Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

30 December 2009

2 1/2

If I am honest, I will tell you that I do not love all of Fellini's films. I am not crazy about Amarcord, really, and I couldn't really get into 8 1/2 even though it has some very cool stuff in it.

I have decided, however, that I do not like Rob Marshall's films. This evening I saw the newest one, Nine, and I was... well... in a word: bored.

And now, nine thoughts on Nine, because it seems fitting:

1. Rob Marshall is known for making musicals. He made the Best-picture-winning Chicago, which supposedly rehabilitated the movie musical. And yet, both that movie and his newest star-studded musical, are constantly apologizing for being musicals. The man is sold as the best thing to ever happen to the movie musical, but his films appear to wish that they were not musicals. Instead of happening in the stories of his movies, musical numbers in Marshall's films always happen in characters' imaginations. We are forced to leave behind the world of the film and enter into the hyper-make-believe world of the musical itself. So the films actively reinforce the idea that musicalness is phony, that emotions that could only be expressed in song are just too unrealistic to be a part of real life, and yet the film cannot seem to make the "real-life" scenes as realistic or as interesting as its musical numbers, and it seems to be ashamed of its stock-in-trade. We all came to see Nine, in fact (or stayed away, as the case may be), because it is a musical. Yet the film constantly tries to make us forget the fact.

2. I know this is cinema. I know that we need movie stars to make people come to the movies. But how about making a movie star out of someone who is also a great singer? The casting in Nine is very clever and very cosmopolitan (Australia, Spain, Italy, Britain, France, and the U.S. are all represented), the actresses are all fabulous. Honestly. But this movie needed singers. Bad. And that goes for Mr. Day-Lewis, as well.

3. Nicole Kidman is my favorite thing in the picture. She is gorgeous and she has a couple of really fabulous scenes where she talks about women in film, fantasy, and basically what it means to be an actress. It's really fascinating. It's intercut with a musical number, which kind of gets in the way, and it's really the first (and only time) where I was sorry there was a musical number to interrupt a real-life scene.

4. Marshall sort of teases the audience with Fellini references. Sometimes these are fun, and sometimes not that interesting. I really wished Nicole Kidman had gotten in the fountain and done an homage to La Dolce Vita.

5. Penélope Cruz is delightful. A great actress. She is engrossing and compelling in all of her scenes. The film isn't really all that interested in her in the end, but I was rather sorry it wasn't.

6. Dion Beebe knows how to light a movie, let me tell you. You probably already knew that, of course, but it bears repeating. The musical sequence after the screening room scene is absolutely extraordinary.

7. You cannot expect a love story to emerge out of nowhere. We are not going to be attached to Contini's wife if all she does is sit around and look sad and miss him and be angry that he missed her birthday. Particularly if the man's mistress is as much fun as Penélope Cruz is in this movie.

8. The best musical number in the film is Fergie's song "Be Italian." It's fun, it's sexy, and there's sand everywhere.

9. What is this movie about? Why is there singing and dancing? Does Contini (the main character) make musical films? Why isn't any of this explained? Is it because he loved the Folies-Bergère as a kid? I don't get it. Nine, more than anything else, is interested in the derrières of its female stars and extras. This is fine, certainly (Fellini was a breast man, of course, but that's just picking nits), but the movie--like the filmmaker the movie is about--cannot decide what its story is. Is it a movie about a man's love for his wife? Is it about his relationship with his mom? Is it a movie about movie-making (8 1/2 certainly was.)? Or is it a movie about buttocks? A movie about buttocks is a good idea, I think, but if Nine is about that, we need to dump all of the other baggage. For a film that seems to understand that female movie stars act as fantasies for male viewers, it spend a lot of time investing in those fantasies.

P.S. The title of this post is out of five.


  1. You're missing one very important point here: the musical itself is not good. Why/how make a good musical film out of a bad stage musical? NINE encompasses some of the WORST lyrics ever written, as well as some of the most boring and forgettable songs. I thought "Be Italian" was second best -- after the flashy, hip-swiveling of Kate Hudson's number (but see how I can't even remember the title of the song? Something about fashion?).

    I think you're right in that Marshall is a one-trick pony, but no one seems to mind it (nor do they mind that fact about Jon Doyle). The problem is, I think his musical-as-fantasy idea was BRILLS in Chicago. That film was riveting, all the numbers were fabulous, and all of the performances were totally fun. So why doesn't it work here? I put most of the blame on the source material. I just don't care about it, at all. (Funny, though, how I could watch that gorgeous "Be Italian" trailer over and over again)

    And I think you're also wrong (I love saying that!) about the best performance in the film. That award certainly goes to Marion Cotillard. I don't care that the film/musical offers no reason for Guido to suddenly be broken up about his marriage, and I don't care why she loves him so damn much, but lord, you could FEEL it from her. That second number of hers... holy jesus. The only time in the film when I was actually paying attention to the performance and not the sparkling costumes and smoke-and-mirror effects. (and you know I think Cruz was silly and boring)

    I give the film one star. And that star is for Cotillard only.

