TV Review: “Feud”–“Hagsploitation” (S1, Ep. 6)

A friend recently remarked to me that, every time he watched an episode of Feud, he felt as if nothing significant had transpired. As I continue to watch, I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with him. While there is still much to love about this series, it does feel like it’s beginning to drag a bit, weighed down by its own pretensions.

In this episode, Joan attempts to resuscitate her career by acting in cheesy horror films, while Bette also struggles to find roles that are worthy of her talents. However, Aldrich is determined to cement his legacy and so, even as his marriage falls apart, he proposes another entry in the “Hagsploitation” genre (a term allegedly coined by Jack Warner), and he hopes to reunite Crawford and Davis and continue to exploit their antipathy toward one another.

The relationship between Aldrich and Bette, as always, continues to ring the truest and to have the most emotional depth. There is an undeniable chemistry between Sarandon and Molina, and they carry this over into the fondness that these individuals have for one another. They understand one another, even more so now that Aldrich is faced with a life without his wife (who has told him she wants a divorce due to his inability to truly privilege her in the face of his work).

As always, though, it is Lange who steals the show, and she manages to continue wringing the role of Joan for all of the pathos that it’s worth. While it remains unclear whether the real Joan Crawford–if we can even speak of such a thing–would ever have shown the type of vulnerability that Lange conveys, the fact remains that Lange combines strength with vulnerability. Lange’s Crawford is knowing and understanding about what the world is like, and the world of Hollywood in particular, but this knowledge does not give her any sort of comfort. Knowledge in this context proves to be just as much a burden as it is a blessing.

She does, however, display a true spine of steel when her brother threatens her with an alleged video of her performance in a stag film (the rumour of the existence of such a film ultimately sunders her friendship with Hedda). While she pays off his demands, she does so because she values her career and her accomplishments above everything else, and she is not about to let a money-grubber, even if he happens to be related to her by blood. Thus, when she finds that he has died during an emergency operation on his appendix, her first move is to cancel the payment on her check. For Joan, family is a burden, yet another sacrifice that she must make in order to solidify her career and the reputation that she has taken such an effort to maintain.

However, while I still take a lot of pleasure in this show, it’s clear that it’s starting to run out of steam a bit. I’ve thought for some time now that it would have probably made more narrative sense for this to have either been two episodes shorter or to have been released all at once. For me as a viewer, the appeal of the show continues to lie in the performances and the sumptuousness of the image, rather than in the narrative. I’m not sure that this is entirely as Murphy intends it, but I have long felt that his skills as an image-maker and as a casting agent far excel his skills as a creator of long-form drama. I suppose that we will have to wait until the final episode to see if my theory is proven correct. (Note: while he is not the writer or director of most of the episodes so far, his imprint is indelibly stamped on the series as a whole)

Overall, I found this to be a touching entry, but I’m still a little unclear about what the series in the aggregate will look like. If the series’ purpose was to show the ways in which women are exploited in Hollywood and their interests sublimated in the service of men’s profit, then that mission has already been well-accomplished. However, one can hop that there will be a deeper takeaway by the end, one that merits the expanded frame of the narrative.

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Screening History: “Ben-Hur” and the Tragedy of the Might-Have-Been

I went into Ben-Hur with the lowest possible expectations. Critics and audiences alike seemed to disdain the film, and its opening box office was truly abysmal. I was worried that somehow this box office and critical disaster would taint my love for the 1959 version.

As sometimes happens, however, the film actually exceeded all of my expectations. While it does not hit the same notes of operatic grandness achieved by its predecessors (including, it is worth noting, the 1925 version, which seems to have been largely forgotten in the discourse surrounding this one), it is nevertheless a competent and at times quite moving film.

The film basically follows the same trajectory as the previous versions, as Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his boyhood friend and adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) find themselves pulled apart by the historical times in which they live, in which the power of Rome continues to oppress the people of Judaea. Their own personal rivalry–which culminates in the famous chariot race–takes place at the same time as the ministry of Christ (Rodrigo Santoro) whose sacrifice and Crucifixion lead to the eventual reconciliation of Judah and Messala.

Though he lacks the larger-than-life monumentality that Heston brought to his interpretation of the role, the young Jack Huston brings something else equally valuable. He manages to bring both a measure of vulnerability and sensitivity to the role, neither of which are traits that Heston could ever have claimed to embody. For that reason, I actually found Huston’s lack of star power refreshing, in that it allowed me to put aside my preconceptions of what Judah should look like and instead appreciate what this relatively unknown star (who nevertheless hails from an illustrious Hollywood lineage) was able to bring to the role.

Indeed, I thought there was a great deal of chemistry between him and his fellow lead Toby Kebell. The latter brings a powerful, brooding energy to the character of Messala, a young man overshadowed by a tainted family legacy and his own desire to prove himself worthy of being a Roman. It’s hard not to find him compelling, in much the same way as it was difficult to not find oneself attracted to Stephen Boyd (who played the role in the 1959 version). However, I do think that Kebbell brings a softer, more vulnerable–and thus, ultimately, more redeemable–characterization to the role.

Of course, Morgan Freeman also deserves credit for the gravitas that he brings to the role of Sheik Ilderim. Whereas his earlier counterpart had been a rather egregious example of blackface, Freeman imbues his character with a powerful, brooding solemnity. We learn, for example, that his son had also been a zealous enemy of Rome, a position that earned him an ignominious and horrific death at the hands of the Roman state. One cannot help but feel the resonance with the ways in which black bodies are still rendered subject (and abject) to the violence of the state.

Of course, the two of the most affective and intense scenes were the scene in the galley and the chariot race. Both allowed for a feeling immersion, of being there and inhabiting two very different moments. While the galley sequence (as such sequences frequently do) forces us to inhabit a claustrophobic world of the abject, the chariot race represents a reclamation of embodied agency. In fact, I actually think the scene in the galleys is more terrifying and visceral than the 1959 version, in no small part because so many of the shots are from Judah’s hampered point of view. The race, for its part, is quite as stirring as the original, and seeing it on the big screen was absolutely a part of the phenomenologically powerful experience.

It’s a tad unfortunate that the Crucifixion scene–which should, one would think, land with the greatest possible emotional impact–comes off as so stilted and emotionless. Santoro, bless him, just doesn’t bring a great deal to the role of Christ. Not that this is entirely his fault; the script doesn’t really allow him to do anything other than utter a few incredibly flat-footed platitudes. In this instance, it seems that the practice of the earlier films, which resolutely kept Christ out of the frame, proved to be the better move.

That aside, I do think that the latter half of the film holds together much more effectively than the first. Part of this, I think, has to do with the gratuitous number of cuts throughout the first half of the film. One would think that the opposite would be the case; after all, these early scenes are designed to establish the personal level of the drama. Unfortunately, however, Bekmambetov is a bit too fond of the cut, and it becomes distracting more than it should be.

Despite the choppy and often gratuitous editing of those early scenes, however, the film does succeed in showing how much Messala and Judah care for one another, a crucial bit of backstory that we don’t really see in the 1959 version (though Gore Vidal’s juicy gossip suggests that his script had a homoerotic undercurrent). As a result, we get to know and care about these characters and their relationship. And you know what? That final reconnection between Messala and Judah actually brought tears to my eyes. Because, despite everything else, it felt earned. These two actors bring enough emotional resonance to their roles that we actually care about what happens to them. At a broader level, it also provides hope that, even in this time of historical conflict, that somehow solidarity can and will win out of hatred.

Is Ben-Hur a perfect, or even a great film? Absolutely not, and there are a number of reasons for this. At the risk of continuing to compare the film to its predecessor, I do think it’s noteworthy that this reboot did not have a major directorial name attached to it. While Timur Bekmambetov is no stranger to Hollywood, he doesn’t have the same sort of resumé as or cultural capital as a director like William Wyler, who had already established himself as a formidable artist director of stature. Bekmambetov, for better and worse, does not have quite that amount of presence to help lift Ben-Hur to the heights of true greatness to which it might otherwise have aspired.

