Not The Wonder Years

It’s tempting to dismiss Wonder Boy as a vanity project, and many have submitted to the temptation, but Dick Lee’s debut film is homage to self, as well as a dare-to-reveal look at a surprisingly more uninhibited time

Kheng as LeeBenjamin Kheng as Dick Lee

By Raiment Young

Some people not only grew up to the music of Dick Lee, they had actually lived the world of Singapore’s most recognisable songster. I often hear of those whose lives have somehow crossed path with the man who dabbled in many things creative or, as it was known in Mr Lee’s heyday, “lifestyle”. There are those who had actually worked with him; there are those who had, through supplying the stuff he needed for his work, interfaced with him; and there are those who had co-conspired with him in his many schemes that had impacted the fashion, modeling, and music scenes of Singapore, not to mention, our national psyche.

Many of those that are connected to him, even loosely, have stories to tell of Dick Lee, and are curious to see if Wonder Boy contains any narrative that will match theirs. Unfortunately for them, this is not a recount of Mr Lee’s successful decades, or the unveiling of the backstory to Home. This is a filmic memoir of three of his teenage years, before and after a family tragedy, and the events leading to the release of the 1973 Life Story, his first long-playing vinyl. This is not an account of Dick Lee the fashion impresario who created the ’80s retail experiment Hemispheres or the music lover who became the Mad Chinaman in 1989. This is, disappointingly, a prosaic telling of not an untypical teenager struggling with the loneliness of wanting to break free—from parental expectations and the musical tastes of an era that weighed heavily on him.

The Wonder Boy film still 1Dick Lee’s first pop group known in the film as The Wonder Boys

This is a film with music

It is not unsurprising that you would think this movie to be a musical. But it is not. A Dick Lee film without songs is, I suppose, like fried rice without egg. So, there is more than an opening track, but the songs—mainly those from his breakout album Life Story—do not string the narrative with emotional heft or arouse feelings to let the spirit soar, as the Mamas and Papas tunes did for the 1996 British film Beautiful Thing.

Life Story is the first record Mr Lee released after being discovered while singing the song at Ready, Steady, Folk, a talent contest organised by the cable radio service Rediffusion in 1973. That the album should form the basis of the film is ironic as Mr Lee had told his Japanese audience during the Orientalism tour of 1992 that it was a “very, very, very bad, bad record—bad”. Although, to be honest, I have not heard the original press of Life Story, I do not consider the songs, while catchy, emotionally reflective enough to soundtrack an autobiographical film.

The Wonder Boy film still 2Dick Lee (seated) and sister Pat (left) perform for friends

The result is a loose pastiche of tracks that I suspect will arouse the memories of those old enough to recall them. That, however, may pose a problem: those old enough—Mr Lee’s contemporaries—are not the movie goers they once were. Those who can sing along to Fried Rice Paradise are most likely Gen Xers who remember it as title song from the eponymous musical (1991) than a track from Mr Lee’s debut LP (1974). In fact, many people did not have a TV set at that time, and were not audience to the songs that Mr Lee had performed during the Talentime series of 1973, when he appeared not as contestant, but “guest artiste”. If the songs are intended for a new generation of film fans—as I think they are, they sound terribly kitschy, with a musicality that went the way of Bugis Street.

Perhaps that explains why Home, written in 1998 when Mr Lee was in Hong Kong as regional VP of artiste and repertoire for Sony Music Asia, was inevitably sung at the end of the film, the way artistes promoting new songs tend to finish with something familiar, something that the audience can sing to. I was rather surprised that Mr Lee wrote no new material (rather, they are, according to the man himself, “music that has never been released to the public before”) or a love theme (there are love songs, but not in the tradition of, say, Where Do I Begin from 1970’s Love Story, with the specificity of the film’s story line) considering that love, in its many guises, feature strongly in the Wonder Boy.

Wonder Boy film still 3Party wear in 1972?

This is a film with fashion

The ’70s is a decade that can be easily exploited for visual shiok but Wonder Boy fell disappointingly short. Flower power was impotent, flares inconspicuously represented. It may have been “the decade taste forgot”, but the ’70s was, by many accounts—no less Mr Lee’s own—a colourful era, easy to ape for the big screen. In his autobiography, Dick Lee: The Adventures of the Mad Chinaman, Mr Lee admits to being a fashion plate from young: “started to notice clothes—how they were constructed, what colours they were in, what trends of the moment were” from age 11, and, at 13, “was the best-dressed boy in town with… a floral shirt”.

According to his description of the era, “youth culture was very adult-oriented. For example, we dressed like adults; the guys in fitted shirts with huge collars, worn with high-waisted flares, and the girls in elegant dresses and stiletto heels.” Being the truly fashion-conscious teen that he was, “a typical night out” would see him wearing his “favourite Swiss voile shirt in a green floral print, with an enormous Peter Pan collar. This would be tucked into my brown Oxford Bags, coming up to above my navel and with hems wide enough to accommodate shoe boxes”. Oddly, picking out clothes, getting dressed, and preening were not worked into the script.

Wonder Boy film still 4Indistinctive fashion of the film. The cold shoulder (second from left) is a little disconcerting

Few of those florid attire and exaggerated shapes appeared in Wonder Boy. The silhouettes were disconcertingly current. Costume designer Daniel Goh, former editor of Style magazine and an on-and-off stylist, seems remiss in his research for the film. I want to think differently, but it is not unreasonable to assume that he had picked most of the clothes from H&M and Forever 21, or such (City Plaza, a friend suggested), save, perhaps, for the lead characters. A major party scene saw attendees dressed in outfits teenagers today could see themselves wear. The tight shirts and their accompanying huge collars did not stand out; neither did flares, let alone Oxford Bags. The girls (with today’s brows!) wore printed dresses with a natural waist, but they could be any dress you will encounter in the MRT trains today.

The lack of attention to detail is especially glaring in the choice of brassiere in a seduction scene in which Julie Tan, playing a moral-dubious girl called Linda, who chain-smoked in school uniform, descended on Benjamin Kheng as Dick Lee. The close-up of Ms Tan’s upper body not only revealed her not-so-ample assets, but a bra that could have been picked from Wacoal’s Une Nana Cool line, conceived in 2001 for young girls, rather than a Triumph Lycra/nylon, pre-Sloggi bra of the ’70s that reflected the youth and sexual freedom of that time. I’m sure if asked, Triumph International will gladly loan an era-correct bra from their archive or make one for Ms Tan to wear. If not, there are always the many photos of Guy Bourdin.

Detail was overlooked too in the scene when Dick Lee had a fight and then made-up with his sister Pat: he was wearing a striped, long-sleeved ringer tee, and a pair of bright blue flares with patch-pockets—the zip opened from the left! Is the fly detail to bear out the not-in-the-film fact that Mr Lee spent an inordinate amount of time fashion shopping with mom Elisabeth Lee in his pre-teen and teenage years, and “had to look as trendy as my mother”? Did he borrow her slacks?

Wonder Boy film still 5Dick Lee and his mother Elisabeth in their living room

This is a film with (foreign) locations

Much, if not most, of Wonder Boy was filmed in Penang—hardly a surprising location since Singapore of the ’70s is no longer evident, and the film’s S$1.3 million budget is not large enough to build a set that can depict 6½ Mile Bukit Timah Road, or Binjai Park to those in the know, where Dick Lee’s family home is situated, and St Joseph Institution (SJI) on Bras Basah Road, where he went to school for ‘O’ Levels.

The Lee home in the film appears to be a large house, but not as bungalow-like as those in Binjai Park are (including his cousins’—actors Lim Kay Tong and Lim Kay Siu—house), and much of the action took place in a living room that, according to Mr Lee in a behind-the-scenes publicity video, looks like the room he knew well. But the large grounds on which the house sat appeared only in a flash, and were referred to by Julie Tan’s character Linda, without the camera taking the audience there. The macramé pot hangers in the dining area, I thought, were a nice, evocative touch. The sum effect, however, was a home that could be anywhere in Singapore and the Malay Peninsular rather than the exclusive residential greenery not far from the rail corridor’s truss bridge that stretches across Bukit Timah and Dunearn Roads.

