Tag Archives: romantic comedy

Why They Couldn’t Make Breakfast at Tiffany’s Today

This week, as the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, generations of fans old and new will amble up Fifth Avenue, press their noses to the shiny windows on 57th and remember their first times.

It will be a bittersweet day for me, however.

Sweet for all the right reasons, bitter because the age of the grown up Hollywood comedy is long behind us. Mind you, this isn’t nostalgia, it’s arithmetic: the people making the movies have changed and so have the people they’re making them for.

As a former seven to twelve year-old, I was a huge fan of sameness. That was the great thing about The Kids Menu. No matter where your parents took you, it was always the same. Pizza, pasta, grilled cheese, simple, familiar, benign. The perfect speed for a young person not ready for the Big Out There. That’s Hollywood today.

No offense to pizza, but this is tragic for those of us care to enjoy a piece of arugula from time to time.

Even more tragic for those of us who were eating off The Kids Menu when the likes of John Calley, the great and beloved studio chief who died three weeks ago, was in the kitchen.

A true master of the art of commercial art, Calley oversaw a successful series of highly diversified films, ranging honorably from healthy dreck to serious grown-up fare. For every meandering, money-grabbing Da Vinci Code on his tremendous resume, there was challenging, immortal A Clockwork Orange. For every dollar earned, in other words, there was a risk taken.

The very beautiful thing about this era of not-tool-long-ago is Calley wasn’t alone. There were others making money, making art. Fox’s Alan Ladd Jr. said yes to Star Wars and Harry and Tonto, a movie about an old guy and a cat; United-Artists’s David Picker agreed to Dr. No and Lenny, a movie about the price of making tough art; Paramount’s Richard Shepherd green-lit The Towering Inferno and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a movie about free love before the term even existed.

Alas, Shepherd wouldn’t get far with Breakfast at Tiffany’s today, at least not if he were making the grown up version we know and love. Out would go the subtle innuendo, European couture, moral ambiguity, and brilliant counterpoint casting of its good-girl star in a bad-girl part, and in their place, rim-shot jokes, the latest fashion trend, explicit messages, and safe, dependable typecasting. In other words, today’s Tiffany’s would be a film suited to the mundane demands of Hollywood’s most admiring customers: kids. Theirs is mainstream film’s greatest love affair.

No business likes risk, and lucky for Hollywood, younger audiences, prone to the pressures of “cool” and partial to formula, are about as risk-free as a demographic gets. They know what they like and they like what they know. Thus are the young supplied with sequels, franchises, remakes, and movies named after board games (Battleship will be released in 2012). Anything to serialize what has already been serialized before.

To be fair, this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. As far back as Hollywood’s first star, movies have tried to homogenize their product in a way that was mutually beneficial for both business and audiences.

If they like Cary Grant, the thinking went, give them Cary Grant movies. If they like Marilyn Monroe, maybe they’ll go for Kim Novak. Sometimes it even turned out well. But not anymore.

The very big, very small difference between then and now is back then, novelty had a commercial ring to it. Mixing proven types with risky, unproven material, like Audrey Hepburn (a franchise) plus Truman Capote’s (challenging, naughty) Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was in 1961 an attention-grabbing combination. A gamble yes, but a gamble bold enough to win big: revoking homogeny, Richard Shepherd’s film was bigger than any single demographic alone. That meant kids, grown-ups, Hepburn’s fans, and Capote-lovers all had something to look forward to.

And thank goodness: Without that lucrative roll of the dice, the film would be little more than a serialized rehash of Audrey’s persona and hardly worth remembering today. Even if the movie failed, it would be worth remembering because, thanks to Shepherd, Breakfast at Tiffany’s had prestige out of the gate. It pandered up.

The Sex Pistols’ late manager Malcolm McLaren observed ours was a karaoke world, an ersatz society. As long as his statement applies to Hollywood, and it does, we’ll never see the likes of an Audrey Hepburn in a Breakfast at Tiffany’s ever again.

Advertisements

I Got a Kick out of You

Nothing makes a critic seem more out of touch with his era than playing the “they don’t make em like they used to” card, but I happen to think, in the case of the Hollywood romantic comedy, a critic who doesn’t play the card is out of touch with his art form.

I played the card (once more with feeling) in a recent issue of Elle magazine.

Inception

I went.

