Monday, January 11, 2016

The Danish Girl and Carol

                 “Pretty woman, walkin’ down the street 
                  Pretty woman, the kind I’d like to meet”
                                                                                        Roy Orbison, 1964
                                                  Review by Ken Burke
As with Concussion (Peter Landessman) and The Big Short (Adam McKay) from my previous posting this new exploration of 2 current films also lends itself to a combo review so I’ll weave my comments around each of them, while trying not to lose a focus on either, as we journey onward.
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                                                The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper)
Based on historical events, in 1926 Copenhagen a young married artist couple are living quite nicely until the husband starts feeling urges to present himself as a woman named Lili, even to the point of kissing other men; his wife is confused and angered at first but then becomes very supportive as he feels he must undergo sexual surgery to find the true woman within.
                                                            Carol (Todd Haynes)
In the early 1950s a middle-aged married woman starts flirting with a Manhattan shopgirl (who also has a boyfriend eager for marriage) leading to an attempt to run away together which brings about dramatic complications when the husband demands sole custody of their daughter, a condition the wife’s not prepared to accept leaving both of the women in despair.
What Happens: We’ll begin in 1926 Copenhagen (with events taken from history), where young-married-artists (she with portraits, he with landscapes—especially a view of 6 winter-barren-trees that look more like sculptures against the background sky, images that he slowly completes or repeats; Haynes adds his own impactful visuals, gorgeous landscape and urban shots throughout the film, indicative of the name of one of the production companies, Pretty Pictures) Gerda (Alicia Vikander) and Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne, a likely-Best Actor-Oscar-nominee for another stunningly-transformative-role) are getting by in their version of hip society although, compared to Einar’s acceptance, Gerda’s work isn’t being embraced for showings like she fiercely thinks it should be, characteristic of her assertive nature.  By chance, one day her model can’t make it to their studios to pose so she recruits slim Einar to put on some stockings and a dress to fill in; he begins to quietly find fascination with these garments (proving to be no big shock when good friend Ulla [Amber Heard] bursts in, immediately accepting his appearance, renaming him Lili).  Soon, this fascination with women’s clothes leads to Einar admiring Lily’s nightgown as he helps her remove it for sex, then we find in another scene that he’s wearing it under his clothes as she helps him disrobe (with no qualms about his attire) for another roll in the sheets.  Lili first fully emerges, though, when Einar’s about to reject attendance at an artists’ ball but is encouraged by Gerda to go fully transformed by dress, stockings, heels, makeup, and wig as Lili Elbe, Einar’s “cousin.”  He’s immediately the bell of the ball, attracting the attention of several men, including Henrik (Ben Whishaw) who pursues him enough to get a kiss which Gerda sees, angrily from across the room.

 Slowly she begins to accept the presence of Lili, though, both because she understands that Einar’s always had a fascination with his feminine side (he kissed a boy, a childhood friend) and because Lili makes a successful subject for her, providing a wealth of drawings and paintings that vault her into the realm of trendy artists of her society, so much so that she gets a fabulous opportunity for them to move to Paris where her work will now be handled by a dealer (while there Einar attends a peep-show-theatre where he’s not so much ogling a semi-nude-woman [Sonya Cullingford] as copying her mannerisms, which she accepts as a form of flattery).  Lili’s taking over Einar, though, much to Gerda’s distress (he evens tries painful radiation therapy as a “cure” but with no success), so she calls in art dealer Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts)—the boy long ago kissed by Einar—for help but Lili’s not interested in deferring to Einar, even as Gerda and Hans are getting more interested in each other than she’d prefer, so they all back away from each other.  Eventually, Lili needs more blatant manifestation, which Gerda has come to accept so they travel to Germany to work with Dr. Kurt Warnekros (Sebastian Koch) toward then-revolutionary-sex-reassignment-surgery, a 2-part-process that begins with the removal of the male genitalia (painful but successful), but when Lili eagerly attempts to have a vagina inserted, while she’s still in fragile recovery from the earlier procedure, her body rejects the deeper intrusion, sadly leading to her agonizing-death.  Back in Denmark, Hans takes Gerda to the countryside locale that so fascinated Einar; as they look over the familiar landscape from a hilltop the wind suddenly blows away a scarf that had belonged to Lili.

 We now jump ahead about 30 years to NYC in late 1951 (based on clues I saw; I’ve read late 1952, though) where timid shopgirl/aspiring portrait photographer Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) works at Frankenberg’s department store, has a non-sexual-romance—so far at least, but he’s still hoping— with boyfriend Richard Semco (Jake Lacy), and generally doesn’t seem all that satisfied with her life, although she has hopes that her friend Dannie McElroy (John Magaro), who works at the New Yorks Times, might be able to get her a job there in the photo department 
(he misreads her enthusiasm for that possibility as an interest in him so he kisses her but she’s uncomfortable with that, then quickly leaves his office).  However, a more intriguing encounter comes to Therese at work when Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) wanders into her department, buys a train set for her young daughter, Rindy (Sadie Heim, Kk Heim), then accidently (?) leaves her gloves behind, which allows curious Therese to arrange for a next-day-return, given that she has Carol’s New Jersey address and phone number.  Carol calls Therese to thank her for the gloves’ return, then invites her to lunch as a thank-you-gesture (we also learn that Carol’s in the process of divorcing her husband, Harge [Kyle Chandler], made more difficult by his unwillingness to give up on her, even though he’s still suspicious of her motives given that he knows she once had a lovers' relationship with a woman, Abby Gerhard [Sarah Paulson]).  Next, Therese’s invited out to Carol’s NJ home (Richard’s not happy with that, nor with Therese’s disinterest in his invitation for them to travel to Paris) where Harge barges in to suddenly take Rindy to Florida, causing quite a scene with both women.  Later, Carol contacts Therese to apologize for that miserable evening, comes to visit at her apartment surprising Therese with an expensive Canon camera so that she can pursue her photography more effectively, with the result that Carol and Therese are soon pursuing each other.

 Harge doubles down on the divorce proceedings, threatening Carol with a judgment of a “morality clause” against her that would give him full custody of Rindy, so Carol decides to head west for a break; Therese accepts her invitation to come along, which completely ends her romance (such as it was) with Richard.  In a Waterloo, Iowa motel room on New Year’s Eve Carol and Therese finally get sexual but find out the next day that whom they thought to be a friendly-traveling-salesman, Tommy Tucker (Cory Michael Smith), is actually a private eye who tape-recorded their tryst for Harge so Carol slips off, returning home after arranging for Abby to show up and get Therese back as well but with no connection now between them as Carol tries to work with Harge to get a reasonable settlement, which she finally does (he has full custody, she's allowed regular visits); however, admitting to herself—and Harge—that she’s fully lesbian (not even bisexual, so her marriage was likely an attempt at self-determined-“therapy” rather than a true attraction to this guy), she gets a job and an apartment in Manhattan, makes an overture to Therese (who’s now working at the … Times in the photo area but in a menial position where the older white men don’t give her much attention).  They meet for tea but are interrupted by Therese’s old co-worker, Jack Taft (Trent Roland), who whisks her off to a party (this scene also begins the film, with all the rest up to this point in flashback); she hangs around for awhile but knows that she’s still connected to Carol, so she goes to where her future lover’s having dinner, their eyes charmingly meet, we guess the rest as the screen goes to fade-out, a most-upbeat-ending for a 1950s lesbian narrative.

