Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tutto a Posto e Niente in Ordine (Everything in Place, Nothing in Order)

Seeing Kathryn Bigelow become the first woman to be voted Best Director by AMPAS last weekend led some critics to bring up the sad subject of the dearth of women directors, past and present. Whatever Bigelow's claim to the title of last year's best director, if I had to give my vote for the best woman director ever, my choice would be Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmüller von Elgg Spanol von Braueich-Job, or Lina Wertmüller for short. (1)

Her name, like the titles of her films, is like a treatise. She first gained notice as assistant to Fellini on 8 1/2, and enjoyed a brief but extraordinary creative burst in the '70s that resulted in four films that are superb by any but the most obtuse standards: Mimì metallurgico ferito nell'onore (The Seduction of Mimi-1972), Film d'amore e d'anarchia, ovvero 'stamattina alle 10 in via dei Fiori nella nota casa di tolleranza...' (Love and Anarchy-1973), Travolti da un insolito destino nell'azzurro mare d'agosto (Swept Away-1974)), and Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties-1975). The title of this post is from her 1974 film, released in the U.S. (stupidly) as All Screwed Up.

These four films are bristling with ideas - about men and women, about history, about politics - that are idiosyncratic as well as manifestly serious. Some critics, political naïfs, claimed her politics were "schematic" and her films like pamphlets. Wertmüller is, in fact, a far more interesting politically committed filmmaker than Ken Loach because her politics is a long way from being doctrinaire. Her best film, Seven Beauties, remains controversial, and was attacked for its appropriation of an otherwise untouchable subject, Nazi labor camps, in a serious and inventive examination of the lengths to which one not very likable or admirable man will go to survive. In his attack on the film, Bruno Bettelheim, eminent child psychologist and camp survivor, took offense at Wertmüller's supposed suggestion that surviving the camps required a betrayal of one's humanity.(2) Wertmüller's point, I think, was that her film is only about one man's betrayal of his own humanity. The burlesque manner of that betrayal - scraping together his last bits of libido to make love to a grotesquely obese and sadistic woman,(3) betrays Wertmüller's design and exposes her very impure protagonist as the monster that he knows he is.

But because her films were more interested in people than just women, Wertmüller was of no use to feminist critics, who accused her of reinforcing stereotypes. And because she so swiftly went into decline after answering the dreaded call of Hollywood, it was all the easier to downplay her importance. Her work lost much of its vitality and urgency in the '80s and she only regained commercial attention once with the uncharacteristically sentimental Ciao, Professore! (Io speriamo che me la cavo-1992). If nothing else, the pointless remake of Swept Away (2002), with an utterly unalluring Madonna and Adriano Giannini, son of Giancarlo (4) made the original seem all the more like a masterpiece.

(1) Wertmüller was actually the first woman to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Director, for Seven Beauties in 1976. Other women directors nominated since are Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, and Bigelow.
(2) "If ["Seven Beauties"] is to be taken for mere entertainment, I must state my disgust that the abomination of genocide and the tortures and degradations of the concentration camp are used as a special, uniquely macabre titillation to enhance its effectiveness. . . . I also believe that "Seven Beauties" is a somewhat uneasy, indirect, camouflaged—and therefore more dangerous, because more easily accepted and hence more effective—justification for accepting the world that produced concentration camps; it is a self-justification for those who readily accepted that world under these conditions and profited from it." Bettelheim, "Wertmüller, Lina 1928–" Bettelheim took his own life in a nursing home in 1990 by pulling a plastic bag over his head.
(3) I have to admit that Wertmüller goes a little over the top by making the commandant of Pasqualino's camp a woman (Shirley Stoler).
(4) Matt Damon and Paul Greenglass were on Charlie Rose last week and it was mentioned that their film partnership is comparable to "Leo and Marty." Never mind that since Martin Scorsese started working with Leo DiCaprio his work embarked on a commercial detour from which it may never return. But the comparison to "Matt and Paul," while ludicrous in itself, shows what an incredibly narrow frame of reference most contemporary critics are subject to, for whom any film older than their own measly lifetimes is considered prehistoric. What about Monica and Michelangelo? Or Liv and Ingmar? Or Giancarlo and Lina?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Maybe it should've been Greenglass, but I'm afraid it's Paul "Greengrass".