“The Cosmopolitans”: Whit’s Still the Man

This weekend I had the chance to check out the pilot episode of “The Cosmopolitans”, the new series by writer and director Whit Stillman released on Amazon Prime.  If you’re a regular visitor to these pages, then you know that I’m an unabashed fan of his work.  Yet after the somewhat anti-climactic “Damsels in Distress”, it was great to see him return to seriously good form in this, a new series about young Americans living and loving in Paris.

Like much of Stillman’s work, “The Cosmopolitans” isn’t so much about a story moving toward resolution, but rather a series of stories that intertwine, punctuated by significant events.  He’s been described as the conservative, bourgeois version of Woody Allen, and there’s some truth to that observation.  For more often than not, the reason why someone either enjoys or does not enjoy Stillman’s work comes down to the question of whether the conversations taking place among his characters remind the viewer of conversations which they themselves have had.  If you can’t relate to Woody Allen – and I certainly can’t – then you probably find him irritating and perverse.  Stillman, on the other hand, is “The Man”, in a sense, because he is writing largely about the experiences of educated, cultured Americans from good schools and respectable backgrounds, exploring the world around them and always dressing stylishly as they do so.

It’s also interesting to see how effortlessly Stillman has transitioned to the small screen.  Like Amy Sherman-Palladino back in the first few seasons of “Gilmore Girls”, when it was one of the best-written things on television, Stillman has an ear for the witty comeback, the snarky cultural reference, and the perfect put-down worthy of the Ancien Régime. Yet because of the nature of the films which he has made so far, Stillman’s work usually has a drawing-room quality to it, like sitting at a party at the house of someone you don’t know – also a favorite plot device of his – and overhearing other people’s interesting conversations. These make the small screen just as good a venue for his observations as the big screen.

Stillman has also presented us with a combination of characters that we will try to figure out better as the series continues.  For example, writing Chloe Sevigny’s character as a kind of proto-Miranda Priestly seemed a surprise at first, seeing as how her outing in Stillman’s “Last Days of Disco” was as something of an ingenue. Yet watching her take a throwaway comment about how long it takes to become a Parisian and turn it into a recurrent thematic weapon is absolutely hilarious, and makes the viewer want to hear more of what she has to say.

The phenomenon of seeing prominent actors and directors like these creating on-demand streaming internet series is an interesting phenomenon in and of itself.  The American version of “House of Cards” is, understandably enough, extremely popular and heavily advertised here in DC.  This is due not only to the fact that the series is set here, but also because a significant percentage of the population here is tech-savvy enough to feel perfectly comfortable with the idea of watching a show streamed via the internet.  As more investment in digital infrastructure takes place in the coming years, it seems reasonable to assume that more and more of these “online tv” series will be made.

Of course the best sign that any series, online or not, has completely sucked you in is when you are watching a scene, the music swells, the screen goes black, and you audibly shout, “Awwww NO!” You’ve been so caught up in the story that you weren’t keeping an eye on the clock.  That’s happened to me a few times, during some really engrossing series: the British series “MI-5″ for example (as “Spooks” is known in the U.S.) These moments are the sign of a good writer, good director, and good actors all coming together. And that same, telltale outcry of disappointment that the episode was already over arose from me and my group of friends watching the pilot for “The Cosmopolitans”.

As the central characters began to make their way home across Paris from a party they had stayed at too long, the credits began to roll, and we were all disappointed to see that the episode was already over. I was reminded at that point of the conclusion of Stillman’s first film, “Metropolitan”.  In that story, his characters had to make their way back to Manhattan with no reasonable means of transportation at their disposal, leaving them to hitchhike along the highway as the picture faded into text.  Unlike in “Metropolitan” however, it appears that we are going to have the great pleasure of seeing what happens next to this new group of characters.  I can’t wait to eavesdrop on their conversations.

It's Whit Stillman. Of course there is a dance sequence.

It’s Whit Stillman. Of course there is a dance sequence.

