emotions together, but the movie is more about the emotions than the story. The lead character (played with glorious subtlety by Margherita Buy) is an Italian filmmaker who is shooting a movie while her mother is dying in a hospital. Actually, this is a semi-autobiographical film in that Mortetti had his mother die while he was shooting a previous film. However, I think that fact is more significant to the personal life of Moretti than to the body of this film; having an experience and elevating that experience to an art form are two very different things.

In this movie, the story functions to bring in the outside world and its pressing realities and complexities. The specifics of what job the central character has are mostly inconsequential. Although, it is worth noting that the character’s persistent and diligent return to the stress of her work environment, after each vigil beside her dying mother, shows that life goes on.

John Tuturro provides comic relief in "Mia Madre."
John Tuturro provides comic relief in “Mia Madre.”

The story also serves by bringing smartly implemented humor. John Tuturro plays an American who is a hilariously bad actor in the film that our lead is trying to make. Tuturro’s approach is broad and exuberant, which is startling in this otherwise quiet movie, and ultimately Tuturro’s excited approach not only works but becomes essential to Moretti’s message. I am laughing, I am crying, I am laughing, I am crying… I am exalted.

Another running joke in the film is when our protagonist director repeatedly tells her actors to “be the character you are playing at the same time as you stand outside the character.” No one understands this instruction, and finally the director herself admits that she doesn’t know what she means. But I see this as appropriately consistent with my unusual experience of the film; I am both standing outside it — watching, and in it — experiencing.

Fundamentally, this is a story about emotion. It’s an exploration of humanity. It is life and death – beautiful and heartbreaking, devastating and inspiring. It was excruciating to watch a scene where our lead character is stripped naked and exposed (metaphorically); she’s made vulnerable and cut to shreds – destroyed. Then, she goes and sits silently beside her dying mother, and that gives her new life. It revives her. It saves her. Death is breathing life while life is killing her.

Being in the presence of her dying mother revives Margherita in "Mia Madre"
Being in the presence of her dying mother revives Margherita in “Mia Madre”

In the press conference, Moretti is talking, with his lovely Italian accent, and I hear… “love erupts in solitude.” I don’t even know what that means, but I totally feel it. I leave the theater feeling newly alive.


Update: After playing at the 53rd New York International Film Festival, this movie played at the Chicago International Film Festival, and then virtually disappeared from the U.S. But look for it to return in March 2016, at your local art / indie /foreign-film theater.  The film was nominated for the Palme d’Or prize at Cannes Film Festival and won Best Non-U.S. Release at the Online Film Critics Society Awards.

Click: The New York Times asks Nanni Moretti 5 Questions

Click:  Moretti Film Canceled in Paris Attacks

Heart of a Dog

Laurie Anderson’s “Heart of a Dog” Review

Laurie Anderson and Lolabelle
Laurie Anderson and Lolabelle

by Helen Kaplow, as HelenHighly

In her poetic film collage essay, “Heart of a Dog,” Laurie Anderson is more beautifully and thoughtfully herself than ever.

“It seems the movie is often shedding its own tears… as if life itself is crying.”

Anderson has had a long career, but was most well-known in the 80’s as an experimental performance artist, composer, and musician who especially explored the mix of spoken word and music. Those who know her albums such as “Big Science” and “Home of the Brave” will appreciate the return of the fragmented rhythm and quizzical tone of Anderson’s speech, opening with voice-over sentences such as “This is my dream body – the one I use to walk around in my dreams,” and “It’s like one of those old movies…” It’s like one of Anderson’s old albums, only … Much, Much, Better (to quote Anderson in “Language is a Virus”).

Laurie Anderson with electric violin
Laurie Anderson with electric violin

Despite the film’s seemingly stream-of-conscious, no-plot, hodge-podge approach, Anderson has meaningful ideas to express, and she’s woven together an elegant and smartly structured tone-and-picture poem. The movie combines her personal stories and musings with quotations from renowned philosophers, ink drawings on paper, printed words, animation, scratchy old 8mm home-movie clips, new footage of landscapes, surveillance camera footage with time codes, graphic images such as computer icons, and her ingenious use of music.

As always, Anderson excels at language, and here she combines various types of on-screen text with her own lyrical voice-over. I often leave a movie wanting to run home and download the soundtrack, but in this case I am yearning for a transcript. These are words worthy of reading and contemplating. “Try to learn how to feel sad without being sad,” is just one of the many sentences that could use more time to resonate than one viewing allows.

