Monday, August 09, 2010

Weekend Film Round-up: Blondes on Blonde


But, sooner or later, one of us must know
You just did what you're supposed to do
Sooner or later, one of us must know
That I really did try to get close to you

Though Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell get equal star billing in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Howard Hawks's lavish Technicolor musical/battle of the sexes (currently screening at Film Forum in a gorgeous new 35mm print), Monroe's Lorelei Lee is, to my mind, the star of this show. Jane Russell's Dorothy Shaw is the barbed idealist of the pair, throwing herself into the game looking for real love. That's fine, and Russell is certainly quite a sight to watch in her own right; she gets most of the sharpest one-liners in Charles Lederer's adaptation of Anita Loos and Joseph Fields's Broadway musical. By comparison, though, she is a plain, um, "Jane" of a character compared to to Lorelei, an enthusiastic gold-digger who doesn't really pretend to be anything but. She might be a reprehensible character in a different context...but as written in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and as played by Monroe in her inimitable manner, Lorelei truly believes that money is the road to happiness. Does she truly love the rich men she seduces? Maybe that's besides the point; to her, love and money are more or less inseparable.

That is what makes the film's famous "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number so fascinating, in addition to being a brilliant piece of acting, staging and choreography. Lorelei isn't just setting out a statement of purpose; she's also explaining it. Age might take away good looks, and all the true love in the world won't necessarily pay the bills when times get tough—but money, to her mind, is the true constant that will keep two people together, even after the flame of romance dies out.

Cynicism or hard truth? When I look at the relationship between my father and mother—one of uneasy coexistence, I would say, more than passion these days—I can't help but wonder...

Either way, it's a hell of a lot of fun. Just watch "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" for yourself, if you haven't seen this film yet:


Then time will tell just who fell
And who's been left behind,
When you go your way and I go mine.

In Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (2009), the latest film from 101-year-old (yes, you read that right) Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, it's made pretty clear in its opening scene, onboard a train, that the film will end in lovers parting ways. Thus, much of the "suspense," so to speak, of this slender but entrancing 64-minute feature is the physical and emotional journey its main character, Macário (Ricardo Trêpa), takes to that final, devastating moment of heartbreak.

Based on a well-known Portuguese short story by Eça de Queirós, the story itself contains as many moments of bitter disappointment and misfortune as it does moments of hope and fortune. But a mere plot summary doesn't begin to suggest the distinctive way de Oliveira tells the story. For instance: He has attached a framing device the story proper, in which Macário is wearily retelling his unfortunate affair to a lady (Leonor Silveira) sitting next to him on a train—but de Oliveira frames the two characters from the shoulder up and allows the scenery passing by through the train windows to dominate the frame, allowing our eyes to take notice of the uncaring world passing them by. De Oliveira also throws in a sequence set in an underground literary society that bears de Queirós's name—this is where Macário finally meets the girl of the title, after having glimpsed her fanning herself through a window across from his work office—that has a Victorian-era feel to it contrasting sharply with the modern settings in which the rest of the story takes place. But even though the film is set in the present—and even alludes, implicitly and explicitly, to our current recession, thereby giving it at least passing topical resonance—Eccentricities exudes a timeless feel in its unforced visual style and its elegant compositions. De Oliveira may be telling a story that is meant to address our times, but at heart it is also universal.

For all its considerable visual qualities, though, it is de Oliveira's wisdom about matters of the heart, and of life spanning the generations, that elevates Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl past its parable nature and its thinly realized characters to something close to profundity. One would expect no less from a 101-year-old filmmaker, especially one as widely revered as de Oliveira.


She takes just like a woman, yes, she does
She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl.

This weekend, The Film Society of Lincoln Center hosted a short series of films featuring Isabel Sarli, an Argentinian actress/sex symbol popular in the 1960s and '70s. I had never heard of "Coca" Sarli before, and this series was honestly never in my radar until a friend suggested it as possible Saturday evening viewing. And hey, I'm never not for being in the cinematic company of Hispanic sex symbols—especially one as, um, physically well-endowed as Sarli apparently was. With Mad Men's Christina Hendricks apparently bringing the curvy pin-up back into style, maybe this is Sarli's time to shine once again. It helps that, like Marilyn Monroe, Isabel Sarli embraces her image and embodies it to the hot, passionate hilt.

The film I saw was named Meat (1968). It's not available on DVD, alas, but, in spite of its kitschy elements—a Hammond-organ score that feels like something out of a cheesy telenovela, a tone that wavers from campy to straight-faced—it's actually a very good film that is worth taking seriously beyond its trashy sexploitation provocations.

The title (Carne in Spanish) carries a double meaning. On a literal level, it refers to the meatpacking factory in which its much of its cast of characters works. But on a symbolic level, "meat" is the way many of the male characters view the voluptuously beautiful Delicia (Sarli)—as a pound of flesh to be toyed with. That is exactly what the appropriately named Macho (Romualdo Quiroga) does with Delicia, in a series of rape scenes that eventually escalates to an extended sequence in which Macho subjects her to various advances from other men from the factory who want to get into her pants. Amidst the degradation, she still maintains a belief in the true love provided to her by factory foreman/wannabe artist Antonio (Victor Bo).

In essence, Meat presents a dichotomy between passion and objectification, with writer-director Armando Bo (Sarli's real-life husband) eventually, humanely, arguing for the former even as he doesn't stint on showing us the often outrageous details of the latter. Rest assured, Meat isn't nearly as grueling an experience as it sounds on paper; this isn't the opening rape in Gaspar Noé's Irreversible (2002) stretched out to agonizing feature length. But a funny thing happened after its exuberantly campy final images had flashed onscreen: I walked out of the film feeling genuinely guilty about those many moments in the past in which I had gawked at women, admiring their physical attributes without ever wondering about the person inside the body. This film made me feel dirty in a way that actually kinda made me want to think less dirty in the future; that's the last thing I expected a sexploitation film with the name of Meat to do.

Here's a clip, for a, um, taste:

No comments: