it's queue de grâce time again! i received a dossier and mysterious parcel packed with dvds this time around. i have been assured that i will be taken on a journey this week. we shall see...
caroline is apparently taking it easy on me to start with. first up, we have ron mann's documentary tales of the rat fink (2006).
it recounts the life of ed "big daddy" roth, whose influence on american custom car culture can in no way be overstated. i became aware of roth way back when via his connection to underground comics. his anti-mickey mouse character, rat fink, is as well known in those circles as robert crumb's mr. natural or bill griffith's zippy the pinhead. not being a car guy, that's the space he has always occupied in my brain, as the progenitor of an artistic style that fused the more anti-social tendencies of mad magazine with the grotesque remnants of a childhood spent watching universal monster movies and it thumbed its disgusting green nose directly at the sanitized and prim eisenhower era. the cars, however, were his true art, and in this documentary we literally get to meet a few. for someone like roth, the standard talking head format of most documentaries would seem a little stale so mann's answer to this is to replace them with talking grills. a number of roth's most famous custom rods are given celebrity voices and they narrate their own stories, illuminating bits of roth's history along the way. the good news - on one or two occasions it really works. in particular, i am thinking of the vignette that recounts the day that roth discovered fiberglass. it was a pivotal moment in his career, freeing him from the limitations of simply making alterations to what detroit was giving him. fiberglass was light enough, flexible enough and cheap enough for him to experiment to his heart's content. the enthusiastic quality of the narration in this section is appropriate to a revelatory moment like this. an artist finds his true medium once in his lifetime. it made all things possible for him and the designs he came up with in the wake of this discovery are still fantastic in the truest sense of the word. the bad news - most of the rest of the time, the idea can come across as a little bit silly and the amount of information actually imparted leaves me feeling shortchanged. it gets things revved up a couple of times but it's more of a tease than anything because long before the end you realize it's more of a love letter than an historical document. it seems kind of a shame to waste a shot at chronicling such an interesting guy. he let an entire generation know that it was ok to be a weirdo. that's no mean feat, especially for that generation. to be fair, roth died just before the film could be made, so i am sure that radically changed the direction of the film. i would just gladly trade a lot of tribute for a little more insight. still, i learned a few things about someone whose work i admire. that's never a bad way to start.
we stick with the biographical material for our next selection, mick jackson's temple grandin (2010).
by now, you may be familiar with this much ballyhooed HBO biopic. temple grandin's story is a pretty extraordinary one. diagnosed with autism at age three, she overcame a lifetime of obstacles to obtain her doctorate in animal science and went on to develop new, more humane systems for handling cattle on ranches and in slaughterhouses that revolutionized the industry. a visionary in more than one sense of the word, her autism caused her to "think in pictures" and her unique perspective allowed her to see solutions to problems that went unobserved by others. she is an ingenious woman and her work as an autism advocate is notable, as well. in her case, her autism offered as many gifts as handicaps, it would seem. the danger in telling a story like this is obvious. it would be simple to slip into maudlin, treacly sentimentality. for the most part, though, it avoids this pitfall. claire danes is excellent in the lead and thoroughly inhabits a role that would have been reduced to a collection of tricks and tics in lesser hands. she never sacrifices the dignity of the character, even when at her most helpless. catherine o'hara is superb in a supporting role as her aunt, as well. watching the two of them interact was probably the highlight of the film for me. their relationship was so natural that it was easy to forget that autism was even part of the equation. in those moments, it was just two women, laughing, talking, at ease with one another, being family. when the film was least effective was when it resorted to standard tv movie tricks. julia ormond, as her long-suffering mother, is saddled with the thankless task of keeping the hallmark movie tendencies in her character at bay. i could have done without the lazy montage-type exposition and i definitely could have done without how badly those scenes were scored. at times, it was just this side of the type of thing you would hear in episodes of the dukes of hazzard or the a-team. i am so sick of this type of cinematic/televisual shorthand i could scream. sheer laziness. to be fair, the cinematography looked great and the visualization of grandin's thought processes was presented with a flair that was ambitious for a tv movie. overall though, if it wasn't for how notable the subject was, it would have been pretty average. it reminded me of a ron howard picture - competent, pleasant, dependent on the charisma of its performers for its power, no surprises. ultimately, it's a remarkable movie only because she's a remarkable woman.
we keep with the theme of overcoming obstacles as we tackle the modern fairy tale that is mark palansky's penelope (2006).
christina ricci is penelope, whose ancestor's dalliance with a servant girl, and her resulting suicide, resulted in a curse being placed upon the family: the next daughter born to family would have the nose of a pig. for five generations they dodged that porcine bullet but now it has come home to root. the only way the curse can be lifted is if one of her own learns to love her. as a result, the search for a suitor who can see past her nose is never-ending. look, let's just cut to the chase. once again, the confusion being heaped upon the core audience for this thing, presumably mostly young women, is astounding. right off the bat, we're told she's hideous. nope. she's christina ricci. she's adorable and just happens to have a pig nose. she is willful, smart, creative and funny and has come to grips with her situation...when she's not telling her mother she just wants to be like everyone else. finally, and most abhorrently, when she declares that she likes herself (actually, the implication is that she loves herself, since that is the only thing that can break the curse) the curse is lifted. for those of you too busy awwwwwwing at the happily ever after-ness of it all to see what i mean, let me explain. the movie just spent ninety-odd minutes telling adolescent girls with body issues that it's what inside that counts, that what's important is who you are, not what you look like, only to sell them out completely in the final reel. it goes as far as to have the character in question be so truly accepting of herself, regardless of physical appearance, that she actually loves who she is, to hell with what anyone else thinks. and your reward for becoming this healthy and well-adjusted and happy? you finally get to be pretty. you know, pretty according to conventional standards. all this crap we fed you about "pretty on the inside"? that's just something we tell people who can't actually be pretty on the outside. since you stuck it out and actually demonstrated character and wisdom, you get to have fairy tale plastic surgery. congratulations, what was unique about you is gone. you get to be like everyone else. just once, i wish one of these goddamned "modern fairy tales" would end like this:
"wait, what happened? i didn't change."
"no, you didn't. you're still as gawky and awkward and plain as you ever were. and you're awesome that way. that POOF was everybody else wising up. later, a kind of cute in his own way, awkward, dorky guy will be dropping by to listen to records and make thai food. don't blow it."
"so no prince charming?"
"are you listening to yourself? don't be an asshole."
so day one is in the books. could be better, could be worse. i am glad i saw the first two, even if they didn't knock me completely out. the third makes me doubt the existence of happily ever after.
tomorrow may finish that job.