Thursday, August 23, 2007

Character Study: Claudia Blaisdale

The swelling pompousness of the opening score with its erudite grandeur. Even the little musical murmurs are decadent. Slight instruments which only belong in full orchestras tremor with excitement. My excitement. My excitement at every single episode. I'm blissfully unemployed and partaking in excesses of Dynasty, whose second season was released on DVD last week. I've already worked my way through it. 22 episodes in one week. 6 discs. Suffice to say I'm steeped. But everyone dismisses me when I talk about it. They click their tongues like I'm engaged in some frivolous affair - like watching the walls would be more worthwhile. I know better.

It's callous ludicrousness hasn't reached the extent that it would. Far from the Moldovian massacre, I'm worried about the arrivals of the more feathered ladies. The Eighties ladies. Girls really, cause Krystle and Alexis are the ladies. It still has its pertinence. It takes drastic turns you wouldn't expect it to. There's, of course, the gay son, but by season two he's rather old hat. So he beds Heather Locklear - cause what gay son wouldn't? Then he makes his zealous departure. Alexis makes Krystle lose her baby by firing a rifle at her horse. Nearly everything Alexis does is magically rancorous. And she turns this acerbity into sonnets. But Krystle gets even. The first ever Dynasty catfight is worth the legacy. I don't think its a moment which particularly warrants words.

After a dull turn in season one, I found myself shocked as Claudia endeared herself to me. Kooky Claudia whose fits of depression and maternal regrets burdened the premier season turn to balletically crazed hysterics. Oh Claudia, dear, dear Claudia. Your daughter, Lindsay, is gone. Her husband took her cause Claudia slept with the gay son. There's a lot of women around this gay son... Krystle accidentally shoots her in the head - that aids the crazy. Then she can fervorously scratch at the invisible head wound (here, hairdos trump naturalism) whenever irritated. Read, whenever she hears what she doesn't want to. "I finally figured it out about you." She tells Krystle, nodding her bandaged head like a battered Mother Theresa. "God punished you , he punished you. He took your baby cause you took mine.... You deserved to lose your baby. God chose to make it happen. Can't you see how simple it really is?" She throws a baby off a roof, but not before she declares what a beautiful mountain they're standing on. She develops a habit of flicking her wrist theatrically when she's upset.

Claudia is the design for future soap crazies like Kimberly (Melrose Place) and Amber (Footballers Wive$). She is the ultimate in feminine duress. Her suicide attempt at the opening of the season causes her to bed in restraints. She limply tugs at the bindings. Claudia's sole purpose in life is reunification with her daughter ("Where's my daughter!"). Blake's nemesis Cecil Colby makes her spy while under employ at Denver Carrington because he knows the whereabouts of her Lindsay. But when the car carrying Lindsay is found ablaze in an amazon jungle, Claudia is given free reign to cull from the sample book of crazy. She cuts out clothing she'll buy for her daughter from magazines "because clothes are so important at her age." She habitually places her fingers to her lips, eyes darting about the room. Her magnificence is in her casualness. The Colby baby is snatched and she sighs, breezing by the frantic parents, "Well I did see a foreign looking man with a dark beard by the greenhouse... but I didn't recognize him. Is something the matter?"

Caludia is really the star attraction of season two. Everyone else is cast as themselves. Linda Evans stands regal and statuary. Her appeal has never quite made sense to me: all white and flowing. But then I always preferred the Disney villains. And that would be Miss Collins. In her first show, she tells Fallon, her daughter, "I'm glad to see your father got your teeth fixed... if not your tongue." When a pregnant Fallon crashes her car into a mound of dirt, a beglitzed Alexis (donning a golden gown, trimmed with innumerable fox tails) shakes her conscious with a rabid hysteria. Collins' faux British exclamations of "FALLON! FALLON! Oh God, there's been an accident!" are, in a word, fabulous but don't hold a candle to Claudia's obsessive thespian free-for-all.

Dynasty worked because it refused to conform to respectability. Claudia is a soap Jodi Foster or Julianne Moore. The fact that she was a soap character allowed her to take the role to a far more indulgent place. She embraces the absurdity of her trappings and carries it over the threshold of decency. What would sadly become a one dimensional show with pallid character types is here, in its infancy, a delightfully absurdist melodrama with multifaceted characters. It's a well balanced extremism. It's decadence still casting a curious gaze on American want instead of pandering to it. There is no better a figure of this fissure than Claudia, who, in season one, was a lower class waitress. Recently out of her first stint in an asylum she viewed the Carrringtons like an exotic creature in a cage. By season two they all but adopted her, bearing the weight of her psychological instability. She doesn't know how to make the transition. But really, would we?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Ballad of Nora Wilder

Yes, I have an affinity for Miss Posey. In my younger years, I picked up a rental VHS of Party Girl and my midwestern yearning for hipness contra my total geekdom found its ideal balance. In short, I fell in love. A decade on me, Parker's career has been a forewarning of sorts. In her most empathetic roles, she has addressed the dilemma of burgeoning adulthood. There's a scene in Party Girl where Mary complains, "I'm going to be 24 soon. I haven't done anything with my life." I'm feeling you now, Mary. She would , of course, discover the magic of the Dewey Decimal system and become a librarian. Well, Nora Wilder, Posey's incarnation in Broken English (released yesterday on DVD) traverses a similar terrain. Nora went to Sarah Lawrence for art but was somewhere sidetracked and now maintains V.I.P. relations at a swank New York hotel. "I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up," she laughs off into her cup of sake.

A romantic comedy, Broken English smartly adheres to that structure. The film takes great care in exploring the emotional costs of being single in New York City. The opening scene finds Nora dressing for a party, alone in her apartment. She smokes and considers a bottle of prescription pills. She replaces the bottle and examines herself. After repeated swigs of wine, dressed, she sits down. She's not yet ready to face the music.

As a romantic comedy, it works from a simple formula, but the film understands it as such: a formula within which it might confront some less attractive subjects. Nora is a woman of a privileged pedigree and the film cuts her no slack to this end (neither does it entirely condone it). A great factor in her trappings, it is of no import what life Nora makes for herself if she is to merely rely on a husband's trust fund. To rely so strongly on another is a gamble, and pushing 35, Nora is empty handed. She also suffers from crippling anxiety and one of the film's stronger scenes finds Posey rushing home to her medication. Nora has lost sight of what she wants out of life. Coasting through, the film's best moments are not those which find her on many disastrous dates (Josh Hamilton, Justin Theroux), but those moments alone, at home - doing the rote things which take her mind off of her life. Isn't that what a romantic comedy is for? Distracting from life's diversions.

A man arrives, of course. It helps that he's the absurdly sumptuous Melvil Poupaud. In addition to being delicious and French, he's benign and sturdy, though the film thankfully spares us from making their language barrier into a trite metaphor (man / woman). And so we arrive at the midsection swelled with jouissance. As simply as the movie falls into its daydreamy affair, however, so seamlessly does it oscillate to Nora's neurosis. Here, a woman so accustomed to failure, battles with her inability to yield to what just might be exceptionally good. She asks to define their romance in the bathtub - obviously investing a great deal of emotion into their union. "We have no contract," Julien replies. The film certainly simplifies Julien, but it is not his film. He is the catalyst for Nora's introspection. Such is the strength of the Romantic Comedy structure. He must eventually return to Paris, and invites her along. When she does not follow, so begins Nora's reevaluation of life.

True, having a man be the only possible catalyst for self discovery is not the most progressive of approaches. But once more, we are reading the film from the structural standpoint of a romantic comedy. This is how it occurs in such films. Genre carries with it strict rules of conduct which Broken English wholeheartedly respects; where there is room for liberties, however, is where shines brightest.

Of course, combining two of my favorite P's (Parker, Paris) endears me to it greatly (all that's missing is the Pet Shop Boys' soundtrack). Cause you know she goes to Paris to find Julien. Her scenes there with Drea De Matteo are a comical delight, but it is Posey's ability to balance the humor with turmoil that makes it her best acting credit to date. Make no mistake, the film is Posey's most humanely dark. Her misery is heartwrenching, but it does provoke a personal liberation. Cause, yes, it being a RomCom, she comes to the realization that she so desperately needs. And this moment is of such great importance that the film's final (if not entirely guessable) surprise seems but a pleasant addendum.

Mary's all grown up. Well, she's on the right track, anyway. The film really could be viewed as a thematic sequel to Party Girl - just swap Judy Lindendorf (Sasha Von Scherler) for Gena and the gay guy for Drea (neither are much of a stretch). What happens when the lights come up and you're 35? Thanks to Parker, I kind of know what to expect. Thank god I've got a decade to prepare...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Drôle over

Why in the hell did Catherine Breillat make Sex Is Comedy? (I figured, what with 2 Days in Paris in theaters, I would reassess another French filmmaker's vanity project last night.) Now I adore Catherine Breillat. She is certainly one of my favorite thinkers - favorite female filmmaker for certain. Breillat became famous in France in 1969 when, at 16, she published her first novel "L'Homme Facile" (then strangely translated into "A Man for the Asking"). It was subsequently banned to any reader under the age of 18. Her first filmic endeavor 7 years later, Une Vraie Jeune Fille (A Real Young Girl), met a similar fate when it was banned outright for the remainder of the century.

