Pop Culture Gadabout
Tuesday, December 07, 2004
      ( 12/07/2004 09:21:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"AREN'T YOU PETER SELLERS?" "NOT TODAY!" – If Roger Lewis' show biz bio is to be believed, The Life And Death of Peter Sellers were hollow things, indeed. As portrayed by Geoffrey Rush in Stephen Hopkins' HBO telemovie the brilliant British comic actor was less than the sum of his characters: it's telling that the one figure he felt the most affinity to was the hero of Being There – a project that the actor pushed to get lensed, we're meant to see, because Sellers envied Chauncey Gardiner’s emotion-free blankness.

Despite a rollicking cartoon opening meant to recall brightly colored sixties era comedies (done to the bellowing strains of Tom Jones' "What's New, Pussycat?"), Life And Death is pretty grim fare: Portrait of The Artist as An Empty Vessel. Reared by his grotesque show biz mama (Miriam Margolyes, looking as ever like a John Tenniel caricature) into infantile pursuit of perpetual self-gratification ("Peter always got the last cake," his father sez in monologue, "even off someone else's plate!"), Rush's Sellers is never so appealing as when he's playing one of his comic creations. Even when he's within his family, the actor regularly retreats into a series of funny accents and poses. Stripped of all his covers, he's an abusive spoiled brat.

Director Hopkins and book adapters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely work overtime to capture the living contradiction was Sellers, though it'll probably come as no surprise to anyone that a gifted comedian could be an overly needy ass in real life. Hopkins sprinkles 60's confectionary imagery throughout to contrast with the messiness of Sellers' personal life, while each of the major figures in his life also gets to walk off the film set and deliver a face-the-camera monologue. In a what th-? moment that initially comes across clever but ultimately falls apart by the time it's used for Sellers' dying mother, each off-set version of the character is played by Rush-playing-Sellers-playing-the-real-life-person: per the movie, playing dress-up was the only means that Sellers had of controlling the world around him. In one of the movie's sadder scenes, the comedian is visited by his mater while he's working on the filming of Dr. Strangelove. The whole time the two visit, Sellers, dressed as the title character, refuses to break out of his German accent as he delivers veiled insults to his mother. When later asked how her visit with Peter went, Ma Sellers responds, "I don't know. I didn't see him."

As the Sellers, Rush (no mean chameleon, himself) is an inspired casting choice, even if he does look a bit too full in the face in spots. The rest of the cast is fine, though as someone who once had a big ol' Sophia Loren poster on his dorm wall, I didn't quite accept Sonia Acquino as the Italian actress. John Lithgow has crisp fun overplaying Blake Edwards, Sellers' most successful long-term collaborator, while Stanley Tucci recreates soft-spoken control-freak Stanley Kubrick in a more subdued mode. Both directors find themselves victimized by Sellers' erratic off-camera behavior: in the latter case, the actor ducks out of playing a fourth role in Dr. Strangelove by passive-aggressively "spraining" his leg (Slim Pickens'll forever be indebted to this act!), while in the former, Sellers indulges in a squirmingly prolonged unplanned "roast" of director Edwards at the premiere party for a Pink Panther film. Of the many women in his life (Sellers was married four times – though we only meet two of 'em – and was not averse to sixties-style "swinging" either), Emily Watson and Charlize Theron play familiar roles as first wife, Anne, and second spouse Brett Eckland, respectively. Theron's Eckland gets a strong fight scene with Rush (as egomaniacal-sized photos of the two actors look down on the proceedings), but it's divine sufferer Watson who most sticks with you.

Like most movie bios, Life And Death can't help but raise questions about just how true it all is, though to their credit, both writers and director encourage this by throwing their own filmmaking artifice in the viewer's face. In one moment, for instance, a post-Strangelove Sellers has a dream patterned after the ending of 2001, with the comedian surrounded by visions of all the characters he’s played. In another, what we first take to be a conversation in a moving car turns out to be a movie car with rear screen projection.

For me, Life And Death best works the closer we get to the actor and the movies he made. We learn, for instance, that he was not Blake Edwards' first choice to play that most-enduring character, Inspector Clouseau, and that he was offered this star-making role only after Peter Ustinov turned it down. At first reacting to the offer as if being given "sloppy seconds," Sellers sniffs that the title Pink Panther "sounds like a bloody strip club!" On the set of the big-budget disaster, Casino Royale, the actor initially refuses to play any of his "characters," instead portraying one of the movie's multiple James Bonds straight. When this inevitably fails, he retreats to Clouseau-ian pratfalls.

