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purple rose 2

Most people, when they go to the movies, go to see aliens blow up the world, or they go to see the lovers win out over odds, or to see the superheroes beat out the supervillains.

end of ricoThat is not much different from why they went to see the movies 80 years ago, except then they might have gone to see the chorus girl become a star, Fred and Ginger glide over the dance floor, or the end of Rico.

In other words, the initial satisfaction of moviegoing is the story, setting up characters and then seeing what happens next. And next after that. We think of them as having happy endings, but such endings are not necessary; some movies end in tragedy.

One is reminded of director Sam Fuller, when asked “what makes a good movie?”

sam fuller“A story,” he said.

“And what makes a good story?”

“A story!”

There is, however, another level of satisfaction that comes from watching a film, and that is an awareness of how the film is made. Not everyone understands the process by which the story is told, and not everyone cares. If a story is well-told, it is enough that the story is appreciated.

But there is a separate class of film buff who are moment-by-moment aware of how the pieces of film are put together to tell that story. They are aware of the lighting, the editing, the camera angles, the camera movement, the point of view — and are aware of how all these things are used to manipulate the story and the emotions of the filmgoer. An entire critical apparatus is brought to bear on a film, and especially if it is a film made by a director known to be innovative or astute at using these elements of film. For these people, watching a film is always a dual-track affair, as if they were reading a book in translation, seeing not only the story, but how it has been constructed at the same time.stagecoach

One can look at the studio films of Hollywood’s golden age and dissect them and notice how well made they are, and one can catalog the special habits of some of the better movie directors of the time — William Wellman’s overlapping dialog, Hitchcock’s time distortion, John Ford’s landscapes — and, indeed, whole books have been written (to say nothing about doctoral dissertations, and worse: books made from doctoral dissertations) about what makes Woody Van Dyke different from Gregory La Cava, but this is film-school subculture grist. The people who paid their pennies and dimes to watch those films in the grand movie palaces of the 1930s seldom considered the problems of reverse shots in editing dialog. They just wanted to know what happens next.

citizen kane low angleNowadays, one can hardly turn over a stone and not find someone spotting the use of camera angle in Citizen Kane or yanking our lapels to point out the amazing tracking shot that begins A Touch of Evil.

There is a subset of this sensibility that brings to bear the whole history of cinema — especially genre film — when viewing a film. I call this the Tarantino effect; it is that if we want to truly appreciate what is going on in, say, Kill Bill, one needs to know who Sonny Chiba is, what are the differences between Hong Kong martial arts films and those made in mainland China, and what is more, individual scenes from individual movies that are quoted or referenced in Tarantino’s opus.sonny chiba

This is the foundation of the current bumper crop of superhero movies, too. Fans know the backstory of each character, and the full weight of the “Marvel universe,” or the “DC universe.” The fact that all comic-book superhero movies are basically the same hardly matters if fans argue minutia of the worlds inhabited by these cliches.

The problem with all this is that it becomes a form of in-joke, or worse, a shibboleth separating those who “get it,” from those who don’t. And in this eddy of thought, the references become the subject of the film and the plot becomes incidental. One of the results is that it fosters cliche, with a wink and a nod, and negates original ideas, or at least glibly assumes that original thought is no longer possible. In this it buys into the Postmodern mentality, wherein it is held everything worth saying has been said, and now our job is just to rearrange the game pieces in clever ways. This conveniently forgets the fact that it has always been hard to be original, even for Raphael or Goya.

So, in our film culture now we have two strata of movie appreciation. There are still those who go the movie theater to enjoy a good story, but there is another class that blogs endlessly about the subtext, meta-theory and the film-school techniques of their favorite movies.

However there is a third level to be considered when assessing a film.  If most films don’t aspire to more than story and technique, in the greatest films both story and technique are just tools for for a further end: Expressing something real about life. These are films made by people who have something important to say, something to tell us. They are films that investigate our humanity.

Stories alone can be entertaining, and the meta-view can be engrossing to those whose minds are attuned to “what’s really happening underneath,” but when I make a list of the best movies ever made, it is neither of these levels I care about. Or rather, I assume them as given. No, what I look for is whether the movies have something to say about human existence, that I can weigh against my experience and decide if it is true or not, whether it has something to say about the experience of being alive.

battle of algiers

That is why my Top 10 list does not feature The Dark Knight or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Such films may be diverting, but they don’t say much about the real world. Instead, my list contains films such as Rules of the Game, The Battle of Algiers, and La Dolce Vita. I learn more about love and sex from My Night at Maud’s than from all the Wedding Crashers and Knocked Ups combined. It is this third dimension that is missing from most popular movies. Content to be clever or scary or thrilling, they forget to be human.

Such films put me in touch with the deepest well of my being, remind me that such depth is shared by all of humanity, and that all our lives are complex and what is most important to us is not our jobs or our automobiles, but the emotional connection we have with the earth. One leaves such films profoundly moved and deeply shaken.

uma pulp fiction

Pulp Fiction, to take one example, is certainly a cleverly told story, beautifully written and just scrambled enough to keep us attentive. Yet, unlike Tarantino’s more recent films, it has a third dimension. In Pulp Fiction, death has human meaning and aftermath. There are consequences. When Mia overdoses and Vincent rushes her to Lance’s house for an antidote, her immanent death is something felt by the audience and when Marvin is blown away in the back seat of the car, there is blood everywhere. Yes, it’s a joke, but it’s also very real. In Pulp Fiction, each of the characters is a believable human being. Compare those episodes with the fight scene in Kill Bill where a comic-book Uma Thurman slices and dices her way through “The Crazy 88.” Nowhere is anyone mourning the death of a father or brother. They are tin ducks in a shooting gallery.

Most truly great films have these three dimensions. I don’t want to denigrate a good story, and surely a badly made film won’t move us, no matter how profound the content. But of these three levels, the only one that can elevate a film to classic status is its humanity. Stories and film technique create patterns we recognize and respond to, but what we really need from patterns is more than mere recognition; what we need is meaning.

Of course, it isn’t only in film we need meaning, but in all of art. And so, we search paintings or poetry not just for pretty pictures or clever rhymes, but for what answers that need in us to understand, to find or create meaning.

cassattNone of this is to deny you the pleasure you may get from Captain America or from paintings of pretty flowers. There’s room for that, too. Such things are fine on days when your ambition is cooling out, but the real satisfactions of art come when you are challenged by something more substantive, where you find your life reflected back at you, and you are forced to confront moral dilemmas, the inevitability of death and loss, the complexities of ideas, and the ultimate interconnectedness of all life on the planet. More ambition is good.

So, when we look to justify art in a world increasingly dominated by technology and STEM disciplines on one hand, and an increasing reaction into superstition and tribalism on the other (nativism, fundamentalism, bigotry and its retinue), it is important to make a case for looking inward with a piercing eye to find what is there, at the bottom of the human well.

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.”