Friday, August 10, 2018

June Allyson's Top 4 Performances

June Allyson was one of the most popular stars in her day, a husky-voiced, adorable girl next door as famous for her magnificent crying scenes as she was for a sunny, infectious smile. She had a scrappy quality that lent her bubbly onscreen persona an edge of rebelliousness and determined ambition. Very pretty, but not stunningly beautiful, small in stature, Allyson could play much younger than she was, but she especially excelled in roles that called for a hard edge around her essential sweetness. Here are her four finest performances:

4. Connie Lane in Good News (1947)
Good News is widely regarded as the best of the so-called 'college musicals,' and it's a showcase for the qualities that made Allyson so popular. She plays Connie Lane, a librarian and French tutor hired by football star Tommy (Peter Lawford), who hopes learning the langue de l'amour will get him in chilly new girl, Pat's (Patricia Marshall) good graces. The dance numbers are wildly dated - a number called "Pass the Peace Pipe" is particularly spectacular - but robustly athletic and infectiously cheery. Allyson's lack of pretension serves her in good stead as a young woman who's had to earn her own way and only gradually, as he matures, comes to see Tommy as a potential boyfriend. Allyson and Lawford were repeatedly paired and their relationship's growth comes across as sweet and wholesome, a partnership of two people who respect each other, rather than the power coupling that Tommy originally pursues.

3. Dr. Emily Barringer in The Girl in White (1952)
In my review of this film, I praised it for its "emotionally calibrated dissection of the barriers women doctors faced" in the 19th century, and indeed, although The Girl in White is decidedly short on the sorts of anthem-creating, triumphal moments contemporary feminism tends to glorify, it offers a surprisingly nuanced and sympathetic depiction of what it meant for women to enter the medical profession. Allyson's performance as a young woman determined to become a doctor, come hell, high water, or haughty men doctors, is spunky, steely, but also soft and romantic. Instead of imitating the male doctors, Allyson's Dr. Barringer takes a different, yes, feminine approach - and in the process shows her colleagues a thing or two. The strongest scenes in the picture feature Allyson sparring not with the obnoxious doctors who won't give her the time of day, but with the one (Arthur Kennedy) who encourages her to pursue medicine until he decides to propose.

2. Leslie Odell in Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945)
Allyson is especially heartbreaking in a role that, played by the average Hollywood ingenue, could have proved disastrously maudlin, but not with her, not least of all because Allyson knew something about this character's misery: Leslie has lost her ability to walk after an accident, while Allyson nearly suffered the same fate after being crushed by a branch when she was a child. Leslie, confined to her room, takes comfort in the sweet attentions of Jimmy (Robert Walker), but realizes she may very well lose him when he becomes infatuated with a princess (Hedy Lamarr) staying at the hotel where he works. This romantically melancholic film is more occupied with dreams and fantasies of love than with letting the characters fulfill those dreams. Thus, despite its decadent romantic aesthetic, Her Highness and the Bellboy is less a fairy tale than an interrupted dream of a film.

1. Jo March in Little Women (1949)
Although Allyson was most often cast as the lovely girl that the guy has to learn to love, in contrast to a flashier, more glamorous rival, this type-casting often resulted in her characters ending up in relationships that were more accepting of personality differences and that left room for them to pursue professional goals. Allyson is my favorite Jo March, in part because her performance is so staunchly unsentimental and so grounded in the character's development as a writer. In this version, her refusal of Laurie (Peter Lawford, again, looking decades too old for the part) rings true because her Jo is so constantly, insistently unromantic and for once, one believes her when she says she prefers romance to "be confined to the page." The common line on this version is that it's the most romanticized and politically regressive, but as Jo, Allyson is far less affected and theatrical than Katharine Hepburn and not at all tremulously dreamy like Winona Ryder.

Though she doesn't have a cultish following like Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe, and she doesn't have a die-hard, devoted fanbase like Esther Williams (though why, I will never understand) or Carole Lombard, and none of her films tend to be regarded as masterpieces, June Allyson deserves to be better remembered and recognized. She exuded rays of sunshine from every pore, that is, when a storm of tears wasn't clouding her over, and we could all use more sunshine these days.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Stupidity of the New Oscars Category for Popular Film

This morning news broke that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would be introducing a new awards category "around achievement in popular film." While Slate's commentator, Marissa Martinelli, objected principally because such a new category marginalized the films it ostensibly is meant to include, the idea is wrong-headed for numerous reasons, most of them founded on fundamentally silly notions of what the Oscars mean.

Any film critic is going to assume that the Academy is going to get it wrong, for a plenitude of reasons. For one, many of the films later recognized as masterpieces in any given year aren't even eligible for the Oscars. In the case of foreign releases, they need to have distribution in the United States, if they're not submitted by the country in which they were produced for the Best Foreign Film category, but in all cases, failure to get the right distribution at the right time can mean not qualifying for the Oscars. 

For another, the Oscars don't, and have never, actually recognized the 'best' in film. Awards are given as a statement of politics (Crash, being the most obvious one), or because a highly achieving individual hasn't managed to snag one yet and is getting elderly (Cecil B. DeMille, for the bloated and ironically titled The Greatest Show on Earth). The assessment isn't based on stated criteria, so the taste of the (notoriously old, white, male) Academy voters largely determines what wins, and those voters tend to be conservative and keen on protecting the industry. It's common knowledge that many voters don't even watch the films, voting based on their impressions of what is 'important' or 'significant' at the time. As such, the fury that accompanies every 'unjustified' loss becomes absurd: there is no objective evaluative method to determine the best film, performance, screenplay, etc. 

