Saturday, October 16, 2010

Meat Markets (Temple Grandin and The Runaways)

One can only imagine how Temple Grandin, last year's Emmy-winning made-for-TV movie, was pitched to the folks at HBO. "It's the heartwarming true story of an autistic woman who overcomes her condition and society's prejudices to earn an advanced degree in animal science and build a a curved corral to reduce stress in cattle being led to slaughter...Oh yes, and we're going name the movie after the person because we can't think of a better title." All of it true, yet none of it likely to win over industry producers if uttered verbatim. No, this is what I suspect was said:
"It's A Beautiful Mind -- with cows." I suspect that because that's exactly how Mick Jackson directs: employing animated mathematical/geometrical blueprints and fantasy sequences to show how Temple's mind (we are constantly reminded) is different from everyone else's.

What's surprising is how long this approach works. Jackson, a filmmaker with a long if fairly undistinguished career in both television and theatrical films (Volcano, The Bodyguard), will always hold a place in my heart for directing Steve Martin's L.A. Story, and the tone for the first half of Temple Grandin is similarly spry. We meet Temple (Claire Danes) as she arrives in Arizona to stay on her aunt (Catherine O'Hara) and uncle's (Michael Crabtree) ranch over the summer before college. The heat, the livestock, the house with a sign declaring "TEMPLE'S ROOM!" taped to a door -- the director and his lead actress make the commonplace strange and frightening and new. With a mop of unkempt hair and the jerky gait of a goose, Danes is virtually unrecognizable. Yet she doesn't give the kind of showoffy Oscar- Emmy-baiting performance you might expect (though, of course, she won). Danes's technical skill is sharper than previous roles have indicated, but she goes beyond physical tics and gives Temple an inherently stubborn nature that's very appealing. U
nedited thoughts and opinions stream out of her mouth like ticker-tape, and rather than being offputting, Danes makes believable the character's knack for winning over others through sheer bullheaded conviction.

This is crucial, because the teleplay by Christopher Monger and Merritt Johnson (based on a couple of Grandin's books) trots out some familiar deck-stacking: mean students making fun of Temple; cold-hearted doctors wanting to put her in an institution; skeptical teachers treating her with disdain. I've no doubt all these things happened at one time or another; but there's a tendency in biopics to condense a true story by stacking the deck in such a way that the filmmakers seem anxious to get the audience on their protagonist's side, as if the real story weren't compelling enough. Characters like the Worrying Tough-Love Mother and the Lone Sympathetic Teacher come across as cliches, no matter how authentically Julia Ormond and David Strathairn play them. Temple Grandin is fortunate to have actors of their caliber and even luckier to have Catherine O'Hara. She takes her talents as a comedienne and channels her amazing timing and ability to play off other performers into her scenes with Danes, which are among the best in the movie (bringing out a younger actress the same way her character draws out her niece), and which are missed after O'Hara essentially vanishes after the first act.

Monger and Johnson's script is oddly shaped, with a long flashback to Temple's crucial relationship with her high school science teacher (Strathairn) after she's already well into her freshman year in college. Then they start piling on the speeches: one at her college graduation, where Temple rambles at length and then starts singing; then another at a conference for parents with autistic children at the end. It's a miscalculation to depict a character's assimilation into society by having her interact less and talk more. Despite Danes's best efforts, Temple Grandin starts to lose her personality and become a symbol. And Jackson's visual tack, endearing at the start, starts to get tiresomely literal-minded (i.e., as Temple approaches every challenge as "a door to walk through," a door literally appears onscreen).

That on some level she is a symbol is a valid counterpoint, and I don't know nearly enough about animal husbandry or autism to make an effective argument either for or against the depiction of either. Yet recently seeing Food, Inc., the powerful documentary about the deplorable treatment of American livestock, couldn't help but dilute the positive effects of Temple Grandin's slaughterhouse reforms as portrayed in the movie. And for every inspirational story about autism, there are horror stories and tragedies that negate the Rain Man-like suggestion that these are human beings with magical properties. (To be fair, Rain Man also showed that taking care of Raymond would be too much for his younger brother; it's an entertaining movie, but more of an actor's showcase than a realistic portrait.) Temple Grandin is as true as it is inspirational, and there's nothing wrong with that kind of specificity. Nor would I be bothered that her speech at the end doesn't address the varied forms of autism -- that it's intended to underline an earlier assertion by Temple's mother that her daughter is "not less, just different" -- if we weren't left with the implication that Temple's story is their story. Temple Grandin may have been produced by HBO in a perverse bit of counterprogramming, but its lack of edge or daring has the unmistakable essence of Lifetime.

One day in the seventh grade, I was standing outside on break with a group of guys around a boombox blaring "Centerfold" by the J. Giles Band. The song had been number one atop the charts for weeks, and my belated attempt to get with the in-crowd was promptly dashed by an even larger group of guys
sauntering by
with an even larger boombox to the infectious, hard-driving sound of what would soon be the new number-one hit in the land, "I Love Rock and Roll," by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. It was then that I learned I was officially Uncool. But it wasn't until seeing The Runaways that I knew the more-or-less true story of Jett and her earlier, formative years with the titular all-girl "jailbait band" of the film, or her relationship with Cherie Currie, the beach-blond "cherry bomb" whose meteoric rise preceded a fall from fame caused partly by drug addiction.

