In writing about Revenge of the Bridesmaids yesterday I enumerated some of the ways the broader genre of female buddy pictures might keep their stories simple (and very, very pink), but still manage to show women who love each other and say funny things during funny situations. “When we can say that no feminists were harmed in the viewing of this film — well, sometimes that has to be enough,” I concluded about a film I truly liked.

Sadly, this is not always the case. Today, the darker side of very pink female buddy pictures.

romy_and_michelles_high_school_reunion000127The thing about buying into the genre of female buddy pictures is they also may ask you to buy into another set of ideas about what it takes for women to be friends. Let me enumerate:

  • The women are gorgeous, and one might be even a little bit more gorgeous than the other one (or so we are taught to perceive).
  • Dieting and body size are far more crucial to the narrative than I can bear (i.e., one of our heroines used to be fat).
  • They are not rich or successful, and are somewhat insecure about their overall failures; but as the story unfolds they are handed incredible opportunities for success on a platter.
  • In fact, their shared insecurity forms one of the important aspects of their love for each other.
  • They are not incredibly bright, so that we can have wacky adventures with them springing from their ditziness.
  • They are united in their hatred of The Mean Girl(s) who torments them and inevitably becomes central to the story; The Mean Girl(s) is portrayed as a natural part of the landscape, whereas we are to understand that good female buddies are a rare and wonderful thing.

romy-and-michelle-2Perhaps as you read the above you think, “That’s exactly why I hate these goddamn female buddy pictures! The only possible feminism there consists of their friendship for one another, and just look at how contingent that is—contingent on their gorgeousness, dieting, insecurity, shared poverty, and nuttiness!”

With that laid out, shall we discuss Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion?

To start, let’s be clear: Lisa Kudrow is a comic genius, even if here she mostly reprises her role on the otherwise execrable show Friends. As the bubbly Michele, she’s unemployed but ever since high school has thrown her very best talents into designing and sewing up the fantastic going-out wardrobe she shares with Romy (Mira Sorvino) in their teensy little seaside LA apartment, where they’ve lived for ten years—ever since graduating from high school. The slightly-less dopey Romy works as a cashier for the service department of a Jaguar dealership by day so they can go out dancing every night. In short, their lives are awesome.

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But when they hear about the imminent ten-year reunion for their high school back in Tucson and the two women sit down and go through their yearbook (flashback!) and imagine attending, Romy arrives at a single, disturbing conclusion: their lives are not nearly as awesome once you start looking at them through other people’s eyes. She gazes vaguely into the distance, gets a determined look on her face, and pronounces that they will spend the next two weeks losing weight, scoring boyfriends, and finding a job for Michele.

It might take an extraordinarily long time for them to realize the futility of their plans – these are not smart women – but they ultimately land on a new plan: they will pretend to be successful businesswomen and impress the hell out of all the people who tormented them in high school for being weird and not terribly bright. The flashback assists in showing them at the senior prom, sans dates, dressed (awesomely, below) as two different incarnations of Madonna, mocked by evil A-list meanies.

romy-micheles-high-school-reunion--large-msg-127370656333Now: do I have a problem with our heroines looking like Madonna? Hellz to the no. Nor do I take issue with the “let’s prove the meanies wrong about us!” impulse. But ugh, the stupidity … and the dieting.

Romy and Michele has plenty of virtues, and they don’t end with the clothes. The ultimate message here — about what a neat-o bond the two women have always had — is lovely, even if the film portrays that friendship as exceptional in the world of women. Nor do I object to Mira Sorvino’s stilted, oddly deep voice for the role, which I found sort of adorable. Also: Janeane Garofalo, who lifts up even the crappiest of material (and she got a lot of crappy material there for a while) even when she’s limited to playing the kohl-eyed, chain-smoking naysayer … again.

Janeane Garofalo_RomyMichelle 02Is it just me, or do other people also get happy every time they see Garofalo onscreen, no matter the material?

I also feel as if I could have forgiven the film if it hadn’t cooked up a phony conflict between Romy and Michele in the middle — a conflict springing directly out of their invented story about themselves. With this single plot device, the film brings up every one of the worst aspects of female buddy pictures: who’s smarter? who’s prettier? who’s less of a loser? who’s going to wind up with money? who’s going to be the winner in the battle for the one slightly worthy guy?

