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Saturday, 16 September 2017

Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!

I’ve just seen Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!
Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence play a poet and his wife living in a large house that she has been reconstructing after a fire, whilst he struggles with writer’s block. 1 day a man, played by Ed Harris, and then his wife, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, turns up and starts living in the house, which the poet has decided without asking his wife and which she reluctantly and unhappily accepts. That is when everything changes. The film, however, is not about the couple and the changes they bring. Ultimately it is about the poet, his ego and selfishness, and the obsession with his work and admirers. Aronofsky got the inspiration from Rosemary’s Baby, modified it, took it to extremes, and fucked it up with so-called dream logic. 
The chief problem with Mother! is that it’s a mess of a film. About more than half of it, the part with the couple played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, is realistic. This is the good part—it gets on your nerves, it frustrates you, it makes you want to throw things and slap the presumptuous and shameless couple and the thoughtless poet. Even though Jennifer Lawrence’s character sometimes hears things and feels like there’s a beating heart in the walls, it is psychological; this part is still realistic. 
Then the film makes a turn. Realism is abandoned for symbolism, everything turns surreal and hysterical, and the later part is ridiculous and unendurable, especially the sacrifice/ cannibalism scene and the heart scene, even though they are meant to be symbolic. More importantly, as Mother! is divided by the 1st part of realism and the 2nd part of symbolism, it loses its dramatic shape, and becomes a mishmash, a hodgepodge of sorts. I can see Aronofsky’s intention, I can see that the film is ultimately about the creative but destructive force in the self-centred artist, which consumes and kills everything. However, the whole thing is a mess, a kind of psychobabble, especially when it ends in full circle. Whilst some critics call Aronofsky audacious or even inventive, I think he got a good idea and then lost control of his material, and then used dream logic as a lazy way of defending it. 
A weak film.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

The Milky Way

I love Bunuel’s irreverence. 

(source

If The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty seem to have little coherence in their dream logic, lack of a narrative, and apparent formlessness, The Milky Way doesn’t respect any kind of temporal or spatial coherence. The film is about the journey of 2 vagrants, Pierre and Jean, to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the remains of St. James were reputed to be buried, and they cross paths with people from other time periods. A symbolic journey across time and space, it is about Christian history; about the clashes between different sects or denominations in Christianity; about dogmas vs heresies, and intolerance; and about the contradictions in the teachings of Christ. 
In a way, The Milky Way is anti-religious, or at least, against organised religion, intolerance, and violence; with details and images that might be perceived as blasphemous. At the same time, it feels no more than a well-researched essay of sorts, viewing Christianity and its doctrine from a sceptical perspective. Bunuel takes Christianity seriously as he critiques it and even when he laughs at it. Or perhaps, it’s a more religious film than I realised—the journey can be seen as a spiritual quest, and a search for meaning. 
Full of elusive references and easily missed jokes, it is not as funny as The Phantom of Liberty and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but it’s strange, and interesting in its way.


Bonus: Luis Bunuel’s Quarrel With the Church, an essay about his background, and religion in his films. 

Sunday, 10 September 2017

The most inventive/ unusual/ unconventional films I’ve ever seen

Some of these are not great, some of these I can’t stand, but these are the most inventive/ unusual/ unconventional films I’ve ever seen—films that break rules (especially in narrative), films that tell stories in an unusual way, films that are experimental and audacious, films where the directors take the most advantages of film as opposed to other art forms and strive to expand the possibilities of cinema.

Wild Strawberries (1957) by Ingmar Bergman
La Dolce Vita (1960) by Federico Fellini
Breathless (1960) by Jean-Luc Godard
The Exterminating Angel (1962) by Luis Buñuel
8 1/2 (1963) by Federico Fellini
Persona (1966) by Ingmar Bergman
Blow-Up (1966) by Michelangelo Antonioni
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Stanley Kubrick
Hour of the Wolf (1968) by Ingmar Bergman
The Milky Way (1969) by Luis Buñuel
Cries and Whispers (1972) by Ingmar Bergman
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) by Luis Buñuel
The Phantom of Liberty (1974) by Luis Buñuel
The Obscure Object of Desire (1977) by Luis Buñuel
3 Women (1977) by Robert Altman
Pulp Fiction (1994) by Quentin Tarantino
Festen (1998) by Thomas Vinterberg
Memento (2000) by Christopher Nolan
Songs from the Second Floor (2000) by Roy Andersson
Mulholland Drive (2001) by David Lynch
Irréversible (2002) by Gaspar Noé
À la folie... pas du tout (2002) by Laetitia Colombani
The Dance of Reality (2013) by Alejandro Jodorowsky
Birdman (2014) by Alejandro González Iñárritu