But one of the surprises of this project may be Anderson’s sophisticated and inventive cinematography. As the film explores a variety of deaths – the death of Anderson’s dog, the death of her mother, the death of her husband (Lou Reed), and the mass deaths of 9/11 in New York, it seems the movie is often shedding its own tears. Many sequences are shot through a pane of glass that is dripping with water, like life itself is crying. And then she turns footage of an ocean upside down, with the foreground still raining, so the sea that has become the sky is weeping too. In front of everything, Anderson seems to be saying, is a gentle, pervasive sadness.

"Heart of a Dog" sheds its own tears.
“Heart of a Dog” sheds its own tears.

And yet, the movie is not even remotely maudlin. It discusses 9/11 in way that actually adds fresh insight, which seems impossible after so many anniversaries full of remembrance ceremonies, and so many other films that have also integrated that tragic event. In fact, this movie would have made a much better selection for the Opening Film of this year’s New York Film Festival than “The Walk,” which is ostensibly about the man who walked a tightrope between the world’s tallest pair of buildings, but is mostly a sentimental homage to the Twin Towers, complete with golden reflected sunset footage of the Towers and seemingly endless talk about their dramatic importance. For all the “The Walk’s” telling us how we should feel, and trying so desperately to rouse emotion, it fails in that regard. Laurie Anderson is a long-time New York resident and artist, and this film speaks so sincerely to New Yorkers in particular, that it would have made an intensely appropriate opening for the New York Film Festival, which took place so close to 9/11. (Of course, the film is also relevant to all Americans, and all human beings, at any time of year.)

Perhaps the strongest moment in Anderson’s film is when she takes her dog outdoors in a big field and enjoys watching her run and play in tall grass and aromatic dirt, as dogs do. And the camera pans up to the bright blue sky; it is such a beautiful day. And then we see pretty white trails in the sky, moving in circles. Anderson tells us they are birds. And then she sees that they are hawks. And she describes the look in the eyes of her dog, Lolabelle, as the dog peers up and realizes that she… is prey. The dog understands that these birds have come for the purpose of killing her. And Anderson bemoans the new reality that now the dog must not only be aware of the ground and the grass and the other earthbound creatures, but also that huge, untouchable expanse of sky. The sky is now a danger. And the dog will never view the sky the same again.

Cut to footage of 9/11 as Anderson compares her dog’s feeling to hers, and ours, when we suddenly understood that “something was wrong with the air”; the sky brought danger and those flying planes were there for the purpose of killing us. And “it would be that way from now on.”

Anderson goes on to talk about the strangeness of living in a post-9/11 surveillance state, where we are always being recorded. But she does not take the obvious path of complaining about the social injustice. Instead, she takes a clever twist and points out that all your actions are now data. And that data is always being collected, but it will not be watched until after you commit a crime. Then your story is pieced together, in reverse – footage of where you went and what you did, being viewed backwards from the most recent moment. And then she throws in a quote from Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backward but must be lived forward.”

Laurie Anderson drawing
Laurie Anderson drawing

And intermixed with philosophy, Anderson keeps her wry sense of humor. At one point, she talks about a dream in which she gives birth to her dog. She illustrates the tale with bizarre comic drawings, and then she tells us that the dog looks up at her and says, “Thank you so much for having me,” as if it has just been invited to a tea party. Ha.

“This film has heart.”

Later she talks about her own childhood memory of a trauma and reveals how our minds naturally clean up memories, leaving out certain details, and in that way you are holding onto a story and every time you tell the story, you forget it more. Cut to the computer icon of Missing File. The associations keep piling up, and they do indeed add up.

The unfortunate irony is that “Heart of a Dog” will be classified as conceptual filmmaking, and dismissed by those who won’t see it as too cerebral, while it actually uses a complex and intellectual style, very astutely, to access emotional and intimate realities that are difficult to reach through overt methods.

This film does tell a story, in its own subtly layered way. It is sometimes a meditation on how to go on living despite despair – “the purpose of death is the release of love,” but it is also clearly Laurie Anderson’s own personal tale. This is a tender memoir.  It’s Anderson’s love story, about her dog, her mother, her husband, and her city. In the most uncommon and evocative way, this film has heart.


Click: The complete soundtrack recording of “Heart of a Dog” is available from Nonesuch Records. The Nonesuch album is the full audio recording of the film, including all music and spoken text.

Click: “Heart of a Dog” shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature in Oscar Race.

Click: “Heart of a Dog” nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary.

Click:  Good news: “Heart of a Dog” bought by HBO (Variety)

Click: The New York Times review by Manohla Dargis. It’s a beautifully written review that will give you more reasons to see the film or just to remember it better. The review includes one of my fave lines that didn’t make it into my review: “Every love story is a ghost story.”

Click: An insightful review of “Heart of a Dog by Roberto Friedman. And he’s right: Gotta go get that CD!