Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Situation's Fraught

If love were easy, fewer people would be so miserable. But familiarity often leads to contempt and, once that happens, the gates of hell open to unleash doubt, deception, disappointment, and depression. And guess what? That's when just two people are involved! Add a third person to the mix and complications quickly ensue.
  • In A Little Night Music, lawyer Fredrik Egerman can't stop fantasizing about his old flame, Desiree Armfeldt (even though he has recently married a very young and naive woman named Anne).
  • In 110 in the Shade, self-conscious spinster Lizzie Curry must decide whether to run away with Bill Starbuck (a con man who claims to be a rainmaker) or settle down with the dull, divorced, but reliable Sheriff File.
  • In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the aging, cantankerous Senex and his naive young son, Hero, both have their eyes set on the beautiful Philia. In the following video clip, father and son express their doubts about whether either one of them could be a satisfactory lover.

The past year has been filled with bitter debates in which religious conservatives have accused the LGBT community and its sympathizers of trying to redefine traditional marriage. Somehow, they have convinced themselves that it's a slippery slope from men loving men and women loving women to someone wanting to marry his pet dog (as opposed to finishing My Pet Goat).

For some reason, two women in love with the same man -- or two men in love with the same woman -- never seems to provoke the same level of moral outrage. Perhaps the reason Tiger Woods got away with so many affairs is because, as the old saying goes, "Membership has its privileges." Assuming, of course, that membership involves belonging to a subset that is distinctly heterosexual.

December offered two screenings of films whose plots revolve around tortured heterosexual love triangles. One is a bitter anti-war silent film that debuted in 1919, shortly after World War I. The other is a contemporary romantic comedy headed by a cast of three major Hollywood stars. The first was a revolutionary breakthrough in film 90 years ago. The second attempts to be revolutionary while nestled snugly in the coziest of surroundings.

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Accompanied by Robert Israel on the Mighty Wurlitzer, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (in association with Alliance Francaise of San Francisco and the Consulate General of France, San Francisco) recently presented the North American premiere of the restored version of filmmaking pioneer Abel Gance's masterpiece, J'Accuse. In 1919, the film's French and British premieres were controversial events in which critics credited the filmmaker with, among other things, forcing his audience to think.

American audiences, however, did not respond as well. In large part, this was because the film's impact had been severely watered down by re-editing that forced a happy ending. Renamed I Accuse, the film's anti-war sentiment had been changed so dramatically that it seemed as if Gance's epic was actually about French patriotism.

In 2007, the Nederlands Filmmuseum and Lobster Films worked together to restore the version of Gance's film that had been shown throughout Europe following World War I. Clocking in at nearly 162 minutes, the restored print (as seen at the Castro Theatre) marked the first time that American audiences had really ever had a chance to see the film as it was intended to be shown. Gance is known to have explained that at the time he was making J'Accuse:
"This film was intended to show that if war did not serve some purpose, then it was a terrible waste. If it had to be waged, then a man's death must achieve something. There were great numbers of soldiers coming to the Midi on eight-day passes (a little "breather" after four years at the front). I asked the local HQ if I could borrow two thousand of them. These men had come straight from the front. They had seen it all and now they played the dead -- knowing they would probably die themselves. In a few weeks or months 80% of them would disappear. I knew it and so did they."
Seeing Gance's restored film barely a week after Barack Obama announced plans to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan gave J'Accuse a renewed timeliness. In the final third of the film, as the war's victims head home in a powerful "March of the Dead" sequence (predating the zombie genre), the deranged Jean warns villagers that "Your dead will come back and they'll ask you for an explanation! Shame on you, unfaithful wives, war profiteers, politicians and president!"

Romuald Joubé as Jean Diaz

Who are the basic characters in J'Accuse ?
  • Jean Diaz (Romuald Joubé) is a poet who strongly believes in pacifism.
  • Mother Diaz (Mme. Mancini) is Jean's mother, who loves having her son read his poems to her. After war breaks out, and Jean leaves for the front, she never stops praying for his safety.
  • Francois Laurin (Séverin-Mars) is a provincial farmer who, although frequently drunk, crude, and abusive, claims to deeply love his wife.
  • Edith Laurin (Maryse Dauvray) is stuck in a loveless marriage with Francois, but is secretly in love with Jean. When Francois sends her away (presumably to protect her from invading soldiers, but probably just as much to prevent Edith from seeing Jean), Edith gets gang-raped by a group of German soldiers. She eventually gives birth to an illegitimate child and returns home in shame. Fearing that if Francois discovers she has an illegitimate child he would not hesitate to kill it, she sends her daughter to live with Jean.
  • Angele (Angele Guys) is Edith's illegitimate daughter. When Francois returns home from the front and sees Edith and Jean playing with Angele, he immediately assumes that the little girl is their love child.
  • Maria Lazare (Maxime Desjardins) is a retired soldier, a stern traditionalist and conservative militarist who is the father of Francois. When his daughter-in-law returns home with Angele, he denounces her for her infidelity and disowns her.
Jean (Romuald Joubé) and Francois Laurin (Séverin-Mars)

