Electric Sheep‘s first visit to the beautiful Czech spa resort of Karlovy Vary for the 46th edition of its multi-stranded festival was a five-day marathon that offered a wonderfully mixed bag of hidden gems and charming low-key works, with only a few disappointments. Sadly, part of the latter category was the official opening film, Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre. Similar to the 1944 version starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, Fukunaga’s adaptation offers an atmospheric, moody and finely tuned Gothic take on Charlotte Brontë’s famous novel about the plight of an orphaned governess who disastrously falls in love with her enigmatic employer. But although everything in this tragedy is adroitly done, it falls short of the brilliance and verve of the director’s 2009 debut Sin Nombre and, ultimately, feels no more ambitious than a compelling and well-performed British television drama.
By contrast, Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito), which, like Jane Eyre, screened out of competition, sees the Spanish master on excellent form. Based loosely on French crime author Thierry Jonquet’s dark novel Tarantula, the film tells the story of celebrated plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), who becomes dangerously obsessed with creating the perfect form of artificial skin after the death of his wife, who was burnt alive in a car crash. Serving as his guinea pig is the beautiful Vera (Elena Anaya), whom he keeps locked up like a prisoner in his isolated mansion run by a doting servant, his former nanny Marilia (Marisa Paredes), who has her own secrets to conceal. To reveal more of the story here would spoil the joy of discovering this heady brew of deep passion, family horrors and dizzyingly uninhibited revenge. Though it might not be as daring and unruly as Almodóvar’s earlier work, The Skin I Live In is an absorbing, savage and grotesque, yet beautifully shot tale that finds the filmmaker vividly reworking his favourite themes of obsession, desire and sexual identity, while artfully borrowing from and playing with the great tradition of horror-infused melodramas.
The Skin I Live In is released in UK cinemas on 26 August 2011.
Aside from the big headliners, where Karlovy Vary excelled was in its selection of distinctive, often small-scale art-house films. Veteran Polish director Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross is a carefully crafted study of Pieter Bruegel’s 1564 Procession to Calvary, which takes the audience both inside and behind the scenes of the painting, in all its meticulous detail. In Kim Ki-duk’s distraught Arirang, one of three Korean entries in this year’s selection, the esteemed director points the camera at himself in a confessional and heart-rending, yet at times undeniably annoying, attempt to overcome his personal and professional crisis. The superbly deadpan and physically intense Enemy at the Dead End (Jugigo ci-peun), by writer-director duo Owen Cho and Kim Sang-hwa, was one of the true standouts of the festival. It is a taut, unsentimental, tightly plotted revenge thriller about two bed-ridden men whose mysterious pasts and ill-shaped memories are linked by an unsolved murder that sees them turning their small hospital room into a deadly battlefield, as they desperately try to torture and, eventually, kill each other. Remaining consistently unpredictable right up to its nail-biting last act, the film offers a dazzling mix of pitch-black humour and off-kilter suspense, and proves that there is still zest and energy in Korean independent cinema beyond its more established front-runners.
All three films screened in the Another View strand, which turned out to be the most reliable for discoveries. The most striking debut was Breathing (Atmen), directed by Austrian actor Karl Markovics (best known for his lead performance in The Counterfeiters). The film premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight section in Cannes this year, where it picked up the Europa Cinemas Label award, which includes promotion and programming support, raising hopes for a UK release. The story revolves around the rebellious and solitary Roman, who is trying to reintegrate society after serving time in a juvenile detention centre for murder. Soon after he picks up a job at the city mortuary, to avoid a life spent behind bars, he discovers the body of a nameless woman, whose outward appearance triggers a need to search for his mother. Though inadvertently similar in its minimalistic accuracy and disquieting sense of normality to Austrian filmmaker Markus Schleinzer’s Michael, which also premiered in Cannes and played at KVIFF, Breathing is a compelling and consistently impressive first feature in its own right, which deserves to be seen widely. Out of Variety’s selection of ‘Ten Euro Directors to Watch’ (presented as another sidebar of the main programme) the best films I saw were Lisa Aschan’s deft coming-of-age tale She Monkeys (Apflickorna) and Ben Wheatley’s eagerly awaited, impressive genre flick Kill List.
In addition to the main programme strands, this year Sam Fuller and Denis Villeneuve were given retrospectives, and although the contrast between the director of Shock Corridor and The Street Helmet and the maker of Oscar-nominated Incendies is striking, the range of Villeneuve’s work revealed a tough sensibility that isn’t so far from Fuller’s hard-edged themes and stories. Also worthy of note was a selection of ‘Out of the Past’ titles, including a rare screening of Barbara Loden’s wonderfully unwieldy directorial debut Wanda and a restored version of Czech classic Marketa Lazarová, a breathtaking, mesmerising epic directed by František Vláčil, either of which would have made the trip worthwhile.
Owing to such an intriguing range of classic films, I regrettably didn’t see as much contemporary Czech cinema as I had planned, and in particular missed Vladimir Blaževski’s PunkÂ´s Not Dead (Pankot ne e mrtov), the winner of the East of the West section, a programme dedicated to films from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The two competition films I did see – German director Christian Schochow’s Crack in the Shell (Die Unsichtbare) and the Danish Birgitte Stærmose’s Room 304 (Værelse 304) – were both disappointing.
Without doubt, the highlight of the trip was the masterclass given by legendary American director Monte Hellman. He was on magnificent, passionate form as he unpicked his latest film, Road to Nowhere, about a young filmmaker who gets involved in a crime while shooting his latest project, based on a true story. During the absorbing session Hellman also gave an insight into the vagaries of a career that has spanned 50 years and, according to the director, revolves around making A-movies on a Z-movie budget. Or, as Hellman put it: ‘The producer thinks I’m making an exploitation movie and in my mind I’m making Gone with the Wind.’
Created in 1993 by musicien, producer, journalist and cinephile Frédéric Temps to give audiences the possibility to discover neglected works and filmmakers, L’Etrange Festival returns with another selection of outlandish and unconventional gems.
