Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Loving You Is Red

There is perhaps no other color capable of invoking such strong feelings as the color red.  It stirs up different emotions of passion, lust, anger, warmth, and terror, to just name a few. And when the color saturates the entire screen, as in Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers, it is impossible to not be affected. Red permeates throughout the entire film (the house is decorated almost exclusively in the color and flashbacks don't fade to black but red, red, red) so much that it almost becomes another character along with the sisters. Bergman even stated that in the screenplay red represented the interior of the soul. So for this week's edition of Hit Me With Your Best Shot from Nathaniel at The Film Experience, we delve deeper into that crimson soul of Bergman's Oscar winning film.

The film takes place at the end of the 19th Century on the country estate of a wealthy family. Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is dying of cancer (although, it is never stated where the cancer has taken ahold, I've read that she is suffering from uterine cancer which would very much be in keeping with the film's theme of soulful red interiors and concerns of feminine nature). Agnes' other sisters Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin) have come to be with their sister in her time of need. But rather than show compassion toward their dying sister, they seem to show little affection toward her or each other. Karin is so far removed from tenderness and sisterly love, that when Maria attempts to embrace  her, she pulls away screaming not to be touched. The film contains scenes from earlier in the sisters' life that give greater insight in shaping the women they have become. We learn from an earlier scene told in red-framed flashback, it's not just the touch of her sisters that repels her, Karin is repelled by all signs of womanly feelings.

Trapped in a loveless marriage to a man she despises and mother to four children that we never see, Karin is not only bitter toward her family but seems to be resentful of life. The film makes a point of showing that the women capable of love, Agnes and the maid that affectionately cares for her, Anna (Kari Sylwan), are ironically the one's incapable of passing that love to children. Agnes because her cancer has left her insides incapable of producing children and Anna, despite her unquestioning faith and devotion, has had her only child die. Karin, however, has done what is expected of her by society, become a wife and mother, but it has only closed her off.

At a dinner with her husband while visiting the estate on a campaign trail, the two sit across from each other barely speaking a word. The silence is broken when Karin knocks over her wine glass and shards of glass litter the table. The disturbance does little to distract him (does Karin do it to deliberately arouse emotion of any kind in her husband?) and Karin delicately picks up a jagged piece of glass.

Bringing it with her as she readies herself for bed (zombie-like preparing herself for her wifely duty of another unfulfilling night of "love" making with her husband), Karin dismisses  Anna after unrobing and ponders the shard in her hands.

And with those words, she silently makes her way to her bed and without hesitation inserts the glass into her vagina. She wants to destroy the thing that has trapped her into the prison that is her life. Because she is a woman, she is forced to bring new life into this world without question as to whether or not she wants to. Because of the genitalia she was born with, she must endure the marriage arranged for her. Perhaps it was a match that would benefit her family or his, but a marriage for love was not an option as being a woman has taken away her choices.

But by using the glass she has taken control of her life and the pain soon gives way to pleasure and she licks her lips in ecstasy, enjoying the command she has over her body. She has power.

As she reveals her bloody deed, she reaches out her blood-covered hand to her husband almost daring him to try and touch her now, and with a defiant swipe of her hand, (and my pick for Best Shot) she smears her face in red.

She is readying herself for battle. Arming herself with that which initially trapped her as a woman, she now readily embraces. Her vagina, which monthly bleeds red whether she wants it to or not, is now bleeding because she has forced it to. Almost mocking the earlier scene where she takes off her womanly wares and accessories of her nightly ritual, she now readies herself with "make-up" giving herself a painted-on smile. She shows that she'll give the outward appearance of the perfect life, but inside the red is not of passion but of hate. As the scene fades, her entire face turns red, taking on an almost demonic demeanor evoking what Bergman also used to describe the soul, "When I was a child, I imagined the soul to be a dragon, a shadowing floating in the air like blue smoke – a huge winged creature, half bird, half fish. But inside the dragon, everything was red." Karin has become that red, fire-breathing dragon.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Staring Life in the Face

The aptly named Under the Skin certainly does just that, wriggling its way inside you and staying deeply entrenched within your thoughts and feelings. From the first shots of engulfing darkness giving way to a beckoning light (foreshadowing another dark room lead by seduction and introducing a common theme of dark and light), an unnerving mood has already penetrated our psyche. Minutes later, as a close-up image of a pupil, accompanied by a surrealist soundscape of strings, synths, and an undetermined language with a female voice, fill the screen - a dreamlike merging of image and audio - we know the accompanying film will be unlike anything we've encountered.

The third film from director Jonathan Glazer (after a Malick-like 10 year hiatus) has been favorably compared to another visionary director, Stanley Kubrick. And like Malick and Kubrick before him, Glazer seems to be carving out his own distinct brand of filmmaking, at once unique, exciting, and entirely original. After having seen the film in theaters back in April (and unable to quite shake it), it seems to beg for multiple viewings, so I was eager to revisit it for this week's edition of Hit Me With Your Best Shot from Nathaniel at The Film Experience.

After bringing us a volatile Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast, an icy, reflective Nicole Kidman (in one of her best performances) in Birth, director Jonathan Glazer gives us another star, this time Scarlett Johansson, and like those celebrated actors' turns in his previous films, makes us forget what we think we know about her, exposing unexplored depths and unexpected surprises until the Scarlett we see on screen is not the one we've seen before. She plays an alien creature that has come to our planet to harvest male souls (for what, we're never made aware, but plot is secondary to mood and atmosphere which the film builds on until we become as unwittingly seduced as one of the creature's conquests).

As the film progresses, we witness her evolution. Coolly calculating as she sizes up the men of Glasgow (who with their indiscernible accents seem almost as otherworldly), she unfeelingly has no sympathy for humanity. She is doing a job, luring them to unsuspecting doom. Without remorse, she even later ignores the panicked cries of a frightened toddler as she goes about her business, bringing home a unconscious swimmer to join the other men in the blackened goo.

But the longer she stays among these people, the more she finds. No longer an apathetic outsider, she soon turns her gaze on the female species. She has never really noticed the other gender before as men are her goal, but she observes while realizing that she is apart of them. After an encounter with a man unlike the others, she finds that perhaps there is more to earthlings then just bodies of flesh. She lets him go and begins to explore what it means to be a woman on earth. She tries chocolate cake (she doesn't like it! But she's forming opinions on things she'd never thought of before). She explores her body, finding the anatomy astonishing and confusing as she comes into the development of her womanhood.

Which brings me to my choice for Best Shot (WARNING THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD). After a consensual sexual encounter with a man that takes her in, she experiences an awaking. Not entirely sure what has happened she wanders the woods to collect her thoughts. She is no longer the predator she once was, but as lost and helpless as any young girl trying to find her place in the world. She has become unguarded and suffers violence at the hands of men as an attempted rape literally tears her apart. She is violated and the sensation has left her physically crawling out of her skin. But as she peels away her human disguise, she briefly looks back at the blinking face at the woman she had become. In her hands lies what remain of her humanity. However briefly, there was a soul behind those eyes and under that skin.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Hear the Roar of These Catwomen

Batman has always been my favorite superhero. Way more interesting than Superman, darker than Spider-Man, and less...patriotic than Captain America. I'd take the brooding, billionaire orphan in the cowl over any of them. But the real reason that Batman has always been my favorite isn't necessarily for the hero himself (he's interesting and all, but geez, we get it already - your parents died...) it's the deranged villains that terrorize Gotham City that make the Batman world what it is. And being the actressexual that I am, you can pretty much guess which of those villains has always fascinated me.

I grew up watching the delightfully cheesy reruns of the 1960's Batman series and found myself gravitating toward the Catwoman episodes. Whether she was played by Lee Meriwether, Julie Newmar, or Eartha Kitt never really mattered just as long as there was an actress in a slinky catsuit making puuurfectly bad cat puns. But my Catwoman obsession reached a peak the summer of 92 when I was 10 years-old and discovered the brilliance of Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns. I kinda wanted to be her. I had a jumprope with one handle that was used as my whip and I would walk around my neighborhood with it wrapped around my body the way she did in the movie. I had recorded a television special about the making of the film (The Bat, The Cat and the Penguin I knew the internet wouldn't let me down in finding that) and used to watch it continuously, fast-forwarding to her parts to memorize them. It was my first encounter with Pfeiffer and it made me a life-long pfan ever since.

