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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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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The Media and Monkeys

March 26, 2007 at 10:26 pm (movies, politics)

Hello All—just a short reflection today on the potential media has to influence our thoughts and feelings. Flipping through channels, I caught the end of Inherit the Wind (1960), an excellent film that dramatizes the events surrounding the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial, The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. The trial ultimately struck down the Butler Act, which made the teaching of evolution illegal in Tennessee. It seems like déjà vu with the recent arguments over the teaching of evolution and intelligent design in schools.

Honestly, it seems like both sides could ease up a bit—my biology teacher handled it well, I thought. She explained Darwin’s theory, and carbon dating, and then some students offered that these methods might be incorrect, following Biblical text. Our teacher agreed that we could believe what we wanted and consider all sides in the argument—and that was it. Everyone was satisfied, no trials necessary.

Watching Inherit the Wind reminded me that it’s been a while since a film really tried to present a social argument—in the film, two fundamentally opposing sides clash, but ultimately respect each other. Sometimes creating antagonism where there was perhaps none seems to be the purpose of the media—in the news we fight wars against evil to save others from oblivion; in film we are given no reason for the crafty villain’s deeds, but cheer his inevitable death. This film doesn’t oversimplify, and I’d like to see that again.

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Disney’s Latest Princess

March 15, 2007 at 11:31 pm (movies, theory)

Today Disney announced that it is introducing its first black princess, Maddy. Maddy will star in The Frog Princess, based on the Grimm Brothers’ fairytale “The Frog Prince”—this story will be set in New Orleans. Maddy is already being touted as a “strong princess character,” by Walt Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook. But I have to wonder how this character will play out in the film, loaded already as she is with gender-bias and racial implications.

As Peggy Orenstein discusses in her article “What’s Wrong With Cinderella?” the Disney princess empire is booming. Disney Consumer Products has sales in the range of $3 billion. Most disturbing about this trend is the message these characters send to girls. I argued with my husband about this just the other day—being a student of the media, I started to insist that any children we have not watch Disney films. He claimed they are harmless, that we all watched them when we were kids…until I argued that these films would convince our fictitious future daughters that their goal in life was to be pretty and rescued (being an engineer, he of course desires that they should be the same—and engineers fix problems themselves!).

One has to wonder what kind of expectations the princess creates for women—they not only have to be smart, but also kind and beautiful. I still wonder how much I succumb to this in life—do I dress or act certain way because I choose to, or because it is expected of me? Do I find it difficult to openly show my anger because it is a part of my personality, or because as a girl I am supposed to be kind and courteous?

So, does Maddy provide a strong role model for young black girls where there was none before, or does she serve to assimilate an untapped demographic into the princess empire? I suppose we’ll find out in 2009…

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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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