-Nancy Mitford’s thinly veiled fictional autobiographical fictions, Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate are decidedly quick and light as both written and read, but so smart and observant that they easily escape the “guilty pleasure” category. Mitford, who sets her novel during her own pre- and post-World War II upper-middle-class British life and times, was a member of an aristocratic, eccentric family that, through the publicly displayed oddness of herself and her equally famous (and notorious) siblings, occupied a unique, even revolutionary place in English social history. Mitford’s stand-in, called Fanny, is much more normal- read “ordinary”- than herself; she uses Fanny, whom she transposes to cousin and niece of the novel’s actual protagonists, to place herself one step outside of the “Radlett” (a.k.a. Mitford) family, the better to play up the humor of their strange habits, behavior, and foibles.
The “Uncle Matthew” character, a diehard Conservative, very old, very curmudgeonly, childishly stubborn figure, is based on Mitford’s own father, and as I read, with a smile on my face, her detailed recollections of his ridiculous prejudices and odd colloquialisms (for example, people he doesn’t like are “sewers"), my mental picture of him began to strongly resemble the grandfather in John Boorman’s Hope and Glory- a patriarch who’s sort of affectionately tolerated and/or feared, someone who’d be a real monster if he weren’t so hapless, harmless, and dated in a way that renders him charming.
See also my earlier post on Mary S. Lovell’s The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family.
Further light, smart reading: The new David Sedaris, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (unlike Me Talk Pretty One Day, the title doesn’t seem to be readily explained by the contents of the book). One could devour this one in a single plane trip or only a small handful of bus rides, so I parsed it out sparingly to make the enjoyment last. Few writers make me laugh out loud the way Sedaris does; his humor seems extremely contemporary and modern, but as it’s devoid of real disdain, contempt, or “irony,” (and, on the other hand, isn’t at all the homespun-folksy, overly contrived, self-indulgent fluff his detractors make it out to be; there is real bite to much of it), exactly how he hits the funnybone so often and so precisely is something of an enjoyable enigma to me.
As always, though all the pieces included have their moments, a few stand apart: “Hejira” and “Repeat After Me” are moving despite Sedaris’s sworn opposition to sentimentality; “Blood Work” and, especially, “The Girl Next Door” (which I’d first read when it was published initially in The New Yorker) are hysterically funny. From what I can recall, “The End of the Affair” is the only thing approaching film criticism he’s ever written; although I don’t exactly share his opinion of the film (I’d say mine is substantially higher), it definitely offers some bitterly humorous and finally very sweet insight into the relationship between life and art.
His unqualified gifts as a writer and humorist aside, I appreciate Sedaris as an excellent example of what’s misleadingly called the “post-gay” sensibility; if there’s a sociopolitical point to what he does (something I doubt he would ever cop to), it’s that scratching the surface of any human being- whatever color, whatever gender, whatever sexuality, and regardless of how many limbs it has, all of which are regarded in Sedaris’s sensibility as incidental and not so inherently noteworthy- will reveal a desperate and/or insecure and/or pathetic oddball. However, there is no haranguing from Sedaris to “be ourselves,” or let it all hang out, necessarily; if that were to actually happen, the source of humor he’s able to mine to such great effect would disappear, and one of life’s small but genuine pleasures would be taken from us.
-I caught Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things when it played at the Seattle International Film Festival, and it was a somewhat slight but very lively and memorably bittersweet blast that, as I’d hoped, gratified my every Anglophilic craving. Evelyn Waugh (upon whose novel Vile Bodies, second in fame only to his Brideshead Revisited, the film is based) was a direct contemporary of Nancy Mitford; they both experienced and chronicled the delirious charm and reckless dangers of living amongst England’s declining class of idle, celebratory, decadent rich. Also like Mitford, Waugh gives us a portrait of people who are at worst just a bit spoiled and too apolitical and complacently self-aware. Evidently, the value and reward of a life of privilege and education is a certain worldliness and tolerance (of progressive political positions and of what we now call diversity, including tolerance of suffragettism/feminism and of what Gore Vidal aptly called “same-sexers”) of which the more prudish and prejudiced- because poorer, because more divided, because they have more to lose- members of the lower classes were (and perhaps are?) extremely suspicious and envious.