Friday, 8 September 2017

Viridiana



If The Exterminating Angel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty give you the impression that Bunuel hated the rich, watch Viridiana and you’ll realise that he also hated the poor. 
Joking aside, Viridiana is a great film with a rather pessimistic view of humanity. Viridiana is a pious nun at the beginning of the film, carrying with her a crucifix and a crown of thorns, and sleeping on the floor. After seeing her uncle’s suicide, for which she’s in a way responsible, and leaving the convent, she attempts to pay for her guilt and do good for the world by giving shelter, food and work to 13 of the most wretched beggars in town, only to be betrayed by them. The paupers’ ingratitude is a warning of well-intended but misplaced charity, or, depending on how you look at Viridiana’s action, a mockery of religion, of the character’s piousness and her carelessly thought-out plan to help others only to ultimately seek her own redemption. 
Above all, it’s about our inability to change the world. There’s a scene in which Jorge, Viridiana’s cousin, saves an exhausted dog tied to a cart, without noticing a dog tied to another cart in the opposite direction. You can try, you can save one, but there’s always another cart with another dog tied to it. Viridiana’s not only unable to help the poor in her town, she’s also unable to change the ones she helps. 
And yet, the film is not depressing. It’s saved from being depressing, by Bunuel’s sense of humour, or, as Roger Ebert has put it, his “cheerfully sardonic view of human nature”. 
A great film. 
Luis Bunuel’s now another favourite of mine.



_______________________________________


I’ve just come across this criticism of the film
“…beyond its immediate social context Viridiana is mercilessly pessimistic concerning human nature, and much of the film’s bleakness lies in its lack of dimensionality. For instance, it’s difficult to feel satisfied by her comeuppance when Viridiana remains a thoroughly noble character. She never expresses or betrays self-righteous or vainglorious motivations for her charity, and so the climactic bacchanal that shatters her belief in selflessness comes across as undeserved. Inversely, Buñuel portrays the poor as completely irredeemable: they possess no positive qualities, while the negative ones—rudeness, filth, belligerence, disrespect for property and sexual propriety—fester when not held in check by an authority’s supervision. Indeed, at a slant Viridiana contains a conservative message. According to the film human beings are inherently perverted, lascivious, greedy, mean, and destructive.” 
I don’t agree.
1, I don’t think that the negative qualities mentioned, rudeness, filth, belligerence, and disrespect for sexual propriety, are unfair—the people Viridiana helps are not the poor, the working class, but homeless beggars. The point is that she can’t change them just because she provides them with shelter and food. 
2, the rape attempt of Viridiana by 2 of the beggars is, without doubt, the ultimate betrayal of her kindness. However, because the author of the essay mentions “disrespect for property” among the beggars’ negative qualities that “fester when not held in check by an authority’s supervision”, to criticise the film for “lack of dimensionality”, I would argue that it makes perfect sense for them to break into the house and have a party. It’s not right, but psychologically it is plausible and understandable that they would take advantage of being alone to have a look and then use things they can never afford and otherwise can never touch. At the beginning, they (or at least most of them) mean no harm. The problem is when they become drunk and get carried away. Then come frustration, envy, a strong sense of injustice, and hatred, which make them turn them on the people who have helped them because Viridiana and Jorge would always be above them. 
To me, the film doesn’t appear to send the message that “human beings are inherently perverted, lascivious, greedy, mean, and destructive”. It’s more like an attack on Spanish institutions, which reduce people to that level. 
3, another criticism is that “the climactic bacchanal that shatters her belief in selflessness comes across as undeserved”. There is no doubt that Viridiana is a noble character. However, her main shortcomings are naïveté and misguided charity; and she doesn’t seem to think or plan carefully about how to help the beggars. Note that she has been warned about the leper, who turns out to be one of the 2 rapists, but she refuses to listen.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

The Exterminating Angel and the repetition compulsion

In my previous post about The Exterminating Angel, I noted 8 repetitions: 
- The group arrive twice. 
- The 2 female employees try to leave twice. 
- The host gives the same toast twice. 
- The line about someone going bald is repeated. 
- The last part of the evening is replicated. 
- There are about 2 scenes of outsiders being unable to enter the house. 
- The absurd thing at the house is repeated at the church. 
- The scene of the sheep going towards the “imprisoned” people in the room is replicated at the end with the church. 
Last night I watched the film again and noticed another 3 repetitions: 
- 2 men, Cristian and Eduardo, greet each other 3 times, each time differently. 
- The exchange about the dishevelled look by the brother and sister is repeated by the couple in love. 
- A woman sees a hand of a dead man pop out of a closet, and later hallucinates that a hand moves out of the closet. 
The social and political satire aspect of the film is easy to see, but what do the repetitions mean, other than creating a surrealistic atmosphere? 
Here is a brilliant psychoanalytic reading of the film and the repetition compulsion: http://www.asharperfocus.com/Exterm.html
Look at this paragraph: 
“Buñuel introduced the ideas of repetition and the expected and unexpected early on in the dinner party itself. The host, Edmundo Nobile makes a gracious toast to Silvia (Rosa Elena Durgel) who provided the opera they have just seen. The guests all graciously echo the toast. Then Nobile makes the very same toast again but this time, to his puzzlement, the guests ignore him—the predictable has become unpredictable. The hostess Lucia (Lucy Gallardo) tells her guests she is going to vary the usual order of courses with a Maltese dish. The waiter comes in with the platter but stumbles, falls, and spills the food all over. The guests laugh delightedly because it is “quite unexpected,” but one woman comments that “Lucia has a style all her own,” and the other guests praise the fall as though this were all her characteristic plan. Buñuel is asking us to notice the difference between what is accidental and unpredictable and what is characteristic and predictable.” 
The last point is particularly interesting: the fall is accidental and unpredictable, but the guests perceive it as characteristic and predictable, because Lucia is predicted to be unpredictable. 
As for how the repetitions have to do with the film, the author argues: 
“Like any good surrealist, Buñuel represents the psychological fact in physical terms. Being one’s repetitive self is like being boxed in. You are in a cage, the cage of your character—or, in this film, a drawing-room you can’t get out of. Notice that the characters’ confinement is mental, not physical. They go up to the exit doorway and make excuses for not being able to go through. They are just like us. When our character compels us to repeat, we justify what we are doing. “There I go again”—but I go; I don’t not-go. I repeat and find reasons to justify repeating.” 
The characters get worse over time, as they become hungrier and more frustrated, but they do remain characteristically themselves throughout the film. Considering each character in isolation, they only have a few lines that they keep saying over and over again: the “nervous” brother keeps saying he can’t stand it and hates everybody, the grumpy man keeps saying that it’s the fault of Edmundo the host, the doctor keeps saying that they have to use reason, and so on. 
Earlier I wrote The Exterminating Angel could be seen as an allegory of the bourgeoisie being so privileged and self-centred that they’re cut off from the outside world. This is another interpretation: we all are in a cage, the cage of our character. 
The author elaborates his psychoanalytic reading of the film: 
“Buñuel takes his physical representation of Freudian ideas one step further in the releasing of these imprisoned characters. Some of the ways psychotherapy works are through “regression” and “transference.” Lying on the couch, the patient regresses toward childhood and childish patterns, as these guests do. Then follows “transference.” (Indeed the word occurs in the film when the doctor explains quite correctly to his amorous patient Leonora that her passionate desire for him is “transference.”) For instance, a patient, having fought with her parents all through childhood, now fights with another authority-figure, the therapist. She has transferred her feelings toward her parents to the therapist. By becoming conscious of this trait in the safe environment of the consulting room, the patient can perhaps replace an unconscious compulsion to repeat her squabbling with a conscious decision to repeat or not to repeat it. And the hope is that the patient can exercise this conscious control in life, not just with the therapist.
Buñuel embodies in the film this therapeutic recovery from helpless, unconscious repetition to conscious intention quite literally when he releases the party guests from their confinement. “The Valkyrie,” Leticia (Silvia Pinal) has the pianist Blanca (Patricia de Morelos) repeat her playing of the “Toccata in A,” a famous piece by the eighteenth-century Italian composer Paradisi. (Surely performing a memorized piece is as repetitious an act as can be, and the name Paradisi makes a nice contrast to the hell they’re in.) But then Leticia has the guests stand in the same places and deliberately repeat the very comments they made after this same music weeks before. They don’t just repeat, they consciously repeat—and suddenly they are freed! Buñuel has his imprisoned bourgeois enact a miniature psychotherapy.” 
That argument is rather convincing. 
On the end of the film the author comments: 
“At the end of the film, the guests from the middle of the film and a congregation and the priests enact the repetitive rituals of catholicism. Then, as if to underscore the meaning of the repetition, neither priests nor worshipers can leave the church. They are trapped as in the drawing-room, but now we are seeing a whole society, not just some dinner guests, confined in its character, its repetitive rituals and, to Buñuel, superstitious rituals. Outside, soldiers drive off citizens trying to enter the church as earlier the police stood between people outside and people inside the mansion. This bourgeois, religious character will persist and be sustained at all costs. And in the final shot, a flock of sheep enter the church, surely an ironic comment on the mindlessness of the religious rituals and the class structure so savagely enforced. Is this a “flock” seeking the Good Shepherd? Or is this a society of sheep blindly following their leader (Franco?) into endless, meaningless, and cruel repetitions? Or are these sacrificial victims like the sheep in the mansion?” 
You may agree, you may have a different take on the film—The Exterminating Angel is such a rich, multiple-layered work, it can have so many different interpretations.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Luis Bunuel and dream language

