Revolutions, Large and Small

April 30, 2015

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The Russian Revolution, and the Italian Risorgimento:  two different revolutions.  One, cataclysmic; one, not so much. Transforming Russia from a backward agrarian society into a totalitarian industrial giant.  Transforming the Italian peninsula from a motley of states into a unified “modern” nation.  I indulged my abiding interest in Josef Stalin by watching The Inner Circle (1991) by Andrei Konchalovsky, and I’m prepping for a trip to the Piedmont region of Italy, where The Risorgimento originated, by watching Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) again, and re-reading the novel by Lampedusa on which it is based.

Konchalovsky, who was quite successful within the Soviet cinema world, relates that he offered a bottle of brandy to a projectionist if the man would tell him the opinions of the state censors for whom he was screening his latest film.  The man revealed that he had lots of stories to tell about what Stalin used to say about films!  He was the Kremlin projectionist for years:  Konchalovsky was ready to listen, and The Inner Circle is the story of this Kremlin functionary.

The film has some odd things about it, including a score that seems to grow loud and sentimental at the worst moments, and the fact that all the dialog is in English spoken with Russian accents.  Seems a bit hokey at times.  The problem of subtitles and translation was handled more creatively in The Hunt for Red October, about the only good thing I recall from that film.  Tom Hulce plays the projectionist, and he holds onto his pure country-bumpkin good-Ivan characterization a bit too long, but to anyone familiar with Russian history, he’s still believable.

There is a scene where the film breaks during a screening for Stalin, and the projectionist explains that the projector is a poor copy of an excellent German machine – the head of the Cinema Bureau, responsible for these  things, is standing right there – and has an inferior spring part that caused the break.  Stalin uses the incident to indulge his sadistic bent, lightly bandying with the bureau chief who is sweating profusely, while Beria – head of the secret police – notes sarcastically that someone wasn’t doing their duty.  This is the sort of thing that can end with a bullet to the head administered some random dead of night.  It’s a chilling set-piece of Stalin’s daily modus operandi.  If you want a sense of the brutal moral degradation imposed on the Soviet citizenry by Stalin, apart from the mass murder itself, this is not a bad film to see.

Meanwhile, back in Sicily, The Prince is speaking dubbed Italian in Visconti’s adaptation of The Leopard.  Panned at first, it is now highly rated:  Martin Scorsese, not surprisingly, rates it among the greatest of all films.  Why no surprise?  Because Scorsese, as one critic noted, is no great sociologist, and naturally he is entranced by Visconti’s lush nostalgia for a period of elegance decayed.

Starting to read the novel again, I noted right away that the author’s tone is sharper, more harsh, than the elegiac sentiment of Visconti.  The film is an aesthetic response to the politics of the Risorgimento.  You can say that Visconti was a Marxist (he joined the Communist Party after WWII) but how much of one could he be having made this film?  He loves those aristocrats, their clothes, their nobless oblige, and he loathes the upstart middle class.  He was, of course, the scion of a hugely important Italian aristocratic clan.  And in the end, the film is an adaptation, not a copy of the book – he chooses to emphasize the theme of the Prince dealing with his own mortality, as well as the end of his era, a more personal story. A fine film, a wee bit too long, and I think his talents were better suited for Senso.

The Leopard is often referred to as Italy’s “Gone With The Wind,” a comparison that is an insult to Visconti’s considerable talents and highly developed sensibility.

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Dream Sequence: Ivan meets Joe

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Dream Couple: Delon and Cardinale

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L’Innocente

September 21, 2014

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The other day, I watched L’Innocente, Visconti’s film of 1971 based on a story by D’Annunzio.  It was his last film, and certainly not up to the level of Senso.  A narcissistic, decadent, fin de siecle rich guy, Giancarlo Giannini, likes to have affairs, despite being married to a woman who is nearly goddess-like in her voluptuousness, i.e., Laura Antonelli.  (She, by the way, turns in a fine performance here:  not what I expected from the Queen of Italian soft-core sex farces of the 1970s.)

When his wife, oppressed by her desperate situation, takes a lover, he suddenly rediscovers her attractions.  Her lover dies on an African expedition, but she is pregnant with his child.  Her husband, now infatuated with her, demands that she have an abortion, and she refuses, ostensibly on religious grounds (He’s an atheist and freethinker.) but really because she wants the child of her dead lover, whom she mourns secretly.

