Sunday, June 26, 2011

My 10 Favorite Films

I don’t know why I didn’t post this a long time ago, but here’s the list of my ten favorite films (today’s favorites, at any rate).  I’ve shown this list and others like it to friends who are fellow cinephiles, and most of them fault my inventory for including only canonized classic art films.  Couldn’t I include, they ask, at least one disreputable title?  How about Santa Claus Conquers the Martians? How about Women’s Prison Massacre?  Or, at the very least, Ernest Goes to Splash Mountain?  Sorry.  Maybe I’ll do a follow-up of favorite sleazies sometime, but art films, believe it or not, are the kind of movie I like best.  So, for right now, here is my list of faves — art-house-heavy, un-cool, and drowse-inducing though the roll call may be — these are the ten titles that I get the most out of:


Directed by Sergio Giral (Cuba, 1975)

In his highly original film, Afro-Cuban director Giral adapts a 19th-century Cuban anti-slavery novel, criticizes its middle-class limitations, and then goes on to envision a radical retelling. Where the novel ended with a slave’s suicide, Giral’s version ends with a slave uprising. Inspiring.


Directed by Federico Fellini (Italy, 1954)

This story of a mentally underdeveloped waif tormented by a boorish brute is outstanding for its wondrous and understated observations on the nuances of rustic life in post-war Italy. Fellini’s early neo-realist film barely hints at the near-hallucinatory fever dreams that he would become famous for later in his career.


Directed by Wong Kar-Wai (Hong Kong, 1994)

Wong defies audience expectations and captures the frenetic atmosphere of pre-hand-over Hong Kong in this film about people trying (and not quite succeeding) to find romance in the big city. Special kudos for the audacity of putting two unrelated stories in the same movie. Wong’s companion piece Fallen Angels (1995) is worth checking out as well.


Directed by Richard Lester (UK/USA, 1964)

The energy and vitality of the 1960s New Wave + the rhythms and irreverence of the Beatles = a cinematic masterpiece.  Although we tend to think of the rock-’n-roll ’60s in psychedelic color, this film’s black-and-white cinematography lends it a Chaplinesque timelessness.


Directed by Stanley Kubrick (USA/UK, 1964)

With alternating horror and hilarity — and a cunningly clinical camera — Kubrick gets us to laugh at the unthinkable: nuclear holocaust. The performances by Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, and Slim Pickens remain the highlight of their careers.


Directed by Akira Kurosawa (Japan, 1950)

Kurosawa’s mesmerizing story of four conflicting accounts of the same crime encourages the viewers to question their own sense of truth and the passage of time. Toshirô Mifune’s feral turn as the bandit remains one of the cinema’s all-time great performances.


Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer (France, 1928)

A minimalist interpretation of the trial and execution of Joan of Arc, Dreyer’s film makes up in emotional intensity what it eschews in conventional big-scale spectacle. Never before or since has the fissured human face appeared so riveting on the screen.


Directed by Sergei Paradzhanov (USSR, 1969)

Not a “narrative” movie in the traditional sense of the word, Paradzhanov’s film is instead a kaleidoscopic visual meditation on the life of the 18th-century Armenian poet Sayat-Nova. Upon completion, it was cut and banned by the Soviet authorities for its narrative non-conformity and implicit Armenian nationalism.


Directed by Michaelangelo Antonioni (Italy/France, 1960)

Jeered at its first screening, director Antonioni’s film isn’t interested in what happens in the story.  Rather, the director uses his watchful camera to reveal his uncommunicative characters and expose their alienating environments.  The story isn’t concerned with external actions but with the audience’s apprehensions of the characters’ unstated internal complexities.  Antonioni reinvents the language of cinema. 


Directed by Orson Welles (USA, 1941)

In his freshman film, theatre director Welles boldly broke the conventional bounds of Hollywood narrative to tell the story of a newspaper tycoon with uncommon depth and complexity. The intricate story line is matched by the intricate visuals of master cinematographer Gregg Toland. A milestone in the annals of cinema.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Napoleon Bonaparte: Not a Short Dude

One of the most pervasive misapprehensions of world history is that Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), the French military and political leader and one-time emperor of the country, was a short guy.

Whenever the historical figure of Napoleon is invoked, some mention of his height usually isn’t far behind.  In film, thoughts turn to Ian Holm, a relatively short-statured actor (5’6”) who played the part of the French leader a number of times, in Time Bandits (1981) weeping over other allegedly dwarfish military commanders not remembered as such, or Napoleon as portrayed by Ron Cook in Quills (2000), his dangling feet not touching the floor of his throne.  There have been other cinematic portrayals of Bonaparte as a man of average height — Marlon Brando in Desirée (1954) or Rod Steiger in Waterloo (1970), for example — but the idea of the French commander as a martinet is dominant in the modern imagination.

