Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Sexy Corn, Sylvia Plath and a Hastily Written Halloween Promise

This last weekend I cobbled together the same costume I've pulled together many times since 1991, the one that says, "Dear Costume Party Host, please be as gracious as I know you can be, and simply note that I put forth the effort to wear any costume at all, and then let's get on with the evening."

The worst part of the costume is not that I return to it over and over.  And over.  It's that it's wrong.

It's a Sylvia Plath costume.  I go as Sylvia Plath.  I dress like a generic Beat, and then I string a noose around my neck, and then I cover my neck, eye sockets and lips in a blueish, purplish, greenish bruised-up yet drained-of-blood melange.

It's wrong because the "Beat" I use for inspiration is actually Audrey Hepburn in FUNNY FACE.  Maybe that's more sad than wrong.  But it's still wrong.  The costume is also wrong because Sylvia didn't kill herself that way.  In my defense, I usually spend much of the evening explaining what's wrong with the costume.

Because that's a good time for everyone.

But let's put a pin in my social ineptitude, and set it aside.  The real issue is, what message am I sending into the world with this half-assed costume?  That I'm ill-informed?  That I think the people I chum around with are poorly educated dolts?  That cutting a corner or two won't really matter?

Oh, it matters.  It matters deep in my tell-tale heart.  As each new set of eyes takes in the costume, the beating grows louder, louder!  It also matters because, "my playing small doesn't serve the world."  (No, that's not Sylvia Plath, it's Marianne Williamson).

It took until this year, but now I see that this is bigger than me and the way I think a party of drunk people in their own shoddy get-ups are evaluating my intelligence based on my slapdash costume.  Much bigger.  My inaccurate Plath Suicide Costume is like that butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo or wherever, causing a Frankenstorm on the other side of the ocean.  But this storm is one where people think an acceptable Halloween costume is a sexy hamburger, or a sexy ear of corn.  My willingness to let details slide helps to create a general atmosphere of lameness, costume-wise.

I can't have that kind of horror on my conscience, and so I'm going to start doing my part, thinking globally and acting locally.  With that, I promise you, my dear, non-existent readership that I will craft a period accurate gas-oven headpiece in time for next Halloween.  If time does not allow for oven-making, I will cover an overcoat with some toy fish, kelp and what not, fill its pockets with rocks, wear it with some blue stockings, and go as a pretty respectable Virginia Woolf.

You see what happens when you take pride in your work!  I created one good plan, and a solid back-up came along for the ride!  You put top-notch out, get top-notch back.

This little light of mine?  I'm going to let it shine.  Next year, I will stand tall and proud in the historically accurate suicide costume of my choice!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Halloween Repost | ARSENIC AND OLD LACE | 1944 | Spooky Screwball

Halloween. I don't know enough about its history to compare the origins to how we currently observe it, and then explore how the differences reflect how we're evolving as a people.

And you can thank goodness for that.  I know I do.

However, based on what I do know, both then and now Halloween seems to have a strong component of wish fulfillment. Way back when it was about hoping that if you celebrated the dead, perhaps the creeps wouldn't jump you or your livestock during the long, dark, vulnerable winter nights. Now it seems to be about hoping that if you get drunk enough to believe you're making the sexy nurse costume work, then everyone else will too.

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE is delightful, suspenseful, takes place on Halloween, and dramatizes one of my greatest wishes: To be sat down and told I'm not related to my family.

That sounds mean, but it's not.  Despite my best efforts, I assure you they have the same wish.

Mortimer (Cary Grant) is a famous New York theater critic who wrote a book called "Marriage: A Fraud and a Failure," and sneers at every display of love." (In other words, me as a teenager and young adult).

When we meet him, Mortimer is in line at the Marriage License Bureau preparing to marry Elaine, the girl next door (literally). After, the newlyweds head back to Brooklyn so he can tell his Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha, and she can tell her minister father, before they head off to Niagara Falls for a honeymoon.

While at his Aunt's home, Mortimer discovers a dead man hidden in the window seat. At first he figures his Uncle Teddy, who believes he's Theodore Roosevelt, has progressed to murder. But Teddy's sisters quickly clarify that they poisoned Mr. Hoskins (the man in the window seat), and that Teddy had nothing to do with it.

