Friday, July 25, 2008

Gossip Girl--Sturm und Drang

It would seem that the new ads for the CW series "Gossip Girl" have stirred up a mild controversy (pretty much the only level of controversy that anything connected to the CW could hope to elicit). The ads feature pull quotes from various sources condemning the show for its supposedly overtly sexual content. Like this one, featuring star Blake Lively looking titillated as an unseen male nuzzles her neck, with the words "Every Parent's Nightmare" plastered across the ad. The ads themselves have been called everything from "desperate" to "disgusting." And as you can see below, people seem to have a few choice words to say about the show as well.

It's because I've never watched "Gossip Girl" (and probably never will for reasons far beyond its supposed lewd nature) that I can't say whether the show is "offensive" (I really hate that word). I probably wouldn't find it offensive in the strictest sense of the word. I'm not sure I disagree entirely with the notion that the ads themselves are kind of desperate (but isn't advertising by nature always desperate on some kind of level?). I can say that I love the idea of taking our (mostly) stupid hangups regarding sexuality and turning them (somewhat) on their ear. Our culture definitely exhibits this weird skittishness when it comes to contemplating female sexuality--teenage female sexuality even more so. This would be fine if it weren't for the fact that teenage male sexuality is viewed with a playful "Boys will be boys! Get 'em, Tiger!" attitude (not teenage male homosexuality, mind you. But that's another discussion entirely). I know I'm hardly breaking new ground when I bring up the double standard as it relates to men, women, and sex. But I think that the reasons behind the double standard, and tangentially, the hubbub over "Gossip Girl" are much more interesting and insidious. It even starts from birth--pink for girls, blue for boys. Studies have been conducted for years regarding the connotation of certain colors on a subconscious level. Guess which color (blue or pink) is regarded with more seriousness and importance?

Let's say (for argument's sake) that "Gossip Girl" really does encourage sexual activity among teenage girls. Is that so much worse than the messages young girls receive, not just from the media, but from those around them? Call me crazy (and you're welcome to) but I think that our society in general encourages women to commodify themselves in ways that men are never expected to. Even virginity pledges for girls are often a way of commodifying them. "Who's going to buy the cow when they can get the milk for free?" I still hear that and it frightens me because it positions women as things that need to be kept shiny and new so they can attract the best buyer (or in this case caregiver). And yet virginity is almost valued inversely for men. How can we still have these attitudes, and then say that women have more choices today? We're conditioned (in the best case scenarios) to view women as inferior to men and (in the worst case scenarios) hate them. If you think I'm overreaching or being too sweeping, ask yourself (if you're a parent) if you have ever asked your daughter to sacrifice more than your son. Observe how single motherhood is framed in our culture versus single fatherhood (scorned versus uplifted and revered. True, yes?) Think about how people are reacting to female teenage sexuality on "Gossip Girl" and look how the world reacted to male teenage sexuality in a film like Superbad. I know what you're thinking--one's a television show, the other's a movie. Fine. But what if Superbad had been about two female high school seniors on a quest to buy liquor, so they could go to a party and have sex with the boys of their respective dreams? The public outcry would have been so massive...actually, it wouldn't. Because Hollywood would never dream of producing such a film. Because girls don't sometimes have sexual feelings, right? They aren't allowed to. For girls, sex is a way for them to gain power and influence men, right? Again, commodification of women. Even look on the supposed fringes of Hollywood at an independent film about a certain pregnant heroine. Juno, despite all of its supposed strengths, ultimately lacks the balls (sorry, Diablo Cody) to address the issue of Juno (Ellen Page) initiating sex with Paulie (Michael Cera), or the reasons behind said action with any semblance of depth or insight. Because, once again, the idea of a woman (teenage or otherwise) enjoying sex is still viewed as taboo in the twenty-first century.

