Monday, November 19, 2018

Angkor Wat

It is possible that the ruins of Angkor [Angkor Wat] are in many ways more impressive than the city itself was in its heyday.  Time has wrought wonders with the sandstone, which must have been garish enough when freshly cut.  And vandalism and the flailings of sun and rain have done much to mute that excessive symmetry, that all-pervading symbolism, that repetitiousness which I find so irritating in far-Eastern art.  There is evidence of an obsession with the magic of numbers and of the dignifying, under artistic forms, of primeval superstitions.  One feels that the Khmer must have reasoned that if it was a good thing to erect one statue to Vishnu or of a Devata, then it was fifty times better to have fifty of them.  Adepts of magic never seem to be convinced that their magical practices are completely and finally effective.
      - Norman Lewis, A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Indo-China (1951)

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Cinema Italian Style: Reckless Life

BB is a former race car driver.  Roberto his former mechanic.  Their racing days far behind them, both young men have little to show for it.  They're broke.  They live with BB's parents in a provincial town.  They can't seem to catch any breaks.  All they do now is sit around smoking pot, complaining, and trying to pick up the occasional drunk girl in a bar.  They're losers, fuck-ups.  When Roberto goes to a bank to get a loan, though, things go horribly wrong and soon he and BB have inadvertantly robbed the bank of twenty million euros, taken a hostage, stolen a car, and find themselves on the lam from the Italian police.  As I said, they're fuck-ups.  Their hostage, Soledad, is a young actress down on her luck who views her kidnapping as the perfect way for her to resuscitate her flagging career.  When Roberto starts to spout populist slogans into a TV camera during the abduction (he quotes Bernie Sanders), the three find themselves populist heroes as they flee through the Italian countryside.

Such, then, is Reckless Life (Una vita spericolata), writer/director Marco Ponti's effervescent crime-action-comedy which I saw last night at SIFF's Cinema Italian Style film festival.  I have mixed feelings about this movie.  I liked a lot of it - and I'll get to that in a moment.  But there was much of it I didn't like.  Ponti was in attendance at the screening and described the film as "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll".  And he was right.  The film has plenty of that.  But it also has quite a bit of torture, too.  And that I could have done without.  People having their fingers chopped off, dismembered body parts strewn around the floor.  It was too much.  At heart Reckless Life is a goofy action-comedy.  The brutality was completely out of tone with the rest of the film.  No doubt Ponti is attempting a Quentin-Tarantino-Elmore-Leonard-esque combination of crime, comedy, and violence but it didn't work. It never quite comes off.  Also, on a technical point, the pursuit of "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll" is, despite everything, a fundamentally wholesome endeavor because it's the pursuit of fun, of pleasure, of things that are "very good indeed" (at least for awhile), as the song puts it.  A delight in torture, though, is an entirely different thing.

The saving grace of this film are its three leads.  Every time the story focuses on them Reckless Life is a pleasure to watch.  Of the two males, Roberto is the bigger fuck-up and Lorenzo Richelmy, with seemingly permanent pillow-hair, leaps into this role with gusto.  His freak-outs are hilarious - his eyes bug out, he yells, his hair seems to go airborne, he's an equal combination of fear and helplessness.  This is Gene Wilder level hysteria.  On the other hand, as BB, Eugenio Franceschini is the exact opposite - all cool stoner serenity.  As the situation worsens his calmness deepens.  There's no problem that can't be solved by lighting up a joint and handing out stacks of euros; he's part Buddha, part Robin Hood, part Jeff Lebowski.  Matilda De Angelis in the role of Soledad is more than a match for this pair.  Whether she's throwing up in the back seat of the car or crying over her sex tape (she sleeps with a screenwriter - it's an old joke), Soledad easily holds her own against these two drama queens. 
Lorenzo Richelmy, Matilda De Angelis, and Eugenio Franceschini

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Cinema Italian Style: The Story of a Love Affair/Like a Cat on a Highway

I saw The Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un amore) at SIFF's Cinema Italian Style festival yesterday.  Originally released in 1950, this was director Michelangelo Antonioni’s first film and it immediately established him as a new voice in Italian film-making.  It's essentially a retelling of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, except set in the world of the Italian middle and upper classes of Ferrara rather than among the poor.  The beautiful Lucia Bosé plays the femme fatale, Paola, and Massimo Girotti is Guido, the sap who falls for her.  And then, of course, there’s Paola’s rich, older, and insufferable husband whose removal would fix everything for our two lovers.
The story-telling in this likable film is a little clumsy at first but once our two protagonists enter, it moves with calm assurance to its final grim, betrayal-filled ending.  The Story of a Love Affair is a sturdy piece of work.  Right from the start Antonioni's trademark visual style is there: isolated figures stand or walk about in large empty spaces, there's always a titanic and sterile tenement blocks in view, the world seems deserted - except, of course, of the massive post-war ennui of the films' well-dressed and elegant leads.  Viewers tend to find Antonioni's style either very cool or very pretentious.  I admit I fall into the former group.  

Massimo Girotti and Lucia Bosé

The only problem I had with this film, in fact, concern its two leads.  They're good but don't have the sort of chemistry when they are together to be entirely convincing. There's not much electricity between them, none of that white-hot "I love you so much, I'll kill for you!" passion which the story requires.  One hopes that they would crackle at least a little, but they don't.  Fortunately, that's not fatal for this movie.  Lucia Bosé is so beautiful, sexy, and elegant that even if we don't believe that her co-star would kill for her, some of us in the audience might.  And that's good enough.   

In the 2017 comedy Like a Cat on a Highway (Come un gatto in tangenziale) Giovanni (Antonio Albanese) is the head of a think-tank dedicated to improving the lot of those who live in the poor, crime-ridden outskirts of Rome.  His NGO gives presentations to various EU commissions to request increased funding for the programs designed to help the poor.  He is, in short, a compassionate, middle-class do-gooder.  But when he discovers that his young daughter is dating a boy from those same outskirts, he freaks out.  Also freaking out is Monica (Paola Cortellesi), the loud, tough, heavily-tattooed, baseball-bat-wielding mother of the boy.  Soon Giovanni and Monica are working together to thwart their kids’ romance.

From that brief description if you don’t know exactly - and I mean exactly - where this comedy is going you need to stop reading this blog immediately and never come back.  Director Riccardo Milani and co-writers Furio Andreotti, Giulia Calenda, and the aforementioned Paola Cortellesi, don’t miss a trick or a cliché in this odd-couple story.  We get the middle-class guy's comical first encounter with people in the tenements.  And the equally comical scenes of the low-class woman's dealings with the affluent.  And yet the obvious predictability of all that doesn’t really matter; the film-makers manage to pull it off.  This is a very lively, fun movie.  You may see everything coming, but you don't mind.  Much of this is due to the chemistry between Albanese and Cortellesi.  They have a mutual interest in separating their kids and both performers bring out the toughness and resilience of their characters in this task as well as their vulnerabilities.  The characters may border on caricatures but the actors manage to give them enough humanity to engage us.  And they're both riotously funny, too.     

Paola Cortellesi, Alice Maselli, Simone de Bianchi, and Antonio Albanese

The script is so tightly-written, the jokes and comic incidents are so expertly piled up, that you don’t really notice (or maybe, don’t really care) that this topical film evades most of the issues it raises.  We never see any of the drug or alcohol abuse that plague the lives of the poor, nor do we see any of the real violence which they encounter - or commit.  In fact, the poor in this film seem to be largely unaffected by their lives of poverty. There are no gangs, no brutality, not even a mafia - imagine that.  As for the affluent, they have no fear of the poor, no hostility towards them, their wealth and power are in no way connected to the existence of poverty, they think the poor are “just folks”.  Class war?  What class war?  It’s as if a script by Bertolt Brecht were given a total re-write by Nora Ephron.  

Still, despite my carping, I enjoyed this film. It was a pleasant way to kill an hour and forty minutes. 

Friday, November 09, 2018

Cinema Italian Style: The Guest

Went to SIFF Uptown Cinema last night to see The Guest (L’ospite), the opening movie in this year’s Cinema Italian Style festival, a week-long showcase of the best in contemporary Italian films.

Set in Rome, The Guest is a gentle and very funny comedy about Guido (Daniele Parisi), a literature professor in his late 30s who gets dumped by his girlfriend and finds himself sleeping on the sofas of various family members and friends, all the while hoping to reunite with his love.  The feckless Guido, though, soon finds himself caught up in the private lives of his many hosts.  Slowly, even reluctantly, he starts to mature.  The Guest is a coming-of-age story about someone who should have come of age about a decade earlier. 

