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.

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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.

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