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.
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
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.
“I’m interested in the theater because I’m interested in communication with audiences.”
Otherwise, I would be in concert music. I’d be in another kind of profession. I love the theater as much as music, and the whole idea of getting across to an audience and making them laugh, making them cry — just making them feel — is paramount to me.
The process of putting something down on paper is very important in keeping the stuff alive in your head. You can improvise and think, ‘Wait, that A-flat doesn’t sound right,’ and you change things as you go along, even though you’re just sketching.
“I believe that telling our stories, first to ourselves and then to one another and the world, is a revolutionary act.”
It is an act that can be met with hostility, exclusion, and violence. It can also lead to love, understanding, transcendence, and community. I hope that my being real with you will help empower you to step into who you are and encourage you to share yourself with those around you.”
The Gay Single Man of Substance or GSMS sat in the Honda Customer Service lounge staring at the crush of humanity packed into a small space. It was another toasty Saturday in the San Gabriel Valley. It took visits to three different Honda dealerships before he found the one that could handle an oil change.
“I think everyone got the message to get lubed today,” he said to himself with a smirk. “At least their music is amazing!”
It was a classic 80’s Top 40 pop playlist. Madonna. Billy Ocean. Bangles. Phil Collins. Belinda Carlisle. Deep Laura Branigan and Carly Simon cuts. Forgotten Mr. Mister and Billy Vera & the Beaters tracks. Steve Winwood!
“Hello, Yacht Rock,” he laughed.
For the duration of his estancia at the Honda of El Monte, he was a bit loathe to admit that most of these hits were lifted straight from the soundtrack of a youngish life oh-so-long ago. It was Winwood’s “Higher Love” that made him take pause.
GSMS didn’t date much as a teen. If anything, he was already the “gay best friend” before he even knew he was a beacon to fag hags the world over, a term that was still a few years away from his vernacular. (Side note, he always felt Rupert Everett eventually fucked it up for all gay men who never seemed to escape from the dreaded “Friend Zone.”)
The Friend Zone. That’s where GSMS set up residence at a very long age. Save for a few detours with the Crazy Comanche and the Ex; he always found his way “home.” Hell, he was entrenched, way beyond settled.
“What the hell do you tell guys on your dates,” asked a Co-Worker.
“I never mention the past,” GSMS answered. “I never tell them my brother lives with me, either. I don’t want to scare them off.”
GSMS used to bemoan it was his wearing the Mask of Desperation on his face that would send suitors running for the hills. It was evident that he wanted to be in a couple too much. Before he could get too caught up in that downward spiral, the Expose dance classic “Point of No Return” began to spin over the Honda PA.
“Oh, to dance at a house party like that again!” he thought. As he rubbed his peach fuzzed scalp, reminding him of years of mousse abuse, Sebastian Shpritz Forte (never AquaNet), and relaxers robbed him of his “Welcome Back, Kotter” coiffure.
The only dancing he’d engaged in of late was sidestepping reality. It was easier to say he was being cock-blocked by his brother. Worse, he became accustomed to using his late father being afflicted by Alzheimer’s as a reason to quit working on his self-esteem and focus. Truth? He’d crafted a litany of excuses as to why a relationship, much less a better sense of self, was out of his reach.
It was a small collective of medications. No, it was a lack of personal time away from a demanding job. The GSMS was adept at adding to the list, after all, he’d been writing it since he was 15. The painful reality stemmed from his origin story, a trifecta of “overs,” eating, spending, stimulation by superficial distractions. They all laid the foundation to a fortress designed to protect himself from the outside world. The GSMS was a master of self-sabotage now.
“Aw shit,” he grimaced. “I’m in that downward spiral mode. No one gives a shit about this self-pitying blah blah.”
He was hitting the Delete key when his attention turned to a young Asian boy dancing to Fine Young Cannibals’ “Good Thing.” It was a sight to behold, his cherubic face glowing and smiling as he moved to the retro beat. He had no idea anyone was looking at him, nor did it matter. Even Mom was oblivious to the maximum joy expressed at that moment.
“Look at him go,” The GSMS marveled. “Go on with yourself! Dance it out, baby!”
Maybe the GSMS needed this reminder. It was time to move, and just because his car was ready. As he gathered his things to retrieve his now-lubed vehicle, he reminded himself of the day’s mission statement. What he needed was what Mr. Winwood was crooning about, a little higher love.
It was time to bestow his own slivered heart a little care, too.
The start of a new week was designed for mixed emotions, at least for the GSMS. Sure, the cycle of routine had been restarted, but it was also a chance to be better, to do better at everything.
“Work, love, life,” he’d recanted to so many dates at this juncture. “It is all routine when you get the hallowed ground of 52.”
Most of his dates would merely smile as if they agreed, but most likely they didn’t. If they were keeping a checklist for red flags, such grandiose ruminations would be near the top of their cards. Well, if they even knew what “grandiose” or “ruminations” meant. The GSMS did possess strange tastes when it came to men. He had a physical type, sort of. He was drawn by a non-linear list of attributes. Kind eyes. A nice smile. Thick thighs.
“Man thighs,” he’d say to no one in particular. That was a desire saved for his endless inner monologues on the commute to work.
This particular Monday, however, was different. He’d been re-charged of late, feeling the need to tell stories to his laptop. As drove into work this morning, an old Paula Cole track caught him by surprise. While he’d been inclined these last few days to continue his series on the Gay Single Man of Substance, the changing landscape he was witnessing, street corner to street corner, on the way to his office made him broaden the scope of today’s tale. Perhaps it was residue leftover from being stood up last Friday night by the Hairy Beast. The musky promise of a sweaty, libidinous night had already dissipated into the ether now that the weekend was another memory.
The GSMS had already admonished himself as he arrived at his office to avoid writing another personal tale of being ghosted. No, as he took his place behind his pockmarked desk, he let his mind wander in search of inspiration and a bigger story to tell. He closed his eyes, turning into the sounds outside of his office window, of life in flux. Maybe if he paid close enough attention, he could pick through the noise and hear the other tales of the city. The GSMS took a deep breath and listened…
“He didn’t call.”
“I am going to give her one more day.”
“I thought we had a connection.”
“Did I leave the oven on?”
“Fuck it. I’m out.”
“She’s such a dick!”
“He’s an asshole.”
“Tails Nashville, Heads Seattle”
“I’m so ordinary.”
The sounds from his newly minted playlist had broken through his reverie.
For a split second, his brain short-circuited and a cold dread invaded his mental space for a moment. He had to pivot, but man. That word was his biggest fear, being ordinary. The SGMS worked overtime to craft a public image of sophistication, color, and wit. It was a shaky façade at best. His emotional would runneth over to the point to rival the liquid death and destruction of the Johnstown Flood of 1889.
He stood up for a moment and kept his gaze on the sun heating up the day. As the song continued to play itself out, the GSMS took in the lyrics as the track reached its final verses. He agreed with Paula Cole at this moment. Some people are like “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Towering and majestic, the definition of desirable. They are that high note we all strive to hit but always miss. The rest of have to make do with being like “Frère Jacques,” the song everybody can sing because it is easy AF and requires little effort at all.
Later that night, he relayed the day’s events to SkB over a long, overdue dinner reunion.
“That might be the case,” the SkB countered at the GSMS’ thoughts on being ordinary. “I think what you’re really afraid of is having people see the real you.”
Somewhere in the distance, the GSMS thought he distinctly heard someone hit a high note.
Maybe it was those pink suede skater shoes that pulled him in. Or perhaps it was the horn-rimmed glasses? The combination of scruffy beard and the thick chestnut color hair that reminded him of James MacArthur on the original “Hawaii 5-0” series? Hell yes! And, that burly chest was absolutely a significant draw. But in the end, it really was the pink suede Vans that sealed the deal.
The Gay Man of Substance (GSMS?) was feeling desire again.
The specter of the Ex, who was 15 years his junior, did give him pause. After all, Skater Boy (or SkB?) was about 22 years younger. The divide would be enough to trigger a lot of responses from GMS’ friends, single or otherwise. It surprised him to know that even those who would proudly crow “Love is Love” could have surprisingly myopic opinions, which is why he kept them to himself this time. No reason to hit them with, “He’s not like the other men he’s met over the last year.” Truth be told, the situation was just real enough for him to whisper this tale of longing into the ear of his most trusted confidante, his laptop. He was inspired to write about him, a bad sign indeed.
The arrival of Skater Boy was prescient, though. Their night out of museum roaming and coffee was not just the usual job interview exchange reserved for first meet-and-greet situations. No, they covered topics from the personal, which were honest and unrestrained, to how they viewed being gay today. This era of Basic Masculinity had worn them both down. The uniform of sporting a beard, super-luxe trainers, tattoo sleeves, and distressed Japanese denim may define 2019, but it was still a uniform. That proved more distressing than the artfully placed rips on those snug ball holders posing as trousers. Imagine having this era give off a sense of wistfulness to the days of when sentiments like “Masc for Masc; No Fats or Fems” were the standard. Of course, GSMS had to mention how his brand of “gay” was not in favor anymore. Sweater Queens were a thing of an Armistead Maupin or Paul Rudnick-documented past. That’s how GSM saw himself. For him, the dividing line was once so clear as to what was desirable amongst los gays. He knew where he stood, but surprising how the community has not lost in penchant in making you feel like shit for not fitting in with the right group!
GSMS was off and running now.
“Such mindfuckery preys on so many, even today,” he said to SkB, who nodded.
“Toxic masculinity remains supremely poisonous,” GSMS continued. “Not so long ago, you weren’t visible without a tan line, a gun show, or a rack of abs to mirror the cover of Honcho or Blueboy Magazine.
Maybe SkB understood the references, but he knew GSMS had not reached his peak yet.
“The bear community was once so much more accepting way back when. Beefy and hairy isn’t much of a subset anymore, but it, too, as evolved into a more airbrushed version these days! And what the hell is this gainer trend? Bigger is not better, especially if you have to inject yourself with tire sealant and cement to satisfy your body dysmorphia! What the hell are we doing to ourselves?”
SkB just took it all in. He knew the narrative was going to hit the current alphabet soup of gender nonconformity next.
“With the flood gates of gender fluidity now open wide,” GSM continued, “the deluge has muddied the criteria further. While the homosex community can wield its growing list of labels with fervor, it all feels so superficial and false when projected in the world of social media. It’s even worse on the dating and hookup apps. We may be able to let all of our unique brands of sexuality run free, but it has only exacerbated what we don’t want to court or seduce either. If we don’t look like the men we want to fuck, what’s the everloving point?”
SkB was transfixed by this aria of middle age uncertainty and bias. Yet, he couldn’t leave. Something kept him seated on that metal chair. As the couple’s coffee cooled, the conversation only heated up further. SkB found himself determined to give as good as he was getting. It was beautiful, this connection between people who listened and had no fear to answer back with equal aplomb and truth. It took so little effort for them to exist in this state of “Try.”
Had it been so long since GSM felt the need to make an effort to understand another man? Even more, that it was in a context that wasn’t part of his job description? He made his living asking questions, of getting people to reveal themselves just enough to exhibit a sense of humanity that could be shared with others.
GSMS was terrible at removing that interviewer’s voice in a dating situation. No one ever likes an interrogation in any form. Skater Boy didn’t even flinch. He was curious, too.
“The truth is I made a point to leave a specific life and self in the Midwest behind,” SkB confessed. “I knew what I had to do to become the creature I always meant to be, and it brought me here to Los Angeles.”
GSMS understood and applauded how SkB saw a dark fate and turned on a dime to walk into the light of maturity and self-accountability that is the cornerstone of sobriety.
“I have no intention of turning back,” SkB added. “That’s what fuels my art. I have to keep on creating, to not stand still.”
At that moment, a reflection of the kinetic heart, his signature design, that SkB displayed without fear made itself known; separating him from the pack. To look at the surface, yes, SkB was of this modern generation. Ah, but underneath GSMS saw something magnificently different. He had a soul.
As this odd duo sat at a local cafe, sharing a pastry and coffee-fueled truths, the night continued to offer more revelations and confessions. It ultimately held the promise of a friendship, which sometimes is all that can manifest itself in such brief-ish encounters. The world was oblivious to their chatter, which was just as well. It made them both appreciate the random nature of such meet and greets, of real-life occurring just under someone’s nose. Most of the patrons at the cafe were stuck in polite silences or milling about on the sidewalk. It felt as if all of them were waiting for anything to happen.
In the weeks since that first encounter, GSMS made a point to maintain a constant dialogue with SkB. The polite soul that he is, the Gay Single Man of Substance was contented by the manner in which it was being reciprocated. GSMS was well aware of SkB being a visible man, balancing a life of art, travel, commissions, networking, and more creativity.
“The man has his fans, too,” he thought to himself “Boy, does he have fans; that’s okay.”
All artists need a muse, one that can drive you towards surrendering to inspiration. As the modernist Henri Matisse said, “Creativity takes courage.” True. Then again, it doesn’t hurt to include a pair of pink suede skater shoes, either.
As GSMS completed his latest draft of a story, he couldn’t help my smile. The process felt as natural as ever, writing his feelings down. Looking out the window towards a new weekend that approached, the obvious struck him. No matter the intent, whether crafting a new piece of art, making a new friend or just letting your heartbeat loud enough to be heard by someone you like, all you really have to do is to just try.