Saturday, February 14, 2015

LA CIENAGA (Blu-ray) - #743

Everything and nothing happens in La Ciénaga, the debut feature from Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel (The Headless Woman). Spanning the space of one aimless summer, this avant-garde drama captures the boredom and the heat for one extended family forced together by circumstance as life changes and petty concerns swirl all about.

The narrative kicks off with an accident. At a pool party, middle-aged mother Mecha (Graciela Borges) falls face first, smashing her drinking glass against her chest. Was she drunk? Did she trip? Stories vary. But the lacerations above her breasts seem serious enough that her sister Tali (Mercedes Morán) loads her kids in the car and heads over. Mecha has two teenaged daughter of her own, as well as an adult son, José (Juan Cruz Bordeau), who also makes the trip, leaving his older lover (Silvia Baylé) in Buenos Aires. There is something oedipal suggested by this couple, and in general José is portrayed as a sexual being, with hints of incestuous longing from his siblings and his cousins.

Which is all part of the strange hormonal miasma that hangs around everything. The children--and there are many what with friends that hang around--seem driven by animal impulses. Boys point their rifles at girls in the woods, girls play tricks on unsuspecting boys in the town. One of Mecha’s daughters, Momi (Sofia Bertolotto), is nicknamed “Dirty” because she’ll go days without showering or brushing her hair. There is a casual racism toward the indigenous people, including Isabel (Andrea López), the household maid. Every moment in La Ciénaga feels like it’s the moment before something awful is going to happen.

And yet, outside of the occasionally injury or quick flash of violence, it never really does. The worst thing remains uncommented on, unseen, unresolved. Like the apparition of the Virgin Mary that is a running thread throughout La Ciénaga, any big happening stays invisible, only hinted at. Meaning, like spirituality, is ephemeral. This is Martel’s strange balance, that restlessness of an idle summer,  particularly for a tween like Momi or the boy Joaquin (Diego Baenas), who has already lost an eye as a consequence of being allowed to run wild. Everyone is always getting dirty, they are consistently uncomfortable in the heat, and the backyard pool where Mecha hurt herself is so filthy as to be unswimmable. The title La Ciénaga translates as “The Swamp,” and while it most certainly refers to this swimming pool, it’s also a descriptive of the entire state of being Martel’s depicting: this family is stuck in a swamp of history and the expectations that grow there like algae.

Martel shoots all these goings on with a similarly lazed but observant eye. She takes her time with some takes, working around the tangled bodies, squeezing into tight quarters. Natural lighting pervades most of the scenes, as does natural sound. There are lots of marvelous audio touches throughout, like the dual ringing telephones, or the regular barking of unseen dogs. There is a kind of naturalness to the whole affair that befits La Ciénaga’s episodic narrative. As the heat eventually makes some folks cranky, and certain conflicts come to a head, Martel continues to tease our expectations, only to gracefully exit more quietly than she entered.

For technical specs and special features, see the full article at

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

MY WINNIPEG (Blu-ray) - #741

Guy Maddin has always been a filmmaker torn between his nostalgia for old cinema and his forward-thinking filmmaking techniques. His appropriation of antiquated styles in movies like Brand Upon the Brain! [review] and The Saddest Music in the World were clever allusions, throwbacks clearly made using current technology with a progressive and irreverent approach to narrative. Something has always driven the Canadian director to reach back and pull the past into the here and now.

In My Winnipeg, his 2007 film, a self-described "docu-fantasia," the past Maddin digs into is his own. As the name might suggest, My Winnipeg is a tribute to the city, his city, his hometown--the Canadian burg that is said to be the geographical center of North America. It is also a tribute to his mother, whom he brings alive via re-enactments of events from his childhood. He considers her influence, and re-examines difficult moments, and, as his narration tells us, even drags her into the experiment, eager to see what she will learn through this trip down memory lane.

Except, of course, he doesn't really, because that's not his actual mom on the screen, but instead an actress named Ann Savage--a fact he cheekily withholds even as he informs us that all the versions we see of him and his brothers and sister as kids are just stand-ins. It's all part of the dreamscape he creates from the get-go, establishing a surreal version of history that he inserts himself into, teasing the audience with the strange lore of the place where he grew up. Horses frozen in an ice storm, Russian hockey players, labor strikes, trees growing in the middle of the street--these are all meant to be a part of the myth and legends of Winnipeg. But how much of it is true? Does it matter?