Never relenting in either arena (though filmmaking was mostly limited to screenwriting throughout the 80's), Breillat has garnered a good deal of dubious street cred in her native France. Her name elsewhere (unless followed with "the director of Romance") is far from household. Sex Is Comedy goes above and beyond an earned entitlement as French provocateur, assuming that the on set goingson of a Breillat film are fascinating enough warrant a feature from. This is Breillat making a film about Breillat making a film. Now as an ardent admirer of this staunch character, it's something that I have no problem sitting through. But as an average filmgoer, not clued in or fanned out to Breillat's ouvre, the film's riding purpose may be a bit lite. Funny that it should be lite considering Breillat's films are almost always endowed with a wickedly analytical fatalism. But here, not much goes on but the musing on why it is actors have a difficult time shooting sex scenes. Of course, the view could certainly pan out to include our views on sexuality as a people, but so honed is Breillat's trademark tyranny that the absurdity of the situation is paramount to its greater implications.

Which is not to say the film is a chore. Breillat (assuredly at times verbatim) makes her Jeanne spout terse condemnations and (half-heartedly) rampant self-criticisms. Jeanne is played by Anne Parillaud (La Femme Nikita), who does resemble Breillat in her intensity, though is far more physically ideal than the then 54 year old filmmaker. It's all about Jeanne, really. She has interactions with her stars: the vain and incredulous Grégoire Colin who refuses to remove his socks in one scene "parce que je suis un fetishist;" the icy Roxane Mesquida (revisiting her year prior sex scene from Breillat's Fat Girl), an actrice who realizes what her male counterpart does not: her function in this system. Actors are whores. Breillat makes that quite clear. Jeanne's close relationship with her PA, Leo, is one of vanity. In her constant assault of sharply honed dialogue, never does she speak to him. He is a mirror for Jeanne's ideas (she frequently looks through him) and, a body to use in the choreography of the key scenes of intimacy. The power struggle of the female director guiding the subservient male PA is certainly not lost on Breillat.

But an overall sense of purpose is. Surely following Fat Girl's weight with a slighter, livelier work, the film is essentially a gesture. Breillat has certainly earned the right to state her intentions and highlight some trappings, but universality has never been one of Breillat's stronger traits. Her heavier films alienate people because of their graphic scenes and analytical pomposity. This alienates because, without an investment in her other works, is both a trifle and yet too specific.

Expect a return to form when (if) Breillat's newest offering, Une Vieille Maîtresse (And Old Mistress) hits theaters stateside. And pray for a return to health, as Breillat suffered a brain hemorrhage which paralyzed part of her body before the filming of Maîtresse. She's mobile now, and like Jeanne, she walks about with a befitting cane.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Bourne Again

Oh the beauty of knowledge! To live in a digital age where anything is available at the tap of a key! In the newest (and best) offering of the Bourne legacy, The Bourne Ultimatum (or "the Bourne whatever," as I told the ticket girl), knowledge is as free and readily had as clouds in the sky. In mere moments an entire digital photographic layout of one's apartment can be developed - to such perfection that closeups can decipher tiny, hand-written bits of information which will solve the search at hand. Freed from the trivialities of cause and effect (the laborious obtaining of information, say) The Bourne Ultimatum whirs about at a meth-like speed, hopping from classified breach to classified breach at the dial of a Motorolla RAZR. It's rather similar to the logic rebuttal of this year's magnificently bombastic Live Free or Die Hard in which the excuse for skipping the whole learning curve was the resident hacker who could find anyone, anywhere with a stolen Sidekick.

And when such tedious tasks as the obtaining of information are caste by the wayside, so does plot's raison d'etre. "Why," I found myself wondering in one of the films few lulls, "are they chasing Bourne so hungrily? What is this top secret organization BLACKBRIAR and what is its M.O.?" But then, like a saving grace, the metallic fury of crashing cars comes bouldering into view and boom! no more thinking. Just a steely ballet of demolished shrapnel and physcial contortionism.

Because, really, that's what we're here for. And that this film delivers with a glutton's glee. But it's artful, too. I can't recall better action cinematography this side of early Besson. When the big car chase is going down, the dizzying hurl of metal on metal - coils flying into the air, bumpers crumpling like paper, the deafening roar of racing engines - you're (I'm, at least) pulsing in your seat, clapping and hooting at the exuberance of it all. And the implausibility. That Bourne survives the 80 mph aerial overturn of his car by clutching to the passenger side seat belt is delightfully absurd. But again, that's what you're here for.

