Film Directors with their Shirts Off, Again

Number five (5) in an occasional series. Lina Wertmuller with everything off.

Photo by Guido Harari.

Those aren’t swimming goggles, those are her specs. They enable her to see things in 3D.  Say what you like about the Anita Loos big plastic glasses thing, it’s definitely a look. I like it when filmmakers dress the part, like Sternberg. I guess it’s even better when they can dress the part even when undressed.

I haven’t really enjoyed any Lina Wertmuller films, I’m afraid. Maybe I will, one day. SEVEN BEAUTIES makes an interesting case study though — it kind of proves Claude Lanzmann’s point about illustrating the holocaust by reenactment. I mean, the film has many many problematic qualities, but the big reveal of Auschwitz, a spectacular set, with sweeping Felliniesque camera movements, and Wagner playing, is such a bravura show-off moment that it rapidly crosses over into the distasteful, and you feel it’s grotesque for any filmmaker to exploit this stuff as an opportunity to display their filmmaking chops. Which opens a big old can of worms — what IS the appropriate artistic response to the holocaust? If this is obscene, which war films are OK? Very few, seems to be the answer.

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22 Responses to “Film Directors with their Shirts Off, Again”

  1. Digging out stuff for a post on Satan’s Grotto (I love my day job at the London Dungeons) I came across a particularly seasonal director-with-their-shirt-off, Benjamin Christensen. Just a thought. (Useful also should you be planning a “Directors with their tongue out” strand.)

  2. She looks like a centaur.

  3. She is a centaur! Europe’s foremost hoofed filmmaker.

    Would love to see that Christensen (just got a copy of Seven Footprints to Satan, albeit with Italian intertitles). Tongue out, eh? Does this mean he plays Satan in Haxan or something?

  4. “He thought Lina Wertmuller was a great film director” should be engraved on John Simon’s tomb.

  5. Hooves? I believe it’s ball-and-claw. Although getting around with them can’t be easy.

  6. It’s a bit like roller-blading, while in a bathtub. There’s a lot of problems being a centaur that ordinary people don’t know anything about.

    I haven’t seen Wertmuller’s Swept Away, but I have seen the Guy Ritchie version. Somehow I imagine the original is just as ridiculous/offensive, only Ritchie had the masterful idea of putting Madonna in it, which sends it into delirium overdrive. Don’t watch it alone!

  7. The thing about Auschwitz being shown with sweeping camera movements being distasteful was famously propounded by Rivette and later picked up by Serge Daney. The film Rivette referred to was Gillo Pontecorvo’s ”Kapo” where an inmate tries to escape the camp but ends up dying on the barb wire and the camera tracks-in with would-be Ophulsian elegance to it. Rivette when he saw that said, “this film-maker is worthy of the highest contempt.” Since then, “the tracking shot of Kapo” has become such a legendary point in film criticism that it’s actually become the sole interest in the film.

    I agree with Rivette, Daney and Lanzmann, save for the latter’s insistence on the Adornoian stand-by of “no poetry after Auschwitz” extended to insisting that it can’t be represented visually. ‘Course that doesn’t mean that Pontecorvo is evil or Satan as ”Battle of Algiers” or ”Burn” proves otherwise. Though the fact that ”The Battle of Algiers” went from becoming a radical agitprop film for Black Panthers to being studied by US troops prior to operating in Iraq raises the question of how effecitve his kind of cinema is.

  8. It suggests that it’s a VERY effective kind of cinema, but open to misuse. Interesting that the US seems to have studied the film from the POV of the French occupying forces — who lost.

    Richard Stanley, having hung out with and documented the Mujahaddin, was invited to speak to Bush etc and show his work and advise, in a “know your enemy” capacity. He says he briefly considered taking the job so he could carry out a strategic assassination, but thought better of it.

    Yes, Lanzmann’s rule is too simple — the thing about art is that it’s difficult, and tough choices have to be made. On one side there’s crushing good taste and boredom, on the other — the tracking shot in Kapo.