Of course not. We are told right there in the title. This is Guy Maddin's Winnipeg, his fanciful recreation of the places that informed who he is. There is never any question that he is an unreliable narrator--the movie is framed by his flight from the city, his attempt to get away, but we know he has no intention of leaving, he loves it all--and it's the lies he chooses to tell that inform our true opinion of the man and his origins. These fictions he creates, these myths he makes, they are a tribute to all the things he says they are, but they are also a tribute to his real love: storytelling. The kind of storytelling that goes on in a small community, the kind of fibs a child imagines to make the world around him seem more interesting, and the kind of daydreams that really do break the Guy Maddins of the world out of their humble beginnings and turns them into internationally renowned motion picture directors.

It's fun and intriguing and just generally delightful to watch. My Winnipeg is an autobiography unburdened by reality or truth, and thus far more emotionally honest and revealing than most tracts that try to tell it like it "really is."

For technical specs and special features, see the full article at

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


Casting back in my memory, I think I first heard of Rainer Werner Fassbinder at the same time I first heard of Douglas Sirk, back in the late 1990s or so when Martin Scorsese and others were trying to introduce Sirk back into the conversation. So, even though it would take me longer to actually experience the cinema of Fassbinder (I was drawn in by the stories I heard of Berlin Alexanderplatz [review]) than it would Sirk, whom I sought out immediately, the two would remain inextricably linked. Largely because Fassbinder wanted it to be so.

The German director’s 1972 film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is his tribute to Sirk, an attempt to adopt some of the same themes as the master of melodrama, to tell a story of women and their concerns, and to do so with the same colorful backdrops. While I’d suggest that the final result might be more aptly described as “Norma Desmond by way of Ingmar Bergman,” one can still see the sudsy fingerprints of Sirk all over it. Yet, it’s also more than homage: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is very much its own thing.

Fassbinder’s film is an adaptation of his own play, and the theatricality of the staging and structure of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant would betray that even if the credits did not. (And, again, like the Sirk influence, this is a good thing). The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is essentially a story in four acts, plus an epilogue, set in the same space, Petra’s apartment. Petra (Margit Carstensen, later seen in Fassbinder’s World on a Wire) is a middle-aged fashion designer who has sealed herself off in a claustrophobic world of her own creation. She still works, but mostly from bed, and as we watch, honestly, we only see her longsuffering, silent servant, Marlene (Fassbinder-regular Irm Hermann), actually put brush to paper and design anything.

Within her decadently decorated four walls, Petra receives many guests, including her cousin Sidonie and eventually Sidonie’s friend, Karin. (They are played, respectively, by Katrin Schaake and Hanna Schygulla, also regulars in Fassbinder films; in the way he builds a stock company of female actors, one might also draw comparisons with Pedro Almodovar.) It’s Karin who throws a spanner in the works. Petra is drawn to her, so in Act Two, she lures the younger woman back to her apartment, and in a case of “who’s playing who?” convinces her to stay with her after hearing Karin’s sob story about how tough her current living situation is.

Petra’s interest in Karin is more than charitable, and by Act Three, the fact that they are lovers is quite obvious, even if it’s not explicitly said so out loud. Yet, it’s also already over, the parasitic union having run its course for Karin, who has gotten what she wants. Leading to the final act, wherein Petra is despondent and suicidal on her birthday. Enter her college-aged daughter (Eva Mattes), whom she verbally abuses, and her aristocratic mother (Gisela Fackeldey), who clearly still rules the roost despite Petra’s many successes, and we see the pattern of three generations of broken women and their dysfunctional understandings of love. Petra lays everything bare, possibly making it clear for the first time for some of the more sheltered viewers in the early-’70s audience, and the melodrama reaches a crescendo.

Fassbinder divides all of these scenarios clearly, inserting a fade to black between and also marking the various sections with different songs, including hits by the Platters and the Walker Bros. Between those fades, he prefers long takes with invisible edits. There are cuts, there are angle changes, but they are never obvious. Once the drama has sucked you in, you’d be hard-pressed to notice or recall editor Thea Eymesz’s nips and tucks. Likewise, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who later went on to work with Scorsese and Coppola (not to mention Prince), uses the camera merely as a framing device. He doesn’t push, he doesn’t highlight--rather, his work is in capturing the drama, as well as color and the costuming. Petra as written and as Margit Carstensen plays her, is forceful enough a presence on her own to command the montage without any added help. Well, except for maybe costume designer Maja Lemcke. The woman’s moods are telegraphed by her outfits and wigs. When she is seducing Karin, she is like an exotic queen out of some mythological history, all baubles and distractions; when she is being jilted, she is more covered, and her hair is a hard-lined bob; on either end of the movie, when she is in despair, she wears a plain nightgown and no wig at all. The space between is so long, we forget her most honest face before we are reminded of it again at the end. Without the warpaint and the wardrobe, she is vulnerable. At her most naked, she is the most alone.