Gance's film tries to humanize the impact of war by showing how it affects the members of a village whose sons have all gone off to battle (and, particularly, the three unfortunate souls caught in a romantic triangle). As soldiers at the front, Jean and Francois manage to overcome their jealous rivalry after Francois learns that Jean risked his life on a dangerous mission that was supposed to have been carried out by Francois.

As madness takes its toll on the battlefield and in the trenches, Gance makes use of the real letters soldiers wrote to their loved ones in order to show audiences the willingness of these men to risk their lives for their country. Another set of (fictional) letters to be delivered to Edith forms a critical plot device that is too complicated to explain here in print.

Back when I was writing about opera, I often attended productions of rarely-performed "important works" that had been revived to satisfy the curiosity of cultural historians, academics, and musicologists. Among these "lost treasures" were:
These works often seemed better off left undisturbed. Although the restored version of Abel Gance's J'Accuse felt about an hour too long for modern audiences (and frequently started to sag), it still ranks as a major achievement in filmmaking during the early part of the 20th century. I'm grateful for having had a chance to see it.

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The man I followed out to San Francisco (who committed suicide in the early 1980s) used to insist that a person might as well die after turning 30. Why? Because, by that point, he'd have done everything there was to do.

Several years ago, a friend who had worked his way high up the corporate ladder received the kind of phone call an adult executive dreads. Just as he was about to start a top-level meeting, his phone rang. Since his mother was calling from Hawaii, he thought it might be important. "Oh, Larry," she gushed, "I'm so happy! I just had sex for the first time since your stepfather died!"

He was an emotional wreck for the rest of the day.

Even after they have become adults, for many people the thought of their parents having sex is nothing less than ghastly. Even though sexual intercourse between their parents is the act that gave these people life, for their aging parents to still be fucking seems gross to them. The thought of people over 70 having sex severely tests the gag reflexes of many grown children.

But for the participants? It could actually be fun.

A new film by Nancy Meyers celebrates the concept of seniors having sex. Perhaps to prove there is a market for film other than 15-year-old boys -- or to satisfy the latent desires of AARP's membership for a tasteful version of Geezers Gone Wild -- It's Complicated is a romantic comedy for the woman who has everything to play with -- except a hard dick.

Jane (Meryl Streep) and Jake (Alec Baldwin) have been divorced for ten years. During their 20-year marriage, they had three children and built a comfortable life in Santa Barbara before their marriage broke up. With Jake remarried to the much younger Agness (Lake Bell) -- who wants a child by him in addition to the obnoxious brat she retained from her previous marriage -- Jane has been content to run a successful gourmet bakery and catering business and enjoy the company of her friends. Their lives would seem to be on fairly solid ground.
  • As the film opens, Jane and Jake are seen congratulating two friends who have stayed married for 30 years. Their body language and the intimacy of their speech patterns belong to two people who have invested a lot of time and energy in each other.
  • With their youngest child (Zoe Kazan) headed off to college, Jane suddenly finds herself alone in an empty house with the chance to finally build her dream kitchen. Although her children ask if she will feel uncomfortable being all by herself, they cannot supply what Jane needs.
  • Jane's support group of widows and divorcées urge her to get out more and get some adventure in her life. To be honest, Jane is feeling fairly self-confident, very much akin to the mixed emotions expressed by Nellie Forbush (Reba McEntire) in this clip from a June 9, 2005 concert performance of South Pacific at Carnegie Hall.

All that remains is to fly to New York for her son's college graduation. And that's where all the trouble starts.

When Jane and Jake run into each other at the hotel bar (Jane is waiting to be summoned to dinner at her table for one), Jake orders drinks and the two start to get chummy. Very chummy. Several hours later they end up in bed.

Jane (Meryl Streep) and Jake (Alec Baldwin)

This is not the coolest move for Jane, who tends to be analytical and think about consequences. But for Jake, it's like a return to the mother lode. Hot sex with the true love of his life? Who could ask for anything more!

