Saturday, September 27, 2008

"I have vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals."

There are a lot of movie stars and a lot of very good actors. Only sometimes, and nowadays more rarely, do we find the two in the same human being. Friday we lost one of the best of both when Paul Newman passed away at the age of 83.

He was closely linked with Robert Redford, another person who fit both categories and in the same way that you're either a Fred Astaire guy or a Gene Kelly guy, I think you may be either a Robert Redford guy or a Paul Newman guy. I was always a Newman guy. Make no mistake, I love Redford. But he was almost too perfect, too good-looking. Newman had an ease about him, a nonchalance that was self-effacing. Redford seemed like a God, Newman seemed more damaged. He was a heartthrob as well, but he often played a character that would get in his own way. The joy of watching him onscreen was watching how he would get out of his way, how he would somehow manage his plight.

I wonder if people my age know Newman as something more than the guy on the salad dressing or the guy in the race cars. I wonder if they know that while Britney Spears gets married and divorced within 55 hours, Newman defied all Hollywood logic by celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary earlier this year. (It does help that he was married to Joanne Woodward, an actress as talented and beautiful as he was.) I wonder if they've seen that moment in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid where he rides the bike with Katharine Ross on the handlebars while "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" plays on the soundtrack. I wonder if they've seen the part in The Sting where he out-cheats Robert Shaw in that poker game on the train.

I want to stop wondering and suggest you go out and rent those two movies... and Hud, and The Hustler, and The Verdict, and Cool Hand Luke, and Sweet Bird of Youth and, well I could go on and on.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

I got a woody.

Midway through Woody Allen's latest release, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Penelope Cruz's Maria Elena says to Scarlett Johansson's Cristina--and I'm paraphrasing here--that unfulfilled love is the only kind of romantic love, that once something is realized it loses its allure. (Whether I agree with this sentiment is fodder for an entirely different post--in fact, perhaps, an entirely different blog site--but I will say that in my younger days I often liked to say that "consummation breeds contempt".)

In a way, that line (Maria Elena's, not mine) comes to fruition in every relationship in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a film whose plot is a blurry convergence of intersecting love triangles, quadrangles, and more. The film, as suggested by its fully matter-of-fact and un-ironic title, is the story of two twenty-something friends, Vicky and Christina, enviably spending their summer in beautiful Barcelona. But their altogether breezy vacation is quickly upended when they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a painter whose failed, trouble marriage with Maria Elena (Cruz) has become a bit of a local legend ("She put a knife in me," he calmly tells the two American women.).

Directly and without pretense, Juan Antonio propositions the two to join him in a weekend trip to the Spanish town of Oviedo to "eat good food, drink good wine, and make love." Yes, to both of them. Needless to say, a great deal happens--longing gazes, chance encounters, a good amount of sexual activity--between here and the end, only complicated by the arrival of Maria Elena into the mix. As for the sordid details of these shifting encounters, I'll leave that for you to hopefully discover.

There are many who would say that Allen's films possess in them a great deal of misogyny. That criticism doesn't stop with Barcelona in some of the reviews I've read. To be fair, I think that is a legitimate opinion of his films, though I tend to have a more tempered reading of this issue. Though he may deny this, of just about all mainstream American directors, Allen is the most philosophically apparent in his own work, the one whose intellectual perspective is the most visible. First, let me say that I think all men are to some extent misogynists. I think it's part of our nature. It isn't always malicious (it probably only rarely is), but it's there even if it's latent.

It only seems obvious that Allen is playing a bit of fantasy fulfillment here: the soulful artist living out his every whim among a collage of beautiful women. But the real center of the film exist in the two women. The real projection of Allen's psyche lies in Vicky and Cristina, not Juan Antonio. All the familiar elements of the Allen oeuvre are apparent, but it's this slight rack in focus where he begins to move into slightly different territory.

Vicky and Cristina lie on almost opposite ends of the sexually emotional spectrum. Cristina is the hopeless romantic, willing and able to be picked up by the unknown Spanish artist. Vicky is reluctant, settling for her safe, comfortable relationship back at home. By the end of the summer, they meet up somewhere in the middle... sort of. The point is that Allen is exploring issues of romantic and sexual identity universal certainly among the genders, but I think specific more to women. Where Annie Hall famously ends with that bit about "needing the eggs," Vicky Cristina Barcelona tries to figure out whether those eggs should be scrambled, poached, or sunnyside up.