Wonder Boy film still 6Classroom scene in Penang Free School

A good deal of the retro-coloured scenes was filmed in a school setting. Mr Lee went to St Joseph Institution for his secondary education, but in the film, the school is known as St Peter’s (could it be because he did not want to further upset his alma mater with insinuation that illicit shenanigans took place in the school compound?). The school of choice for the film is the very secular Penang Free School. PFS, which celebrated their 200th anniversary last year, is the oldest English-medium school in Southeast Asia. Students are known as Frees, and these include Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and Singapore’s first chief justice Wee Chong Jin. Interestingly, Mr Lee’s great-grandfather Lee Keng Kiat, a Penangite, went to the Catholic institution, St Xavier’s, PFS’s long-time archrival.

But it was PFS rather than the younger St Xavier’s that was picked, which suggests that the colonial architecture of the PFS building came to represent SJI rather than its religious leaning. Still, SJI’s distinctive crescent-shape front was not shown since PFS has a linear façade. Those who have been to SJI before it became the Singapore Art Museum also noted that the school did not have windows and doors painted in blue, and the hall/auditorium seemed a tad small. SJI in Bras Basah may only be a part of our faded memory now, but the school and the bus stop outside it (don’t expect to see the row of book and sporting goods shops that was very much a part of that area then) in the film did not look or feel like it is in the heart of the fast-modernising Lion City.

Wonder Boy film still 7Dick Lee with Louise who persuades him not to give up

This is a film with heart

I thought it would be. I saw the film twice: in the first viewing, I was not able to establish an emotional connect with it. In the second, I found myself finding its faults. The film, in many ways, is like Dick Lee’s songs—it draws you in, but leaves you not feeling. It has the colour and the vim (interestingly, not the camp), but once you leave the cinema, it does not stay with you, not even until the bus-stop. To be fair, Dick Lee appeared to have put in his darnest best, like he did for the National Day Parade in 2015, but do you remember NDP50?

Personally, what may have worked against it is the familiarity of the story. Mr Lee is fond of recalling his child-hood days in his concerts, and Wonder Boy feels like a replay of that unabashed conceit. Like those stage performances, the film is short of subtlety and shade—nuances not exactly Mr Lee’s lodestar. At times, I thought I saw bits of MediaCorp’s Growing Up even when I think he was gunning for the late Yasmin Ahmad’s storytelling, particularly Talentime (2009), a film of considerable emotional depth, and the title, coincidentally (?) Wonder Boy’s recurring theme. A comment in Letterboxd was unmistakable about Ms Ahmad’s skills at tugging at heartstrings: “Its 3am and I have the OST of this movie on loop while tears stroll down my face.” For me, I still get goose bumps when I hear Go sung by Mohd Syafie Naswip as the good Muslim boy Hafiz.

Kheng as Lee pic 2Benjamin Kheng’s geeky Dick Lee

As a first-time film maker, it would be aiming too high to scale the height Ms Ahmad had reached, just as it was when Mr Lee, as a school boy, aimed for Elton John’s musical sophistication. Rather, I see Jack Neo’s grassroots anguish (co-director Daniel Yam’s part?) set instead in upper-middle class surroundings, with the protagonists going about the way the chief director remembers things to be. Benjamin Kheng as Dick Lee with bad hair plays it one note shy of over-the-top (or is it just teenage angst?). While, from certain angles, he has the boyish charm of the young Dick Lee, there’s an impishness about the pop singer that he was not able to portray. In contrast, the ill-casted Julie Tan as sex-bait Linda has the emotional range of teak. A surprisingly more striking and believable performance was from Zachary Ibrahim as Marc de Souza, the band mate with a tortured background and testosterone-charging, machismo-pushing anxiety.

As far as authenticity goes, the Wonder Boys was really Harmony, Dick Lee’s first band that he did not form and that predated Dick and the Gang, a group that he did form, comprising Mr Lee and his siblings, much like Jackson 5 or the Osmonds (it is rather odd that the younger brothers have virtually no speaking parts in the film even when John Lee would later play a crucial role as arranger of many of his pop-star brother’s songs). I am not sure why Harmony could not retain its original name. Perhaps the founding members did not agree to it. The Wonder Boys is really too similar to The Wonders in the Tom Hanks-directed That Thing You Do!, with none of the latter’s root-for-the-underdog energy. Which makes one wonder if, in our era of fake news, this is a fake biopic.

