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Art of the Real 2015: The Royal Road, The Vanity Tables of Douglas Sirk, & Becoming Anita Ekberg

Fundamentally, Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road is a paean to the Bay Area landscape.

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Art of the Real 2015: The Royal Road, The Vanity Tables of Douglas Sirk, & Becoming Anita Ekberg
Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center

It was no less than Hollywood—the set, the actors, the inexhaustible flair of it all—that offered, as a female voice on The Royal Road’s soundtrack insists, “a gender-disphoric tomboy” from the Midwest, a “cherished relief from the awkward realities of daily life.” Composed of static shots of the beautiful San Francisco landscape and laced with steadfast commentary, so steady you’d believe the film was edited with the help of a metronome on andante, Jenni Olson’s film makes no secret of the filmmaker’s lifelong infatuation with Hollywood and the ways in which its romantic plotlines have paralleled her own Proustian proportions of desire for lesbian companionship. Watching The Children’s Hour on TV one night, Olson recalls Shirley MacLaine’s coming-out speech and how “it perfectly expressed my childhood experience of simultaneously knowing and not knowing that I was queer.” Hollywood, then, is a fitting starting point for a film that sets out to provide “a defense of nostalgia.” Olson, the off-screen narrator, frequently shifts back and forth between remembering her unconsummated desires and failed relationships (“I’m utterly infatuated, and the ring on her finger marks her as clearly unavailable,” she says at one point) and California’s sordid, colonial past. Hollywood, San Francisco, Spanish colonialism, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and unrequited love are the specific themes through which Olson strives to not only contextualize her own life, but to offer a mode of remembering that can be both nostalgic and critical.

Fundamentally, the film is a paean to the Bay Area landscape. (Noticeably absent from the frame are any humans, except for the ones presumably riding in the ubiquitous cars that roll by.) As such, the title is appropriately concrete, referring to the 600-mile thoroughfare paved by Spanish colonialists that stretches from San Francisco to San Diego: the El Camino Real. As demonstrated in her first feature, The Joy of Life, in which the onerous topic of suicide is investigated through the mighty steel structure of the Golden Gate Bridge, Olson has a penchant for teasing out the possibilities of meaning from the man-made and natural bodies in the environment. (As much as her films are about the past and remembering it, her images are always rooted in the present). In The Royal Road, Olson lingers on one of the many erected statues of Junípero Serra, the Spanish missionary responsible for the Mission system, peppered along the El Camino Real. Framed in the center from a slight low-angle tilt, the cast-iron Serra stands in front of a cross, his hands raised in the air in proclamation, with the surrounding shrubs and blue sky in clear view in the background. Olson slowly unfurls a biting criticism of the missionary, associating him with the early Pilgrims and Christopher Columbus and eventually calling him a “villain” single-handedly responsible for the “1770s West-Coast decimation of the native people.” Olson ends her commentary, but allows the camera to linger on the scene for a few more seconds. The statue, which was introduced with so much luster, no longer looks so venerable. Olson’s dialectical approach suggests the formal practices of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, two filmmakers who’ve documented monuments, landscapes, and other layers of meaning as a way of confronting the past. To call her methods “minimalist” would be to miss the point, not when sound and image are used so richly to make sense of the self between the interstices of history and geography.

Yet if the political imperative of demythologizing false gods is clear enough, what’s less clear, and is the source of much of the conflict in the film, is how nostalgia—the sensuous part of remembering—can be accommodated into the equation. This contradiction is crystallized in a brief few seconds when Olson drops in a recording on the soundtrack from her student days, of Tony Kushner, piggybacking on Brecht, denouncing the “bourgeois decadence of nostalgia.” Recalling that moment, she confesses, with mixed feelings: “Being a painfully nostalgic person, I’ve felt guilty ever since.” How does one uphold the mandate of political activism and luxuriate in the kind of remembering that almost always becomes nostalgia? This is the film’s driving question, for which there are no easy answers. At the very least, Vertigo (a la Chris Marker) is one way of responding to the dilemma, and Olson offers her own tribute to the film by including shots of the city that recall Hitchcock’s own. But Vertigo’s greatest importance for Olson is the kind of articulation of longing that, at the very least, provides a sympathetic model for her own travails. Capturing a quite end of a suburban street, she placidly mentions that her lover’s “presence in this city makes every visit to the corner store exciting”—and we can just as easily imagine Jimmy Stewart saying those same lines.

Accompanying Olson’s closing-night feature are two new delightful shorts by Mark Rappaport, another filmmaker with a strong attraction for Hollywood lore. But if Olson’s film is like having a brutally honest discussion with a friend out on the porch over a beer, Rappaport’s works suggests a joyride lecture with a madcap scientist, unearthing a variety of cinematic coincidences, accidents, and running motifs.

In The Vanity Tables of Douglas Sirk, Rappaport breaks down the role of the popular Hollywood set piece. (A hint: It’s more than just primping furniture.) As in Rappaport’s other films, found footage and voiceover are his bread and butter, and he uses them here to contrapuntal effect, taking specific scenes from Sirk’s works and adjusting them to fit his analysis, acknowledging, along the way, the viewer’s involvement: “Let’s look at [that scene] again.” Rappaport reveals how Sirk’s use of the vanity table is incredibly variegated. In All That Heaven Allows, the vanity table is used to show Jane Wyman’s insularity; in Written on the Wind, it’s a silent witness to the confrontations between Lauren Bacall and Dorothy Malone; in Imitation of Life, it’s a platform for confession and self-realization. Whatever the vanity table actually is, Rappaport shows, in just 10 minutes, just how malleable objects can be, and when they’re in the hands of a skilled director, can become more than just foreground filler.

Having made a highly reflexive piece about Jean Seberg in 1995, Rappaport is no stranger to the blond-haired vixen. Becoming Anita Ekberg is a study of immortality, tracing the evolution of Anita Ekberg from a mere sex symbol featured primarily in Frank Tashlin comedies to Anita Ekberg, the sex goddess, as apotheosized in the fountain scene of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Ever the materialist, Rappaport points us toward certain promotional moves that helped Ekberg become what she’s known as today. For instance, in Tashlin’s Hollywood or Bust, Ekberg guest stars as a fictional character named, well, Anita Eckberg. The catch is that Ekberg wasn’t as well known as the character she plays in the film. Still, you wouldn’t know that just looking at the title sequence, featuring Ekberg posing in a variety of skimpy outfits. The film is, Rappaport puts it, “a 90-minute commercial hawking Anita Akberg.” That Jerry Lewis’s fanatic hard-on for Ekberg would in fact become the reality for many men four years later in 1960 only underscores the eerie prescience of some Hollywood productions.

Ekberg would play “herself” again in Fellini’s segment of Boccaccio ’70, this time at the height of her fame, literally as a billboard image incarnated into a giant who flusters the wits out of an Italian doctor. One has to wonder who the real Ekberg is if she isn’t playing some caricature or impression of herself. In fact, it’s difficult to think of another actress other than Ekberg whose screen career essentially described her personal life. To borrow postmodern jargon, Ekberg’s film persona was every bit a simulacrum of her off-screen identity. Jayne Mansfield was thoroughly a sex symbol, but little else; so was Monroe, but her early death made her, more significantly, an American pop-culture icon whose own brand of immortality is found, rather, in an Andy Warhol screen print. Only Ekberg maintains that quicksilver-y ambience indicative of a purely cinematic conception. Rappaport’s points are incisive, as his treatment of Ekberg concerns her status as a kind of commodity or concept whose value eventually runs terrifically dry. Still, an unabashed cinephile, he insists that Ekberg has nevertheless become—and as cinema tends to do—an immortal fixture in our cultural firmament. “Even as we’re watching them, we’re forgetting them, and they’re becoming part of our past,” Rappaport says nostalgically, as he captures, in slow motion, Ekberg dancing with Mastroianni through the night.

Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real runs from April 10—26.

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Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer

Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.

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A24
Photo: A24

British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:

A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

And below is the film’s first trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9Al2nC0vzY

A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.

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20th Century Fox
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: A Star Is Born

Should Win: First Man

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Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth

By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.

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That Was Something

Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcoming dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.

For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.

Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.

Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.

Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.

Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:

In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.

In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.

Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:

I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?

The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.

Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.

Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.

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