Possessed by old fashioned jealousy and self-absorption – “I’m a man sick with melancholy, and I enjoy my sickness,” he says – the husband murders the baby.  He thinks that his wife has been seduced into loving him again by his vigorous and slightly kinky erotic ministrations to her, and that she will accept the death of the baby, and move on, with him.  He is wrong – she sees through him and realizes that he killed the baby, and she reveals her measureless hatred of him, confessing that she only pretended to love him again to protect her baby whom she loves as she did his father.

He confesses all to his former mistress, an icy countess (Jennifer O’Neal) and says he is ready to take up with her again. She, despite her relative lack of conventional morals, and her rather cavalier way of dealing with his infanticide, says she’s no longer interested.  She calls him a monster, in a nice way, of course.

Having nothing to live for now – only mere existence stands before him – our existential ‘hero’ shoots himself in the heart while the countess looks on. He wanted her to see how he stands by his principles.  Ho hum…

The costumes are fantastic, and the stifling perfume of the period’s opulence, for this particular class of beings, is, of course – after all, this is Visconti – overpowering in its presentation.  But the story is rather mechanical, and for me, D’Annunzio’s stories are simply a bit ridiculous.

Since I spend so much time looking at old art, I sometimes see things in films…

  

I guess Visconti knew Italian painting as well as I do.  The painting of Jupiter taking on the form of a cloud in order to possess Io (at top, by Correggio) must have been in his mind when he filmed the scene of Giannini carefully and deliberately arousing his wife while making clear his complete (so he thought) dominance of her (below).

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A Private Venus

May 25, 2014

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Melville House Publishing calls Giorgio Scerbanenco the “godfather of Italian noir,” in its blurb for A Private Venus, first published in 1966.  Well, could be – how would I know?  It’s part of The Milano Quartet, a look at the black, dirty underside of that city that seems to have a lot of  noir in its cultural history (Manzoni, Stendhal) if you stretch the term a bit.  And Duca Lamberti certainly is a classic noir male [anti]hero:

Then he took his Lisa Ussaro and drove her home.  At the front door, they even shook hands, they might as well have said, “Thanks for the company.”  He went back to the Cavour feeling completely nauseated with everything, starting with himself, but not with her.

And he doesn’t think to highly of the human species.  He’s babysitting his sisters infant:

“…at one she drinks two hundred grams of milk with her eyes closed, almost without waking up, has a pee at the same time, and then she’s out like a light until tomorrow morning at six or seven.  I’ve always thought that kind of vegetable life is the most civilized.  I think civilization ends, at least for the human race, as soon as brain activity starts.”

Surely he understands that non-humans don’t have civilization, but his crackling cynicism sure is entertaining!

Duca is a doctor who has been barred from practicing, and spent time in prison, for a misstep early in his career when he empathized too much with a very sick old patient.  His father was a policeman who was relegated to a desk job after his arm was mangled in an assassination attempt down south, where he was battling the Mafia.  He wanted, “my son, the doctor,” but the son is a bit too much like the father, and shares his tendency to move outside the rules.  That gets him in dangerous trouble.  But he’s quite good at the crime gig, after all:

But Signor A had not appeared.  They called him Signor A rather than Signor X, because the man wasn’t an unknown quantity:  he was something specific, the chief pimp.  Duca didn’t know his name or physical appearance, but he knew he existed.  It’s like when you say the fattest man in Milan:  you’ve never seen him, you don’t know if he’s a chemist or a restaurant owner, if he’s fair-haired or dark, but you know he exists, it’s just a matter of finding him and weighing him, and then you’ll immediately recognize him because he’s the one who weighs more than anyone else in Milan.

Very logical and systematic:  he gets results.  Faster than his friends, the police.

The plot is a bit haphazard at times, but the suspense propels it forward, and Duca’s character.  You want to know if he will destroy himself or not.  There’s an emotionally damaged young man he’s hired to wean off of drink, a job tossed to him by the police chief who is an old friend; the kid’s engineer-martinet father, a plot element that’s a bit of a red herring;  a couple of young women with an awful lot of nerve and a bit too much intellectual curiosity; and some very creepy types running an European sex-traffic operation.  The title isn’t mentioned in the text, but the racket uses a photo-album to allow customers to pick out the girls they want delivered:  Everyone gets his private Venus, I guess.