Asian cinema is making a strong showing with Tetsuya Nakashima’s masterfully misanthropic Confessions, the affecting, brutal Chinese thriller Revenge: A Love Story, Sion Sono’s latest, the perverse Guilty of Romance, in which two women look for love in all the wrong places and pay the price, as well as his previous Cold Fish, a darkly funny, gory crime drama set in the world of tropical fish retailing, and Korean crime thriller The Unjust, scripted by Park Joon-hung, who wrote I saw the devil.
The programme also includes Tory Nixey’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, produced by Guillermo del Toro, Lucky McKee’s vitriolic and controversial The Woman, efficient vampire road movie Stake Land, Xavier Gens’s claustrophobic sci-fi thriller The Divide, as well as a selection of works by animation pioneer Winsor McCay with live piano score by Serge Bromberg, short films and numerous oddities from the past.
There are special focuses on Rutger Hauer and Belgian director Koen Mortier, who shocked critics and audiences alike with Ex-Drummer, while Jean-Pierre Mocky, Liliana Cavani and Julien Temple curate strands of films. They will be in attendance at the festival, as well as many other guests.
In music events, Marc Caro rescores his and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 1981 short film Le bunker de la dernière rafale, Tuxedomoon soundtrack Pink Narcissus and Boyd Rice provides a new soundtrack for John Parker’s Dementia.
Close-Up’s recent Theatre Scorpio season, running before the BFI’s Shinjuku Diaries series on the Art Theatre Guild of Japan, focused on Japanese cinema’s 1960s underground – literally, as the Scorpio was situated beneath the Art Theatre Guild’s venue. The Tokyo basement venue also played host to performance, dance and music; and while most of the Scorpio’s live musical happenings are no doubt lost to history, Masao Adachi’s Galaxy (1967) is a fascinating addition to what we know of the work of experimental composer Yasunao Tone.
Galaxy is a sort of psychedelic existential quest film in which a young man, laden with the ‘straight world’ trappings of work, tradition and respectability, undergoes a possibly psychotic meltdown, in a series of increasingly surreal, hallucinatory tableaux interspersed with slow pans across gory, cartoon-like drawings. The ‘rejection of society’ shtick is common to the time, but Adachi’s brilliant visualisation of the film’s city setting as a paranoid dream/nightmare space and Tone’s uncompromisingly dissonant, often disquietingly harsh score resonate together with a surprisingly fresh urgency.
Yasunao Tone’s work for film is rarely mentioned now, most likely because it is only to be heard at these very rare screenings. It’s also just one part of Tone’s long and impressively varied career, which started with improvising ensemble Group Ongaku in the late 1950s. Prefiguring European groups like AMM by quite a few years, Ongaku channelled influences like musique concrÃ¨te and the aleatory techniques of John Cage into spontaneous, visceral sounds far edgier than those of their more academic contemporaries. Tone soon became heavily involved with the Hi-Red Centre, a politicised, Fluxus-inspired performance art squad given to disruptive ‘happenings’ (Julian Cope’s Japrocksampler mentions one piece that celebrated ‘non-victory’ by staging a banquet in honour of Japan’s defeat in World War Two). His interest in emerging technologies saw him curating a computer art festival in the early 1970s; he also wrote extensively about Japanese experimental music, and subsequently left the country for New York, where he has lived and worked ever since, with video, dance and countless other media. Now in his 70s, his most recent release was a 2004 collaboration with extreme Austrian electronic artist Florian Hecker. His documenters, then, can be forgiven for seeing Galaxy as something of a footnote.
Additionally, I’m not sure if Tone composed music specifically for Galaxy, or if the director edited pre-existing recordings to the film – if so, it is extremely well put together, choreographed precisely with the characters’ movements. But in places, its heavy use of tape effects, frantic sax and jarring bursts of noise also sound a lot like the Group Ongaku recording ‘Automatism’, a live piece from 1960 compiled in 2000 on Music of Group Ongaku, and I wondered if it might be an edit from an Ongaku or other group recording of the early 1960s. Whatever its genesis, though, its use as a film score changes its meaning.
Galaxy‘s first half plays out amid the roads, roofs, stairs and car parks of the city, and the music reflects the density of this environment. The claustrophobia of the new concrete city is sounded out by a signal jam of collaged noise, radio fragments and repetitive, harsh percussion; the tiled, cold spaces of an office corridor and toilet echo with sharp sax blasts. Tone’s sense of the inherent music of the city is a natural fit with Adachi’s ‘landscape theory’, in which place becomes or replaces character.
As the film progresses to a long, surreal sequence where the protagonist battles with a violent Buddhist monk on a giant outdoor staircase, the music’s focus tightens, becoming less of a soundscape and more of a kind of abstract dance score, with a percussive, tense, stop-start motion similar to Adachi’s jump cuts and the characters’ stylised gestures. The sounds of Buddhist ritual – prayer rattles, gongs – are employed, perhaps as a none-too-subtle comment on religion. More ‘real’ instruments can be heard, but heavily processed. Tone’s fascination with manipulating recording/playback devices would continue: in 1997 he released Music for Wounded CD, the title of which is pretty self-explanatory. Here, the tape effects are another indicator of unreliability, things not being real: even if they’re recorded, Adachi and Tone suggest, they’re certainly not ‘true’. This offsets the visual uncertainty too, as we follow the ever more unreliable narrator through increasingly trippy scenarios.
Finally, the protagonist is spat back out into everyday life – or perhaps not, says the sound. As Galaxy ends somewhat ambiguously, the music states its claim more aggressively, hitting a peak of distorted noise that is a small precursor, perhaps, not just of Yasunao Tone’s own music, but of the Japanese extreme noise scene that would emerge in the 1980s and 1990s.
