Thursday, September 19, 2019

Toni Morrison: Not so Beloved by Hollywood

Since the death of Toni Morrison on August 5 of this year, I’ve been thinking about the great American novelists, and why the translation of their books into film is always so disappointing. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has been filmed five times, but I don’t believe any of these versions truly captures what makes the novel so magical. Hemingway adaptations have their moments, but none of them is totally representative of what Hemingway brought to American fiction. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was indeed made by John Ford into a beloved film, with unforgettable performances by Henry Fonda as Tom Joad and Jane Darwell as his indomitable mother. Still, the film lacks those great lyric passages that lift Steinbeck’s novel into the realm of the universal. As for Faulkner, I had the misfortune to see in a theatre Hollywood’s attempt at filming The Sound and the Fury. The 1959 film starring Joanne Woodward and (oddly enough) Yul Brynner ditches any attempt at reproducing Faulkner’s experiments with point of view, merely concentrating on the plight of some sad Southern aristocrats. (I actually watched this fiasco as a kid, because it was a double-bill companion to Disney’s The Shaggy Dog. Go figure!)

Most of the authors I’ve mentioned above were winners of the Nobel Prize for literature. (Fitzgerald is the one exception.) Morrison was a Nobel-winner too, and to me there was no American novelist more deserving. Morrison’s range was wide: though she wrote exclusively about African-Americans, she covered many eras and perspectives, and also explored many styles. If one sign of mastery in a novelist is the ability to create and flesh out an entire universe, she achieved true greatness in her eleven full-length works. And then there’s her way with words. Praising  her astonishing third novel, Song of Solomon, the writer Reynolds Price declared that “Morrison’s gifts for observing and transforming a spacious visible world into its matching mirror-world of sound and rhythm had grown to the point of overflow; and Song of Solomon is the first display of a suddenly effortless power that can not only hold us but can promise to spread, not only in the reader’s memory but in the writer’s work to come.”

Price is right to focus on Morrison’s distinctive use of sound and rhythm, which shows up not just in her characters’ dialogue but in the ebb and  flow of the narrative voice. It is this voice – the distinctive use of words by a gifted author – that is so very hard to convey on screen. Which is one good reason why filmmakers have been reluctant to touch Morrison’s novels. The one big exception is the film version of Beloved, released to modest critical acclaim and poor box office in 1998. Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved, which moves back and forth through time to tell a chilling tale of slavery and its aftermath, had the advantage of a strong commitment from Oprah Winfrey, who owned the screen rights for a decade before managing to pull together a film production with herself and Danny Glover in leading roles. Oprah’s all-in performance is admirably strong, and the film directed by Jonathan Demme is evocatively cast, filmed, and scored. Yet Morrison’s complex and convoluted narrative, with its mysterious supernatural elements, is not easy for a viewer to fathom. Beloved is in many respects a ghost story. But the film is less haunting than confusing, and even someone with Oprah’s gift for generating publicity couldn’t save it. Beloved is an honorable failure as a film. But I suspect there are some page-to-screen projects better left untouched.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Felicity Huffman is the New Black

 So Felicity Huffman is going to prison. I confess I’m feeling sorry for her. Well, sort of. As Hollywood celebrities go, she’s always come off as a decent, down-to-earth type. She’s admitted wrongdoing in the college admission bribery scandal, and there’s a part of me that understands (even though I don’t endorse) mothers who do crazy things to smooth their children’s path. On the other hand, privilege undeserved is ugly indeed, and I hate the thought of buying your way into a prestigious college, particularly if this comes at the expense of a more worthy candidate.

When I read about the Huffman sentencing, my mind immediately raced to imagine a nice-girl type who—because of a single moral slip-up—is suddenly thrust among hardened criminals (thieves and murderers at the very least) and wonders whether she’ll have the fortitude to survive. This, of course, has been a major throughline of TV’s ultra-popular Orange is the New Black. One of this show’s virtues is its mixing of types: its cast members represent all sizes, all shapes, all backgrounds, all approaches to life. Prison (like a military platoon) makes such a compelling setting for a drama: because it begins with a high-pressure environment, then stirs together characters who wouldn’t naturally interact unless they were pulled away from their native habitats and forced to spend time together, 24/7.

