Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #20: Casablanca

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Casablanca (released November 1942)

Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa & Humphrey Bogart as Rick in Casablanca

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Most any film student can explain the old Hollywood studio system. Between the late 1920s and early 1960s, motion picture studios -- like MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount, RKO, 20th Century Fox -- produced movies primarily on their own filmmaking lots with creative personnel (writers, directors and stars) under long-term contracts. In the peak days of the Hollywood studio system, arguably the late 1930s through the 1940s, these companies produced and distributed over 350 films a year. They were cranking out product for audiences whose alternative to radio in those pre-TV and Internet days was a trip to the local movie theater. There was far, far less emphasis on making a blockbuster that would pack houses on opening weekend. More often than not, the studios were just hoping that a solid story and some A-lists stars would produce a hit. And that was essentially the formula behind Warner Bros.' Casablanca, a product of the studio assembly line that was based very loosely on an unproduced 1940 play entitled Everybody Comes to Rick's.

Casablanca is set during World War II (1939-1945), after German troops had invaded and occupied many European cities, including Paris, but just before the United States had entered the war (after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941). American expatriate Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) runs a thriving nightclub in Casablanca, a city located in the northwest African territory known at the time as French Morocco. As yet unoccupied by the Germans, Casablanca is the next-to-last stop for desperate refugees fleeing Europe. In Casablanca, luck, perseverance and money will get you a letter of transit and a plane ride to Lisbon, Portugal, which had become the great embarkation point to the Americas. The most likely place to find a shady character selling letters of transit? Rick's nightclub, of course. Cynical and aloof, Rick is expressly detached from the process. His personal philosophy is, "I stick my neck out for nobody." He says that twice in the first twenty minutes, so you know that mantra is due for some recalibration.

Enter Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). He's a renowned Nazi-resistance leader and concentration camp escapee. She's Rick's former lover -- and thanks to an extended flashback, we see their whirlwind romance unfold in Paris just weeks before the Germans marched into town. Rick makes plans for them to escape Paris by train, but Ilsa's a no-show at the station, opting instead to send Rick a note via his buddy, Sam (Dooley Wilson). Movie notes are never good news: she's not going, she can't see him again, and he must not ask why. A year and a half later, there she is with Laszlo, and bitter, brokenhearted Rick sums up her entrance with pithy precision: "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine." Naturally, Ilsa and Laszlo need letters of transit to Lisbon. A cabal of Nazi officers are determined to thwart their departure. And Rick is suddenly conflicted about whether or not to stick his neck out for somebody.

Casablanca is an intoxicating mixture of romance, intrigue, idealism, quotable dialogue and great performances. It's a crackling good story, shrewdly directed by Michael Curtiz -- a Hungarian immigrant who helmed a lot of great movies, like Captain Blood (1935), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and one of my all-time favorites, Mildred Pierce (1945). Curtiz received five Best Director Oscar nominations during his career, winning once for Casablanca. Austrian immigrant Max Steiner composed the impeccable musical score, but not the film's iconic song, "As Time Goes By" -- it was a ten-year-old Broadway tune that he discovered, rearranged and turned into a haunting leitmotif. Steiner scored over 300 movies, including King Kong (1933) and Gone With the Wind (1939); he was nominated for eighteen Oscars, winning three times.

One of the more fascinating things about Casablanca is the casting. Humphrey Bogart had already played plenty of tough guys, but this was his first truly romantic leading role. With his careworn face and rusty, nasal voice, he was pretty much the antithesis of Hollywood's leading men at the time. There's no real reason that pairing Bogart with the radiant Ingrid Bergman should work, but it does. "With the whole world crumbling, we pick this time to fall in love," says Bergman to Bogart, striking a note of pitch perfect pathos. A lesser actress would have made Ilsa seem foolish, but Bergman's performance never lets you forget that this character is a complex, vulnerable woman navigating protracted circumstances as best she can.

More about the casting: Bogart and Dooley Wilson (the African American actor playing Rick's best friend, Sam) are the only two members of the main cast born in the United States. Bergman was born in Sweden. Claude Rains (local prefect Captain Renault) and Sydney Greenstreet (rival nightclub owner Ferrari) were born in England. Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo) and Peter Lorre (Ugarte) were born in Austria-Hungary. Conrad Veidt (Nazi officer Major Strasser) was born in Germany. In fact, virtually all the supporting parts, minor roles and background extras were European immigrants or refugees. According to Warner Bros., thirty-four different nationalities worked on the film. Casablanca is a terrific symphony of accents.

Considering Casablanca's troubled production history - four writers essentially jettisoned the source material, writing and re-writing the script throughout the shooting -- it's a smartly paced, unified film that mixes genres with wild abandon. You could call it a wartime melodrama about some star-crossed lovers, but it's so much more -- a tale of personal integrity, selflessness and meaningful emotional sacrifice. Released roughly a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and coinciding with the Allied invasion of North Africa, you can imagine Casablanca having a particular resonance with American audiences of the day. Casablanca's famous ending (and if you don't know how it ends, I'm not about to spoil it for you) has been discussed at length, but there's a particularly powerful moment earlier in the film that really stuck with me. A group of Nazi officers casually intimidate the multinational patrons of Rick's nightclub by loudly singing a German anthem, "Watch on the Rhine," that's deeply rooted in French enmity. Resistance leader Victor Laszo starts singing the French national anthem, "La Marseillaise," and others follow until the Germans are entirely drowned out. In under two minutes, this superbly acted, directed and edited scene embodies everything from fear, paranoia and antipathy to defiance, patriotism and hope. It's extraordinarily stirring.

Stray Gay Observations: Before Casablanca, I'd watched a handful of Humphrey Bogart pictures, including The Maltese Falcon (1941), The African Queen (1951) and The Caine Mutiny (1954). His career was filled with hard-boiled, hard-drinking, disillusioned characters. That can be an awfully narrow range to play, but his carefully modulated performances never feel lazy or perfunctory. And although I really don't think he possessed the sheer sex appeal of some of his Hollywood contemporaries, like Errol Flynn, Cary Grant or William Holden, Bogart was brimming with personal magnetism and ineffable presence.

When asked his nationality by a Nazi officer, Rick replies, "I'm a drunkard."

Is there a gay character in Casablanca? In a 1996 review, Roger Ebert described the Claude Rains character -- charmingly corrupt French police prefect Captain Renault -- as "subtly homosexual." I admire and respect Ebert (1942-2013), arguably the most successful film critic in cinema history, but I have to respectfully disagree. Renault has an obvious fondness for Bogart's Rick, but then so does Rick's buddy and house pianist, Sam. Both, in their own ways, show a lot of compassion for Rick. I wonder what Ebert saw in Rains' performance that led him to believe the character is gay? To me, Casablanca's not-so-subtle homosexual is rival nightclub owner Signor Ferrari, played by Sydney Greenstreet. And I jumped to that conclusion because, among other things, he owns a parrot and wears white suits throughout the film. Perception is a funny thing.

Should You See It? The opening narration over a spinning eighth-grade-science-project globe is the only element that feels dated, and you'll have forgotten it anyway by the time Casablanca arrives at its bittersweet, honest denouement. There's an old Hollywood legend that Casablanca was dubbed "sophisticated hokum" by the Warner Bros. script department; they weren't making Gone With the Wind or Citizen Kane. But seventy years on, time has not diminished this accidental classic of the Hollywood studio system assembly line, even though it's been badly mimicked, parodied and ripped off dozens of times since its premiere. I can't imagine myself curling up on the sofa with Citizen Kane or Gone With the Wind on a rainy Sunday afternoon; Casablanca is like cinematic comfort food.

Next Week: The Way We Were (1973)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Cruel Summer Music Mix 2014 - Vol. 1

Ah, another Georgia summer for me. As a southerner, I've been listening to these seven words all my life: "It's not the heat, it's the humidity." I call that southern science. And it's not particularly comforting when the sweat is rolling down my back into my underwear. Anyway, it's going to take more than sunscreen, shade, AC or a six-pack of citrus-kissed blonde ales to get me through the next couple of months. Summer needs a soundtrack! In this 6-part series, I'll be featuring some of the iPod-worthy tracks that help me beat the heat. Let's start with Clean Bandit, Bleachers and Future Islands...

Clean Bandit. This British electronic quartet specializes in a fusion of pop and classical elements with dance beats. Comprised of brothers Jack and Luke Patterson, Grace Chatto and Milan Neil Amin-Smith, their first album (due mid-June in the U.S.) features about a dozen guest vocalists. Website here.

Clean Bandit's violinist, Milan Neil Amin-Smith

Song & Video: "Rather Be" (featuring Jess Glynne) -- A perfect dollop of bright and breezy pop. The video is about a Japanese fan whose daily routine is disrupted by a series of hallucinations featuring the band, its logo and random citizens who keep creating choreography to match the song in her head.

Bleachers. This is the solo project of Jack Antonoff, the lead guitarist of Grammy-winning indie pop band fun. ("We Are Young"). Turns out that Mr. Antonoff is a pretty unapologetic pop rocker. In early 2014, he told Buzzfeed, "God, just shoot me the day I start making music you can just put on in the car and have a conversation over it." Website here.

Jack Antonoff, the guy behind Bleachers

Song & Video: "I Wanna Get Better" -- The song is an irrepressibly catchy all-season hipster anthem. And this video made me laugh out loud three times. (PS. Antonoff is straight, but along with his band and sister, he co-founded The Ally Coalition, a non-profit organization that raises money for LGBTQ causes. You can check it out here.)

Future Islands. This Baltimore-based synthpop trio works an '80s groove, but it all sounds remarkably fresh due to smart arrangements and the soulful, expressive voice of Samuel T. Herring. Website here.

Future Islands, left to right: William Cashion, Samuel T. Herring & Gerrit Welmers 

Song & Video: "Seasons (Waiting On You)" -- It's kind of the perfect track for a road trip. The beautifully photographed video (in which the band does not appear) is wide open for interpretation. And full of cowboys.

You can see volume 2 in this series here

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #19: Purple Rain

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station once (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Purple Rain (released July 1984)

Purple Rain: Prince and his unidentified little friend, a homemade ventriloquist's doll

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: The state of Minnesota -- "Land of 10,000 Lakes" -- is not usually recognized for its cultural contributions. It's well known for its natural beauty and cold winters, but the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul have a thriving theatre community and music scene, too. Minnesota has given us the Andrews Sisters (best-selling swing/boogie woogie group of the 1940s), Judy Garland (yup, The Wizard of Oz), Bob Dylan, Husker Du, The Replacements, wrestler-turned-governor Jesse Ventura, two-time Oscar winner Jessica Lange (American Horror Story, among other things) and humorist Garrison Keillor (Praire Home Companion). And then there's Prince Rogers Nelson, known to the world by the mononym Prince.

Purple Rain is a purportedly semi-autobiographical film about how Prince became Prince. The script was concocted by award-winning student filmmaker Albert Magnoli and TV writer William Blinn, whose credits included everything from Gunsmoke and Starsky and Hutch to Eight is Enough and Fame. Magnoli (who also directed) and Blinn skip over Prince's childhood entirely. There's no look-alike child actor banging away at piano lessons, plucking a guitar or bustin' moves in the street. It's not that kind of biopic. Curiously, no one ever calls him Prince, even once, despite the fact that he looks and dresses exactly like Prince. He's "The Kid." There's not a single scene where The Kid pauses to consider a style choice, like that wispy mustache or asymmetrical hair, the ruffled shirts and tight pants or even those lacy gloves. Nope. The Kid is Prince, a fully developed, magnetically androgynous enigma from scene one. And even though Prince's musical breakthrough happened in the late '70s, everything in Purple Rain takes place over the course of a few weeks in what looks exactly like 1984. The fashions, makeup and hairstyles distinctly capture that unmistakable aesthetic of the 1980s.

