Trainwreck (Judd Apatow, USA, 2015)

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Trainwreck is hit and miss. But when it hits, it hits big; and it does hit often: I love Amy Schumer, who I’d never heard of before, and who gets at something painful and real through the comedy, which is often laugh-out-loud. The story is as simple as it is questionable: is Amy going to grow up to be a female version of the arsehole father of hers, Gordon (Colin Quinn)– sex mad, liquor-swilling, drug taking, incapable of commitment – or is she going to grow up, like her sister KIm (Brie Larson)?

The ‘growing up’ in this movie takes the form of having Amy fall in love, change her ways, and win the man she’s been so careless with, Aaron (Bill Hader); wealthy, humanitarian and highly-skilled sports surgeon to the rich and famous; and who, to this member of the audience at least, still doesn’t seem worth the bother.  Amy’s ‘growing up’ may also be read as a way of clipping her wings, containing her, reducing her to a more traditional, conservative and conformist model of femininity. Her father could be an arsehole and be loveable. For a woman to continue to be the same past Amy’s age is too horrifying a thought for a movie and its audience to contemplate. Both lose out.

But how can we quibble? Most comedies are imperfect, few have as many jokes that hit as big, almost none centre on a woman and even fewer demonstrate a detectable address to a female audience. I loved it.

Lots of sports stars I don’t know make cameos you probably will enjoy more than I. John Cena, the wrestler, is very funny as an early, too-stiff boyfriend with a body of steel, the emotional life of a tween girl and the sexual imaginary of a homosexual weaned on porn. An almost unrecognisable Tilda Swinton makes an unforgettable appearance as a too-tanned, hard-nosed ‘Essex Girl’ editor of a New York lads mag and steals the few scenes she’s in. Fab.

José Arroyo

The Man From U.N.C.L.E (Guy Ritchie, USA, 2015)

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The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is unexceptional but rather fun, in a slightly leaden way. Guy Ritchie directs the action well, attempts a cheeky ironic tone for the film  he doesn’t always succeed in achieving, and is not very good with those actors who need his help: Armie Hammer is completely inexpressive physically though does a great accent and can find comic timing vocally that somehow eludes other aspects of his performance; Henry Cavill does better and is better looking doing it but he’s done so much weightlifting his body strains at his suits, evoking a kind of physical boxiness that works against that nonchalant physical elegance the character is meant to exude; a rare instance in which a great body works against the role (though his performance is also sabotaged by the cinematography); Alicia Vikander is pretty but can’t find a rhythm  for her performance and seems wasted; Elizabeth Debicki fares better as the villainess and her long leggy frame, elegant way of wearing clothes, and understated ironic way with a line makes her very enjoyable to watch. But it is Hugh Grant —  only in the film for what seems like two minutes — who steals the show. A trifle, not light or sparkly enough but with some clever action and a great score of 60s tunes. The audience did like it even though either the print or the projection didn’t provide the luminosity the colour palette seemed to require. It is better and more enjoyable than an episode of the old TV show.

José Arroyo

White Nights/ Le Notti Bianche (Luchino Visconti, Italy, 1957)

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Italian Poster
Italian Poster

Mario (Marcello Mastroianni), a young clerk, friendless and far from home, returns to Livorno from a trip to the country where he’s been warmed by feeling of home and family, even if the home and family are his boss’ and he himself has had to maintain the distance and deference required by the difference in their social status. As he leaves them and heads towards home, it’s as if the very lights of the city extinguish with each of his steps, externalising that loneliness and alienation he is feeling inside.

It’s as if the very lights of the city extinguish with each of his steps, externalising that loneliness and alienation he is feeling inside.
It’s as if the very lights of the city extinguish with each of his steps, externalising that loneliness and alienation he is feeling inside.

On a bridge, past the stray dogs, the homeless and the rubble, he meets a girl who he thinks a prostitute. Desperate for human contact and contrary to his norms of behaviour, he tries to pick her up. To the distress of both, he’s made a mistake. She’s Natalia (Maria Schell), daughter of formerly well-to-do carpet merchants, now fallen on hard times. She lives with her grandmother, blind and so anxious not to lose her that she keeps her literally pinned to her apron. They make a living by repairing carpets and taking in lodgers.

A portent of the struggle to come depicted via background poster
A portent of the struggle to come depicted via background poster that is nonetheless foregrounded by being given as much space as Matroianni/Mario

Natalia’s fallen deeply in love with one of them (Jean Marais). He’s courted her, included her grandmother and the rest of the household in the courtship, took them to the opera, pledged his love… but in the end had to leave, abruptly telling her he could not marry her right away but would meet her a year later, on this bridge. She’s been coming there faithfully every day at ten, waiting for he who does not arrive; which is where Natalia meets Mario. After several attempt to avoid him, they begin to talk, to feel less lonely, to connect. All the while she keeps waiting for the man who promised to return.

On the bridge between what is real and on offer (Mario) and the man of her dreams (the unnamed lodger) who might be but a dream and, in both dream and reality, a figure tinged with criminality and a hint of cruelty.
On the bridge between what is real and on offer (Mario) and the man of her dreams (the unnamed lodger) who might be but a dream and, in both dream and reality, a figure tinged with criminality and a hint of cruelty.

Mario falls in love with Natalia; is moved by her purity, her goodness, her faith. He courts her. She welcomes —  might even need —  the attention. But she remains faithful to her ideal. This faith in turn ignites one in Mario; in inspiring his love, she dissolves his sense of alienation even as Mario accepts that Natalia doesn’t love him and might, at best, come to love him later, after sufficient time has passed for her to forget he whom she truly loves now.

