MOMENTS Cover

This is not my favorite of David Thomson’s books (his New Biographical Dictionary of Film is endlessly pleasurable) but it’s certainly the most beautiful. And what an excuse to flip through these gorgeous photographs, cooing over your favorites, putting all the others on your Netflix queue.

Have I mentioned I’m grading papers this weekend?

The book also makes me want to find images of my own, exemplary of those breathtaking little moments in film that stop you short.

As a result of reading his bit about my favorite film of all time, The Third Man (1949), I found myself scrolling through images online. Thomson loves that last scene, in which the beautiful and enigmatic Alida Valli walks toward the camera and past poor Joseph Cotten, who wants her to love him. The zither music plays unrelentingly.

LIV_20131124_ENT_022_29671804_I1Fair enough; it’s an amazing scene. But I have some others to suggest:

Third Man Alida Valli

thirdman-abitofperspective

third-man-child

thirdman

The Third Man movie image

the-third-man-ferris-wheel

thrd man

org third man13711

 

Tell me: do you have a favorite moment from a favorite film — a crystalline, perfect, deeply pleasurable moment that somehow brings forth all manner of emotion when you recall it?

Okay, you know me: I have the whole snarky thing down. I’ve never even seen Forrest Gump or Titanic. I can barely bring myself to watch a trailer for a film starring poor Katherine Heigl. I’d rather re-watch that 2-hour, grueling, and explicit film about illegal abortion in Romania — it was excellent — than submit myself to 30 minutes of the Julia Roberts feature, My Best Friend’s Wedding. So what’s the deal with my weakness for Practical Magic, which gets only a 20% approval rate on RottenTomatoes.com?

Confession: I’ve probably seen it 10 times.

I’ll grant you the obvious: this is not quality filmmaking or screenwriting. The list of goofs and continuity errors is long. The background music is annoyingly cheery and sentimental, even during scenes when it shouldn’t be. It claims to be set in a Salem, Massachusetts-type place but is obviously filmed using the dramatic coast and sunsets of the Pacific Northwest. The film keeps cycling back to themes of love and loss and longing, like any Katherine Heigl film. The resolution to the characters’ problems — an ancient curse on this family of witches — is completely inexplicable. I know. But it always gets past my radar, and I seem to keep coming back.

My latest viewing of it prompted me to wonder about guilty pleasure films.

Why should I feel so embarrassed and apologetic about liking this film? What is it about liking this unabashed chick flick that makes me feel sheepish to confess it? Why does liking this film make me wonder whether I might have some kind of tumor growing smack on my frontal lobe?

(Spoiler alert: at some point below I’m going to talk about That Great House. Also: if you’re eager to know my two favorite insights, get down to the last half of this post.)

Now, there are lots of reasons to like this film. First: the cast. Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest as the kooky old witch-aunts who raise the orphaned sisters Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gilly (Nicole Kidman). Oh, to have aunts like Channing and Wiest!

Moving on, the men-folk are all superbly gorgeous and desirable: Aidan Quinn, Goran Visnjic (slurp!) as the bad boy, and the total mensch Mark Feuerstein as Sally’s short-lived husband. Even Sally’s little daughters (Evan Rachel Wood and Alexandra Artrip) manage to be believably appealing.

Also, no one should underestimate Sandra Bullock’s appeal. The critic David Thomson jokes that she’s been inducted into the Hall of Eternal Likeability. This induction occurred in 2009, Thomson quips, when Bullock won an Oscar for Best Actress (for The Blind Side) and a Golden Raspberry (aka “Razzie”) for Worst Actress (in All About Steve) — and she appeared to both ceremonies “with the same easygoing attitude that guesses she didn’t quite deserve either award but that knows her life has always been something of a gamble.”

I’ve always liked Bullock, and have a particular weakness for her skills in slight rom-coms (While You Were SleepingMiss Congeniality), again in spite of myself. How does someone possessed of such exceptional beauty seem to be someone I’d be friends with? How does she manage to seem convincingly the ugly duckling for even one second? How does she nevertheless seem to be at ease in her own skin?

Two things I always notice in Practical Magic: she goes bra-less in most of the scenes. And although she’s thin as a rail (of course), her body looks real — especially her big, strong legs. Who wouldn’t like a beautiful woman with healthy-looking thighs who skips the bra most of the time?

Okay, now that I say that out loud, I’m starting to see where some of my sheepishness comes from.

Just because I like all the actors is no guarantee I’ll like a film, however. Lots of good actors have appeared in terrible films. Remember my refusal to see Titanic despite the fact that it stars Kate Winslet, who’s in my Top 5 current favorite actors?

