Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Irvin Winkler | De-Lovely and Wes Anderson | The Life Acquatic with Steve Zissou

by Douglas Messerli


 Jay Cocks (writer), Irvin Winkler (director) De-Lovely / 2004

I’ve got you under my skin.
I’ve got you deep in the heart of me.
So deep in my heart that you’re really part of me.
I’ve got you under my skin.

Perhaps the most underrated movie of 2004 was Irvin Winkler’s De-Lovely, a movie devoted to the life of Cole Porter. Manohla Dargis, writing in the Los Angeles Times, began her review by describing the movie as “De-Lousy” and New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden wondered if Porter could have survived “a movie so lifeless and drained of genuine joie de vivre it makes you long for the largely fictional earlier film” on his life. Desson Thomson of The Washington Post saw the movie as unable to overcome its own “stagy conceit.”

     My companion and I, however, quite liked the picture, and Howard went back to see it several times. The Polish film director Zbigniew Kaminski, who lives in our building, agreed with me that it was one of the better films of the year. My poet friend Charles Bernstein, more­over, reported that he had also enjoyed it, particularly actor Kevin Kline’s musical renditions, which reminded him of Porter’s own high, whining voice.

     What I enjoyed about this film was what Thomson had described as “stagy,” the theatricality of it. As I’ve noted elsewhere in these cultural memoirs, Americans are true literalists: we like our theater, particularly when filmed, to be true-to-life, whatever that might mean. And we are quite intolerant, as many critics of this film were, with songs interpreted in new ways. In that sense, any film of the larger than-life Porter might have been impossible. For, like British composer and dramatist Nöel Coward, Porter lived a life that was a highly stylized, one largely invented in his own creative imagination.

     So I liked the conceit of presenting Porter’s history as a theatrical event, beginning with the isolated figure of the composer playing “In the Still of the Night” and quickly shifting to the presentation of his friends and “cast” in “Anything Goes.” This musical theater, continuing with Kevin Kline and Kevin McNally (as Gerald Murphy) performing “Well Did You Evah!” at a party where Porter meets Linda Lee, his future wife, is followed, soon after, with Kline’s charming rendition of “Easy to Love.” Perhaps the best moment of Winkler’s fluid cinematic maneuvering occurs in the next scene as Porter begins singing his newest song, “What Is This Thing Called Love,” to Irving Berlin and his wife, a tune picked up and sung more gloriously by a gondolier (the singer Lemur) as he passes the Porter’s Venice mansion, the Palazzo Ca’Rezzonico.

     No matter that according to William McBrien’s biog­raphy of the composer Porter actually met his future wife in 1918 at a wedding between Ethel Harriman and Henry Russell, while “Well Did You Evah! was composed for the musical DuBarry Was a Lady in 1940, or that Porter wrote “Easy to Love” in the 1930s, and that he had already met Irving Berlin in New York in the early 1920s several years before “What Is This Thing Called Love?” was written—as long as the director presents the movie as a musical fantasy, the film is quite enchanting. Similarly, it matters little to me that some of the unlikely performers of the songs in this film were not quite suited to the works, particularly Alanis Morisette in her rendition of “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” and Sheryl Crow in “Begin the Beguine”—for these less than perfect performances merely confirm how adaptable Porter’s music and lyrics truly are, how much they have gotten “under our skin.”

     This is not to say that De-Lovely is necessarily a successful film. For me, it begins to fail when it forgets its theatrical conventions, shifting the focus to Porter’s rela­tionship with his wife. Despite the seemingly “honest” depictions in this film of Porter’s homosexuality, the film is oddly prudish when it approaches the subject of Linda Porter. At its heart, the film seems to argue that, despite Porter’s true love for Linda, he treated her so rottenly that the relationship was doomed, and that, even though she often “accepted” his male companions, Porter’s increas­ingly flagrant public behavior was their ruination. In short, if Winkler’s direction begins by taking the movie down the path of Porter’s own musical fantasies, Jay Cock’s script increasingly centers it on what the author perceives as the composer’s sexual failures, a story that comes dangerously close to being homophobic.

     I suppose the filmmakers simply felt that the American public would not be able to accept the fact that Linda Porter was a wealthy socialite whose friends included many lesbians, and that it was she, for example, introduced Cole to Diaghilev and, perhaps, Diaghilev’s lover Boris Kochno—not the other way around. In a story that attempts to focus its sympathies on the “wronged woman,” it may be dramatically appealing to present Linda’s respiratory illness at a time when she had decided to end her relationship with her husband; but in reality she had had ill health throughout much of her life, and was diagnosed with serious health problems as early as the 1920s. There is no doubt that Porter often treated Linda badly and that, despite her tolerance for his affairs, she felt ignored and kept at a remove from his life. But she too, in part because of bad health, perhaps in retali­ation, and, one might conjecture, out of her own desires, spent long periods away from him. Although the film hints at some of these issues, it spends a great deal more time concentrating on Porter’s outrageous sexual outings with male prostitutes in Hollywood—where “love” is “for sale”—in opposition to the more stable and conven­tional relationship of his friends, the Murphys. Except for presenting the early affair with Kochno, Porter’s lifelong friendship with Monte Woolley, his brief liaison with an actor named Jack (John Barrowman) to whom actor Kline brilliantly sings “Night and Day,” and a late-life rela­tionship with a character the movie names Bill Wrather, supposedly Linda’s interior decorator with whom she “arranges” a relationship with Cole (a figure seemingly based on Porter’s friend John Cronin, who insisted he had no sexual relationship with Porter), there is little attempt in Cock’s story to explore the many longer-termed homosexual relationships between Porter and Eddy Tauch, Nelson Barclift and others that occurred throughout his life, and may have been just as influential and meaningful to his music as his marriage. If the earlier film Night and Day mythologized the love between Cole and Linda, this film almost demonizes it.

