Madonna: Truth or Dare
1991 • 122 minutes • Miramax Films
Of my problematic faves, Madonna is probably one of the most high-profile. I’m not sure when I fell for Madonna. I know when I first became aware of her—the morning after the 2003 MTV Music Awards, during which she kissed both Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera during a performance of “Hollywood” staged as homage to her twenty year old performance of “Like a Virgin” at the inaugural MTV Music Awards. What was edgy then (well, edgy to a bus full of middle schoolers in Georgia in the early aughts) is now obvious as queerbaiting.
That’s the problem with provocation for the sake of provocation—it doesn’t age well. See how I recoiled from Madonna’s early nineties ouvre when I finally sat down and plowed through her discography a few years ago. But Madonna has never been just provocation. I enjoy her songwriting, her inventiveness, her willingness to explore, and her ability to stay relevant through sheer willpower. I like strong-minded women, who could have possibly guessed. Nonetheless, as much as I’ve been enjoying her recent work, I have been fixated of late on Madonna’s first incarnation: the club kid captured in Desperately Seeking Susan.
The Price of Gold
2014 • 78 minutes • ESPN Films
Figure skating is the only Olympic sport I’ve ever actually gotten behind, culminating in the 2010 Winter Olympics being a very strange centerpiece to my sophomore year of college. (To this day, I have a macro of a tanning bed bellowing “FEED ME EVAN LYSACEK” that makes me laugh out loud.) Of all the sports represented at the Olympics, it’s the most overtly aesthetic and artistic. It’s also one of the most aggressively coded feminine sports, alongside gymnastics.
That makes figure skating densely symbolic in ways that other sports aren’t (or are in different ways), especially in terms of gender and class. During the 2010 Winter Olympics, two Canadian commentators said that Johnny Weir should take a gender test because his skating style was so flamboyant. (They later apologized.) I remember being particularly fascinated that year with American figure skater’s Evan Lysacek’s performance of gender—a lot of the material surrounding him seemed hilariously anxious to prove his masculine bonafides, especially in counterpoint to Weir. Lysacek won gold that year, soothing American masculinity’s precious nerves.
Similarly, the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding rivalry in American women’s figure skating in the early nineties was both about the two skaters and about acceptable performances of gender, class, and physical prowess. On one hand, there’s elegant, graceful, feminine Kerrigan, an ice princess of the highest order. On the other hand, there’s athletic, tomboyish, sometimes abrasive Harding, from the wrong side of the tracks. And then there’s the famous act of violence that linked them together forever and affected their lives in very different ways.
based on the book by Jon Savage
2013 • 77 minutes • Oscilloscope Laboratories
How many ways can you actually make a documentary?
I mean, in that most perfect world, one would assume the genre variations are practically infinite. IFC’s loving parody Documentary Now! has found six ways to riff on the genre, with more to come in its second season. (I haven’t seen a frame of that series and I want to see it so bad.) And yet, most mainstream documentaries tend to stick to the talking heads (be it interviews or readings from primary sources) and footage (be it a primary source or a reconstruction) model.
Teenage sticks to that model as well, but just barely. The readings from primary sources are thrown into a blender and poured into a handful of vaguely distinct archetypes—a white American girl, a white British boy, an African-American boy, and a white German girl—all voiced by professional and, in the cases of Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw, high-profile actors. These archtypes end up functioning as a pack of royal teen wes, staying the same age from the 1900s to the 1950s (the eras Matt Wolf and company have contemporary footage of). Their words are paraphrased from primary sources in a script meant to hit the high points of Jon Savage’s original book, except when they’re taken from the autobiographies of contemporary teenagers. Those segments are illustrated not with the original footage dug up for the film, but recreations that are only distinguishable as such by their well-fed actors and slightly too high quality.
Stop Making Sense
1984 • 88 minutes • Cinecom Pictures
This is not particularly a review of Stop Making Sense.
I don’t know if that’s something I can actually write. The film is complete and whole and unassailable. I don’t think it read to the audiences who literally danced in the aisles upon its theatrical release in 1984 the same way it now reads to us, a little over thirty years later. Its rightful place as one of the greatest concert films ever made has lacquered it into something quite other, like an alien transmission from the almighty eighties. In “Stop Making Sense: An Appreciation,” Noel Murray dwells on several elements of the film that now appear studied and prearranged that were never planned at all. Through planning, execution, and sheer force of will, David Byrne and Jonathan Demme’s creation has transformed into a unique experience, blasting the Talking Heads’ determined creations almost directly into your brain.
And I find that level of musical intimacy suffocating in a way that I feel guilty about.
Live From New York!
2015 • 90 minutes • BehindTheLine Productions
If you want to know how Saturday Night Live is made, you have an an embarrassment of riches at your hands. There’s Live From New York!, biographies about former cast members and writers, memoirs by former cast members and writers, the Kenneth Bowser television specials covering every decade of the show, audition tapes, the show’s own anniversary specials (including last year’s three hour extravaganza), James Franco’s student film project slash actual festival film Saturday Night, Tina Fey’s fictionalized take in 30 Rock, and the fact that former head writer Seth Meyers’ writing team on Late Night with Seth Meyers endlessly makes fun of him for talking about Saturday Night Live so much.
But if you want to see what it has made, both intentionally and unintentionally, then you’ll want Live From New York!. (No relation to the recently revised and authoritative oral history.) Bao Nyugen’s documentary may co-produced by Saturday Night Live‘s costume designer Tom Broecker, but it embraces its outsider status to put the show in its historical and cultural context. How does a scrappy variety show that barely expected to last six episodes become an American institution? How has it interacted with, influenced, and been influenced by American culture? Nyugen elegantly makes his thesis statement—that the show and New York (especially a New York) are intertwined in a fascinating symbiotic relationship—in the documentary’s opening credits. He simply runs what looks to be the current Saturday Night Live opening credits sans text, sans performers, and sans music, leaving us panning over the city that’s always been at the root of it, no matter where its performers hail from.
This Is Us
2013 • 92 minutes • Columbia
I learned about Zayn Malik’s departure from One Direction via Arabelle Sicardi’s Twitter feed, which, since she delivered it with images of Zayn frolicking with dogs, was one of the better ways to learn about the news.
“Oh, no,” I moaned. “This is all my fault. I start researching One Direction conspiracy theories and the whole damn thing’s gone up in flames!” (I soothed myself via Damn Yankees’ “High Enough” for the rest of the afternoon.)
A week prior, Captain Cinema and I had watched A Hard Day’s Night, finally utilizing her Hulu Plus subscription for something other than classic Saturday Night Live. A Hard Day’s Night could not be a more joyous film; energetic, wry, and just getting better with age. If you haven’t watched it or just haven’t watched it recently, please go do so at your earliest convenience. I think it must be very good luck to start off spring with a picture like that. (I’m aware that the spring solstice was in March, but, as an early Aries, I more or less believe that spring starts after I’ve gotten my tax refund, Easter candy goes on sale, and I’ve eaten my birthday cake.) It got a conversation about boy bands going, which, naturally, led to the both of us independently deciding that we should watch One Direction’s feature film debut, This Is Us. Conspiracy theory research followed.
2010 • 90 minutes • Focus Features
Here’s the wonderful thing about nonfiction: as long as you’re interested in the subject, the piece itself doesn’t actually have to be that good. If it’s truly awful, of course, then it’s bad, but passion—from either the creator or the consumer—can elide a multitude of sins. Mark Cousins’ epic documentary The Story of Film might turn off some viewers with his voice, but I have grown incredibly fond of his soporific Irish cadence. (To the point of an impression. Ladies.) Case in point: James Franco’s Saturday Night.