  9. To me it kind of suggests why I have always been in two minds regarding ”The Battle of Algiers” obviously in that time period for a major European Pro-FLN film to come out is commendable but at the same time Andrew Sarris hit the nail on the head. When attending a screening with cinephiles he was astonished that many people cheered when the bombs blew up in that Milk Bar despite the film showing all the dead bodies. After the screening he asked his audience if they would have cheered if instead of unknown anonymous civilians played by non-professionals were instead played by the likes of Cary Grant, James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and other popular movie stars. Not that Sarris was anti-FLN but he was certainly against that kind of shameless complacency to a serious political film.

    As for Richard Stanley, did he turn Bush down or did he accept it? There he had a choice whereas Pontecorvo can’t really command his audience to how to approach the film. Eventually Bush would get the information but at least it won’t be through you. In any case, political films may ultimately go only so far but the important thing is to deal with it and still make films about it, the only thing is that you can’t ever be complacent about it.

  10. Stanley turned down the offer — and he didn’t seriously consider taking it, I think. It was a bit like Hunter S Thompson finding himself standing next to Nixon and a barrel of fuel, while smoking — a tempting thought, but most of us aren’t that suicidal/noble.

    It seems to me that Battle of Algiers DOES command that the audience approach it in a thoughtful way and consider everything they’re seeing — to fail to do so is to be prey to knee-jerk reactions, of one side or the other, and to miss the whole film. But people are very good at that.

  11. There’s a not-very-good script by Terence McNally called “It’s Only A Play,” the sort of comedy that exists seemingly for the sake of dropping famous names in its dialogue, which included a pertinent remark that sticks with me.

    Says one character sarcastically: “John Simon and Lina Wertmuller — now that’s a FUN couple!”

    Back in the day, I remember liking Wertmuller’s “Love and Anarchy.” How I’d feel about it now is … a good question/

  12. I think she is, perhaps, someone one might enthuse about in youth, and then be a bit embarassed about later? But who knows. There’s certainly SOME kind of talent there.

    Speaking of McNally, I wonder what The Ritz looks like now.

  13. The Ritz was revived on Broadway last season to fairly good reviews. Ryan Idol had a featured part(s).

    Lina Wertmuller is no Vera Chytilova.

  14. I’m a huge, huge fan of Seven Beauties. It was the first Wertmuller film I ever saw– sometime in the very early 80s at a rep house.

    The second was Swept Away, which I found to be one of the most disgusting and offensive pictures I’ve ever seen. Same time frame, same rep house, opposite result.

    There hasn’t been a third one. And somehow I missed the Ritchie remake.

  15. The Ritchie remake is equally offensive in principle, but somehow, with it being Madonna and all, you find you don’t object too much.

    Richard Lester’s movie of The Ritz is a bit of a misfire, I think, and it suffers from being shot in England, which isn’t too convincing. But it has a few great things, and at least serves to preserve Rita Moreno’s performance.

  16. And Treat Williams is adorable in it.

  17. Treat IS sweet.

    “Spirited playing” as they say, from F Murray Abrahams and Jack Weston, and it’s amusing to see Peter Butterworth from the Carry Ons turn up in cowboy chaps — his presence is so wrong it goes past so-wrong-it’s-right and back out into wrong again.

  18. Speaking of Wertmuller and offense … I wonder whatever happened to “In una notte di chiaro di luna,” the 1989 HIV picture that Wertmuller filmed — the one with Rutger Hauer and Natassja Kinski and Peter O’Toole and Faye Dunaway and Dominique Sanda and Lorraine Bracco.

    The only review that I’ve been able to find, so far, is in German.

    Can it have been that horrible? The thought of it is certainly enough to provoke curiosity.

  19. It COULD be that horrible… but so many films vanish into limbo, who knows if we’ll get a chance to find out? Pretty impressive cast though.

  20. I think the stripped down version of the camps works quite well, such as in Bent where the film is basically a monologue while the characters fruitlessly shift stones from one pile to another.

    I suppose the further question that arises from your question is that if filmic depictions of the Holocaust with all the emotional contrivances and simplistic moral messages that attend such depictions are rather questionable, shouldn’t other less emotively charged massacres be treated with the same respect?

  21. Yes, and then things get really complicated.

    What I object to less than the tear-jerking, which can certainly be bad enough, but using the situation to show off: to me, Wertmuller’s film exults in the holocaust as a pretext for visual flair. I love visual flair, but there’s something obscene about doing a fan-dance in a war cemetery.

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