Pennies from Heaven: a movie review

It’s 1934, and two-bit sheet-music salesman Arthur Parker (Steve Martin) is deeply unsatisfied: with his work, with his marriage, with the drab everyday world he lives in. He wants to break out and seek adventure, romance, excitement, riches. He wants money to open his own record shop, he yearns to express his ardor, and he hankers for a little hanky-panky, but his prim and prudent wife Joan (Jessica Harper) won’t give up her nest-egg (if you know what I mean and I think that you do). Arthur takes up with a shy schoolmarm (Broadway baby Bernadette Peters) who harbors silver-screen dreams like his own. But nothing seems to make him happy, because nothing can.

Arthur’s inner contradictions are crushing. He rejects tangible pleasure at every turn: he pushes away meals though he’s hungry; he brushes off his wife’s hard-won wooing; after his lyrical daydreams of wooing his true love, he presses for a hasty hump on the couch; when a lady of the evening asks if he’d like to “have a good time,” he growls “No, I like being miserable!” Moments later he coos dreamily, “But I want to live in a world where the songs come true.” This is the heart of his ambivalence: Arthur craves the flimsy joys of fantasy, not the modest but attainable pleasures of the real world. He doesn’t want plain ol’ happiness; he wants the glamour of a Happy Ending, Hollywood style.

Coming on the heels of Steve Martin’s The Jerk, Pennies from Heaven was woefully mis-marketed as a fond fantasy glancing back at the giddy musicals of the 1930s. That misreading must have made the actual film all the more jarring for contemporary audiences.

Pennies from Heaven is a fantasy, all right, but a deliberately jarring one; the main characters break into song and dance to express their inner desires and fears, but after these glimpses into the dazzling paradise of their musical fantasies, the clunking return to the all-too-real world of grim Depression-era desperation stings viciously.

In these tawdry studies in dark and light, director Herbert Ross deliberately evokes paintings from the ashcan school, a point that gets hammered home when we see Arthur and Eileen through the famous diner window from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Then the angle changes, placing us inside the famous painting. It’s a risky ploy that Ross carries off again and again with breathtaking ease, recreating several Ashcan landscapes that give depth to the film’s heart even as they blend seamlessly into Arthur’s garish gimcrack world.

With its cruel interplay of luminous pipe dreams and dismal reality, Pennies from Heaven portrays the alienating effect of glitzy Hollywood fantasy as effectively as Sunset Boulevard or Mulholland Dr., raising us up along with the characters to grace the silver screen, then thumping us unceremoniously back to the dim, heavily shadowed rooms and streets of Arthur’s everyday.

Smithsonian urges Clinton: “Give up the funk. We want the funk.”

It’s official: Parliament-Funkadelic’s Mothership, the transporter of funk, will be the central feature of a permanent musical exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture (scheduled to open in 2015).

Presumably, in order to fit the immense metal Mothership into the newly built museum structure, the curators will have to tear the roof off the sucker.

art

I rarely hang art in my home.

The walls are decorated, yes, but several years ago I looked around and realized that all of the pieces hanging in my living room, bedroom, kitchen — everywhere — were recontextualized items — sheet music illustrations, vintage cards mounted and framed, wooden or enameled tin signs, framed vintage anthropological paperbacks with lurid covers featuring scantily clad native maidens, early advertising images, reproductions and miniatures of movie posters — that I’d chosen to treat as art.

Right now, we have all those and more (including two vintage baseball-inspired board games from my father’s childhood, wrapped in plastic and propped up over the bar), and one honest-to-goodness painting hanging in the bedroom nook.

About that painting: it’s a smudgy little oil painting slapped onto a thin, mass-produced canvas board, a smudgy little Punch & Judy scene slapped onto a thin, mass-produced canvas board sixty years ago by my grandparents’s artist friend, Nunzio. I always liked it, and remarked as much to my father one day. The next time I visited, he showed it to me, ready to be boxed up, a Post-it tag with my name stuck to its back.

Friends sometimes remark on the oddness of an art history student whose home houses little or no art. But art is a slippery little notion, and I don’t pretend to know where its borders are. I don’t think anyone knows, and I’m wary of those who make pretense of it.

So I’m suspicious and resentful of the premise of ABC tv’s quiz Art or Not Art?, which sees clear boundaries where none exist. A little less arbitrary is An Artist or An Ape?, though even there a boundary is unnecessarily drawn. Who’s to say it’s “artist or ape,” not “artist and ape”?

I am participating in NaBloPoMo.

little art historian

The kid in line at the coffeehouse pulled the sleeve of the rumpled, gray-haired guy standing next to him. “Hey, Dad, I know who this guy is.” He pointed at the packet of Newman’s Own cookies displayed on the counter.
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“Yeah?” said his father absently, gazing up at the specials board.

“Yeah! He’s a dentist!”

This caught Dad’s attention, and he looked down at the packet, a smile crinkling his face. “Ah, no, no he’s actually An Actor,” giving the last two words a storybook emphasis. Dad’s eye flickered toward me and he gave me the special “ain’t kids crazy?” raised eyebrow.

It was time to chip in. “Actually, he’s right, in a way… The model for the original painting was Grant Wood’s dentist.”

The father turned wide eyes on his son, and a new look dawned on his face. “Hey… how did you know that?” he breathed softly.

The kid shrugged. “I dunno. I know things.”

Yeah.

I am participating in NaBloPoMo.

Cutting a fine figure

In childhood, I would have hungered for the Kammit action figure. In my twenties, I would have been quite mad for the Jane Austen action figure, and even now I admit a pang; I could hide her in my bonnet, where she would whisper the most deliciously prim gossip.

I can think of one friend who knows a hawk from a handsaw, and very likely can tell a doll from an action figure. Another friend would ponder, weak and weary, over this, or possibly bury it under the floorboards.

The only action figure I have ever owned was given me by a fellow geek in the early stages of courting, and an astonishingly successful gesture it was. That Elsa had twelve points of articulation, her own electrode, and a fully replaceable head, just like me! (A few years later, the same geek swiped my Bride while I was packing my things. Ah, love.)

But even my lost Elsa pales when I gaze upon the wonder, the horror, that is Hieronymus Bosch action figures. My hands actually clench and grasp at the empty air, so potent is my desire to possess them.