Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Remastering the Film: Michelangelo Antonioni

Michelangelo Antonioni's death on the same day as Ingmar Bergman's (30 July 2003) was comparable to the deaths of F.Scott Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West within twenty-four hours of each other, December 21-22, 1940 (West was on his way to Fitzgerald's funeral when he was killed in a car accident). And although Antonioni was 94, and had not made a film unassisted since 1982, his very existence was a reminder of how brilliant film was capable of being.

With the three films that make up a loose trilogy, L'Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), and L'eclisse (1962)(1), Antonioni expanded the supposed limitations of film expression. He proved that imagery alone was capable of supporting immense thematic and emotional weight.(1) And he arrived, in L'eclisse, at a nearly plotless narrative. Prior to L'avventura, with his adaptation of the Cesare Pavese novel Tra Donne Sole, known as Le Amiche (1955), Antonioni had already demonstrated an impatience with conventional plotting. In his next film, Il Grido (1957), he moved even further away from pat explanations for his characters' actions. He also drew the ire of his actors, who were never given what they regarded as proper motivation in their roles. (Richard Harris, who would appear in Red Desert (1964), called Antonioni a "quasi-intellectual".)

In 1957, actress Monica Vitti joined Antonioni's Milan theater group, Teatro Nuovo. Whatever her shortcomings as an actress, Vitti became something of a muse for him - so much so that her departure from his work was disproportionately felt. In 1965, Antonioni signed a contract with Carlo Ponti for three films to be made in English, which necessitated his departure from Italy, first to England for Blow-Up (1966). Though it inspired alot of spirited discussion, Blow-Up is a beautiful but ultimately hollow film. While Dwight Macdonald commented that it was a relief to get away from "the miseries of Monica," Vernon Young wrote that Blow-Up "pleaseth the eye but sticketh not in the memory."

His second film in English, Zabriskie Point (1970), was an embarrassing failure, a paean to the youth "counterculture" movement which was then all the rage. After his controversial documentary on Mao's China, Chung Kuo, Cina, which was not shown until 2004, Antonioni fulfilled his contract with Ponti with The Passenger (1975). Regarded highly by some (3), it is handcuffed by a preposterous, pseudo-Pirandellian plot about the ultimate shakiness of identity.(4) Stanley Kauffmann commented that, if viewed simply as a thriller, it is successful.

In 1985, Antonioni suffered a debilitating stroke which left him unable to walk or to speak. He managed to make himself understood to a female companion, who became his unofficial interpreter thereafter. This enabled him to work, and he made Beyond the Clouds (1985), with the help of director Wim Wenders. Antonioni repudiated Wenders work, however, and cut out nearly all of it from the finished film. Visually refulgent, it was welcome but saddening. He also contributed an episode to the anthology film Eros (2004).

While John Simon continues to insist that Ingmar Bergman is the greatest artist the cinema has yet produced, I think that Antonioni is far more integrally important. And Bergman, great as he was, never made a film to equal L'Avventura, which holds riches that will be prized for generations to come.

(1) In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Orson Welles once again showed off his cluelessness: "I don't like to dwell on things. It's one of the reasons I'm so bored with Antonioni - the belief that, because a shot is good, it's going to get better if you keep looking at it. He gives you a full shot of somebody walking down a road. And you think, 'Well, he's not going to carry that woman all the way up that road.' But he does. And then she leaves and you go on looking at the road after she's gone." (This Is Orson Welles, Bogdanovich, 1992.)
(2) Some critics have attempted to make it into a quartet with the inclusion of the inferior Red Desert (1964).
(3) Roger Ebert, who originally called the film "pretentious," now says, "I admire the movie more 30 years later. I am more in sympathy with it."
(4) The credit for the script lists Antonioni, Mark Peploe (brother of Clare, who was Antonioni's mistress at the time) and Peter Wollen, author of Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969), which is easily one of the most impenetrable books ever written about film.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Moving On Out

One of the curious things I have learned since I came to live here in the Philippines is how well-off people who own property are so poor in liquid assets. I first found out about this when my landlord, who owned a few houses in the barangay I was living in, came to my door one day and asked for an advance on my rent because his daughter had taken ill and he needed the cash.

In late August I moved from that barangay to another. My rent increased from $20 a month to $30, but the improvement in the conditions in which I was living was dramatic. I went from living in a virtual barn with rafters rather than a ceiling and wooden shutters rather than windows to finished floors, glass windows and real ceilings.

In contrast to the changes for the better that I enjoyed, my landlady was giving up her house and moving into a shack close by with her three small children. As I slowly discovered, however, it was obvious that her move was not properly planned. She was giving up more than just simple comforts. She was relinquishing what most of us would call necessities, like a bathroom (called a comfort room or CR) and a kitchen.

When I moved in, she used some of the cash I had paid her as a deposit to hire a man to dig a pit next to her shack which would eventually have become her toilet. All that was needed to complete it was a cement slab upon which an actual toilet (sans seat, as always here in the Philippines) would be affixed and an enclosing structure of some kind made of wood or cinder block. More than four months since the pit was dug, however, it remains nothing more than a gaping hole in the ground. No more work has been done to finish it and the prospects are dim that it ever will be.

So, without a toilet, my landlady and her children have had to improvise. During the day, one of their many relations living nearby allows them to use their CR. But at night, the call of nature must be answered in other ways, which has necessitated, I was appalled to learn, the use of a pot. I only learned of the existence of the pot by accident, when its contents were spilled just outside the landlady's rickety front door, which is only about twenty feet from my west bedroom window. Because of this accident, I not only found out about the pot, but I was informed by a friend that its contents were being scattered in the bushes several yards away on a daily basis.

But the lack of a CR also means that the landlady and her children have had to perform their daily ablutions against the north wall of my bedroom. Rising before dawn, using a defunct clothes washer as an improvised sink, the woman bathes standing up, followed by her 12-year-old daughter and her small twin sons. I discovered this practice when I heard a noise one morning and opened my curtains to see what it was. There was my naked landlady, who was spared the embarrassment herself because soap from her hair had got into her eyes. I decided thenceforth to block off the window, if only to provide the woman with some unsolicited privacy.

This situation had become such a personal embarrassment to me that when an opportunity arose to move, as it did a few days ago, I decided to take advantage of it. At least I will no longer be reminded, every time I look out my window, of the depths to which my landlady chose to lower herself just for a little cash in hand every month.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Films I Love to Hate

[Just to assure my readers (all five of you) that the only films "I love to hate" are not all made in the U.S.A., I concentrate this time - as much as I can anyway - on a Danish film that has acquired a definite "cult" following.]

Ordet (1955)

"It is required
You do awake your faith."
(Paulina, The Winter's Tale, Act V, Scene III)

Kaj Munk (1898-1944) was a pastor whose religious preoccupations were often the subject of his creative writing. He had the personal courage, in 1940, to denounce the Nazi occupation of Denmark, and to attack Nazism in his plays.(1) This led to his arrest and eventual murder by the Gestapo in 1944. Because of this, Munk and his writings received a great deal more attention from Danish readers. His play Ordet was written in 1925 and was made into a quite straightforward film directed by Gustaf Molander in Sweden in 1943. In itself, this was a rather daring act in a nation (Sweden) that, to save itself from the fate of Denmark, was officially neutral throughout World War II.

The Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer made Day of Wrath (Vredens Dag) that same year in Denmark. Concerned as it is with the story of a young woman's sexual awakening and her being accused of witchcraft when her older husband dies suddenly (right after she has told him that she loves his son), the film quickly developed an unfortunate reputation as a horror film. It was shown in New York, where James Agee wrote of it, "Movies seldom contain any material, except by inadvertence or head-on outrage, which can interest the morally curious; this one contains a good deal, and none of it is inadvertent or outrageous."

Despite the critical and commercial success of Day of Wrath, Dreyer would not make another film for more than a decade. He had wanted to make a film of Munk's Ordet in the 1930s, but lacked the financing - that time-honored and insurmountable obstacle of filmmakers. Dreyer, despite being revered as one of the founders of Danish cinema, had to wait until 1955, when he was 66, to complete his Ordet. If he had retired from filmmaking altogether after Day of Wrath, he could have done so with his head held high. Ordet, while it is achingly serious, showed how ossified Dreyer's cinematic ideas had become.(2)

With his two previous films, Vampyr (1932) and Day of Wrath, Dreyer revealed an obvious interest in the supernatural. Both of those films originated with the assumption that such things as vampires and witches were real, and the effectiveness of the films has a sometimes hair-raising impact on the viewer (3), not at all mitigated by our knowledge that such things may be more fictional than real. But vampires and witches are nothing compared to what we are expected to swallow in Ordet, in which a clearly deranged man who is convinced he is Jesus Christ, raises his sister-on-law from the dead.

