Archive for Ennio Morricone

Whoever Speaks the Truth Must Die

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 16, 2015 by dcairns

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GIORDANO BRUNO (1973) is by Giuliano Montaldo, whose CLOSED CIRCUIT I enjoyed, and wrote about for Sight & Sound (possibly the only article in that organ’s history to be written in the form of a police interrogation). I then ran GRAND SLAM, his 1967 Rio heist flick, which totally lacked the elaborate, hypnotic choreography of cast and camera which entranced me in the TV movie (about a spaghetti western that kills audience members!). Most of the filmmakers effort seemed to have gone on unconvincing special effects to convince us that ailing star Edward G. Robinson was on location.

But GB sees the return of the elaborate camera blocking, and a fantastic set of collaborators in DoP Vittorio Storaro, composer Ennio Morricone, and star Gian Maria Volonte as the lapsed priest persecuted by the Inquisition for preaching “heresy” (such as stating that the earth orbits the sun and that there are other worlds which may be inhabited.

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I get the strong impression that Montaldo and Storaro had seen THE DEVILS and been impressed, though their approach is less hysterical than Ken Russell’s, leaving out the camp and staying pretty sombre even during the hero’s debauches. Just as with Ollie Reed, though, Volonte undergoes a sharp transition from unsympathetic hedonist to Christ-like martyr at the hands of politicians and the church. Storaro even borrows lighting cameraman David Watkin’s trick of using out of focus and over exposed backgrounds where the light actually eats into characters’ profiles, an eye-catching effect indeed, turning people into frayed cut-outs.

All through the story, Volonte in his cell is associated with light (Storaro does love his symbolic effects), blasting in from narrow windows and given a sculptural shape by subtle application of smoke, whereas his papal persecutors inhabit realms of wealth and opulence and formal symmetry. Venice street scenes get a handheld, loose treatment to contract with the elegance of the wealthy.

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Morricone seems capable of far more nuanced work when the film is in Italian, and his score here is, of course, beautiful, but also cunning. Divine music accompanies the pontiff’s crisis on conscience as he ponders whether the man he’s having stretched on the rack may have more in common with the apostles than with common criminals. He seems a sincere, thoughtful and worried man, anxious to hold onto the reins of power but with the intention of using them to do good. But the church is, in fact, a power structure, and self-preservation is its only priority, and this essentially weak man must either ride this juggernaut the way it wants to go or be crushed by it. And so the apparently decent, cautious pope becomes quite easily the film’s biggest villain, and Morricone’s sacred accompaniment is revealed as an elaborate bluff and a black joke.

Volonte is a fascinating choice here as he’s rarely a very sympathetic actor, often cast as heavies by Leone, Petri, Lizzani, and the late Francesco Rosi. His vaguely disagreeable features and unsentimental scripting help stop Bruno becoming a plaster saint, so that by the end, when all vanity has fallen away and he has, in best Howard Beale fashion, “run out of bullshit,” he can attain a kind of secular sainthood by standing up to a vast power which can destroy him without the slightest trouble. An affecting portrait of intellectual heroism, particularly pertinent in the light of recent events (ALL this week’s posts seem pertinent in the light of recent events).

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Oh, and we also get a little role for my favourite floundering detective, Renato Scarpa, the sickly chubster from DON’T LOOK NOW… And a couple of sequences of Charlotte Rampling, including one weird one where she becomes sexually aroused by GB’s philosophy. Is there a perversion, known or unknown to human practice, that Rampling hasn’t yet ably embodied? I’m not sure this one even has a name.

Watching and Waiting: Desert of the Tartars

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2014 by dcairns

A regular contributor to the blogathon, Judy Dean, tackles a true late masterpiece for us this year.

***

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“I have made eight films, and these have a common theme, which is that life has no aim other than to watch itself go by. Force of illusion cannot sustain us, for there’s no idealism strong enough… But we’re not talking about a tragedy, merely a sadness… “ (Valerio Zurlini, 1926 – 1982)

Nothing illustrates this statement more effectively than Zurlini’s last film, Desert of the Tartars, made in 1976.  Adapted from the 1940 novel by Dino Buzzati (published in English under the title The Tartar Steppe), it is set in the late 19th century and tells the story of Giovanni Drogo, an idealistic young army officer setting out for his first posting to an isolated frontier fort.

He explains on arrival that he has been assigned to the fort by mistake and wishes to apply for a transfer but is persuaded, in the interests of his career, to stay for two months.  Caught up in a web of surreal Catch 22–like bureaucracy, and clinging to the vain hope that one day there will be an attack on the fort and his dreams of military action will be realised, Drogo’s two months turn into twenty years.

