Let’s see if this works. My brother asked me if I wanted to do a book vlog with him, and I said sure. Here we are talking about The Great Gatsby, mostly in reaction to the trailer for the upcoming movie. Like anyone, I’m completely mortified watching myself, but I trust that you all will be more kind. Presumably there will be more coming in the future, and perhaps I will get better at it?
Tag Archives: film
This year being Nirvana Nostalgia Season, I’ve been thinking about one of the most iconic pieces of clothing of my youth: Kurt Cobain’s enormous, red-and-black Fred Krueger-style striped sweater, as pictured above. Greasy blonde hair and this sweater say “Kurt” as much as a moptop and a collarless jacket say “Beatle”. As a nerdy, fashion-fearing teen in the grunge 90s this sweater was everything I wished my clothes could be, a perfect example of Kurt’s effortless cool. I was way too self-conscious and shy to actually emulate him (plus, like a dope, I took to heart that 90s alterna-bullshit about not being a poseur), but I studied pictures of Kurt, how he dressed, wondering how I could recreate that alchemy in myself. I thought about this sweater. It was one of those “aspirational pieces”, as I think they’re called in Vogue, which I thought about every time I went shopping.
So when I saw Gus Van Sant’s Last Days I was, despite myself, a bit disappointed. Don’t get me wrong: I think Last Days is a really beautiful, amazing film, and to me one of the great costume movies. Michelle Matland and her team did an amazing job recreating iconic Cobain looks for Michael Pitt in the character of Blake, a sort of poetic alternate-dimension version of Kurt. Here’s Blake in his version of the Freddy Krueger sweater:
The difference, and to me it’s a huge difference, is that Blake’s sweater is entirely intact. Kurt’s, on the other hand, is absolutely disintegrating. Unforunately I haven’t been able to find many good pictures of the sweater online, but rest assured, I spent enough time looking at it, thinking about it, to know. Enormous holes had opened up at the elbows and the left shoulder; the end of the left sleeve was in unravelled tatters. These were like heiroglyphics to me, each bit of damage recording some event–a dive into the drums, a trip through the mosh pit, drunken high jinks of one kind or another. The damage was why I could never have Kurt’s sweater: even if I found the very same sweater, from the very same company, the very same assembly line, it wouldn’t have all this fascinating history encoded in it. That sweater was unique, haute couture; the couturier was Kurt’s wild rock-and-roll life.
I’m in the position in life where I’m both obliged and able to usually repair my clothes if they get damaged. But I always think long and hard before I do it. How does this hole look? Does it make this sweater more interesting? Do I want to forget that this happened because someone grabbed me during my friend Danny’s concert and threw me into a puddle of beer? I think the value of clothes does not necessarily decrease with cosmetic damage, the way it does with a car. Sentimental value is, after all, true value. Pants that wear out at the knees, or get stretched out by your belly, or get spattered with paint, what are they doing but becoming more yours? Each imperfection is like an in-joke, ratifying the relationship between you and your clothes. I think it’s beautiful.
Sci-fi fans love to tout the smoothness with which masters of the genre incorporate exposition into their plots. What could be more subtle than these little signs of life as it was lived before the story begins? The costumers of Last Days certainly knew the implicit-exposition value of such distressed clothes–I really love the fact that those plastic shades he’s wearing up there have been broken and taped back together–but for whatever reason, they decided to leave the sweater unscathed. Maybe it just goes to show the irreproducible nature of such a specific, well-beloved piece of clothing.
It’s probably clear by now that I have a big fondness for the pre-World War II Modern period. From the most austere avant-garde in painting to the most lurid of radio serials, something was in the air then that speaks to me. And if there’s one area where I think the pre-war efforts were clearly better than the post-, it’s in film. The 1930s are unquestionably my favorite time for movies–a sort of decade mirabilis. You can keep your Citizen Kane, and give me City Lights, King Kong, The Thin Man, The Public Enemy, Grand Hotel, Duck Soup, It Happened One Night, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Stagecoach, and all the great musicals, from 42nd Street to The Wizard of Oz.
The movie musical of the 30s had two great masters: Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley. Both put dance at the center of things. The plots are uncomplicated. The singing is rarely especially good. Good acting is the exception rather than the rule. Outside the dance sequences, the direction is fairly unexciting. Astaire/Rogers movies like Top Hat are basically so-so romantic comedies, full of cheesy jokes and mugging for the camera, which are periodically transfigured, like the Virgin in a Renaissance painting, into an exquisite vision of heaven. Busby Berkeley movies like Footlight Parade, on the other hand, are unsentimental yarns of the seedy but glamorous backstage world of the theater, which end in monolithic, jaw-dropping art deco extravaganzas.