But, as Guido and the viewer soon learn, all the other characters in this film should have matured years ago, too, but didn't.  His girlfriend, Chiara (Silvia D'Amico), can't seem to make up her mind about her future; she has a master's degree yet can only find work as a docent.  Guido's colleague at the university is nine-months pregnant but admits to being in love with a man other than her husband.  His mother and father bicker, unable to accept each others quirks after all those years together.  Another friend keeps having multiple affairs with different women.  When one of these relationships blows up in his face, the friend winds up shacking up for the night on the sofa at Guido's parents' house, too.  Everyone's life seems to be a mess.  And Guido, who just wants to move back in with Chiara, finds himself an unwitting confidant and even accomplice to his friends' problems.  

Silvia D'Amico and Daniele Parisi
It's a testament to director Duccio Chiarini's talent that The Guest doesn't descend into either mere soap opera or overwrought melodrama.  He strikes the right tone; one of sympathy and yet with an amused detachment.  But a detachment rooted in understanding, not indifference.  At one point just about every character in this film turns to Guido and says "I'm scared".  It's always a moving admission, and yet with repetition the line becomes gently humorous.  Yes, you're scared.  We're all scared. Yet one feels that every time Guido hears the line he becomes a little less scared - because he's a little less alone in feeling scared - and thus becomes a little more confident.  

Don't let my review leave you with the wrong impression.  Chiarini, and his co-writers Davide Lantieri, Marco Pettenello, and Roan Johnson have created a hilarious comedy in The Guest.  One particular joke about a pair of panties will have you laughing for weeks.  And the excellent cast keep this film lively and engaging.  In the lead, Daniele Parisi manages to be both passive and cranky at the same time.  Almost everyone in this film will call Guido "an asshole" to his face, and yet as the movie goes along his passivity seems to be that of a stoic who's learned (or at least, is learning) to accept people as they are.  In contrast, Silvia D'Amico as his girlfriend is all passion and drive.  She is very discontented.  She wants more out of life, and as viewers we feel that, yes, honestly, she could probably do better than Guido.  But by the end of the film, though, we're not so sure.  

Daniele Parisi
Turkish cinematographer Baris Özbiçer did an outstanding job shooting this film; his Rome is a city of color and sunlight, his quiet control puts one in mind of the work of Roger Deakins.  Laura Boni's production design made everything look mundane and yet wonderfully attractive.  After seeing Rome through the eyes of these two, I wanted to run to the airport and buy a one-way ticket there. (When does one not?)

Finally, for any readers who live in the Los Angeles area, your own Cinema Italian Style festival will kick off this Tuesday, November 13th at the Egyptian and Aero theaters.  The film line-up is a little different from Seattle's, but some of the titles will overlap, though, unfortunately, not The Guest.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018


In the normal course of things, a poet, however illustrious, is but an ornament of his country.  He is a sumptuary creature, a luxury whose existence merely signifies the determination of some few people to express, in language quite distinct from the vernacular, what is purest in the domain of least useful thought.
- Paul Valéry, “In Honor of Émile Verhaeren” (1927)

Friday, November 02, 2018

Stanley Kubrick, Photographer

Between the ages of seventeen and twenty-one Stanley Kubrick worked as a photographer for Look magazine.  Look, along with Life, was one of the great photo-journalism magazines in the US and after it shut down in 1971 its five million plus images were donated to the Library of Congress.  Some, though, went to the Museum of the City of New York, where a select few were recently on display in the exhibition Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs.  This outstanding volume from Taschen is a companion book to the exhibit. 

Born and raised in New York City, it is appropriate that Kubrick’s photographs would be displayed by the museum dedicated to his home town.  Since he spent most of his life in England we don’t tend to think of Kubrick as a New Yorker but that’s a mistake.  He always possessed the traits New Yorkers value highly: intelligence, realism, an inexhaustible interest in the world, drive and ambition.  As the cliché would put it - he left New York but New York never left him.  Unlike that other great New-York-born expatriate artist, Henry James, Kubrick never yearned to be English. He wasn't seeking another home elsewhere; he was at home in his interests. Geographic or national identity was of no concern whatsoever to him.  The only time they appear in his work is as caricatures and objects of ridicule in Dr. Strangelove (1964).  

But before he got to that point in his career he worked for Look, chronicling New York City in these outstanding photographs which capture the gritty reality of life in Manhattan in the late 1940s.  Whether it's people riding the subway late at night (above), or people arguing on the streets, or women shopping at a five-and-dime, Kubrick captures the city and its residents in all their toughness.  Weegee (a.k.a. Arthur Fellig) was clearly his idol, and Kubrick too would soon be taking infrared photos of lovers kissing in doorways or darkened movie theaters.  