For technical specs and special features, see the full article at

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


The interesting thing about boxed sets sometimes is, if you’re not familiar with a particular filmmaker, they offer a crash course in his or her themes and style. You can build a foundation, either creating a starting point for further exploration (example: other Eclipse bundles like Early Bergman [review] or The First Films of Samuel Fuller [review]) or provide a broad overview, leaving you to fill in the gaps later (The Essential Jacques Demy [review 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]).

With Japanese director Keisuke Kinoshita, my only prior experience had been with Twenty-Four Eyes [review], his 1954 film about a small-town schoolteacher. It was an assured drama lacking in histrionics, focusing instead on the common and, arguably, the banal--though, the “everyday” might be a more accurate term, as the small things are given equal weight to the stuff of bigger film narratives. One can immediately see the roots for that kind of storytelling in Kinoshita’s initial films, collected here under the banner Kinoshita and World War II. Indeed, the five films in this, the forty-first Eclipse collection, were made during and just after the war, and reflect Japanese life as it was being lived at the time.

The lead feature is 1943’s Port of Flowers, a seemingly light-hearted movie about two inept con men descending on an island town in hope of bilking the residents out of their hard-earned money. Shuzo (Eitaro Ozawa, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs [review]) and Tomekichi (Ken Uehara, Mr. Thank You [review]) mistakenly try to pull the same ruse. Having discovered that, at one time, an industrialist tried to build a shipyard in this village, only to have the Great Depression wash his dreams away, both men arrive within hours of each other claiming to be the son no one knew the industrialist had. Rather than blow the scheme, the two crooks pretend to be brothers, finding that the love the village had for their alleged father is so great, they are more than willing to believe anything.

They are also more than willing to drop every yen they have to help make the shipyard a reality, and before the con artists realize, they have more cash than they know what to do with. These small-time operators are not prepared for a big score, and fear that they’ll only mess it up. Add to that the charms of village life, and particularly the island women, and they start to have second thoughts about disappearing with the bounty.

Up until this point, Port of Flowers is fairly innocuous, offering only a slight social critique, particularly in relation to a young woman who had left the island in search of a more cosmopolitan existence, only to be sent back under questionable circumstances. There is also a division made between her brother (Chishu Ryu, Equinox Flower, Late Autumn, etc. [reviews]) and the other villagers, as he was able to go to Tokyo and attend college (an accomplishment the con men can’t even claim). Education is poised against traditional values. In its early stages, I assumed Port of Flowers was heading toward State and Main territory: the self-important city folk would find themselves taken advantage of by the country bumpkins.

That all changes on December 7, 1941. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the expansion of the war, a nationalistic surge takes over the town, and the con men find themselves swept up in it. If they can build a ship for real, the country could use it, and they can serve in their own small way.

It’s fascinating to see a story about Japanese patriots during the conflict, particularly as the war was still going while Kinoshita was making his film. Had Port of Flowers been made even a couple of years later, the drama would have a different tenor. As they say, the victors get to write history, and so most Japanese stories that followed show the regret and misgivings that were deemed appropriate in peacetime. Think of how some American pundits reacted to Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises [review] last year because its main character never questioned how the planes he was building would be used, and then imagine Port of Flowers being released today. Doesn’t it make sense that the Japanese citizenry would want their country to thrive and prosper and ultimately win? It’s no different than what Clint Eastwood was trying to do by leaving the politics out of American Sniper [review], and look how that turned out.

The thing is, there are no politics presented here, no anti-American or European rhetoric, just average folks seeing the direction their nation was heading and trying to do their part. Kinoshita avoids making the movie propaganda in this way, as opposed to say the straight-up rallying in something like Powell and Pressburger’s 49th Parallel [review]. While Kinoshita did have to get the approval of the government censorship board before making Port of Flowers, it doesn’t feel like he was being swayed to deliver a particular message.

Though, if he had to cut some things here or there, that might explain the abruptness of the ending. Without giving too much away, the con men disappear from the island before the ship they caused to be built is launched--and, indeed, on the same day some of the local fishermen are attacked by Allied submarines--without much explanation. We can fill in some of the pieces, but not to any exact detail. It’s almost like a reel, or at least a scene or two, is missing.

But then, if there is anything to quibble over in Port of Flowers, it’s some of  Kinoshita’s clumsy edits. Most noticeable are the times he tries to build tension by quick cuts that are so quick, they are practically subliminal. These mostly involve the local policeman, whom Kinoshita wishes to make an object of fear for his bumbling bad guys. Most of the rest of the movie has a much more patient mis-en-scene, more akin to Ozu, and thus it makes these sudden flashes of Hitchcockian style all the more jarring.

That said, the first-time director shows some flashes of ambition that work quite well. The natural setting, including the realistic sets, and the way Kinoshita handles the countryside, including bad weather, shows a confidence learned from his previous years as an apprentice. There is also one very effective sequence where the old woman Okano (Chieko Higashiyama, Tokyo Story [review]) relates memories of time spent with the real shipbuilder. She tells the story while on a carriage, and the scenery outside changes from the island view to a rear projection of a life she imagines for herself and her lost love in far away locales. It’s a pretty obvious technique to modern eyes, but it creates a dreaminess that perfectly evokes the feeling of having spent decades pining for what might have been. The effect is helped by Higashiyama’s careful performance. It’s a rare moment of vulnerability for a character who otherwise keeps her guard up. She is quite good, as are Ozawa and Uehara. The duo are subtly comic, avoiding going too broad, and thus making the poor intentioned thieves sympathetic rather than pitiable.

Nationalism is far less of a subtle topic in Kinoshita’s follow-up. Made the same year as Port of Flowers, The Living Magoroku is a propagandist fable, the kind of thing that might have run as a short subject between the cartoon and the main feature in wartime Hollywood, but here extended to full length.

The gist is this: in a rural community, the Onagi family maintains the same farmland that their ancestors fought on nearly 400 years prior. The Living Magoroku even opens with a flashback to samurai clashing on the meadow before cutting to modern-day warriors training for combat in the wilderness nearby. Superstition has left the family’s field untouched all this time. They believe that to break the ground would be to violate the spirits of the ancestors who fell there. The clan is currently overseen by its widowed matriarch (Mitsuko Yoshikawa, Apart From You [review]), who also believes she lost her husband at a young age, as the family has lost all of their men, for even thinking of violating the curse. Her own son, Yoshihiro (Yasumi Hara), believes he is suffering from lung disease. Outside influence is pushing him to cultivate the land, but he is scared.

Enter an army doctor (Toshio Hosokawa) and an ambitious sergeant (Uehara). Both are visiting the Onagi homestead for a similar reason. The doctor is looking to buy a vintage sword from the family, as he foolishly sold his own and needs to restore the lost heirloom and his good name; the sergeant believes he also has such a sword and wants it appraised. Between the two of them, they will sway mother and son to do the right thing.

The Living Magoroku was written by Kinoshita, as well as directed, and he attempts to stack the narrative, creating an ensemble of characters with similar goals and faults to match the Japanese climate of the period. The Living Magoroku consistently works on two levels, each chafing against the other, its own narrative locked in conflict. Kinoshita seeks a balance between tradition and necessity, superstition and reason, honor and pragmatism. Much like the educated man was seen as the voice of civilization in Port of Flowers, so too does logic and experience hold sway here. Land, armor, and weaponry are all things to be revered, but the battlefield is not as important as the fields where the citizenry lives and eats. Nor is sacrifice made only on the front lines.

This is the ultimate thrust of The Living Magoroku: each person must do his or her part, even if they don’t like it. Again, consider American drives for tin and rubber, or warnings how “loose lips sink ships,” the person next to you in this theater may be a spy. It’s not at all subtle, neither in its message nor even in its drama. (And, at its worst, the acting can either be stiff or corny in equal measures; at its best, unmannered and naturalistic.) Still, Kinoshita strives to find the humanity in it all. The personal cost can be repaid, and the group effort leads to extensive bonds. The sergeant strives to unite two young lovers who are unable to marry due to the argument over the land, and the doctor not only restores his family name, but he extends that family when it’s all said and done.

Though the writing seems heavy at times, the overall structure of The Living Magoroku is slick, with Kinoshita confining the action to a few small places, and also isolating the timeframe to two separate visits from both the army men. He also shows an increased movement through the scenes, including elegant pans from one happening to another, like moving from the ground up to spy through a window, creating an overall feeling of connectedness and realism. This is one world he’s operating in, one community. Likewise the visual connections between past and present, the objects and artifacts echoing back to those brief battlefield moments reminding us just how present history is in the day-to-day.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review. The stills shown are taken from the standard-definition DVD release and not the Blu-ray under discussion.

Monday, January 12, 2015

3 WOMEN (Blu-ray) - #230

I’m trying to reach toward a picture that’s totally emotional--not narrative or intellectual--where an audience walks out and they can’t say anything about it except what they feel.”

Robert Altman’s description of his intentions with 3 Women doesn’t really decode the entire thing, but it does give a key to opening up whatever secret book holds the answers. Because 3 Women, which Altman wrote and produced under his own Lion’s Gate banner as well as directed, is not a story that works on paper, it’s not a script with a traditional plot. Its act breaks are more like psychotic breaks, in that the movie transforms twice, shifting when its main characters face trauma, swapping their roles, and yet never stopping to explain. Altman is clear in his nod here to Luis Bunuel, naming a pushy boss Mrs. Bunweill as tribute, and interestingly enough, holds much in common with the movie the Spanish filmmaker released that same year. 1977 brought us both 3 Women and That Obscure Object of Desire. In Bunuel’s film, the lead actress changes mid-way through the picture, a confounding narrative conceit that demands the audience take a leap of faith that it all means something. Altman plays a few parlor tricks of his own. Both these men were driving down Mulholland Dr. a couple of decades before David Lynch.

The story here begins normally enough. A young woman named Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) is starting work at a nursing home, and she is assigned Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall) to train her. The two couldn’t be more different. Millie is tall and composed; Pinky is small and shy. Millie talks constantly, yet no one ever seems to listen; Pinky is always watching, yet others often don’t see her. Millie pretends to be the sophisticate; Pinky is a child. Millie likes dressing in yellow; Pinky is nicknamed Pinky for a reason.

Pinky is also somewhat of a mimic. An emotional and physical chameleon. She is drawn to Millie and soon begins copying her. She borrows a phrase here, a detail there. When Millie needs a new roommate, Pinky seizes on the opportunity. What better way to observe her new obsession than in her natural habitat? It’s like Single White Female for the art house, but without the murderous intent.

Things are up-and-down for the new roomies. Millie notices things being slightly off about the younger woman. Likewise, the landlord’s wife and proprietress of the saloon where Millie drinks, the similarly named Willie (Janice Rule), appears suspicious of the new girl. I suppose in this pyramid, Willie is the crone, and indeed, she and her elaborate paintings have a kind of bewitching effect on Pinky, drawing her in the way the moon draws the tide. The spying girl often observes Willie through water, or in relation to water, like in a fish tank or at the bottom of an empty pool, and every time, Willie can sense the staring almost immediately.

Altman makes great use of the murals that Willie paints (though in reality they were created by artist Bodhi Wind). She does small abstract work that can be hung on walls, though those she tends to riddle with bullet holes, which only calls further attention to their humble size. Her masterpieces, on the other hand, are large and impressive, covering walls or the floors of swimming pools. She depicts mythic creatures, alien and surreal, masculine and violent. In one, which also ends up being the final image of the movie, her bizarre creatures rant and rave at an object in the heavens, suggesting they are as primal as the apes at the start of 2001 [review]. One can presume she is painting the world she sees around her--the saloon is populated by men riding dirt bikes and shooting pistols--but maybe she also feels that desperate pull herself.

Everythng changes midway through 3 Women. In a surprising twist--though not really a spoilery one, it would be sort of impossible to spoil a movie this unconcerned with conventional narrative--after Millie turns on her, Pinky tries to drown herself. Feeling guilty, Millie stands by her while she is in a coma, only to find the girl who wakes up in that hospital bed is radically changed. Pinky is now the assertive one, and Millie can only do her best not to be completely subsumed, to have her entire identity swallowed. It takes another tragedy, this time involving Willie’s baby, to shake things up again. (Digression: It might be interesting to compare how Altman allows the birth to affect the lives of the main characters in a movie about women vs. how the birth scene at the end of his male mid-life crisis picture Dr. T and the Women [review] affects Richard Gere. Is there something to be said for why it is magical and liberating for the man and not for the ladies?)

I briefly considered tracking my feelings throughout my viewing of 3 Women, but that seemed to kind of miss the point of the experiment by intellectualizing it too much. It would also pull me away from the screen and make me focus on the paper, and 3 Women requires undivided attention. That said, in the first half of the movie, there is definitely a feeling of desire and hope, but that translates to pity, as well--which is an audience reaction, not a function of the storytelling. Neither Pinky nor especially Millie are that self-aware. Later, I felt in sync with Millie, as Pinky’s attempted suicide and the fall-out thereafter inspires anxiety in both the viewer and the actress. Duvall is a fascinating onscreen presence. She almost doesn’t seem like that good of an actress. Her delivery can be flat, and she can appear ill at ease. Her gawkiness can be hypnotic, in much the same way her Margaret Keane-like features make her beautiful. I am always hyper aware she is Shelley Duvall, whether she’s playing the scared wife in The Shining or Olive Oyl in Popeye. Yet I find myself enjoying watching her all the same.

It’s a demeanor that is ideally suited for a movie as intentionally dreamy as 3 Women. Shelley Duvall is practically surreal unto herself. This makes it all the more smart to cast Sissy Spacek opposite her. Spacek is naturally more grounded. As Pinky, she maintains the girl-next-door vibe she had in Badlands [review] and Carrie, and yet is utterly convincing when she becomes the more confident and mean of the two roommates. One could posit she’s putting the little-girl-lost routine to bed for good. Performance-wise, she is as natural on screen as Duvall is awkward. I would almost try to argue that all of 3 Women is Millie’s dream, given how menacing a figure her counterpart becomes, but the changes occur in Pinky’s vision. She observes, she sees the rifts, and she dives into them.

Altman approaches all this with a measured gaze. He doesn’t push the odd happenings too hard, he doesn’t go all wonky or psychedelic. Pinky’s early “visions” are more practical. The first superimposition of waves over the image, for instance, uses water that is actually in the scene. It’s only near the end that Altman steps away from this, indulging in one short yet meaningful dream sequence, a kind of quick run through the greatest hits of everything we’ve seen so far. He’s practically working at odds with his own skewed motives here. 3 Women deals with strange events, but Altman makes most of it seem as real as possible. Even the obvious symbols, like the pair of twins that work with Millie and Pinky, are really just twins who work with Millie and Pinky. Though, they do allow for some leading dialogue. “Do you think they know which one they are?” Pinky asks. “Maybe they switch back and forth.

This earthiness and lack of show makes it easier to go along with the more obtuse occurrences, just as Gerald Busby’s distant and ominous music provides a throughline in the sometimes rambling narrative. Altman is far from indulgent, he’s giving the audience as much as required to keep them invested and on track. It’s only in the final scenes, when the lever on the cinematic slot machine is pulled one last time and the titular trio of women slides into its final roles, that some might end up truly confounded. I’ve seen the movie twice now and I’m still not sure if it’s a jackpot of “Ah-ha!” or otherwise some combination of “what’s that?” and “why this?”

I like it anyway. I am fascinated and enraptured, hypnotized by its vibrant colors the way Pinky is hypnotized by Willie’s paintings, every time I watch it. And I don’t worry about what is happening or what it’s trying to say. Which would mean Altman is successful in creating an all-in experience, one that entices and teases and provokes even if it never explains.

Note: 3 Women will be playing the NW Film Center on Sunday, January 18, as part of a Robert Altman weekend.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

TOOTSIE (Blu-ray) - #738

Interesting fact: Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria and Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie, both comedies where actors cross-dress in order get a job, were released in 1982. I couldn’t say what was in the air around that time that two of the biggest hits of that year would involve performers of one sex--namely, Julie Andrews and Dustin Hoffman--pretending to be another sex, but it kind of blows my mind that I had contact with both films in their theatrical runs when I was a wee lad of ten years old. I’m not sure I saw all of Victor Victoria in that outing or just peeked in, later to pick up more of it on cable, but watching it again not that long ago during a visit with my family, I was kind of surprised at how frank the film was about homosexuality. My parents must not have really known what they were taking me to.

And now I am equally shocked by how smart and subversive Tootsie is. I know I saw the entire movie back then, but I also know now that I didn’t understand it. In my head, it was a dumb comedy, one that probably didn’t age well, because it was popular, wasn’t it? Could a crowdpleaser from over thirty years ago really stand up to the scrutiny of today? If nothing else, the politics should be all wrong.

Except that they aren’t, and Tootsie has aged incredibly well. In point of fact, it’s still incredibly funny, laugh-out-loud so. And there is nothing to cringe about while watching it because it lacks any meanness. It’s very human and very matter-of-fact and its characters are largely free of judgment. The comedy doesn’t happen just because Dustin Hoffman is wearing a dress, but rather because of the things that happen to him while he’s wearing a dress and the way it challenges his perceptions and what it exposes about everyone.

Written by Larry Gelbart (Oh, God!) and Murray Shisgal (Luv), Tootsie is essentially a rom-com that also has bits of showbiz satire and a social commentary but without hitting too hard on either. It stars Hoffman as Michael Dorsey, a pigheaded actor who, when told he’s too difficult to get work, decides to prove he can get along by dressing up as a woman and getting a part on a soap opera. I really like how the movie treats that decision. If you were to watch Tootsie without any foreknowledge of its premise, what a surprise you’d be in for! There is no telegraphing the scheme, no announcement that Michael is going to create a female alter ego. Instead, Michael is arguing with his agent (played brilliantly by Sydney Pollack), declares that he’ll prove the man wrong, and the next cut is to Dorothy Michaels walking down the street, fully transformed. No time is spent trying on wigs or getting the make-up right, we are told Michael has a proficiency for stagecraft right up front, during the opening credits. Whatever inspires the change, he hits the ground running.

And Dorothy gets the role, in large part because she stands up for herself, an essential component to the character she is intended to play. Earlier Michael tried to coach his friend Sandy (Terri Garr, who is amazing) for the audition, and she flubs it by being too easy to crumble. Michael has no such problem. Or should I say Dorothy. In fact, once she is on the show, Dorothy becomes a bit of a phenomenon. Her fellow castmates, including the soap’s lead actress Julie (Jessica Lange) and a bit player April (Geena Davis), like her because she doesn’t take any crap from their pig of a director (Dabney Coleman); the audience likes her because her feminist ad libs give them a character they can root for.

Though Tootsie’s comedic tone never quite escalates to the level of farce, its plot bears elements of the genre. Naturally, the deeper Dorothy/Michael gets into the charade, the more complicated it becomes. He has to keep up with the ruse, because getting found out would topple a lot of dominoes, not the least of which is that he’s become good friends with Julie in his Dorothy guise while also deeply falling in love with her. The only person to know what he’s doing besides his agent is his roommate, Jeff, played with typical aplomb by Bill Murray, who serves as a sardonic Jiminy Cricket throughout. Murray’s zingers are sharp and funny, as is Tootsie as a whole. It’s a witty movie, smartly written, timeless instead of timely. Some of the jokes are clever and sneaky, some are broad and altogether hilarious. The biggest laugh in the movie is one of its most obvious, a single line delivered by veteran actor George Gaynes (Punky Brewster) when he learns the truth about the woman he has been wooing. “Does Jeff know...?” I don’t know why it’s not a more famous moment, as it’s akin to the “I’ll have what she’s having” line in When Harry Met Sally...; my guess is it’s too specific.

Which is ironic for a movie that feels so universal. But then, that’s Tootsie.

There’s a fascinating incongruity in that this movie is very much of the 1980s and yet also well enough ahead of its time that you’d easily be forgiven for thinking that it came from some other era. While the technique can be groanworthy--that drippy montage out at the farm, for instance, or Dave Grusin’s score, which is so bad I found myself wishing it was somehow a sly subtextual joke--the portrayal of Dorothy avoids the “Ick! It’s a dude!” clichés one might expect while also making it so she is never the object of ridicule. Sure, there are jokes about Dorothy having to cover a mustache, but that gag is more about practicality and is a comedic red herring, a possible way to expose the truth, rather than anything degrading toward a man identifying as a woman.

Credit due to Hoffman, who likely can identify with Michael Dorsey’s commitment to method and craft, and so can play Dorothy Michaels with the same seriousness. It’s a marvelous performance, heartfelt and honest, and yet also...well, it seems wrong to say it’s not entirely convincing, because I am not sure it’s supposed to be. While it’s pretty much impossible to forget that it’s Dustin Hoffman under the wig and eye shadow, we’re not expected to. Pollack smartly lets context do the heavy lifting in terms of convincing us that Michael could be Dorothy without us ever forgetting that he’s also Michael. The other characters in Tootsie believe that Dorothy is a woman, and they treat her as such, and so we buy into the illusion. And because Dorothy has this dissociative confidence, this belief in herself, the folks around her actually treat her better than they would other women. Which is also part of the point.

Remember above when I said Tootsie was both timely and timeless? There’s something very casual about how the film portrays gender politics, and whether they meant to or were even aware of it, the filmmakers somehow collapse a lot of issues into what is essentially a very human portrayal, achieving a kind of “oneness” rather than a “one-or-the-otherness.” There is a surprising progressiveness in the fact that it’s not Michael’s masculinity that gives Dorothy added courage or strength, but something about Dorothy that makes Michael better. As a woman, he becomes free of his own hang-ups, and it changes his perception. His own battles as a self-involved male actor come into focus, and he somehow channels those frustrations so that he is now reacting as an actress coming up against all kinds of obstacles he never realized existed. In this, Michael manages the best possible trait a performer can have: empathy. He sees what women have to deal with constantly, and he pushes back. Absent of the go-along-to-get-along attitude that results from habitual oppression, he is able to react as any common sense person would and call bullshit everywhere it appears. In other words, he’s not better at being strong because he’s a man, but because it’s the first time he’s having to deal with things that women deal with every day and that he’s otherwise been blind to.

The great thing is that Sydney Pollack and his writing team (which also included several uncredited script doctors, including the legendary Elaine May) avoid the cardinal sin of allowing Michael to have his cake and eat it, too. They overturn the standard for this kind of romantic comedy--or any where the male goes undercover and is privy to the woman’s secret desires--so that when Michael tries to act on the things that he learns as Dorothy, it blows up in his face. Or, more accurately, it’s thrown back at him. Julie may have laid out the perfect pick-up lines to win her heart, but when put into practice, Michael ends up doused in champagne. He can’t benefit from his deceit. (And, honestly, how did you not know that, dude? In practice, the non-line becomes just another line!) In other instances, he’s desexualized. “My mother used to do that to me sometimes,” Julie says to him when Dorothy pets her hair in bed. And one senses that, underneath, Michael is not turned on, he’s legitimately expressing comfort and love. He’s forced to behave toward another human being without taking his own desires into account.

Hell, they even take it one step further: when thrust into the “traditional” feminine roll, like babysitting Julie’s kid, he’s terrible at it. You can put on the uniform, but you have to walk the walk, it’s not just about your undergarments.

It’s not just Michael, though; Tootsie is full of empathy through and through. Dorothy defends battered women in a brief scene on the soap. Julie’s lifestyle as a single mom with a career is never called into question. When the idea of being a gay man or a woman is introduced, no one denounces it. Julie says she’s not able to return another woman’s affection because she’s not together enough to experience broader emotions, and when Michael is asked if he’s gay, he responds, “In what way?” rather than outright refusing. Even Julie’s father (Charles Durning), who falls for Dorothy and then has to deal with finding out he proposed marriage to a fella,  is shown as a quaint old man who tries to see equality for what it is even if he has certain fundamental beliefs that can be seen as antiquated. They aren’t harmful even if they are somewhat wrong. He means well, and he’s trying, and frankly, isn’t that sometimes enough?

It’s that empathy, I think, that allows Tootsie to pull off what otherwise might be a hokey ending. Without giving too much away, the key to Michael making amends is not really explaining Dorothy away, but accepting that she was a part of him. She wasn’t an invention, but an extension. Amusingly, Hoffman gets two credits at the end. He is Michael and he is Dorothy, and both are important enough to get their own byline--even if it is slightly counter to the message that they are inseparable halves.

Which in itself feels rather simplistic now, but we can’t watch such things and judge by modern standards. To do so would be to miss how ahead of the curve Tootsie was and fail to acknowledge that, when it comes to smuggling such a lesson into the mainstream, simplicity is the best disguise. Hell, that’s right there in the movie, too. Michael could be more elaborate or more vain in creating Dorothy, but  instead he basically hides in plain sight. When it comes down to it, Tootsie is so triumphant in that it never really seems to try. All of the above are just natural components of a supremely entertaining movie. The politics are something we put on it as opposed to something Tootsie foists upon us. Like Dorothy, it just is what it is, and that’s also what Pollack and Co. are encouraging the rest of us to be.

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