Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Guide Dogs Of Cinema

Let's start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). Film is about communication, it's not just a question of art.

Whether a filmmaker chooses Let there be light or Can you hear me now? as his mantra, the importance of light and sound in shaping any cinematic experience cannot be underestimated. Filmmakers who, for whatever purpose, get so obsessed with a certain technique that they lose their audience risk sabotaging their art through artistic pretense.

Back in my undergraduate days at Brooklyn College, I enrolled in a film appreciation course that was scheduled to begin at some ungodly hour like 8:00 a.m. Every week, as soon as the the lights dimmed and the film started, half the class fell asleep. Rarely have I sat in an auditorium watching a film with so many people snoring.

My semi-somnolent experience of Leni Reifenstahl's famous 1935 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will only helped to imprint the music from two of Richard Wagner's operas -- Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg and Gotterdammerung -- on my mind. Another film's musical score laid down indelible tracks from Ottorino Respighi's trilogy of symphonic poems (The Pines of Rome, The Fountains of Rome, and Roman Festivals) in the deeper recesses of my brain.

Several years later, while living in Providence, Rhode Island, I would come home from work and put Wagner's opera, Lohengrin, on my record player (this was back when a Wagnerian opera recording consisted of five or six 33-/3 rpm vinyl disks). Because of a peculiar malfunction, the last disk to fall down the spindle kept being played over and over as I dozed in and out of consciousness. The Act II finale of Wagner's sonorous score accompanied many a Fellini-like dream sequence.

How does lighting affect a film goer's experience? I can think of no better example than a program shown several years ago during the Frameline LGBT Film Festival consisting of two shorts made in the style of silent films. The first film was a comedy in which a young man developed a crush on a soldier. Filmed in crisp black and white, beautifully written and directed, it quickly charmed the audience.

The second film, aimed primarily at the lesbian audience, had such intentionally poor lighting that, within minutes, I was fighting to keep my eyes open. As I strained to hold my head up and struggled to watch the screen, I felt as if I had just been given an intravenous sedative. After the program ended and the house lights came up, I felt strangely uncomfortable and disoriented.

While traditional outdoors Son et lumière shows promise a triumph of spectacle and sound, all it takes is one electrical failure to leave the audience in the dark, wondering what the hell is supposed to be happening. Two films being screened during the New Italian Cinema mini festival (presented by the San Francisco Film Society) offer such stark contrasts in in the use of light and sound that, no matter how different their subject matter, comparisons become inevitable.

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Marco Bellocchio's film Vincere (which will be screened on closing night) retraces the the story of Benito Mussolini's early rise as seen through the eyes of his first wife (and the mother of his first son), Ida Dalser.

The real Benito Albino Mussolini with his mother, Ida Dalser

As the film begins, Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) is the owner of a beauty salon who is captivated by the ardent union activist and Socialist, Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi). In October 1914, when Mussolini left his job as editor of the Avanti! (the newspaper of the Italian Socialist Party), Dalser -- who had sold her possessions to help him pursue his dream -- underwrote the launch of Mussolini's new paper, Il Popolo d'Italia. They married in Trento in 1914, and she bore him a son in 1915. According to Wikipedia:
"On 25 December 1915, in Treviglio, he contracted a marriage with his fellow countrywoman Rachele Guidi, who had already born him a daughter, Edda, at Forli in 1910. In 1915, he had a son with Ida Dalser, a woman born in Sopramonte, a village near Trento. He legally recognized this son on 11 January 1916."
Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi) and Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno)

However, as Mussolini and Fascism gained power, he tried to rewrite his personal history by eliminating Dalser from his life. Whenever Dalser tried to claim that she was Mussolini's first wife, she would be scorned, chased away, and as time went on, persecuted.

Dalser was eventually hidden in an insane asylum, and her son kidnapped from his aunt and uncle's home. (Benito Albino Mussolini was subsequently placed under the custody of one of Mussolini's henchmen, Giulio Bernardi). Meanwhile, Mussolini's staff systematically removed all references to their marriage from legal records. No matter how often people tried to call him Benito Dalser, the younger Mussolini insisted on being referred to by his father's surname.

Unfortunately, this 128-minute film suffers from a terrible miscalculation. In their attempt to film many scenes using natural light, Bellochio and his cinematographer, Daniele Cipri, keep their audience in the dark for nearly 25 minutes.

I'm the kind of person who likes to eat in restaurants where I can see my food. I feel very much the same way about film. If I have to spend 25 minutes straining to see faces in darkly lit sequences, I can't help but wonder whether it's worth my time to stick around for the remainder of the film.

I also found Bellochio's musical references to be unintentionally amusing. Despite the use of snippets by Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini (especially Scarpia's music from Act I of Tosca), the most effective use of music is actually a passage from Akhnaten (an opera by Philip Glass about an Egyptian pharaoh). A great deal of this film's score contains music that is either written by or imitating Glass's style.

The scene with the greatest impact occurs when Filippo Timi (as the younger, fully grown Benito Albino Mussolini) is seen imitating his father's bizarre facial expressions. Bellochio also makes excellent use of archival footage of Mussolini speaking to large crowds. If I was not particularly impressed with Mezzogiorno's portrayal of Ida Dalser, that was partly because many of her scenes were so poorly lit. Here's the trailer:

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In recent years, a new type of mockumentary has arisen in which filmmakers try to deconstruct, analyze, and/or bring new life to an important work of art. Among these films are:

A new and exciting addition to this peculiar genre is Alessandro Baricco's film, Lecture 21, which features John Hurt as an eccentric iconoclastic professor. Although the film careens back and forth between a group of students reminiscing in 2007 about how Professor Mondrian Kilroy inspired them, the actual class in 1997 during which Lecture 21 was delivered, and 1824 (the year in which Ludwig van Beethoven, who was by then blind, premiered his famous Ninth Symphony), it offers such a thrilling experience in visualizing music that Beethoven fans will not want to miss it.

Don't worry about the fact that Professor Kilroy's lecture is designed to prove that Beethoven was a fraud, or that his ninth symphony was essentially "old music" written by an old man who was, by then, out of touch with the music of his time. From the initial image of four skaters carrying a candle-lit coffin across a frozen lake, you'll be hooked right through to the end.

The best way to enjoy this film, of course, is not to give a shit about anything you might have already learned about Beethoven. Kilroy's argument (that Beethoven's Symphony #9 is a shockingly overestimated work of art) is merely a launching pad for the kind of acid dream you wish you had had while listening to classical music.

Forget about the talking heads dressed as period musicians. Forget about the story of the man who was found dead in the snow, with has frozen hand so tightly gripping his violin that he had to be buried with the instrument. These are mere storytelling gimmicks, designed to provide entry to an extended series of breathtaking visuals accompanied by the full intellectual strength and beauty of Beethoven's writing.
  • Some might dub this film the cinematic hipster's sorely misguided and severely dumbed down CliffsNotes for studying Beethoven's last symphony.
  • Others may insist that it's a rip roaring piece of false scholarship.
  • Some may hail it as a new version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (without Johnny Depp but with better music).
  • Others may think it's a whopping heap of populist trash.
The film's success is primarily due to the glory of Beethoven's music and the glorious cinematography of Gherardo Gossi. I, for one, had a rollicking good time watching it. I suspect you will, too. Here's the trailer:

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