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Agee’s “The Bones of Paradise” Wins Nebraska Book Award

Monday, September 25th, 2017

Jonis Agee, one of the most prolific novelists working today, has a new award.

As reported in Celebrate Nebraska, “Jonis Agee’s latest work, The Bones of Paradise: A Novel, was awarded first place in fiction for the 2017 Celebration of Nebraska Books. She will be honored October 21 at an awards presentation ceremony at the Nebraska State History Museum, 131 Centennial Mall North, in downtown Lincoln. Winners of the 2017 Nebraska Book Awards will be honored and the celebration will include readings by some of the winning authors, designers and illustrators of books with a Nebraska connection published in 2017 . . .

The Bones of Paradise is a multigenerational family saga is set in the unforgiving Nebraska Sand Hills in the years following the massacre at Wounded Knee. ‘A kaleidoscopic portrait of misfits, schemers, chancers, and dreamers, Agee’s bold new novel is a panorama of America at the dawn of a new century,’ writes publisher Harper Collins.

‘A beautiful evocation of this magnificent, blood-soaked land—its sweeping prairies, seas of golden grass, and sandy hills, all at the mercy of two unpredictable and terrifying forces, weather and lawlessness—and the durable men and women who dared to tame it. Intimate and epic, The Bones of Paradise is a remarkable achievement: a mystery, a tragedy, a romance, and an unflagging exploration of the beauty and brutality, tenderness and cruelty that defined the settling of the American West.'”

The reviews have been stunning:

“From the opening image of a ‘windmill slowly clanking in a wobbly circle’ to the sublime final sentence, Jonis Agee’s The Bones of Paradise is a beautifully written epic that seamlessly intertwines a family’s history with a region’s, and, ultimately, with a nation’s.” — Ron Rash, New York Times bestselling author of Above the Waterfall

“A deceptively leisurely, intensely heart-rending historical about greed and love gone wrong . . . Rose and Dulcinea are women strong enough to cow John Wayne. . . .[in] this sexy, violent, intricate Western.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Deadwood has nothing on Nebraska’s Sand Hills. Jonis Agee serves up a gritty, bloody romance set a decade after Wounded Knee. Half murder mystery and half family saga, The Bones of Paradise is a spirited reweaving of history.” — Stewart O’Nan, bestselling author of A Prayer for the Dying

“The finest western novel since Lonesome Dove, Jonis Agee’s The Bones of Paradise is an epic saga with elements of a Greek tragedy.” — New York Journal of Books

“Agee’s fast-paced narrative resembles the expansive prose of Larry McMurtry. Her lyrical writing and attention to detail evoke comparisons to Annie Proulx. . . . A captivating tale of life—and death—in the old American West.” — BookPage

“A haunting tale . . . Agee brilliantly interweaves two stories of loss, guilt, and vengeance, which play out against the vivid backdrop of the [Nebraska] Sand Hills . . . Beautifully rendered and thought-provoking.” — Booklist (starred review)

The Bones of Paradise is part noir, part Western, and all kinds of good . . . a remarkable tale of greed and violence . . . Jonis Agee is a master novelist.” — Dallas Morning News

You can read the entire story here; this is an honor that’s richly deserved.

“Four Nights of a Dreamer” On Robert Bresson’s 116th Birthday

Monday, September 25th, 2017

Here’s a brief essay I wrote for Transmissions today on one of Bresson’s key works.

As I noted, “Four Nights of a Dreamer is, for me, one of the most sublime films by Robert Bresson, along with his much-maligned French Resistance drama Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, with a script by Bresson from Denis Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste and incomparably witty dialogue by Jean Cocteau. But while Les Dames is readily available on DVD, Four Nights is not.

I saw it when it first opened in New York at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in a gorgeous 35mm print, and was stunned by the film’s sensuous beauty, and its rendition of Paris at night as a city of romance and artistic endeavor, in which the young – giving their lives to love and art – were the film’s undoubted protagonists.

