Saturday, June 16, 2018

5 Essential Italian and Italian-American Documentaries

For the 250th (!!!) Unbearable Bookishness of Blogging post, I recommend five fantastic Italian and Italian-American documentaries, uniting two of my great passions in my life, my ethnic heritage and a film genre that rarely gets the support it deserves.

Frank Serpico (2017)
Italian-Americans are dogged by the stereotype of the mafioso, but few in our community offer as resounding a refutation of that stereotype as Frank Serpico, the cop who exposed corruption in the NYPD and became a cultural icon even before the hit 1973 film about his life starring Al Pacino. Directed by Antonino D'Ambrosio, this film does a superb job of narrating Serpico's undercover work, his fight against corruption, and the shooting that nearly killed him, but it's the story of the aftermath that makes this film so compelling. Was the shooting an accident or was it a frame-up? Was the delay in getting help to a wounded cop the result of a mistake or a closing-up of the ranks? Without sugarcoating Serpico's rather prickly personality, the masterful editing by Karim Lopez makes a cogent case for his ongoing sense of paranoia and persecution, delicately peeling away the calcified layers of conspiracy theories, lies, and self-serving glorifications that have obscured the truth.

Italianamerican (1974)
Martin Scorsese is a towering figure in the international cinema world, but in this film he's a young guy with a camera spending a Sunday at home with his parents. Produced after the breakout success of his Mean Streets, this documentary could almost be an average Italian-American son's home movies, if it weren't so beautifully constructed. Catherine and Charles Scorsese, already accustomed to playing small roles in their son's fictional films, talk about their experiences as Italian immigrants, the wine-making and religious processions and meatball recipes they brought to America, and the hardships, prejudice, and strange name changes that America gave them in return. This film has become increasingly precious as the Italian diaspora in America has assimilated or transformed into the 'brain drain' of today. It's a testament to the vibrant, rich - and delicious! - nature of Italian-American culture. Catherine Scorsese's meatball recipe is included in the credits!

Love Meetings - Comizi d'amore (1964)
Although Pier Paolo Pasolini is far better known for his Marxist-Catholic film, The Gospel According to Matthew, or his brutal post-neorealist film, Mamma Roma, my very favorite of all of his films is this documentary. In it, Pasolini travels around Italy and asks the people on the street what they think about sex, love, homosexuality, divorce, reproduction, and prostitution. Occasionally he checks in with novelist Alberto Moravia, psychologist Cesare Musatti and (ex-fascist) poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, representing the intellectuals of the time; though at first these interviews seem bizarrely condescending, Pasolini subtly undermines notions of cultural and social authority by contrasting these two sober, articulate men with the anarchic, irreverent variety of the ordinary people on camera. Pasolini is not interested in neutrality, but he resists the polemicism that must have been so tempting when dealing with interviewees who believe that the stork brings babies, that divorce is evil and will cause the destruction of the state, or that brothels are necessary for men to remain healthy enough to work. Neither cruel nor patronizing, the film combines a bracing political realism and a lyrical quality rare in contemporary documentary filmmaking. 

Tosca's Kiss - Il bacio di Tosca (1985)
One would be forgiven for assuming that Daniel Schmid's lovely homage to opera was nothing more than a heartwarming little tour for grannies and aging music critics, but instead this visit to the nursing home Giuseppe Verdi founded in 1896 for retired opera singers is a treat that is both a love letter to the art form, but also a dry-eyed examination of what it means to devote one's life to music when it means sacrificing everything else. The star of the film is undoubtedly Sara Scuderi, a diva who sang Tosca with Beniamino Gigli at La Scala, but the denizens of the nursing home are a colorful bunch, throwing open old costume trunks to model their favorite roles and playing out scenes from Rigoletto in the hallway. Ultimately quite bittersweet, Tosca's Kiss is essential for opera fans, but has much to say to someone quite ignorant of its appeal: Scuderi and her compatriots are facing death with dignity and joy mixed with sadness through the medium that devoured their lives. There is stunningly little sentimentality in their outlook on what's left of their lives and the film declines to make up the deficit.

Women of the Resistance - La donna nella Resistenza (1965)
Available as a special feature with the Criterion release of The Night Porter, this film was one of the documentaries that the young Liliana Cavani directed at RAI for television broadcast. It is a precious document, for it collects the testimony of Italian women who participated in the resistance movement against the Italian fascist and Nazi occupational forces. Their contributions were rarely publicly acknowledged, although, as we discover through this film, they were not only helpmates, but protagonists in the struggle, fighting alongside the celebrated heroes, being tortured alongside them, sent to concentration camps with them, and in some cases, dying with them. Cavani's direction is scrupulously hands-off. The camera lets the women entrust their testimonies to the camera, with little ornamentation or emotional manipulation. Simple narration explains some of the shocking footage of atrocities, but otherwise acts merely as an echoing, less important voice in the chorus. Though not at all easy to watch, this obscure little film refuses to reify heroism: these women pay for every act of compassion, courage, and struggle, and pay dearly, for the rest of their lives. 

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Film Review: "Gone to Earth"

American audiences have rarely been able to see the original cut of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Gone to Earth because American producer David O. Selznick, believing it to be a poor star vehicle for his wife Jennifer Jones (and perhaps also itching to be the main creative force on the picture), recut and even reshot significant portions of the film for the stateside release, retitled The Wild Heart, and by most accounts, an incoherent, condescending mess, marred by explanatory title cards and an obvious toy fox instead of the charismatic animal used during the shooting. Despite the continued affection and admiration for the Powell-Pressburger productions, many of them masterpieces, Gone to Earth is still awaiting a proper release in the US, though one can find it coming and going on streaming sites and all-region DVDs. This is a great pity, as it deserves to be considered among their 'lesser' works, with the caveat that a lesser Powell-Pressburger is a gem and a treasure by the standards of ordinary directors. 

Based on a powerfully expressive, exquisitely modulated novel by Mary Webb, the film follows the wide-eyed, artless Hazel Woodus, for whom the dearest creature in all the world is Foxy, the fox she saved as a cub. Hazel has the fortune, or rather the misfortune, to be not only beautiful, but, raised motherless and with no playmates but foxes, cats, and rabbits, astoundingly innocent. Her two pursuers are Edward Marston, a chaste minister who believes that the purity of his love can protect Hazel from harm and himself from acknowledgment of his own desire, and Jack Reddin, the local squire, a sensual, earthy man whose pleasures up until he meets Hazel are brutally physical, whether bedding women or hunting foxes. Hazel is torn between them, torn between the spiritual calm and domestic neatness of a life with Edward, a life in which she can trust that Foxy remains unharmed, and the, for her, incomprehensible carnal attraction of Reddin, with his broken down, but grand estate and trunks full of magnificent dresses, left by his dead ancestors. But Reddin 'has blood on him,' since his main pursuit in life is fox-hunting. Hazel's innocence, Marston's earnest religiosity, Reddin's selfish, possessive desire, and Foxy's vulnerability swirl together into tragedy. The final scene of this film is utterly extraordinary: even watching on a tiny screen, with a significant interruption in the middle, those last five minutes flattened me and left me sobbing. 

In the film, Hazel is played by Jennifer Jones - but one of the first things an audience has to forgive if they're going to give themselves over to the magic of this film is to accept that Jones's complete inability to sound at all English, let alone speak in the Shropshire dialect, can be passed over as a venial flaw. Jones, though, is a bewitching presence on screen. Her accent may be atrocious, but her smiles, and the way she capers across fields, or cradles Foxy, are more important to her performance. The rather thankless role of Marston is given to Cyril Cusack, exceptionally good given how little of the meat of his character in the book can be transferred to the screen. Marston's struggles are moral, interior, and deeply repressed; Cusack succeeds in exposing the naïve futility of his self-sacrifice without making him look ridiculous. The true star of the production is Powell-Pressburger favorite David Farrar, as Reddin, whose violet eyes shoot lightning bolts of passion, fury, and incredibly sexiness, without softening the cruelty of Reddin's nature. In interviews, Michael Powell said many times that Farrar could have hit the zenith of stardom, if he had wanted to, but Farrar seems to have been utterly deaf to the call of fame. He is, indeed, a magnetic, seductive force in Gone to Earth.

The screenplay was a collaboration between the two directors and is generally quite faithful to the book, like all adaptations cutting a great deal, though usually with a calculated good taste. Only one scene is added, Hazel's baptism, which neatly conflates a number of smaller, though highly significant instances into one, more visually dramatic episode. The cinematography by Christopher Challis is stunningly gorgeous, though I will quibble that it is not as brilliant in its use of color to create mood as Jack Cardiff's work in Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes. The music by Brian Easdale, one of the most important of Powell and Pressburger's regular collaborators, opens up the ferally romantic world of Webb's Shropshire and dramatizes the conflict between sexual desire and fear, God as love and God as terror. With a less evocative score, it's difficult to believe that Gone to Earth would be at all convincing. It is as good an adaptation as possible, but it does not quite measure up to the novel, lacking its piercing, pitiless philosophy, written in such heavily scented, adorned language and yet so fearfully modern in its treatment of God, sex, violence, and innocence. Webb's book is a tragedy of near Biblical proportions; the film does not quite achieve the same grandeur. Even so, it ought to be considered, along with A Canterbury Tale and The Small Back Room, an essential Powell-Pressburger work, another jewel in the crown.

Monday, May 28, 2018

What's Wrong with Rhyme?

Both meter and rhyme have gone out of fashion in English language poetry. A poet submitting poems in formal verse to almost any editor in the U.S. or the U.K. will get a rejection letter and sometimes a note recommending the use of less traditional structures. Free verse reigns absolutely supreme. The evolution of style is not sufficient to account for such an extreme rejection of meter and rhyme. After all, something can be passé and still perfectly acceptable - within my own lifetime, I've witnessed leg warmers become cool and uncool more than once - but the case of poetry is different.

The intensely close-minded attitude towards poetry written in any regular metrical structure, whether blank verse or rhymed, is indicative of the deep-rooted infection of progressivism. This model of human progress, clung to so tenaciously across so many sectors of English language culture, presumes that the progression of time marks constant, steady improvement. A progressivist believes that every generation gets stronger, sturdier, smarter, and more capable. This ideology permits us to feel self-righteous contempt towards those who came before us and assume that we always know better. It insists that all new insights are somehow more advanced than old ones, that new views, political or otherwise, are somehow more correct. This is why one speaks of 'progressive' and 'retrogressive' ideas. But it's a slippery ideology, since, despite the listing of facts to argue for its veracity, how can we define 'better'? For instance, a longer lifetime is often pointed to as an argument for progressivism, but such an argument fails to examine why a longer life is better than a shorter one, and what those additional years are like qualitatively. 

In the realm of poetry, progressivist ideology dictates that older forms, themes, and styles are superseded by new ones, to be eclipsed forever or revived only in specific (and often ironic) instances. As a result, free verse is presumed to be 'better' than metrical verse, a judgement so extremely superficial that it's almost laughable without the pressing weight of ideology behind it. Even a very great genius, writing in the style of Shakespeare, or Goethe, or Baudelaire, or Browning, is sure to get the stinkeye. Underlying this attitude is a skittish rejection of anything that smacks of elitism, even though few literary worlds are as constricted and difficult to access as that of poetry. Many people will argue that those formal structures were invented, utilized, and celebrated by rich (at least, sometimes) white men, which, although true if very generalized, ignores every woman poet from Aphra Behn to Phillis Wheatley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Emily Dickinson, who not only wrote poetry in metrical forms, but also significantly innovated those forms. That attitude also simultaneously and tacitly excises poetry from the non-western world for consideration. The argument evacuates itself by ignoring the very poets - women and men and women of color - it claims to champion.

It's also been argued that free verse is more accessible for readers, though why that should be the case, given the preponderance of rhyme in, say, pop music, is unclear. Rather, it seems that free verse is supposed to be more accessible for the poets. With its total flexibility of structure, free verse appears at first glance to be easier to write than metered verse, but this is a fallacy. It is certainly easier to plop down a bunch of words with line breaks and call it poetry than to write a technically flawless sonnet, but this equates a bunch of words with poetry - and poetry wouldn't exist if that were so. In fact, I would argue that it is far harder to write free verse than metrical verse because writing in meter forces a greater consideration of the economy of word usage. If one only has five metrical feet to work with, the poet must consider every tiny syllable, every punctuation mark, and thus a first draft is born with  - by necessity - a tighter construction and more thought-through vocabulary. Free verse, on the other hand, requires far greater discipline of the poet: the free verse poet has to have a much more acute ear, sensitive to subtle nuances of rhythm, and a more exacting eye, attentive to the precise shapes of lines upon a page. 

I don't argue for a see-saw shift in stylistic convention, but surely we could be a tad more open-minded, and allow the poets of our own age the freedom that we claim to desire so deeply in a political sense through the choices of their own structures and forms, whether that be a Petrarchan sonnet or a rap-inflected riff. Why do we have to choose? How much richer would our poetry be if there was cultural tolerance for all structures and forms, instead of only a tiny, ideologically compromised fraction? 

Friday, May 18, 2018

Film Review: "Madonna of the Seven Moons"

The Gainsborough melodramas released in the 1940s were hugely popular with British audiences and mocked by critics. These films took place in dramatic period settings, with actresses in gorgeous, ornate costumes and hats, and sensational plots centered around women transgressing social boundaries, falling in love with rogues, thieves, highwaymen, and Heathcliff-like monsters, and even tasting the forbidden pleasures and pains of murder and robbery themselves in some cases. This focus on women's lives, with a particular emphasis on sexual autonomy or lack thereof, make these films fascinating for contemporary viewers.

Madonna of the Seven Moons, directed by Arthur Crabtree who had previously been a Gainsborough cinematographer, has been described by some as lurid, by others as stuffy, but I'd say both camps - the sensation-seekers who watch the pre-code pictures to get a glimpse of Marlene Dietrich's breasts and the oh-so-cool types who disdain any show of emotion that isn't strictly justified by the most gritty forms of trauma as overblown - are projecting their own understandings of what melodramas are on to a film that delves into what it means to be a woman through a character who is both Madonna and whore, but then again, neither.

In the opening scene, a pig-tailed Maddalena (Phyllis Calvert) in her convent school uniform is picking flowers in a field. A man approaches her and begins to undo his belt. A close-up shows her terrified face as she runs from him; the shot fades to black. In the next shot, she cowers in her room, in agony. This rape scene is all the more devastating for eclipsing the rape itself and instead centering the viewer's attention on Maddalena's anguish. Even by the end of the film, no one, not even the physician who attends her, ever finds out about this rape. It remains an unspoken secret with fateful consequences, but remarkably, given the film's religious values, Maddalena is framed as completely innocent, both before and after the fact. This sexual trauma profoundly affects her life, but it doesn't make her guilty - on the contrary, it absolves her later of a violent act that prevents the same trauma from occurring to another young girl.

However, this is not a movie about a woman surviving rape and becoming empowered. Instead, Maddalena, a good Catholic girl, agrees to marry the man her father has chosen for her, Giuseppe (John Stuart), and it turns out to be a good marriage in the conventional sense - not a passionate love affair, but a stable, caring relationship largely devoid of strong emotion. Her fervent religiosity as much as her extreme sensitivity mark her as a Madonna figure; she spends her life in good works. Her husband goes so far as to teasingly call her a saint. When her daughter Angela (Patricia Roc) returns from an English finishing school with an English diplomat boyfriend (Alan Haines, a puppyish and much less handsome David Niven look-alike) and some decidedly not convent-approved lingerie, Maddalena becomes increasingly agitated. After a chance encounter with a "dancer" (that is, a gigolo, played by Peter Glenville) with his eye on the pretty, pert, and still somewhat innocent Angela, Maddalena faints. When she wakes, there is a strange glimmer in her eye. She rises, draws a symbol of seven moons on the mirror with lipstick, and runs from the house with the contents of her jewelbox in her handkerchief. Maddalena's transformation is a literal one: she becomes Rosanna, a sultry, fiery, and sticky-fingered creature whose lover, Nino (Stewart Granger), is a thief with more than a little sex appeal. These two women in the same body are living two lives that collide and shatter, leaving hearts broken, bodies bleeding, and souls won back to God.

A pat psychological explanation is given for Maddalena's condition by family friend and doctor Ackroyd (Reginald Tate). He surmises that some trauma in childhood caused a rupture in Maddalena's psyche, splitting her personality. When anxiety and pain threaten to become too great, she takes refuge in the second personality, running from her sumptuous palazzo, devoted husband, and philanthropic works. However, no one in the film ever discovers what trauma wreaked such havoc. Only we, the viewers, know why Maddalena split into Madonna and whore.

At first glance, this dichotomy seems like one more tiresome iteration of the usual scenario, one where the whore must be destroyed and the Madonna martyred, but because the audience knows that it was a brutal rape that caused the psychological split, a different interpretation emerges. Sexual trauma forces Maddalena to repress her sensuality and so she becomes a near saint, but here's the trick: the film refuses to let Maddalena deny her sexuality. It's there within her, lurking whenever emotion overflows its boundaries. The whore personality, the underworld creature ready to knife her rival, permits Maddalena-reborn-Rosanna to engage in a smoldering romantic affair. She and Nino both during the course of the film devour pieces of fruit, letting the juice drip down their faces; while the demure Maddalena could never take such sensual pleasure in her food, the earthy Rosanna can. The character is torn between the body she can enjoy and the body that has been despoiled, a free expression of her desires and the utter repression of even the slightest reminder of physical feeling. The true villain in the film is not the murderous impulses of the human Id, nor Nino, the petty criminal, nor sex for the fun of it: the villain is rape and any man who attempts it. If Maddalena's ultimate salvation is found in God, it's in a conception of God as intensely forgiving and understanding.

Madonna of the Seven Moons is a melodrama in the true sense of the term: it is a story about fairly ordinary people swept up into tragedy by circumstances beyond their control. It is difficult to see how a film that delineates such an exacting polemic against rape, while still portraying consensual sex as happy, romantic, and fulfilling, could be called lurid, and even more bizarre to call it stuffy. The psychology may strike the modern viewer as fairly antiquated, especially since split personalities in particular have become such a cliche of both weepies and thrillers, but in this case, a fairly simplistic idea of psychic rupture allows Crabtree, screenwriter Roland Pertwee, and star Phyllis Calvert to excavate and complicate the Madonna-whore dichotomy in a world where sexual violence against women is a fact of life. They accomplish this without rejecting Catholicism for blasphemy or vice versa. Sexual innocence is redefined: Maddalena's loss of virginity makes her no less good, and not even her extra-marital affair, pursued by Rosanna, makes her less good. Instead, sexual evil is staunchly defined as abuse, as one person taking another by force. Madonna of the Seven Moons lets us have our melodramatic cake and eat it, progressive sexual politics and all, too.

Monday, May 14, 2018

She's No Beauty: The Continuing Trope of the Ugly Duckling

It still strikes us revelatory, provocative, perhaps even shocking, when heroines aren't beautiful. It's presumed that any woman who could hold a reader's, or a viewer's attention for more than five minutes must be beautiful or else some sort of novelty, who fascinates by virtue of bucking the convention. But even the 'unconventional' heroines tend to be beautiful, or at least quite attractive, by most real-world standards: they simply don't recognize it because women - yes, still today, and probably for generations to come - are indoctrinated into a belief in their own ugliness. Bridget Jones isn't actually ugly and fat: the pressure to be prettier and thinner translates into a vicious cycle. We're not supposed to believe that she looks to other people as she does to herself. And even the "American stick insect" who makes Bridget feel so very unattractive in comparison would, were she the heroine of her own novel and not the nemesis of the heroine, feel just as desperately ugly and fat. The recent Amy Schumer film, I Feel Pretty, is predicated on this very idea. Schumer's character has to suffer a concussion in order to appreciate her own good looks. A silly controversy (prior to the film's release!) resulted when people expressed outrage at the premise of the film. It wasn't clear whether these very angry people were upset at the intimation that a woman as attractive as Schumer could have low self-esteem or if they were upset because the premise acknowledged the reality that actual looks bear little correlation with how a woman sees herself, but in any case, the movie hit a sore spot. Constant complaints are lodged that heroines are too beautiful for a real woman to aspire to be her, but at the same time, the longing for beauty and for a recognition of being beautiful means that calling a heroine anything but beautiful invites a firestorm.

And when a heroine really isn't attractive by conventional standards? Then she's an ugly duckling, and her confidence makes her into a swan. Confidence replaces beauty and paradoxically renders the heroine beautiful precisely because she isn't beautiful. Her other qualities - her intelligence, perhaps, or her kindness, or her selflessness - shine through the exterior and beautify it. In other words, ugly heroines are never allowed to remain ugly. To remain at the center of a narrative, she has to be made beautiful in some fashion or another. Ugliness is still strictly associated with character; the heroine is both beautiful because she is a heroine and a heroine because she is beautiful. Expanding the definition of 'beautiful' does not shake the basic requirement that beauty is necessary for a woman to have a story worth telling.

The feminist iteration of this usually insists on a beautifying quality that is often considered the compensation for plainness or ugliness: cleverness. Jo March, Anne Shirley, Sybylla Melvyn - these feminist heroines are not described as beautiful, but find me the film adaptation with a Jo, an Anne, or a Sybylla who isn't beautiful. Their 'ugliness' might consist of visible freckles, mussy or frizzy hair, a plain dress, or an unflattering bonnet. Ugliness can be resolved with simple make-over because it isn't ugliness at all, just a lack of self-esteem. The trick that gets pulled off is that Jo, Anne, and Sybylla when viewed as role models let us have our cake and eat it too. They are clever, ambitious girls, girls who must fight to earn their livings, support their families, and win a chance at the life they want, all this, yes - but they're also beautiful. In our imaginations, we touch up their portraits; through the gorgeous faces and trim bodies of film stars, they shake off the last vestiges of plain looks. Thus the needle is threaded. As soon as the plain or ugly girl is visualized, she is transformed at once, from a witch to an enchantress. Inner beauty always gets translated into outer beauty.

One writer who came very close to refusing to beautify her ugly duckling was Mary Webb. In her novel, Precious Bane, the heroine Prue Sarn has a harelip, or a cleft palate as we would say today. Because of this, she is considered unmarriageable at best, a dangerous witch at worst. Prue mourns the possibilities that are closed off to her because of her disfigurement (and because of her poverty and class - these things weigh heavily as well), but she also accepts that those possibilities are not to be. Webb, however, does not let her heroine languish in misery, she does not leave her buried in a farm she can't inherit, while her brother can, she does not let every person without exception dismiss Prue as a hopeless case. She meets Kester Woodseaves, a weaver who also brings down the ire of his neighbors when he intervenes and prevents a bull baiting. These two characters are superior in both intelligence and feeling than their countrymen and they both recognize those qualities in the other. But Kester is beautiful and Prue is not. His inner qualities appear in his face; Prue's are hidden by hers.

The happy ending is delicious! Why shouldn't Prue, this extraordinary, fairy-like creation of Mary Webb's, not marry the man she loves, a man who sees those extraordinary qualities that are invisible to everyone else? She argues against it, insists that he choose a girl who matches him in physical beauty, even pleads with him to recognize her own ugliness and to instead "marry a girl like a lily." But Kester won't give up. He tells her, "I've chosen my bit of Paradise." He then kisses her "full upon the mouth." Mary Webb comes as close as any writer I've encountered has to letting her heroine be loved, really and deeply loved, preferred to a far lovelier girl, without insisting on some sort of quasi physicalized transformation. The ugly duckling is no swan at all, but an ugly duck who has nevertheless found a handsome drake. The especial magic of this ending lies in the fact that Kester's love doesn't transform her into a "bit of Paradise," but recognizes that she always was a "bit of Paradise." As long as we are too afraid to let a plain or ugly heroine remain so even on the occasion of the fulfilling of her dreams, we continue to enforce the beauty standards that many of us who consider ourselves feminists deplore. If every ugly duckling must grow up into a lovely swan, then beauty, whether inner or outer, remains a gendered requirement for recognition and happiness.

Friday, May 4, 2018

A Brief Sojourn in Gaston Bachelard's Wardrobe

One of the profound things that adults forget too easily is how magical hiding places are. In the chapter on "Drawers, Chests and Wardrobes" in The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard reminds us of how to access that magic through image. "Wardrobes with their shelves, desks with their drawers, and chests with their false bottoms are veritable organs of the secret psychological life. Indeed without these 'objects' and a few others in equally high favor, our intimate life would lack a model of intimacy." Hence the immense, extraordinary fascination with C.S. Lewis's magical wardrobe ("Does there exist a single dreamer of words who does not respond to the word wardrobe?..."), or the tiny house of Mary Norton's borrowers, snugly hidden under the floorboards, or Mad-Eye Moody's trunk, which with a slight turn of the key reveals entirely different insides each time one opens it. There are mysterious suitcases, like the bag in which Mary Poppins keeps a roomful of furniture or the one in which Merlin holds a library, or Hermione Granger's beaded bag, with everything, from books of magic to an expandable tent, needed to defeat an evil wizard. In L.M. Montgomery's work, a blue hope chest, full of the memories of a dead love, floats, tantilizingly, through more than one story and novel, and the four little women close up their happy girlhoods in four little trunks, lined up in a row in the attic. One couldn't play at Little Red Riding Hood without a basket, its contents (whether they exist or not) covered by a kerchief, and genies do not appear out of nowhere, but from a lamp.

The magic of enclosed spaces is easily forgotten, or worse, too determinedly psychologized. King Louis XVI is notorious for his naive fascination with locks and the sexual metaphor that, according to legend, finally convinced him to consummate his marriage with Marie Antoinette. But the real magic of such spaces, especially if they can be locked, lies in a combination of their potential - "what good things are being kept in reserve in the locked wardrobe?" - and their secretiveness - "every secret has its little casket."

Though Bachelard was no feminist, it is no great leap to connect these insights with Virginia Woolf's, in A Room of One's Own, that the woman writer needs a room of her own that she can lock behind her, a space that no one can enter unless she permits, where she can dream up her books. There is something, however, even more profound here, beyond the intense power of poetry or the pragmatic needs of the artist. In illuminating the dark little corner of the mind where this truth gets forgotten, Bachelard reminds us that at the heart of any creative endeavor there is a core of secrecy, secrecy that radiates possibility, but dies quickly if too totally revealed. A wardrobe with its door taken off loses its magic, a lamp scrubbed and laid out to dry in pieces on a rack holds no genie. Total revelation, complete revelation, demystifies, but we are sadly deceived if we believe, we rational citizens of the world, that demystification enriches our lives. The childish schoolyard rhyme was utterly wrong: Secrets, secrets, are only fun, if they aren't shared with anyone.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

What We're Missing: Lina Wertmüller's "È una domenica sera di novembre"

Once a director from outside the United States gains a certain degree of international fame, it would make sense to assume that his or her films would get some sort of American release, but, in fact, the filmographies of even such titans of world cinema as Akira Kurosawa, Vittorio De Sica, and Chantal Akerman remain full of holes for Americans, especially those who are monolingual. The completist film buff will face a choice: learn a new language and go hunting in the archives, or accept that certain films will remain mere titles. In the case of Italian filmmakers in particular, English speakers face an impoverishment of unusually rich filmographies. Marco Bellocchio, Liliana Cavani, Matteo Garrone, Nanni Moretti, and Lina Wertmüller, to name just a small group of especially brilliant filmmakers, all direct, write, and produce short films, documentaries, and TV programming, which never get released in the United States. 

Documentaries in particular get short shrift, and as a result, the political impegno of these directors is a less salient, a less essential fact of their work for American audiences. Lina Wertmüller - the first woman ever to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar, for Seven Beauties in 1977 - directed a brief, forty-five minute documentary, for RAI in 1981, È una domenica sera di novembre ("It is a Sunday evening in November"). This film is not available with subtitles, nor does it appear to have seen any release on physical media. It is a work of reportage, a stark, intimate portrait of the devastation wrought by the 1980 earthquake in Irpinia, which left more than two thousand dead, more than seven thousand wounded, and approximately 250,00 people displaced from their homes. Though a narrator gently and lyrically describes the horror of being buried alive, and Gheorghe Zamfir's pan flutes waft over images of crumbled towns, the political fire and fury is permitted to explode through the raw (in more than one sense) footage of emergency personnel and ordinary citizens attempting to excavate people from the rubble. The dust is so thick that one could be forgiven for thinking it was snow. Although as a film, È una domenica sera di novembre is no masterwork, its very lack of overt technical work creates the illusion that there is no mediation between the viewer and the victims of the earthquake. 

Why should American viewers, who in most cases can't understand Italian, know about this film? Why is it important? I believe that it is important because it opens a window on emotions that are quite oblique in Wertmüller's sarcastically comedic narrative films: sincere agony, questioning of faith, quiet indignation, pity, full-hearted sadness, active compassion. Irony and sarcasm, the carnivalesque, the grotesque, parody, play, cruelty and sadism, that is, the qualities that make her narrative films so extraordinary, are not present in this documentary. Instead of bitter resignation, demoralization, or jaded despair, È una domenica sera di novembre presents us with a picture of mourning, indignation, and pleading for help, help that might actually be possible, and thus also hope. It reveals another facet of Wertmüller's project: here she is uninterested in parties or ideologies. She is concerned with suffering; by focusing on real human beings instead of fictional characters, she accesses a well of compassion and insistence on political action without reference to ideologies. One wishes that these sorts of precious materials, the 'lesser' works (the shorter, or more serious, or less marketable ones), could be made available to wider audiences. Until then, this is one more film that we're missing.