The London International Animation Festival (LIAF) may take place in the English capital but its gaze reaches far beyond its home country. Based at the Barbican this year, it includes a special British showcase and a spotlight on films produced by London’s Royal College of Art but, as usual, the focus of its 2011 schedule is its international programme, a series of screenings that present a happily eclectic snapshot of independent animation from around the globe. Brilliantly broad in terms of technique and subject matter, the films jostle for a place in the final day’s ‘best of the fest’ screening and the honour of the festival competition prize. A preview compilation of shorts reveals a promising selection. Sjaak Rood’s Fast Forward Little Riding Hood (2010) is a charming re-telling of the classic fairy tale in a lightning minute-and-a-half of scribbles and doodles. Big Bang, Big Boom (2010) is the latest, very brilliant, offering from Italian street artist Blu. A riot of colourful murals and inanimate rubbish springing to life, the stop-motion film stages the story of the earth’s evolution against the dull grey of city pavements and urban buildings. Finishing with a Darwinian whirligig, man evolves from ape to a machine gun-toting soldier who shoots at his ancestors around the circumference of a gasworks wall.
Blu uses the age-old animation process of stop motion to create a fresh visual style. Another traditional animation method is celebrated in this year’s technique focus screening, which will showcase the use of paper cut-outs on film. A mainstay of animation dating back to early 20th-century cinematic pioneers such as Lotte Reiniger, cut-outs continue to produce visually arresting results as evidenced by Maya Erdelyi’s Phosphena (2010), a kaleidoscope of intricate paper creations and abstract confetti. If Erdelyi’s film is an indicator of the selection, the screening should provide a very stimulating survey of shorts.
At the other end of the spectrum, cutting-edge 3D mastery promises to be strong with a showcase of Siggraph works and animations like David OReilly’s The External World (2010) and Damian Nenow’s Paths of Hate (2010). Mimicking a twisting, throbbing video game, Paths of Hate demonstrates magnificent technical achievements as it follows two warrior pilots fighting to their death, vapour trails of blood exploding across the sky. Nenow’s film not only appears in the international programme but also in the festival’s Focus on Poland strand, which brings together animations from a country with a long history in the medium and a potent narrative tradition. As a supplement to the strand, award-winning Polish filmmaker Wojtek Wawszczyk will be hosting a masterclass and introducing his acclaimed feature George and the Hedgehog (2011).
The organisers of LIAF are adept at drawing engaging talents to the festival and another special guest at this year’s festival will be filmmaker Theodore Ushev. Ushev will be answering questions about his new film, Lipsett Diaries (2010), which explores the life and work of experimental filmmaker Arthur Lipsett, who was plagued with mental illness before committing suicide aged 49. Lipsett Diaries is one of the most applauded shorts of the past 12 months and the event will provide a compelling opportunity to view Lipsett’s and Ushev’s works side by side. LIAF’s programmers have always shown a comprehensive yet inventive approach. They aim to introduce London audiences to extensive views of specific filmmaking cultures (in addition to the Focus on Poland, there’s also a New York Who’s Who, which will showcase indie animation currently being produced in the Big Apple), but they also take pleasure in not being too prescriptive. The Panorama series of screenings and Late Night Bizarre event bring together oddities that are neither included in the competition nor fall into neat categories of filmmaking. With programming dedicated to searching out thought-provoking and technically impressive works, LIAF looks to have some very promising events taking place across London.
Nick Lake is an editorial director at HarperCollins Children’s Books. His books, Blood Ninja (Corvus) and Lord Oda’s Revenge (Corvus) – jam-packed with assassins, samurai, ancient curses and blood-sucking warriors – were inspired by his interest in the Far East, and by the fact that he is secretly a vampire ninja himself. Below he explains why his filmic alter ego is blind swordsman Zatoichi, as seen by Takeshi Kitano. Eithne Farry
My favourite Japanese film is the 2003 version of Zatoichi. If you don’t know the movie, it might be described like this: if The Seven Samurai is a cappuccino, then Zatoichi is an espresso. It’s an economical, intense, brutal action film – with just a slight froth of humour and musicality, of balletic grace to its violence.
Zatoichi, the titular character, is an old blind man, who roams the countryside with a sword hidden inside a cane, protecting the weak and the poor from the depredations of ronin and samurai. He’s the ultimate underdog. Even his name signals his base status. It’s actually Ichi – the ‘Zato’ bit means ‘4th class’, because he is a 4th-class blind person, lowly even by the standards of the blind, who rank somewhere alongside beggars and fools in feudal Japan. In other words, he’s nobody. He isn’t even allowed to carry a katana, hence his hidden blade. But time and again, he rids villages of troublesome gangsters, rescues the vulnerable – revealing, when he draws the blade from his cane, a stunning skill at fighting, due to his remarkable hearing.
So much do I love Zatoichi, in fact, that I more or less stole him for my own books. I thought that Shusaku, the ninja mentor of my hero Taro, was going to die at the end of the first book. Then I remembered Zatoichi – and I decided to burn out his eyes instead. So the first scene of Blood Ninja II has a blind man fighting multiple enemies on a dark night, in the rain…
Zatoichi is actually a relatively recently created character – nowhere near as old as Robin Hood. But I think that, in his infirmity, his old age and his contemptible social status, but amazing talent and moral rectitude, he encapsulates something timeless. You can see him as a metaphor for justice. You can see him as an avatar of the common man, rising up against his oppressor. He, of course, doesn’t need to see at all.
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Leaving Home: The Maestro of Rimini Meets the Master of Baltimore
Fellini Series a Perfect Climax to the First Year of the Toronto Film Festival’s TIFF Bell Lightbox
To you, my dearest, deviant readers of the Electric Sheep persuasion, please accept 1001 jugs of Canadian maple syrup’ worth of pardons for my falling behind on the regular reportage you’ve come to expect on the state of cinema here in the Colonies. From my fallout shelter at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula in the Dominion of Canada, I can say quite readily that I had myself one major league annus horribilis that beat even an affliction of anus fissurae. A dreadful mishap resulting in a hard drive crash that wiped out several years’ worth of writing (including my book on the art and craft of the screenplay) forced this grown man to retreat into the bush for the solace that can only be provided by blasting a Baikal semi-automatic Russian assault rifle at pesky critters (gotta love the Coyote bounty here in the Colonies) and a few, not-so-pesky critters (like Black Bears) that make for mighty fine eating. Hunting season was good, but poaching season was even better.