Not to mention that the film asks us to buy the concept that two women who look like this might have been losers in high school, even if one of them wore a scoliosis brace and the other hadn’t yet dyed her hair blonde.

tumblr_lgh4t5km7A1qgo5zmThus, even though the film ultimately confirms the enduring value of their friendship, it does so by reminding us of their shared ditziness/insecurity/need to unite against Mean Girl(s). It hands them a happy ending on a plate — via the largess of a rich guy. We walk away laughing, again, at how bad they are at math.

So yeah. Was my feminism harmed in the viewing of this film? Yes. Yes, it was.

But do I have a pathway out of this morass? Natch! Stay tuned for a feminism-confirming adventure into the world of girls’ boarding schools in 1963 with the film All I Wanna Do (1998), also released under the separate titles Strike! and The Hairy Bird. Even better, a copy of this one has been uploaded to YouTube — not great quality, and it’s segmented, but you watch all 97 minutes in the comfort of your own laptop. Keep up your strength, my feminist friends.

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Here’s something you don’t often see onscreen: a woman who doesn’t cover up the fact that her hair has thinned.

Lidia Bastianich is PBS’s Italian cooking maven whose show, Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen (she also has spinoffs like Lidia’s Italy), always marks the difference between the overly personality-driven Food Channel shows and PBS. To wit: she doesn’t do anything to cover up her thinning hair. For comparison, let’s look at the Food Channel’s Giada de Laurentiis:

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Any normal human might find a contrast between these two women absurd. Be assured I’m not trying to draw a conclusion about their respective talents for cooking — just their comparative screen appearance. (We could also discuss Giada’s obviously spectacular breasts and/or that alarming set of teeth, but let’s try to stay focused.) I just want to make the point that it is amazing to me that even good old PBS hasn’t forced Lidia into a wig. (What do I know? They may have tried.)

I got onto this subject originally because the subject of hair kept coming up in strange and interesting contexts. There was Callista Gingrich, Newt Gingrich’s wife, whose immovable helmet of hair preoccupied so many bloggers last year. Perhaps because I’m a big fan of natural hair for Black women, I have read several other bloggers who yearn publicly for Michelle Obama to stop relaxing/ironing her hair.

I’d been collecting a random assortment of hair moments onscreen for a while, but it was a comment over at JB’s terrific film blog, The Fantom Country, that gave my post clarity. Writing about how many times he’d noticed Andrew Garfield’s luscious hair, JB wrote wryly, “Perhaps he is a particularly expressive hair actor” — why, it’s comments like these that make my blog so resoundingly esoteric. (See also posts on noses, mouths, and teeth.) Esoteric it may be, but it’s my confirmed opinion that hair is an easy site for the downfall of a film or character.

BridgesLet’s start with a few actors who consistently make their hair work pretty goddamn well. I’ve seen Jeff Bridges in just about as many different hair parts as one can imagine, and they always work for me — even (especially?) when he shaved his head for the bad-guy role in Iron Man. Bridges has this way of truly appearing to be one with his hair; whether it’s the shaggy Dude from The Big Lebowski (1998) or the long-haired ex-con in American Heart (1992, below), the hair seems fully folded in with the rest of him. It’s perhaps not a surprise that an actor like Bridges, who conceals so much of his acting craft behind his prodigious modesty and naturalness, would be able to handle these hair parts so effortlessly.

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Other actors, it seems, grow into their hair. I never thought much of Connie Britton as a younger woman — on the rare occasions I ever caught that Michael J. Fox show Spin City (1996-2000) I mainly thought of her as The Hair — but now that she’s in her 40s she has gotten better roles and more gravitas. I just loved what she did with her role as Mrs. Coach/Tami Taylor in Friday Night Lights (2006-2011); one never forgot how she rocked those strawberry waves, but it seemed so fully in keeping with the role. I still haven’t caught up with her new show Nashville (2012- ) despite the regular reports from blogger friend JustMeMike that I have to keep archiving for reading later. But Britton’s hair in the Nashville country music scene? It’s a hair marriage made in heaven. Connie-Britton-Lights_610

