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I came late to film, but early to movies. Even before school age, I watched hundreds of movies on TV. At that age, there is no critical sense. They were just movies and I didn’t have any sense that one might be better than another. They wiggled on the screen and that was sufficient. I watched it all like drinking water from a tap. 

As I grew up, I decided I liked some kinds of movies better than others. First, from before I entered kindergarten, there were the Westerns from the 1930s and ’40s that ran in the afternoons. I loved Buck Jones and Hoot Gibson. When I became older, there were the science fiction movies from the 1950s. I gobbled them all up: The Crawling Eye, Gog, Rodan

And because so many of those I watched were on TV’s Million Dollar Movie, I also absorbed a surprising number of “kitchen sink” movies from England, made during the “Angry Young Man” phase of British cinema: The L-Shaped Room, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Did I know what they were about? No, they were just a fact of life. TV life. “A bit of a plodder, myself,” said Michael Redgrave. (“What’s a ‘plodder,’ ” I wondered, the word not yet in my vocabulary at the age of 7). Later, in my early awkward pubescent years, I became obsessed with classic monster movies, a period in my life that the less said, the better. But at one point, I could name you every actor who ever played the Frankenstein monster — including Glenn Strange.

Not that I understood these movies, mind you, but they were what was on. I may have been five or six and watching The Boy With Green Hair on the Million Dollar Movie, with neither an understanding of what the movie was about, nor the sense that I should understand what the movie was about. I was unaware of taste or choice; I just watched what was offered. 

My earliest memory of a movie is of watching King Kong from behind a chair when I was perhaps in first grade; I was terrified. I would peek out to see what was happening when I dared. My baby brother watched, too, but he just sat there, three years younger than me and I’m sure just happy to see things wiggling on the screen. (He later made a career teaching animation and filmmaking.) 

Nothing like a film education came my way until I entered college. I was young; I was ignorant. 

British film critic Mark Kermode talked on YouTube about the moment he first became fascinated by movies. It was when he was a kid and saw Krakatoa: East of Java, a 1968 disaster film (the volcano Krakatoa is actually west of Java, but you know: the movies). It was shot in Cinerama and starred Maximilian Schell, Diane Baker, Brian Keith, Sal Mineo and Rossano Brazzi. 

It was 1968, a significant year in film, balanced uncomfortably between Cleopatra and M*A*S*H. It was the moment the big studios were dinosaurs and young Turks were meteors waiting to descend. Doris Day and Rock Hudson were leaving the building by the back exit while Dustin Hoffman and Gena Rowlands were breaking down the front door. The studios could still believe that making a Western with Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot was a good idea, but in the wings were Francis Coppola, John Cassavetes, Brian De Palma, George Romero and Peter Bogdanovich. 

I’m grossly oversimplifying, or course. Hollywood continued to pump out high-budget pap in the following years — as it continues to do today in the age of Michael Bay and comic-book superheroes — but by the late ’60s, the studio apparatus was becoming increasingly irrelevant in an era of Easy Rider, Medium Cool, and Alice’s Restaurant (all just a year after Krakatoa). Although, to be fair, in the insurgent camp, there were plenty of well-meaning indie films that have been lost in the passing of their trendiness. Neither all good nor all bad. 

But in the midst of it, there, at age of five or six, was Kermode, blown away by the cheesy explosion of the volcano in Krakatoa. He says that it was then he knew he wanted to spend his life with movies. A single burst of “Eureka.” Kermode admits that he knows others, unlike him, came to movies more gradually. That was me he was talking about. 

(If you don’t know Kermode, he is movie critic for The Observer, the British Sunday newspaper, and counts as probably as close an English equivalent as you can find to Roger Ebert as “national movie critic.” Kermode is in print, on radio and on the tube. It was on the British TV’s The Culture Show in 2006, that filmmaker Werner Herzog was shot, while being interviewed by Kermode; Herzog continued the interview anyway, saying, “It was not a significant bullet.” Ah, Werner. The last time anyone did something like that was when in 1912 Teddy Roosevelt was shot in Milwaukee, only to shrug it off — “It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose” and went on to give a campaign speech for 90 minutes.)