I got acquainted with the films of Luis Bunuel several years ago: Belle de jour, That Obscure Object of Desire, Tristana, and The Diary of a Chambermaid. I kinda liked Belle de jour, and thought That Obscure Object of Desire was interesting and audacious in the casting of 2 actresses, who didn’t look alike, in the same role, but overall his films did nothing for me. Where’s the magic? 
The 2nd discovery began with The Exterminating Angel, followed by The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and then The Phantom of Liberty
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie has a simple plot: if The Exterminating Angel is about a group of affluent people who come to a dinner party and afterwards find themselves unable to leave the room for whatever reasons, even though there is no physical barrier, this film is about a group of bourgeois friends who keep trying to have a meal together but keep getting interrupted by 1 reason or another. However, whereas The Exterminating Angel has a conflict (the characters’ inexplicable inability to leave a room) and the need for resolution (even though the conflict relies on surrealism and absurdist logic), it has a structure more or less, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois has no structure. The characters’ determined plan to have a meal together constantly gets interrupted by bizarre incidents, and the narrative is interrupted by dreams, and dream-like episodes that have little to do with the rest of the story. And yet there is a flow, and everything binds together, fits together, beautifully. 
The Phantom of Liberty has even less of a narrative. The film is made up of about a dozen episodes linked only by the movement of 1 character from 1 situation to another. What does it all mean? What does it all amount to? I don’t know. My sensibilities are rather different from Bunuel’s, and I feel closer to Ingmar Bergman, or Fellini. But I’ve realised that even though all 3 auteurs blended reality with dreams and fantasy in their works, and compared film to dream, Bunuel went further than Bergman and Fellini—he was working, conversing in dream language. Each episode in The Phantom of Liberty is surreal and built on dream logic, like 2 parents file a report on their not-missing daughter and act as though she’s not right next to them, or a bunch of people sit down on toilets together in a living room and discuss the issue of body waste, but go to a small private room to eat on their own, and so on. Once in a while, 2 characters cross paths, and the story spins off in another direction, leaving the previous narrative unfinished and hanging, like a dream. I can’t pin it down, I can’t decode it, but should I try to? It seems fruitless, like an attempt to analyse a dream. 
Years later, I still don’t get Bunuel, the way I think I get Bergman. My background is in literature, I’m interested in the mind, in people and their self-contradictions. But he’s indisputably a great director, and unlike anyone else. And he’s fascinating.

Friday, 1 September 2017

The Exterminating Angel- notes, questions...

I’ve just watched Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel. 
1/ The film is about a group of upper-class people who have dinner together at a man’s house, but after dinner, for some inexplicable reasons they can’t leave the room. That is the premise: there is no wall, no door, no physical barrier, they just can’t leave the room—a surreal film based on absurdist logic. 
2/ I don’t know what it means. 
3/ Bunuel said “There are around twenty repetitions in the film, but some are more noticeable than others.” 
In my 1st viewing, I only noticed 8 repetitions: 
The group arrive twice. 
The 2 female employees try to leave twice. 
The host gives the same toast twice. 
The line about someone going bald is repeated. 
The last part of the evening is replicated. 
There are about 2 scenes of outsiders being unable (or unwilling) to enter the house. 
The absurd thing at the house is repeated at the church. 
The scene of the sheep going towards the “imprisoned” people in the room is replicated at the end with the church. 
4/ What’s up with the sheep, and the bear? 
5/ These affluent people, trapped in a room and stripped of everything, live like gypsies and act like barbarians. As the thin veneer of civilisation disintegrates, these people turn to fighting, theft, suicide, superstition/ black magic, and demanding the sacrificial death of the host. 
6/ Their worst sides are revealed. 
7/ The film could be an allegory for the bourgeoisie being so privileged, oblivious and self-centred that they’re shut off from the outside world.
8/ It could be about the disintegration of civilisation, and about human nature, like Lord of the Flies
9/ Or is it a joke? These people arrive twice, so they have to leave twice? 
10/ A flock of sheep running into the church is a nice jab at religion. 
I don’t know. This is the kind of film that demands multiple viewings.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

My favourite films from the 1950s

(Note that this is a list of favourites, so some great films may be absent, such as Rashomon or Tokyo Story). 


(A photo of Fellini and Bergman, with Liv Ullmann- source

All about Eve (1950) by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Sunset Boulevard (1950) by Billy Wilder 
In a Lonely Place (1950) by Nicholas Ray 
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) by Elia Kazan 
The Big Carnival aka Ace in the Hole (1951) by Billy Wilder
The Life of Oharu (1952) by Kenji Mizoguchi 
Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) by Kenji Mizoguchi 
A Geisha aka Gion bayashi (1953) by Kenji Mizoguchi 
Summer with Monika (1953) by Ingmar Bergman 
Roman Holiday (1953) by William Wyler 
La Strada (1954) by Federico Fellini
On the Waterfront (1954) by Elia Kazan 
Rear Window (1954) by Alfred Hitchcock 
Dial M for Murder (1954) by Alfred Hitchcock 
Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) by Ingmar Bergman 
The Killing (1956) by Stanley Kubrick 
The Trouble with Harry (1956) by Alfred Hitchcock
Street of Shame (1956) by Kenji Mizoguchi 
Nights of Cabiria (1957) by Federico Fellini 
Witness for the Prosecution (1957) by Billy Wilder
12 Angry Men (1957) by Sidney Lumet
Wild Strawberries (1957) by Ingmar Bergman 
The Seventh Seal (1957) by Ingmar Bergman 
An Affair to Remember (1957) by Leo McCarey 
Vertigo (1958) by Alfred Hitchcock 
North by Northwest (1958) by Alfred Hitchcock 
Some Like It Hot (1959) by Billy Wilder 
Anatomy of a Murder (1959) by Otto Preminger 

So many great films in the 50s. Wonderful period.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Roger Ebert's writings about Fellini

My favourite film critic, whom I always turn to after watching a film, is Roger Ebert. Even though I don’t always agree with him, I share with him an enthusiasm, a passion for cinema, and admire his sensitivity and openness and his elegant prose. Among his best writings are the brilliant reviews of Fellini, which greatly help me appreciate the Italian maestro. 
Here are some of my favourite excerpts: 
Review of La Strada
“In almost all of Fellini's films, you will find the figure of a man caught between earth and sky. ("La Dolce Vita" opens with a statue of Jesus suspended from a helicopter; Marcello Mastroianni opens "8 1/2" floating in the sky, tethered to earth.) They are torn between the carnal and the spiritual. You will also find the waifs and virgins and good wives, contrasted with prostitutes and temptresses (Fellini in his childhood encountered a vast, buxom woman who lived in a shack at the beach, and made her a character again and again). You will find journeys, processions, parades, clowns, freaks, and the shabby melancholy of an empty field at dawn, after the circus has left...” 
Review of Nights of Cabiria
“By the nature of their work prostitutes can find themselves almost anywhere in a city, in almost any circle, on a given night. She's admitted to the nightclub, for example, under the sponsorship of the movie star (Alberto Lazzari). He picks her up after a fight with his fiancee, takes her to his palatial villa, and then hides her in the bathroom when the fiancee turns up unexpectedly (Cabiria spends the night with his dog). Later, seeking some kind of redemption, she joins another girl and a pimp on a visit to a reputed appearance by the Virgin Mary. And in the scene cut from the movie, she accompanies a good samaritan as he visits the homeless with food and gifts (she is shocked to see a once-beautiful hooker crawl from a hole in the ground).
All of these scenes are echoed in one way or another in “La Dolce Vita,” which sees some of the same terrain through the eyes of a gossip columnist (Marcello Mastroianni) instead of a prostitute. In both films, a hooker peeps through a door as a would-be client makes love with his mistress. Both have nightclub scenes opening with exotic ethnic dancers. Both have a bogus appearance by the Virgin. Both have a musical sequence set in an outdoor nightclub. And both have, as almost all Fellini movies have, a buxom slattern, a stone house by the sea, a procession and a scaffold seen outlined against the dawn. These must be personal touchstones of his imagination.” 
Review of La Dolce Vita
“The famous opening scene, as a statue of Christ is carried above Rome by a helicopter, is matched with the close, in which fisherman on the beach find a sea monster in their nets. Two Christ symbols: the statue "beautiful" but false, the fish "ugly" but real. During both scenes there are failures of communication. The helicopter circles as Marcello tries to get the phone numbers of three sunbathing beauties. At the end, across a beach, he sees the shy girl he met one day when he went to the country in search of peace to write his novel. She makes typing motions to remind him, but he does not remember, shrugs, and turns away.” 
Ibid: 
“Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw "La Dolce Vita" in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom "the sweet life" represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello's world; Chicago's North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello's age.
When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was 10 years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him. And when I saw the movie right after Mastroianni died, I thought that Fellini and Marcello had taken a moment of discovery and made it immortal. There may be no such thing as the sweet life. But it is necessary to find that out for yourself.” 
Review of 8 ½
“The critic Alan Stone, writing in the Boston Review, deplores Fellini's "stylistic tendency to emphasize images over ideas." I celebrate it. A filmmaker who prefers ideas to images will never advance above the second rank because he is fighting the nature of his art. The printed word is ideal for ideas; film is made for images, and images are best when they are free to evoke many associations and are not linked to narrowly defined purposes.” 
Ibid: 
“Fellini's camera is endlessly delighting. His actors often seem to be dancing rather than simply walking. I visited the set of his "Fellini Satyricon," and was interested to see that he played music during every scene (like most Italian directors of his generation, he didn't record sound on the set but post-synched the dialogue). The music brought a lift and subtle rhythm to their movements. Of course many scenes have music built into them: In "8 1/2," orchestras, dance bands and strolling musicians are seen, and the actors move in a subtly choreographed way, as if they're synchronized. Fellini's scores, by Nino Rota, combine snatches of pop tunes with dance music, propelling the action.
Few directors make better use of space. One of his favorite techniques is to focus on a moving group in the background and track with them past foreground faces that slide in and out of frame. He also likes to establish a scene with a master shot, which then becomes a closeup when a character stands up into frame to greet us. Another technique is to follow his characters as they walk, photographing them in three-quarter profile, as they turn back toward the camera. And he likes to begin dance sequences with one partner smiling invitingly toward the camera before the other partner joins in the dance.”  
Review of Amarcord:
“Sometimes from this tumult an image of perfect beauty will emerge, as when in the midst of a rare snowfall, the count’s peacock escapes and spreads its dazzling tail feathers in the blizzard. Such an image is so inexplicable and irreproducible that all the heart can do is ache with gratitude, and all the young man can know is that he will live forever, love all the women, drink all the wine, make all the movies and become Fellini.” 
Ibid: 
“Fellini was more in love with breasts than Russ Meyer, more wracked with guilt than Ingmar Bergman, more of a flamboyant showman than Busby Berkeley. He danced so instinctively to his inner rhythms that he didn’t even realize he was a stylistic original; did he ever devote a moment’s organized thought to the style that became known as “Felliniesque,” or was he simply following the melody that always played when he was working?” 
Ibid: 
“It’s also absolutely breathtaking filmmaking. Fellini has ranked for a long time among the five or six greatest directors in the world, and of them all, he’s the natural. Ingmar Bergman achieves his greatness through thought and soul-searching, Alfred Hitchcock built his films with meticulous craftsmanship, and Luis Buñuel used his fetishes and fantasies to construct barbed jokes about humanity. But Fellini .. well, moviemaking for him seems almost effortless, like breathing, and he can orchestrate the most complicated scenes with purity and ease. He’s the Willie Mays of movies.” 
This is just wonderful.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

On Federico Fellini and his detractors

Having just watched again La Dolce Vita and Amarcord, I’m thinking about Fellini’s detractors. He’s overrated, they say, as though it meant anything and could negate his tremendous influence on cinema and other filmmakers. He’s self-indulgent, they say, and we who love his films are seen as pretentious, the 2 words so commonly (mis)used in criticisms, in literature as well as cinema, that I’m not even sure what they mean now. Fellini’s an enormous force, and like Ingmar Bergman, one of the few true auteurs with a specific vision and worldview that is expressed over and over again in their films—his is a world of weak, philandering men and buxom women; of dreams and fantasies and people seeking miracles; of dwarves, clowns and grotesque characters; of magic, circus, hypnosis and carnivals; of parties, affairs and decadence; of drifting people wracked with guilt but unable to escape from themselves. He’s seen as narcissistic because he makes films about himself, creates art out of his own fears, dreams and longings. His films are personal, like Bergman’s, they’re his means of self-expression. That to me is not a drawback—Fellini and Bergman are both so large, so original and visionary; and, genius aside, they don’t have the self-pity that makes someone like Woody Allen so limited in comparison. 
Another argument against Fellini is that his films don’t have a narrative. What they mean is a conventional plot. His earlier films like La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, and perhaps I Vitelloni (which I don’t remember very well), have a 3-act structure; his later masterpieces such as La Dolce Vita, 8 ½ and Amarcord don’t. They don’t even have what is known as the inciting incident. But why must a film have a conventional structure to work? 


The structure of La Dolce Vita is 7 days and 7 nights, with the same formula—night of pleasure, and morning of disillusion and guilt. That is the point of the film, that his life is forever the same and Marcello is stuck in a cycle that he can’t get out, that he both despises his job as a gossip reporter and the life of hedonism but at the same time loves “the sweet life” (la dolce vita) and can’t leave it, that he keeps searching for love and meaning, in the wrong places, and never finds it. The only kind of break from the structure of 7 nights 7 days is his visits to Steiner, the model, the embodiment of success and happiness that Marcello admires and aims towards, until an event shatters all the illusion, breaks him, and makes him sink deeper in his life of hedonism. 
Similarly, 8 ½ doesn’t have an inciting incident, and doesn’t really have a journey. Guido is stuck. 8 ½ is a film about being unable to make a film, about the equivalent of writer’s block in cinema. Mixing reality with fantasy and dream, it is not a director’s search for ideas for a film, but an examination of his creative problems and personal troubles, his childhood, his relations with women, and his own selfishness and inability to love. Guido has to accept and reconcile with them all, to get out of creative block, but he is the same person in the end. 


Different from La Dolce Vita and 8 ½, Amarcord is a series of vignettes and not about a character being stuck. A film made out of nostalgia and pure joy, it’s a film that encapsulates Fellini’s memories of a village and its people, and the experience of growing up. It’s watched not for a story, but for the place, for the characters and Fellini’s warmth and love for people, for Nino Rota’s music, for many memorable moments and the sense of the wonder. As Roger Ebert put it, Amarcord is “like a long dance number, interrupted by dialogue, public events and meals”. It’s a beautiful film about adolescence. 
Why do some people think a film must have a conventional narrative to work?