Film stills: YouTube/MM2 Entertainment, Bert Films and Dick Lee Asia

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Google Doodle Salutes Eiko Ishioka

Google Doodle 12 Jul 2017

Movie fans, especially film costume aficionados, would know Eiko Ishioka. Therefore, if you use Google Search today, you may recognise the five illustrations that appear on Google Doodles: Ms Ishioka’s costumes from 2006’s The Fall, a film so fantastical, outlandish, and unlike any out there that Roger Ebert calls it “a movie that you might want to see for no other reason than because it exists”. In fact, it is in the genre of fantasy films that Ms Ishioka made her mark.

Ms Ishioka passed away in 2012. Today would have been her 79th birthday. And Google—a salute to them—decided to honour one of film’s most creative costume designers. If The Fall is unfamiliar to you, consider Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula of 1992. It scored Ms Ishioka an Oscar for best costume. We remember quite vividly the outlandish ruff worn by the coquettish Lucy Westenra (played by Sadie Frost) and how it stood beautifully even in the midst of an exorcism.

This is not the first time Google Doodles pays tribute to fashion figures. Back in 2013, there was also homage to another film costume name: Edith Head. Last December, there was animation to celebrate the work and invention of Charles Macintosh, whose namesake outerwear is synonymous with rainwear. Since its introduction in 1998, Google Doodles has celebrated the works of giants of design such as Sir Norman Parkinson and Zaha Hadid.

Eiko IshiokaEiko Ishioka. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

The choice of Eiko Ishioka proves that Google does not hide from less conventional fashion figures or those not immediately identifiable by the average Google user. Ms Ishioka did not share Colleen Atwood’s fame and vast body of work; she did not, in fact, have her start in films. She was trained as a graphic designer, began with Shiseido, and later made her mark in the advertising scene in Tokyo, where, for those old enough to remember, her work for the retailer Parco caught the admiration of her peers. In one of Parco’s television commercials, Ms Ishioka art-directed a chiselled-face Faye Dunaway to do nothing other than crack, peel, and eat an egg!

Her Oscar win led to other film projects. Apart from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Fall, there’s also Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (her first film in 1985) and those by her partner-in-crime Tarsem Singh: The Cell, Immortal and Mirror Mirror (not just The Fall). She also designed for the stage, garnering two Tony nominations in 1988 for M Butterfly. Proving that the art director in her never left, she won, a year earlier, a Grammy for the Miles Davis album Tutu.

While her creative output was varied, including the monochrome and minimalist music video for Bjorg’s Cocoon which showed almost no clothes (a break from costume design, or, as Tarsem Singh told WWD, “Eiko had only two gears: full-out or no gear at all”?), it was her costume work for strange worlds that continue to capture the adoration of fans. These included Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai and the massive stage wear of Grace Jones’s 2009 Hurricane tour that only the singer can pull off.

Many of Ms Ishioka’s fans note that she made a success for herself in an industry dominated by men. But we think it is more remarkable that she had left such a legacy in show business that was, and still is, the domain of the West. Eiko Ishioka, you are missed.

Watched: Wonder Woman

As hypothermia-resistant Wonder Woman, the fights are fast and furious. As man-saving Diana Prince, the fashion is fusty and feeble

They love her: the reviewers. So this one must be good, or, at least, not another DC dud. That’s what we were led to believe until all the CGI scenes and slow-mo action started to bore, and you direct your attention at the titular character.

Wonder Woman the film is watchable, but Wonder Woman the superhero isn’t quite enthralling. Sure, Gal Gadot as Princess Diana is a beauty to behold, but her performance belongs to the Angelina Jolie school of acting. As we sat in Hall 4 of Film Garde Cineplex not quite transfixed, we kept spotting Lara Croft spying us from all corners of the screen.

It does not help that Ms Gadot pouts (actually, frown-pouts) when she wants to be fierce. Which means Wonder Woman, too, works her lips, making us wonder why they weren’t part of her arsenal, like those up-to-the-elbows bullet-proof cuff bracelets. And just like the Tomb Raider, Wonder Woman dodges bullets deftly, using her body as an aerodynamic fighting machine. It’s the costume, you see: that amazing armour/swimwear (the earliest version of the comic had WW wear a skirt!) that allows her body to be a weapon of defence rather than an object of desire.