Thus, the Oscars are not, and have never been, a good measure of the best films and contributions to films. The choices of nominees are heavily weighted towards American and British films, produced and distributed by major studios who have the clout and financial resources to woo voters, and advertised and released widely. Let's take a look at an example, the Best Picture nominees of 2004: The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Ray, Sideways, and the winner, Million Dollar Baby. They were all distributed by major distributors like Warner Brothers, Miramax, and Universal, and even the indie, Sideways, got distribution through Fox Searchlight, which is about as mainstream an indie distributor as you can get. They have big name directors - Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese - and big name stars - Hillary Swank, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx. They're the sort of projects that have historically appealed to Academy voters: three are based on true stories, four are redemptive stories of people who make huge sacrifices for success, and even the outlier, that indie, is as tightly structured a narrative as any MFA workshop instructor could ask for. 

The notion that Academy voters ignore box office (and thus popularity) is absurd. Every one of those 2004 nominees made well over 100 million at the box office and two made well over 200 million. Those are not small box office returns. It's true that mega-blockbusters rarely get nominations in the so-called 'major' categories, though they more often than not sweep through the technical awards, for achievements in sound mixing and editing, special effects, make-up, and so on. However, mega-blockbusters are also designed to appeal to teenage boys and young men - the Academy voters are old men, not at all the audience those superhero movies and special effects extravaganzas are meant to appeal to. Even if a blockbuster is a fantastic film, by design, it will seldom have much attraction to Academy voters, who already fail to watch all nominees, let alone most of those films eligible for nomination.

The problem boils down to a series of false assumptions: first, that the Oscars are supposed to reflect objective excellence in global cinema; second, that the Oscar nominations are based on unfair criteria (they are based on no meaningful criteria); third, that the Oscars ought to reflect a majority opinion; fourth, that the majority opinion can be based off of box office returns. Popularity is not the same as excellence, though the two can coincide. But even if the Academy had nominated, say, Mike Leigh's quiet chamber drama Vera Drake, or the introspective German release, The Edukators, for Best Picture in 2004, the idea that failing to choose popular films is somehow prejudicial remains a fallacy. Awards in excellence are not democratically granted because the film industry is not a democracy. The new category promises to be a flat-footed, decidedly unwelcome, and essentially stupid category not because it continues to marginalize the most popular films (which is quite a whingdinger of an idea in the first place, since marginalization and popularity are antithetical by nature), but because all it accomplishes is the distribution of more awards to more films that, whether they are excellent or not, have earned a lot of money. It is purely redundant and a signal that the Academy Awards are nothing more than an exercise in industry self-congratulation. 

Then again, why the hell should any of us give a damn about the Oscars? For the record, my nominees for 2004 would be A Very Long Engagement, which I would make the winner, Head-On, Downfall, Vera Drake, and Howl's Moving Castle, five films that together received seven Oscar nominations, with no wins. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

What Elizabeth Taylor - The Novelist! - Tells Us About Writing in "Angel"

In Angel, novelist Elizabeth Taylor gives us a biography of a fictional Edwardian writer, Angelica Deverell, her heady rise and disastrous fall. Angel is not a genius, she is not even talented. She writes verbose, flowery, ludicrous, deadly serious tomes full of aristocrats tippling champagne and enchanting royalty with their exquisite beauty, wearing crimson velvet evening gowns and losing their virginities in games of poker. She dislikes reading, claims her main influences as Shakespeare and (a mispronounced) Goethe, disdains research, and absolutely refuses to have a copy editor touch The Lady Irania or An Eastern Tragedy. When she tires of European aristocrats, she simply sets the story in ancient Greece or a harem in a vague location in the East; as she claims "Human nature never changes," such new settings require no study. Her long-suffering editor is forced to invent a Mr. Delbanco, the "man behind the scenes" who serves as a scapegoat for every decision that brings down Angel's wrath. Her books sell: the public devours their escapism and the critics howl over their absurdity. Angel, having no sense of humor, least of all about herself, believes the critics to be insanely jealous of her literary prowess and to have thus marked her as an enemy. In old age, she takes to paying off the ever mounting bills with signed first editions of her works.

Taylor's magic in Angel is to present the reader with an extremely eccentric, morally vacuous, undeservedly self-righteous, and totally untalented character, a writer whose books really are plainly and simply bad. And since Angel doesn't have the smallest capacity to laugh at herself, the critical barbs and ridicule are horrifically cruel. Yet Taylor isn't cruel to her creation. She parades out this figure and refuses to lampoon her. The reader doesn't get impatient, in part because Taylor's style, elegant, yet clean, with an ever so slightly acerbic edge, is quite pleasant to read, but also, and more importantly, because Angel - in modern terms, profoundly 'unrelatable' - is plumbed to her very depth. It becomes difficult to laugh at her, no matter how many times she describes things as "corruscating," when her suffering is so vividly described, when her success, soon and irrevocably quashed by a hairpin turn in taste precipitated by World War I, blooms into failure and leaves her mouldering away in a decaying mansion, sparring with a cranky chauffeur and trailing around in fungus-infected evening gowns.

For writers, Angel has a message it would do us well to heed, for in it, Taylor reminds us that the throes and struggles are hardly proof of genius, or even workaday competence, but part and parcel of the writing process, whether the end result is Hamlet (Angel considers those who mock her "those who would sneer at Shakespeare because they could not write Hamlet themselves") or utter junk. Depictions of great writers and artists, whether in literature or film, often forgive monstrous behavior, fruitless self-destruction, neglect and cruelty of all sorts, as the worthwhile price for the works of genius bequeathed to posterity. That's bunkum as those miseries are the stuff of human life, not genius, the stuff of life, rather than creation. The same behavior can as easily yield trash as treasure, more easily trash, if we're going to be honest. Taylor, in depicting Angel barbed with foibles, follies, caprices, and freakishness, but with wildly different results, reveals the hubris and absurdity of our notions of literary genius. Angel's eccentricity - and her monstrousness is more aesthetic, nowhere on a par with the evil antics of, say, Rimbaud or the titillating scandals of George Sand - is considered absurd because her books are dreadful; if she were churning out the likes of The Age of Innocence or Howards End, the same eccentricity would be imitated and coddled. 

Thus Angel becomes an exercise in humility, not merely on a metatextual level, as one of the great English novels of the twentieth century, but also because it patiently and almost tenderly extracts the canker from the flower of genius. It is not how much one suffers, not how hard one works, not even how much money one makes or how many celebrities want to meet one, but a complex alchemical process that might produce a literary philosopher's stone... or else, nothing but dross and singed, foul-smelling dregs. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Why Do We Laugh at Melodrama?

In these dark times we live in, some give vent to rage, some bewail misfortune - and some have discovered what an extraordinary weapon of resistance laughter can be. Certainly, we knew this before. After all, who isn't familiar with Hans Christian Andersen's wise child, who noticed the absurd emperor's nakedness? Through laughter, pretensions of grandeur, founded on vanity and lies, can be toppled with the greatest of ease. Laughter is a means of fighting violence with nonviolence, physical aggression with a counterattack of wit.

Laughter, however, can also be a weapon of ignorance, or simply cruelty. Laughter is not a purely singular force that punctures abusers of power; it works equally well as a means of denying a powerless person's worth, especially a marginalized person. Think of the scene in Carrie when a bevy of girls throw tampons at her, yelling at her to 'plug it up,' while she quite literally thinks that she is dying. The joke is horrendously cruel and acts as a catalyst for an outbreak of violence, is itself an act of violence. Laughter, it's true, is an exceptionally powerful weapon against tyrants, but its power isn't diminished when it's wielded against those without power.

These days, few audiences have much patience for melodrama. I use the term without any pejorative connotation, since the melodrama is a genre, just like horror, science fiction, or any other more popular type of narrative. Once a mainstay of novels, cinema, opera, and theater, the melodrama has been relegated to the comedy section through laughter - but is it laughter of the first or second type? It's hard to see in what way laughing at tragedies, created by social strictures, providential coincidences, and fated circumstances, could be interpreted as an act of resistance. There is nothing to resist against, except perhaps an emotional response.

I recently attended a screening of A Woman of Affairs, starring Greta Garbo and directed by Clarence Brown. The film's racy adult themes - including very broad hints at a homosexual relationship between men, drug use, syphilis, and lots and lots of sex - tend to be interpreted as the rum in this Dirty Shirley, the sugar in the otherwise gag-worthy medicine, though this attitude misapprehends melodrama as a genre. Such themes were, and would be still if it weren't moribund, hallmarks of melodrama. After all, their heroines are often courtesans and ruined women. Though it was a treat to see the film on the big screen (it is currently streaming on Filmstruck, as part of their spotlight on Garbo), it was not a treat to watch it with an audience that found every acknowledgment of unhappiness screamingly funny. Garbo's brother wallows in a stupor of drug use after his dearest friend, and presumably lover, committed suicide on his honeymoon with Garbo - people were slapping their knees. Garbo protects the man's reputation, by letting authorities believe her own promiscuity drove him to suicide, instead of blackmail over embezzling, and presumably his gay relationship - hear them roar. Garbo, having just suffered a miscarriage, agonizingly clutches a bouquet of flowers as though it were an infant - the snickers became howls.

To be generous, I realize that most people are unfamiliar with the conventions of silent films and I assume that at least part of this reaction can be ascribed to ignorance, to failing to understand the implications. No title card announces that Garbo's character has just had a miscarriage for instance, but an astute adult viewer shouldn't have too much trouble understanding this.

But, this laughter has an insidious and disgusting meaning. I can only imagine that the same person who thinks it's funny that a heartbroken, closeted man in the final throes of drug addiction is crying, or that a woman could die of heartbreak after a life-threatening miscarriage, abandoned in the hospital and rejected by society, could hardly be especially empathetic. The person who laughs at melodrama - and this is supremely well-acted melodrama - prefers to assert a snide self-superiority, far more mannered than the gestures of agony on the screen. That person insists that any strong feeling that hasn't been diagnosed by a psychiatrist is tosh, bollocks, balderdash, baloney, rubbish, drivel. That person thinks that any love, hate, fury, desire, or passion that leads to tragedy is hilariously avoidable.

Moderns may say, how absurd - the courtesan should just marry the aristocrat and screw the consequences, or why doesn't she just go to the doctor and cure her tuberculosis before it's too late? Why don't these people just buck social convention, why don't they just take care of their health, why don't they ignore any feelings that don't let them, as the social media mavens would have it, follow their bliss?

Those questions, accompanied by snickers and hoots, not only ignore historical reality - there are no antibiotics in the middle of the nineteenth century and just look at Lord Byron's conquests alone to see how happy people who bucked conventions turned out to be - but they also refuse emotional engagement, which is exactly and primarily what melodrama asks of its viewers, readers, and listeners. People who laugh at melodrama give themselves permission to laugh at the emotions they don't dare confront themselves, in a socially sanctioned lifting of the taboo of, say, giggling at the misery of a woman who has lost her mind after having a stillborn child. The exercise of empathy is part and parcel of the experience of the melodrama, and so the melodrama cannot have an audience in a cultural world that divides feelings into positive or pathological. That is why moderns laugh at melodrama: because misery, anguish, agony, and adoration have been compartmentalized and shoved into a box marked 'sick.' Today, we feel a passion for a brand of gelato with a cute logo, which would be fine, except... people still die of heartbreak. People still commit suicide. People still get incurable illnesses, have miscarriages, see their children reject them, have affairs and destroy their marriages, drive their cars into ditches. Some people are miserable. And a few are even still capable of sacrificing themselves for others. Those realities that melodrama dramatizes with full emotional engagement have not been overcome. And as long as that is the case, laughing at melodrama should embarrass us far more than melodrama itself.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

4 Books for the Hermione Grangers of This World

Let's be real: the Harry Potters and Ron Weasleys of this world aren't great readers, but the Hermione Grangers sure are! Here are four fantastic books for bookish types that unite a love for study and knowledge with gorgeous language, a sharp intellectual facility, and, you know, magic. All of them are written by women who might very well have considered joining the Society for the Protection of Elvish Welfare.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke
Clarke's novel is an alternate history that pulls off the genuinely magical trick of seeming to have been composed when it is set, in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars. Pedantic, fussy Mr. Norrell believes himself to be the only practical magician in the English realm and he gets the shock of his life when flighty, but charismatic Jonathan Strange pops up, casting far showier and more dramatic spells. Labyrinthine in plot, elegant in language, devilishly complex in its construction of character, and both unique and historically erudite in terms of its explanation of magic and prophecy, this novel is above all a book for readers who go into raptures in libraries and hysterics at the sight of an e-reader. Few fictional tomes are as tantalizing as those in this book. Hermione Granger wouldn't be able to put it down.