So What? Each of these films packs in a lot of content that speaks accurately to its presented timeframe, allowing us to somewhat understand—if not condone—earlier, harsher worldviews with their restrictive attitudes toward those who would dare to defy social norms of their age (and, sadly, still happening all too often in ours), shown by women rejecting clinging men in Carol, or abandoning those norms completely, as with a man finding that his true identity is being a woman in The Danish Girl so that he-now-she is capable of completely altering a fundamental gender alliance, not to become homosexual or even transgendered but instead fully transsexual. This earlier act of assumed-convention-defiance even comes at a time when reassignment surgery was in its infancy but being pursued not only by individuals who needed to find their true selves but also by medical pioneers who recognized that such complex procedures were needed in the pursuit of total mental/physical health for unique patients whose situations didn’t fit what nature or society had previously dictated.  There’s a lot more to know about the socio-historical period that each of these stories presents than a standard-running-time-film can present, so, starting with The Danish Girl, if you’d like to explore considerably more about Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe here’s an article that could prove very useful (it also contains some wonderfully-illustrative-imagery such as this 1928 watercolor portrait of the actual Lili by the actual Gerda that you can see in the photo just above).
  With Carol and Therese being fictional characters I can’t give you any further background on them—that is, beyond encouraging you to read Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, The Price of Salt (earlier editions may show the author's name as her pseudonym, Claire Morgan, but what that original title means, I have no idea at this time—for that matter, though, The Danish Girl’s also based on a novel, of the same name as the film, by David Ebershoff [2000], itself inspired by the non-fiction-account of Wegener/Elbe by Niels Hoyer, Man Into Woman: The First Sex Change [1933]), from which this film is adapted (as usual, I haven’t read it, but a summary shows that the screenplay of The Danish Girl follows the novel's plot points very closely with surely much more background detail and intimate understanding of these women, in that a 288-page-book [in the paperback edition] would yield about a 5-hour-script if transferred literally into cinematic format), so I’m sure you’d learn a lot more than director Haynes has had a chance to reveal to us on screen; however you could go here for an article that gives extensive background on the making of this film (and its use of Cincinnati to stand in for early-1950s Manhattan, as well as being shot in measly Super 16mm to give the images a dated, grainy look), with a bit of insight on why it may be hard for contemporary audiences (now living in a society where the U.S. Supreme Court has finally declared homosexual marriage to be legal—belatedly joining other countries who’d previously done so—even though individual states and communities are still trying to deny implementation) to truly understand the painful stigma facing these women in the cocky, confident, yet totally-uptight ‘50s.

 While I’m not ready to post a Top 10 list for 2015 films yet because there are still a few more of them drawing serious attention that I’ve yet to see (including The Revenant [Alejandro González Iñárritu], 45 Years [Andrew Haigh], The Hateful Eight [Quentin Tarantino], Anomalisa [Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson], and the leading foreign-language-feature at this point, Son of Saul [László Nemes]), I can definitely say that The Danish Girl and Carol will both be strong contenders for me (along with positive possibilities for both of them to include some of my favorites in specific areas such as acting, directing, screenwriting, etc.; I also can say that Carol's already been on an enormous number of Top 10 critics’ lists, a well-deserved accolade, but except for Oscar-buzz for Redmayne The Danish Girl hasn’t been so well-received, a status I can’t explain except that I’ve seen it’s been criticized for omitting too much of the actual historical record, a failing that often befalls “based on a true story” films) for that list because both are compelling stories of fascinating characters presented in such a manner as to inspire emotional investment in their stories, critical praise for their conception and execution, and respect for the dignity and sensitivity that each one uses to treat the delicate subjects of love and identity among members of society that have for so long been considered “immoral,” “deviant,” “disgusting” in the minds of staunch-supporters of long-held-understandings of men and women as inherently-heterosexual, defined at birth by their biological “nomenclature.”

The Danish Girl gives us historical context of a person brave enough (and pained enough by existing inner turmoil) to risk previously-untested-sexual-reassignment-surgery in order for Lili to emerge as fully-female rather than her being perceived by both men and women of her time as Einar presenting himself as a cross-dressing-female-personality (a valid choice for some others but not for her), as she might have been wrongfully judged by those who couldn’t begin to understand how biology isn’t always destiny.  Similarly, while the protagonists of Carol are fictional they clearly represent the reality of lesbians from time immemorial, shunned and shamed by social taboos but willing, where circumstances and determined-perseverance allowed, to share such “forbidden love” in clandestine situations, despite the agonizing-weight of cultural norms.  Neither film attempts to present its main characters as being more noble than the rest of us (Einar is conflicted about losing Gerda as a spouse, whereas Lili wants to keep pushing further into a new frontier of transplanted female anatomy but isn’t capable of withstanding these experimental procedures; Gerda remains a strong ally for Lili but you can always tell that the loss of her husband is terribly hard on her; Carol has plenty of swagger in that she’s stable enough to withstand being cut off from her husband’s support but is willing to harshly abandon Therese in order to stay connected to her daughter; Therese is overwhelmed by all that’s happening to her until her final decision to defy conventionality by responding to Lili’s rekindled-overture), although we do admire their ultimate decisions to be true to themselves despite the difficulties that are sure to be life-investments once they abandon the strictures their times and cultures attempt to impose on them.

Bottom Line Final Comments: Certainly, I’m not going to claim to be able to fully understand what it’s like to be lovingly (let alone sexually) attracted to a member of the same sex as me (although serious artistic explorations of this reality in literature, drama, and film certainly help offer useful insights) so I’m further inadequate to be able to truly empathize with someone who feels themselves with a need to be genuinely transgendered (although I care not about anyone’s sexual orientation nor gender identity, all of which is a personal reality for each of us no matter what the family, the law, the state, or the church has to say about it).  For me, the characters’ needs and passions in both The Danish Girl and Carol are engaging, fully humanizing, and uplifting in terms of demonstrating that the mind knows what it sincerely manifests, no matter what body may be carrying it, just as the heart knows what (really, who) it wants no matter what the previous gender expectations are that any given individual has experienced.  However, for someone who may be homosexual (or bisexual, in the possible case of the Carol protagonists, although I doubt that Carol is as much bi as she is a person who tried to conform to social norms with a marriage to a man despite never really feeling that she was properly invested in that relationship even as Therese may have always been lesbian without knowing it until the right person gave her reason to question her supposed heterosexuality) or transgender, the presentation of these characters in these films must be an extremely important viewing experience in terms of giving substance to what often has remained hidden or ridiculed in popular culture, so when none of the actors are of the gender identity that they’re portraying it becomes doubly important that their interpretations of their roles somehow find a way to ring true for those who live these non-cisgender (what we heteros likely call “traditional,” as this other term might not be known outside of transgender communities) lifestyles (where it gets tense for all concerned is when we heteros insist on identifying our identities as the only form of “normal,” as if anything else is “deviant,” the source of eons of prejudice, criminalization, and hostility toward anyone born differently from a standard-hetero-orientation, a failing we as a society are finally beginning to address legally if more slowly in societal acceptance).

 Generally, the reviews I’ve seen about the portrayals by Redmayne, Blanchett, and Mara have been quite enormously-complimentary, although here’s a brief (6:44) talk by self-identified trans person Maya about why she feels that true trans-actors are needed in films such as The Danish Girl because only they can fully understand what such characters are going through in the lives depicted on screen.  She presents her comments as being only from her own perspective, not as a spokeswoman for the entire trans community, but her concerns are what led me to my choice of a Musical Metaphor for these films, “You Are So Beautiful” (written by Billy Preston and Bruce Fisher—with uncredited-contributions from the late Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys—first recorded on Preston’s 1974 album The Kids & Me), covered by many artists over the years but very moving for me in the version by Joe Cocker (on his 1974 album I Can Stand a Little Rain) because it’s a sincere, emotionally-compelling-song no matter who sings it, no matter whom it’s being sung to, but given that sweaty Joe (as in this rendition at com/watch?v=wlDmslyGmGI, from some German TV concert in the 1990s) is no illustration of the “traditionally” suave, handsome man (hetero or elsewise) I think that his appearance and delivery of this song speak well to a confession of unrestricted love from one person to another, no matter who either of them are, no matter what they’re “expected” to be by displaced-former-lovers/spouses who’ve yet to be able to understand how their ex is no longer in their orbit (as with the men in Carol), unlike Gerda who still cares deeply for Lili, even just as dear companions rather than their previous connection as sexual mates—in fact, it was a scene in The Danish Girl where Einar, dressed as Lili, asks Gerda “Am I pretty enough?” to which she replies “You are so beautiful” that finally brought this song to my consciousness (an exchange mirrored in Carol where Therese tells Carol “You look wonderful,” as seen in this brief clip [although the original film's not this green]).

 However, in searching around for the best example of Joe singing this tender ballad I came upon a related alternative song called “You’re So Beautiful” at http:// You%27re_So_Beautiful_ (White_Party_Version)—a different song with a different tempo (despite the almost-identical-title) but the same sentiment—used last spring in the 1st season of FOX TV’s Empire series where the gay character of Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollet) defies his overbearing father by coming out publically at a huge event.  Scroll down through this site to see the lyrics and play different video renditions of the song if you like, with the first one you come to (after the big ad insert), the White Party Version (from the February 25, 2015 airing), being the shocker (at least for Dad Lucious Lyon [Terrence Howard] because he was trying to keep his son’s sexual orientation private so as to not create controversy for the family recording company, plus I think that same episode also contained what they call the 90s Version of the song with more-expected-heterosexual-implications in the lyrics that Lucious assumed he’d hear at the public event).  You can also access a Full Cast Version of the song from a later Empire episode (“Unto the Breach,” aired March 4, 2015), but, after you reach that page and all of the background clutter has loaded, click on the image from the show at the upper right of the site (not the one farther down that follows the lyrics and the big ad; for some reason that one implies the clip from the show but just gives you audio with no images) to see the Lyon family singing "... Beautiful" from the March broadcast (when a larger version of that upper image comes up click the arrow to the right of it for the video to play); you might also like to see 
a merge of the 2 main versions of the song (White Party location and staging, Full Cast “hetero” lyrics) for comparison to the broadcast versions—available as well on the Empire: Original Soundtrack from Season 1 (Deluxe Edition, 2015) or all 4 takes of the tune on the huge Empire: The Complete Season 1 album (2015).  (I may not have my facts totally right here as I’m piecing this together from various sources because my wife, Nina, is the dedicated Empire fan, as she watches it while I’m doing my weekly Two Guys posting, but I didn’t want to ask her for clarification before she reads this because the Empire song’s [any of the 3 hetero-versions; I don’t have a Jamal-type-revelation-announcement to spring on anybody] also a surprise Musical Metaphor to her from me as she continues to wait for a needed hip-replacement-operation—although I admit that any of Jamal’s lyrics are “hip”per than old-school-flower-child-me, but I think she’ll get the idea anyway.)

 Given the 2 films I’m attaching the Cocker Metaphor to, it just seemed reasonable to me to get any version of Jamal’s “… Beautiful” song in here too as a little gender-balance for the males (gay or not) after the strong-female-focus of the cinematic material under discussion for this posting.  However, another additional option would be to use what I started this review with, Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” (a huge hit in 1964, available on various Orbison compilation-albums including the 1989 A Black & White Night Live soundtrack of a 1988 TV special [performed back on September 30,1987], with this recording providing Roy with a posthumous Grammy Award in 1991 for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance), which gets us directly back to how the lead females (including Lili) are seeing each other in The Danish Girl and Carol (verifying that Roy’s lyrics, as written, don’t have to be interpreted as hetero-centric just because he’s a male singing them; I can easily imagine k.d. lang [lesbian and rightfully-proud of it] doing a fantastic version of this song, if for no other reason that she and Roy did a duet of his “Crying” [original hit, 1961] which won them a 1989 Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals), so let’s give it a spin from the Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night cablecast, shall we? 

 That’s all for this time, but I’ll be back soon with more of my ongoing-attempts to catch up with at least some of the year-end-releases, even though the Golden Globe awards have already been given (I was OK with the motion picture winners—although Spotlight [Tom McCarthy; review in our November 19, 2015 posting] is still my favorite and I’ve yet to figure out what justifies The Martian [Ridley Scott—far right in this photo; review in our October 8, 2015 posting] in their Musical or Comedy category, unless the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s just determined to find some way to award this film; I don’t see enough of the TV nominees to care much one way or the other) and the Oscar nominations will be announced (January 14, 2016) before I’ve finally seen enough to determine my own preferences for 2015 cinema, construct my better-late-than-never-Top 10 list, then make some Oscar predictions before that ceremony rolls around (February 28, 2016).  Stay tuned for more developments (including my continuing popularity in Russia where the latest Google tally [of whatever time period they're measuring] shows my fans there at #1 of recent pageviews with 2,286 vs. #2 U.S. with 814—maybe I should start reviewing From Russia with Love [Terence Young, 1963] every couple of weeks).
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AND … at least until the Oscars for 2015’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 28, 2016 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2015 films made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists and which ones have been nominated for and/or received various awards.  You may find the diversity among the various critics and the various awards competitions hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competition-award-winners (which usually pales in comparison to the even-more-noticeable-gap between box-office-success that you might want to monitor here, and the actual award-winners)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices are as valid as any of these others, especially if you can offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).
To save you a little scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe winners for films and TV from 2015.

Here’s more information about The Danish Girl: (3:33 clip in which actor Eddie Redmayne says his approach “was to start with the history” of Lili and Gerda, director Tom Hooper describes his intentions with the film) plus (a very short [1:53] exploration of some facts about Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener/Lili Elbe, followed by a slightly longer [5:14] look at the lives of Lili and Gerda at in an attempt by the videomaker to raise money for LGBT causes [which you're welcome to consider but Two Guys get nothing from it, except moral satisfaction, if you do])

Here’s more information about Carol: (4:57 featurette about the film, with commentary from director Todd Haynes, actor Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulson, and lots of short clips)

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

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