Since then, I’ve screened Four Nights on several 16mm prints in my film classes when that format dominated college programs. But with the collapse of New Yorker Films as a non-theatrical distribution agency and end of 16mm as a viable distribution platform, it has, for all intents and purposes, been completely unavailable in anything other than very-poor-quality bootleg DVDs (don’t bother – really) and a streaming version on Filmbox that does little justice to Bresson’s sumptuous mise-en-scène, to say nothing of Pierre Lhomme’s gorgeous cinematography.”

Transmissions is published by the theatrical and non-theatrical distributor Grasshopper Films, which has an amazing catalogue of work to choose from, including the very hard to find works of two of my favorite auteurs, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. These films were recently restored by Joshua Siegel of the Museum of Modern Art, and now they’re available to the public again through Grasshopper; in an era in which only mainstream blockbusters are readily accessible, distributors like Grasshopper are ever more essential.

You can read the rest of my essay by clicking here; my thanks to Transmissions.

Robert Heide: 25 Plays

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

The brilliant American playwright Robert Heide has finally put together a collection of his work.

I have known Bob for a long time, and have seen many of his plays produced, such as The Bed (1965), in which two young men listlessly share an enormous double bed, seemingly unable to get up, or do anything at all; and At War With The Mongols (1970), but Bob has been so busy with his other work – lectures, books on Disney and pop culture, and other projects – that somehow, his true vocation as a playwright almost got lost in the shuffle. I have a more detailed review of 25 Plays forthcoming in Quarterly Review of Film and Video – in addition to his theatrical work, Heide also wrote several screenplays for Warhol, who shot a split-screen film version of The Bed in 1966, now being restored by The Museum of Modern Art – but for the moment, let’s just savor the fact that at last, all of Heide’s work is now available in one massive tome, and what an accomplishment it is!

As the jacket copy for 25 Plays notes, “Robert Heide is a seminal playwright in the Off-Off-Broadway coffee-house theater movement. His plays have been produced in New York’s Greenwich Village at the famed Caffe Cino and in the East Village by Ellen Stewart at La Mama E.T.C., by Crystal Field and George Bartenieff at Theater for the New City, by Irene Fornés and Julie Bovasso’s New York Theater Strategy at Westbeth, at Lynne Meadow’s Manhattan Theatre Club, and many other venues. His early studies began in the theater department at Northwestern University. In New York, he studied for two years with Stella Adler, who then sent him to apprentice with John Houseman at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut; he also worked with Uta Hagen and with director Harold Clurman. His mentor and close friend, Edward Albee, invited him to become a member of the Albee/Barr/Wilder Playwrights Unit. In the 1960s, he acted in Andy Warhol’s films Camp and Batman/Dracula. As a member of the Playwrights/Directors Unit at the Actors Studio, he attended sessions conducted by Estelle Parsons, Ellyn Burstyn, and Horton Foote.” And that’s just for starters.

Having grown up on 1960s theater, and people like Edward Albee (The Zoo Story, The Death of Bessie Smith, The Sandbox) and Robert Patrick (The Haunted Host), I was still struck by how absolutely original Heide’s work is, and how much of a personal vision he conveys in each one of his plays. For Bob, the world is a place of terror and fascination, throwaway culture and momentary diversions, pop stars and celebrity disaster, all of it documented with a dispassionate detachment that surely brought him to Warhol’s attention. Heide’s work is constantly surprising and challenging, and the characters in his plays – young suburban couples, the lonely and the lost, the famous and the infamous – are real, flawed, three-dimensional human beings. The major surprise to me is that it’s taken this long for a complete collection of his plays to come out – they really change the way one thinks about Off Off Broadway in the 1960s.

So, here’s Bob on the cover, and more on this later – it’s first rate work.

We’re Back! – UNL Dept. of English

Friday, August 18th, 2017

We’re back! Classes start Monday August 21st – UNL Dept. of English.

I’ve just attended the “welcome back” meeting for faculty and students in the Bailey Library in Andrews Hall, for the UNL Department of English, and it was a joyous and positive occasion. There are literally dozens of superb programs, courses, lectures, and other events planned for the 2017 – 2018 academic year, and everyone in the room seemed ready to start the year with deep and infectious enthusiasm.

It’s going to be an exciting year. The English Department offers a variety of choices and courses for students, including Literary and Cultural Studies, Composition and Rhetoric, Creative Writing, Nineteenth-Century British Literature, Medieval and Renaissance Studies, LGBTQ / Sexuality Studies, Great Plains Studies, Digital Humanities, Ethnic Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, Film Studies, Place Studies and many other opportunities for learning. The department’s remarkable Writing Center is another invaluable resource for students, helping them to workshop papers and other assignments as part of their course work.

The department is also the home to Prairie Schooner, one of the nation’s leading literary journals, and the epicenter of African poetry for the world, with a living commitment to publish as many African and African-American poets and writers as possible; in addition, there are courses in post-colonial theory, queer theory, LGBTQ literature and film, and so much more. Kelly Payne, the Department’s advisor for all these programs, does an invaluable job in helping students find the courses they want.

Above all, the department strives for inclusivity for all. As the mission statement for the department states, in part, “we, the faculty of the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, believe that one of the greatest strengths of our department is that in all areas of our curriculum—literary and film studies, creative writing, composition and rhetoric, and the digital humanities—we help students develop their capacities in imaginative reasoning so that in their lives as citizens of the world and members of their local communities they can discern connections and synthesize across seemingly incommensurable ideas or beliefs.

Imaginative reasoning is the ability to use the imagination to think hypothetically about the world in all its diversity—the past, present, and future, the local and the global. Such an ability, we believe, enables all of us to engage critically with social and political phenomena because it allows us to re-envision what is possible and to dream up audacious solutions to seemingly insoluble problems, solutions that might at first seem implausible but, once dreamt up—once imagined—suddenly seem possible. These moments of imaginative insight compel us to ask: Why are such solutions deemed impossible or implausible to begin with? Who says so and for what reasons? What prevents us from dreaming of alternatives, of imagining other paths, in the first place? . . .

By educating students in multiple literacies, we offer them the intellectual skills they need to intervene actively in political, civic, and cultural affairs in their communities. This literacy work—fostered through analyzing literature and moving images, the creative and rhetorical production of texts, and the critically-informed development of digital environments—involves imagining political, civic, and cultural futures that might better serve the entire body politic; it also requires deeply investigating the diverse cultural traditions that have led to and influenced the current cultural scene.”

This is why an education in the humanities is more essential today than ever – to foster curiosity, to break new ground, to explore new ideas, to discover and consider texts (both literary and visual) that offer us new ways of seeing the world, and to challenge us to ask “why” and “how” when considering the culture that surrounds us in all forms, whether on the printed page, or the computer screen, or as a film projected in a theater. The UNL Department of English is one of the most exciting and challenging places to be right now, offering a first class education to students, with reciprocal learning on all sides, embracing the core values of

Pursuing social justice
Affirming diversity
Engaging with a broad array of real and imagined communities based on empathetic understanding
Fostering a sense of belonging
Instilling a desire for civic engagement

In short, the UNL Department of English, as well as the other departments of the University, are clearly focused on the many changes and challenges of the 21st century, creating a vibrant atmosphere for learning, thinking, and embracing our shared cultural heritage. This is the real reason for the humanities – to bring us closer together, to create conversations and discussion, and to honor and explore the work of humanists around the world, no matter their discipline, as we strive to create an inclusive community for all.

Welcome back to the UNL Department of English for the 2017- 2018 school year!

Reset! More Than 990 Posts On This Blog! Back To The Top!

Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

There are more than 990 entries on this blog. Click on the button above to go back to the top.

Frame by Frame began in 2011 with a post on Nicholas Ray – now, with more than 990 posts & much more to come, we’re listed on Amazon, in the New York Times blogroll, and elsewhere on the net, as well as being referenced in Wikipedia and numerous other online journals and reference websites. And this is just the beginning.

