Thursday, April 27, 2017

sunglasses-chic: La Dolce Vita (1960)


La dolce vita. Directed by Federico Fellini. Originally released as a feature film in 1960. Performers: Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée, Anita Ekberg, Yvonne Furneaux, Alain Cuny, Lex Barker. Summary: Rome 1960. A jaded journalist looks for meaning among the beautiful people, but can’t find it anywhere. La dolce vita was the film that rocketed Federico Fellini to international mainstream success by offering a blistering critique of the culture of stardom.


style ****

substance ****




“Either a film has something to say to you or it hasn’t. If you are moved by it, you don’t need it explained to you. If not, no explanation can make you moved by it.” 
 

  - Federico Fellini (1920-1993) 




As we’re creeping up on the hundredth anniversary of Federico Fellini’s birth – and the sixtieth anniversary of the filming and release of La Dolce Vita – it would seem apropos to share some thoughts on one of his most celebrated and influential films.

But first, a confession: I was never much of a Fellini buff; what I’ve seen has been mostly his later, arguably more accessible, arguably lesser, works like Amarcord, Roma and Ginger & Fred. Thus my education as a fan of classic cinema had a conspicuous gap: I’d never before seen La Dolce Vita all the way through, only snippets. Of course I was aware of its awesome repute and had seen pictures of a beautiful blonde frolicking beside some kind of waterfall. So I looked forward to watching the complete film on DVD. And I wasn’t disappointed. Indeed in my ever-shifting pantheon of all-time favorite movies, Dolce Vita is nudging for a place in the proverbial top ten.



culture as couture



La Dolce Vita-consciousness arrived just in time for the Italian couture industry, which had played second fiddle to France for more than a decade. With Christian Dior’s radically conservative New Look which burst on the scene in 1947, Paris displaced New York and Hollywood as the world’s fashion epicenter and held its lofty position through much of the 1950s. But the Italian fashion industry, with figures like Schuberth, Brioni and the Fontana sisters, gradually crept back into prominence. And with all the attendant ballyhoo surrounding the making of and release of La Dolce Vita, the Italian brand and its sleek look suddenly became the very definition of hip.

This was further reinforced by the large stage provided by the Rome Olympics of 1960: the games were an international sensation and added further momentum to Italy’s growing status as a top-tier player. Henceforth the made-in-Italy imprimatur would carry a cachet the equal of any other national brand. Glamour, cinema and city became interwoven, and Rome chic became the standard for measuring sophistication and cool.





La Dolce Vita’s
cultural repercussions and connections have extended in all sorts of directions. To mention just a couple of examples: the term paparazzi originated as the name of a tenacious celebrity photographer in the film (actually the character’s name was ‘Paparazzo’). The sunglasses and snug black dress worn by Anouk Aimée, along with her svelte physique, find an obvious counterpart in Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly and her über-Sixties look in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Moreover, the collection of cocktail party types Holly ran with in Tiffany’s can be traced directly back to the beau monde who populate Dolce Vita. In fact it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to see Tiffany’s as the American Dolce Vita (though not nearly as good, in this writer’s humble opinion). Perhaps the ultimate nod was given in 1995 when the echt-French fashion house Dior launched a fragrance called ‘Dolce Vita,’ complete with promotional video in the style of Fellini’s film.



Even today echoes of La Dolce Vita reverberate in strikingly disparate venues: countless memoirs, documentaries, critiques, advertisements, fashion spreads, novels, parodies, blog posts and tributes have surged forth. The film’s spectacle of relentless photographers and gossip mongers who feed the public’s appetite for the sensational finds a reflection in our own media- and celebrity-obsessed times, whose manifestations are even more stunningly vulgar and would make Dolce Vita’s Marcello and his photographic entourage look like Edward R. Murrow.


those sweet sunglasses

Wardrobe designer Piero Gherardi was also Dolce Vita’s set designer and art director, and accordingly deserves much of the credit for the film’s well-heeled, high gloss look. As for the costumes, with the exception of Marcello, the women do seem to get the better of it. In any case, all the costumes in La Dolce Vita are important; the clothes not only reflect the character, in large part they are the character.