So when Nathaniel at The Film Experience picked a chose-your-own-adventure edition of his series Hit Me With Your Best Shot in honor of the caped-crusader's 75th anniversary, I knew I would have to do a Catwoman centric post. But even though I find Michelle Pfeiffer's performance as Selina Kyle/Catwoman to be the quintessential take on the character, I thought it would be more interesting to look at a dual performance of the character with the latest theatrical incarnation portrayed by Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). After all, the Batman universe would be nothing without its double-sidedness (Hell, there's even a villain named Two Face), so let's take a look at these duplicitous ladies.

I'll start by saying that I am not, nor have I ever been, a Hathahater. But, I'll admit that I was a little suspect of her being cast in the role of Catwoman Selina Kyle. Apparently, she was as well because when she auditioned for Christopher Nolan, she didn't even know what the part was. She thought she was going up for the part of The Joker's girlfriend, Harley Quinn (which, honestly, would have fit her perfectly and I've been waiting for her to appear in a film after she quickly became one of my favorites thanks to Batman: The Animated Series). It seemed almost sacrilegious to try to take on Pfeiffer's icon performance.

But once Heath Ledger tackled The Joker after Jack Nicholson put his stamp on him (and won a freaking Oscar in the process), then there was definitely room for Annie to take a shot. Especially because the Batman world that Nolan created was much more rooted in reality than the gothic Tim Burton version. Any interpretation of the character he created would naturally be a little different than a woman that is brought back to life by a swarm of stray cats.

But that also happens to be the main problem with the Nolan films, they're just so self-serious and drab (seriously, it was almost impossible finding a great shot of Anne in the film because everything was so ho-hum or didn't linger long enough to make an impression. While almost every shot of Pfeiffer is so spectacularly executed that choosing one seemed nearly impossible) that the moroseness seems almost too much for a series based on a masked superhero to sustain all the gravitas. The best part of the entire film is by far Hathaway. She seems to be the only one that realizes that a little playfulness is what is sorely needed. Her Selina Kyle (oh, because she can't actually be a Catwoman, she's just a woman in a catsuit, that happens to be a cat burglar, and living in a city populated by a Batman. But a Catwoman would be implausible...) is slinky, sexy, and mysterious. While her character is not an instant classic the way Pfeiffer's is, she still manages to makes her indelible.

For my Hathaway as Selina Kyle Best Shot, I had to go with the moment when she lets the mask fall and she transforms into the powerful woman that is Catwoman. And she does it without even wearing her trademarked jumpsuit:

Up until this moment, we have only seen her as a timid cater waiter, tasked with bringing a meal up to the reclusive Bruce Wayne. She stammers, apologizes profusely, and cowers in fear when he appears - she's only a woman! But as he realizes that it's nothing more than just an act and that the pearls she's wearing have been lifted from his uncrackable safe, she drops the artifice to reveal her true self. "Oops. Nobody told me it was uncrackable." And by simply lowering her head, relaxing her shoulders, and giving a knowing smirk she astonishingly really does transform before our eyes to reveal the true Selina and jolt the film awake with a new energy that only comes alive when she's onscreen.

Pfeiffer's Catwoman, in a more stylized performance amid a crazy Burtonesque world, is constantly working at full volume. And amazingly, it never feels like too much. She's so in control and eerily aware of exactly how this woman would be (outlandish as some of the things she does seem), that it transcends what we think of in a comic book film and becomes as complex and specific as anything in Shakespeare. She finds a humanity behind the mask. But luckily still sinks her claws into the campiness of the character, growling expertly delivered one-liners like the one that I've chosen as my Best Shot:

After a series of acrobatic backflips, she pauses briefly for us to catch our breath before the explosion. A literal one, but more importantly the one that happens to my mind every time I watch her performance in this. It's just one word, but, damn, what a roar.