Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Movies watched, week of March 11-17, 2007

Life is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni, 1997

As I watched the first half of this film, which chronicles Guido's (Roberto Benigni) romantic pursuit of his future wife, Dora, I thought it seemed a little strange that a story about the Holocaust would be so slapsticky, a style of humor that, while it's Benigni's specialty, seems like it should not be associated with the systematic annihilation of millions of people. But I watched on. When Guido and his son, Joshua, are whisked off to the concentration camps, the change in the story's pattern seems rather abrupt, although I suppose that's appropriate—it must have been jarring for the people who really experienced it. Guido starts pretending that their capture is really part of a game, in an attempt to protect Joshua from the harsh reality of the situation. But it seems highly implausible that the charade could be kept up for the duration of their capture, not to mention that the conditions of the concentration camps seem rather tame—no dead bodies to be seen, and their sleeping quarters look a hell of a lot cleaner and more comfortable than I would have imagined. I can see what Benigni intended with this—a life-affirming story that portrays the power of love between a family, and the sacrifices a father made for his son—but the plot is so unbelievable that it's rendered ineffective. I’m aware that Benigni calls it a “fable,” but I don’t think that sufficiently justifies it.

Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story, Shelly Dunn Fremont & Vincent Fremont, 2000

This documentary about Brigid Berlin, a former debutante turned Warhol superstar, chronicles her transition, both physically and psychologically, from rich privileged socialite to subversive artist and speed freak (her nickname of “Brigid Polk” refers to her penchant for giving herself a “poke”). Of all the people who hung around the Factory, Brigid seems to me the most exceptional artist (perhaps overshadowed, however, by others around her); her work includes Polaroid double exposure photo montages (she’s considered by many to be the inspiration for Warhol’s use of Polaroids and tape recordings), her Cock Book (a blank book filled with drawings by various colleagues and artists of, you guessed it, although Leonard Cohen’s page reads “Let me be the shy one in your book,” to which Brigid understandably rolls her eyes) and “tit prints” (again, no explanation necessary—you can see her in action creating these).

Brigid’s life is marked by compulsive behavior, which she often explores in her art (or perhaps it’s simply an aspect that comes through unintentionally), most notably in recordings of conversations with her mother, pillows stuffed with shredded magazine clippings of penises, and “trip books” of tiny repetitive circles and dots created while high on amphetamine. Her apartment is kept in almost museum-like order, and, still battling with her weight, her eating habits consist of weighing everything on a scale (for example, .5 ounces of yogurt, .5 ounces of cottage cheese) before consuming it. At the start of the film, Brigid is down to an almost unhealthily skinny 123 pounds, but midway through she caves in to her weakness for key lime pies and rapidly gains 40 pounds after consuming, by her estimate, at least 50 pies in a month.

While she appears fairly put together and functional, Brigid is a troubled woman, dominated by her compulsions, and haunted by her past. She at one point recites, word for word, a long tirade directed at her by her mother (a traditional society woman who vehemently disapproved of Brigid’s associations with Warhol), her voice audibly distressed, even though the conversation probably took place thirty years ago; when the filmmaker takes her to the Chelsea Hotel, Brigid’s one-time home, she grows increasingly uneasy, finally saying, “I want to get out of here.” The look on her face is undeniably haunted, but she seems unsure as to why the place makes her so uncomfortable.

Shadows, John Cassavetes, 1959

There seems to be some confusion as to the degree of improvisation that John Cassavetes’ debut film can actually claim. At the end, there is a title card that reads, “The film you have just seen was an improvisation”—which, while it does achieve a kind of freeform, flowing impression, seems an extremely impressive feat on behalf of the actors (so much so that I momentarily forgave their occasionally poorly executed lines), as the dialogue and actions feel rather scripted. As it turns out, Shadows was originally filmed as an improvisation but Cassavetes was so embarrassed by it that he wrote a script and trashed all but about 30 minutes of the first version. This seems a more accurate representation, as it still retains an improvised, low-budget feel, but the written script pulls it together (I can’t imagine what a truly ad-libbed film would look like—an interesting experiment, but as far as quality is concerned, an inevitable failure).

Somewhat reminiscent of the French New Wave, which was happening simultaneously so I can’t really say whether either influenced the other, the film delves into interracial relationships and prejudices amidst the Beat-era jazz and literary scenes in New York.

Touch of Evil, Orson Welles, 1958

I find it incredible that Orson Welles, who made what is widely recognized as the greatest film ever made, was never again able to achieve the success of Citizen Kane—in F For Fake, he says, “I started at the top and have been working my way down ever since.” While Welles may not be blameless, the fact that Hollywood studios butchered his subsequent films in the editing room could not have helped matters. When Welles heard that Touch of Evil had been recut (including the addition of several scenes that he hadn’t even filmed), he delivered a 58-page memo imploring the studio to restore it to its original edit, but until 1998 his requests went ignored. (The current circulating version attempts to incorporate as many of Welles’s instructions as possible.)

The opening scene in Touch of Evil is a magnificent three minute-long continuous shot, starting with an unidentified person installing a bomb in the trunk of a car, then following the car from above, craning up and down in a complex set of movements, over rooftops and neon signs, as two people unwittingly drive off to their death when the bomb explodes. In the previous version, this sequence had titles printed over it, blocking much of the action and diluting the power of the shot, and included Henry Mancini music that obscured the natural street noises that Welles had intended for the score—it’s unbelievable that people whose job it is to make movies could be so clueless as to the art of filmmaking. It’s not even as if their edits made the film more commercial; for years it was considered a low-grade crime movie.

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