Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany
Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Home for the Holidays: Katy Perry Edition

As school vacation days roll into weeks, you’re probably looking for novel ways to keep yourself and the children entertained. Like watching Katy Perry: Part of Me on Netflix Instant. So I checked it out to see what parts she’s talking about exactly. Are they rated PG? The answer is a resounding Disney YES.
Instead of shooting whipped cream from her bra, for the purposes of The California Dreams Tour she goes with the more traditional candy cane uzi. Her dresses are pretty skimpy, sure,  but they take the form of lollipops and mermaids. If your children have been cleared for Barbie, and let’s face it, they have, they can proceed safely with Katy Perry: A Part of Me.
But what about me, the purported adult, you ask.  Will I be bored out of my mind? That all depends, surprisingly, on your position regarding French semiotics, particularly the concept of the simulacrum. Jean Baudrillard's concept of the simulacrum can best be understood in terms of the main street of Disneyland. What era or geography are these buildings meant to represent? Some sort of idealized mishmash; it doesn’t really matter. Disneyland has its own reality, which may in fact be preferable, or at least more hygienic than the real thing. You can visit the past; go to space, travel to New Orleans and visit the sacred cinematic space that is the Pirates of the Caribbean all on the family-oriented day. Are you seeing how this applies to Katy Perry’s songwriting? Please, try to keep up with your tour guide.
This is no mere concert film, this is a journey, produced by Academy Award ® winning producer Brian Grazer.  Like it or not,  as in The Pirates of the Caribbean films, there’s going to have to be a plot. Or the quest for a plot, punctuated by songs instead of swordfights. Let me walk you through some of the bright colored narrative ideas that float by in this giddy 93 minutes.
First story balloon: Katy Perry’s career represents a major break from her extremely religious, even puritanical family, who have disowned her for singing about kissing a girl. This narrative is the clear front-runner, since it’s been well-covered by the media. She was in fact from a family of traveling evangelical show people. Even fairy tales and Alice in Wonderland were considered too Satanic for the childrens’ consumption. Unfortunately, this fantastic storyline is blown to bits when we catch up with her mother and father chatting in Las Vegas. He has dyed brown hair and very dark sunglasses (indoors); he looks like a creep(ier?) Roy Orbison.  As traveling evangelicals they are fanatical, sure, but as show-biz insiders they can’t argue with success. We see them basking backstage at the show, in spite of the subversive mermaid action. (This in pointed contrast to Madonna’s dad in Madonna: Truth or Dare,  who seems to have had an entirely more virginal Madonna in mind.)
Second at bat storyline: Russell Brand and Katy Perry as true and potentially star-crossed lovers. This seemed like a very real possibility, based on what I’d read about the rockumentary when it came out. All that is tossed to the wind, however, once we spot the actual Brand backstage, and it becomes clear these “married” people are barely acquainted. But though they really don’t give us much to work with in the flesh, as the long-distance relationship starts to crumble and Brand files for divorce, this narrative arc starts to show potential. The perky Perry gets, like, exhausted and sad for a few nights and has to be coaxed onstage. There’s some crying. Given Brand’s subsequent interest in reforming politics and income inequality, it seems likely this was an early effort to undermine the evil plutocracy from within, one pop star at a time. Valiant, but abortive, as it turns out. Perry overcomes her malaise and returns in full Roar.
If you are going to get technical, that recent hit is not included in this 2012 show. Nor is it written or even "co-written" by Katy Perry. Nonetheless, its weird Toto/Muhammad Ali hybrid gets at something quintessentially KP, and gets us to our final storyline: Katy Perry’s artistic journey. We hear how the lonely young Perry, given a blue guitar (shades of Picasso?), worked at it tirelessly, rockin’ paens to Christ, mainly, to start with. Although her first single “Ur So Gay,” quickly sank, she did manage to hook up with master pop producers The Matrix (Avril Lavigne, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears) and Glen Ballard (Alanis Morissette) early on. This is where this particular narrative gets confusing. We hear about Perry rebelling against efforts to make her into another Lavigne or Morissette and to find her own voice. But the songs themselves are very much a presence in the film, and they tell another story. They kept seeming extremely familiar, partly they were big hits (she holds the record for the most hits off one album with Michael Jackson), partly because all her songs sound alike, and partly because they are also wildly reminiscent of all the other pop divas currently on the scene. I kept having the thought, “Oh, I thought that was Kelly Clarkson, or Pink, or Britney Spears.”
