Monday, May 21, 2007

Streepathon Stop #5: Out of Africa

"I had a farm in Africa..." -Karen Blixen

Time: 1985 (12th film)

Role: Baroness Karen Dinesen Blixen, Danish émigré to Africa

Awards: 6th oscar nom, GG (drama) nom, BAFTA nom; LAFCA & KCFCC wins, David di Donatello award (for best foreign actress)

Fun Fact #1: This is the second time in three years that Meryl played a real-life person named Karen. The first was Karen Silkwood in Silkwood (1983).

Fun Fact #2: To date, this is the only Best Picture oscar winner in which Meryl had a leading role (she had supporting roles in winners The Deer Hunter and Kramer vs. Kramer and a lead role in nominee The Hours). She has never won a Best Actress oscar for a Best Picture winner; the closest she's come was in Emmy magnet Angels in America.

Fun Fact #3: Rumor has it that Audrey Hepburn was offered the role of Karen Blixen before it found it's way to Meryl Streep... though casting Hepburn would've resulted in a very different Karen, since she's a full 20 years older than Streep, who claims director Sydney Pollack originally didn't think her "sexy enough" for the part.

Fun Fact #4: In Africa, Streep REALLY battled lions: She claims director Pollack untied a lion she was whipping during filming, in order to get more genuine performances from both her and the lion (Pollack will not directly contradict Streep's claims, out of respect for the actress, but will not admit any truth to the allegations either).

Meryl and Robert having fun: Karen and Denys engage in some erotic hair-washing. I wonder how many takes they did of this scene? Probably not many. As Meryl explains on the DVD, they shot this between a group of hippos and their water, and apparently hippos equate the water with their offspring, so the actors and crew risked being trampled down at any time (filming this scene was scarier than it looked).

Film Review: Wow. It took me a long time to get all the way through this 7-oscar-winning behemoth, but I'm SO glad I did. Truth be told, the first time I tried to watch it was last summer, but I fell asleep in the middle (I was tired), and didn't have time to give it another go-around before I went on a trip shortly after. I ended up returning it to Netflix, and postponing the remainder of the Streepathon for what felt like forever. Then, I tried again recently, but was forced to return it AGAIN in order to get a different film for a special occasion. How embarassing. But on this, my third try, I told myself I would REALLY watch it, despite the fact that I'm in the middle of commencement week, and despite my many other obligations. So last night, I really watched it.

And what a grand film it is. It's old-fashioned in every sense: it's a sweeping epic, a love story, a story about stories, a feast of cinematic poetry. But it takes its time. It has little to offer the impatient. It sets up lots of stunning imagery and lets it all lull about, lets the viewer bathe in pretty pictures and rousing music while he slowly gets to know the characters. The story unfolds liesurely, pleasurably. The mysteries and metaphors gradually make themselves clear.

In it, Meryl Streep plays Karen Blixen, a Danish woman who marries to become a Baroness and finds herself presiding over a farm in Africa (Streep's character is based on the author of the memoirs on which the film was based, though she published under the pen name "Isak Dinesen"). Karen soon finds her marriage of convenience to be less convenient than she thought, but no matter because her true love is Denys Fynch Hatton, a free-spirited hunter played by the swoon-worthy Robert Redford. As Karen's marriage crumbles, her love affair overwhelms her, as Denys' unattainability proves to be his most appealing, and most exasperating, quality.

The story is a fairly simple one, but there's beauty in the simplicity. Karen represents Europe, its smallness, its formality, its desire to possess and control. Denys represents Africa, its vastness, its primality, its freedom and its beauty. When the two forces meet, sparks fly. The affair cannot have a happy ending, but it's the most significant event of Karen's life. Indeed, it is her life. We hear her narrate much of the story, and its presented a kind of dream she's struggling to remember, struggling to make sense of. The narration doesn't detract from the film; instead, it puts the beautiful imagery on display in a kind of perspective. Like the recent Y Tu Mama Tambien, this is a story being recalled as a slice of life that shaped the whole of a life, that is over but will never be gone.

Out of Africa is worthwhile, as is any great film, for its moments; it takes the raw ingredients of time, light and sound, and creates a kind of filmic magic. It makes pure poetry out of images and music, as beautifully as I've seen in any film. I can only imagine what it would've been like to see it on the big screen. Right from the opening credits, when we watch Meryl Streep gaze longingly out at the landscape from the back of a moving train, set to the swelling, stirring score, we're drawn into this world of grand vistas and overwhelming emotions, into the fleeting embrace of the cinema and of Africa. In one of the film's signature scenes, with Karen and Denys and riding in his plane among the clouds, fully experiencing each other and the continent, the imagery onscreen only be described as "breathtaking." And between these decadent highs, the film peppers in enough humor and nuance to make sure the story's never less than relatable, the characters never less human.

Out of Africa is not groundbreaking cinema. But it is a sweeping epic in the grand, old Hollywood tradition. It's a powerful story well told, with everything coming together beautifully: writing, acting, cinematography, art direction, music. Kudos to Sydney Pollack, Meryl, Robert, Klaus Maria Brandauer (who plays the husband), the writers, and of course Karen Blixen herself, for finding this story within herself and sharing it with all of us.Streep Review: Well, she did it again. This is one of Streep's better performances, not quite in the realm of Sophie or the other Karen, but still up there. She's given a very tricky character to carry off, and she of course does it beautifully.

One of the things that bothered me at first about the performance was the accent. It's VERY thick and strange, producting an affect that's almost comical. But while it distracted me at first (and I worried about my inclination to laugh at it), I eventually realized that its an integral aspect of the character. Karen often uses her accent to be funny, and Meryl uses the accent to find humor in the lines. In some cases, they read better in the thick, lazy Danish cadence than they ever would otherwise. I applaud Meryl for going so all-out, risking caricature to bring us real character.

In fact, the performance is quite technically impressive all-around. Between the thick, obscure accent, the love scenes, the huge character arc, and the lion-taming, this is probably the most emotionally varied and technically challenging work she's ever done (save maybe Sophie's Choice). So major points for that.

But I still can't decide whether I preferred her work in this film or in Plenty. It's certainly understandable that this is the one that garnered more attention, since this film is far prettier, more palatable, and more oscarable than Plenty (oh, I'll just come out and say it, this film is better than Plenty... and I REALLY like Plenty a lot). But I still hesitate to say this was Meryl's better performance. This one of course has all the things described above, but I have a soft spot for the volatile, broken soul that is Susan Traherne; she took Streep places I'd never seen her go before. Anyway, couldn't critics' groups at least have honored her for both films, like they did for Anjelica Huston in 1990? I don't see why not.

Regardless, 1985 was a banner year for Meryl, and Out of Africa is must-see for Streep fans. Karen Blixen goes on a huge journey from naive, spoiled Danish girl to old and wisened businesswoman/writer, and Streep takes us all the way through. She's a pro like that.

Next in the marathon: A Cry in the Dark (or Evil Angels)

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Blogger Kamikaze Camel said...

I must say, I'm looking forward to A Cry in the Dark. So many Australians say she's terrible.

I so know what you mean about stopping movies and then just never getting around to watching them again. Some movies just feel really long. I could watch Gone With the Wind in one sitting, but my god The Deer Hunter I had to turn off quickly because I just wasn't in for a three hour sitting.

1:23 AM  
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