With thousands of hits every day, we hope to keep posting new material on films and people in films that matter, as well as on related issues, commercial free, with truly open access, for the entire film community. So look back and see what we’ve been up to, and page through the past to the present.

USE THE SEARCH BOX IN THE UPPER RIGHT HAND CORNER TO CHECK FOR YOUR FAVORITE TOPICS.

There are also more than 70 videos on film history, theory and criticism to check out on the Frame by Frame video blog, arranged in carousel fashion to automatically play one after the other, on everything from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to film aspect ratios, to discussions of pan and scan, Criterion video discs, deep focus, and a whole lot more.

So go back and see what you’ve been missing – you can always use the search box in the upper right hand corner to see if your favorite film or director is listed, but if not, drop me a line and we’ll see if we can’t do something about it. We’ve just updated our storage space on the blog, so there will be plenty more to come, so check it out – see you at the movies!

Click on the image above & see what else you can find!

“Take The Hardest Path” – Roberto Rossellini’s “Voyage to Italy”

Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini at work on the set.

In July 2009, I wrote in Senses of Cinema about Rossellini’s remarkable Voyage to Italy that the film “was shot from 2 February through 30 April 1953, on a variety of locations throughout Italy, including Naples, Capri, Pompeii, and at the Titanus studios in Rome, and was a tempestuous production throughout. The plot is simple: an unhappily married couple, Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) and Alex Joyce (George Sanders) are traveling from London through Italy to Naples, where they have inherited a villa.

Their marriage is a shambles, and they quarrel constantly; indeed, it is hard to imagine a more ill suited couple in the history of cinema. Katherine, relatively young and vibrant, seems trapped in a loveless match with the ill-tempered, dour Alex, who thinks only of money, and openly flirts with other women while ignoring his wife. Katherine has made the journey not only to sell the villa, but also in the hope that the “voyage” will reignite the passion of their marriage; instead, as the trip becomes more complex, and fraught with delays and interruptions, Alex’s boredom and frustration turns to outright hostility towards his wife.

In desperation, Katherine recounts to her disaffected husband the tale of a former suitor who, long ago, has been passionately in love with her; but Alex is unmoved, and Katherine seems resigned to the fact that their marriage will end in divorce, as soon as the necessary papers for the sale of the villa have been signed. The couple decide to split up, and spend their remaining time in Naples separately; Katherine visits a series of natural wonders with a succession of paid, only professionally attentive Italian tour guides, while Alex seeks out the company of a group of British nationals vacationing in Capri.

Katherine’s time is nevertheless redolent of the state of her collapsing marriage; viewing the ruins of Pompeii, with human bodies still entombed in centuries-old ash, as well as witnessing first-hand a small volcanic eruption on a tour, Katherine seems lost, lonely, and disconnected from the world around her, yet at the same time she years for some sort of human compassion. Alex is clearly disinterested.

And yet, in the film’s final, unforgettable sequence, as the now-reunited, but still-quarreling couple watch a passing religious procession, they are seized with an unexpected emotion, and fervently embrace each other, declaring their love, and wondering how they could possibly have become so estranged. Their renewal of love is a miracle, entirely inexplicable by any conventional narrative standards; the entire film, indeed, has been consistently moving away from such a reconciliation.

Love appears to have conquered a seemingly irreparable emotional breakdown. It is one of the most unexpected and transcendent moments in not just all of Rossellini, but in all of cinema; as one might imagine, the ending was also highly controversial at the time of the film’s release, and remains so, because it seems to come out of thin air, rather than in response to any section or aspect of the film’s narrative exposition.”

Much of the film was improvised; often Rossellini didn’t really know which direction the film was going in. The actors, especially George Sanders, were often irritated by Rossellini’s seeming indecision during the production, but the director was searching for something through the film, something perhaps related to his difficult and ultimately doomed relationship with Ingrid Bergman, who worked with Rossellini in three of his films, and abandoned her Hollywood career to work with him in Italy.

