LEARNING THE EXISTENTIAL GAME…ROSSELINI AND THE WEST….NOT TO MENTION WESTERNS (Segue of the Day: 2/11/18)

Before today, most of what I could tell you about Roberto Rossellini, the great Italian director who made his name taking Italian Neorealism to the world stage straight from the ashes of WWII, was that I once read where he said of his divorce from Ingrid Bergman that you should never marry an actress because you’ll never know when she’s acting.

It wouldn’t surprise me if even that was wrong.

I’d seen Rome, Open City way back when. VHS. Not a very good print. Left me thinking maybe you had to be there–mid-forties, war-ravaged Europe, the fall of fascism–to get what all the fuss was about.

But some years back I picked up Criterion’s collection of Rossellini’s “history” films about the Renaissance and Enlightenment, mostly because one of them was about Blaise Pascal and there was some kind of sale going on.

The collection’s been sitting on my shelf ever since, waiting for a rainy day.

Today it rained, all day.

Perfect for contemplating The Age of the Medici.

And I was….impressed.

I don’t know how anyone could fail to be…or how anyone could be more than impressed (say moved, say swept away, say any of the things one might expect art to do beyond educate). I know it’s happened, both directions. But, at least on first acquaintance, I was only, and suitably, impressed.

It’s four hours plus of talking.

Good talk to be sure, especially if you are still interested in how a certain We (the West, Christendom, the children of the Enlightenment–those for starters), came to be as we are.

But, still….Talking. The freeze frame above is one of the more active scenes.

Oh, and looking at beautiful things. Much of the talk is about how those beautiful things came to be themselves. What it took to create a platform for achievement and how best to preserve those achievements, meaning, in a four hour mini-series about Cosimo de Medici, there’s some serious political intrigue.

I don’t mean there’s anything like a conventional plot. Rossellini had come to a point in his life and career where he thought cinema was at an impasse if not a dead end. He devoted the last years of his life to educating the masses and this was his medium.

I learned a lot or thought I had. I mean something beyond facts (though I learned plenty of those too).

I assumed that would be enough for one day.

Then a funny thing happened. I needed something familiar when it was all over.  Not comforting, exactly, but something that moved. Naturally, I picked a western.  3:10 to Yuma as it happened. I’ve seen it over twenty times. Familiar enough then.

By the time Frankie Laine’s theme song was done, I had re-learned more than I learned listening to four hours of fine talk on one of history’s most important periods.

Actually, I re-learned that much in one line.

Fate, you see, travels everywhere….

I bet Rossellini could have made eight hours out of that. And never said more.

Movie’s pretty good too.

 

INGRID’S JOAN (And Then There Was Hollywood: Eleventh Rumination)

Joan of Arc (1948)
D. Victor Fleming

Consider this a companion piece to my post about The Passion of Joan of Arc here…

Joan of Arc starts off like a trainwreck headed for nowhere and ends up going…somewhere.

The first half hour has everything possible going against it: The star, Ingrid Bergman, who had won a Tony playing the title role on Broadway (albeit there, as Joan of Larraine, it was a dual part, with a modern framing that was ditched for the film), is too old for the teenage Joan and too worldly for a French peasant village girl, even if she weren’t also an iconic, world class Hollywood beauty. The stodgy voice-over that was a plague of Hollywood’s Golden Age historical epics is dull as ever. Worse, the dialogue is devoid of wit or snap and the action scenes, including the assault on Orleans that made Joan’s legend, are staged with little context and less imagination.

A disaster waiting to happen then, or at least an excuse for a long nap…

Until it is rescued by Joan herself.

Joan of Arc is a sufficiently tricky character–or legend–to have defied definitive interpretation, whether on stage, page or film. To get the full measure of her, a narrative would have to capture the village maid inspired by voices, the improbable military genius and the clever illiterate, unable to sign her name, but fencing ably with her learned tormentors as she stands trial for both her life and her immortal soul, then wrap such disparate, often contradictory traits as all that implies, around a central, unifying persona.

This Joan does not come close to accomplishing all that.