Buzzati, an Italian journalist, said that “the idea of the novel came out of the monotonous night shift I was working on at Corriere della Sera in those days.  It often occurred to me that that routine would never end and so would eat up my whole life quite pointlessly.  It’s a common enough feeling, I think, for most people.”

Indeed it is.  You may not be a soldier, you may not be young, or male, but if you have ever begun a job with high hopes only to find yourself sometime later trapped by inertia, by familiar routine, aware your life is slipping away but apparently powerless to prevent it, then you will find Drogo’s situation all too familiar.

The novel, described as a surrealist masterpiece and most often compared to Kafka and Orwell, became an international best seller and several major directors, including Visconti, Lean and Antonioni, expressed an interest in adapting it for the screen.  However, the film rights were held by Jacques Perrin, the young French actor who had appeared in two of Zurlini’s early features – Girl with a Suitcase (1961) and Family Portrait (1962) – and when, in the seventies, he got together the financial backing, Perrin turned to the man he regarded as his mentor.  Perrin took the lead role as well as co-producing while Zurlini directed and is also credited with the Italian dialogue.

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To play Drogo’s fellow officers an extraordinary international and multi-lingual cast was assembled. The characters portrayed by Max von Sydow, Fernando Rey, Philippe Noiret, Vittorio Gassman and Jean-Louis Trintignant depict different responses – ennui, stoicism, delusion, fanaticism – to the tedium of a military routine that is punctuated only by false alarms and dashed hopes.  How the casting was achieved is not entirely clear.  Was Zurlini’s reputation among actors riding high at the time?  Perrin’s character has much of the screen time and this illustrious group is given little to work with, but does so supremely well.  Trintignant, for example, playing the garrison doctor, has about four lines of dialogue and Fernando Rey, an ageing Colonel, none at all.  Did some end up on the cutting room floor?  Who knows?  If only we had a director’s cut.

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Two lesser known actors make striking contributions.  Laurent Terzieff, primarily a stage actor, plays Count von Amerling, a sickly Lieutenant, whose treatment at the hands of the sadistic Major Matti results in his death. Terzieff has as few lines as other cast members, but his face alone ought to ensure his place in the annals of cinema.

Major Matti is played by Giuliano Gemma, a former stunt man and better known at the time for sword and sandals epics, but whose performance here was to earn him a Donatello Award.

But it is not the performances, excellent though they are, for which this film is remembered, but its setting, one of the most dramatic – and ultimately tragic – in film history.

Drogo’s nationality is never made explicit, and the uniforms give nothing away.  Some commentators have assumed the fort to be located on the edges of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but that is surely too literal an interpretation.  The film starts conventionally enough with Drogo leaving his small-town home, having bid farewell to his mother and fiancée, and setting out on horseback across green meadows.  He says to his companion, a fellow cadet who has come to see him off, that he doesn’t know what the fort looks like, only that it is distant.  In the next shot he is traversing a featureless, rock-strewn desert of a kind unknown in Europe to the accompaniment of an eerie Morricone score.  Clearly, this will not be the standard military adventure the title sequence leads us to expect.

Zurlini, a passionate art collector and student of art history, is reported to have been inspired, in his search for the right location for the fort, by this painting of Giorgio Chirico entitled La Torre Rosso.

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But elsewhere, the choice is said to have been determined by incentives offered to filmmakers at the time by the pre-revolutionary government of Iran.  As one of Perrin’s co-producers is Bahman Farmanara, who went on the following year to produce Kiarostami’s first feature, this may well be the case.  Whatever lay behind it, the final choice was stunningly effective.  The film was shot in the magnificent citadel of Bam in South-East Iran, close to the Afghan border.  A Silk Road fortress, dating to the 5th century BC, Bam was the largest adobe complex in the world, covering an area of more that 180,000 square metres and surrounded by seven-metre high walls.

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It’s necessary to use the past tense because in 2003 the citadel was destroyed by an earthquake in which many thousands in the city lost their lives.  The film has therefore become a poignant reminder of its former glory.  Bam is classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and the current regime in Iran, with international aid, is undertaking restoration work but its long-term future is far from secured.

The film achieved some commercial and critical success in Europe, especially in Italy where in 1977 it won Donatello awards for Best Film and Best Director (as well as Giuliano Gemma’s aforementioned acting prize), but it was never released in the USA.

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Zurlini committed suicide in 1982 at the age of 56, possibly as a result of financial and alcohol problems.  Here’s what Claudia Cardinale who appeared in Girl with a Suitcase said of him in an NFT interview in 2003.  “He was a wonderful director and a man of great refinement.  His apartment in Rome was full of wonderful paintings.  We became close friends; he gave me one of his paintings after that film.  Then one day in 1981, he invited me to his apartment in Rome.  When I got there the place was bare.  Everything sold.  There were only packing cases.  He ordered in a gourmet meal and we ate it off packing cases.  Then he went to his home in Venice (sic) and killed himself.”  (Other sources give his place of death as Verona.)