Within the first fifteen minutes, I fell into a deep sleep and dreamt I was sitting in a movie theater watching a movie – a romantic comedy, actually – about two mostly normal people of slightly-above-average intelligence, a man and a woman, who meet at a party thrown by a mutual friend. After a few glasses of wine, it comes out that both were only pretending not to know the other for fear of embarrassing themselves in the event that one remembered meeting the other and the other one didn’t. Laughing at the ridiculousness of this, the woman reaches across the buffet table for a spring roll and suggests they relocate to a couch in a far corner of the room, where it’s quieter. The man agrees. A short time later, with more wine behind them, he learns that she likes Borges, and she learns that he likes that she likes Borges. The floodgates open. They move from literature to film to the small restaurants in the uncharted neighborhoods of their vast city, and then, almost accidentally, she mentions something intimate about her last boyfriend, a guy named Ben, a Jungian dream analyst. Almost immediately, the woman tries to change the subject. But sensing her need to stay on Ben, her new friend steers the conversation back to where she abandoned it, and then stops. Was he being too pushy? If she changed course, was it a faux pas to change it back? But it didn’t matter; she was already back to Ben. With mounting intensity, she describes the apartment they shared overlooking the opera house, the operas they saw, the operas they planned to see, and soon she’s crying. Flummoxed, the man tries a joke – and then instantly regrets it. He was trying to cheer her, but did it come off as callous? Without time to explain, he is interrupted by Lucy, his high school girlfriend. Or were they never really together together? And what was she doing there? At this, the woman across from him looks up, her face wet with tears, and Lucy, sensing she has disturbed a private exchange, throws out a heap of apologies and flees the room, knocking over a small Deco footstool by the door. “That’s a lovely piece,” the man thinks, and he looks down. Wiping her face with the back of her hand, the woman, smiling quite beautifully, insists that he go to Lucy. But he says he’d rather not. She tells him he should. He insists again, then she insists hoping to induce him to insist harder, which he does, then I woke up. There was still two hours to go.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Well, I saw it.

For a long time it was hard to care about the latest Woody Allen movie because the latest Woody Allen movie was so bad. That was ten years ago. Now it’s even harder to care about the latest Woody Allen movie because, more than ever, it seems Woody himself doesn’t care. His 21st century life philosophy, the idea that nothing really matters in our world of arbitrary cause and effect, has more than simply turned his fans into detractors; it has damaged – I think permanently – his relationship to his material. On the occasion of Match Point, critics saw this narrowing of mind as a productive change of course, a new point of view they mistook for a mature turn in a tired body of work. But they were wrong. A close look at any of his films since Match Point and it’s easy to see Woody’s nihilism is no more revelatory than a shrug.

His new movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, opens with a narrator’s voice over. Borrowing from Shakespeare’s famous bit about sound and fury and signifying nothing, the speaker asserts – with an air of committed apathy – that the story coming our way is empty and purposeless. Not foolish, mind you, or even frivolous fun; merely naught. A zero.

So why tell it at all?

There’s no answer. Only 98 useless minutes of sitcom situations and banal chatter made excruciating by Woody’s flagrant, almost show-offy disavowal of meaning. Worse, discrediting the very notion of significance in his film, he actually reveals himself to be contemptuous of his audience. According to his logic of sound and fury, those who came to the cinema for a substantial experience in fiction film, would rather dull their acuity with fantasy than live in “enlightened” chaos. Where life is a series of aimless fragments, none of which add up to anything of value, organizing them into narrative form is downright pointless, like building a sculpture of garbage. So what should we do with ourselves when the total of our lives is less than the sum of its parts? (Incidentally, this is the big question in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. And no one is the wiser for asking it: loonies who seek comfort in fortune-tellers are made to look like idiots, and those who know better come off as mean.)

What happened to the Woody Allen who hadn’t made up his mind, who was still unsure about what really matters? From Take the Money and Run to Deconstructing Harry, there never really was much hope for the human race, but there were always hard-won glimmers of goodness, juicy bits of life’s pulp to be scooped out of the tumult. Perhaps that’s why Woody has moved his pictures out of New York. Because in New York, where his camera would be forced into contact with the skyline he once loved, Woody would either have to fall in love all over again or grieve for what he loves no longer. Shooting his film in London allows him to do what he did in Whatever Works – run away from all of it.