The scene takes place at the very end of more than two hours of the most tedious filmmaking conceivable, with actors moving very little, standing or sitting stock-still as if for a portrait and staring at a spot just past the camera lens, while droning on and on about which brand of Christianity - the guilt-ridden or the enlightened variety - is the one true faith. The outcome, in which the God of the Old Testament supposedly reveals himself through Inger's resurrection, is preposterous precisely for being staged and shot so matter-of-factly. The event has not even the effect of a magic trick, which involves some illusion or other, that one has just witnessed something that cannot have happened, and which calls for a suspension of disbelief.

Dreyer, who evidently believed in miracles, chose to refrain from trickery of any kind - no dramatic emphasis through lighting, camera angle, or action. His use of such "devices" are what gave Vampyr and Day of Wrath a certain level of realism - realism of the fantastic, that made them, if only momentarily, convincing. Inger's resurrection, however, is not intended to frighten us (although, in reality, it would have sent some of the characters who witnessed it screaming from the room).

Dreyer's approach is bald rather than bold. Instead of suspending our disbelief, Inger's awakening is intended to inspire belief. But the very realism he uses raises more questions than it tries to answer, or dismiss: would not the body of Inger, even in her insulated farm community, have been prepared in some way for burial - I mean in some way that might make her sudden return to life even more impossible? In the midst of so much humanity, even in so stifling a drama as Ordet, the appearance of the inhuman only produces a shock and, ultimately, distaste for everything that comes before it.

(1) Munk had earlier expressed admiration for Hitler. He was also decidedly anti-democratic and in favor of a "Nordic dictatorship." He quickly repudiated these views when the Nazis ignored Denmark's sovereignty and occupied the country.
(2) Alas, Dreyer would make one more film, Gertrud (1964). It is unbelievably slow, which was deliberate because Dreyer wanted the audience to adapt to the pace of a slower time, as he did in Day of Wrath and Ordet. To "adapt" to Dreyer's pace, you would have to take a horse tranquilizer.
(3) Specifically, the scene in Vampyr in which Allan Grey finds himself inside a coffin as he is transported to his grave, and Lisbeth Movin's scream in Day of Wrath when her husband drops dead.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Movie Marginalia

The Golden Globes

How do they do it? How is it possible for the Golden Globes award ceremony to be more unbearable than the Oscars? Perhaps it was all those dreary TV shows I can never stomach that were in the running? (It does not matter that I have not seen three-quarters of the films. You do not have to be Nostradamus to foresee their mass banality. I will be seeing plenty of them - alas - in the coming months.)

As much as I love actors (pace Bresson), watching them make such whores of themselves was excruciating. They must have all been three sheets to the wind - or was it simply the shiny trophies that made them all turn out in their less-than-formal wear? It was nice of some of them to drop the word Haiti every now and then, even if Haiti is on earth and Hollywood is on another planet.

James Cameron's Avatar won in the Best Juvenile Fantasy category, proving once again that what he lacks in knowledge he more than makes up for in know-how. ($200M for colorful shadows on a wall - that jump out at you when you wear special glasses!) Backstage at the Globes, Cameron mentioned that the last "science fiction" film to win the Golden Globe was E.T., and that he wanted more producers to take the genre seriously. This is sheer hypocrisy coming from the director of Aliens, which took Ridley Scott's otherwise adroit science fiction concept and turned it into a stupid action flick.

But the moniker "Hollywood Foreign Press" puts one in mind of a bunch of foreign gossip columnists sucking up to movie stars for the delectation of their readers back home in Budapest and Perth. Which is, of course, exactly what they are, and why I have never taken their Golden Globes seriously.

In Bruges

One of John Simon's funniest dismissals came at the beginning of his review of Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger: "If vacuity had any weight, you could kill an ox by dropping on it Michelangelo Antonioni's latest film, The Passenger." One of the most stupefying films in recent years is In Bruges (2007), made by Martin McDonagh, an Irish director - which explains the preponderance of Irish accents (coming from Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson).

What it does not explain is what they are doing in Bruges, a beautiful city in Belgium. We are treated to a picture postcard tour of the old city, which is used as a backdrop for yet another story about the problems of contract killers, two of them this time, in whose nascent humanity we are expected to believe.

