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The Persistence of Disney, Part 12: Cinderella (1950)

cinderella

After nearly a decade of sidelining his artistic yearnings in favor of World War II and frustrating limits of his budget, Walt Disney celebrated the birth of the new decade with his first narrative feature in eight years.  It was not just a return to the form that he helped to create but it was a return to the simply-told fairy tale genre that he always had in his sights.  Cinderella was about as basic a story as one could tell, and seemingly the most universal.  As with Snow White, this movie appealed to a fantasy elements that were unquestionably popular at the time, but that were so “of the moment” (in spite of the common advertising claim of it being ‘timeless’) that its elemental message would become questionable in the wake of a massive culture shift in the decades to come.  The women’s movement and the rise of feminism would prove the antithesis for the rather limited message being given here.

Given the current cultural climate, one is compelled to ask: what is the value of Cinderella?  Where does its message really land when you get to the end of the story?  There has been a lot of talk about the film being anti-feminist, that this is the story of a young woman who is abused and works through her difficult situation until her prince shows up to make her life perfect.  Is that really true?  Is the movie selling young girls on a wish-fulfillment that relegates their destiny to the idea that getting married is and should be the ultimate goal?  Is it limiting their choices?  All of these arguments are valid and in some cases I outright agree with them.  This is always a difficult task, dealing with a film of another time, another set of values that are outdated and out of fashion.  Approaching Cinderella with a 21st century mindset is a little like approaching Gone With the Wind.  You can see it as entertainment but you have to traverse a minefield of ideas and attitudes that are particularly un-P.C.

The 1950s were not a great time for forward-thinking women.  During World War II a great number of American women had gone to work in factories to help with the war effort, it was a lumbering step backward to exit the war years and now be expected to get married, have children and stand in the shadow of The Man of The House.  In a fairy tale sense that fuels the story of Cinderella, which is based around the rather insane idea that a young girl will be pulled out of hard domestic servitude to marry a wealthy prince and effectively never have to work a day in her life.  The goal is to be married, that’s the trajectory of the young women in this film.  The King wants a grandchild and makes a call to every woman in the kingdom to come and meet the prince.  The prince, in a meat-market sort of set-up, gets to pick whichever woman he wants.  I don’t even know where to begin to tell you what is wrong with that scenario.  The prince meets various women at the ball and he picks Cinderella out of the crowd.  He’s been tasked with picking a wife like he might pick a puppy.

To stand back and look at this scenario is to be baffled by its insanity, but if there is any positive measure that can be gleaned from it, it may be the idea that at least Cinderella has, in a way, earned her way to a better life, unlike other Disney princesses who just sort of have it handed to them.   She’s worked for years under the yoke of a stepmother who worked her day and night and now she has earned the right fall in love and get married.  Is that any less insane?  Her fate may not be any less “marriage fueled” but when she gets married at the end there’s a feeling that it comes after having been tried and tested for so long by those who cared nothing about her.

Even with that you can’t ignore the emptiness with which the two leads come together.  Cinderella and Prince Charming get married at the end but it is difficult to overlook the fact that their marriage is based on function.  She’s pretty, he’s handsome, they dance, so . . . wedding bells.  There isn’t much meat on this relationship.  In fact, I don’t even remember if the prince has a line in this movie.  He’s just sort of there.  They talk (allegedly), and they get to know one another (allegedly).  Yet, even with all that, he apparently never caught her name.  Actually we don’t know because their time together is seen in a montage over music so we can’t hear what they are saying to one another.

Here it is important to remember the logic of cartoon romance.  In the mid-20th century, love and romance were not full blooded relationships in which two people connected in a real way.  They were just functions of the plot, often played as a gag or played for emotional overtones.  It was the union that represented the climax of the film but what they were to each other beyond their romantic orientation often remained in the viewer’s imagination.  Think of Snow White and Cinderella, the union was based on function, not logic.

I realize that I’m carping over a movie that is supposed to be a joyous fairy tale for young girls, but in assaying the form and function of the “Disney Princess “ dynamic as this series  moves along it is important to deconstruct the underlying purpose of each.  Why was this film so popular upon release but then so contentious as we’ve crossed over into the 21st century?  Are we supposed to examine this story logically?  Yes and no.  Disney films in the early years were not based on logic but played their characters for dramatic effect.  Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we follow a lonely young girl that seems alone in the world.  Friends are hard to come by and so the yearning for something different is always part of their forward thinking.  Neither Cinderella nor The Wizard of Oz or in fact any of the early Disney pictures were airtight as far as logic was concerned but they were always better at conveying a certain level of emotion.  How we feel about Cinderella’s plight is more possibly important than examining how she logically gets to the final scene.

