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Archive for April 2016

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Oh guys, be really careful searching for Frozen on Tumblr, people seem to be working through some interesting feelings on there.

No. 9 – Frozen (Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck, 2013)

By now, it seems pointless to start a conversation about Frozen. It propelled itself into the canon within a year of its release, surpassing critical and financial expectations when the lights of Disney seemed to have dimmed since its mid-90s glory days. Frozen has been the axis around which so much of culture has revolved, be it appreciation of feminist credentials, turning away from stereotypical tales of princess and one true love, or think pieces on unsettling eye to waist ratio, a triumph of traditional animation, a shot of adrenaline to Disney, alarming levels of merchandise, memes about building snowmen, the bane of karaoke nights, and the spectacular introduction of Adele Dazeem. Frozen has permeated so much.

But I hadn’t seen Frozen. And I’m someone who had seen Atlantis: The Lost Empire. I was fairly confident I knew what Frozen was about, unavoidable as it was, and I had heard the Oscar winning Let It Go, the highest charting Disney single since Pocahontas’ Colours Of The Wind in 1995 (unless you count The Climb from the Hannah Montana movie, which no one does) and certainly more worthy than the whole Oscar winning Phil Collins-does-Tarzan oeuvre. But I kept my Frozen ignorance hidden, to avoid being berated by, you know, everyone. Because it’s not just that Frozen is a good film, or that people enjoy it, and their kids connect with it. People love Frozen. People are obsessed with it. It inspires a degree of passion we rarely seen in a film that isn’t a Star War. Loosely based on the Ice Queen tale, then altered to make the titular queen Elsa not a hero or a villain but a frightened, vulnerable woman with no control over her powers or her emotions, crushed by the weight of expectations, then reviled when she reveals her true self. Or at least that’s the subtext, some pretty complex themes for a Disney film. Which is probably why the film is told through the perspective of her devoted younger sister Anna, locked out by her sister and kept in the dark as the powers manifest. But she never stops reaching out to Elsa, never stops trying to connect, and every other aspect of the film revolves around this central relationship. And it is refreshing not just for a Disney film but any film, where sisterhood is woefully underexplored. Anna’s romantic interests, Prince Hans, who she gets impulsively engaged to, who turns out to be the villain searching for a kingdom of his own, and Kristoff, who she falls in like with but not enough to save her from the last act’s conflict – that’s Elsa’s job.

It’s a nice film. The music works, the faux-Finnish setting allows for beautiful scenery and design, the script and acting is good, though the story is spotty at points (who raised Elsa and Anna when their parents mysteriously disappeared? The castle servants, normally a sure thing for Disney characterisation, have only a few lines. How did Elsa keep a secret when only her parents knew? This seemed very badly organised.). But nothing in the film explained to me why Frozen became such a cultural touchstone. It’s nothing wholly unique – the character design doesn’t tickle my personal fancy, though it’s inevitable that the stylised 3d-esque look of Pixar and Dreamworks would emerge as a compromise between contemporary tastes and the classic Disney of yore. Anna and Kristoff are charming but Elsa is kind of characterless and, Let It Go aside, a missed opportunity for a really interesting exploration (though how much psychological realism should we be trying to shoehorn into a kid’s movie?). And those criticisms are minor in filmic terms, but just enough to push it down my list of Disney favs.

I don’t know why Frozen broke through. The real gem in later Disney is The Princess And The Frog, criminally underrated, filled with beautiful songs, memorable characters, Creole/New Orleans design and a firefly that will make you cry. I don’t regret seeing Frozen, but less than a week later, I don’t remember much about it, apart from what I already knew because of its place in the cultural canon. But I do know we aren’t about to stop seeing Elsas at Halloween for a long, long time.



No. 8 – Desperately Seeking Susan(Susan Seidelman, 1985)

I felt reasonably confident of what Desperately Seeking Susan was about. Some films you don’t need to see to have their number – Dirty Dancing won’t put Baby in the corner, Lethal Weapon’s too old for this shit. And Desperately Seeking Susan sees Madonna from off of the 80s dancing into Rosanna Arquette’s dreary life and shaking things up with wardrobe montages and sassy soundbites. Instead, it turns out that the lead characters in this pop-feminism don’t actually meet until late, late in the film, and only by the grace of the convoluted plot become friends rather than enemies, given that they end up sharing each other’s identities and, to some extent, beds.

Desperately Seeking Susan is totally nutty. Set in a New York where Douglas Sirk-style housewives follow newspaper announcements with the same vigour as soap operas. Roberta, bored and mostly alone apart from Julia Child, eagerly reads updates on the mysterious Susan, a free spirit who can only be reached through the personals ads. In a feeble attempt to sum up the plot, I’ll say Roberta ends up following Susan around town, buying her distinctive jacket from a thrift store, finding a locker key with Susan’s belongings, arranging to meet Susan to return it, suffering a head injury and being mistaken for Susan, and believing she must be Susan herself.  If there’s one thing an 80s comedy loves, it’s an amnesia plotline. But that’s not even including the murder by defenestration, the stolen Egyptian earrings, and the magician searching for a new assistant. If you’re confused now, imagine how long I’ve been googling to remind myself of the different plot lines.

I suppose my disappointment is rooted in my strong impression of the sort of film it was going to be. This is a) dangerous and b) my fault, and can result in occasions like the Crimson Peak incident (a whole separate blog post). But I was looking forward to a Thelma and Louise-esque ballad of sisterhood, with less homicide and more and cut off shirts. I wanted a slightly subversive, day-glo jaunt around contemporary NYC, punk haunts and vintage stores, club nights and adventure. And there is that, some of that, a bit of that, but it just drowns under the weight of the plot. The way to survive over-plotted movies is to sit back and just take in the atmosphere (I’m thinking basically any attempt to translate Raymond Chandler), but Desperately Seeking Susan can’t sit still long enough to allow you to take the opportunity. This film should have the merest sliver of a story. But can we really complain when an 80s studio film is too high-concept? This is the era that put robots in Rocky films.

More high-minded critics see this film as a remake of Celine And Julie Go Boating, which I think it precarious but possible. But this highlights precisely my issue with Seidelman’s film. Celine And Julie Go Boating is preposterous nonsense, but hung on the core of the strong friendship between the two main characters, building a good will that means we’re reading to follow them into all their adventures. It is subversive and naughty. Desperately Seeking Susan’s wackiness is based almost entirely in fashion. The opening credits follow Roberta as she is manicured and primped in a beauty salon, later followed by Susan’s low-key rinsing in the station bathroom. Susan abandons her distinctive jacket in exchange for studded boots, and Roberta can’t resist buying it, looking great in New York but out of place in her fancy home. “You bought a used jacket?” her husband asks, “what are we, poor?” Roberta’s attempts to mimic Susan are too successful, resulting in the mistaken identity and the amnesia, and the stint in the magic club. Roberta is trying on Susan’s skin. Susan ‘s wild fashion feels as comfortable in Roberta’s bourgeois suburban home as Roberta’s attempt stuck out. Even the film’s attempts at depth all centre around surface concepts.

Desperately Seeking Susan was a commercial hit and warmly received by critics. Rosanna Arquette won a BAFTA (in the supporting category, oddly enough) and it has remained a cult hit ever since. So where did Susan Seidelman go? She directed a few more knockabout 80s films, worked sporadically in television and made an Oscar nominated short. For all my hesitations about Desperately Seeking Susan, Seidelman does a fine job making a distinctive film, and it’s a shame she hasn’t yet enjoyed a similar opportunity. There’s always room for style in cinema, so long someone’s there to edit down the script.