Tuesday, August 30, 2005


"Popular history has given Ancient Rome more than its due. While their society was certainly advanced in terms of its approach to politics, to the arts, and to warfare, this is not to suggest that the Roman people were in any way more sophisticated than the American people are today. Popular literature and film has greatly romanticized - or, perhaps, mythologized - life in Ancient Rome, giving the impression that Romans were cultured and refined to a degree that is almost unheard of today. In actuality, Romans were violent, hedonistic, and crude."

Sadly, I can't attribute that quote to anyone in particular, because I just made it up. Nonetheless, it may as well have been spoken by the minds behind Rome, the new HBO series that is moving to fill Six Feet Under's recently vacated timeslot, because it's inherent in every shot and every line of dialogue. It's a history lesson that keeps our attention by showing us just how provocative and gratuitous history can be.

In her review on slate.com, Dana Stevens proclaims the series to be boring, but I would disagree with her (although I think her reference to Forrest Gump is brilliant). While the first episode did leave a sour taste in my mouth, so to speak, I didn't find it boring; it was far too filled with nudity, sex, and violence to be labeled as boring. It is not, however, a testament to the quality of a show's writing if it only maintains the viewer's attention by outdoing itself with shocking material at every turn.

I do believe that Roman life was just as hedonistic as their portrayal indicates, but I nonetheless came away with the impression that the show's creators were merely capitalizing on this aspect of Roman society to make a soap opera that they could pass off as some sort of costume drama. They've clearly done a great deal of research, but for all their attempts at historical accuracy, it seems from the first episode that they've really just created a show for people who like the gratuity and melodrama of daytime television, but don't like to admit it. Thankfully, Rome allows you to slake your thirst for vice without feeling any guilt because you're supposedly learning ancient history at the same time, and it's on HBO, so it must be classy and avant-garde.

Although the art direction, cinematography, and the overall look of the show are very good - the opening credits sequence, which gives life to ancient Roman graffitti, very well may be the best part - Rome is nowhere near filling the admittedly large shoes of Six Feet Under. HBO can do better.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

In Brief

The Brothers Grimm

I'm disappointed to hear such lukewarm reviews about this movie. I'm even more disappointed that, judging by the trailer, I'm not in the slightest inclined to disagree with them. Terry Gilliam is a rather hit-or-miss director, but when he's on, he's on. In addition to the Monty Python movies, he absolutely excelled with Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, two of my favorite films. I'm sad to see him come up with such a misfire. The only thing that saves this production for me is the inherent humor in its misguided effort to make Heath Ledger like bookish.

The Aristocrats

I've seen this one and all I have to say is: that's some funny shit.

The Constant Gardener

I haven't seen this one yet, but I will. Both Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz are beautiful, talented, and versatile actors and Fernando Meirelles has proven himself to be a director with incredible talent and vision in his breakout film City of God, which depicts life in a major Brazilian slum, and I have a feeling that he hasn't even begun to fully realize his potential.

Pretty Persuasion

This movie has received lukewarm reviews all across the board, but I am nonetheless drawn to it. The indienerd appeal of Ron Livingston (Office Space), the solid B-movie history of James Woods (Vampires, The Getaway, The Way We Were), and the real-life grit and sexuality of Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen) are just too much for me to turn my back on. My hopes are high, but my expectations are low.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Husbands and Wives

Everyone loves to say that Woody Allen's work is too autobiographical, that in every movie he just plays himself (a claim that he wittily and artfully countered in 1997 with the under-appreciated Deconstructing Harry), but what he actually does is take his real-life experiences and, instead of presenting them as a thinly-veiled fiction, he uses them to construct a fictional reality that stands in opposition to his closely-read personal life. In his 1977 classic Annie Hall, he casts himself (as Alvy Singer) as a failed lover who cannot keep the woman of his dreams in real life, but only in the fiction he creates, while, in real life, Woody Allen was still very much involved with Diane Keaton and would stay with her for the space of two more movies.

