Friday, January 29, 2021

Saving a White Tiger (one whose bite is worse than his bark)

 Many years ago, in a New Delhi zoo, I saw a white tiger. It was a beautiful and powerful animal, restlessly prowling its grim-looking cage. On that same trip to India, I also saw a cross-section of humanity I’ll never forget. I didn’t have much close contact with the very rich or the very poor, but being among educated, financially stable people like me was startling in its own way. I was treated as a welcome guest in a number of middle-class households, but could never get used to the presence of servants. Staying with one family in a comfortable but hardly luxurious flat in Bombay (now Mumbai), I was shocked to discover that the family housemaid—a pleasant woman responsible for cooking, cleaning, and childcare—slept each night just outside the apartment, on the doormat. This personal interaction with a member of the Indian underclass made me realize how naïve I’d been in my view of human dignity.

 The legend, apparently, is that a white tiger comes along only once in a generation. The tiger—rare and dazzling—becomes the spirit animal (so to speak) of the lead character in The White Tiger, a debut novel by Aravind Adiga that won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2008. I haven’t read the novel, but now it’s a fascinating film, passionately directed by Adiga’s longtime friend, the Iranian-American Ramin Bahrani. The movie, featuring an all-Indian cast, reveals a slice of Indian life that is both exciting to look at and deeply disturbing to experience. At its heart is the role of the servant class in today’s India.

 The India of The White Tiger boasts computer technology, high-rise luxury hotels, and sophisticated call centers. Still, the lifestyle of its wealthy citizens depends on the labors of kowtowing servants who obey their masters’ every whim with a smile, tolerating insults and even physical abuse, while regarding their employers as family. Balram (Adarsh Gourav) is an eager young lad, pulled out of school at an early age because his father can’t afford the fees, who maneuvers to attach himself to a local honcho as an in-house driver. The film shows him evolving, through a series of vivid episodes, from a devoted underling to a crafty young man ready to put his own goals ahead of those of the ruling class. Particularly mesmerizing is his interaction with his boss’s younger son (Rajkummar Rao), who was schooled in America. Hip and restless, handsome young Ashok ponders his future prospects, expecting his driver to be sometimes a lackey and sometimes a confidante. Even more interesting is the son’s new wife, Pinky Madam, played by the gorgeous Priyanka Chopra Jonas, who served as one of the film’s producers as well as playing a key role. As an Indian-American raised by working-class bodega owners in Washington Heights, Pinky veers between democratic sympathy for the underdog and a bad case of social hauteur. It is she who sets off a wild chain of events that will prove fateful to all concerned.

 Much of the plot of The White Tiger can be viewed as tragic, but its final scenes take us in the direction of black comedy, as Balram becomes determined to better himself, no matter what. There’s also the witty fact that the story as we see it unfold is narrated by an older Balram, who –now a successful businessman—is trying to impress the visiting Chinese premier with his entrepreneurial talents. (“America is so yesterday,” he says, insisting that the brown man and the yellow man hold the keys to the world of tomorrow. Maybe he’s right?)    

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

All in the Family: The Levys of Schitt’s Creek

 As I watch the final season of Canadian sitcom Schitt’s Creek (the best antidote I know for 10 months in quarantine), I continue to marvel at the show’s cozy sense of family solidarity. True, this is hardly Father Knows Best. The four Roses, who were forced to move from SoCal to a tiny Canadian hamlet because of disastrous financial reverses—are about as eccentric as you can imagine. Mom Moira Rose, a former soap opera queen, is an outrageous diva given to wearing fur and feathers on all occasions. Son David has sexually questionable tastes, as well as a wardrobe to die for. Daughter Alexis seems to have been horizontal with every hunk in Hollywood. Dad Johnny, a one-time video-store magnate, keeps desperately trying to hold the family together, with mixed results. Still, they love each other—and their eccentricities are rivaled by those of the local citizenry, who have perfected the Canadian art of tolerance as they take the Roses to their hearts.

 If the Roses are convincing as a family, it’s partly because they partly are. Star and series co-creator Eugene Levy plays the dad, and son David is portrayed by his actual son, Dan, the co-creator who also recently won Emmys for writing and directing episodes of the series. Daughter Alexis is played by the deliciously vacuous Annie Murphy, who in real life is not actually part of the Levy bloodline. But the proprietor of the local eatery is Sarah Levy, who as Twyla is charged with whirring up fruit smoothies for her dad and brother. And the role of the family mom (who often seems more juvenile than her offspring) is filled by the unforgettable Catherine O’Hara. She and Eugene Levy are NOT actually married, but the sense they convey of the push-and-pull of married life may come from the fact that they’ve often played spouses, notably in Christopher Guest’s doggone outrageous satire, Best in Show (2000), in which she is the wife who’s been around the block a time or three and he is the husband with (literally) two left feet. They also make a big impression in Guest’s 2003 follow-up, A Mighty Wind. In this spoof of the Sixties folk music scene, set at a years-later reunion of some of the era’s biggest acts, they score as Mitch and Mickey. Formerly, according to the film, they were musical sweethearts, known for their tender “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” (he on guitar, she strumming an autoharp while gazing into his eyes). Now, though, he’s a spaced-out former hippie for whom she’s still quietly pining.

