Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris; Mr. Gernreich Did Not

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately researching a Sixties fashion guru, Rudi Gernreich, for a writing project. The experience has made me realize how much fashion shapes our everyday lives, especially if we happen to be female. Gernreich, notorious circa 1964 for daring to create a topless bathing suit, was in many ways a fashion radical. Though he was an award-winning designer with a celebrity clientele, he eventually came around to asserting that “fashion will go out of fashion,” and that individual freedom and comfort are far more important than high style.

 Gernreich, who would have turned 100 this month (he died in 1985), gradually became a champion of low-key, easy-care, and often unisex garments. Not for him the glamour and expensive individualism of the great Paris couturiers, whose business model was to create sumptuous styles intimately tailored to fit each client’s body. So he makes an interesting contrast to the story of Mrs. Ada Harris (based on a popular 1958 novel by Paul Gallico), a London charwoman who has a hard time making ends meet. It’s 1957, and she still doesn’t know for sure that her beloved husband died in World War II. A romantic at heart, she unexpectedly falls in love with a fabulous Dior gown all-too-casually worn by one of her wealthy clients. When a small windfall comes her way, she makes up her mind to cross the channel and purchase an extravagant gown of her very own.

 When she enters the House of Dior, she’s immediately hit by the snobbery inherent in the world of couture. Dior’s clients are expected to be the wealthy, the titled, and the celebrated: snooty folks who treat Dior underlings with disdain and often don’t bother to pay their bills. Through a series of happy accidents and just plain chutzpah, Mrs. Harris wins acceptance among the models and dressmakers. As played by the very talented Lesley Manville, she possesses spirit and good sense, both of which  endear her to the working-class peons who make the extravagant garments. Soon she’s finding common-sense ways to help the House of Dior with its fiscal problems, and we just know that she and her new gown will (after a few challenges are overcome) live happily ever after.

 I first became truly aware of Lesley Manville in 2017, when she copped an Oscar nomination for playing the steely sister of Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread. That film too was set in the haute-couture fashion world, with Day-Lewis starring as an imperious designer named Reynolds Woodcock. Clearly, in Phantom Thread, both Woodcocks are far more dedicated to clothing than they are to people. (A highlight is the moment when the two siblings conspire to strip an elegant green dress off of the drunken body of a wealthy patroness who in their eyes just doesn’t deserve the masterpiece she’s wearing.) In Phantom Thread, Manville was essentially frigid, so it’s a pleasure to see her turn on the charm. Like so many British actors, she seems able to do just about anything.

 While watching Manville in Phantom Thread, I suddenly recognized her as the loyal but deeply frustrated wife of Sir Arthur Gilbert (Jim Broadbent), in Mike Leigh’s wonderful Gilbert & Sullivan film, Topsy-Turvy, I also was lucky enough to see her on-stage opposite Jeremy Irons, doing remarkable things with the role of the drug-addled Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s classic Long Day’s Journey into Night. And it’s no surprise that she’ll soon pop up in the latest season of The Crown, playing the ageing (and deeply troubled) Princess Margaret. Personally, I can’t wait.



Friday, August 26, 2022

A Short Stay at “The White Lotus”

The pandemic has taught me that there’s something to be said for committing to a limited TV series. Over the course of a relatively small number of hour-long episodes, you can get absorbed in a complicated story, featuring many provocative characters, and assume that you’re heading for a quick but engrossing wrap-up (or, of course, a dramatic cliff-hanger that makes you eager to see what the next season will bring).

 For the last six nights, I have been caught up in The White Lotus, I know this HBO series, set in a tropical resort frequented by the rich and the entitled, has been around for months, but I’m a bit slow to explore TV trends. Lots of buzz and 20 primetime Emmy nominations (eight of them in acting categories) made me curious, and so I hopped aboard for a series of episodes that balance the life-crises of a number of wealthy vacationers and the woes of the ever-smiling folk who serve them. If you enjoy the overblown Jennifer Coolidge, she’s very much here, larger than life, as an addled heiress who feels the need to scatter her dead mother’s ashes in the surf. There’s also a newlywed couple discovering that perhaps they weren’t meant for each other (the groom’s imperious mother, played by Molly Shannon, pops up to check on things). And there’s a complicated story involving a business-tycoon mom, an insecure dad, a confused son, a rebellious college-age daughter, and the daughter’s mixed-race pal whose complex social resentments lead toward a tragedy for a young busboy but also a burst of family feelings that had previously seemed most unlikely.

