So 5 minutes ago
Rants and media criticism from Eric Deamer (a guy in New York)
THE WIRE, Watch it and screw the rest of Sunday night

Friday, May 30, 2003  

Imaginary readers, I've been wanting to write about The Wire for a while, and since the new season starts Sunday, now seems the perfect time for me to deign to throw the full weight of my opinion-making power behind it, perhaps giving the show the "Tipping Point" it so richly deserves. Seriously though, I think The Wire may actually be the Tipping Point for the "Its not TV its HBO" concept. Now, this slogan has in fact been true for some time now in a variety of different ways. When HBO shows you G-String Divas or Taxicab Confession or Real Sex they're showing you something that isn't TV as you understood it before in that it has more nudity, sex, and general outrageousness than you can see on network or basic cable. When they air their top-notch feature films such as The Last Seduction or the recent, deeply moving Normal they're showing you a TV movie better than any previous idea of what a TV movie was (including Playhouse 90) better, in fact that the vast majority of feature films released in theaters. Most importantly, with their best shows HBO showcased episodic television with richer, deeper characters, smarter writing, and better acting than had ever been seen in a weekly television show. (As a side note, with Arlli$$ HBO delved into a series so awful it seemed beneath any previous level of TV).

The Wire takes elevating a television show above any known standards of what constitutes "TV" one step further. While Curb Your Enthusiasm is possibly better than any previous sit-com, and The Sopranos and Six Feet Under at their best resonate and provoke like a great film, The Wire operates on a level of depth and complexity more like that of a great novel. While The Sopranos and Six Feet Under delve increasingly into non-sequiturs, absurdity, and dream sequences, the first season of The Wire was gritty, naturalistic, social realism on a level ambition more like Tom Wolfe or Theodore Dreiser. It was an attempt to show in full detail a complex, corrupt city, from above, below, from sideways, from every conceivable angle. It was almost Great American Novel territory, and it succeeded. If not compared to literary masterpieces, the only other thing it reminds me of Fritz Lang's M and its fully rendered portrayal of Berlin. In recent pop culture its most like LA Confidential but without the easy cynicism that sometimes marred that great film.

More on this later . . .

posted by Eric | 3:47 PM

Thursday, May 29, 2003  

Various types of remakes, homages, pastiches, and parodies are now ubiquitous in filmmaking, from Gus Van Sant Psycho to Far from Heaven. The point of all these movies about movies is often to make the contemporary, post-modern sophisticate feel superior to the movies or the culture of the earlier era being plundered for the cause of meta-filmmaking. Down with Love director Peyton Reed does not quite succumb to the new snideness in sending up, or celebrating, or adapting or something or other the late 50's/early 60's Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedies for his meta-film. (It should be noted that there were only actually 3 such films, which rightfully should be called Rock Hudson/Doris Day/Tony Randall comedies, as it was the chemistry of all three that gave these films their distinctive stamp. And, of these 3, only 2, Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back actually follow the template that people are talking about when they refer to these type of films, not the regrettable Send me no Flowers in which none of the three played their traditional role, to detrimental effect. Contemporary reviewers are giving the impression that its this huge genre of films we're talking about here-ed.) I didn't really think he would. His guilty-pleasure, bikini-clad-cheerleaders holding a carwash film Bring it On was warm-hearted, fun fluff. The problem is, he's not really sure if he's doing a loving homage, or a respectful parody, or what exactly, either. This confusion leads to a film that is deeply flawed but surprisingly ambitious.

I found myself drawn to writing this review because I confess to being a huge fan of the Rock Hudson/Doris Day/Tony Randall comedies, particularly of Pillow Talk which seems to have little critical respect, and not for some sort of belabored, cultural studies class, look at the gay subtext type of reason either. I like them because they are, well, warm-hearted, fun, fluff. They are more than this too. They are chance to see three leads with a greater chemistry than you can see displayed between the actors in almost any other film. They're perfectly paced, witty, smart charming, and a reminder of a glamorous, lost New York. They do a great job integrating Doris Day's great singing into the action without being a full-blown musical. Comparing them to a mainstream comedy of today is (exactly) like comparing Doris Day to J-Lo.

When I heard that someone was going to use these materials as the basis of a new film I was surprised and excited. The final product when viewed as an attempt at an accurate remake or loving, exact tribute, falls woefully short, but still contains enough pleasure and interesting commentary on 1962 vs. 2003 to recommend it. In fact, the ideal viewer is probably someone not familiar with the original films, who therefore doesn't have the iconic presences of Doris Day and Rock Hudson seared into their minds. The first place where Down With Love deviates from the template, of course, is in the casting. Renée Zelwegger is too skinny and too manic for the Doris Day part. Ewan MacGregor has the detritus of too many incongruous roles on him, and he's simply not conventionally handsome enough for the Rock Hudson part. The guy who is dead on, as a contemporary incarnation of a young Tony Randall, is David Hyde Pierce. Then there's a major character who is interesting and well-played, but has no analogue in the original films, the proto-feminist aspiring publishing mogul played by Sarah Paulson. Tony Randall himself shows up in a nice, small role, and its welcome just hearing his smooth, instantly recognizable voice tones.

Down With Love begins nicely, with an establishing shot that uses today's special effect to create a breathtaking view of the Manhattan skyline in 1962. Then it has an offscreen narrator, sounding exactly like one from a film of that era, intoning on the 6 million people there, all following their dream, and how its about to be 6 million and one. (A device used, I believe, in the opening of Lover Come Back the raunchier, zanier, more diffuse film that Down With Love resembles far more than Pillow Talk. It also reminded me of other sex comedies of the era, such as Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?-ed) It is soon after this that we learn that everything about the Rock Hudson/Doris Day film template is being turned on its head.

Doris Day was, of course, famous for being, virginal. She was a successful, New York career girl, who was single and lived alone. Though it was implied that she went out on dates with men it was also implied that she didn't have sex with them, because sex would mean love, marriage, and giving up her career. Therefore, she repressed thoughts of all such things, and this repression is what lead to the simultaneous attraction/repulsion she felt for the sexually profligate Rock Hudson character. In order to win her Rock would have to pose as another, more sensitive, caring sort of man, the sort who in that era would be thought to be a homosexual. After finding out the ruse, Doris Day would initially be livid but would eventually come around to being with Rock, who was reformed only in so far as he now wants monogamy. In the last scene of Pillow Talk she is pregnant. Presumably, she's quit her successful career as an interior designer. Through all this, the word "sex," and certainly the word "homosexual" is never uttered. That's one of the first things that makes Down With Love so different than its inspiration. These two words probably appear more in the script than almost any other. The subtext has become the text, as it often drearily does in contemporary movies about movies.

Renée Zelwegger in Down With Love is the very opposite of virginal, or is at least trying to be. She's written a Sex and the Single Girl type manifesto called Down With Love in which she argues that women should learn to have sex recreationally and unemotionally, like men, so that they can advance in the work force unencumbered by child-bearing and marriage. Essentially, she's arguing that the Doris Day characters should be able to have their cake and eat it too. The book is a runaway best-seller that sets off a minor social revolution, but ironically, it makes her unable to follow her own advice. Because of the way that she's changed their women's behavior, to their detriment, no man will have her. She's unwittingly put herself in the position of a Doris Day heroine, with a successful career, but no love or sex.

Enter space-age bachelor cad Ewan MacGregor. He's a star reporter for Know magazine, a parody of Esquire or Playboy at the time. After blowing her off for an interview repeatedly, he seeks to make her fall in love with him, both to get back at her for having a successful book without his shilling, to get a beg scoop, and seemingly, simply to disprove her thesis. This last, makes the war of the sexes theme far to overt, a problem throughout the film.

His Catcher Block isn't merely a Rock Hudson derivative but an amalgam of James Bond, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Austin Powers, and whatever sort of other "Swinger" icon you can think of. He plays the character without doing an American accent, a fact which is never explained, and is involved in all sorts of cold war skullduggery, at the beginning. He seems to bed only stewardesses who work for the same airline, a gag a bit too cartoonish. This, and other deviations from the supposed template, or font the film is working with, would take a book to recount. They are so many, even someone with the most casual knowledge of Kennedy era mainstream movies would notice them. So, if the film is not to be taken as an exact remake of a movie from 1962, what is it exactly? Is it a movie about 1962? Clearly, this isn't the case either. Its filled with stereotypes and inaccuracies (beatniks, the UN across the Street from Grand Central), and take place in an unreal, cartoonish, technicolor world.

I think its actually a fairly ambitious and inventive film, a film about our shared memory of the past and its pop culture and how this is reflected in the present and viewed through the prism of the present. When Renée Zelwegger and Sarah Paulson turned the publishing world on its head by creating their feminist magazine, we see the forebears of Tina Brown, of Anna Wintour, of Bonnie Fuller, as they self-confidently sashay through their new office digs. We also root for them, because we've seen the sexism of the time they came from, and how it effected even the tropes of the silliest of movies. We've also enjoyed watching those tropes reused just the same. Its a bizarre, slightly disconcerting mixture of homage, parody, and pastiche, that doesn't always work. But, when it does, it actually manages to say some important things about what romantic comedies mean for us now and meant for us then.

posted by Eric | 11:26 AM
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