Never as well known outside of Italy as he deserved, Zurlini’s reputation went into a decline following his death, but despite something of a revival in the past decade, thanks to DVD releases and retrospectives, there is still a dearth of information about him (at least in English) and you will search in vain for his name in the reference books.  A re-evaluation is long overdue.

My thanks go to Rolland Man of the University of Edinburgh on whose recommendation I first saw this superb film.

Once Upon a Time in Indiana I Wept…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2013 by dcairns

I asked my friend Ted Haycraft if he’d care to write something about ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, since he’s a huge Leone fan. He demurred, modestly. I nudged him with my sharpest elbow. And LO —

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PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE: I was nine years old going on ten when I was exposed to the world of Sergio Leone. There I was packed in a station wagon with my family of five watching the Man With No Name in action from dusk to dawn (the newspapers ads exclaimed “Spend a Night with Clint Eastwood!”) and my world was never the same! The extreme use of the widescreen frame, the strange and cool soundtrack, the filth, dirt and desolation of the landscape and towns (surely this must what the West was really like?!), the laconic hipness of Joe/Manco/Blondie, the deep gravitas of Colonel Mortimer, and so much more…I was so gone! At first my focus was mainly on Clint Eastwood even to the extent that I haunted an art supplies store that stocked a batch of ‘hippy’ clothes where I was hoping to find a poncho and of course once I got older I was going to grow a stubby beard, smoke short little cigars and squint a lot (I would eventually do my 8th Grade Term Paper on him concluding he was going to be a big star – I received an A+ on it!). But as I matured and my critical facilities started to kick into higher gear I became aware that it was the Italian film director with the name of Sergio Leone that was truly the most important creative force behind these films. I was becoming to discover that he was the reason that I loved them so much. I had been reading comic books since before I could actually read and then became a devoted film fan as a child thanks to my father’s love for movies (I was watching films meant for adults at a very early and impressionable age due to him!) but once I laid eyes on Leone’s trilogy of Westerns my adoration for all things cinema really began and needless to say he became my favorite film director forevermore…

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ONCE UPON A TIME IN INDIANA I WEPT…

It had been 12 long years since a new Sergio Leone film had been in the theater. I had seen DUCK, YOU SUCKER at the drive-in in my hometown of Evansville, Indiana during its first run (so it hadn’t been re-titled as A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE yet) way back in 1972 and it felt like an eternity if we were ever going to get to see a new film from him! So here it was the summer of 1984, the month of June to be more exact, and I was filled with excitement as I headed off to a theater on the north side of my town Evansville, Indiana) to see ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE THEATER back-to-back with Walter Hill’s STREETS OF FIRE (1). Of course I was also very apprehensive about seeing OUATIA since I had been following whatever news on its production I could get my hands on at the time (how did we ever exist in those ancient pre-internet days?). I knew it had been tampered with but surely not to an extent that it wasn’t worth seeing? Of course I watched Siskel & Ebert on TV back then religiously and their review of it that aired the previous month was very damning. I recall it actually instilled a sense of dread in me and I began to fret over how I would feel once I got a chance to see the film for myself.

By the mid 80’s my very frequent movie going habit had started to become a solo affair for the most part and with these two films I wasn’t about to delay seeing them, waiting for someone’s schedule to be in sync with mine. So there I was on opening weekend (I seem to recall it was specifically Sunday afternoon) sitting for 3 hours (2) or more anxiously and feverishly devouring the images of two of my favorite directors. Afterwards as I sat in the theater in my solitude since nobody had sat through the end credits (which are simply heresy to me!) quietly contemplating what I had just viewed…and I silently wept.

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Okay, okay…maybe I’m exaggerating a wee bit about weeping in the theater but that’s the way I love to tell and retell this story since that sad, sad day. Siskel & Ebert and other critics were correct that this American release of OUATIA was a travesty. Sure there was enough individual scenes of cinematic beauty and resonance along with the Ennio Morricone score – so unbelievable gorgeous it was almost unbearable to listen to (and a major crime that it didn’t receive an Oscar (3)) – that I was able to get through the film. Now even though that’s how I felt about it, that I just barely ‘got through it’ and even with it being a very frustrating and sad experience, it still was a Leone film (of sorts) up there on a big screen. As I leerily watched the film unspool before my eyes one thing that struck me was where was Louise Fletcher? Earlier in the year I had seen a teaser trailer for the film that consisted of stills of the cast which included Fletcher. Factoring that in with what I already knew about the editing of this version before it was release I knew I was being exposed to a mangled mess. Unfortunately there was no way I could hop on a plane to zoom over to Europe to see the 229 minutes version (4) with all the flash-forwards and backs in place and the version that the critics were much happier with so I had to settle for this for the time being.