 The comfort shown by Levy and O’Hara in playing these wacky roles goes back at least to their earliest Christopher Guest project, 1996’s Waiting for Guffman. Guest, who as an actor was part of This is Spinal Tap, tried his own hand at creating a mockumentary in Guffman, while also starring as a flighty (to put it kindly) theatre director determined to wring talent out of a quartet of Missouri locals putting on the sesquicentennial celebration of their town’s founding. He shared scripting duties with Eugene Levy, who also shows up onscreen as the local dentist (and would-be comedian). In this early Guest film, O’Hara is mated to another of Guest’s regulars, the late Fred Willard. They play travel agents who’d rather sing and dance. (Willard is the jolly one with a quip for every occasion, while O’Hara’s character quietly uses alcohol to drown him out.) 

 Eugene Levy helped script all these films, and it’s clear his writing (as well as his acting) talents run in the family. 


Thursday, January 21, 2021

When Lana Clarkson Met Phil Spector: To Know Him is NOT to Love Him


Well, music mogul Phil Spector is dead. I’m sorry, of course, for anyone who succumbs to COVID, but far be it for me to pay tribute to a madman and a murderer. Instead, I want to mark his passing by remembering his victim, Lana Clarkson. She was a B-movie actress—tall, blonde, and gorgeous—who on February 3, 2003 met Spector at Hollywood’s House of Blues, and accompanied him back to his castle-like mansion in (of all places) suburban Alhambra, California.  Exactly what happened between them that night remains a mystery, but she suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the mouth, and courts did not buy Spector’s claim that her death was an “accidental suicide.”

 I never met Lana Clarkson, but I knew many of the people involved with making perhaps her most notable film, Barbarian Queen (1985). It was a classic Roger Corman quickie, shot in Argentina by Héctor Olivera, a courtly Argentine gentleman best known for the satiric Funny Dirty Little War, and written by a Corman regular, the late Howard R. Cohen. Corman’s minions were well versed in the selling of movies by way of eye-catching poster art, and Boris Vallejo’s poster for Barbarian Queen says it all: it shows a gaggle of young lovelies who wear little but suntans, each of them brandishing a lethal-looking sword or spear. The catchline: “No man can touch her naked steel.” (At Concorde-New Horizons, we were good at coming up with suggestive turns of phrase.)

 Barbarian Queen well served the audience for which it was intended, which I think of as horny young men with money for video rentals. The irrepressible Joe Bob Briggs, a Texas-born promoter of B-movies, gave it a stellar review: "It's no Conan the Barbarian II, but it's got what it takes, namely: Forty-six breasts, including two on the male lead. Thirty-one dead bodies. Heads roll. Head spills. Three gang rapes. Women in chains. Orgy. Slave-girl sharing. One bird's-nest bra. The diabolical garbonza torture. Sword fu. Torch fu. Thigh fu (you have to see it to believe it)."

  The fascinating thing about Roger Corman’s Concorde flicks is that they merge a feminist outlook with raw exploitation. Corman leading ladies are as tough as they are gorgeous. They have no patience for being pushed around, and they can out-think -- as well as out-fight -- pretty much everybody in the room. Still, they do have this penchant for taking their clothes off, making the males in the audience very happy indeed. Corman’s many disciples certainly borrowed the master’s strategy. When I saw that moment in Titanic when Kate Winslet poses for Leonardo DiCaprio wearing nothing but the Heart of the Ocean necklace, I knew that alumnus James Cameron had learned his Corman lessons well. Ditto for the smart, tough Sigourney Weaver strippng down to her scanties before rescuing her cat in Alien. (No, director Ridley Scott didn’t work for Roger, but Hollywood in the Eighties certainly picked up on Roger’s style, then added a much bigger budget.)

 Movie heroines of old were always needing to be rescued. (See The Perils of Pauline, and everything starring Lillian Gish.) Corman heroines (like Angie Dickinson in Big Bad Mama and Pam Grier in just about everything) were always on the verge of being raped, tortured, or killed—but they knew how to turn the tables. That’s one of the very sad things about Lana Clarkson’s fate. In the movies, her Queen Amethea might have been threatened by rapacious bad guys, but she always managed to gain the upper hand. In real life, though, Phil Spector had her beat.