The Vintner’s Luck
by Elizabeth Knox
2000 (originally published 1998) • 284 pages • Picador USA
You know how you can spot a period film made in the nineties? Well, I’m going to be no help, because I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I know it when I see it. Like in Restoration—there’s something about the production design. The quality of the costumes. The Meg Ryan. It might be set in the 1600s, but a single frame can tell you that it was released in 1995. Never mind the fact that it can be carbon-dated by the fullness of Robert Downey Jr.’s lips. (This is why I nearly crawled out of my seat and over the very sweet Spider-Man fan when young!Tony appeared in Captain America: Civil War. His mouth was wrong.)
The same is true of, for some reason, most queer-minded media made in the late nineties and early aughts that I’ve consumed. Velvet Goldmine and The Vintner’s Luck have nothing else in common besides “dudes kiss in them” (oh, and shirtlessness, I guess?), but the quality of the atmosphere is quite similar—heady, languid, rarefied.
Coming to America
1988 • 117 minutes • Paramount Pictures
Despite being an eighties freak, Coming to America
long escaped my interest. Why? Well, because it’s not really the eighties, is it? Coming to America
lacks what I consider the classic eighties look. What we so often break down into discreet decades are really half-decades. Armpit decades, if you will, and I say that knowing full well that you will not. This is the late eighties/early nineties situation, full of oversized sweaters, dull color palettes, and the ugliest interior design. This is is the calm before the art of tailoring was briefly lost for a decade. This is the cultural context that birthed Licence to Kill
I’ve also never been a particular fan of Eddie Murphy. As kid, my only exposure to Eddie Murphy was limited to broad, child-friendly comedy–and, of course, Shrek. It blew my mind to discover, as an older teen, that Eddie Murphy had once been cool. (It was kind of like discovering that your parents were once cool. It seems impossible, but the photo evidence that they once had hair as cool as yours is undeniable.) And not only cool, but one of the most popular comedians in America. But Delirious, which features an extended homophobic joke, obviously did not endear him to me.
Nonetheless, a mention in a recent(-ish. Y’all, I’m a busy lady) episode of the The Flop House convinced me to give it a shot. In an episode on The Golden Child
, Elliott Kalan mentioned that he preferred Eddie Murphy in Coming to America
, where he plays an idealistic romantic, rather than a smooth talker.
Under the Cherry Moon
1986 • 100 minutes • Warner Bros.
Losing Prince last month affected me the same way losing Bowie in January did—abstractly. I was saddened, of course, but not hurt enough to want to take 2016 back to the celestial customer service counter. I just didn’t have a personal stake in either artist. For whatever reason, while Bowie and Prince’s music is prime territory for queer weirdos of all stripes, I never landed there to take sustenance. It’s certainly nothing they did. I just have a hard time connecting with music on that deep of a level.
Still, their passings into the Undying Lands were worthy of tribute from me. For Bowie, I lit my homemade David Bowie prayer candle for the first time (which I’d made last August, not, like, for the occasion) and saved a Best of Bowie Spotify playlist to my phone.
And for Prince? I watched Under the Cherry Moon with my comedy troupe from college.
Now, to be fair, Purple Rain was in contention as well, but, as a fan of the eighties, I wanted to watch Purple Rain for the first time in a different and slightly more worshipful context. A midnight movie crowd would be ideal, but I have lately discovered that my biorhythms are those of a medieval French farmer. My apparent biological directive to wake up at the crack of dawn (and, presumably, hike a mile up to the cheese cave to gently turn all those wheels of dairy forty-five degrees to the left) means that midnight movies are largely no longer an option. Je suis desolée.
So Under the Cherry Moon, Prince’s infamous flop, it was. If you are unfamiliar with the plot of Under the Cherry Moon (and, honestly, who would blame you?), let me sum up. Against a backdrop of the toniest denizens of the Riviera, Prince attempts to seduce $50 million dollars out of Kristin Scott Thomas in her first major film role. (It’s one she’d really rather you forget.)
2010 • 100 minutes • Universal Pictures
Really, the best way to review Leap Year would be to open up Irish pop culture blog Culch.ie’s review of the film and Jesse Hassenger’s review of The Perfect Match at the AV Club in different tabs, put them side by side, and cross your eyes. Unfortunately, I am told that this is bad for your eyesight by “science,” so I will do the best impersonation that I can.
Leap Year, for those of you who don’t hoard bad movies and spring them on your friends when the occasion rises, is a 2010 romantic “comedy” built on the Irish and British tradition of women only being able to propose on Leap Day. You see, according to Irish folklore, St. Brigid once asked St. Patrick if women could propose to their menfolk. St. Patrick said only on leap day, and St. Brigid, strangely, did not smack him in the face. (As a McBride, I must protest hotly at this portrayal of my eponymous saint—good St. Brigid was ten when St. Patrick died, so they were probably not hanging out a lot.) After Anna’s longtime boyfriend Jeremy fails to propose to her at an appropriate time (“where do you get off putting earrings in a RING BOX?!” I yelled at the computer screen) and heads off to Dublin for a medical convention, she decides to be spontaneous for once and chase after him to propose on Leap Day. Unfortunately, her flight gets redirected and she ends up in Dingle. Declan, owner of the local pub, offers to drive her to Dublin for a price.
2003 • 121 minutes • Columbia Pictures
Was Gigli the last movie America hated in unison?
I mean, let’s take a look at the nominees for this year’s Razzie Awards—we’ve got Fantastic Four, Fifty Shades of Grey, Jupiter Ascending, Paul Blart Mall Cop 2, and Pixels. They’re all worthy of the nomination (Jupiter Ascending ought to win, on the basis of being pure glory and also that Eddie Redmayne performance), but there’s little ongoing cultural fascination and professional fallout regarding those films. I mean, there is Until Death Do Us Blart, an annual podcast where Tim Batt, Guy Montgomery, and the McElroy brothers review Paul Blart Mall Cop 2 on Thanksgiving every year until they all die. There is that. But even The Cobbler, perhaps the most recent bad movie to stay in popular imagination longer than it was in theaters, didn’t derail the careers of either its star or its director or cause a larger cultural conversation about its ending. (HOW CAN YOU DO THAT TO YOUR MENTALLY ILL WIFE?!)
Was the world just a little smaller thirteen years ago, when even USA Today, a newspaper largely distributed by forcing it upon hotel patrons, published an article rounding up the most cutting reviews of the film? Or is Gigli just that bad?
New Year’s Eve
2011 • 118 minutes • Warner Bros. Pictures
Of the winter holidays, New Year’s Eve is the most refreshingly secular. After we’ve all been run ragged by familial and religious obligations (look, I adore my werewolf niblings, but they eat up a lot more energy than I’m used to!), it’s a holiday perfect for revelry or reflection. Even the major tradition is resolving to improve your habits, which is rather vague and, let’s face it, easily ignored.
But that same refreshing secularity has made New Year’s Eve almost impervious to the holiday special. If It’s a Wonderful Life, The Muppet Christmas Carol, and Miracle on 34th Street are meant to teach us the true meaning of Christmas (goodwill towards your fellow man, even if they’re related to you, and presents, obviously), then the stumbling block for New Year’s Eve is obvious: the true meaning of New Year’s Eve is that it’s New Year’s Eve. Upon this tautology, no film can be built.
based on The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
2015 • 118 minutes • The Weinstein Company
I’ve been thinking about Todd Haynes recently, largely because I recently watched a fanedit of the Star Wars prequels and that reminded me to watch Velvet Goldmine. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how amazing it is that Haynes directed both Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven. They’re both pitch-perfect period pastiches of very, very different times and places.
Which makes him a perfect choice for adapting The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith’s midcentury lesbian romance novel. It’s been an interesting journey into propriety for The Price of Salt—Highsmith originally published it under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan and didn’t claim it as her own work for decades, and now it’s been given the sort of classy, stylish, and polished treatment that will undoubtedly garner it attention and awards come awards season. (Which is not that far away!) This is not, to randomly grab a recent disappointing mainstream film about ladies in love, Jenny’s Wedding, offering remedial lessons on lesbian identity and apologetically tap-dancing around anything a very narrow segment of the audience might find uncomfortable (i.e, expressing romantic same-sex affection). This is a glossy retro drama in its fullest flush that rightfully assumes that anyone interested in seeing this picture is going to be more than fine with its content and wastes absolutely no time on coddling a close-minded audience.