Shot mostly in and around Prince's hometown of Minneapolis, Purple Rain features numerous performances at the famous First Avenue and 7th St Entry nightclub. And that's where the film begins, with The Kid and his band, The Revolution, performing "Let's Go Crazy" for a packed house. Cross cut with their performance is the arrival of Apollonia, a nineteen-year-old singer from New Orleans with nothing but some dreams and the Catwoman clothes on her back. Seriously, the girl travels 1,200 miles from New Orleans to Minneapolis and shows up without a suitcase. Also, in what universe does an African American singer in New Orleans decide that Minneapolis is the place to jumpstart a career? Well, fortunately for her, The Kid's number one rival, Morris Day, needs a sexy woman with a cool name for his own band. The Kid, on the other hand, just needs a sexy girlfriend with a cool name to terrorize, humiliate, screw and slap around.

Did I mention that The Kid, who's supposed to be the brilliant musician Prince, but not really, is also a moody, egotistical, selfish, preening asshole? Uh huh. Ostensibly, Morris Day is the film's antagonist. Mostly, though, he's just a vain jerk. The Kid is a piece of work. For a first date, The Kid orders Apollonia on the back of his purple motorcycle and drives off to a secluded lake. The initiation for new Minnesotans, he tells her, is to purify themselves by jumping into Lake Minnetonka. She strips (to the delight of straight men everywhere) and complies. "That ain't Lake Minnetonka," he grins. All is forgiven, of course, because he's a really good singer. Their second date is even better: he takes her to his place, the basement of his parents' house... that's decorated with masks and dolls. Ordinarily, this would make a guy seem uncool. Not to Apollonia. Then The Kid sets the mood by playing a recording of a woman crying, backwards. Ordinarily, this would make a person seem like a creepy serial killer who's going to make a vest out of your skin. But no, Apollonia is not creeped out. She's turned on. And they have sex. Later, to affirm his commitment to her, The Kid removes an earring and puts it on one of her ears. That's the least weird thing he does. And by the way, we're nearly an hour into this movie now and she's still wearing that same damn Catwoman outfit. She doesn't need an earring, she needs clothes.

In essence, Purple Rain is a dozen dynamic songs surrounded by a series of of alternately lurid or unrealistic scenes, all punctuated by terrible dialogue. There's a love story, some dysfunctional family drama and a little battle-of-the-bands action. When it's not about one of those things, it's a concert film. There may be a few grains of truth sprinkled in there, but not much of what happens between the music is remotely believable. Prince is a prodigious musician, producer and arranger; the Purple Rain soundtrack, an eclectic mix of rock, soul, funk and pop, is arguably a masterpiece. But whenever this film is not about the music, it's a bumbling, poorly acted, tonally discordant mess.

It's also just weird... really, really weird. When his Revolution bandmates express discontent about the fact that The Kid won't perform any of their compositions, he mocks them with ventriloquy. After a particularly scary altercation between The Kid's abusive father (a singularly first-rate Clarence Williams III) and his co-dependent mother ends with dad's tearful lament, "I would die for you," The Kid is inspired to write a dance track entitled "I Would Die 4 U." Simultaneously, The Kid worries that he might be turning into his father, a tortured musician who regularly browbeats and manhandles his wife. That would be an interesting thing to explore since The Kid treats his female bandmates like crap and knocks Apollonia around a couple of times. But this is Purple Rain, so no. You will just have to accept that the sensational mini-concert that takes up the film's final twenty minutes is exactly the right amount of music to soothe the savage drama queen living inside The Kid.