Ultimately, I'm not writing this to say that I am in favor of teenagers (male or female), giving in to every biological impulse. But, it doesn't matter what I think. Nor does it matter what anyone else thinks. Teenagers are going to have sex, as they have since the beginning of time. Is it really useful to portray teenage sex as being slightly more acceptable for boys than for girls? I'd say, it's pretty damn harmful, not to mention stupid and illogical. After all, who are all these teenage boys having sex with? There are definitely problems with the things we tell young girls about their own sexuality. No one is fed more mixed-messages in our culture than girls. But an attempt to remedy the situation, or even spark a mere discussion should neither start nor end with a trifle of a show like "Gossip Girl" in mind. Please, somebody just wake me when our culture regains its ability to engage critically in discussion and debate, stops being so reactionary and puritanical and stops focusing on surface-y bullshit that really isn't that important in the grand scheme of things. I think I'll die of shock when that happens.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Favorite Opening Sequences...

I just felt compelled to talk about some really great opening sequences from films. This top ten list would probably not even be my absolute "favorite" if I really sat down and thought about it, but they're really good anyway. Some of them come from films that I only feel so-so about.

10. Junebug (2005)
When I saw this film for the first time back in '05, it was after it had reached hype hysteria of epic proportions (hey, has anyone seen The Dark Knight or better yet, read my review of it?). Once you get some distance from the film, it definitely improves on subsequent viewings. You may still have trouble convincing me of this film's brilliance, but it boasts some wonderful performances and a great opening sequence. Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) meets George (Alessandro Nivola) in a an art gallery. A look, a few words and as the credits role, they make love playfully in the empty gallery (could you help yourself if you were either of them?) The wonderful sequence ends with a breathless Madeleine asking George "Where do you come from?" And with a smile (God, that smile) he replies "Pfaftown, North Carolina." So little is said, yet it sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Plus, aren't you already booking your ticket to Pfaftown?

9. Carrie (1976)
"You eat shit, Carrie!" Such strong hateful words that tell you everything you need to know about what you're in for here. From a gym class volleyball game, to a panning shot of locker room naughtiness. And then there's the score...I've seen Carrie more times than I can count and I still can't figure out if the soap-operish flute music is the smartest score or the most misplaced score I've ever heard. But as we see Carrie, bathing majestically in the shower, there's that critical shot of blood running down her legs that turns the scene on its ear. And of course leads us to one of the most immortal phrases in cinema history..."Plug it up!"

8. Gummo (1997)
Like Junebug, I'm not sure how I feel about Gummo. It's definitely jarring and I've had to re-watch it several times just to try to form some opinion of it. At the very least, it's fascinating (like the squirrely little director, Mr. Harmony Korine himself). Its opening credits are some of the most haunting I've ever seen. That female crooner, singing about her rooster going "cock-a-doodle-do" over the image of that creepy kid with his rabbit ears...always gets me.

7. The Shining (1980)
Okay, confession time. I'm a big Kubrick-phile, so right away I'm biased. I had to pick which of his films would make this list, and obviously, it had to be The Shining with its panoramic shot of a mountain road over a lake with some of the best horror-movie music ever composed. If you're somehow stumped as to how Kubrick got that shot, there's a big giveaway if you pay attention to some tell-tale shadows in the frame.

6. The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
I don't often cry at the movies. It's happened only a few times. Silkwood (how can you not?) and The Sweet Hereafter are two examples. This movie still gets to me. Upon first observation, it would probably seem like there's not a lot going on in this opening sequence. It's just a panning overhead shot of a couple sleeping in bed with their child. But it's actually one of the most powerful, important images in the film as it gets right to the heart of the film's themes--Our need as a society to protect our children, and the ultimate failure and desolation that is felt when that need is not met (for whatever reason). That, combined with Mychael Danna's lovely score (seriously, he might just be the most underrated composer working in film today) make this one for the books.

5. Boogie Nights (1997)
I'm a huge PT Anderson fan. Ultimately, even though it's still very fresh in my mind, I think that There Will Be Blood will be the masterpiece he's remembered for. But of all of his films, I enjoy the opening for Boogie Nights the most. It beats the vast open silence of There Will Be Blood's opening and the overly philosophical musings of Magnolia's opening. I love the tracking shot through Maurice's club, played beautifully against The Emotions' "Best of My Love." It's busy, but it's profound. We meet the eclectic cast of characters, including the lovely Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), Roller Girl (Heather Graham), porn-king Jack Horner and our hero Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg). One of the most important themes of this film is getting swept up, in one way or another, and no opening sequence sweeps you into the action better than this one.

4. The Graduate (1967)
Having just graduated from college, I don't feel as adrift as Benjamin Braddock, but I surely identify with the malaise brought on by the constant questioning from those around you..."So, what now?" The opening sequence, set to Simon and Garfunkel's "Sound of Silence" (which bookends the film, no pun intended) has our antihero drifting aimlessly on moving sidewalks through an airport. Is it the most subtle metaphor in American cinema? Probably not. But it's still poignant anyway.

3. Blue Velvet (1986)
I have no problem with bizarre. I don't even explicitly have a problem with bizarreness for its own sake. But David Lynch definitely pushes it, which stops me from worshiping at his altar. But I definitely love the first scene of blue velvet, which showcases fucked up, overly-clean suburban Lumberton and the creepy critters that dwell beneath--quite literally, actually. Again, not the most subtle of images. But remember, it was 1986--before suburban satire had been done to death.

2. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
The Royal Tenenbaums is truly the dysfunctional family done up right. Normally, I'm not a huge fan of narration. But in this case, Wes Anderson made the decision to explain most of the history of the fucked up Tenenbaums in a short five minute opening sequence. Like all Wes Anderson films, it's beautifully art-directed (seriously, why no Oscar noms for art direction for his films?) and well-acted by the child performers. And it's played nicely against a string version of the Beatles' "Hey Jude." Awesome.

1. Do the Right Thing (1989)
Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! Up your wake! Up your wake! Up your wake! No film announces its intentions clearer or louder than Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, which opens to the loud bombastic sound of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," while Rosie Perez dances forcefully. I love, love, love this opening sequence.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Dark Knight

I still don't feel like I have enough distance from Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight to speak about it with any semblance of objectivity--that's how haunting it is. It gets underneath your skin and festers, making you ponder things that you never thought you'd be pondering, while walking out of a comic book movie. I'm trying to get beyond the hyperbolic praise that's been floating around, both of the film and of Heath Ledger's tour-de-force, writ-large performance. But ultimately, it's hard to do so for a film that so richly lives up to months (years, actually) of hype, ever since the end of 2005's Batman Begins, where audiences first caught glimpse of the Joker card. It's been said so many times that it will seem trite at this point, but make no mistake--The Dark Knight completely re-writes the rules of the comic-book/superhero-film. This is the one that all others will be judged against from now on.

A few things one should know about this film--it's incredibly dark (no pun intended). And I do mean dark in every sense of the word. Literally, there's a lot of harsh light and dark contrasts going on here, a lot is heavily shadowed (though if you ask me, Joker is never more terrifying than when he's out in broad daylight...more on that later). Content wise, this is a very dark, downbeat movie. No cheesy, Spiderman-style one-liners for the kids. No cutesy romances. And no wrap-it-up cleanly ending. To put it plainly, this film will fuck with your head in ways that no glowing review can prepare you for.

First of all, I want to talk about a few key aspects of this film that make it particularly inspired. The casting of Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Rachel Dawes, for one. I love that she was cast in place of Katie Holmes for several reasons. When I was watching Holmes in Batman Begins, I didn't really get the air of an Assistant District Attorney so much as a young actress all dressed up in her mommy's clothes. Gyllenhaal brings a certain adult sexiness and personality to the role that Holmes never could have (perhaps because Holmes isn't really sexy and lacks a discernible personality of any kind ever since Tom Cruise had that part of her brain removed.) Gyllenhaal elevates Dawes beyond a traditional female reflector, transforming her into a character that we truly care about (something very key for this film).