The series initial strength lay in its casting of the peripheral characters. When I finally saw the first film, I couldn't suppress my delight at all of the character actors who rounded out the chase. My absolute worship of Brian Cox aside, Clive Owen, Chris Cooper, Franke Potente and Julia Stiles is certainly an informed and imaginative ensemble to relieve Mr. Damon of any acting necessities. Who is, conversely perfect because he is like those whirring bits of hurled machinery. Without an identity or character of any kind, he may go about his business, unbridled by that pesky personality thing. Instead, Damon does what he does best (throughout the entire series, thank god). He looks confused. In Ultimatum, a different casting crew merely echoes prior choices. The return of Joan Allen and the surprisingly scrumptious Stiles are greatly appreciated, but the first timers to this siege so greatly resemble their prior counterparts that it rings as slightly rote - the one thing Identity was not. When we finally meet the culprit to this as-of-yet unfathomable BLACKBRIAR, he's so similar to Brian Cox that I thought (again, worship aside), "just cast Cox again. It doesn't matter that he's dead. They did it in Blade 3"

Of course casting Damon as some tactical mastermind has its pitfalls. I believe that he can outrun the deliciously kempt Edgar Ramirez (last seen in Domino Harvey sporting long, dirty locks and glistening in cross-processed sweat) but I hardly believe he can outsmart Joan Allen. Allen, who is statuesque and calculating, this go-around respects Bourne. This is fine because we may align our empathy with hers. It makes me feel good to feel like Joan Allen. And the same goes for Miss Stiles, who is perfectly delightful in peril. Sympathy is on high in this third installment and there are more players on Bourne's side. Fortunately this allows our want of redemption to not merely rest on Damon who truly seems oblivious to their assistance.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Tough Love

Working with the trapping Christine Vachon visits in her seminal memoir, Shooting To Kill, the makers of the Spanish film Un Año Sin Amor (A Year Without Love) spin their meager budget to the best of their means by making their period piece (1996) on shoddy 16mm film. A Year Without Love (actually made in 2005) resembles so greatly a film of its target period that, to the initial glance, one may think it to have been made during the height of the New Queer Cinema. Its composure, too, is inundated with the droning and meditative pace of such works. A seemingly Spanish Grief, the film lacks the compassion and humor provided by the latter's "female" costars (Illeana Douglas and Jackie Beat) though it is all the better for it. Where Grief is self-indulgent in its turmoil, the very human Pablo Perez (Juan Minujín), a French instructor and poet, faces his HIV positive, loveless year with a depressive yet earnest candor.

Like the bulk of New Queer narratives, throughout the course of the film, we are treated to Pablo's musings on life through the diary he taps through his computer (when it still was, literally, a tapping of computer keys). For the first 45 minutes, we witness his resistance and final acceptance of the (then) modern medicinal cocktail. "Do they call it 'cocktail'," he muses "to make it sound attractive and so you picture a delicious nectar in a crystal glass with a cherry on top?" His dips in health and resistance to help are grating, but understandably so. Decidedly less lyrical than Ozon's recent Les Temps Qui Reste, the film is conversely more poetic - its sufferings robbed of Ozon's immaculate production. All ascension lies in Pablo's frequent visits to the seedier underbelly of Buenos Aires - porn theaters, leather clubs and cruise spots. His yearning and sex appeal is thwarted by fits of coughing and sweats. And then, of course, in a fleeting glance, we meet the potential exit from this loveless year: a master named Martin.

The strength of the film lies in its embrace of this dynamic. We have observed a modestly desperate (yet still fiercely independent) Pablo placing personals ads and looking for love (in all the wrong places). In Martin, he sees a romantic ideal though, as Bataille describes it, "in spite of the bliss love promises its first effect is one of turmoil and distress... chiefly to be felt in the anguish of desire when it is still inaccessible, still an impotent, quivering yearning." Martin is not seen as a man to whom Pablo might relate, but a fount of all desire. What's more, one who pour his carnal life into the contract games of S&M. When Pablo disappoints at Martin's casualness, his fragility is laid bare. To mistake this "master" (so enthralled in games of assumed roles) for a mate was a foolish venture to begin with. And this lesson pans open to the everyday approach of those seedling lovers we pass in bars. To endow all to an unknown variable is a child's game which we will play until we die.

And die he thankfully does not. The film is lite on such heavy handed gloom. The shot of his AZT pill dissolving into water is one of the film's most clinically beautiful. Though the last act betrays a great deal of the quite potency film had thus far achieved. In a defeatingly grander sweep, we find Pablo having published his diary, as in the words of the publisher, "Poetry wont sell... The life of a gay with AIDS, that might be interesting," alienating his family and himself. The final sequence finds him turning from those who might give him comfort and disappearing into his Genetian underworld. The camera lingers on the final shot for the viewer to bask in its metaphor, but unlike the minute humanities which we've been treated to thus far, it comes up empty. This close is far more fatalistically trite than some of the films more quietly glorious observances.