After the pinpoint satire of Walk Hard, I'd thought I could never watch a music biopic with a straight face again. (A recent attempt to revisit Walk the Line, one of its primary targets, led to inappropriate giggling.) Yet although The Runaways goes through the familiar motions of the genre, it takes a fresh approach. I've always loathed the suggestion that a filmmaker needs to share a common identity with the subject of a movie. More than a few foreign-born directors have made some of the best movies about America, for example. Nevertheless, the feminine spin that writer-director Floria Sigismondi puts on The Runaways offsets a number of the cliches. When narcissistic record-producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon, in another enjoyable scenery-chewing performance) puts the band together, Sigismondi keeps the focus on Curie's sexual exploitation at the expense of the music (her talent being serviceable but limited compared to Jett's). And when Cherie and Joan finally stand up to Fowley, the scene doesn't play with the obligatory tropes of a successful group falling apart. There's something more to their revolt than the usual personality clash -- a matter of actual principle -- so that when Fowley claims to have been inspired by their uprising in a subsequent interview, the joke is on him and his wounded male ego.

I do wish that Jett, not Curie, had been the main character of the movie. Fanning is fine as the latter, and it's a relief to see at least one cliche in the genre (death-by-overdose) negated in the end with a sense of hope. (The real Cherie Curie overcame her drug problems and is alive and well.) But Stewart, slouching her shoulders and lowering her voice to a growl, is so vivid that an entire film could have been centered around her. She's been trying to break out of the trap set by the Twilight series in films like Adventureland and The Runaways, and while these movies have not been commercially successful her performances in them certainly succeed. Stewart reminds me a little of Keira Knightley, an actress with no evident technique but in possession of the kind of rare magnetism that holds the screen. This is especially apparent in the wonderful final scene, set to "Crimson and Clover," my favorite Joan Jett song which, thanks to the sublimely sly expression on Stewart's face, has never been imbued with more feeling or meaning.


Jason Bellamy said...

I've always been partial to the original "Crimson and Clover" (Tommy James and the Shondells, baby!), but Jett's version is good too.

Well said on The Runaways and on Stewart, here and in general.

Stewart reminds me a little of Keira Knightley, an actress with no evident technique but in possession of the kind of rare magnetism that holds the screen.

As a whole, the film didn't wow me, but I agree: it's a huge cliche, and somehow that doesn't matter. I loved the scene in which Jett and Curie get together, which -- as I recall -- really evoked the feeling of touching someone for the first time. And I loved the overhead shot of Jett in the bathtub, even though we've seen that before, too. And though I was puzzled by Shannon's performance, which, I've said before, is just some white makeup and a few lip licks shy of being a dead-on imitation of Heath Ledger's Joker, one of my favorite lines of the entire year comes in the scene in which everyone is fleeing the concert/party that's just been broken up by the police and Shannon's Fowley screams: "Scatter!"

jeremythecritic said...

I second that on "Crimson and Clover." Love the original and Jett's as well. And I know exactly what you mean about "Walk Hard" basically spoiling all music biopics from a dramatic standpoint. Can't even imagine watching "Walk The Line" with a straight face again, but that could be a good thing.

I might be the only one who didn't much care for Stewart's performance as Jett, as it just seemed like a sleepy impersonation to me. I far preferred Fanning's work but agree with you on Shannon, who as usual steals whatever he's in. He's kind of turning into the new Christopher Walken in that regard.

Overall though, I really enjoyed it and strangely feel like it deserves a second viewing. All the praise for Stewart has me curious to check it out again and see if I maybe missed something there. Enjoyed reading your thoughts.

Craig said...


I remember chuckling over your Michael Shannon observation (I think it was on Edward's blog?) before I even saw the movie, and it resonated while I watched it. Shannon is a weird actor, possibly the next Christopher Walken as Jeremy said, although Walken's weirdness has always struck me as self-contained, whereas Shannon's doesn't appear to derive from an established personality. He gives bizarre over-the-top performances in Bug, Revolutionary Road, and The Runaways, among others, yet they're all bizarre in different ways. I do agree, his yelling "Scatter!" was a high point, but I enjoyed his energy on the whole.


I was apprehensive about Kristen Stewart in this role because I thought she lacked the technique necessary to play an icon like Joan Jett, or would overdo the mannerisms to the point of distraction. She looks somewhat like the young JJ, and while I noted the slouched shoulders and voice that Stewart brought to the role, I thought the naturalism that she also brought made her performance seem effortless and lived-in. Although Stewart is still young, she's attained enough celebrity at an early age to harbor misgivings about it, or at least that's the sense I got while watching her performance. It's more than just mimicry.

In contrast, Fanning always struck me in her kiddie parts as an overstudied child actress, yet while she brings some of that to Cherie Curie I agree that it's effective. On the DVD commentary with Fanning, Stewart and Joan Jett herself, the Real Jett compliments Fanning for the way she holds her driver's license during her big druggie breakdown scene in the supermarket. That's where Dakota Fanning excels -- at the physical technique needed for that type of scene.

Having said that, it's still the twinkle in Stewart's eye at the end that stays with me. "Crimson and Clover" (both versions) always struck me as an enjoyable nonsense song. For the first time, watching that moment, it started to make sense.

Craig said...

Back to Jason,

I loved the scene in which Jett and Curie get together, which -- as I recall -- really evoked the feeling of touching someone for the first time.

That's one of my favorite scenes too. It was also amusing to watch it a second time while listening to the commentary, which features a long awkward pause before the Real Jett mischievously says, "I'm not sayin' anything!"