Archive for February 21, 2020

Guerilla Filmmaking

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , on February 21, 2020 by dcairns

In Alexander Mackendrick’s biography Lethal Innocence by Philip Kemp, we learn that as quite a young man he was put in charge of the Italian film industry in the immediate aftermath of the Allied liberation. He had an office with a telephone and a chair. If he wanted to sit down he had to put the phone on the floor. But he didn’t need much else because his job was to say “no” to any film proposals brought to him. His real purpose was to stop the Italians making films.

When this got boring, he looked around for a film he could say “yes” to without getting in trouble. A film of perfect anti-fascist credentials. He chose ROME, OPEN CITY. Perhaps he didn’t know much about director Roberto Rossellini’s past. But the film itself was strongly ant-Nazi, and after being taken to meet Anna Magnani in a nightclub, Mackendrick said “yes.”

It was only later that he learned that much of the film had already been shot, with bootleg film stock. Such was Rossellini’s eagerness to tell his story, and, I suspect, to make himself employable again, he had staked everything on a film that might never have been shown.

I liked this visual gag: the priest is made uncomfortable by the nude statue so he turns it away.

But now the conjunction of the two statues seems indecent.

He turns the second one away. Prudishness or discomfort about nude statues is always a bit funny.

RoRo has a lot of fun with this priest, playing some of his broadest comedy (frying pan wallops!) right next to the starkest tragedy. But, though some of the film’s more violent or saucy content might not have won it approval from the Church, it’s a very pro-Catholic movie. Though in fact the Vatican wasn’t altogether upstanding during WWII: ask Costa-Gavras.

My favourite joke, though, if it is a joke, is an exchange of dialogue in front of a bakery that’s being looted. A cop is asked if he’s going to do anything. “Unfortunately, I’m in uniform,” he replies — meaning that he can’t take part in the looting himself. Better still, he hasn’t misconstrued the question: from the non-response of the chap asking, it seems he expected him to be right in there, pilfering buns with the best of them.

Well is it any wonder?

Having some kind of supervisory role over Rossellini’s work may have inspired Mackendrick’s remark that the danger of combining professional and non-professional actors is that the amateur immediately shows up the artificiality of the pro. But the only obvious phony in ROME is poor Harry Feist as the limp-wristed Nazi, Major Bergmann. It’s not homophobic to show a gay Nazi. It’s a bit homophobic if he’s the only gay character (we don’t know about the priest, I guess…) It’s totally homophobic if he’s played in as stereotyped way as this. An incredibly naff choice by an otherwise skilled filmmaker who does make a few mistakes in this early work (there’s some hamfisted scoring, too).

But it gets worse: there IS another gay character, a female Nazi spy. She’s so obviuously a baddie, with her space vampire widow’s peak, that it’s incredible she’s not immediately rumbled. It seems strange that Rossellini can’t conceive of the enemy in other than camp melodramatic terms, since he had recently been on their side, more or less. Maybe that’s why he felt the need to “other” them so strongly.

It’s still a very strong film: for instance, the offscreen screams of the tortured are incredibly upsetting. So that what we see may be theatrical and unconvincing at times, but what we hear, and therefore imagine, is terrifying.

My view of realism in cinema is that’s a flavour: you always need at least a pinch of it, maybe a lot more than a pinch, but you can never have complete realism. So that I don’t mind the aspects of ROC that are romantic — the noble heroes who don’t break under torture (unlikely); the music, when it’s not occasionally clunky or overdone; the admiration for children, who are wholly good and heroic. Romanticism is also a necessary flavour.