Saturday, February 12, 2011

Suiting Up: The “Boyfriend” Trend in Women’s Wear

Esperanza Spalding
If you have ventured into the ladies section of almost any mainstream boutique lately, you have probably become aware of the “boyfriend” trend in women’s wear. Over the past few years oversized and relaxed fitting jeans, sweaters and watches have invaded the store racks and our closets. More recently, I’ve noticed a few (pleasantly) surprising alterations; our baggy boyfriend items are being phased out by some sleeker and more formal (yet still masculine-inspired) garments. Last holiday season, our unisex options were promoted from relaxed jeans and baggy cardigans to bow ties and tuxedo shirts. Black dresses were substituted for black ties at many holiday parties; magazines also featured glossy spreads of Esperanza Spalding – musician and now Banana Republic model – sporting suspenders and a man’s tie. A feminine style of Oxfords also lined display windows. Apparently we’ve upgraded our boyfriends.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Biutiful: Anything But

Javier Bardem in Biutiful
One of the most telling aspects of film criticism these days is what I call the double standard when it comes to reviewing foreign language art house films. Reviewers, and sometimes the public, have no trouble calling out or exposing crass, manipulative or exploitative Hollywood movies (and there is no shortage of those) for the frauds that they are. But stick subtitles on an equally meretricious film, albeit one that takes place in a European, South American or Asian setting, and suddenly the superlatives and praise are thrown out with wild abandon. From Michelangelo Antonioni’s terribly pretentious and terrible Red Desert (1964) through to more recent offensive movies such as The White Ribbon (2009), Michael Haneke’s facile ‘expose’ of fascism, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's startlingly inept and empty Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), this blind spot is persistent everywhere in film reviewing circles. Biutiful, the latest film from Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores perres, Babel), fits neatly into this category.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Wrong Men: Innocents in Noir Nightshade

One of the cornerstones of film noir is the inevitability of fate. The deeper fear being that despite your best intentions, or your honest nature, bad things will happen to you – for no reason at all. That is, for no reason that is consciously intended. In Fritz's Lang's spiraling nightmare The Woman in the Window (1944), Edward G. Robinson's meekly self-effacing Professor Richard Wanley entertains his erotic fantasies gazing at an oil portrait of Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) in a storefront window. But when he suddenly meets Reed, in the flesh, on the street, his fantasies begin to have true consequences. After killing Alice's lover in self-defense, Wanley finds himself being pursued by Heidt (Dan Duryea), an ex-cop with blackmail on his mind. It also doesn't help that Heidt was the dead man's bodyguard. Suddenly, the milquetoast professor is stewing in primal juices he'd only dabbled in with his imagination.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Recollections of Reagan: A Confounding Centennial

President Reagan (Credit: Ronald Reagan Library)
While visiting embattled Nicaragua as a journalist in 1984, I met the grieving mother of a four-year-old killed by the Contras. These vicious mercenaries, not-so-secretly funded by the United States, had been firing mortars into the remote mountain town of Teotecacinte. After residents spent 17 consecutive days in rudimentary bomb shelters, Carmen Guttierez Suyapa was allowed to play outside when it seemed as if the attacks had finally ended. She died under a sapodilla tree, where someone later planted a tiny flowering begonia in her memory.

Ronald Reagan lost his memory to Alzheimer’s disease, at the end apparently no longer able to recall having been the 40th president. Upon his death in 2004 at age 93, he had lived 89 more years than the Nicaraguan child whose blood essentially was on his hands. The Contras – he referred to them as “freedom fighters” and “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers” – got their weapons and other supplies with his blessing.

There is, of course, no mention of little Carmen in Reagan, a thought-provoking and beautifully crafted profile that's perhaps a bit too kind to its controversial subject. The documentary premiered at January’s Sundance Film Festival before a February 7 broadcast on HBO (with a repeat at 8 p.m. on February 9) during a week that marked what would have been his 100th birthday. Director Eugene Jarecki, who divides his time between New York City and Vermont, covers that 1980s period of intervention in Central America primarily to examine the Iran-Contra affair: Proceeds from illegal arms sales to the Ayatollah supported the counterrevolutionaries trying to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, who spearheaded the entire operation, has since said of Reagan’s participation: "I have no doubt that he was told about the use of residuals for the Contras, and that he approved it. Enthusiastically."

