Archive for David Ehrenstein

Fellini Vs. Casanova

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 6, 2020 by dcairns

Thrilled to publish David Ehrenstein’s appreciation of FELLINI CASANOVA. I should note that I don’t yet have the Blu-ray, so my frame-grabs from the “Hollywood Classics” DVD are a touch hideous.

FELLINI CASANOVA

By David Ehrenstein

Across the course of his peerless career Federico Fellini has produced films both sweet and sour. The “Felliniesque” is cinema at its most bizarre and most moving — often simultaneously as in his primary masterpieces 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita. But sometimes they’re strikingly separate entities. Consider Fellini Casanova — just released as a beautifully produced Kino Lorber blu-ray, replete with a highly informative commentary track by critic Nick Pinkerton.

        Coming right on the heels of Amarcord — arguably the warmest and most convivial of all his works, this meditation on  the life and character of a man whose very name is synoymous with seduction is as cold as the ice featured in its finale. There the anti-hero is seen waltzing on ice skates on a frozen lake with the love of his life — not a woman but a meticulously crafted automaton. Beneath the smooth enamel mask of a face is an actual actress, Leda Lojodice, who goes through her paces so perfectly it’s barely possible to regard her as “real.” This matches Casanova himself as embodied by Donald Sutherland in a performance which, while expert, is a world away from the romantic anti-heroes so memorably embodied by Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini’s most famous films. Even Terence Stamp in the maestro’s other English-language work Toby Dammit (1968) is more simpatico.

        Outfitted with a prosthetic nose and chin Sutherland is the image of Giacomo Casanova. And Fellini Casanova is nothing but image, rather than individual. The project came to him as a “film de commande” of sorts in the Dino Di Laurentiis, the original producer (he left the project before pre-production got underway and was replaced by Alberto Grimaldi) thought a Fellini film about Casanova would fit perfectly into the then-current trend of sexually semi-explicit “art films” made by such greats as Nagisa Oshima and Pier Paolo Pasolini. But while Fellini’ films have been filled with beautiful women for Marcello to make love to (Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimee, Barbara Steele and Nico to name just a few) he wasn’t playing the lead here. Sutherland operates from an emotional remove as Casanova — and so does Fellini.

        As Pinkerton explicats as he got into the project Fellini discovered that the “great lover” was someone he didn’t really like. While the youthful anti-heroes of Fellini Satyricon (1970) romped with all and sundry with great elan, Sutherland’s Casanova copulates as if he were drilling into concrete to lay a new pipe for Con Edison. While Margaret Clementi, Tina Aumont and Olympia Carlisi are more than lovely Fellini seems as  removed from them as his anti-hero. Perhaps this proceeds from the problems the film faced when a great number of reels were stolen from the lab during production and had to be reshot. The thieves were fascist thugs looking for Pasolini’s Salo, then in production as well. They thought it was going to expose their current activities. Instead it was a flashback to the Mussolini period. Fellini portrayed that time as curiously convivial in Amarcord. Perhaps Fellini Casanova would have had a lighter tone had this theft not taken place, necessitating his cancelling of a sequence that would have featured Barbara Steele. But what we have is far from cinematically unsatisfying. It’s a  full frontal attack on machismo and male vanity in every form. Fellini may not be able to feel for Casanova as a man but he does feel for the spectators, male and female, who long for this mythical figure of romance as a kind of “role model” however imperfect.

After this Fellini’s City of Women reunites him with Mastroianni and takes up the subject of feminism — a movement Fellini freely admits he cannot comprehend. He loved women and celebrated them throughout his career, but his love isn’t always reciprocal. And in this Fellini may have been closer to Casanova than he suspected. The films that follow, And the Ship Sails On, Ginger and Fred and Intervista are exercises in nostalgia and his last the sadly neglected The Voice of the Moon an exploration of the fantasy life of a”village idiot’ with a perfectly cst Roberto Benigni. It’s quite warm. But those of us who love Fellini may well prefer Casanova’s frozen cold “Replicant” pas de deux.

Needling

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2018 by dcairns

Probably good to not read anything about Paul Thomas Anderson’s PHANTOM THREAD before seeing it.

After seeing it, read David Ehrenstein’s take-down. It’s a necessary argument to have. I can’t gainsay it. Nevertheless, with reservations, I enjoyed the film itself.

I think, if this is “straightwashing,” it’s a chickenshit thing to do. I think there’s a possible reading of the film where Daniel Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock is NOT straight. I don’t really see the point of his “confirmed bachelor” line if he’s hetero. And given what his marriage turns out to involve, he’s definitely not vanilla. But Mr. Ehrenstein is the expert here, and if this doesn’t seem a possible reading to him, I suspect he’s right. I think his instinct, that the director and star don’t have the required insight into the minds of gay men obsessed with women. They can only do the latter part.

Let’s face it, the big secret about the Woodcock’s marital life revolves around a sort of fetish/ritual that I do not believe has ever been practiced by any couple, ever. And while one hesitates to rule any kink or twist of human behaviour beyond the bounds of possibility, this one seems like the auto smash fetish in the Cronenberg/Ballard CRASH — an imaginary syndrome that might one day come into being but isn’t here yet. Which is probably a good thing.

So, given that the movie raises the spectre of homosexuality and then chastely sweeps it under the carpet, and given that it devotes its considerable runtime to meticulously detailing the workings of a relationship ultimately revealed to be based on something ridiculous, why did I enjoy it? It’s that detailing. And the performances. And the loving recreation of time and place. And Jonny Greenwood’s music. And the acting, of course.

Is this a film about Hitchcock, in some way? A thin and angry Hitchcock? The name “Woodcock,” coupled with the name “Alma,” seem to suggest it. But then you’d expect a torturous makeover to be part of Reynolds’ relationship with Alma, which we don’t really get. But we do get a brace of shots brazenly quoting PSYCHO as Reynolds spyholes his own fashion show. So that seems like a nod. Alma really is Alma, not Tippi — she’s the woman who enables her husband’s life and art.

The third main character’s name, Cyril (Lesley Manville, all tight smiles but not entirely without warmth), is peculiar because it’s only ever a man’s name. This unmarried sister may well be coded gay. And Anderson may have thought of using the male-sounding but ambisexual name “Cecil,” but that wouldn’t do as that was Daniel Day-Lewis’ actual dad’s name (the poet laureate and author of The Smiler with a Knife).

I liked this film, really, because of scenes like the first post-coital (?) breakfast. I was crying with laughter. All the arguments are hilarious, especially the way Vicki Krieps resorts to just making contemptuous NOISES. PFF!

I first saw VK in the film PTA saw her in — THE CHAMBERMAID LYNN. It was submitted to Edinburgh International Film Festival, where I work as a submissions editor (I should be viewing screeners RIGHT NOW). In it, she plays a chambermaid who takes to hiding in guests’ rooms and watching what they get up to in “private.” She has one or two tippy-toe scenes in PT which reminded me strongly of this. I gave the odd film an A partly because of her astonishingly muted and natural performance. An A means the film gets passed up the food chain to somebody higher up… my memory was that it then got turned down, but I’m wrong — we screened it. I may have contributed something to the magnificent Fraulein Krieps’ career!

One of the things Krieps does, in her very first scene, is an apparently real, real-time facial blush. And apparently they kept her isolated from D-Day Lewis until it was time for this scene, so this was her actual first meeting with him. I can only think of two comparisons — (1) Lenny Montana, playing Luca Brassi, turns purple when he’s strangled in THE GODFATHER. They were thinking of getting Dick Smith to invent some kind of makeup trick for this, but the actor was a former wrestler with excellent breath control so he just DID IT. And (2) I’m told that Hume Cronyn could blush on command. “How did you do that?” “I just made myself blush.” A response that’s automatic in every other human being ever, was something that fine thespian could turn on and off at will.

