Mommy Dearest

May 13, 2007 at 5:09 pm (celebrities, movies, politics, stuff)

It’s Mother’s Day, a time we put aside to buy greeting cards for the woman that gave us life. Mother’s Day in the United States became official in 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson signed a Joint Resolution making the day an official holiday to celebrate the woman’s role in the family. The creation of Mother’s Day was primarily the work of Anne Jarvis, who sought to celebrate her own mother’s life by handing out white carnations, her mother’s favorite flower. Unfortunately, the holiday was co-opted by the florist and greeting card industries, and became a day of commercialism and exploitation. Jarvis campaigned until her death trying to stop what she had created.

I’m not a mother, but I don’t think I’d like to celebrate Mother’s Day when I become one. Maybe it’s the Catholic in me, but the guilt is frankly overwhelming—one day isn’t enough to celebrate motherhood, but it’s just enough to make us reflect on the lack of time we put into celebrating mothers otherwise.

In the spirit of Mother’s Day, Turner Classic Movies is showing a variety of thoughtful and nostalgic films that commemorate the bittersweet sacrifice of mothers—including such films as Mildred Pierce (1945) and Stella Dallas (1937) (both of which I would hightly recommend). But today, in the hopes that we might have an anti-Mother’s Day celebration, here are some films to remind us that it’s not all flowers and puppies.

 

The Omen (1976)

To spare his wife the sorrow of having lost their child at birth, Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) decides to go through with the not-so-legal adoption of a child whose mother died in childbirth. Win-win, right? Well, it just so happens that this child is the antichrist. At least his heart was in the right place. As dad investigates what could be wrong with his “son” the apple-cheeked little Damien (Harvey Stephens) enthusiastically rides his tricycle through the house, taking down everything in his path, including mommy; right over the balcony.

 

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

This film brings new meaning to the phrase ‘a face only a mother could love’. Rosemary (Mia Farrow) is happy to learn that she and her husband are expecting—and so are her quirky neighbors. But strange things start to happen—like the horrible pain she feels over the first few months of her pregnancy, or the craving for raw chicken livers—and then there’s that pesky nightmare about being raped by the devil. But still, Rosemary gets past all this—after all, isn’t pregnacy supposed to be an uncomfortable situation? When she finally sees her son for the first time, with his father’s golden serpentine eyes and hooved feet, her motherly instincts kick in—she rocks him slowly to sleep.

 

Aliens (1986)

Biologically speaking, there’s only one mother in this film, and she’s just a bit unconventional—her babies need to gestate in the available human population. After saving Newt (Carrie Henn), the last survivor of a colony purposefully settled on the alien-infested planet (isn’t science great?), Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) looks for an escape route, and stumbles on the Queen Mother’s birthing chamber. Bargaining for Newt’s safety, mother to mother, Ripley threatens the Queen’s babies with a blowtorn, and, like any mother protecting her children, the Queen gives in. It’s almost touching.

 

Poltergeist (1982)

Just how far would you go for your children? Give them a kidney? Work three jobs? Transport yourself to an alternate dimension to rescue them from the forces of the evil dead? Little Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) plays too close to an inter-dimensional portal (her bedroom closet) and ends up the kidnap victim of poltergeists. What is striking about this film is that her mother, Diane (JoBeth Williams) keeps her cool—in a situation where most people would crumble, she goes about her business—doing laundry, caring for her other children, and trying to bring Carol Anne home.

 

There you go–have some fun with non-conventional mothers, and remember: your relationship with your mother could be a lot more complicated—

Rosemary's maternal instincts.

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Guilty Pleasures

May 10, 2007 at 10:25 pm (celebrities, politics, theory, web 2.0)

Guilty pleasures abound in the recent news that Paris Hilton will be having some quality time to herself. In the cult of celebrity we have created for ourselves, it is not simply enough to bask in the stars twinkling light, as the previously well-planned publicity machine of Hollywood would have us do. Now, when celebrity can be as simple as a YouTube video, we take pleasure in the judgment and even hatred we feel toward no-so-deserved ‘stars’. We have created a commodity in stardom, and the media take advantage of that—we read stories about Paris Hilton because we hate her, not because we admire her; and they profit from fueling that hatred. Though at this point, I’m not sure which behavior is worse—reading the juicy details of her ignorance or the fact that her behavior lends itself to such publicity. I guess that’s where the “guilty” part comes in.

Scandal sells nowadays, but, as opposed to the way it used to be treated, (one may recall Ingrid Bergman’s messy affair and her actual exile from the U.S.) we relish in it—waiting for our young starlets to tumble into rehab once again, wondering who will be next to drive drunk, vomit on themselves, or sell a sex tape. I think that more than the scandal, we value our moral superiority over these people.

Mine started simply enough—every so often I’d find a slideshow of terribly dressed celebrities and revel in the fact that though their outfits cost more than my car, and also despite the fact that they had armies of stylists, they still managed to leave the house and be photographed looking like they’d had a nasty tumble down Everest before they reached the red carpet. However, my obsession began to grow—and I now find myself overly concerned with what Nicole Richie is (or rather, isn’t) eating. We like to think we have better sense than them—we value this feeling—so, in a way, Paris Hilton is our fault. She has made herself a caricature for our amusement, and we sit back and think to ourselves, ‘dance, monkey, dance!’

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Calm and Assertive

April 30, 2007 at 11:30 pm (celebrities, organization)

My latest obsession is Cesar Milan, The Dog Whisperer. I’ve been trying to examine the fascination I find with watching this guy come in and essentially fix peoples’ problems with their dogs, whether they’re hyperactive, afraid, or even vicious; and this applies to both the dogs and their owners. Milan says that he “rehabilitates dogs and trains people” and that we should all be “calm and assertive” with our pets.

Lately, as I’ve been trying to get organized and find time to do my work, have a personal life, keeping up hobbies, and maintain that oh-so-fragile sanity, I find Cesar making a lot of sense. Dogs don’t reflect on the past—they only live in the present. Dogs absorb the enviroment around them, particularly the people (and other animals) they encounter. I think a lot of us, myself included, tend to let past performance and fears hold us back. Dogs don’t think that way—they take the mentality of the pack and they go with it.

I know that pack mentality is typically poorly regarded as the refuge of the obtuse, for people who can’t think for themselves. But the pack mentality can actually free us from the stress of daily life. Why concern ourselves with the actions of others, when we are not accountable for them? Why take on responsibilities that aren’t ours? I’ve been trying to be the alpha dog, and the amount of energy this takes is enormous—both to obtain that spot, and keep it. There will always be someone better at something than I am, and there will always be another ‘dog’ trying to grab the top spot. However, if I go with the flow, I can relax, bury bones, sniff things, and generally lead a healthy and relatively stress-free life. I may even learn stuff about the neighborhood and the local trees.

So, my new goal is to be calm and assertive with myself, and train myself to let go of the little things. I know that traveling with the pack is generally regarded as the kryptonite of the ambitious, and working in the corporate world, the concept is a bit frightening. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Sex and Mr. Valenti

April 27, 2007 at 10:35 pm (celebrities, movies, politics)

Jack Valenti, the man who will forever be remembered as the man who started the Motion Picture Association of America’s film ratings system, died yesterday at the age of 85. Valenti took over as president of the MPAA in 1966, and two years later the original ratings system, G, PG, R and X came to be, as a reaction to the rapidly increasing violence in films—Bonnie and Clyde (1967), with its striking and extremely graphic closing death scene, is said to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Hollywood ratings system has always been fascinating to me—from the beginning, when it emerged as the Production Code of 1930 (at that time produced by the MPAA’s precursor, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) the code and ratings system has been a form of self-censorship, a way to prevent the government from interfering with Hollywood’s cash flow

The Production Code, created by the first president of the MPPDA William H. Hays, had three guiding principles:

  1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation. (Production Code, wikipedia)

Hence, even in the darkest of films in the Classical Hollywood era, the bad guy is always either redeemed or killed, making some otherwise excellent films just a bit forced—take The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), for example. Because Lana Turner’s daughter had recently been on trial for murdering Johnny Stompanato, Lana’s abusive mobster boyfriend, the filmmakers dressed her in gleaming white, to enhance her virginal image in the film. Before Lana’s character Cora can announce her pregnancy (notice, without ever using the word “pregnant”) she has to awkwardly marry her lover Frank (John Garfield)—no children out of wedlock in Classical Hollywood! And, of course, in the end both Cora and Frank are punished for murdering Cora’s first husband: Cora dies in a car wreck, and Frank is put on death row.

The production code and the ratings system have been praised as protecting our morality and our children, and criticized for crushing the creativity of film. Independent filmmakers notoriously lock horns with the MPAA to avoid the so-called ‘kiss of death’ for films, the NC-17 rating (which replaced the X rating—because the ratings were not originally copyrighted, the pornographic industry latched onto the X as free advertising—leading to its replacement). The NC-17 rating is a cliff for films—covering everything from Showgirls (1995) to Debbie Does Dallas (1978), keeping audiences away, and keeping theaters from exhibiting them. The ratings system is uniquely rooted in puritanical American values—where else can you see someone’s brain explode at an R rating, but never, ever, a man’s penis? Sex is dirty, violence is profitable.

So, let’s tip a hat to the legacy of Jack Valenti—he may be a polarizing figure, but his affect on the film industry has been powerful and long lasting. Where we go from here will follow what has come before.

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Sinbad is not dead either.

March 16, 2007 at 10:11 pm (celebrities, theory, web 2.0)

The web allows for some remarkable meta-experiences—today, several people experienced a happy bout of ‘hey-remember-that-guy-now-he’s-dead!’ forwarding when they discovered that comedian Sinbad had died of a heart attack. Unfortunately, Sinbad was not dead—he, or rather, his biography, was the victim of a prank on wikipedia.

The wording used to describe this act (by wikipedia spokesperson Sandra Ordonez) was “vandalized”—which got me thinking—can you really vandalize that which is truly not there? In proper Web 2.0 fashion, wikipedia is one part of a constantly shifting database, growing, changing, inhabited by a variety of people; the web is a society, complete with criminals. And like it or not, we entered into a social contract with the web, giving it assumed power.

But is our Rousseau-like democratization of media helping or harming us? In this case, it spurred the spread of misinformation—after all, are we more likely to trust a news article from cnn.com or from wikipedia? As I’ve said before, this democratization can be helpful—you can communicate with people you would have never had the opportunity meet before, enabling an impossible-to-measure exchange of ideas. But this exchange requires trust, and faith that those who are doing as you do (contributing) will follow the Golden Rule.

Just a reflection on how those very old systems of power still remain—but somehow I don’t think that overthrowing the web is an option. Like most systems, it requires a certain amount of blind faith and skepticism.

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The Essentials, continued…

March 14, 2007 at 11:15 pm (celebrities, movies)

I’ve just watched Brokeback Mountain (2005) for the first time—I couldn’t stand to watch it the first time around; there was just too much hype around it. I myself almost started laughing when I heard the line “I wish I knew how to quit you.” But with some critical distance, I found it to be quite good. Ang Lee was the perfect director for this film—his combination of sweeping, still landscapes and almost unbearable restraint really fed into the frustration of the characters at their situation, while surrounded by such unwaivering beauty.

This inspires me to write about my next two “essentials” (see my post here explaining the thought process).

 

The Searchers (1956)

Without a doubt, John Ford’s finest film. This film revises the western genre as it begins to question what was previously taken for granted; representations of the ‘good’ settlers versus the ‘bad’ Indians. But throughout his career as a director, Ford always blends the two—no one is completely right or wrong, and in the end the complexity is powerful. John Wayne is an aging cowboy, Ethan, returning to his family after a life of wandering and a stint in the Confederate Army. His unrequited love for his brother’s wife leaves him obsessed when a band of raiding Comanches kills her and his brother, taking their two daughters. For the next four years he tirelessly wanders the desert searching for his youngest niece, Debbie—but as the search progresses we find more and more that Ethan is less interested in saving her than he is in making sure that her new life as an assimilated Comanche ends—one way or another. When he at last returns her to her remaining family, he can’t bear to enter the family space—like it or not, John Wayne isn’t the hero here—his racism overwhelms him, and he slowly backs away.

 

Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) (1954)

As a director, Akira Kurosawa looked for ways to translate the Japanese traditions of honor to film—and he found it in the American western. Sadly, over the years the film has succumbed to a horde of editors who balked at the original nearly three hour and 30 minute run time, but thankfully it has been restored almost to its original state. But to watch this film, you would never sense the length; the narrative is remarkably efficient, as farmers seek out rogue samurai to defend their village from impending marauders. They soon find Takashi Shimura, one of Kurosawa’s stock players, and the search progresses until enough samurai (including the spectacular Toshirô Mifune) are found to defend the village. The quiet honor of these men, once of a noble class (until there way of life was abolished by Emperor Meiji as an attempt to modernize the country) take payment in rice, and they earn it. There’s simply not enough room here to espouse the marvel that is this film—just watch it!

 

That’s all for now—stay tuned for future installments of the essentials.

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The Essentials

March 12, 2007 at 10:43 pm (celebrities, movies)

It looks like Carrie Fisher has joined “The Essentials” on Turner Classic Movies. I think she’s an excellent choice—she’s been in the biz from a young age (as the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher) and entered our lives as cultural capital with cinnamon buns stuck to the side of her head.

As co-host (with Robert Osborne) Fisher gets to pick the films—and this got me thinking about a few films I’d like to declare “essential” to film study, and my own personal enjoyment. This is in no way a complete list, so feel free to add—someday soon I hope to also create a “non-essential” list…as Fisher jokes about many of her own films. Warning: there may be mild spoilers ahead…

Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Infamously, John Huston directed his father to an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor in this film, (as he would also do later for his daughter Angelica in Prizzi’s Honor) and it’s easy to see why—this film is an essential story of greed, madness, morality and fate. Three men (including a fantastic Humphrey Bogart) go up a mountain in search of gold…how many men come down the mountain is another story.

Vertigo (1958)

What I would consider to be Alfred Hitchcock’s best film—the ultimate combination of his themes of obsession, the perfect icy blond, and the MacGuffin. James Stewart’s Scottie follows Kim Novak’s Madeleine, a woman seemingly possessed by her past. When he is unable to save her because of his crippling vertigo, he breaks down…until he finds Judy, a perfect twin of Madeleine. Hitchcock draws us in to Scottie’s obsession with transforming Judy into Madeleine—making us irresistibly identify with his misogynistic desires.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

This is the musical for people who hate musicals. You can’t help but laugh at cleverness with which this film mocks the Hollywood star system at the shift from silent film to “talkies”—and if that still doesn’t convince you, the dancing will—Gene Kelly is mesmerizing, and for you fellas, there is Cyd Charisse…and her legs go all the way to the floor…

Double Indemnity (1944)

Evil is Barbara Stanwyck in this perfect film noir. As a bored and greedy housewife, she quickly entices Insurance salesman Fred MacMurray into a plot to take her husband out of the picture. Stanwick often gives perfectly nuanced performances, but none so garnered her the praise of this film. To simply watch her face as the ‘deed’ is done is a remarkable experience. Also worth mentioning is Edward G. Robinson as MacMurray’s fast-talking and sweetly sentimental boss.

That’s all I can muster today…stay tuned for my other essentials:

The Searchers

Raise the Red Lantern

Rear Window

Star Wars: TESB

The Godfather: I and II

The Third Man

Halloween

Jaws

 

 

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Coulter and Hilton–BFFs?

March 9, 2007 at 8:49 pm (celebrities, politics)

I’m late to the party here, but a friend just forwarded me an email from the Human Rights Campaign asking Lee Salem, Executive Vice President and Editor, Universal Press Syndicate, to remove Ann Coulter from syndication. For a give and take on this issue of papers choosing to keep and drop Coulter’s column, check out these point and counterpoint articles at Editor & Publisher.

Ann Coulter has always struck me as a strange individual, and not just because she appears to be as bigoted as some of her conservative counterparts (notice, I do say some—America is America because of vibrant, informed protest). It is because she is a woman who appears to be as bigoted as some of her conservative counterparts. Coulter is openly rejecting the typical gender politics that dictate how women should act. Usually, removing oneself from pre-constructed notions of gender would be empowering–unfortunately, Coulter doesn’t empower anyone–she’s courting reactionary attention, and to this point she’s managed to continue with this behavior.

This is the “look at me!” culture that has enabled Paris Hilton to become famous—perhaps Paris Hilton is a remarkably intelligent person (though she has publicly displayed herself otherwise) and perhaps Coulter is as well—but they don’t demonstrate this through any informed discourse—and I’d sure like to see it.

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