Thursday, December 25, 2008

A film review and more

So this is not the post I was previewing last time, but as Maryam said, it’s the end of the semester, the beginning of my three-week trip to the Middle East, and I’m in a packed plane with no access to the Internet, which I’d need to write about news and their depiction in the media.

These lines are written from 35 thousand feet above the Atlantic, south-southwest of Reykjavik and west of Dublin, if you believe in the accuracy of the digital map in the screen above my head. By the way, the graphic on these things finally looks like something from the 21st century, unlike the Apple IIe-like images of yesteryear. In the tagline following the title of this blog I mention that I’d like to have a talk show. Two other things on my wish list are to be a travel agent and to write an occasional film review. So what better opportunity than writing a review of a movie I’ve just watched on one of El Al’s newest Boeing 777s en route from Newark to Tel Aviv!

The film is Mamma Mia. And unlike many members of my gay cohort I did not go see it when it was out in the theaters a few months ago. This was partly due to my laziness, partly because I was in the midst of moving back to Philadelphia, and perhaps underlyingly because I had seen the musical on a London stage several years ago, and was severely unimpressed. But I’m on a ten (plus)-hour flight, and I have a video-on-demand system (VOD it’s called in my homeland and its somewhat provincial national airline) and my new Bose noise-canceling headphones, and the woman in the window seat told me Mamma Mia was one of the options, so after finishing an episode of the Israeli version of Americal Idol, I turned to Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan and their fellow actors-turned-singers for what ended up being a refreshing two hours.

“Refreshing” doesn’t really cut it. I dare not call it “thought-provoking”, but it was somewhere in between for me. Maybe even “emotion-stimulating”.

Let me back up. I like to say I’m from Tel Aviv, but I’m really from a fairly affluent suburb just north of the city called Herzliyya. The city itself is quite diverse, but the western portion of town, within a mile or so from the Mediterranean shore, is quite hoidy toidy. This is not to imply that my family is particularly wealthy, but more to provide some background as to the type of society I grew up among. Many of my friends came from much richer families, but we were educated, well-traveled, and despite my parents’ socialist upbringing (mostly because of the youth movements they were in, not quite from their parents), we were very much Americanized in many of our ways.

Americanized, but within a provincial setting with one TV station broadcasting in black and white (until the mid 1980s). In order to get some color on our screen we had to tune our sets to one of the two Jordanian channels, and even with our rooftop antennas our reception of those was pretty staticky.

So on the one hand, my friends and I would go to the Scouts (co-ed in Israel) and build tents out of blankets, pebbles and rope and roast our own potatoes in campfires in the woods of Mt. Carmel of in the sand dunes that once existed just east of our own beach. But on many a Friday night we’d have parties. Now I’m talking about 1979-1980, when I was in third and fourth grades. Honestly, that was the peak of my social life until much much later. Occasionally we’d have parties to which the entire class would be invited. Usually birthday parties (maybe because “the more the merrier” was interpreted “the more kids, the more gifts, the merrier the birthday child”). But the real fun parties were much more exclusive. We’d hand-pick the invitees, and different parties sometimes had different people. Yet there was a core of kids that we called “the society”, and I was always in that group. I was even in a smaller “quintet”, which included my best friend Ron, his girlfriend Fafi (who during that time became the mayor’s daughter), her best friend Ortal, my girlfriend at the time (yes, yes; my one and only ever girlfriend) Shelly and your humble servant.

How is this related to Mamma Mia, you ask? I have one word for you: ABBA. That was our music. We’d listen to it on our turntables and later Walkmans. We’d dance to it. We’d compete getting each new album as it came out. To be fair, the Village People and some instances of the Eurovision Song Contest also played significant roles in our pre-pubescent cultural lives, but ABBA just wouldn’t leave.

For many years, when I was closeted in particular, I’d try to repress my nostalgic passion for ABBA. I knew this kind of schmaltzy music had become a huge part of stereotypical gay pop culture (along, surprise surprise, with the other two components I just mentioned). And even in the 2-3 years after I came out, I still tried to shy away from being perceived as a nelly gay boy. I guess I’ve evolved since.

If you haven’t watched the movie or the London/Broadway musical on which it is based, the plot really doesn’t matter one bit. Basically it’s an excuse to sing some of the songs that our favorite Swedes (pardon me, IKEA, you’re number two, at best) have written, sung, and made a legend of. A schmaltzy story was made up, in which the schmaltzy songs make half a sense, and every moment is a blend of actors making fun of themselves, ABBA (the two guys in the band, who wrote all of the songs, are behind the production) parodying itself, and the audience making fun of everyone. But unlike the stage production, I actually had fun watching the movie.

Watching the film, I found myself naïvely drawing an analogy between ABBA and The Beatles. At the same time, I knew it was blasphemous of me to even consider that the two groups had even remotely the same kind of impact on anyone. Well, anyone except perhaps myself. I’m a bit too young to be a Beatles fan, but I am a fairly avid one. I’m too old (or am I?) to distinguish between Britney and Paris and all those. I’m supposed to be too culturally sophisticated to think anything of ABBA.

Buy fuck it, if Meryl Streep can have fun with it, I’m in! Now understand, Meryl Streep for me will always be the mother from Kramer vs. Kramer. It was the first film I’ve seen her in, around the same time I was listening to Dancing Queen and dancing to Voulez-vous. Pierce Brosnan is 007. In reality, “my” James Bond has always been Roger Moore. But let’s face it, Brosnan is Moore. Streep sings well in the film. Not as well as some critics have claimed, but movingly well. Brosnan sucks at singing. She’s the proverbial American Idol second runner-up that everyone likes but couldn’t help not vote for at the very end. He’s the guy who wouldn’t make it past the Wasilla auditions. But at the end of the day, (plot-spoiler ahead!) what could be more charming, in the schmaltziest way, than poor divorced ex-Mrs. Kramer marrying a retired Commander Bond on a Greek island full of American, British and Swedish tourists?

I have to give credit where it is due. The real artistic stars are actresses Julie Walters and Christine Baranski. They both combine their imperfect singing with exquisite comedic acting that overshadows the flaws of their singing. In fact, in the case of Walters, one wonders whether her voice naturally sounds like Janis Joplin on Vicodin or whether she’s doing it to make a point. And Baranski is just fabulous. Pereiod.

I’ll end with this. I wonder how long it’ll take for Streep to become the next Barbra. Both as a campy gay icon and as a sort of jack of all trades (but by no means master of none). Somehow we seem to love the singer who can act (Cher!) and direct (Streisand). So why not love the actress who can carry a tune and remind us of our childhood, which was innocent, yet daring? On that note, I can’t wait to see Doubt, Streep’s (and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s) “serious” movie. I think it’s due in a theater near you any day now.

Oh, and a cute provincial artifact as a PS: movies in Israel are subtitled, not dubbed. The songs in this film were translated in rhyme.


  1. The Most I've spent on a air plane is 3 hours and change. I must prepare if i intend to take on Japan. I find your review of Mamma Mia, very fair, and very accurate. This new influx of "Broadway Movies" are not ment to be taken tooo seriously, instead just a lite-hearted good time. Which Mamma Mia accomplished very easily.

    What caught my attention was when you spoke about liking ABBA during your youth before knowing their ties to "Stereotypical Gayness". I had the same experience. There was a group called "A*Teens". What I know now was that their name was short for ABBA Teens. An ABBA cover group. Who knew? Back then i didn't.

    I also feel your struggle with trying not to be the "NELLY gay man" haha. But I don't think I can ever make any sacrifices when it come to the music I listen too. I will admit, however, I do change pronouns sometimes. Just because saying, "I wanna have my way with him." would not be wise to say in front of my parents. =D

    happy travels.

  2. Oh, thanks for reminding me something I had wanted to write...

    I have had this thing lately where I've started treating some feature films as "documentaries". When I watched the Sex and the City movie with my mother a few months ago, she literally suffered because she thought it was so bad. My approach was, yeah, it's not as good as the TV show, but for me the characters are like real people whose lives I had been following for years. So I just want to know what happened to them i the meantime.

    I think I heard or read somewhere that the Rent movie was really just meant to create a long-lasting documentation of the Broadway musical now that the show is no longer on stage. So why not Mamma Mia, Chicago, and all the rest?


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