As I observed back in 2009, “Voyage to Italy is a film in search of itself, a film that only knows its own conclusion when it appears, miraculously, in front of it, arriving at a final destination that no one in the audience could possibly have foreseen. And yet, the final moments of the film seem absolutely ‘right’; indeed, it seems to be the only possible conclusion to the film.” And yet this could not have been an easy path to take; rather, it was a jump into the void, with only the slightest idea of how the film would finally end. And yet only with such a quest can anything worthwhile be made; if you aren’t searching for something, then you are lost.

“When you don’t know which path to take, choose the hardest one.” – Roberto Rossellini

Frederick Seidel’s “Widening Income Inequality”

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017

Frederick Seidel is the quintessential New York City poet – this is his finest work.

I knew Frederick Seidel back in the 1960s, and owe him a great deal; he was one of the people with whom I put together the first film course at Rutgers University in 1966; he was unfailingly kind and generous in his dealings with me; and he got me a job at Life Magazine reporting on the New York experimental film scene in the late 1960s, just before the magazine folded. I met Tommy Thompson, the essayist and novelist there, as well as Brad Darrach, and that’s where I first learned to put pen to paper in some sort of serious fashion – and it’s all down to Fred.

Seidel has been writing poems for years, and they’re always remarkable for their honesty and candor, as well as the grace with which he floats the words on to the page – the result of a great deal of effort, by his own account, which nevertheless seems just right in the finished poem, as if “of course – that’s where this was heading.” He publishes prolifically in The London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, and The Paris Review, and now many of his most recent poems have been collected in a volume aptly titled Widening Income Inequality.

Seidel has long been part of the Manhattan literary scene; in the 1960s, Esquire published a piece on “who was hot” in the New York City publishing world, and there was Seidel at the red hot center of all the action – just where you would expect him to be. Seidel is independently wealthy, and this informs the backdrop of much of his work; something he’s not in the least ashamed of, and why should he be?

Seidel is direct and clear in these new poems on his obsessions (fast cars are a top item) as well as his fears (growing older among them), but he never loses a certain mordant sense of humor about the vicissitudes of existence. He spends his time writing and working, never gives readings, doesn’t teach, and devotes himself solely to his craft.

As he put it in a 2016 interview with Alain Elkann, “I require a very great deal of time to do the work in. I want gallons of time to do the work. It gives you the opportunity to hear it, to smell it over, to meditate, to listen to what you are writing. You work and you work, and then comes a moment when the poem abandons you, the poem is finished. What has not been sufficiently emphasized is how important the sound is, the sound the language is making.”

The jacket copy for Widening Income Inequality notes that “Frederick Seidel has been called many things. A ‘transgressive adventurer,’ ‘a demonic gentleman,’ a ‘triumphant outsider,’ ‘a great poet of innocence,’ and ‘an example of the dangerous Male of the Species,’ just to name a few. Whatever you choose to call him, one thing is certain: ‘he radiates heat.’ (The New Yorker).

Widening Income Inequality, Seidel’s new poetry collection, is a rhymed magnificence of sexual, historical, and cultural exuberance, a sweet and bitter fever of Robespierre and Obamacare and Apollinaire, of John F. Kennedy and jihadi terror and New York City and Italian motorcycles. Rarely has poetry been this true, this dapper, or this dire. Seidel is ‘the most poetic of the poets and their leader into hell.'”

It’s a remarkable volume from first page to last – sometimes elegiac, sometimes angry, sometime puzzled at the way the twists and turns of existence have unfolded, sprinkled with memories of lost friends from New York society, such as Bobby Short, George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, William Styron – and yet he keeps on moving into the future, living in the moment, in the minute – always scanning the horizon for something new.

If you’re looking for something bracing, original, and absolutely fearless – read this volume.

Amazon’s Version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon

Friday, July 28th, 2017

Amazon’s series has little to do with Fitzgerald’s novel, but it’s still compelling television.

