The Carreón Cinema Club: The “It’s A Scandal” Edition

The Carreón Cinema Club: The “It’s A Scandal” Edition

Greetings, mi gente. Nice to see you all again. As we continue our slog through 2021, I found myself inspired by the idea of scandals and controversy. Sex, religion, racism, we seem not to be able to resolve any of our isms. Instead, we keep weaponizing them to devastating effect. At least we still have art to illuminate the darkest corners of our psyche to question and, hopefully, impact how we choose to view each other once we strip away the idea of “The Other.” That’s why I’m recommending this next group of film titles for the Carreón Cinema Club: The “It’s A Scandal” Edition.

Each movie listed here courted a wave of controversy when initially released. Audiences were either titillated, appalled, or couldn’t be bothered. Some of these films were not significant hits in their original years of release. More, they haven’t aged well or find themselves mired in more robust controversy in this era of political awakenings. Context is key when viewing these titles, which is why I think they are worthy of not being dismissed with nary a reason beyond, “It makes me uncomfortable” or “That’s wrong!” The Club is now in session.

SLANDER (1957)

Directed by Roy Rowland

Written by Jerome Weidman

Starring: Van Johnson, Ann Blyth

Streaming: TCM (until July 28)

DVD: Amazon

If you think TMZ is a media scourge, your delicate sensibilities couldn’t survive the likes of Confidential Magazine. Considered a “pioneer in scandal, gossip, and exposé journalism,” as labeled by Wikipedia, Confidential made its yellow-hued debut in 1952. At its most popular, the magazine earned a circulation of five million copies per issue, surpassing Reader’s Digest, the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, and other leading, respectable publications of the decade. Scandals would eventually topple this dreadful rag, but its audience’s voracious appetite for its “stories” about Hollywood’s leading players at their weakest and most vulnerable, true or not, were devoured with bloodlust.

You’ll only need to read between the lines when watching Slander, which chronicles the life of a kids’ TV Show star Scott Martin, portrayed by Van Johnson. When the fictional periodical “The Real Truth” wreaks awful havoc on his life after refusing to corroborate an incendiary story on a popular actress, the collateral damage is swift. Outed for being a felon at the age of 19, the resulting judgment on Martin by the public breaks up his marriage and torpedoes his career. Here’s a clip featuring the great Ann Blyth as Martin’s beleaguered wife Connie and Steve Cochran as “The Real Truth’s” self-righteous and arrogant editor H.R. Manley.

Subtlety is not director-for-hire Roy Rowland’s strongest suit, with the melodrama and rather cliched dialogue marooning most of the cast, save for Cochran, who excels as the film’s villain. Slander rarely rises above its TV movie treatment, but it makes its point like a sledgehammer when Martin’s young son is struck and killed by a passing car after being bullied by his classmates about his dad’s criminal past.

Slander’s bravado finish with Johnson’s “on the nose” plea to a voracious public to stop consuming “The Real Truth” seems too good to be true, and it is. Imagine anyone saying on Jimmy Kimmel or CNN to the public, “Now that they’ve seen the extent of its power to destroy the innocent and not-so-innocent, stop your intake of gossip and reality garbage.” People would switch it off or swipe it away.

Although the outcome for editor Manley is too fantastic to spoil, it’s almost worth the entire movie. Almost. As for how Slander fared in its day. Well, audiences seemed to have preferred the pages of Confidential, with Slander proving to be a box office bomb for MGM. Johnson himself would be at the center of a scandal when a tell-all book written by his son revealed he’d left his wife for another man. Only in Hollywood, kids, only in Hollywood.

CRUISING (1980)

Directed and written by William Friedkin

Starring: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen

Rent: Amazon Prime, Apple TV+

The scorched earth of the 1970s left plenty of burning embers to ignite the start of the 1980s. With gender and sexual equality, rising conservatism, and extreme violence impacting mainstream entertainment, it is no coincidence that two erotic thrillers would reach cinemas with a resounding wail of controversy upon release in 1980. And both dealt with the LGBTQ+ communities, an evolving and powerful voice determined to right the wrongs perpetrated in society.

While it possesses considerable artistic and thematic strengths, Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill earned hackles for its depiction of cross-dressing. His turning a trans character into a vicious slasher movie trope offered little context or catharsis, only lurid violence. William Friedkin’s Cruising delivered that film year was something akin to a cultural firebomb, even before the production wrapped principal photography.

Within the confines of its standard-issue “serial killer on the loose in the big city” plot is an unflinching look at New York’s gay subcultures. Without question, the film is most urgent at night, where Al Pacino, as an undercover cop, roams the Leather/BDSM bars in the Meatpacking district in search of a murderer.