Well, except that as part of his delusion, he digs locks for the Panama Canal in the basement (which Abby and Martha then use to bury their victims). Mortimer now feels like he needs to take care of his family by ensuring the murdering stops and that no one ever finds out, not even his new wife, sitting next door, waiting to go on their honeymoon.

His efforts are complicated when his brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) returns home with a plastic surgeon named Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre). The two have a dozen murders in their rear-view mirror, a fresh kill in their car (a "hot stiff on their hands" as Dr. Einstein calls it), and have recently escaped a prison for the "criminally insane". Their immediate plan is to hide-out at the aunts house, and while they're there, have the alcoholic doctor give Jonathan a new face so he can't be identified and hauled back to the big house.

If it were summer, I'd explain why this isn't a screwball comedy, however, because it's October...

The way this study is shaping up, it seems the primary indices of screwball are: something to do with marriage (getting engaged, married, or divorced), some kind of class conflict, adults struggling with what society expects from grown-ups (comic anti-heroes and general dissatisfaction with status-quo), a primarily cosmopolitan setting (though often the adventure of the story occurs in the country), a mixture of high and low comedy, and alcohol.

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE doesn't handle all of these traits in the ways most Classic Screwballs do. Most notable is that the alcohol isn't cocktails in a nightclub, a posh hotel room, or on a butler's tray - it's in a glass carafe on a sturdy wood table in a quaint Brooklyn house. And it's poison (not in a "choose your poison" way, but actual poison).

ARSENIC also includes pratfalls and other standard screwball physical comedy, like tension from characters lingering a bit too long in certain rooms then walking out just in time to be found out (or not). And there's a lot of the smart, sharp and witty dialog that defines screwball for a lot of folks. But there's also some more conceptual comedy about sanity, like when Teddy's thinks he might be coming down with a cold until his sister informs him that he didn't sneeze, he just heard a sneeze.

Class and setting are mixed together in that Mortimer's rabbit hole is the trip from Manhattan to Brooklyn. He goes from famous Manhattan theater critic without a shred of domesticity, to crossing the river and finding himself dealing with serial killers, basement graves, escape convicts, a cop aspiring to be a playwright, and more, yet he's unable to walk away because it's his family. So class is not simply rich vs. poor, but sane vs. insane, evil vs. innocent, criminal vs. lawful, nature vs. nurture, culture vs. domesticity, independence vs. interdependence, and cosmopolitan city vs. provincial borough.

Over the course of the film, Mortimer transforms from selfish, immature and romantically petulant, into a selfless family man. Though his family is nuts, he risks his reputation to protect them. And, once he's aware precisely how seriously crazy his family is, he attempts to cut Elaine loose to shield her from the insanity. It's a dramatic change, but it's so seamless that it goes down easy and is totally believable.

And then, and only then - warning, nearly 70 year old spoiler alert ahead! - Mortimer learns he is not actually related to his aunts, his uncle or his brother, and so he can be with Elaine. And after the events of the evening, he now knows what that really means, and it's not anything to do with all the trite cliches that had previously turned him off marriage and the like.

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE covers all of the Screwball Comedy bases (at least my working definition), plus it is every bit as strong as the films on my Classic Screwball list, so I'm calling it Screwball.

It's my blog, I can do that.

Happy Halloween!
(originally posted October 2011, lazily reposted October 2012)

Released: 1944 (filmed in 1941)
Writer: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein (based on play by Joseph Kesselring)
Director: Frank Capra
Producer: Frank Capra, Jack L. Warner
Leads: Cary Grant, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, Peter Lorre, John Alexander, Raymond Massey, Priscilla Lane
Genre: Black Comedy, Screwball Comedy

Monday, October 22, 2012

An SFO Delay, a Tampon, and Embracing Damage

Right.  Well, I didn't post last week because I was travelling and preparing for a new job.  And, I don't know if you know this, but it's simply impossible to find power outlets and Wi-Fi when you're on the road.

