Archives for September 2012

De Sica’s Lost Masterpiece “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis”.

Vit­to­rio De Sica began his life as a dash­ing Ital­ian mat­inée idol, waltz­ing his way breezi­ly through what came to be referred to sniffi­ly as their white tele­phone films of the 1930s.

But when he emerged as a direc­tor in the 1940s, he made some of the most influ­en­tial films in Ital­ian Neo-realism.

Films like The Bicy­cle Thieves, Mir­a­cle in Milan and Umber­to D are today seen as arche­typ­al exam­ples of the genre. They fol­lowed non-pro­fes­sion­al actors, in real loca­tions as they tried in vain to come to terms with life in a post-war and pover­ty-rav­aged Italy.

All seri­ous film mak­ers in Italy began in the neo-real­ist mode in the 40s, 50s and 60s. And they all of them almost imme­di­ate­ly aban­doned it in favour of their own per­son­al ver­sion of its exact opposite. 

So Felli­ni  moved to the mul­ti-dimen­sion­al, overt­ly the­atri­cal and glo­ri­ous­ly colour­ful arche­types of and Amar­cord. Vis­con­ti to the metic­u­lous­ly man­nered melo­dra­ma of Sen­so and Death in Venice. And Anto­nioni to the mea­sured for­mal­ism and the care­ful­ly craft­ed sculp­tur­al struc­tures of the Mon­i­ca Vit­ti trilogy.

Only Roselli­ni stayed the course, hence the some­what ossi­fied feel­ing to most of his lat­er films. 

De Sica sim­i­lar­ly aban­doned neo-real­ism and went back to the easy-going, feel-good come­dies that Ital­ians seem to need as a reward for all the seri­ous art they’re sub­ject­ed to. And by the 60s he was best known for films like Mar­riage Ital­ian Style, and Yes­ter­day, Today and Tomor­row star­ring Mar­cel­lo Mas­troian­ni and Sofia Loren.

Though both, it should be not­ed, are sig­nif­i­cant­ly more sophis­ti­cat­ed than they appear. And De Sica’s own colour­ful mar­i­tal arrange­ments, togeth­er with the need to fund his gam­bling habit, were at least par­tial­ly to blame for his return to the more com­mer­cial arena.

But as he neared the twi­light of his career, he once again felt the urge to pro­duce some­thing of a bit more sub­stance. And for ten years after it was pub­lished in 1962, he car­ried the Gior­gio Bas­sani nov­el The Gar­den of the Finzi-Con­ti­nis around with him, until final­ly he was able to raise the mon­ey to get it made.

The film stars Dominique San­da and Hel­mut Berg­er (who were con­trac­tu­al­ly oblig­ed to appear in all Ital­ian art-house films at the time) as the two chil­dren of an impos­si­bly wealthy and bliss­ful­ly cul­tured Jew­ish fam­i­ly in an Italy as it moved inex­orably towards the II World War, with all that that would mean for its pop­u­la­tion of Jews.

What it does so well is to mar­ry what script guru Eoghan Har­ris calls the pri­vate and pub­lic axes. Along the pri­vate axis, you have the Gior­gio char­ac­ter, as he tries for­lorn­ly to pur­sue the obscure object of desire that is la San­da. She is unat­tain­able on every con­ceiv­able lev­el. And yet clear­ly, there is a pro­found con­nec­tion between them. What is it that holds her back?

Whilst along the pub­lic axis, you have Gior­gio’s father, a hard work­ing Jew­ish busi­ness man and a loy­al Ital­ian. And, like so many oth­ers, all he wants is to fit in. So he joins the Fas­cist Par­ty. And he and the com­mu­ni­ty of Jews that he is a part of look on in hor­ror as the real­i­ty of the era into which they were born slow­ly begins to dawn on them.

Beau­ti­ful is not a word I use very often. I’m with MacLiammoir on that. Like love and genius, it’s been hope­less­ly debased from being over-used. But this is that rare excep­tion, a gen­uine­ly and heart-break­ing­ly beau­ti­ful film. 

It’s De Sica’s love let­ter to doomed youth. And it’s hope­less­ly and exquis­ite­ly beau­ti­ful. It’s out now, final­ly, on DVD. And you should also have a look at the inter­view with his son, Manuel, who com­posed its score. He cor­rect­ly laments the film’s one, minor flaw; the un-nec­es­sary mon­tage that the films briefly ends with.

But those few stray frames aside, The Gar­den of The Finzi-Con­ti­nis is a qui­et mas­ter­piece (anoth­er one of those over-used words), and it demands to be seen.

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Bob Dylan’s Triumphant Fourth Act Continues with “Tempest”.

First came the trou­bled and won­drous­ly angry young man of the 1960s. Then there was the old­er and wis­er and all too wound­ed soli­tary fig­ure of the 70s. Then, even more remark­ably, he re-emerged for a third incar­na­tion with Oh Mer­cy in 89 and then with Time Out Of Mind.