The film was directed with the kind of technical aplomb one doesn’t often see in films by more “writerly” directors (despite their stylistic rightness and visual sense, there is nothing in the films of, say, David Mamet or Woody Allen to compare to the sort of bold blocking Fry splashes across his film). I had been under the impression that Fry had directed Wilde, but a fellow filmgoer with whom I had a very nice cinephilic chat corrected me on this point; Bright Young Things is, in fact, the first movie directed by Stephen Fry.
The cast is a dream; the leads are nothing to complain about in the least, but I was particularly taken with Fenella Woolgar and Dan Aykroyd, who continues his ascent into dignity after The House of Mirth (there was also his turn in Driving Miss Daisy, but if you count that as an ascent, Spike Lee won’t talk to you).
Of interest to us pop music trivia buffs, the film’s original music- all of which sounds authentically mid-twentieth century- is by people hardly known for such staid (or timeless, or classic, take your pick) stuff; The Art of Noise’s Anne Dudley (who is now almost exclusively a film composer, I believe) and The Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe.
Fry was on hand to introduce the film (and for a post-screening Q&A which I didn’t attend), and after cracking a joke about how his next film was going to be about gay cowboys (a jesting reference to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, no doubt), he pointed out, very accurately and with a generous dose of English facetiousness, that the themes the film finds its way into- class disparities and anxieties, the intrusiveness and sensationalism of the trash-tabloid press- are still quite applicable today.
For more bright-young-things flavor, see also Noel Coward’s “Dance Little Lady” and “Poor Little Rich Girl,” or the indelible David Lean/Coward collaboration, Brief Encounter.
-From a couple of months ago: A birthday present to me from one Jamie S. Rich (whose site is also full of Mitford-related commentary as well as info on his soon to be published second novel; everyone should check it out): Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, comprised of Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1957), and The World of Apu (1959). I watched them back to back and didn’t feel a moment of nearly six hours going by.
Taken together, the three parts constitute an odyssey- specifically, the odyssey of Apu, whom we see grow from a very small boy into a man with a child of his own- from village life to urban life, from the old ways to the new ways, with all the accompanying tension and conflict that come when advances in transportation and its increasing accessibility is introduced into a culture, making geographical distances smaller and placing greater distances between individuals and loved ones (did someone say “nuclear family”?). Apu’s family and, later, Apu himself are torn between familial ties and obligations and personal growth and happiness, with some sacrifice of depth of life to breadth of life experience becoming inevitable. Ray covers an entire lifetime in these three films, but such care has been taken with each detail, whether visual, narrative, or performance-related, that it really does feel as if we’ve witnessed an entire lifetime unfolding without a single omission. It’s exhausting but not depleting; there is a joyous humanism in Ray’s sensibility that’s simultaneously lively and contemplative, melancholy and magnanimous.
When I read that the great Jean Renoir was a mentor to Ray, it made perfect sense; though the two are obviously of different nationalities and cultures, their achievements in cinema as storytelling art are similarly remarkable for a mastery that’s decidedly un-showy. Their humility and economy of style, their willingness to mold their own clearly considerable talents to the narrative and to indulge in the display of visual and technical skill only when called for, is just as admirable and difficult to pull off as some of the more highly choreographed, visceral, or technically tricky of the great films (Citizen Kane comes to mind).
-Before my departure to Vancouver, B.C. (where my main goal during a very brief stay is to simply relax and let some time slip by, and my only culturally related plan is to check out the recently opened Warhol exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery), I’ll leave you with a couple of short bits soon to appear in Just Out on Gypsy 83 and a revival of Paul Verhoeven’s “classic” The Fourth Man:
-The Fourth Man, the last Dutch-language film directed by the (in)famous Paul Verhoeven before he went Hollywood with Starship Troopers and Showgirls, presents us with a love triangle involving two men, one woman, and no insurmountable gender-based inhibitions. It probably seemed daring for its day (1983), and, unlike Verhoeven's Basic Instinct , which was boycotted by some queer groups in 1991 because of its murderous bisexual female heroine, The Fourth Man seems to have been viewed as benign or even queer-positive. What’s missing from Verhoeven’s early exercise in gaudiness, however, isn’t a thoughtful or cogent take on sexual orientation or gender politics, which the film makes no pretense of offering, but the sort of fine-tuned, winking, shamelessly cinephilic sensibility that better directors like Brian de Palma have parlayed into the stylish art of Cinema As Dirty Joke.
Verhoeven’s European work tends to be more highly regarded than his big-budget camp epics, but there is no discernible difference between the slick, ‘80s-vintage TV-commercial feel of The Fourth Man and that of, say, Flashdance, also released in ‘83. Instead of the glossily photographed, technically skilled, and almost surrealistically cheesy depiction of a working-class woman who becomes a ballerina by stripping, Verhoeven gives us the glossily photographed, technically skilled, and almost surrealistically cheesy depiction of a disheveled yet overconfident gay writer who gets involved with a seductive female fan, then finds himself caught in a boiling cauldron of polysexual erotic intrigue that might just be the death of him. There is a constant barrage of hilarious, literal-minded visual symbolism, including spiders spinning webs (like a dangerous temptress luring her prey- get it?) and more inexplicably portentous Catholic imagery than a Madonna video.
The tone is light enough to tip us off that Verhoeven doesn’t take most of this very unserious stuff any more seriously than he should. Nonetheless, instead of the self-awareness and relish for the movie’s underlying tawdriness that might’ve made it sensational, we get an unsatisfying, Flashdance-y bag of tricks, and The Fourth Man meets the fate of so many proficient but mediocre films: It’s not much more than a commercial for itself.
-We’re all familiar with Goth, the subculture of pale-complexioned, raven-haired, self-consciously doomy nonconformists whose disappointment at life’s unfairness is brazenly worn upon their sleeves. This disenfranchised-friendly but terminally self-serious sensibility begs- nay, demands- our pity, and it’s an easy target; there’s been a Goth sketch on Saturday Night Live and a mean, very funny, surprisingly knowledgeable Goth-mocking South Park episode. To un-Gothly paraphrase Kermit the Frog, it’s not easy being Goth.
With friends like Gypsy 83, however, the Goths don’t need enemies. Written and directed by Todd Stephens (Edge of Seventeen), it relates the misadventures of twentysomething Gypsy 83 and her gay high-school senior friend, Clive. Gypsy’s Stevie Nicks fixation- including a penchant for shawls, witchy gowns, and lots and lots of twirling- and Clive’s black-clad, lipsticked gayness do not help them fit into Sandusky, Ohio, where A-student Clive lives with his befuddled family and Gypsy forlornly sings the songs of her deceased (or is she?) mother with her dad, a washed-up musician.
Gypsy and Clive spontaneously head to New York, where Gypsy will participate in the Night of 1000 Stevies, a drag/lip-sync parade of unhealthy Nicks obsession (there is, glaringly, a total absence from the film of any actual Stevie Nicks music). On their eventful road trip, they meet a seductive lounge singer at a karaoke bar, Gypsy has a tempestuous affair with a wayward Amish hunk (who’s subjected to a sort of Goth Eye for the Amish Guy makeover) and Clive loses his virginity to a duplicitous, self-deluded frat boy. There’s soapy, door-slamming, tantrum-throwing self-discovery. There are grandstanding rants wherein Gypsy and/or Clive telegraph the banal theories of the screenwriter. It all leads up to a forgettable bittersweet ending, complete with tacky slow-motion.
Sara Rue and Kett Turton, who play Gypsy and Clive, are good actors, but they’re jerked around by Stephens like marionettes at the hands of an evil puppeteer. Even the few well-conceived scenes, including Clive’s rejection by snobbish NYC Goths, are constructed and shot in a manner ranging from unimaginative to just poor. Stephens’s script lacks any perspective or control and seems to suffer from Tourette’s syndrome; everything in it feels blurted out for no apparent reason.
Is a movie about the emotional and sexual coming of age of a gay Goth and his motherless female buddy a worthwhile proposition? I think it is. But having it made by people who evidently believe that throwing in some fine music by Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cure is all it takes should tremendously displease the target queer/Goth audience, for whom Gypsy 83 will be like having their life stories reduced to a trashy, dignity-robbing movie of the week.
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