Archive for Nicole Kidman

Worst Case

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2013 by dcairns

Before Fiona decided to write about SIDE EFFECTS, I had written my own piece, covering some similar ground. In the spirit of waste-not-want-not, I present it here. Due to the nature of the film, it is hard to write about meaningfully without spoilers, so those still considering seeing it probably shouldn’t read the following —

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So, SIDE EFFECTS is announced at Steven Soderbergh’s last theatrical feature, and yes, he will be missed. Fiona and I went because of a keen personal interest in what we took to be the subject matter, but the film’s big plot twist, about which much more later (and those thinking of seeing the movie, who have not yet done so, should avoid this whole article like the plague, or the latest Uwe Boll movie) reveals that the subject of the movie is not what it seemed to be.

I’ve just read Bad Pharma, by doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre, which is an impassioned takedown of the way the pharmaceutical industry conspires to prevent doctors and patients from knowing the true effects of the medication available to them. Opinions are bought up, dissenting voices are intimidated and silenced, and we the public, by buying marked-up drugs, pay for the advertising campaigns which mislead us (and the big companies spend far more on ads than they do on r&d).

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All of which seeps nicely into the first act of Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns’ film. In addition, the treatment of mental illness is impressively restrained and sensitive, and the filmmaking typically assured. Rooney Mara evokes the deadening low-affect despair of depression without overplaying it, or boring the audience, or sleepwalking through the role like Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, say.

Then comes the killing. At this point it becomes quite clear that, in addition to throwing in topical bits like the insider trading that landed Channing Tatum’s character in prison and triggered Mara’s depression, the movie is going to push things towards a kind of melodrama. A crisp, shiny, chilly melodrama, but still a worst-case version of its scenario that pushes events further than they would be likely to go in a typical case. This seems a shame: the film has already shown the ability to find dramatic interest and value in plausible, low-key situations that brim over with natural emotion. But by taking things to such an extreme the film does not lose the ability to make meaningful comment on medicine and mental illness and society and the law. It’s the next plot twist that rules out meaningful comment, as the film stops being about mental illness altogether, and becomes about killer lesbians. From KEANE to BASIC INSTINCT in one reveal.

Soderbergh himself disagrees with me, as you’d expect ~

“So I think Scott’s great idea was to use psychopharmacology in the same way that “Double Indemnity” uses the insurance business. That then becomes the Trojan horse to hide a thriller in. He’s very good at that, at identifying sticky ideas and then stuffing them with other things that make them more, that make them not completely disposable when you leave the theater.”

And he could argue that, since here I am discussing the issues raised in the first half of the film, he’s right — the movie does raise these issues in such a way that we do at least remember them. But rather than taking them to a meaningful conclusion, the movie veers off into thriller territory — Soderbergh cited FATAL ATTRACTION as an influence — so that the questions of depression and treatment become just a smokescreen. nobody’s really mentally ill in the film, and nobody really suffers side effects from their treatment, so it can’t say anything about that. The only issue that remains relevant in part two is insider trading, and that’s tied up in a conspiracy that’s so unlikely you can’t really take it seriously. I mean, it works fine as a wacky plot twist, it just doesn’t have any real-world implications because, although technically it’s all within the range of the possible, it’s not something anyone would ever DO.

The point about the Trojan Horse was it was an innocent-looking wooden horse, but the contents were armed to the teeth. Soderbergh’s film is more like a pack of Greek soldiers which charges on then cracks open to reveal an inert and trivial sculpted stallion.

A woman I met at some social function once asked me over the sausage and mash if I could name a film featuring lesbians in major roles where they didn’t murder somebody or get murdered themselves. My mind went blank. It’s still blank. There are things like GO FISH, for sure, but it’s hard to think of anything in the mainstream which doesn’t marry same-sex female inclinations to homicide, not usually to make any deliberate point but as a function of plot. OK, thrillers tend to swarm with killers and victims, so you could argue that it would be over-optimistic to expect them to buck this stereotype, but consider —

If BASIC INSTINCT ended a couple of shots earlier, the killer would be a straight woman, not a bisexual.

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And if SIDE EFFECTS were re-cast with Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones in one another’s roles, we’d be spared the revelation that Mara and Zeta-Jones are not only (gasp!) murderers but (double gasp!) gay. And we’d be spared the dodgy image of CJZ being led off in handcuffs with her shirt gaping open. Soderbergh treats that moment with discretion, it’s framed in a non-gloating way, but it feels like a gloating scene (paralleled in his distinguished only by the rather distasteful treatment of Ellen Barkin in OCEAN’S 13).

It didn’t have to be about killer lesbians.

Of course, in objecting to the whole thrust of the film’s second half, I’m essentially complaining that Soderbergh didn’t make the film I’d like to see made. Which is arguably unfair, and I’ll admit that — my screenwriter self should probably stay away from my critic self. But I’d still like to see somebody make that other SIDE EFFECTS, the one which has actual side effects in it.

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The Side Effects Of Side Effects

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2013 by dcairns

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Today’s post is written by a Shadowplay guest blogger, my partner Fiona Watson. Unavoidably, it contains major, though non-specific, spoilers for Soderbergh’s SIDE EFFECTS, so you should only read if you’ve seen the movie or else don’t intend to.

David had asked me in my (in)capacity as a sufferer of mental illness, (specifically mixed state bipolar disorder) to write something about Side Effects, but it turned into something a bit bigger. The subject of the presentation of mental health issues in film is vast and is probably more suited to a dissertation than a blog piece, so please forgive me for the rather fragmentary, scattershot feel to this piece.

Let’s get something straight first. I like Steven Soderbergh films. I like them very much. I liked his pandemic opus where Gwyneth Paltrow gets the top of her head sawn off. Who wouldn’t? I liked his female mixed martial artist actioner starring Gina Carrano, a woman who can actually do all the amazing things her character’s required to do, including kicking the crap out of then murderizing the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender. Nice. I’m chomping on my specially rhinestone-encrusted bit to see his HBO Liberace biopic, Behind The Candelabra. But oh, Steven Soderbergh, did your swan song from cinema have to be Side Effects?

I always become infused with excitement and hope when someone makes a film tackling mental illness. It’s a subject close to my malfunctioning brain and heart. I had my first depressive episode in 1994. Since then I’ve had recurrent visits from The Black Dog.  Many years can go by when I’m perfectly fine. Then The Dog rears its ugly head, eyes blazing and seizes me in its slavering jaws, tossing me around like a rag doll. Trust me. I’m well qualified to talk about this subject but I don’t recommend it as a lifestyle choice.

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And so I turn my expert eye on Side Effects. My excitement is always tempered with concern. Have they got it right? The answer is that for half of this film’s running time, they do get it right, before (SPOILER ALERT) the thing devolves into Basic Instinct with psychiatrists and lesbians and lesbian psychiatrists. Now to be fair, it’s not Steven Soderbergh’s fault he didn’t make the film I wanted to see, a serious study of psychiatric disorder and its treatment in the modern world. What we have instead is a twisty turny thriller. Nothing wrong with that and it delivers very well. Rooney Mara, an utterly fabulous and compelling actress, is great, and her low-key, low affect, unshowy performance is commendable. She nails the deadening, wading through molasses physicality of depression perfectly.

But the big surprise is how good Jude Law is. What is particularly impressive about his psychiatrist character is his ambiguity. Apparently this doesn’t play well with test audiences. ‘Is he good? Is he bad? Is he both? I can’t handle both!’ Catherine Zeta Jones is also very effective as the other psychiatrist. As the whole world must know by now, CZJ has Bipolar II. It’s my belief she never would have revealed her mental health status had it not been on the verge of being leaked to the press. So she made the announcement herself in a pre-emptive strike. In fact she recently gave an interview where she pronounced herself fed up with being the Bipolar Poster Girl du jour, and who can blame her given the circumstances behind it being made public?

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On the whole, I enjoyed the film but left feeling short-changed. The trouble is — major spoiler alert — plot twists reveal that nothing that happens in the film happens due to mental illness, drug side effects, or the pharmaceutical industry. The first half sets us up to think about these issues, but the second half negates them. The Black Dog is a Red Herring. And while the film performs its narrative tricks well, if you do think about the story afterwards, you will probably come to the conclusion that no real person would embark on a criminal conspiracy of the kind seen in this film.

There are very few films (in the English language) that tackle the subject of mental illness head on and with any degree of accuracy. The only film in which I’ve ever seen psychomotor retardation —  where you physically slow down in speech and movement like a clockwork toy winding down — was Mike Figgis’s Mr Jones which I’ll come back to later. Nicole Kidman’s turn as Virginia Wolfe in The Hours was laughable. In reality Wolfe would become so manic she’d dash around the house talking gibberish at high speed, hallucinating talking birds and her dead mother. When she crashed with depression she was basically catatonic and took to her bed for weeks on end. All I could see was an actor moping around in a prosthetic nose. Not good enough. She didn’t even give us the monotone voice that comes with psychomotor retardation. I haven’t read the book so I have no idea if there’s a more accurate representation there and it’s the adaptation that’s at fault. The world is crying out for a full and accurate Wolfe biopic, with all the highs and lows laid bare.

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And speaking of ‘real life’ characters, what about the largely negative critical reaction to Keira Knightly’s performance as Sabina Speilrein in A Dangerous Method? The emphasis was solely on The Chin. The Chin was jutting out at a weird angle. The Chin seemed to have a life of its own, wandering about in a carefree fashion. What would The Chin do next? Almost everyone agreed that Keira and The Chin were over the top. What those journalists didn’t know was that Spielrein’s behaviour was one hundred times more weird and unpredictable than the few hysterical tics Cronenberg had decided upon. Maybe sometimes it’s necessary to edit the truth.

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One recent film that gives us the highs but edits the lows of bipolar disorder is Silver Linings Playbook. It’s great on mania but it barely touches on depression. I put it to you that the reason for this is that no audience wants to pay to see Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence sobbing inconsolably and so lacking in energy they can barely lift a fork. And if there was an audience that would, it would be quite select. It might be more palatable if Bradley Cooper took his shirt off (more than he does already), ditto Jennifer Lawrence. In fact you could probably model an entire franchise out of Jennifer Lawrence crying and having difficulty eating her dinner if she was bereft of outer wear. But I digress. Watching someone being depressed just isn’t entertaining and that’s the crux of the problem. The reality of mental illness is horrifying and gruelling, and your average punter wants to be entertained, not bludgeoned over the head with troublesome ‘facts’.

However, one brilliantly conceived scene, a ‘meet cute’ over the dinner table with the leads swapping pharmacological anecdotes gets a big seal of approval from me. “Gooble Gobble. Gooble Gobble. One of us. One of us.” (I wonder what my ‘seal of approval’ would look like?  Perhaps a blister pack with a smiley over each compartment.) Later on, Bradley and Jennifer go to a diner and we have another marvellous scene where she tells him all about her “slut wife” status. In psychiatric parlance, Jen had become ‘hypersexual’ in the aftermath of her husband’s death. This is a (little discussed) symptom of bipolar disorder. In the past she would have been labelled as a nymphomaniac. A subject matter that enormously subtle, uncontroversial film maker Lars Von Trier will be tackling in his next feature. Hopefully, Lars will be making another appearance later in this article. He will be arriving by camper van because of his fear of flying so he could show up at any moment. Or not at all.

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Remember back in the mists of three paragraphs ago when I mentioned  I’d be back with something more to say about Mr Jones? Well here I am. And here he is. In all his buff, manic, silver foxy, highly compromised glory. If ever a film felt like it had been cut to ribbons to appease queasy producers it’s this one. According to rumour, the producers of Mr Jones said, “I know this could cut the running time a bit, but could he be a Manic rather than a Manic Depressive?” All of this must have been rather depressing for Mr Figgis, because he does manage to squeeze in the aforementioned psychomotor retardation – Gere wanders pitifully and very, very slowly through the city, unable to even wash. He finds himself in a building which looks like a Music Academy. This building exists in the past (at least that’s my reading of it) and each room is an echo from decades before. The sounds become cacophonous. Everything becomes more chaotic. This is a very skillful evocation of the confusion, sensitivity to noise and horrible nostalgia of manic depression. Somehow he makes it back to his apartment where Lena Olin and her hair are waiting for him.  He ends up slumped on a stool in a shower, naked and grubby, while an annoyingly cheerful psychiatric nurse sings at him (“C’mon let’s make a round!”) and hoses him down. Depression on its own just doesn’t put bums on seats. Richard Gere charging into an orchestra recital and taking over the conducting DOES.  Well a few bums anyway. Mr Jones was not a great box office success. Realistic depictions of psychiatric suffering just don’t create revenue. A shame since this is probably Gere’s finest performance to date.

If you want to experience that kind of thing you probably have to look outside of English language cinema. Or get yourself sectioned. Oh look here comes Lars! He’s just parked the camper van! “Hi Lars! How’s it hangin’?!” I have yet to see Lars’ Melancholia. Von Trier and his leading lady Kirsten Dunst have both made their statuses as depressives public. For someone who’ll happily confess to feeling sympathetic towards Nazis, Von Trier is surprisingly tight-lipped about the details of his depression and anxiety. What kind of treatment regime is he on? Does he even have one? Charlotte Gainsbourg has a very convincing panic attack in Antichrist, which I felt he must have coached her through in some detail. Perhaps we have to look to Lars for an unexpurgated cinematic representation of depression, when he’s finished dabbling in hardcore depictions of the life of a ‘Nymphomaniac,’  a descriptor which no longer exists in the DSM.

Because even in the arthouse sector, mental illness isn’t seen as box office unless you edit the reality down to something more appealing.

Leading Parts

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2010 by dcairns

Drawing by Roland Topor.

After weeks of time-consuming research into the bins round the back of the leading movie studios, Shadowplay can present this exclusive look into the untold stories behind the body parts of the stars. This mission was inspired by a discussion with Mike McCarthy, filmmaker (CIGARETTE GIRL) and comic book artist, whose strip cartoon heroine Cadavra is assembled from pieces of dead movie stars. “Does she have Jayne Mansfield’s head?” I asked, immediately. “No, she has the Black Dahlia’s head,” answered Mike, looking at me as if I were crazy. I had a melancholy intuition into why Mike isn’t a millionaire. Clearly, Mansfield’s head, subject of an entirely legendary decapitation, makes a better head for Cadavra than the Black Dahlia’s. The BD, AKA Elizabeth Short, wasn’t a famous movie star, having done only one screen test, and she was sawn in half, not decapitated. Mike seemed to me to be messing about with his own premise. Still, it’s his premise.

CIGARETTE GIRL.

Considering body parts of the stars in isolation from the stars themselves is something of an obsession of mine: I’ve previously documented the post-cinematic career of Nicole Kidman’s nose, waxed lyrical on the possibilities of Stefania Sandrelli’s chin, and worried as to the possible whereabouts of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s clitoris.

With all respect to Mike, here is an alternate history of the Hollywood body part, the pitfalls and pleasures, tinsel and truncations of the life of limbs in Silver Screen City.

Laughton and his hump pictured together.

1) Charles Laughton’s hump.

Laughton and his hump formed their profitable double act in 1939 for THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, and were a big hit with audiences. The Hump wanted to carry on their partnership into a series of movies — RICHARD III, JEAN DE FLORETTE, but Laughton became jealous of the attention the Hump was receiving and chose to go it alone. The Hump signed a five-year deal with MGM, but his first solo feature, I WANT YOU, BACK, was not a success, and most of his supporting role in ZIEGFELD GIRL ended up on the cutting room floor. The Hump drifted into work as a background artist, appearing as a series of hillocks and tuffets in outdoors movies of the forties, and also picked up a salary doubling for Mickey Rooney, but his days of stardom were behind him.

2) Rod Steiger’s stunt ass.

Rod Steiger’s nude scene in AL CAPONE was eventually deleted from most prints on humanitarian grounds, but the story of its inception is a remarkable one. From the beginning, Steiger and director Richard Wilson were agreed that a stand-in posterior would be needed to give Capone’s character the authority he needed. Supporting player Harley Thomsett was hired, after extensive auditioning, but his casting presented a problem. Blacklisted for his outspoken leftist views, Thomsett could not officially be hired by the studio, so he had to arrange for a friend, Buck Gough, to front for his rear. This meant that although Thomsett was the official body double, Gough was the world’s first and only body triple.

3) Orson Welles’s nose collection.

Welles has always been celebrated for his versatility, a large part of that came from his tendency to appear in a new nose with each appearance. “My own nose is nothing,” Welles would say. Each new snout would be hand-crafted by studio artists to the actor’s exacting specifications, and at the end of filming would go into Welles’ private collection. Each nose therein had its own display case and its own name, although the names did not correspond to the names of the characters the noses were designed for. Sheriff Hank Quinlan’s bloated drunkard’s schnozz, for instance, was named Sandra, for instance. The aquiline hooter worn in his television King Lear, made by cutting the corner from a shoebox,  went by the nickname Sloane Jnr. On social evenings, Welles would perform magic tricks with the noses, making them vanish, or performing a variation on the old shell game, using three noses and a garden pea.

O’Brien exercises his oral skills.

4) Pat O’Brien’s tongue

While cross-eyed Ben Turpin had his trademark strabismus insured against any unforeseen normalizing, and Betty Grable’s legs were insured for a million dollars lest shrinkage or snapping jeopardize her standing as the forces’ sweetheart, less has been written of Pat O’Brien’s tongue. This is no doubt because people don’t like to read about Pat O’Brien’s tongue. Pat O’Brien’s tongue was heavily insured against a variety of complaints including allergic reaction, hypothyroidism, acromegaly, tuberculous infiltration and tertiary syphilis. All these conditions can cause thickening of the tongue, which O’Brien feared would limit his ability to talk very rapidly, a skill to which he attributed, perhaps with some accuracy, his entire success in pictures. Less kind friends suggested that, if O’Brien was worried about his livelihood, he should forget about his stupid tongue and take out life insurance on James Cagney.

A rare image of Beyoncé with her parasitic twin, Bernard (note the face on her torso, also the third arm.