Wise Child - Monica Furlong
This darkly enchanting novel is about the apprenticeship of its young protagonist to a white witch named Juniper in Medieval Scotland, whose powers, both magic and moral, are tested when her mother Maeve, a black witch, reappears in her life. Though in some respects reminiscent of T.H. White's Arthurian novels, The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King, Furlong had a rare gift for refocalizing both the Middle Ages and our contemporary ideas about witchcraft, morality, mysticism, and women's roles in society through a profoundly gynocentric lens. The lines between witch and woman, good and evil, Christian and pagan, are redrawn from that new perspective, making this young adult novel far wiser than one would expect. A novel of education that Hogwarts' best student would eat up.

Lolly Willowes - Sylvia Townsend Warner
Though it has begun to gain a reputation as a long-lost feminist classic, Sylvia Townsend Warner's 1926 novel, her debut, remains perhaps too odd a beastie to be entirely absorbed into the canon. Predating A Room of One's Own by three years, Lolly Willowes recounts the biography of a spinster who, enchanted by a bouquet of chrysanthemums, decides to pick up and move to the country village where the flowers were grown. At first contentedly installed in Great Mop, Lolly's idyll is interrupted by the unwanted intrusion of a nephew, but a certain mild-mannered gamekeeper, sometimes known as Satan, drops by to lend a hand... As much, if not more so, an elegantly comic novel about the foibles of the upper crust and the oddities of English rural types than it is a fantasy about a witch, Lolly Willowes has a light touch, managing to be both the perfect cozy teatime read and a biting, yet empathetic satire of spinsterhood. Hermione might save this one for retirement!

Orlando - Virginia Woolf
Woolf's most experimental project in biography, Orlando follows the adventures of a seemingly immortal Elizabethan swain, whose androgynous beauty suddenly and without explanation becomes a woman's over night some decades later. This metamorphosis thrusts the former ambassador to Constantinople into the bondage suffered by women for centuries. Woolf's cool, gentle, and precise sense of irony is the guiding spirit over this novel that is at once a work of English history and a dissection of what it meant to be a man and what it meant to be a woman through the development of feminism. Though it is almost never considered as a fantasy novel, the book viscerally tastes and smells of magic, of an alternative to all the rational, reasonable, 'enlightened' ideas of the patriarchal world, fashioning a new logic out of all that is usually excised from history. Though Hermione generally prefers scholarly works, this one would surely appeal to her intellectual appetites.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

6 Movies for Fans of "Hocus Pocus"

There are inevitably some movies that a person simply can't judge according to anything approaching critical standards. I don't mean liking movies that are bad (or so bad they're good - my favorite in this category is the extremely silly The Magic Sword), but rather movies that are so deeply embedded in one's life that, well... their flaws are as much virtues as flaws, if flaws can even be found. For those of us of the home video generation, certain movies have become cult favorites not only because of their kookiness, kitschy-ness, or quirkiness, but because we've seen them so many times that we can quote them from opening to closing credits.

Hocus Pocus was savaged by critics upon theatrical release, but as a staple on the Disney Channel, it became an adored Halloween classic for 90's kids. Its combination of witchcraft, snark, and celebration of the sibling bond squared the circle of family entertainment, throwing Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker as a trio of featherbrained witches into the midst of a heartwarming story of a brother looking out for his younger sister. Though slightly more kid-friendly than, say, The Addams Family and Addams Family Values, the fun of Hocus Pocus lies, at least in part, in growing into the buried adult humor, especially in Midler's performance. The stakes in Hocus Pocus are significantly higher than in your average kids' Halloween film. Whereas in the far tamer Halloweentown, the kids are threatened by being frozen in time (though the movie never succeeds in making that threat especially menacing), in Hocus Pocus, a child has died within the first five minutes of the film. The witches are funny, but they are also genuinely evil and genuinely dangerous. Max, Dani, and Allison are not saving a cartoonish fantasy world; they are trying to keep each other alive. The witch sisters aren't smart, but they are powerful. This counterbalance to the absurd humor rescues the movie from wallowing in silliness and places it squarely in the horror-comedy genre. 

Doth I protest too much? Perhaps, but it seems likely that Hocus Pocus could end up as the kiddie Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! At least part of its cult status is due to the difficulty of finding films that are similarly creepy, yet ludicrous, wacky, yet scary: here are six recommendations for Hocus Pocus fans, each with a quote to match!

"I smell children."
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)
Though often dismissed as the lesser Mary Poppins, given its combination of animation and live action, its no-nonsense, magical protagonist, songs by the Sherman Brothers, and the presence of David Tomlinson, it would be better to call Bedknobs and Broomsticks the darker Mary Poppins. Instead of the specter of workaholism menacing the nuclear family in an otherwise sunny and secure world, in this film, the Blitzkrieg and Nazi raiders are the dangers posed to three refugee orphans, the witch - played with a deliciously schoolmarmish stiff upper lip by Angela Lansbury - forced to take them in, and the charlatan who just happened to stumble on a genuine book of spells (Tomlinson). There is a scrappier quality to the storytelling, but the effects are top-notch, culminating in an incredible scene of an army of animated - as in moving, not drawn - suits of armor going toe-to-toe with Nazi gunners.

"I put a spell on you and now you're mine."
Bell Book and Candle (1958)
This Hollywood oddity is usually remembered today as the inspiration for Bewitched. A frigidly feline Kim Novak stars as a bored, barefoot witch in Manhattan, who sets her spells on her clean-cut publisher neighbor, played by Jimmie Stewart in his final leading man role, with the help of her cat and familiar, Pyewacket (played by Novak's actual pet!). The romance is enjoyable enough, but the witchy shenanigans of the supporting cast are far more fun: Jack Lemmon plays a bongo-playing, mischief-making warlock with a creepily glazed smile, Elsa Lanchester is a daffy, gossiping witch with a gypsy sense of style, and Hermione Gingold is the grand-dame of the magical set. With weirdly diaphanous costumes by Jean Louis and set design by Cary Odell and Louis Diage that draws inspiration from the avant-garde Greenwich Village club scene of the time, the movie is an eccentric charmer, dipping only a toe into transgressive politics, but unafraid of combining wackiness and tragedy.

"Go to hell!" "Oh, I've been there, thank you. I found it quite lovely."
I Married a Witch (1942)
French auteur René Clair directs this Hollywood comedy starring Veronica Lake as a witch who, after being torched in Puritan Salem, comes back from the dead to wreak havoc on the descendant of her accuser, a twitchy politician on the eve of both his wedding and gubernatorial elections, played by Fredric March, only to accidentally drink her own love potion. Again, the supporting cast is fabulous, with Cecil Kellaway as Lake's demonic father, Robert Benchley as March's friend, always ready to take a stiff drink in his place, and Susan Hayward as March's shrewish fiancee, a thankless role that she enlivens with a double dose of venom. Fast-paced and frothy, this film would fit snugly in the oeuvre of either Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges (who was an uncredited producer). Like so many mainstream films about witches and the men they love, the ending frustrates, but this film is otherwise delicious.

"Hang him on a hook and let me play with him!"
The Love Witch (2016)
The Love Witch, written, directed, produced, scored, costumed, designed, and edited by Anna Biller, is one of the most singularly weird witch movies ever made, drawing as deeply on Italian thrillers and gialli of the '70s as it does on swoony romance paperbacks, tarot cards, and Renaissance Faire culture. Samantha Robinson, in a star-making performance, plays Elaine, a witch so bent on amorous fulfillment that she overdoes it every time, leaving a trail of dead would-be Romeos in her wake. A psychedelic color swirl of reds, pinks, purples, greens, and yellows, nonchalant nudity, and a poker-faced sense of humor elevate the occasionally clunky dialogue, though that clunkiness may very well be part of the point. Elaine is so deeply ensorceled by millennia's worth of misogynistic notions of love and romance that the magic she performs on men to force them into a performance of that love turns in on itself and is reborn as the same kind of violence patriarchy enacts on women; if she speaks in women's magazine platitudes, it's no wonder. You will be singing "Love Is a Magickal Thing" for weeks afterwards.

"Max likes your yabbos. In fact, he loves them."
Miranda (1948)
This sweet, subtly sexually transgressive British comedy follows the adventures of a mermaid, played by the exquisite Glynis Johns (Mary Poppins, The Court Jester), who persuades a vacationing, and decidedly married, doctor (Griffith Jones) to take her to London with him to see the sights. She's always wanted to attend the opera at Covent Garden, you see. Johns's mermaid is irresistible to men - including a very young David Tomlinson sans moustache - and soon has a string of straying beaux, happy to overlook her diet of raw fish and her total lack of commitment, but the lovely thing is that, for once, the mermaid isn't a siren luring men to their doom. She just likes everybody and likes to have a good time. She treats all her conquests with the same cool and generous lust - and the ending is not one you're going to see in a Hollywood film! The inimitable and brilliant Margaret Rutherford plays an eccentric registered nurse.

"You know I always wanted a child. And now I think I'll have one. On toast!"
The Wicker Man (1973)
Robin Hardy's folk-song-laden horror film has acquired a carapace of spoofs and spoofs of spoofs, but it remains a stubbornly unique contribution to the genre, remake be damned. A sternly religious policeman (Edward Woodward) flies out to a remote Hebridean island where a child has been reported missing and finds himself in a hotbed of pagan ritual, led by Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee in a no-holds-barred, go-for-broke performance. A collection of kooks, from Diane Cilento to Lindsay Kemp, round out the cast, but despite the hijinks, a mixture of Summer of Love sex, nude Waldorf School-style games, and Hieronymous Boschesque processions, The Wicker Man ceases to be a fish-out-of-water comedy blended with an Ealing Studios satire in the final scene, all the more haunting for being such a hairpin turn in tone.

"Booooooooooooooooooooooooooook!"

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. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

Does Feminism Require Autonomy?

One of the central frustrations of being a feminist critic is that it is far too easy to get caught up in ultimately meaningless disputes about whether or not a particular writer (novel, poem, film, painting, etc.) qualifies as feminist, a question both irresolvable and constantly under debate, since art has no objective ideological content, inconvenient as that may be. Rarely do such disputes get at the crux of the issue, the theoretical problem at the heart of any classificatory system. In order to determine whether a given figure or work is feminist, we would have to define what feminism is. That's the particular, and massive rock, threatening in the shoals.

Though postcolonial criticism has problematized the conception of a universal feminism, there is still a strong tendency to assume that one's own feminism is the feminism. American feminism tends to be expressed in a rhetoric of empowerment, strength, and autonomy and thus, American feminist critics tend to seek out literature and art that reflects those particular values and enacts them through characters and the success of those characters. The blind spot for these critics (and I confess, I too have at times been willfully unaware of that blind spot) is Americentrism, the presumption that the American iteration of feminism is universal and universalizable. Classifying whether something is feminist or not isn't an especially enlightening exercise, but nevertheless that classification often determines the fate of a given work if it's written (composed, painted, etc.) by a woman. Women writers who can be assimilated easily into current American feminist paradigms stand a chance of being instated, or reinstated, into the canon, or at least the gender studies curriculum or woman-centric imprints of the publishing houses.

Witness the example of one of my favorite writers, Grazia Deledda. She was only the second woman to win the Nobel Prize and was publicly lionized by such writers as Giovanni Verga and D.H. Lawrence (who also translated one of her novels). She's one of the only women among her literary generation in Italy to achieve a lasting critical reputation, and, although she's not discussed as much as, say, D'Annunzio, she continues to have a presence in scholarly work and many of her novels remain in print. Such is the case in Italy.

In the United States, she is almost completely unknown. There are numerous reasons for this - few Italian writers have been enshrined in the canon established in the English-language world, only a tiny percentage of published works in English are translations - but Deledda could be recuperated, as other women writers have been, by feminist critics and scholars actively seeking out literature by women. In order for this to happen, more of her work needs to be translated. However, the claim that Deledda was a feminist writer (and thus worthy of institutional inscription in literature departments and publishing lists) is a tenuous one in the American context, simply because her books don't dramatize the specific, historically and culturally contingent values of current American feminism. Her heroines are not empowered in a contemporary sense; they are brave for daring to kiss a boy and accept a brother's beating afterwards, or for taking a train journey alone. They dress demurely and transgress the rules rarely and with trepidation, calculating their chances for success in secret. Her women do not enact autonomy by today's standards; they are not independent, not trendsetters, only rarely exceptional. Judged according to the standards of today's American feminism, this Italian writer who published her major works a century ago doesn't hold up.

The shame isn't that Deledda didn't anticipate the development of a future ideology in a foreign country; the shame is that this ideology is so narrow-minded that it can't conceive of a feminism that expresses different values. Deledda's female characters exist in a circumscribed world where any ambition, especially an artistic one, was looked upon as abnormal in a woman at best, sinful and outrageous more often than not. In today's America, despite structural and cultural limitations that are quite real, rhetorically women are expected to work, to have ambition - that is, they are expected to be autonomous. If autonomy is the yardstick by which we measure the worth of a woman's writing, then Deledda doesn't have much to offer. But, if that's the case, then feminist criticism is little more than a vigorously shaken sieve, sifting out the sand from what just might turn out to be fool's gold. Feminism has been theorized now for nearly three centuries as a philosophy of greater inclusion: what irony, then, that its current commentators are more concerned with excluding anything that might threaten its, and their, assumptions.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Against Fluent Translation

In the English-language context, it is typically assumed that a good translation is one that reads as though it had originally been written in English. The scholar and translator Lawrence Venuti calls this fluent translation, as opposed to foreignizing translation, which emphasizes the original's difference from English. As Venuti points out, there is a political dimension to which method a translator chooses, or a publisher accepts. If the translation is fluent, the text is domesticated, folded into English-language cultures and values; if it is foreignizing, it makes use of English-language cultures and values to make the text intelligible without assimilating it, at the very least signalling that the text is the product of a different cultural paradigm.

Despite the supremacy of the rhetoric of diversity in American liberal politics, the conservative impulse to render all translations fluent continues to dominate. Few translations (about three percent of American book-length publications in a given year) ever reach English-language readers and those that do are, almost without exception, fluent. Diverse literary voices are only acceptable if they are easily assimilated by American readers, easily interpreted along American political lines and social values. When translators are mentioned at all, they are either praised for clarity and accuracy (even when the reviewer can't read the original) or damned for awkwardness and obscurity. At the heart of this understanding of translation is a decidedly American assumption of human universality, a belief that emotion translates smoothly from one context to another without need for mediation, that an essential, cohesive self can be metaphysically expressed in a text, regardless of its original language, and that difference is identity-based and superimposed upon a foundational, generalized humanity. 

This means, in practice, that literary works that are thorny, difficult, recalcitrant, strange, that is, in some way, unassimilable, almost never get translated into English. Monolingual English speakers exist in a culturally coherent bubble, challenged only by alternatives that are nevertheless contextually intelligible. The current practice of translation permits American readers to presume their own normalcy and insists on a utopian, near-magic conception of communication across languages and cultures. Fluent translation is cultural isolationism clothed in anodyne diversity politics. Its a way to take credit for multiculturalism without confronting its challenges, self-satisfaction in the guise of humility.

This doesn't mean that every translation needs to be enormously challenging for English-language readers: it means that not every literary work can be rendered in smooth, lucid, concise English. It means that a genuine interest in openness to the other requires living with some frustration and discomfort, moments in which the reader realizes a given work wasn't written just for him. Foreignizing translation threatens the reader's narcissistic sense of normalcy and cultural superiority. It's impossible for any one person to learn all living languages, but foreignizing translation, translation that embraces alterity, with all its difficulty, with all its irreducible untranslatability, has the potential power to foment cultural exchange without the prerequisite of universalism, in itself culturally contingent. If diversity is to be genuinely valued in American literary culture, then fluent translation needs to be recognized as the assimilationist practice that it is, and foreignizing translation must be encouraged. If we can't tolerate a text that doesn't pander to our own values, how can we hope to be tolerant of human beings different from ourselves?

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The 10 Best Italian Films Since 2006

When I made a list in 2013 of the best Italian films of the twenty-first century, I was so hamstrung by lack of access that none of my choices had been produced later than 2005. Since then, between a proliferation of streaming services and some exciting DVD releases, I've been able to access a wealth of Italian films, from comedies and documentaries to fantasy films and dramas. Sadly, Il giovane favoloso, or Leopardi, the film that I anticipated so breathlessly in my previous post, was a disappointment, but in compensation, here are ten wonderful movies. All of the films on this list are available with English-language subtitles and have seen international release.

Behind the White Glasses (2015)
This documentary about Lina Wertmüller, the brilliant director of Seven Beauties, Swept Away, and Love and Anarchy, is a charmer: a film that recognizes her extraordinary capacity to have fun, no matter what, no matter how dark or hopeless circumstances might be. Wertmüller discusses not only her films, but her musical collaborations with Nino Rota, her work as a very young assistant director with Fellini as he made 8 1/2, and her opera productions. Especially precious are the interviews with a lively, twinkly-eyed Giancarlo Giannini, the muse of her greatest films of the '70s. Though formally Behind the White Glasses doesn't break new ground, it has a bright and bushy-eyed quality that fittingly reflects the irreverent, but never fluffy character of Wertmüller's films.

Golden Door (2006)
Emanuele Crialese's hallucinatory drama about a family of Sicilian immigrants' journey to the United States is bracingly well-lit and slips in and out of magical realism like a dolphin, leaving behind the grainy, gritty style of neorealism for the hyper-intensity of hope amid agony. The film's original title, Nuovomondo, literally means NewWorld, and immigration is, indeed, portrayed as a voyage from one world to another. The widowed Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato) hears the tales of man-sized vegetables and dragon-sized sheep, of roads paved with gold, that he's assured he will find in America, so he buys passage for himself and his sons. The scenes set on Ellis Island are heart-breaking, especially for those of us with personal ties to that haunted place.

Habemus Papam (2011)
Though not on a par with Caro diario or The Son's Room, Nanni Moretti's romp through the election of a new pope, released when the unpopular Pope Benedict was still the Supreme Pontiff, is one of his best recent efforts. Moretti assumes a lighter, less overtly politicized approach than in previous films; the institution of the papacy is less raked over the coals than lightly singed. Michel Piccoli plays Cardinal Melville, reluctant to accept the burden of the papacy, while Moretti himself plays the psychoanalyst secretly called in to cure the errant new pope of his desire to escape responsibility for global Catholicism. An especial treat is a scene of the cardinals playing an impromptu game of volleyball.

Loose Cannons (2010)
This sweet-tempered, sunny comedy directed by Ferzan Özpetek doesn't land every joke; it's warm and messy and occasionally veers into unintended farce. The performances, though, by Riccardo Scamarcio, Ennio Fantastichini, and Alessandro Preziosi elevate material that could easily slide into the typical hysterical, stereotype-dependent mainstream Italian comedy, while Özpetek's off-kilter weirdness (suicide by cake?) adds dimension to the quirkiness. Tommaso (Scamarcio) confides in his brother (Preziosi) that he's planning on coming out to their conservative, blustery father (Fantastichini), only for his brother to steal his opportunity, causing the father to have a heart attack. Meanwhile, Tommaso's boyfriend is driving up, expecting to meet the family. Fantastichini's mad-eyed paranoia that the entire city is mocking him recalls Saro Urzì as the dishonored father in Germi's Seduced and Abandoned, while the warm glow that pervades Tommaso's life when he ceases hiding his sexuality makes a better argument for inclusiveness than speechifying. 

My Brother Is an Only Child (2007)
Riccardo Scamarcio again stars in Daniele Lucchetti's tale of two brothers growing up in the turbulent '60s and '70s, but it's Elio Germano who steals the show as hot-headed troublemaker, Accio, who veers violently from a masochistic vocation for the priesthood to neo-fascist thuggery, only for his political extremism to be annihilated by its consequences on his radical brother (Scamarcio) and his alluring girlfriend (Diane Fleri). My Brother Is an Only Child is an ambitious film; it attempts to distill the complexity of extreme party and sexual politics through the relationship of two brothers. Remarkably, it succeeds.

Passione (2010)
John Turturro's homage to Neapolitan music strings together performances, both archival and new, from nearly every major performer to emerge from Naples in the past century, from Enrico Caruso to Sergio Bruni and Renato Carosone, all the way up to Pietra Montecorvino, Raiz, Peppe Barra, and Almamegretta. The rich miscuglio of traditions, from lyric opera to Arabic, Spanish, and African song, results in an exhilarating aural experience, matched by the pulsating rhythmic editing of Simona Paggi and the color-saturated, sinuous cinematography by Marco Pontecorvo.

The Sicilian Girl (2008)
Whatever moralism it might participate in, most mafia films assume the perspective of the mafiosi. It's rare for a woman to take center stage in such films, even rarer for her to be an ally of law and order, rarer still for her to be an agent and not just a victim. Based on the life of Rita Atria, a seventeen-year-old girl who became a star witness in the investigation of Cosa Nostra, the film fictionalizes her story, but director Marco Amenta, who previously directed a documentary about Atria, resists the worst sensationalist excesses. The Rita of the narrative film (Veronica D'Agostino, at times too shallowly expressionistic) begins keeping a diary after she witnesses the assassination of her father (Marcello Mazzarella). Obsessed with vengeance, especially after her brother (Carmelo Galati) is killed by the same assassin, Rita turns upon the whole mafia system.

Tale of Tales (2015)
Matteo Garrone's stunningly gorgeous and often gruesome fantasy film, adapted from three stories collected in Giambattista Basile's Lo cunto de li cunti, stars an international cast that includes Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, and Alba Rohrwacher. In the first tale, a childless queen impregnates herself by eating the heart of a slain sea dragon, while in the second, a king offers his daughter's hand to any suitor who can identify an exotic skin, in fact the skin of a grotesquely huge pet flea, and in the third, two old crones are courted by a prince enchanted by their ethereal singing. Garrone and his fellow screenwriters make no attempt to domesticate these slyly cruel stories, reveling in their strangeness and their witchy anarchy.

Vincere (2009)
Director Marco Bellocchio elicited from Giovanna Mezzogiorno her best ever performance, as Ida Dalser, Mussolini's (Filippo Timi) first wife and the mother of his son. Working with newly discovered archival materials, including letters and diaries, Bellocchio and fellow screenwriter Daniela Ceselli reconstruct a devastating history; Dalser and her son were considered threats to Mussolini's regime and thus they were separated and eventually incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals where both would die under suspicious circumstances, forgotten by posterity and excised from official records. The textured cinematography, with its velvety reds, inky blacks, murky browns, and silver-sheened greys, is by Daniele Ciprì. A masterpiece.

The Wedding Director (2006)
Another marvel directed by Marco Bellocchio, The Wedding Director stars Sergio Castellitto as a filmmaker in crisis, confounded by his latest project, an adaptation of Manzoni's I promessi sposi, who finds a flimsy excuse to flee to Sicily. There, he becomes entangled by an invitation from a prince to direct the wedding video of his daughter. Obviously responding to films like 8 1/2, Contempt, and All That Jazz, in which directors (re)enact personal and creative imbroglios by making a metafilm, The Wedding Director isn't brassy, nihilistic, or trying to exude a cool aesthetic. It's introspective, exploring the ineffable spaces that open up when relationships, whether with people or artworks, real or imagined, fall apart.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Film Review: Luchino Visconti's "The Leopard"

It's generally a mistake to watch an adaptation immediately after reading the book. The small details and nuances are still freshly vibrant and those neglected or omitted are irksome, while insignificant changes - the color of a character's eyes, a table instead of a desk, a conflation of a month into a few days - seem enormous. Such was my experience of watching Luchino Visconti's adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's epochal novel, The Leopard (Il gattopardo, or literally, The Serval). With Visconti as director, Nino Rota's score, Giuseppe Rotunno's cinematography, a screenplay with contributions by Suso Cecchi d'Amico, and a cast including Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, and Claudia Cardinale, the film seemed like something I might have dreamed up, but the subtle pleasures of the book, contemplative, decadent, saturnine, were not the same pleasures of the film. On a first viewing, almost immediately after closing the covers of the book, I didn't care much for the film, despite its pedigree, and its achingly lovely evocation of a world long since dead.

Revisiting the film now, I realize that I was too caught up in looking for an exact replica of the novel, and that was not Visconti's project. The film is a masterpiece, in dialogue with its source material, but not a mere imitation. And this is fitting, for the most celebrated and famous quotation of the novel is in fact: "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." A more succinct translation of the concept of trasformismo, I am not capable of writing. Both novel and film follow the leonine, aging Prince Salina (Burt Lancaster) as he ironically observes the events of the Italian Unification from his ancestral estates in Sicily, giving his blessing to his nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon), who falls in love with the bourgeois Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), a match that would have been impossible before Garibaldi's Red Shirts embarked on their famous climb up the Italian Boot.

Lampedusa was in fact the last Prince Lampedusa and the novel's politics speak to that fact, to his mourning for the end of his lineage  and the desecration of the family palazzo and to his ambivalence towards the Italian Unification, a long, bloody process usually celebrated as a decade of heroism, the extinction of a paternalistic, feudalistic aristocratic reign and the birth of representative government. Visconti, too, was an aristocrat, but he was also a card-carrying member of the Italian Communist Party, and for this he was known as the Red Count. The film adaptation diverges most from the novel by including a lengthy sequence, during which the protagonists are absent, of the battle between the Garibaldini and the Royalist forces for the city of Palermo. Reminiscent of the siege of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind, it's a bloody, frenetic interlude, a gaping hole in the aristocratic decorum and sedate luxury of the Prince of Salina's life. However, the film subtly critiques the political despair of the novel: the transfer of power from occupiers, colonists, small monarchies, and the papacy to a national government, with the Piedmontese king at its head, was less a victory than a slight shift in power with monumental consequences. The radical democratic and egalitarian impulses of Garibaldi and the impassioned patriotic utopianism of Mazzini became mere rhetorical implements to toss away once Cavour's crafty diplomacy and power machinations succeeded as not merely a strategy but the very means of Italian governance, but in 1963, hope burgeoned that the evils of corrupt government, repressive social structures, and class inequality could be defeated. The prince's statement in 1860 that Sicilian poverty would last at least another century or two was not so pessimistic in a film made a century afterwards. The red of the uniform of the Garibaldini could just as easily be the red of the communists; the change in the noble Tancredi's uniform, from Garibaldino red to monarchical blue, is not commented upon at random. Red was defeated once, but red fights again in Palermo through the magic of film.

The political commentary, though, is fodder for academics; the film's beauty and sensuality, its immersive techniques, can be marveled at and reveled in by any viewer. Visconti achieves something perfectly in The Leopard, something he strove to achieve in all his films: the viewer has a distinct sense of being thrown into a real, living, vital world. There are doors to unexplored rooms, roads to populated towns, the books can be read, the dust can work its way into seams and wrinkles, a celebratory cake with green icing can be tasted. At the end of the ball, crushed flowers and torn bits of tulle and lace drift under the last dancers' tripping feet. There isn't a single character, even the savagely gorgeous Angelica, who doesn't sweat in the stultifying Sicilian heat. This miraculous recreation of a world in its death throes is more than inviting: the viewer actually becomes a fellow ghost wandering through the cobweb-draped, unused rooms of the Salina palazzo. This immersiveness, more than the complicated political and romantic events of the plot, justify the film's lengthy running time of more than three hours. One needs time to look at the chandeliers glittering with candles, the hunting dog taking a spare moment to dig under a rock, the dabbing of cologne on a handkerchief; one needs time to hear the crepuscular chanting of the rosary, the bird-like chatter of girls at a ball. More than once, the camera takes up the position of a character and Tancredi, or Angelica, or Don Calogero, her absurd father in an ill-fitting tuxedo, look directly into the viewer's eyes. 

Visually, each frame is like a painting; aurally, The Leopard resembles an opera: this is so in nearly all of Visconti's post-neorealist work. But only Senso rivals this film in its engagement with Italy as an invented nation. In the Divine Comedy, Dante dreamed up a unified Italian peninsula, and since then Italians and the Italian diaspora have either accepted some conception or other of what Italy actually means without thinking past rhetoric, or done what Visconti has done in The Leopard: try to create Italy anew from a fragmented history of the stitching together of distinct regions, an Italy that might perhaps never exist except in the future.