May 20th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Mediocre Kink

For some reason, truly entertaining movies about kink are few and far between. All too often, what we're left with is "meh." That was my reaction to the two most recent independent films I saw, The Notorious Bettie Page and Kinky Boots. The subject is exciting, and they both have excellent casts, and the story has real potential for fun ... but somehow, neither one managed to be that interesting to me.

The Notorious Bettie Page is, of course, a biopic about the archetypal 1950s nude, pinup, and BDSM photo model Bettie Page. Although there are a few flashbacks to her early life, what the movie is really about is an attempt to answer the questions that everybody wants answered about Bettie Page, which is what was she thinking about when she posed for all those pictures, and what did they mean to her, and why did she do them, and why did she then quit? None of these have been easy questions to get answered in the real world because the real Bettie Page mostly won't talk about it. She's still, despite rediscovering her fundamentalist Christian roots, oddly proud of her work back then, but she really won't talk about it. So from incidents in her biography it pieces together a narrative of a woman to whom the BDSM part of her work was, fundamentally, an acting job. The movie upholds her claim that she never seriously considered (until the Kefauver hearings, in this version of the narrative) the possibility that anybody would try acting out this stuff in real life; she thought it was just for the fantasy life of certain successful, basically nice and decent people. And as for the nude and pinup modeling, it portrays her as a woman who was apparently one of the few actual nudists of her time who wasn't lying, for whom there was not even the faintest hint of exhibitionism or voyeurism or other kink in it, someone who convinced herself that there really was nothing either wrong or even sexual about being nude outdoors in front of a camera.

Gretchen Mol is convincing as Bettie, but it's written as such a weak part and Bettie is written as so inarticulate that it's almost painful to watch her on screen. On the other hand, watching Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor as Irving and Paula Klaw, the photographer and salesman who put her into BDSM pictures, was a delight, and they came really close to saving the picture for me. In fact, if someone had rewritten this as "The Notorious Irving Klaw" and centered the story around these two, their choices, their internal conflicts, and their brushes with the law, with Gretchen Mol playing Bettie Page as a co-star, I think I would have enjoyed the movie a lot more.

Kinky Boots was a little bit more fun to watch. Joel Edgerton plays something of a nebbish, the kind of part that Hugh Grant played a lot of when he was younger. Charlie Price is the 4th generation owner of Price & Sons, the last remaining hand-crafted shoe factory in Northampton, England. His fiancee hates the town and wants to go to London and be a fashionable member of the upper middle class. Neither his late father nor the workers at the factory he's inherited respect him, because (as he too well knows) he just isn't that good at making shoes. But when he finds out that the factory is technically insolvent, and is faced with the prospect of having to lay off the last remaining shoe craftsmen in England (and, not coincidentally, people that he grew up alongside), it drives him to panic, fits, and near madness. So he grasps at a straw when a weird chain of coincidences and half-baked ideas throws it at him: carving out a niche market in high-fashion and fetish boots for cross dressers and transvestites.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, who was such a gem as The Operative in Serenity, plays "Lola." It was Lola that gave Charlie the idea, and who makes it possible at all, because Lola is the one thing that Charlie most desperately needs ... an actually talented shoe designer. This sets up the conflict that drives the movie, because an awful lot of people in Northampton just plain Are Not Okay with having Lola around, with what Lola is and the shows that "she" produces for a living at "her" nightclub in London. And, although he tries hard to keep his mouth shut about it, Charlie doesn't really put much effort into hiding the fact that he's one of them. Plain old Charlie from Northampton, as he calls himself, genuinely respects "Lola's" talent as a designer but is also pretty disgusted at the whole cross-dressing and drag-queen scene. To him, this may never be okay, except that he will descend this far if it's the only way to save the jobs of a bunch of working class northies even if they look down on him.

Which, I guess, makes Charlie a hero ... but gah, he's so pathetic that I can't stand to watch him. I had the same problem with this that I have with a lot of British film, television, and writing, and that's the culture of the unassertive, untalented, barely motivated "hero." If you don't mind that kind of thing, or if you actually like it, then you'll probably love this movie, because it truly does have everything else going for it, including a really great soundtrack, great art direction, and some genuinely remarkable bits of acting.

As an aside, after seeing these plus two plus Thank You for Smoking at the same theater, becka_kitty and I have seen the trailers for The Lost City and An Inconvenient Truth so many times that, as she put it, it feels like we've already seen the movie. I have no idea if I actually will see The Lost City; hasn't the fall of Havana been made into a movie enough times by now? But I admit, some of the acting in it looks really good. And as for Al Gore's global warming thing, you all know where I stand on that, but let me add that the last line of the trailer is as perfect an example as I can think of of the kinds of way over the top exaggerations that are part of why Al Gore lost the Presidency. Anybody who thinks that even a nine degree increase in global temperatures seriously threatens to actually exterminate the human race does not qualify to lecture me about anything.
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