Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Tonight's nostalgia is sponsored by American Express

Yeah, yeah, commercials are evil and the bane of all our existence, appearing everywhere now from the movies to the subway to the urinal.

Currently, however, I'm pleased by the American Express "My Life, My Card" campaign. The dancing Ellen spot amused me (much the way Ellen does) and the Laird Hamilton spot was appropriately thrilling. (The DeNiro spot smacked too much of cross-promotion for his filmfest, but I suppose that's not an entirely bad thing to be shilling.)

The new ad featuring Kate Winslet is very cool, to the extent that I wonder if it was directed by hubby Sam. I'm particularly pleased because the narration begins with "At 17, I was put in jail for murdet." Each quote references one of her films -- and indeed that one references her first, Heavenly Creatures. Anyone who has ever taken my Critical Approach to the Cinema class knows that this remains one of my favorite flicks (the poster is above my desk at work), as much for the amazing nature of the film as the way I first experienced it. The summer of 1994, I was working for the Telluride Film Festival in New Hampshire (don't ask why the dissonant locations). Festival director Bill Pence asked if I could come out to his place to watch a film that had been sent over. "What is it?" I asked.

"Something called Heavenly Creatures," he said.

I hadn't heard of it. "Anyone of interest in it?"

"Not really. From New Zealand. Directed by some guy named Peter Jackson."

I shrugged. Able to get a ride and having nothing else more promising to do that evening, I went over. I sat in Bill's comfy sofa with some popcorn as the lights dimmed and the camera started.

If you've seen the movie (all my students know this, since this is part of my lecture on openings), it opens with old-style documentary footage of Christchurch, New Zealand, looking washed out, overexposed, and very hokily 50s or early 60s. It's even smaller in the frame and, I later figured out, the sound of the tinny narrator comes across in mono. The segment starts to break up, however, as the surrond-sound quickly brings up the sound of screaming. And then, suddenly we are plunged in the full-color, widescreen horror of two girls running through the forest, gore splattered on their faces.

I remember being physically pushed into the sofa with the force of those images and never, ever being able to come back up again until the credits rolled. I don't think I touched my popcorn either. It is perhaps the closest I have ever seen a film in such an unadulterated form: no clue as to the storyline, no preconceptions due to star-laden knowledge about director or actors, just walking in with the title and nothing else. It's one of the best experiences I've had watching a movie and, given what I do, that's saying something.

Afterwards, we discussed it and most people thought it was "too much" -- as if "the kitchen sink were up on screen." (Ironically, people thought that this Winslet character was clearly much older than the 17-year-old she was playing. She was, in fact, 17.) I decided I needed to go to the mat for this one and passionately fought for its inclusion in the festival: that this was a major film that needed to be shown.

Ultimately, the point was moot. While it was ultimately accepted for the festival by the time I left for Colorado, Miramax (the US distributor, gaining large momentum after the success of The Crying Grame a year earlier) decided to pull it from Telluride and screen it at Venice, with the hope of winning a prize there. (They didn't.) It broke my heart that the film got pulled (and my poor boss got even more white hairs filling in a slot at pretty much the last minute, I think).

I've championed Heavenly Creatures since then -- an easier task now that Jackson became the Hobbit Master and Winslet became a star. But of the films referenced in the ad (Sense and Sensibility, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Iris and, of course, Titanic), it's one of the least-seen. Here's hoping the ad sends a couple folks to check out IMDB to see which film she's talking about and then order it on Netflix or something.

It's easier to find the film


Anonymous said...

Great film - great Winslett! She is one of my favorite actresses along with the other Kate (Blanchett). Patty K

Hikaru said...

neither a fan of the director or the actor, but i'll give it a go per your passion. ;)

going into a movie "naked" is great -- tho i still find if u have seen the writer's/director's previous work, the movie works on an additional semiotic/meta level. it makes the audience an active participant in the film watching experience.

Middento said...

Oh no, don't get me wrong. I totally agree. Watching Almodóvar's Bad Education was particularly entertaining precisely because I've seen a few of his other films and what-not. But that naked experience is so rare (especially for me these days), you'll understand my nostalgia.

Besides, in my mind, audiences should be active participants in all films and the best ones force us into that situation. If we are passive viewers, then Michael Bay wins.

Nell Minow said...

I loved your description of the film and of the experience of watching it absolutely fresh and open. I used to like to read a lot about a film before seeing it, but now I like being surprised.

Fans of "Heavenly Creatures" should take a look at the upcoming "My Summer of Love." Not nearly as broad in scope or as effectively evocative, but it has some of the same sensitivity to those kinds of highly volatile relationships and wonderfully natural performances.

Hikaru said...

randomly, i looked up this movie to add it to my greencine.com queue and discovered that peter jackson directed dead alive -- i had no idea!

now That was one funny movie!

there are few moments in cinema more disturbingly resounding than when the protagonist must cut himself out of his undead mother with a lawn mower. =D

that he went from that to LOTR is IMO a big step down...