 Then there’s the White Lotus staff, as represented by two of the show’s most memorable characters. Natasha Rothwell (one of the show’s many acting nominees) is the resort’s wellness coordinator, a soothing presence not quite resigned to the fact that she’s taken for granted by one and all. And it will be hard for me (or anyone else, I should think) to forget Murray Bartlett as the resort’s manager. He starts out as a glad-hander determined to make all the guests feel the joys of Hawaiian hospitality, while simultaneously fighting for his own recovery from addiction. Yes, he’s five years clean and sober, but the shenanigans of this particular set of guests erase all of that hard work in one fell swoop. When he goes off the wagon, his is a spectacular plummet. Let’s just say that the revenge he ultimately takes on his most obnoxious guest is both disgusting and hilarious.

 What makes it all work is an opening scene in the first episode, set at the local airport after the events the series recounts, which establishes that there’s just been a death at the White Lotus resort. The scene contains a strong hint of the victim’s identity, and so we go through each episode waiting for the axe to fall. In fact, the writers have indulged in a bit of misdirection here, as a way of ratcheting up suspense and keeping us invested in all the goings-on the series contains. This proved effective for me, at the same time that I was irked by some serious flaws in plot logic and a too-tidy sign-off.

 The word is that we have not seen the last of The White Lotus, although that beautiful Hawaiian resort (played by an actual resort on Maui) will be replaced in the new season by an equally fabulous locale in Sicily. It will feature an international cast, the return of Jennifer Coolidge, and (doubtless) some additional icky delights. 




Tuesday, August 23, 2022

A Minority Report on “Minority Report”

There was a time when I thought the hallmark of Steven Spielberg’s films was their simplicity: straight-ahead stories told with visual flair. Remember Jaws: huge fish suddenly bursting out of the ocean. Or E.T. a boy on a bike, soaring aloft with an extraterrestrial on his handlebars. It’s akin to the lesson I learned from my own mentor, Roger Corman: the poster is the movie. Those Spielberg masterworks were made more than 40 years ago, and Spielberg has long since learned to exploit other aspects of his talent. I deeply admire the panache of the Indiana Jones films, the historical profundity of Schindler’s List (1993), the whimsy of Catch Me If You Can (2002), and the moral complexity of Bridge of Spies (2015). Spielberg’s sensitive 2021 retooling of West Side Story worked far better than I expected. 

 Yet Spielberg’s approach to science fiction is perhaps too visually and thematically cluttered to impress me. I do remember liking 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, because its central focus on a robotic boy who yearns to be human has emotional resonance. Minority Report, a 2002 film based loosely on a story by Philip K. Dick, explores a futuristic society caught up in another conundrum: how to stop crimes before they happen. An elaborate experimental system, called Precrime, halts murderers in their tracks by seeking out and arresting those who are about to kill a fellow human being. Spielberg creates a big visual splash when a team of commandos, led by stalwart Tom Cruise, rappel onto the scene of a domestic quarrel and arrest a man who may (or may not) have been just about to pull the trigger. 

 But philosophical issues of intent aside, Minority Report goes a bit crazy with its production design. As in the previous Dick story that became the futuristic screen classic, Blade Runner, prophetic visuals are all-important here. Such witty touches as cereal boxes that talk to consumers and video-wall ads that address prospective customers by name are amusing enough, showing us a future world, in which consumerism reigns supreme. More importantly, Spielberg obsesses on the architectural look of the mid-21st century. He starts us off slowly by setting his first scene in a classic Washington DC townhouse, full of bookcases and plush furniture. But then we’re whisked into the headquarters of Precrime, in which everything is sleek and high-tech and gadget-driven. Pretty soon good-guy Cruise (who of course is nursing a family sorrow) is suspected of being one of those about-to-kill baddies, which sets the stage for a lengthy, exhausting chase through the streets of a DC that’s now fully space-age. Action fans (and of course Tom Cruise enthusiasts) doubtless love this section, but it hasn’t much of anything to do with the serious intellectual questions with which Minority Report theoretically wants to wrestle.

 Then there’s the source of the information about those soon-to-happen crimes. For all their gadgets, the scientists and tech guys in this film are not dealing with anything so sophisticated as probability tables. Instead, it turns out that the source of their information about future crimes comes from three very bizarre, very water-logged humans, the Precogs, who are submerged in a secret wading pool. Like the seers of old, they know what’s about to happen. Really?  Kinda like the weird sisters in Macbeth? Yup, and all this has something to do with the red ping-pong ball that slides down a chute and announces to the Precrime staff that a murder is about to occur.

 Gadgetry—thy name is Spielberg? Please, Steve, stick to good stories peopled by real characters.