Astaire’s movies, all soundstage nightclubs, tuxedoes, unconvincing European settings, essentially distracted from the Depression. Berkeley’s astonishing trio from 1933–42nd Street, Golddiggers of ’33, and Footlight Parade–on the other hand confronted it directly. It’s really kind of amazing. Of all depictions of showbiz I’ve ever seen, I think they’re my favorite–they’re the only ones that really make it look like work. Sure, there’s those fairytale moments where Ruby Keeler takes off her glasses and gets cast as the lead, etc., but there’s also the grueling auditions in 42nd Street, the performers locked into the theater until they get the routines right in Footlight Parade, the three out-of-work chorus girls stealing milk and dodging the landlady in Golddiggers of ’33. Considering the unabashedly left-wing politics of these movies–there’s an unbelievable moment in Footlight Parade when the dancers in formation create the face of FDR–I think part of the point was to show that performers were Labor too.
What will last about all these movies is the dancing. I don’t know if I’m romanticizing the time, but it seems like dance was in the air then, a part of life, more than it was after the war. As one of my favorite articles ever points out, from the earliest days, Disney cartoons were saturated with dance–in the early days, even the flowers, trees, and the sun in the sky would be boppin’ back and forth as the scene opened. Whether the virtuosity of Fred Astaire tap-dancing or a hundred dancing girls making simple turns in a spiral pattern, dance was made to be filmed. Patterns and lines. Music and motion.
I found out about it late, but I’m interested in this Black Swan costume controversy. It’s easy to say what side I come down on: I’m with the actual costume designer, Amy Westcott, and think the fashion press has been pretty ridiculous (and mendacious) about the whole thing. But on the other hand I can understand why there is all this confusion, and it’s because of the fundamental, but poorly understood, difference between clothes and costumes.
For a dressmaker or a fashion designer making clothes is the goal. Clothes are, in some sense at least, the final product. Costumes on the other hand are a means to a theatrical end: revealing character & character relationships, helping establish setting and atmosphere, combining with each other and the sets to make a series of moving, three dimensional pictures, and so on. (Different productions, of course, will put the emphasis on different aspects: a purely interior drama would focus most on character, an abstract dance on pictorial qualities.) An ugly dress can be a great costume, if it achieves those goals; and a cast entirely decked out in gorgeous clothes can be a total failure.
I very much doubt that an Oscar will ever go to a movie about regular contemporary people. In movies like that realism is key, and the better the costumes, the more invisible they will be. They have to act subliminally. You have to make a conscious effort to notice details like clothes that seem to be slept in, or one character wearing slightly different things than another in a way that communicates subtle differences in class or taste, but these are exactly the things that call for the greatest skill for a costume designer.
But everyone notices wild extravagant costumes, or elaborately distressed and filthified costumes, in period pieces or sci-fi. And in a movie like Black Swan, everyone notices the ballet costumes. They’re “pieces”, separated from the world we know, and they announce themselves as costumes. That’s what people think of when they think of Best Costume Design. If you asked someone “what did you think of the costumes in Black Swan?” nobody’s thinking about the two dudes that Lily and Nina meet at the bar, or Nina’s mother, or Beth in the hospital; very few will even think of the ballerinas’ backstage wear. They’ll think of the tutus. I doubt the fashion press, or even the Mulleavy sisters probably, really even understand that all of those are costumes. So of course they think “Rodarte was robbed”.
The funny thing is, I think I misunderstood the costumes and thereby the whole film (which I loved) to some extent. By the time I saw the movie I had forgotten that Rodarte had anything to do with it, and I thought the ballet costumes were an inspired bit of costume design, because frankly I think they kind of suck. They’re cheesy and cliché and wouldn’t challenge even the most stodgy conservative audience member. The sets were the same; to me everything said that for all of Thomas’s big talk about reinventing Swan Lake, nobody was ever actually going to challenge convention and the moneyed bigwigs to make anything but an imitation of an imitation. Nina was killing herself, starving herself, and driving herself crazy for nothing artistic; and her final triumph (which I believed in) was in transcending the tired production she was stuck in.
But I guess not? I doubt the Mulleavy sisters had any such intentions, or they would be able to understand that they only did a small part of the costume design. And the fashion world certainly doesn’t seem to think their tutus were boring and sad. So I guess I’m wrong. But I like my interpretation anyway.