Share

Safe Sex

I woke up this morning happy to discover the lovely Mary Kaye Schilling had written a lovely riff on 5th Avenue, 5 AM in this week’s New York Magazine. Here’s the top of it:

On the morning the film began shooting—a chilly dawn, October 2, 1960—Audrey Hepburn was seated in a cab. She had big doubts about this role, right down to the Danish in a paper bag sitting beside her. She hated Danishes and had asked her director, Blake Edwards, if she could switch to an ice-cream cone; he said no, pointing out that it was breakfast, after all. When “Action!” was called, the taxi drove up Fifth Avenue and stopped on the corner of 57th Street. Hepburn—wearing sunglasses and a black Givenchy gown—stepped out of the car and paused on the curb to gaze up at Tiffany’s. In that moment, the actress, in the guise of Holly Golightly, created an indelible cinematic moment—and a new future for women. “No Holly, no Carrie Bradshaw, no Sex and the City,” says Sam Wasson, whose new book, Fifth Avenue, 5 a.m. (June 22), is about the making of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

A fascination with fascination is one way of describing Wasson’s interest in a film that not only captures the sedate elegance of a New York long gone, but that continues to entrance as a love story, a style manifesto, and a way to live. “It’s crossed generations in ways Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, and other cliché classics haven’t,” says Wasson, who unearths such juicy tidbits as the near-cutting of the indelible theme song “Moon River,” the utter dickishness of co-star George Peppard, who played the love interest, and the protest over Mickey Rooney portraying a Japanese man. Wasson wanted to know the reason for its cultural longevity, and once he started asking, the inevitable answer was Audrey Hepburn. But something about the idolatry bugged him. “Hepburn has become a near-saintly figure, untouchable. That didn’t sit well with me. I thought there was a human being there who needed to be looked at.”

For the rest, please check out New York Magazine.

Share

The Way the Cookie Crumbles

Manohla is on her game this morning. Her review of The Back-Up Plan is a sad reminder that romantic comedy continues to scrape up against the dank, dark bottom of the Hollywood barrel.

For any number of reasons, the genre that was once typified by It Happened One Night and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, has fallen farther than any other. With the possible exception of the Hollywood musical, which has a very good excuse for its dissolution (end of studios, end of resources), the decline of the romantic comedy is undoubtedly the most grievous lesion on the lumbering zombie that has become popular American film.

Blindfold yourself, spin around twice, and land a finger anywhere on Manohla’s review and you’ll find a reason why. Go ahead, try it. I did:

“The Back-Up Plan” is innocuous and unmemorable, and pretty much looks like a lot of sitcoms do. It will scale down well on your television, a medium that was made for close-ups of characters sharing and caring.

Right. A large part of the problem is that romantic comedies all look the same. Action films, epic dramas, science fiction adventures – these films are practically all look, and as such, jump whole hog into visual style, varying their aesthetic from prequel to sequel and back to prequel at the rate of a fourth grader trading baseball cards, and almost to a shameful degree, as if it were a cover for their lack of original content. Then there’s the romantic comedy. They all look the same. Bright, evenly distributed light, easy-going medium shots, and no sudden movements. But this is not cinema – this is the anesthetic aesthetic of the convalescent hospital. “Don’t worry, Grandpa! You won’t feel a thing!”

It seems silly to speak of aesthetics when discussing the genre responsible for films like The Bounty Hunter and 27 Dresses. I can already hear cries of “They’re just meant to be entertaining,” as if the doctrines of comedy and thoughtlessness were intended to go hand in hand. But I can remember a time – a time before I was born – when style was entertainment; when Annie Hall was funny not just because of its “entertainment” value, but because Woody Allen found a visual correlate for the searching, elastic mind of Alvy Singer; when a film like A Shot in the Dark, which never aimed higher than gut-level, could be as committed to boffo laffs as it was to widescreen framing; when The Apartment, which has more laughs than a whole season of romantic comedies, allowed its bitterness to come through black and white, courtesy of cinematographer Joseph LaShelle.

True, these are masterpieces, but the same could be said for all sorts of other, lesser films made before Hollywood gave up on its once favorite genre. The only reason I don’t mention them here is because they don’t make the point as forcefully. But I assure you, they make the point. Watching Soapdish again the other night, I saw it wasn’t nearly as good as I remembered it, but I didn’t mind. With its vigorous camera moves and robust palette, the film had the feeling of a low-calorie Almodovar movie, and in my book of damn good efforts, that wins it a hearty handshake and a slap on the back.

But Soapdish was released twenty years ago. What am I going to see tonight?

Share