Things get complicated (hence the title of the movie) when Jane and Jake continue to have sex upon their return to California. With Jake's second wife becoming suspicious -- and Jane's son-in-law (John Krasinski) horrified when he catches on to their affair -- the addition to Jane's life of an extremely handsome, solicitous, and divorced architect (Steve Martin) is an ingredient that can only lead to spontaneous combustion.

Jane (Meryl Streep) and Adam (Steve Martin)

Can Jake get back with his wife? Can Jane have it all?

See Jane bake.

See Jane get baked.

Nancy Meyers' film achieves some interesting breakthroughs:
  • Whereas the bulk of comedy films hitting the market these days (especially those by Judd Apatow) feature teenagers getting high and feeling all giggly around adults, Meyers has people in their 50s and 60s getting high and feeling all giggly and silly around their children.
  • Instead of resorting to teenage piss and fart jokes, she seeks humor in the more adult physical humiliation of hot flashes, male infertility, portliness, sags, and wrinkles.
  • Instead of young girls lifting their shirts to show off their perky tits, we get to see Alec Baldwin preening and proudly repositioning his junk as he poses before a web camera.
  • Instead of young boys grabbing their crotches to show how gangsta they think they are, we get to see Baldwin reaching over and grabbing Streep's crotch in memory of good times.
  • Whereas Jane might seem the one most vulnerable to being hurt by a romantic triangle, it is actually Adam (whose wife left him while they were on vacation) who is most worried about protecting his emotions.
Steve Martin as Adam

There are some obvious creature comforts involved in this romantic comedy (which seems to take place in a rarified atmosphere):
  • Money is never an issue. Jane is comfortably well off, as are her husband (an attorney), her new love (an architect), and everyone else in the movie.
  • Jane, Jake, and Adam inhabit a nearly all-white community (except for the support staff at Jane's bakery and one of Adam's coworkers, who is Asian).
  • Much of Jane's home and professional environment look like a porn shoot designed by Martha Stewart.
  • Jane's outfits are simple, but elegant. She hasn't shopped at Wal-Mart or Target in years.
  • Adam is never a physical threat. He is very white, old enough to know better, and sufficiently wounded to need space of his own. In most other situations, he would be the understanding gay friend.
  • Once the spark is reignited between them, Jane and Jake have an easy rapport, even if Jake is quickly reverting to behaving like an overeager manpuppy.
By sheer coincidence, I caught a screening of Disney's new animated feature, The Princess and the Frog, on the same day that I attended a press screening of It's Complicated. As I sat watching the Disney flick, I couldn't help but chuckle at how so many of Louis the Alligator's movements matched other big-assed Disney characters like Baloo the Bear in The Jungle Book.

When you see The Princess and the Frog, watch carefully as Louis swings his massive hips from side to side, exulting in the sheer joy of having a good time. Watch the smile on his face, and notice his grinning self-satisfaction at being a big guy who loves jazz. Compare it to the dancing hippos in Fantasia and many of Disney's other larger-than-life characters (Pumbaa in The Lion King) and you'll soon realize that Baldwin absolutely nailed their uninhibited lust for life in his characterization of Jake.

I doubt it was intentional, but Baldwin perfectly encapsulates the essence of an adult male who wallows in sensual pleasure -- whether it be from food (Pumbaa describes the taste of a grub as "slimy but satisfying") or sex. In It's Complicated, Jake is so pleased with himself that he is nearly glowing when he tells his ex-wife "I love it when you smell like butter."

Tooling around in his little sports coupe, Jake is an aging boy who still wants to play with all of his favorite toys. In many ways, Baldwin's performance in this film is the AARP male's counterpart to I Enjoy Being A Girl (the hit number from Flower Drum Song).

He exudes a certain kind of masculine earthiness without every being smug. Watch Baldwin's face as he lovingly cups his hand between Streep's thighs the morning after they've had sex in New York. He's like a big old Disney bear who found a nest filled with honey.

Baldwin has always been such a strong actor that he can easily portray the supermacho type of man or the powerful corporate clown without sacrificing an ounce of his masculinity. In this clip from the same performance of South Pacific, you can see him having a great time in drag as the alluring "Honey Bun."

Streep is, of course, wonderful as Jane. Whether struggling to fend off Baldwin's amorous advances, exploring a new friendship with Steve Martin's Adam, or giggling her way through a party while stoned on her ass, she breezes through the film with nary a stretch mark on display. Steve Martin's performance as Adam is elegantly insecure.

As much as one may worship Streep, this is really Baldwin's picture. One could criticize Meyers for the overwhelming whiteness of her film, but this is her romantic fantasy and she directs it with grace and wit (rest assured, there are no cum stains on Jane's heavy thread-count sheets). Here's the trailer:

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