So, it may come as something of a surprise to most people that Napoleon Bonaparte wasn’t short, especially for his time.  

As recorded in his book The Height of Your Life (1980), Ralph Keyes wrote to France’s Musée de l’Armée in Paris with the intention of determining Napoleon’s actual height.  The reply came back:

The height of Napoleon was 5 feet 7 inches. ... This measurement is one given in the memoirs of Mr. Darling, carpenter of Saint-Hélen [a.k.a. Saint Helena, the island where Bonaparte spent his last years in exile] who was appointed to construct Napoleon’s coffin.  I think that we can consider this measure as completely correct.  (p. 93)

And 5 feet 7 inches was “slightly above the average height for Frenchmen” of that era, in the words of biographer and physician R. Frank Richardson, quoted by Keyes.  So, why is Napoleon remembered as being short?  One conjecture is that he was perceived as shorter because the military strategists with whom he surrounded himself were taller.  Another faults British anti-Napoleonic propaganda, which depicted him as short in an effort to make him look ridiculous.  Yet another attributes the misperception to a mistranslation from French measurements to English ones.  

Whatever the reason, Napoleon Bonaparte was not short for his era.  So, why does the idea of him as a diminutive military leader have such staying power, despite the facts to the contrary?  I think that the popular imagination clings to the image of a pint-sized Napoleon as a figure of hubris, as a personification of megalomaniacal overreach.  After all, what if Napoleon had been decidedly tall?  Would his march across Europe during the Napoleonic Wars bear any resemblance at all to an act of overcompensation, as some today perceive his military exploits, a perception that has given rise to the term “Napoleon complex”?  

Contrast the popular image of the diminutive, defeated Bonaparte with the image of the tall, victorious George Washington.  (The historical Washington was 6’1.5” according to Wickipedia.)  These two historical archetypes convey the socially sanctioned message that a man’s fitness for victory — military or otherwise — is manifested by the height of his body.  The message seems to be that short stature embodies (so to speak) humanity’s limitations, while tall stature incarnates one’s strengths.  This idea isn’t very consoling to those of us even shorter than Napoleon is believed to be.  It’s as though because of something we can’t control — how tall our bodies grow — we shorter men can’t live “up” to what an adult male is supposed to look like and thereby manifest our physical potentials as productive humans.  It’s as though that just by acquiring our height-determining DNA, we have already met our waterloo.

Friday, June 17, 2011

‘The Importance of Being Earnest’: A Capsule Review

This is something that I wrote on my Facebook page in response to a friend recommending the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Oscar Wilde’s classic 1895 comedy The Importance of Being Earnest:

And if you can't catch the new production (and if you haven't already seen the thing 83,673,469,386 times), you can watch the 1952 Anthony Asquith film of the play, which is available for instant viewing on Netflix. The cast is superlative: the ever-earnest Michael Redgrave, the effervescent-voiced Joan Greenwood, the liltingly lugubrious Edith Evans, and especially the car-salesman-smooth Michael Denison. A movie not to be missed — nor mislaid in a handbag, for that matter.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Rachel McAdams: The Blonder, the Blander

Okay, this is going to be totally superficial — but that wouldn’t be a first for the Internet.  I want to talk about Rachel McAdams’ hair.  Now, I’m not commenting at all on the Canadian-born movie star’s talent (I don’t think that anyone is interested in my opinion on that, anyway).  But I need to say something.

That something is this: I can’t think of another woman whose looks are so dramatically transformed by blonde hair color — transformed for the worse.

Full disclosure: I generally find darker hair more attractive on a woman than lighter hair.  Although I have my exceptions, the darker the hair color, the better, in my book.  (I guess I’m no gentleman.)  Of course, I don’t need to tell anyone just how beautiful Rachel McAdams is.  With her liquid hazel eyes, elegant chin, and supple lips parenthesized by two delicate dimples, the Canadian coquette will haunt many a movie-goer’s dreams for years to come.

In most of her films that I’ve seen, she usually sports a head of gracefully flowing auburn hair.  In some of her other movies, her cascading tresses are slightly lighter, maybe a burgundy brown, but still agreeably dusky.  The darkness of these hair colors brings out the best in her tan-tinged beauty.  But in a few of her films — and in most of her red-carpet and other off-the-set photos — her hair is bleached blonde.  The obviously artificial yellow in her curls blanches the crinal frame of her face, a face with a tincture of tawniness that clashes with such a bright color.  

