Saturday, April 30, 2005

Sweet Jane

Yesterday, me pal Nathaniel got to wax idolatrous about his own cine-heroine, Michelle Pfeiffer, who turned 47. Today, it's my turn to genuflect, since my favorite director in all the world also has a birthday. Jane Campion turns 51 today, and let's hope she's got 51 more left in her. Few directors have seen their public perception go up and down the way Jane has. Her Cannes history is a good index of this: from the first woman to win a Palme d'Or in the Short Film category (1986) to having her debut feature booed for long minutes at the same festival (1989), and then becoming the first woman to win a Palme d'Or in the main race (1993) before falling off the Cannes radar completely for her subsequent features. That's pretty much been the fate of her post-Piano movies across the world market, but it ain't fair, man. Campion's an artist the way Buñuel was—and bully for her, since she often lists him as her favorite auteur. Her sensibility doesn't really change, even as audiences blow wildly hot and cold about it.

Now, I'm gonna tell you how to celebrate this auspicious day, especially if you're all, "Yeah, I've seen The Piano." For my buck, that's the greatest movie ever, so watch it again, people. That cream never spoils, and I should know, having seen it 34 times.

Most likely, though, you haven't seen her short films, but you should. Peel (the Cannes prizewinner) and Passionless Moments, the two shorter shorts, are especially delicious: laugh-out-loud funny, surprisingly poignant, and full of that askew visual sense that makes all of Campion's longer flicks so memorable. Act quick and get that out-of-print copy that some fool is selling on Amazon.

As I blogged when Stuart Dryburgh turned 53, The Portrait of a Lady is one of the great, unsung movies of the last 10 years, with Nicole Kidman's best pre-'01 performance (and maybe her best performance, period). The score by Wojciech Kilar is also pantheon material.

Finally, don't be scared of In the Cut, which died in a handful of theaters in 2003, but features some typically brilliant Campion cinematography (c/o Chicago and Collateral D.P. Dion Beebe), another rousing score, more absurdist throw-ins, and a powerfully reckless erotic charge.

If you want to read about some Jane, Virginia Wright Wexman edited a diverting anthology of interviews that reach all the way through the Portrait era. (Meryl Streep, with whom Jane is pictured here, was one of her two original choices to play Merle in that movie. The other anointee who turned her down was Susan Sarandon. Susan said no to make Dead Man Walking, but I dunno why Mary Louise Streep couldn't get with such a terrific part. No prob, though, since Barbara Hershey rocked the joint and enjoyed a long-overdue Oscar nod and some critics awards.)

But back to Campion literature. Dana Polan has a book-length study of Jane's films which I actually haven't read. Maybe tonight is the right moment to shake up the white-chocolate martini, fill up the tub, and see what Dana's got to say. I'm sure y'all will be celebrating Jane's genius in your own ways. If I had my druthers, I'd be tapping out that screenplay I've been working on for years that I'd love Jane to direct, but that's gonna have to be her 52nd birthday present or her 53rd. (Trust me, her present this year is not to have to read my wack, scribbled notes and outlines.)

Still, Jane is the only person I've never actually met whom I thank in my dissertation Acknowledgments, because her films and her sensibility, and The Piano in particular, basically changed the entire direction of my inner life and all of my personal goals when I was a wee 16-year-old. If I ever meet this woman, I hope it's not too public, 'cause that junk is gonna get embarrassing really fast. Just knowing she's somewhere out there, hopefully working on some new gem, is rewarding enough in the meantime. Happy birthday, Baby Jane, and praise be to you!

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Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

It is c-r-a-z-ythat Campion doesn't get more respect. I can understand critics/audience running hot and cold ...ahead of their time auteurs have that effect. What I can't understand is how dismissed her films are even in the realms of cineastes. How was In the Cut so brushed aside. Even if someone thinks it sucks it still deserves their utmost attention. The way other auteurs, even when they suck, deserve careful consideration.

And yes Peel is really funny...if you pay close enough attention.

8:32 PM, April 30, 2005  
Blogger par3182 said...

are you not mentioning holy smoke because you consider it a huge blot on her resume? apart from kate winslet's great performance and some pretty cinematography it's a mess of a film. if a male director wrote/directed sophie lee's character he'd be called out as sexist. and what a complete waste of pam grier.

11:42 PM, April 30, 2005  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Check it out—if you actually blog, people show up! Thanks, you two.

@Nat: C-r-a-z-y, indeed. My hope is that Campion will be one of those directors who gets major retrospective attention, where people finally "rediscover" her talents either because she a) makes another Piano-level attention getter, or b) because enough time passes that someone watches with fresh eyes. Then again, the way the cinéaste community continues to ignore Lina Wertmüller all these years after her mid-70s heyday doesn't inspire confidence.

@par3182: I actually liked Holy Smoke!, though I must admit that my second visit to the film, last summer on DVD, was less inspiring to me than my first, theatrical viewing. Kate's great, there are some great camera setups, and the essential brattiness of the whole aesthetic and execution is refreshing (to me, anyway) as long as it's backed up by those excellent shots and perfect music cues. Too bad, though, about that supporting gallery, as you point out.

It's actually Angel at My Table that I'm least taken with in the Campion canon, though it's many people's favorite, and my own opinion might change on second visit. I saw it in a theater in '99, which was a lucky stroke, but since it aired on TV originally, I should give it another turn on a home format.

Meanwhile, the first three chapters of the Polan book are pretty good if you're into Campion. Plus, this Muenster cheese is delicious. I love occasions to celebrate! :)

12:42 AM, May 01, 2005  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

OK, it's embarrassing to respond to my own entry this often, but one more hot Campion tip: if you're ever near this very rare film, check out The Audition, a short film directed by Jane's sister Anna Campion, in which Jane is auditioning her own extremely reluctant mother for a cameo in An Angel at My Table. It's one of the best, realest, nerviest snapshots of an adult mother-daughter relationship I've ever seen, and Edith recites gorgeously and movingly from Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock.

(I am shocked to find that my six-year-old comment on the IMDb page for this film is still the only one logged; this must be even rarer than I thought.)

1:03 AM, May 01, 2005  
Blogger Dr. S said...

You know that often your posts get me ready to read or view something that I've been meaning to get to for a long time; this time, I think it's Portrait of a Lady, in both incarnations. Maybe that will be my May project: reading James and then watching Campion. I could make it a pre-seeing-you goal.

8:52 PM, May 01, 2005  
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