The couple seen through windows fogged up by the clash of cold and heat and only partially cleared
The couple seen through windows fogged up by the clash of cold and heat and only partially cleared

Is the stranger a figment of her imagination or someone real? Can such feelings and ideas live amongst the squalor and compromises of every day life? Is there something to believe in and should we have faith? Are we always doomed to be alone? Visconti and Giuseppe Rotuno show us this metaphorically; we see the couple through foggy windows. Natalia’s reality murked up by her dreams; Mario’s options often directly clarified through cleared up windows or the stark directness offered by those stepping out of the shadows. Only for a brief moment does snow purify all, at least before a shiny figure in black comes back into the picture, where Natalia is asked to make a choice, stay on one side, or cross the bridge to another.

A mere and fading reflection on a clear wish
A mere and fading reflection on a clear wish

White Nights/ Le Notti Bianche is film that sets out to be poetry and succeeds. How you feel and experience the film might depend on how you feel about any film with such intentions. Here a bridge, snow, the contrast between rock and opera, the effects of fog on an image as seen from the outside, all act as metaphors that need decipherment. The film succeeds beautifully but are you up to the task?

As is usual with Visconti, Le Notti Bianche is the fruit of the crème-de-la-créme of cinematic collaborators. Suso Cecchi d’Amico worked with Visconti on the screen adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s story. Giuseppe Rotuno creates a world that is luminous, clearly artificial, but lit as if for a deeper truth, with some strikingly beautiful images. It has one of Nino Rota’s most beautiful scores; one of those where a few recurring bars played on different chords capture a range of feeling, and the changes that range undergoes throughout a film. The costumes are by Piero Tossi.

It’s like the very length of his eyelashes are a trap with which to ensnare the innocent.
It’s like the very length of his eyelashes are a trap with which to ensnare the innocent.

The actors have rarely been better. I sometimes find Maria Schell a bit tiresome but as Natalia she’s distraught, nervous, optimistic and polite but slightly hysterical; always focussed one her goal, smiling as if spiritually lit by a divine spirit. It’s a stylised, operatic performance, not unlike Alida Valli’s in Senso’s but here always played in a lower key and with a smile. Marais, already into middle-aged, playing a cipher with potentially a cruel streak, has never seemed to me more handsome or dashing than he is here. In some shots, it’s like the very length of his eyelashes are a trap with which to ensnare the innocent.

As to Mastroianni…one can only sigh with awe. Other women are after him in the film, and not only prostitutes. And unlike the Lodger with his fancy opera, he can only offer her Bill Haley and the Comets. And he can’t even dance! I bet the lodger can dance. But Mastrioanni can feel and weep and communicate all of it clearly with a masculine goofeyness that doesn’t mask that his muddling up the steps is a clear offer of his heart, that there’s a joy in his daring to dance without skill, a trust, and a confidence. That he’s the salt of the earth (and is perhaps why he must cry). To me, his dance, is one of the treasures of cinema.

Visconti’s virtuosic display of cinematic skills in White Nights/ Le Notti Bianche is truly dazzling. I’ll point you to one simple example, which you can see in the clip below. It’s the moment where Natalia has been telling Mario about the lodger and it’s the one moment in the film where we enter her head. She’s narrating the experience and we’re seeing it as she felt it. Note how seamlessly Visconti moves from the past to the present. See particularly the last ten seconds of the clip, the moment where Maria Schell says, ‘I’ll be yours, yours forever’ and note how seamlessly Visconti takes us from Natalia’s past and her imagination, as she recounts to us how she feels about what happened, to the present and Mario. When the camera cuts from Jean Marais to Maria Schell only to have her embrace Mastroianni. He’s made this move from past to present and a shift in point-of-view, without changing the tone and without even a cut. It’s dazzling.

French Poster
French Poster

In spite of being awarded a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the film was not a success when it first came out. I find the posters for the various countries it was released in interesting in its display of different attractions for each culture. Maria Schell gets top billing in all of them but in the Italian poster, the lodger is a faceless figure in the background. The French poster gives second billing to Marais, gives the impression of a romance between Schell and Marais and turns the Mastroianni character into the faceless figure in the bridge. The Danish poster highlights Schell’s whiteness, places Marais and Schell in large size on the left of the poster but places the character on the bridge prominently on the top right of the poster. Each is selling a different thing.

A clear come-on.
A clear come-on.

What the film is selling are the concerns of sociology and history. How it feels like to see and what it might yet mean are ongoing concerns. The reason for viewing it now —  in spite of protestations from some critics that it’s not amongst the great works of Visconti —  is that it is still a great work of a great director, one that requires much of the audience but offers much in return, should the audience be willing to give to and receive from it that which a very great work of this kind requires.

José Arroyo

Danish poster
Danish poster

Senso (Luchino Visconti, Italy, 1954)

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A Venetian Countess (Alida Valli) loses her reason in succumbing to her senses and to Lieutenant Franz Mahler (Farley Granger) of the invading Austrian Army. She gives up money and position; even betrays her family, her country and her highest ideals; all for a feckless sensualist, a gigolo from the first and one who’ll show himself a quivering coward by the end. That’s where love and desire will take you in the world of Visconti and of Senso.

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It’s a beautiful film, gorgeous to look at. Valli seems to float from canal to piazza, in large hooped skirt, in a wind-blown veil, as she suffers, desires, trembles, and looks for and at her lover; whilst refusing to see what is at all times clear to the audience: that he’s a cheap hustler unworthy of such sacrifices. The film is set at the time Garibaldi was uniting Italy and there are clearly points being made about European and Italian history that are beyond my present reach.

