My piece on Life Itself, Steve James' beautiful documentary on Roger Ebert, is now up at RogerEbert.com. You can read it here
Friday, January 24, 2014
Thursday, January 2, 2014
More than any other movie I have ever seen, To the Wonder succeeds in presenting everyday American life as a historical and sociological marvel to be stunned by: invisible to the natives, but immediately apparent to newcomers (especially ones who, like Marina, had experienced the shriveled grayness of the communist world – or any world in which enterprise is institutionally thwarted). Marina reacts to the casual affluence she sees all around her in an ecstatic, sensuous way.
(Read the full version of my Movie Mezzanine piece on To the Wonder here)
Wednesday, January 1, 2014
As is known to every cinephile, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton did a bad, bad thing together in 1963 (it was called Cleopatra), so I guess it wasn’t exactly a surprise to discover them six years later as an estranged, bickering gay couple in Stanley Donen’s Staircase. With no Liz rolling out of carpets, they decided to jointly out-camp Roddy McDowall in this trailblazing two-hander, adapted by Charles Dyer from his own play.
That a movie like this even exists is something of a wonder, given the time it was made at, as well as bearing in mind the stature of its stars. It was only five years since Rex won his Oscar for reciting lyrics to music in My Fair Lady (1964) – and mere two after he shot the breeze with animals in Doctor Dolittle (1967). Burton was fresh off not only from his wordy boxing with Liz Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1966), but also from the deranged re-match of Boom! (1968). Both of those were mere sparring sessions compared to the non-stop stream of vitriol that Dyer milked from his premise in Staircase.
George Lucas must have watched Staircase.
"So that's what you had beneath those robes in Cleopatra, eh...?"
The movie portrays a troubled, long-time relationship of Harry (Burton) and Charlie (Harrison): an aging London couple owning a hairdressing salon and spending their days fighting. Harry’s bedridden mother stays under the same roof, with her son taking tender care of her (despite occasional maternal inquiries about the lost cause of „meeting a nice girl”). The couple is forever at odds, except when they’re silent and work as a unit: one of the early scenes shows their mutual shave-and-haircut, with every movement and gesture perfected by years of daily routine. (Donen even manages to sneak in an incredibly dirty visual joke into the scene, boldly suggesting anal sex in a movie otherwise too timid to allow its protagonists a single kiss.)
The relationship is further tested by the announced arrival of Charlie’s estranged daughter (the result of his early jab at heterosexuality) and a lawsuit against him, involving alleged „indecency” of publicly acting up in drag. Charlie is flamboyant, hammy and outspoken (as I said, he’s played by Rex Harrison), but he abhors the upcoming inquiry, fearing humiliating questions and demeaning medical examination. Harry tries to be supportive of his partner, but Charlie isn’t good with either giving or receiving tenderness: he’s addicted to preemptive strikes as a result of a lifetime of dodging insults. He’s bitchy by default, which puts Harry forever on the defense – the latter is being called everything from from „my Communist buttercup” to „Lady Godiva’s tit”.
"You have a pimple on top! It looks like Lady Godiva's tit!"
[The actual line!]
The men are also completely different in the way they look. In contrast to the unassuming Harry, who spends most of the movie in an elaborate head bandage (covering the bald scalp he despises), Charie is a much flashier dresser. Prone to wearing lilac pants, pink shitrs and silk pajamas (as well as to doing his manicure with a pink file the size of a ruler), Harrison’s character takes pride in his gaudy jewlery, as well as in his full head of hair – the sign of virility and youthfulness that the dessicated Harry no longer possesses. The entire movie is built on the love/hate that founds Harry and Charlie's relationship: Donen wants to show us the mutual interdependecy of two men who seem constantly on the verge of killing one another.
Someone has been watching too much Stanley Donen movies...
...and way too much Lubitsch!
Gay domesticity is so rarely portrayed in cinema, I really wished Staircase to be better than it turned out to be. There’s no doubt it is, in many respects, a pioneering work: with the single exception of the much less candid Rope (1948), I can’t think of another pre-Stonewall movie that would present a gay household in such matter-of-fact way. Still, the script too often becomes insufferable in its fixation on double entendres and stereotypical flaming banter that quickly becomes almost rigid in its relentless bitchiness. (In hindsight, Harold Pinter’s Butley (1974) seems to me influenced by Staircase in its use of florid rhetoric as armor built to sustain the constant assault of homophobia.)
"You were singing... You really were..."
[Not the actual line!]
Staircase belongs squarely in the much-criticized genre of sad-to-be-gay movies presenting the lives of their characters in terms of gloom, failure and inevitable misery. Just like Boys in the Band (1970) and, in part, Lianna (1983), Donen’s movie is far from celebratory in its portrayal of gay life: the very last scene suggests that Harry and Charlie are a pair of crippled individuals who need each other's compassion in order simply to fuction – but cannot possibly attain happiness and fulfillment in the world that surrounds them.
Love and marriage.
Unlike many, I don’t find such a notion offensive or miserabilist. A movie doesn’t have to end on a note of triumph to bring its viewers a glimpse of hope. In films like Boys in the Band and Staircase, it’s the mere fact of gay visibility that matters. The characters may be scarred, but they try to live their lives and, more importantly, they are up there on the screen. I once heard Boys in the Band being described as a „whining orgy”, but I firmly believe that every oppressed group has a damn right to a heartfelt moan – especially when it only starts fighting for dignity and rights it boldly defines as inalienable.
The world has changed tremendously since 1969 and there’s no doubt that modern-day Harry and Charlie would have been living very different lives (should they be lucky enough to be born in a place that recognizes gay rights). Harry’s longing for a child wouldn’t seem outlandish, and the movie could be closer in tone to Donen’s Two for a Road (1967), in which the sexual orientation of the characters wasn’t an issue (only their emotions were). Still, all change has its stages. Staircase largly fails as drama and feels sloppy as moviemaking (the editing is especially jarring), but it does count as a step forward in a struggle for a world in which the images you see below cease to be a joke (or an outrage) to become commonplace instead.