*****

In thinking about my perverse attachment to an ostensibly weak film led me to scour The Land of Blogs for insight, and here’s what I found: us ladies love that house. Love it.

This very fact makes me embarrassed … because I’ll admit I love that house too. Shouldn’t I feel like I’ve been manipulated?

Now, just because a girl confesses a propensity for nest-building and a weakness for a good kitchen should not make you presume she wants nothing but housework and a hubby who brings home the bacon. Virtually everyone I know has found themselves susceptible to the house porn shown to us on those real estate, cooking, and bedroom re-design shows on cable TV. And when I call this porn I fully admit to have had unholy desires for that one hunky handyman who seems to know his way around every power tool known to man. So yeah, I love this house — and I’m not the only one.
Entire websites appear to be dedicated to screen capture shots of the kitchen and/or attached greenhouse. I get it. Who wouldn’t want all that great tile, lots of cupboards, big central kitchen table, and that awesome stove?

There’s so much room here for those kinds of decorations you could never be bothered with because you’re a Busy And Important. Big wooden bowls of pears or round loaves of bread. Cunning little bottles of herbs and witches’ potions. Scattered potted plants that need to be kept alive somehow. This is not the kind of house I could manage (or clean) in real life.

But I think the reason why this kitchen/ greenhouse/ dining area has hit some kind of world-wide Lady G-Spot is because these rooms are the location for so much of the film’s drama. Just like in real life, except these settings are a lot more attractive than our cramped kitchens. Gilly and the little girls whip up a Go Away spell to put into the maple syrup; Gilly and Sally try to bring the terrifying Visnjic back to life (with a spray-can of whipped cream, I say as I shake my head woefully); Sally and the hunky Arizona investigator Aidan Quinn have a special moment in the sunroom/ greenhouse.

(Mental note: must procure sunroom/ greenhouse so I, too, can have special moments with Aidan Quinn.)

I’m joking, of course. Although some bloggers seem eager to transform their own homes into Practical Magic-style palaces, I say that sounds like too much work. In fact, this leads to my most important insight: no matter how appealing, that house doesn’t fill me with consumer desire — I like the idea of the house, and I like it for reasons other than the fact that it looks good. Another film might have used the same house and sunroom and still failed to capture people’s imaginations (i.e., mine).

*****

So here’s my big realization: this film gets me every time because it portrays such rich and important relationships among women, even when they’re flawed. The warmth of the house matters when Sally and Gilly lie under the covers together, healing one another’s wounds, or when they go to the kitchen to exorcise demons. Ultimately the reason I like the house is the fact that I am so impressed that the film takes for granted the intense connections amongst this group of women.

The house feels so warm and comfortable because that’s where the film portrays the most important plot points, bringing together the warmest of relations between the characters. It’s those moments in the film that get me every time. Scenes that convey the close communal and familial relations that encompass a kind of closeness that isn’t reducible to something as simplistic as “love.”

There’s a hard edge to some of this as well. Women who are very close to one another also piss each other off, or they say things that hit nerves even if they have no intention of hurting anyone. One of my favorite random scenes in the film, in which they all blend up some Midnight Margaritas and dance around the house (who hasn’t been there?) is immediately followed by a scary scene at the dinner table, when no matter how good their mood, none of them can keep from spewing bile at one another — and it takes a while for them to realize the ugliness of this weird moment.

Ah, the scene of female bonding and mutual support … and pissing each other off. Was there ever a time when I didn’t imagine growing old, living in a big house (or neighborhood) with my sister and a bunch of my best old-lady friends, all cooking and gardening and exercising together? I remember being stunned to learn that every single one of my friends has the same fantasy. It’s not that we don’t like men — some of us are partnered up with them, after all. It just seems so natural to have tight, mutually-constitutive relationships with women, especially as you grow older.

All the more eerie to find that this film explicitly imagines that scenario for its characters, too. “We’re gonna grow old together!” Gilly says to Sally when they’re teenagers, on the night when Gilly is about to run off with some guy, and the unglamorous Sally stands there in her awful bathrobe, stringy hair, and gigantic glasses. “It’s gonna be you and me, living in a big old house, these two old biddies with all these cats! I mean, I bet we even die on the same day!” Tell me, isn’t that your secret dream, too?

For Sally it is. “Do you swear?” she asks her sister.