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But the central story is entirely accessible; and the cinematic means through which to convey that story are the work of a giant of cinema; from the tour de force opening at the opera house to the tragic battle sequences at the end; from the grandeur of the houses right down to the exquisiteness of the pattern of a scarf that Valli holds to her face: everything is perfection. Even Granger, giving an awkward, unskilled performance is to the film’s advantage, as the looks-without-substance characteristic of the actor is so well used to convey that of the character.

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A film of faded colours, set at a key historical moment, but focussing rather on the depths to which desire might drive one. A great film.

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José Arroyo

In Praise of Francis Ford Coppola

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At the NaFilM exhibit at the Museum Montanelli in Prague I was struck by a display of wine of various kinds from Francis Ford Coppola in his capacity as grape grower and vintner: there was the Claret and the Pinot Grigio, the ‘Director’s Cut’ Cabernet Sauvignon, and the ‘Sofia’ Chardonnay. All for sale and all with ten per cent of the proceeds going to NaFilM in aid of the project to found a National Film Museum in the Czech Republic.

cooking for students at EICTV
Cooking for students at EICTV

Earlier in the month, excited students at EICTV, the Film and Television School of ‘All the Worlds’, based in San Antonio de los Baños in Cuba, informed me that Coppola had arrived with cases and cases of pasta, tomato sauce and wine. He’d cooked them a meal, eaten it with them, shared his knowledge and answered their questions. EICTV is often ranked one of the top film schools and I personally have never found it less than inspiring. But it is undergoing financial difficulties at the moment and Coppola’s visit gave everyone there a boost, particularly since it consisted of giving AND receiving, of sharing, of various kinds of communing.

Sharing knowledge
Sharing knowledge

These two experiences to me indicate not only a praiseworthy philanthropy or an admirable degree of personal kindness but an on-going engagement and concern with film in all its aspects that one can trace pre film school at UCLA and post the various industrial and technological experimentation at Zoetrope. Moreover it’s a cinephilic desire to cultivate the culture of cinema that includes but – as I personally have witnessed – also extends beyond the borders of his own country. I tip my hat off to him.

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José Arroyo

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The NaFilM exhibit at the Montanelli Museum in Prague.

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As a teacher, I sometimes wonder if one spends too much time thinking of doing things for students rather than with them; or even better, with them and for others. This point was brought home to me when Nicky Smith and I visited the NaFilM exhibit at the Montanelli Museum in Prague. NaFilM is a project that was begun three years ago amongst students and friends of the Department of Film Studies at Charles University in Prague with the aim of setting up a Museum of Czech Cinema. Whilst researching the best way of exhibiting film and its history, the project grew to encompass staff and students from other universities in the Czech Republic as well as critics and other interested individuals. The current exhibition is designed as a ‘trailer’ for what a possible National Film Museum could be like. I found it thrilling and inspirational.

Interactive Sound Effects
Interactive Sound Effects

The first part of the exhibit deals with sound in cinema in all its aspects and right up to the 50s but begins by countering the widely held notion that early films were silent. Thus, we are shown an exciting clip of a chase sequence and then guided through the various ways in which sound effects were created as well as given the appropriate ‘noise props’ through which to supply them: the sounds of horses’ hooves created with sticks, a machine that gives the sound of wind, etc. These instruments, as well as a ‘noise walkway’ made of various materials, thus help the visitor create a diversity of sounds such as wind, storm, the rustling of leaves, a galloping horse, a moving train etc. It was clear that kids and the curious of all ages delighted in the interactive dimension of this and the museum gave ample opportunity to participate and to witness the results.

The film is full of exciting gadgetry: you can see how the sound of your voice gets visualised and added to celluloid; there’s a room where you can try out different types of lighting effects on a moving train; another one has a gadget where you encase your head in darkness as you’re told aurally of a script which you’re asked to imagine visaully; and so on. The idea is to get the visitor to think about all the different aspects that have historically gone into and comprised filmmaking and learn from the various exercises whilst having fun. It is an unqualified success.

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The other areas of the exhibit focus more tightly on Czech cinema. The second part of the exhibition highlighted the role of the avant-garde in the national culture and is shown by a selection of key short films, including documentaries —  often shot in Prague —  that were delightful and thought-provoking. The exhibit also explains the role of the Dev˘etsil literary club in propagating ideas from French Surrealism into the Czech avant-garde movement known as poetism. The poetists used the principles of collages and free association to create unexpected meanings. Thus the poetists made a very marked contribution to the Czech national film culture and to European avant-garde cultures even though they themselves did not make a single film. It’s a fascinating aspect of the exhibit.

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Also on display were a set of gorgeous posters from home and abroad, of which the one that meant the most to me was the beautiful poster for Ernst Lubitsch’s The Love Parade (USA, 1929) advertising that it was showing in what surely must be one of the most beautiful cinemas in all of the world, the Lucerna.

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The third and last section of the exhibit dealt with the events of 1968 and beyond; how they affected cinema and in turn how cinema dealt, narrated, imaged and reflected the effects of the Soviet Invasion on the national culture. On exhibit are a series of very beautiful short films as well as a series of ‘imagined’ postcards from some of the most celebrated Czech filmmakers in exile.

Focus on Czech cinema.
Focus on Czech cinema.

The exhibit is selective, a teaser or trailer for the potential National Film Museum. It’s not only interactive in terms of the visitor and the curators, but will be interactive at each stage, including consultation on site and design of the potential museum. It makes the strongest case possible for the construction of such a museum. It’s a model of a pedagogic exercise; generating, exchanging, accruing and distributing knowledge; which,through preservation and exhibition, in turn instigates a dialogue with the visitor to the museum that potentially generates and begins the whole cycle again; and it does this with a focus on the local and the national. This is what this great exhibit does and why it so forcefully makes a case for a future National Museum of Film in the Czech Republic.

José Arroyo

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My voice as imaged through an optical sound device

La Terra Trema (Luchino Visconti, Italy, 1948)

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The first time I saw La Terra Trama was about thirty years ago and I was at least as deeply moved seeing it again yesterday. I found myself consulting Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s indispensible Visconti (London: BFI, 1967, 1973) to find out more but there were so many interesting facts to take into account – for example, a small amount of capital for the film was advanced by the Communist Party for what was originally meant to be a short; then it evolved into a three-part epic on the liberation struggles of fishermen, peasants and miners before finding its current form – and I found myself wanting to argue to such an extent with Nowell-Smith’s interpretation of some incidents, that my writing risked bypassing the film in favour of Nowell-Smith’s take on the film. I concluded that I had better put Nowell-Smith aside for now and just focus on writing down my impressions, what I felt and thought upon seeing the film again, and why and how it had moved me so.

I find La Terra Trema to be one of the treasures of Twentieth Century Art and the work of a poet with a generous heart, an incisive mind and the skills of a virtuoso (as a an aside, but perhaps worth noting, Francesco Rosi and Franco Zefferelli, as opposite as directors can be, both worked as assistant directors with Visconti). The film begins by showing us a way of life that has persisted for centuries: men going out to fish, women cleaning up the house as they await the men’s arrival, a return that is not always certain; young people desiring love and a better way of life whilst clearly knowledgeable and observant of the limits placed on these desires by the changing wealth and social position of their families and focussing on what they think is important: home, family, society. These houses and how people use them evoke a way of life – places, people, relationships to places and relationships amongst different peoples — as well as a structure of feeling – a felt way of understanding these changing relationships — which to my mind no Hollywood film has even come close to.

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The Valestro family is composed of one set of grandparents, a mother and seven children who all live under the same roof. The father has already died at sea but everyone else, no matter what their age, contributes to the family’s subsistence and survival. I found the depiction of the houses, the clothes, the furnishings, the rituals, recognisable; and I daresay this would be the case for many a Southern European born even into the last half of the last century (and certainly by their parents). The film’s on-location shooting and non-professional actors add an awkwardness that is also a series of grace-notes to what we see. It feels a document even as we are at all times aware of the way the drama is being shaped for us, acted out, narrated. The film, which in some ways seems to fall within a particular tradition of documentary, perhaps Grierson’s ‘creative shaping of actuality’, is ostensibly loosely based on Giovanni Verga’s novel I Malaboglia (1881)/The House by the Medlar Tree.

I was moved also by the grandfather’s sayings — ‘Strength of youth, wisdom of age’, Every wind is a bad wind for a sinking ship’ — which reminded me of the sayings my grandmother uttered as she slapped her hands on her knees to end a conversation: rhymes appropriate to the occasion that encapsulated the wisdom passed down to the family through the ages from and to people who could neither read nor write.

The film offers a complex account of the duties and obligations involved in being a member of the family and the oppressions and pleasures, the aid, ease, (as well as limitations) of being part of the village and the community, which is why it’s loss will be so felt. It begins with women, getting up and getting the house ready for the men of the house who have been out fishing all night, the money being shared equally except for the youngest, who must be no older than seven, and gets half. All of the first part is devoted to showing us this way of life in all its complexities, with its clear-cut economic exploitation but also with many variegated pleasures in spite of being a subsistence economy. All of this will be lost when the eldest son, Antonio, decides to fight for a better and more just way of life.

After a spontaneous revolt against the injustice of the wholesalers at the port in which Antonio, the eldest son, gets jailed only to be arbitrarily released, the family together vote to try for a new way of life, to mortgage the home that has been in the family since time immemorial to try to bypass the wholesalers and get a better deal for their fish. Initially, they strike it lucky with a shoal of anchovies, though even here good fortune extolls a price, as some of the siblings – such as Mara, the eldest, are now too rich to marry those they’d set their heart on when poorer: The film, whilst giving a complex and variegated of love and desire, is completely unsentimental about money and marriage. But then, the need to pay bills, force them onto recklessly fishing in bad weather. They’re lucky to return with their lives but their boat is lost, and with it the ability to earn an independent living. And things get worse, as the wholesalers now refuse them day work

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From this point, the film turns into tragedy. As the narrative tells us each branch of the family withers and falls: Antonio is so depressed, he sleeps and drinks, Cola, the second oldest brother leaves home for the sea and the film hints also at a life of crime, the grandfather’s in hospital, the eldest sister now has her marriage hopes dashed because she’s too poor instead of too rich, and the second eldest sister first shown to us looking in a mirror and arranging her hair has now fallen into accepting cheap gifts from men in a way that is whispered about and makes her un-marriageable. ‘Your pride has made you the worst family in Trezzo’ Antonio is told. But that is not the end of their suffering. Antonio, who had thought himself so poor he dreamt of food before, is now forced to sell the good and practical clothes he has left in order to get food, and finally has to suffer complete humiliation in front of his whole community and dressed in tatters before being given a job again and returned to much less than his wealth and position was at the beginning of the film.

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Visconti shows us all of this in very beautiful and complex long shots and long takes with a whole view of life expressed in the background. The frame is always full except for select moments, those striking simple images of the women on the rocks waiting for their men, or the moment where Lucia cries and clutches at the bracelet she too quickly accepted. Visconti usually lets your eye wonder but these people are always individuals in a community. They are rarely alone; that is their strength and that is also what ails them. The Valestros could be the family that will emigrate to Milan in Rocco and His Brothers.

What I found a weakness thirty years ago, the voice-over narration, I now find a strength for it’s not a Voice-of-God, this-is-the-way-you-must-think narration. It’s explicatory, parenthetical, indicative, and it renders poetic that which it dramatises. I find it beautiful. I also love the way Visconti lets the viewer’s eye wonder along the frame; there’s a focus on a particular character and action, but all other kinds of things are going on in the background — the setting is always social, people are usually interacting, working; these people are always individuals in a community. The only times we are shown individuals filling a frame are poetic moments of interiority but usually the result of and a comment on the  communal, social, contextual. I love that Visconti makes these people beautiful, dignified. Their feet might be bare and their clothes ragged but their hearts are full and their faces and bodies as beautiful as those of any.

There are a few things that strike a discordant note. The way the rich baroness is shown toothless and eating, the melodramatic and overdone attacks on the wholesalers by linking them to Mussolini and fascism… But to me these are rendered very minor in the face of the film’s accomplishments. That La Terra Trema shows these beautiful and dignified people revolting is so moving, their conditions of existence so bare, the depths they could yet fall to, so great. The impossibility of fighting against these conditions individually is made so clear. Yet, there is hope in the struggle, in the same community that oppresses one, and someone might yet be fixing the boat you sunk in your struggle and ask you to come and visit it one day.

I wish someone had made such a film about my people. Others can quibble, though there is very little indeed to quibble with, but only Visconti made such a film, and only in Italy. Thus it has to stand for all the other Southern European, or Mediterranean conditions and ways of life, not so dissimilar from that depicted, as a record, a warning, and as we hear reports of slavery amongst fishermen in the South Seas, as a reminder of such exploitation that the very earth trembles in indignation. It’s a truly great film.

José Arroyo

Hollywood Home Movies From The Academy Film Archive (USA, 1931-1970)

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Hollywood Home Movies From The Academy Film Archive (USA, 1931-1970)

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Il Cinema Ritrovato showcased a program of home movies donated to The Academy Film Archive and, in this instance, narrated live by Michael Pogorzelski, who told us where these movies came from (Fred McMurray, Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s estate, etc.) and who was in them (the audience sometimes seemed to know more than Pogorzelski). The collection of short home movies was exciting to see because these people figure in our pasts, sometimes in an intimate way, so this was a way of making part of their private life intersect with part of ours.

It was wonderful to see Randolph Scott gently stroke Cary Grant’s shoulder in a the way familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a couple, as a gesture, tender but proprietary, that only established couples do to let the other know they’re there, besides them, and that they are thinking of them, with love. And perhaps to let others know to buzz off – that person’s taken, mine. That gesture did more to convince me of something between those two, than all the gossip I’ve heard and photos I’ve seen thus far.

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I loved seeing: Marlene Dietrich and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. pretending to be Tyrolean peasants in their huge mansion-size ‘little cottage’ whilst changing into dozens of outfits; Cary Grant, more handsome than I’ve ever seen with practically no upper lip and a lower lip three times the size of anyone I know, on the set of Gunga Din; some rare colour footage of Carole Lombard, always the liveliest and most beautiful person in any film she graces, including these home movies; Fred McMurray’s home movies, in three-strip technicolor, and showing him as the athletic and handsome leading man he was but that can be so difficult to detect in some of his films, particularly the later ones, or for that generation of people who grew up with him as a Disney star or as the father in My Three Sons. Also who knew he was a blond?

I adored also the footage of one of Hearst’s 1930s parties, all of the stars on their best behaviour, like at the boss’ house, and pretending to enjoy the prank of a shaft of air being wooshed up lady’s dresses from below. Marilyn was to be shown enjoying a heightened and eroticised version of this two decades later in The Seven Year Itch. But practically every ‘30s star you care to mention is shown here in that very human contradiction of being extremely annoyed and trying to have the good manners not to show it, particularly to someone who’s got power over one’s job. It felt a privilege to have been able to see these films.

José Arroyo

Southpaw (Antoine Fuqua, USA, 2015)

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Southpaw is like a Depression melodrama in which a good man loses, wife, family, home, child –partly through his own shortcomings mostly through events he can’t control — and has to go back to the ring and fight his way back to where he started in order to win back his own life and his daughter’s affections. It reminded me a little of The Champ (King Vidor, USA, 1931) but Southpaw is less tearjerking, the child is a daughter rather than a son, and the boxer survives at the end. Even when he wins, as here, he loses; the win in fact leaves him a few  steps below where he started. He wins fight and daughter but still has no wife, no house, fewer friends, no trust, a more aged and less abled body. Like all boxing films, Southpaw is a parable for capitalism. It reminded me a little bit more of the original version of The Champ rather than the Franco Zefferelli 1979 remake with Jon Voight in the Wallace Beery role and Ricky Schroeder in the Jackie Cooper role because the remake eschewed the social and focused more overtly on the domestic and familial.

The boxing film might be the only genre that puts class, capitalism and masculinity at the forefront. That’s what the genre is about; and historically films like the great Body and Soul (Robert Rosssen, USA, 1947)  have not only been critical on those subjects but have also been poetic in their criticism, with great dialogue one could reel off years after seeing the film (‘Everybody dies!’, ‘You need money to buy a gun’, ‘Life is just addition and substraction – the rest is conversation’…) Southpaw has many of the elements of the genre — a young man from the wrong side of the tracks, a good woman, an ornery old trainer, a dirty promoter, the very body as a site of struggle not only for home and family but for basic justice – but it starts at the point where the hero is already a champ and is about to lose everything.

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The plot is not as coherent as one would like with some characters (Hoppy) just dropping off the radar too abruptly so that, whilst the rationale for their introduction is clear, the payoff their place in the narrative deserves doesn’t quite come off in the end. The relationship with the daughter is to my mind also misconceived; the film would have been better had they been entirely kept apart by the institutions rather than also by the daughter’s choice. I also think the film might have been slightly improved by a redistribution of the film’s set of knowledges so that there were moments where the audience knew more than its characters. It might have made it more moving than it already is; and a good cry at the state of an America pictured like this is really what’s called for but what the film doesn’t quite deliver. It’s also traditionally how the melodramatic genre elicits a kind of suspense and a kind of emotion: we know what’s coming before the protagonist does but can’t guide or act — we can only anguish at what’s coming and suffer along with the characters when it does.

What Southpaw does achieve is a great neon-noir look that evokes the attractions and dangers of poor people moving through cheaply coloured lights in a very dark world. But it stops short of being a stinging attack on the state of things, and to its detriment. 50 Cent is Jordan Mains, the slick promoter skimming his money whilst parroting loyalty and family values when things are going well only to kick him out of his office at the first sign of trouble. The film would have been better and pleased more had he got more of a comeuppance. I wanted him to squirm at the end of the film like the dirty promoter he is (and like every dirty promoter/gangster has squirmed at the end of almost every boxing film since forever). I don’t understand why the film denies us that moment.

But it does offer other, and great, pleasures. Jake Gyllenhall is unrecognisable and gives a complex performance — both brutish and delicate as Billy Hope: he’s really great. He’s got an amazing body in the sense that you could see all the work that went into it, but it’s not a naturally elegant or beautiful body, and it’s constantly on display and very affecting to see; all that work that went into it… and yet the torso is still boxy, the waist jutty; work buys results but it doesn’t buy perfection; and it works for the role because in boxing the body’s a tool and not just something to be looked at, though the film is incredibly expressive, movingly so, in the display of its destruction. Rachel McAdams, is sexy, vibrant, intelligent and loving as Hope’s wife; and her performance is what makes the moment of Billy’s loss so moving.

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It sometimes feels that Antoine Fuqua is the only director currently working in American cinema who’s making serious films about ordinary people in a popular cinematic vernacular, generally the action film: Training Day (2001), Brooklyn’s Finest (2009) are what first come to mind but The Equalizer (2014), The Shooter (2007) and Olympus Has Fallen (2013) also have things to offer to those minded to pay attention. Southpaw is in that vein: a bit patchy, not quite perfect but a serious look at working people on the margins of a multiracial America by someone who knows what it is and knows how to depict it for us. I think critics might have liked it better had the hero been named Billy Nohope. As it is, and with all its imperfections, I very much liked Southpaw.

José Arroyo

Watching La Famille Belier in Geneva

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IMG_6747Watching films is an activity and an experience. Before technology developed to the extent that the general public could go into a shop and come out with some VHS titled say ‘Foul Play’, one would pay money, go into the movie and come out only with a memory of certain aspects of the film tied to the way that one felt. Thus the laughs at the moment the bed keeps going up and down in Dudley Moore’s pornographic flat, or how Goldie Hawn mistakenly harms the wrong dwarf, or the Japanese tourists jumping up and down in a taxi yelling ‘Kojak!’, are still vivid memories with me. Is the film any good? I don’t know; and I’m afraid to watch it again (might the Kojak bit seem racist to me now? Was Chevy Chase really as handsome and charming as I remember him to be? Was the karate fight between Burgess Meredith and Rachel Roberts really that funny? Is the film really as covertly gay as I remember it to be?) – the memories are too good to sacrifice. How and where we watch films play a role in how we appreciate them.

I saw La Famille Belier at the Salt.Cinema in Geneva, right next to the yacht club, in the kind of balmy coolness only the onset of evening in the middle of a heat-wave (a canicule is the lovely name for it there) can produce. The breeze wafting in from the lake, the illuminated boats cruising through the darkness, the sailboats bobbing up and down in the yacht club, a perfectly made mojito in my hand, an old and dear friend sitting next to me, a giant screen in front. It would have taken a truly horrible film to ruin such a moment and La Famille Belier is great fun, touching at moments, with a great performance by Louane Emera, a semi-finalist in France’s version of The Voice, as Paula, the teenage daughter of deaf parents who feel betrayed when she decides to enter a singing competition. It’s very broad, very deftly acted, and at moments, such as when Paula sings Michel Sardou’s ‘Je vole’, very touching indeed. It was lovely to see a teenage musical, particularly a French one, as they don’t come around too often. The film was very enjoyable if not great, but watching it with a good friend in such exquisite surroundings made for a sublime experience.

José Arroyo

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Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs, USA, 2015)

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I found the trailer for Magic Mike XXL so embarrassing, I put off seeing the film until friends convinced me to. I found it much better than expected and really enjoyable. The audience was almost all women and when Channing Tatum first appears after the credits, they all went ‘Phwoar!’. And that set the tone for the film’s reception, at least with the audience I saw it with, which was almost 98% female.

It’s a very interesting film, very inclusive of difference if slightly confused and confusing as to its racial and sexual politics and, unlike the first one, one very much directed at a female gaze, with Matt Bomer thrown in as a bone to the gay audience. The story is a bit of a mess and it ends abruptly. But I didn’t mind that much. I loved the musical numbers and the way it all feels like Mickey and Judy putting on a show but veering off now towards the burlesque end of showbiz. It’s basically a musical with half naked men in which the wall-flowers get to dance with the prom king whilst gay men are invited to cheer on through scenes in gay bars and Channing Tatum’s character admitting a drag name, even if it is something like Clitoris Labia or some such, and the bodies of course. But it’s all sexless, pretend, ironic and knowing, but earnest too; just like the old musicals but without as much dancing, which is a pity, as the only moment the film seems to really take off and fly into a zone approaching greatness is that moment where Channing Tatum gets taken over by the music and dances with his tools in the shed – it’s really thrilling to see.

The film is very knowing and rather sophisticated in its range of references: Carmen Miranda, the boys camping it up in a vogue-ing contest referencing both Madonna AND Paris is Burning, Joe Manganiello commenting on vampires in The Twilight Saga rather than True Blood, etc. It looks as neon bright as the original with striking and original visual imagery (Steven Soderbergh is the cinematographer); The cast are all adequate but it’s only Bomer who gives any sense of a characterisation: a has-been actor with fading looks and with his only claim to fame working at Disneyworld and a few local commercials, now caught up in new-age philosophies (or crackpot theories) as a way of keeping at bay something that’s dying inside. You can imagine him starring in gay porn the year after the film is set. As to the rest…Andie MacDowell’s loosened up a bit as she’s gotten older but she’s still the worst thing in the film though mercifully she’s not on for long. Joe Manganiello finally gets the part he was denied in the first film though doesn’t bring the spark, theatricality, or star quality Matthew McConaughey brought to the original. Channing Tatum always looks like someone’s slapped him hard and he doesn’t know what to say. Only Jada Pinkett-Smith, in today’s equivalent of the old Madam-with-a-heart-of-gold role, stands out. She is dazzling (though even she has been better in Gotham).

I find it difficult to come to a conclusion as to what the film’s about other than ‘you’re ok, I’m ok, we’re all beautiful inside and we all deserve to be treated like queens no matter how we look or what’s happened to us’, all of which is pretty Oprah….but then that Channing Tatum starts to dance to an inventive choice of music (true throughout the film) and the film zooms onto another dimension. I wish it had ventured there more often but it’s a rare film that addresses a female and gay audience in as warm and delightful a manner as this one and I was happy enough to find it as entertaining as I did.

José Arroyo

Nicky Smith and José Arroyo in Bologna

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A crude home movie; made by someone who doesn’t really know how to make them — me; but which nonetheless evokes how wonderful it was to see classic films at the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna during the Giornate del Cinema Ritrovato.

José Arroyo

The Bells of St. Mary’s (Leo McCarey, USA, 1945)

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The Bells of St. Mary’s is the sequel to Going My Way (1944); both by Leo McCarey and both the most successful box-office his of their respective years. It is according to Richard Corliss ‘officially loved’; Pauline Kael thought it a recruiting poster for the Catholic Church matched only by The Exorcist (William Friedkin); writing in 1973, Joseph McBride wrote that ‘If you don’t cry when Bing Crosby tells Ingrid Bergman she has tuberculosis, I never want to meet you and that’s that’. Much as I admire his work, perhaps it’s lucky we’ve never met.

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How is The Bells of St. Mary’s in any way acceptable? It’s false through and through and offensively so: hip priests and cute nuns, pretending to be all self-sacrificing and cheerful, solving all the world’s problems, manipulating everyone with prayer, conning an old man out of his building. There’s a big Leo McCarey retrospective here at the Cinema Ritrovatto. Yes, he is the director of beloved films such as Duck Soup (1933) and The Awful Truth (1937); and, yes, they are greatly to be cherished. But he is also the director of My Son John (1952). Why isn’t the falsity in his work also part of the discussion of McCarey? How can critics let such lies go through? Yes, there’s Ingrid Bergman, gloriously radiant, enraptured in a halo of faith that is beautiful to see; Bing sings skilfully in that marvellous baritone of his; McCarey is great at staging the comedy in a low key, famously improvised manner; the actors are excellent; but excellent in the service of what? It’s an insult to one’s intelligence; a testament to the power of lies, the American equivalent of a Stalinist film about the redeeming values of cement and the glory of sacrificing individual life and happiness to the five year plan. A film that turns from pleasant to hateful as soon as the thought it fights so hard to displace is applied to it. Yet, also one of the most popular films of all time and thus perhaps all the more reason to think about it seriously.

José Arroyo

Form and Medium at the Cinema Ritrovatto

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The Giornatta di Cinema Ritrovatto makes crystal clear the irreducible value of form and medium; that it makes a difference to see something on a large screen or a huge screen or a small screen; that sound, both in terms of the score itself and the way that it is conveyed is crucial; that a nitrate print is something to see; that celluloid projection offers different qualities than digital. To not care about texture, hue, intensity, size – what all of these different forms of display bring to the art of cinema is analogous to the claim that you can recolour Van Gogh, print an altered reproduction and claim that it is no different to the original and can replace it in a museum without prejudice. One can see why studios intent on making profit might make those claims but how can museums? How is it permissible for museums and cinémathèques and teachers of film aesthetics and really anyone interested in film as an art to not care about what type of print is projected, how it is projected and on the size of the screen?

The programming at Il Cinema Ritrovato made the importance of this gloriously clear: So, for example, Cover Girl (Charles Vidor, USA, 1944), according to the catalogue, ‘Three-strip technicolor features 35mm print derived from black and white three strip negatives (all features printed on a nitrate base)’, but digitally projected from a 4k print, looked out of this world, in fact Mark Fuller, a friend who did not like the film, nevertheless admired the gorgeousness of the print, and how because of the print, the colours themselves seemed to sing and dance more vibrantly than anything else in the film (quite something to say when the people in the film look and move as beautifully as Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly do). In a lovely piece on the festival for Photogenie, Tom Paulis writes  of how the print of The Thin Red Line (Terence Malick, USA, 1998)  ‘was as unique as they come, a Technicolor dye-transfer copy made as a gift to the director that only very rarely leaves the vaults. The result was a small miracle. The dye-transfer completely transformed the film, especially in the deep saturation of the blacks, making an already high-contrasty film (that Queensland light!) look like Caravaggio’.

Likewise, in an excellent overview of the festival in The Guardian, Pamela Hutchinson begins her piece as follows:

‘“Technicolor is like God – it cannot be copied!” Nicola Mazzanti of the Royal Belgian Film Archive is introducing a screening of Douglas Sirk’s perfect melodrama All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, USA, 1955) and, in an unexpectedly exuberant speech, he promises the crowd in Bologna’s Cinema Arlecchino “a mystical experience”. This is a screening, not from a digital cinema package (DCP) or a re-release, but an original 35mm distribution print – vintage, authentic Technicolor. Mazzanti assures us that there will be scratches (“God, I love scratches!”) and that “if we are really lucky, the film will break, the house lights will come up, and you will be discovered entwined with your girlfriend, or your boyfriend”.

Now Mazzarati might be over-fetishising the experience but anyone lucky enough to see  a vintage print at the festival will admit that the colours looked and felt different than other restored versions and even other formats. I was lucky enough to see the Spanish Filmoteca’s vintage copy of Fantasia (Walt Disney, USA, 1940), one which we might have been the last people to see, as loss of quality is incurred each time a print is shown; and if colour, hue, luminosity are one of the ways films convey meaning and help evoke particularly experiences, the choice of which version and in which form should be purposeful, and great care should be taken in the projection.

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And it’s not just about image. One of the highlights of the festival was the screening of Rapsodia Satanica (Italy 1914-17) at The Teatro Comunale di Bologna, in its original nitrate print, but with the Pietro Mascagni score beautifully restored so that it was was once more perfectly timed to every gesture, every eye-movement, so that everything the music originally expressed was once more revealed by Timothy Brock conducting a full orchestra at the Teatro Comunale. The beauty of the hand-tinted colours, the visual values revealed by the nitrate print, the drama on-screen once more synchronised to the music, this time conveyed with the fullness only a full orchestra is capable of and in the glorious surroundings of the Teatro Comunale: one can only say, wow! A sublime experience.

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One thinks the battle for film as an art form has been won discursively but one goes to museums and one sees that the repositories of the best of our culture are not practicing what they preach. Films are often shown on a terrible youtube-like loop. Every piddly Warhol piss painting is treated like an elgin marble; every great treasure of cinema treated like used-up can of coke. It’s time museums and indeed every official repository of culture imitate the practices of the Cinema Ritrovatto in relation to film.

José Arroyo

Watching Rocco And His Brothers in the Piazza Maggiore at the Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna.

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There were all kind of magical experience watching films in the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna during the Giornate del Cinema Ritrovato but the one of seeing Rocco e i suoi  fratelli/ Rocco and His Brothers in this particular context – the Piazza Maggiore, with thousands of spectators, a huge screen, a special stand purpose-built for the projector so it can be sufficiently high to have enough ‘throw’ to fill that particularly huge screen – to be able to in this context ‘experience’ this particular story, the story of Italy, the story of leaving home, leaving mi paise, which stands not just for one’s village but for one’s land, one’s country as both an imaginary but also in a phenomenological sense, in which the film itself posited a kind of saudade, that kind of felt love for a people and place one longs for still but which is far away and maybe never was but that is imagined so vividly, and which one’s love for that imaginary is still felt so strongly that it is rendered alive, and the sadness for its loss so vividly juxtaposed with the fullness of the feeling for what once was; a country you feel, experience, touch, sense, and which you carry the memory of like a long lost memory, missing and longing, yearning and loss, all mixed up with a desire for an entwined affect. This story of mid-century Italy is now also the story of so many in a 21st century world; and the problems of the film resonate not only with their specificity but with their universality. It was truly great; and not only the work in itself but also the experience of watching it in this particular context. Doubly great.

José Arroyo

A Pangborn Pansy

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Franklin Pangborn’s pansies are on the great joys of 30s cinema. Here is a little compilation of some of his best bits from Mitchell Liesen’s Easy Living, written by Preston Sturges.

Nancy Carroll improvises in The Night Angel or If Looks Could Kill

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Alison Skipworth socks Nancy Carroll with a tassle as the latter pretends to like it
Alison Skipworth socks Nancy Carroll with a tassel as the latter pretends to like it

Mr. Holmes (Bill Condon, UK, 2015)

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Mr. Holmes is of such paralysing dullness one is rendered too inert to walk out of the cinema. Thus, one ends up appreciating the excellence of Ian McKellen’s very subtle and complex performance; remarking once more on what a fine and underused actress Laura Linney is; noting how Frances de la Tour is now so broad in everything she does that she serves as a destabilising force field to any work she’s in rather than as an actress; and lastly one mourns how Frances Barber seems doomed to always be wasted. Bill Condon directs as if for an important and prestigious BBC show where everything is rendered obvious, underlined by voice-over, all at a slow and portentous pace.

Mr. Holmes is a ‘serious’ film and great thought and care has been taken as to its form and structure. It has a great premise: Holmes is old and getting senile. He retired 35 years previously because of a case and can’t remember it. Watson wrote it as a great success but was it? What made him retire and how will he find out now when he’s often not altogether there?As he tries to find out, we flashback to the past and his relationships with Mycroft and Watson who we see as vaguely as he remembers. There’s also something that happened in Japan that affected him and that he might have dealt with badly. The dramatisation of his cases in the cinema offers another perspective and potential clue. There’s also a relationship with his housekeeper’s son, a young boy who she wants to put to work right away rather than get the education living with Holmes can provide. Overhanging all is an important difference between bees and wasps used both as a clue and as a symbol.

It’s all intelligent, literate, tasteful; yet, aside from the contributions of McKellen and Milo Parker as the young boy, also lacking in spark, drama, motion, life. Visually, it’s disappointing with the quality of the image lacking depth and texture; and with those sharp outlines, clear colours, and thin texturality one associates with digital. A film that seems to diminish even the very Cliffs of Dover.

José Arroyo