Schubert was dragged in, and we got a few moments from Der Leiermann (The Organ-grinder). And there is a touching bit when Farrell reads a little boy's note to himself as he waits to enter a church confessional: "1. Being moody, 2. Being bad at Maths, 3. Being sad". Of course, Farrell had just accidentally shot the boy in the head.

I watched it on cable, full screen, with the HBO logo stuck in the upper-right corner. Not the best way to watch a film, but considering that so many people are watching them on their i-phones, I was at a definite advantage. I suppose I could have taken it as nothing but a tourist's guide to Bruges, if only I could have overlooked the inanities enacted thereagainst.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

In the Name of Giuseppe

The use of the detention camp located at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba for "foreign combatants" seized in Afghanistan and elsewhere beginning in 2002 was calculated not only to contravene U.S. law but, it was hoped, to neutralize all potential criticism. Its existence is thanks largely to semantics - to the use of terms like foreign combatant, which is supposed to eliminate the consideration of people captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere as prisoners of war, which would make their treatment subject to - in a civilized country - the binding restrictions of the Geneva Conventions. The presence of the prisoners on foreign soil, at a military outpost in Cuba, is further proof of the circumvention of U.S. and international laws.

In 1974, cities in England were hit by a series of unprecedentedly vicious bomb attacks carried out by the Provisional Irish Republican Army. So vicious that they provoked an unprecedented reaction from the British government. The Prevention of Terrorism Act made it possible for law enforcement to arrest individuals without warrants or reasonable suspicion and to detain them for up to 48 hours without being charged and without legal protection. The initial period of detention could be extended to five additional days by the British Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins. Two sets of people who became known as the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven were detained under the act, coerced to confess to involvement in the IRA bombings, and imprisoned. None of them was involved in any of the bombings. In 1989, members the Guildford Four, who had been given life sentences, were released when their cases were appealed and their sentences overturned. In 1991, the verdicts against the Maguire Seven were similarly repealed, even though they had already served out their sentences. One of the Maguire Seven was Giuseppe Conlon, whose only crime was that he was the father of Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four, and that he had come from Belfast to help his son through his trial, died in prison in 1980. When Gerry Conlon was released, he vowed to clear his father's name of the charges against him. In 2005, British Prime Minister Tony Blair apologized to eleven people, including Giuseppe and Gerry Conlon, and, recognizing the stigma that still attaches to them for their false imprisonment, urged that "They deserve to be completely and publicly exonerated."(1)

It is not the existence of Gitmo, as it is called by people who cannot pronounce Guantánamo, as a detention center for foreign combatants on the island of Cuba that is most troubling to me. It is the guidelines, if any, for the capture, transportation, and imprisonment of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay that have to be scrutinized, reformed and/or repealed. Those guidelines were evidently so ambiguous and so broad as to allow the capture of several totally innocent people who were not engaged or even interested in any jihads, who just happened to be Muslim and in the wrong place at the wrong time.(2) As they are released in small numbers, and they are at last given a chance to tell their stories, it should contribute to the mark of shame against an administration that abused its power in too hasty and overzealous policies, in the manipulation of public opinion, and in the circumvention of completely acceptable and functioning and fair laws. One of the first acts that Barack Obama ordered on becoming president, on 22 January 2009, was the closure of the Guantánamo detention camp for foreign combatants. A year later, it remains open and operating.

(1) A report on the apology can be found here.
(2) "A few certain cases of egregious error have surfaced. And others present wrenching conflicts between fairness, justice, and security interests," wrote Benjamin Wittes in his article. Although he doubted that there were very many innocents among the detainees, he concluded that their release, along with some who were a probable threat to U.S. interests, was inevitable.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Long Live Haiti

There are people in prosperous countries who still wonder why they are obliged to go to the rescue in places like Haiti, where disasters seem to be continual and in which suffering is apparently as impossible to escape as it is to comprehend. They ask why they should bother helping the survivors when there will only be other disasters there or some place like it, and, because of overpopulation, even more people to rescue in years to come.

A few months ago I watched a documentary called Surviving Hunger, made in 2003, in which Sorious Samura went with a camera crew to live in a village in one of the poorest parts of Ethiopia to try and survive as long as he could eating only what the villagers ate.(1) I invited some Filipino friends to watch the documentary with me. But when we watched as Samura lost twenty pounds in the first seventeen days of his stay in the village on a diet of nothing but wild cabbage, the Filipinos became so sickened at what they saw and heard that I had to stop the DVD before it was finished.

