Archive for April, 2008

Two, or maybe three, women

April 22, 2008

Something I’m figuring out about Roberto Rossellini is that the guy defied labels as much as anyone this side of Bob Dylan. He’s known as the father of neorealism, a claim less true than it is received as true, and even if it were true it’d still be confining him within the relatively small box of his early career, pretty much like describing Joyce as a master of the Bildungsroman. The first sign that he had bigger ideas in mind came in 1948 when he made L’Amore smack-dab in between Paisan and Germany Year Zero. It consists of two short films, both totally removed from the world of Nazis and both starring Anna Magnani. Cocteau’s A Human Voice is a one-woman show: it’s Magnani, a telephone, and her ex-lover’s dog. The ex-lover calls two or maybe three times, and the movie consists of Magnani’s increasingly hysterical attempts to either lure him back or make him leave her the hell alone so she can get on with whatever is coming next. We can’t hear his side of the conversation, but we can read enough in her responses to know what line of bull he’s feeding her at any given moment. That leaves us pretty much with her. Magnani was a magnificent looking woman but here she’s had all the life drained out of her, and she slogs from bed to chair to window wrapped in an old shawl and pours her heart out into a plastic prop for 30 minutes. If Rossellini’s great theme is, as I increasingly see it, the need for us to get over our own shit, and to get outside our eternal fascination with our piddling little selves so we can join the world outside, then A Human Voice is his Inferno.

The Miracle, on the other hand, might be his Paradise, if not your typical one. At first glance Magnani’s character here doesn’t have much of an edge on Miss Lonelyhearts. Oh, Nanni lives in a scenic little town and spends her days traipsing the mountains with a herd of goats, but she’s apparently homeless, she’s probably a little cracked, and she’s definitely alone in the world. One day she chances upon a handsome stranger played by a very young, very blond Federico Fellini (who also happened to write this chapter.) He doesn’t say a word, and really does nothing beyond repeatedly press his wine bottle on Nanni; Nanni, however, coming from whatever fractured mental state she lives in, takes him for St. Joseph and opens herself up to him. When she wakes up alone on the mountainside with her dress in need of realignment, “St. Joseph” has quietly moved on down the trail.

Nanni’s knocked up, of course, and that’s where the film really begins; with her descent back to her village the townspeople hear her story, and the predictable results follow in close order–the bottom comes when a mob openly pursues her in the street and forces her to don robes of rags and a chamberpot for a crown. (Nobody does abasement and emotional pain quite like Magnani did.) Nanni’s flight from the town nearly kills her but it winds up taking her to an unexpected oasis from the storm–a mystical place that may not exist outside her head, but where she can at least bear her child in peace. When The Miracle came out in the U.S., the Church thought so little of it that it tried to have the movie banned, and the case made it all the way up to the Supreme Court, which held that movies are entitled to all the same First Amendment protection that the press is. This crazy idea that came out of little Freddy Fellini’s head…

Also, All That Heaven Allows. You’d think after something like L’Amore a Rock Hudson picture would seem like coming back to Earth, but, um, no. Even though Heaven has its nutty aspects–Hudson stole Elmer Fudd’s hunting jacket for his role and he talks to everyone in the slowed-down monotone of a stage hypnotist, and his “nonconformist” friends would fit right in at one of Broadway Danny Rose’s Thanksgiving dinners–the totality of its visual design makes it a fairly haunting experience. The characters come and go repeating all the typical bland ’50s dialog, but everyone is so extraordinarily lit that I couldn’t wait to see what was coming next. And as an all-out assault on American values–Jane Wyman’s kids turn out to be monsters, her friends turn out to be Gorgons, and the town’s menfolk turn out to be alcoholic sex-fiends, while everybody thinks Jane would get over her Thoreau-reading gardener and be a good pod if she’d just buy a goddam TV set–it’s pretty hot for 1955.

Career (1959)

