CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND
While this movie was sitting next-up in my queue, I watched a quiz show where one of the questions asked what, in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the first and second kinds of encounters are supposed to be, so thanks as ever to British panel shows for always coming through for me. Particularly as this turns out to not ever be defined in the movie itself, just one of of many things about this Steven Spielberg feature I found surprisingly strange and almost kinda arty.
So come for the strange sci-fi I guess, sure—stay for cartographer Bob Balaban translating for SCIENTIST FRANÇOIS TRUFFAUT. It just kept happening and I was never not over the moon about it! No space ship required!! I didn’t even know Truffaut WAS IN THIS. He is!! Just appearing in areas with his little science fists on his hips, looking at phenomena. Richard Dreyfus is also around, but I want to throw his character into a river, and 1977 Spielberg apparently feels the same about all women, so, Truffaut & Balaban are really all we have. When they get especially excited sometimes Truffaut starts breaking into English phrases for the Americans, for emphasis, and Balaban, not noticing, just keeps translating but now into French. Totally lost it at this, my friends.
I also got a kick out of learning how very many shots from Stranger Things are Close Encounters references. It’s many! Spielberg chose to film a ton of the night scenes on sound stages and it’s such a choice, the starry sky always looks like a planetarium and the light sources are totally unnatural. Early on I got very excited over the idea that this whole thing might be a movie of lighting. One time a friend told me about a theory of story (very simplistic but that’s how theories get their use sometimes), that says that most works prioritize one of three things: Character, Plot, or Setting. Setting tends to be more rare, and I was completely down for this to be a Setting movie, creating a narrative mostly through use of light, if it had actually stayed that way.
My ideal version of this film is two-thirds the length (I don’t believe this is a two hour and fifteen minute movie, sorry Steven), mostly the parts at night, and stays in that odd, indie film kind of space of the first 45 minutes where it seemed there was no real main character, that we were just sort of moving from incident to incident. And it’s at this point that I realize I’m just reverse engineering this into The Vast of Night, an alien arrival movie definitely inspired by this one that I ultimately prefer in every way, except for how it does not feature a legendary and cute auteur of the French New Wave in an inexplicable acting role.
An independent 20th century queer romance with a happy ending that I did not find unbearably cheesy! It’s a real movie, with characterization and storylines and footage of people driving in the desert—cinema things.
And the set-up is interesting: do you remember that fun fact about how back in the 1950s, married women could move to Reno, Nevada for six weeks to establish residency, and then were legally allowed to get a quick divorce without having to bring their husbands into it at all? That’s the premise here, and the movie doesn’t over-explain this, which is nicely respectful to its audience. Especially as some other elements are indeed served up to you on a silver trope platter, most centrally a restrained English professor who wants to finally make her own life meeting a ~free-spirited~ younger woman who wears jean shorts and lives in a little cottage where she makes pottery. Hello to you, sweet obvious lesbians!
What I liked about Desert Hearts though, is that while of course these two fall in love, theirs is not the only female relationship in this film. Kay has a close friendship with a fun coworker who seems to play a big part in her life, and then has a very interestingly complex mother-figure relationship with the woman who mostly raised her, who in turn develops a complex relationship with Vivian, her boarder for these six weeks.
It’s also fun for being a double period film: set in the midcentury but very much made in the 1980s. I did enjoy the not infrequent neon lighting in this, befitting the film’s cover art, with the title glowing Janelle Monáe pink against the big desert sky.
I was drinking limoncello when I started watching this, but there’s still no excuse for the way I reacted like a rockstar was walking out at the completely unexpected reveal of “Emmanuel Lubezki” in the opening credits. The sunny sweet South Beach fantasy land he creates in this!! All warm and cheery and pastel! I want to live in that kitchen with the morning light coming in, making coffee and breakfast..! I want Agador’s job, basically.
Anyway, what is The Birdcage? The Birdcage is a very ridiculous drawing room comedy about how the best people in the world are middle aged gay Miami dads. This movie was made by straight people, but is extremely pro the homosexual agenda, and spends its whole time taking the hets to task. The actual motivation for the plot makes no goddamn sense because there is no world in which if you trick your future in-laws about who your parents are for exactly one dinner then you’re in the clear forever, but we just have to accept the premise and moooove on. The film absolutely does not intend for you to think too hard about it, because if you did you’d have to come to the conclusion that the kids are monsters who both tormenting their parents for no reason, and as they’re each portrayed as inherently well-meaning and loving and just trying their darn fool best to get through this, I’ve decided it’s one of those plots where it’s just Happening, through no one’s express choice. Comedies are like sometimes.
The gay dads are played by Robin Williams, in one of his genuinely lovely turns, and Nathan Lane, the more comic and silly half of the pair but also even more heartbreaking at times. Williams owns a drag bar next to the beach called The Birdcage (titular club!), his partner Lane is the starring act, and the person whose job I want is their hapless maid-of-all-work, Hank Azaria, who in one scene is wearing a muscle tank that just reads “STRAIGHT LOOKING.” I was a bit exasperated with myself over how readily I was buying Hank Azaria as a gay Guatemalan, as he is neither of those things, but then I looked him up and discovered Azaria comes from Thessalonian Jews and grew up speaking an obscure Spanish dialect written in Hebrew characters, and have decided he gets a Hispanic pass for 1996.
It feels like it’s been a while since I watched a comedy I respected. Haha wow that’s a harsh sentence, but true! But what I mean is: this is the kind of script with jokes built in to not only the dialogue but the way the scenes unfold, and I was so pleased with so many of these joke moments. From quips to sight gags to little actorly bits, this was really just firing on a lot of comedy cylinders for me. Man guys, trying to talk about things that are funny makes them sound so dry, huh! This movie really isn’t, and while it could have been pretty wince-inducing given the content, I skipped right over into just loving it. Camp Canon. Did you know there are THREE rare or original Sondheim songs in this, one of them performed by Christine Baranski? God, the gay pedigree…
When I made my list of what I was going to watch out of Showtime’s present catalog, I actually had no idea that I would be double-featuring a Nichols and a May—serendipity. Ishtar is notorious for being a Worst Movie Ever punchline, but I’d heard it was actually unfairly maligned, possibly due to sexism toward its writer/director, and as box office returns definitely do not always equate to quality, thought I’d give it a watch.
And parts of this oddball comedy did work for me! Especially the struggling songwriters portion in New York, which would feel like a full Simon & Garfunkel parody if Simon & Garfunkel weren’t mentioned several times. I was struck by how actually very sweet this movie is—Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty are genuinely tender and supportive with one another, and honestly it was really nice to watch.
Then they do go off to Ishtar (#comedy plots), and it started its process of losing me. This is MILES from the worst movie ever made, but I think the fact that it gets weaker as it goes probably hurt it considerably, as it’s easier to forget the more fun and funky stuff at the beginning the further you get away from it. It also suffers from some of the Lawrence of Arabia problem of having a fair amount of its politics in the right place, but really falling apart when it then goes and whitewashes the casting of the people in the country the westerners are betraying.
Warren Beatty repeatedly expressing his wish that he could be as attractively small and craggy-looking as Dustin Hoffman was always endearing though. More men complimenting each other on their appearance in movies pls.