Of course it's fucking possible.  I'm not a dumbass.  I have no excuse.  Except that I was busy enjoying myself.  So much so that I completely forgot about documenting it until I was stuck at SFO for hours on end.

While waiting on a delayed flight, I started composing some chirpy little post about Hotel Del, SOME LIKE IT HOT, Regis Philbin, and ghosts, but I couldn't finish it because all I could think was:  Who the fuck cares?!?

Over, and over, and over, and over.  
And over.  

I'm not fishing.  That's not a pity party.  A simple statement of fact.  

I know, I know, if I care enough so will others.
Build it and they will come.

It sounds nice, I just don't know that it's actually, y'know, true.

So, still stuck at the airport, I thought perhaps I could use that blockage as a window.  Then I considered writing about the tension between being social and being social-media social.  

Then I nearly nodded off just thinking about it.

But, why not just drop all the social media and focus on the life living?  I've done it before.  And it was good.  And yet I always return to the updates, the tweets and the bloggy musings.

At that moment in the airport, that moment of blogistential crisis, I saw senior citizens traveling en masse with some young(er) guides corralling them from gate to gate, assisting them in the restroom, etc.  One guy stood out, and he was easy to track through the crowd because he was wearing a light colored, perfectly classic and fantastically broken-in fishing hat.  He had an age appropriate mate/date at his side, and they were chattering away happily.  He also had a tampon up his nose with the string taped to his cheek with medical tape.  My first thought:  What First Aid kit has a tampon and medical tape, but not plain gauze and/or scissors?  My second, and prevailing, thought:  That is pretty much the best any of us could hope to achieve.

The guy was able bodied and moving about with speed and ease, had funds to travel, the ability to pay bright and attractive tour guides to ensure his welfare, a lovely lady by his side, and he really didn't seem to give a fuck that he had a tampon up his nose.

Health, wealth, love (or something like it), and a healthy lack of self-consciousness.

Not bad.  Not bad at all.

Like snowflakes, we are not unique creations.  I've heard it said that there is a limited number of types of people in the world, and I'm beginning to suspect that it's true.  Is that a misquote of a lyric?  It sounds familiar.  Well, if it is, it just helps prove the point.  It's all been done.  It's all been said.  All of humanity is largely hiccuping along on a cycle of lather, rinse, repeat.  It's a delusion to think that each of us is something importantly unique simply because we exist.  However, we are very much like snowflakes in a different way, in that we become unique through our damage.  

Unfortunately, so much of social media isn't about the damage.  Not that anyone really wants to read status updates vomiting misery willy-nilly, tweets denying there's a bright-side to life, or blogs ignoring that joy is indeed possible.  It's just that, very often, our beauty lies within our fucked-up-ness, and yet we treat it like it's something to walk off.  Or maybe that's just me.

One thing I do know:
When possible, include Jack Lemmon.
Broken-in fishing hat is optional.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Glee Kids Sing Celebrity Skin | Tweet Overflow

This is less a blog post, and more just Tweet Overflow.  I tried to cram it into 140 characters, but failed.  

No, that's not true.  I did it, but it wasn't satisfying.  It turns out I really want to elaborate on this subject.  

It's funny to discover the things you really care about, to discover you're far more shallow than you were previously aware and/or willing to admit.

So, this was the tweet:

And that made me think another thing:

a.  That Grunge-y/Gen X-thing, the anger and what not, it's not so easily done, is it?

Even Celebrity Skin, a ripple in the pond far from where the first rock of grunge landed, is really pretty effortlessly detached, self-aware, ironic, and... angry.  Y'know, the hallmarks of grunge.

Something lost on the Glee kids (and the people directing the Glee kids), with their button noses all crinkled up like snarling puppies.

So, I guess it really was a thing.  That grunge thing.  I lived in Olympia, WA in the early 90s.  At the time, all the Grunge-y anger was exhausting to me.  It all felt so insincere.  I was into some of the music - including Hole - but so much of it, especially the accompanying attitude/lifestyle seemed like a prefab sham.  But now I see, at some point, some of it really was a thing.

Or maybe it just seems that way compared to the Glee kids' interpretation.

It doesn't matter much.  Some of the music was a thing for me.  And that's the only thing that matters.

In my last post I said that some posts will be better than others, I think this is one of the others.  Better luck next week!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

THE SMILING LIEUTENANT | 1931 | Challenging to Spell, Challenging to Watch, but Mostly Worth the Effort

I'm a pretty good with the spelling, but the word lieutenant always catches me up.  It doesn't help that the Brits pronounce it leftenant.  It's challenging.  For me.  (Thank goodness the main character of this film isn't named St. John).

THE SMILING LIEUTENANT is also challenging.  Patience-wise, I'm pretty hard-core when it comes to old films, but I barely made it through the opening scene where Chevalier sings directly to the camera.  He's super winky and smirky, and the material isn't that funny.  It never is when you're that sure of it.  Or rather, it reveals how unsure the material is when a performance is pushed to be so...  big.

(Yeah, that's right, the schlump who can't even update her blog regularly is questioning Lubitsch's material.  The material is likely strong, and, empirically, Chevalier is talented, but this opener - it's a hurdle).

The folks over at Turner Classic Movies claim this is "as exemplary as an Ernst Lubitsch opening can be."  I see their point, it is efficient and witty storytelling - the bit with the hallway light tells us at least two scenes worth of information.  Outside of that, I'm not convinced this is even in the Top Five Lubitsch Openers.  But I'll start paying attention now, and start my own ranking.

After the opener, things don't improve too much.  For most of the first act, the actors appear to be close to busting out laughing, incredulous that they're being asked to play any given scene straight. All of that said, in the end the story is charming and the film is worthwhile.

What happens is this:  Manwhore/Soldier Lt. Niki (Chevalier) becomes a one gal guy when he falls for Franzi (Colbert). But, while formally greeting visiting royalty, Niki gives Franzi a wink that gets intercepted by the visiting Princess (Hopkins).  Initially Princess Anna is insulted, but then she falls for Niki.

The soldier is then forced to choose between severe punishment for insulting the Princess, or marriage to...  the princess.  He marries the Princess.  But he also continues to carry on with Franzi.

After some time, Franzi is summoned to the palace, and she shows up because she thinks Niki has invited her.  Instead she is greeted by Princess Anna.  First they fight.  Then they cry.  Then Franzi recognizes that the girl loves Niki, and so she falls on her sword and helps pure, wholesome, clueless Anna out by giving her a sort of make-over.  The princess catches on quickly (see clip below).


(LOVE Miriam Hopkins!)

Niki returns home to hear the palace piano getting a workout.  He cracks open the door to see Anna hammering away at a lively, jazzy number, her hair cut shorter and moving freely, a cigarette hanging from her mouth, her posture no longer prim and reserved.

The next, and final, bit could have been as annoying as the opener, but somehow this one works - Niki runs upstairs and checks his liquor bottle, seeing that he's not likely drunk, he runs back downstairs and sees that Anna is still transformed,  he then runs back upstairs for a belt o' liquor before he returns to her.

 Yeah, I could get down on the fact that learning a new song or two and changing your clothes won't mean a thing for the long-haul of marriage, but I'm not sure this transformation was as superficial as it appears.  (See above re: Lubitsch's efficient visual storytelling, i.e. what happened means more than what happened).  Princess Anna had been sheltered by palace life, but she absorbed the education that Franzi offered so fully that - the kid's gonna be ok. 

Probably more than ok.  I suspect she'll be giving Niki the boot sooner than later.  After all, instead of taking the time to see if he could open Anna's world, he pouted and threw tantrums until his ex-girlfriend did all the work...

Released: 1931
Director: Ernst Lubitsch (Best Picture Nomination)
Leads:  Claudette Colbert, Miriam Hopkins, Maurice Chevalier
Writer:  Hans Muller-Einigen (novel), Leopold Jacobson and Felix Dormann (operetta), Samson Raphaelson, Ernest Vajda and Ernst Lubitsch (screenplay)
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Plot Summary and reviews of The Smiling Lieutenant @ Rotten Tomatoes