Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Great Films: The Lady Eve (1941)


You see, Hopsy, you don't know very much about girls. The best ones aren't as good as you probably think they are and the bad ones aren't as bad. Not nearly as bad.”

Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve is one of my favourite films. This screwball comedy follows Jean Harrington (the luminous Barbara Stanwyck) and Charles 'Hopsy' Pike (an adorable Henry Fonda) as they fall in and out (and in) love with each other. Jean and her father are card sharps who decide to con the rich, naïve Charles, who has been up the Amazon for a year studying snakes. Jean and Charles fall in love, but he rejects her after discovering her deceptive behaviour. To teach him a lesson, Jean comes to his house posing as the English 'Lady Eve'. He falls for her (again), but discovers on their wedding night that Eve is not as sweet and innocent as he believes her to be. 


The plot sounds ridiculous, but I always see the plots of screwball comedies as part of the joke; it is not meant to be taken seriously. That being said, in The Lady Eve Sturges is being satirical on issues around gender politics and sexual hypocrisy. Critic David Parkinson, in his book History of Film, argues that Sturges made satires that 'ran contrary to traditional Hollywood values in exposing a range of American foibles'(94). 
Charles, highly uneducated in regards to women, judges Jean in black-and-white terms, imagining that because she is a con artist, she did not really love him; that she is completely 'bad.' It is no mistake that Jean is wearing black the night Charles first meets her, or that Eve is decked out in white when she visits Charles' home: that is how Charles sees her/them. 
See anything you like?

But Jean/Eve also wears a mixture of blacks and whites as well as greys (or what appear as grey because of the Black-and-White film); she is far more complex than Charles realises. When Jean says that she think she's falling in love with Charles she remarks that 'I'm going to be exactly the way he thinks I am. The way he'd like me to be.' She is wearing white at the time, and wears white that night when he proposes to her. Wearing white as Eve is a nod to this desire to be what he wants her to be, but Jean is now using Charles' ideals against him. 


Sturges, who co-wrote the screenplay was Monckton Hoffe (great name!), litters the film with references to Adam and Eve in the Genesis story. The opening credits have a snake slithering around the titles who occasionally winks at the audience. There is also an apple or two. 

Charles is an ophiologist and is travelling with a snake called Emma. One of the first things Jean does when she sees Charles get on the boat is drop an apple on his head. At dinner Charles reads the book Are Snakes Necessary? The most obvious is that Jean calls herself 'Eve' when in disguise.

Charles also falls over several times during the film, and all of those falls are because of Jean/ Eve. Of course, all screwball comedies have some kind of pratfall, but in The Lady Eve it is also an allusion to the 'fall of man', which we all know was the fault of Eve! 

Jean literally makes Charles fall for her.

In Christianity some Church Fathers interpreted the Genesis story in a rather misogynistic light, casting Eve as the temptress who lured Adam into his downfall. (I've read Genesis, it doesn't actually make any suggestions that way): man's fall is the fault of woman. It is related to the angel/whore dichotomy that still pervades modern thinking. Sturges and Hoffe use the Genesis story to comically point out the flaws of this approach to male/female relationships. Jean, as Eve, sets out to prove to Charles that most women are a mixture of 'good' and 'bad' (what ever that means); and attempts to read paradigms onto people often ends in disaster. 

Of course, Jean is not really being altruistic: in the end, all she wants is for Charles to love her for who she is.

In my opinion, the best romantic comedies say something insightful about romantic relationships in a humorous way, usually looking at the power plays between genders. This is what makes The Lady Eve so great. That, and Stanwyck and Fonda.

What other rom-coms do something similar?

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Double Feature: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Mulholland Drive


Warning: here be spoilers. (Though since I am still not entirely sure what Mulholland Drive was about, it is hard to spoil it).


At first glance, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2001) are not obviously similar. The first is a science fiction film that covers millions of years of human evolution (in a linear fashion), and explores issues around technology and extraterrestrial life. Lynch's film is a drama set in Hollywood, and is a mysterious neo-noir tale of dreams, reality, and identity. Kubrick's film is famously light on dialogue, while Lynch's film is full of elliptical conversations. However, both films are visually striking, and the story of each is propelled forward by a mystery.