     What might have worked better, I suspect, is the more fantastical telling of Porter’s life with which the movie began and which sporadically reappears, as in the number “Be a Clown,” satirizing Louis B. Mayer. Porter was an almost archetypal American Midwesterner in love with European aristocracy and wealth, passions which, when mixed with sexual desires unacceptable in American society, forced him—and his wife as well—to create a world apart from that in which they might have more normally lived—a world parallel to, but removed from the “real” context of ordinary people. However, it may have been that very distancing that allowed Porter to compose such extraordinary music and lyrics; writing always at the edge of American sexual and social consciousness, he could burrow under the skin of our desires in way that no “ordinary” American composer might. Like Gatsby, Porter lived in a glamorous world of fantasy from where he could observe, as Gatsby secretly observed his guests, that behind the American façade there were other passions “deep in [our] hearts” which were “really a part of [him].”

Los Angeles, August 19, 2004
Reprinted from Green Integer Review (2004).



Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach (writers), Wes Anderson (director), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou / 2004

In a theater which might well double for an opera house, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou gets underway with a raising of the curtain upon a prosce­nium stage, announcing its presentation as Part I, a hint of the theatricality of the film that will follow. Indeed, the events of this movie might almost be described as oper­atic: in the manner of sea-going hero Jacques Cousteau, oceanographer and filmmaker Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) has just returned from a voyage where he has lost his best friend and exploring companion to a jaguar shark. His wife, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) is clearly bored by their relationship, and Zissou is having difficulty raising the money for his next voyage, on which he hopes to seek out the shark and, in revenge, blow it up—his announcement of which clearly offends his audience. As if these problems were not enough, a young man, Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), shows up at the after-event party, suggesting to Zissou that he may be his illegitimate son! (Later in the film, however, Eleanor notes that “Zissou shoots blanks”). As he admits at another point the picture, “I know I haven’t been at my best this past decade.”

     But the misadventures are just beginning. Production designer Mark Friedberg, set decorator Gretchen Rau, and cinematographer Robert Yeoman stir up a visually stunning catalogue of images as they take us on a tour of Zissou’s ship the Belafonte (a 50-year old minesweeper much like Costeau’s Calypso). It seems like something out of a coloring book rather than a sea-going vessel. As Zissou observes, the kitchen is the most technologically advanced spot on board.

Moreover, the crazy mix of crew and fellow voyagers—a sentimental German, a music-playing Brazilian, an Indian cameraman, several inexperienced interns, a very pregnant reporter (Cate Blanchett), as well as Zissou’s newfound son (“How long have you been working on team Zissou,” the reporter asks of Ned; “Not very long. About ten minutes,” he replies)—further arouses our suspicions that this voyage will be doomed. When Eleanor Zissou—the brains behind the team—refuses to participate, one recognizes that the ship is left in the incapable hands of a comic Ahab.

     As the voyage progresses, things go further down­hill; indeed, this will be a voyage to the very bottom of Zissou’s and his friend’s lives. Computers refuse to func­tion, forcing the team to break into an offshore facility of Zissou’s nemesis and his wife’s former husband Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum). Steering his ship across unprotected waters, Zissou suddenly finds himself in the hands of brutal Filipino pirates. Amazingly, he snaps into heroic action, saving all but the on-board accoun­tant from certain death. The ship, however, has been damaged, and as Hennessey catches up to it, there is no choice but to put into port, where they are abandoned by their interns.

Eleanor, sharing Hennessey’s villa, is implored to return to Zissou and sustain the voyage with her family’s money. Her refusal quickly dooms any salvage­able portion of the red-hatted Zissou team’s “adventure.” As Zissou admits, “I don’t have any status anymore.”

     The discovery of Hennessey’s huge vessel about to sink, however, reanimates the team as they head to the once populated island upon which sits a now-deserted hotel, where, ultimately, they discover Hennessey’s crew buried and Hennessey himself along with their company accountant playing cards with their captors. Springing into action, Zissou and his accomplices save the day, but soon after Ned is killed by his “father’s” negligence, as the onboard helicopter crashes into the ocean.

As Eleanor finally rejoins the team, sonar picks up the presence of the giant shark, and the remaining adventurers explore rock bottom in their underwater vessel. Once again, the world portrayed here is a magical one, made up of cartoon-like day-glo colored creatures and bejew­eled puppets. Despite the artificiality of this world—one should say because of the theatricality of it—the magical beast they all finally get to glimpse is truly awe-inspiring, and the ship of fools can finally resurface with a renewed sense of wonderment, having shared in the adventures worthy of any childhood romance.

Soon after viewing this movie I met cinematographer Robert Yeoman at my local bar, the famed Irish pub Bergins. I was sitting at the bar when the tender, Charlie Romanelli, a friend and sometime actor, introduced me to Yeoman. I asked Yeoman what he did for a living, and he responded—he is a quiet and modest man—“I work as a cinematographer.” Would I know any of his films, I asked. “Probably not,” he responded. “Sometimes I work with Wes Anderson.”

 In truth Yeoman has been cinematographer for numerous well-known filmmakers, including Wes Anderson in The Royal Tenenbaums, Dogma, and Rushmore, Gus Van Sant in Drugstore Cowboy, William Friedkin in To Live and Die in L.A., and, most recently, The Life Aquatic co-writer Noah Baumbach in The Squid and the Whale.

Los Angeles, May 5, 2006

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