Thursday, April 26, 2018

SH*T OR SHINOLA? NOTE FROM A PAYING CONSUMER: "DEAR MOVIE SNOB, NOBODY REALLY GIVES A DAMN WHAT YOU THINK" (With respect this includes you, Mr. Cameron) - by CEJ



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VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!


     Remember in FIELD OF DREAMS when James Earl Jones' character Terence Mann says how baseball has served as signposts throughout history? Well, movies (all kinds of movies) do the same. There used to be this awesome antique / collectibles shop near South St. in Philadelphia. I believe it's (surprise, surprise) a restaurant now. But, as a history nut over the years I'd picked up a number of great things there including an actual newspaper published during the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition - which is where Alexander Graham Bell first introduced his "telephone" to the public. Those who know a little about historical architecture know that up until maybe one hundred years ago - and perhaps even sooner - many buildings used newspaper as insulation. Pressed hard over the years between horizontal layers of brick and morter, some of the inner layers of that insulation were protected from the corrosive effects of air and sun, and - not unlike the JURASSIC PARK mosquitoes trapped in amber - when uncovered years later they too were found to contain a detailed DNA sampling - but in this case that of a city's history.


     Anyway, the gentleman who owned the place (... and damned if I can remember his name right now; he was an awesome fella!) had these three original (not reprints, mind you) 1976 KING KONG posters by illustrator John Berkey. Y'know, the awesome one to the Dino De Laurentiis film which everyone hated, with Kong astride the World Trade Center towers - Jessica Lange in one furry hand and an exploding fighter plane in the other. As a child I'd owned a mini promo version of that poster - one you got for free by cutting a coupon out of a comic book then sending it to the Paramount promo office in New York. I'd long since begun collecting full sized movie posters, but I'd never managed to pick up the Berkey KONG one sheet let alone an original. So, I wanted to buy one of 'em, ... but he wouldn't sell it to me, saying he'd promised all three to one guy who couldn't afford to get them at the time, but promised he'd come back on payday Friday.

     I was a little confused (and maybe even a bit miffed) at first - kind of wondering why the hell one person should get to corner all three of them. Miffed that is until the shop owner explained the guy's story. That KONG film was the last movie his parents took him and his two brothers to see before they split up. It was the very last thing they ever did as a complete family. And he wanted to give a poster to each of his brothers that upcoming Christmas (and keep one for himself) as a reminder to them all - and they all had kids of their own now - as to how important family truly is. WOW! I was floored and said, "Holy crap! You can't argue with that".  Now, ...

     The general consensus at the time of KING KONG's release (and many still feel the same about it today) was that it wasn't / isn't a very good film. Surely not on par with the 1933 Cooper / Schoedsack original or even Peter Jackson's 2005 redo. And sure as hell not something most would consider "important" or of "quality". That assessment of which begs the question as to "What then constitutes a 'good' or 'important' film - either for / towards an individual, for / towards an audience in general, or for / towards the cinematic art form itself?". Not trying to get all American Film Institute or IFC here, but ...

Dino's KING KONG (1976) - "Sh*t or Shinola?" Like it or not, it's all relative, ... and relative!

     There are those - film makers, film critics, and the average social media commenting "John and Jane Q. Public" who, based upon their frequent tweetable comments, seem to feel that there are such things as "quality film making" and "shit film making". And while I don't disagree with that, they also seem to equate what they call "important film making" with "quality", and in auto-pilot mode also tend to equate "fun and / or (a critic's favorite put down) 'disposable' films" - or at least what they consider to be too much or too many of them - with "shit film making". I don't agree with that. But, okay, let's follow that thread of "logic" for a minute. When we do we kind of come full circle back to, "Okay, so, once again what then qualifies as an 'important' film or film making", and what qualifies as 'shit films' and 'shit' film making?".  If "important" is too weighty a term for some, then feel free to swap it out with the word "serious". So, what constitutes serious or important film making? Where is the scale, and who creates it? Is it some electoral college decided-upon conclusion, or the opinion (the Roman coliseum "thumbs up or down", or even pseudo-holy sanction) of a critic, a film maker or some film school syllabus; and usually a critic, film maker or film school considered to be "important" or "serious" themselves / itself?

"Sh*t or Shinola?" - (clockwise) SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017),
 BLACK PANTHER (2018), THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

     Obviously I'm here referencing a recent quote made by TERMINATOR / TITANIC / AVATAR writer & director James Cameron (it's above there) regarding the recent popularity of superhero movies, and referencing how this quote has been meme-ified and is presently making the social media rounds as if a dire warning proclaimed hither and yon from the mouth of Paul Revere. However, since this isn't national "Let's Beat Up On Jim Cameron Day", I'm also gonna include others who've made similarly (in my opinion) snobbish - if genuinely heartfelt and sincere - remarks of their own along these lines in recent days. And yes, that includes you too Dustin Hoffman, Martin Scorcese, ... and more than a few personal social media friends whose comments scroll across my feed daily. Now, ...

     I've always felt that if let's say you're nervously sitting in a hospital waiting room on one of those too small / too damned uncomfortable plastic chairs while a loved one is in the O.R., and either THE ENGLISH PATIENT or LIAR, LIAR comes up on TV, ... well, which film will probably be more "important" to you at that time? Which will help you decompress a little, and give you the second emotional wind you may need to (as Etta James once musically preached) "Get you through the night". And which may scare the crap outta you, and which will at that particular time and place dig into those psychologically and emotionally raw areas which at present perhaps need more healing and salving, ... or (at the very least) anesthetizing ... rather than dissection and probing with blunt-edged instruments?