The extreme discomfort of the Filipinos, all of them poor people, at the sight of starvation was not entirely surprising. It actually reminded me of another documentary I had seen several years before which examined infant mortality in Ecuador. There was a scene in which two young women were sitting together, both cradling babies in their arms. When one of them began to talk about how many children she had lost to dysentery, the woman sitting next to her carefully slid away from her on the seat. It was probably an unconscious response - one woman trying to distance herself, if only by a few inches, from the misfortune of the other.

For decades, Americans and Europeans have been subjected to pictures on their television screens of the victims of famine, disease and disaster in Africa, Asia and South America. they have had to develop, whether they liked it or not, a compunction regarding people all over the world who have survived floods, earthquakes, wars, and epidemics, only to find themselves without any means of surviving another day without food or water. In a very real sense, well-off Westerners have had to accept some of the responsibility for the world being the way that it is. They have had to face up to the fact that, no matter how far away the disaster had unfolded, they were living in the same world as its victims.

In the documentary I watched, or tried to watch, with my Filipino friends, Sorious Samura was addressing me, not them. And yet here I am, a beneficiary of the dumb luck that made me an American, and not an Ethiopian, a Filipino, or a Haitian, living among the poor, very nearly as poor as they, but by choice not circumstance. They must think I am crazy. Or, a strangely common suspicion, on the lam.

Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. It is also the only nation in the Western Hemisphere that was created, in 1804, from a slave revolt. That left Haiti in the unique position of being a virtual African state in the Caribbean, surrounded by European colonies - British, Spanish, and French. Throughout its calamitous history, it has been invaded, annexed, and otherwise exploited by its neighbors - including the United States. Since the ouster of Jean-Claude "Bébé Doc" Duvalier in 1986, Haiti has tacitly been a democracy, but a very fragile and contentious one. It remains as it has always been, desperately poor, beset with murderous paramilitary groups and private armies, an economy that was never stable enough even to be shattered, seasonal tropical storms and cyclones, and now earthquakes.

The people who have, over the years, grown quite understandably weary of seeing pictures of starving people on their TV screens may never contribute a penny to relief organizations. But whether they like it or not, they are citizens of the same world that makes such suffering possible, the same world that could alleviate all poverty, all famine in the world, but has chosen not to. It has decided instead to pretend that the only solution to these problems is the exportation and promotion of their economic affluence - the "trickle down" effect that will, some day in an unforeseen future, make everyone, if not economic equals, at least self-sufficient.

During the colonial era, which only ended in the late 20th-century and whose effects are still being felt in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the prosperity of the West depended on the labor of the millions in subjection to its rule. The world economy is no longer as limited and poverty is not as abject as it once was. But billions of people remain poor, millions go hungry, and die needlessly for lack of infrastructure, of curable diseases, or of ethnic warfare.

The attention span of the West is short. When a few hundred die here or there, the event does not even register in people's minds. Only when a disaster on an enormous scale happens is the West reminded of the consequences of its inaction and the victims reminded that they cannot depend on such capricious compassion.

(1) Only Samura spent the night in the village and took part in the experiment. The TV crew stayed in a hotel twenty-five miles away.
(2) The first Africans (slaves) in America were brought ashore in Virginia in 1619.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Elvis Has Left the Building (oh please...)

January 8 would have been Elvis Presley's 75th birthday. Once again demonstrating my belief that people have a tendency to overvalue what they lose, Elvis' death at the age of 42, when he was already a has-been, may not have been a good move for the man, but it was the best thing that could ever have happened to his myth.

Try to imagine what people might be saying, if anything, about Marilyn Monroe if she were still living, and had not done herself in at the already ripe age of 36. She would be 84 in June. If that is too much of a stretch for you, if you are still around for what would have been Michael Jackson's 75th birthday in 2033 you would have to have a heart of stone, not to mention stone deaf, not to wish he were still alive, old and comparatively forgotten. After all, a living dog is better off than a dead lion - or a dead redneck, a dead sex symbol, or a dead king of pop.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Remastering the Film: Gianni Amelio

Unbelievably, Gianni Amelio, who will be 65 on January 20, had been a film director in Italy for twenty-three years when his film Open Doors was shown in New York in 1990. The film went on to a nomination for the American Academy's Best Foreign Language Film, and with his next two films, Amelio emerged as the best Italian director of the 1990s.