Unfortunately, the movie most hedges its bets when it comes to actually detailing Sellers' comic craft. Though it's clear from so much of the unfunny material surrounding his scenes in ensemble flicks like the first Pink Panther or Royale that the comedian's gift for improv lifted many a movie, the degree to which this was true is never clearly examined. (Why no reference to Blake Edwards' The Party, a comedy that was supposed to be primarily improvised? Is it because the movie isn't very good?) Even if it is true that the key to Sellers' ability to inhabit so many great comic characters resided in his barrenness as an actual human being, that doesn't really get to the core of his success as a movie comedian. If only Hopkins' bio flick had focused just a little bit more on this most enduring part of the Life of Peter Sellers. . .
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Monday, December 06, 2004
      ( 12/06/2004 10:31:00 AM ) Bill S.  

BETTER WATCH OUT – A Sign O' The Times: something my darling wife Becky does at this time of year is dress up as an old-fashioned Kris Kringle and make appearances at several not-for-profit organizations' holiday events. She's been doing it for thirteen years now, for organizations like the Arthritis Foundation's "Jingle Bell Run." Her Kringle, as the photo to yer left should show, isn't the traditional red-suit Santa, but a gentle white robed figure with staff and sash. Perhaps the white costume is less threatening, but she’s rarely had to deal with little kids bursting into bawls of terror whenever they were carted up to Kringle by their parents, though occasionally one of 'em will be unsure as to who this decidedly non-traditional figure is supposed to be. This year, for example, she had a five-year-old ask, in all sincerity, "Are you Osama Bin Laden?" Makes you wonder what kind of holiday stories that kid is hearing from his parents. . .
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Sunday, December 05, 2004
      ( 12/05/2004 08:09:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"I FEEL IT IN MY FINGERS/I FEEL IT IN MY TOES" – Watched an airing of Richard Curtis' Love, Actually last night: an Altmanesque roundelay of loosely intertwining romantic comedies that at its best provided some solid laughs (Bill Nighy's dissolute rocker trying to squeeze a hit out of a lame holiday reworking of the same Troggs song Curtis recalled in Four Weddings And A Funderal; novelist Colin Firth's halting romance with a Portuguese maid who doesn’t speak English) and at its weakest came across like a series of sequences out of Love, American Style (a subplot involving one English lad's trek to America in search of hot babes to bed was too overdone to be funny), only with a more prestigious cast. Curtis' plot involving British prime minister Hugh Grant ("Love And The Prime Minister"!) contained an intriguing political subtext that caught me by surprise, though: visited by the horndog American president (Billy Bob Thornton), Grant's politico is driven to draw a line in the sand of political relations when he happens upon the president snatching a kiss from his comely young assistant. The details may've been dubious, but imbedded within this silly little subplot were some pretty blunt points about presentday Anglo/American political dynamics. Not something you expect to find in a lightweight holiday soufflé like this.
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Friday, December 03, 2004
      ( 12/03/2004 02:09:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"WHAT FAMILY DOESN'T HAVE ITS LITTLE . . . ECCENTRICITIES?" – Finished re-reading Amazing Spider-Man #514 last night to see if I could come to any personal conclusions about J.M. Straczynski's controversial Gwen Stacy/Norman Osborn storyline. As a story arc, "Sins Past" suffers from a familiar fault in many of JMS' lesser efforts – loads of heavy emotional build-up to a pallid pay-off – but I wasn't initially too put off by the basic plot. The sudden appearance of a hitherto unknown pregnancy is a soap opera stable, and if the timing issues around Gwen's giving birth to twin progeny are wonky, well, longtime soap addicts know that this is a part of soap life, too (as with the child who leaves a show only to return six months later as a young adult.)

Still, I can see where fans are coming from when they react to the news of sexual coupling between the once-pristine Gwen Stacy and the skuzzy maniac in the green goblin suit. Straczynski's "adult" plotline isn't just a violation of character; it's a violation of the storytelling premises and format under which these characters were first crafted. Though she's been memorialized for years in all manner of Spider-Man stories, the fact remains that Gwen Stacy was created and lived her comic book life in a time when Marvel's superhero comics were aimed at a wider aged-ranged readership than the current plotline allows. Reading that these figures from the brightly colored Lee & Ditko/Romita Sr. comics once engaged in a sordid sexual coupling is a bit like learning Santa Claus has a thing for young elves: it might make a rollicking episode of South Park, but would you wanna hear a stanza about it in a public holiday reading of "The Night Before Christmas"?