The "importance" of being earnestly Carrey - LIAR, LIAR (1997)

     So, "importance" or a "good" or "bad" film, or a "film of worth" or "shit film making" or "mindless and disposable" all ends up being relative to the person and the context in which that person is viewing the film, does it not? Now, that's a microcosmic (or individual) version of a truism. But the macrocosmic (more societal / global) equivalent can be seen in how those "fun", "disposable" and "shit" genre films always see a spike in popularity during times of social unrest - be it the loooonnng run of Universal horror films which became popular in the days between WWI and WW2, the loooong run of (some would call 'em) "empty headed musicals" during the Second World War, the run of cheesy nuclear terror-based sci-fiers during the Cold War 50s, the politically and philosophically loaded  sci fi of the 1960s - 70s (y'know, 2001, PLANET OF THE APES, LOGAN'S RUN, ROLLERBALL, DAMNATION ALLEY, etc.), and on through our superhero movies of today.

Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) - at the time of its release slammed by some
as "the grimmest film I've ever seen", "morally prententious" and "a shaggy God story"

     Keep in mind too how ... every ... single ... one ... of those runs had their more snobbish cinematic detractors who felt those films were destroying quality film making as it was known, or at the very least were just individually shitty films in and of themselves. Such views would run the gamut from Time Magazine's more diplomatic manner wherein it referred to 1931's DRACULA with Bela Lugosi as "Not as good as it ought to be", and the Chicago Tribune labeling it as "Too obvious" and with "... it's attempts to frighten too evident", to the more brutally slung slings and arrows hurled at Kubrick's 2001 by noted personalities such as famed historian, social critic and (who comes up with these designations anyway?) "public intellectual" Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who derided Kubrick's now-classic sci-fier as "Morally pretentious", "intellectually obscure" and more.

The horror of American, then later German, eugenics experiments of the 1930s is implicit (and explicit)
in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932), based on H.G. Welles' THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU 

     Repelling further down that rabbit hole, and using Mr. Cameron's word "fatigue" as our tether, how and why is it that the aforementioned cine-arbiters of good and decent taste never seem to ask, "Do you yet have Rom Com fatigue" or "Films Based upon Plays fatigue" or "Historical Drama fatigue" or any other subject matter fatigue based upon a particular kind of source material? No one will deny that within those various sources / subjects, and within the films based upon them, lay a vast array of topics, subtopics, socio-political observations, humor and more, because that's the case with any source material. Yes, even including comics in general and superhero comics in particular. So, maybe scratch that retort off the list. Also if one takes the time to count, you'll note that there are no more comics-to-film adaptations during any given year than there are "Plays to Films", or "True Stories to films" or any other kind of film.

Historical Drama "fatigue"? No, not really - (L to R) GOODBYE, CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2017),
PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN (2017), MARK FELT (2017)

     Continuing along with those very basic math skills one also has to note / keep in mind that out of approx. 200 films released in a given year, at most four to six of 'em will be major superhero movies. The only difference (and admittedly a big one!) is that at this point in time those comic adaptations / superhero movies are among the most popular and lucrative ... just as were the Universal horror films (and their endless line of years of sequels and spin-offs) in their day.


     There's a difference between personally not digging something, or even being personally tired of it, and writing something off as "... hyper-gonadal males without families doing death-defying things for two hours and wrecking cities in the process". I've always referred to that as "pulling a Dr. Smith". You remember how in the old LOST IN SPACE tv series whenever Jonathan Harris as Dr. Smith was afraid or nervous or whatever, he'd pull young Will Robinson in front of him and say "Don't hurt the boy" or "You're making the boy nervous and afraid". Essentially attempting to save face and / or legitimize his own personal ... whatevers ... fears, hang ups, etc. onto the canvas of someone else. Y'know, spread it around so it doesn't look like it's just him, but that he's only being logical in a manner in which every rational thinking person would agree.

     People do this every damned day with religions and political ideologies. I mean, how many people begin a debate with "Liberals / Conservatives always do and say such and such" rather than with "Me personally, I believe ..."? So, it's kind of a "no duh!" or no brainer, isn't it, that if the "Dr. Smith dodge" (or more accurately "self delusionary Dr. Smith dodge") is going to be employed often unconsciously by religious and political folk, that said brand of human nature "logic" will also find its way into other scenarios as well, including that of film criticism?

     Maybe "hyper-gonadal" guys in spandex is all that you see based upon your own personal life long combination of nature and nurture, but (as with those three KING KONG posters) others may very well see something entirely different based upon theirs. In the X-MEN films some saw for the first time in mainstream media stand-ins and representations of themselves as those who had long been marginalized from, and even cut out of, society because of race, gender, sexual orientation or because they may have been overweight or had some kind of physical handicap. When in the very first film the blue-skinned Mystique beats the hell out of a bigoted senator while saying, "People like you were the reason I was afraid to go to school as a child", that's powerful stuff.

More Historical Drama "fatigue"? No, not really - (clockwise from top) DARKEST HOUR (2017),
THE POST (2017), DETROIT (2017), DUNKIRK (2017)

     If you can watch BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE or CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR and come away from them blind to the fact that both are hardcore (if stand-in / representational) analogies of a post 9-11 America where citizens are divided on "Where do you draw the line between bonafied security and xenophobic fear?", then I think you just weren't paying attention. Or if you can come away from a viewing of BLACK PANTHER and not see a serious discussion among all of the "hyper gonadal" derring-do about the dangers of geopolitical isolation, and one's own national culpability in helping to create what many might call a "terrorist", then I say you either weren't sharp enough to pick up on those obvious thematics, ... or (perhaps more likely) you just never saw them because you never expected or even wanted to see them in that which you assumed - and therefore viewed - as "disposable" if fun Zowie / Pow! fodder.

Safety and security from terrorism vs. xenophobia
and isolationism - BATMAN V. SUPERMAN (2016) 

     Not liking or being tired of something is fine. That's cool! That's okay! That's one's individual right! But the final judge and jury is ultimately the paying consumer, and not necessarily the film maker or the critic or the studio guy or gal who sees films for free via advance screening invites. So, it ends up being that consumer (and hey, I'm one of 'em) who has the right to say to Cameron, Scorcese, Hoffman and others, "Hey man, as much as I love and respect you and your work, I really don't give a f**k what you think when it comes to what I put my hard earned dollars down for". Y'know, "Where do you get your own artistic hyper-gonads big enough where you think you should be telling me what kinds of films as an audience I should be seeing?".

     Shakespeare's plays were performed for the masses - often in theaters of which the 1970s and 1980s equivalents would have been "grindhouse" movie joints. In a 2008 interview with film critic / cinema historian Elvis Mitchell, Tony Award-winning actress Joan Allen mentioned how her career alma mater - Chicago's legendary Steppenwolf Theater Company - was established so that blue collar working stiffs and their families might have affordable entertainment alternatives on a Friday night. And hell, even the New Testament of the Bible was originally written in Koine Greek - the vernacular of the average person on the street, rather than Classical Greek - that of the more upper crust elite. Hey, you remember I said I was a lifelong history nut, right? That's where that little tidbit came from. Hehe!

Safety and security from terrorism vs. xenophobia and
isolationism - CAPT. AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)

     As such, I'll borrow elements of Cameron's "fatigue" memo for my own purposes and say how I'm personally pretty damned tired of today's self-appointed "arbiters of good taste", ... those self-believed-to-be elite "quality police" who somehow, and for some inexplicable reason, seem to think they've been bequeathed the right to set the artistic bar for others simply because it wasn't like this back when they grew up or when they first got into the business. Times change, and the film industry, like any evolving life form, must change with them. Either that or the organism eventually dies. Biology calls it the "The Edge of Chaos".

     The idea is that too much stimulation or change at once will kill an organism because it hasn't had the time to physically adjust to the new environment. But not enough stimulation or change will just as readily kill the organism because if it remains stagnant for too long it will become weak and diseased, and in some respects it will begin to start feeding upon itself then cease to exist in that environment where others have been able to make the evolutionary shift. Life therefore thrives and grows and evolves most effectively in a constant ying / yang state wherein that lifeform / organism is constantly (even forcefully) encouraged to change and adapt. The creative arts are the exact same way.

     Try to remember how when people bitched about the 80s era Spielberg / Lucas-like movies "taking over", for its own survival the industry was forced to seek alternatives, and ultimately the independent movement (as well as attendant film channels and film festivals) burgeoned as never before. The same thing here, people. The only consistent thread in an ever-changing industry is the concept that everything changes, and that a new kind of film will force the previous generation of films and film makers to up their game in order to remain not just commercially but artistically viable. When we fail to remember this we end up very much like that 100+ year old, "near-hermetically sealed from air and sun" newspaper I purchased from that antique / collectible shop. It's a fascinating as hell time capsule of a previous era. But that's all it ends up being - a fascinating time capsule.  


Safety and security from terrorism vs. xenophobia and
isolationism - BLACK PANTHER (2018)

     Hey, I'm not gonna pretend that big bucks aren't driving every Tom, Dick and studio exec's (hey, that rhymes) desire for their people to "Get me one of those comic book movies or TV shows right now!". But you really can't bitch and moan about the four to six comic book movies out of 200 movies per year being the cause of that mindset. That happens with any type of film which hits big. How many GODFATHER and SHAFT and JAWS and EXORCIST and STAR WARS clones and sequels and more did we see in their wake? And before you get that "Hollywood sucks, give me the independents any day of the week!" smug look on your face, also remember on that independent cinema side of the coin how many "Get me one of those!" knock offs and wannabes followed in the stripstream of SEX, LIES & VIDEOTAPE, MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING and others. And how now everyone just wants another GET OUT.

     Part of show business is indeed business. And some cineastes (both fans and film makers) may say "We want to see more non cookie cutter movies". But if you don't support them with your hard earned "e pluribus unum" you make it difficult for more of them to be made and / or widely distributed. Case in point: within the last six months Paramount ate the big one when they released three such "non cookie cutter" films in a row - MOTHER!, SUBURBICON and DOWNSIZING - and no one went to see them. Then when they chose to release ANNIHILATION overseas directly to Netflix rather than theatrically, there was a scream from holy hell directed at the studio for "Not having faith in a difficult to market film". But they'd just released three difficult to market films which no one ended up giving a damn about. And they weren't big budgeted films either. So, they didn't need to make back TRANSFORMERS or AVENGERS dollars.

(L to R) MOTHER! (2017), DOWNSIZING (2017), SUBURBICON (2017)

     I realize it's a very frustrating time for many within the industry, but choosing the recent popularity of those "four to six per year" superhero movies as the "three legged dog dujour" to kick and blame isn't fair, ... or even accurate.

     Hey, I've got my ticket for AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR - IMAX 3D - for opening day tomorrow morning at 9:AM. I'm going with my mother. She was always my first audience. As a child when I read comic books, then started writing and drawing my own, then later took an interest in writing short stories and eventually screenplays and more (hey, I even precociously attempted to write a novel when I was 12), she was always the first person to see the latest project or newest draft. Oh, and it's also kind of neat and nifty that the very first anything of mine I ever saw published was an illustration I did of  INFINITY WAR's mondo villain Thanos - it surprisingly published in a national art newsletter / magazine of the day. So, mom knew who the bad-assed Thanos was long before many others even heard the name. In fact, as I was a serious comic book nut back then, she today is probably the only grandmother who knows more about the Marvel Universe and it's denizens than her grandchildren - my nephews.

Thanos. No, not by me. Hardly! This is by artist Freddie Williams II

    Long before the young'uns she even knew the more "obscure" characters like DOCTOR STRANGE. And she's certainly got ground on them in being long familiar with the more harder-edged characters they're far too young for at present - folks like GHOST RIDER, LUKE CAGE, BLADE and THE PUNISHER. So, all of this personal hot air and reminiscence to get across the point that for me those "hyper-gonadal" comic book movies in general, and Marvel films in particular, are kinda / sorta my personal version of those three KING KONG posters in that these films have personal, historical and even socio-political resonance and importance to me even if they may not hold that kind of spot in the artistic / creative central nervous system of a James Cameron or others. As for the socio-political thing, feel free to check out a GullCottage piece penned on BLACK PANTHER a few months back.

     Mom and I did GUARDIANS 2, LOGAN, WONDER-WOMAN (yeah, I know, she's D.C.), SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, THOR: RAGNAROK and BLACK PANTHER on opening weekend. And we'll continue with INFINITY WAR.

     Cineastes and snobs be damned! And that's with all due respect and love to Messers. Cameron, Scorcese, Hoffman and the rest of the gang. Hey, like 'ol NATTY GANN said during her famous journey ...

     "You're not the boss 'a me!".

     Just sayin'.


                                                                                                                      CEJ

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

"SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER" (2002): SELF-DETERMINATION (AND CALLING OUT THE BULLSH*T!) YEARS BEFORE #MeTOO - by CEJ



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SEARCHING FOR 
DEBRA WINGER (2002)

Written & Directed by - Rosanna Arquette
Produced by - Rosanna Arquette, Kristina Birkmayer, David Codikow, Mark Cuban, Patty Long, Todd Wagner, Happy Walters
Music Super. - Jojo Villenueva
Cinematographers - Jean-Marc Barr, Olivier Boucreux, Cort Fey, Joey Forsyte, Nathan Hope, Micheal Wojciechowski
Editor - Gail Yasunaga 
Set Decor. - Carisa Rosenthal, Joanna M. Wright
Running Time: 98 mins.
Release: May 2002 (Cannes) 
July 2002 (U.S. theatrical)
Dist: Lions Gate Films

GullCottage rating
(**** on a scale of 1-5)


VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!

     Searching for a poetic reference I've got to go with the biblical one about "a prophet without honor in his own country" - with the definition of "prophet" being the strictest one as in an oracle who divined something which most others at the time did not, could not, or just plain refused to see as that which inevitably very soon would be. In such light it's hard to believe that a film featuring Frances McDormand, Charlotte Rampling, Whoopi Goldberg, Meg Ryan, Selma Hayek, Kelly Lynch, Alfre Woodard, Venessa Redgrave, Diana Lane, Tracy Ullman, Sharon Stone, Ally Sheedy, Theresa Russell, Holly Hunter, Laura Dern, Patricia & Rosanna Arquette, and Debra Winger among others (and hell, that's only half the list!) could be considered "obscure" or "relatively unknown" for so long. But such is the case with Rosanna Arquette's feature length documentary SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER.


     While it debuted "Out of Competition" at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, then later enjoyed a limited theatrical run through Lions Gate Entertainment, I became familiar with this compressed cinematic gem via Leonard Maltin's now defunct weekly TV series SECRET'S OUT back when the show ran on the (old version) of Reelz Channel in the early 2000s. A couple of years later I'd stumble across a $3.00 DVD copy in a supermarket cheapie bin (the modern day "Well of the Souls" of cinematic treasure troves!), and snatch it up. But watching it now in the slipstream of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, it's nothing short of jaw-dropping to look back 15 years and see how, not unlike life in general (and hey, with women ... and Debra Winger in particular), Arquette's film has only improved with age. Now, that's not just because it concerned itself with addressing certain facets of #MeToo and #TimesUp long before those hashtags became front page news, but more because SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER even now manages to supersede them as a rallying cry for action over talk. Stick with me a few minutes and I think you'll understand and agree. Watch this pearl of a film for yourself, and I promise you'll agree even more.


     Upon release there were a few critics who felt Arquette's compilation of one-on-ones with various actresses was, yeah, insightful and in spots even intriguing, but that her cinematic and interview style were "choppy" and at times even "sappy" and unprofessional. I heartily disagree, ... though I can understand why some could misinterpret things as such.


     First off, what's the film about? Well, that's one of those questions wherein on the surface you have one answer as to "Why did the filmmaker set out to make this thing in the first place?", but on another level you have the more bonafied "Okay, I get that, but in the end what's really going on here?" aspect. And those aren't always the same thing. Y'know, as "about" and the "meaning" and / or "truth" of something is often found "in between the lines" of the obvious. And how sometimes that which is between those lines will be subtext written (for all intents and purposes) in invisible ink only later made see-able on the parchment pages via the greatest of reagents - the simple passage of time. In fact often it can be only through said passage of time that even those who are the subjects of / within a documentary (and in some cases even the film makers) can clearly come to see and understand those previously invisible / "between the line" layers themselves. The context of time can often (intentionally or not) change the meaning.


     SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER is the working definition of a famous quote by Orson Welles wherein he stated "In a fictional film the director is God, but in a documentary God is the director" - meaning that a good documentarian will allow the film to take her/ him where it decides it wants to go, ... which may not necessarily be to the final thematic location of the filmmaker's originally mapped-out intent.

     This trip begins with Rosanna Arquette having just crossed the 40 year mark. And, while at said particular life point she's never felt more comfortable within her own skin, she at the same time surprisingly finds herself not as fulfilled in her creative career existence. She wonders, as do many at that life bridge, if it's because she's unable to find a balance between career and motherhood. Or maybe it's that the film industry itself is unfulfilling. Maybe it's always been a b.s. of a sham, ... a two dimensional mirrored construct that she didn't realize or allow herself to see as such in her younger years. Perhaps it's all just in her head as the not atypical musings of a mind approaching midlife. Or could it likely be a combination of elements of all of the above?

     Always wondering why actress Debra Winger (of URBAN COWBOY, AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN and TERMS OF ENDEARMENT fame) chose to essentially retire from the business five years prior - when she was around the same age Arquette was approaching at the time she decided to make this film - our director sets out to interview over 40 actresses on two continents over the course of a year, beginning each sit-down by asking each woman why they feel Winger may have left the biz; then ultimately by film's end having a chat with Winger herself in order to ask the same.


     It's not too difficult to see why a few critics jumped the gun in using the word "sappy", because during the first 20 or so mins. of its 98 min. running time, the film does at first appear as though it's going to be little more than an hour and a half of actresses feeling guilty about not spending enough quality time with their children. Now, granted, that's not an unimportant subject to those within the families of those actresses, but (no disrespect intended) it's not necessarily a gripping topic to the average viewer. However, shortly thereafter the Orson Welles adage thematically kicks in, and things take off (or "evolve" might be more accurate) into a stream of (stream of consciousness?) subjects of discussion which have since proven to have major ramifications within the film industry of 2018.


     In this light perhaps one of the most fascinating and admirable things about the film is in what it doesn't do - in that it doesn't turn into a screed about how all men in the film industry are evil. Which is not to say there aren't more than a few horror stories along those lines to make one's toes curl and flat out enrage the hell out of you.

     Because Arquette opts here to use much of (what other film makers might consider) "B roll" footage ... . Y'know, the more unplanned and off-the-cuff material; ... that which was recorded as the interviewer and interviewees were grabbing a smoke and prepping for their official sit-down talks ... . Because she uses that with other footage captured in restaurants and bars after a meal and a few drinks or bottles of wine have been summarily consumed, and everyone is loose, open and honest as hell ... . Well, this is where, how and why the topics of discussion become "no bullsh*t within these borders" extremely frank and honest, and at times brutally so.

     The film is rated "R", and it's not only because of the plethora of F-bombs dropped like V2s in a re-enactment of the London Blitz, but more so because of unexpurgated discussions about studio execs approving or disapproving of an actress in a role because of her "audience fu*kability quotient", or Patricia Arquette recalling expressing her open disgust on a film set when a producer (who in retrospect sounds a helluva lot like Harvey Weinstein) attempted to fondle a crewmember's vagina, then asked an actress to smell his fingers.


     Not shy about dropping names, Winger herself relates how, while enjoying working with a consumate filmmaker like Taylor Hackford on AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, she also had the experience of former Paramount Studios co-head Don Simpson knocking on her hotel door one night during the shoot to offer her pills which could help her "lose some of the water retention" he felt was making her look too heavy in front of the camera. At that moment Winger decided - for better or for worse - that she wouldn't ever play the game by Hollywood's rules. So, yeah, some of the talk in the film ain't pretty. But in spite of this however the conversations ultimately lead towards, while yeah, being pissed at that kind of sh*t, and not wanting to put up with it, the more proactive "out flanking" maneuver of battling that kind of behavior and mindset by (and this is a huge topic for those who know me) seizing control of one's own destiny.


     Whoopi Goldberg and Frances McDormand (and McDormand's interview is candidly conducted in a ladies room at Cannes) talk about the need to outlast the executive a**holes who will eventually fall from power - as the film biz is one wherein a studio mogul at the top of the food chain one week can be (and often is) out on their ass the very next when new corporate interests take over the lot. And for those paying attention, and for others scratching their heads, this very much throws into context McDormand's words just a couple of months ago when she accepted her Oscar for THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI.

     Hayek talks of the need for women to become the producers of their own material rather than sitting around to be "rated" as attractive or not, and waiting for someone else to give you a role of which you can be proud. At a dinner table Martha Plimpton and Ally Sheedy effectively remind those in attendance of the importance of sometimes saying (and I'm paraphrasing) "Screw characters who are so-called 'role models' and 'strong representations', because once a certain age threshold is reached by an actress those roles fall out of favor and out the reach". They say instead "Lets create roles / characters with whom the average person of any given age or social level can identify". Y'know, real normal people like the kind you and I bump into on the street, at work and in the supermarket every day.


