Big Shot: And God Created Woman

Whether she’s lounging naked in the sun, riding a bicycle with a dress hiked up to decency-defying heights, dancing barefoot. …And God Created Woman’s Juliette (Brigitte Bardot) is a wild child, one of the originals. Juliette is the rogue element in a provincial seaside town. She has no parents, no interest in working, and doesn’t care about the opinions of the townspeople – though they offer their disdain at any given chance. The list of things that pique her interest is short: A red Simca convertible and men. In the “men” column, three types are of particular interest: There are men in general, typically less judgmental of her than the threatened housewives, and more impressed with her astonishing beauty. There’s the man with something to offer, like the rich Mr. Carradine (Curd Jurgens), an older playboy type trying to build a casino in the picturesque town. And then, there’s hunky Antoine Tardieu (Christian Marquand), the eldest son and primary breadwinner for a family of shipbuilders.

For the sake of context, …And God Created Woman is the story of Juliette and Antoine’s doomed romance. Returning from his job in the nearby city, Antoine rekindles his relationship with Juliette and the two have share a lot of close dancing. He promises to take her away, but it’s shortly revealed that his aim isn’t true. Shortly after this snub, Juliette finds herself in the sticky situation of having to return to the orphanage. The only way out is marriage. Her admirer Carradine isn’t game because he’s too old and wise to be blinded by her feral charm, but when Antoine’s smitten little brother Michel (Jean-Louis Trintingant) proposes, she’s saved, with an added bonus of revenge on Antoine to boot. In the early days of the marriage, Juliette actually tries hard to be respectable, and seems to make some progress towards happiness with Michel. He’s pretty cute, after all. But when Antoine returns to live in the town, his mere presence in her daily life threatens the peace she and Michel have worked to build. The volatile chemistry between the two is undeniable and yields explosive results.

The promise of scandal lures us, but ultimately, Juliette’s behaviour isn’t particularly outrageous. She seems to be a bit of a nudist and actually enjoys sex, but her primary sin seems to be an absolute laziness that frustrates the local women and delights the men. Her sloth is rooten in a bad case of ennui that she hopes one of her suitors will be able to cure. But they can’t save her; only dancing can. In the iconic climactic scene, Juliette dances the mambo, pantsless, in a frenzied attempt to get her head straight. This expression of her inner turmoil is conveniently also a the perfect opportunity to pump the film full of scandalous sexuality.

More than anything, …And God Created Woman is supposed to be a parable about what women do to men, their destructive force. In an idyllic seaside town, a petulant girl of unparalleled beauty creates havoc among the residents. There’s not a man in the film who doesn’t want to get it on with Juliette. They condescend to her with varying degrees of misogyny. Even the moony Michel, who comes closest to loving Juliette for who she is (as opposed to what she appears to be) at moments bemusedly humors her dissatisfaction-driven whims. She may be the epitome of male desire, but she is also a handful. Her moods, her needs – no suitor can step up and fully give Juliette what she wants.

But it’s not just all sex appeal. Bardot’s performance carries a surprising weight. Especially evident in moments of disappointment, as when Antoine leaves her waiting at the side of the road as he disappears back to the city on the bus, without a word her countenance registers and resignedly processes something deeper than the callous rejection. With her hair whipping around her face, her eyes trained on the bus receding in the distance, Juliette reckons with the crushing weight of her own powerlessness. A heavy trip, for sure, but these moments elevate the film above sexy provincial drama, reaching at something existentially revealing. Only when nobody steps in to save her does Juliette find peace in her violent mambo. It’s hard work being happy.

Roger Vadim’s 1956 film was a career-maker, defined modern vision of French women, and titillated millions of prudish English-speakers. Bardot is an icon, and this film is what made her. Juliette offers an outlet for her to be the Platonic ideal of BB. Wild, unapologetically sexy, heartbreakingly beautiful and unsatisfied. The men, the plot, the setting are all just props for Bardot (and her perfect buttocks) to shine. The suspense is waiting for her to finally Bardot push all that ephemera out of the frame and take the spotlight, thank god. It’s her we came to see after all.

Big Shot: A Thousand Clowns

“In a moment you are going to see a horrible thing. People going to work.” With his hat pushed back optimistically, a low angle closeup captures Jason Robards’ impish face looking just off into the distance; he’s impossibly pleased with himself as he issues this warning to his twelve year old nephew, Nick (Barry Gordon). In its first few moments of A Thousand Clowns, it’s clear that though Murray (Robards) is broke, he’s got plenty of conviction. It’s this strong personal code that makes Murray both a perfect and terrible guardian to Nick, precocious beyond his years, and frames this charmingly truthful tale of growing up.