Thanks to Friedkin’s direction and Pacino’s controlled performance, Cruising rises above its cliched plot of crooked cops and an overburdened detective force bullied into solving the crimes before they ignite a political firestorm, just like in real life. The neighborhood where Cruising filmed did not take kindly to the project, with locals and activist groups disrupting production. Once finished, due to its candid depiction of gay sexuality, the MPAA demanded 40-minutes of cuts to reverse its original X-rating. The controversies endure with film historians and gay leaders lambasting Cruising’s linking violence with illicit sexuality, a gross judgment on queer life.

Seeking to counter the protests, Friedkin offered the following disclaimer at the film’s opening, “This film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world. It is set in one small segment of that world, which is not meant to be representative of the whole.”

It did little to mollify the objections to the film, which remain justified. The equation of gay sex with isolation, brutality, and murder permeates the movie because it does little to understand any of the motivations involved with the crimes. Few positive images materialize, and even those meet destruction by the film’s end. More, Pacino’s character seems to establish a connection with his gay self, but it is merely hinted at and not explored further.

We can argue the artistic merits of Cruising, but you cannot deny that the cameras did not shy away from the black and blue aesthetic of leather and BDSM culture. The result is a fearless time capsule of a culture embraced by many practitioners of this form of sexual expression. The film may focus on a youthful Pacino and the ensemble cast. Still, the background is where subversion exists, depicting queer culture and sexuality, breathtakingly and unexpectedly.

So why champion the film at all?

It’s a film history lesson that retains its power to illuminate and inspire a more explicit, honest discussion on how not to relegate sex and sexuality into something negative. Again, how else can we begin to improve the future without looking at the past? Cancel culture vultures need not apply.

SONG OF THE SOUTH (1946)

Directed by Harve Foster, Wilfred Jackson

Screenplay by Dalton Raymond, Maurice Rapf, and Morton Grant

Starring: Luana Patten, Bobby Driscoll, Ruth Warrick, James Baskett, and Hattie McDaniel

Unavailable

Finally, let’s talk about the nadir of Disney’s sometimes color-blind and tone-deaf oeuvre, perhaps the one film that may never see the light again by an audience outside academia. Based on the equally controversial Uncle Remus stories compiled by Joel Chandler Harris, you can see what inspired Disney to turn these moral fables into a major film. Unfortunately, the Mouse House decided to keep their animated musical in Harris’s chosen dialect for African-Americans featured in his work. The sounds are shocking, even by today’s standards.

Southern author Harris did not escape criticism with the original text, so why did Disney keep the same framing devices without contemplating the consequences? Several writers were part of the project, some recognizing and seeking to remedy the issues with the property, but the inherent problem remains. Despite its tuneful soundtrack and candy-hued visuals, the racial stereotyping depicted in the film is still difficult to accept today. The film industry, seeking a means to appease a justifiably angry NAACP, bestowed an honorary Oscar to actor James Baskett, who played Uncle Remus in the film. While Baskett may have been the first black male actor to win an Academy Award, it is essential to note that he couldn’t attend the 1946 premiere in segregated Atlanta.

If it is so venal, why should Song of the South even be viewed again? Quite frankly, it exemplifies what cancel culture does to our collective past. This lobotomy or erasure of art representing our worst selves does not magically clear our name as a flawed species. We are missing a chance to educate ourselves on how to make things better.  What is missing in today’s “woke” discourse about art in the past is context. To understand where we want to go as a society, we must look back to see where we’ve been first. We need to give these examples their due and proper context as to WHY they are not images we need to repeat or reimagine.

It is your decision as to what you can accept in terms of the topics raised by the films. Have an open mind and question how these films can still fit in our worlds. Either way, I welcome your opinions. Until the Club meets again, stay safe and healthy, mis amigos.

The Carreón Cinema Club: The “Films and Television Series That Give Us Life”

The Carreón Cinema Club: The “Films and Television Series That Give Us Life”

Welcome back to the Carreón Cinema Club, mi gente!

I’m sure a lot of life has happened to you all since the Club’s last gathering. Perhaps a little too much of 2020 bled into the start of 2021, but it is vital to keep looking at the optimistic side of a pessimistic reality. Sooner or later, we will catch up to our changed lives and turn this cosmic Titanic around. Until then, I thought I’d kick off this year’s edition of the Carreón Cinema Club with “The 3 Films and Series That Give Us Life.”

