Tuesday, July 17, 2007

At the movies

      I wrote a while back that I would blog about my Michael Moore’s film Sicko, and then spaced on doing it until I received an email reminding me that I said I would. I don’t have a whole lot to add to the reviews that are already out there. It’s an engaging film, filled with justified moral outrage, some well-placed dry humor and some genuinely heartbreaking moments. It's a bit of necessary shit-stirring in the debate on universal healthcare, and it’s on the right side of the argument. I don’t even mind that in the much talked about sequence where Moore gives a boatload of Americans a ride to Cube for free healthcare, the score becomes so laughably self-important and bombastic that I honestly thought the moment was a send-up of Dudley Do-right style posturing. It wasn’t. Shit was being played straight. And the film would have been richer if instead of Moore chatting with clearly well-off French middle class folk and American expatriates living in France, he’d spoken to some of the poor – starting with the immigrants and their car-burning children and grandchildren who live in the suburbs – to get their take on the application of universal healthcare. I mean, they’re the true model of the world that’s coming. Still, the pros easily outweigh the cons with Sicko. See it.
      A problem for me is that I’m not a fan of Moore’s inability to rein in his wide-eyed, faux naiveté when going in for a “gotcha” moment. Even though he’s knowingly playing it up, it just annoys me. But that’s a minor irk. My bigger issue with Moore, and it doesn’t come through so much in Sicko but I think it’s a defining characteristic of the man, is his own class anxiety and snobbery. It’s a humming undercurrent in his work and I can never not hear it.
      You get a telling glimpse of it in his very first film, Roger & Me, where he visits the woman who, in order to support her family after the plants close in Flint, sells rabbit pelts, rabbit meat, etc. Moore’s sneering, condescending handling of the woman was infuriating. Especially from a man who claimed to be down with and fighting for the people. But he was playing to those sheltered, self-righteous liberals on either coast (and I hate his tubby ass for making me sound like Ann Coulter right now)… but it’s true: he was playing to those coast-dwelling liberals who hoist themselves above the unwashed masses – cheering for them in theory and over wine & cheese sessions, but snickering and mocking them when confronted with the truth of their lives. How could he not understand and extend sympathy to this woman’s plight and her solution? He made her seem like a monstrous idiot, in the way he juxtaposed her with the cute and cuddly rabbits she was about to kill. Fuck that. To feed her kids, she went straight Elmer Fudd: Kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit. Completely understandable. But I think Moore has a lot of unexamined, complex shame at his blue-collar roots, and it’s resulted in his palpable need to ingratiate himself with the cool kids. You also saw this class anxiety and the performance it sparks in him appear over and over again in Bowling for Columbine… I'm down with his politics. I just think he needs to see a therapist to work through his shit. Click here to read the latest on Moore's well publicized beef with CNN and their biased reporting on his film.

      I loathe show tunes and was all prepared to hate the new version of Hairspray. Instead, I liked it quite a lot except for a couple of moments that set my teeth on edge. (Go here and scroll down for a plot synopsis.) But before I get to those, here’s my take on the rest of the film. John Travolta still can’t act after all these years and initially his self-effacing, whimpering Edna (whose speaking voice was described dead-on by one critic as a cross between Cher and Carol Channing) is incredibly annoying; all you see is the weakness in Travolta’s craft. It makes you long for the sly, smart performance by Divine, who – in the original film version – conveyed volumes about this working class white woman and her dreams deferred, with just the way she warned, “I’ve got clothes to iiiiiiiiiron, and my diet pill is wearing off!” But then, Travolta’s charm (his gift and his crutch) kicks in and the character completely wins you over. Christopher Walken shows up and does a variation on himself. It’s a very “eh” performance: doesn’t suck, doesn’t do much. Michelle Pfeiffer is too thin but still gorgeous, and kills it as a campy, racist villainess. Queen Latifah is that same warm, maternal, glowing character she’s been ever since trading in her African medallion for Farrah flips, but at least the shtick isn’t wrapped in hood rat drag. James Marsden is very, very good and the era suits he wears are beyond cool. (The folks who did the wardrobe for this film earned their wages several times over.) The youngsters in the cast are all especially appealing, with Nikki Blonsky (as Tracy, the lead character) giving big girls a plucky new heroine and Elijah Kelly being set to bring dark-skinned brothers back to center-stage as sex symbols. The songs are energetic toe-tappers whose lyrics are full of wit and humor. And the black girl-group that appears in the film, the Dynamites, prove once again that in terms of total package – sexiness, presence, sheer fierceness – ain’t nobody else seeing the black woman; that game’s on lock.

      Still, two things really bugged me. This is a film about race and the power of race music and black culture to bridge differences. (On that front, the original film – which actually uses real-life old race music and old Negro dances to prove that point – easily trumps the newbie.) But the filmmakers twice unwittingly and tellingly fall into predictable traps. In one scene, in which Tracy needs a dance routine to win a spot on the local talent show, she offhandedly mentions the original dance created by her high school schoolmate Seaweed (Kelly), but then insists she can’t use it since he made it up and should get the glory. “No, you take it!” he grins. And grins… She takes the dance and wins her slot. It’s a laughable glossing over of the way culture “moves and evolves” from the source to the mainstream: Here, baby, take it. I want you to have it. And have all the credit for it too.
      More grating is a scene that follows the black kids being booted from the local TV show by bigots. The young ninjas are sitting around dejected, listless, with no idea what to do next (and you know a ninja without a song is a sad ninja indeed), when fiery Tracy declares that they’re going to fight injustice with a protest march. [Scooby sound of bafflement, here.] It’s not bad enough that even in escapist musicals about racial inequality, white folks conceive and lead the march toward freedom [press play for dejected, listless sigh here] but this remake is actually a step backward from the forward thinking original film, in which the very black, very pissed off Motormouth Maybelle (Ruth Brown) organized the march.
      I think that difference is very illuminating about the contrasting perspectives and visceral politics of so many “minorities” working within the system versus the ways "minorities" working outside the machine see the world and either challenge or perpetuate the bullshit. Even though gay icon John Waters’ Hairspray was a “Hollywood” film and was very safe and toned down by standards he’d already set for himself, it also bore the marks of someone who reflexively torches the status quo and speaks perceptions that go beyond maintenance of familiar bullshit. He's a real outsider who is very secure in that standing; he knows the value of the views it affords him. The largely gay creative team behind the new Hairspray (director Adam Shankman; producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who also produced the film version of Chicago; writer Leslie Dixon, who adapted both the original screenplay and the script for the Broadway musical for this script) are faithful industry cogs, plain and true. They’ve churned out a gleaming, rousing good time – one that at pivotal points highlights the retro in their “Hollywood progressive” vision. I’d love to know why they made the change from Negro determination to having the ninjas need a white savior to show them the way.

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