The Mafia is a major presence in the book, but only as background, and as the unseen masters of the sex-ring.  Like the book Takedown, and the Italian films,  Mafioso and Gomorrah, its take on the mob is totally unsentimental and unromantic:  they are a bunch of brutal, murderous, gangsters, a cancer on the body of society.  It’s hard for me to imagine an Italian claiming, as people have for The Godfather, that the mob, even in fiction, is somehow a critical representation of capitalism…


L’avventura

October 30, 2013

Michelangelo Antonioni’s film of 1960:  one critic said of it that no film has subverted expectations and conventions so elegantly as this one. I guess that’s why it received boos at its first showing in Cannes, although it was later awarded a jury prize.  I first saw it in college – I loved the images – but I wasn’t sure I understood what it was all about.  Is it about anything?  Of course, there’s Monica Vitti!!

In short, some rich parasites who lack social grace take a boat trip to a Mediterranean volcanic island.  One of their party, Anna, goes missing:  nobody seems overly concerned.  They do the right thing and get the authorities, but, well, maybe she was just bored, and ran off somehow.  The story centers on Sandro, Anna’s boyfriend, and Claudia, her best friend along for the ride.  They have an affair.  Seems pretty weird, doesn’t it?  After all, Sandro and Anna were to be … married, weren’t they?

Before the boat trip, Sandro goes to get Anna.  She takes him upstairs to make love.  “Your friend is waiting,” he says.  “Let her wait!”  That’s Claudia through the window.  The characters, and the audience, will do a lot of waiting in this film.

Monica Vitti’s presence dominates the film.  She became a superstar after its release.  Here, she waits, while her friends make love upstairs.

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Anna is a mercurial type.  She ends a pleasant dip in the sea by the boat when she claims to have seen a shark.  Is there something between these two ladies?

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They go ashore on a dramatic little island.  Sandro and Anna argue. The stupid boat passengers pick among the rocks.

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Time to leave, and no Anna.  They all go searching.  The scenery is awe-inspiring.

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Still, guys like this are barely affected by the beauty around them.  He just goes on making fun of his scatter-brained wife and everything else in the world.  Not an endearing portrait of the denizens of la dolce vita. As a critic remarked, in Fellini’s film they at least seem to be having fun:  these people are just bored by everything.

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Claudia and Sandro are of this group, but outsiders in a way.  We learn that he was an aspiring architect at one point, with ideas, and that as a boy he wanted to be a diplomat or a romantic, starving genius.  Now, he’s just rich, with houses in Milan and Rome.  Claudia remarks at one point that she had a “sensible” childhood, that is “without any money.”  Sandro found his way into this circle of decayed noblemen and parasites through business, but we have no clue about Claudia.  I guess being so beautiful might open a few doors, especially in a totally sexist society.

Claudia is genuinely distraught over Anna’s disappearance while Sandro seems to take it all very calmly.  Moreover, he seems uncomfortably interested in Claudia…  And she is not comfortable with her own attraction to him…

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An encounter on the boat before they set off for the mainland to deal with the police and continue the search for Anna: Claudia doing her hair…

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…Sandro coming aboard for his suitcase…

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He makes his move…impulsive…”Yes, absurd…so what?”  He has all the existentialist crap for excuses to her objections that it is just not right, not now…

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He follows her onto a train to try and convince her to go away with him.  She overhears a young provincial coming on like gangbusters to a pretty country girl, and she laughs at the crudeness of his attempts at seduction.  She begs Sandro to leave her be, and he does.  But they get together not long afterwards, continuing their desultory search for Anna.

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Not much to value between men and women.  Here, one of the boat passengers, now in a palace in Sicily, flirts with a young prince to make her husband jealous, a futile endeavor.  The guy’s artwork, simply a device to get women, is utter junk.

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Claudia is rather disgusted by the whole business…

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We may wonder why a sensible and beautiful woman like Claudia hangs out with these creeps, but it’s 1960, and what was her upbringing..?  She is a strong female character, but in a world hostile to women.  In the most powerful, terrifying in a way, scenes of the film, she waits for Sandro while he makes inquiries in a hotel.  Suddenly, she realizes that as a woman unescorted by a male, she is open game for anything with pants.  They eye her like a whore strutting her stuff in a bordello.

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Sandro has his own emotional issues.  He wants to view a church interior, but the town is not set up for tourists.  A local man informs him that “they got a few French here, but they just wanted to go to the beach,” and the locals told them they were not welcome.  Presumably, they were not properly dressed.  Nobody cares about architecture…

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Except for one young man doing a sketch in the piazza…  Hmm…not bad.

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Not bad at all.  Too bad it got ink knocked all over it…  The young man confronts Sandro, but a friend intervenes.  Such is the generosity and spiritual fullness of Sandro’s inner life.

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The school lets out and a stream of young boys in black… some see it as the equivalent of the ink on the paper.  Is that what ruined Sandro’s psychology?  Or is that a better way, now ignored?

Who knows?  Who cares?  Should we care..?  Well, the film is stunning to watch even if we don’t like the people much.

Poor Claudia.  She’s tired, so she doesn’t go down to enjoy an evening of schmoozing with the glitterati at the hotel they pitch up in, but Sandro goes, and stays late.  Claudia goes in search of him through the now-empty rooms, littered with party junk.  He is engaged with a young woman (aspiring actress?  prostitute?  both?) on a couch.  Claudia is shocked and disgusted.  Should she be surprised?

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She runs outside, and Sandro follows.  He sits on a bench and weeps. The film ends with a depressing chord, and Claudia taking his hair in her hand in a gesture of comfort.  This is what she is stuck with, I guess. Pretty sad for all of them.

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Once Upon a Time in the West

August 14, 2012

A spaghetti western courtesy of Sergio Leone, made in 1968, after he became known in the USA with his Fistful trilogy and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.  Wikipedia reports that Fonda was not sure he should take the job, but his friend Eli Wallach urged him to, saying “You’ll have the time of your life!”  It’s not hard to feel that Fonda and Jason Robards are enjoying themselves, maybe enjoying themselves a little bit too much, as if they’re playing!

I liked the film a lot, the rituals of the violence, the politics, the ‘realism’ of the grungy, beaten-up looking people (not common in westerns in 1968!) and the music too.  It’s like a grand epic opera, without the dramatic punch.  Too much fun, too stylized, too obviously an homage to the great westerns of the past.  It’s almost like a meta-western, the western you would make after studying and researching all the westerns ever made in the USA, which is something I believe Leone did.

Fonda is cast against type as Frank, the villain, a real cold sadist, and his blue eyes and clean-shaven face reflect his sociopathic nature instead of down-home folksiness.  This was radical for the time!  And the film takes a ‘revisionist’ view of the West, although I’m not sure if it was ahead of or just behind the scholarly curve on that.  Instead of a West peopled by self-reliant individualists, we have one developed by rapacious and murderous railroad tycoons.  In one scene, Frank, and his boss, Morton, have a chat in Morton’s opulent rail car.  He’s a cripple, slowly dying of tuberculosis of the bone, and his dream is to build his railroad to the Pacific so he can finally see that ocean.  He finds Frank sitting at his desk, and asks him, “How does it feel to be behind that desk, Frank?”  Frank, a rough character, but a quick study in the ways of capitalism, replies, “As good as holding a gun, but more powerful.

Frank is pursued by a man known only as Harmonica (he plays one), and the shot below is typical of those establishing tension in the ritualistic gunfights.

Eventually, “on the point of dying,” we learn the mystery of Harmonica, and what drives him on his revenge quest.

Claudia Cardinale is the beautiful widow who knows that a tub of hot water can wash away just about any bad feeling, not to mention the smell of filthy men she has had to sleep with.  Speaking to her, Cheyenne (Robards), delivers the improbable lines, “You remind me of my mother.  She was the biggest whore in Almeida.  Whoever my father was, for an hour, or a month, he must have been very happy.

Morton, the greedy railroader, had his own ideas of the saving qualities of water, but his dream of the Pacific was ended by his death in a muddy desert puddle after his violent plans to evict the widow from her land went awry.