And if that weren’t enough, he burst forth for a fourth time, back on to the scene and into rel­e­vance in the 00s with an explo­sion of activity. 

Four albums (so far) with Love and Theft (01), Mod­ern Times (06), Togeth­er Through Life (09) and now Tem­pest. The extra­or­di­nar­i­ly can­did Chron­i­cles Vol­ume One (04).  Scors­ese’s doc­u­men­tary. And of course the peer­less Theme Time Radio Hours (see here for ear­li­er review).

If you want to under­stand where his lat­est album Tem­pest is com­ing from, and how he arrived at it, you need to go back to Chron­i­cles and its fourth chap­ter on “Oh Mercy”.

It had nev­er occurred to me that, by the 1980s, Dylan might have been every bit as dis­ap­point­ed with what he’d been doing with him­self for the pre­vi­ous fif­teen years or so as his legion of fans were. Nobody, it tran­spires, was quite as dis­il­lu­sioned with the path that he’d cho­sen to go down than he him­self was.

There was a miss­ing per­son inside of myself and I need­ed to find him.”

He says at the begin­ning of the chap­ter and we don’t so much as fol­low him as he recalls where he was then. Rather we’re there with him, in real time, as he bur­rows deep inside in the hope of dis­cov­er­ing the source of his turmoil.

” I felt done for, an emp­ty burned-out wreck…  I’m a ’60s trou­ba­dour, a folk-rock rel­ic, a word­smith from bygone days… in the bot­tom­less pit of cul­tur­al obliv­ion. I was what they called over the hill.”

Until all of a sud­den, out of absolute­ly nowhere, he stum­bles into a jazz joint and has one of those near-myth­i­cal, Joycean epipha­nies. And to his aston­ish­ment, where he needs to be going, musi­cal­ly, and what he needs to do to get there are glo­ri­ous­ly and crys­tal clear. And he begins the jour­ney out of his self-sculpt­ed Sty­gian gloom and back into the light.

I had a gut feel­ing that I had cre­at­ed a new genre, a style that did­n’t exist as of yet and one that would be entire­ly my own.”

It would take him years to get there, that much was clear.

I wished I was at least twen­ty years younger, wished that I had just dropped on the scene all over again.”

But for the first time in years, he was pal­pa­bly excited.

I was antic­i­pat­ing the spring, look­ing for­ward to step­ping out on the stage where I’d be entire­ly at once author, actor, prompter, stage man­ag­er, audi­ence and crit­ic com­bined. That would be different.”

In ret­ro­spect, the next cou­ple of albums, Oh Mer­cy and Time Out Of Mind were not so much the result of that new approach as they were sta­tions on the way. 

It was only with the cur­rent batch that that des­ti­na­tion had tru­ly been arrived at. And Tem­pest is the lat­est, and there­fore the best exam­ple of where that was. 

There’s a fas­ci­nat­ing inter­view he gives with Mikal Gilmore in the Sep­tem­ber issue of Rolling Stone. You can get a taster of what’s in it here.

Sing up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every week  with All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music!

50 Shades Of Grey, a Fabulous Blow For Feminism!!!

How sweet and hon­ourable it is to live in this age of equal­i­ty. A lot of snide remarks have been made about the qual­i­ty of the prose employed in the 50 Shades series. And most of those have, sur­prise sur­prise, been prof­fered by men. 

The world of lit­er­a­ture has long been an enclave patrolled by men. What are they afraid of that they should so assid­u­ous­ly deny women entry there? Why should­n’t they too sup with them there at the high table?

I con­grat­u­late E L James for tak­ing one of the last bas­tions of male chau­vin­ism and demand­ing that women be treat­ed as equals there. And so, to that long and illus­tri­ous list of are­nas where already this is true, we can now add the cat­e­go­ry of Care­ful­ly Mar­ket­ed Air­port Novel.

50 Shades is, impres­sive­ly, every bit as resplen­dent­ly unread­able as any­thing by Dan Brown. Each sen­tence seems to exist in a vac­u­um, relat­ed but periph­er­al­ly to any­thing that came before or will fol­low after. Rather like the one I began this piece with above.

It’s as if a Mar­t­ian were giv­en the task of writ­ing a book for humans, but instead of being allowed to vis­it Earth or in any way research what life on this plan­et con­sists of, all they were allowed to use as their basis for writ­ing it was, well, a Dan Brown book.

Its plot­ting is as lead­en as Jef­frey Archer’s, its prose as painful as John Grisham’s would lat­er become, and it’s as cyn­i­cal­ly man­u­fac­tured as any­thing pro­duced by the con­glom­er­ate that is James Patterson.

Not only that, but it’s all of that all at once. E L James has man­aged to take all the most offen­sive traits from the most egre­gious male repro­bates and fuse them all togeth­er in one fetid, fae­cal franchise.

Well I say, bra­vo. Here’s one more realm where women have now man­aged to sink every bit as low as their male counterparts. 

They can now tri­umphant­ly lit­ter their work-based ban­ter with un-nec­es­sary exple­tives as thought­less­ly as any of their male col­leagues. They proud­ly drown their week­ends in an obliv­ion of alco­hol, and are as com­fort­able uri­nat­ing in pub­lic and cak­ing the streets in vom­it as they stag­ger home after­wards as the best of us.

And at long last, to tag rug­by and Olympic box­ing, they can add the pro­duc­ing of the most cyn­i­cal­ly con­ceived and inept­ly writ­ten sub-soft porn. I hes­i­tate to call it excre­men­tal­ly bad, as that at least sug­gests reju­ve­na­tion in the form of manure.

So con­grat­u­la­tions. All we have to do now is to some­how get you girls in to the upper tiers of Wall Street and your jour­ney will be com­plete. Well done. And wel­come to the club.

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Tom Holland’s “Islam”, Disappointing Documentary from a Brilliant Writer.

I was very much look­ing for­ward to read­ing The Shad­ow of the Sword, Tom Hol­land’s lat­est book. In it, he looks at how it was that the Islam­ic Empire sprang up from the sands to replace the Roman and Per­sian ones to the West and East.

I still am. But there’s no get­ting away from it, the doc­u­men­tary he made to accom­pa­ny the book for Chan­nel Four was very dis­ap­point­ing. Quite sim­ply, its the­sis just was­n’t com­pelling enough.

Essen­tial­ly, his argu­ment was, that in the absence of any doc­u­men­ta­tion it was impos­si­ble to say for cer­tain what had hap­pened dur­ing the 100 years or so after the death of Mohammed in 632. That is to say, there’s no actu­al record of how and in what way Islam devel­oped in its first few years.

But, and as some of the Mus­lim schol­ars inter­viewed explained a tad weari­ly, the cul­ture that Mohammed grew up in was an oral one. And he, like almost all of his coun­try­men, was illit­er­ate. So a dearth of doc­u­men­ta­tion was hard­ly surprising. 

You don’t have to adhere to the stric­tures of west­ern acad­e­mia to be able to see the stag­ger­ing speed with which the new Empire explod­ed into life to hun­gri­ly devour every­thing it could. Or to real­ize that the engine that pow­ered that extra­or­di­nary expan­sion was the faith that bound them all togeth­er and drove them on.

So what if we’ve no writ­ten evi­dence? We’ve absolute­ly none for Pythago­ras for that mat­ter, but it does­n’t stop us form­ing a pic­ture of the dis­ci­ples who fol­lowed him or the groups they splin­tered off into.

In point of fact, Niet­zsche says that the only thing we can say about Pythago­ras is that we can say noth­ing for cer­tain about him what­so­ev­er. Whether he was a veg­e­tar­i­an, a mys­tic or could even count. But that does­n’t stop us plac­ing him in the Greek world that he lived in, or in form­ing a pic­ture of the effect he had on those around him.

A flawed the­sis is less of a prob­lem when it comes to a book. The best books are about the jour­ney that the author takes you on as much as they are about the des­ti­na­tion that they lead you to. And Hol­land is so easy going, com­pan­ion­able and effort­less­ly eru­dite a guide that spend­ing any time in his com­pa­ny is always a plea­sure what­ev­er his purpose.

And, as last year’s BBC4 pro­gramme Dinosaurs, Myths and Mon­sters showed, he’s clear­ly as com­fort­able on tele­vi­sion as he in print. 

But Islam: the Untold Sto­ry promised, well, an untold sto­ry. And the fact that there’s a dearth of writ­ten evi­dence to bol­ster the sto­ry of Islam real­ly isn’t ter­ri­bly sur­pris­ing. So as a tele­vi­sion pro­gramme, it just did­n’t work.

If you want to appre­ci­ate why it is the Hol­land is held in such high regard by so many peo­ple, read his 2003 book, Rubi­con. There he takes the events that led to the dis­so­lu­tion of the Roman Repub­lic under Julius Cae­sar and the cre­ation of the Empire under his nephew Augus­tus, and imag­ines what it was that the prin­ci­pal play­ers were dri­ven by. 

It is at once exhaus­tive­ly researched and breath­less­ly com­pelling. Imag­ine if Tom Wolfe had been edu­cat­ed at Oxford instead of on the streets of New York, and had employed a team of the most bril­liant researchers he could find there to help him with a book. 

And I’m still look­ing for­ward to read­ing Hol­land’s account, how­ev­er tan­gen­tial, on the birth of Islam in The Shad­ow of the Sword.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right of below, and I shall keep you post­ed every week on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music.