  2. Although I agree about Marshall's neglecting the convention of a classic musical utilizing song in the world of the play, the appreciation for said convention is is rightfully lacking for a form of film that- stylistically- is almost foreign and certainly dated.

    We subjective judges of the efficacy and value of the modern movie musical, in/not in comparison with those of the golden age, overlook the fact that the bulk of film production in the golden age was musicals: the theatre, both legitimate and musical were pop culture. Whereas a decent production hits the theatre of America once every few years (and let's forget Mama Mia) We as theatre artists need to cater to the modern audience somewhat so that they can understand our conventions. To be rigid and inflexible in style, content, form and presentation is to act as purist theatre historians and not as artists. That is not to say that artists need not understand nor embrace their roots- that is vital to the progression of art as a form of communication- but to assume that the populus understands the same foundations and reasons behind what/why/why we do the things we do is elitist. It is that mindset that spurns the schism between art and the common man.

    All that is to say that Marshall's presentation that is unconventional (though not radically) is a vital step in reaching out to today's audience. You need solid patronage before you can produce the raw art that can say something substantial. If you'd rather fight what people ask for, for the sake of ideals, you might as well perform in the mirror in your basement.

    First give the people what they want and THEN give them more for their money. It is the artist's struggle but is the only means for growth and survival.

    All said and dome: Nine was a bit too slow for anybody's taste.

    I'm not saying Nine was any great step in that direction. I don't think that most people would have a rip-roarin time watching Sophia Loren's Phantom of the Opera-esque number. I'm simply commenting on the idealistic notions of musical producton and format that were previously presented by my teachers.


  3. Haha. CriticalConfab, I know that you know that I LOVE when you disagree with me. AND I have to say that agree with you about Cotillard in the number to which you refer. But it's that first number that I just couldn't buy. There are just SO MANY FEELINGS in it, and since I have just met her I do not care about her at all, or rather I WOULD care about her except she is being a sad-sack.

    Actually, I think it's a lesson for writers of musicals. You will remember that I think JRB has significantly weighted The Last 5 Years against Cathy, and he does this by making her very first song a sad sort of whiny number.

  4. I don't know, Harris. I am not really disagreeing with you here. I am not saying we need to go back to the days of Fanny and An American in Paris, and I am CERTAINLY not advocating a return to Jeanette MacDonald-style stuff like The Love Parade.

    In fact, I think you are right about old-style stuff not really working, but what I am saying is that Marshall's way is NOT the right way.

    And in fact, if you look ONLY at this year, even: I thought The Princess and the Frog was a great musical. Granted, Princess/Frog is an animated picture, but if you think about a movie like (500) Days of Summer, it has some really great musical sequences that don't work like old-school movie musicals, but still are actual musical numbers. And EVERYBODY I talk to loved (500) Days of Summer.

    All this to say, I am not sure that we need to work as hard as you think to bring musicals to the movie-going public. I think they already love them. That doesn't mean we could make Robert Wise's West Side Story in 2009. We couldn't. But I don't think we need to work as hard as Marshall works to pretend we're not showing them a musical. They already love them!

  5. First response to Aaron:

    Ooooh, Aaron... Firstly, I didn't care about Cotillard's first number either (that song is so TERRIBLE that no one could have made it interesting). However, her second had more feeling, and purpose, and ACTING than any other number in the show. Also, we get to follow her journey throughout the film (from loving to doubting to not loving). No other character even feigns a journey. It was one-note for everyone (and I'm speaking specifically in regards to the characters..not the actors..they had nothing to work with, let's be honest).

    [Super tangent: Everyone knows that JRB weighs the L5Y in favor of Jamie. JRB IS Jamie, so of course he favors that character. Regardless, the first song is not what initially places us against Cathy. In fact, I think it heavily weighs us in her favor in those first three minutes of the show, especially since it than goes into that egomaniacal song of Jamie's. "I'm Still Hurting" is so emotionally true to how a woman feels when a man leaves her (of COURSE she doesn't see that she may have contributed to the demise of the marriage... but, wow: "Jamie is over and where can I turn / covered with scars I did nothing to earn / maybe there's somewhere a lesson to learn / but that wouldn't change the fact / that wouldn't speed the time / once the foundation's cracked / And I'm still hurting." Um, yeah. Every woman has felt that before. Despite his personal biases, JRB actually writes pretty damn well for women. Until the end of the show when he makes us sympathize with a cheater in lieu of feeling sorry for the whiny neurotic bitch that is Sherie Renee Scott :)]

  6. In response to Harris:

    I think your argument is smart: find a way to bring people in and THEN make them appreciate something "new." It makes perfect sense.

