Mommie Dearest

mommie-dearst“Mommie Dearest” (1981) is an uproariously funny film about child abuse and alcoholism. Much of the humor stems from the fact that it was largely unintentional.

Faye Dunaway stars as Joan Crawford, a fading star who decides to adopt some kids for a little extra publicity. Her motives aren’t quite as simple as that, actually. She is an independent woman who clawed her way up from the gutter and she’s convinced she can instill that same grit in her children while providing them with a luxurious upbringing.

Both of the actresses who play the daughter, Tina, do a fine job. The Young Tina especially conveys the developing rivalry with her mother with a subtlety that one doesn’t often see in a child actor. That said, this film would be utterly forgotten without Dunaway’s bombastic performance. Her Crawford possesses a madness that seeps through her very pores, into every gesture, every glance; it is either bubbling just beneath the surface or erupting into violence.

Dunaway famously disowned the film. Maybe she wanted to be taken more seriously. Maybe she never imagined that her portrayal of Joan could be interpreted as hilarious. Maybe its reception as a camp classic was embarrassing for her. It’s too bad she isn’t proud of it because it’s a spectacle to behold.

The opening sequence, where we see Joan wake up and begin her daily beauty regimen, illustrates how fully Dunaway embodied her character. Throughout the scene, her face is never shown but her mania is unmistakable. Dunaway became Joan Crawford, right down to her fingertips.

Whether this character called Joan Crawford has any relation to the real person is almost immaterial. The character Dunaway created has a separate and arguably more iconic existence than the real actress of the same name. I feel like Faye Dunaway deserves more credit in the drag community because whenever a drag queen does “Joan Crawford,” she’s really doing “Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford.”

“Mommie Dearest” is one of those movies that seems to have always been present in my head. It must have played on television in the early 80s because in my family we quoted it regularly. This seems odd at first glance since we experienced alcoholism and abuse first hand, but I think that was part of the appeal for us.

When you’re a kid, this film plays like a horror movie where Joan is the monster. Her children live in fear because their mother is perpetually on the brink of violence. The filmmakers seemed to understand the horror of being a little kid and living in the dominion of an unpredictable tyrant twice your size. When she gets angry, the tension ratchets up. You hold your breath, anticipating an explosion.

The scenes where she does lose her shit are the film’s scariest, most memorable, and ultimately, funniest because Joan exposes herself as an unhinged clown. No less terrible or dangerous, but a figure so ridiculous that mocking her becomes irresistible. And if you’re a little kid who’s experienced abuse for real, laughing at Joan Crawford makes you feel a little powerful.

It was cathartic for us, I suppose, because Tina is saner, calmer, and braver than her mother. She repeatedly defies this monster, sometimes with just a cold stare, sometimes with outright disobedience. This is, ironically, exactly how Joan raised her to be: strong, independent, and resilient.

There is material here for a straight dramatic interpretation of the relationship between Joan and Tina Crawford, and perhaps that was their intention, but if that’s the case, I’m glad they failed. Faye Dunaway’s performance was a gift to drag queens and scared little kids alike.

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Blade Runner

Blade-Runner

Disclaimer: I assume herein that Deckard is a human being, not a replicant. Ridley Scott’s attempt to retcon this film is too stupid for further discussion. The original intention that Deckard is human is evidenced most notably by the repeated avowals of the screenwriters.

“Blade Runner” (1982) is all about the visuals. Here is a proper sci-fi movie with a complete, fully realized, lived-in world. Los Angeles 2019 is utterly convincing. It’s a masterpiece of special effects. This, above all, is why “Blade Runner” deserves to be seen and appreciated.

I think some might be tempted to construe it in loftier terms than it deserves because of its obvious religious and existential themes, and its eyeball motif seems designed to inspire film student thesis papers. But themes and motifs should only underscore a good story and good characters, and therein lies the problem with “Blade Runner.”

Deckard, the main character, is a cop who’s been assigned to track down and kill a group of synthetic humans called replicants. His main character trait is his lack of empathy. The replicants he’s chasing were used as slave labor on an off-world colony but they killed their masters and escaped to Los Angeles. Deckard doesn’t care about any of this. He doesn’t want to take the case but his boss makes some vague threat and forces it on him.

Deckard doesn’t have any grudge against replicants motivating him to track down these fugitives. He doesn’t sympathize with their plight as slaves. Instead, we have a main character who doesn’t care about what’s happening in the story and is only going through the motions because he “doesn’t have a choice.”

Hm, okay. Maybe this will pay off, we think.

Later he meets a pretty replicant named Rachael. She’s been given false memories to help her cope with her burgeoning emotions. This has had the side effect of instilling in her a belief that she is human. True to his character, Deckard doesn’t care about her feelings. He calls her “it” and casually reveals to her the horrible truth that she is a bioengineered product, not a person. His only apparent motivation for this is boredom or cruelty.

But Rachael forgives him. She even saves his life later. She brings him back to his apartment and he awakes to the sound of her playing piano. She says she remembers lessons but acknowledges that these must be false memories. Deckard says, “You play beautifully,” meaning, it doesn’t matter whether the memories are real or implanted; you are you now.

He’s beginning to see her humanity.

Or at least, he’s seeing her as human enough to think of her sexually. By that I mean he attacks her and forces her to say she wants him. He gives her this order as if she’s bound to obey him as a superior being, like the way Asimovian robots relate to humans. She complies, but she does not convey sincerity like a proper robot would. Her resistance is the strongest indicator of her humanity.

 

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Sean Young as Rachael the Replicant, “Blade Runner” (1982)

 

Deckard still sees her as inferior at this point but what is unclear is whether this is because she’s a replicant or a woman. Seriously, it is conceivable that the assault scene was meant to be sexy in 1982, meant to convey not his complete disregard for her as a person but the opposite, that he was falling in love with her.

Later Deckard faces Roy, the leader of the fugitive replicants. It becomes clear that Deckard is no match for the physically superior replicant. Roy could easily kill Deckard, but he doesn’t. He injures him and terrorizes him.

Deckard desperately jumps out of a window and tries to climb to the roof. Roy looms over him and says, “Now you know what it’s like to live in fear. That’s what it is to be a slave.” And there it is, finally, Deckard’s chance for empathy.

We’d like to assume that this experience changed him. What evidence do we have of this? He goes back to his apartment, finds Rachael there, and tells her he loves her. They escape together.

Okay… What?

That’s a nice, quick resolution to the story but it feels wrong. The movie wants us to feel happy that Deckard and Rachael both survived and they’re together. This gives the impression that they were not fully aware they were telling a story about a despicable character. And that is the problem with the story.

Deckard, now enlightened with empathy, should have realized how horribly he’d treated Rachael and arranged a passage for her to someplace she’d be safe without further burdening her with his miserable presence. Being woke doesn’t erase all the harm he caused.

The happiest ending this film deserved was one where Rachael was safe and Deckard was alone and repentant. And, of course, the last shot should have been an eyeball, its iris contracting in a bright light, to satisfy all those film student papers.

The Fox and the Hound

The_Fox_and_the_Hound_Poster

“Darlin’, forever is a long, long time. And time has a way of changing things.”

Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound” (1981) was the first motion picture I ever successfully watched in a movie theater. It promptly became my first Favorite Movie and it held that title for many years to come.

This was before the days of home video, at least in my home, so for nearly a decade, my only memories of the film itself were the vague fragments of that first and only theatrical viewing. Thankfully, someone gave me the read-along storybook/record combo pictured below. I was too young to read but I listened to the record incessantly, flipping through the book to follow along with the pictures.

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photo via eBay user benfounditforme

I’ve often wondered why I became so transfixed with this story at such a young age. It certainly isn’t a magical adventure like so many other Disney films. In fact, one of the things people remember most about it is how sad it is.

“Sad” doesn’t begin to cover it, actually. The theme running through this movie is that when you love someone, you think it will last forever, but it won’t. It’s about the process of learning this truth, and how after you learn it you just have to carry on living, knowing that Time will erase everything you hold dear.

What the hell, Disney?!

No matter how many times I listened to that record, I always cried at the part where Widow Tweed says goodbye to Tod, her pet fox. The two meet at the beginning of the story after Tod’s mother is killed. Widow Tweed and Tod have both lost someone close to them, but now they have each other. The Widow says, “I don’t think I’ll be so lonesome anymore.” Then later in the movie it becomes clear that she has to return Tod to the wild, and as she’s driving him out to the forest, she drops a spoken word poem, “Goodbye May Seem Forever,” that encapsulates the gut-wrenching emptiness you feel when you have to say goodbye to someone you love.

And yet, I continued to put on that record and taste those tears, time and again. I don’t think I was just a bottomless well of sadness as a child. This movie tapped into a feeling of insecurity that was buried in my subconscious. Not about myself, but about my world.

In the early 1980s, I had what I thought was a happy little life. I had two parents who loved me, my sister, a best friend, lots of cousins, aunts and uncles, my grandparents. I had birthday parties and Christmases and a troupe of stuffed animals. But when I went to bed at night, I would hear my parents fighting, their voices twisted in anger, almost unrecognizable. I’d hear crashes and my heart would race. I think I must have known, on some level, that my world was on the verge of breaking down.

Then along came this movie.

I think I related to Tod at the beginning when he first meets Copper, a hound dog puppy. They play together, they wrestle, they go swimming. They vow to be best friends forever. They have a happy little world.

But Copper belongs to a hunter, Amos Slade, and a friendship between a fox and a hunting dog can’t last forever. Tod’s friends keep telling him this. They show him the dead bodies that Amos has hung up like trophies. They warn him that Copper will eventually turn into “a real killer.”

Tod can’t fathom it. He says, “Not my friend Copper. He won’t ever change.”

When you’re a little kid and your life has only ever been one way, you can’t imagine it being any different. That’s how I felt, and that’s how Tod felt. By the end of the movie though, Tod has grown up, he’s been exiled to the wilderness, and Copper has become just as bloodthirsty as his master. As a little kid watching it, you get a glimpse of what it looks like when a happy childhood turns into a depressing nightmare.

I wonder, did they sell Happy Meal toys for this?

The character Big Mama, the wise old owl voiced by Pearl Bailey, delivers the movie’s thesis statement: “Time has a way of changing things.” Somehow, I knew that she wasn’t just talking about Copper and Tod. This concept applied to me.

In the film’s climax, Tod saves Copper and Amos from a bear, prompting Copper’s redemption moment where he steps in front of Amos’s gun and saves Tod’s life. In the end, everything is reversed; Copper and Tod have been separated but they’re happy in their respective homes, and Widow Tweed and Amos have a budding playful friendship. Even the caterpillar character, Squeeks, changes into a butterfly.

“The Fox and the Hound” tells us, yes, everything will change, and some of it will feel awful, but some of it will be unexpectedly beautiful. And you’ll be okay in the end.

That may just be the reason I wore out that record.



Notice the clever way they marketed this movie to look like normal family entertainment. And below, some lovely person recorded the actual read-along book from my childhood. The Internet has everything…

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Special Edition)

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Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) is possibly the “Spielbergiest” of all the titles in the exalted director’s filmography. It tells the story of several people who experience strange encounters and then set out on a quest to discover the truth about them. But what is it exactly that makes one film Spielbergier than another? Let’s consider this…

1. Fantasy/Sci-Fi Element
While Spielberg has always had a love for historical dramas (“The Color Purple,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Lincoln”), the name Spielberg still conjures images of giant sharks, alien visitors, dinosaurs, and mystical artifacts. I submit that a film with a fantasy or science fiction story is Spielbergier than one without, and “Close Encounters,” with its alien spaceship mystery, clearly qualifies.

2. Strong, Believable Characters
A Spielbergy story is propelled by, and elevated by, the characters. They feel real and relatable, and we don’t find ourselves waiting around for the next special effects sequence. The performances in “Close Encounters,” particularly by Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon, feel believable and naturalistic, and their characters are every bit as compelling as the effects.

3. Children in Danger
Spielberg regularly puts children directly in the path of whatever malevolent force is at work in his movies, be it the shark in “Jaws,” the creepy government agents in “E.T.,” or the dinosaurs of the “Jurassic Park” films. “Close Encounters” is no exception, featuring a toddler who is ripped from his mother’s desperate grasp and whisked away in a UFO.

4. Oohs and Ahhs
The quintessential Spielberg shot is “People Looking.” You know the one. The characters are frozen in awe. They stare at something amazing. The camera is low and either pulls in closer or pans from one person to the next. And there’s always an underlying tension; Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) summed this up perfectly in Spielberg’s “The Lost World” (1997): “Yeah, ‘Ooh, ahh!’ That’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and screaming.”

close encounters people looking
People Looking

By the end of “Close Encounters,” the aliens’ motivations are still unclear. The Encounter is filled with both awe and tension. Would the aliens extend a hand in friendship or the business end of a death ray?

5. A Personal Connection
Perhaps the main reason “Close Encounters” feels so Spielbergy is the director’s long personal connection to the subject matter. Spielberg traces the origins of the story to his childhood when he viewed a meteor shower with his dad. Later, at age 17, he made a full length film about alien encounters, from which he recreated several sequences, and even specific shots, for “Close Encounters.”

The result is an incredibly rich film that connected with audiences despite being released in the wake of the first “Star Wars” craze. It is essential viewing for fans of science fiction, Spielberg, or generally any human who enjoys motion pictures.

