Film Review: Defrosting Refrigerator Talk from Woody Allen’s “Magic in the Moonlight”

Alfred Hitchcock may not have coined the phrase, but it seems only appropriate, given his sizeable girth, that it has become associated with him. “Refrigerator talk,” in Hitchcockian terms, is that which arises when we go to the fridge for a bite after seeing a movie—especially a suspense film or thriller—and are suddenly struck by glaring discrepancies in the film’s plot. “Now wait a minute, that doesn’t make sense!” “How could that have happened?” and similar qualms about narrative inconsistencies or contradictions come back to haunt us in ways the filmmakers likely didn’t intend. If such questions only occur at the refrigerator stage, Hitchcock contended, the film will be forgiven to the extent that it was otherwise entertaining. If the nagging doubts emerge during the screening, however, the film is in trouble.

Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight, unfortunately, elicits second thoughts both during and after its 97-minute running time. The story revolves around the attempt of uber-cynical, middle-aged Stanley Crawford, a British magician extraordinaire and renowned debunker of extrasensory phenomena, to expose the fraudulence of an alleged psychic in the person of fetching young American medium Sophie Baker (Emma Stone). In the cat-and-mouse game that ensues in Stanley’s effort to unmask the charlatan, the film not only operates on the suspense-film plane but can’t help but conjure, in its period setting and southern France locale replete with sports-car driving along coastal cliffs, Hitchcock’s Cary Grant-Grace Kelly cat-burglar classic To Catch a Thief (1955).

The film opens with a bang, as Stanley is introduced in 1920s Berlin in his Chinese magician persona, Wei Li Soo, to the accompaniment of the Rites of Spring, Bolero, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as he causes an elephant to disappear and himself to pop like a subatomic particle from one side of the stage to the other. The promising set-up is subverted, however, when Stanley’s expertise as a psychic-debunker is immediately (and inexplicably) debunked by the most basic of ESP tricks. Instead of suspecting, as any intelligent viewer surely must, that someone has syphoned personal information to Sophie, Stanley first expresses curiosity, then awe, at her ability to dredge up secrets about his own and his Aunt Vanessa’s (Eileen Atkins) private lives. Not until the very end, and much too late to redeem his debunker’s rep, does it dawn on Stanley that he’s been hoodwinked by the man who had dragged him to the south of France in the first place, his magician colleague and friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney). Howard’s purpose, he explains when found out, was to avenge Stanley’s having so long lorded it over him as a superior magician.

The auteurist associations here are unmistakable. First, Howard is an obvious Allen look-alike and a dead ringer for the string of schlemielish characters he (or various surrogates) have played throughout his filmmaking career. Second, Allen was a gifted magician as a youth, performed professionally, and magic had played an important role in several of his previous films, most notably the comedy-thriller Scoop (2006) in which he actually plays a second-rate magician. More subtly, the American Howard’s inferiority complex vis a vis the Britisher Stanley echoes Allen’s career-long striving, openly avowed by him and noted (favorably and unfavorably) by critics, to match the artistic achievements of European idols such as Bergman, Fellini, and Truffaut.

These self-deprecating allusions serve to salve, but not to undo, the slight to our—and Stanley’s—intelligence inflicted by his initial and extended susceptibility to Sophie and Howard’s wiles. And refrigerator talk (if it takes that long to surface!) only makes matters worse.

Stanley ultimately falls in love with Sophie, and vice versa, as we also suspected (and, in romantic-film terms, hoped) they would. But Sophie’s transgression goes well beyond the elaborate hoax Howard had concocted. Before (and after) Howard himself had exposed her and recruited her for the hoax, Sophie’s larger plan, abetted by her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), was to use her physical allure and psychic “gift” to wangle a marriage proposal from multi-millionaire Brice (Hamish Linklater), whose fortune, beyond the high living it would enable, was also to fund an institute for the teaching of extrasensory phenomena. Trouble is, the plan not only succeeded, but Sophie intended to go through with it even after Stanley blew her cover—first in private and later in a proposed press conference that would have (and presumably still will) set the record straight on an earlier one in which he had humbled (if not humiliated) himself to vouch for her authenticity.