And so, although Kermode knew at an early age that movies would be his life, I only gradually come to an appreciation of the art form. The thought that there was a film grammar, or that there was a crew of professionals assembled to construct the movie, or that there was a financial aspect to the business — the thought never entered my tiny little head. 

Then I entered college and all that changed for me with the film series offered. Unlike nowadays, when college film programs are chosen by students, and tend toward things such as Caddyshack and Animal House (yes, classics of a sort), the series I was given was curated by school faculty and featured Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut. It is where I first saw The Andalusian Dog with its eye-slice, and Birth of a Nation, with its unbearable racism. 

It slowly dawned on me that movies could be as serious an art as poetry, opera or architecture. I had been slapped awake. 

It was also the year (1967) that Antonioni’s Blow Up opened in town, which I watched with my crazy college girlfriend in the commercial theater. Now that was art cinema. We came out into the sunlight considerably more pompous and intellectual than when we went in. I spent years analyzing and decoding the symbolism — that being the defining vice of the young and clever. 

But from then on, film became a significant part of my intellectual life. I haunted the local Janus theater that specialized in art films, and I saw so many: Ikiru, Virgin Spring, La Strada, L’Avventura, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad — I mean, can I get any artier? These were movies to be seen, yes, but then, more importantly, to be talked about. O the symbolism — O the humanity. O Woman in the Dunes

I developed an unhealthy snobbery about cinema and dismissed pretty much anything that came out of Hollywood. I wuz a idiot. But, hey, I was a college student, which is pretty much the same thing.

Years passed, and the veneer of imbecility wore off; I saw thousands of films, from the earliest silents to the most recent offerings at the multiplex. The TV was set by default to Turner Classic Movies. (Just last week, I watched King Kong again, for at least the hundredth time. “How can you watch a movie you’ve already seen?” asked a friend. “How can you listen to your favorite song over and over?” I responded.)

By the early 2000s, I was writing for the Phoenix newspaper and, among other duties, was a backup movie reviewer. The regular critic tended to avoid foreign films, and so he gave many of them to me. Later, in 2006 and 2007, when there was an interregnum between film critics, I served as a temp. I got to see many good films, and many godawful ones, which always gave me the most fun to write: “Earlier this week, the Israeli Supreme Court outlawed torture, so I know one place Love Stinks will not be opening.”

I took shots at art films, too. I really can’t stand the Masterpiece Theater genre of high-toned blather: “Mannequins in rich dresses moving about and pronouncing their words so distinctly that you’d think they were shelling pistachios with their tongues.”

You know, the 500-page classic Victorian novel brought to life (or not) on the screen: “If you’ve ever gotten a shirt back from the laundry with too much starch, you will have some sense of what is wrong with House of Mirth. It creases where it should drape.” 

I have over 200 entries in Rotten Tomatoes. When I look it up, I don’t remember seeing some of the films I reviewed. The were not all memorable. But the run as movie critic gave me a chance to become a juror at the Palm Springs Short Film Festival in 2000, and learned what it was like to be followed, like a magnet pulling iron filings, by publicists. 

It was fun, but there comes a point when you’ve seen too many movies in a week and they all blur into an Eastmancolor smudge. There is something lost with the deeper awareness of cinema. When I was a wee bairn, all that mattered was the story. With increased knowledge, as any honest movie critic will admit, you notice things like editing and foley work. You are paying double attention, on one hand to the story, and on the other, to how the story is told. You can never unknow how Hitchcock turns time to taffy, or how Godard jump-cuts, or how Marcel Ophuls uses camera motion like a ballet dancer. 

With the coming of Postmodernism, almost everyone is now wise to the process. You can’t watch a film by Christopher Nolan or Charlie Kaufman without commenting on it: They foreground the filmmaking and subordinate story. Is this a good thing? I’m not so sure but that films were more immediately pleasurable before we knew that Alejandro Iñárritu filmed Birdman to look like one long, single take. 

I remember when I learned that Stanley Kubrick used a special f/0.7 lens to film a scene by candlelight in Barry Lyndon. When the Steadicam was introduced in Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory. When CGI bowed in on Flight of the Navigator (rather crudely by modern standards). When the crane shot was rendered obsolete by the invention of the aerial drone. Drone shots are everywhere now, and have become a visual cliche. In the old days, a movie ended with the hero riding off into the sunset; you can hardly end a movie, TV show or commercial now without the drone shot sweeping back away from the final scene into a wide landscape. (So now, establishing shots come at the end?)