Ultimately, it was the opening of TIFF Bell Lightbox at the Toronto International Film Festival (horrendously abbreviated as ‘TIFF’) in the otherwise loathsome city that takes a five-hour drive from my home in North Country, which provided me the necessary post tenebras lux. Being a denizen of rural splendour meant even more rockin’ good news – a full family membership to a year-round film festival cost this redneck-hoser-cineaste only 75 smackers, and even with the price of gas, thanks to those pesky terrorists that our Dominion’s American neighbours are taking good care of, it surely was no skin off my anus (as it were) to blast down south to the metropolis with a few jars of open liquor, a chub of sausage that I won at the Royal Canadian Legion Meat Draw and a firm resolve to dine at the TIFF Lightbox trough of great movies.
Here we are then, almost a full year since the ribbon was cut on this joint located in the heart of Hogtown at that big, old city block now known as Reitman Square. ‘Twas so named after the Canadian movie director Ivan Reitman – who ya’ gonna’ call when you’re needing a big old American studio hit? Simple questions got themselves simple answers: a Canadian, of course.
And what better way can there be to celebrate life in the Colonies, but with a humungous series of movies devoted to an Italian? Not just any Italian, mind you, but the super deluxe pizza adorned with double cheese and Canadian back bacon of Italian movie directors: Federico Fellini. Who says you need a Russian assault rifle when you’ve got yourself a few weeks of the Maestro o’ Movies to put things right again in the world?
So uncork that jug of Donini Red and let’s talk Fellini!!!
The summer of 2011 will surely go down as some kind of a milestone in our fair Dominion with the magnificent TIFF Lightbox exhibition entitled ‘Fellini: Spectacular Obsessions’ – a veritable buffet of movies, photography and all manner of paraphernalia devoted to the boy from Rimini who took the world by storm.
In the Lightbox Gallery (until September 18), a series of very cool explorations of the maestro’s celluloid dreams are on display, organized by the inimitable towering inferno of cinephilia that is the Lightbox directeur artistique Noah Cowan, from an exhibit first curated by Sam Stourdzé and produced by NBC Photography (and including additional support from Cineteca di Bologna and the legendary production designers Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo). We can gaze to our heart’s content at exhibitions focusing on the La Dolce Vita Trevi Fountain sequence, Fellini’s fascination with grotesques and, among other delights, a terrific photographic tribute to Italian tabloid shutterbugs, who were eventually dubbed paparazzi, based of course on the famed character created by Fellini himself.
This is what you do BETWEEN the movies.
Ultimately, given the state-of-the-art cinemas in Lightbox as well as the sort of attention to details of presentation that’s become an almost lost art, it is finally and undoubtedly the MOVIES that matter most.
And what movies they are!
Several Fellini-themed series have already, or will be, unspooling. The most delicious strands are ‘Days of Glory: Masterworks of Italian Neo-Realism’ and the ‘Fellini Dream Double Bills’.
The magnificent Lightbox projectors aim their beams upon post-war Italian cinema in the first series mentioned above. From such luminaries and contemporaries of Fellini as Vittorio De Sica, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini we get an excellent array of films that forever changed how pictures were made. The latter series includes a clutch of luscious double bills comprised of one Fellini picture paired with the work of another filmmaker who was influenced by the maestro and either compares or contrasts with his work – all chosen by a mouth-wateringly eclectic mix of motion picture mavens.
For me, it is these double bills that truly tantalize both the taste buds and the gonads. What is Italian cinema, after all, without food and sex?
Among several pairings, Canada’s art-house darling of the Armenian persuasion Atom Egoyan served up a double trouble double bill of 8 1/2 with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore.
TIFF topper Piers Handling dove into the deep end of a post-modern peepshow that is Fellini Casanova and Hal Ashby’s Shampoo.
Noah Cowan thrusts us ever so deeply and prodigiously between the firm celluloid buttocks of homoerotic splendour on August 26 with Fellini Satyricon and Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane.
Earth, Fire and Water helmer Deepa Mehta ladles out the delicately spiced curry of Nights of Cabiria and Satyajit Ray’s Devi on August 18.
And lest we forget, on August 28 TIFF dishes out a combo platter of 8 1/2 and cuisinologists Oliver and Bonacini’s sumptuous gourmet Italian meal.
All in all, it’s programming of the highest order.
On August 8, everyone’s favourite From Reverence to Rape gal Molly Haskell tosses a few buckets of cinematic delectability into the trough that is MAN and comes up with a double bill that seems such an obvious pairing – Fellini’s I vitelloni and Barry Levinson’s Diner.
This combination of titles, in its perfect simplicity, speaks to so many levels (all two) of the male psyche. In doing so, both pictures reflect women on a surface level that is finally much deeper than one might expect. By placing men under a microscope – both discovering and displaying a seemingly shallow series of thin layers beneath their rough skin – the films reveal through their respective lenses that it is in fact the women who display a depth far more indelible than the male characters acknowledge and that both movies themselves deliver in terms of literal on-screen time.
In his extremely positive review of Diner, Roger Ebert seemed mildly disappointed with the aspect of character dimension when he wrote, ‘For all that I recognized and sympathized with these young men and their martyred wives, girlfriends, and sex symbols, I never quite believed that they were three-dimensional’. He then immediately appeared to convince even himself as he wrote that this might well be the point: ‘It is, of course, a disturbing possibility that, to the degree these young men denied full personhood to women, they didn’t have three-dimensional personalities.’