The refrigerator talk here is twofold: How did Sophie expect to maintain her hold on Brice, much less the psychic institute, once he—and the world—learned that she was a phony? More important, from a romantic standpoint, how could Stanley persist in his love for a woman who was not only a fake, who used her fakery to rope in a wealthy suitor and soil Stanley’s reputation, but who planned—somehow!— to follow the same sordid path?

Intertextual associations with To Catch a Thief don’t help much either, as Cary Grant’s character was a “retired” cat burglar and the upshot of the film was to reaffirm his reformation.  “Love is blind” is a possible moral for the amorality inherent in Stanley’s actions. Indeed, such blindness may help explain his otherwise inexcusable inability to see through Sophie’s chicanery. To accept such a proposition, however, may be giving the film more credit, despite its considerable cinematic and Noel Cowardian charms, than it deserves. At the very least, it requires a refrigerator better stocked than mine.

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Vincent Brook teaches at UCLA, USC, Cal-State LA, and Pierce College. Besides dozens of journal articles, anthology essays, encyclopedia entries, and reviews, he’s authored or edited five books, most recently Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles and (as co-editor) Woody on Rye: Jewisheness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen.

TV Review: “Masters of Sex” Season 1

In this Showtime series loosely based on Thomas Maier’s 2009 biography of sex, researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Michael Sheen stars as Dr. Masters, who in the season premiere fires his current secretary (Margo Martindale) to search for one who won’t be offended or put off by the nature of the research he’s about to undertake.  He ultimately winds up hiring Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), an ambitious, twice-divorced mother of two and former lounge singer.  Though he almost fires her in an early episode over a misunderstanding, she ultimately proves indispensable to his research, is promoted to Research Assistant (even though we eventually learn that the hospital doesn’t consider her qualified for such a position and that Masters has to largely pay her salary with his own money), and, in the season finale, is even listed as co-researcher on the study that results.

The study involves watching people have sex and measuring/studying their physiological responses.  At one point, this largely has to take place in brothels using primarily prostitutes as their subjects, but eventually the study is permitted to take place in the hospital after hours; as participants start to confide in their friends about what the study involves, more and more people are interested in participating (“for science,” of course).  Masters suggests to Johnson that they should participate in the study themselves.  When she asks if he means that they should have sex with their subjects, he clarifies that they will have sex with each other.  Though she is initially taken aback, after awhile, the suggestion starts to make sense: they need to have firsthand knowledge of what they are studying, but with their own respective partners (Masters is married; Johnson is intermittently involved with another doctor at the hospital and with her second ex-husband), there is the expectation that romance accompany sex.  With each other, they can engage in these acts purely for research purposes.

This doesn’t, of course, work out exactly as intended.  It is clear fairly early on that Masters has feelings for Johnson.  She seems to be better at understanding the line between their work life and their respective personal lives, but perhaps only because it’s prudent for her to remember that he is a married man and therefore not a romantic possibility for her, as well as her boss and the one running the study.  She could lose all involvement in and credit for the work if things go badly.  Near the end of the season, she realizes that a line has been crossed and actually does quit; however, he’s at her doorstep in the season finale to tell her that he can’t live without her.

There are a lot of ways that this subject matter could have been handled badly, and it is a testament to everyone involved that it is handled well.  At one point it is mentioned that Masters and Johnson have “participated in the study together” twenty-three times, yet the sex between them, as well as between the other participants, is shown fairly sparingly.  While there is enjoyment to be had from participating in the study, certainly, and while feelings get involved, Masters, Johnson, and the participants all take what they are doing seriously as important research, and as audience members, we are encouraged to do the same.  One of the lines the show has to walk, and that it walks well, is showing the pleasure, physical and emotional intimacy, and sometimes even humor involved in sex without making it seem like something inherently salacious or dirty.  As depicted in the show, Masters and Johnson are constantly walking a similar line in even trying to conduct this research: how do you research what happens to the body during sex in a society (the show begins in late-1950s St. Louis, Missouri) where people are having sex, certainly, but will rarely even talk about it?

This secrecy surrounding sex leads to a lot of embarrassment, unnecessary confusion, and sometimes emotional turmoil for the show’s characters.  One married couple visits Dr. Masters out of concern that they have not yet conceived a child after six months of marriage.  After a bit of questioning, Masters realizes that they haven’t had sex at all.  They have no idea how a baby is made.  The university’s provost, Barton Scully (Beau Bridges) is a closeted gay man who seeks out male prostitutes and eventually undergoes electroshock therapy when the revelation of his secret threatens his marriage.  His wife, Margaret (Allison Janney), doesn’t want him to have the therapy; she would prefer that the two of them divorce and move on with their lives.  However, it is difficult to imagine what moving on with their lives would even mean, or entail, in a society that doesn’t have much to offer in the way of compassion or opportunity for either an openly gay man or a divorced fifty-something woman.

And so we have a show depicting a world where virtually everyone’s personal, professional, and sexual lives are separated and compartmentalized in ways that seem neither healthy nor sustainable.  Some reviews have noted that the end-of-Season-One cliffhanger, in which Masters shows up on Johnson’s doorstep to declare his feelings for her, isn’t much of a cliffhanger; since this is all based on real events, it’s easy enough to find out what winds up happening between Masters and Johnson, if you aren’t already familiar with their story.  On a show where so many people are so repressed in so many ways, though, such an awareness and expression of emotion is almost more shocking than any depiction of sex the show could throw at us.

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Molly Brost is a Contract Assistant Professor of English at the University of Southern Indiana, where she teaches composition and literature courses. She holds a Ph.D. in American Culture Studies from Bowling Green State University, as well as an M.A. in English from Colorado State University and a B.S. in Journalism and English from the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Her scholarly work interrogates issues of gender, genre, and authenticity in film, television, and country music and has appeared in Americana: the Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-Present); Scope: An Online Journal of Film and TV Studies; and several anthologies.

Book Review: Cindy Sherman’s “Office Killer”: Another Kind of Monster

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Watching Office Killer (1997) is a curious experience. Despite its impressive pedigree as the only movie directed by Cindy Sherman, one can be forgiven for not being aware of the film, about a mousey copyeditor (Carol Kane) turned serial killer: boxofficemojo figures suggest it barely scraped $76k at the US box office (an office killer in more ways than one, then). But whether one goes into a first viewing knowing about the existence of the film or not, the experience is likely to be much the same; an unsettling 82 mins that raises far more questions than it answers and leaves one feeling oddly perturbed about the status of what one has just watched (what’s meant to be funny here? Why does it all feel so out of joint, and out of time? What the hell are Molly Ringwald and Jeanne Tripplehorn doing in it?). Continue reading

On The (Recent) Long Take

Popular conversations around prestige films often orbit around their well-rounded achievements, in which excellence in performance and excellence in filmmaking go hand-in-hand. If the annual Academy Awards serves as any kind of metric, recent nominated works demonstrate that top-tier nominations (for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay) are typically accompanied by nominations in various performance categories. Among other nominated works, the stylish aesthetic of American Hustle, the purposeful excesses of The Wolf of Wall Street, and the understated dramatic momentums of Philomena and Nebraska all succeed in large part because of strong performances that compliment each film’s achievements in writing and directing.

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Book Review: “Superhero Synergies: Comic Book Characters Go Digital”

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Although this is my first contribution to the Mediascape blog, I have been involved with the Mediascape journal for several years. I served as co-editor for Reviews and then as co-editor for Meta while I was in the Cinema and Media Studies (CMS) M.A. program at UCLA. Having just finished my first year as a CMS PhD student, I am currently the editor of Columns.

While my own work throughout this time has largely focused on video games, I have also researched the superhero film genre for several seminar and conference papers. The challenge of writing on this subject has stemmed from the surprisingly sparse amount of scholarly publications on the genre. Over the past decade, more has been written on the superhero in comics than in films (for instance, Peter Coogan’s Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre and Angela Ndalianis’s edited collection The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero). Continue reading

The 60s Are Back … Sort Of: Recent Political Films Tap Countercultural Roots

Gary Ross’s 1998 dramedy Pleasantville begins with a satirical montage tailored to Gen-X angst. Three high school teachers address their seniors’ post-graduation prospects: the first describes a woeful job market; the second, the STD epidemic; the third, global warming-induced environmental catastrophe. Just as quickly as the film raises these very real issues, however, it drops them in favor of a back-to-the-future fantasy set in the late 50s/early 60s, from which the sibling-twin protagonists emerge with renewed appreciation of how far American society has come since those more overtly racist, sexist, sexually repressive times.   Continue reading