Today I realized how much activity on this blog has been dependent on my having a few hours a week (when I’m waiting for my five year old to finish a class) when I’m out of the house, in a fairly noisy room, with nothing to do, no chores, no books, no radio, no Internet, just a laptop. This post had been drafted almost completely but I never got around to writing the last few sentences. “August movies,” unfortunately, currently exists only as a list of titles.
July was surprisingly busy and a light month for movie watching, but no duds: Ruby Sparks, Django Unchained, and The Flower Drum Song.
Ruby Sparks is an enjoyable, lightweight, thoughtfully romantic indie flick, if you don’t think too much about it. It was written by Zoë Kazan, Elia Kazan’s granddaughter, who also stars in the title role. Paul Dano plays a neurotic, uptight, poorly barbered (and artistically blocked) former novelistic Wunderkind who—on the advice of his therapist (Elliott Gould)—decides to write a bad piece, for no one else’s eyes, of one page only in length, about someone who actually likes him and his dog. He incorporates bits of recurring dreams he’s been having, and eventually has the beginnings of a new novel. Also, he believes he’s falling in love with his imaginary creation. Then he begins finding bits of girlish paraphernalia around the house: pastel-colored razors, primary-colored lingerie. He has no explanation for how it got there, since he’s been living like a monk with his typewriter and his dog for years. Then he finds the girl herself, and she won’t take “no” for an answer. She insists that she’s his girlfriend and that she’s been living in his house for some time. And she’s just as perfect as he’d imagined her to be. She shows him how to have fun; she’s the kind of girl who, at a club, might take her panties off and then dance while holding them in her teeth.
It’s hard to know how seriously to take all this. It’s dark, then it’s lighthearted, and then it’s incredibly dark again. Stranger than Fiction (where Will Ferrell discovers that what he thought were hallucinations are really intimations that a novelist, played by Emma Thompson, who lives in the same meatspace world as himself, really actually is determining the course of his life) played with the dark aspects of this kind of story a little more successfully by emphasizing the humor. Ruby Sparks isn’t sure what kind of woman its subject is, any more than it’s certain whether its protagonist is a schizophrenic, an abuser, or a good-hearted romantic dreamer. There are extremely heavy-handed allusions made to the idea of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” and her irreality, and to other questions of gender in fictional and reality, and to the relationship between fiction and reality, more generally. But these are abstract, and while the film reinforces those well-known commonplaces about wrong ways (for men) to write about women, this undermines the film itself.
Ruby Sparks is interested, apparently, in what it would mean for a writer to be creating a real person, rather than in what it would mean for the object of the fiction. There are some wickedly sharp scenes about the public life of a famous writer, especially those involving a novelist friend, played by an equally floppy-haired but more smoothly groomed Steve Coogan. There are some nice interchanges about what used to be called “the war between the sexes,” between Calvin and his brother Harry (Chris Messina), a pumped up macho yuppie type. And there’s a rare, hilarious comic turn by Antonio Banderas. I suspect there’s an interesting idea buried in the premise of this movie, and (unless this is the kind of thing you hate) it’s probably worth watching.
Django Unchained: I know a lot of people don’t like Quentin Tarantino, because his movies are so violent, and you don’t have to look too far below the surface to see that this one has questionable racial politics. But personally, Tarantino is one of the few filmmakers—the only other director I can think of who falls into this category for me is Woody Allen –whom I trust enough to see his films as art even if I don’t entirely enjoy them at first and even if there are parts of them that don’t make sense. I assume that Django Unchained plays with the conventions of both Westerns and present-day action movies, but I’ve seen almost none of either, so I can’t consider it in connection with hose. And it’s probably unwise to look for a “message” in a movie like this one. It’s postmodern, but does postmodernism mean playing with old conventions without intending their further implications, or does postmodernism mean conveying those implications in order to make some comment on them? (A topic for someone wondering what to do for her Ph.D. dissertation.) There’s some amusing use of 1970s-era music (who would have expected Jim Croce in a Tarantino film? I don’t think I’ve heard a Croce song in twenty years), the acting is good, the story is engrossing and never (unless you’re bothered by violence) alienating.
Flower Drum Song: This movie is on cable a lot. I finally got a chance to watch most of it, but missed the beginning, with the most famous songs, “One Hundred Million Miracles” and “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” It’s pretty typical Rodgers and Hammerstein material, about the clash between the values of recent Chinese immigrants and brash America, but it could as easily be about the clash between the traditional Broadway musical and the 1960s. The choreography is a good example of the modern style of the late 1950s, but Jerome Robbins it ain’t. “Love, Look Away” is a beautiful song, . . . and it’s entirely out of place, both in terms of plot and transition, and in terms of the set. In a more operatic show, sung as it is, it could work. It doesn’t work in a one-room apartment, it doesn’t work on a fire escape with the kind of smoke effects and backlighting that would work, a couple of years later, in Mary Poppins, and the transition from what seemed to be a fire escape to what turns out to be a roof doesn’t work at all. Then there’s the ballet, one of the traditional elements of the R&H musical. The ballet is a shiny Technicolor dreamwork with choreography that’s all over the map in terms of dance styles, and I couldn’t take my eyes off it—the set is reminiscent of nothing so much as the desert planet set on Star Trek (TOS). The plot is not just corny but unbelievable to the point of being offensive—not to Chinese people, but to the audience. There are two male-female pairs, just like in Guys and Dolls (Jack Soo has the Frank Sinatra role)—an older, sophisticated couple in which the female partner is a showgirl, and a younger couple where the woman is naïve and idealistic (here, the man is a law student raised in New York City and the woman is a very young, very recent immigrant played by Miyoshi Umeki)—and all the stereotyped war-of-the-sexes tropes are trotted out to show why they haven’t got a chance, but they get married anyway.