Stray Gay Observations: A boy named Richard sat behind me in the 4th grade. One day he leaned forward and whispered in my ear. "Queer." I instinctively knew it wasn't a compliment, but I liked the sound of it anyway. I'm queer. And I'm happy to have lived long enough to see that word re-enter the lexicon in a positive way. But back in the 1970s and '80s, it was de rigueur for critics and journalists to substitute androgynous when they really meant queer. Prince may be androgynous to some people, but he will always be queer to me.

Purple Rain's credits say, "Clothes by Louis and Vaughn Marie-France." And clearly their clothes budget was spent almost entirely on Prince and Morris Day. Throughout Purple Rain, Prince is always dressed like Prince -- ruffled shirts, high-heeled boots, ascots, those chic trench jackets and strikingly tight pants. Seriously, he wakes up in those pants. Morris Day's wardrobe is full of flashy, glittery jackets and insanely ostentatious shoes, or blindingly white overcoats and purely decorative walking canes -- he's what previous generations would have called a dandy, or a fop. Prince's wardrobe and styling pushed boundaries, mixing a masculine and feminine aesthetic about as successfully as it's ever been done. (Yes, even more so than David Bowie. Though to be fair, would Prince have been possible without Bowie?) Prince looks amazing, like some kind of horny, gender-bending, biker vampire. Morris Day just looks silly, which makes it all the more hilarious when he gets pissed-off and calls Prince a "long-haired faggot."

No one is going to remember Apollonia's clothes -- which mostly look like stuff Madonna dropped off at Goodwill in 1983. They'll just remember that scene where she removes them and jumps in a cold lake. In fact, she's rarely photographed in a way that emphasizes her wardrobe at all -- for the director, it's about her face and those breasts.

Apollonia performing the film's most disposable song, "Sex Shooter"

Prince has done some things that test my admiration for him (changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol and forcing us to call him "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince," for instance), but all is forgiven every time I hear "When Doves Cry," a stark, dramatically urgent pop classic. I can't think of another male artist who could write and then sound completely natural delivering these lyrics:

Dream if u can a courtyard
An ocean of  violets in bloom
Animals strike curious poses
They feel the heat
The heat between me and u

I was in a long-distance relationship with a native Minnesotan for three years (Hi, Greg!). There's no initiation that requires you to purify yourself by jumping in Lake Minnetonka. They make you go to the Minnesota State Fair, pet farm animals and eat cheese curds. I'm not kidding.

Something that never happened in the 1980s that should have happened: a Prince and Michael Jackson song collaboration, with a music video. I mean, these two guys owned the music charts in the '80s. The Purple Rain soundtrack spent 24 consecutive weeks atop the Billboard album chart; Jackson's Thriller spent thirty-seven weeks there. If someone had locked these two in a recording studio overnight, the outcome would have been either a fantastic record or a murder-suicide.

Should You See It? Purple Rain is filled with outstanding songs and some electrifying musical performances. The rest of it is so bad that it's accidentally fabulous.

Next Week: Casablanca (1942)

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #18: Barbarella

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Barbarella (released October 1968)

David Hemmings as Dildano and Jane Fonda as Barbarella

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says:
In 1962, writer and illustrator Jean-Claude Forest created the Barbarella character for a serialized science fiction comic strip published by a French magazine. The character and her sexually-suffused adventures proved to be so popular that the series was made into a stand-alone book in 1964. Characterized as the first "adult" comic (maybe in France, but not in the U.S.), it became a controversial runaway bestseller.

French filmmaker Roger Vadim, no stranger to provocative material (And God Created Woman, Blood and Roses), decided that Barbarella was adaptable for the big screen. He selected novelist and scriptwriter Terry Southern, best known for satirical works like Candy and Dr. Strangelove, to turn the comics into a film. But who would play the title role? With about a dozen films credits already, thirty-year-old Jane Fonda bore a discernible resemblance to the illustration -- and Vadim just happened to be married to her.  

Set way in the future, Barbarella begins with a mesmerizing, four-and-a-half minute credit sequence in which the titular character does a weightless striptease inside her fur-lined spacecraft. She floats about rather seductively, shedding her stylish spacesuit completely as the names of everyone involved in the film drift and bounce around her. After restoring gravity with the push of a button (something that apparently did not occur to her four-and-a-half minutes earlier), Barbarella is immediately greeted by the President of the Republic of Earth, who pops up, Skype-like, on a screen and commences to recruit her for an important mission because she's a five-star, double-rated astronavigatrix. Also, she's still naked. The mission is to locate a missing scientist, Durand Durand, who's invented a Positronic Ray that has "the power to shatter the loving union of the universe." See, in Barbarella's future, "the universe has been pacified for centuries" and weapons are kept in the Museum of Conflict. Thus, Durand Durand must be located and his Positronic Ray disarmed in order to, as the president puts it, "preserve the security of the stars and our Mother planet." He sends Barbarella some futuristic-looking weapons via teleportation, and she accepts the interplanetary mission while standing there naked, holding a bunch of guns. It's an amusing image, and probably sexually arousing for at least a subset of heterosexual men out there.

With the help of her spacecraft's computer, the queerish sounding Alfie, Barbarella lands on Planet 16 in the Tau Ceti system -- Durand Durand's last known whereabouts. Emerging from her ship in a smashing new outfit, Barbarella encounters a variety of obstacles to her mission -- homicidal demon children, cannibalistic zombie dolls, bird attacks, and the Great Tyrant AKA the Black Queen of SoGo (Anita Pallenberg), a voluptuous leader with some overtly lesbian designs on our heroine. Fortunately, Barbarella has better luck with a furry huntsman (Ugo Tognazzi), a blind angel (John Phillip Law), and Dildano (David Hemmings), a resistance rebel leader who holds the key to accomplishing her mission. Naturally, she rewards all of them with sex, but the couplings are far more humorous than titillating.

Barbarella was released eight months after the crowd-pleasing original Planet of the Apes and six months after Stanley Kubrick's groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey. This comic book-inspired sci-fi feature must have looked profoundly pointless after those seminal achievements. Even Fonda's nudity and the film's obvious espousal of America's late 1960's sexual revolution failed to draw crowds. Barbarella flopped. But like many other films, it was rescued from obscurity by the emergence of home video in the late 1970s; the rest is cult movie history.

Besides Terry Southern, seven other men are credited with collaborating on the Barbarella script -- and yet it still feels like the cast made a lot of it up on the spot. There are witty lines and copious amounts of deliberate camp, but the ambitiously silly sets and exaggerated costume design are funny, too (though the laughs they evoke now are probably unintentional). Roger Vadim's direction is pretty perfunctory; he seems motivated mostly by a rampant desire to flaunt Jane Fonda or the production design. Those pre-CGI, artsy craftsy sets are never dull, but your eyes will always be drawn back to the virtually luminous Fonda. In her 2005 autobiography, Fonda says she wasn't interested in Barbarella, taking the role only because husband Vadim adamantly insisted. The resulting collaboration is absolutely fascinating. Vadim persistently and clumsily stages scenes to emphasize either her face or body -- his directorial priorities are clear, and primarily serve the interests of hormonal 15-year-old heterosexual boys. But I see an undercurrent of willful mockery beneath Fonda's doe-eyed, sex-kitten-in-outer-space performance; she knows this is nonsense at best, exploitation at worst. Still, after decades of ignoring the film's existence, she finally acknowledged the appeal of Barbarella, conceding that it's a film with unique charm.

Stray Gay Observations: Okay, I'll argue that Barbarella was ahead of its time. In the 1930s, Americans could catch short, serialized black and white B-movies about Flash Gordon. Then, Batman, Superman, Green Hornet and Captain America hit theaters in the 1940s. By the 1950s, superheroes had peaked and American audiences could choose from a more diverse menu of big screen science fiction -- flying saucers, body snatchers, radioactively-enlarged bugs, all-consuming blobs and monsters from beneath the sea. So, unless I've missed something, Jane Fonda was the first woman to play the indisputable lead in a science fiction movie of any kind, ever -- and her superpowers appear to be resourcefulness, sex appeal and extraordinary fashion sense.

Here's the costume Barbarella wears in the film's final sequence.
It was inspired by the l'enfant terrible of '60s French fashion, Paco Rabanne.
Everything else was designed by Jacques Fonteray.

I love the fact that whenever Barbarella encounters someone on Planet 16 that doesn't speak English, her first inclination is to try French.

For me, one of the film's highlights is an extended cameo by David Hemmings (1941-2003) as Dildano, the leader of a resistance force that also wants to thwart the Great Tyrant. He's the closest thing we get to a conventional male hero in Barbarella, but his sexually suggestive name implies that he's not the real thing. He can't even have sex with Barbarella unless he pops a pill. So, you have that terrific ribald name and an accidental prediction about the future treatment of impotence. Dildano does not save the day, but David Hemmings has a blast playing this decidedly inept character.

Barbarella's love theme was written by Bob Crewe and Charles Fox. It rhymes Barbarella with psychedella. Psychedella, incidentally, is not a word. It is, however, someone's Twitter account. Bob Crewe also gave the world "Lady Marmalade," a hit for Labelle in 1974, then successfully remade by Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya and Pink in 2001. Bob Crewe makes the drag queen in all of us very happy. And thanks to him, we all know how to say "Do you want to sleep with me tonight?" in French: "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?" The remainder of Barbarella's musical score was written by Charles Fox and it alternates between impossibly sunshine-y funk and some kind of faux-acid rock. If you'd like to know what else Mr. Fox was capable of, listen to the theme music for TV's Love American Style and The Love Boat

Should You See It? I suspect sci-fi purists probably won't appreciate how mercilessly Barbarella tweaks the genre. And folks that hate Fonda for her politics and public activism will not be amused, either, but it might be cathartic for them to watch the DVD and spend 98 minutes cursing and spitting at the screen. I invite everyone else to consider this: "It's a special kind of mess," wrote New York Times film critic Renata Adler in her 1968 review of Barbarella. She also called it "a bit of cosmically spiteful chaos in an interior decorator's salon, space, or a cosmetics factory." I agree, even though I know Ms. Adler was not being complimentary. You should see it, not avoid it, for those reasons.

Next Week: Purple Rain (1984)

Thursday, May 1, 2014

2014 Eurovision Song Contest Sampler

The Eurovision Song Contest has been broadcast every year since 1956, making it one of the longest-running television programs in the world. Thanks to satellites, Eurovision draws an annual audience of about 600 million. All active members of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) can take part -- 38 countries are sending artists to compete in Copenhagen, Denmark this year. The 2014 winner, chosen via a combination of televoting and juries, will be announced May 10th. It's all done live for the contest, but you can find performance clips or music videos for all the songs online. I can't show you all 38 acts, so I picked nine -- sublimely silly, controversial, some personal favorites, a guilty pleasure, real contenders and the odds-on favorite to win. I picked the winner in 2012 and 2013. Can I make it three in a row?

They've Got Spunk, But Not a Chance of Winning

Iceland: "No Prejudice" by Pollaponk. These guys are like a kid-friendly cartoon punk band armed with a sincere, unsophisticated sugarcoated message for the world (especially Russia and Uganda). Oh, and they happen to be school teachers. Cynics be damned!

Poland: "My Slowianie" by Donatan & Cleo. Polish musician and producer Donatan has written an anthem for Slavic girls. Cleo does the singing, encouraging her bosomy friends to "shake what your mama gave ya." Attention heterosexual males: This video is filled with bosoms. Lots of bosoms. Also, I think Donatan might be trying to reinvent polka music, bless his heart.