    The only problem with this argument is: What about HSM? Hairspray? They never pretended they weren't musicals; they celebrated those facts. Everyone loved those and they are exactly what you say musicals are not these days: good ol' bursting-into-song-and-dance shows. Audiences came in DROVES to these two. And then there's GLEE...

    So musical films/tv can work. But why only certain ones? Because the those I mentioned are silly, campy fun? (and that's what most people think musicals are/ought to be?)

    I'd love for Marshall to take a shot at filming a sung-through musical. The only recent ones I can think of are RENT and SWEENEY TODD, and let's face it, both failed as musical films. I know filmmakers probably cower at the thought of producing this type of musical (even more singing! even more dancing!), but in theory they should be easier to film: they establish reality AS song. From start to finish, people are singing and you must accept it, and so you do (films like NINE, where songs alternate with large portions of dialogue make it so much easier for audiences to reject what is musical in favor of what is spoken; it's as though you give them a choice of realities... and of course they're going to choose what is familiar and "realistic").

    I'd love for Marshall or Sam Mendes to film Les Mis or (you knew it was coming, Aaron) Parade. Why not? They're historical, they're interesting, they're great musical pieces. With the right director, they'd be gangbusters.

  7. Julie,

    The point you make about HSM and Hairspray's popularity is not thoroughly supported by the socio-historical fact that deems them 5 star films, leaving the said point moot.

    HSM originally began as a made for TV film that was presented to children. Children and adolescents who have no opinion in what is "good" art or substantial art. The product is geared toward that demographic in order to hook them for a succession of HSM related phenomena which would end up on the big screen. Cute boys and underdog girls attract the adolescent female to the atrocity and basketball and hip-hop lure the young boy. Disney gives them what they want and then tops it off with am obligatory and mildly poignant moral. The fame of HSM was well planned out and shoved down throats- the kiddies had no say and no impression to disapprove; the model of a classic musical is not in question in the eyes of young America because they like what we tel them to.

    As for Hairspray: the straight film was famous before it ever was made into a musical. That right there is bait for a loyal audience of the cult classic, not to mention the star studded cast which catered to all ages (ie. Efron, Pfeiffer, Travolta). People did not flock to theatres to see a conventional musical: they came to see a familiar favourite and kitschy performances by sex symbols of their time. I must also point out that this incarnation of Hairspray diluted to substantial themes of identity and racism for the sake of time and spectacle.

    The America of today- that is deprived of a transcendent theatrical experience and drowning in a blunder of carefully marketed pop culture- is being presented with poor manifestations of the theatre. These musical films create an impression in the everyday man that is incongruent with the live work being done. We turning them off and away anf making a mockery of what was once THE popular culture.


  8. Harris, I think you are a little hard on both HSM3 and Hairspray. I liked both of them quite a bit.

    And the star-studded cast that--as you say--included "kitschy performances by sex symbols of their time" is exactly the kind of technology you're talking about, isn't it? It's a way into the genre for people who may be less inclined to be interested in it. No?

    For myself, I feel a little more lowbrow than you when it comes to popular culture (wow, that's weird), and so I have fewer compunctions about the need to create great art with the movies, but I do hear you on musical movies giving an impression of musical theatre that is incongruent with what it really is on various stages. The three shows I saw in NY last year were Passing Strange, Adding Machine, and The Capeman, and I agree that movies are not really being made that reflect the brilliance of any of these three shows. But do you want that to happen? Is that even desirable?

    P.S. I am positive Julie loves your British spelling of "favourite"

  9. Aaron...HAIRSPRAY? Now, really... you and I both know that film was horrible.

    Harris, I don't think anyone who came to see the musical film of HAIRSPRAY did so because they loved the original film. In fact, I think those people stayed far, far away from it, and they would be right, in my opinion. The John Waters is infinitely superior (to both the film and stage musical versions). But I suppose that's not really the point.

    The point is that you asked for us to lower our artistic standards slightly to get folks into the theatres -- and that's exactly what these films did. I think you're being a bit contradictory here.

    HSM is brilliant exactly because it gets so many young people interested in musicals -- even if it's not the most sophisticated sort. Those kids will be way more likely to actually attend a stage musical because of their love for the Disney films. There's nothing wrong with that.

    Aaron, yes. Yes, I do want that to happen (in fact, Passing Strange became a film. Albeit, a film of the stage production, but why can't we do more of those? What about Sweeney Todd and Company and Into the Woods? Don't we LOVE having general access to those films of the productions? And why are they only shows by Sondheim, one of the least "accessible" of our writers today? Strange, no?). Let someone try to make Floyd Collins a musical film . I'd absolutely love to see what happens. It'll always be better on stage...but when am I going to get a chance to see that onstage?

  10. Floyd Collins would make a kick-ass film.