One might actually be able to say the same thing about I vitelloni, but then, one would be slightly off base I think. Both Fellini and Levinson spend as much time as possible (and necessary) with the much larger number of male characters as opposed to the women, but still deliver what I think are extremely deep portraits of all concerned.
I think it is all in the details with these two films.
Two films separated by almost 30 years that feel like they were separated at birth; two films that are now respectively 58 and 29 years old and have not dated one bit (in terms of filmmaking technique); two films vibrant, exciting and filled with the sort of detail and nuance one seldom sees in contemporary cinema; two films that speak directly to everyone on so many levels and are so universal that they have stood the test of time and indeed deserve to be called classics of cinema.
One is set in Rimini.
One is set in Baltimore.
It’s BECAUSE the characters are so rich that the stories can play out as brilliantly as they do – two different time periods of their actual production, two similar time periods in terms of where their respective stories unfold – and hit one on a very deep and personal level.
Both movies play like they could have been set – for ME – in Winnipeg.
Others, no doubt, feel like the films could have been set in their own hometown.
In 1939, Sherwood Anderson wrote ‘that man’s real life is lived out there in the imaginative world’ and he furthermore worried that writers were potentially betraying the world of imagination in the lives of all men – that good writing, GREAT writing needed to come from writers finding and then understanding the imagination of reality.
On that level, I believe both Fellini and Levinson have achieved this. They have tapped into reality and used imagination as a springboard towards that thing we all look for in both life and art: truth – and a universal truth, at that.
Two movies. Two directors. Two stories.
In the universal language that is cinema.
‘There is only one great cause for remorse – to have failed to look after one’s own interests.’
â€“ Italo Svevo, Confessions of Zeno
‘The young man’s mind was carried away by his growing passions for dreams… he closed his eyes and… stayed that way for a long time and when he aroused himself and again looked out… the town of Winesburg had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.’
â€“ Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio
The first time I saw Barry Levinson’s Diner was Friday, October 15, 1982 – first-run in Winnipeg at a north-end suburban twin theatre called the Garden City Cinema, located in the shopping mall a few blocks away from my childhood home. I sat and watched this great picture, consumed (nay, reeling) with emotions, memories and feelings of a distant past, a not-so-distant past and a present that were all reflected in this portrait of male layabouts in a Baltimore of 1959 (my year of birth).
Here was a movie written and directed by someone 17 years my senior, (who himself was only 17 years old when his film was set) with a tale told in a city and time far from my own, and yet everything I witnessed on this first viewing reminded me of those three aforementioned periods of my life.
Where the shopping mall now stood, there used to be vast, open, flat prairies that reached as far north as the shores of Lake Winnipeg (where I and a future filmmaking partner both had summer cottages). The field itself was several hundred acres of an abandoned farm replete with tall grasses, well-worn monkey trails and a long-empty ramshackle house that we’d cycle out to as pre-teens on our banana-seat three-speeds and hang around in as if it were our own private clubhouse.
It wasn’t our own clubhouse, however.
By daring to transgress upon the party house of some early-20-something-want-to-be bikers, we were, at least to our minds, risking our safety within inches of taking our own lives. As terrified as we were of these party-hearty petty criminals on wheels, we also admired and respected them from afar.
These long-haired burly boys – mostly of Eastern European and/or Aboriginal extraction (or a mix of the two) – spent hours hanging in a corner booth at the local diner, the Thunderbird Restaurant (or, as everyone called it, ‘The T-Bird’).
And as we sat there, (not unlike the two generations patronizing Levinson’s diner – the early 20-something layabouts and the 40-something businessmen-cum-gangsters) we talked, and the young men talked.
The T-Bird was home to the Centennial Burger, a three-patty, four-bun monstrosity smothered in chilli sauce from bottom, through middle and finally, on top. The burger itself, respectfully named after the birth of Canadian Confederation, was served up in a cottage cheese container. You were given a knife, fork and spoon to shovel this meaty delight down your gullet.
However, if you ordered the ‘platter’, you got yourself a pile of French fries, which, like all good Canadian boys, you ordered with that special cherry on the ice-cream sundae. Concealed beneath your thick-cut fries was a cosy comforter of oil-slick-thick, brown-coloured savoury gravy. One of the pals I saw Diner with for my first screening had earlier spent the summer in his hometown of Buffalo, New York, and got his first helping of the picture there. He’d been living in Canada for a few years and had come, like any good landed immigrant in our fair Dominion, to appreciate the culinary glories of French fries adorned with globs of rich gravy.
This inspired him to mention to me that the screening of the film with an American audience elicited continued displays of displeasure from the Buffalonian movie-goers. The very notion of fries with gravy was so foreign and distasteful to them that a chorus of ‘eeewwwsss’ accompanied every appearance of this taste treat.
Eventually, in my own life, the distant past turned into the not-so-distant past, and I and my pals from the old neighbourhood found ourselves sitting in our own regular booth at the T-Bird – now adorned in Lumberjack plaid – and the bikers, now full-fledged members of the Los Bravos motorcycle gang, were draped in the colours of their outfit.
And as the bikers sat there, they talked.
And as we sat there, we talked.
When the not-so-distant past transformed to the present (at least in the context of 1982), I had left the Lumberjacks (which we called ourselves – modelled on the Monty Python sketch no less) well behind and now spent endless days in the company of a new group of young men.
There was the English professor from Buffalo, the English professor from Idaho, the boy wonder philosophy professor from the Maritimes, a gaggle of assorted young men (including myself) without ‘real’ jobs, and we sat at the Bar Italia on a tiny Corydon Street strip of Winnipeg’s Little Italy.
Though not one of us was even remotely Italian, we shared one thing with the groups of Italian men surrounding us. We sat around, often at the same table, and we talked.
We called ourselves The Drones.
And indeed, drones we were.
Specifically, we belonged to the human order of social hymenoptera that would be classified as the Lasius niger of the male branch of the Formicidae – our bonds as strong as they were competitive – mating with as many females as were available, but often suffering rejection after a single coupling. Most importantly, and in spite of this, much like the characters in Levinson’s picture, ‘we’d always have the diner’.