Face it, for better or worse, Spider-Man is, at heart, an All Ages character. Sure, there's a dab of darkness in his origin, but even fairy tales have their share of death and abandonment. There is only so far that you can stretch a character like this into "mature" themes without breaking 'em, and with "Sins Past," I suspect that JMS hit that breaking point the moment he gave us a full-page of Gwen & Norman doin' the deed. Yeah, I know that the sequence was the product of a distraught Peter Parker's imagination, but that it existed for any reason in the character's long-running flagship title says volumes about the House of Idea's willful disregard for a significant segment of its former audience.

Perhaps if Marvel had presented the story in a format other than the usual floppy comics that've been the webspinner's home all these years, it might've been different. DC has, for years now, gotten away with all kinds of transgressive treatments of its bread-&-butter superheroes via canny use of their pricier "prestige" books. But aside from its "Explicit Content" MAX titles, Marvel has shown no real interest in explicitly delineating the age-range of its various comic lines (what does it say that Brian Bendis' aptly foul-mouthed Powers doesn't even contain a vague "PSR" anywhere on its front cover?) As Dorian Wright has rightly noted (and was quoted by The Comics Journal) in his blog, this unwillingness to differentiate just who each book is aimed at does nothing to encourage new purchasers – and, in fact, may actively discourage skittish parents or dubious neophytes.

Maybe this is a lot to heap on what, in retrospect, will probably be seen as a weak entry in a comic book series that has seen its share of creative missteps over the years. But I've still gotta wonder about the editorial acumen of a company that's willing to show one of its best-known characters imagining sex between his late girlfriend and a slimy middle-aged nemesis. Did someone take the "adult" from the old Amazing Adult Fantasy literally?

UPDATE: Jim Henley likes the most recent Amazing Spider-Man plotline more than me – and catches some decent moments between Peter and Mary Jane Parker in Straczynski's script (one of the strengths of JMS' run has been the way he’s enlivened the series' primary supporting cast). Jim then wonders if my comments about the nature of the Spider-Man character put me in the same league as John Byrne, who has definitely pronounced that an "All-Ages" book should never ever ever become an "Adult" book – world without end amen. Lord help me if I've come across as doctrinaire as John Byrne.

I should note that, by and large, I've enjoyed JMS' run on AS-M. It's had its silly moments, sure, (Hey, look! There's Doc Doom striding through the airport!) and its failures (recently rereading the Big Talk issue between Peter Parker and Aunt May in Best of Spider-Man Volume 2, I found it much less successful than I'd remembered it). But it's also had some grand stuff, too. I'm especially fond of the dark mysticism plotlines, which have utilized Lee & Ditko's Doctor Strange multiverse as the jumping off point for some wonderful flights of visual imagination and some hefty emotional pay-off, too. So I'm not ready to "fire" JMS on the title (as Scott Tipton has). But I still have to wonder if the guy wouldn't benefit from a more tight-ass editor, one with enough sense to rein in some of his excesses and the savvy to recognize when a storyline is heading beyond the bonds of one of its flagship floppies.

UPDATE II: Johanna Draper Carlson also notes my original posting – and catches the point I was trying to make about "target audiences."
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Thursday, December 02, 2004
      ( 12/02/2004 08:22:00 AM ) Bill S.  

HITCHIN' – Watched Christopher Hitchens on The Daily Show last night: a sure-looked-soused-to-me performance that may've made sense to those who follow the man's every eloquently written word, but came across disjointed to the rest of us. To be fair, interviewer Stewart didn't help by rumbling over several of Hitchens' points, but in the end the pundit did himself in. Whenever I hear someone definitively assert – as Hitch did last night – that "everybody knows" what frauds religio-hucksters like Jimmy Swaggart are, I can only think, "You don't live in Central Illinois, do you?"
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Wednesday, December 01, 2004
      ( 12/01/2004 02:41:00 PM ) Bill S.  

SWEET STUFF – In a season that can be plenty fallow for new pop releases, fanboy guitar popper Matthew Sweet has recently unleashed two discs in the U.S., Living Things and Kimi Ga Suki (which was earlier released in Japan but is only now making it to these shores.) Over at the Rhino website, the gang is celebrating the occasion by posting an interview conducted in 2000 when Sweet's best-of Time Capsule collection was released. Worth the time if you enjoy Sweet's brand of don't-let-me-be-misunderstood power pop. (I do.) Haven't purchased either disc yet, but from all initial reports, the Japanese release is the one to go for first – as it represents the return of several ace sessioners (like guitar wiz Richard Lloyd) who helped make Sweet's best-known disc, Girlfriend, so ear-licious.
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      ( 12/01/2004 01:06:00 PM ) Bill S.  

JUST A SHORT QUERY – Anyone else out there nonspecifically weirded-out by the use of John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" for K-Mart's Martha Stewart holiday teevee ads?
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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