Thinking about Orange is the New Black sends me back to my B-movie roots. When I first went to work for Roger Corman at New World Pictures, back in the good old days of grind-houses and drive-ins, we made lots of moolah on the Women in Prison genre, with down-and-dirty movies (usually shot in the Philippines) that featured babes behind bars. Realism was of no particular interest to us. Nor, of course, was originality. Flicks with titles like The Big Bird Cage and The Big Doll House (and, inevitably, The Big Bust-Out) all featured unfortunate gals in skimpy prison garb, unfairly confined to jungle prisons. Such prisons, needless to say, were presided over by evil wardens and Lesbian matrons (of the Barbara Steele variety) who found torture amusing. And of course the cast was diverse: the vulnerable newbie, the tough gal (Roberta Collins made a good one), the powerful black Valkyrie. Pam Grier got her start in this latter sort of role, long before she proved her chops in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.

The women start out hating and mistrusting one another, leading to the ever-popular cat fight in the shower room. (Needless to say, excuses for on-screen nudity are much of the reason these films exist.) But finally the gals join forces for a daring escape from their captors. When I was doing interviews for my biography, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, one New World alumna joked about how, in a film like The Big Bird Cage,  the female lead is inevitably falling out of her clothing while running through the jungle: “I think the faster she runs, with the machete in her hand, the more quickly the clothes fall away.”

Is there anything good to be said about the Babes Behind Bars genre? Well, it launched the career of a first-time director named Jonathan Demme. When he returned from Manila in 1974 with the footage that became Caged Heat, I thought his movie looked pretty much like any other Women in Prison flick. But film critics (particularly Kevin Thomas at the Los Angeles Times) gave Jonathan credit for making a deft parody of the genre. He also scored with a nifty catch line: “White hot desires melting cold prison steel.”. 

Friday, September 13, 2019

Hailing “The Farewell”

It’s not often that I consult a doctor immediately after seeing a movie. But Lulu Wang’s new Sundance crowd-pleaser, The Farewell, inspired me to take aside a good friend who’s a specialist in internal medicine. I wanted to ask about issues the film has raised. Namely: what is the latest thinking on keeping the bad news from patients who’re facing a fatal diagnosis?

As I had suspected, American doctors still feel that patients are entitled to know their prognosis, no matter how grim it might be. But The Farewell, based on Wang’s own family story, takes us to China.  There, in the small city of Changchun, relatives go through an elaborate charade to keep a beloved grandmother (called Nai Nai or “Grandma”) from learning that her nagging cough is a symptom of a lung cancer that will probably kill her in a matter of months. As an excuse to reunite members of a far-flung family, a cousin living in Japan is going to marry his longtime girlfriend in Changchun, with a schmaltzy Chinese celebration to follow. Through cunning and downright subterfuge, family members keep results of medical tests away from Nai Nai, and manage to maintain the joyous mood of the wedding, even when their hearts are breaking at the impending death of their beloved matriarch.

“The Farewell” started out as a story told by Wang on This American Life. In discussing her large family’s strategy for handling end-of-life issues, she focuses on herself and her role as both Chinese and American:  "I always felt the divide in my relationship to my family versus my relationship to my classmates and to my colleagues and to the world that I inhabit. That's just the nature of being an immigrant and straddling two cultures." In the film, her character—named Billi—is a struggling would-be writer adrift in New York City. Emotional by nature, and deeply attached to her grandmother across the sea, she is told by her deeply-troubled parents to stay away from the wedding and its presumed aftermath. She comes anyway, and finds herself fighting to keep up the fiction that this reunion is a wholly joyous one.