There’s a reason for that, as it turns out. Her story is not so much finding her own voice, as finally hooking up with the right songwriting producer,  
Max Martin, who also turns out to produce every other female pop star of the moment. Our voyage of discovery turned out  not to be one of French semioticians but of Swedish pop producers! This is the troubling Nordic landscape in which we find ourselves. Truly, must everything become ABBA?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Real Estella by Grace Lovelace

Ellen “Nelly” Ternan at 19, a year after meeting Charles Dickens.

Like the work of Charles Dickens itself, The Invisible Woman, the new film about Dickens’ mistress Ellen Ternan, is more radical than it appears. The 45-year-old Dickens met Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, 18,  when she appeared in a play he was producing and starring in. She stepped into the role previously played by his daughter Kate, as he decided to take the show on the road. She also became his companion for the next 12 years, his last.
Nelly Ternan has generally been treated as a somewhat ambiguous footnote to Dickens’ life. In this, his biographers took their cue from Dickens himself, who expended great energy wiping out the traces of his late life love affair. A famous man in mid-life spends enormous time and money on a pretty young actress? Generations of Dickens’ scholars have found this behavior unreadable. “Family friend,” had been the somewhat gingerly consensus, at least until the English biographer Claire Tomalin stepped in with her 1990 book on Ternan, her family, and their association with the  famous novelist.
Then, as now, the theater represented a sort of liminal space, on in which real world rules don’t always apply. Actresses, too, as Tomalin explains, though disapproved of, were also allowed unusual liberties. While regarded as outlaws, with an inevitable aura of prostitution, they were also, when successful, granted a remarkable degree of autonomy in Victorian England,  frequently moving between relationships or having children with different partners, within or without marriage. Nelly came from a well-established theatrical family, with roots and connections. She also seemed quite young and innocent, most people agreeing she seemed more immature than her 18 years. A potent combination, as it turned out, when it came to Charles Dickens.
For Dickens, the putting on of plays seems to have filled a number of purposes: providing an at least temporary escape from his by then unhappy marriage, and an opportunity to hang out with his Bohemian friend, Wilkie Collins. (Collins wrote the play, The Frozen Deep, in which Ternan and her sister appeared. He was also involved in many of Dickens’ other theatrical endeavors.)  A fellow novelist (The Moonstone, The Woman in White), Collins was also a notorious rogue:  a connoisseur of actresses, in fact, maintaining several households over his adulthood, while remaining unmarried. A man of the continent and of the theatre, he was the perfect companion for the restless Dickens, enacting freedoms the infinitely more famous, and famously virtuous Dickens could not allow himself.
When he eventually decided to sack his wife, Dickens seemed to have encountered surprisingly little resistance. He simply spun the story to his advantage. His wife, he wrote to the papers, had never taken an interest in the children, though she bore him ten. She was cow-like and crazy, he claimed, an unfit companion for his genius. According to Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman, from which the film is adapted, she was pensioned off to a small house north of Regent’s Park, away from the rest of the family. Georgina Hogarth, her sister, who had long enjoyed a position of power and favor with her celebrity brother-in-law, was happy to officially become matron of the house. She also publicly backed Dickens claims.
Dickens turned out to be quite masterful in shaping his public image, even well after his death. The beloved Dickens of a Christmas Carol didn’t just happen, he needed producing and stage managing. To that end, he blackmailed, wrote in code, used pseudonyms and most of all, burned anything incriminating and ordered others to do the same. His daughter Kate, writing much later to George Bernard Shaw, said she looked forward to letters surfacing “in which the real man is revealed, minus his Sunday clothes and all shams, and with his heart and soul burning like jewels in a dark place! I say there may be such letters and they may be one day given to the world” (quoted by Tomalin, p. 236). As it turned out she underestimated the extent of her father's control.
But history, like family, is an unruly thing. When Tomalin began to fill in the missing pieces, there were plenty of clues to be found. Ralph Fiennes takes up this material, as adapted by screenwriter Abi Morgan (
The Iron Lady), to give us a life not so much invisible as willfully erased. Tomalin’s Invisible Woman reads like a detective story; the drama lies in piecing together the evidence into the most likely scenario. What does it mean for a Victorian couple to disappear to France, as Dickens and Nelly appear to have done?  She posits that Ternan became pregnant and was spirited away to a morally flexible Gallic retreat, rather a tradition for English gentlemen of the period. Financial records for leases and sums of money under false names, frequent appointments with “N” in a lost appointment book? Along with testimony from Dickens’ children, several of whom made sure to go on the record before their deaths, the story of Dickens and Nelly Ternan began to take shape.
     While covering the same material, Fiennes movie takes a somewhat different approach.  His film, detailing the somewhat mercenary arrangements of an influential Victorian figure, plays out against our expectations for a love story, specifically one about an artistic couple  bucking convention. There’s not much transcendent here, the film makes clear, and Dickens alone had sufficient power to alter conventions to his own needs.
Fiennes gets a lot across of this across, very economically, in the early scene rehearsing The Frozen Deep.  His own theatrical experience, as well as growing up in a large, artistic family, no doubt came in handy. The casting is particularly effective: Felicity Jones, a young British actress unfamiliar to me, is attractive and fairly effective, but clearly unable to compete in terms of star power with her elder co-stars, evoking her youth and experience in what must have been an overwhelming situation. Ralph Fiennes plays Dickens and, in an extremely clever bit of casing, Kristin Scott Thomas is Nelly’s mother, Fanny Ternan. We cannot help but be reminded of their archetypal love story together, The English Patient, every time they are together in a scene. But now Thomas has been transformed to chaperone and somewhat unwilling broker. A sense of things are askew, of displacement, is the effortless result of this particular reunion.  Kristin Scott Thomas is flawless, as usual. She conveys a weary grasp of the situation, as well as a determination not to let it veer out of control. If there is a weak link, in terms of the acting, it is Fiennes himself.  When I first heard he was playing Dickens, I found it hard to imagine; how could this slow-moving, introspective actor play the tiny, hyper Dickens? (The very best man for that job, it strikes me, would have been Willy Wonka era-Gene Wilder. He alone could convey his manic vision and zany leadership style. And the costumes could essentially remain the same.) Though Fiennes acquits himself as Dickens, his acting in this film does not rise to the level of his directing.
When Nelly has been discussed as part of Dickens’ public life, it has been as the inspiration for Estella in Great Expectations, his late, great novel writing during this time. Although she may have initially appeared to him as a figure of virtue and passivity, in the long term he seems to have found her, and her family, rather less pliable.  Estella, an intractable beauty controlled by powerful backstage forces: this  does seem to bear some resemblance to his dealings with the Ternan clan. In the beginning he used his influence to get them parts and rent them houses; as time went on he procured her older sister Fanny a position as governess to Anthony Trollope’s widower brother, a job that quickly morphed into wife. Fanny began to publish regularly, at top prices, in Dickens publication All the Year Round. In the twelve years of his association with the family, before his death, they established themselves quite firmly in the nexus of his financial and literary connections. Later historians had grounds to wonder is this family was simply one of his ongoing charitable endeavors; they seem to have represented a package deal.
If at times these Ternan claims may have seemed onerous, they did confer one real advantage to Dickens: once established in respectable marriages, the Ternans were just as anxious to hide the true nature of the connection as he was himself. The extent to which Nelly was erased from the official Dickens story was due, largely, to her own efforts.
Nelly seems to have picked up Dickens knack for fictionalizing her own life. After his death she shaved a neat decade of her age, conveniently refreshing her maidenhood to marry a much young clergyman. Together they founded a school, coincidentally in Margate, the setting for much of Dickens’
Great Expectations.  She also had a son. Scenes from her life in Margate punctuate the film, which is told in flashbacks. These scenes of her helping to run the school, striding along the shoreline, and staring moodily into her first editions of Dickens, are some of the film’s weakest. Part of the point seems to be to establish the connection between Nelly and the real life elderly local cleric, coincidentally a huge Dickens fan, to whom she confided her secret and who eventually spilled the beans, establishing one of the important links in the chain of Nelly evidence. But this legalistic accounting, evident too in the scenes regarding Nelly’s probable stillbirth (closeup on Dickens signing the French death certificate, using one of his many Nelly-related pseudonyms), sits uneasily with the doomy romanticism.
After Dickens is gone, so too, largely, is the point of the film. Pasting in what are basically sequences from The French Lieutenant’s Woman does not, unfortunately, add depth to the portrait of Nelly Ternan, who seems to have been in point of fact  proactive in the extreme, not at all prone to depressive trances on the pier. She went on to live to a very old age, the Dickens relationship only discovered by her son much later, as he attempted to make sense of the financial records and mementos she left behind.
I saw this film as part of a series of early  industry screenings, accompanying my sister, who happens to be a SAG member. The showing of The Invisible Woman was sparsely attended, there was muttering about boredom on the way out. Very much in contrast to the later showing of  Out of the Furnace , the testosterone and violence fueled vehicle featuring powerhouse performances by Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, and Casey Affleck, as well as a standard bit part by Zoe Saldana as girlfriend/pre-school teacher. “Brave!” and “startling!” was the consensus on that one. The Invisible Woman is a small movie, not a perfect one, but it is unusual in having a genuinely feminist vision. From where I sit, that is startling.