One evening at the Bar Italia (our own Fells Point Diner), the formicine banter had been even more fast and furious than usual. It had reached such a crescendo that when the jabbering ceased, we could only do what came naturally at such junctures and sat in silence.
Spent from our discourse, the sound of needles dropping was shattered when our pal, the Boy Wonder Philosophy Professor, offered up the following:
‘You know, I really love you guys. Really. I do. I really, you know, love you.’
We regarded this with the solemnity of deep appreciation and understanding.
The Boy Wonder, waiting for just the right silent cue, continued:
‘Sometimes I wish we could just walk down the street holding hands. You know? Just, you know, holding hands.’
We all understood, and again our silence acknowledged this fact.
‘Even now,’ the Boy Wonder continued, ‘it would be so wonderful if we could just hold hands and give each other kisses when we wanted to.’
We looked at him.
‘It’s nothing sexual,’ he assured us. ‘It’s just an expression of our love for each other.’
We nodded in hearty approval until one of us, my Roommate, a former bank teller and future filmmaker, decided to chime in.
‘I love you too,’ he said, ‘but if we did hold hands and if we did kiss each other, we’d have to eventually go so much further.’
The Boy Wonder arched an eyebrow.
My Roommate clarified his position: ‘We’d eventually have to put our dirty cocks in each other’s mouths.’
As Kurt Vonnegut Jr. would say, ‘And so it goes’.
And so it goes. And so it went, that we found ourselves, every single one of us Drones, sitting together in the Garden City Cinema on October 15, 1982, and watching our life on celluloid.
I had come – we all had come – full circle.
A heaping helping of Fellini’s I vitelloni at the urging of our American English professor friends soon followed this momentous screening of Diner. Home video was still in its infancy at this point so a copy (of this, or anything like it) was impossible to rent. No matter. The Drones delightedly assembled in the living room of Professor Idaho where he unleashed a version of the picture that originated with a rented 16mm public domain print (which had a marginal subtitled translation that was almost impossible to see when the white letters appeared over anything remotely white), then shot off the screen at the university on 3/4″ tape, and dubbed back onto VHS for our viewing pleasure.
The Drones saw many movies in this fashion. Seeing physically degraded versions of great films might – for some – seem a tad sacrilegious, but when great work broke through the barriers of such presentation, you knew you were watching greatness incarnate.
Make no mistake, either.
I vitelloni is not only a great picture, but it’s the grandfather of all layabout male loser pictures.
The haunting images beneath the opening titles finds the maestro’s camera perched from a God-like view upon the winding small town streets of Rimini as a group of men, arm in arm, appear from around a corner while we hear them singing a rousing song, which is quickly drowned out by Nino Rota’s score.
And what a score! It’s sentimental, emotional, jaunty, sad and malevolent – when it needs to be one of those things or a combination of them.
Once the titles finish, we’re perched in a seaside outdoor club where the town has gathered for the crowning of Miss Mermaid of 1953. A celebrity panel has been selected to choose the winner while a scarf-adorned tenor sings on stage.
Here Fellini introduces us to our main characters – in one of the cleanest ways imaginable. So simple and so effective is this introduction that it became an almost de rigueur approach to presenting characters in a film. The camera dollies and/or cuts to each of the vitelloni (translated from Italian to mean either young calves held to be fattened for slaughter and/or idle young men of the provinces) and the narrator introduces each one by name, delivers a brief evocative description and, of course, we get an image that seems to indelibly capture exactly who each one of them is. (Think back on Henry Hill’s introduction to all the gangsters in Scorsese’s Goodfellas – it’s almost a carbon copy of Fellini’s approach.)
And from this point on, we follow the gentle episodic tale of these men in their late 20s and early 30s who refuse to grow up.
There is Alberto (Alberto Sordi), the jovial, unemployed party animal who lives with his mother and sister Olga (Claude Farrel), the latter of whom is supporting the family, but also – much to the dismay of her mother and brother – carrying on with a married man. Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste) is the ‘intellectual’ of the bunch, a poet – also unemployed. Soulful Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi) is the youngest of the vitelloni and though unemployed, yearns to have a life beyond the small town. Riccardo (Riccardo Fellini, and yes, the maestro’s real-life brother) has a gorgeous tenor and lives for moments like the Miss Mermaid contest or weddings (when he can sing ‘Ave Maria’ to the delight of all). He is – wait for it, folks – unemployed. And finally, no group can be without a leader, and this duty rests upon the shoulders of the unemployed Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), the stylish, handsome and incurably horny ladies’ man. He’s impregnated Sandra (Eleonora Ruffo), Miss Mermaid of 1953, forced into a shotgun wedding and made to take a job in a religious goods store.
Barry Levinson’s Diner has an equally evocative introduction to its cast of layabout characters. Instead of a formal score, much of the movie is packed with 50s rock and roll and R&B hits – usually used as source. Like I vitelloni, the picture begins during a big social event, but instead of a trilling tenor on the soundtrack we hear the faint strains of ‘Shout’ as Modell (Paul Reiser) makes his way through the hallways and finally into the dance area of a community centre where a kick-ass cover band is doing a rousing interpretation of the great Isley Brothers hit while young couples dance up a storm.
We don’t get an immediate sense of who Modell is – other than the fact that he’s well dressed and seems rather affable. In 1982, most of us didn’t know Paul Reiser, but if one did (or indeed, does know), then we would have had some idea that he was going to be screamingly funny with his trademark deadpan nebbish delivery.
Reiser’s first lines are drowned under the music and all we can faintly hear is that he’s looking for a character called Boogie who, once revealed, is none other than a very young, handsome and stylishly coiffured Mickey Rourke. ‘Nuff said if you know who Mickey Rourke is, but at the time he was a relative unknown.
