Friday, June 26, 2009

Retro Active Appreciation: Farrah Fawcett

Some of my favorite videos to watch on YouTube are vintage commercials, and my favorites by far have been Farrah Fawcett's.

It seems fitting to appreciate her charm and beauty here - the day after her courageous struggle ended, with her passing. Farrah will be missed, but not forgotten. She lived her life to the fullest until the very end.

Please enjoy... and RIP Farrah.

La Collectionneuse (1967)

Retro Active Critique #12
In case someone reading this isn't familiar with Eric Rohmer's films: It would hardly be surprising if Woody Allen was inspired somewhat (or a great deal) by this inimitable filmmaker. As far as 'La Collectionneuse' goes, similarities are fewer. What is shared is that conversational element. 
Eric Rohmer's characters tend to ramble and muse. His plots are less about action, more about spoken ideologies. However, Rohmer's treatment––particularly here––is not about neuroticism or self-depreciation. Rather, it's about philosophy and condescension, a more Gallic behavior trait. I've always been impressed with how Eric Rohmer speaks from a realm of storytelling all his own.
'La Collectionneuse' is charmingly lackadaisical, featuring three people coexisting in an idyllic country home near Saint Tropez in the summertime. They do little but test one another's boundaries. The principal character, Adrien, is a bit of a dandy who waxes philosophical to himself in voiceover––about himself and about his intent to do nothing at all while he stays at the house. 
Meanwhile, he is consumed with thoughts about the girl, Haydee, whom he tags as a collector of men. Daniel, their host, has little to do but to be a self-proclaimed 'barbarian'. And Haydee (just like they meanly pester her about) simply wants to have herself a bit of summertime fun with her male admirers.
When I watch this film (and it is quite possibly my favorite to watch) it's a sort of vacation from the world. And it is one of the best to capture the mood of the late 1960's I crave. The pace, the existential humor––it's a small bit of paradise for me. 

Whenever anyone has told me they are not a fan of Eric Rohmer's work, I try to understand while letting them know they must not have seen 'La Collectionneuse' (usually they haven't.) I happen to love the extent of Rohmer's work, but 'La Collectionneuse' for me is the one that really matters. With this film, I am utterly satisfied from start to finish & back again.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Moon (2009)

Retro Active Critique #11

I was wondering for some time if storytelling was dead (or dying.) And then I saw "Moon". What a refreshing throwback to a classic film making style. We get a story with a fascinating protagonist; there is a setting, a conflict, a resolution. Indeed, reminiscent of the films I cherish most from the 1960's and 70's. I find myself drawn to stories that capture that level of intrigue (or nostalgia) that has been lost for some time now in terms of space travel and exploration - and, I tend to have an existential sensibility in terms of isolation
and appreciation for one's self. It's also highly likely that my great enthusiasm for a film like this stems from the fact that my father was, literally, one of the rocket scientists who helped build the very first Apollo space shuttle for NASA.

Speaking of fathers, director Duncan Jones (who also wrote the story his film is based on) is David Bowie's son. He was called Zowie Bowie for a while after his birth. That the son of the Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust - and more specific to this, 'Space Odyssey'/Major Tom mastermind - should conceive a film like this doesn't surprise me in the least. But it is an infinitely delightful revelation. I like when things fit together so perfectly. And that is how "Moon" works, as well. Everything is in tact. It is neat, elegant and wonderful.

Its elegance begins with the credits. To actually relish in the visual pleasure of a film's credit sequence is itself a bonus. The credits and names seem projected against the stark scenes, and the music is charmingly appropriate audio for what we are seeing. I found myself already making checkpoints in my mind for how the film had excelled in those two initial features. I can even suggest that the simple, lovely and well-suited score ought to be considered for a nomination, come Oscar time. Such suggestions certainly wouldn't end with the credits. But from the first moments, I was thrilled to realize I actually felt like I was watching 'a real movie', the kind that makes you anticipate what's to come and what you are about to experience, in the purest sense of the entertainment medium.

The story itself was better than I'd expected. I thought I knew what I was in for: a lonely space adventure, and a bit of a thriller. But I was still surprised by what transpires. I recommend this film, and therefore wouldn't want to give away too many spoilers... but I can say that I hadn't expected to see the first clone 'buddy film' or clone 'love story' (in a sense). I was pleasantly surprised by the freshness of Jones' imagination in a genre that has shown us almost everything else. Even 'Gerty', (voiced by Kevin Spacey) develops into an atypical sidekick for this type of story.

Gerty is a robot and the sole companion for protagonist Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), a lonely astronaut living on a moon base for years - as he is under contract with his employer, Lunar Industries, an energy provider for Earth in the near future. Gerty is as chilling and detached as you'd expect a robot to be, and only has computerized smiley, sad or perplexed faces on display to show his emotions. When Sam begins to suspect that his messages to Earth have been intercepted and that communication with him is blocked, it is indeed chilling when Gerty replies, "Sam, I can only account for what occurs on the base." And Gerty reminds Sam frequently that it is there to help him, and that he is always at his service. But guess what? Gerty is actually an honest and kind robot! I certainly hadn't expected that, and again, it is an amazingly refreshing twist in a seemingly typical sci-fi scenario. Leaving the theater, I kept smiling to myself thinking, "Gerty was actually nice! I can't believe it!"

Then of course there's Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell. In practically every moment he is on screen, and sometimes twice or three times (you must already know what I mean, since I did give it away - my apologies.) If the Academy has any sense at all going into the nominations for '09, Rockwell will certainly become a prominent nominee for his amusing and impressive execution of this unusual, challenging role. His work was pitch perfect, and utterly believable. And that says a lot, considering he plays Sam Bell at the end of his three-year contract and Sam Bell at the beginning of his three-year contract - and his Sam Bells team up to try and understand their predicament and perhaps help one another out in their seemingly hopeless situation. They even have a spirited but badly matched attempt at ping-pong. It is a beautiful, existential take on isolation and the befriending and love of oneself. Sam Rockwell gives a remarkable performance in a remarkably stylish film and one of the best of its genre in... decades.

Now to take us out, most appropriately, here's a promotional video for "Space Oddity" by Papa Bowie, who is sure to have been a 'Major' (haha, get it?) influence on Duncan Jones' first feature film. First of many, I hope...

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Vision Quest (1985)

Retro Active Critique #10

Louden Swain. 

Here is an under-appreciated, fantastic 80's movie character. Watch as he diligently runs in what looks like a space suit in order to lose weight to compete against a wrestler in another weight division. Why Louden (Matthew Modine) is not as iconic or touted as so many other 80's characters baffles me. In "Vision Quest", these folks from Spokane, Washington are kind-hearted, good people. Ones I would want to know. 
'Vision Quest' needs to be remastered. I have a DVD copy and the quality is shamefully poor for such a gem. For some reason, people recall this film mostly because a brief appearance by Madonna as a club singer who performs in one scene. The film is worthy of much more.

Louden Swain is a high school wrestler who decides to drop two weight classes in order to challenge the undefeated state champion, Shute. Shute competes at Louden's rival high school in the 168 lb. division. Louden is much taller, and this is clearly a health risk for him, but he takes on this personal mission with much resilience. He is a deep kid with a light sense of humor, and he, along with everyone else, questions his own sanity for taking on Shute. But his naysayers secretly admire his gusto and conviction to do this seemingly unnecessary thing. One of his teammates, Kuch, quickly latches onto Louden and tells him, "You're on a vision quest, man. You're trying to find your place in the circle." And Kuch would know, as he is a self-proclaimed, mohawked half-Native American. He has been his own vision quest to find a place in a circle, one outside of his actual life at home with a single and abusive father.

Louden's own father is also a single dad, but he's a very good man who holds his head high despite having been deserted by his wife for another man as soon as 'times got tough.' He's undeniably kind and generous, as is Louden's frustrated coach who worries for Louden's health but allows him to carry on with his regimental dieting in order to compete in the lower weight division. Louden's English teacher is also his friend. But when "the girl" shows up, an older, wayward aspiring artist from New Jersey named Carla (Linda Fiorentino), side-tracked on her way to San Francisco, Louden nearly gives up his vision quest as he beings to wonder what he was really after, since Carla now fills that void in his longing for her. But Carla asks him to do just one thing for her and follow through with his plan to wrestle Shute. She knows he shouldn't give up something he was so instinctively, and spiritually, committed to simply because his hormones got in the way.

There are some great songs on the soundtrack, by the way, like "Lunatic Fringe" (below.)

Everyone is rooting for him, and they all wonder why. But Louden's coworker and friend, Elmo (the cook at the local hotel where Louden works nights, delivering room service ) explains it by referencing Pele to a hesitant Louden in this poignant scene, before Louden finally goes to wrestle Shute. 

Elmo tells him:  'I was in the room here one day, watchin' the Mexican channel on TV. I don't know nothin' about Pele. I'm watchin' what this guy can do with a ball and his feet. Next thing I know, he jumps in the air and flips into a somersault and kicks the ball in, upside down and backwards. The goddamn goalie never knew what the fuck hit him. Pele gets excited and he rips off his jersey and starts running around the stadium waving it around his head. Everybody's screaming in Spanish. I'm here, sitting alone in my room, and I start crying... That's right, I start crying. Because another human being, a species that I happen to belong to, could kick a ball, and lift himself, and the rest of us sad-assed human beings, up to a better place to be, if only for a minute. Let me tell ya, kid. It was pretty goddamned glorious. It ain't the six minutes. It's what happens in that six minutes.' 

(Watch the scene, below.)

I'll take this one out with Madonna's appearance in this great film.

Friday, June 12, 2009

There's A Girl in My Soup (1970)

Or perhaps there's a girl in my Ossie Clark...

(Critique in progress...)

Here's a nice montage set to the film's theme song, "Miss Me in the Morning".

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Retro Active Appreciation: Ali MacGraw

If there's ever a question as to why someone would write a feature about Ali MacGraw, there are plenty of reasons for it. But here are three of mine: I deeply appreciate her as an individual, I appreciate her contributions to films (however few) and because who else will? 

Well. Of course they will. She'll continue to get an occasional mention in fashion magazines. And of course people will blog about her on occasion. (Note: since I first posted this, my friend Sheila Weller did write a great, in-depth piece on Ali MacGraw for Vanity Fair :))
Anytime crochet hats, 1970's prep school & hippie chic looks –– or straight, long, middle-parted hair –– are shown, (things Ali will forever be equated with and celebrated for), she'll be mentioned. Because she defined the look of the early 1970's. 

She will also be mentioned in reference to Steve McQueen as long as people continue to remember him. Or Robert Evans (though perhaps his legacy came full circle with the terrific 'The Kid Stays in the Picture', and there isn't a real likelihood of his pop culture resurgence.)

But this is solely about Ali, herself. I'd followed her career and life diligently for many years, valued her, on her own, apart from the men and the movies, her stint as a Chanel model, the fashion sense (although I am equally enamored of those aspects of her life.) She lived a life of obscurity for some time, only to be hurled into one of international fame rather suddenly. Hers is a story that can legitimately be called an 'overnight success' –– from her period of modeling, to having her first film role, to starring in 'Love Story' and receiving a best actress Oscar nomination for that year and landing on the cover of Time magazine. 

Ali MacGraw is now the subject of Retro Active Appreciation, and the first female to have the honor on my blog (of course, it's really an honor to honor her!) I've memorized every moment of her three most significant films –– 'Goodbye Columbus', 'Love Story' and 'The Getaway' –– all three of which I've owned and watched as often as I could. I've also read her autobiography, 'Moving Pictures' from cover to cover (in which she displays her considerable gift for writing.) I have found her ascent to fame, her personality and background each enthralling.
Here is a woman who graduated from Wellesley College, then worked as an assistant for the legendary Diana Vreeland at Vogue during the most exciting period of fashion (again, my opinion) –– in the swinging sixties and the time of Jean Shrimpton. Ali even recalls having had some item physically thrown at her by the Ms. Vreeland, only to flippantly throw it right back at her aggressor, even harder (no offense to Ms. Vreeland, but good for Ali!) She had it rough then, but struggled through, started to work as a fashion stylist –– and finally as a model before getting noticed by Hollywood. She appeared in several print ads of that time, for Chanel and so on, and even TV commercials. 

This is an adorable Polaroid commercial, featuring Ali.

From there, she was discovered for the lead role as the Jewish American princess, Brenda, in her first film, 'Goodbye Columbus'. And the rest is, of course, a somewhat forgotten history, brought back to life in Retro Activity.

Here's a trailer I made for 'Goodbye Columbus' –– because I couldn't find anything resembling a trailer for this great film. I love 'Goodbye 'Columbus'. It's a sweet and mellow time capsule of sorts, with charming songs by 60's pop group The Association, specifically recorded for the film sprinkled throughout.
If you've never seen or heard of 'Love Story', (and if for some reason you haven't, you should), it's about college preppie love turned quite tragic and it stars Ali and Ryan O'Neal. This is the scene that completely sealed it for me, of the love birds frolicking in the snow. I was a 'Love Story' believer from then on. The wonderful music (aptly called 'Snow Frolic') is by Francis Lai.
And I love this next one,' The Getaway', directed by Sam Peckinpah. Doc McCoy (Steve McQueen) has just been released from prison and reunites with his wife, Carol, played by Ali, who had (shall we say) 'compromised' herself for his freedom, only to embark on an assigned bank robbery and their consequent getaway.
Here she waits for him at the train station after she messed things up by being negligent with their stolen cash, and must be confronted by Doc for her previous lovelorn mistake.

My favorite is the final scene, with the old cowboy who helps them make the final sweep - it's the loveliest moment. And here are the final minutes of this entertaining, (somewhat edgy) romantic-adventure-heist film.
'Moving Pictures' is a book Ali MacGraw wrote about her life some time ago. It is worth a read if you're interested, as I was. I guarantee you will be fascinated and enthralled, especially if you have interest in her upstate New York upbringing, her stints in the fashion world, her marriages, her films, her style, her spirit, or her writing (since she is gifted at that.)
Somehow, I don't think I'd be the same without having had Ali MacGraw play a part in my life as a role model of sorts. I truly appreciate her. So, thanks Ali, for having been an awesome and stunning individual & someone I can continue to appreciate Retro Activite-ly.