On occasion one finds an actor whose hair was so integral to her character onscreen that they become inseparable. Surely the best example one can imagine is Judy Davis’ breakout role in My Brilliant Career (1979). As Sybylla Melvyn, a teenager yearning for something beyond marriage and motherhood in turn-of-the-century New South Wales, her hair exemplified her character. Frizzy, irrepressible, flyaway, and heavy with impossibility — it fit so perfectly with Davis’s plain, freckled face and her terrific intelligence that it’s impossible to think of that role being taken on by anyone else.

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Judy Davis in The Eye of the Storm (2011)

A note: I’ve been disappointed to see that Davis rarely shows that hair anymore. Like so many women, she now keeps it straightened and severely managed. I still can’t see her onscreen without wondering where her hair went.

There are occasions when an actor with forgettable hair takes on a great hair part. The best example I can think of is from last year’s Prometheus (2012): Michael Fassbender’s turn as the creepy robot with a fixation for Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). It’s one thing to admire O’Toole’s brassy, glinty-eyed heroism; it’s another to emulate his hair. What a nice touch that was. One couldn’t look at Fassbender throughout the film without seeing the robot’s own self-consciousness of carrying that carefully coiffed hair — hair that symbolized so much.

Click on this image of Fassbender and you’ll get a nice .gif of the hair regimen.

tumblr_mbuanjTQWe1ri08goo1_500Sadly, it’s more common that I notice hair more like Andrew Garfield’s — hair so demanding that it ought to have separate billing. Pushy, greedy hair; hair that demands a little too much screen time.

Yes: I am speaking of Merida’s hair in Brave (2012). Yes: I loved what the illustrators did with this. But yes: it took over.

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Nor is this a fault limited to animators. Why, just last week I complained about Jessica Chastain’s hair in Zero Dark Thirty — what was wrong with those hair people on set? If there’s one thing I know a lot about, it’s how (cough) the rigors of personal hygiene and grooming have a tendency to drop away when one is single-mindedly working on a problem and scrutinizing the evidence. Por ejemplo: I’m sitting here right now on a Sunday afternoon, furiously typing a blog post about hair and movies, having not even run a comb through my hair all day. This is how us ladies behave when we’re focused. We do not fuss with ‘dos like this:

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(And honestly, the movie wasn’t about some nice lady professor who keeps a blog. Chastain’s character went to black sites to witness torture of detainees! She sat around in a dreary cubicle at a CIA outpost in Pakistan! Argh.)

I have to conclude with a big hair role that stymies me: Penelope Cruz’s mane in Nine (2009). It’s so absurdly great that, for me, it veers between unbelievable and some kind of parasitic being from another planet that has attached itself to her beautiful head. I mean, us ladies have a lot to envy when it comes to Cruz, but nowhere does her hair appear to such effect than here, teased and streaked to the point that it ought to have its own life insurance and bodyguards. Just watch this sexpot number unfolding in the imagination of Daniel Day Lewis:

See what I mean? it’s just so much hair that every time I see this scene I wonder if the hair & makeup people actually added more to her head to enhance the excess of it all as she shakes it all over Lewis’s body. No wonder so many of us fantasize about sex and hair — criminey, see here for the definition of fetish. 

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As with all my most esoteric pieces, I can only hope that my hair fixation rubs off on you and you start to scrutinize the hair acting of all your favorite/hated actors. And when you do, I hope you post a comment about the people I’ve forgotten, the great hair roles of yesteryear, and the Hair Aliens Attack parts that I need to watch.

Which reminds me. Jennifer Aniston: greatest or worst hair actor of all time?

As of Wednesday morning — the morning before Thanksgiving — I had yet to visit the market. For those of you unfamiliar with this family- and food-oriented American holiday, let me explain that the shopping for food alongside other, crazed shoppers is only one part of the anxiety. Thanksgiving stresses people out because it brings families together.

All our baggage of years gone by. All the ways we’ve disappointed each other — and let’s be frank, the ways we sometimes don’t even like each other — or perhaps just the way we think our families are disappointed in us, which is the same thing. The fact that Home for the Holidays manages to package all that up into a warm film that gets better on re-viewing is a small miracle … and let me say that I’ve seen this movie at least ten times, I love it so much.

This wasn’t Jodie Foster’s first directing job, but it was her last for more than 15 years (until she made last year’s The Beaver, a film I still haven’t seen) — perhaps because it received mixed reviews. I remain baffled by the large numbers of critics who haven’t rediscovered its virtues, for it’s truly one of those overlooked gems.

Start with the cast. Holly Hunter is our protagonist, Claudia, a down-on-her-luck fine art restorer and single mother who has flown home to Baltimore to see her family for Thanksgiving. Everything is going wrong — from the fact that she’s getting a cold to having just lost her job to the disturbing fact that her teenage daughter (Claire Danes), who’s staying in Chicago for the holiday, has pronounced that she’s going to have sex with her boyfriend while mom’s away. Claudia makes a piteous call to her young brother, Tommy (Robert Downey, Jr.) begging him to come home too, and arrives in Baltimore to find that she has lost her winter coat somewhere along the way. No worries, because like clockwork, her mother (Anne Bancroft) has brought an extra, one of those awful, oversized, pink Michelin Man numbers that only moms seem to own.

You might think, at first, that Home for the Holidays might simply be about a bedraggled, 30-something woman surviving a holiday with her wacky family. Not that there’s anything wrong with the dysfunctional family narrative; it’s one of my favorites. But Foster and screenwriter W. D. Richter have no interest in writing simple screwball. Every single bit of this movie starts to feel real.

Take a small sequence of scenes at the airport. Claudia walks past the bank of public phones and overhears each one of the harried travelers having exasperated conversations with family members. When she gets into the car only to sit in a traffic jam with her chain-smoking, rambling mother, Claudia glances over at the next car to see a similarly middle-aged man looking desperately at her while listening to his parents in the front seat:

Claudia gives him a look over the top of her enormous coat to convey the identical emotion:

And then her mother leans over from the back seat and says, “I can see your roots, Claudia.”

Claudia is saved by the surprise appearance of brother Tommy in the middle of the night along with a handsome friend named Leo Fish (Dylan McDermott), adding depth to the story. Who is Leo, and why hasn’t Tommy’s longtime boyfriend come? Deeply unserious and an inveterate practical joker, Tommy offers no answers.

Maybe this sounds like a series of easy stereotypes, from wacky parents to gay brother. But the story keeps changing up, subverting your expectations. For example, when her mother phones a still-single acquaintance from high school, Russell (David Strathairn in a brilliant bit part) to “take a look at the boiler,” the ensuing conversation starts out awkward and becomes bittersweet:

Russell: I’m just lettin’ the guys have the day off, you know, so they can visit their families, since I’m all alone this year. 
Tommy, whispering to Leo as they watch from the next room: This is the saddest sack in the universe. 
Russell: Yeah, I don’t have anybody anymore, my brother and sister got canned and they left town, and then my parents went and died on me. 
Claudia, softening to Russell’s situation: I’m so sorry. I had no idea. 
Russell: Yeah, well, you know — it was a car wreck, last summer, drunk driver, cut right across the, uh, what was it, you know — meridian, and, pow! pow! Head on. So, y’know, I don’t have anybody anymore, nowhere to go today, no family or nothin’ …

Eventually he pauses and says, “You still look so beautiful, Claudia.” It’s a wonderful little scene, as she’s both flattered and ashamed of her behavior toward him and says, almost flirtatiously, “Oh, god, I do not.”

“Maybe next year will be better for you,” she offers at the end. “Yeah,” he says with affected lightness. “Or worse.” Finally he says, “You have a nice life, Claudia.”

That’s the way of this movie: it doesn’t let you laugh at human foolishness without poking you and pointing out the ways you’re implicated in it.

And so it continues through the arrival of sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson) and her self-described “normal” family, allowing the director to open up the complicated relationships amongst the siblings. These scenes are played as much for laughs as for the genuinely toxic moments amongst people who don’t like each other. “We don’t have to like each other, Jo,” Claudia tells her. “We’re family.”