Surprisingly, Spielberg was never quite satisfied with “Close Encounters.” His editing process had been cut short by Columbia Pictures when, on the brink of financial ruin and in desperate need of a hit, the studio insisted on rushing his alien movie to theaters in time for Christmas ’77. The move saved the studio, but Spielberg was left unhappy.

Enter the 1980 Special Edition. This redo was the result of a compromise between the studio and the director. Spielberg would get to tinker with the edit, adding a scene here and trimming a scene there, producing a cut that he was satisfied with. In return, he would create an all-new sequence for the ending, depicting the inside of the alien mothership, which the studio could tease in the marketing campaign for the film’s reissue (see the Special Edition trailer below). Spielberg later admitted this was a mistake, that it ruined some of the mystique of the aliens, and he removed the offending sequence from the third and final official version in 1998.

Thus, the 1980 Special Edition is widely regarded as the lousiest of the three extant versions, but aside from the superfluous ending, the other changes actually improved the pacing and character development, and in a film packed with memorable images, the Special Edition included a new one: the discovery of the cargo vessel in the middle of the Gobi Desert.

Whether you prefer the Theatrical Version, the Special Edition, or the Collector’s Edition is a matter of taste, but they are really only minor variations. The core of the “Close Encounters” story remains the same in all of them. You identify with the characters, you marvel at the aliens. As you watch, you become frozen. Your eyes are wide and your mouth is slightly agape. Perhaps more than with any of his other films, you feel the full impact of the Spielberg touch, which transforms his audience into his favorite shot.

Cruising

cruising
The first time I heard of William Friedkin’s “Cruising” (1980) was fifteen years after its release, in “The Celluloid Closet,” an indispensable documentary about the portrayal of gays and lesbians throughout the history of films. In it, “Cruising” is indicted as a film that encouraged hate crimes and exploited homophobia. It depicts protesters demanding that the filmmakers halt production altogether. Watching this, one feels that it was a seminal moment, when gays and lesbians spoke up and tried to take control of their own image in the media.

Certainly there’s merit to that. However, after finally watching the film, now thirty-five years after its release, I struggled to identify the reason for all the fuss.

“Cruising” tells the story of a cop (Al Pacino) who goes undercover to find a serial killer who’s been targeting gay men in the underground leather scene of New York City. The nature of his mission requires a certain open-mindedness, but the job also provides a cover that allows him to indulge his curiosities and explore facets of his sexuality that he might have otherwise ignored. This is a fascinating setup, and the complexity of Pacino’s character is remarkable considering that he evolves without the benefit of expository dialogue. His motivations are known only to himself. He has no confidant, so there is never a scene in which he shares his feelings aloud. Nor is there a voiceover to let us know what he’s thinking. Some have complained that this makes his character frustrating and unnecessarily obscure. I disagree. Pacino’s performance communicates everything we need to know about his secret attraction to the leather scene, and his isolation from the audience makes thematic sense. (This works only up to a point. More on that later.)

Watching the film, I noticed a curious amount of ADR and later learned that protesters followed the production and deliberately ruined the audio recordings by making noise on set. But why? What made this film so controversial that activists actually wanted to shut down production? The film is strikingly sympathetic to the gay community. The first scene involves a pair of homophobic cops, but its purpose is not to make us laugh at or be grossed out by gay people, but to feel sympathy for these characters who face constant harassment. (The scene also introduces the theme of repressed sexuality by showing a cop who antagonizes a drag queen but ultimately forces her to go down on him.)

In a way, the real villains in the story are the intolerance toward gay people and the shame that’s imposed on them. That’s what motivates the murders. I suppose that idea is problematic in itself, that an intolerant society can twist gay people into crazed killers, but the film isn’t that simplistic. Yes, the scene that attempts to humanize the killer and assign his motivation feels clunky, but it’s no reason to protest.

cruising 3I think the real objection was that the film shined a light on the dark corners of the community. The Gay Liberation Movement, as it was called at the time, was grasping for mainstream acceptance, and here was a mainstream film that depicted a subset of the community, one that is particularly sexual, fueled with drugs and violence, and altogether unpalatable to grandmothers the world over. But the film goes out of its way to distinguish the leather subculture from the gay community at large, both by having a character say that outright and by introducing a gay character who is not at all involved in the S&M culture.

One can understand why the Gay Liberation Movement of 1980 would have been apprehensive about a film that invited the whole world into the leather bars of the Meatpacking District, but to go so far as to disrupt the production seems to betray an intolerance toward members of their own community. Perhaps these protesters were themselves a fringe group; conservative and hungry for acceptance, terrified of being viewed as perverted sex freaks and willing to go to any lengths to prove how “normal” they were. Of course I’m extrapolating now, but the struggle between the freaks and the assimilationists was real in the early post-Stonewall era.

cruising 2Regardless of the reason, this film was under tremendous scrutiny before it had even been made, and all the controversy succeeded in diluting the story. The scenes between Pacino and his wife could have provided more insight into his character while maintaining his strict secrecy, as in “Brokeback Mountain” when Heath Ledger insists on certain sex positions with his wife and we understand the meaning. Here, we do see that Pacino can’t get it up for his wife, but that fact alone doesn’t have as strong an impact without accompanying scenes showing him fully capable of performing with men. Also, the relationship between the Pacino character and his neighbor is vital to the film’s conclusion, yet senselessly underdeveloped. As a result, the ending falls flat for lack of a convincing setup. By the time it’s over, one gets the feeling that Friedkin was forced to cut several key scenes and then tried to pass off the resulting obscurity as artistic.

“Cruising” was far ahead of its time and suffered, technically and dramatically, as a result. Here is a film that begs for a remake. Surely now, when the media represents the wide spectrum of the gay community, no one would protest a murder mystery set in the milieu of the leather bars.

And yet, this film, despite its flaws, deserves recognition at least for Pacino’s performance as the conflicted undercover cop, for creating sympathetic gay characters long before that was common, and for going where no mainstream film had gone before. Maybe not boldly, but it did go there.

Raging Bull

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Midnight shows are my favorite. For one thing, the films selected for this coveted time slot often cater to us film geeks. For another, the people who show up to watch movies in the middle of the night always make for an entertaining crowd.

I recently attended a midnight screening of “Raging Bull” (1980) at the magnificent Nighthawk Cinema in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I was the first to arrive and waited patiently for the parade of those awkward, lumpy film snobs I love so much. I assumed it would be them coming, because who else would go see Scorsese at midnight.

I think all “serious” lovers of cinema have a special place in their hearts for Martin Scorsese. For me, it’s because his films pulse with intensity and energy. In “Raging Bull” in particular, his actors explode and flip tables, and his screen is spattered with blood and sweat. I’ll take that over Antonioni’s ruminations on nothingness or Bergman’s quiet, brooding empty rooms. I understand that this is heresy, but here I must break from my film school brethren. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the auteurs who shaped modern cinema — I do! — it’s just that I can’t honestly say I enjoy sitting through many of their films. I dunno. I like when things happen in a movie. That’s just my preference.

raging bullI’m sure a lively debate could have been held on the subject that night at the Nitehawk. The auditorium was filled with the collective knowledge of countless hours of moviegoing experience, and some debates had already begun in the lobby queue.

Most of the nerds in attendance were in excited, chatty packs, but in the back row I was flanked by a few stragglers. To my left was the only other person, aside from myself, who had come alone. He was the tallest and fairest of all the attendees. I fell in love with him immediately. To my right was a poor dope who’d come with his decidedly un-geeky girlfriend. Clearly a Nitehawk novice, she placed her bag on the floor, nearly killing our waiter when he twice tripped over it. As the lights when down, I sank into my seat, sipping my whiskey, already full of feelings.

We hadn’t reached the midpoint of the first act before it became apparent that the girlfriend on the right had grown bored. She kept trying to chat with her date, but he would only shush her savagely. His rebukes didn’t stop her though. She had a lot to say. After the movie, he hustled her away, probably hoping to avoid any more peevish glares. I wondered if he was reevaluating his relationship, and whether they would have an awkward brunch the next morning. Can a lover of cinema ever get serious with a person who can’t sit through “Raging Bull”?

I pondered this question while the credits rolled, and stole some glances at the elven boy on my left. He did two things after the movie that sealed his place in my heart. First, he stayed seated through the credits. Second, he produced a flip phone from his pocket. A flip phone! My spirited brain extrapolated his whole persona. An entrenched Luddite. Not on Facebook. Writes letters on paper. (Swoon.)

Then my spine stiffened. Suppose he adores Ingmar Bergman? He’s just the type who would. What if “L’Avventura” is his favorite film? I sat through that “movie” (using the term is a stretch) once, last summer, and I wouldn’t endure the experience again. He’d think I’m a complete dunce, of course, and I’d have to allow him that, or I couldn’t say the same thing about that girl who was bored by Robert De Niro’s Jake La Motta. (And I don’t want to not say that.)

The last credit rolled. The boy stood up, stretched, and ambled out of the auditorium. Just as well. It’d never have worked between us. I sighed and searched my glass for a last drop of whiskey.

Next midnight I’ll have to see something more lowbrow. But not too low…