By now, I’ve seen my thousand movies. I own hundreds of DVDs, perhaps more than a thousand (I haven’t counted recently). Among them are all the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Pedro Amodovar, Werner Herzog and Woody Allen. (At least I think I have all of Herzog; it is impossible to keep accurate track). And nearly all the films of Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir, Erich Rohmer, Francois Truffaut, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa and Agnes Varda. I’ve fallen behind with Quentin Tarantino. I wish I had more of Martin Scorsese, but my DVD purchases have lagged since my retirement (and shrinking of income). 

It’s been a lifetime of watching movies, learning from movies and about them, a lifetime learning to take them seriously. Even when they’re not serious. 

Next: The List

fellini-3I was watching Fellini’s 8½ the other night and found myself weeping uncontrollably at the end. The last 20 minutes of the film make little or no literal sense, and works on purely emotional level — I wanted to say symbolic, but it isn’t really symbol that works here; rather it is a dreamlike series of images that cannot be rationally explicated. They simply add up. One can see the final dance as a riposte to the end of Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal, where there is a line of dancers following death silhouetted on the hillside; in Fellini, it is rather a circus dance of life, to the rhythm of Nino Rota’s music, which somehow manages to mix sadness with ebullience. In Bergman, the queue is linear and headed to oblivion; in Fellini, it is circular and continuous.

fellini-5

But what was important wasn’t meaning but effect. There I was with hot wet cheeks and full heart, profoundly moved, although I could not explain exactly why. In some ways, the finale of the movie is silly, even childish. Somehow, though, it hit some resonant note. I was a wet rag, drained and filled at the same time.

I bring it up because so often our response to art is too little; we are trained — especially if we are professional critics, as I was — to make notes, consider intellectual points, compare and contrast, bring context and place the experience in a historical moment. Yet, if I were to say truly, none of that really matters; what matters is whether I am moved. Art, whether literature, movie, music, architecture or painting, needs to do more than divert us, to entertain or tickle our pleasure centers. It should change our lives. This is not easy; this is rare.

emily-dickinson-daguerreotypeI remember reading a quote by Emily Dickinson, in a letter she wrote to her patron Thomas Wentworth Higginson: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”

When I was younger, this struck me as schoolgirl hyperbole. Now I am an old man, and I am poorly satisfied with anything that doesn’t take the top of my head off. Through a lifetime of concerts, theater and galleries, I must report that very little displayed therein reaches that bar. Most of the time, art gives us pleasure enough — we enjoy the tunes or the colors — but it does not rip us up, tear us apart and reassemble us in new ways. To justify art in terms of its prettiness diminishes the importance it plays in life and in culture. We must consider it in terms of how it changes us, leaves us weeping and hollowed out.

I have attended hundreds, perhaps thousands of concerts in my life. I have enjoyed most of them, and even in those that have been disastrous, there is almost always some moment of pleasure. (I remember a concert of amateurs attempting to play some Dvorak; they were godawful, out of tune, out of rhythm, unbalanced, a horrendous squawk — but they played with such obvious gusto and enthusiasm, and were enjoying themselves so much, I found I considered myself truly lucky to have heard them). But I can also count a few score times in seven decades, the number of times I was actually transported by a performance. Yet, those few times bring me back over and over in hopes of once again entering that heaven to hear those angels.

I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch blow the hell out of Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, with a chorus of eight horns sounding the great heroic horn call. There was a physicality to that blast that cannot be captured in a recording. I felt the music through the seat of my pants as much as through my ears. It made me believe.

Early in my career, in 1964, I heard Emil Gilels at the Brooklyn Academy of Music play the Liszt B-minor sonata. I can still remember it, even to the seat where I was sitting and the angle I viewed the pianist from.

Twice, I have heard Yo-Yo Ma play the Bach Unaccompanied Suites for cello, and twice I have visited Elysium. He has recorded those suites three times in the course of his career, and none of them captures the lightning of the live performance. Not even close.

apollo-1It isn’t just music, though. I can read and reread Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode and every time, I break down and weep. I have stood beneath the north rose window at Chartres and each time I have done so, I have been transfixed, even transfigured. It is the most beautiful manmade thing I have ever seen — a lens to focus a vision of paradise directly into my hypothalamus. I had a similar reaction the first time (and each time) I saw George Balanchine’s Apollo. It is pure sorcery, magic, unalloyed beauty. Not beauty so much as reason-to-live.