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I also had a perceptive feeling that it wouldn’t linger too long locally so I was determined to at least see it again since it might be another 12 years before the next Leone epic. So for my second go round I grabbed my best friend and we headed over to the theater on a Monday evening to see it. I was prepared to even sit through this frustrating weak shadow of a masterpiece for a second time and prepped my friend what he was about to witness. Why we weren’t aware of this ahead of time I can’t recall but when we got to the theater we discovered that there had only been one evening showing and we had missed the start time. Now I hope one can see the irony in this? One of the main reasons that OUATIA was chopped down so the theater owners in America could have more showings of it! Well, apparently at 144 minutes this was still too long for the manager of this theater to have two evening showings. Since I wasn’t about to join a film already progress (a cardinal sin for me!) my best friend and I settled for a showing of STREETS OF FIRE. (5) I never again got to see OUATIA up on the big screen – it was gone within a week – and my work schedule at the time prevented me getting another showing in before it left. Such a bittersweet and maddening experience which turned into devastation five years later after the news came to me of Sergio’s way-too-soon passing.

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POSTSCRIPT: I wasn’t able to see the eventual theatrical release of the 229 minutes in the USA but I certainly watched it right away as soon it was released on VHS. Of course I was very relieved to see this version that was much closer to what Leone had envisioned. At that time since I was so exhilarated to finally being seeing it that I didn’t seem to consciously key into the fact how melancholy the film is and how most all of the main characters can be very unsympathetic depending on how you approach the film (they were even more so it seemed when the story played out in chronological order!). It’s only now over the recent years I see how for some this can possibly be a tough film to watch. The film however seems to always rank fairly frequently on all sorts of lists (Best of the ‘80’s, Best Gangster Films, etc.). Recently in response to one of these lists I was sharing via an e-mail a professional writer friend of mine and a huge Leone fan admitted that OUATIA can be a difficult watch. In preparing for this essay I began to watch the opening moments of the film and weirdly enough I was a little startled on the how brutally violent the scenes are that it opens up with (I guess I didn’t realize that it’s been quite a while since I’ve watched it!?!). And of course there’s been a lot of negative critical attention heaped upon the two rape scenes within the film. Ruminating on these elements as I was writing this article I have concluded these were part and parcel of Leone’s intention with the film – he wasn’t about to avoid the brutality of this world and its characters even though his undeniable film-making artistry certainly sugarcoats it to a certain extent. It seems to me (if this makes any sense at all and if it doesn’t please forgive me) that the violence in The Man With No Name Trilogy was mostly used for comedic effect and the violence in the first two films in the Once Upon Time Trilogy (6) could possibly be referred to as romantic and distant due to the era they take place in. With OUATIA being set in our ‘modern’ age maybe the violence hits to close to home for us? We can only wonder how Leone would have staged the horrors of WWII with his next planned film centered on the siege of Leningrad.

Ted Haycraft

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(1) I had recently become a diehard Walter Hill fan mainly due to THE LONG RIDERS and SOUTHERN COMFORT. So now after his huge box office hit 48 HRS., here comes a total hardcore action film mixed with iconic heroes and a very hot-at-the-time music video look and feel – how could it fail?!?? Ironically since I had my expectations set so low for OUATIA I had them set way to high for STREETS OF FIRE and I was frustratingly disappointed with it!!!

(2) OUATIA was 144 minutes in length, STREETS OF FIRE at 93 minutes.

(3) Apparently some needed paperwork wasn’t properly filed for the soundtrack to be considered for an Academy Award nomination!?!! (I used the main theme for a video I put together for my sister’s wedding and when I showed it to a friend to see how it was working he said why such sad music?)

(4)  Little did I now at the time even in the 229 minutes version of the film Louise Fletcher’s character still didn’t show up!!! It’s only now in the recent Film Foundation restoration of the film will we get to see her scenes.

(5) With my expectations out of the way, my second viewing of STREETS OF FIRE went down much easier and actually over the years I come to like it quite a bit with some reservations. Unfortunately though it never became the ultimate Walter Hill action epic masterpiece that I thought for sure it was going to be back in 1984.

(6) I’ve always been a little dubious whether Leone had always originally intended for ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, DUCK, YOU SUCKER and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA to make up a second trilogy. He had originally planned not to be the director of DUCK, YOU SUCKER (Peter Bogdanovich…really?) and since maybe since OUATITW had done so well in France that’s why it was specifically titled as ONCE UPON A TIME THE REVOLUTION for its Gallic release. Plus I thought it was weird how a trilogy of America takes a sidestep into Mexico with its second part. If I recall correctly it was only during or after the release of OUATIA that Leone began to tout how this was officially a second trilogy.

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