Billi is played by Awkwafina, the spunky Asian-American rapper who proved her comic chops in both Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians. Here her role is far more serious, and she handles it with grace. But the movie truly belongs to Zhao Shuzhen as the indomitable Nai Nai. Her Chinese-language performance is so spirited and so lovable that it’s easy to understand why the family dreads her loss, and why she seems able to defy her illness in the face of this unexpected family gathering.

The tail-end of this film contributes a note of hope that is most welcome, in light of what has gone before. But the truth is that I wasn’t quite as blown away as I’d hoped to be. The rave reviews for The Farewell had me convinced that its quiet charms would build toward a powerful climax. Instead, the movie amiably meanders, without giving us much in the way of tension or surprises. Still, I can agree that it’s a triumph for Wang to have escaped the demand of many potential backers that this very Chinese story include white characters, and probably a love interest too. .

By the way, medical deception may work for this Chinese family, but my doctor friend is sure that most patients want—and need—to be clued into their pending fate. When well-meaning family members keep bad news from them, they figure out the truth for themselves, leading to yet more pretending.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

He to She: They Changed It At the Movies

Gender-bending seems to be the rule of the day. On cable television, there’s Pose, an exploration of what is called New York’s gender-nonconforming ballroom culture: it’s currently vying for six Emmy awards, including one for Billy Porter as lead actor in a dramatic series. In 2018, a Chilean film, Una mujer fant├ística, won the Academy Award for best foreign language film. Its leading lady, Daniela Vega, made history that year as the first -ever transgender person to serve as a presenter on the Oscar stage.

Recently I caught up with two film productions that tackle, with very different stylistics, the life of a man who chooses to live as a woman. The Danish Girl, from 2015, is semi-fictitious in its details but is based on the real-life Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener, a young painter who in 1920s Denmark evolved into a woman named Lili and underwent some of history’s first sex change operations. At the start of the film Einar (played by a totally engaging Eddie Redmayne) is married to a fellow artist named Gerda, a lively bohemian played by Alicia Vikander. As apparently happened for real, Einar first discovers the truth of his nature when asked by his wife to fill in for a missing model. Posing draped in a ballerina’s tights and tutu, he finds himself enthralled by the sensuous pleasures of female garb. This leads in the film to Gerda mischievously parading him at a posh art opening as Einar’s tall, shy cousin Lili. But the masquerade becomes all too real when another young man falls for Lili, and Einar becomes ever more convinced that he is meant to be female, even to the point of wanting to bear children.

There’s hardly a happy ending. But the actors are fully committed to their roles, managing to convince us that theirs is a beautiful love story, if a tragic one. The versatile Redmayne, who had previously persuaded Oscar voters that he was Stephen Hawking, remains credible and lovable whether dressed as a man or a woman. (His impishly secretive smile is essential in this regard). Alicia Vikander, as the woman who loves him too well to insist on keeping him, nabbed her own Oscar for her role. The music is lush; the muted but lovely scenery and costumes are to die for. I guess the film could be shrugged off as a weepie, but one beautifully executed in a Merchant-Ivory vein.

Then there’s Tangerine, which is a trans film of a different color. Indie filmmaker Sean Baker, who would go on to shoot The Florida Project two years later, got the film community’s attention when he shot this feature entirely on three iPhone 5s smartphones. No, the moviegoer isn’t required to watch this film on a tiny screen, though it will never be mistaken for Cinemascope. Tangerine tells a sordid but affecting slice-of-life story about a day in the life of an African-American transgender hooker named Sin-Dee Rella who plies her trade on the seedy streets of L.A. Just out of the slammer on Christmas Eve, she’s looking for the pimp who’s apparently cheating on her with a cisgender woman. Meanwhile her best buddy is trying to drum up business for a late-night singing gig, and a sad-sack immigrant Armenian cab driver is struggling to deal with his wife, his infant daughter, and his harridan of a mother-in-law. Somehow they all wind up in a late-night donut shop, where what happens is either very sad or very funny or both. In any case, it seems quite real: or about as real as L.A. on a sultry Christmas eve.