In 1992's Husbands and Wives, Allen depicts the ups and downs of longstanding marriages in a "realistic" documentary style, showing how his character's marriage falls apart because his wife's character (played by his girlfriend of the moment Mia Farrow) leaves him for another man while he resists the temptation to leave her for a younger woman. At this time in real life, however, Woody Allen was engaging in his infamous affair with Soon-Yi Previn, Farrow's adopted daughter, whom he would eventually marry. Like Philip Roth's Zuckerman in The Counterlife, it seems that Allen doesn't use his life as a model for the fictions he creates, but rather something of the inverse; he uses the fictions of his movies as a means of sampling (and, in some cases, rejecting) different life choices.

I suppose this post isn't much in the way of a review so much as a discussion of Allen's style, but by discussing Husbands and Wives in the same breath as Annie Hall and The Counterlife, I'd say I'm giving it a pretty strong recommendation. Maybe I'll say why another time.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Jarmusch, Jarmusch, Jarmusch

After watching and enjoying Broken Flowers, I decided to familiarize myself with some of Jim Jarmusch's other works. I'd seen Coffee and Cigarettes, but being that it was so disjointed and episodic, I imagined (almost entirely correctly) that it wasn't quite characteristic of this writer-director's oeuvre. I was right in the sense that Jarmusch's other movies are narrative tales that actually have beginnings, middles, and ends that cogently flow from one to the other. I was wrong, however, when it came to style and the choice of subject matter. Jarmusch's much-acclaimed earlier work Down by Law, while having an actual storyline, is much like Coffee and Cigarettes in its avoidance of the dramatic and its focus on the quotidian.

Down by Law tells the story of three men - Zack, Jack, and Roberto (played, respectively, by Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni) - who break out of a Louisiana prison together. Were it written by any other man, this movie would be a suspense thriller all about the hows and whens of the escape plot, as is the case in The Great Escape and Escape from Alcatraz, but, just as their escape is not featured in the title of the film, it isn't featured in the actual body of the work either. As Jarmusch explains in the extra features of the Criterion Collection DVD, instead of focusing on the action of the story, the plot centers in on the moments that happen between the action and the drama. Even when Zack and Jack fight each other in their cell before Roberto - or Bob, as he asks them to call him - arrives, the camera cuts immediately to the aftermath of the fight, showing them leaning against the bars, bruised and fatigued, yet still bored.

This different approach, in conjunction with the film's crisp and beautiful black and white photography, is very refreshing when viewed in the context of contemporary cinema's overwhelming glut of glitzy action/suspense movies (the oh-so-sexy Ocean's 11, for example) that rely far too strongly on clever plot twists and the clever plotting of clever characters. Down by a Law is a movie driven by and about its characters and, as a result, like in Coffee and Cigarettes, it's a whole lot of talk.

Sadly, when I watched this movie, talk was not entirely what I was in the mood for. I was impressed by the cinematography and I was almost equally impressed by the clever and erudite construction of the film (deconstructed with more enthusiasm than I can muster by Nicholas Rapold in Reverse Shot), but I didn't enjoy it as much as I'd have liked. I want to give this movie another chance, but my lukewarm reaction the first time around just goes to show that, no matter how good it is, sometimes you're in the mood for talk, and sometimes you're not.

Lit City. Yeah, this one's about books.

Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer are the new posterboys for postmodern literature, but I never thought of them together in that context until, entirely by chance, I read Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Eggers' You Shall Know Our Velocity! one right after the other. Although their styles are quite similar - they both regularly employ the visual potential of literature either by manipulating the format of the text or through the inclusion of photographs or illustrations - the atmosphere and tone that their writing evokes are quite different. In both cases it's about emotion, but while Foer's writing creates an atmosphere of love and sadness more than anything else, Eggers' work tends to adopt a tone of anger and almost frenetic energy.

The respective plots of these novels also complement each other quite well. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is about a young boy whose father died in the September 11 attacks, following him as he confronts his father's death by going on a quest to unlock the mystery of his father's life. You Shall Know Our Velocity!, on the other hand, is entirely about flight from pain; in the space of a week, the protagonist travels the globe giving away vast sums of money as he goes, all in an effort to escape his own anger and grief. Each represents a different approach to pain, the first being constructive and the second destructive. Read together, I found myself identifying with them both; they each tapped into different aspects of my personality; Eggers appeals to my sense of frustrated anger while Foer offers up an unchecked sentimentality that affected me more than I'd like to admit.

I heartily recommend both of these books. Independently, they are each perfect examples of the potential of postmodern literature (although in Foer's case I would recommend his first novel Everything is Illuminated - soon to be released as a major motion picture about which I am skeptical but really want to be optimistic - over Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), but together they really and truly provide a shining example of the ongoing vitality of the novel as a literary medium.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Six Feet Under

It was the end of an era last night. Six Feet Under, one of the best (if not the best) shows on television finally met it's end. And what an end.

Like most - but not all - of the HBO original series, Six Feet Under was different from your average one hour drama. There were of course the obvious differences - nudity, swearing, violence, no commercials - but it was different in far more important ways as well. The show had a very cinematic style; the various directors shot it more like an independent movie than a television show. The actors inhabited their roles in a way that was far more pervasive and convincing than any other television show I've ever seen. Six Feet Under was a show about emotion, pure and simple, and it's rare to see emotion done such justice.

The final episode was almost perfect. In addition to being beautifully shot - there was one particular shot in which we see Ruth reflected in a mirror over George's shoulder that simply took my breath away - the episode perfectly captured the essential message of the series: death is a part of life, perhaps the most important part, and everything we do is in some ways in preparation for that final moment. The pain of the death of our loved ones can be a force that drives us to live and this show - and particularly the character of Ruth, played excellently by the extremely talented Frances Conroy - taught me that in a more powerful way than any event in real life ever has. To me, and to most of Six Feet Under's viewers, I imagine, the Fisher family and their surrounding cast of characters became real, and watching their sadnesses, happinesses, lives, and deaths was as emotional an experience as life (and death) itself.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Anthony Lane could most certainly write his way out of a paper bag and a good number of other things, as well

The man is skilled with a pen, I must admit. In fact, he's a better writer than film critic. This week's issue of The New Yorker amply illustrates how this trait can work to both his advantage and disadvantage.

In his review of Asylum, which has been roundly panned by critics across the board, he very creatively mocks the film's formulaic romance plot to devastating effect:

I wish I could tell you that what happens next came as a blistering surprise, but if there's one thing that years of moviegoing teach you it is basic algebra, and the rule runs as follows: (Frustrated Wife ÷ Late-Fifties Lingerie) - √(Dull Husband) x (Demonic Yet Strangely Tender Hunk + Glowing Eyes) = Greenhouse Rock.

This happy marriage of prose and mathematics is a fine example of the kind of fun one can have when writing a negative review. Having some personal experience with the matter, I can assure you it's a great feeling and, ironically (considering that bad art is the jumping off point), a perfect opportunity to flex one's writing muscles. Some of the best pieces I've ever written were about really bad movies.

It's important, however, not to become too enamored with one's own writing, because it can lead you astray. Given the opportunity, the writing will push the movie - the ostensible subject of the piece - out of the spotlight and direct all attention to itself; once it picks up some momentum, a review can develop it's own logic and reason that will direct it away from the actual facts about the movie and into the more theoretical realm of what looks best on a piece of paper.

Such is the case, sadly, with his second review: a lukewarm piece about 2046. Now, I'll grant you that I am clearly biased against this review from the start - Wong Kar-wai is one of my favorite directors - but, nonetheless, Lane's review, although very gracefully written, has precious little merit or justification.

His first crime is his attack against the verisimilitude of Chow's success with women:

I am not competent to judge whether Chow is really the type to make the opposite sex go weak at the knees, waist, neck, and other points of seizure, although to my eyes he looked, with his whisker of mustache, like a no-good rat in a George Raft movie. What I will say is that nobody who has the ungallant gall to inform us, in voice-over, that “I became an expert ladies' man” is a ladies' man at all. Ladies of every description will know him better as a creep.

If, as he claims, he's incapable of judging whether or not Chow is attractive to women - a statement reminiscent of the kind of homophobia displayed by George Costanza in Seinfeld, "not that there's anything wrong with that" - how does he have such a priveleged perspective into the female mind as to be so assured of what ladies would think of him?

From this point on, Mr. Lane seems to simply miss the point. His mockery of Wong's "visual dictatorship" and so-called impassive approach to romantic affairs, reveals one of the following: he didn't understand In the Mood for Love, he didn't like it, he doesn't understand the connection between the two movies, or he cannot sympathize with the effect of lost love upon a sincere and emotional man. The impassivity of both Chow and the visual design of the film reflect the character's emotional retreat after the heartbreak he experienced at the end of In the Mood for Love. This emotional defensiveness does make the movie harder to relate to than its predecessor, but it also makes it true. Chow hides his emotions and keeps women at arm's length and, yes, does outwardly act like something of a creep, so, in that sense Mr. Lane is right, but not for the reason that he thinks he is.

For the most part, I like Anthony Lane - he's certainly a better critic than his New Yorker colleague David Denby - but he needs to remember that although his writing is important, it's not quite the point. In this recent piece, it looks like he allowed the negativity of his first review to seep unjustifiably into his second, perhaps because it made the piece flow better as whole. Although it does make for a pleasant read, it's unfaithful to the material. A critic is still a journalist and sometimes you need to sacrifice a little cogency for the sake of honest and thorough reporting.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

A Belated Explanation

In case anyone was wondering:

Plan Américain is a film term that refers to a shot that frames the subject from the top of his/her head down to mid-thigh. It's also called a 3/4 shot. I chose planamericain as the address for my blog because it relates to film (obviously) and it reflects my appreciation of French culture and cinema. Also, cincity was already taken by some girl named CinCin.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

A Confession

As artsy (read: pretentious) and refined (read: snobby) as I'd like to consider my tastes in film to be, I have to admit that there's a part of me that really wants to see The Dukes of Hazzard. A lot.

Ebert was my hero once

And he still is, for the most part, but he really needs to do a better job of getting his plot points straight. After writing my previous post, I went to his website to check out his review of Broken Flowers (oddly enough, he seems to have chosen not to review 2046 at all) and, although I like the review itself, he's really disappointed me by confusing the names of one of the characters. Call me nitpicky, but a film critic seems less reliable to me when he refers to a character named Ron as Dan. They're always smaller details, but Ebert has been making more and more mistakes like this as of late and I can't help but wonder if this will eventually start to affect his ability to properly judge the quality of a film. If you can't remember what happened, you can't tell how good it is.

Don Juan: East meets West

In Wong Kar-Wai's 2046, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) is a Don Juan by accident. In Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, Don Johnston (Bill Murray) is a Don Juan by profession. Both, however, are not quite happy or comfortable in their roles and, in their own different ways, that's what these two movies are about.

For Chow, the ladies' man identity is never a good fit; he falls into this role as a defense mechanism in response to the heartbreak he suffers in In the Mood for Love. In that movie, we never see any physical intimacy between Chow and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), but the suggestion of attraction - prevalent in everything from the characters' body language to the cinematography to the cigarettes Chow chainsmokes - hangs heavy in the air and the emotional connection between them becomes palpably real. They never consummate their relationship - at least not in front of the camera - which makes their ultimate separation all the more heartbreaking.

As a result, the Chow of 2046 goes in the exact opposite direction; he eschews emotional intimacy by repeatedly pursuing meaningless physical relationships. He puts on the Don Juan façade - embodied physically by his slightly out of place mustache - and the film matches this personality shift, offering scenes of physical intimacy bathed in sexy hues of yellow and red. Beyond this screen of hedonism offered by both Chow's smarmy, mustachioed seductions and Wong's cinematography, sits a deep well of sadness. With every close-up of Tony Leung's face, we see a flicker of pain behind his ladies' man smile and Wong's shot compositions consistently cast Chow against a vast plane of negative space, illustrating a profound emotional emptiness that belies his flirtatious good humor. It is clear that, in spite of himself, Chow falls in love more than once over the course of the film, but in a feeble stab at self-defense he does his best to deny it.

Broken Flowers, on the other hand, depicts the story of not a sincere lover pretending to be a Don Juan, but something of the reverse order. Bill Murray's Don Johnston has been a promiscuous playboy all his life - when trying to determine which woman could have given birth to his son 19 years ago, he can only narrow it down to five possibilities - and the fatigue has finally caught up with him. The New Yorker's David Denby and numerous other critics (amateur and professional alike) have found a fairly obvious contradiction in the character of Don Johnston; he's supposed to be this great lover, but Bill Murray's deadpan performance makes him seem like he's more likely to attract flies and vultures than the opposite sex. These naysayers forget, however, that the film begins with his most recent lover - a very heavily made up Julie Delpy - leaving him. As a Don Juan, he has lost his touch and the question is whether it's due simply to his age or rather that it is caused by a more profound existential crisis. In other words, is the problem that he can no longer turn on the charm like he used to or can he just no longer bring himself to?

I would argue the latter. Everything from Murray's minimalist characterization to the drab palette Jarmusch employs in his shot composition creates an atmosphere of world-weariness, as if his lifestyle has sapped all the emotion from his face and all the color from his world. Only a man who feels he's already seen it all wouldn't even flinch upon meeting his former lover's daughter - unironically named Lolita - and having her immediately throw herself at him.

Because his backstory is only implied, one could very easily imagine that Murray's Don Johnston is merely an older, American version of Leung's Chow Mo-wan. At the time of 2046, Chow is relatively new to the playboy game and it still takes an effort for him to suppress his emotions. Johnston, however, has been at it for over twenty years and, apparently, has suppressed himself to the point of having almost no feelings whatsoever. Broken Flowers is, in effect, an account of Chow's future; Johnston's struggle is much the same as Chow's, only farther down the line. Both wrestle with their emotions and their fears, the only question - the question that Jarmusch seeks to answer - is who will win.

Friday, August 12, 2005

I'm just throwing this out there...

I didn't like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I realize that this is something of a delayed reaction - I saw it more than a few weeks ago (with David Quimby, who I think will stand by my opinion on this one) - but I didn't anticipate this mediocre film getting such a landslide of unwarranted approval and, like the straw that broke the camel's back, one too many people has told me just how much they loved it, inciting me to speak.

I like Tim Burton. I like him a lot. I also really like Johnny Depp. I especially like them together. Sleepy Hollow and Edward Scissorhands were both really great and the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory seemed like the perfect kind of project for Burton and Depp to collaborate on. Nonetheless, the movie was slow, boring, lacked verisimilitude - which Sleepy Hollow and Edward Scissorhands had, in spite of the fantastical nature of their plots - and, most importantly, was odd without being profound or funny. In fact, nearly every attempt at profundity or humor fell flat on its face. The subplot involving Wonka's father was ill-conceived and overdone and the comedic aspects were transparent and clunky.

There are a few saving graces to the film, but not enough. I'll admit, the movie actually does start off fairly strongly, but as soon as they enter the factory, it just simmers down to average.

I really just don't know what everyone else is talking about.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Speaking of which...

It's appropriate that 2046 and Broken Flowers have the same release date. I haven't seen either film yet (they're only out in limited release at the moment), but they bear the same subject matter - love and loneliness - and they are both directed by important art film auteurs. Oddly enough, however, A.O. Scott chose to write an article comparing Broken Flowers with the questionable movie Wedding Crashers. Maybe he did so because a mainstream audience wouldn't be interested in reading an article comparing two art films - although, as Lynn Hirschberg notes in the article I linked to in my previous post, Flowers is certainly Jarmusch's most mainstream work to date - but, that's hardly an excuse. As snobby and esoteric as such an article may have seemed, it would have been far more interesting (and certainly a far more valid comparison) to discuss the different ways in which two such talented directors - who represent two distinctly different cultures - approach the same topic of lost love.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Wong Kar-Wai and Jim Jarmusch

Speaking of In the Mood for Love, I am incredibly excited for Wong's sequel 2046, which will be coming out in full release this Friday. I am similarly enthusiastic about the upcoming arrival of Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers. Both of these directors are true auteurs in a time where art and cinema do not overlap nearly often enough. I have loaded up my Netflix queue with these directors' back catalogs and you can expect to see posts about them in the near future.

Wong Kar-Wai receives extensive coverage in the current issue of Film Comment, but only one of the articles is online. Sadly, I liked the other one better, but pickers can't be choosers.

There was a great article on Jim Jarmusch in the July 31 issue of the New York Times Magazine. You can view the beginning of the article here, but, alas, you have to pay to see the rest of it.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

Synesthesia is a physical condition in which one or more of the five senses are somehow overlapped. For certain synesthetics, music can be seen; for others, sounds can be tasted. It's a fascinating concept, and it has certainly enchanted Peter Greenaway, whose work in cinema frequently attempts to make film more than just a visual and auditory experience. In The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989), Greenaway overlays the sense of taste upon the sense of touch. Taking place almost entirely in a fancy French restaurant in London, the film centers itself around food, eating, and the inherent sensuality therein.

In his review, Roger Ebert claims that the film is a political allegory savagely lambasting Margaret Thatcher and a commentary on modern times in general, in which the greedy rich cruelly oppress the poor. While this model certainly applies (Ebert has a nice summary of it in his review), the form in which Greenaway presents the film suggests that there's much more to it than just the metaphor suggested by the plot. The art direction, camerawork, and music in this movie all speak to an exploration of pleasure.

As the title of the film suggests, there are four major characters: a cook, a thief, his wife, and her lover. The cook is a Frenchman named Richard. The thief is a crime boss named Albert and he owns the restaurant where Richard works as head chef. Albert and his wife Georgina - accompanied by Albert's gang of thugs - go to Richard's restaurant for dinner every night, where Albert bullies the other patrons and the staff and where, one night, Georgina meets her lover. Bored with her husband's crude and banal conversation, Georgina scans the room and catches the eye of a lone diner, whom - she notices - has just received the same specially prepared dish as she did. She gets up to go to the bathroom. He follows her and they make passionate love.

What Richard, Georgina, and her lover Michael have in common - and what Albert lacks - is an appreciation for beauty and a love of the finer pleasures in life. In short, they have taste. While Albert pretends to have taste by dabbling in the restaurant business and lecturing his gang of philistines on culture, the other three actually live a life of genuine taste. Richard does so through his artful cuisine, Georgina through her passion and elegance, and Michael through his tenderness and intellect.

Greenaway's camera highlights this character difference through rhythm, sound, and color. Long, lyrical takes accompanied by a subtly pervasive musical theme turn every collective movement into a kind of dance. When Michael and Georgina sneak off together, surrounded by the swirling movements of the restaurant staff, it is a thing of beauty, rather than a dishonest and sneaky expression of illicit passion. Combined with the only somewhat gimmicky effect of having the character's costumes change color as they move from one setting to another (bright red for the main dining room, pure white for the bathroom, and smokey green for the kitchen), the camerawork and scoring serve to make the lovers and Richard become a part of their surroundings and their surroundings become a part of them. Albert, on the other hand, stands in contrast to his environs, moving violently and arhythmically, creating cacophony instead of music.

The affair that Michael and Georgina carry on at dinner every night, the affair that Richard helps them to hide by allowing them to use the extra spaces in his kitchen, and the affair that Albert never notices himself in spite of the fact that it's being carried out directly under his nose, is a testament to this distinction between Albert and the others. Like the pleasures of eating, the pleasures of the flesh require a fine palate. While the others have this, Albert does not. Although his actions may make the others unhappy, he is - entirely independent of them - completely incapable of happiness and enjoyment; he cannot even understand the pleasures in which they partake.

Sadly, what the film accomplishes visually, it does not accomplish narratively. Other than the brilliantly brutish performance by Michael Gambon as Albert, the acting is mediocre. For much of the earlier portions of the movie, the other characters speak very little or not at all and as soon as they start talking one can't help but wish they'd stayed that way. The greatest crime committed by this movie, however, is the complete misuse of the extremely talented Tim Roth, who plays Albert's right-hand man. His character speaks only a few lines and the camera lingers over him hesitantly and confusingly, as if unable to decide whether he's important or not. He constantly lingers on the periphery, as if Greenaway is paying him lip service because he knows that Roth is too good for this role, which is entirely insignificant to the plot.

The beauty and style of the film do make up for the acting and narrative missteps, and for that reason I do like the movie, but there are better options out there. If it's Greenaway and his obsession with synesthesia and pleasure that interests you, see his film The Pillow Book (1996), which replaces food with literature and shows how the pleasures of reading overlap with the pleasures of the flesh. On the other hand, the stunningly beautiful Wong Kar-Wai masterpiece In the Mood for Love (2000) - which very well may have drawn some inspiration from The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover - does a far better job in coordinating and choreographing the movements of the characters and the camera into a breathtaking ballet while also telling a compelling emotional story.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Seven Year Itch

When I started this blog not long ago, I made the decision that my posts would be primarily text-based, that my writing could stand alone and I didn't need to include pictures and photos to catch the eye. I stand by this decision, but, as you can clearly see from the photos above, I've found an exception to the rule.

These photos are publicity stills from The Seven Year Itch, in which Marilyn Monroe essentially portrays temptation; she plays a nameless girl (IMDB actually credits her as playing the role of "The Girl") whose sole purpose in the plot is to serve as a physical manifestation of the married man's urge to commit adultery. All three of the photos above similarly reduce her identity to simply that of an object of male sexual desire. This famous image of Monroe holding her dress down against the updraft coming from the subway grate creates an atmosphere of sexuality and hedonism that surrounds and envelops her like a thick fog.

The idea of an attractive actress serving as a sex symbol is hardly foreign to me. Contemporary Hollywood markets nearly everyone - both male and female - who stars on the silver screen as some sort of sex symbol. What was surprising, however, was that, while now there's a certain consistency in between the portrayal of sex in the still and the moving image, in the 50s there was a distinct disconnect. While Angelina Jolie will "act sexy" in both still photos and in her movies, Marilyn Monroe - it seems - could only do so in the former and not the latter. Perhaps this is an obvious observation to make given the more stringent governmental restrictions placed on the film industry in regards to the depiction of sex and sexuality at that time, but nonetheless the gap between the Marilyn Monroe persona promoted by the publicity stills shown above, one of barely contained sexuality, and her characterization in the film as an airhead hick who is blissfully unaware of her more than ample seductive powers was startling to say the least. My familiarity with the Marilyn Monroe legend - her infamous affairs, her frequently referenced birthday performance for JFK, her Playboy centerfold - only served to compound the surprise I felt at her role in this film.

What was more surprising, however, was the protagonist's reaction to her. By today's standards, her character acts totally unenticingly; she is completely unflirtatious and unsuggestive. In fact, her behavior as the girl upstairs reflects not the character of a lusty sexpot, but rather that of the naive sexual innocence of a prepubescent girl. Nonetheless, the protagonist - who, significantly, does have a name - is enticed, aroused, nearly driven mad with passion. Her identity - in terms of both her name (or lack thereof) and her personality - it seems, is entirely unimportant; it is the sight of her body and her body alone that drives him to seriously consider committing adultery.

By privileging the male gaze as the sole expression of sexual attraction, the film reduces Monroe's role in the moving picture to that of the still picture. She is only there to be looked at; anything like a name or a personality would only get in the way. This idea, of course, is none too surprising in the context of 1950s American culture, but it is interesting when compared to some popular reactions to the treatment of sex in the media today. Unlike in The Seven Year Itch, the portrayal of sex and sexual attraction now is far more overt than it once was and, as a result, there is a conservative backlash decrying this indecency. Having seen this movie, however, I am now more sure than ever that contemporary cinema is less indecent now than it ever was. Although today's movies may be more graphic than ever before, by allowing for women to express their sexuality through more than just their physical appearance, their characters have finally come to represent real people and not just living objects to be looked at. The cinema of the 50s may have presented movies that were far less shocking to the eye, but, in so doing, reduced the female characters to a sub-human status. This disrespect shown to Marilyn Monroe - quite possibly one of the most significant screen actresses to have ever lived - and her character in The Seven Year Itch is far more indecent than any sex scene, no matter how graphic.