Boogie, once summoned by Modell, enters a room in the basement of the facility to find Fenwick, a preppily attired little rich boy drunkenly smashing windows. When Rourke asks Fenwick why he’s behaving so erratically, Fen responds with a goofy grin and a singsong lilt in his voice, ‘It’s a smile’.
Fenwick is also played by a relative unknown (at the time), Kevin Bacon, perfectly cast as the perpetual fuck-up with a heart of gold.
We’re briefly introduced to the other members of the Baltimore layabouts upstairs at the dance, but the manner in which Levinson chooses to do this gives us even more insight into the characters.
It’s seemingly in opposition to how Fellini does it in I vitelloni, but is in actuality very similar, the only real difference being that the sequence is rooted in a completely different culture.
I vitelloni offers up a group of layabouts in an old Italian town in the provinces where people mostly walk to get to and fro. Diner, on the other hand, is American as all get out. This is a Baltimore suburb where everybody has a humungous Detroit City gas pig to get from place to place and once we’re out of the dancehall, we get a fantastic cut to a wide shot of a veritable convoy of stylish vehicles making their way along a rural side road as we hear Jerry Lee Lewis belting out ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ through each car’s respective tinny radio speakers.
Levinson places his camera inside each of the cars and we get snippets of his crackling dialogue, which paints perfect bite-sized portraits of each character in a few lines.
Modell is in the passenger seat as Boogie drives. At this point, we’ve already been given a fair bit of information about Boogie from the dancehall scenes. Boogie’s a bit older than the rest, a real charmer, semi-street-wise and as such, looked upon as a sage. So here we get Boogie driving while Modell gives us a hint of the hilarity to come when Reiser delivers the hilarious mini-monologue in which he describes why ‘nuance’ is not as good a word as ‘gesture’. Rourke’s deadpan reaction to this is as priceless and funny as Reiser’s delivery.
When Levinson settles inside Shrevie’s (Daniel Stern) car, his wife Beth (Ellen Barkin) at his side, we know immediately that this is not the happiest of marriages. The couple is cordial on the surface, but there’s a huge distance between them. Beth discusses the upcoming marriage plans between Eddie (Steve Guttenberg, whom we have met very briefly at the dancehall) and his fiancée.
Beth expresses shock that Eddie is insisting that the bridesmaids wear blue and white in homage to the Baltimore Colts football team. Shrevie couldn’t care less. He jokes it’s a good thing Eddie didn’t insist upon black and gold, the colours of the Colts’ arch-rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers. Beth clearly fails to see the humour.
With this exchange Levinson deftly provides a huge piece of the puzzle to our film’s primary layabout Eddie – and let me stress, we have barely seen Eddie. To this point, he might as well be a background player. When we finally meet Eddie, we’re brilliantly primed to understand his impending nuptial trepidation and completely swallow the fact that he’s designed an extremely tough football quiz his fiancée must pass for the wedding to actually go through.
This, of course, becomes one of the central issues dividing the men and women of both Diner and I vitelloni – communication (or lack thereof) between the sexes. In both films, the men – in spite of occasional differences – have one another. They have common ground, which is, ultimately, conversation – communication.
It is just not so with the women, who in both films are relegated to the sidelines. In I vitelloni, when Fausto and Sandra return from their honeymoon in Rome, she keeps trying to get in a word edgewise about their experiences there. She is ignored by the other men, and it is Fausto who blusters in and carries the conversation about their exploits. In Diner, when Shrevie and Beth exit the movie house where they’ve just seen A Summer Place, Beth looks at the one-sheet displayed out front and tries to make conversation – pointing out that the writer of this Troy Donahue epic was the same person who wrote The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Shrevie looks longingly at his buddies. Beth keeps talking. Shrevie keeps not listening.
The ultimate explosion in this communication divide comes during the now-famous scene where Shrevie furiously chastises Beth for incorrectly filing his vinyl collection. He yells at her while hurling invectives. He berates and calls her stupid for putting James Brown under the ‘J’ section and even more viciously/stupidly displays total incredulity that she’s filed James Brown in the rock and roll category instead of R & B.
When Sandra in I vitelloni finds out that Fausto has been fired from his job for making an inappropriate pass at his boss’s wife, her face is, at first, frozen in a state of disbelief, and it is only when Fausto dons his pathetic please-let-me-explain hang-dog that actress Eleonora Ruffo transforms before our eyes and displays a hurt so deep, so utterly heartbreaking, that Fellini’s decision to have her bolt from the room at the precise moment she does comes as a relief to both the audience and, to a certain extent, to Fausto.
In Diner, when Beth asks Shrevie why he yells at her all the time, his response remains centred on HIS needs. Barkin, like Ruffo, transforms her face into such a pitiful expression of pain we almost want to punch him. Shrevie’s especially idiotic response is that his filing system represents his true passion – music. He further berates her for never asking him ‘what’s on the flipside’ of his collection of hit 45rpm vinyl.
Beth responds even more pointedly, asking Shrevie if he ever yells at his friends the way he yells at her. (OK, guys reading this – ‘fess up! How many of you have heard this question from a woman you love? Be honest now!)
His flustered comeback could almost be touching when he whines that music helps him remember important events in his life and that the first time he met Beth, Clarence Henry’s ‘Ain’t Got No Home’ was playing.
With both movies, Levinson and Fellini always make sure to temper the drama to relieve the pain somewhat and importantly, to reveal humanity in their characters and situations. They do this through humour, of course.
Shrevie, upon blasting out of the house after his argument with Beth, is found at the top of a great cut behind the wheel of his car singing along to ‘Ain’t Got No Home’ as Clarence Henry’s screeching falsetto (along with Daniel Stern’s hilarious mimicry of it) fills the soundtrack.
Fellini delivers one lollapalooza of laughs after another in the scenes following two genuinely harrowing dramatic sequences. Coming home after yet another infidelity, the stench of sex with another woman all over his fingers, Fausto puts on a happy face when he sees Sandra in bed with their new-born baby. When he reaches out to caress little Moraldino, Sandra defiantly refuses to let him do so. The next morning, she takes the baby and leaves Fausto.