Cinderella’s plight is that of a young girl who is stuck at home, mired in overbearing complacency of domestic servitude.  She was the daughter of a loving widower father; a wealthy Baron who felt that his daughter needed a mother’s love.  So, for whatever reason, he married the widowed aristocrat Lady Tremaine who had two plain-looking daughters of her own, Drizella and Anastasia.  When the father died, the stepmother put Cinderella to work – hard work – so much work in fact that she was effectively a slave.  What I always responded to in Cinderella’s plight was the fact that despite her difficult situation, there’s something unbreakable in her personality.  She works day and night doing difficult chores and is often ordered to do them over again just at the whim of her stepmother.  Yet, she never frets.  Something in her heart holds tight to the fact that this isn’t ever-lasting.

As I said before, Cinderella has a much more difficult life, while Snow White just seems to be . . . around.  Sure Snow is pursued by a jealous queen who twice tries to kill her, but the day in and day out struggle of Cinderella grabs at the heart.  We want her to succeed.  We want her to overcome the abusive harridan that controls her life.  We want to see her happy.  You can say that about Snow White but only to the degree that she’s in the lead.  Nothing that she really does ever earns her the hand of the prince outside of the fact that she’s a nice girl.  Here we feel Cinderella’s plight, especially in a heartbreaking moment when she is promised a trip to the ball and arrives in a newly made gown, but has it ripped apart by her stepsisters.  It’s actually a devastating moment.

Yet, while Cinderella is given some meat to her story, the prince himself is kind of given a sideline in this story.  He stands mostly as functionary.  Sure he falls in love with Cinderella but we never really get any time with him.  That’s too bad because I learn that originally he had a much bigger part.  There was a scene toward the end when he reunites with Cinderella and recognizes her and there was to be some reconciliation to the fact that he married a commoner who wears rags.  From what I could research apparently it would have cleared up a lot of gaping holes that exist at the end of the story.

As it stands, neither character is, truth be told, bold in personality.  Disney’s lead characters rarely ever were.  Looking back over his first five animated films I find that most of the heroic leads (Snow White, Dumbo, Bambi) were very light on personality.  Things happened to them rather than their actions motivating the plot.  The more interesting roles are often given to the villains who bend others to their will through magical manipulation.  What struck me in revisiting Cinderella is that the villain here has no magical powers.  It is interesting that Lady Tremaine exudes her will over our heroine just by force of will.  It’s interesting that the power comes not from magic wands but just from her station of having control over someone else’s life.  That’s an interesting dynamic.  This type of Disney character is rare and I’ve always found far more interesting.  There are only a handful of Disney villains who don’t have any magic – Captain Hook, Cruella de Ville, Madame Medusa, Gaston, Claude Frollo – so their manipulation comes from human flaws, even though it sometimes takes magical means to overcome them.

I haven’t even mentioned the magical elements of this film.  As I watched it the other night I was so focused on the human element that the magic stuff seemed to pass me by.  Is that a positive in a fairy tale?  Possibly in this case it may be because I noticed that the magical elements of Cinderella seem to drop in out of nowhere.  The fairy godmother drops into the story at the moment of Cinderella’s deepest despair to make her presentable for the ball but you have to wonder, where has she been all this time?  Why didn’t she show up before?  It left me wondering if this story might have functioned just as well without it.  Cinderella might have found a way to go to the ball and look presentable without magical manipulation.  That might have been an interesting angle, have Cinderella figure a way out of her situation using her ingenuity rather than the engine of a magic wand.

Plus, the magic in Cinderella drops in out of nowhere, almost as a dues ex machine and almost feels separate from the narrative.  Compare this to Snow White where the magical elements are far more organic.  As I say, Cinderella might have been much more interesting without it.  But, of course, losing the magical element might have robbed us of some of the brighter moments in the film, the fantasy elements, and the idea that at our moment of lowest despair, something magical will come along and help us out of a jam.  It’s fantasy, total fantasy and not an invalid one.  As much as I carp and analyze this film I must admit that there are moments when I felt much more for Cinderella than I did for most other Disney heroines.  She keeps a smile in place despite her difficult situation and she makes friends among the mice that surround her.  She shows them the kindness that is not shown to her by her stepmother or stepsisters.  And in the end, they help her out when she is locked away at the moment that the archduke drops by with the lost glass slipper.  Her kindness is rewarded.  Maybe that’s a message that can be gleaned from this very flawed and outdated film, that kindness is a much bigger and bolder weapon than manipulation.  Manipulation is easy but kindness takes time and patience and work, something that gets her the fairy tale ending she always wanted.

 

Movie of the Day: It Follows (2015)

itfollows

In horror movies, it sucks to be young. Our minds and our bodies are beginning to get adjusted to so many scary things and then you have to deal with some fool with a butcher knife or a ghost with a 200 year-old axe to grind.  It’s hard to grow up, but it’s even harder when it comes in the form of outward forces that we can’t explain – we get enough of that from the natural world.  Kids in horror movies have gotten a raw deal ever since that chainsaw business back in the early 70s, and we find that the best of the genre seems to lean on this idea.

David Robert Mitchell’s oddly titled new horror exercise It Follows is no different.  The kids are dumped on from beginning to end, but the difference is that there’s a method to all the madness.  They aren’t just pawns, they are actual human beings forced to deal with the unexplainable.  Mitchell’s genius is that he creates a dark mood and tone, and the feeling that something is around every corner and emerges from a place no one can quite explain.  He’s a born filmmaker whose efforts here got him noticed – the film was widely praised at the Cannes film festival last year, and I’m happy to say, it was earned.  Unlike most films in this genre that feel like fish food hammered together based on whatever seems popular at the moment, this is a movie that was put together with care – somebody wanted to make this movie.

It Follows is built on a premise that is almost fatally ridiculous but you don’t mind so much because the movie is put together with breathtakingly ambitious filmmaking that evokes a sense of fear and terror even when nothing is happening. It takes it’s horror from the simple but unsettling notion that even when all is peaceful and calm, someone is watching.

It Follows is a movie that might have found good company back in the 70s and 80s when filmmakers – newly free from the strangulation of the production code – were not only able to experiment with new kinds of explicit content but with mood and tone and a sense of dread. That was the age of Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, Carrie, Halloween, The Shining and Poltergeist. We are reminded of the spirit of those films because it builds it’s supernatural terror from a foundation of reality.

The movie opens in a quiet suburban neighborhood with the camera planted in the middle of the street. The camera swivels around to a middle-class cracker box house from which emerges a young girl who is obviously scared out of her mind – something is chasing her.  In a few short moments, she gets in her car and drives away.  At a shallow spot in road, she calls her father to tell him goodbye and the next morning – well, you can guess.

Our focus shifts to a different girl – broody young Jay Height (Maika Monroe), a pretty blonde with gangly limbs whose 20 year-old youth ebbs somewhere between the end of budding teen years and the beginnings of the mysteries of her own sexuality. There’s nothing typical about her. She’s got a lot on her mind, and we can see in her eyes that something is going on – perhaps the terror that the kid years are ending and the real world expectations are about to begin. That’s the least of her worries, especially when she accepts a date with sort-of hunky Hugh (Jake Weary), a good-looking but dorky kid who tries and fails to hide jangled nerves – he takes her to a movie but bolts when he thinks he sees someone staring at him.

Spoilers Ahead!

Hugh’s eccentricity is not enough to keep Jay from accepting a second date so they go out for a drink before she (consensually) surrenders her virtue in the back of his car. What she doesn’t know is that Jay is cursed, and has passed the curse on to our heroine. That’s right — the curse is sexually transmitted. But! But! But! Just wait! Before you shut down this review in a fit of jaded cynicism hear me out. What happens to Jay is not based on plot but on blistering paranoia. She sees entities, dead people who approach her at a walking pace and never seem to stop. They come in through windows, across fields, down the beach, from everywhere, at any time, at any place.  Worse is that sometimes they don’t come at all.  At times she sees several dead people, at times she sees nothing. She never knows where they will come from or in which form they will take.

What makes It Follows so special is that director David Robert Mitchell has deep-fried his movie in an almost crushing atmosphere of dread. Every frame of this movie is steeped in dark tones, bare-bulb lighting and an electronic score that seems to be piped in from Mars. He has so much confidence in his tone that he hovers on long scenes of fields and parking lots and windows. We expect to see something emerge. Sometimes it does, many times it does not.