April 12, 2008

During the last PBS pledge drive I found myself staring at one of those 60-minute bios with tinkly piano music about Dean Martin, and it mentioned this movie Career that Dino hoped would help establish him as a serious actor in people’s eyes. It’s not bad, but it’s not a Dean Martin pictureit’s a Tony Franciosa picture. I never could cotton to Franciosatoo many teeth, too many twinklesbut he actually turns in a full-bodied performance here, even if half of it consists of the most lifelike Burt Lancaster impersonation you’re ever going to see. That’s only fitting, though, since the movie itself is straining for the rarified cynicism of Sweet Smell of Success. When we first see Franciosa, he has some chalk in his hair and he’s carrying people’s steaks to them at O’Malley’s on Broadway, and then in a long (long) flashback we get the whole dirty history of how one day, way back when, he got on the train from Lansing, Michigan, to “make it big” as an actor in New York, only to experience all the cold-water flats, cattle-calls, and heartbreak you can imagine. Along the way he gets hooked up with a rising director and power-player (Dino), an alcoholic nymphomaniac whose father is the biggest producer in town (Shirley MacLaine), and an agent who’s the hottest-looking spinster you’re ever gonna see (Carolyn Jones), yet even with all these contacts the guy can’t catch a break. It’s not that he’s a bad actoreveryone agrees that he’s greatit’s just that Fatty Arbuckle had better luck than Sam Lawson does. If it’s not one damn thing, it’s anotherbackstage politics, a loveless marriage, a back-stabbing old friend, even the blacklistto the point that when Sam’s called up for Korea on the same day that he finally lands a breakout part, even he has to laugh at what a sick joke his life has become. (Cue footage of Franciosa in army gear and spitting dirt out of his mouth somewhere in the San Gabriel Mountains.) This all probably sounds pretty agonizing, and the damn thing did seem half an hour longer than its running-time, but I respected Career by the time it was over. Everyone involved in it worked their tails off, perhaps because the material dwells so much on how hard it is to be recognized for our giftsthis thing makes it look easier to become a Mafia don than a working actorthat it touched something in them. I don’t know. I do know that last night I also watched All in a Night’s Work, a movie that the same director, Joseph Anthony, made a mere two years later, also with Martin and MacLaine, and it was ground chuckso impersonal and antiseptic that not even the sight of Shirley MacLaine spilling out of a bath towel got a rise out of me.

Bigger Than Life

April 7, 2008

Like its younger cousin The Shining, Bigger Than Life is often touted as a Trojan horse assault on the nuclear family, but this may be giving Nick Ray’s immaculately directed picture an advantage it doesn’t really deserve. (It’s certainly one it doesn’t need.) Before James Mason develops his taste for cortisone his family is tainted by only one visible sign of repression, and that’s a minor one: schoolteacher Mason hides his part-time job as a cab dispatcher because his wife won’t think it worthy of him. There’s two things wrong with his theory, however: 1) his second job is a spectacularly crappy one, and 2) Mason’s wife (Barbara Rush)—a woman who proves herself by turns to be loving, perceptive, humorous, and brave—is a nearly ideal spouse. (In fact, we never see her sporting any chip on her shoulder about her family’s class or status, and when she does find out that Mason is moonlighting, she’s merely relieved that his strange absences can be explained by something other than an affair.) Before things go south Mason also enjoys open, even lenient, relationships with his son, students, and colleagues, so that when he does go off the rails thanks to the drug he’s simply too aberrant to epitomize sweater-wearing automatons like Ozzie Nelson—that is, unless you find the notion of middle-class family men troubling in itself. Even at picture’s end the Eisenhowerian take on what’s “normal” remains the optimal state of being: Mason’s restoration of his senses, and his family, is shown as an unqualified Good Thing, even if he isn’t going to sue the pants off the distant, morally dicey doctors who nearly destroyed his life. When all’s said and done, the picture finds that practically anything—even getting clocked by Walter Matthau—is preferable to gutting your kids with a pair of scissors, and this is as it should be.

What’s more interesting to me about these Hollywood ’50s flicks is how even the best and most intelligent ones so often talked down to their audiences, as if they were rather dim children requiring almost constant clarification and instruction, with every truth delivered in kid gloves. (Hadn’t this generation just fought the bloodiest war in history?) After the doctor says that Mason might be “psychotic” when he comes out of his sedative, the camera cuts to a tight close-up of Rush, who gasps, “You mean…out of his mind?” (Whoa, Professor! You’re making our heads spin!) This tendency was something more than the dumbing down that’s always been a part of American movies. It’s part and parcel of the wall-to-wall, utterly humorless narration in The Killing, the smiley-face epilogue the studio nailed onto the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the tone-deaf comedy relief shoehorned into The Searchers—all movies which, along with Bigger Than Life, happened to open in 1956. It started with the crude calls to patriotism in the wartime movies of the ’40s, and reached its apotheosis in the psychiatrist’s lethally tedious monologue that explained—and then re-explained, and then re-re-explained—what the hell was up with Norman Bates. For 20 some-odd years a director could concoct the most sophisticated film imaginable, yet still be obligated to put at its core touches that treated his viewers like a herd of village idiots.

%d bloggers like this: