I solito Ignoti/ Big Deal on Madonna Street (Mario Monicelli, Italy, 1958)
I love caper films; European (Rififi, Bob le flambeur, Topkapi) and Hollywood (The Ocean’s, The Thomas Crown Affair (both versions). And I love post-war Italian cinema more than any national cinema of that period: Francesco Golisano struggling to find a place in the sun beam to get warm in Miracle in Milan; the exhausted look on Mastrioanni’s face from having to keep Sofia Loren pregnant in order to keep her out of jail in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow; Rocco and His Brothers, which feels as much the story of my family as that of post-war Italy; the fresh faces of dashed hopes in Olmi’s young men in Il Posto and Il fidanzati; Fellini, Antonioni, Rosi, the Taviani Bros…one could go on forever. So combining those elements today I chose Mario Monicelli’s I Soliti Ignoti/Big Deal on Madonna Street with a big name cast (Vittorio Gassman, Mastrioanni, Renato Salvatore, Toto) playing small time crooks. Unlike most caper films, this is about the various bunglings of the robbery: at the end, all the crooks manage to get away with is pasta and chickpeas. It’s got great slapstick moments, great warmth towards its characters, and a va bene, fa niente, a cool resigned shrug at the worst that life offers, that I find particularly endearing. There are many wonderful moments but one I particularly treasure is when Mastrionni, completely in love with his baby, and raising him alone whilst his wife is in jail, is told he should put his baby in the marvellous daycare jail offers and says, ‘no, no, no my baby will only go to jail when he’s grown up…and then only if he wants to’. It’s the first movie I heard the if you don’t do this ‘you’ll sleep with the fishes’ expression. The ending, where Gassman and Carlo Pisacane hide amongst a crowd to escape the police, and it turns into a work queue where the former is rumbled into factory work whilst the other yells his horror at what’s happening, is superb. There’s a very mediocre remake with George Clooney called Welcome to Collingwood.
Hard Boiled (John Woo, Hong Kong, 1992)
I love action movies. Like musicals, they’re spectacular, rhythmic, visually inventive, and something of a lost art. It’s like filmmakers have forgotten how to do a shootout or a fight or a car chase in ways that rev up the senses. For a time, no one filmed action better than John Woo. He was clearly influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville, who made films that were sparer, neater, better. Woo in turn, for better AND worse, influenced Tarantino, Rodriguez and many others. Seeing the Woo-Chow Yun-Fat films in the early nineties was a thrilling revelation: the sheer inventiveness of shot after shot, often each a surprise, the whole ‘number’ thematically coherent, the calm cool presence of Chow Yun Fat himself, the musical structure of the scenes. New, thrilling, and you only have to look at them now to see how Tarantino stole everything from Woo. I also loved how these brilliant action sequences, often designated ‘operatic’ or ‘balletic’, were in turn strung together through the most melodramatic of structures (brotherly loyalties tied by being on different sides of the law in A Better Tomorrow; the blind nightclub singer in The Killer, the hospital setting in the last part of Hard-Boiled etc.) It’s hard to pick a favourite of Woo’s films with Chow Yun-Fat but today I choose Hard-Boiled, if only for the extraordinary sequence in the tea-rooms with the canary and for the equally extraordinary hospital shoot-out scene at the end. These are films that made me think of the visual sublime in films of that period, the way the camera would show violence and brutality, slow it down to make you see the beauty of the bodies and bullets in motion, and then cut from slow motion to normal speed…and splat! Awe and terror at the beauty and horror that is, followed by death, but in Woo’s case also accompanied by great wit. Some of the best action sequences ever filmed.
Most musicals aren’t very good. But I love them. Even the worst have at least one great number; and when the whole film is good, there’s nothing better. The glories of the ‘Astaire and Rogers’ films have already been extolled here. And the best of the Freed Unit (Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Bandwagon) needs no introduction. So today I’m going for ‘not quite top notch Freed-Unit’, which still probably makes it better than anything by anybody else. I’m thinking of films like The Harvey Girls, Show Boat, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Cabin in the Sky.
The reason for choosing Easter Parade (Chuck Walters, MGM, 1948) is simple. It’s the only film to star Astaire and Garland– to me the two giants of the genre. Each made films that are arguably better (much of the RKO series for Astaire; Wizard, Meet Me, and Star is Born for Garland). Irving Berlin raided his back catalogue and wrote new music for it: the score is a treasure box of standards, most sung by Garland and Astaire, of whom there’s no one better at singing the classic American songbook ,and at its very inception: this is the film that introduced ‘It Only Happens When I Dance With You’. Easter Parade was MGM’s biggest hit of the year one of the greatest successes of both of their careers. The ever-so alive Anne Miller helps anyone shake the blues away. Peter Lawford is the rich, charming but passive and not-fully-there fellar with an umbrellar. This is the film where Judy and Fred do the famous tramp number, ‘A Couple of Swells’.
Judy was supposed to star with Kelly but he broke his leg and aren’t we glad he did? Breaking a leg can indeed bring luck. I used to watch this annually with my sister; and the only thing that’s changed about my feelings for it is that, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate Garland’s performance more. She’s a truly great and truly inventive comic actress with crack timing. Just look at her parody of Ginger Rogers, feathers moulting off her dress in ‘Top Hat’ (see above). The DVD of Easter Parade has a wonderful series of out-takes on ‘Mr. Monotony’ which demonstrate so well how a film is pieced together of various takes. There are moments where she’s listening on the playback and then turns on the performance on a beat of the music — subtly projecting, fully present, eager to please and express — that are just astonishing to see. And you get to see how she does it the same but with slight subtle variations in take after take. Comparing the out-takes to the final number (excised from the print on its initial release) one realises that it’s almost always the first take that’s chosen. It’s truly amazing.
Day Five: Maria Candelaria (Emilio Fernández, Mexico, 1944)
I have a particular love for melodramas that actually make you cry, and sometimes also gasp at the impossible beauty and sadness of it all, in whatever style: Sirk (Imitation of Life), Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love), King Vidor (Stella Dallas), Lean (Brief Encounter), Maria Luisa Bemberg (Camila). Today I’m in the mood for those directed by Emilio Fernández.. His films often focused on the marginalised in society, fishermen, peasant farmers, prostitutes, gangsters, usually cast from the great beauties of the day (Maria Felix, Dolores Del Rio, Pedro Armendariz) . The setting was usually rural, (Flor Silvestre, La Perla, Maria Candelaria) sometimes historical and revolutionary (Río Escondido, Salon Mexico, Enamorada, Las abandonadas) . The great Gabriel Figueroa filmed Mexico, it’s landscapes and its people with great skill and feeling so as to show beauty, complexity, depth, so that it ennobled those people and that place. The endings were often tragic. Dolores Tierney has already chosen Enamorada so today I chose Maria Candelaria. Particularly because of that moment where Dolores Del Rio as Maria Candelaria goes to sell her flowers, the flowers she needs to make a living, to feed her pig, and thus to marry. And the whole village, who’s been whispering that she’s the daughter of a prostitute, turns out in their canoes to stop her from doing so, thus denying her honest work and almost certainly condemning her to her mother’s life. It’s an unsentimental moment –peasants can be nasty, violent, cruel; communities can destroy and cast out – but a beautiful one in terms of the way its filmed and also the sadness, unfairness, and determination that it expresses.
Martin Scorsese’s appreciation of the director and one of his other great films, Enamorada, can be seen here
Day Four: All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, 1999)
Seeing Law of Desire at the World Film Festival in Montreal in ’87 started a life-long love affair with his work. A retrospective at TIFF a year or so later cemented the relationship. I interviewed him just after, in his flat in Madrid, and several times since. I can measure my adult life, where I lived, and the flow of all my important relationship through his films. I cried to this song from Kika for almost a whole year after the break-up of an early long-term relationship which coincided with the film’s release in 1993. On another day I would have chosen another of his films. Today it’s All About My Mother because I saw All About Eve on TV last night. I remember doing a day school at Film House in Edinburgh when the film came out, and watching all these middle-aged, middle-class ladies come in with their House of Fraser bags and thinking ‘shit. How are they going to react to a film with transvestite hookers, nuns dying of AIDS, etc etc.’ Within half an hour the whole audience was as one in tears (and in laughter). It reminded me of Almodóvar’s great ability to get practically any audience to identify with and feel for those whom their society most marginalises and oppresses. It’s a gift he’s not been making much use of recently.
À tout prendre (Claude Jutra, Quebec, 1963):
Claude Jutra’s magnificent ‘A tout prendre’ from 1963. An inter-racial love story and surely one of the first ‘coming out’ films. It’s shot in the new wave style of young cineastes experimenting with cinema in ways that speak their love in almost every frame. I always find this thrilling. It’s got some beautiful songs; it’s about bohemia and art and love in Montreal during the quiet revolution. It’s playful and sad and romantic and all that young people look for in a movie. There’s even a fashion show at Holt Renfrew. It certainly spoke to me when I first saw it and continues to do so. François Truffaut appears. There’s an interesting dossier on it in the current Jump Cut:
I was asked to do this by a friend on facebook, and having done it. It seems silly not to share more widely: So here it goes:
- Tokyo Story (Yasujirô Ozu, Japan, 1953):My first choice, almost always my first choice, and what I measure so much of cinema against is Ozu’s Tokyo Story. I always break up at the end: the kindness, the resignation, the understanding, the wisdom: the mixture of motivations and feelings, so beautifully evoked within a liminal zone where things are not stated but clearly understood; and expressed in a way that makes it feel true and beautiful but also mysterious. Plus I just love looking at Setsuko Hara.