Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Barbra, I Can Hear You

So, I watched Yentl the other night.

I know it's not doing my already nonexistent hip cred any favours by admitting that I watched Barbra Streisand's 1983 Jewish musical voluntarily and that I enjoyed it, but I seemingly have a soft spot for grand musical follies of celebrity directors (see also: Scorsese's New York, New York, Coppola's One From the Heart). I know Yentl has always been regarded as a bit of a joke, but has time turned to its favour within the intervening years or is it still seen as little more than that movie where Barbra Streisand dresses up as a man and sings songs to her dead papa? Other than gay audiences and lifelong fans of Streisand's insane vibrato voice, has anybody re-examined Yentl and concluded that it's actually pretty good? A critical re-evaluation would surely be able to acknowledge its flaws, whilst also bringing to attention its moment of sublime cinema that ought to be cherished, not cringed at. If anything, I'd be surprised if Streisand herself doesn't spearhead a 30-year anniversary rerelease in 2013, especially if the upcoming Christmas release of The Guilt Trip inspires a revival in stock of her film career, or if that long-gestating Gypsy adaptation goes into production.

Also: 30 years? Jeepers.

Still, watch it I did and like it I certainly did. As I said before, it's definitely flawed. Maybe it's just because Streisand's face is so ingrained in pop culture, especially watching some 30 years after the fact, that it's hard to see her face supposedly disguised as a boy's (albeit, an admittedly feminine one) and believe that anybody could have been fooled. Even in early 20th century Poland, surely. It must also be said that despite the film's fantastic original song score, the way it was integrated into the film is problematic. Much like the film adaptation of Dreamgirls, the songs of Michel Legrand, Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman fluctuate between in-scene performance and internal monologues. Some truly fabulous songs are rendered less powerful due to the way dialogue is spliced throughout - I'm looking at you "Tomorrow" - and even the film's zenith moment, the soaring "Piece of Sky", can't decide what it wants to be. Similarly, the romance between Streisand and a deliciously fuzzy Mandy Patinkin can never quite figure how far it wants to go. For obvious reasons the very obvious homosexual subtext is never addressed in anything other than a vague passing conversation or glance, but it would have still been a far more interesting path for Streisand as director to take.

However, if there is one genre of film that allows its flaws to be so easily overlooked then it is the musical. It's rather interesting, really, how easy it is to disregard a flaw here or there when a movie can throw something as unequivocally majestic as "Papa, Can You Hear Me?", "Will Someone Ever Look at Me That Way?", "The Way He Makes Me Feel" or the aforementioned "Piece of Sky" at the screen. The latter of which is surely one of the most rousing and, as itchy to the word as I am, epic moments of cinema I can recall. How does one watch the final five minutes of Yentl, as Streisand's single lady sets out across the Atlantic to the shores of America belting out the exhaustive "Piece of Sky" at the top of her lungs, and not feel a sense of old-fashioned cinematic awe is beyond me. The final 90 seconds, specifically, as Streisand cries out with one of the longest diva notes you've surely ever heard, is pure magic. The look of elation and unbridled joy on Yentl's face as she finally embarks on the path to freedom she has so desperately desired all this time and she leans over the deck of a ship and tells her papa to "watch me fly" is a moment that rivals What's Up Doc? and Funny Girl as her finest film moment.

Also, a little Mandy Patinkin goes a long way, and Yentl has plenty of him so it goes even further.

Thank you to the esteemed StinkyLulu for those beautiful images!

Really though, after watching Yentl, one can only sit here and admire Barbra Streisand. Surely that was her mission all along, but for a woman to helm a musical in the dredges of the 1980s - the same year as Flashdance, it must be said, that was far more typical of the genre in that decade - about a Yeshivah girl who wants to study and not be at the beck and call of a man, is a pretty damn impressive feat. She had commented that her 15-year mission to tell this tale was initially rejected by Hollywood for being "too ethnic", so that she got it on screen at all, least of all as a musical in 1983, and was allowed to direct at a time when female directors weren't given this type of prestige fair is quite something. And for it to be a commercial and relative critical success, too? It's easy to see why some were perturbed by Streisand's quote unquote snub in the Best Director category at the Academy Awards, but for all the film's strengths, her direction isn't really the top. The film did win for its original score, and who can argue with that especially nowadays were a cinematic musical with an original score is almost unheard of, and also holds the distinctive historic footnote of being one of only two films to receive Oscar and Razzie nominations for the same performance (that'd be Amy Irving).

In the inevitable YouTube rabbit hole that I found myself in post-viewing I came across these two videos of Streisand accepting Golden Globes for Best Director (a full 25 years before the Academy would honour Kathryn Bigelow) and Best Picture Musical/Comedy. They're interesting views to see a person of such normal poise and stature appearing legitimately overcome (or, verklempt to keep the Jewish theme going).

"You're making a movie in Czechoslovakia?"

Fun fact: At that same Golden Globes ceremony, Cher and Giorgio Moroder also won statues. Poppers o'clock in the gay neighbourhoods that night, yeah? And, basically because it's just so good, here is "Piece of Sky". Gotta love the bombast of those last few moments.

Bring on Gypsy!


Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more, really liked the movie despite it being overlong and a bit laughable...it's that last long shot and that note that sells it, truly magic. Wish Babs could overcome her vanity that was all over her last movies as director and come back to the director's chair, shame about The normal heart.

Lee said...

Could not agree more- what a beautifully written piece. Not ashamed to admit YENTL is my favorite movie of all time!

Kelsy said...

I watched this film sometime last year. Mostly it was streaming on Netflix, and I realized Mandy Patinkin was in it. I'm still a little confused why Patinkin doesn't sing (this is a musical of one person, it turns out), but overall, it was more enjoyable than I thought it would be. That there's a strong feminist undercurrent makes it even better.