Secondly, I want to talk about Heath Ledger's Joker. All that's been said about that is accurate. This is his movie. He commands every single scene he's in, and a few he's not since the Joker is always a looming, menacing presence in this film. You never know when he's going to show up, and when he does, it's terrifying. Beyond Ledger, I think a key aspect of the success of his performance can be credited to writer-director Christopher Nolan and his decision not to sexualize the Joker. It would have been so easy to go there, I think. There's one thing I know, and that's men need sex, whatever variety it may be. There's a key scene in the film where the Joker has a confrontation with Rachel Dawes. It is here that you truly see how he can't be bought. Compare this to Tim Burton's Batman, where Joker (played by Jack Nicholson) is so easily duped and seduced by Vicki Vale. Ledger's Joker is so not interested--not in money, nor women, nor any other earthly delights you can throw at him. He thrives on chaos and destruction, and even then, it has to be on his terms. And Ledger plays the insanity and the hysteria beautifully. Yet, you cannot watch the performance without feeling a lingering sadness. If the impact of Ledger's death hasn't hit yet, the huge amount of talent that was lost last year is on full display here and makes this already dark film that much darker.

Christian Bale is better here than he was in Batman Begins. This time around, he allows himself to be both Batman and Bruce Wayne, making the latter into a fully-formed, well-rounded character, rather than delving too headlong into gruff, monotone smolder. That is why we feel more deeply for Wayne. We sense his pain and his dilemma. His desire not to be Batman, because he knows what he must sacrifice, is at odds with his inability to give up his mask and cape because he knows too deeply what's at stake. He's human here. I can't help but picture Christopher Nolan behind the camera saying to Bale "Bruce Wayne, not John Wayne." And he gets it right.

Finally, I was actually the most blindsided by Aaron Eckhart, who brings a depth to District Attorney Harvey Dent that I wasn't expecting. It would have been more easy and simplistic to make Dent the man that Rachel Dawes was seeing simply because she couldn't have Bruce Wayne (at least not the way she wanted). But you understand, not only why she's with him, but that she does in fact love him and that is due very much to Eckhart's sympathetic portrayal. Not only does he make you believe in Harvey Dent, he gives off the air of a Harvey Dent who believes in himself, which makes a later plot-twist all the more effective.

Everything about this film, the top-notch cinematography, to its wonderful score by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer (two of my favorites), will command the attention of an astute watcher of cinema. A lot of talk has been flying around about Oscar consideration, mainly for Heath Ledger. Not since Peter Finch (Network) has a performer won a posthumous Academy Award. There are a lot of hurdles to overcome. Early release date. This film, for all of its triumphs, does happen to exist in a genre that doesn't typically garner major awards consideration--and the Academy is very slow to change, as we all know. I will have to see how the year progresses before I decide whether I'm completely for an Oscar-win for Ledger, but I can't imagine him not making my final five, come year's end. A nomination is almost assured, though a win...I'm not so sure. Even if he is deserving (and he very well might be) I doubt that this is the type of performance that the Oscars would reward if Ledger were alive. I would submit that if the studio campaigns strategically, it could even land a best picture or best director nod--especially if some of the highly anticipated heavy hitters being released at year's end are disappointments. This is already shaping up to be a disappointing year in cinema (I don't think we have another 2007 on our hands). My point is this, if Gladiator and The Departed could win best picture (the latter of with I have a fondness for, though I downright loathe the former), then why can't The Dark Knight sidestep all of the aforementioned barriers and at least land a nomination? This is the best film of the year so far, and is certain to be a place-holder on several critics top ten lists--the ones who are paying attention, anyway.

Grade: A- (though leaning towards B+) We'll see

Friday, July 18, 2008

It's Been a While

Okay, so I haven't posted in over a month...I said I would do this and I'm going to keep at it. But life has been calling me. I'm diving headlong into shooting my feature film, which is going well (all things considered). That's all I'm going to say on the matter (I don't want to get too personal here.)

I just came back from a midnight screening of The Dark Knight. It is almost like the No Country for Old Men of comic book movies...let that mean for you whatever it needs to. I'll be posting a full review sometime this weekend once I've given it a chance to marinate a little. Honestly, I still don't know exactly how I feel about it, beyond the It's an incredibly haunting film. If you thought Batman Begins was dark, you are in for a surprise. And Heath Ledger's performance does actually deserve most (if not all) of the hyperbolic praise being thrown its way. I won't dedicate the full review to singing his praises, because there is a lot of other good to be talked about. Also, watching Ledger's Joker, it fills you with an overwhelming sadness for the obvious reasons...

More to come later...

Love, Peace, and Pretension