Genevieve Valentine (glvalentine ) wrote,

Why Eiko Ishioka Should Win an Oscar for a Really Bad Movie

Movies mean a lot of great and thankless work from a lot of talented people. Moviegoers (myself included) tend to take, as they're meant to take, the final product as a whole and unbroken illusion. In this illusion, costume design is a natural extension of character and setting - Driver's white satin scorpion jacket (designed and built by Erin Benach) is his one-stop synecdoche, and Alexandra Byrne's painstakingly accurate fichus made Amanda Root the poster girl for muslin-strangled emotions in Persuasion. The occasional breakout costume designer becomes something of a household name - Edith Head, maybe Colleen Atwood? - but in the age of director as auteur and actor as brand, costume designers, production designers, directors of photography, and the rest should probably just have a drink on me.

In that light, it's an interesting, if not surprising, phenomenon that individual elements become more obvious when movies are bad, separating things that work from things that don't. ("X is too good for this!") Sometimes, when a movie is pretty universally dismal, a single person's work can actually become the focal point of the film, and will end up carrying any narrative, skill, or enjoyment to be gotten from the movie on its solitary shoulders.





That movie is Mirror, Mirror, and Eiko Ishioka should win an Oscar for it.



You're probably no stranger to (the late) Eiko Ishioka's work: she won an Oscar for her costume design for Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, in which Lucy Westenra rocked the mother of all demented christening metaphors in her tomb garb, and Mina Harker sank from mint through hunter green as she got more entangled with the seductive-slash-geriatric count, in costumes that were a fascinating mix of historical accuracy, Pre-Raphaelite symbolism, and Edwardian stage-costume drama. She also created the costumes for Tarsem Singh's first two films, The Cell and The Fall, both of which were visually stunning, beautiful and grotesque by turns, and for both films she deserves no end of credit.

In this case, she's being nominated for work done in spite of, rather than in service of, the movie, largely because the movie is so dreadful I find it hard to describe. It was so bad that I didn't write it up, because after Immortals and this, any review I wrote would have to include serious doubts as to the future of Tarsem Singh's career, which is a sad thing to write about the man behind The Fall.

The true dreadfulness of it is hard to explain. In fairness, it tries hard to do some interesting things - this is the rare Snow White in which the Seven Dwarves have distinct personalities and are clever and capable rather than infantilized - and Tarsem Singh has never shied away from over-the-top, even overwhelming, production design, which means that parts of the movie are lovely to look at all on their own. (The Queen introduces the film via a CGI-doll introduction reminiscent of the similar sequence in The Fall, which is so pretty you wish the script wasn't happening so you could enjoy it without the dreadful lines.)

However, the level of miscasting (Julia Roberts, Mare Winningham, Nathan Lane, Lilly Collins, and Armie Hammer ARE Weirdly Paired, Hard to Watch, and Toilsome!) reflects a cobbled script adrift in a sea of intentions. Singh is a storyteller in love with story, and it makes sense that he tries to layer his narratives to prove a story about how stories enter the common imagination (there are a lot of "and that's how that became a trope" bingo squares here), but the script and actors necessary to tie it together are both absent.

Half unabashedly childish fairy tale and half postmodern commentary, the movie takes the most awkward parts of both and does very little with it, save to give us getting-ready-for-a-kiss or learning-to-fence montages with Snow White, and linger on Queen Julia's hallow/evil fears about desirability and aging - familiar fears from this story, delivered through a disturbingly modern mouthpiece. By the time Sean Bean shows up to bob awkwardly through a Bollywood closing number that seems to have surprised everyone involved, there's nothing left to do but roll your eyes and wait for credits. It is a Really Bad Movie. I make no excuses for it; there aren't any.

However, that doesn't mean Eiko Ishioka didn't do Oscar-level work. On the contrary: considering the wildly-varying characterizations and tones the script presented, she did some markedly heavy lifting.

Her costumes are a Technicolor playground of fairy-tale fashion filtered throguh 1930s Hollywood's ideas of period costume, a joyful excess of excess. Look at the two photos above: Did you want a historical period for your living chess game? Take four! Did you want a childlike mimicry of the ridiculousness of noble dress? Not a problem. Did you need a court gown for your queen?



You're welcome. (Is it peacocks? You bet! This movie ain't subtle.)

There's a through-line of women-in-finery as-birds, actually; Snow White shows up in a beautiful swan dress that gets totally overwhelmed by an admittedly ill-advised swan hat and set of wings (an unfortunate overemphasis on childishness, and matched for awkwardness only by the bunny ears on the Prince):



But the swan is echoed later, as Julia Roberts appears in a wedding dress made of feathers symbolically sharpened to knife points, an older, wiser, and more bellicose bird flanked by guards and prepared for war:



(Note the guards in formal helmets.)


Since the aesthetic allows for both all and no historical periods at the same time, the palace servants abandon historical consistency and seem instead to be tributes to the fairy-tale movies of the 1960s - these dresses would be right at home in Donkeyskin or Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella:




And though it's the only praise that can be given to the character, at least Snow White has a refreshing and slightly acidic off-primary palette:




(You can see these - and more - in detail over at Film Equals.)

I'm a fan of the idea that costumes don't have to be over the top to be worthy of awards - it's sneaky work, providing such a crucial visual that often carries the dual responsibilities of character and setting, and it should be acknowledged for subtleties as well as set pieces.

However, sometimes exuberance is called for, and in Mirror Mirror, she provided in spades. Her costumes are an aesthetic jolt that did as much to energize the movie as anything could, and will be influencing costume design in years to come, in the same way much of her work in Dracula influenced the level of historical detail in historical-fantasy film. She passed away last year, before the movie was even released, but her work speaks for itself. Eiko Ishioka was an artist and a master of the craft, and I'll be crossing my fingers this year.
Tags: costume, movies, picspam, questionable taste theatre
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