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Entries in daniel d'addario (7)

Wednesday
Oct262011

In Which We Mandate A Reverse Bechdel Test

How to Be a Gentleman

by DANIEL D'ADDARIO

In order to pass the so-called Bechdel Test, a work of art must contain two women discussing a subject other than a man. Black Swan and All About Eve — films about female envy — pass, and so does Bridesmaids if you are willing to accept fighting over a wedding as distinct from fighting over the groom. New Girl fails, because there’s really only one girl and she’s either talking about her ex or her male roommates.

The Rachel Zoe Project is the first work of art (if you will) that merits a reverse-Bechdel Test. Every conversation the male cast members have stems back to Rachel Zoe herself, the stylist whose travails build a dreamlike Los Angeles about work, in senses of the word pertaining to one’s labors (work) and a drag-queeny desire to serve up a vogue look (werrrrrrrk).

The debt The Rachel Zoe Project, currently in its fourth season on Bravo, owes to The Hills is obvious. The Hills, secretly the most influential TV show of the 2000s, at first depicted four young women working menial jobs; the subtext became text in the pages of Us Weekly, where the stupid internships transmogrified, as though by magic, into brand-building exercises. Men were accessories like Lauren Conrad's absurd season-one kukui-nut necklace.

Unlike the ladies of The Hills, though (save for Laguna Beach refugee L.C.), Rachel Zoe was already famous when her show began. As a stylist, she pioneered the big-bag big-rings big-sunglasses big-Chanel-schmatte look that dominated the mid-2000s, paid for by the likes of Nicole Richie and Lindsay Lohan and imitated by L.C. and her crew. There was that horrifying-perfect Lynn Hirschberg profile in which Rachel Zoe claimed she was more influential than Anna Wintour, and whose smoking gun was not a plate of truffle fries but a plate of steamed veggies. Her personality didn’t come out in the profile any more than it does in the show, unless a set of aesthetic tastes and claims about how hard one works count as a personality.

The climb continues for a stylist who determined the sartorial look of reality TV then saw no further outlet for her talents than playing on the same turf. As season four begins, Rachel has been abandoned by her assistant, Brad, who wanted stardom of his own: Rachel sees this as a betrayal. She is acutely aware of loyalty. This, in the absence of conversation about anything but her job (she also discusses what she’ll wear in her off-time, but this counts, one could argue, as brand-building), is her defining trait.

Rachel hires a new assistant, the sallow outdoorsman Jeremiah, and brings to Los Angeles a desperate acolyte, the lanky makeup artist Joey, but neither one’s names get featured in the credits. The Hills always found an opposite-if-not-equal replacement for its departed stars; The Rachel Zoe Project has winnowed its credits down to Rachel and her husband Rodger.

Rachel and Rodger

Rodger has undefined responsibilities by what is often referred to as “the Zoe organization” or “Team Zoe”; he complains to other staffers, largely, about how stressed Rachel is, now that she is pregnant and still working (both working as a stylist and werrrrrking as she tests the seams of vintage Halston. That he is stressed is subtext: he is portrayed as a very average fellow who loves Vegas and the big game, who cares about his wife enough to do everything she says but not enough to disallow himself from snidely commenting on the shallowness of the fashion world. Heavy is the wrist that wears the stylist-selected Tibetan prayer beads.

It’s fortunate for Rachel, in the nonchalance of her husband towards everything save for her relative ability to deliver both a son and a paycheck, that she has gay men to deliver to her adoration. Joey, a minor character throughout the series, has returned to Los Angeles at Rodger’s behest with a loosely defined portfolio. (Rodger summons him with the most farcical of gravity, promising him a car and limited responsibilities.) Joey must make Rachel happy, and his flattery would seem like something out of one of Shakespeare’s histories did it not seem so earnest. “I love your job,” he says, preparing a model’s togs for a photoshoot.

Though they are coworkers, his only conversation with Jeremiah is about how Rachel likes things done — four years into the series, Joey has some idea. His flattery has by this point allowed him to supplant Jeremiah as Rachel’s most important fashion assistant, a development that prompted a mini-freakout when Joey gets to dress Kim Kardashian. “I get to treat people like Barbies.”

Maybe so, but he is one of many Kens. He and Rachel play dress-up, planning which Chanel sweaters she will wear to the delivery room; this stands out among the many, many scenes of Joey and Rachel standing in front of racks of clothes debriefing. (“Pulling clothes is really fun for me, I just feel like I’m in a dollhouse and I can pick out as many clothes as I want to put on a Barbie or something,” says Joey on another occasion.) That Joey Barbie-ing Rachel is done for the camera’s benefit seems obvious, but that Rachel Zoe thinks the image she ought to send out to the world is of a woman unhappy without the presence of someone to say yes to it all is disconcerting.

Jeremiah, though, has been fired, a task delegated to Rodger, for nebulous reasons pertaining to his inability to “find a place” within the Zoe organization. That he is later called back to decorate Rachel’s nursery, and that he says yes, is obvious within the diegetic world of Rachel Zoe’s universe, one in which every request is easily fulfilled. 

What Rachel Zoe has built is less an empire (the scenes of actual work have gone, through the seasons, from legitimately glamorous occasions featuring big stars to sad little showrooms where Rachel assembles look books for unknown Scandinavian brands) than a multi-layer dollhouse in which every level believes they are dressing one another. Her baby is a son, one for whom Jeremiah lays out baby Gucci sandals in the nursery. Every man can find nothing to talk about save for Rachel’s whims, but that is a measure of the influence for which she has worked so hard.

Daniel D'Addario is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. You can find his website here.

"My Husband's Got No Courage" - The Once (mp3)

"Valley of Kilbride" - The Once (mp3)

"Charlie's" - The Once (mp3)

Monday
Sep262011

In Which We Experience A Sinister Paris

This week we look back at the films of Roman Polanski.

Superhuman

by DANIEL D'ADDARIO

Frantic
120 minutes
dir. Roman Polanski

When did Harrison Ford stop caring about acting? Did he ever start, in the first place? His best characters make lazy insouciance a virtue. His worst (as in last year’s Morning Glory) come from writers and directors who don’t know the difference between Indiana Jones-y insouciance and simple grouchiness. Roman Polanski’s Frantic doesn’t ask Ford to have a cool attitude (per the title, he spends the movie in a panicky state Indy or Han Solo wouldn’t recognize) and nor does it require him to put on the crabbed, curdled grunt-whine he finds more easily accessible with every new movie.

Frantic is a deeply strange movie in many of its particulars, not least in its treatment of its star. Ford’s character, a doctor from San Francisco whose wife is kidnapped on a Paris vacation, is the squarest man on earth. His temper rarely rises during his search for his wife, and when it does, it’s with the sort of doofy impotence more familiar from Steve Martin characters. An official asks him, over the phone, to spell his location, and Ford shouts, “With an ‘S’—for ‘Shithead’!”

Even his successes are conditional on your accepting that the world of Frantic is moved more by charisma than by intelligence: Emmanuelle Seigner’s character, who combines, here, the look-and-pout acting ability of a WB starlet with the leather-studs-and-suspenders wardrobe of an S&M Elaine Benes, tells Harrison Ford that while what she’d smuggled into Paris set the plot into motion, it definitely was not drugs. “Then what was it,” mumbles Ford, who barely gets to finish before Seigner cuts him off: “Okay, it was dope!”

The differences between Frantic and Chinatown are instructive — while both Harrison Ford and Jack Nicholson are world-class at phoning in performances, Nicholson at least has to enact the process of learning about his environment. Because he never acclimates to Paris, Ford’s performance, as written, is sheer confusion merged with brief eruptions of rage. You keep thinking that no movie would have its character try to find his wife by going to a mysterious bar, meeting a nefarious character (Polanski signals his evil by having him speak English near-perfectly, but with a Jamaican accent), get offered “the white lady” and actually believe it was a Caucasian female, then get forced to snort cocaine in a bathroom stall. That the cocaine has no noticeable effect means that Ford’s character is either superhuman or superhumanly oblivious.

Ford’s perplexity can’t entirely be blamed on Ford — after all, the character doesn’t really even suit his persona. Frantic depicts an intractable world in which, upon the kidnapping of Ford’s wife, hotel employees and government officials treat it as the occasion to have a laugh and a cigarette. The authorities are impotent and that which they ought to be fighting — a shadow universe of evil, in which the Arab terrorists who kidnapped the wife, naturally, and random low-level drug dealers are all part of the same sinister Paris — is uncontrollable and unstoppable and both random and not. At first it strikes without reason, and then everything begins to look like a sign the world is corrupt, even the random guy at the bar who offers you “the white lady.” To politely decline would mean that you knew something about evil to begin with, which is itself evil.

To learn nothing, and to lash out angrily when confronted with quite how much one would have to learn, is the only sensible reaction. That, at the film’s end, Harrison Ford makes a terrible tactical decision and throws the device the armed terrorists seek into the river, makes perfect sense within this film’s universe. In any other movie, they’d have shot him immediately, or tried to. In this one, they stand dumbstruck at the act of goodness Ford backed into while whirling around.

Indiana Jones and Han Solo, to degrees, triumphed because of adventurism. Ford’s character here (whom I’ve gotten this far before saying is named Dr. Richard Walker, though if I mention Chinatown once more I will be obliged to mention the name Jake Gittes) triumphs because this is a movie, okay. And his triumph is deeply conditional, tied in as it is with the death of Emmanuelle Seigner.

Seigner, who married Polanski in real life the year after this movie came out, gives the movie its only moments of levity. She’s not amazing at acting, but her pouting and refusal to give much effort suits her character far more than it suits Ford’s. Who’s more likely to smirk her way through life: a model-pretty smuggler who has a Garfield phone in her apartment or a doctor from the Bay Area who just found out what cocaine is? Seigner gets bubble gum to pop in Ford’s face, too.

The character has to die not only because it gives the viewer the sense of something having happened over the course of the movie—the trouble with movies about bureaucratic rabbit holes is the evocation of the sense-memory of filling out paperwork, the most inconclusive human act. She also, while not evil herself, is a sign of the decadence of the world. She’s terrifically young, telling Ford she believes any four-year-old song is an “oldie.”

She dresses in leather or low-cut dresses and finds excuses related to the locating of Ford’s kidnapped wife to dance quite close to Ford, quite well. If she’d stuck around, the returned wife would have some questions to ask. Instead, she’s a martyr to lust and violence.

Chinatown exposes a world full of crime and greed; it’s about our own time, or Polanski’s when he made it, but it uses period-film signifiers. Evil seems so much more meaningful when it’s removed from contemporary tropes. The Arab terrorists in Frantic cannot be iconic. The indulgence in drugs and sex as signifier of evil is, in addition to being too like a trope whose meaning had by the mid-1980s eroded, seems a bit like Polanski’s self-flagellation. This was only the third movie he’d made since his exile from America, and the other two had been period pieces.

This is how Polanski saw the world — a sexpot dancing too close before she dies, triumph achieved only through yelling loudly and stumbling towards hypothetical vindication, away from a universe of authorities and nemeses who come to look yet more similar.

At one point, Ford finds himself on the roof, evading thugs who’re trying to get at Seigner’s smuggled booty while still hoping unrealistically he might save his wife. His shoe falls, and rather than showing us the distance it does, and Ford will, fall towards obliteration, Polanski has it glide slowly down the roof and come to rest safely upon a landing. That’s the trouble with Frantic — for all its depiction of a grief and panic that need not necessarily be inflicted by Arab terrorists, the film is removed from reality in all the wrong ways.

Frantic plays tonight at 7 pm at the Museum of Modern Art.

Daniel D'Addario is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Brooklyn. He last wrote in these pages about Our Idiot Brother. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. You can find his website here.

"Sahara" - Quigley (mp3)

"If I Could Fly Into Your Arms" - Quigley (mp3)

"One Sad Knowingly So-Son" - Quigley (mp3)

Friday
Aug262011

In Which We Enunciate Our Presence Here

Dungeon Bunnies

by DANIEL D'ADDARIO

Our Idiot Brother
dir Jesse Peretz
90 minutes

Narratives about squabbling, intellectual siblings and the Judd Apatow crew of ageless male comedians both have their distinct appeals, but the uneasy contrasts at play in Our Idiot Brother mix together like chocolate sauce and horseradish. The film was co-written by Evgenia Peretz (with David Schisgall) and directed by Jesse Peretz, and the children of famous publishing figure Martin Peretz have much to say, it would seem, about the family dynamic, and seek to say it all loudly.

The film tells the story of Ned (Paul Rudd), a hippie who lives off the land before an arrest on drug charges forces him to live off the goodwill — or, at least, the largesse — of his three sisters. As an actor, Rudd is congenitally likable and the viewer is perpetually on this actor’s side: a good thing, as the script gives him remarkably little to do for much of the film’s running time.

Ned’s idiocy is frighteningly all-encompassing; he is befuddled by simple human rituals, unable to read the emotions of women he has known his entire life, and childishly unaware of the distinction between truth and lies, or between family obligation and family togetherness. Have the Peretz siblings met any of the neo-hippies currently selling organic food or toiling on farms? Asceticism in lifestyle tends to breed a keen, resentful understanding of humanity, not a gleeful disregard for its customs.

The lead character’s inability to read the number of dramas unfolding all around him yields a lot of Rudd’s sunny smiles, devoid of substance. Scenes involving each sister’s individual crises are ever derailed by Ned’s presence, as his obtuseness — perpetually three steps behind the other characters, and eight steps behind the audience — adds nothing to the film. (It does not help that Peretz seems not to have heard of the two-shot, perpetually and ineptly focusing on a single character and cutting short every conversation’s momentum.)

A film about three squabbling sisters, each in intellectual, career, family, and sexual crisis, exists. Its name is Hannah and Her Sisters. That film's plot has been rear-ended, here, by the endpoint of the frat-boy comedy vogue. Far more than a hippie, the stoned guy emotionally unavailable behind his grin that Mr. Rudd plays here is a frat boy.

What, then, of the sisters, whose narratives and whose lives Ned disrupts? The viewer remains intrigued as to how the delightfully flinty Elizabeth Banks, the watery Emily Mortimer, and the overprimped baby-doll Zooey Deschanel all came from a single genetic line, but their differences in physical appearance and acting style (Banks failing to conceal rage, Deschanel enunciating her lines as though she were a particularly sad ghost, moaning and gesticulating quietly from a dungeon on a different floor) fade away in light of their matching inability to deal reasonably with their own lives or with Ned’s presence.

Banks’ Miranda is a Vanity Fair reporter entrusted with a big story, during whose reporting she is forced, by a plot contingency, to enlist Ned as a chauffeur. Ned, of course, ruins the day — though he later stumbles upon great intel without realizing it (such is his way). Banks' talent, so often underutilized, is here overutilized. She’s annoyed! Grr! But Ned may, in fact, have saved the day! Sinister, conspiratorial look at no one! If the screenwriter Peretz’s impression of Vanity Fair reporting in real life is as scattershot as the sort of reporting-by-mood swing Miranda practices, one may be inclined to read the magazine a bit more spuriously.

Mortimer’s Liz, sporting an accent that tentatively taps on New York’s door before fleeing back to London, has a philandering husband (Steve Coogan) in a plotline that felt stale when Mia Farrow and Michael Caine acted it out in Hannah and Her Sisters. That film elevated the stock plotline with a near-poetic understanding of why people cheat, and why they stay.

This film, by contrast, casts Mr. Coogan’s Dylan as an unqualified villain and, of course, Ned as the moronic (idiot is too kind) interloper, who catalyzes dramatic motion by saying precisely the wrong thing about very obvious happenings he cannot understand. That Ned does precisely the same thing in the subplot in which Deschanel’s Natalie cheats on her girlfriend (Rashida Jones) is simply frustrating, and not merely because it further overstuffs this film with incident.

Ned’s stupidity seems less funny when it wreaks further havoc on the lives of characters who are all too able to ruin their lives independently. That would be marginally more dramatically satisfying — though Miranda and her sisters, in their derivative, self-manufactured crises that become the film’s subject, are less intriguing than Hannah and hers.

In the film’s dramatic high point — at which all three sisters coalesce into a three-headed blob of judgment and bitter recrimination while playing charades with Ned, a set of Furies unable to see that Ned’s actions only hastened their own fairly-unavoidable personal collapses — Ned explodes, his smile suddenly and without any warning from the script turning into impotent rage. His rage is unconvincing. Who could believe that a man who has not yet assumed the worst — or even the accurate and uncomfortable — about his three idle, sensation-chasing sisters has anything to say worth hearing?

Daniel D'Addario is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in New York. He is a writer for the New York Observer, and you can find an archive of his writing here.

"Winter" - The Diamond Family Archive (mp3)

"Sleeping Under Stars" - The Diamond Family Archive (mp3)

"Crows" - The Diamond Family Archive (mp3)

The latest album from The Diamond Family Archive is titled Lakes, Meres, Ponds And Waters.