The greatest similarity between 2001 and Mulholland Drive (and is what connected these two films in my mind) is the sudden change that happens at the end of the second act. These changes are triggered by mysterious objects which alter the reality of the previous action. In 2001 the monolith appears throughout the film, slowly influencing the progress of human evolution. Dark, opaque blocks of something, the monoliths have the ability to move around, and even communicate with each other, implying an inherent consciousness and intelligence (or that they are controlled by beings that possess these qualities).
http://momentumbooks.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/hotel-monolith.jpgAstronaut Dave Boorman, who is part of a space mission to Jupiter, encounters one of these monoliths orbiting the planet. It transports him through space and time. He then finds himself in an 18th century style room where he watches and experiences his own 'evolution,' as the ageing process is sped up, assumedly by the monolith. Boorman is re-born a Star-Child, a new, uncharted phase of life for humans.

  In Mulholland Drive, early in the film, Betty and Rita discover a blue key in Rita's purse. There is no hint as to what it opens (nor does Rita remember why she has it). After a bizarre performance at a club called 'Silencio' Betty and Rita suddenly find a blue box in Betty's purse. How did it get there? Moments before Rita opens it with the key, Betty disappears from the room. Opening the box triggers a sudden change in the plot: the characters Betty and Rita change to Diane Selwyn and Camilla Rhodes respectively. Other characters from the film appear but all the relationships have changed; and places previously visited are visited again but have different emotions attached to them. A cafe that was the scene of dialogue about dreams is now where Diane (Betty) hires a hit man to kill Camilla (Rita). Another blue key is mentioned in this scene: the hit man says she will find it on the table when the hit is completed. 
The mystery surrounding these two objects also connect the two films. In neither 2001 or Mulholland Drive is it explained where they come from. The monolith simply appears on earth in the first act, then another is uncovered on the Moon, another orbiting Jupiter, and it is the last thing that Dave Boorman sees as a human. One could assume that it is some type of alien life, but its motivation is not obvious. We also do not know if it is benign or malevolent. Perhaps it is simply a conduit for supremely evolved beings to influence other lifeforms. Who knows.

Because Rita is suffering from amnesia at the beginning of Mulholland Drive she cannot explain what the key is for. The mystery of the box's appearance in Betty's purse is also never explained. The second blue key that appears in the third act is somehow related, but again the 'how' is not obvious. As it is a key that unlocks a box, it is tempting to read them as a metaphor for Rita unlocking the truth of this world: that it is in fact 'untrue,' a fabrication. Is identity something we fabricate for ourselves? And if so, are our ideas about other people also creations, even acts of private storytelling?
Perhaps the strongest connection that these two movies have is that they are to be experienced rather than explained. Because of this, they stand up to multiple viewings as audiences try to decipher what they mean. (I will use this as an excuse if this post is hard to follow: it's the fault of the films, I tell you!).

Like many great films, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Mulholland Drive ask us questions about who we are as a collective group, and how we relate to each other within that group. The questions are not easy, nor do they necessarily prompt positive answers.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that you actually watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and Mulholland Drive back-to-back. I believe that would leave you mentally spent and highly confused. After both I needed time to absorb what I had seen (and occasionally heard). If you are the type of person who likes things neatly wrapped up at the end of your movies you will probably be mortally frustrated by them or rather bored.

If you have seen them, what other films did they remind you of?

Friday, 3 October 2014

Based On: Emma and Clueless


Many filmmakers seem to throw out subtlety when they adapt the classics. Rather than presenting a reading of the source material, focusing on themes and character psychology, they go all out on the look of the film and neglect the story. Even if they do some of those things, it is hard to see past the costumes and wigs and horses and carriages, broody men in cravats, and rose-coloured nostalgia.

Nowhere is this more true than with Jane Austen's novels (which I love). I have always been interested in adaptations of the novel, but I rarely love them; and even those I have loved, like the BBC one from 1995, I have become a bit detached from. For me, most adaptations miss what I love about the novels: the humour and subtle satire. Instead they focus on the look of the period, and turn the stories into occasionally simpering, syrupy love stories that leave me highly unsatisfied. 

Sorry Darcy.
  Amy Heckerling's Clueless knows what is so great about Austen's novels. It is based on Austen's 1815 Emma, which is about twenty-one year-old, snobbish match-maker Emma Woodhouse. It follows her as she befriends lowly Harriet Smith, flirts with Frank Churchill and frustrates her friend Mr Knightley. Throughout this she discovers harsh and surprising truths about herself and people around her. Clueless' Cher undergoes a similar transformative path to Emma in the film. She gives a makeover to new girl Tai, flirts with Christian, and frustrates her ex-step-brother Josh. She also has to face up to certain truths about herself, largely about her feelings towards Josh. 

