Wednesday, January 26, 2011

With Apologies to the Staff of Vogue Magazine

Documentaries can be amazing...wait, have I lost you already? Well, if you're still reading, I've recently seen three very different docs: The September Issue, No Impact Man, and The Rape of Europa. They look at: fashion, going green, and...Nazis. Because you can't write about documentaries without Nazis coming into picture somewhere.

Fashion has always been fascinating to me. Flipping through Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, and Vogue was riveting, if a little baffling. Wait, ladies wear that stuff? Plastic-looking pants with a chartreuse monkey-fur jacket? Yes, I can read that it's designed by some stylish Italian guy, but...actually, fashion actually has very little to do with clothes. I learned this from The September Issue, a documentary that follows the editorial process of Vogue's September issue, the issue that debuts what's new for the year in fashion. Vogue's September issue is purchased by an extraordinarily high number of women every year, and the advertising is so lucrative that the September issue is nearly the size of a phone book. But the great part of this is seeing Anna Wintour up close. Is she really as dreadful as the rumors say? She's not. She seemed fine to me. She's the editor and she wants it done her way. So there.

I was struck by how dowdy and inelegant the women who work at Vogue are. Anna Wintour is the exception. She is always glamorously put together in a dress. She wears surprisingly pretty floral dresses in nearly every scene she's in. But the other ladies who work at Vogue wear uniforms of shapeless, all-black sacks, or all-white pantsuits, with no variation. And the numerous closeups did them no favors. Look, we all get saggy and wrinkly. But we're normal people. We don't live in the posh, ultra-expensive world of celebrity fashion, the exclusive locales of Manhattan, Paris, and L.A. Aren't there luxurious treatments for the typical wrinkles in that world? And if you have worked at Vogue for the last quarter century, can't you afford them? Sorry! Sorry so snarky! Which brings us to the next doc, No Impact Man.

No Impact Man is a writer in Manhattan who decided that he, his wife, and daughter would live a year on the planet and leave no impact. They slowly phase out the extras of western civilization, like cable TV, grocery sacks, electricity, and toilet paper. So, as you can see, this guy is kind of nuts. Toilet paper? Who knew we Americans had so little to be thankful for? Does this guy really not know how paper companies work? Paper companies plant way more trees than they cut down for paper. They have to - they want to make paper in five years, too. But I'm getting off track. No Impact Man is interesting in that you get to see this marriage close up, where the husband is committed to this idea, and he has to drag his wife kicking and screaming into the plan. He makes her give up TV, coffee, takeout food, ice, and eventually her cosmetics. See? He really is crazy.

What was fascinating in this documentary were the dynamics of this couple, especially when you see the conversations they have about whether or not to have another baby. She considers that since she is supporting him in his no impact project, which he wants to do more than anything, he should support her in her dream to have a baby, which she want to do more than anything, too. Now, she works in some high paying corporate job, and he's at home with their toddler daughter. And he kind of asks her if she's going to cut back on her job to take care of the kids. She doesn't know what that has to do with having another baby. But you could see what he wanted to say: look, honey, I wanted to be a writer, didn't want to start a family. So why don't you take a turn at home if we have another baby? If he ever said that out loud, it wasn't in front of the camera. But how could she quit her job? To buy only locally grown, organic fruits and veggies, overpriced organic bakery bread, and organic household cleaners, you need a high paying corporate job.

I feel so much sympathy for this guy's wife. Actually, I have compassion for him, too. Look, he had an idea, granted it was crazy, but he wanted to do it, and he succeeded. This couple took a lot of absurd hating on their blog. Of all the crazies to hate in New York, why pick on them? They're mostly normal. Well, at least she is. Even though I prefer reusable, cloth grocery bags, this guy makes going green...wait, for it...going crazy! Too much? Well, now we come to the primary reason documentaries were invented: Nazis.

The Rape of Europa is an account of Hitler's plan to steal any good art created in the last 900 years, and destroy anything he didn't like. Of course, being Hitler, this was also a way to stick it to the Jews. Because many of the very best art collections were owned by Jewish families. Of all the documentaries to see, this one is it. Yes, again we see how thoroughly fiendish the Nazis were in their long-sighted planning to meet their goals. And again we see the heartbreak they wrought on the world. But we also get to meet the heroes: American art experts and artists who did whatever they could to restore and protect the treasures of Western art and architecture. The Monument Men, a US Army unit, are the ones who made sure that the world's greatest paintings and sculptures were returned to the families they were stolen from, and saved these treasures for all of us here in the future. If you like docs, watch this one.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Runaways

Wow, sorry so late! But I keep thinking about a movie I saw, The Runaways, the story of Joan Jett and her first band. Usually, the lifestyle of success and stardom is sunny. Usually, success and stardom don't chew young girls up and spit them out. But that's the great thing about this movie: when a young girl, with no real parental supervision, is seduced by success, you don't get a false picture of how, yeah, it was tough. But our young star pulled through, and she's still a success and a star. In this movie, what really happened to Cherie, the lead singer of The Runaways, was that she was nearly destroyed by rock'n roll.

Young Cherie Currie, portrayed by Dakota Fanning, grew up in California, with a mom who left with her second husband to live in Singapore and a dad who is slowly dying of alcoholism. Her twin sister is the closest thing to a parent she has. So what happens in 1975 to girls like that? Hanging around clubs, she meets Joan Jett and Runaways drummer, Sandy West. Jett and West think their all-girl hard-rock band needs a blond lead singer. So they audition Cherie. After a rough start with sleazy music promoter Kim Fowley, they get a recording contract. When their album becomes a hit in Japan, the Runaways travel there for a tour. But rather than success being a joy, for Cherie, it's exhausting, riddled with drug-induced collapses, and jealousy from the other band members because of the attention she's getting as the blond lead singer. How could she have coped with it all? She was 15.

Joan Jett, however, seems not to have parents at all. From what you see in the film, she's squatting in a cheap apartment with lots of other druggie teens. But while they get high and sleep, she's busy playing her guitar, writing songs, and trying to make it. And she does. Her sheer ambition and passion for the music do achieve some success. She had a few hits in the early 1980's. Kristen Stewart, the heroine from the Twilight series, plays Joan Jett. She's got Jett's slouchy posture and smoldering anger down. But I had never realized that Jett was a lesbian. I asked a pal about this and he said,"Yeah, everybody knows that." And in this movie, the experimentation between Cherie and Joan seems kind of sweet. When everyone else is out to use them, they're all they've got. Cherie's sad goodbye to Joan, as Joan Jett & the Blackhearts are taking off, takes place during a radio interview while Cherie is scolded for making a personal call from her workplace, a bakery.

While it was hard to watch what life did to Cherie Currie, at least this movie portrayed the truth about The Runaways, the first all-girl rock'n roll band. The casting was great, the photography captured the 1970's mood, and the end seemed inevitable. The loss of innocence and hope for Cherie is as bittersweet as her goodbye to Joan.