But perhaps the one thing that always gets me about this film is its quiet little theme about the disconnect between memories and commemoration. Each of the characters have special moments, treasured memories that were never captured in photographs — tiny little moments that crystallized something perfect. Some regret not taking those photos, but for others the memory is all the sweeter that it is theirs alone.

And then, by the very end, as many of the harsh edges have gotten chipped and the characters have voiced things that needed to be said, the film shows us a few of those memories: a father watching his little girl stare fearlessly up at a plane taking off; a mother and daughter snorkeling with fish; a gay marriage on a beach in Massachusetts, surrounded only by friends.

Those layers upon layers of memories, with piles of Thanksgiving flavors and family fights on top … isn’t that what the holidays are all about? Take care and enjoy your weekend, friends.

If there’s one film trope that needs to be shot in the head, it’s the one in which a lesbian switches sexual sides in order to serve as the psychological healer/ self-actualizer for a guy, then conveniently goes away. (Chasing Amy [1997]: I’m lookin’ at you. Even worse: Three of Hearts [1993].)

The good news is that writer-director Lynne Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister is not that film. The lesbian here is neither cardboard cutout nor fantasy object nor deus ex machina. She doesn’t go away. The bad news: once you peel away the tight dialogue, the great acting, and the enviable scenery, it’s not very far away from that trope.

Jack (Mark Duplass) is a mess. A year after his brother’s death, he still gets drunk at parties and insults everybody, including the memory of his brother. This behavior leads his best friend Iris (Emily Blunt), who used to date his brother and who seems perhaps a bit maternal toward Jack, to send him to her family’s cabin out on one of the San Juan Islands off the coast of Seattle for a solitary retreat to get his life back together.

Which reminds me to ask: why don’t my best friends have magical family cabins on islands? Do I not have need of self-actualizing retreats? Selfish friends.

But when he arrives at the house at night, the house already has a surprise inhabitant: Iris’s half-sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), who has just split up with her longtime girlfriend. Having finally come to terms with serious flaws in that relationship, Hannah’s almost as much at loose ends as Jack. So, naturally, they open a bottle of tequila and, in a drink-off, confess their sins to one another — relative strangers — across the table in an ugly, self-deprecating night of catharsis.

When the ordinarily withdrawn Hannah confesses that her partner’s callousness and infidelity has left her feeling unattractive, the very drunk Jack insists she’s perfectly hot. So much so that he’s willing to tell her — in very funny detail — because he knows her gayness won’t lead them to have sex. But in an uncharacteristic moment of risk-taking, she agrees to sex. What follows is one of the most unappealing, and utterly realistic, sex scenes between drunk people in the history of film. (You’ll be relieved to hear that this scene is also realistically short.)

So far so good, eh? There’s no risk of Hannah switching sides. Their sex is so impulsive and unpleasant (especially for her) that we know this is merely something to be embarrassed about down the road. But when Iris shows up the next morning and they decide to hide it from her, the narrative takes a strange twist toward ménage à trois.

I found the tale thus far to be charming, especially considering the director’s super-low budget (would you believe $125,000? did Shelton pay these actors at all?), the great scenery, and the endless appeal of stories about screwed-up individuals accidentally helping one another. I particularly liked the moments between the two half-sisters: the endearingly sweet, enthusiastic, little-sister Iris cuddling up to her older sister to chat in late-night hours.

If the dialogue seems a bit too clever in that CW Channel vein of overly scripted repartee, the ultimate stakes of the narrative aren’t very high. In fact, the tale gets a teensy bit mired in the “will they confess their drunken night of debauchery?” question, especially after Iris confesses to her sister that she thinks she’s in love with Jack, the brother of her now-dead ex-boyfriend. But hey, low stakes can be okay with me — not all movies have to be about world-changing ideas. Hell, this film is funny and the three individuals are appealing and good in dialogue with one another. Still, at midpoint Your Sister’s Sister feels a little bit like a short story stretched out over 90 minutes.

But when Iris learns the truth it all goes south — the three of them spin far apart from one another, with Iris blaming both of them for … some kind of perfidy she can’t articulate. (Warning: spoilers to follow, in which I reveal what I find distasteful about this portrayal of a lesbian onscreen!)

