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Michelangelo Antonioni’s “I Vinti” (“The Vanquished”) – 1952

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

Michelangelo Antonioni’s I Vinti (The Vanquished) is a forgotten masterpiece of the postwar Italian cinema.

In his early years as a filmmaker, emerging out of the shadow of Mussolini’s Cinecitta, working for the Italian Fascists during World War II – unwillingly, but nevertheless involved – Michelangelo Antonioni created a number of controversial and deeply ambitious projects, beginning with his first feature film, Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un amore, 1950), and then moving on to the even more accomplished I Vinti (The Vanquished, 1952) – both of which initially received a hostile reception from critics and the general public. While Story of A Love Affair has been available on DVD for quite some time, I Vinti is only recently receiving the DVD release it so richly deserves, from Raro Video. But looking at I Vinti from nearly any angle, it’s amazing that Antonioni even got this project off the ground.

Opening with a ferocious collage of newsreel footage with a relentless voiceover track decrying postwar youth’s lust for instant fame at any price, the film goes on to tell three stories, in three languages; in France, a group of rich, bored teens decide to kill one of their group for the money he claims to have, only to find after the murder that the cash is counterfeit; in Italy, a well-off young man caught up in the cigarette smuggling racket kills a Customs Agent trying to escape after a raid, and dies in his parents’ home as the police close in; and in England, a young ne’er do well “poet” kills a middle aged prostitute in order to sell the story to a tabloid newspaper, and achieve instant “fame” of a sort as a thrill killer.

Grim, to say the least. Even more amazingly, all of the incidents in the film were taken from actual crimes committed around that time, each in their respective country; the French story of bored teen killers was a national scandal; the Italian story – which was censored for the film, and actually involved a young political radical blowing up a munitions factory as a form of protest – was also a matter of record; and the British story concerned the case of teenager Herbert Leonard Mills, who in 1951 murdered a woman simply for the notoriety that it would bring him, and then tried to sell the story to a newspaper.

The Italian story was shot first, and seems the most like later Antonioni, especially L’Avventura (The Adventure, 1960), La Notte (The Night, 1961) and L’Eclisse (Eclipse, 1962). Franco Interlenghi, then a popular matinee idol of the period in Italian cinema, plays Claudio, whose political “idealism” ends in tragedy, when the factory he blows up results in numerous casualties among the workers. This storyline was much too strong for the Italian censors, and Antonioni was forced to reshoot almost two-thirds of the episode to shift Claudio’s criminal activities to smuggling. Astoundingly, the original version of this section of the film survives, and is included on the disc as an extra, and makes for essential viewing, to say the least.

The British story was shot next, and eerily prefigures Antonioni’s later film Blowup (1966), in which a bored and narcissistic fashion photographer (played by David Hemmings) accidentally witnesses and photographs a murder in a park, and then can’t make up his mind whether or not to tell the police about the crime. In I Vinti, Peter Reynolds stars as Aubrey, the dissolute layabout and would-be poet who commits a murder simply for the notoriety it will bring him. Reynolds’ performance is brilliantly self-absorbed and loathsome; indeed, I Vinti effectively typecast him for life in a series of roles as as a decadent, dishonest aristocrat, before his tragically early death at the age of 49.

The French episode also ran into trouble from the censors, as well it might, dealing with the notorious “Affaire J3,” in which a young man was killed by his companions during a picnic outside of Paris. As with the other sections of the film, the truth was too close to the film’s scenario for comfort, so after combined protests from the British, Italian and French authorities and numerous recuts, the film was finally premiered at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival, but only out of competition. Then, since the film was a commercial failure, it was was consigned to the vaults, and given the deeply troubling nature of the film, for a long time it seemed that I Vinti would never see the light of day again.

But in 2013, The Museum of Modern Art brought the film out of oblivion, so to speak, and screened it in their To Save and Project series. But for those of us who weren’t lucky enough to attend that screening, the Raro DVD is a real find. As Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker in 2011, “with the opening monologue of his second feature, the three-part film I Vinti (The Vanquished), Michelangelo Antonioni polemically affirms the theme that would dominate his entire career: the erosion of reason and morality throughout society, due to the onslaught of mass media and the dominion of the bourgeoisie who both produce it and fall under its sway.”

The Raro DVD contains the complete film, immaculately restored, as well as a host of extras, including the original version of the Italian Episode; an interview with the film’s producer, the late Turi Vasile (in his 80s, his memory was entirely intact, and he effortlessly quotes Marx, Hegel and Kierkegaard from memory in his account of the film’s genesis – name one Hollywood producer who can do that!); an interview with Franco Interlenghi, now deceased, who played Claudio in the Italian episode; as well as a short film by Antonioni, Tentato Suicidio, one episode of the 1953 multi-director feature L’Amore in Citta’/Love in the City, as well as a superbly detailed essay on the film by Stefania Parigi. All in all, it’s a stunning viewing experience.

So there you are – a masterpiece. Can you afford to pass it up? No.

Lost “Masterwork” Found: Thomas White’s Who’s Crazy? (1966)

Friday, April 15th, 2016

A lost “beat” classic has been found and restored, featuring an epic soundtrack by Ornette Coleman.

As Peter Monaghan writes in Moving Image Archive News, “thanks to an overdue search of the filmmaker’s garage, a rarity from the experimental film ferment of the 1960s was just screened for the first time in almost 50 years, at Anthology Film Archives in New York. With that, Who’s Crazy?, in a restoration by Anthology’s John Klacsmann and distribution by Grand Motel Films, has reemerged as an emblem of its age.

In 1965, Thomas White, then a 33-year-old American living a bohemian life in Montparnasse, made the 73-minute feature in Heist-sur-Mer, Belgium, with a set of collaborators-of-the-moment. Those included members of New York’s Living Theater, playing a bus load of residents of an asylum for the insane, and a soundtrack by the jazz icon Ornette Coleman, who even recorded a cut for the film with singer Marianne Faithfull, then in her late teens and already embarked on a life course whose mayhem the inmates might have recognized.

The rediscovery of the film has made a splash, not only because, as Richard Brody put it in The New Yorker, in article entitled “A Lost Masterwork is Found,” the film “bursts the bonds of movie logic to unleash the primal ecstasy of the cinema,” but also because of its place in the history of truly independent filmmaking of that time.

It has, for instance, links to Shirley Clarke’s recently revived 1962 portrayal The Connection, which was made from a play mounted by Living Theater co-founders Judith Malina and Julian Beck . . . Who’s Crazy had been missing for decades, listed as lost by the Library of Congress.” And when the Library of Congress says that a film is lost, that’s usually the case. But here, we got lucky. Hopefully, as Brody notes in his essay, linked above, a DVD will soon be forthcoming.

Readers of this blog know that I hold a special place in my heart for such deeply personal works, made in an era before money was ruling factor in nearly all forms of social interaction, and what Brody referred to as “the primal ecstasy of the cinema” dominated filmmaking, which was then cheap, and within the range of nearly everyone- just pick up a camera and shoot.

At the same time, the standard rules of “three act narrative,” or any form of narrative for that matter, clearly went out the window, and what was valued above all was spontaneity, authenticity, and capturing the moment, rather than CGI ridden spectacles in which every movement is defined by green screen technology. Not everything has to be planned out in advance; in fact, sometimes nothing needs to be planned at all. Sometimes, if you get an enormously talented group of people together and give them free reign, the results can be remarkable.

Writing in The New York Times, Jim Hoberman agrees, noting that “an anarchic rave with a wacky new-wave flavor, “Who’s Crazy?” opens on a bus that breaks down in the middle of nowhere. The passengers are psychiatric patients who, eluding their keepers, take refuge in a deserted building, haphazardly creating a new society complete with rituals that include a trial and a wedding.

Mr. White, reached by phone this month at his home in Connecticut, said 10 hours of film were shot over 10 or 12 days. The scenario was based on the actors’ improvisation. ‘Nobody told them what to do,’ he said.

Left to their own devices, the performers engage in breathing exercises, dress up in funny hats, play instruments, mill around, stage group hugs, make a mess, cook food, play with candles, stare into one another’s eyes, break into primal screams and declaim poetry in beatnik rants that might have been recorded at an open mike at Cafe Wha? The polyrhythmic cascade of honks and squawks produced by Mr. Coleman, abetted by his sidemen — the bassist David Izenzon and the drummer Charles Moffett — imbue these activities with tremendous energy.”

Watch the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above.

Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook

Saturday, November 29th, 2014

Looking for a truly original, really scary horror film? Try Jennifer Kent’s debut feature, The Babadook.

As Wikipedia notes, “Kent studied at the National Institute of Dramatic Art [in Australia]—where she learned acting alongside Babadook’s lead actor, Essie Davis—and graduated in 1991. She then worked primarily as an actor in the film industry for over two decades. Kent eventually lost her passion for acting by the end of the 20th century and sent a written proposal to Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, asking if she could assist on the film set of von Trier’s 2003 drama film, Dogville, to learn from the director. Kent’s proposal was accepted and she considers the experience her film school, citing the importance of stubbornness as the key lesson she learned.

Prior to Babadook, Kent’s first-ever feature film, she had completed a short film, titled Monster, and an episode of the television series Two Twisted. Kent explained in May 2014 that the origins of Babadook can be found in Monster, which she calls ‘baby Babadook.’ . . . Kent has stated that she sought to tell a story about facing up to the darkness with ourselves, the ‘fear of going mad’ and an exploration of parenting from a ‘real perspective’ . . .  In terms of the characters, Kent said that it was important that both characters are loving and lovable, so that “we [the audience] really feel for them” . . .

Kent drew from her experience on the set of Dogville for the assembling of her production team, as she observed that von Triers was surrounded by a well-known ‘family of people.’ Therefore, Kent sought her own ‘family of collaborators to work with for the long term.’ Unable to find all of the suitable people within the Australian film industry, Kent hired Polish director of photography Radek Ladczuk, for whom Babadook was his first-ever English-language film, and American illustrator Alexander Juhasz. In terms of film influences, Kent cited 1970s and ’80s horror—including [John Carpenter's version of] The Thing, Halloween, Les Yeux Sans Visage, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Shining and Let The Right One In—as well as Vampyr and Nosferatu.”

Partially crowd funded on Kickstarter, and completed for roughly $1.5 million US dollars, The Babadook has received numerous awards on the festival circuit, including a screening at the Sundance Film festival, and when it opened theatrically in the United States on November 28, 2014, the critical response was equally adulatory. But since it isn’t a mainstream release, and as yet is available only on Australian DVD – an all region version, however, so I bought it immediately – you can only see it on demand, if you’re lucky enough to have it on your cable system, or in a theater if you live in New York City or another major metropolis.

This, of course, is the real tragedy here – this is an intelligent, absolutely riveting and completely original film that will keep you guessing right up to the last frame, and at the same time scare you to death, as a horror film should, but without the requisite gore and misogyny that seems to mar the horror genre of late – and it deserves the widest possible audience. There are echoes of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw here, at least for me, and traces of De Maupasssant’s The Horla, and the overall feel of the film is akin to Jack Clayton’s 1961 masterpiece The Innocents, but The Babadook is really a completely unique vision, immaculately photographed in CinemaScope and suitably subdued color.

As Anthony Lane wrote in his ecstatic review of the film in The New Yorker, “let a law be passed, requiring all horror films to be made by female directors. It would curb so many antiquated tropes: the use of young women, say, underdressed or not dressed at all, who are barely fleshed out as characters before that flesh is coveted, wounded, or worse. Beyond that, the law would restore horror to its rightful place as a chamber of secrets, ripe for emotional inquisition. Such thoughts are prompted by The Babadook, a fine new Australian film, written and directed by Jennifer Kent. This is about a woman in peril, yet it has no truck with the notion that she is a mere victim. At times, indeed, the peril seems to be, if not her fault, at least of her own making. Is she the sum of all fears, or the root of them?

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow, living in a small and ill-lit house with Samuel (Noah Wiseman), her only child. He is unmanageable, but, then, his origins were dire; his father was killed in a car crash, nearly seven years ago, as he drove Amelia, who was in labor with Samuel, to the hospital. Now it’s just the two of them, although they are soon joined by an unexpected third. The Babadook is towering and dark; he looms taller as you look at him, like an unhappy memory that swells in the traumatized mind. He wears a top hat, like the Artful Dodger, and his hands could be a child’s drawing of hands—a splay of simple spikes. He cleaves to what we ask of our monsters, that they be both amorphous and acute: oozily hard to pin down, but manifestly there, like a knife against the throat. His name has a nice Australian tang; Aboriginal legend tells of a frog called the Tiddalik, with an insatiable thirst.”

Watch the trailer by clicking here, or on the image above; then see the film as soon as you can – it’s that good.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Friday, May 9th, 2014

Roz Chast’s new book about the last years of her mother and father’s lives is a masterpiece.

As the publisher’s website for this remarkable volume notes, “In her first memoir, Roz Chast brings her signature wit to the topic of aging parents. Spanning the last several years of their lives and told through four-color cartoons, family photos, and documents, and a narrative as rife with laughs as it is with tears, Chast’s memoir is both comfort and comic relief for anyone experiencing the life-altering loss of elderly parents. When it came to her elderly mother and father, Roz held to the practices of denial, avoidance, and distraction. But when Elizabeth Chast climbed a ladder to locate an old souvenir from the ‘crazy closet’—with predictable results—the tools that had served Roz well through her parents’ seventies, eighties, and into their early nineties could no longer be deployed.

While the particulars are Chast-ian in their idiosyncrasies—an anxious father who had relied heavily on his wife for stability as he slipped into dementia and a former assistant principal mother whose overbearing personality had sidelined Roz for decades—the themes are universal: adult children accepting a parental role; aging and unstable parents leaving a family home for an institution; dealing with uncomfortable physical intimacies; managing logistics; and hiring strangers to provide the most personal care. An amazing portrait of two lives at their end and an only child coping as best she can, Can We Talk about Something More Pleasant? show[s] the full range of Roz Chast’s talent as cartoonist and storyteller.”

This last sentence is especially true; Chast’s mordantly sardonic cartoons of domestic life, which have graced The New Yorker for decades, are always grimly funny and all-too-accurate, but here, she has the space to really stretch out and deal with the subject matter at considerable length, and the results are astonishing. George and Elizabeth Chast lived together for more than forty years in a small, untidy apartment in a rather depressing section of Brooklyn; Elizabeth was, by all accounts, wildly domineering, while George was so inept and cowed that he couldn’t even use a toaster without worrying about the possible consequences. Nevertheless, they loved each other deeply, and as old age crept up on them, bad things began to happen.

Much against her will, Roz was drafted into the entire process of intervening when they fell and had to go to the hospital; when it became impossible for them to live anymore at the apartment they had shared for so long; then moving them into an assisted care facility; and finally dealing with slow, agonizing death watch that took far too long to bring release to them both. Drawn with passionate intensity and care throughout – the entire volume is written in Chast’s own hand, and illustrated throughout with drawings, photographs, poems that her mother wrote, and other ephemera – Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? emerges as much more than a typical memoir, if only because nothing seems to come between the page and Roz Chast’s expressive prose and illustrations.

It’s obviously a work of anguished love, riddled with endless details of recalled memories, conversations that seemed to go nowhere and ended in fights or resignation, and punctuated by a full page few “splash” panels, such as an unforgettable cartoon image of George welcoming his wife home after a lengthy stay in this hospital with the single word “Elizabeth!” – a scene heartbreaking in its intensity. The book builds and builds towards its inevitable conclusion – first George’s death, and then Elizabeth’s – and towards the end of the volume, Chast abandons her cartoon style to include a series of twelve straightforward line drawings, breathtaking in their intimacy, of Elizabeth’s last days in hospice care, ending with a drawing of her mother right after her death.

“I drew her. I didn’t know what else to do” Chast writes, but in doing this, she’s not only unburdened herself of a narrative of incredible difficulty and loss, but also has given her readers a much more accurate picture of what the end of life is often like – not just drifting off to sleep painlessly, but dying with difficulty and anger. It’s clear from the text that though Roz loved both her parents, she felt much closer to her father, while her mother’s continual need to dominate everything and everyone around her drove her to distraction. Roz could could sit up quietly with her father watching The Twilight Zone as a child, but was routinely subjected to what her mother termed “a blast from Chast” whenever Elizabeth was upset about something, which was quite often.

In this loving, meticulously drawn and measured memoir, Roz Chast has rendered us all a remarkable service, making her own life come alive, as well as the lives of her parents, and providing a road map for the journey into old age that most of us will inevitably wind up taking, whether we like it or not, as we deal with our parents’ mortality, as well as our own. By turns wryly humorous and deadly (literally) serious, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is easily one of the most impressive books of the year, and one that repays repeated readings, no matter how difficult the subject matter might be to deal with.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a book you should read – now.

The Hunger Games

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for The Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins, and one of the most anticipated films of early 2012, will open on March 23rd.

Lionsgate just received a PG13 rating for the film from the MPAA, which is surprising, given the film’s bloodthirsty premise; a group of adolescents are forced to fight to death each year until only one survives, all for the spectatorial pleasure of a massive viewing audience. The plot owes an obvious debt to Battle Royale, both the 1998 novel by Kōshun Takami, as well as the extremely well-received 2000 film by Kinji Fukasaku, though Collins says she’d never heard of either the novel or the film before she handed in her manuscript; but it also has clear thematic links to William Golding’s novel Lord of The Flies (filmed superbly in 1963 by Peter Brook, and indifferently by Harry Hook in 1990), as well as Shirley Jackson’s groundbreaking 1948 short story The Lottery, first published in 1948 in The New Yorker, and subsequently filmed at least three times in 1969, 1996 and 2007.

There’s also obvious connections to the Roman gladiatorial games, and the whole “future Dystopian society” angle has been a staple of films and novels for decades, from Metropolis to Blade Runner to Death Race 2000, with numerous stops in-between. And of course there’s always the inescapable influence of George Orwell’s 1984 — the template for nearly all visions of future society in collapse — in the completely downbeat, hypersurveillant nature of both the novel, and one would presume, the film. The director is Gary Ross, whose previous films include Pleasantville.

As Lionsgate summarizes the film in their press release, “every year in the ruins of what was once North America, the evil Capitol of the nation of Panem forces each of its twelve districts to send a teenage boy and girl to compete in the Hunger Games. A twisted punishment for a past uprising and an ongoing government intimidation tactic, The Hunger Games are a nationally televised event in which ‘Tributes’ must fight with one another until one survivor remains.” The cast is first rate: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Wes Bentley, Toby Jones, Alexander Ludwig, Isabelle Fuhrman, Amandla Stenberg, Stanley Tucci and Donald Sutherland. Whether or not the film will live up to its grim potential remains, however, to be seen.

This is one of the oldest, and saddest, plot lines of all; kill or be killed, the survival of the fittest, trust no one, and look out for number one. It’s a cruel, brutal film for an era of dead dreams – sad, but all too true.

About the Author

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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