‘History is but the nail upon which the picture hangs,’ wrote Dumas Jr, and in an excellent exemplar of this adage, Stephen Gundle has painted a fantastically detailed picture of the intricacies and politics of Italian cinema during the Fascist era. In a bravura performance of research, fact-finding and analysis, the author presents a well laid out and reader-friendly narrative that Italian film scholar, Peter Bondanella, has called ‘an outstanding book in every respect’ in which ‘a complete revision of our thinking on Italian cinema takes place’. And so it does. From deep in the archives of several collections, Gundle unearths and interprets a mass of facts and minutiae, giving fresh insight into this relatively ignored 20-year time frame, which had its own infrastructure of stars, distribution, exhibition and, above all, production. The latter took place at Cinecittà, the legendary film studio where, as the author notes, on the morning of 29 January 1936, Mussolini arrived by car to lay the foundation stone of ‘what would become the largest studio complex in Europe, eclipsing even the German UFA studios in Berlin’. The importance of this development to the regime, and the complex story of Italian cinematic history, is fascinatingly told through the meticulous investigation of national Fascist cinema, the Italian star system, gentrification, commercial culture and revealing case studies of stars (many conveniently forgotten after the war), such as Isa Miranda, Vittorio De Sica, Assia Noris, Amedeo Nazzari and Alida Valli. The facts and the scandals, the films and the performances – on and off screen – are engagingly told. The final part of the book focuses on the aftermath of Fascist cinema and its star system, with the self-evident chapters ‘Civil War, Liberation and Reconstruction’ and ‘Survival, Memory and Forgetting’. As Gundle finally concludes about the stars of the period: ‘No one blamed them for Fascism or for contributing with their glamour to the pattern of consent on which the regime rested. Rather they were seen as men and women who, through their screen personas, had shared with their fellow countrymen and women the most tragic and divisive period in twentieth-century Italian history and, in their best moments, granted some relief from the deadly beat of the Fascist war drums.’ A persuasive conclusion to what is already a key text of cultural Italian historiography.
Difficult Men by Brett Martin, on the other hand, takes a more journalistic and less scholarly – though no less informed – approach to his topic: ‘The wave of new shows on the cable channels which dramatically stretched television’s narrative inventiveness, emotional resonance, and artistic ambition – shows such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, Dexter, Deadwood and Boardwalk Empire, which tackled issues of life and death, love and sexuality, addiction, race, violence and existential boredom.’ Especially male existential boredom and post-feminist angst. Martin notes, as many have since, that this new ‘third golden age’ of television is squaring up to movies and providing nothing less than addictive 12 or 13-hour narrative extravaganzas with characters ‘whom, conventional wisdom had once insisted Americans would never allow into their living rooms: unhappy, morally compromised, complicated, deeply human’ who play a seductive game with the viewer, daring them to invest emotionally in, even root for, even love, a gamut of criminals whose offenses comprise adultery, polygamy, vampirism and serial murder. These shows feature storylines and characters who are ‘more ambiguous and complicated than anything that television, always concerned with pleasing the widest possible audience and group of advertisers, had ever seen.’ The storylines and plotting allow plenty of room for narrative ruthlessness and ‘give little quarter for what might be the audience’s favourite characters, offering little in the way of catharsis or the easy resolution in which television had traditionally traded’ and of course, which had, until then, set the movies apart from the limited narrative palettes and strictures of television. This was nothing short of a television revolution made possible in part, by new forms of media platforms and cultures of prosumers. A recommended and enjoyable read which is at turns pithy, sharp, gossipy, smart, insightful and extremely timely – though as the parade of ‘new television’ productions continues to proliferate, ‘timely’ is most assuredly a relative term.
Finally, short space is left for a short book: Dean J. DeFino’s hagiographic homage to the great Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! . By turns poetic, analytical, confessional, hyperbolic and factual, this compact compendium is a loving contribution to the growing literature on filmmaker Russ Meyer. This is a well-informed addition to the ‘Cultographies’ series that Wallflower publish, and an extremely personal take from an obviously smitten author, which is insightful and generous in observation – even as some of the rhetoric occasionally careens into ‘pseuds corner’ territory.
James B. Evans