I could go on, making a list. But that would be futile, and also misleading. Because the fact I was transported to some ring of heaven beyond the seventh by the Cezannes at the National Gallery in Washington DC, that does nothing to guarantee you will have the same experience. Making a list of the “great works of art” is pointless, because what matters is not the “objective” quality of a piece of art, but rather its resonance in the psyche and like any physical object, we resonate at different frequencies. What opens the floodgates in one set of eyes can leave the next pair unmoved. Chaucer’s short poem, Trouthe, has been a touchstone for me. For others, it may be a jumble of archaic vocabulary. You may melt to a puddle at Musetta’s waltz from La Boheme, and I might think it a catchy tune. De gustibus.

king-learWhat matters, however, is that we find in whatever art that moves us, some special shattering of the veil of everydayness, a bursting out into the glory, the recognition that the night sky is infinite, that there is some web, some complex knot of emotional string that ties us together as human beings. It may be Michelangelo’s Pieta, Picasso’s Guernica, Brahms’ German Requiem, that moment at the end of King Lear when he carries the dead Cordelia back on stage and we realize his splintered ignorance and madness is our own —  it gives lie to all the feel-good rah-rah about “the arts,” and the chamber-of-commerce support for cultural institutions. It isn’t that the arts are some charming little ornament to our civic lives, but that when that spark ignites in the rare cases it happens, our entire beings are set on fire. There is nothing “nice” about it. It is disruptive, challenging, destructive in the way destruction can lead to new birth. I never want to be subjected to pleasant art. I want to be battered by it (pace John Donne).

What makes it all more frustrating, however, is that it can never be just the piece of art. If I was profoundly moved by Balanchine’s Prodigal Son the first time I saw it, that is no guarantee that I will have the same experience the next time, and not because of a variability in performance, but because the art can seep in and work its power on us only when we are receptive. I may have had a overcooked pork chop before heading to the concert hall, or a disturbing letter in the mail, and cannot receive the gift of the performance. I may just not be in the mood for Sam Beckett that night; or the memory of one conductor’s Beethoven may deafen me to the new one being offered. A thousand distractions block the missive from the gods.

There is also our age: What moves us at 20 may not at 65. We find new depths in things we were once blind to, and outgrow early enthusiasms. This is natural and if it didn’t happen, something would be wrong.

So, we should be all the more grateful when we can open our chests to the lash of what is being gifted us.

copter jesus

Film critic Pauline Kael famously called Citizen Kane “more fun than any other great movie.”

Classic film, like classic literature, sometimes has the reputation of being more “good for you” than it is fun.

Well, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita gives Kane a run for his money.

The great 1960 Italian classic of the Roman “sweet life” in the postwar years shows us nine days and eight nights in the life of tabloid celebrity journalist Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) as he negotiates personal relationships, professional crises and spiritual doldrums.

“Rarely, if ever, has a picture reflected decadence, immorality and sophistication with such depth,” Box Office magazine said when the film was released. La Dolce Vita shows up on most all-time 10-best lists, and Fellini is unquestionably one of the four greatest directors ever.

Take its famous opening scene: A helicopter carries a giant statue of Jesus over the landscape of Rome.

The scene is ambiguous. We don’t know whether Fellini is satirizing religion or if Jesus, with his arms extended, is blessing the city beneath him.

What isn’t in question is that the scene is as memorable as a catchy tune: Once you’ve seen it, you can’t get it out of your head. That’s one of the secrets of Fellini’s greatness. There’s even a word for it: Fellini-esque.

La Dolce Vita is filled with such catchy tunes. trevi fountain

There is the industrially cantilevered Anita Ekberg dancing in the Trevi Fountain. There is the amoral Maddelena (Anouk Aimee) whispering words of love to Marcello, three rooms away in an old castle, while another man makes love to her.

The orgy scene, with Marcello riding a starlet like a donkey. marcello riding

They all stick to the roof of your brain like peanut butter.