I love these photos.  I love NYC in the 1940s.  It was a world of concrete and never-ending heat waves, short fat guys with bad haircuts wearing T-shirts and chomping cigars, women in cheap print dresses always on the look out for your con. Life was lived outdoors, on the street or the stoop.  It was a ruthless world of hustle and survival.  The face on the kid below, a young shoe-shine boy, is pure New York - tough, yet possessing a humanity and warmth.  

Mickey (left) and an eye-rolling friend

Kubrick's vision of New York is pure noir.  In 1956 he directed The Killing, largely regarded as a film noir classic - though I prefer Killer's Kiss from 1955.  It's more raw, more experimental.  The city - with its dance halls, cheap hotels, and boxing matches - is itself a character.  Clearly the years at Look were a preparation for those films.  In the photo of the Copacabana dance floor (below), for instance, you can practically smell the desperation and loneliness.

And the showgirls at the Copa seem equally jaded.

As Kubrick established himself at Look he began to get nominally better assignments.
Often they were of celebrities (Guy Lombardo, Leonard Bernstein, Montgomery Clift) or local New York events (elegant Halloween parties, rehearsals of Broadway musicals).  While you can see Kubrick's visual talent grow over the years, these spreads feel very homogenized.  Each spread was meant to tell a story, but Look was very limited in what stories they wanted to tell.  They had to be tales of hard-work and success, the American Dream come true - or just about to.  Lives that didn't fit into that narrative were ignored.  So Mickey, the shoeshine boy Kubrick photographed (above), never made it into print.  Despite Kubrick's best efforts - photos of Mickey doing his homework or going to the laundromat - the poverty in which Mickey and his eight siblings live undermined the upbeat story Look wanted to tell.  The spread never saw the light of day.  The same thing happened with Kubrick's photos of Rosemary Williams (below), a model and chorus girl he shot in 1949.  We see her making coffee in her apartment, meeting with producer Mike Todd, reading a book, out on the town with friends, and just looking great in that way that only women in the 1940s could.  So did Look run it?  Nope.  A pretty, young single woman in NYC? In a profession that shows a little too much skin to be respectable? Not gonna happen.

Rosemary Williams
It's in the boxing photos that Kubrick is most successful.  And, in a sense, where he began his transition to film-maker.  Here's how the process at Look worked. A photographer was given an assignment or came up with one on his own.  He went out and took the pictures.  When he returned, the editors went over the mass of photos they had at hand - just for the Rosemary Williams assignment, for example, Kubrick had over 700 photos.  The editors selected what they wanted, wrote some text and transformed everything into a spread.  In effect, they created a story-board.  One of Kubrick's best set of photos were of the boxer Walter Cartier in 1949 (below).  In it we see Cartier training in the gym, running through Washington Square park, meeting with his team, and, of course, some magnificent fight photos.  After Kubrick left Look in 1950 his first film was a short documentary for RKO entitled Day of the Fight, in which we spend 24 hours in the life of, who else, boxer Walter Cartier.

Walter Cartier being examined before a fight

Yet even in the boxing assignments it's interesting to see what Look excluded from publication.  A 1950 layout of boxer Rocky Graziano ("He's a Good Boy Now") contains the stereotypical images we've come to expect: Rocky plays with his kid, Rocky meets people, Rocky punches a guy in the ring, etc.  Omitted, though, is the photo below - Graziano naked in the shower.  It's a raw image, full of violence and menace.  Like the subject of a Manet painting, Graziano looks directly at us, his gaze full of challenge.  It's as if he's daring the viewer to see him for who he is - a vulnerable violent man.  His rough and battered face is passive, even sad.  It could be the face of a prison convict.  To my mind what makes this photo so remarkable are the pipes above and behind Graziano; this is not just the picture of a boxer, but of a boxer and his world.  No glamor, no romanticism.  Gone is the upbeat Horatio Alger bullshit of Look magazine.  This is the best photo in the book and it's obvious that Kubrick had already grown beyond the limited worldview of Look.  In fact, one could even say that in this photo we find the first of the lonely, isolated, violent men who would later populate Kubrick's films - Jack D. Ripper, Alex, Barry Lyndon, Jack Torrance, Private Pyle.  

Rocky Graziano