AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
VENICE 1981 – THE 38TH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
SUN - DROWSED CADENZAS
by Harlan Kennedy
In moviegoers' consciousness, Venice has been a place of idiot enchantment ever since Katharine Hepburn planted the Hollywood flag there in Summertime and cut across the sun-drowsed cadenzas of Italian parlato with her brittle Bryn Mawr yap.
Then the sun lashed down for 90 minutes, under full Hollywood warranty, as Miss H swept into Venice from New England to meet Rossano Brazzi, to goggle at his ruby-red Murano goblets and to yatter swoonfully as the whole of St. Mark's Square, pigeons included, burst into the music of "Summertime."
This year rain sploshed from a temperamental sky, alternating with a sun beating down without boxing gloves, and "Summertime" vied with the "Godfather" theme for a photo finish at the top of the San Marco charts. Out on the Lido, alias Festival Island, pile-driving cloudbursts drove the audience who had just seen the evening screening of Miklos Jancso's new film back into the auditorium to see the midnight showing of John Stahl's 1945 Leave Her to Heaven, whether they wanted to or not. (After five seconds of blinding Stahlian baroque they did.)
Yet even in the teeth of wild weather, diminished budget, and absent films (Peter Weir's Gallipoli, R. W Fassbinder's Lola, promised but not materializing), it's nearly impossible not to delight in the Venice Film Festival. The brilliantly successful new events – the noon and midnight (mezzogiorno, mezzanotte) screenings – were free, open to the public, and packed to the rafters. In these and other time slots movies so bad that one wonders how they crossed the lagoon without curling up in shame and dropping into the depths jostle with wide-awake sleepers and real and thrilling surprises. And in the Sala Grande, a prime and goldy-plushed viewing hall, the con brio Italian public so rampantly toss the flaky tropes of critical response that it's like being back in the Salad Decades of movie fever. (Leave Her to Heaven was a case in point – howls of approbation for every close-up of Gene Tierney's waxen, wondrous beauty and Vincent Price's youthful essays at Gothic menace.)
But for the yin of love-of-flamboyance in Italy, there is – and it's more discernible every year – the yang of a different kind of extremism: a social-conscience righteousness that rides roughshod over cinematic art in the pursuit of a hairshirt holiness of purpose. Thirty years after Rossellini and DeSica made Neo-realism tick and anti-Fascism and proto-Socialism meld with human emotions, Italian filmmakers are still churning out carbon-copy Paisans and Open Cities and Shoeshines in which the imprint of humanity and originality gets ever fainter and fainter. In movies like Peter Del Monte's Piso Pisello or Salvatore Piscicelli's Le Occasione di Rosa, both bowing at Venice this year, the same peeling Italian streets echo to the same fight for survival and social equality, the same urchins tipple along the sidewalks in the shadow of the same busty prostitutes, and it all seems curiously meaningless in 1981: long after Godard has given social realism such a twist that blank-eyed window-on-the-world verismo has scarcely been a mainstream proposition in cinema since the Sixties.
And sure enough it was just such a Deeply-Meaningful social document, from Germany not Italy, that won the warm embrace of the Golden Lion this year. Margarethe von Trotta's Die Bleierne Zeit (The German Sisters) is a tight-faced fable of anarchy and sisterhood in which two siblings who grew up as children on opposite sides of a temperamental gulf switch roles in adulthood so that the shy one becomes a terrorist, the lively one a bewildered mother and bystander. It's a single-minded film made with antennae fully stretched to catch the political anxieties of modern Germany: the phantom of a phoenix-Fascism arising from the Aryan ashes, the desperate weaponry of anarchist Terror used to combat it, the bewilderment of those caught in the crossfire.
But for "single-minded" you can also read one-dimensional. Von Trotta paints her film in bleak negatives and alarmist austerities – the best scenes are fright satire (a prison visitor is body-searched by a butch female warden scarcely less thoroughly than the prisoners themselves), the worst, those in which any kind of human warmth or casual spontaneity is essayed – and the film finally closes in on itself like a grouchy clam.
The socially righteous, anti-authoritarian, grouchy-clam bent in the Venice Fest, evident in the favoring of these films, was dementedly obtrusive in the selection of the big U.S. movies for the festival. True Confessions, Blow Out, Prince of the City, and Cutter's Way are in part or in degree conspiracy movies all, and very fine when blowing into view one by one. But when seen together, as here, they seem like an endless replay loop of post-Watergate paranoia, in which no corner of America can be found in which Wealthy Capitalists do not walk about, covering up heinous crimes and/or clobbering prostitutes.
While Lions, Golden or Silver, were prowling about seeking excellence to pounce upon, Top Roar should have gone to two movies that combined food-for-the-mind with fabulous visual feasting.
Siren's Island is a real find – stream-of-consciousness from Switzerland. Director Isa Hesse-Rabinovitch creates a moviegoer's Morpheus Descending, a dream trip on stepping stones of the drugged self into an Underworld/Underground of floozy female chanteuses, drag acts, and the lunatic fringe of showbiz. Mostly set in New York but also slithering for surreal variation through the skull-piled catacombs in Rome, this no-narrative fantasia is pure association-of-ideas in film form. The spectator is Ulysses lured onto a multi-level island Bohemia by the siren-song of 1980s subculture. The images are Dadaism at its most daffy and DeLuxe, from the slinky vamp crooning "Moon of Alabama" at a waxwork of Jimmy Carter, suit and grin intact, to the lady snake-dancer juggling giant pythons with a nervous smile. The metaphor that binds it all together is the stratification of the human mind, from the surface taboos and proprieties of the super-ego to the deep-down ferality and non sequiturs of the id. We dive from skyscrapers to sewers in the course of the film, and even a grubby service elevator becomes an up-down theater symbol, with shuttling proscenium and quick-changing acts. It's a surreal movie that jettisons "narrative" completely and yet keeps up a riveting momentum of form and feeling for 100 minutes.
Tyrant's Pleasure. More narrative-flouting legerdemain, this time from Miklos Jancso. Given up for self-repeating in many circles today, the hero of late Sixties Hungarian cinema is actually entering perhaps his most fascinating period. This fugal extravaganza on the theme of political intrigue should be bottled and labeled "Essence of Machiavellianism": a convoluted carnival of camera roulades and courtly politicking in the tale of an exiled young nobleman returning to Hungary from Italy, with a troupe of actor friends in tow, and finding himself the favored but frantically schemed-around nominee to the throne. The legato fluidity of Jancso's staging here extends even to moving the actors around on unseen floats or skateboards so that human groups and galaxies whir round each other in a ceaseless continuo like a solar system of power struggle. There are, in the true Jancso tradition, mists, masques, mimes, and monologues, and it's all magnificent.
It takes an Italian film festival to favor the far-out and present it in full unflinching close-up. Any country that can beatify K. Hepburn's blackbird-caw into rapt warblings trades in Magick. And this year even film critics, sere austere breed, got their share. Being boated across the lagoon for an evening's screening on an outlying island; the white wall of a villa used for a screen; local ladies pushing chairs about in the giant bougainvillea-tossed courtyard and speaking in a cataract of argot (without English subtitles); a star-studded night looking down on a stuttering projector, a giant beam of light, and a rapt audience.
Further synesthesia and symbiosis of place and event burst forth in Venice proper in a huge Titian to El Greco exhibition at the Doge's Palace. Wandering through the gallerias hung with blown-up movie frames painted 500 years ago, you realize that cine-literacy doesn't begin with Lumière and Méliès and Porter and Griffith; it begins with the frozen-embryo dynamics, poised tiptoe on the brink of motion, of the painted canvas. Visconti's movies sprang so clearly from the loins of Titian that seeing these paintings over again is like discovering Senso and The Leopard anew. The impact of classical painting on cinema is a virtually unexplored study field, although many of today's or yesterday's most darling auteurs – from Sirk to Antonioni – have specifically modeled scenes or shots on paintings.
Indeed if there was a common failure area in the films at Venice – Jancso, De Palma, Siren Island, and a few other contenders honorably excepted – it was their visual slovenliness. Nothing to do with prizing the statuesque above the kinetic (nothing could be more restlessly kinetic than De Palma) but with preferring ring crafted eye-impact to plonk-the-camera-anywhere-and-shoot.
Examples of the later were legion. In the British Film Institute Production Board's Meave, co-directed by Pat Murphy and John Davies, an Irish-born, London-naturalized young girl (Mary Jackson) revisits strife-torn Belfast and her family and worries about her loyalties in long wedges of awful dialogue. The camera, schooled in cine-verité murk, peers through the half-light like an uninvited and increasingly pariah-like guest.
Kaleidoscope (Chaalchitra) gives us Indian director Mrinal Sen eyeless in Calcutta. The self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist Bard of Bengal gropes through the visual and dramatic doldrums of a tale about poverty-pinched family life in the Big City. The unavailability of public transport, the polluting smoke of coal stoves: Sen hits the same point over the head so often – it seems to be the only way he knows how to make it – that the audience ultimately a out with terminal concussion.
Krzysztof Zanussi's From A Far Country, dubbed by some wags the "Pope opera," gives us a mini-biopic of Pontiff John Paul II sewn into the clodhopping 140-minute fabric of a vaster, would-be definitive social history of the Poland that shaped the Pope. Cezary Morawski threads laconically through the background of the tale as the pre-papal Wojtyla, while toplining thesps Sam Neill, Lisa Harrow, and Christopher Cazenove stand up-front and deliver the bulk of the humanist bromides masquerading as human conversation. Zanussi appears to have looked courageously over one shoulder at the Vatican and over the other at Film Polski et al in a sprain-the-neck effort to offend neither Pontiff nor power structure. The film succeeds in offending many, boring more, and is an aural and pictorial shambles.
No less shambolic was Marco Ferreri's Story of Everyday Madness, made in Los Angeles in the English language by the once-reckonable director of Dillinger is Dead. In recent years Ferreri has lost all sense of how to frame or pace a movie. This Brobdingnagian Beat-era banana skin is based on the writings of Charles Bukovsky and includes Ben Gazzara (as Bukovsky's alter ego) among the players sliding to their doom on a slithery mush of "outrageous" dialogue and actions. Star turn is Gazzara trying desperately to fuck a fat lady with his head – he wants to get back to the womb. Overlong, deeply meaningless, and enough to give the Sexual Revolution a bad name with the Moral Majority.
Despair not, however. Look about at Venice, and there was still plenty there.
Yuan Ye. Chinese blood-and-thunder from the People's Republic, and the first film to suggest that mainland China might ere long catch up in vivacity with the Hong Kong industry. Stylish camera-swoopings and an Oriental love of foreground filigree – branches, rushes, flowering trees – make this a stunning film to look at, although the human beings don't quite pulse to the same life as the landscape.
Christian F. Case-history bestseller of teenage drug-addiction becomes smash-hit movie. Prowling through the hypo-strewn purlieus of Berlin's "Zoo Bahnhof," director Ulrich Edel chronicles the link between discos, heroin addiction, and teen prostitution. Leaping into celluloid from the "Read all about it" confessions of a real drug casualty – the title's Christiane F. – this movie has already blitzed most box office records in West Germany. Edel gets stunning performances from his barely post-pubescent leads, and although the film is painted thick in yellow-press Sensationalese – teeny-bopping cuties impaling themselves like pin cushions in every seamy Hades from subway tunnels to public toilets – one still gazes agog at the fair old ferocity and realismus with which it's done.
Sogni d'Oro. Nanni Moretti, who looks like a lean-and-rueful Werner Herzog and leans to windward like an unstable gondola pole, wrote, directed, and stars in this delicious slow-burn comedy from Italy. Poking fun at the film business, Moretti plays a moviemaker working on a film about Freud. Moretti's oscillations as performer between consuming world-weariness (he brings his own camp-bed to the set and goes to sleep between takes) and sudden apoplexies of rage at home ("I don't want to resolve my Oedipus complex!" he screams, getting up from the table and swatting his mother in mid-dinner) are compulsive and convulsive. Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, beware! – with a tad more consistency in his gags, Moretti could become the best European comic since Tati.
Francisca. Manoel de Oliveira, feted latecomer to the festival circuit, celebrates his Portuguese Summer with a magnum opus mightily worth the marathon length (two hours forty-six minutes). If Visconti sprang from the loins of Titian, de Oliveira hails from the House of Velasquez. Francisca is an overwhelming conspiracy of colors and textures, filmed in Valasquez velvets and marooning its characters in a thrilling half-world between autonomy and artifice, life and portraiture. As the de Oliveira compositions burn and brood around a tragic triangular romance in last-century Portugal, the film's form is so formal it becomes almost a new surrealism: especially when the stately series of tableaux vivants suddenly spurt into motion (a slapped face, a runaway horse) or when, conversely, a raging sea-view seen through a window suddenly "freezes" into a painted backcloth. With its teasing tensions of stillness and movement and its masque-within-masque mise en scène, de Oliveira's work is not only a great oeuvre newly discovered but a whole new way of looking at cinema.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE NOV-DEC 1981 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.