Wednesday, January 16, 2019

There Can Only Be One: Carol Channing

Originally posted to The Stranger on Mar 14, 2012 at 12:58pm.  

(Dori Berinstein, US, 2012, 87 mins.)
I review a lot of punk documentaries, so my interest in Carol Channing—as opposed to, say, Chad Channing—may seem odd, except this lady's been kicking ass for decades now.
Further, the gap between punk and musical theater isn't as wide as it might seem, especially since Green Day's American Idiot became a Broadway hit (to say nothing of Stew's Public Theater production, Passing Strange, which lives on as a Spike Lee joint).
I've always been fascinated by Channing's unique voice, which isn't attractive by conventional standards, yet it's more distinct than that of Glee and Wicked co-stars Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, who are likely to be more recognizable to younger viewers.
Channing has a grittier Vaudevillian style, and the older she gets, the more she sounds like Louis Armstrong, which is ironic, since he also recorded "Hello, Dolly!"
Youre lookin swell...
  • "You're lookin' swell..."
In Gotta DanceDori Berinstein profiled the AARP-age performers of the NETSationals senior dance team. She has a way with subjects who've been kicking around for awhile, and Channing turned 90 during the filming of Larger Than Life. Archival footage reinforces her love of white, sequined dresses, and red lipstick.
Like Liza Minnelli, she's rarely changed her look, and there's no need when it continues to serve her so well. Comedy writer Bruce Vilanch describes her as "this creature with huge saucer eyes and gigantic red lips and a massive smile."
Channing grew up in San Francisco,* where she fell in love with performing at an early age. Once she saw Ethel Waters in concert, she knew she wanted to do the same thing, and established a life-long friendship with the singer. Not until years later would she find out that she was part black, and also part Jewish, much like Dolly Gallagher Levi (Channing's parents were prominent Christian Scientists).
If she made the occasional movie—earning an Oscar nod for Thoroughly Modern Millie—theater and television became her bread and butter. Berinstein takes in the totality of her career, but concentrates on Channing's signature role in 1964's Hello, Dolly! (the only high school musical in which I ever participated).
*The film doesn't mention that Channing was born in Seattle.

My favorite Channing screen performance appears in this film (music by Harry Nilsson!).  

Composer/lyricist Jerry Herman says the part was intended for Ethel Merman, who declined, but now he can't imagine anyone else in the role (sorry, Barbra Streisand). He later wrote "Before the Parade Passes By" specifically for her, and Dolly ranks among the longest-running musicals. The indefatigable Channing never missed a full performance—not even while receiving treatment for ovarian cancer.
Larger Than Life prioritizes Channing's public life over her personal one, but doesn't stint on her relationship with the late Harry Kullijian, her sweetheart from the 1930s. After high school, he went off to Korea, and she went to Bennington.
They proceeded to marry other people (she was married for 42 years, Harry for 65*), but reconnected 70 years later, making the film as much a profile of her career as her marriage, to which famous friends from Tippi Hedren to Barbara Walters pay tribute (Debbie Reynolds starts to cry when she talks about it).
On the downside, the jigsaw structure can feel haphazard, as if Berinstein felt that a purely chronological approach might not be sufficiently dynamic. She also hints at darker times, but doesn't push as far as she could, even though Channing seems like a willing participant. Still, a documentary of this nature lives and dies by the personality of its subject and Carol Channing has plenty to spare.
*Also unmentioned: Channing was married four times; her son with Alex Carson, Chan Lowe, is a political cartoonist.
Carol Channing: Larger Than Life opens at SIFF Film Center on Fri., March 16. For more information, please call 206-324-9996 or click here.

Monday, January 07, 2019

The Weight of the Past vs the Hope of the Future in Alexandria Bombach's On Her Shoulders

(Alexandria Bombach, US, 2018, 94 minutes) 

Alexandria Bombach doesn't build her documentary around a person with a particular job, but rather a person with a particular request. That's how Nadia Murad, the soft-spoken 23-year-old at its center, describes herself to the filmmaker. Through public appearances, she seeks assistance on behalf of the Yazidis (a non-Muslim minority), who suffered genocide at the hands of ISIS in Northern Iraq in 2014.

Nadia's highest profile appearance takes place in 2015 when she speaks in front of the United Nations Security Council. Though Simone Mona-
sebian of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime encourages her to describe herself as an activist, Nadia sees herself as a refugee. Simone doesn't understand why she can't be both, but Nadia doesn't look at the situa-
tion through the same lens. When a Canadian radio host asks about her life before ISIS, she mentions school and farming. When ISIS came to her village, they killed most of the men and all of the older women. They raped younger women, like Nadia, repeatedly. It's difficult to listen to her detail such atrocities, but it must be worse to relive them.

Nadia is a slight fig-
ure with long, dark hair, who once dream-
ed of op-
ening a beauty salon. She has the calm, thoughtful countenance of Charlotte Gainsbourg, circa Jane Eyre. When she smiles, which isn't often, she puts her entire face into it. She's close to Murad Ismael, the 30-year-old executive director of Yazda, who has become a sort of surrogate brother (he also serves as her translator). If she cries on occasion, she spends more time comfort-
ing the Yazidis she meets at protest marches and in refugee camps. It means everything to them that she has become their face to the world.

From Canada, Nadia travels to Greece and then to New York where the UN appoints her Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking (human rights attorney and recent Vogue cover star Amal Clooney accompanies her on the trip). As the end credits indicate, Nadia has continued to advocate for the Yazidi people ever since. If she didn't set out to become an activist, she has proven to be a very effective one. As a filmmaker, Bombach (Frame by Frame) treats her with respect, but stops short of full-fledged worship. Nadia is still a human being, albeit one with more passion and poise than most.

If there's a subtext to Bombach's film it's that even well meaning people don't always know how to respond to someone like Nadia. Journalists and political figures come across as concerned in a way that seems more awkward than insincere. They can't decide whether to treat her like a delicate flower or a grizzled warrior, and her polite, if reserved manner throws them off. It's not that she's cold so much as self-contained, and I think that's why she never opens up in this film as much as she could have. It always feels as if she's holding something back, but maybe that's the only way to get from day to day, dredging up terrible memories to discomforted people for the greater good.

Endnote: On Her Shoulders plays the Northwest Film Forum (1515 12th Ave) through Thurs, Jan 10. Check the website for times.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

January Reviews

Photo by Oscilloscope Laboratories
These are the reviews and other 
pieces I'm working on this month.

SIFFBlog: The Weight of the Past vs the Hope of the Future in On Her Shoulders and Freedom's Just Another Word in Karyn Kusama's Destroyer.

Uproxx: music poll ballot.

The Village Voice: Pazz & Jop ballot (see next post).

Video Librarian: Bad Reputation, Benevolence, The Breast Archives, Drawn Together: Comics, Diversity and Stereotypes, Nimble Fingers, Nowhere to Hide, Qi Gong - Mindfulness in Motion, Return to Cuba, Sex Weather, and Woman and the Glacier.

Endnote: As of 2019, The Stranger will no longer be soliciting concert previews, known as Music Things to Do, from freelancers. It was a fun gig while it lasted. My last previews ran in the mid-December issue.