Thursday, February 28, 2008

Double Feature

During the summer, the Harvard Film Archive creates double features out of entirely unrelated movies that have surprising similarities. My favorite was Mouchette, which ends with a drowning and church bells, followed by Don't Look Now, which starts with church bells and a drowning.

Last night I accidentally saw a double feature of my own: Shallow Hal followed by Washington Square. Both movies feature women whose beauty is, let's say, not immediately obvious. Both women have lovers who see their true beauty, and fathers who don't.

In Shallow Hal Jack Black gets put under a gypsy curse hypnotized by a motivational speaker to see only people's inner beauty, and falls in love with Gwyneth Paltrow, fat but nice. Misunderstandings and hijinks ensue. This might be a better movie than it looks--I saw it on TV so it's hard to judge. Is it actually a parody of make-the-hot-actress-ugly Oscar bait? Could be. If you ignore the giant-underwear gags, a lot of the uncomfortable moments come from the directors playing with film grammar. There are times when you know a cut to Paltrow is coming, but you don't know whether it will be the hottie or the fattie. It's impossible to watch this movie simply to ogle Paltrow. Or to put it in academic speak, our expectations of a fetishizing male gaze are undermined, which is a neat way to provide a distancing effect.

Washington Square was towards the end Jennifer Jason Leigh's 90's hot streak, and the role is perfect for her. The issue here is social skills instead of hyper-obesity, so the mumbling actually works to her advantage. She's hands down the best mumbler in film, and she shows it here.

The direction by Agnieszka Holland is flashier and more "prestige." I'm not sure what the long opening tracking shot was supposed to accomplish, or why she puts so many distractions in the foreground. Even in the shot above there's a sleeve in the way--is that an attempt to disrupt the shot-reverse shot dynamic? No dice, suture is still in effect here, so it looks more like a compromise to make the pan-and-scan process easier. If you're not going to use the whole frame, why shoot in widescreen? I don't mean to pick on this film, since this is pretty common. Sometimes it works, but this is not exactly a Bourne film.

And it shouldn't be. Bourne is intensified continuity, and Shallow Hal uses continuity for gross-out moments; what we want from a female director is another way of looking at the story. We get a little of that, but a whole lot more melodrama.

Still, I liked it. And it was funnier than Shallow Hal.

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