AUNTIE MAME (1958)

Directed by Morton DaCosta

Written by Betty Comden & Adolph Green

(Adapted from the novel Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis; and the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee)

Starring: Rosalind Russell, Forrest Tucker, Coral Browne, Peggy Cass, and Jan Handzlik

Streaming: TCM (Check listings), Amazon Prime (Rent), Apple TV+ (Rent)

Rosalind Russell was already a comedic force of nature before she scored her most iconic role as everyone’s dream relative in Auntie Mame. During the early 1950s, Russell turned to the Broadway stage when starring film roles became less plentiful. After scoring a whopping success with the musical Wonderful Town in 1953, she hit it big again with the play Auntie Mame. Based on famed eccentric Patrick Dennis’s madcap best seller, it was adapted for the stage by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, becoming a box office smash for two years running. After the play closed, Russell returned to the big screen as Mame Dennis in the film version released in 1958. Directed by Morton DaCosta, Russell’s towering performance again entranced audiences, with the film still a beloved classic.

Watching Auntie Mame is almost a rite of passage for some. Turner Classic Movies often broadcasts the film today, particularly around the holidays. However, it was on the now-rebranded American Movie Classics channel that my family and I first saw the film several decades ago. Russell’s incandescent performance as a wealthy, stylish bohemian is one for the ages. Her transition from a woman of leisure to becoming the mother figure to her orphaned nephew Patrick is a beautiful and hysterical arc to follow. It’s hard not to want to be part of Mame’s riotous crew if it means meeting people like Vera Charles. Who wouldn’t want to hang with the first lady of the American stage, a salty broad who loves a drink as much as her stage entrances, maybe more?

The wonderful thing about Mame Dennis as a character is that she does evolve as much as she influences the people closest to her. Whether it’s her pregnant, possibly unmarried, secretary, the mousy Agnes Gooch, or her exuberant oil baron husband Beauregard Pickett Burnside, especially her little love, Patrick, combined, they redefine the concept of family. The same applies to the ensemble that surrounds Russell is as charged up as she, with Coral Browne, Forrest Tucker, Peggy Cass, and young Jan Handzlik, all giving as good as Russell.

In the end, Mame proves victorious over those who dare mess with her family, culminating in an outrageous “reunion” finale that makes the whole journey worth the ticket. Author Patrick Dennis’s real-life story is worth a film of its own, one that shares many of the same colors as Mame Dennis. The original novel’s success led to a sequel book and a smash hit Broadway musical with Angela Lansbury. Alas, Mame’s fortunes dimmed quite a bit when a misguided Lucille Ball brought the musical version of Mame to the screen, resulting in a box office bomb that damaged her reputation. Yet, word is Mame may rise again in the 21st century thanks to writer Annie Mumolo of “Bridesmaids” fame and the fearless Oscar winner Tilda Swinton as the fabulous Ms. Dennis. We shall see. Otherwise, to quote Mame, “Life’s a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!” In this era of too little happiness and endless complaint, you would do well to take in the meal offered by joining Rosalind Russell as Mame and company.

MARRIED TO THE MOB (1988)

Directed by Jonathan Demme

Starring: Michelle Pfeiffer, Matthew Modine, Dean Stockwell, Mercedes Ruehl, and Alec Baldwin

Written by Barry Strugatz & Mark R. Burns

Streaming: Hulu, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+ (Rent)

It’s hard not to picture Michelle Pfeiffer as forever being an A-list star, yet, believe it or not, her ascension did take a while. After making her leading lady debut in 1982 with the infamous musical sequel Grease 2, she made sure no one would use that cult classic against her thanks to early memorable roles in Scarface and The Witches of Eastwick. 1988 would prove a watershed year for her with the release of the awards season hit Dangerous Liaisons and the mafia comedy Married to the Mob.

What made Married to the Mob significant for Pfeiffer was that the film allowed her to show off a sublime sense of humor as an actor. Director Jonathan Demme made an inspired and bold choice to cast her as beleaguered mafia wife, Angela DeMarco. She nails not just the “fuggedaboutit” accent and wears Colleen Atwood’s divinely OTT costumes with confident style; Pfeiffer brings luminous humanity to a woman who aspires to a better life.

Once hubby “Cucumber” Frank DeMarco is iced, played to the coolest hilt by Alec Baldwin, the widow DeMarco finds the power to leave the mob rule and find a new home for her and her young son. Unfortunately, Alpha Male don, Tony “the Tiger” Russo, portrayed by Oscar nominee Dean Stockwell, can’t think about anyone else but her. Neither can the FBI, led by Matthew Modine, whose investigation into Frank’s murder turns complicated when he pieces together Angela’s true agenda. Yet, hell hath no fury like Tony’s wife, Connie Russo, played by a scene-stealing Mercedes Ruehl. As the one person Tony fears, Connie is not about to let someone take her man.

Pfeiffer staked her claim as a leading actor of her generation the following year in The Fabulous Baker Boys, a star turn that brought her a first Best Actress Oscar nomination. Married to the Mob put her on the path, though, and in honor of the late Jonathan Demme’s recent birthday, it merits a visit as a film that will give you life.

COMO AGUA PARA CHOCOLATE (1992)

Like Water for Chocolate

Directed by Alfonso Arau

Screenplay by Laura Esquivel, adapted from her novel

Starring: Lumi Cavazos, Marco Leonardi, Ada Carrasco, and Regina Torné

Streaming: Hulu, HBOMax, Amazon Prime

Food on film has a long history of making audiences hungry for more. With such classic films as Tom Jones to Tampopo and Babette’s Feast, cuisine’s cinematic power will forever tantalize all of our senses. The arrival of author Laura Esquivel’s romantic fable Como Agua Para Chocolate (or Like Water for Chocolate) added a layer of magical realism and romance to the recipe. Here the food not only dictates the fate of its protagonist, Tita, it also manifests itself in the emotions of those who consume her meticulously prepared dishes.

Released in 1992, director Alfonso Arau realized Esquivel’s book and screenplay as an amber-hued period piece, particularly in the recipes captured on screen. However, the innocent beauty of Lumi Cavazos as Tita is the main reason the movie works so well. Her devotion to the culinary arts pales in comparison to her love for Pedro, her older sister’s husband. Being the youngest daughter, though, she’s trapped by tradition to forever care for her iron-hearted mother, Mamá Elena. Regardless, Tita finds her power by cooking for those she loves, an extension of her heart that affects them all in surprising ways. In the end, love does triumph, but she must endure several tragedies to reach that destination.

A novela aspect does exist in the film thanks to the steely presence of Regina Torné as Mamá Elena. Also, Arau’s visual ambition does overreach a bit in terms of its magical realism. Still, Cavazos pulls the film through in every scene, a relatable heroine for any generation, as illustrated in this scene from the film (presented in its original Spanish).

I think what I love most about Como Agua Para Chocolate is its blend of nostalgia and culture. It remains a seminal film of the 1990s, reigning as one of the most popular international movies of its time. More, it brought Mexico back into the fold of world cinema for a new generation. After years of exporting broad comedies about female truck drivers and narco life, film enthusiasts of Mexican cinema no longer made do with just a steady trickle of what was considered the “art film.” This genial, romantic period piece broke that cycle with great success, giving way to a powerful group of Latino cineastes that continue to influence cinema today.

WANDAVISION (2021)

Created by Jac Schaeffer

Directed by Matt Shakman

Based on Scarlet Witch by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby and Vision by Roy Thomas and John Buscema

Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Teyonah Parris, Randall Park, Kat Dennings, and Kathryn Hahn

Streaming: Disney+

I’ll be honest in saying I watch very little in terms of today’s television series. I’ve spent one too many months re-watching The Golden Girls, Designing Women, and that 80s relic It’s a Living, an admission that will probably prompt an intervention. I don’t read recaps, and I feel the leading streaming platforms only care about a young audience. Then, I saw the teaser for Disney+’s WandaVision, which led me to the first episode, exploding this old geezer’s brain.

Led by the dynamic duo of Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany as Wanda Maximoff and Vision, this glorious extension of Marvel’s Avengers universe is not just for the supers crowd. Oh no, far from it. It does help to have a little knowledge of these characters going in, but it is so well crafted, I honestly don’t think it will matter. The premise is that solid and affecting. Imagine loving someone so much; you find the power to remix the physical world to bring him back from the dead.

Now entering the home stretch on Disney+, what makes these final episodes compelling is discovering the true depth of Wanda’s pain and the power it has unleashed. The loss of her great love, Vision, continues to overwhelm her, something she refers to as a wave that keeps taking her down whenever she finds the strength to stand again. Emotional poetry exists beyond the clever homage to the classic situation comedy tropes that frame most of WandaVision. Each lushly produced episode looks and feels like a motion picture, action-packed and large in scale. The devil is in the details, with a nostalgic aesthetic expertly woven in and out of our present time with breathless pacing that does not overshadow its emotional impact.

Thanks to a winning ensemble, especially the comic brilliance of Kathryn Hahn, the show within a show format feels ordinarily human and extraordinary at the same time. With one episode left ahead, how WandaVision decides to conclude this mesmerizing season is anyone’s guess. For those new to the party, the chance to see it all unfold in a marathon sitting is on par with being in a move theater again. Rest assured, this isn’t hyperbole from a fanboy. You’re in for one of the year’s most engaging series on television today.

It is hard to believe we’re heading into the first anniversary of our collective pandemic lives. To be honest, it feels great to share a little something with the Club again. I look forward to sharing more Club entries as the year continues. By the way, I’ve moved on from The Golden Girls to enjoy watching all seven seasons of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I’m on season 4, and I have to say, it is way better than taking Lexapro. Let’s turn the world with a smile! Hasta pronto, mi gente.