Unlike the horrors of homophobic films of the 1990s (again, Chasing Amy, one of the films I hate the most), this film doesn’t make Hannah’s gayness an issue or some kind of histrionic roadblock. Neither does this film pretend that a ménage à trois featuring a lesbian is some kind of risqué, challenging theme. Thank goodness for small favors as the progress of gay rights has rendered such narratives less viable.

Instead, it does something else I find annoying: in a big plot twist, Your Sister’s Sister turns Hannah into a woman so desperate to have a child that her drunken night of sex may, in fact, have been a ploy to get pregnant — a revelation that leads Jack to express huffy outrage as if she has somehow stolen his sperm, and which makes him leave the house on his bike, a form of physical exertion clearly new to his body. Most important, any possible romance between the two straight people appears dashed. The film turns into a straight-up love story between Jack and Iris that Hannah has ruined.

My problem isn’t simply that Jack would be a reluctant potential father, nor that a gay woman would want a child. My problem is that Hannah’s contrivance to get pregnant turns into the primary narrative dynamite destroying a weak and slightly annoying love story between the two straight people. Because that’s what this film ultimately becomes: a love story with a little ménage of lesbian thrown in, insofar as the lesbian functions as a reluctant partner in the threesome.

Honestly, this is where we’ve come? Straight man creates romantic problems for himself by sleeping with the sister of his true love interest? One could sum it up with a big “yuck.”

An ancillary problem is Mark Duplass, whom I quite liked in Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) as an unhinged inventor in search of a time-traveling companion (as well as Humpday [2009]). He’s good in independent comedy, as he’s capable of moments of real seriousness and has a nice talent to portray men slightly disgusted with themselves. But he doesn’t quite have what it takes to face off against actors as talented as Blunt and DeWitt. Nor does he appear capable of transforming from self-hating shlub to a man capable of responsibility or generosity.

Emily Blunt, on the other hand, is the film’s real center, primarily due to her ridiculous, approachable appeal. If I were in a sloppier mood I’d say she’s Hollywood’s new Sandra Bullock — one of those crazily beautiful women with a capacity to seem available even to shlubs — except that Blunt has an actorly range that has put her on a crazy upward spiral for several years now. She has appeared to great effect in everything from in top-shelf sci-fi bits like The Adjustment Bureau and Looper to period dramas like The Young Victoria to indie comedies like The Five-Year Engagement to romantic dramas like Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. The minute she appears onscreen, you know the quality of the film will tick up by a good ten points.

And when will Rosemarie DeWitt get her place in the sun? She’s excelled in small roles for a long while now — in Mad Men as Don’s freewheeling artist girlfriend in Season 1; in a bit role in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret; and most notably as Anne Hathaway’s soon-to-be-married sister in Rachel Getting Married. As I learned from JustMeMike‘s nice review of this film, she got slotted into this role late in the project after Rachel Weisz backed out due to scheduling conflicts. DeWitt does a great job as the depressive, withdrawn Hannah. And for those of you following my obsession with bringing back real women’s noses onscreen, just look at how DeWitt’s beautiful nose helps to establish her beauty and distinctiveness. God forbid she do a Jennifer Gray and scale it back to one of those ubiquitous, indistinguishable buttons.

Ultimately, Your Sister’s Sister feels like a halfway covenant — a reassurance that we no longer live with the homophobic narratives of the 90s, and therefore a gesture of good will from straights to gays; but no clear sign that writers know how to develop stories in which gay and straight characters coexist and inform one another’s lives in ways that feel true. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a film well worth watching, particularly for its first half and the nice dialogue. But it left me sad and dissatisfied in the end, fearful that Hollywood narratives of love between straight people will only be spiced up by the addition of tertiary gay characters.

 

 

“Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,” we see in white letters move across the dark screen at the same teasingly slow pace as Emma Thompson’s breathy voice reads it, almost as if she’s whispering into your ear across a pillow. Even after we break from the black screen to see the assembled, laughing group lounging on the grass on a Tuscan hillside, you know without a doubt that this is going to be the silliest ado about nothing ever, and you’re probably going to enjoy every minute of it.

