Funny Face is a Dinosaur!



Directed by Stanley Donen

Paramount, 103 minutes, Not-rated.




Audrey Hepburn was an icon and Fred Astaire one of the smoothest dancers and leading men in Hollywood history. Despite that, some films wear like iron and others are pieces of disintegrating tulle from bygone costume failures. Funny Face is one of the latter.


This musical comedy began life as a 1927 Broadway play and that's about the time that Astaire was young enough to have been involved in such a project. When it was turned into a movie 30 years later, Astaire was 57-years-old, which made his romance with 28-year-old Audrey Hepburn so creepy that not even dollops of Paris and Hollywood magic could gloss it. Nor were Ira and George Gershwin at the top of their game when they reworked songs from the show and wrote new ones for the film. Only “How Long Has This Been Going On” had much of a shelf life and it only after later being re-tailored as a smoky torch ballad. (“S'Wonderful” was popular for about half a season.) Watching Funny Face now embodies the British term naff, meaning insipid.


I grant that it had wonderful set design. The story revolves around Quality Magazine, a fashion rag along the lines of Harper's Bazaar or Vogue. It is simultaneously an advertisement and a lampoon of such publications. Editor Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) is a stand-in for Diana Vreeland and Dick Avery (Astaire) of photographer Richard Avedon. Maggie is bored by the magazine's new issue, the setup for the opening musical number “Think Pink” in which she successfully convinces American women that pink is the only color they should wear (though she hates it). Thompson's romp in the high-contrast minimalist office is visually stunning.


Still, Maggie thinks the magazine needs intellectual heft but her models, including Marion (Dovima, one of several actual models in the film), are airheads who wouldn't know Plato from Play-Doh. She dispatches Dick to scout locations for a makeover and he and his pink-clad female crew commandeer a Greenwich Village philosophy bookstore. They rearrange books, and make a mess over the feeble protests of mousy clerk Jo Stockton (Hepburn). Jo is appalled by the vacuousness of the fashion world and is devoted to an empathicalism worldview, especially as espoused by French thinker Professor Flostre. (It's basically empathy draped in mumbo jumbo.) Jo's life is disrupted again when Dick convinces Maggie that Jo's “funny face” is exactly what Quality needs.


How do you convince a beatnik intellectual like Jo to become a supermodel? A trip to Paris, of course. The magazine wants her to debut the new line of French designer Paul Duval (Robert Flemyng [sic]) but Jo relishes a chance to hang out in smoky cafes and perhaps meet Flostre. Add musical numbers, a burgeoning romance between Jo and Dick, contrivances that keep them apart, fashion runway scenes, and the illusion that Jo and Dick are ill-suited, and that's Funny Face in a nutshell. It's A Star in Born in 1950s couture blended with a bit of Romeo and Juliet.


Astaire was past his prime in 1957. His dancing seemed limp and lifeless, even when he pulled cool moves with an umbrella. His acting was equally flat. The less said about Hepburn's spasmodic cafe moves the better. (If you think Maynard G. Krebs on the Dobie Gillis sitcom demeaned the Beats, it's reverential by contrast.) Hepburn was, of course, cute as a button-festooned rabbit, but her dancing also invites the descriptor naff.


In its day, Funny Face got good reviews, with only the London Times having the courage to dismiss it as fluffy nonsense. Audrey Hepburn became a beloved screen star, which helps explain why Funny Face is often accorded “classic” status. Don’t be fooled; this fashion-driven antique is like finding an old snapshot of yourself attired in clothing you'd deny ever having worn. Aside from eye-candy sets, one of its few pleasures is watching Kay Thompson connive, throw fits, and dance. If her name sounds familiar, she was also the author of the children's book series Eloise.


At the risk of offending anyone in a May-December relationship, the wooing of Hepburn by Astaire is more than distressing; it's thoroughly unconvincing and could have only been made during that part of the 1950s in which a woman “needed” a man and anyone who showed interest would do. Hepburn falls for Astaire after one kiss, her first we are led to believe. Because, of course, who would want to kiss Hepburn? (Take a number!) Funny Face is an artifact from the past best left in a film vault.


Rob Weir






Brought to Life Brings Color Back to Gothic Churches




Smith College Museum of Art 

Northampton MA 

Through August 6, 2023  


Montreal--more typical than you think!


Sometimes visitors to cathedrals such as Notre Dame de Montréal, the Sistine Chapel, the basilica at Notre Dame University in Indiana, or Amiens Cathedral in France are alarmed by what they see. Such Gothic splendors appear gaudy, even garish, riots of sky blues, pastels, and gilding. 


This is because they have either visited weathered medieval churches or have seen bare stone and woodwork in museums. Assumptions of spartan interiors dance in their heads, as if somehow naked pillars directed the gazes of the faithful toward heaven and reminded them that they were to eschew the pleasures of the earthly realm. In such imagining, only stained glass windows or perhaps a fresco or painting illuminated the insides of hulking churches. 


If that's what you think, you're the victim of time and the changes brought by sunlight, candle smoke, dampness, mold, and ephemeral unvarnished paint. At one time, a 14th century cathedral looked a lot like Notre Dame de Montréal—except their exteriors were painted as brightly as those in Italian cities such as Orvieto.  And if you want to push things back even further, Greek and Roman statues were gaily painted as well.




An exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA) give us a glimpse of what medieval cathedrals might have looked like inside via woodworks that retain traces of pigment.  Brought to Life is a gallery full of wooden sculptures from the 14th through the dawn of the 18th centuries. Though these pieces have also been dimmed by time, there is enough of their original hue for us to imagine the explosion of color a medieval cathedral would have been. If you're wondering, though they are too big to go on tour or be installed and the museum, even massive Gothic columns and arches would have appeared in Technicolor. (Okay, not Technicolor, which is a film stock, but you get the picture.)  




In other words, Gothic cathedrals were quite the opposite of a spartan holiness scenario. For most Europeans, cities and villages would have been drab, muddy, and dark before gas lighting, street paving, window panes, and more substantial dwellings took over. In most places, little of that even began to happen before the 19th century. Churches and cathedrals were brightly adorned because they invoked thoughts of heaven, not because color stymied such reflections.  




By extension, there's another historical lesson embedded in the SCMA exhibit. Many North Americans are so present-minded that their view of the past is like the black and white or sepia archival photos from the pre-color film era. We all know Puritans dressed mostly in black, right? Granted their worldview was often gloomy, but many of them liked a splash of color. After all, it was easier to make fabric dyes from flowers and wild plants than blacks from tannin-tinted roots and bark. (Black dyes also degraded fabric much faster.)




To circle back, color was associated with the glories of Creation. It was the case that a lot of medieval public art other than paintings was left unsigned. The skilled artisans who carved figures from wood or stone and those that slathered on the paint were supposed to be conduits to God's glory, one imagined in full living color. 




A visit to the SCMA reveals both the ways medieval Europeans were different from us–faith was seldom openly questioned and religious symbols were ubiquitous–yet also similar. Like us, they enjoyed color and light. They liked it so much that some of their efforts strike us as a bit garish!


Rob Weir



Our Missing Hearts is a Masterpiece



By Celeste Ng

Penguin Press, 335 pages.






Our Missing Hearts was influenced by Margaret Atwood, the foster care system, slavery, the removal of Native American children from their homes, the early days of COVID, Japanese internment in the 1940s, folk tales, anti-Trump protests, McCarthyism, anti-immigrant border debates, and yarn bombing. In most cases, if you pick up a novel whose list of influences is that long and varied, alarm bells go off in your head. What we can say about the latest work from Celeste Ng is that it's not a good novel; it's a great one. If it gets half the publicity it deserves, Our Missing Hearts will become The Handmaid’s Tale of this generation. Like Atwood's masterpiece, Ng's novel packs the additional wallop of feeling way-too-plausible.


Ng takes us to a not-so-distant American dystopia. A series of events known as the Crisis has decimated the economy. Those with resources have isolated themselves to ride out the Crisis, but so many people have lost their jobs that few have even part time work. For them, life in America has come to resemble that of places such as Chad or Haiti. The streets are a war of all against all and even basic needs such as food and shelter are day-to-day conundrums. Think squatting, contingency labor, dumpster diving, stealing copper wire, and forging survival pods with others.


When the Crisis finally begins to subside, leaders convince the citizenry that an external enemy, China, and its agents caused the collapse. This precipitates attacks on Chinese Americans and Asians in general, as few non-yellow Americans can (or bother to) tell the difference between them. Congress passes the Preserving American Culture and Traditions (PACT) act that most of the populace embrace as salvation. Asian Americans learn to keep a low profile and endure taunts, spitting, and random violence against those unlucky enough to stumble into the wrong place.


The Gardner family is at the center of Ng's drama. Nathan is a linguist, librarian, and adjunct Harvard professor from a well-to-do family. During the Crisis he marries Margaret Miu, a spirited and creative Chinese American woman. They produce a son, Bird, whom Margaret loves so dearly that she devotes a volume of poetry to him. Like those who escaped the streets during the Crisis, Margaret is too grateful to see the full implications of PACT when it ends. It is unique to say the least; a major provision guaranteed to make America “safe,” allows the government to remove children from disloyal homes to “protect” America's future. With no prompting or knowledge on her part, Margaret's poetry volume about Bird, which includes the line that titles Ng's novel, becomes an underground classic with “missing heart” iconography showing up on the streets. Margaret's parents die, her father pushed down a flight of steps by an attacker and her mother from a fall that might or might not be suicide. Margaret knows that the only way Bird–rechristened as Noah–can avoid being taken is for her to disappear. Even then, Nathan loses most of his work and his home; he and Noah are reduced to living in two rooms on the 10th floor of a dormitory.


The novel’s subtext is what Bird remembers–he was young when his mother left– or can piece together. He is a curious child and a lonely one because he cannot hide his mixed-race attributes, but he does have one friend, Sadie, a foster child obsessed with re-finding her biological parents. Information is nearly impossible to find. Libraries have been carefully curated, as Noah/Bird discovers when he tries to find his mother’s poetry; the very attempt potentially places he and Nathan in jeopardy. But Bird is a sensitive adolescent and he thinks he knows where his mother has gone.


It would be easy to overdo a novel like this, but Ng recounts horror, hope, crushed dreams, and quiet rebellion in poetic but never pretentious language that illumines detail, deepens pathos, provokes us to anger, and awakens our fear that, yes, this could happen here. It is healing in its insistence that stories are powerful and that knowledge liberates. Ng also understands that resistance and change are processes, not hokey one-offs. There's even a nod to tribalism, if you choose a clan on the side of true goodness rather than pandering sloganeering. What a beautiful and timely book! Ng writes like an angel. Maybe that's because the heavenly hosts are on her side.


Rob Weir