5) Beyoncé Knowles’ parasitic twin.

I have previously discussed the open secret of Beyoncé’s conjoined twin Bernard, a sentient parcel of flesh and tooth positioned to the right of the singing star’s spleen. At last it can be revealed — Bernard is actually the singer. That’s the boy whose voice you heard and loved tonight. He’s the real star of the picture. Bernard Knowles! Beyoncé just lipsynchs and moves her hips in a distracting manner.

6) Angelina Jolie’s high-heeled feet.

Movie fans got to see these medical curiosities just once, in Robert Zemeckis’ experimental exercise in conflicted response and random shouting, BEOWULF. In other movies, Angelina simply blackens the bony extrusions projecting stiletto-like from her feet, and pretends they are shoes. Or she uses a skilled foot double, Harold Chan, famed for his ladylike feet. Or she deploys modern CGI effects to paint out her unusual appendages. Ironically, Zemeckis pioneered digital effects to remove Gary Sinise’s legs in FORREST GUMP — using the same technology subsequently used to remove Sinise from the cinema screen altogether — but opted to go the other way with Jolie’s freakish feet. The lizardlike tail she sports in his three-dimensional flickbook is fake, however — Jolie’s own tail was considered too fluffy and unthreatening for the character.

Note camouflaged background, with Chandler’s tusks painted to blend in.

7) Jeff Chandler’s jaw.

Hunky he-man Chandler carried with him a dark secret — a rare anomaly known as a herniated jawbone, which cause coral-like encrustations of bone to project from either side of his face, like ivory handlebars. The manly star refused to have these tusks sawn off by the studio doctor, saying he found them beneficial to his love life (documents pertaining to this have been sealed for fifty years, so will have to wait for details). The skull-extensions could easily be airbrushed from publicity snaps, but for actual motion pictures, the problem was harder. Chandler suggested that he might stop making films altogether, and maintain his star presence entirely in still photographic form. In 1953, Photoplay magazine gave away Jeff Chandler masks on sticks, which audiences could hold aloft before the movie screen, transforming any character in any film into a Jeff doppelgänger, but the fad was shortlived. Eventually, traveling mattes were used to optically remove the appearance of antlers from Jeff’s jowls, and in shots where the actor appeared against blue sky, his jaw-bones were painted a matching hue to blend in. This explains the preponderance of low angle shots in his movies.

Dentally disturbed.

8) Peter Lorre’s teeth.

The Lorre teeth underwent a startling transformation a few years after the star’s arrival in Hollywood. As long as the German actor confined his appearances to Japanese or otherwise deformed characters, his mouth, an exploding cemetery of enamel fingers, was judged satisfactory. But when leading man roles beckoned, the gnashers needed fixing. After a grueling month-long series of operations, one entire extraneous tooth was removed, whittled down, and transformed into the actor William Lundigan, while the rest were realigned and hewn into humanoid appearance. A strange psychological aftereffect of this reconstruction is worth remarking upon — for years afterwards, Lorre was convinced that he had been fitted with the teeth of Nelson Eddy, and would battle a powerful urge to feast upon human flesh.

That leg.

9) Peter Weller’s leg.

To prepare for his role in ROBOCOP, the notoriously dedicated actor installed parts from a VHS toploader deck into his thigh. With the power cable trailing out amid a slew of gristle and loose skin, Weller would place a water pistol in the tape compartment and practice his quick draw. Sadly, the wound became infected and Weller risked becoming a real-life cyborg with an artificial limb, but he was spared that indignity because none of this happened.

Henry Travers with Jimmy Stewart — note the tell-tale bulge.

10) Henry Travers’ wings.

A heartwarming story to end on. When Frank Capra was casting the role of Clarence, the trainee angel in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, he was naturally intrigued by reports of a winged actor in Tinseltown. Henry Travers was eventually traced via his agent, Irving “Septic” Bazaar, and proved to be ideal for the part. Not only was a he a skilled actor with an air of sweetness and innocent wisdom, he also sprouted two voluminous, white-feathered wings from his shoulder blades. Capra realized he could strap the wings down with bandages, as had been done on WIZARD OF OZ with Judy Garland’s 33″ breasts. And at the end of the film, when Clarence gets his wings, they could be allowed to burst forth and fill the screen with their radiance, an effect not possible for Judy in 1939. Alas, the whiteness of the wings was simply too glaring to be photographed in studio conditions, and Capra reluctantly abandoned the idea. But he always maintained that it was all worth it, since the quest for an actor with feathers had led him to the perfect choice for the role. “Jesus Christ, that fucker could act,” the director reminisced fondly.