This is a beautifully shot, but unsettling movie to experience. Mitchell lingers on long shots, of grassy fields, parking lots, dirty houses, and long corridors. We remember little details like tin cans, a beach chair, a telephone, a blade of grass. The movie’s production design is not slick but made up of filthy rooms, dingy corridors and open spaces. Much of the movie is seen through Jays eyes, and we feel her terror. Young Maika Monroe – an actress that I am unfamiliar with – gives a wonderful performance as a young woman whose problems of youth are doubled by the terror she experience from the curse. She has an expressive face with eyes that reveal feelings that she doesn’t express in words.

In many ways, It Follows reminds me of the early films of Wes Craven (particularly the first Elm Street), only this film isn’t quite as plotted as Craven’s work.  Much of what happens once the curse is set in motion is left to the filmmaking, not the writing.  Much of Jay’s journey is helped along by her high school friends who take her at her word that something wicked this way comes.  Mitchell keeps the viewer at arm’s length and seems unwilling to hold our hand.  We don’t get inside Jay’s head but we feel more like we’re standing next to her.  We’re in the room with her and her friends as they hear noises outside.  The friends are not standard movie types, but specific individuals who seem to exist in Jay’s hemisphere as classmates who are on the verge of moving on with their post-high school lives – this is a movie very much about time and place.

The third act does get a little gimmicky as the kids try and confront the curse on a physical level.  That part of the movie seems a little hokey.  The movie works best when the dread is suggested rather than confronted.  Still it ends on a terrifyingly reasonable note suggesting an endless vicious cycle.  Life goes on and so, apparently, do the dead.

 
 

Movie of the Day: Lovelace (2013)

Lovelace

Let’s face it, the world wasn’t exactly missing a biopic about Linda Lovelace, the  former actress who made her immortality in 1972 by becoming the star of “Deep  Throat” the most profitable adult film in the history of the medium. Digging around in the trash of a celebrity has a certain level of titillation, but it’s no more necessary than digging around in the sex life of Liberace (at least his story has music to fall back on).  But how far have we come? Once, long ago, Hollywood made biopics about monarchs  and presidents, people who accomplished things and changed the world. Now, rather than pages out of history books, we get pages out of the tabloids.  You’ve gone the wrong way, baby!

That’s exactly how “Lovelace” feels. This is not the portrait of a life, but a  dreary soap opera about an abused woman with a scummy husband who forced her (at gunpoint, we’re told) into a life of pornography and prostitution. The problem is that this movie is all tragedy and no substance, giving us a story  that might have been better suited for a documentary, which is curious because  the movie comes from directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman who have made  great documentaries like The Times of Harvey Milk and The Celluloid Closet. Why didn’t they just make a documentary? This is drama  played at the level of a bad Lifetime Original Movie.

Lovelace – henceforth referred to by her given name, Linda Boreman – is played  in a stiff performance by Amanda Seyfriend, an actress of breathtaking beauty  who has yet to find a role that proves that she is more than just photogenic.  She plays Boreman as a wounded saint, a Little Girl Lost who is pushed and bullied and manipulated by her husband  so much and so often that we never feel that there was another note to her personality or their relationship.  Her performance is made up of wide-eyed petrified looks wrapped up in period clothes.

The movie hits the bulletpoints of Boreman’s life without examining any of  them. She was born Linda Boreman in Brooklyn, New York in 1949 under domineering parents, and then uprooted to Florida where she had a baby by age 19. In the aftermath of giving up her child, she met Chuck Traynor (Peter  Sarsgaard), who initially seemed like a nice guy, but turned out to be a slimeball who (she said) got her involved in the porn world against her will.  He even sold her into prostitution to get himself out of debt. Sarsgaard is a good actor whose range here moves from creepy nice guy to desperate pervert with an unnerving slow burn.

Most of the movie follows Boreman’s volatile relationship with Traynor.  The film’s first half shows a loving  relationship that builds between him and Boreman, but the second half rewinds the clock and tells her side of the story in flashback, this time containing  the more realistic bits of his control over her every move. You can’t help but feel pity for Boreman, but knowing the rest of her story, when she renounced the industry, divorce, remarried and had a child, you can’t help but feel that there was more to her story than just sex and being slapped around. Her life away from Traynor, and her famous interview with Phil Donahue, are handled in a few brief scenes, but you get the feeling that this is where the film’s second act should have begun.  The film wants us to understand the circumstances that took Boreman from porn star to anti-porn feminist but it wallows in the glow of her early profession with lots of soft light and nudity.  Epstein and Friedman wallow in the decadence of a lifestyle they are trying to renounce.