Wonder woman costume 1

Not that the costume adopted by Lynda Carter as the Amazonian—the one we remember most—is great (too campy, too pageant, as many today would concur), but the leather-and-loin-cloth combo of Gadot’s WW, designed by Lindy Hemming (who, also happen to have designed the Lara Croft costumes), led us to think of Sheena Queen of the Jungle. Perhaps the aesthetic/silhouette similarity should be acceptable since Princess Diana grew up on an island that’s forested, even when her homeland (and training grounds) is a take on Rivendell, and a poor one.

What annoyed us somewhat is the lack of explanation to how WW’s costume came about. This is supposed to be her backstory, but the costume just appeared—in the middle of the trenches of war. Sure, she’s similarly dressed back home on Themyscira (more commonly known as Paradise Island), but she did not pack extra clothes when she left with Steve Trevor, whom she rescued earlier, to fight a war that she believes was initiated by Ares, the god of war.

Nope, there is not the famous spin perfected by Ms Carter on the TV series. Wonder Woman of 2017, in a hooded cloak, merely turns with her back to the camera and then faces front with the superhero costume intact. Until then, she does not know she is a superhero and one who needs a costume. How did it become so calculated? Although the script made sure she could speak many languages, including, gasp, Sumerian (can she read cuneiform text, and, therefore, the Epic of Gilgamesh?!), it did not reveal to us that Wonder Woman could cut and sew, unlike, say, Peter Parker.

Wonder woman costume 2Wonder woman costume 3

When feminism is now worn on the chest, this is the female-empowerment movie of the year. The leather (or PU, or latex?) bustier number should be able to say something about sartorial emancipation. But it seems to revive the body-con ideal that never fails to be the feminine ideal. Less revealing than Lynda Carter’s perhaps, but it is even more perfectly shaped than any costume seen in an action film involving a heroine—clearly requiring sewing technology, which seems at odds with an at-war society that required rescuing from a woman who fights with swords, spears, and bows and arrows.

With much of the action and story taking place in the battle grounds of what is believed to be World War I (which, interestingly, took place before DC’s creation of Wonder Woman), WW’s alter-ego Diana Prince requires almost no fashion, just as she needs no man’s chivalry to feel attractive, desired, or feminine. Maybe just his charity (he had to buy her something decent to wear). Clothes, as her urban contemporaries know them, seem to be hindrance to her as a warrior. In fact, she does not need to hide her identity, morphing from Wonder Woman to Diana Prince and back rather unconsciously and effortlessly. When she fights, she is costumed as WW. When she’s off the battleground, she is an I-have-no-time-nor-interest-in-fashion woman.

In fact, part of the script showed how uncomfortable she was with clothes of the world outside Themyscira. When Major Steve Trevor took her shopping in London (apparently at Selfridges) for a set of garments that would look less like underclothes, she scoffed at the choices offered to her, impressing her minder that no one could fight in outfits that cover so much of the body. Wonder Woman, who grew up in what could be considered temperate clime oddly requires no more than a hooded cape to survive snowfall!

Wonder woman costume 4

Diana Prince, Major Trevor’s “secretary”, came by accident rather than as a real character to conceal her superhero identity. Part of the Diana Prince look (disguise?) is her glasses. In the comics, Ms Prince wore many different types, including rimless styles and chunky ’70s frames that would delight Alessandro Michele to no end. Lynda Carter’s was glamorous instead of secretary-conservative, just as Mr Michele’s versions for Gucci are geeky-alluring.

But when Diana Prince was treated to a makeover in London—her first port of call in the movie, she was given a pair of specs that looked like it was hastily picked from Owndays rather than something consistent with those worn in the early 1900s. Those glasses strangely appeared so briefly—during an alleyway ambush—that they don’t even amount to a cameo costume role, just as Diana Prince herself is down-played.

We’re no studious followers of the Wonder Woman comics, but we’re aware that there have been many delineations of the character. No matter how she was and is drawn, there has always been an element of sexual tease in the print versions. There too is humour, whimsy, and, dare we say, camp. But, Wonder Woman, the movie, is a dark, serious, not-fun account of the most known female superhero characters. While director Patty Jenkins has been lauded as a terrific first female director of a superhero movie, it is notable, perhaps, that, in order to gain the accolades, a woman directing a woman needs to stay clear of camp. This is a competent virgin outing, but not one with flair, let alone style.

We’re urged to revisit past print portrayals of Wonder Woman: in some, she even looks like Angelica Huston!

Photo (top): Zhao Xiangji. Movie stills: Warner Bros Pictures

Who Sewed Noah’s Clothes?

Noah Costume 1By Raiment Young

You can look in the Bible for many things about the past, but you can’t find fashion trends. There are mentions of clothes, of course, yet there’s no revelation of what were current styles. Not that there were no affluent people either in the tales of the Book, yet you do not get a clear description of what was the rage. “There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen…” went a description in Luke 16:19, suggesting, perhaps, coloured garments—or dyed cloths—were a luxury for the wealthy. Still, for the ancients, rocking a certain look was not encouraged. In 1 Peter 3:3, there’s the stern recommendation: “Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel”.

The Bible authors’ apparent omission of prevalent styles could have been brought about by the disdain of fashion-centric choices such as mixed fibres and ornamentation. In fact, there’s quite a bit of do-nots here: “Thou shalt not wear a garment of diverse sorts, as of woollen and linen together (Deuteronomy 22:11)” and “…women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array (1 Timothy 2:9).” And nothing akin to boyfriend shirts and boy-cut jeans too, since “the woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man… for all that do so are abomination… (Deuteronomy 22:5)”!

Noah Costume 2

No wonder the costumes of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film Noah appear decidedly post-Common Era. Unlike the look of the ark, which could benefit from measurements spelled out in the Bible (materials to be used included), what Noah and his family wore did not draw from ancient dressmaking specs. Earlier this evening, as I watched the film, trying to reconcile the retelling with the story I know since kindergarten, the costume’s extremely modern make and silhouette was as interruptive as the smartphone that lit repeatedly three seats away from me.

Mr Aronofsky’s US$125m blockbuster was prefaced with an admission that they took “artistic licence” with the narrative, which “is inspired by the story of Noah”. This disclaimer should really cover the costume design too. So much far-fetch reimagining of the period’s clothes was there that when close-ups afforded a magnification of the details, I kept seeing bobbins and pins! Not the coarse fabrics, not the unfinished hems, and certainly not the whip stitch could belie the machine finish. I find myself resisting acceptance of the shirts of Noah (played by a gladiator-in-skinny-pants Russell Crow)—yes, shirts, with plackets and yokes, no less! What was disconcerting was that an ark builder awaiting the wiping out of the world would don chemises with the fit of Oxford Street tailors!

Noah Costume 5And costume designer Michael Wilkinson (Man of Steel, 2013) did not stop absurdity in its tracks.When a coat was required, Noah wore a gored version with multiple exposed seams that would not look out of place in a rack of Yohji Yamamoto outerwear. His eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth) looked pretty in a hooded shirt with oversized patch pockets that was clearly shaped after the signature styles of Junya Watanabe. Even the cracked surface treatment of the tunic worn by Noah’s grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) had more than a whiff of Maison Martin Margiela about it! The two female leads did not fare any better. Noah’s wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), at one point, wore a tank top pinched just below the shoulders to create a décolleté not unlike a sweetheart neckline. Her adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson), played up her youth and femininity with a distressed warp-knit tunic that conveniently slipped off the right shoulder. Were the costumes produced out of an H&M sampling room? For a tale that predates the Exodus, Noah appears to be more clothes-conscious than Moses!

Nearing the end of the film, one costume I noticed that had stayed true to the Bible’s depiction was the birthday suit: the one on an inebriated Noah lying naked on the beach.

Noah is currently screening in cinemas. All verses quoted are from the King James version, Cambridge edition. Photos: Paramount Pictures Corporation 

The Future Chic Of Geeks

Her Pic 1By Raiment Young

From start to finish, sight trumps sound, and Casey Storm’s costume beats Scarlett Johansson’s voice! In Spike Jonze’s film Her, it’s really the visual against the aural, and I like the seen more than the heard. Sometimes, the voice of a woman, no matter how alluring, cannot, over two hours, out-seduce the turnout of a man.

Her is set in LA of the not-far-off future, where the computer communicates by voice rather than by text or icon. Yes, it’s Siri as operating system and personal assistant! In comes Theodore Twombly, a letter writer (played by Joaquin Phoenix) for an e-commerce site. As expected, he falls for the seducer of an operating system Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and goes on what Kraftwerk had called in 1981 a “data date”. Theodore appears to be an average guy with the usual taste in women, but his skill in written correspondence and taste in clothes are far from average.

If costume plays an important role in shaping a cinematic story—defining character and delineating culture, Her’s is no exception. The thoughtfully conceived wardrobe of the protagonist illustrates that in a future society too comfortable with personal tech that may cause unease, comfortable clothes, like those of today, can exist because of man’s humanity rather than a mainframe’s algorithms. In fact, the film’s costume has more impact on the viewer than the expected throaty (hence sexy?) and coquettish seduction of the OS. Garb can turn you on more than spiel.

I was attracted to the protagonist’s clothes for their kooky stylishness as well as the antithesis of a futuristic world they represent. There’s no stereotyping, too, for a man can wear loose shapes, choose bright colours, and adopt not-the-usual pairings as naturally as maneuvering the landscapes of projected fantasy RPGs.

Unfortunately, Theodore’s clothes are not, by many SG women’s still-unchanged standards, supremely conventional. As two of them pushed past me to leave the cinema, one was heard saying, “His clothes are weird,” followed by the other, “The pants are ugly” (or as Cath Clark, TimeOut London’s film editor, called them, “worrying high-waisted dad-slacks”).

Why are Theodore Twombly’s outfits peculiar and his pants offensive?

Her Pic 2Let’s first look at the pants: high-waist and low-crotch—made, often, out of nubby fabrics. The daring cut, unbeknownst to a generation of skinny jeans wearers, is rather old-fashioned, and is, in fact, as pointed out by Casey Storm, based on riding pants of the 1800s. The version that appeared on screen is clearly roomy, but not baggy. The high waist is not so alien since it has been offered by Lanvin, Neil Barrett and Comme des Garcons and the low crotch, too, is not unfamiliar since it has been done by Vivienne Westwood, Damir Doma, and Rick Owens.

It is interesting that there are SG women who take issue with the high waist when so many have, for the past five years or more, been wearing slacks, shorts, and skirts above their belly button, sometimes all the way up to just below the bust line. But when men re-position the waist so that they bring attention to the torso, they’re considered unattractive. Has this challenged presently acceptable machismo and attendant sexiness, where male sexual magnetism is centred above the crotch? Have the pants of Theodore Twombly become an affront to the unceasing love for the svelte and hot silhouette of limb-hugging jeans, pants that are so clearly absent in the film? Or is this a case of when women do, men shouldn’t dare?

Her Pic 4Then, there are the collarless shirts (and the one in plaid with the collar deliberately turned inward to show only the collar stand). Once popular in the Nineties (especially those by Armani), they are now considered the poor sibling of the tailored, collared shirt (with stays, no less!), so prominently vended by retailers such as Raoul and Benjamin Barker. What’s truly interesting is how the collarless shirts are styled in the film: they’re not only worn on their own but also as an outer over a polo or collared shirt! Is this too off-beat for women to submit to?

Perhaps for a film so manifestly about the years ahead, the clothes shouldn’t be identifiably retro. But so much of the visual aspects of the films are at odds with future tech: the all-in-one PCs are shaped like (or housed in) old-fashioned picture frames (anti-Apple?) and the GUIs shown on the screens are decidedly old-school (handwriting fonts!). Even Theodore Twombly’s home is warm and woodsy rather than a cold marriage of glass and metal, supposedly future’s preferred interior and exterior materials. In his bedroom, where a significant part of the plot unfolds, his bedside table is really a tall stool with a wooden seat, on top of which sits the table lamp.

In creating folkways and environments peculiar to the future, Spike Jonze, together with production designer K.K. Barrett, has conceived a world that, despite garrulous OIs dominating lives, is rooted in what’s comfortable and real—a comfort and reality not so different from what we pursue today. He may have lost in his computer love, but in the style stakes, Theodore Twombly won out.