“Men were deceivers ever,” Thompson continues, and slowly the camera moves to show her tanned skin, bare feet, and floating golden-brown hair as she sits in the crook of an olive tree.

Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny nonny.

Ahhh. Hello, old friend.

I saw Much Ado About Nothing when it was still in theaters, back when we all thought that Em and Ken (Kenneth Branagh, her director and co-star) were the model of a smart, talented, creative couple. Before they split up, that is. Here they appear golden, perfectly matched, the true stars of the story in every respect. When you remember this film, you remember their transcendence.

If coming back reminds you of their perfection, you have probably forgotten (as I had) how truly awful some of the other casting is. Let’s start with the worst: gawd, Keanu Reeves as the evil Don John. Even the directing in Reeves’ scenes gets worse, as if Branagh decided that nothing could be done with an actor who had no grasp of the role or the lines, so why even try? Second worst is Michael Keaton as the farting, spitting Irish night watch constable Dogberry — an appearance so awful I’d completely repressed it. Better, but still cringe-making, is a very young Robert Sean Leonard who falls for an equally very young Kate Beckinsale. One tends to want to forgive Leonard his acting excesses, as he manages just fine when he’s only responsible for appearing smitten.

If those American casting decisions make me want to cry, let me note that Denzel Washington does a great job as Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, who doesn’t win any woman at all. Those lines roll out of Washington’s mouth; it’s as if the Tuscan sun filled his body with the same grace that made Ken & Em so perfect. It’s a terrific feat considering that Washington had only done Shakespeare once before (on Broadway as Richard III; he appeared again, in 2005, in Julius Caesar).

Don Pedro sees the true worth of Beatrice (Thompson), even as she watches her young cousin accede to marriage so young. Pedro sits with her watching the proceedings. He even asks her to marry him, but she knows better than to believe they might be happy. He looks at her and pays her the most truthful compliment we can imagine:

Don Pedro: In faith, lady, you have a merry heart.

Beatrice: Yea, my lord, I thank it, poor fool, it keeps on the windy side of care.

“The windy side of care” — now that’s why Shakespeare still moves us. Those practically throwaway lines that make you want to roll them over in your mouth like Everlasting Gobstoppers.

So let’s return to repressing the film’s weaker actors and focus on what’s important: the tale of Beatrice and Benedick (Branagh), who love to bicker and tease one another. Of course their friends are able to trick them into loving one another: with all the knife-edge wordplay between them, it’s as if they’ve been having intellectual sex for years.

Maybe that’s what makes those scenes so ridiculously pleasurable on multiple viewings. Two people who love to hate one another, easily fooled into believing that the other is hopelessly in love; somehow the prospect of all that verbal sparring signifying an abiding love makes sense.

I caught Much Ado late last night on PBS (after grading almost 20 papers, thank you very much) and found my emotions going up and down relative to the amount of screen time for Ken & Em; and yet honestly, I’d watch it again this minute despite the atrocities committed by Reeves and Keaton. That scenery! those lines! the patina of Emma Thompson’s glowing brown skin! and most of all, the lesson imparted to all us ladies who know that men always have one foot on sea and one on shore:

Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny, nonny, nonny.

Sing hey, nonny nonny. It’s the only way to face all those remaining papers … and the work week ahead.

Beware becoming overly attached to movies you haven’t seen yet. Beware investing too much hope in the idea of those movies; the head space you imagine.

A shot from Les Vampires (1915)

When I was a kid I found a book at the Salvation Army that contained the full script of Casablanca (1942), which I read and re-read for about two years before actually getting the chance to see the film. (Ah, the olden days, when local video stores sucked.) Sometimes I even read them aloud to myself — because, naturally, as a kid I had lots of time to cultivate my eccentric persona.

Having that kind of intensive familiarity with the dialogue made me disappointed by the film — I thought the actors breezed through those great lines too quickly, whereas I had been accustomed to letting the dialogue wash over me with slow, methodical pleasure. Even now I have a hard time with some of the best exchanges between Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Renault (Claude Rains), because that expectation of a different pacing still nags in my memory:

Captain Renault: I’ve often speculated why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me. 
Rick: It was a combination of all three. 

Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep, re-creating scenes from Les Vampires

(Don’t worry: it only took a few more viewings before I fell in love with Casablanca just as it is.)

I should know better. But I still catch myself fantasizing about what a movie might be, long before I’ve seen it. It’s like going back to that 12-yr-old place, in which my imagination turns out to be far more active than that of some filmmakers.

An example: a few years ago I saw Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep (1996), a film-within-a-film tale about a manic, hapless crew filming a remake of Les Vampires (1915). I’d never even heard of that latter title, but my serious disappointment in Assayas’ film made me all the more fixated on the early silent.

Now, I can watch Les Vampires any time I like — it’s streaming on archive.org — but isn’t it true that sometimes we prefer to let the idea of the film percolate in one’s mind for a while?

Sometimes I imagine that if I’m ever given the chance to create a film of my own, it will be a tribute to the films I imagined — the narratives and love stories and fantastic voyages and melodramas I constructed in my fervid imagination, just from those tidbits of trailers or stills I came across. It’ll be about phantoms, as if a mad alchemist decided to create gold from the crazy mixture of that final montage of kissing scenes from Cinema Paradiso, a healthy dose of Guy Maddin’s psycho-sexual funhouse style (see here for JB’s great interview with Maddin), those partially decayed clips from silent film so beautifully laid out in Decasia, Christian Marclay‘s dedication to subtle segues, and perhaps a Pixar screenwriter or two.

Musidora (yes, Musidora) from Les Vampires

Fantomas of movies I haven’t seen. Maybe it’s bound to be disappointing, the way the Choose Your Own Adventure books held out all that promise and, most of the time, showed an even more awful lack of imagination than ordinary novels.

But still, doesn’t it seem appropriate that film should address its own phantoms, its unrealized plots?

 

You know how it is. It’s one of those days when the temperature goes so far up that by mid-afternoon you’re sagging. Clearly what you need is the sofa, a cool glass of iced tea with your popcorn, and a brilliant Chinese melodrama about tragic love.

By the way, if you see posters for the film you might be fooled into thinking beautiful Chinese film star Gong Li is the star of this film. She’s not. This is a film about love between two men.

Normally when I settle in for one of those sinful Saturday afternoon popcorn flicks, it’s something cheesy and action-packed — Michelle Yeoh’s magnificently silly Wing Chun or Jean Dujardin perfecting that cross between James Bond and Austin Powers in OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spiesjust to name a couple of them.

In contrast, the tragic beauty and long durée of Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine might be termed the filmic equivalent of reading a 19th-century novel, except you can get through it in an afternoon.

The story is beautiful and horrible — the tale of two boys, effectively orphaned and installed at a school that prepares them to perform in the Beijing Opera, where they’re tormented by the school’s sadistic masters. As they mature into true opera stars, they face the changing tides of Chinese politics and history. Yet somehow the filmmaker’s gentle, persistent humanitarianism never makes you turn away, never indulges in the pornography of pain.

It’s not merely a film about their friendship. It’s a film about these men’s love for one another, a bond between them that is so overwhelming it must be experienced to be understood.

And oh, Leslie Cheung as Dieyi. As a small boy he trained to perform the Opera’s Dan (female) roles — a fateful casting that alters his life and self-identification forever. It’s not just that Cheung is in reality so beautiful, nor that he mastered the exquisite feminine movements of his roles so completely. The truly magnificent aspect of his acting comes from his ability to wear his life history on his face; all those years of loneliness and suffering and learning how to be a woman onstage have left him permanently changed. It is unfathomable (but true) that he did not receive a single acting prize nomination for this role, even as the film won Cannes’ Palme D’Or and some 11 other best film prizes.

Farewell My Concubine was released nearly 20 years ago, yet its subtle views of sexuality, transgressive gender roles, and male love all feel fresh today. It’s so much like the Beijing Opera (and other forms of opera) — histrionic, overwrought, colorful, and yet delicate.

Really. On a hot day you indulge in watching it and wonder how you could have stomached a cheesy popcorn vehicle like Devil Girl From Mars.