By David Elliott
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.
APPETIZER: Reviews of Eighth Grade and The King
Jean-Pierre Léaud was 14 when he entered film history as Antoine Doinel in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows in 1959. He has been in over 70 features, going from lean poster boy of the French New Wave to a crusty old chub. Hardly anyone gets that kind of career now, even with a vivid teen start. But I think Elsie Fisher, 14 when filming Eighth Grade last year, has entered teen-movie history as Kayla Day. It’s a great performance in a “small” film made full and true by Fisher. And by Bo Burnham’s script, and his feature-debut direction at 27 (Truffaut’s age when Blows appeared). Burnham’s accuracy, subtlety and humane sense of adolescence would have made Truffaut say, smiling, “Marveilleux, mon frère.”
Concerning Kayla’s last phase of eighth grade, it pivots on the lonely girl reaching out with her new podcast (her verbal tic, “you know,” is like a flare for “please know me”). Middle school, “junior high” in my shy, distant youth, is generally seen as a kind of hormonal whirlpool of pain between childhood and full-steam adolescence. Kayla, very bright and a little pudgy, has image-subversive pimples and an aura of hopeful innocence that invites snarking. With her mother long gone, her dad (fine Josh Hamilton) is loving but struggles to find the lines of connection, and Kayla’s insecurities are like a Maginot Line. She has fairly hip interests, and some gumption, but her identity anxiety almost invites rejection (that she has no pals from earlier years is rather hard to fathom).
Burnham found the right, videographic approach. So much of Kayla is internal but brimming close to the surface, and Fisher’s acting is all intuitive nuances. The fake-jaunty podcasts, mirror glances, willful silences, gutsy but masochistic attempts at winning over some “cool” girls (snobs, perky in their cruelties) require the granular use of close-ups to capture all the mood weather. This is not the sleek, joke-driven suburban world of John Hughes’s teen movies. Hughes’s modular clichés have been overdone. So Burnham, on a tight budget, provides a more subtle interplay between Kayla, her fretful dad, an older high school girl (Emily Robinson) who boosts Kayla because she can recall her own mid-school agonies, and a brainy nerd (funny Jake Ryan) who has a Woody Allen sense of small talk: “Do you believe in God?” Kayla is trying to believe in herself (in a nifty irony, the quiet girl plays the school band’s loudest instrument: the cymbals).
All the parts converge and click without turning into plastic flash cards of familiarity.There are real danger tensions, as when Kayla desperately surveys a soft-porn site, and later must deal with a boy whose brain has gone to his crotch. After far too many generic teen movies, Eighth Grade graduates with honors. Elsie Fisher may not be an expressionist wow like Brooklynn Prince, the fierce moppet of The Florida Project, but the actor makes her first major part a starring triumph. May her zits vanish, and more good roles appear.
We first hear Elvis in weary, wistful voice-over: “You can have everything and if you’re not happy, what have you got?” That sad strum is the heartbeat of The King, a tabloid docu-dossier on Elvis Presley’s impact, aura, myth and bankability (dead 41 years, he still sustains a Southern tourist industry). File-footage glutton Eugene Jarecki (Reagan, Why We Fight) had the small-bulb idea of getting hold of Elvis’s old Rolls Royce. He brought on board, for short drives and reflections, celebrities like Ethan Hawke, Emmylou Harris and Alec Baldwin. One good ol’ musician cries, imagining the car as Elvis’s jail or coffin. Some of the movie’s cruising wisdom is road kill, some is juicy chaw, with welcome intervals from little twang-canary Emi Sunshine and her roots band.
As aging fans liposuction dead Elvis for blobs of the American Dream, Jarecki lingers on young Elvis dazed by fame, mourning his mom, manning up for the U.S. Army. After soft service he was unmanned by celebrity, wealth, drugs, movies, fried food and the money vampire “Colonel” Tom Parker. Set among clips of Ali, Little Richard and Big Mama Thornton, Elvis is the Ghost of Paleness Past. Jarecki taps enduring black resentment of Presley as a gifted cribber. “Muthafu’ Elvis!” explodes rapper Chuck D, before admitting the value of musical crossover. At times a great singer, Elvis also became a fat, gilded tenement of Vegasoid indulgence.
He was non-political, but Jarecki suggests that the Trump movement, full of racial resentment, draws upon the Elvis cult. When the Rolls breaks down, it clearly represents the dying dream of white hegemony. The dream included a Klan kracker who denounced Elvis’s “vulgar animalistic nigger rock ’n roll bop” (the “bop” is priceless). Such stuff doesn’t lead to very deep reflections. Among the testifiers, Mike Meyers is sharp, funny and Canadian. Old Dan Rather goes up the Empire State Building to gain some perspective. The enduring value, the legacy, is in Elvis’s early songs.
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Most of Orson Welles’s films can be seen as poetic, kaleidoscopic fusions of powerful, beautiful fragments. He attempted many unfinished projects, as he reflected with melancholy late in life: “I’ve wasted an awful lot of my life trying to finish them, rather than letting them go as I should have done … I deeply regret this steadfast and stubborn loyalty, now that I look back on it. If people see it the other way, I can understand. But God, what I’ve been through trying to get ‘em done! What I’ve never done was to leave a film because I was tired of it, or angry at somebody or fed up. I’ve only left a film when there wasn’t any way to shoot it, no money.” (Quote from Joseph McBride’s What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
While never a major actor, Anita Ekberg was immortally right to play the visiting star Sylvia in La Dolce Vita: “At Rome’s Baths of Caracalla, shadow-carved by torches for Sylvia’s party, Rubini (Mastroianni) dances with her, gushing an awe to which she, lacking Italian, is indifferent: ‘You’re everything, Sylvia. You’re the first woman of creation, the mother, sister, lover, friend, angel, devil, the earth, the home.” No female was more flattered by ruins, or so unlike Ingrid Bergman sickened by Pompeii in Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia.”(From the Marcello Mastroianni/La Dolce Vita chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)
DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Anita Ekberg leads one of film’s great dances in La Dolce Vita (Cineriz/Astor Pictures, 1960; director Federico Fellini, cinematographer Otello Martelli.)
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