Krieps doesn’t wear makeup most of the time in this film, and seems to flush  with ease. She’s a natural reddener.

As for D-Day himself, he’s excellent — more stylised than Krieps (who is practically playing Alma as a 21st-century woman gone astray in the 50s) but hitting wonderful and surprising notes all the time. Convincing in the moment even if his character adds up tp implausible contradictions and evasions. I guess he has to retire now before his hands get any hairier. Those are some very hairy hands.

The film may cop out of a truthful and frank portrayal of the real men (all gay) who were Britain’s top dressmakers, but it plays fair with its title: we get an actual phantom. It’s Reynolds’ dear old mum, standing with implacable solidity against a wall, visible to nobody but him. This is despite PTA and DDL being both father-obsessives — PTA named his company, Ghoulardi, after his horror-host pop, while DDL fled a West End production after seeing an apparition of his late father, the poet. That was HAMLET. This might be called OMELETTE. I wonder if Lewis advised on the correct appearance of spectral parents. She’s very compelling.

Two Hundred Million Maniacs!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2015 by dcairns

The Blogathon is GO —

David Ehrenstein visits the land of THE DEAD here. The last John Huston.

I try to consider the merits of BUDDY BUDDY in five-line verse at Limerwrecks. The last Billy Wilder.

But here on Shadowplay, the very-much still active Matthew Wilder considers the not-quite-last effort of Herschell Gordon Lewis and finds it TIMELY —

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TWO HUNDRED MILLION MANIACS! by Matthew Wilder

Why, just this morning Donald Trump and Marco Rubio were trying to out-harsh each other in coming up with “Muslim registry” scenarios—the crescent moon perhaps subbing for the yellow Star of David. At the same moment, there was some question as to who it was that Ben Carson was calling “rabid dogs”—bad apples among the Syrian refugees (not sure who that might be) or just Muslims generally? In any case, the top three Republican options as of Nov. 20, 2015, were Trump, Carson, and Carly Fiorina—the unsuccessful CEO of Hewlett Packard who has successfully marketed herself as a mixture of Sheryl Sandberg and old-time religion. (Her dominant campaign meme is a description of a late-term abortion that appears never to have existed.) It’s clear that showmanship trumps substance—or is it? Are voters aware of what they want, and wish to “act out” more than act? (That’s what all the Occupy protesters, save maybe a few in New York, did.) Are Americans being sold a bill of goods, or are they, as per this interactive economy, writing their bill of goods themselves?

The most trenchant movie analysis of the politics of 2015 comes from 1972. And no, it’s not Michael Ritchie’s THE CANDIDATE, an inquiry into the bake-off nature of modern American politics that still entertains; nor is it TOUT VA BIEN, Jean-Luc Godard’s and J.P. Gorin’s whirlwind farce about strikers and bosses and the delirium in between. Instead, it’s a little, almost lost movie called THE YEAR OF THE YAHOO! by one Herschell Gordon Lewis. Now—is this “late style,” you ask? Well, it literally is: HGL abandoned the cinema full time after THE YEAR OF THE YAHOO!, and went, oh so tellingly, into the world of marketing. (People in the world of marketing tell me that Herschell Gordon Lewis is a known name—and not for his splatter movies.) What is appealing about THE YEAR OF THE YAHOO! is that it deconstructs the smoke-and-mirrors aspect of the contemporary marketing of candidates in strangely hyperreal, real-time terms: there are moments as literal-minded as the key scenes of PRIMARY or THE WAR ROOM or other classic campaign docs. One expects cartoonish buffoonery from Herschell Gordon Lewis, but instead he paints a queasily familiar world.

