Bright Lights Film Journal

Up/Down with Retro: Three Recent Hits — Down with Love, Ocean’s Eleven, Catch Me If You Can — Retrofit the Sixties

History takes a hike

If a time traveler from the 1960s penetrated the space-time continuum and climbed out in 2003, not the least of his puzzlements would be our movie marquees: one after another trumpets films he has already seen. The Time Machine, The Quiet American, Ocean’s Eleven, Psycho, The Thomas Crown Affair, and The Italian Job all played in his time, and their new counterparts are playing again in ours. If he tries unfamiliar titles like Far from Heaven or The Truth About Charlie, our traveler will recognize these as variants on All That Heaven Allows and Charade, well-known hits from the very twilight of the studio system. Even the architecture of 1960s Manhattan — the Pan Am Building and Madison Square Garden — lives again in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Down with Love, and Catch Me If You Can.1

Why has Hollywood turned back the clock? Has some heritage movement crept beyond the corseted Henry James adaptations to revive the age of Americans raging against conformity? And why this sudden taste for remaking le cinéma du papa? Are producers buying into the principle that familiarity breeds content?

Apparently, unexorcised memories of the 1960s are crowding at the threshold of Hollywood’s unconscious, perhaps because turning to the past justifies averting our eyes from the problems of the present. Never a hopeful development, this has left reviewers busy finding ways to express their disdain for the low expectations and even lower achievements of these retooled products. (Strictly speaking, riffs on TV shows of the period — like The Fugitive and The Brady Bunch and the Charlie’s Angels series2 — are retreading similar territory, though the trend has been sputtering with increasingly dire specimens like The Mod Squad, The Avengers, and I Spy3).

Yet looking at the past is also a means to take stock of contemporary life. A trio of films, each approaching the 1960s from a different angle, conduct a dialogue between past and present that’s worth examining. Down with Love attempts to interpret its past model, Ocean’s Eleven tries to improve it, while Catch Me If You Can fantasizes a one-sided view.

Down with Love

Notable as the first coupling of Rock Hudson and Doris Day4, 1959’s Pillow Talk appeared at the very brink of the 1960s. In mid-1934, the Production Code had flung a burqa over the facts of life, but thanks to a barrage of challenges throughout the ’50s, censorship of films was finally crippled and expiring. Slightly naughtier than TV fare of the time, Pillow Talk‘s comedy of foreplay seemed new, as did its frank focus on the single-minded pursuit of play-mates in the arena of big business careers (although such romantic conflicts date back to classic Hollywood films like She Married Her Boss, His Girl Friday, and Adam’s Rib).

In Down with Love, with much self-conscious winking, Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor re-enact a noisy farce patterned on Pillow Talk (which also lifts plot elements from 1964’s egregious Sex and the Single Girl). Reshuffling the repertoire of romantic comedy conventions, Pillow Talk introduced a new leering tone, but Down with Love gobbles up its archetypes and then smacks its lips.

Spoofing an evergreen hit like Pillow Talk can flatter the audience with camp (we’re smarter now, as the Austin Powers movies insist). Or it could function as nostalgia that idealizes the past (movies were better then). Like Far from Heaven, Down with Love suggests a third path: rethinking the basic patterns of the model. Although Todd Haynes’ film was a hit only in arthouse terms, Far from Heaven did more than simply pick the pockets of Douglas Sirk. Filtering the genre model through a gay sensibility served to burst the romantic bubble5 that concealed the subtexts. Haynes’ meticulous recreation of period is mirrored by Down with Love, which is nothing if not stylized, but director Peyton Reed’s film remains content to graze at the surface.

Down with Love announces its setting as “now, 1962” in the New York of Ed Sullivan, big-time publishing, ban the bomb protestors, and pad-loads of desultory beatniks. As befits a Gotham playboy, Ewan McGregor makes a spectacular entrance via helicopter, arriving in the company of busty triplets. As his romantic foil, Renée Zellweger plays Barbara Novak, a small-town librarian who has written a best-seller called Down with Love, which teaches that “love is a distraction…women should refrain from love, not sex… and live life the way a man does.” This book6 pushes John F. Kennedy’s Profiles In Courage off the shelves and proceeds to sweep the globe (the Russian translation — “Nyet lyubof”! — gets smuggled inside a loaf of Soviet black bread).

Midwives to this rebirth of Pillow Talk are screenwriters Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake, veterans of TV’s The Nanny (and perpetrators of Legally Blonde: Red, White and Blonde), but they cannot avoid some stretch marks. Shamelessly obvious finger-wagging (the female editor is asked to make coffee for the board of directors) seeks to score post-feminist points, and the first reel abounds in tonal blunders: for example, clouds of cigarette smoke emanate from an elevator (as if anyone ever smoked in elevators). Equally hyperbolic even in this stylized context are the posing and posturing when Zellweger and Sarah Paulson make star entrances in elaborate gowns (à la Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes).

More successful, though nearly as unlikely, is the real estate situation that gives the heroine a cavernous pink-and-white apartment with a football-field-sized balcony (anyone who’s seen How to Marry a Millionaire will experience a moment of deja vu), while the hero’s bachelor pad comes equipped with all the latest technogizmos, including an automatic push-button bed (as enjoyed by Judy Holliday and Jack Lemmon in Phffft!). Meanwhile, the film drops all available cultural hairpins: Mad magazine, TV trays, and even an old-fashioned painting-the-town-red montage, with Zellweger and McGregor trying out the twist, sitting ringside at the fights, and attending Camelot on Broadway.

The sexual politics are presented in Mars/Venus dualities: she dresses to Astrud Gilberto, he dresses to Frank Sinatra. Rival writers, she works for Now magazine, he works for Know. Their power struggle hits the compulsory notes and iconic scenes of its models: the male is unethical, feigning innocence and even impotence, to woo the woman by unlocking her hidden appetites. He must assume a disguise, to prove that the woman’s perception of truth is flawed and fallible.

Aspiring to nothing so extreme as smashing monogamy, this mating call plot is traditional enough to end as a road map to the altar. First she wants to get married, then she catches him with another woman, but after they share that Kiss That Changes Everything, he wants to tie the knot. On one level, it all seems superfluous because TV has cloned these attitudes and conventions in hundreds of sitcoms. Yet its stylization, lying somewhere between John WatersHairspray and François Ozon‘s 8 Women, pays off in deepened entertainment value.

Both stars cavort in an end-credit song-and-dance number that imagines itself as a music video from 1962, while the sexual innuendo of Pillow Talk‘s split-screen effects gets foregrounded. Where Doris and Rock seemed to play footsie in their geographically separate bubble baths, their modern counterparts here innocently (but vigorously) enact several ploys from the Kama Sutra. However, without Pillow Talk‘s Thelma Ritter as a boozing maid, it’s up to the 83-year old Tony Randall to demonstrate that the world does not consist solely of young adults in heat.

While absorbed in the mating struggles of Adam and Eve, Down with Love is modern enough to acknowledge that the exceptional chemistry between the hero and his best friend suggests Adam and Steve. As the pal, David Hyde-Pierce masterfully doubles his entendres (“I haven’t had dinner and breakfast with the same woman since I had a nanny”), but in classic Hays Code fashion, the gay subtext gets blithely dismissed as a silly misunderstanding. Curiously, this makes it even more persuasive, since we all know that the best friend’s hetero credentials are a convention that was clearly a coverup.

With its predetermined characterizations, the film needs all the charisma of its stars to win the emotional investment of the audience.7 Where Doris Day once flirted behind an armor-plated defensiveness, Renée Zellweger, mouth shaped like a spaghetti-O, faithfully reproduces Day’s pouts, slow burns, and nose-scrunching. Her best moment comes in a jubilant dance where, begirdled and begartered in 1962 lingerie stylings, she sashays across the screen with erotic promise, her filmy negligée swirling around her.

Ewan McGregor, eyes lit with libido, makes a game enough attempt at the preening self-confidence that Rock Hudson effortlessly conveyed. But when McGregor tries Hudson’s condescending provocations, he seems too insubstantial for a seat in the Debonair Bachelor hall of fame. For all his sharkskin suits and his finger-snapping, MacGregor suggests Gig Young more than Rock Hudson, never mind Cary Grant.

The same Mars/Venus combat, sans retro context, drives How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days.8 In fact, updating comedies rarely works: witness the trashing of Lubitsch in Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail and the universally despised Alex and Emma9. (The latter refashions Richard Quine’s 1964 Paris When It Sizzles, so lame it was unable to wrest satisfactory entertainment out of Audrey Hepburn and William Holden in Paris locations, with cameos by Marlene Dietrich, Noel Coward, and Tony Curtis, and even a song by Fred Astaire. Its own inauthenticity, as Hollywood’s overblown Technicolor copy of Julien Duvivier’s 1952 hit La Fête à Henriette, certainly didn’t help).10

Ocean’s Eleven

Far more likely candidates for updating than comedies are thrillers, as with The Thomas Crown Affair, Get Carter! , and The Italian Job.11 The model for post-millennial retrofitting is surely the unlikely resurrection of Ocean’s Eleven, the first movie to showcase Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack. The 1960s original was no one’s idea of a classic heist movie. Lewis Milestone’s direction is so sluggish that a full fifty minutes passes before the script bothers to disclose a single detail about the resolutely low-tech heist, its main innovation being “infrared” spray paint. In the meantime, there’s room for weepy scenes of cancer-diagnosed Richard Conte (“Is it the Big Casino, doc?”) bonding with his adorable tyke in military school, plus extended subplots with time for Cesar Romero to bare his chest and Akim Tamiroff to mug irascibly.

The date-night stereotypes of Pillow Talk seem like gender enlightenment compared to the Rat Pack’s relations with its devalued women, hood ornaments at best. At one point, Dean Martin remarks that men should take away the vote from women and “make slaves out of ‘em”. The remake’s greatest innovation, then, is the morphing of the divorced wife, the wan Angie Dickinson in 1960, into the confident professional, Julia Roberts, now a fount of feisty dialogue.

While focusing on the high-tech fleshpots of Vegas (and paying no attention whatsoever to the gamblers filling the casinos), Steven Soderbergh’s new Ocean’s Eleven resuscitates the Rat Pack aristocracy of the cool. Disguises are assumed, safes are blown, millions of dollars are heisted according to a completely new and clever scheme, but this is pure escapism no deeper than George Clooney’s dimples. Where once Ol’ Red Eyes smoked Luckies, Brad Pitt, all distressed blond-highlighted hair, chews on a lollipop while twinkling winsomely. Whither American masculinity?

Sinatra’s crew gets updated in a chitlins ‘n’ chop suey supporting cast, including a homie from the hood, a swellegant Brit brotha, a diminutive Chinese acrobat, a rag-trade philistine with gold chains nestled in his chest hair, even a senior citizen felon, plus a pair of bickering trailer trash doofuses. Yes, some of them are handsome, yes they’re all clever fellows, but they are also thunderingly self-satisfied. However, against Milestone’s more classic montage style, the protean Steven Soderbergh creates visual pleasures, finding harmonious patterns of movement in his silken tracking shots.

Between lines like “In my book, bravery is stupid” and a plot that keeps reminding us that 1945’s army buddies are reuniting to perpetrate a crime, the Rat Pack original surprisingly suggests a snapshot of the Greatest Generation Gone Bad, an unlikely theme for the conservative Eisenhower era, but an even harder sell in today’s super-patriot climate. Understandably, Soderberg’s remix rejects this thread as well as any hint of victimhood, but in the moral tradition of heist pictures, does preserve the concept of movie heroes who unabashedly and unapologetically enjoy being criminals.

Catch Me If You Can

If Ocean’s Eleven decants 1960’s wine into 2002’s bottle, Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can covers the entire decade, from 1960 to 1969, to follow the career of Frank Abagnale Jr., the rascal trickster and serial self-inventor who posed as doctor, lawyer, and pilot, while turning forged diplomas and checks into gold. Here the ’60s are recreated with a superficial sense of period, in terms of cultural artifacts such as TV shows (To Tell the Truth, a Mitch Miller sing-a-long, and Perry Mason), one iconic film (Goldfinger), and architecture (notably, TWA’s Eero Saarinen “tunnel” at Kennedy International Airport).

Spielberg reproduces Abagnale’s suspiciously squeaky-clean account that seems filtered of potential legal liability content. So, he was a pilot, but supposedly never flew. He was a doctor, but says he never treated anyone. He was a lawyer, but never argued a case. How convincing is it that his deceptions hurt no one and had no consequences?

But the story isn’t really about identity or money or careers or professionalism. As scripted, Spielberg’s Abagnale cannot reconcile himself to the failure of his nuclear family and can never satisfy his father. It all crystallizes in a Magical Child moment12 that presents DiCaprio aglow with victimization, an image as indulgent as anything in a landmark egofest like One from the Heart, uncomfortably personal without being insightful. Spielberg keeps building positive energy with his quicksilver staging, then nullifies it with the negative energy of the family’s earthbound melodrama.

This sentimental template allows Spielberg to sidestep the more complex psychology that compelled Abagnale’s disguises, deceptions, and identity thefts in a nation seen as a coast-to-coast cornucopia of opportunity. Thus, the great theme of American reinvention of self, those second acts of American life, slips past. Instead, Spielberg makes us watch the hero scrambling to conform, and thus neutralizes any tension between Abagnale’s options of living as a risk-taker or as a buttoned-down drudge.

Composing emotion-loaded images has always been Spielberg’s talent, not clarity of meaning. But a seemingly unique new direction arises with Spielberg here nervously crafting a sex scene. As Abagnale loses his virginity, the director shields our eyes, focusing our attention on the objects falling off the bedside table from all the bodily jiggling (little improvement on the hoary ’50s convention of the camera panning to the logs burning in the fireplace).

This tumultuous period — which smashed racial and gender barriers, blasted open the closet door for gays, introduced the concept of recreational drugs, and witnessed political assassinations, the birth of environmentalism, and massive anti-war protests nationwide — appears sanitized here. There’s not one sign of the cultural upheavals, not even the stale beatniks who surface in Down with Love. Spielberg simply ignores that anything special happened, presenting history as experienced on TV, in the safety of the living room, not on the streets.13 But it seems a narrow kind of humanity when he limits his focus to family and not society, especially when the period’s culture wars are still alive in our own time’s fractious division into Red America and Blue America.

Retro’s re-examining of roles and values points to some anxiety in America’s self-image, but it’s hardly the first sign. The megaplexes are chockful of films that retreat into multiple dreamworlds: adolescent fantasies of empowerment populated by hobbits or ewoks or one absurdly endowed superhero after another, most recently in the X-Men films, Spiderman, Daredevil,14 and The Hulk15. If retro models promise the reassuring predictability of a paradigm, fantasy offers a blank slate of possibilities, but neither necessarily involves contemplation of any real-world consequences.

While parasitizing the past, Hollywood engages in translating this era that produced both Dr. Strangelove and Harum Scarum for our more conservative time. Instead of painting the1960s with all their taboo-smashing and engaging with history and the new constituencies arising, the current retro-wave seems to reduce this narrative to frantic caffeinated farce in Down with Love (and The Truth About Charlie), to amoral narcissism in Ocean’s Eleven (as well as Paul Schrader’s vice critique Auto Focus), and to the FBI soap opera of Spielberg’s film. It was 1966 when Godard’s Masculin Féminin caught the spirit of the times by characterizing the 60s generation as the children of Marx and Coca-Cola. Can we deny that postmillennial Americans, the ones consuming in their boutiques while absorbed in cellphone colloquies, appear to be the spawn of Starbuck’s and Oprah?

  1. Within the last season or two, Broadway has also rehashed film landmarks of the period such as The Graduate, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Sweet Smell of Success. []
  2. Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle is “a dodo begging for extinction…To search for a story would be like looking for a wall safe in a bowl of spaghetti.” David Elliott, San Diego Union-Tribune, June 26, 2003. “How many music videos can a man string end-to-end and call it a movie?” Desson Howe, The Washington Post (6/27/03). “Things I would rather watch than Full Throttle: Béla Tarr‘s seven-hour Sátántangó; Last Year at Marienbad without subtitles; the entire selection from this year’s Cannes Film Festival, widely regarded as the worst in living memory; Battlefield Earth; my parents having sex.” John Harkness, Now Magazine, Toronto, June 26, 2003. []
  3. I Spy: “Big chunks of this picture look as if they were shot on the soundstage of a college TV station.” Rob Blackwelder, SPLICEDWire. []
  4. Their partnership is thoroughly covered by Alan Vanneman in “Are Rock and Doris Hollywood’s strangest romantic team?“, Bright Lights 1999. []
  5. See Robert Keser, Far from Heaven. []
  6. Down with Love by Barbara Novak is actually a book now for sale: (HarperEntertainment, 2003: ISBN: 0060541628). What next? The Collected Editorials of Citizen Kane? Three Screenplays by Joe Gillis, Sunset Boulevard‘s script doctor? []
  7. Down with Love: “The movie’s so arch it kisses its own ass in congratulation.” Robert Wilonsky, Dallas Observer, May 15, 2003 []
  8. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days: “And so another machine-tooled Hochkonzept chick-flick plops off the production line … I’d rather have my molars filed down without anaesthetic than watch this again.” Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, April 18, 2003. []
  9. Alex and Emma: Kate Hudson and Luke Wilson’s “chemistry wouldn’t light a cigarette”. Eleanor Ringel Gillespie, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 20, 2003. “The perfect date movie for pseudo-literary half-wits.” Bruce Newman, San Jose Mercury News, June 20, 2003. “Plays out like Merchant Ivory from hell.” Michael Rechtshaffen, Hollywood Reporter, June 15, 2003. []
  10. In the 1950s, redoing black-and-white comedies in color seemed reason enough for remakes. In 1956, June Allyson became a kind of anti-Cinderella of the misguided color remake: in a single year, she stumbled in the pumps of Carole Lombard (My Man Godfrey), Norma Shearer (The Women modernized as The Opposite Sex), and Claudette Colbert (It Happened One Night, musicalized as You Can’t Run Away From It). That none of these versions approached the appeal of the originals just proves the folly of remaking successful films. []
  11. The Italian Job: “All you remember are the meaningless motes of texture: the 400-pound Maori gangster, the radicalized Russian pawnbroker…The rest is just driving.” Michael Atkinson, The Village Voice, June 4, 2003. []
  12. See Robert Keser, Catch Me If You Can. []
  13. The epic wave of product placements in Minority Report, unconvincing as any meaningful critique of runaway consumerism, gets wittily inverted here as DiCaprio playfully leaves a trail of peeled off labels from well-known products (though Spielberg can’t resist including two lucrative reminders that “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee”). []
  14. Daredevil: “If the women of The Hours were recruited to script an action movie, it would probably look and sound an awful lot like Daredevil.” James Sanford, Kalamazoo Gazette. []
  15. The Hulk: “It’s too long for kids, it’s too slow for teens, it’s too light for adults. It’s too deep for those who don’t like to think about their movies, it’s too-on-the-nose for those who do…” Michael Szymanski, ZAP2IT.COM. []