I contend that Clueless is the best adaptation of Emma so far. It takes Austen's satirical eye and applies to 1990s' youth culture. Both film and novel focus on overly confident young people living in contained communities: Highbury for Emma, the Valley and Bronson Alcott High School for Cher. Both Cher and Emma are the centre of sophistication in their societies, and wield quite a lot of power (though it is not always used wisely).

Emma and Clueless deal with contemporary issues and ideas; this is in contrast to most adaptations, which are modern reconstructions of the past. Austen focuses on issues surrounding marriage, and love, friendship and class, and self-knowledge for young Regency women; Heckerling explores ideas about love, sex, friendship and groups, and self-knowledge in 90s youth culture. This is what allows the satire to work. 


Heckerling cleverly uses costumes to accentuate her comedy. The first scene is Cher's extensive wardrobe, and her computer program that allows her to create her outfit for the day. But, as she tells us in voiceover, 'I actually have a way normal life for a teenage girl.' Her clothes are highly fashionable, too fashionable to wear to school; in her rather iconic yellow suit Cher looks like she has walked out of a commercial. Cher's friend Dionne is the same. 


The costumes are also used to distinguish the different cliques or 'classes' within the school group, much like the mixture of classes in Emma. Tai, the new student, looks like a 'farmer' in her plaid shirt, and is obviously not as wealthy as Cher. Amber is a cheaper version of Cher, and her clothes are far more tacky. Murray, Dionne's boyfriend, wears a street style. Everyone is aware of these differences, Cher in particular. She says

'So, OK. I don't wanna be a traitor to my generation and all, but I don't get how guys dress today. I mean, c'mon, it looks like they just fell out of bed and put on some baggy pants, and take their greasy hair—ew!—and cover it up with a backwards cap and, like, we're expected to swoon? I don't think so!'

This mixture of different cliques is comparable to the mixture of differing classes in Austen's novel. Wealthy Emma associates with her old governess Mrs Weston, parentless, poor Harriet and Miss Bates, who has slipped into poverty. Many of the novel's tensions come from these relationships, and some of Austen's satire is around the interaction of the different classes, and how her heroine reacts to them (largely in comparison to Mr Knightley). Josh, the Knightley character, is above this world, being a college student. He constantly makes fun of Cher's insular world, much the same way that Knightley tries to tell Emma that there is more to the world than Highbury. 
Clueless is a very funny film with a witty and sharp script. The audience is guided throughout the film by Cher in voiceover, who dishes out wise advice and observations about being a teenager:
'Anything you can do to draw attention to your mouth is good. Also, sometimes you have to show a little skin. This reminds guys of being naked, and then they think of sex.'

Heckerling also captured Valspeak with a liberal peppering of 'As if!' throughout, along with Alicia Silverstone's performance with its high rising inflections. The dialogue is also wonderful and highly quotable.
Tai: 'Why am I even listening to you to begin with? You're a virgin who can't drive.'
Cher: 'That was way harsh, Tai.'

Murray: 'He's a disco-dancing, Oscar Wilde-reading, Streisand ticket-holding friend of Dorothy, know what I'm saying.'

And my personal favourite:

Dionne: 'Cher is saving herself for Luke Perry.'
Tai: 'Cher, you're a virgin?!'
Cher: 'God! You say it like it's a bad thing.'
Dionne: 'Besides, the PC term is "hymenally challenged."'

Cher: 'I am just not interested in doing it until I find the right person. You see how picky I am about my shoes and they only go on my feet.'

The film is slightly self-reflexive in its depiction of teenagers engagement with the classics. Cher mentions Shakespeare twice during the film, first quoting sonnet 18 ('Shall I compare thee') from 'Cliff's Notes'; and then corrects some on a quote from Hamlet ('Well I remember Mel Gibson accurately'). Many teenagers experience the classics through the prism of pop culture, and for many Clueless is their first experience of Austen's Emma. Heckerling is clearly aware of this, and plays it for laughs. 

  To call this film the best adaptation of Emma is high praise from me, being a massive Austen fan. It takes Austen's gently satirical approach to teen movies, and injects wit into them. These young people may not be classically literate, but they are not stupid. In Australia several years ago (and it may still be the case) Emma and Clueless was an option for the comparative literature section of final leaving exams. I did not get to do it, much to my chagrin, so this post is largely me getting all of this off my chest. 
Do you think this is a good adaptation?