The Phantom of the Opera
based on the musical based on the novel
2004 • 143 minutes • Warner Bros. Pictures
Crimson Peak’s box office may not be what Universal wanted, but I have been having a ball seeing it hit home with its intended audience: gothically and/or Romantically inclined women of all ages. I’ve seen (and, of course, promptly misplaced) tumblr commentary indicating that this was exactly what they yearned for as preteens when their mainstream and more current peers were focused elsewhere. All of this delighted sighing over romance and stylized frights brought me back to my own adolescence.
In 2004, back when I was a young preteen full of unspeakable urges (queer ones, not Byronic hero urges—well, not those Byronic hero urges), it was The Phantom of the Opera that captured the bloody hearts of the preteen Romantic hordes.
I mean, let’s face it: The Phantom of the Opera boasts a lot of similar elements as Crimson Peak. Beautiful, crumbling architecture, death looming in the shadows, young love, beautiful young women rising above their stations, gorgeous costumes, and brooding. Of course, there’s a Phantom in the sewers of Paris rather than [SPOILER REDACTED] in the attic, but both looming threats are surprisingly seductive. Oh, and there’s songs.
2015 • 119 minutes • Universal Pictures
Selling Crimson Peak to modern audiences has proved difficult for Universal Pictures this weekend. Difficult to the tune of $26.3 million in domestic and international box offices, which is quite low. Competing against the much more accessible Bridge of Spies and The Martian, both currently in theaters, definitely doesn’t help.
How do you even effectively promote a classic Gothic romance to a marketplace unfamiliar with the genre? Universal’s solution has been to market Crimson Peak as pure horror, playing up the (damnable!) jump scares and atmosphere. And I don’t know if there’s a better solution, although I wish there was so that Guillermo Del Toro could, I dunno, make Pacific Rim 2 and Hellboy 3 with as much money as he needs. I just hope enough people take the gamble as is, because Crimson Peak is well worth it.
My exposure to Gothic romance has been limited to Mary Shelley, two-thirds of the Brontë sisters, and Austen’s supremely delightful skewering of the genre in Northanger Abbey. It’s from the latter that I have any real sense of the tropes inherent to the genre. And even that sense is a little muddled: I spent a lot of Crimson Peak banking on vampires. (I am not spoiling or ruining the film to let you know that no, there are no vampires. Just good old-fashioned wickedness.)
A Royal Affair
based on Prinsesse af blodet by Bodil Steensen-Leth
2012 • 137 minutes • Nordisk Film Distribution
I think about cultural context a lot, especially when strange men try to talk to me and I respond in Monster French, which is when you shriek French through your nose at someone. (If you do it loud enough, nobody will notice you have the vocabulary of a six year old! If you can quack “quoi,” you’re halfway there.) The effectiveness of Monster French is predicated on the assumption that my white bread self speaks English (as well as the assumption that I will parlez cette langue avec vous), and I think it’s healthy for everybody to have cultural assumptions like that destabilized once in a while.
Mads Mikkelsen’s cultural context is a particularly curious one. In Anglophone cinema, he’s largely perceived as a character actor dealing almost exclusively in villains, to the point that he actually had to protest that he wasn’t playing a villain in Star Wars: Rogue One by virtue of simply being cast. (I am personally hoping for “weird Jedi.” All the best Jedi are weirdos, like Luke Skywalker and Qui-Gon Jinn, the Bad Idea Jedi himself.) In Danish cinema, however, his cache cannot be overstated—he can do no wrong, because he, in a sense, is Danish cinema, especially as a metonym for that industry on the global stage.
I was quite looking forward to A Royal Affair destabilizing my perception of Mikkelsen as an actor, especially after mainlining Hannibal. (WAIL!) I was also hoping to get an angle on European history that I’ve rarely had a chance to experience—Scandinavian history tends to fall by the wayside in American history classes. A Royal Affair succeeds in the former and, strangely, fails in the latter.