According to the Huffington Post,
this shade of dark brown is Rachel
McAdams’ real hair color.
Rachel McAdams’ Internet Movie Database trivia page says that her hair is naturally blonde.  This is hard to believe.  Ms. McAdams is an “autumn” (to use the outdated beauty-parlor parlance) in every other aspect of her appearance, but blonde hair belongs on a “summer.”  Another on-line article says in one paragraph that her hair is “naturally brown” and in another that it’s “naturally blonde.”  I guess that clears things up.  But a YouTube video of her audition for her breakout movie The Notebook (2004) shows her with dyed blonde hair over grown-out brunette roots.  Did this “natural blonde” dye her hair a deep brown in order to bleach that color over with an artificial blonde?  If so, why?

I think the best explanation is that Rachel McAdams’ hair is naturally brown, as the rest of her coloring would indicate, not naturally blonde.  But if the actress does indeed have a natural hair color — blonde — that is inexplicably inharmonious with the rest of her looks, she patently helps it along by man-made means.  It’s the synthetic quality of this blonde look that subtracts from her attractiveness.

Or in plain old English: The otherwise extremely beautiful Rachel McAdams just does not look good with bleached-blonde hair.  

Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams in Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris’

On the other hand, this disagreeably artificial look can sometimes aid her characterizations as an actress.  The difference between her hair’s various visual effects upon an audience is most noticeable in her two films co-starring Owen Wilson.  In the romantic comedy Wedding Crashers (2005), a brunette McAdams plays the ingénue whose affections Wilson fights for.  Like the rest of the cinema patrons seated around me, I rooted for Wilson to win over the dark-haired beauty.  In their second film together, Midnight in Paris (2011), a bottle-blonde McAdams plays Wilson’s fault-finding fiancée.  Given this off-putting character’s ersatz appearance, it was easy to root against the relationship, which is certainly the audience reaction that the film desires.

In ‘Mean Girls’ (left) and ‘Wedding Crashers’

In fact, when I first saw Wedding Crashers, the face of the beautiful brunette who played the female lead really stuck in my mind.  What I didn’t realize was that I had seen this same actress the year before as the blonde antagonist in Mean Girls (2004), and her face never really registered with me.  I think that says a lot about how McAdams’ hair color can change the perception of her appearance — and, as in Midnight in Paris, how pejoratively the audience perceives her when her hair is yellow.

I can imagine a movie in which a male lead is torn between two female love interests, one blonde and the other brunette.  And — I’m sure you saw this coming — both women would be portrayed by Rachel McAdams.  This conceit of a male lead who divides his affections between two different women played by the same actress has been done before in Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide (心中天網島, 1969), in which Shima Iwashita plays the roles of both the weak-willed lead’s wife and his mistress.  Shinoda’s use of casting the same actress (who is also his wife) in two different parts underlines the indecisiveness of his anti-hero and the somewhat capricious character of romantic love.  (And this concept is different from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo [1958], in which Kim Novak plays only one character: a dark-haired woman who disguises herself as a blonde.)  The way I envision it, this casting of my imaginary movie would be an experiment to weigh the contrasting attractiveness (or unattractiveness) between blonde Rachel and brunette Rachel.  I know which one I’d want to prevail.  My hypothetical movie’s writers could make brunette Rachel the most despicable character in cinema, and I’d still want to see the male lead end up with her.  Yes, McAdams looks that bad blonde.

There you have it — my raindrop-in-a-bucket diatribe about the ever-urgent issue of Rachel McAdams’ hair color.  I know that she has some fans who absolutely adore her blonde.  And I know that my opinion won’t matter to anyone else, least of all Ms. McAdams herself.  So, I know that she will wear her hair whatever color she pleases, as she should.  

But I think it’s a shame that a woman with an exceptional beauty best enhanced by darker hair seems to spend so much time lightening her locks for a look that — and this word is very apt — pales in comparison.  I believe that Rachel McAdams would better serve her exquisite features by keeping her tresses brown, thereby making the most of her coppery coloring and avoiding an inorganic appearance that makes her look like just another Hollywood blonde.  But it’s not for me to dictate what the actress does with her hair.

Unless maybe I could get blonde bleach declared a controlled substance.

Everyone’s a hair critic, I suppose.