The problem with telling the story of Linda Lovelace is that there really isn’t much to tell. If “Deep Throat” has been a flop, no one would care or even  remember her. The only way to tell this story would be to portray the 70s porn chic world that surrounded her as Paul Thomas Anderson did with “Boogie  Nights,” which showed the glamour and the superficial hedonism of an era in which the morals of America were  slipping so fast that porn was threatening to become mainstream.  The story of the film’s impact was also told much better in the 2005 documentary “Inside Deep Throat,” which wasn’t a great movie but offers more insight into that world than is portrayed here. What we get in “Lovelace” is an  exploitative portrait of misery and despair that ends with Linda becoming a  feminist. Yet, that transformation comes as a momentary revelation.  Screenwriter Andy Bellin misses the journey that got her there.  Why do we care?  What is the journey?  What is the point?  Who was this woman?

 
 

Movie of the Day: Twin Peaks – Fire Walk With Me (1992)

TwinPeaksFWWM

I have no objection to a director who fancies himself a stylist but once in a while I do ask that a stylist occasionally let me in on the joke. David Lynch has always been the master of his own work, sometimes brilliant but often times baffling, confusing and frustrating. Frustrating because he tries so hard to outsmart the viewer and himself that often, I think, he forgets to just make a movie.

`Twin Peaks’ was no exception. I didn’t mind being taken into his comic nightmare on television (however one or two episodes were about all I could take) but this senseless and tiresome movie grates on +your nerves the moment you realize that it isn’t even going to try to make an attempt at any cognitive reason. In my mind the movie plays like a stubborn child who won’t budge from his seat and keeps smiling just the irritate you.

What I saw of `Twin Peaks’ on television I foolishly thought could be explained here. `Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’ chronicles that last seven days of the life of Laura Palmer, the McGuffin at the center of the entire enterprise. The series begins with the discovery of her dead body and the subsequent investigation to trace how she got there. The movie takes us back a full year before that discovery to lead us through Laura’s life up to the day of her murder.

The movie begins with another murder under investigation by two FBI agents (Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland) who predict, rather predictably that the killer will kill again. Agent Cooper (Kyle McLaughlin) has a vision about this time of a red room and some babbling nonsense about garborzonia.

Then we meet Laura, whom I found to be a robust, fascinating and very well written character. She lives with her parents, she persistently abuses drugs and her own body in pursuit of reckless sex. Her father (Ray Wise) has an unhealthy fixation on her and her mother (Grace Zabriske) is too much of a weakling to do anything about it. The only solace that Laura seems to find is in her friend Donna (Moira Kelly) whom she almost takes down with her.

All of this is fine and good. I wanted to see a movie about this particular subject but Lynch isn’t satisfied with just a simple story, no, he has to leaden it with a lot of weird rooms, backward talking midgets, nonsensical twisty timelines and unnecessary plot machinations. I swear the last hour of the movie just seems to completely leave the earth.

I would like to have seen that story. I think Lynch had it in his hands to make a great drama about a trailer trash girl with a drug habit, an unhealthy sex life and a home life that is a ticking time bomb. That would have made for the kind of drama that Tennessee Williams would have envied. C’mon David use your gifts for great filmmaking and stop with the self-indulgence already.

 
 

Movie of the Day: Urotsukidoji – Legend of the Overfiend (1989)

Urotsukidoji

There is a certain type of individual that I greatly admire. It is the individual who can sit across a table from me and explain in exhaustive detail the very complicated plot fabric of Urotsukidoji: The Legend of the Overfiend, fully divulging all theories and histories and backstories and somehow never crack a smile. The smile comes to my lips when I realize that they have explained this movie over and over again to various people and are skilled at dodging the question of how and why a movie about a universal demon war includes scene after scene of naked lesbian schoolgirls.

What also puzzles me is how they can explain the movie with a straight face after they’ve introduced the film to their friends by waving a VHS tape, smiling and saying “Dude! You gotta see this”. For those of us who have had this movie shoved down our throats, that experience is communal.

Those individuals waving the tapes aren’t hard to find. They very often hide the tape in the underwear drawer and their only real female attachment is either a paper fold-out or is telling them for the third time to take out the garbage (I know them, I know them well). Not to say that everyone who engages in hentai is a pathetic momma’s boy but based on my experience they seem to make up a good chunk of the fanbase.

Hentai (porn, let’s just call it what it is), for those of us who don’t indulge in such questionable “entertainments” is more or less and endurance test. The filmmakers throw in as many splatter-fied effects and forbidden sexual tableaus as their imaginations can allow. It is often called “sick” and “disgusting” but I find less interest in the movies themselves and more interest in the people who gawk at them. These are individuals who did not discover whitehouse.com by accident. (Freud would have eaten these people for breakfast).

I should start by telling you that the movie is a carnival geek show, a vile bag of cartoon garbage that wallows in perversions when it isn’t splattering the canvas with guts and brains. It has, needless to say, become legendary for it’s infamy. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, perhaps you are not familiar with this nasty little item. For you, I will try and explain in the terms that the movie was explained to me:

There are three worlds and three levels of reality – the humans, the man-beasts (or Jyujinkai) and demons (or Makai). A prophecy tells that every three thousand years a creature called Chojin will rise up and unite these three worlds and will recreate all three worlds in his own image.

Two sibs from the Beast World, Amano Jyuku and Negumi, have come in search of Chojin who lives within a young student named Nagumo, whom they believe will bring about the aforementioned unity.

Nagumo has fallen in love with a cheerleader named Akemi, who was raped by a demon posing as her (female) health teacher and understands the circumstances behind Nagumo’s destiny. But opposing forces begin showing up to challenge Nagumo. For the Demons, Beasts, and Humans, this looks like either unity or utter destruction. Now, based on the creature that shows up at the end with three sex organs with which he demolishes the city, my guess would be the latter. There is far more plot that this but there is far more plot than the movie needs. I am told that there are two sequels to this but I think I’ll pass, thank you very much.

The gentleman who explained it to me went into massive amounts of details about the inwards and outwards of the demon world while I waited patiently so that I could ask how it all merits the pedophilia, the teen sex and the fountains of blood, guts and bodily fluids. `That’s just anime’ he told me at which I simply rolled my eyes and bolted for the door.

And no, he never smiled.


 
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Posted by on 09/07/2016 in Uncategorized

 

Movie of the Day: Bitter Moon (1994)

BitterMoon

There is an easy way to tell if a movie that is breaking sexual taboos. Sex scenes that don’t work make people laugh. Sex scenes that do work make them squirm. Bitter Moon fits comfortably into the latter. I saw this movie back in 1994 with a theater of about 150 people, a third of which were gone by the time the first hour was up.  This is an uncomfortable movie, a movie that opts for weird sexual practices from people who have replaced love for lust.  Does it surprise anyone that it comes from Roman Polanski?

Bitter Moon looks, for all the world, like trashy melodrama.  It juggles bad taste and sexual intrigue but it doesn’t do it in a juvenile way with bad laughs.  It does so in a mature way and builds it on a story about people not plotting.  It is an exploration of whether or not two damaged people can work out their inner demons through sexual cohabitation or whether such a scenario will destroy them as human beings.

It begins on a cruise ship with Nigel (Hugh Grant) a bitter Englishman who is married to Fiona (Kristen Scott Thomas) a cold and distant prude.  One night at the bar Nigel meets a gorgeous French woman named Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner).  Naturally, he is intoxicated by her – she’s a ball of sexual fire that works in contrast to Fiona’s icy demeanor.

A short time later he meets her alcoholic husband Oscar (Peter Coyote) who is confined to a wheelchair.  He begins to tell Nigel the long story of how he and Mimi met. Spinning a tale from which Nigel is only held by the presence of Mimi, their story begins with a simple love story, how they met, and fell in lust with one another. Their sex life was robust and deliciously kinky with all manner of weird scenarios and sex shop implements that such activities are heir to.  After a while, of course, they got bored, locked themselves away and began a bizarre, kinky S&M roleplay that got more and more serious until Oscar ended up in that wheelchair.  This is the template for most of Bitter Moon.  The relationship is built on destruction and the frothy kinks that cannot be sustained.

Naturally, Nigel is fascinated by the story of Oscar and Mimi and he makes excuses to Fiona so that he can spend more time with the couple (Mimi more than Oscar).  He likes their story but we suspect that something may be afoot, that Nigel may be part of another con, another sex game established by this odd couple that may get him into trouble.

Bitter Moon is overly sexual, trashy, kinky, freaky and uncomfortable. In anyone else hands that might be a bad thing but in the hands of Roman Polanski we expect a degree of quality control. He is, and always has been, the master of his instrument and his achievement here is the ability to create this kind of bizarro sex tragedy and never make it laughable.

That works mainly because of the casting. Hugh Grant is wonderful as the kind of meek, mild fellow who probably thinks about sex but never acts on impulse. He’s married to Fiona (Kristen Scott-Thomas) who offers little sexual energy and allows us to understand why Nigel is so intrigued by the couple.

Peter Coyote has always been a mature, fearless actor with a slightly scary voice whose words in this films slither through his teeth with a kind of slippery anger. He informs Nigel that: “Everyone has a sadistic streak, and nothing brings it out better than the knowledge you’ve got someone at your mercy.” The best performance in the film, however, belongs to (Emmanuelle Seigner) as Mimi. She gives the kind of lurid performance that could illicit bad laughs like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct or Madonna in the godawful Body of Evidence. She is better than either by making her sexuality come from within and not wearing as a costume role. She’s gorgeous and mysterious and plays a rube like Nigel like a pinball machine.

Bitter Moon is a trashy film but a good one. Polanski is willing to go over the line with lurid melodrama and he doesn’t lose his nerve. He is brave filmmaker. Even braver is Emmanuel Seigneir (Polanski’s wife) who is required to do things in this film that many actresses wouldn’t touch for fear of their reputation. She does them and never backs off. ‘Bitter Moon’, like ‘Damage’ is a movie for adults. Both films speak about sex in a mature fashion without compromise.

 
 

The Persistence of Disney, Part 8: Fun and Fancy Free (1947)

Fun and Fancy Free

Of all the Disney animated features, Fun & Fancy Free might have the dullest title of them all.  It sounds like something drummed quickly up for a marquee.  It is not only dull, but it is also a little misleading.  The movie is not really about having fun or being fancy free except in the opening musical number which sung to raging irritation by Jiminy Cricket.  It’s not even really all that original; it feels like leftovers from bigger projects.  Lo and behold, come to find out in doing my research that’s exactly what it is.  Of all the package films of the 1940s, this is probably my least favorite because the passion doesn’t seem to be present here.  It feels quickly put together and for Disney that’s unusual.

While the previous film Make Mine Music was a concert arrangement that employed ten separate segments, this one only has two with the addition of a framework that loosely ties them together.  We are first introduced in the film to Jiminy Cricket who is sailing down a small river toward an old dark library while he sings some treacle about bearing a smile in the face of adversity.  The effect is tooth-grindingly obnoxious.  Watching it you get the same feeling that you might get if you were having a bad day and someone was behind you giving you a bunch of greeting card advice (“Let a smile be your umbrella!”)   I prefer the logic of Inside Out that sadness is crucial to being happy.  But Jiminy is there to make you smile, so whatever.

After breaking into the library and having some innocuous interactions with some melancholy dolls, Jiminy comes upon a record player that guides us into our first story:

* Bongo is based on a story by Sinclair Lewis and narrated by Dinah Shore about a celebrated circus bear whose very name draws thousands to see his wild antics like juggling during his high wire act while riding a unicycle, but backstage Bongo is treated like an old piece of furniture and thoughtlessly thrown in a cage every night.  With that, he yearns to get back to nature and feel the rhythms of being a real bear.  So, Bongo sneaks away one night to get back to his natural roots only to find that the life of a bear in the wild is a little more daunting than he might have imagined.  All the other bears either laugh at him or bully him around and he seems to think that returning to the wild may have been a mistake.  Then he meets Lulabelle, a pretty girl-bear and falls head over heels in love.  That nugget of joy is complicated when a mean bully bear named Lumpjaw comes to claim Lulabelle by beating the stuffing out of Bongo.

Where the story ends up is not all that surprising, what is surprising are the twists and turns that the story takes.  When Bongo tries to kiss Lulabelle for the first time, he realizes that bears in the woods show affection by slapping each other – there’s even a cute song that goes along with this happy-go-lucky call for affectionate domestic violence.  To this day I’m still not sure how to feel about this.  I realize that this film was made at a time when cartoons weren’t made exclusively for children but this message seems particularly destructive.  What is a kid to glean from that?

The segment as a whole is very cute.  I like the idea of Bongo trapped between the two worlds of the misery of the circus and the misery of living in the wild.  But that idea is kind of laid out and never really dealt with.  Once he meets Lulabelle, his struggle to survive in the wild narrows down to basically defeating the bully and then falling in love.  I wasn’t completely sure how to feel about this segment.  It’s very cute but I thought that it either needed to be a lot shorter or feature length with more characters and a bigger story.  As it is, it seems to run on a bit too long and again, the slapping bit makes me cringe.

*****

The Bongo short ends and we move back to Jiminy Cricket who finds an invitation to a birthday party and decides to crash it (the movie doesn’t say this but it is heavily implied).  He goes to a stranger’s house where puppeteer Edgar Bergen is entertaining an apparently parent-less little girl named Luana by doing a rather creepy bit of puppetry with his hand.  Actually this bit is a lot of fun due to the running commentary by Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd who, in an odd move, are able to move around the room independently without Bergen’s help.  All settle in while Bergen reads the story  of Jack and the Beanstalk.

* Mickey and the Beanstalk is a lot more fun than Bongo mostly because it features Mickey, Donald and Goofy together for the first time in a feature film.  Bergen tells a rather expanded version of the classic fairytale in which Happy Valley falls on rough times following the theft of a magical singing harp by a dopey giant who lives in the clouds.  It is Mickey who goes into town to sell the cow but comes back with magic beans (though we are never privy to how he came to acquire them) and the trio have to climb the beanstalk to retrieve the harp.

This is a pretty straight-forward retelling without much that is different save for the giant.  He’s your classic dopey Disney villain but he’s a lot of fun.  The only real addition to the story is that the giant now has magical powers; he’s a transmorph who can change into anything.  Unfortunately nothing is done with that development.  When the giant is chasing the trio at the end, he doesn’t use his magical power at all.  It is brought up and then forgotten.

The story ends with a cute bit in which the giant arrives at the birthday party looking for Mickey and Donald and Goofy before departing down Hollywood Boulevard and stopping briefly to put on The Brown Derby before wandering toward the hills.

Both Bongo and Mickey and the Beanstalk were ideas that Walt had in mind after completing Snow White.  The film had been so successful that he began to mine other fairytales to turn into features.  Bongo was a new idea, but Disney had his eye on “Jack and the Beanstalk” going all the way back to the silent era.  He had filmed the story before, first as a silent for his Laugh-O-Gram film company in 1920 and then again in a 1933 short called Giantland starring Mickey, then again in 1938 in a short called Brave Little Tailor.  The silent version is considered lost but the two later versions are still readily available (you can see them here and here).

Mickey and the Beanstalk began life as “The Legend of Happy Valley” and was prepped to be a feature, as was Bongo.  However, both projects were halted by the events of December 7, 1941.  The United States entered World War II and Walt went to work making propaganda films for the government.  This put a hold on all non-military projects.  When the war ended, the studio was under budget constraints so both projects were scrapped as features.  When Disney decided to pair the two together in the same movie, cuts were made.  Bongo had been propped up as a pseudo-sequel to Dumbo and much of Mickey was cut, most especially the scene in which he receives the magic beans from Honest John, the swindler from Pinocchio.  This idea that was changed to a scene in which he receives the beans from Queen Minnie, but both ideas were scrapped.

The film’s bizarre framework involving Jiminy Cricket visiting a library and later a birthday party hosted by Edgar Bergen and his puppets was used to knit the two segments together because, in all honesty, they have nothing to do with each other.  The framework provides a flimsy excuse for the movie’s lame title, and frankly they’re just an excuse for Bergen to give the film a touch of star power.

So, how is the film as a whole?  Well, as I say, the two segments are fun but not essential.  They’re two lovable shorts knitted together haphazardly by a wobbly framework that doesn’t really connect them in any way.  That’s 180 degree difference between this and the previous film Make Mine Music which employed 10 musical segments put together as a concert experience.  There the form and function made for an enjoyable movie, but here it feels slapped together.  It feels like Walt had two good ideas that he wanted to put together but was desperate to find some way to get them in the same movie.  Later in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (which also had just two segments) he would clear up this problem by slimming down the framework and just letting the shorts run the show.  That’s a better approach.  Fun & Fancy Free is just okay, I suppose.  Of all the package films from the 40s its probably my least favorite just because it doesn’t seem to be reaching for greater heights.  There is no sense that Disney and his crew really wanted to make this film.  It’s mildly fun, but that’s about it.