"Open Doors" refers to Mussolini's promise that under fascism Italians could sleep with their doors wide open. To prove it, a Palermo judge, played magnificently by Gian Maria Volonté, is pressured to sentence a man guilty of triple murder to death. With the help of a sagacious juror (Renato Carpentieri) whom he befriends, the man is sentenced to life in prison. While they contemplate the consequences of their actions in sparing the murderer the death penalty, a second judge and jury is appointed and returns with the desired verdict. A closing title informs us of the fate of the man, at the hands of a firing squad.

Beautifully photographed on resplendent Sicilian locations by Tonino Nardi, Open Doors was based on a novel by Leonardo Sciascia and captures the moral nightmare of fascist Italy, in which even principled people must follow the dictates of monstrous leaders with nothing but force to justify their laws. The actions of Scalia, the "monster of Palermo" are nothing but symptoms of a sickness rotting Mussolini's Italy from within.

Amelio followed Open Doors two years later with Stolen Children (Il ladro di bambini), which is a contemporary chronicle of a young girl whose own mother in Milan turned her into a prostitute and the ghastly way that Italian authorities try to deal with her. The girl and her younger brother are escorted by a carabinieri (Enrico Lo Verso) to an orphanage in Sicily, but even the young policeman cannot bring himself to carry out his mission, and risks disciplinary action when he takes the two children on a side-trip to Calabria to see his own family and eventually to the beaches of Sicily. Upon assisting a pretty French tourist to recover her stolen camera, the policeman is forced to face his superiors and turn over the children.

Amelio does amazing work with his two child actors in Stolen Children, particularly Valentina Scalici, who was only eleven when the film was shot. She plays the bewildered girl, a victim of her family's poverty, with such disarming charm and a disquieting grace that we, too, feel the ghastliness of the crimes against her innocence. Enrico Lo Verso, whom Stanley Kauffmann said resembles a knowing fox, plays the carabinieri wonderfully, even if he, too, becomes a kind of "thief" of these children's lives.

Two years after Stolen Children, Amelio made what is his masterpiece to date, Lamerica (1994), which concerns Gino (Lo Verso again) who has gone to Albania after the fall of its government to take advantage of tax loopholes and make quick money setting up a fake show factory. With his boss, played by Michele Placido, they find an old man who calls himself Spiro in a nightmarish prison whom they will set up as the company's Albanian owner. When the old man, who turns out to be an Italian soldier imprisoned in Albania since World War II, disappears, Gino pursues him across an Albania that has fallen into total chaos, with everyone fleeing to the port cities to get aboard ships bound for Italy. The closing scene, in which Gino finds Spiro on a ship crammed with refugees, is powerfully moving, as Amelio shows us the faces of the people, all of whom are heading toward an uncertain destination.

Amelio followed Lamerica with unsteady work, particularly The Keys to the House (2004), which teeters over into some mawkish moments, mostly involving Andrea Rossi, a cerebral palsy victim whose acting skills are unsteady at best. And the usually splendid Charlotte Rampling is awful as a fellow-suffering (and insufferable) parent. With The Missing Star (2006), Amelio seems to be retracing the journey of Gino in Lamerica, except across modern industrial China this time. Amelio was not impressed with what he saw of China: "Today, China is suffocated by a harsh bureaucratic, dictatorial system, in which the worst of capitalism has rooted itself, to the detriment of workers’ lives. Wherever we shot, the skies were grey, cloudy, impenetrable, from the frighteningly high levels of pollution. We only saw the sun when we got to inner Mongolia."* Sadly, the film was not released commercially in the U.S.

*The full interview can be viewed here.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Remastering the Film

When Charles Thomas Samuels (1936-1974) was writing his unfinished book, Mastering the Film, which was to be his overview of film from the perspective of its greatest directors, he arrived at a list of twelve filmmakers, each of whom had created at least two great films and had arrived at an individual style. The twelve filmmakers were Antonioni, Bergman, Bresson, Clair, De Sica, Fellini, Hitchcock, Olmi, Reed, Renoir, Truffaut, and Vigo.

The structure of Samuels' book appeared to force some of his choices upon him. His prejudices took care of the rest. For example, Samuels was honest enough to admit to feeling "deracinated" by the work of Asian filmmakers, and disqualified himself from passing judgement on them. Clearly, Jean Vigo did not live long enough to show us the full extent of his gifts. What remains is tantalizing but ultimately unsatisfying. I agree with Vernon Young's assessment of the work of René Clair, which he epitomized as "champagne on corn flakes." My own estimation of Bresson's work is common knowledge to readers of this blog. I would add that his hatred of actors is typical of filmmakers who insist on absolute control of every aspect of the creative process. Antonioni hated actors as much as Bresson, but at least he recognized that he needed their contribution to his work. The less said about Hitchcock, the better. His influence on the work of Truffaut was deleterious in the extreme.

Due perhaps to a lack of enthusiasm from publishers, the reception of his book of interviews with many of the his chosen filmmakers, Encountering Directors (1), and his own unforgiving self-criticism, ultimately resulting in his suicide, Samuels came nowhere near to finishing Mastering the Film. Tantalizing fragments were published posthumously both in his honor and to provide financial relief for his surviving wife and children.

I hang on to the memory of Samuels if only because film criticism on the level at which he was writing for publications like The American Scholar and The Hudson Review remains extremely rare, and because, knowing the lengths of his commitment to what he wrote and what he was writing about, I know that I will never be as good a critic as he was.

The following exchange between Samuels and Michelangelo Antonioni, included in Encountering Directors, reveals just how much Samuels expected of film, and one of the reasons that his splendid book was so slighted by journalistic reviewers:

Samuels: By the end of L'avventura, Sandro recognizes that his promiscuity is harmful to Claudia, with whom he has had the one intense relationship of his life, so far as we know. Do you mean us to believe that his ensuing guilt (inspiring him to tears) is an error because what makes him feel this guilt are conceptions of romantic love and personal responsibility that have become irrelevant burdens?

Antonioni: Sandro is a character from a film shot in 1960 and is therefore entirely immersed in such moral problems. He is an Italian, a Catholic, and so he is a victim of this morality. What I said awhile ago is that such moral dilemmas will have no right to exist in a future that will be different from the present. Today we are just beginning to glimpse that future, but in 1960 we lived in a country with the Pope and the Vatican, which have always been extremely important to all of us. There isn't a school in Italy still, not a law court without its crucifix. We have Christ in our houses, and hence the problem of conscience, a problem fed to us as children that afterward we have no end of trouble getting rid of. All the characters in my films are fighting these problems, needing freedom, trying to find a way to cut themselves loose, but failing to rid themselves of conscience, a sense of sin, the whole bag of tricks.

Samuels: I don't think you're proposing something that's only a matter of time. Would it indeed ever be good to dispense with the bag of tricks, as you call it? I wonder if we shouldn't be more proud of this tradition going back to Homer than of the trip to the moon. Speaking only for myself-no, I'm sure I speak for others, too-the ending of L'avventura is so powerful because Sandro has the conscience to regret what he has done. To feel such regret, one has to believe in the supreme importance of human responsibility, and I can't conceive of art without that belief.

I could not begin to write as comprehensive a study as Samuels devised. But if I were to come up with my own list of filmmakers to include in such a study, it would look like the following.

Gianni Amelio (b. 1945)
Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007)
Bruce Beresford (b. 1940)
Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)
Jean-Pierre Dardenne (b. 1951) Luc Dardenne (b. 1954)
Federico Fellini (1920-1993)
Shohei Imamura (1926-2006)
Hirokazu Koreeda (b. 1962)
Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998)
Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963)
Jean Renoir (1894-1979)
Vittorio De Sica (1901-1074)
Bertrand Tavernier (b. 1941)
Jan Troell (b. 1931)
Zhang Yimou (b. 1951)

Several filmmakers who did not make my list, for one or another reason, would make my list of Honorable Mentions: Claude Autant-Lara, Robert Bresson, Luis Buñuel, Claude Chabrol, Kon Ichikawa, Masaki Kobayashi, David Lean, Louis Malle, Ermanno Olmi, François Truffaut, Carol Reed, Andrzej Wajda, and Lina Wertmuller. I will expound on my choices next week.

(1) In his interview with Bresson, Samuels quoted a proverb that best explains the critical reception of Encountering Directors: "A jackass can look into a mirror, but a philosopher can't look back."