It does not repeat the mistake of Dreyer’s silent masterpiece in selling the Maid’s faith short. But, for its first two stages–Joan’s village life and her rise to military glory–it goes too far in the other direction. Religious transcendence is never well understood by those who haven’t experienced at least some small version of it. If its paradox of liberation and awesome responsibility–suddenly you are called to save the world–has ever been fully caught on film, I’ve missed it. Certainly that does not happen here. Bergman was one of the screen’s greatest actresses as well as a luminous star–but through these early scenes she simply seems overwhelmed. Yes, Joan would have been frightened by visions that ordered her to do no less than save France. But she would have been exhilarated too. I’ve known God was on my side for perhaps five minutes in my life and those five minutes–bereft of grandeur though they may have been–left me sick to my stomach and ready to take on the world. I can only imagine what Joan felt, but I doubt it was either the benumbed humility that Bergman conveys in her village scenes or the flush-with-common-valor gung-ho of the battle sequences. There would have been a quiet, but abiding confidence in there somewhere, not mention a rush of exhilaration now and again. In this part of the film and the performance those crucial elements go missing.

But there’s always that third phase of the Joan narrative-the trial–and its interconnection with fifteenth-century realpolitik. Here, every writer has access, for once, to Joan’s actual words. And it’s here, as in Passion (where it’s the whole story), that the story, and the remarkable figure at its center, come alive.

I wouldn’t claim Bergman disappears into Joan. She’s far too strong a screen presence and far too obviously miscast as a physical type for that.

But you can, at least, feel Joan at her back, perhaps even whispering in her ear. Yes, this is how I would have played it….How I did play it!

And in these scenes, Bergman’s natural star power works in her favor. We don’t know much about what Joan looked like. But it’s safe to say it’s been rare for a woman to inspire as she did without having something or other that men, in particular, responded to, either with awe or fear or both. Bergman could hold her star charisma in check, but the inner light still shines. It might be more Sex than Faith, but here–in well written scenes that incorporate, but are not limited to, Joan’s actual testimony–you can see how close the two might have ridden together. That the script allows–almost insists upon–the idea that the Maid was tortured by rape or threats of rape in order to get her to recant her visions (the main purpose of her trial), does more to condemn her English judges (the acting rises a notch in these scenes, too–villain or hero, Hollywood always did do well by the Brits) than a thousand oily sneers or tortuous professions of profound belief.

In other words, the last half of the film works beautifully. Once the story is all Joan’s, rather than a screenwriter or playwright’s speculation, all the professional Hollywood spit and polish that made the first half a drag comes to its rescue. Joan herself couldn’t have asked for a better setting to deliver the careful, cutting phrases that have rung through the centuries.

All to the same tragic end of course and director Victor Fleming died shortly after thinking the film a failure.

That’s too bad. He and Bergman did not produce a masterpiece. But they did add something to a bottomless narrative that is one of the central stories of Christendom, one which, if it can never quite be caught entirely, still throws off flashes of lightning, be it in the starkest black and white….

…or the most glorious Technicolor.

DON’T WORRY, NOTHING TO SEE HERE, MOVE ALONG PLEASE…THOUGHTS ON CITIZEN KANE BEING DETHRONED

The headline being attached to Sight and Sound’s latest list of the “greatest films” is that Citizen Kane–which topped the once-a-decade poll five straight times from 1962 to 2002–was displaced by Vertigo.

Studying the top 50, we find that the real news, as usual, is that nothing has changed.

Existentialism still trumps narrative. Concepts still trump people.

Directors still count (and conceptual, existentialist directors still count most of all). Performers still don’t count even a little bit.

A lot of people are lamenting the absence of Luis Bunuel or Howard Hawks or Erich Von Sternberg or Douglas Sirk or whoever and, in at least some cases, I see their point.

But I miss Vivien Leigh and Barbara Stanwyck and Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant a lot more. Not to mention Anne Bancroft and Humphrey Bogart and, heck, Gloria Grahame. (That’s GWTW and/or Streetcar, plus The Lady Eve, Notorious, The Miracle Worker, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Heat and/or In A Lonely Place for those keeping score at home….and, incidentally, shifting the focus from directors-only, to great-directors-collaborating-with-great-actors would also redress the diminution of women’s-importance-in-film discussed, albeit without much insight, here)

Interesting and serendipitous that Vera Miles, the astringent, oft wrongfully-dismissed muse of both Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford’s last great periods–and the woman Hitchcock never forgave for backing out of Vertigo after he had already built his story-boards around her irreplaceable profile (he knew what had gone missing even if his now-triumphant acolytes didn’t and don’t) is the only American lead besides Brando who made the list twice.

So at least they got that part half-right.