Nick and Murray’s day off unfolds in a romantic montage with a tenderness for New York City that echoes the awe and wonder of The Little Fugitive. The audio track captures their witty banter, it’s clear that these two really like each other. Time stretches on as they take the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty and mess around, moving against the commuter rush, and ending up in exhausted fits of laughter, hands stuffed with cracker jacks, back at their apartment where reality and consequence is waiting to burst their bubble.

Two child services agents, Albert and Sandra, are waiting at the door threatening to take Nick away from his irresponsible uncle. These two, played by William Daniels (Mr. Feeny!) and Sandy Dennis, could be easily positioned as the primary villains in this story. Their goals are directly at odds with those of our protagonists. But what we have here is a multidimensional film. Sandra ends up being the flawed love interest (she’s really terribly at decorating), and Albert finds absolution in his monologue to Murray, backing him up into a corner, pleading for him to understand his point of view. Murray may be an expert at being alive, but he isn’t providing much structure for Nick. Like Murray, he just wants the best for the kid. He may be no fun, but someone’s got to be. It seems he could be right. Instead of the anticipated intervention, Murray’s carefree attitude reveals the cracks in Al and Sandy’s solidity. Albert leaves in a huff, promising to return with bad news but Sandy, suffering an existential crisis, stays to finish up her weeping. She’s aroused Murray’s interest and never finds her way back to her old, organized life.

Murray has made a living not making a living. He he’s figured out the best way to spend a day in New York without spending any money. What to yell, which busses to take, the bums who sell the best junk… etc. To impress Sandra, he takes her on a date that is eerily similar to Murray’s perfect day with Nick that opens the film. He sweeps her off her feet. But when someone asks him, “Let’s return to reality for a moment.” He is quick to reply, “I only go as a tourist.” And despite Murray’s ability to make the kid laugh, it’s clear Nick, always the responsible one, is worried about his uncle. At one point he confesses that he’s concerned that Murray is “developing into a bum.” Despite being the most suitable guardian Nick has in this world – a vivacious guy, full of life and life lessons – he’s a talented comedy writer who could still find work if he wanted it, it seems Murray is severely allergic to taking care of business of any kind. It’s Nick who’s the adult, keeping the household together and making sure the Murray doesn’t go completely off the rails. In every person’s life they face a choice: Either avoid those things that are the marks of a responsible adult human, and in doing so, lose the ability to continue to live their life like every day is an adventure, or stay on the spirited path and risk losing everything; become a bum who yells at the windows.

A Thousand Clowns is based on a play of the same name, and its roots are evident from the structure of the film, which takes place over just a few days comprised of a handful of key scenes. But the film does something the stage production never could and provides a truly candid look at New York as a big, over crowded neighborhood, taking full advantage of on-location cinematography, close-ups of commuters’ stoic faces, New York is truly their playground.

The score, a compendium of familiar marches from John Philip Sousa and George Frederick Root, stirs up the motivation to seize the day. As with Murray’s passion for bidding the steam ships farewell, these marches instill a sense of new beginnings. It seems he has a passion for the promising but balks when faced with any real ‘prospects’. The marches, like new beginnings, when all lined up one after another, become gratingly repetitive and never reach any kind of fruition.

All the monologues don’t make for a particularly subtle point of view and Murray’s message comes through loud and clear.  And eventually writer Herb Gardner’s does as well.  What he has to say hits at the core of what is so basically human that all of the grandstanding never impedes the tugging at our heartstrings: How does someone grow up and live in this world as a functional adult without giving up their individualism? They don’t. And when Murray is ultimately forced into this crossroads, he chooses stability and family over convictions, because what good are convictions if you have no one with whom to share them? While this isn’t a film with a clear cut happy ending, just like the impossibly well rounded characterizations that keep every character relatable, the ambivalence of the ending is an optimistic one. Ultimately, Murray’s choice is the right one, and the one most of us make in order to avoid being trampled by blind progress and letting down the ones we love, but in throwing away his stated value system, Murray has managed to achieve real value, despite the terrible tedium it may represent.

A Thousand Clowns: The Nebbishes

A Thousand Clowns was nominated for a bunch of Academy Awards in the 1965 season. Martin Balsam won for Best Supporting Actor as Jason Robards’ straight shooter brother Arnold. Well-deserved, great job. We all love Martin Balsam. But Herb Gardner’s screenplay, based on his own play of the same name was truly snubbed (the Academy opted instead for Robert Bolt’s adaptation of Doctor Zhivago…). Witty, sentimental but not too much, clever, funny, charming, etc, etc, Garner’s script steals the show. It’s an opus about one man’s allergy to growing up – something I think we can all relate to, He  wrote the original play in his twenties after developing many of the themes and ideas in blob form. While still a student at Antioch College, Gardner created a cartoon character that would gain popularity first on merchandise, most famously cocktail napkins, and eventually blossom into a full-fledged comic strip that ran weekly in the New York Examiner for several years in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The Nebbishes (in Yiddish, a ‘nebbish’ is a ‘sack sack’) were little blob people with large opinions of themselves and little to back it up. Simultaneously repellant and charming, The Nebbishes featured a little guy who has no problem sweating the small stuff and is quick to dismiss anyone who disagrees with him. Jason Robards’ Murray in A Thousand Clowns is decidedly not a Nebbish (too handsome and spry), his carefree lifestyle and growing disdain for the workforce at large brings him dangerously close to becoming a bum. The following strips (lifted from this enlightening blog post) are of particular interest to us this week:

 

Unmoving Images: Coney Island, Baby

The latest from Kait on still photography and slacking off:

Actually, I couldn’t think of anything photographically slackery. I mean, the nature of the medium is precise, lab-controlled, chemical-processed. You can’t really slack too much as a photographer. You just won’t get the shot or the print. So, I drank a few beers, laid off the problem for a while. Watched a couple back seasons of Archer and just relaxed, man. And when I sat back at my computer (after checking Gmail, Facebook, Buzzfeed, and buying a bunch of clothes) I thought: “Hey, maybe I could think more surface about this one (this is the month of slacking off, anyway) and just find some pictures of people taking advantage of this summer thing.

As a South Brooklyn teenager, there was very little I’d rather be doing on a late Spring school day than skipping afternoon classes and getting on the F line. Straight to Brighton Beach and its neighbor, Coney Island Beach. (Note: When I found out that this was, in fact, my father’s favorite teenage activity 40 years earlier, it became only slightly less cool.) Summertime only intensified this pull to laze about on (not the cleanest) sand, eat hot dogs and generally do nothing. And it wasn’t only us teenagers who felt this way. That’s kind of the coolest thing about Coney Island. It’s been a slacker haven for at least 150 years to pretty much all types of people in all age groups. People just looking to let their proverbial hair down, lollygag on the boardwalk, and burn to a nice Nathan’s Hot Dog-like crisp.

Coney Island Beach has been well-photographed and we’ve all seen pictures of old Luna Park and Astroland. But one, little-known, photographer comes to mind when I think of lazing about on the beach: Aaron Rose. Rose’s photographs, taken during three Summers of the early 1960s, were only shown in the late 1990’s and then again, this Spring at the Museum of the City of New York. And yet, if you’ve been to Coney Island Beach in the summer, Rose’s photographs seem quintessential – almost archetypal. He was able to capture not only the variety of attendees, but the air and heat of the place, too. Much of that was due to his process.

Rose shot from the hip, never allowing a subject to know he was capturing them. In order to do so, he had to be fast and pretty far away. A relative unknown then (as now), Rose pushed the new Kodak Type C process to its limits, creating a version of very high speed, highly saturated film for his appropriately rose-colored prints. By utilizing his high-speed process he was able to capture the posing-for-no-one-but-himself muscle man, the snogging lovers, and contemplative aging couple as they were at their most languid, most relaxed. We see these staycationers as we would as if we were at this very beach. This is not a beach of well-toned (muscle-man be damned), well-coiffed and picture-perfect. This is the melting-pot’s beach. This is the working-man’s beach. The rosy tint of the film, turning everyone into sun-burnt instead of well-tanned only further places the viewer into that humid, crowded, sun-stabbing locale.

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Reginald Marsh’s paintings of Coney Island and New York’s underbelly neighborhoods recall a similar atmosphere. Marsh’s education at the Art Student’s League was firmly based in the realism reaction against the modernism of the 1920’s and 30’s while consistently referring to the great European masters. Marsh, like Rose, focused on the crowds, the groupings of people, the great masses.  Both artists seem grounded in the flesh, with bulbous and rolling skin folds, muscles and large groups of intertwining bodies. (Marsh likened his compositions to those of Michelangelo, with highly muscular greco-roman gods all climbing on top of each other.) But, many times art is almost as about what isn’t there – in both cases, the poised and proper classes.

Reginald Marsh, “Coney Island Scene” (ca. 1932), Collection of William Benton

Slacking off implies that work is to be done and yet, you’ve decided not to do it. It implies a certain disinterest. It is the privileged equivalent of a well-deserved day off. What I see in both these artists is a laid-back and relaxed attitude of those who rarely can or will afford themselves this luxury. Rose and Marsh’s subjects (very possibly because they are enjoying their time on an inner-city beach as opposed to a far away resort town) are not really slacking off so much as they are working hard at taking their own time. They lie in repose and yet Rose’s colors and Marsh’s deep lines make it seem less like an easy relaxation and more harsh and exhausting. In this way both artists are quintessentially New York: Even when they’re relaxing, these people are working at it, hitting the recreation grindstone.

Big Shot: You, Me and Dupree

“What’s popular?” The 2006 heads of Universal asked themselves. “The Wedding Crashers and 40 Year-Old Virgin,” answered the Universe. “Ok, that’ll do fine. A little edgy, a bit of heart. Great. Who wants lunch?” Meeting adjourned.

A few months later (hopefully not more), we arrive at casting. Owen Wilson obviously. Kate Hudson, because she knows the drill. Vince Vaughn, unavailable. Too busy making The Break-Up. Uh…Matt Dillon? I guess? Sure! Before you know it, it’s in the can, baby.

You, Me and Dupree is unnecessary. The only void it could fill is an empty summer week on a studio’s release schedule. Mediocrity in and of itself isn’t wholly repellent. It can be comfortable to float on a star-powered bubble to an expected conclusion (i.e. Failure to Launch, How to Lose A Guy In Ten Days, and, of course, Love Actually) .The firm commitment to simply meeting modest expectations is a curious departure from our usual fare.

The film‘s only concern seems to be proving the old adage “three’s a crowd”. Carl (Dillon) and Molly (Hudson) get married in Hawaii. Post-honeymoon, they move into their rambling California Craftsman bungalow and settle in to nest. Carl does his best to get along with his undermining weirdo boss (and Molly’s dad) Michael Douglas, and things seem to be maybe going okayish. Then Dupree happens. Wilson’s character is Carl’s best childhood friend, a golden retriever of a man with no job, no apartment, no prospects, and no house training. Naturally, Carl brings him home to crash on the couch and naturally hijinks ensue. Dupree is sloppy, he sleeps naked, he poops explosively after walking in on his hosts getting it on. Molly doesn’t like him and insists on getting rid of him, but then she changes her tune because he watches Roman Holiday. Carl doesn’t like anyone and manipulates everyone, making Molly harbor his idiot bro,  tasking Dupree with writing his wedding present thank you notes. As the trio muddle their way through this premise, allegiances shift, tensions rise and ebb, and eventually, despite all the travails our characters endure, everyone gets what they want in the end.

Innocuous and dumb enough, you’d think. But You, Me and Dupree gets weird in a way that’s unexpectedly unsettling. Every relationship in the film is characterized primarily by exasperation, the plot driven by an absurd, nihilistic worldview. There’s not really any fun behind it. The house burns down – hahaha! Someone whacks someone over the head with a candlestick – hahaha! The cot in the back room of the dive bar is already taken by Harry Dean Stanton – hahaha! These situations,already toeing the line between depressing and funny given the right setup might play as comedy. However, in this masterwork of discomfort, you can see the hits coming from a mile away, At no point in the prolonged journey to the “punchline” is there anything fresh, funny, or inspired. All of the running jokes are established in the first act of the film, leaving us to cringe as we slowly tumble towards the dreadful conclusion. Rom-coms by Kafka and Dostoyevsky.

The DVD release of You, Me and Dupree acknowledged the weirdness, with a “special feature” alternate version of the film’s trailer, edited to be a horror film in which Matt Dillon kills everyone. It’s probably not fair to blame Dillon for the whole of the film’s weirdness, but he is certainly more at fault than anyone else. While the rest of the cast does their best with the material (Douglas particularly deserves recognition for going all the way into the sociopathic void), Dillon struggles with even the basics of the rom-com genre. There’s not a moment in which he approximates a human man. His performance is otherworldly, most closely approximating Beldar Conehead. For the first half of the film, he acts like he harbors some terrible secret that NO ONE can know (that he HATES thank you notes, maybe?), in the second half, his paranoia escalates to the point where he must embark on full destruction. No one apart from Molly and Dupree can ever hope to understand the essence of Carl – that “special Carl-ness” Dupree repeatedly refers to.

The clearest takeaway from You, Me and Dupree is that no matter how shiftless, alien, lazy, immoral, or just plain boring you might be, there’s a place in this world for us all. The film ends with the genre-dictated unfailing optimism: sunny days and holding hands. But there doesn’t seem to be much to support this conclusion. Aside from Dupree, who’s randomly become a super-successful motivational speaker after doing an okay job at talking to a bunch of 9-year-olds, nothing’s really changed.  There’s especially little to believe in at the core of the central relationship between Carl and Molly. Judging by Molly’s easy resignation to giving Carl a second chance (probably a result of growing up with sociopathic Michael Douglas for a parent), it’s at least realistic that they’ll spend the rest of their lives together. Miserably ever after. Hahaha!