Il Grido (1957)

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surprise late first-period gem from antonioni. i now feel he needn’t have revisited these themes and scenes for Red Desert, though can see why he felt compelled to: there’s such cold richness in the peeling provincial sets, lunar Italian landscapes and untethered characters like blasted topsoil.

maintains sympathetic gravity despite having to reel in an initially repugnant protagonist (a kind of disaffected labouring Zampanino) on a linear-cyclical narrative line – paced excellently i might add, with antonioni not always reliable in this department in his heyday. elegant score too, and a characteristically bold but satisfying ending.

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100th film post in just over a year, after a distinct lack of effort recently. letterboxd is useful but constrictive. plus it’s the summer now and i’m still spending all day in an office.

recent listening includes Snail Mail’s ‘Heat Wave’, Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, Kids See Ghosts, Songs: Ohia and REM’s ‘Harborcoat’. recent reading is My Struggle 5, The Vegetarian, and Leonora Carrington’s Down Below.

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Red Desert (1964)

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Sickly and weird, like its protagonist. A mother unable to “mesh” with the poisoned world around her, in the words of her impassive husband. He has distanced himself from a traumatic episode which torments her still, bleeding out from her feverish dreams into her waking perspective on people and existence.

People in places, people in places: Antonioni’s bread and butter. The return to the factory at the end reinforces disappointment at its absence for most of the film. The steam jets and winding pipes form a jungle around the foremen, who are usually framed off-centre and in the middle distance, robbed of any agency. Antonioni’s eye for evocative geometry is otherwise most apparent in Giuliana’s home, whose tank windows and industrial railings taunt and block her. She tends to her son who seems affected by an atmospheric poison, often unresponsive, surrounded by mechanical toys. Giuliana quietens a chattering robot before lovingly putting him to sleep.

People in places. Antonioni’s dialogue is sometimes a little too on the nose in its foggy glumness, and I’d put Red Desertalongside La Notte as far as this goes. “There’s something wrong with reality, and nobody will tell me what it is,” protests Giuliana to her would-be saviour Corrado, the itinerant businessman who has internalised the social deracination of his Patagonian project. Richard Harris plays him with a quiet and cruel coldness, while most other characters are literally squeezed into the initially engrossing set of a peeling riverside cabin, where an abortive and disoriented party substitutes for the African dancing scene in L’Eclisse (distanced and neutered bourgeois fascination with perceived passion and physicality of foreign cultures). Discomforting settings are important in Antonioni’s films – thinking of the continual, almost overtly redundant returning to the stock market in L’Eclisse – but we really soak up too much time in this little room with its pale company.

The palette is beautiful, as could perhaps have been expected from such a visual director’s first foray into colour film. There’s a boldness to abandoning the lonely concrete worlds of the city which made L’Eclisse and parts of La Notte so hypnotic. Boredom is the name of the whispering marshes, the sucking mud underfoot in Antonioni’s films and Red Desert sucks a little too hard. He made Blow-Up two years later though so it’s all good.

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Call Me By Your Name (2017)

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Saw this at the UPP with J and S after work last Tuesday. Was a fine surprise. Took me about half an hour to get into it, I think largely because of the pacing, which is slow throughout but initially lends itself to plot-based impatience. In the early scenes, the lounging and philosophising and pontificating is at its least appealing, too. But the whole film is best seen (and telegraphs itself as) a holiday: it’s sad because it’s temporary; otherwise, its blissful. The more I thought about it the happier it made me. The visual beauty is intoxicating but there’s plenty of visual restraint, which valuably installs the theme of emotional development at the heart of the story. The use of jewish identities is interesting: prudent privacy is hinted at, a Mussolini painting is gestured at fleetingly, but the film takes place almost entirely within a family community which is eminently welcoming (I think LG may actually have even dedicated CMBYN to fathers in general, and Michael Stuhlbarg is a heroic if lovably preposterous one here). The beauty in honesty and smallness. Also worth mentioning that it’s hilarious when it needs to be, and not hilarious at exactly the right times: the scene with the peach is sequenced precisely to be morbidly fascinating, hilarious, toe-curling, and achingly sad, all at the level of out-loud guffawing and gasping.

Like a paperback you’d retrieve from your back pocket in a piazza or hold up against the sun while lying on a blanket in a meadow. Intense but slips down like a glass of homemade apricot juice.

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L’Innocente (1976)

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Third time with Luchino Visconti after La Terra Trema and Sandra.

Not too much to latch onto initially: Tullio is a total cad without being particularly seductive, as he waxes lyrical about his new love interest while his wife Giuliana listens with meek resignation. “You talk as if I never existed” is her response to his exaltations of newfound youth. She grows into relative independence while his mistress Teresa remains satisfyingly aloof. Turns out to be something of a false start as its the process of regeneration in G that makes her suddenly attractive once more to T; there’s a nice setpiece in the grounds of a fading and neglected villa, held in waiting by T’s mother for the couple, where they attempt to renovate their relationship (“Let’s imagine being two people who meet for the first time”). The allure of immoral decadence becomes a central theme, with G’s inability to resist T shadowing LV’s own obsession with the poisoned aristocracy of his background and of his later films (the idea of T being the seducer is intriguing, too, given LV’s own open homosexuality. There is plenty of implied tension in the frequent fencing scenes and one particular peak in a moment between T and his wife’s lover in the showers, but the theme isn’t explicitly developed any further).

The screws are slowly tightened. Desperation mounts as each character plays themselves into smaller corners, with G’s piety and questionable devotion to her now-deceased lover tensed against T’s opportunistic bourgeois atheism and pride. T’s degradation seems inevitable from the outset (“I knew Tullio was mad but not to this extent” says his mother, I think) but Giancarlo Giannini’s taut performance allows for some particularly catastrophic moments: his tears on hearing of G’s pregnancy; the violin spasming as he stokes the fire during her muffled labour (although this is one moment among a few, here, when we feel cheated of more thorough consideration of female perspectives. In the end Teresa challenges his erratically romantic chauvinism and receives a predictably unsatisfying bid for affection as an answer). The penultimate catastrophe is a real climax, with G’s nervous devotion at Christmas carols juxtaposed with the tormented T leering over the cot like Herod.

Not quite as fun as S but more feels more personal (perhaps in part because it was LV’s last film, released posthumously even in Italy). Definitely a grower, too, which is impressive given the lack of formal or stylistic bombast to distract from such a resolutely romantic and aristocratic story.

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Il Divo (2008)

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Second time with Paolo Sorrentino after Youth.

Films that begin with glossaries are not making excuses for being complicated. Absolutely submerges you in the world of top-tier Italian politics 60s–80s. From recent memory would compare with The Clanexcept this is much more exciting, ambitious and breathlessly comprehensive. Throughout there’s a sort of bizarro inexplicability to actions, motives, affiliations; everything is just beyond our reach, whether through overwhelming connectivity or hilarious freakishness. Lock Stock introductions with police-file titles and monikers (personal favourite: the cardinal, “His Healthiness”) rattling around are all held in balance around the gliding, hunched performance of Giuliano Andreotti by Tony Servillo, an amazingly distinctive and outlandish turn.

It’s a bit of a whirlwind rush (although surprisingly traceable thanks to some carefully edited flashbacks); dogged by the feeling that you’re missing out on more than you’re getting, which is quite uncomfortable. As with Y, though, there are some stunning set pieces and brilliant highlights. The celebration at the 7th premiership, with the cacophony of African drums, feels decadent and unhinged, introducing Carlo Buccirosso’s performance as Milton Friedman-lookalike Chancellor of the Exchequer Paolo Pomicino – his ridiculous naked exuberance reinforced the visual similarity with Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder. Often complicated poignancy in GA’s humanity: earlier suggests importance of involuntary reactions like vomiting for evincing inner functionality; generosity with constituents is unexpectedly tender; flicking through tv channels with his wife, skipping news reports spitting his name, settling on a cheesy 70s pop concert, holding her hand mechanically in tribute.

Would reward another look, I’m sure. Would put it with Petri (especially Investigations) for scathing diagnosis. Stylistically maybe Danny Boyle in the incendiary variety.

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Sandra (1965)

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Second time with Luchino Visconti after La Terra Trema. Shit French poster, I don’t care how appealing CC is – though LV is kind of asking for it with the level of sensationalism here.

It’s hard to suss this guy: a Marxist aristocrat who directed smash operas as well as probably my favourite neorealist film. Anyway, this seems worlds apart from LTT, except for continuity in the maximalist emotionality, as well as a windswept precariousness of modern man. Set largely in a town soaked in universal “provincial desparation,” according to brother Gianni, “the only town I know that’s condemned to die a disease,” the victim of actual landslides and inhumed pasts. This Stromboli connection largely takes a turn toward the latter, more symbolised aspect.

Journey from France (some Summer With Monika urban tour shots over the credits), a neutral space between the Italian S and her American husband Andrew in which they appear sedately alienated together (an opening party like the objectification in L’Eclisse). A Journey To Italy where S becomes seduced by the fossilised walls of her hometown the stale and drifting spaces of childhood home, always shot diagonally and with depth like Kane’s Xanadu. Not long before ghosts are disturbed: the maid’s face at a window like Peter in Turn of the Screw or the character from that Chris Cunningham video for Portishead.

The central ghost, most complicit in this unwanted rediscovery, is G. We meet him a scene of spectacular natural intensity, trees and hair blowing in the gale hiding S’s emotions – definitely provincial Brontë gothic. His introduction of the psychosexual angle is vintage sixties and helps complete the sense of melancholic perversion that made me think of Del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone. “You’re jealous of the phantoms of this house,” S tells the increasingly spooked A; yes, he’s “frightened of everything … as though there were something between us.” Again Antonioni in the framing, with this split visually evoked through blocking and gorgeous, wide mid-range shots. S leading A through locked doors of the past, following a paper trail of forgotten childhood communications with her brother – a “morbid game.” Fractured into different wings of the home, each member of the trio is kept awake at night by spectral whistling from the town outside.

G’s input introduces two other angles which work in fascinating contrast, each frequently threatening to overbalance the other. Most divisively, he injects a few thousand kcal worth of melodrama – CC holds her own, to be sure, especially with the operatic, black-gloved reaction to her mother’s haunted piano playing (in a visit definitely parallel with Wild Strawberries). But G’s affectations of doomed romance culminates in some pretty spicy death pangs (I do wonder how much this tone could be blamed on the unfortunate dubbing with which Mubi burdened their screening).

However, this richness is incised by genuine and sypathetic tragedy. Those secret communications were under the nose of an oppressive stepfather and poisoned mother (see Elektra myth), apparently partway responsible for the denunciation and murder of the siblings’ upstanding Jewish father, at Auschwitz. Their plotting of revenge and erstwhile illicit affections are linked as impulsive responses against this embattled isolation. Down in the dripping cellars – definitely DB and Nostalghia – they wrangle with this history: “what does a child know about passion” curses G; but they “have the same memories … hear the same music.” (cf. The God Of Small Things). A, elsewhere a haplessly drowned-out voice of reason, implores S to simply forget the past upon which a future might be built – a worryingly insidious exhortation after his earlier praise of her resilience in dealing with holocaust testimony at work (I forgot what her job was).

Certainly a weird one: no-one comes out clean in the wash, with the doomed siblings both victims and schemers, balanced against the insensitive but compassionate A and the morally ambiguous but rather foul Gilardini, the step-father. The aristocratic world, of which LV himself was a scion, is corrupted and incestuous but beautifully alluring (Buñuel also in a marble hand touched by S) and under invidious threat. I thought S worked on all of its levels.

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I Clowns (1970)

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I wrote in my notes on Baby Driver that “It’s hard not to smile when you’re watching someone else have so much fun.” I Clowns is perhaps the best example of this, being Federico Fellini’s ode to his beloved world of the circus.

The film flows and tumbles like a continuously performed act, but it can be structurally divided into three parts. We open with a seemingly fictional depiction of the impact of the arrival of a circus on a nondescript, provincial Italian town. A little boy scrambles to a windowsill to witness the raising of a bigtop tent, the room behind him tall and drab like the fantasy nightmare in James and the Giant Peach. “If you don’t behave I’ll get those gypsies to take you away” warns his mother – we get the impression that FF’s lifelong experiments with mischief stemmed from a longing that such a parental punishment might have been meted out to him.

The opening circus shots are fantastically edited, with a childish perspective suggested by frequent appeals to the camera (winks) and an occlusive perspectival preoccupation with aspects of the show (particular actors or sounds), like significant memories forming. Was put in mind of the spectacular structure of wrestling (which is born out by IC‘s second section’s exposition of the traditions of clown types and roles).

The revelatory conclusion to this first section is an examination of the relationship between the circus characters and the townsfolk. The little boy claims not to have enjoyed the show because its cruel humour and anarchic actors resemble the intimidating and inscrutable adult world around him: in the town, coachmen bicker and scuffle like violent clowns, a leering old man exudes their complicit leering sexual humour, (most brilliantly) a town drunkard is wheeled away in a rickety barrow by his apoplectic wife. These figures are frequently shot from below against mundane backdrops; they are almost literally upstaged in their performance of everyday behaviour.

Known commonly as an apolitical director, Fellini introduces here a muted critique of stiffly prohibitive and humourless authority: a stationmaster reacts irately to a trainload of taunting children, insisting that a cartoonishly fascistic guard enforce a uniform discipline – the next convoy stare out at us from their carriages beneath arms raised in fascist salutes. Though clownish characters are shown to ape lower-class behaviour, their performances encourage antiauthoritarian lampooning; a world without clowning is a world of dire and dangerous conformity.

IC‘s second section follows FF’s own efforts to document the contemporary world of the circus in Italy and France, in particular. His cinematographic troupe bounce off each other and the world that their filming in often pretty amusing ways (they argue constantly, and often visually reflect the clowns they are filming). I love this idea because it’s FF telling us not just that films are like circuses, but also that making films is like the circus – all the stuff we don’t see behind the scenes is a clownish world of calamitous collaboration. This notion helps contextualise his enduring fascination with the childish world of the circus: as a director, he never really left it.

This stretch is IC at its most documentary – the potted history of European clowning is interesting with its esteemed characters and disputed traditions. Its history seems very much still up for grabs, with scholars and documentarians debating the aetiology of circus tropes and traditions – it is also the past of the circus, not just its future, which is in doubt. Dramatisations of legendary performances are often revealing and poignant: there’s the tale of a revered but terminally ill clown who sneaks out of the convent hospital for one last show (shot in ragtime fast-motion), and accounts of the famed Fratellini family performing in prisons (echoing IC‘s opening shots of incarcerated audiences) and insane asylums (the value of such performances for the disadvantaged stirringly contributes to my [admittedly prejudiced] enthusiasm for conservation of this entertainment tradition – “the whole world needs to laugh again with clowns!” beseeches and old custodian).

There is a distinctly melancholy skein running through this middle section: retired clowns toast their deceased partners; family historians reminisce about lost legends. I was reminded of Stewart Lee’s uncomfortable routine about the ghosts of dead performers haunting him onstage – I heard him say, in a podcast interview with Scroobius Pip of all people, that he drew on actual personal bereavement to make these performances feel more realistic, and that he was accordingly feeling a morally dubious fatigue after the exploitation of his own memories. The world of the circus seems to be consciously crowded with ghosts

…a sensation carried boldly through into IC‘s final section: a dramatised circus performance loosely centred around a funeral for a revered clown. It’s a riot of colour and motion, with the proceedings quickly descending into chaos after the destabilising interventions of various attendant clowns, weeping as they burn their noses and smack each other silly. It’s a Fantasia-esque escalation, shot from perspectives nimbly varying between ringside spectatorship and in mediis rebus involvement. FF’s own show reincorporates some of the striking Jodorowsky-esque imagery that I loved in Juliet of the Spirits (IC having been released six years after FF began experimenting with LSD), with slapstick surreality running amok.

There is a wonderful touch at the end: a journalist appears to be interviewing FF on the sidelines of the manic meta-chaos unfolding in the ring; he quizzes “are you trying to create a parallel–” until two buckets are chucked from the melée onto their heads. Shut up and enjoy the show!

Though IC is essayistic in structure, we’re therefore taken full-circle: the little boy is given the opportunity to put on his own show, not to be intruded upon even by his critical future self. Deserves to be judged more or less by its own standards; I can only compare it to F For Fake – this is just as fun, just as personal, just as idiosyncratic and just as captivating.

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