November 23, 2010

Black Friday, Harold Lloyd style

As I was watching this scene from Safety Last! (1923), I couldn't help but notice the parallels to Black Friday shopping madness and was reminded why I feel no need to participate. Enjoy!

November 17, 2010

De-Coding films

I just finished reading the fantastic 1958 novel The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe. Often cited as a possible progenitor of "Mad Men," it chronicles the hardships and personal entanglements of working girls in 50s Manhattan. It sounds like fluffy chick lit, but instead it's a thoughtful and well-written exploration of how the gender roles and social mores of the time doomed women who strayed from the proper path. I knew before I started reading it that there had been a 1959 film adaptation, but as I read on I started to wonder what small percentage of the novel could be transferred to a 1950s screen.

Yes, folks, the Production Code - everybody's favorite Hollywood censorship doctrine and a subject of personal fascination - was still in full swing. In adapting a story focused primarily on the matters of infidelity, premarital sex, marital dissatisfaction, unwanted pregnancy and subsequent abortion, obsession, and serious critique of a woman's role in mid-century America, what could you preserve? Very little, if the synopses of the film are any indication. It glosses over everything that gives the novel weight - spouses are conveniently removed, the abortion becomes a miscarriage, sex becomes attempted sex, all moral ambiguity is eliminated and at the end of the day, it emphasizes that all women should just be wives and mothers. It's an adaptation of the book only so far as a ransom note comprised of magazine letters is an adaptation of that magazine. True, I haven't seen the film, but there's nothing really motivating me to do so.

Now, unsatisfactory film adaptations happen all the time. But they are the result of deliberate decisions, not mandatory excisions. The film was the way it was because the filmmakers literally had no choice. And that bums me out, because I feel that a faithful adaptation of the book would really be something special. Of course someone could always make another version, perhaps piggybacking on the success of "Mad Men," but the opportunity to tell the full story from the unique vantage point of the era in which it takes place is unfortunately gone.

The degree to which the Code interfered with a film's effectiveness was widely varied. The fact that any of James Cagney's gangsters had to die at the end of the film was an awkward add-on, but didn't change the fact that until that point he could be as gloriously sadistic and violent as he wanted to be. It was still a gangster picture that delivered all the proper thrills of the genre. But with something like The Best of Everything, the fabric of the story is fundamentally altered, and in trying to adapt a bestseller they neutered everything that made it so.

I know it's impossible, but it would be amazing to see a "de-Coded" version of The Best of Everything from its own time. So think hard and share your filmic fantasies: what films would you like to see de-Coded? (Reminder: the Code was in effect from 1934 until a slow death in the mid-60s.) And I realize that you can't miss what you never knew should have been there, so most of these cases of longing will happen in adaptations of some sort.

November 16, 2010

Unusual endorsements of the classic stars

For as long as celebrities have existed, they've been hawking products to the public. The integration of sponsors into TV or radio programs further blurred the line between advertising and entertainment, so it was quite common to see a top box office star promoting something. Most often it was cigarettes, with beauty and hygiene products a close second. They're glamorous and fun - I have a Chesterfield (cigarette brand) ad with Rita Hayworth hanging on my wall. But in browsing the great site Vintage Ads and Stuff, I came across some odd ducks - famous faces lending themselves to ads for unexpected products, or some ads that are just downright strange. I thought I'd share some of my favorites. If you like what you see, I should note that the thousands of ads seen on the aforementioned website are originals available for sale (mostly at under $5 a pop!). Click any image to enlarge.

Joan Crawford for Fleers Gum - it's kind of hard to read, but it seems like Joan has a personality test to determine if you're a good person, and you should buy gum, and those are unrelated thoughts.

Arlene Francis for The Wallpaper Council (!) - I'm thinking about making "Wallpaper is smart!" my catchphrase.

Zsa Zsa Gabor for Paper-Mate - Sex sells...pens?

Susan Hayward for Sunsweet Prunes - Ms. Hayward is a beguiling young lady with a lovely figure, but despite the claims of the text on this I don't think she maintains it by having a GIANT BOWL OF PRUNES for lunch on set.

Bob Hope for Texaco - Just Old Ski Nose relaxing at home with a cold glass of sponge. And ya know, I never questioned Texaco's competence at doing their job until they placed an ad to convince me...

William Bendix for the American Meat Institute (?!) - "On the air for MEAT!"

Sammy Davis Jr. for Alka-Seltzer - No words.

Joan Blondell for Auto-Lite - Both Joan and Auto-Lite spark plugs have rhythm and perfect performance! That's probably better for Joan than saying that the spark plugs are cheap and easy to use.

A couple of Woody Allen ads for Smirnoff - before Scarlett, before Mia, before Diana, there was Smirnoff.

November 9, 2010

Documentary subject matter vs. quality

Recently, I saw two of the most buzzed-about documentaries of the year, Waiting for "Superman" and Inside Job. Despite the extremely urgent and pertinent subject matter (education and the financial collapse, respectively) and the universal critical praise, why did I find the net result to be rather underwhelming?

While some might grumble that narrative films about wars or social issues get a lot more love at Oscar time, the disparity becomes jacked up so much in the documentary world that a nonfiction film can coast on its subject alone. In an article over at Cinematical earlier this year, Christopher Campbell notes that despite its worthy topic, he found the documentary Food Inc. to be downright mediocre. He claims that "the majority ignored the problems with its storytelling, editing and narrowness of testimony because they favored the cause," and offered excerpts from critics who were essentially unable to defend the film on its own merits but just kept stressing that people should see it. Despite the opportunities offered by the cinematic medium, he concludes that the film offered nothing beyond the book on which it was based.

Now, I will say that making a documentary about an issue as opposed to a specific person, group or event poses great challenges. Do you include lots of facts and figures? Interviews with experts, the common man, or both? What stance do you take? These questions have no right answers, but with Inside Job and Waiting for "Superman" I can't help but feel that something was wrong about the approach.

WfS must be making serious bank off the guilt of the privileged and insulated, because the chatter in the ladies' room afterwards seemed to indicate certain viewers' lack of awareness of the state of American education. Listen, I don't expect everyone to know the details and statistics, but as far as I'm concerned knowing that education here is awful is as basic as knowing that we went to war with Iraq. But I guess if everyone knew that, not as many people would be finding the film so eye-opening. As a way of demonstrating its point, the film follows a handful of students in different cities in their quest to escape the public school system and get into a private or charter school. I had trouble getting involved in these stories, because of the distance maintained by the constant reminder that the education of these kids isn't what's really at stake, but they're Representative of a Larger Issue.

I also understand a documentary's desire to convey a specific stance, but even with my limited knowledge of the situation I know that nothing on earth is as binary and straightforward as the director, Davis Guggenheim, makes it out to be. Basically, the take-home message is that everything is the fault of the cackling, nefarious cults known as teachers' unions, and we just need to send all kids to charter schools because charter schools are perfect. But how convenient that all the charter schools they feature are excelling, which is not entirely representative of how they're actually faring nationwide. And how convenient that it's entirely the fault of the unions, and has nothing to do with politicians, government, parents, or anyone else. Look, I'm fine with biased documentaries, and if you're Michael Moore you're sure as hell going to leave out any information that hurts your cause. But if a film is urging reform, I think it's actually detrimental to say there's only a single cause and single solution. Why was there no mention, for instance, of Brockton High School, which went from performing dismally to outperforming most of the state by an aggressive implementation of literacy and writing lessons in every class, including gym? There was no government involvement, no unions got their feathers ruffled, it didn't cost a thing, and no personnel was shuffled. Did I mention that this was at a school with 4,100 students? Where's the documentary on that? I suppose that ultimately, this film can be galvanizing and startling to those who genuinely believe that the American education system is peachy. For everyone else, however, it's clunky and simplistic, and its likelihood of winning the Oscar because the voters feel guilty about sending their kids to private school bums me out.

Inside Job, conversely, could never conceivably be described as simplistic - it's a barrage of information that's actually pretty well organized. The problem, though, is that the movie has no exclusive information. Oh sure, there are plenty of interviews, but they don't offer anything new - economists and scholars reemphasize that they predicted the meltdown, and the fat cats squirm in the spotlight and act like nothing happened. All the information is already out there - frequently on the front page - making the film simply a synthesis. That's fine, I guess, but I tend to agree with critic Shawn Levy's assessment that it hasn't "been rendered in a way that's genuinely worth paying contemporary movie ticket prices to learn about." I couldn't help but wondering if it was really more of a TV special, something in the vein of 20/20 perhaps. Had it been produced and aired in that format, it probably would have reached a significantly wider audience. But instead they had Matt Damon narrate it, released it in theaters and cinched a Best Documentary nomination.

Look, I'm always glad when any form of media gets people talking, especially about issues and current events. I just don't think that should be confused with good filmmaking, and if the best-made documentary of the year is actually about a cute kitten with a funny hat, it should be recognized as such. What do you think? Does subject matter trump all? What was your reaction to these films?