Monday, February 6, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On - At The Movies #32 - Portrait of Jennie (1948, dir. William Dieterle) and Out of Sight (1998, dir. Steven Soderbergh)

Portrait of Jennie (1948, dir. William Dieterle)
There is no more covered subject in the artistic world than love. Maybe violence, but if the actual references could be added up, I’m sure love would come out on top. That is why it is so difficult to make a movie about love that offers something new. So often love stories just default to two beautiful actors making googoo eyes at each other, living through some ridiculous plot twists and ending up where we knew they belonged: in each other’s arms. Portrait Of Jennie is different. It is a love story, but it is a love story that intersects with an exploration of what drives an artist. Of course the obvious answer is: love. So what’s to talk about? Portrait of Jennie takes the notion of the muse and treats it both metaphorically and literally. In the form of the always-reliable Joseph Cotton, Portrait Of Jennie follows struggling artist Eben Adams as he seeks inspiration and an audience for his landscape paintings. Everyone agrees he is good, but not great. While walking through a wintry Central Park (the entire movie is gloriously shot on locations in and around New York) he chances upon a girl. We aren’t sure how old she is, but she’s young enough to be childlike and old enough to be beguiling. They strike up a conversation, but Eben quickly realizes this is no ordinary girl. She tells him they will be together always. He laughs because she is just a child. She sings a song to him and when he turns his back for a moment she is gone. He is curious, and he can’t get the song she sang out of his head, but he doesn’t make too much of it…until he runs into her again a short time later (we’re not really sure how long) and he is amazed how much older she looks. She has left childhood and is a teenager now. Again their meeting is short and mysterious, but she insists he must wait for her to grow up so they can be together forever. This continues to happen: each meeting finding Jennie (actress Jennifer Jones at her sweetest and most lovely) at a different milestone; graduating high school, college, etc. and Eben finding himself more and more in love. Jennie is the perfect muse; mysterious, inspiring and just out of reach, and Eben finds that his paintings are starting to find an audience. He is becoming a famous artist, and he begins working on his masterpiece: you guessed it, a Portrait Of Jennie.
So at this point it seems as though the movie has veered into supernatural territory, with a woman who magically ages and can disappear at will, but at the same time, the story of Eben’s art persuades us that this might just be metaphor. It really doesn’t matter, because you see, ultimately Portrait Of Jennie is just tremendously entertaining. While telling this love story and following the progress of an itinerant artist, the movie also successfully ponders such subtexts as: the nature of art, the lure of the supernatural, the renewal of spring, the finality of winter, the inevitability of loss and the beauty of the natural world. We watch as fate draws the two lovers together through the years in spite of the fact that one of them may not even be real. Spoiling the end would be both cruel and difficult, because the supernatural vein continues as the plot hurtles toward a spectacular, and inevitable end. In spite of the unreal elements we come away from Portrait Of Jennie with insights about both love and art.
In addition to the dreamy, unforgettable story and the beautiful actors, the film itself holds many delights. Many of the scenes employ a special effect that makes the beginning of the scene look like a painting, which slowly morphs into film. There are also a number of subtle optical effects that make the movie seem surreal. It is this sense of “otherness” that ultimately makes Portrait Of Jennie transcend the love story genre and allows it to stand in a class by itself. There is a magical quality to this movie. Like love itself, it is complex, not prone to easy explanations, and once it gets under your skin, it is impossible to forget.
- Paul Epstein

Out of Sight (1998, dir. Steven Soderbergh)

Director Steven Soderbergh has made a major splash on the film world ever since he shook up a little film festival in Park City, Utah with his 1989 indie classic Sex, Lies, and Videotape. That film quickly established Soderbergh as a director to watch who had a way with actors and a tight script. His subsequent films, including Kafka, King of the Hill and Gray’s Anatomy, showed his refusal to get pigeonholed into any particular genre or filmmaking style. Soderbergh just makes solid movies, period.

So when the novels of writer Elmore Leonard began rolling around in Hollywood, beginning with Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty and Quentin Tarantino’s superb Jackie Brown, it made perfect sense for Soderbergh to be at the helm of one of his most exciting novels yet, Out of Sight.

It should be known from the get go that on top of being a great crime comedy the film version of Out of Sight also has the honor of capturing one of the greatest on-screen romantic pairings, just juicy with as much chemistry as Bacall and Bogey, in the performances of actor George Clooney (still freshly planted in his fame from the TV show ER) and flygirl turned singer turned actress Jennifer Lopez (with a rising star and some good roles already behind her). It’s this pairing that makes the film, which is already chock full of enough solid film treats.

Clooney plays Jack Foley, a career bank robber who is put away in the slammer after his latest job gets him pinched in the most humiliating of ways.  While in jail he befriends an old associate (Ving Rhames) and the two plot to bust out of jail and get back to doing one major last job. But while escaping prison they cross the path of beautiful but tough as nails US Marshal Karen Cisco (Lopez) and Foley spends a long time locked in a car trunk with her, sparking a bizarre but hot little spark. After a safe return Karen finds herself conflicted about her feelings for Jack especially after she is put on the case to bring him and his cohorts down or face the disapproval of her Marshal father (Dennis Farina). What’s a tazer gun-wielding Marshal in love to do?
On the whole Out of Sight is chock-a-block with all of the ingredients that Soderbergh needs to pull off a slam-dunk. It boasts a tight script written by Scott Frank (Get Shorty) that’s absent of fat and very faithful to its source material in that it keeps the action coming and allows plenty of room for a twisty story AND fosters a fine and fully developed romance that gives the whole package some tasty depth. The film also has a cast to die for which includes (alongside Clooney, Lopez, Rhames and Farina): Don Cheadle, Catherine Keener, Steve Zhan, Albert Brooks, Luiz Guzman, Viola Davis and, in a brief return to form, the lovely Nancy Allen who really makes you wonder why she ever left the big screen for such an extended time. Add to that a lovely tip of the hat to Tarantino by casting Michael Keaton to reprise his role from Jackie Brown as cocky police man Ray Nicolette in a brief cameo and you have yourself a tasty film stew.
And then there’s that romance and the amazing and unexpected chemistry between Clooney and Lopez! Beginning with an intimate and brilliant meet-cute in the trunk of a getaway car, the banter and sizzle that Soderbergh captured can truly be added to the history of cinema as one of the greatest scenes ever. What ends up on screen was a re-shoot that began with dozens of static shots and morphed into the masterpiece that it was. Though only about 1/48 of the final film, that scene is the hot glue that keeps the picture together. It’s the piece of the puzzle that makes sense to the totality of the film and keeps the action and the stakes at a comfortable yet dizzying high.
So pick up Out of Sight and surprise your loved one with an evening of smart, and yes, sexy, romantic thrills and laughs for this Valentine’s Day. You just might get a kiss as a reward and, if you’re lucky, some handcuffs.
Also note that Out of Sight will be screening on Friday the 10th and Saturday the 11th at Denver FilmCenter/Colfax at 10PM as part of The Watching Hour series.
- Keith Garcia, Programming Manager, Denver Film Society

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