Most Controversial

Austria: "Rise Like a Phoenix" by Conchita Wurst. In 2011, Austrian-born Tom Neuwirth created a public alter ego, Conchita Wurst. Some would call this a drag persona. The song sounds like an old-fashioned James Bond movie theme, circa 1964, perhaps. Ms. Wurst kinda knocks it out of the park. And this video is a hoot. Edelweiss!

Tom Neuwirth AKA Conchita Wurst will represent Austria @ Eurovision 2014

Two Personal Favorites

The Netherlands: "Calm After the Storm" by The Common Linnets. For anyone curious, a common linnet is a small passerine bird of the finch family. This Dutch duo is comprised of Ilse DeLange and Waylon. The sound is country pop with a dash of bluegrass. I love the way their voices blend on this song; it's an understated gem.

Israel: "Same Heart" by Mei Finegold. One of the UK's online tabloids, Mirror, had this to say about her: "Mei has the voice of Pink, the body of Gaga, the empowering angst of Kelly Clarkson and the dance moves of Beyonce -- so basically she's pretty gosh darn amazing." The song, in which she bounces back and forth between English and Hebrew, is a galloping dance pop power ballad.

Most Likely To Place in the Top Ten (Or Even Win!)

Norway: "Silent Storm," by Carl Espen. He grew up on Osteroy, an island off the coast of Norway. His mother encouraged him to sing and Carl eventually entered a local music competition -- that he won by singing Cat Stevens' "Wild World." Trained singers will note the lack of polish to his voice, but he makes up for it by finding an emotional connection to this song (written especially for him, incidentally, by a cousin). He also happens to be the hottest man in the competition this year, in my totally subjective and lustful opinion.

Carl Espen will represent Norway @ Eurovision 2014

Sweden: "Undo" by Sanna Nielsen. She's been performing since she was eleven! Now, after seven appearances at Melodifestivalen, Sweden's annual music competition, Sanna was selected to represent Sweden at Eurovision. She claims that Celine Dion is a major inspiration, and that's exactly who I thought off when I listened to "Undo" the first time. Comparisons aside, this is one of those pitch perfect pop songs that would probably be a worldwide hit for somebody.

My Guilty Pleasure

Romania: "Miracle" by Paula Seling & Ovi. She's a huge star in Romania, having released 15 albums since 1998. This is her second Eurovision appearance with Ovi, another  popular singer-songwriter. I'm not even going to pretend it's a great song, but around 45 seconds in it becomes the kind of irresistible dance track that has the power to make you dance around the apartment in your socks and underwear.

The Odds-on Favorite to Win

Armenia:  "Not Alone" by Aram Mp3. He's a singer-songwriter, comedian and actor. He started out doing humorous covers of popular songs, even appeared on an Armenian sitcom, and then got more serious about the music. The song is a beautifully crafted, state-of-the-art production that's dramatic and intense.

My Prediction: I thought the 2012 and 2013 winners were pretty obvious. This year, not so much. The millions of people who've been watching Aram Mp3's "Not Alone" video on YouTube are going to be disappointed if his live performance doesn't match the intensity of the recording. If he nails it, he's the winner. If not, Sweden's Sanna Neilsen ("Undo") has the advantage. But I do love a dark horse victory, and Norway's Carl Espen ("Silent Storm") is the man -- an endearingly raw performer with a great song and great personal backstory.

*Post-Eurovision Song Contest 2014 Update* And the winner is... Austria's bearded drag performer, Conchita Wurst! Taking the stage with presence and poise, Wurst delivered a fantastic performance of a great song. Protests and homophobic attacks from a handful of countries, like Russia and Belarus, failed to make any difference. In the end, European voters and juries embraced Conchita Wurst and "Rise Like a Phoenix." In scoring, she was way ahead of her closest competition, Netherlands' Common Linnets (second place) and Sweden's Sanna Neilsen (third place). Accepting the win, Wurst declared, "This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom -- you know who you are. We are unity. And we are unstoppable." Amen, sister.

For everything you ever wanted to know about Eurovision, go here.