     In fact the only one here who has any (what could be considered) uber negative things to say about men in the industry is actually the only man interviewed in the film - late cinema critic & historian Roger Ebert, who effectively (and accurately) rails against those action franchise roles which, while enjoyable, and while they have their place and even importance, are ultimately often little more than "substitute male" fantasy fodder for pubescent boys. And he happens to express this opinion while at Cannes standing before a promo display of Angelina Jolie's first TOMB RAIDER film.


     It might be a bit of a stretch to say that the SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER interviews became a "galvanizing agent", or that they "led to" a desire for a new generation of women in Hollywood to want to seize more control of their professional (and yes, personal) destinies as did that earlier Stanwyck / Davis / Hayworth generation of the 1940s. But I do believe it's more than coincidental that around the same time as this docu's filming and release a number of women had just recently founded (or were in the process of founding) their own production companies for the very same reasons. Among those companies were Salma Hayek's "Ventanarosa" - which would go on to produce 2002's multi-award winning FRIDA and TV's UGLY BETTY; Drew Barrymore's "Flower Films" - responsible for NEVER BEEN KISSED, DONNIE DARKO and CHARLIE'S ANGELS; and Sandra Bullock's "Fortis Films" - the entity behind PRACTICAL MAGIC, HOPE FLOATS, MISS GONGENIALITY, TV's THE GEORGE LOPEZ SHOW and others.


     Shortly thereafter, as other actresses also neared their own 40-year thresholds, and wanted to see more realistic roles for women of all ages, they too became the masters of their own destinies in creating those roles. And the results of their desires would be the establishment of Reese Witherspoon's "Pacific Standard Company" (GONE GIRL, WILD, BIG LITTLE LIES), Queen Latifa's "Flavor Unit Entertainment" (THE COOKOUT, BEAUTY SHOP, and TV's SCREAM), and Nicole Kidman's "Blossom Films" (RABBIT HOLE, THE FAMILY FANG, and BIG LITTLE LIES - this in conjunction with Witherspoon's company).

FRIDA (2002), CHARLIE'S ANGELS (2000), HOPE FLOATS (1998) 

     Yet another generation / wave of women-owned production houses would follow in the wake of the previous - among these newer ones those owned by Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Banks, Taraji P. Hensen and Natalie Portman - and which would be responsible for even more recent fare such as I, TONYA, the PITCH PERFECT series, PROUD MARY, JANE GOT A GUN and more. And sure as hell as I type these final paragraphs, yet even another wave or two of companies are in the process of sprouting to life to fill the ever-increasing product demand void brought about by the implementation, global growth and popularity of streaming services such as Neflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and others - all of these women-owned production houses following similar suit in an insistence to both create more wide-ranging roles for women as well as to help eradicate incidents of sexual harassment and other forms of gender and age-centric abuses within the industry.


     Oh, it's also noticeable (and again, I believe more than coincidental) that shortly after the SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER interviews, actresses such as Jane Fonda and Debra Winger herself decided to end their self-imposed retirements in order to take on some of these more diverse, newly created roles in both film and television - the kind of which didn't really exist until after the WINGER interviews and release of the film. So, while I don't necessarily think Rosanna Arquette's 2002 documentary was the catalyst behind the (as Melanie Griffith dubbed it during a dinner chat) soon-to-be "Evolution Revolution", I genuinely believe Arquette managed to here capture as "lightning in a bottle" the overwhelming zeitgeist during a time in which a great deal of frustration,  personal and career self-reflection, and even anger was coalescing for many women in the industry, and being packed like gunpowder into the barrel of a newer era where the old rules of the game would eventually become no longer acceptable.

Anne Hathaway and Debra Winger in Jonathan Demme's RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (2008),
written by Jenny Lumet

     Watching SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER in 2018 is like watching the glowing hot coals onto which recent incidents such as the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and the successes of female driven projects such as WONDER WOMAN and BIG LITTLE LIES, would be the gasoline tossed onto them. And, as with the future visions of any "Prophet without honor in their own country", those visions and opinions passionately expressed in this rarefied brand of documentary in retrospect now seem obvious and inevitable, though a relatively short time ago this was hardly the case.


     As such a great deal of high praise is due to Rosanna Arquette as director for "following her gut" in allowing this gritty, low budget and at times raw-but-stunningly-realized film to evolve and assert its own broader themed (and ultimately more globally encompassing) self, rather than to settle for being a more tunnel-visioned examination of her own personal journey and angst in search of creative fulfillment. The best documentaries are those wherein the film maker is brave enough to let themselves get out of the god*amn way, and let the film speak for itself. And in being confident enough to do so Arquette's SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER has also (perhaps ironically) become the very answer of / to her own said personal journey / quest - this while simultaneously serving as a thematic lamp post for others hacking their way along the same pathway. It is without a doubt Arquette's bravest and most lasting filmic achievement to date. For me it's a filmic achievement which instantly raised her artistic "street cred" to new levels. And ...

     ... one of which I think deserves yet another rewatch tonight.


                                                                                                               CEJ


Sunday, April 1, 2018

"DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST" (1991): ONE OF THE MOST STUNNING FILMS EVER MADE FINALLY GETS ITS DUE - by CEJ



________________________________________________



DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST 

Dir. - Julie Dash
Cast: Cora Lee Day, Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Barbara O, Trula Hoosier, Adisa Anderson, Alva Rogers, Umar Abdurrahamn, Kaycee Moore, Bahni Turpin, Tommy Redman Hicks, Tony King, Cornell Royal, Vertamae Grosvenor, Sherry Jackson
Written by  - Julie Dash
Produced by - Lindsay Law, Julie Dash, Arthur Jafa
Music - John Barnes
Dir. of Photog. - Arthur Jafa
Editors - Joseph Burton, 
Amy Carey
Running Time: 112 mins.
Release: Jan. '91 (Sundance), Sept. 10, '91 (Toronto Fest)
Dec. 27, '91 (U.S. theatrical)
Sept. 11, '16 (rest: Toronto)
Dist: Kino / Cohen Media

GullCottage rating
(***** on a scale of 1-5)


VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!

     We love extremely visual movie making! And it's no exaggeration to say Julie Dash's DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991) is one of cinema history's most stunningly gorgeous films ever. Now, "visual movie making" isn't automatically a redundant phrase as (to us at least) it doesn't just mean moving frames (the definition of film) or "nice pretty images". Nowadays you can get that anywhere, from your average music video to technically well executed and witty Super Bowl ad spots. But no, by our definition truly "visual movie making" is when the images and characters and other elements of a film - be they in a feature, short, TV episode or whatever - are so inexorably ... psychologically ... spiritually (if you will) linked that the whole becomes infinitely more than the sum of its parts. It ends up being a delicate house of cards of light and sound where no one of those elements can independently exist apart from the other without each losing their artistic potency.


     Remember in the original BLADE RUNNER when replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) finally catches up with his creator Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), and while seeking a way to lengthen his life span via altering his own genetic coding he and his maker launch into a high tech debate which in the end winds up only explaining how any attempt to change Batty's established DNA sequence will result in his entire biology crashing? Well, in the best sense, truly visual film making - where the DNA strands of character, narrative and cinematography are so closely knotted together - is the exact same thing. 


     Omar Sharif was originally concerned that his titular character in David Lean's epic love story DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965) would come off as inert because he (and if you genuinely take the time to notice, it's true) didn't really have a lot of dialog in a movie with a running time clocking in excess of three hours. But after viewing early edits, and realizing what Lean was doing, Sharif was stunned to see how the entire film was almost literally seen through that character's eyes. Watching DOCTOR ZHIVAGO today, after having heard Sharif's words, it all now in retrospect seems obvious. The film itself as photographed / shot, ... in it's very style and execution is an extension of the character's psychology, ... of his very soul - the dichotomous (at times conflicting) eyes and soul of a man who is both scientist and poet. And as such Freddie Young's "conflicting" cinematography features love scenes shot in an often gritty and color de-saturated state, while scenes of war and violence and poverty are often lensed in a gorgeously filtered manner. In fact a huge disagreement over this kind of visual irony which Lean wanted caused original cinematographer Nicolas Roeg and the director to part ways not long into the production.

The eyes have it: DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965)

     Another inspiring example is in Walter Hill's 1993 historical drama GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND. Shot by Lloyd Ahern in Utah, Arizona and California - and in some of the same locations sage brush auteur John Ford was known to call home - Hill's political western from the very beginning features audience-encompassing widescreen vistas. But it's not just because "It looks great to shoot westerns this way".

     In a 1993 interview Ahern spilled the beans on how the film's entire visual aesthetic was designed to ultimately funnel down to a single scene near the film's midway point where Gene Hackman as U.S. Army Gen. George Crook and Wes Studi as Geronimo sit in a small canyon alcove to discuss possible peace. In the sequence Studi asks, "With all of this land why is there no room for the Apache? Why must the white-eye have all land?". And in that moment the camera does not do the expected thing - which would be a pullback or other transition to a sprawling Monument Valley-like vista out of the John Ford playbook. Uh, uh!. Instead there's a very quiet but pronounced closeup on Hackman's face as his eyes glance to the horizon behind Studi, and he struggles for an answer ... but can't come up with one. The cinematographic scheme of the entire film was designed for that one f**king awesome closeup which spoke millions, and spoke it with no words. That's what we mean by "truly visual" film making. For the last 27 years Dash's DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST has remained at the top of our "Most Visually Stunning Films Ever Made" list for that very reason.

The eyes have it: GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND (1993)

     Taking place in 1902 on St. Simons Island (just off the coast of Georgia), DAUGHTERS is centered around the Peazants - a family of Gullah islanders. For those unaware, the Gullah (aka "Geechee") are African-Americans who live in various regions of the southeastern U.S., and who maintain many of the traditions of their pre-slave-era African ancestors. This includes speaking their own "creole"-like language which primarily stems from Twi, Kikongo and other Bantu and Ghana dialects. In 1902 many still resided on St. Simons, and as such for a visitor stepping onto / into the island community, it was culture shock in not just being greeted with remnants of traditional African language, but in many ways it was stepping from a time machine into a past of perfectly preserved African tribal cultural mores and customs.

The loving, wise and matriarchal Nana (Cora Lee Day)

     As with any family, however, in DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST there are ideological differences -  here between younger members who wish to leave for a modern life on the mainland where better opportunities are promised in the northern states, and the older family and community members concerned that if this happens, their culture - that which has kept them alive and strong and proud for years - will be forever lost: diluted into non-existence within the American melting pot at a time when many blacks were seeking to distance themselves as far as possible from any vestigial memories of their enslaved past.

     One of the many wonderful things about Dash's film though is in it's ability, in the most human, relatable and realistic of ways, to express how - while neither viewpoint is wrong - they can and do cause a complicated-as-hell family dynamic.


     Told in at times non-liner fashion (we'll explain in a sec) the story of DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST pivots primarily around the quadrangle of elderly and matriarchal Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) - who practices traditional African religious customs, and who vows to never leave the island; Nana's granddaughter Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) - returning for the family reunion dinner from Philadelphia, where she's become a fervent Christian; Viola's cousin Yellow Mary (Barbara O) - who also returns from the mainland with her same sex lover Trula (Trula Hoosier); and young Eli (Adisa Anderson) - Nana's grandson, who is torn down the middle as to whether he wishes to stay or leave.


      Because traditional culture, examined in DAUGHTERS' conundrum of "to be or not to be" / "to leave or not to leave", is writer / director Dash's touchstone thematic here, and as it is exemplified in the characters' clothing, lifestyle, food, religious traditions and more, that culture becomes a living and breathing character itself within the film. And as such David Lean's ZHIVAGO-esque notion of the world seen through a single character's eyes is done perhaps one better in Dash's outing than in Lean's own as DAUGHTERS employs the clever conceit of being narrated by Nana's yet-to-be born grandchild who is looking back on her family history. As you can imagine, this surreal POV allows for some stunningly realized imagery (courtesy of cinematographer Arthur Jafa - who'd go on to shoot Spike Lee's visually arresting CROOKLYN) as well as an at times non-liner narrative chronology.


     There's nothing unreal at all in the visuals and narrative, mind you. Just that everything is kind of "slowed down" to the point where we, from the perspective of the unborn child (and children are fascinated by everything they see), notice every single gorgeous detail in nearly ever single frame of film, right down to the detailed stitching of Arline Gant's multi-layered costumes, the slightly heightened sound of the waves licking the shore, the gentle breezes and rustle of leaves, and the near musical squawking of the island bird life.

     Also, probably not since Sergio Leone has anyone ever cast a company of stunningly individual real life faces to populate a film as does Dash. Every furrowed line running down the countenance of every elder has a bottomless well of history between those crevices. And you want to know more of that history though the film's running time doesn't allow it. In this regard take particular notice of the expressiveness of the older men in the cast - lead by actor Umar Abdurrahman who portrays Bilal Muhammad, a practicing Muslim on the island.


     It's also no coincidence that the main group of women who serve as our "narrative tour guides" through the film are of varying skin complexions - as this allows not only all African-Americans in particular to see themselves represented, but allows the same for most families of any ethnic group in general, as every culture in America deals with the same familial issues on display here - issues of tradition, one's roots, gender roles, ethnic self loathing, and how often skin complexion can factor into the sometimes blurred line between racial integration and culturally "selling out". While certainly every African-American watching DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST can relate to these issues and more, they are certainly not unique to blacks in America. And the microcosm of the Peazant family cleverly comes to represent ethnic culture in American society at large over multiple generations. All of this is done however in an extremely non preachy but rather entertaining and (as stated earlier) visually arresting manner.


     Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in January, 1991, DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST was released theatrically by Kino International, and was the first feature film from an African-American woman director to see national distribution. There was a growing wave of African-American film makers making serious inroads into mainstream cinema at the time. In fact John Singleton's BOYZ N THE HOOD, Bill Duke's A RAGE IN HARLEM, and Spike Lee's JUNGLE FEVER all opened within months of DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST back in '91. But we felt then (and still do today) that Dash, while perhaps unfairly still not as well known to the general public as are her male director counterparts, certainly taught the master class with this stunning work. Let's face it, it's quite likely that, had this exact same film been made in the 1960s by a foreign male film maker, it would today be considered a "major trend setter" - it's style and thematics of which movies would have been imitating for the next fifty years.


     Proof of it's artistic status can be found in the fact that in 2004 DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant" to American film - right up there with other selections over the years such as ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 12 ANGRY MEN, 2001, APOCALYPSE NOW and more. Way to go, Julie!


     Believe it or not, in spite of all of this however, and in spite of Kino International's present day status as a home video label on par with the Criterion Collection, DAUGHTERS saw no legitimate home video release until a 1999 Kino VHS, followed by a 2000 Kino DVD. And even those quickly went out of print with the DVD then becoming a hard-to-find and high priced collectible, ... unless you were fortunate enough to burn a copy from one of  the film's occasional airings on Sundance Channel or IFC, which is what we actually did at the time. And while we're not usually fans of later day music videos blatantly appropriating / swiping the style of a relatively unknown film, it's no secret that Beyonce's visual album "Lemonade" - which patterned much of it's look on imagery from DAUGHTERS - ignited new interest in Dash's classic. In fact it generated so much interest among music and film critics, and curiosity from a new generation of film makers, the Cohen Media Group footed the bill to do a 25th Anniversary restoration and theatrical re-release of the film in 2016.

(Top) DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST - 1991 / (bottom) LEMONADE - 2016

     The restored DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST was released by Sony in a Blu-ray edition in April 2017. And as of this writing (April 2018) it is currently streaming on Netflix.

     If you've never seen this one-of-a-kind gem of a film, do yourself a favor and check it out on as large an HD screen (or theatrically if you can catch a revival showing) as possible. We're fairly certain you'll be as spirited away by its timeless themes, imagery, characters and dream-like quality as we were, and as we remain to this day.

     It's been far too long in coming. But it's high time (and damn nice!) to see Dash's DAUGHTERS finally receiving its due.


                                                                                                                       CEJ