So many worthy exemplars we might cite: the bikini-clad, hat-donning bathing beauties who wave to Marcello and Paparazzo; Madame Steiner’s polka dot one-piece with white collars and white scarf which she wears as the swarming photographers descend upon her; Emma’s black dress, scarf and frumpy coat at the Madonna sighting; the recurring motif of the simple black dress throughout, the most stylish being the two black dresses worn by Maddalena; Sylvia’s demure vestmentlike dress which Gherardi borrowed from the Fontana sisters’ linea cardinale look of a few years prior; the stunning strapless dress Sylvia wears for her impromptu wade in the fountain; the Thai dancers at the night club and their strange get-ups, a good, if mild, example of Fellini-grotesque; Marcello's father’s conservative – if high quality – business suit, striped tie and old school hat which contrasts nicely with the son’s always trendy threads; and of course the impossibly cool sunglasses worn, day or night, by Marcello and Maddalena [1].

Then there's the exotic-looking woman at Steiner's party who sits on the floor strumming a guitar and singing a plaintive tune. She is adorned in toga-like one-piece that suggests ancient Roman garb, topped by gold headpiece. And of course designer Gherardi lavishes much attention on the film’s central protagonist, tabloid journalist Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni), a man who, though short on substance, has style to burn. Mastroianni fast became the embodiment of continental cool with the dark glasses, casually elegant wardrobe and diffident manner. Gherardi dressed his savoir-faire hero in sleek designer suits or snug fitting tuxedo and bow-tie. But the outfit we remember is the white suit he wears in the final scene, though curiously the garb contrasts with the generally dark tones he wears through the rest of the film.


If La Dolce Vita’s louche themes of media corruption and Old World decadence no longer have the power to shock, then its purely cinematic aspects, especially the crisp, widescreen look and brilliant editing, remain amazingly fresh [2]. Indeed there’s a case to be made that La Dolce Vita is the first modern movie, and contributing to the film’s modernist aesthetic in no small way is the wardrobe design. The clothes worn by Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimée and the other principals remain perpetually cool and radiate good taste. Far from being dated, the Dolce Vita look – classic, streamlined, understated – holds up exceptionally well. Old is always new again if we wait long enough.


[1] Interesting that Marcello doesn’t wear his sunglasses in the two scenes with his friend and mentor Steiner. It’s as though by removing the glasses he wants to absorb what he perceives to be Steiner’s genuineness of spirit and intellect. Otherwise he uses the glasses as a way to keep the world at bay, allowing him to engage socially only when he chooses to.

[2] Despite the occasional surrealistic flourishes, the visuals in LDV are relatively restrained, low-keyed, and nicely controlled. But the rather detached visual styling doesn’t preclude an eye for detail, realized through a prowling, fluid camera that captures much but judges little: Fellini doesn’t render a verdict on the foibles of the characters he presents. Rather, and much to his credit, he simply records what he sees and lets the viewer make up his own mind, which of course always projects the viewer’s standards and biases. A dark mirror that reflects back at the audience.  





Further reading:

Grace H. Carrier, La dolce vita: Fellini’s Farewell to the society of the spectacle, NYU Expository Writing Program, New York City, 2015.

Nicola Certo, "La Dolce Vita today: fashion and media," 2017. CUNY Academic Works.

Federico Garolla di Bard, Dolce Italia: the beautiful life of Italy in the Fifties and Sixties, Rizzoli, 2005.

Shawn Levy, Dolce vita confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, paparazzi, and the swinging high life of 1950s Rome, Norton, 2016.

Eugenia Paulicelli, “Fashioning Rome: cinema, fashion, and the media in the postwar years,” Annali d'Italianistica 28, Capital City: Rome 1870-2010, pp257-278.

Sonnet Stanfill (ed.), Italian style: fashion since 1945, V&A Publishing, 2014.




Monday, April 17, 2017

Rita resplendent : Salome (1953)



Salome. Columbia Pictures Corporation; screen play by Harry Kleiner; produced by Buddy Adler; directed by William Dieterle. 103 minutes. Directed by William Dieterle. Performers: Rita Hayworth, Stewart Granger, Charles Laughton, Judith Anderson, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Basil Sydney, Alan Badel. Summary: the tale of Salome, the beautiful princess, daughter of Queen Herodias and step-daughter of King Herod, set during the perilous decadent days of early Rome and the events that led to the death of John the Baptist.

style ***
substance ***

In the pantheon of late Forties and early Fifties Biblical/Roman epics, Salome is usually thought of as decidedly second-tier, if it’s mentioned at all. Certainly it has more than its share of historical inaccuracies and camp elements. Moreover, the heavy-handed script, awash in somber piety, is pretty cringeworthy even by the standards of historical epics.

And yet …  even with the lapses in taste and history, Salome has aged pretty darn well, mostly due to the many delicious performances and the over-the-top costumes (by Jean Louis) and gaudy sets which are captured in glorious technicolor.

It’s no revelation to point out that Rita Hayworth was at least ten years too old for the title role, but her footwork is as nimble as ever as she performs the most notorious exotic dance in history. True, her interpretation is somewhat tame by today’s standards, but a delight nonetheless. When Rita slinks around with such panache, who cares? Anyway in an era when so much more was suggested than depicted it’s actually a little refreshing to view today through our more jaundiced, seen-and-heard-it-all eyes.

Judith Anderson exudes delicious evil in a one-note performance as Herodias and she too benefits from some splendiferous costumes. In a mostly understated turn as King Herod, Charles Laughton is effective because he underplays rather than overplays the role, thus suggesting a repressed, lecherous debauchery that’s just about to boil over.

There are a couple of exceptions to the generally primo performances. Alan Badel simply doesn’t have the dramatic heft to project John the Baptist, and as a result his interpretation mostly descends into righteous camp. Ditto for Stewart Granger as an earnest Roman centurion who becomes sympathetic to the Christian cause. He looks great but his lines and delivery are leaden.

This version of the Salome story doesn’t supplant the Oscar Wilde play and subsequent Richard Strauss opera as the grand champion, not by a long shot, but it’s a fun, entertaining movie, a polished studio product typical of its era and with the attendant virtues and excesses for this type of material. On balance, then, Salome is well worth a second look and especially noteworthy as a vehicle for a charismatic Rita at her alluring best. Also commendable are the widescreen technicolor look and some delectable scenery chewing from Charles Laughton and Judith Anderson. Another plus: we get a terrific epic score, not too bombastic, by George Duning.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Lizzie (1957)


Lizzie [videorecording (DVD)], a Bryna production; a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer picture; produced by Jerry Bresler; directed by Hugo Haas. Turner Entertainment Co., Warner Bros. Entertainment, [2016]. WB Home Entertainment Group archive collection. Based on a novel by Shirley Jackson. Originally released as a motion picture in 1957. Performers: Eleanor Parker, Richard Boone, Joan Blondell, Hugo Haas. Summary: Elizabeth is beset by headaches and menacing letters from the sinister Lizzie, a brash, hedonistic woman who emerges from within, compensating for Elizabeth's shyness. A caring neighbor steers her to the psychiatrist who unlocks her disordered mind, bringing out another steadier woman named Beth.


style ***
substance ***1/2


Lizzie
covers much the same territory as the better-known and more lauded Three Faces of Eve. Fascinating that both were released in the same year, and at a time when the movies’ fascination with the psychoanalytic thriller was actually fading. In any case, Lizzie beat Eve to the punch by a few months, and more important, may well be the superior work.

As the lady with three distinct personalities, Eleanor Parker gives one of her best performances in a career in which the standout turn became the norm. She was really in her element in these intense, edge-of-the-ledge roles, and this one’s a doozy. It’s to her credit that she accomplishes all with relatively little scenery chewing, relying more on subtleties of body language as well as vocal and facial expressions. Truly a tour-de-force.


Lizzie also boasts a first-rate supporting cast: director Hugo Haas does double duty as a kindly neighbor, Richard Boone nicely underplays a sympathetic psychiatrist, and best of all is Joan Blondell as Lizzie’s alcoholic floozie of an auntie. Indeed were Miss Parker’s performance not so strong, Miss Blondell might well have flat out stolen the movie from her. Also of note is Ric Roman as a smarmy womanizer.

Director Haas moves things along with a sure hand. The story is told in a flat, neutral visual style with only a few noir-like touches. It’s all very professionally done but, probably as a result of the shoestring budget, with the look and feel of a well-produced late Fifties television program. On the other hand, the minimalist, stripped down quality, in contrast to Eve’s high gloss patina, actually works to Lizzie’s advantage in presenting a bleak moral universe that parallel’s the heroine’s troubled inner life. Special mention should be made of the on-location scenes filmed at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, the architecture of which is used to great effect.

A couple of minor quibbles with the DVD packaging: the image is generally good but not always as clear as it might be. And one wishes for bonus features (all we get is the trailer). A film as noteworthy as Lizzie would be excellent fodder for commentary, interviews, historical documentaries, etc.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

cabaretera noir: Aventurera (1950)


Aventurera [videorecording]. Producciones Calderon S.A.; argumento de Alvaro Custodio; adaptacíon de Carlos Sampelayo y Alvaro Custodio ; una pelicula de pedro y Guillermo Calderón; dirigida por Alberto Gout. Cinemateca, distributed by Facets Video, [2004]. Originally released as a motion picture in 1950. Cinematography, Alex Phillips; editor, Alfredo Rosas Priego; music, Alberto Domínguez, Antonio Díaz Conde and Agustin Lara. Performers: Ninón Sevilla, Tito Junco, Andrea Palma, Miguel Inclán. With: video introduction by Michael Donnelly.
Summary: Elena tries to make a new life for herself after her mother leaves her alone, but she is drugged, seduced, and forced to work as a dancer/call girl in a nightclub. She soon rises to stardom as a dancer, but still plots revenge and escape.


style ****
substance ***1/2


Aventurera is a primo entry in the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, and, more important, perhaps the finest exemplar of the Mexican cabaretera subgenre, which is the rough equivalent of the American films noirs of the era. The critical difference, as the name implies, is that cabaretera always uses a club or casino as the backdrop and includes a goodly amount of musical numbers, also that cabaretera was more up front in its depiction of sensuality and sordidness than its Code-inhibited American cousins.

In any case the usual cabaretera story has considerable Sturm und Drang, and to spice things up, as if we needed more, the cabaret often doubles as a front for prostitution and white slavery, with the proprietor (or proprietress) leading a double life, usually as an otherwise respectable figure in high society. And, again paralleling film noir’s leftist sentiments, Aventurera and other films of its ilk swept away the curtain and revealed the seamy
side of urban economic affluence in Mexico during the post-World War II years [1]. Changing tastes and other factors doomed the cabaretera to a short life span, little more than five years, and by 1956 it had more or less disappeared.

The plot of Aventurera, such as it is, concerns the character Elena (Ninon Sevilla) and her attempts to go straight after being forced into life as a prostitute and cabaret dancer by an evil bordello madam. Plot twists proceed fast and furious and the viewer can be forgiven for having difficulty keeping up with all the goings-on. But these are smoothed out by the phantasmagoric dance numbers which feature a high-energy Ninon at her most beguiling, never more so so than in the surrealist Arabian nights number, the over-the–top glory of which would do Busby Berkeley proud.


Aventurera was re-released in the late 1990s to much acclaim, and today enjoys a considerable cult following, mostly for its camp elements. But even so, after seven decades the film holds up exceptionally well, but more to the point holds up well when considered against the American films noirs of the period. And ultimately, even with all the talent in front of and behind the camera, this is Ninon Sevilla’s film start to finish.

Echoes of
cabaretera can been seen even today in our current pop culture, most prominently in the immensely popular Mexican telenovelas. There was no American equivalent of cabaretera, though the closest is probably Gilda, and, strangely, in its more tenuous way, Casablanca. One quibble: the Facets DVD includes an informative introduction by film historian Michael Connelly, but a film as significant as Aventurera seems to scream out for real-time commentary as well as other extras. Perhaps Criterion can be persuaded to release an all-the-trimmings version in the future. Still, even in its present incarnation, a wild ride, and a fun movie.


[1] Aventurera has also been cited for its proto-feminist elements. The strong-willed Elena refuses to bend to the dictates of a patriarchal system; she resists the machinations of high-handed would be masters, be they a kindly, albeit clueless, husband, or a ruthless gangster, and ultimately her independent spirit prevails. There’s also the character of Rosaura, who, despite the unsavory nature of her enterprise, is a capable and successful businesswoman.



Further reading

Las reinas del trópico: María Antonieta Pons, Meche Barba, Amalia Aguilar, Ninón Sevilla, Rosa Carmina, by Fernando Muñoz Castillo. [México, D.F.] : Grupo Azabache, 1993. "Se termino de imprimir en julio de 1993 en Offset 70, S.A. de C.V., Victor Hugo 99, Mexico,03300, D.F."

Joanne Hershfield, Mexican Cinema/Mexican Woman, 1940-1950, University of Arizona Press, 1996.


Paula Barreiro Posada, ''The Only Defense is Excess: Translating and Surpassing Hollywood's Conventions to Establish a Relevant Mexican Cinema,” Anagramas Rumbos Sentidos Comunicación, v9 n18, Jan./June 2011.
 

 

Monday, February 6, 2017

everyone's favorite auntie

   Auntie Mame. [videorecording (DVD)]. Warner Bros. Pictures presents; screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green; directed by Morton DaCosta. From the novel, Auntie Mame, by Patrick Dennis, as adapted for the stage by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Originally released as a motion picture in 1958.
   Director of photography, Harry Stradling, Sr.; art director, Malcolm Bert; film editor, William Ziegler; set decorator, George James Hopkins; costumes designed by Orry-Kelly; music by Bronislau Kaper. Performers: Rosalind Russell, Forrest Tucker, Coral Browne, Fred Clark, Roger Smith, Patric Knowles, Peggy Cass, Jan Handzlik, Joanna Barnes, Pippa Scott, Lee Patrick, Willard Waterman, Robin Hughes, Connie Gilchrist, Yuki Shimoda, Brook Byron, Carol Veazie.
   Summary: In 1928, a 10-year-old boy goes to New York to live with his eccentric, sophisticated Auntie Mame, a lady who throws a party for any occasion, or non-occasion. He grows up and brings home his fiancée and her parents, and Mame finds them uninteresting and snobbish.


style ****
substance ****


A recent viewing, my first ever, of Auntie Mame provided me with one of those magical moments in a cinema buff’s life. This is a movie that’s a complete joy start to finish, and moreover strikes an emotional chord in a very personal way. And how well it’s aged!

By 1958 American culture and society was simmering with a liberal gestalt that would boil over in the Sixties, and the time was ripe for a (relatively) no-holds-barred cinematic treatment of the play that was a recent smash hit on Broadway. The attitudes in the film version of Auntie Mame are actually more Thirties (i.e. pre-Code-ish) than Fifties, and the script and situations get away with a lot of risqué/un-pc material, at least by the standards of the era. Then again, while the Fifties were more repressed than our own times, they were also less pc.


So much of the dialogue still sparkles today, especially when combined with the flawless delivery and timing. Indeed the zingers come so fast and frequent that they reveal themselves only upon repeated viewings. Maybe it has something to do with the story being set mostly in the Twenties and Thirties: those eras, like fine wine, become mellower and better as they age, certainly more so than, say, the Sixties and Seventies, which haven’t aged very gracefully. Continuing the thought, it occurs to me that Auntie Mame is basically a pre-Code movie made in 1958, i.e. all the stylistic trappings of 1950s films but with story line, snappy dialogue and worldly wise-characters that are pure early Thirties.


And true to the film's pre-Code, proletarian spirit, Mame’s character is socially, and, by implication, politically liberal. This is conveyed primarily through her zesty one-liners and verbal comebacks, which she delivers with considerable aplomb. But, curiously, for all the progressive overlay, politics per se doesn’t figure a whit in Auntie Mame. And while it's undeniable that Mame Dennis is more style than substance (and as a result wealth becomes her a lot better than poverty), when the style is this warm-hearted and honest in its, well, stylishness, how can we complain?

Indeed, the sheer force of Mame's personality is such that it obscures her positive, substantive qualities: generosity, tolerance, open-mindedness, sense of adventure, and perhaps most of all, impatience with pretense, snobbery and prejudice.


The above commentary notwithstanding, somehow I always think of Auntie Mame as a musical without musical numbers, probably due to its high gloss look (especially Orry-Kelly’s splendiferous costumes) and Bronislau Kaper’s by turns frothy and sentimental score. And while the film has a widescreen, plush look so typical of the era, suggesting MGM or Fox, it was actually produced, and only rightly so, by Warners, the most pre-Code-ish studio of them all.

A few quibbles: yes, Auntie Mame is overlong, by about fifteen minutes, and for me the first half of the film bubbles with a tastier bouquet than the second. But more important, what happened to World War II? Auntie Mame starts in 1928 then quickly progresses to the crash in 1929, after which the chronology gets murky. Anyhow we jump to 1946 and it’s as though the war didn’t exist, a fussy observation perhaps but I found the disconnect distracting. My only other mild reservation is that for all its flourishes Auntie Mame is at heart very talky, and very stagey, gloriously so, but in the end little more than a filmed play. Or, if you like, a series of (mostly wonderful) set pieces, all dominated by the larger-than-life character of Mame herself.


Another minor, and purely packaging, criticism: the DVD print is beautiful to look at – all those sets and costumes are totally scrumptious – but the disk is skimpy on bonus features. You’d think a film as important as Auntie Mame merits the deluxe edition treatment with commentary, featurette, interviews, etc. Maybe Criterion can be persuaded to release it in the future.

It would be an understatement to say this is Rosalind Russell’s signature role. I’ll invoke the tired cliché: this was the character – and what a character! – she was born to play. She projects with incomparable panache all of Mame’s exuberantly flamboyant glory. However – the supporting performances are wonderful too. I’m especially partial to Joanna Barnes's empty-headed socialite, and even more so, Coral Browne’s alcoholic diva, who’s just as over-the-top as Mame herself and matches her quip for quip. The only misfire among the secondary players is Peggy Cass as Miss Gooch, both the character and the performance.


In sum, Auntie Mame is an always welcome dose of joie-de-vivre and feel good energy. In those times when I'm feeling down or have a world-is-too-much feeling, I play the DVD, or conjure up the memory, and revel in the film’s generous, warm-hearted glory. And for a time, the world is a happy place again.

Further reading:
Les Fabian Brathwaite, Hays’d: Decoding the Classics — Auntie Mame
Richard Tyler Jordan, But darling, I'm your Auntie Mame! : the amazing history of the world's favorite aunt, Kensington Books, c2004.
Eric Meyers, Uncle Mame : the life of Patrick Dennis, St. Martin’s, 2000.