In the end I think it is that female closeness that gets me about this film and which makes me slightly embarrassed to admit it — because I suspect that by using some kind of dark magic, the filmmakers cooked up a heady brew of fine men-folk, house porn, and scenes like Midnight Margaritas explicitly to fly under my critical radar and keep bringing me back. I fear my uncritical affection for this film because it feels manipulative to me, not a genuine dedication to women’s relationships and good houses above & beyond women’s relationship to men. I feel embarrassed that what I had long believed was an unrealistic and slightly embarrassing fantasy — that my friends and I would all grow old together — has been packaged into a very pretty filmic production for me to watch. Shouldn’t I feel all the more guilty about this pleasure?

*****

But there’s one other reading that works even better for me, and I lift this directly from the great documentary The Celluloid Closet. This insight goes something like this: I watch and appreciate Practical Magic not for what it is but for all that I read into it, all that speaks to me beyond the surface. I don’t see Midnight Margaritas as a throwaway scene or as instrumental for forcing Sally and Gilly to deal with their mistakes. I read into it a world of intense female closeness that I rarely get to see onscreen. What gives me pleasure in this film is what I imagine in between the lines of its essential mediocrity.

I remember so vividly Susie Bright, one of the commentators in The Celluloid Closet, describing how she spent her youth combing through old movies just to get to a single scene that seems a little bit queer. For LGBTQ persons who saw virtually no one who looked like them onscreen, “It’s amazing how, if you’re a gay audience and you’re accustomed to crumbs how you will watch an entire movie just to see a certain outfit that you think means that they’re a homosexual. The whole movie can be a dud, but you’re just sitting there waiting for Joan Crawford [in Johnny Guitar] to put on her black cowboy shirt again.”This is ultimately the reading that allows me to feel pleasure in watching this film without much guilt. It’s discouraging to realize that on some level, what I get from Practical Magic is what I don’t get very often onscreen: happy, complex, and intense relationships among women that aren’t just about appearing sexy and finding a man. I very seldom get to see onscreen relationships that look like the ones I enjoy with my friends and family. Sure, the movie concludes with a happy kiss between Sandra Bullock and Aidan Quinn — not that there’s anything wrong with that — but I’m arguing that the whole package sparks a happy endorphin rush for far different reasons.

And finally, let’s also not forget that this movie is about a family of witches. Witch being such a stand-in for bitch, as well as conveying all manner of notions about women’s powers, both dark and light. This film probably flies under my radar in part because it’s about women who possess powers that they can choose to use (or not). The false cheeriness of the music and the generally lame spells might well downplay as much as possible any sense of real danger — and probably seek to undermine objections from crazed evangelicals who might see this film as the work of the devil. Nevertheless, I’d argue that the subject matter can’t help but speak about power.

I see it as metaphorical. This is about women’s power — and their power in numbers. I may be trying very hard here to stop feeling so guilty about my appreciation for this film, but this works for me:

  • terrific cast
  • eminently likeable lead
  • great range of attractive men-folk
  • fantastic house
  • rich portrayals of women’s relationships
  • the movie facilitates queer readings against and/or alongside its mainstream messages
  • it’s about women’s power, and their power in numbers

I welcome your thoughts, quibbles, and good-natured derision for my poor taste in film!

Holly Hunter

18 April 2010

She’s appeared in film and TV for almost thirty years and has received the Academy Award for Best Actress, two Emmys, and a pile of other awards and nominations for many of her roles — yet I was surprised to find David Thomson give Hunter only a cursory, uninspired treatment in his otherwise invaluable New Biographical Dictionary of Film (2002).  This is my attempt to make up for it.  

One might be tempted to refer to her as “the thinking man’s [fill in blank with name of less talented starlet],” but it’s too easy.  I think Hunter is so distinctive because she has a perverse desire to be dissonant — she doesn’t play her beauty for the thinking man’s benefit (or anyone else’s); she’s wary but not fragile; she’s unexpected but not quirky.  Her characters can suddenly become sharp-edged and mean.  Holly Hunter is eminently watchable — one of the most watchable women of her generation.

Except for her intelligent beauty, nothing about Holly Hunter’s profile seems to have designed her for a career in Hollywood.  She grew up on a farm in rural Georgia (her hen won a national 4-H prize when Hunter was in high school), and to the best of my knowledge, she’s never performed without her trademark accent on display.  She graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 1980 before launching her professional acting career.  She’s relatively tiny (5’2″); and is so good a pianist that she performed all the music for her acclaimed role in Jane Campion’s “The Piano.” 