I’ve always been a Fitzgerald fan – much more so than Hemingway, and this interesting take on Fitzgerald’s last unfinished novel is several notches above the usual television fare, if only because it tries to do so many things at once – even as it strays almost completely from the original narrative of Fitzgerald’s work.

Monroe Stahr, fashioned after real life MGM boy wonder Irving Thalberg, runs a Hollywood studio in the 1930s with smooth charm and a velvet-gloved fist, while his fellow moguls try to take him down at every opportunity. Kelsey Grammer plays Monroe’s jealous and possessive boss – in real life, Louis B. Mayer at MGM – and is sure that Stahr is going to bolt for a different studio at this first opportunity.

Other than a famous story that Stahr tells a struggling screenwriter about a mysterious woman, a pair of black gloves, and two dimes and a nickel, as well as a house Stahr is building far from the studio as part of a love affair, that’s about all that’s taken from Fitzgerald’s book. It’s also interesting that in the Amazon series, the real Thalberg pops up, working for Louis B. Mayer (a superb Saul Rubinek) as Stahr’s competition, when nothing at all happens like that in the novel.

Add in a raft of new subplots, including the real-life incursion of Nazi censorship in Hollywood in the 1930s in the figure of Georg Gyssling (Michael Siberry), as well as the usual round of studio backstabbing, overnight stardom, insecure directors (the fictional Red Ridingwood [Brian Howe] from the novel, is referenced here, but in the novel he’s a failing hack; here, he’s the equivalent of Michael Curtiz) and refugees from Nazi Germany who find at home at Stahr’s studio.

Kelsey Grammer could have walked through the role of studio boss Pat Brady in his sleep, but instead offers a firm, assured performance – by the end of the series he’s become a real monster – while Matt Bomer as Stahr is definitely less successful, especially in the romantic sequences, and is most effective when he’s wheedling and cajoling his employees through a typical work day.

Real life figures like Fritz Lang (Iddo Goldberg) flit in and out at the edges of the series, while Jennifer Beals offers an exceptionally strong turn as fictional “passing” African-American film star Margo Taft, who is subjected to blackmail by L.B. Mayer when her secret is discovered. Even Marlene Dietrich (Stefanie von Pfetten) stops by for a quick cameo, and the studio itself (the series was shot in Canada) is littered with authentic period equipment.

The show first dropped the pilot in 2016, and offered it as one possible series of many different choices – and the pilot is perhaps the best episode in the entire series, with a great deal of energy and compact exposition – a strong inducement to watch the entire first season. In now-standard fashion, Amazon has dropped the entire first season on Friday July 28th, and by Saturday night, I had watched the complete set of 10 episodes – it’s that effective.

Though it bears little resemblance to Fitzgerald’s work, somehow, in the end, that didn’t really bother me. This is more of a tale of Hollywood intrigue and double dealing in the 1930s, handsomely mounted and efficiently directed by a disparate group of women and men, which more often than not offers real satisfaction and insight – despite Bomer’s stiff performance in the leading role. The show starts off lightly, but that’s just to lure you in.

As the series draws to a close, the show gathers real power – episodes 6-8 are more or less filler – but in the final two hours, The Last Tycoon takes many an unexpected turn, and reveals just how rotten Hollywood really was in the Golden Era, in which people were bought and sold as commodities, blackmail was rampant, and even murders were covered up in the name of “studio business.”

Fitzgerald’s name is tacked on for marquee value, but even though the plot is often far-fetched, the performances at times melodramatic, and the writing uneven, the show offers definite value for money, and the best part of all is that if you are an Amazon Prime member, you can stream the whole series for free. When you add up all the bad and the good, it definitely comes out on the positive side of the ledger.

Check it out – from the pilot to the finish – it’s addictive television.

The Anatomy of Films by John Atkinson

Friday, July 28th, 2017

Here’s a hilarious and all too true overview of filmic clichés from cartoonist John Atkinson.

Wikipedia has a similar list of all-too-frequent movie situations, including “a car fails to start in a time-sensitive situation . . . a character attempts to use a cell phone but finds that there is no reception . . . a character runs from a threat and falls to the ground, without any force present that would impede their balance . . . a character repositions a bathroom mirror, revealing a threat behind them in the reflection . . . a character falls from a dangerously tall height, but survives by landing in a body of water . . . a protagonist who wants to commit one last job in a heist film before he retires from a life of crime” – this last one has been used a lot, especially of late – but John’s cartoon, reprinted here with his kind permission, lays the whole thing out with one sweep, and is more accurate than many would care to admit – especially in the matter of film running times by genre [see extreme right hand column].

Thanks, John – much appreciated!

Vittorio De Sica’s “Il Boom” Finally Gets a US Release

Thursday, July 13th, 2017

Shot in 1963, Vittorio De Sica’s brutal comedy has just been released in the US on June 16, 2017.

As Gino Moliterno wrote in Senses of Cinema in July, 2014, “undoubtedly motivated by its poor performance at the box office, and the generally hostile critical reaction it received at the time it was released, Vittorio De Sica’s Il boom (1963) long remained one of the most undervalued of all the films to emerge from the director’s long and fruitful collaboration with screenwriter, Cesare Zavattini.

In more recent times, however, the film has found its champions. For example, Italian film historian Enrico Giacovelli has re-evaluated it as not only one of the duo’s finest films but also as something of a minor masterpiece of the commedia all’italiana (comedy Italian style), that particularly mordant form of film comedy that arose in Italy in the late 1950s as a reflection of – and a reflection upon – the profound moral dilemmas and social contradictions brought about by the so-called Italian ‘economic miracle’ . . .

Significantly, Giovanni Alberti, the film’s protagonist, impeccably played by Alberto Sordi, who by this time had definitively established himself across dozens of films as the very figure of the Italian common man, is of working-class origins. Giovanni has climbed the social ladder by marrying Silvia (Gianna Maria Canale), the beautiful daughter of a retired general, whom the film makes clear he genuinely loves.

His willingness, at all costs, to maintain his wife in the affluent style to which she has become accustomed is, however, unmatched by his modest salary as a small-time business executive. From the very beginning of the film we see him pushed, promissory note after promissory note, ever further into debt . . . All the while, in a desperate bid to climb out of his financial hole, Giovanni has naively been attempting to join what remained the biggest game in town during the Italian boom: building speculation.

And it is precisely while attempting to find a financial partner for a rather dubious plan to make a great deal of profit from a building project involving land speculation that Giovanni comes to be placed squarely on the horns of an atrocious dilemma that dramatically highlights the pound of human flesh demanded by the boom in exchange for its consumer delights: millions of lira, yes, but it will cost nothing less than his eye.”

At a compact 85 minutes, the film is nothing less than a complete success for all concerned, but one can see why the film had such an initially hostile reception in Italy, and why it’s taken so long to come to the States, and then only because Rialto Pictures, a small theatrical distribution company in New York City believed in the film enough to strike a gorgeous print, and open it at Film Forum.

As Bilge Ebiri noted in The Village Voice on June 14, 2017, “how did this one get overlooked?” adding “this is not [Federico Fellini’s] La Dolce Vita [1960], which two years earlier fascinated viewers with its portrait of hedonistic abandon — and slowly revealed the emptiness beneath. Maybe that’s why Il Boom didn’t hit it big: It makes no attempt to seduce us; we see the spiritual corruption from the first frame.” And that’s absolutely true.

Yet the film manages to take a deadly serious subject and play it for the most mordant comic effect – you fully believe the characters, their motivations, and the premise of the film, and yet Il Boom is shot through with an undeniable aura of cynicism, sadness, and revulsion for the consumerist society we’ve now embraced, even as the music score explodes with 60s pop, from Chubby Checker to Italian pop master Piero Piccioni. Though it was made in the early 1960s, it’s even more relevant today, as the world’s populace embraces IPOs, start-ups, and the pursuit of status markers at any cost – but not art.

Click here to see the restored trailer from Rialto Films.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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