Saturday, October 28, 2006

Montages of Excess


As I went to see Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette today, I remembered hearing that some critics at Cannes booed the film. Kristen Dunst is reported to have said something like, “At least I can count on my gay fans seeing it.” On that she is probably right. Dressing up as a queen has always drawn big crowds.

The film’s mise en scene—costumes, hair and makeup styles, set designs, and properties were sumptuously realized. Although most people will have little concept of the history of costume being shown, the care and detail the creative staff exhibited was true eye candy for anyone who is fascinated by the 18th century time period--although occasional anachronisms did appear.

But the most distracting element of this seemingly carefully crafted film was the misguided decision to use modern—often very jarring—MTV music. When I taught my History and Thought of Western Man class, I realized that for many teenagers, things that happened 15 years ago seem as distant as those things that were 300 years ago. Some won’t even understand the anachronisms because they don’t know that time period. But do we really need lush visual montages of excess—clothing, food, the indolent partying of the rich-- to such thought-provoking ditties as “I Want Candy” or “Fools Rush In”? As a friend of mine is fond of asking, “What were they thinking??”

The performances of Kristen Dunst and Jason Schwartzman often rose above their script and by the end I appreciated their growth in spite of a shallow script that had the substance of the candy Coppola loved showing.

If we are to trust the script, poor little Marie-Antoinette had to give up everything from her previous life, including her little dog, when going to France to be Dauphine. She had to be nude around lots of the unfriendly French court. (Yes, if you are a teenage boy, you may want the chance to see Dunst’s thin derrierre.) Louis, who liked making keys, takes way too long to figure out how to put his key in her lock and so his little fun-loving wife is forced to over-indulge in food, clothing and fun. When Marie’s brother finally explains to Louis how the lock works, Marie finally delivers babies. As a result she is also ripe for the one love affair of her life with a hunky Swedish soldier. The French rabble who have kept an invisible distance, suddenly storm the Bastille while Marie’s daughter is learning croquet. The rabble then move on to Versailles where the king and his queen bear up admirably in spite of having sent off all their friends and allies. When the crowd says they want her dead, she charms the rioters by bowing to them from the balcony—although she does not, as you might have come to expect, break into “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” [For a list of the gallimauphry of music chosen, see here.] Dunst and Schwartzman, unfortunately, are not given the chance to do their final noble death scenes because the film ends abruptly as they ride off in carriage to try to escape. But their bedroom at Versailles does the final bow, having been looted by the revolutionaries.


  • Historical fact: If any of my students are reading this, both people in real life lose their heads which are then taken by Madame Tussaud and made into the first wax figures for her popular business. See here.
  • For the controversy over who said, “Let them eat cake” see here.
  • To read an excellent review of the film, check out here.


I must say, my final reaction to the film was to want to read one of the biographies about her. I also was delighted to discover mharrsch’s pictures at Flickr from various art museums. Now that was a find.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Theda Bara's Cleopatra, 1917


This past week I’ve been intrigued by a silent film classic which I will never be able to see, since the last surviving copies of it were destroyed by fire during the 1950s (one of the problems with storing nitrate film which was highly flammable). The 1917 film, considered by some to be Theda Bara’s most important work, was called simply, Cleopatra. Many of the images from the film have become cultural icons (think Bara’s eyes as the logo for the Chicago International Film Festival).

Eve Golden in Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara says that Bara did extensive research on Cleopatra before starting the film. Bara herself felt that the production was historically true to its subject. Looking at the production stills, we see more about pre-WWI fantasies than what life in Ancient Egypt was like. Several of Bara’s over 15 costumes exude pre-Hays Office sex -- appropriately, since Bara was considered the ultimate screen “vamp” (short for Vampire, one who like the prey mantis devours the men who love her). In a couple of cases Bara wears a nude body top, but in some stills she looks very nude underneath tissue gauze and chiffon.

Theda Bara as CleopatraOne of the funniest costumes Bara wears looks very pre-art deco with some French high fashion blending into a futuristic “Metropolis” look. Wearing a vulture headdress with two feathers, the look suggests more sophisticated ant than Egyptian queen. Her flimsy blouse disappears into two straps at the open back. A peplum overskirt a la Poiret covers a skirt with stylized Egyptian motifs and shimmering brocade split trains. French designers of the period can be seen in Haute Couture - Designer Dresses from Gazette du Bon Ton.

Most of the production pictures suggest the actors use of the DelSarte method popular during the late 1800s. Fran├žois Delsarte had created an acting method which utilized a standardized set of stylized gestures to convey emotions. Much of the overly melodramatic acting the early silent films seems to follow this metod.

After researching the film, I created a new series of paper dolls based on Theda Bara and the film. Check out Theda Bara: Just a Nice Jewish Girl from Cincinnati.

Retirement Adjustments

Since I last wrote, I have been adjusting to retirement. Originally I thought I would continue teaching, but nothing appeared and I began dealing with life without a classroom. Once I worked through the Puritan guilt of not “working,” I found myself very busy. To have the freedom to work on my artwork as much as I want seemed incredibly indulgent, but after awhile, when I began selling some of my artwork on Ebay, I realized I have become an artist by profession. Last week I presented a PowerPoint program for the St. Bernardine’s Women’s Club and I realized I could also call myself a lecturer. So for now my retirement feels productive and creative—and I don’t have to get up at 5:20 in the morning to do it.