In the end, I strongly suspect that the 2016 iteration of Ben-Hur will go down in history as a well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful reimagining of a cinematic and literary classic. Still, I do hope that those who watch it take it on its own terms, for it really is quite a good film in its own way. And that, perhaps, is its greatest tragedy.

 

Queer Classics: “Carol” (2015)

Warning:  Spoilers for the film follow.

Some might consider it a bit premature to declare Todd Haynes’ film Carol a queer classic, but if the reviews are anything to go by, this new film will surely earn a place alongside the director’s finest work as part of the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s.  And as I can personally attest, it fully deserves the lavish praise it has so far received.

Based on acclaimed novelist Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, the film tells the haunting and evocative story of the unexpected but passionate romance that develops between quiet store clerk Therese (Rooney Mara) and wealthy soon-to-be-divorcee Carol (Cate Blanchett).  While Therese struggles with her newly-awakened feelings of same-sex desire, Carol desperately attempts to maintain custody of her daughter Rindy during her bitter divorce from Harge (Kyle Chandler).  After Carol and Therese escape for a passionate weekend in Chicago, they must both decide whether their romance has the makings of something richer, deeper, and much more perilous.

As a number of other reviewers have noted, Haynes has a well-earned reputation for well-crafted films that tend to keep viewers at an intellectual distance.  Far From Heaven, for example, is an absolutely exquisite film, but its pastiche, like that of the 1950s Sirk melodramas upon which it is based, keeps us at arm’s length.  We are constantly invited to recall the repressive atmosphere of the 1950s, to contrast (and compare) that time to our own.

This film is also concerned with the repressive nature of 1950s American culture, as Carol’s liaisons with women endanger her custody of her daughter.  It is precisely because Carol has so much affective richness and resonance that it connects at a much deeper emotional level than the similarly themed Far From Heaven.  We understand that this is a world where the desire between women is strongly forbidden, and so there is always a faint feeling of anxiety underlying the romance.  This, in turns, makes the romance all the sweeter and more poignant, for we come to see the love as always existing in a state of precariousness, always subject to the possibility of discovery.

I have always been one of Cate Blanchett’s most ardent admirers, and this film has solidified my love.  Like the greatest actresses of classic Hollywood, Blanchett has the extraordinary ability to convey both strength and vulnerability, and these traits come to the fore as she portrays Carol.  Through Blanchett, Carol becomes both the object and the subject of desire, striving against the repressiveness of the society in which she lives to attain fulfillment in her life (the allusion to psychotherapy, while brief, is immensely troubling).  And Rooney Mara is simply delightful as the slightly elfin Therese, a young woman who chafes at the restrictions imposed upon her by both her gender and her class.

While Sarah Paulson for the most part hovers at the edges of the narrative as Carol’s best friend and former lover Abby, she turns in a wonderful performance as a woman who clearly loves Carol deeply.  The scene in which she confronts an angry Harge and denounces him for his failures as a husband is rousing, and her tenderness toward the bewildered Therese in the wake of Carol’s abrupt return to New York is touching.  Paulson, like her fellow actresses in this film, manages to imbue her character with charm, strength, and vulnerability.

At the formal level, the film showcases Haynes at the height of his powers, with a remarkable attention to lush and exquisite detail.  However, in this film the appearance is always at the service of the film’s emotional core, rather than the other way around.  The attention to detail, both in terms of the mise-en-scene and the cinematography, always acts as a slightly mannered surface to the fervent passions that always exist beneath the surface.  And the sex scene, which could have been salacious or trashy, is instead the culmination of the desire that has so long simmered beneath the surface, repressed by both the culture and the film itself.  It is truly one of the finest, and most erotic, depictions of same-sex desire I have seen in a film.