Fellini outdoes himself here. Fausto, for the first time, is genuinely disgusted with himself – even more so as he begins a frantic, futile search for Sandra. With each scene in this sequence, Fellini charts an unforgettable, believable and thoroughly earned (in a dramatic context) transformation in Fausto’s character. Shot by shot, cut by cut, we not only see increasing fear, but a realization of how much he truly loves Sandra. And no offence intended, but actress Eleonora Ruffo is such a mind-numbingly gorgeous babe and the character she etches is so loveable that it’s yet another reminder of how in the movies, as in life, men are especially susceptible to not seeing what’s in front of them until they’re threatened with losing it.
For once, we experience genuine heartbreak associated with Fausto’s character. Granted, it also reflects upon and reminds us of Sandra’s heartbreak, but in so doing, it serves to make his fear and regret all the more harrowing.
Ah, but maestro Fellini won’t drag us through the muck forever. He follows this up with the now famous and much loved scene where Alberto gives the roadside workers an ‘up yours’ gesture and a big raspberry fart bleat as his vehicle passes them. He furthermore yells out what losers they are for actually working – triumphant in his ‘victory’ until the vehicle breaks down a few feet away from the burly hard-hats.
As if this wasn’t enough of a knee-slapper, Fellini follows this up with an even more hilarious scene where Fausto gets what’s coming to him. Suffice to say he receives something that’s both humiliatingly funny and completely, utterly deserved.
Both movies are infused with obvious autobiographical elements as well as the qualities of neo-realism. That said, both filmmakers move well beyond these fundamentals of great cinematic storytelling.
Fellini, for example, actually left Rimini at the age of 19 and was not so much a vitellone as a great admirer of the vitelloni in his hometown. In terms of the neo-realist qualities of both pictures, it is true they shot on actual locations – often with ‘real’ people as opposed to ‘just’ actors. Fellini, however, hardly shot in Rimini since Alberto Sordi determined the entire production schedule and locations were often chosen based upon what part of Italy Sordi was playing in on a live theatre tour. Most tellingly, Levinson shot in his hometown of Baltimore, but his beloved Fells Point Diner had to be recreated by a company that actually specialized in designing, building and providing period diners to entrepreneurs wishing to set up such businesses for themselves.
There is also no question that Fellini and Levinson were blessed with phenomenal ensemble actors who behave like they’ve been genuine friends for years. Levinson has a foot up in one aspect of the filmmaking process – at least to English-speaking viewers. Levinson’s dialogue teems with life and vibrancy. The diner conversations are so funny, so true, that most audiences (of both sexes – though I’d argue, especially men) are completely swept away with the words on the page and how brilliantly the actors capture them. As I don’t speak Italian, I can’t completely vouch for Fellini’s words on the page. While I vitelloni has a new and seemingly better subtitled translation, nuance in dialogue is harder to ascertain. Thankfully, his astounding actors always keep one’s eyes glued to the screen and the rhythms of the dialogue always feel spot on.
In a strange way, I do think Fellini (and his co-writers) delivers a script that manages to provide female characters that are more rounded than Levinson’s are. The beleaguered Sandra finally comes alive in ways that Beth can’t, given certain structural differences rooted in themes that are unique, I think, to the Italian, as opposed to the American, experience.
Given the matriarchal power of women in an Italian Catholic context, which subtly overtakes patriarchy in ways that the men are utterly incapable of dealing with, Sandra does indeed have a whole lot of ‘fight’ in her and it’s that fight that gives Fausto the biggest boner of his life.
Within the melting pot context of post-war America, women as objects, as trophies, as property, always seemed to supersede any fight they try to display (at least within a dramatic context in films from or about this period). On the eve of his wedding, Eddie is terrified he’s ‘gonna be missing out on a lotta things’, and this feeling is buoyed when one of his pals asserts, ‘that’s what marriage is all about’. The mother/whore syndrome seems even stronger within an American context than the Italian one.
After an especially joyous scene at a strip club, Eddie goes for coffee with one of the strippers. His heart-to-heart with her is perhaps one of the most poignant scenes in Diner. The stripper expresses how she longed for marriage, but that it just never seemed to work out. In spite of (or maybe because of) this, she’s the bearer of the most sage advice of all. She asks Eddie if he loves his wife-to-be. He replies that he’s ‘told’ her repeatedly how much he loves her. The stripper’s response caps everything perfectly. ‘Yeah,’ she says, ‘but did you ever show her how much you love her?’
Even still, Levinson continues with a clear choice he’s made from the beginning. We never see Eddie’s fiancée, and even in the haunting and extremely moving scene near the end of the movie where she tosses the bouquet of flowers, we do not see her face. Compared to the fellowship of men who never want to grow up, women, it seems, are almost always faceless.
It’s a brave and powerful move on Levinson’s part to make this dramatic choice.
Finally, where I vitelloni and Diner truly deliver the goods is in their final moments of happiness, joy and melancholy – none of which are falsely tacked on, but genuinely earned. Reconciliation and love play a huge role in both movies and both make one soar at the end in ways that only movies can.
Fellini does, perhaps, have a slight edge over Levinson here. The restless, sensitive Moraldo in I vitelloni is, almost from the start of the picture, a character who both loves his aimless life and buddies, but yearns for, and wonders if there could be, something more.
When Moraldo finally boards the train to leave everything behind, he looks out at his home as it passes by. What Fellini shows us from Moraldo’s perspective is a series of images, which in the context of I vitelloni both breaks our hearts and lifts us to the heavens all at once.
Moraldo, like the young man at the end of Sherwood Anderson’s great piece of 20th-century American literature, Winesburg, Ohio – like Fellini, like Levinson and yes, like the Drones and all such young men the world over – looks from the passing train as his hometown disappears.
What remains is all that possibly can remain.
‘His life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.’
From the Dominion of Canada,
On the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula,
I bid you a hearty:
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews