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.

Monday, April 10, 2017

"Who can say what magic really is?": Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

Bell, Book and Candle [DVD]. Columbia Pictures presents a Phoenix production; screen play by Daniel Taradash; produced by Julian Blaustein; directed by Richard Quine. Burbank, CA: Columbia TriStar Home Video, 1999. Performers: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Jack Lemmon, Ernie Kovacs, Hermione Gingold, Elsa Lanchester, Janice Rule. Director of photography, James Wong Howe; film editor, Charles Nelson; music, George Duning. Originally released as a motion picture in 1958. Based on the play by John Van Druten. Summary: Kim Novak plays a witch who casts a spell on a book publisher (Stewart) to make him fall in love with her. He is most unhappy when he finds out what happened.

Dating from 1958, Bell, Book and Candle, is, if you like, the happy ending sequel to the much darker Vertigo, released the same year. BB&C reunites stars James Stewart and Kim Novak, and they have the same kind of chemistry they possessed in Vertigo, possibly even more so. In a sense Vertigo and BB&C are the same movie, albeit each with a very different style and tone: a beautiful, mysterious woman bewitches, under false pretenses, a man, who later finds he’s been duped. Naturally he wants to remove the spell.

And despite Vertigo’s awesome repute, Bell, Book & Candle may be straight up the better movie (but don’t tell anyone I said so!). For all Vertigo’s incredible visual flourishes, myth-invoking associations, and great music score, the story never really holds together. Moreover, there aren’t that many characters worth rooting for, and it has its share of bumpy passages, the dream sequence in particular. And besides, Elster’s murder plan is patently absurd. 

BB&C, by contrast, has few, if any, weaknesses: its visuals are, in their different way, just as beautiful as Vertigo’s (James Wong Howe’s admittedly studio-bound photography is  … bewitching). Just about every character is appealing, even the snooty Merle (Janice Rule). Thus the crux of the matter: the fantastical story of BB&C is presented in eminently human terms and works just as well as a romantic comedy typical of the era. And Geroge Duning’s by turns whimsical and jazzy score captures just the right mood.

Draped in all those scrumptious Jean Louis dresses and capes, Kim Novak’s Gillian is the lighter, brighter version of Vertigo’s Madeline, if anything even more luscious than she was in the latter film. And Stewart is pitch perfect in projecting his bemused persona to the fullest. The appropriately languorously cat-like Gillian may be the emotional heart of the film (Novak turns in a terrific performance), but it’s the supporting cast, especially a quintessentially ditzy Elsa Lanchester as Gillian’s auntie and Ernie Kovacs as a befuddled, alcoholic writer who steal the show. Bell, Book and Candle is just one heck of a movie, the perfect warm fuzzy corrective at Christmas time (during which the film is set) just in case one is feeling down, rather like snuggling up to a plushy Siamese cat. As the man said, they don't make `em like this anymore.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Brief candles: Patsy Cline (1932-1963)

Okay, I’ll admit it straight away: I’ve never been a fan of country music. Something about its lonely, twangy sound world that bespeaks of sadness and existential despair just doesn’t work for me. However – there are a few exceptions: Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Cash, Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves. And of course Patsy Cline.

I just saw the documentary Patsy Cline on PBS, part of the American Masters series, thus the inspiration for this post. The program was exceptional: information-rich, photo-laden, and with generous snippets of her golden singing. With her film star looks, unaffected vocal style, easy charisma, and confident stage presence, Patsy seemed made for television, and all this comes through in the many well chosen clips from the medium’s early years.

It’s tempting to invoke the cliché that Patsy Cline was a superstar before we had superstars, but as the program shows, Patsy was a star in 1963 at the time of her death, but only became a mega superstar afterward, and gradually over time.

Though there are better-known tunes that have come to be associated with her – “Crazy,” “Sweet Dreams” – my favorite Patsy Cline performance is her rendition of “You Made Me Love You,” a tune famously sung by Al Jolson and Judy Garland, among others. But it’s Patsy’s version that resonates the most with me.

Anyhow it occurs to me that all the above-mentioned artists, Patsy included, had a style that was somewhere between pop and country, not really hardcore country and not really straight-on popular - is that what they call fusion? Crossover? It also seems that all enduring popular singers, country and otherwise (Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Patsy), maybe even classical too, regardless of the quality or technical limitations of the voice, projected the sense of talking the lyrics as much as singing them. Thus an instant emotional connection with the listener.

As the PBS program reveals, it wasn’t just her singing that made Patsy special. She was a trailblazer in the tough world that’s the country music business. We might well say: Patsy got there first. She paved the way for so many female country singers to appear at the Grand Ole Opry, and as much as any individual is responsible for country music appealing to a much wider audience in the decades after her passing.

Part of Patsy’s appeal today may be extra-musical, a sentimental, unconscious association with a simpler, slower, and happier, time in our history, and her honest, uncomplicated style reflects this in a very basic way.  Whatever the reasons, Patsy’s stature continues to grow, and the warm light of her artistry shines, glowing ever brighter over time as more of us become familiar with her and her music. Patsy Cline was truly a great artist and she left us much too soon.