It’s been a long time since I have been touched so deeply by a queer film.  Actually, I would say that Brokeback Mountain was the last such film to do so (which says a great deal about the perils and unfulfilled promise of mainstream acceptance).  Now, I am glad to say that, 10 years later, I can now add another film to that list.  There is so much else I could say about this film, but I won’t spoil the ending for you, but if you don’t emerge with tears in your eyes (or just downright bawling) at the end of this film, then you should begin to doubt your humanity.

Score:  10/10

Screening Classic Hollywood:  “Magnificent Obsession”

Today on “Screening Classic Hollywood,” I’m going to talk about Douglas Sirk’s 1954 film Magnificent Obsession, starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson.  The film tells the story of Bob Merrick (Hudson), a careless playboy whose actions inadvertently cause the blindness of saintly Helen Phillips (Wyman).  Merrick, haunted by both guilt and his growing love for Helen, gradually turns his life around, becomes a doctor and, after a period of estrangement, ends up curing Helen of both a debilitating illness and, in melodramatic fashion, her blindness as well.

The film is based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, the pastor-turned-author who was also responsible for the bestselling historical novel The Robe (which was also adapted into a film, released in 1953.  For my review of said film, see here).  Not surprisingly, this film also bears traces of that religious spirit, in the person of Edward Randolph, a thoroughly Christian painter who gradually but inexorably leads Bob to the way of Christ (indeed, it is the Christ-inspired service to others that, Randolph says, will become a “magnificent obsession”).  Though more understated than its biblical epic predecessor, Magnificent Obsession nevertheless shows the ways in which mid-century American culture saw Christian conversion as a means of taming the ribald and undisciplined energy of the hegemonic male into more appropriate channels.  The fact that the act of submission required of male conversion was itself incompatible with notions of dominant masculinity is here at least somewhat ameliorated by Hudson’s strong jaw-line and stoic performance, which betray little of the manic and hysterical intensity of Burton’s portrayal of Christian conversion in The Robe.  

Sirk has become known (some might say infamous) for the biting sense of irony suffusing many of his best-known films.  Often filmed in a colour palette verging on the garish (thanks in no small part to his use of the Technicolor process), Sirk’s films typically take vicious aim at the stultifying and superficial nature of mid-century bourgeois America.  One need only think of the needling rebuke of middle-class hypocrisy of All That Heaven Allows or the exposure of the seedy and deviant sexuality of the upper class in Written on the Wind to see how this often plays out in Sirk’s work.

While some of that is present in Magnificent Obsession–the film sometimes hovers on the tense border between genuine sentiment and cloying sentimentality–all in all I actually found myself quite moved by the film.  Wyman seems less restrained and uptight than in All That Heaven Allows, and this allows her a bit more flexibility in the range of emotions that she can convey, ranging from her initial iciness toward Bob to her moment of tender desperation at the possibility of a cure for blindness and her subsequent resignation.  It would be a heart of stone that would not be moved at Helen’s sad recognition that she must still wear her darkened sunglasses, or her fumbling through her apartment and inadvertent knocking over of a plant (whose piercing crash is jarring in its aural intensity).

Still, there are a few ripples of discontent on the surface of this seemingly placid film.  Agnes Moorehead, who made a career out of playing waspish matrons, brings a fair amount of bite to her character of Nancy, though she does also have a trace of softness and tenderness toward Helen.  What’s more, the scene with the burning witch in a street festival carries with it sinister overtones of the specter of nuclear oblivion that seemed to hover so permanently over most of the 1950s.  And no discussion of a Sirk film would be complete without mentioning the orchestral score (no one puts the melos in melodrama like Sirk).  Indeed, Frank Skinner’s score, full of swells and angelic choruses, is in many instances even more overwrought than the Technicolor visuals.  Of course, this is hardly surprising in a Sirk film, and it provides something of an ironic counterpoint to the otherwise genuine-seeming emotions evoked throughout the film.

All in all, Magnificent Obsession, like so many of Douglas Sirk’s finest films, offers both the pleasures of the sentimental (for those who want it), as well as the bitter bite of irony (for those who desire such).  Truly, few directors have so ably managed to manage what American audiences seem to want and, at the same time, what they desperately need.