She appears almost disingenuously modest about her career.  “Actors are beggars and gypsies, that’s just the way it is,” she said, according to IMDB.com.  “And in many ways, I take what I can get.  But I do search high and low for stuff that interests me.”  Looking at the long list of her films and TV work (from which I compiled this short list), I’m struck by her consistent talent in choosing interesting parts and making them more interesting:

  • Raising Arizona (1987)
  • Broadcast News (1987)
  • Roe vs. Wade (1989)
  • The Piano (1993)
  • Copycat (1993)
  • The Firm (1993)
  • Home for the Holidays (1995)
  • Jesus’ Son (1999)
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000)
  • Thirteen (2003)
  • The Incredibles (2004)
  • Nine Lives (2005)
  • Saving Grace (TV show, 2007-2010)
  • Hunter’s characters often inhabit that weird place between comedy and pathos, but you know immediately it’s not a recognizable pathos but something more real, awful.  In “Raising Arizona” her comically inconsolable weeping contrasted nicely with her otherwise drill-sergeant relationship to mouth-breathing H. I. McDonough (Nicholas Cage).  But in “Broadcast News” it was something more:  she paused every morning in the midst of her breakneck routine, sat on the edge of her bed, and indulged in a private crying jag.  Audiences laughed, but they weren’t sure they were supposed to.  In “Home for the Holidays” (a wonderful and much-overlooked film, in my opinion), she headed home to Baltimore in a terrible state — lonely, confused, worried about her daughter, dreading a family visit.  “Hey, little brother,” she breathes into the phone early in the film, beginning a mortifyingly desperate message for the Robert Downey, Jr. character (a message that comes back to haunt her).  Her eyes are huge, she’s a wreck.  Each time, the viewer can’t see her character’s fragility as pure comedy, even when it’s funny.  She’s not playing to type.  She’s fantastic.

    She has the same complicated relationship to her sexiness.  For a long time, she seemed resigned to cutie pie status; her diminutive frame, distinctive accent, and heavy bangs distracted from her sex appeal — she was smart, not a beauty.  In “Broadcast News” her character’s brief affair with William Hurt’s dim-witted anchorman made so much sense because she lacked all the conventional beauties he possessed — how could she not want to be wanted by him, no matter how smart she was otherwise?  Likewise, her mixed views of herself made it impossible for her to fall in love with the shlubby Albert Brooks, her best friend.  In all those early parts, her resolute jaw lent daggers to her voice.  Over time, though, she used her big, dark eyes to terrific effect — most strikingly in “The Piano,” in a face starker than Emily Dickinson’s, with heavy eyebrows and that fiercely black, parted-in-the-middle hair that granted her face little prettiness.

    At some point in her mid-30s she grew into her beauty as she grew out her hair.  Don’t get me wrong: she never tried to be a Julia Roberts or appear in rom coms.  Rather, she developed a lithe way of using her body — moving slowly and with a slightly wicked, self-conscious, rolling gait that (in my mother’s phrasing) told you she was looking for trouble.  Not that it made her sexiness conventional.  Her tongue remained just as sharp, her characters idiosyncratic and generally disinterested in pleasing anyone. 

    By the time she appeared in “Saving Grace” she was nearly 50.  In its pilot she appeared in a few nearly-nude scenes in which her tiny, skinny frame is covered with alarmingly blueish pale skin.  Being willing to appear in such a shot — on television, no less, and in a Hollywood that rejects actresses when they cease to be youthfully sexy — impressed me yet again with Hunter’s determination to be her own woman, to display her character’s troubles on her very body.  I didn’t latch onto that show (the religious angle never worked for me), but it wasn’t because of her, it wasn’t for lack of trying, and it didn’t change my overall respect for her skill in finding great parts.  She seemed all the sexier in “Saving Grace” for downing shots of whiskey, sleeping with younger men, and pulling hard on all those cigarettes — cigarettes now coded for TV viewers as “bad” — and letting her natural smarts get a bit fuzzy in the haze.

    It’s also been interesting to see Hunter’s long list of characters whose complicated maternal status, marital status, and career make them more interesting.  Whether she gets her husband to kidnap a baby for her (“Raising Arizona”), chooses abortion (“Roe v. Wade,” which reflected Hunter’s own firm pro-choice views), struggles as a single mother or young widow (“The Piano,” “Home For the Holidays,” “Thirteen,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou”), or wrestles with her career (“Broadcast News,” “Saving Grace”), taken together her characters exemplify the struggles of a whole generation of women in a “post-feminist” age.  I find it striking that, with the recent cancellation of “Saving Grace,” Hunter has apparently determined to take a break from acting to be with her family — her domestic partner and her twin 4-year-old boys, whom she bore at age 47.  I hope it’s not a decision that came from a lack of roles.  I want to keep watching Holly Hunter in roles that expand our understanding of complex human emotions — and not least because right now, Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren seem to be the only women over 50 getting parts that allow them to be interesting and have sex lives. 

    David Thomson: I think we shouldn’t be surprised if Holly Hunter has more awards awaiting her — and if your next edition of the Biographical Dictionary of Film requires a serious revision of your earlier entry.

    It’s simply wrong to remember the screwball and romantic comedies of the 1930s and 1940s as wholly innocent or de-sexed.  Sure, the Hollywood Production Code eliminated a lot of the open sexuality of the earlier era, forbidding all on-screen representations of sexual contact.  Yet those rules led screenwriters to create a host of scenarios that nominally adhered to the rules yet found ways to make them erotically charged and even risky.

    I can’t think of a better example than Jean Arthur in my favorite film of hers, “The More the Merrier” (1943).  To use an apt phrase of David Thomson’s, Arthur had a “rare querulous quality” onscreen that, he suggests, resulted from her ambivalence about acting and Hollywood more generally.  After serving as a forgettable ingénue in several dozen silents and early talkies, she remade herself in the mid-30s by bleaching her brunette hair and utilizing that distinctively froggy voice to great effect in films such as “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”  By that time, her unique combination of innocent idealism and worldly wisecracking seemed perfectly pitched for the era’s films.

    “The More the Merrier” has a slow start, but viewers shouldn’t give up: the film really starts to jell after a somewhat belabored first twenty minutes of antics.  Premised on the wartime housing shortage in Washington, D.C., young working girl Arthur rents her spare room to the elderly Charles Coburn, who presumptuously determines to improve her love life by finding her a “high-type, clean-cut, nice young fella.”  Coburn promptly rents half of his room to the wry, laconic, tall and handsome GI Joel McCrea, who beautifully underplays his part.  The film starts to cook as soon as McCrea appears onscreen, and is propelled by the tensions over sexual propriety between the two roommates—highlighting Arthur’s delicate querulousness.  It consistently returns us to its favorite image: a scene shot through the windows of the apartment’s two adjoining bedrooms, with each room’s bed sharing the same wall, showing us how close Arthur is to McCrea as they lie in bed—even as the wall assures us they’ll behave themselves.

    The best scene comes when Arthur and McCrea are wandering slowly back to the apartment one night after a night of cocktails and dancing, passing through what appears to be a sea of couples necking on stoops and sidled up against trees.  Nervous, she natters on with questions about his previous girlfriends and transparently false assertions of confidence in her engagement to the awful Mr. Pendergast.  McCrea responds only in the most cursory way, fixing his attention on getting some small touch of her skin—what amounts to small physical battle between them.  It’s a scene equivalent to those choreographed Fred and Ginger dances enacting the pleasurable friction of resistance.  McCrea doggedly tries to put his arm around her, touch her arms, run his hand along her neck; Arthur dodges.  His arm snakes underneath her cloak; Arthur evades, yet positions herself for more.  When they finally clunk down on the steps to her apartment building, McCrea’s offensive begins in earnest.  Now offering mere grunts for responses, he insistently caresses her arms, her shoulders, her back.

    In a perfect movie moment, Arthur succumbs.  Her chatter is interrupted by the pleasure she takes in his increasingly successful kisses—and when he hits the sweetest spot on her neck, she simply has to pause mid-sentence:  her eyes close, her neck extends, and her chin lifts as she concentrates fully on the kiss’s delight.  At the end of the kiss, her eyes widen, her absurdly long false eyelashes bat a few times with brilliant comic disconcertion, and she stutters as she completes her meaningless sentence.  The die is cast: she reaches for his face and indulges in a long, passionate kiss on the lips.  Arthur’s great knack here is to remind us that we’re watching a comedy, yet still leave no question about the passion between them.  As they slowly walk upstairs to the apartment—that dangerously private, intimate space, where only a wall separates their beds—the tension continues to rise, and the film must create a crisis to relieve it.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZyxrUDspLQ]

    Post-Code films attain their delicious tension all the more because they could show such delimited physical contact.  Considered in that context, the motif of the wall between the two beds becomes all the more sexy, enhancing desire while demanding physical separation.  McCrea and Arthur whisper pillow talk to one another through the wall and display to us in highly intimate closeups that all the boundaries between them have crumbled; only the wall sustains their chastity.  Even at the height of the Code’s influence, writers and actors undermined it with images of erotic intimacies all the more effective for the walls that fell, Jericho-style, only after these movies ended and the theater lights came back on.