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A giant riff on the Elia Kazan/Budd Schulberg A FACE IN THE CROWD, YAHOO is less histrionic, less preachment-filled and more convincing. Here, a group of party consultants—the 1972 ancestors of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove—tell the powers that be that their candidate (who remains off camera, but is described as a Mitt Romney-like dullard) just ain’t gonna cut it. The incumbent is a liberal as gray and anemic as Gore Vidal in BOB ROBERTS, maybe a little more so: as played by Robert Swain, this Senator Burwell looks like a cross between Robert Lowell and the mad-doctor character from REPO MAN. Anticipating the Reagan revolution to come, the party analysts see that Burwell can be beat. The incumbent Governor has a long list of hacks to put up against Burwell, but the analysts aren’t having it—they want a pop star.

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One of the glories of THE YEAR OF THE YAHOO! is that it never moves in the direction you expect. When the string-pullers decide they want a country singer, we expect Hank Jackson (Claude King) to be a grinning, manipulative ape like Andy Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes in FACE IN THE CROWD. Instead, our first glimpse of him at work shows him wowing a crowd with a Goth-dark slice of psychedelic country that rhymes “no hope” with “rope”: Jackson and his band are like the Joy Division of Nashville. Soon enough, in a brilliant touch of Lewis-ian irony, Hank’s gloom song has been repurposed as a campaign song…for a commercial where the word HOPE hangs in space like a mothership filled with Obama t shirts.

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Shot, like all Lewis’ movies up to this point, in the rancid, postcard color of Educational Films, YAHOO! never quite reaches the level of frenzy of, say, HGL’s equally exclamation-pointed TWO THOUSAND MANIACS! But what fascinates about it is how Lewis’ fascination with the mechanics of marketing drives him to render the making-of-a-fascist scenes in eerie, unfurling microdetail. In one dazzlingly virtuosic scene, the main handler, Hollywood-born Sid Angelo (played by terrifying HGL veteran Ray Sager) shows his chops: Hank Jackson plays before an adoring throng who, when he announces he is running for the Senate, shriek and crash the stage in a giant mob. Sid calls “Cut!”—jarring us out of what seemed like a plausible case of spontaneous hysteria—and then directs the mob in how to be spontaneous and hysterical, drumming beat after beat into their thick skulls like a factory foreman. The movie is a relentless deconstruction of every kind of emotion-stirring political image, yet its invention never flags—Lewis always has some fresh weirdness in the wings.

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THE YEAR OF THE YAHOO! marks the point where governance ended and spectacle began. It was shot at the moment when Richard Nixon, still smarting from the first Watergate revelations, won a staggering landslide victory over George McGovern: Nixon’s Silent Majority theatrics overwhelmed McGovern’s almost unimaginably indie campaign slogan—“Come Home, America.” (If you’re gonna go down, go down like a saint, seemed to be McGovern’s motto.) YAHOO anticipates our present moment, where candidates have moved from being objects of fantasy projection, like Ronald Reagan, to the kind of magnetizing sheer trainwrecks seen on reality TV—one doesn’t want to be them, one wants to watch them writhe and squirm. This is a new phase of devolution: Voters want not to identify with a candidate and play make-believe, but rather want to sit and passively watch a nutjob’s antics, the more grotesque the better. In an age of the real-time Internet, all politics is as remote and creepily giggle-inducing as webcam porn. It’s not really meant to stir a fiery mob, it’s designed to be passively consumed by a supine spectator on a laptop.

YAHOO is the origin story of the depoliticization of politics—and somehow it’s eerily perfect that it was one of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ drive-in movies and not a sober, inside-baseball work of mature satire like Ritchie’s THE CANDIDATE. It also seems right that this augury of a post-ideological future was essentially HGL’s kissoff to the directing life. (He has been roused out of retirement a couple times in recent years to direct features that pay homage to his sixties splatter self.) It ends on a hopeful note—with a character who could’ve popped out of Ford’s THE LAST HURRAH as an ironic victor—but Herschell isn’t fooling anybody: tomorrow belongs to him.

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