Or the final scene with the giant monster fish netted by fishermen, and the closing shot of the young blond girl waving with the innocence of an angel at the lost Marcello.

Fellini structured the film in a series of climactic nights each followed by a dissolving dawn. In each of the nighttime episodes, Marcello faces one of his demons — although he doesn’t recognize them as such.

In the first night, he meets his wealthy lover Maddelena at a night club. anouk

“Your problem is you have too much money,” he tells her.

“Yours is that you don’t have enough,” she responds.

They pick up a streetwalker, take her to her home and proceed to have sex on her bed while the hooker makes coffee in the kitchen.

Each night rises to a crux, a point that might waken Marcello to the aimlessness of his life, and at each sunrise, there comes not a culmination, but a dissipation of the situation — all its air is let out.

Just when Marcello is about to kiss Ekberg, standing in the water, under the spray, the water stops flowing, sunrise arrives, and the dream evaporates.

Considering that it is now one of the immortal classics, its making was less than tidy.

Fellini’s first producer, Dino de Laurentiis, found the story “incoherent, false and pessimistic” and told the director, “The public desires at least a little hope and some entertainment.”

When he was persuaded to put up some money, de Laurentiis demanded that they hire a big star, like Paul Newman, to play Marcello. They also looked at hiring Henry Fonda and Maurice Chevalier.

Fellini stuck to his guns.

The costs soared, as Fellini added and rewrote.

The real Via Veneto, where much of the story takes place, was too busy to film on, so Fellini built a studio replica. That boosted his already huge budget by 50 percent. His new producers (de Laurentiis finally backed out) consented only if Fellini gave up his percentage of the profits — a move he later regretted when La Dolce Vita turned out to be a huge international hit.

To get the performance he wanted for the sex-crazy Maddelena, he made faces and danced behind the camera as Aimee played her most serious scenes, so that her effort to keep from laughing gave him the quality he was seeking in the role.

In addition, there were 800 extras to contend with.

And Fellini added to and changed his script so often that, by the end of shooting, the copy kept by his secretary was said to be larger than Rome’s telephone book.

Fellini claimed he had enough footage filmed to make a 10-hour movie. It’s now just less than three hours.

La Dolce Vita occupies a pivotal point in the career of Fellini, between the early Neo-Realist films, such as I Vitelloni and La Strada, and his later, sometimes visionary films. In La Dolce Vita, there is a balance between the sense of external reality — Italy’s boom economy in the decade after World War II, and its forgotten underclass — and the purely subjective sense of individual psychological crisis. In some of his later films, such as Roma or Fellini Satyricon, the grotesque predominates. But at the midpoint of his career, in his two best films, La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, he balances the real and the freakish like a saint balancing heaven and hell.

“I am not a man who dashes off messages,” he told an interviewer when the film opened. “I don’t have a very precise ideology. When you describe your epoch, no matter how impartially, you notice that there are emergencies, events, attitudes that strike you more than certain others and that are more important. … So you unconsciously become a moralist. If La Dolce Vita has a meaning, it came all by itself. I did not go after it.”

The meaning of the movie has been debated for 40 years. It has been seen as anti-Catholic and as a reactionary embrace of religion. It has been seen as an angry critique of modern life, but also a celebration of it. It has been called pornography, and also one of the most moral movies ever made. It’s rich enough to embrace many meanings. striptease

The film ends on an ambiguous note: Marcello has given up any hope of becoming a writer and has become a publicity agent. He has lost all pride and become uncharacteristically vicious. After a night of debauchery and humiliation, a party breaks up at dawn and heads for the beach, where a giant fish has been caught by local fishermen. big fish

It is a symbol of Christianity at the end of the film, like the statue of Jesus was at the beginning. angel girl

Marcello sees, on a far part of the beach, a young girl he had met once when working on his forgotten book, a girl he once said reminded him of “one of those little angels in the churches of Umbria.” She waves to him and tries to yell something to him above the surf. He cannot hear, shrugs his shoulder and walks off. marcello gives up

The film ends with a close up of the girl, waving.

And we never know if Marcello simply cannot hear her, or instead does not want to hear her. The film — and Fellini — are equivocal.

Perhaps that is because, in the end, Fellini said he was not a judge, “but rather an accomplice.”