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Digging into the Past: Watching Public Domain Films Online

We've all seen them. When video tapes first came out, and then later DVDs, the market was swamped by unknown video/DVD companies releasing a group of movies that had all passed into the public domain (PD). Some of those titles were: The White Zombie (1932), Impact (1949), D.O.A. (1950), Quicksand (1950), The Big Combo (1955), The Last Man On Earth (1964 – the original film version of the 2007 I Am Legend), Night of the Living Dead (1968). They always seemed to be the same 70 or 80 films. Well, now you don't have to go to the cut-rate vid store to see any of these offerings.

There are several sites on the internet that allow you to watch/download movies and other PD material. Some are better, but one of the best (yet difficult to search through) is Internet Archive ( Internet Archive is a website that not only contains 400,000+ of PD “Moving Images” (movies, TV shows, shorts, government documentaries ... you name it, and if it's in the public domain, you'll probably find it), but also music, audio files (such as old-time radio plays), books, software, and any other ephemera you can think of. This site is obviously inspired by Napster, because 'volunteers' post the material on the site and then others watch or download it from the site. Internet Archive confirms the material is PD before they allow it to go up on the site.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Arab Labor: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Checkpoint

The cast of Arab Labor (Season 1).

Watching great foreign television is often a multilayered pleasure. It gives the viewer access to a whole new world of talent – writers, actors, and directors – and the stories and themes that other cultures choose to explore are often surprising in themselves. Television is too often a generic art form, and even its innovations sometimes seem to be confined to variations on familiar, well-trodden situations. Not only can the best of foreign television be refreshingly unique in its execution, but watching these shows can also reveal heretofore unknown or unobserved aspects of our own domestic television. Our most basic assumptions about character, plot, and human interaction (presuppositions that can function as a kind of storytelling shorthand, and therefore often pass without being perceived) can become visible, precisely in their absence, in these new programs. This is a fact that cinephiles have known for decades, which is why foreign language films are watched with such dedication and enthusiasm by movie lovers. But foreign television – especially foreign language television – has never been as accessible as foreign film. While cinephiles have long been able to enjoy movies from all over the world, telephiles (why isn’t this word in the OED yet?) haven’t been quite so lucky.  

For decades, networks like PBS and the CBC have been bringing us the best of British television, but the TV powers-that-be rarely, if ever, broadcast non-English programs in North America. More often than not the North American TV viewer’s sole access to foreign television is indirect, by way of domestic adaptations of the original shows. I’m sure there are some well-intended reasons behind this practice: the very nature of TV storytelling, be it drama or comedy, often relies on cultural cues and references which can be obstacles to new audiences, even when language isn’t an issue. In the past month alone, US cable networks have launched three high profile remakes of British series, all of which are still in production in the UK: Being Human, Shameless, and Skins. And, as touch-and-go as remakes notoriously are, that is not to say that US networks haven’t had some stunning successes in the past: often as much can be gained as is lost in translation. Still, for every All in the Family (based on the BBC’s working-class comedy, Till Death Us Do Part) and The Office, there are tone-deaf failures like NBC’s Coupling and ABC’s recent Life on Mars. An avid TV viewer has more than enough reason to approach these new efforts with some caution. But if you want to watch original non-English TV, even in our current 200-channel universe, you’ve got to program them for yourself. Fortunately for us, each of us individually has access to more television than ever before, and even if the shows aren’t airing with any regularity, Internet streaming (from services like Netflix and from international websites) and DVDs from Amazon can more than make up for it. Today I want to talk about Arab Labor, a series running on Israeli television which recently completed its second season.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Day Players: Single-Scene Attractions

Oksana Akinshina in The Bourne Supremacy
Oksana Akinshina and Danielle DuClos. Never heard of either of these actresses, have you? Neither one has had what you could call a major career, at least not in English-language films. Akinshina is a still-working Russian actress who has made only one American film, The Bourne Supremacy (2004), and American Danielle DuClos's career in movies essentially ended shortly after she appeared in her one major motion picture, Midnight Run (1988). And yet, their small contributions to both films enriched the finished product immeasurably. In both films, they were what are called in the industry a day player. Sure, it may take more than a day to shoot their scenes in a motion picture (since the process is so slow), but essentially they are hired for one scene. Fortunately, for both of them, they got to appear in an extended sequence with the film's star.