Waste, Italian Style

February 20, 2012

Gomorrah (2008), a film by Matteo Garrone, is based on a journalistic account of crime families in the Naples region of Italy, by Roberto Saviano, who is certainly a very brave man, and whom Berlusconi denounced as unpatriotic.  It follows five stories of people whose lives, as are all lives in the region…in Italy? are touched by the mob:  two stupid young kids who dream of big time success as mobsters, and fancy themselves the new Scarfaces of Naples; a master tailor working in the illegal knock-off industry that produces counterfeit haute couture gowns; a young kid who wants to find his future with the local gang while a turf war rages; a mousey accountant who handles payouts and who finds himself in the middle of the same war and wants no part of it;  and a young college graduate who gets a job in the waste disposal business.

The film uses non-professional actors and is produced in a neo-realist, or vérité style:  it is profoundly disturbing.  I suggest it as a pendant to Mafioso for those in thrall to the Coppola-Scorsese melodrama view of the mafia.  Scorsese ‘presents’ this film, and I’m sure he thinks Goodfellas is similarly hard hitting, but in Gomorrah, an MTV soundtrack is notably absent.  For those with a special interest in waste, American or Italian style, this film is informative.  The northern industries send their toxic waste to the south, where it poisons the land.  The managers look the other way, assured that the disposal is clean,as the Americans say.  The price is irresistible.

The action takes place mostly in a neighborhood with architecture that looks like something out of the futurist dreams of Antonio St. Elia.


Listen, Let’s Make Love

September 20, 2011

Listen, Let’s Make Love (1967) is an Italian film set in Milan:  the image (on Netflix, of all places!) was grainy, the sound poor, and everyone is dubbed, even though some of them seem to be speaking their lines in English.  Some call it a satire, some an erotic comedy or drama, and some call it Eurotrash.  I’ll go for the satire and erotic drama, although there is no kissing, no nudity, and certainly no sex. (Perhaps it was filmed, then censored – the Italian laws changed at the end of the 1960s, making possible a slew of sex comedies and dramas with the likes of Laura Antonelli).  I’m still not quite sure why I watched it.

The film opens with shots of Milan and some heavy female breathing in the musical score.  There is a funeral, and a countess laments that she cannot attend, though the man who is being buried was her lover for twenty years, because all of Milan would talk.  Lallo (Pierre Clementi – an actor who inspires strong opinions) comes from Naples to attend his father’s burial and take up his profession, that of a gigolo to the social élite – mostly women, but now and then men.  His father left him nothing but his profession, and a room full of nice clothes.

Lallo proceeds to have a series of liaisons, including one with his aunt, before her husband flees with her to Venezuela to avoid prosecution for cooking his books.  In a story with Naples, Milan, financial élite, affairs with aunts, and an oblique mention of Stendhal  in the dialog, The Charterhouse of Parma must come to mind, and maybe even Before the Revolution.  The northern women like to make fun of Lallo’s Neopolitan upbringing, but that doesn’t stop them going to bed with him and showering him with gifts.


Things just sort of happen in the film.  It’s hard to fathom the characters, but then, most of them are shallow socialites.  The characterizations are not deep, and Lallo’s inner life, if he has one, is a mystery.  He slides into his niche as available male quite easily.  At times, he shows a nervy sarcasm:  “I am determined to sell myself to the lowest bidder,” and when he gets a killer look from a woman he dumped for a better client he says, “She gave me a look that mussed my hair!”  He has an early conversation with a friend of his father’s who gives him good advice on how to conduct himself in this business – seeing more of him would have added something to the film.  He only reappears at the end when, losing patience, Lallo kicks his current woman in the ass, sending her sprawling in the snow at a costume party where she’s dressed as a nun:  he appears in a full batman costume and expresses his exasperation with Lallo.

Lallo has fallen in love, truly, so he says.  He wants to marry the daughter of the countess.  She lies to him, saying that the young woman is his half-sister.  He dresses in full regalia to somberly lend his presence to her wedding to another bourgeois.  A jarring note of reality hits you like a brick in the head when the countess speaks the facts of life to her maid and accomplice in deception:  These young people…They can dress as they like, think as they like, have political ideas, and do what they want in private.  But, at least in Milan, money marries money!

The film has a lush soundtrack that veers from sounding like Muzak to commenting on the imagery very well.  The design is a tour of high-end 60s style and fashion, sometimes with an impressive and disturbing look to them.