Phone Booth Friday: Telling Super Stories

This week Warner Brothers announced a slew of upcoming films based on characters from the DC Comics universe, which will take us through 2020; Marvel Comics have already announced their future lineup.  The offerings from DC include stand-alone superhero movies based on Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, Shazam, Green Lantern, and Cyborg, as well as ensemble films such as the in-production “Batman v. Superman”, and the interesting sounding “Suicide Squad”, which will be something like “The Dirty Dozen”, only with supervillains.  The really BIG event will be the first-ever “Justice League” film, split into two parts, which should bring together all of the major characters from the DC universe.  Anyone who watched “Super Friends” on Saturday morning cartoons when they were little will probably be looking forward to that one.

If this seems like a lot of spandex to deal with on the big screen, not to mention the host of superhero-themed television shows now appearing on the small screen, it may be worth stopping to consider how repeated storytelling about heroes and their adventures is a common practice within Western culture.

There is no one, single definitive version of the stories of the ancient gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters from Greek and Roman mythology.  Over many centuries, the same stories were told in different ways, sometimes adding or taking away elements, depending on the times or the tastes of the audience. The basic legends surrounding Heracles/Hercules for example, were pretty much the same in both Greece and Rome, but when the Romans adopted the Greek hero as their own, they changed his story in places to make him a more Roman figure, even transferring some of his famous “Labors” to a Roman setting.

We can see the same adaptation of well-known characters over time in the legends surrounding King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. King Arthur lived – if he did at all – in what is now Northern England during the 5th or 6th century, and legends about him fluttered about in popular storytelling until a Welsh writer wrote a chronicle of these tales in the 1100′s with many of the now-familiar aspects of the Arthurian legend.  However, a century later a French writer expanded upon these stories, adding both the quest for the Holy Grail and the character of Sir Lancelot.  As a result, today a modern audience could not imagine telling the story of King Arthur without the adultery of Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, even though at one time this plot device would not have been considered canonical.

Both Hercules and King Arthur have had their stories told by many different storytellers.  While certain details may change, depending on who is doing the telling, as subjects for sharing ideas and ideals, they have never ceased to fire the imaginations of writers, artists, and performers.  So rather than be surprised that the characters from comic books continue to be revisited and reshaped, both for existing audiences and for new audiences coming to learn the stories of these heroes, we can see them as part of a continuum in Western literature.

Because they are more recent in time, having appeared in the 20th century, superheroes are more easily adaptable to the present age than figures from the very distant past, like Hercules and King Arthur.  Sure, we still create entertainment around these earlier figures as we tell their stories, but there is always going to be some level of distance between us and them.  Hercules is not going to be taking creatine and whey powder while powerlifting boulders, and King Arthur is not going to be receiving suggestive snapchats on his iPhone from Morgana la Fay.  Superman, however, can have a meeting with Batman on a space station orbiting the Earth, and we think nothing of it.

Our appetite for mythology, tales of adventure, and acts of heroism seems to be fairly insatiable in Western culture.  With the release of so much superhero material, perhaps the studios and publishers are over-estimating the public’s appetite for market saturation when it comes to this particular genre, as some have argued.  Yet in seizing the zeitgeist of this moment, these storytellers are not only being very smart from a financial standpoint, they are also tapping into a long history of storytelling, one which laid the building blocks of the culture which we enjoy today.

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Falling for Bacall

Recently some Twitter friends and I were recalling a few of our favorite old Bugs Bunny cartoons from the ’40′s and ’50′s, the kind they used to show on Saturday morning television but which, sadly, most kids today do not know.  For example there was the one where Bugs stood in for his colleague the Easter Bunny, with the bratty kid loudly and incessantly demanding, “I wanna Easter Egg, I wanna Easter Egg!”  Another classic involved Bugs playing the fiddle and calling a hoedown for two barefoot and clueless backwoods brothers intent on shooting him, with the pair ending up going off a cliff, as Bugs’ opponents often did.

And then there was the one that introduced a very young Billy Boy to the mystique of Lauren Bacall, who died yesterday at the age of 89.

In “Slick Hare”, a cartoon short from 1947, Humphrey Bogart comes to a supper club in Los Angeles run by Elmer Fudd, and insists on being served rabbit, “or else.”  Hilarity ensures, with Bugs Bunny dashing about the restaurant avoiding capture, along the way running into a number of recognizable Hollywood stars of the era, and at one point even doing a superb Carmen Miranda impression.  At the end, when Elmer admits that the rabbit cannot be caught, Bogie relents and says, “Baby will just have to have a ham sandwich instead.”  Realizing that Lauren Bacall – a.k.a. “Baby”, Bogart’s nickname for her – was the one asking for rabbit, Bugs immediately changes his mind and offers himself up to her on a platter.

When I first saw this cartoon I must have been about 5 or 6 years old.  I had no idea who “Baby” was, only that she must have been a very beautiful woman indeed, to make Bugs act the way he did.  As I grew older and saw films like “To Have and Have Not”, “The Big Sleep”, and “Key Largo”, I came to understand why not only the rabbit from Brooklyn could fall head over heels for the girl from The Bronx, but so could a future President of the United States from Missouri.

There are a few famous 1945 photographs of Harry Truman playing the piano at The National Press Club here in Washington, D.C., with Lauren Bacall perched atop the piano.  It was both a publicity stunt for the new star, and something to bring Truman more into the national and international public eye, shortly after having becoming Franklin Roosevelt’s fourth Vice President.  In the pictures, Bacall’s long legs are draped seductively over the side of the piano, with Truman smiling and looking somewhat nervous.  Understandably, when the photos came out Bess Truman was furious, but two months later FDR was dead, and the Trumans had other matters to concern them; meanwhile, men still went on falling for Lauren Bacall, wartime or not.

Because indeed, who could not fall for her?  The former model with the sharp wit created a kind of archetypal relationship with Bogart, which even today my friends talk about, longingly.  Beyond the obvious physical attraction going on, there was a snappy, clever back-and-forth between the two of them that many of us, I daresay myself included, would love to have in our own relationships.  It might not always be sweetness and light, but my goodness it would be great fun.

Despite her long career in Hollywood, compared to many of her contemporaries Bacall did not make as many films as she might have done.  She was picky about the roles she took, and made it a point to try to raise her children as best she could.  She also viewed the theatre as the natural home for the serious actor, and succeeded as much on the boards as she did on the silver screen.  As a result, there is not a huge back catalogue of Lauren Bacall films for you to study, and truthfully most of her best roles were shot many decades ago.

Yet I think that rather than any single performance, Lauren Bacall’s legacy is the epitome of a kind of sexuality which differed significantly from the “bombshell” variety, which so often leaves little to the imagination.  If one may use such a phrase in connection with a great performer, Lauren Bacall was the definition of “smoking hot”.  From the first time she slinks onscreen in “To Have and Have Not”, asks, “Anybody got a match?”, and lights a cigarette, if you were a thinking man, or even just a man with a pulse, she had you hooked.

Lauren Bacall was beautiful, she was sassy, and she had a voice like a purring lioness – a generation later she would have made a great Catwoman –  but she was also smart.  She was a woman who was not going to let you get away with anything, just because you happened to be a man and she happened to be at a loose end at the moment.  She expected you not to take her or yourself for granted, but to be the best part of yourself, knowing when to be a man and take charge, and when to hold back and give her some room.

With Bacall’s passing, there are very few actresses left from the old studio system days: Olivia de Haviland, Maureen O’Hara, and a few others are still with us, but they have not acted in years.  Bacall however, was working almost up until the end, her husky voice still possessing the ability to set men’s hearts a-flutter.  She was probably the last of the great, smoldering film seductresses from the era of our grandparents to leave us.

So henceforth it will be our duty, gentlemen, to not only show the kids things like Bugs Bunny cartoons, since no one else will, but also to explain to them that they’ll find out who “Baby” was…when they’re a little bit older.

Lauren Bacall in "To Have and Have Not" (1944)

Lauren Bacall in “To Have and Have Not” (1944)