“Everybody dreams about going there,” Esther Smith (Judy Garland) tells her sobbing little sister Christmas Eve before their family is supposed to leave the comfort of their Midwestern home and move to New York in Meet Me in St. Louis. Yes, everybody dreams of going to New York, but only a certain type of person, myself included, dreams of spending eight sun bright days at the end of June in Bologna—itself a dream of a city—in the dark to watch four, five, six films a day, the majority of which will most likely fall under the heading of obscure, and all of it done solely for the love of cinema. Il Cinema Ritrovato is where every year cinema is (re)discovered and (re)imagined as a utopia of sight and sound in the mind of the moviegoer. “Everybody dreams about going there”: for the moviegoer attending the festival the ‘there’ is the screen teeming with celluloid possibilities, the place where the familiar becomes strange and the world is continuously renewed in sounds and images.
There is something special and inexplicably beautiful about stepping out of the darkness of a movie theater and into the late afternoon or early evening light, to walk the streets of a foreign city, especially one like Bologna, a city of arches where the predominating colors of its architecture are a mixture of ochre and a deep red-orange, to walk the streets drunk on light, on color, on images. Such was the experience I had after watching a vintage Technicolor print of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)—a film I somehow went my entire life through without seeing until now. It is an unending comfort to retreat, for eight long days, into the past to discover something that was there all along, yet remained unseen: rarities unearthed, dying prints restored, forgotten films remembered. To do the festival is to realize the wonderful endlessness of cinema, to acknowledge that no matter how many years of your life you dedicate to watching and studying movies there will always be gaps in your knowledge; swathes of unknown territories, new zones and areas to explore.
The flipside to that is you become very aware of the fragility of the art. Unlike painting, cinema does not have the aura of an immortal art, but is necessarily perishable and it is its finitude that makes it so endearingly precious. Sunk in this fruitful contradiction of the endless versus the finite I slowly made my way through the monumental (500+ films!) program—of which I’ll mention a few here—wherein I arrived exactly where I dreamed I would.
To return once more to Vincente Minnelli’s fevered idealization of Midwestern America in the musical Meet Me in St. Louis, which was screened in the strand dedicated to Technicolor prints, the film is a hallucinatory burst of color and rose-tinted nostalgia, depicting the ‘perfect’ family nestled securely in the bosom of a postcard America. Set in the months leading up to the St. Louis world’s fair in 1904, the suburban idyll of the Smith family is shattered when the father of the family announces their move to New York. As tragic this is for the Smith siblings, you know that in the end everything will be fine and just about the worst thing that does happen in the movie is when Esther, who has her eyes on the blond boy next door, tears her blue and white striped dress. The joy of the film is reveling in the cutesy exchanges, the saccharine displays of affection, the hilariously macabre sensibility of the youngest sister, Tootie (Margaret Obrien), who buries all of her dolls after they’ve all died from different diseases, or the romance of the scene in which the camera follows Garland around the house at night as she extinguishes all the candles, the house growing increasingly darker, whilst trying to woo her future fiancée—and all this occurring amidst the most eye swirling decorated home I think I’ve seen in film. Minnelli is often accused of being a mere decorator, as a director who is solely concerned with beautifying images with lush costumes and designs. Sure, there is something shameless in the opulence on the screen, but it is this very excessiveness that makes the world that Minnelli has crafted so surreal and strange: a Lynchian clash of the ordinary and the grotesque, the graveyard humor of the children countered by their profound sadness of having to leave home, the countless references to death and dying all playing out against a backdrop of an imagined antiquated America ripe with happy endings and marriages.
To switch continents: an altogether different image of a marriage is in Spring in a Small Town (1948), a Chinese film directed by Fei Mu screened in ‘The Rebirth of Chinese Cinema (1941-1951)’ strand. An incredibly sad, empathetic portrait of a married couple living in quiet despair, it tells the story of Yuwen (Wei Wei), a lonely housewife living with her invalid husband Liyin (Shi Yu) and his teenage sister Xiu on an isolated estate left largely in ruins in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese war. It looks as if the property were being consumed by the vegetation, with half-sunken fragments of buildings strewn across the landscape. Man and wife each live partitioned off in their own world with Liyin spending his days lost in wistful ruminations on a better past, while Yuwen passes the time wandering the grounds, caught in a limbo state between presence and absence. Their listless routine is interrupted when Dr. Zhang (Li Wei), Liyin’s best friend, and unbeknownst to him, Yuwen’s former lover, arrives unannounced from Shanghai. A chamber piece of taut emotional restraint and repressed trauma, the three adults form a love triangle that exists in its own floating world sealed off from real time. The estate, from which the story never departs, is its own self-contained universe, a kind of parallel dream where everything is slightly subdued or in decline. Even their movements and gestures, the way they walk, especially Yuwen, whom we see in the beginning ambulating along the collapsed city walls accompanied by her voiceover, are slow and lethargic like waking ghosts sleepwalking through their days. Such abstraction is countered by the remarkable concreteness of the sounds: we hear the wind in the trees by day, its haunting hiss during Zhang and Yuwen’s nightly trysts. There is a scene in which all four of them go on a boat ride: Liyen and Xiu are in front singing a song, while Zhang and Yuwen are in the back. We hear the soft lapping of the water together with the sweet voices of the song; everyone is rowing together as if taking us into another, happier, movie—an image of what could be. The camera cuts from a master shot of the four of them to a close-up of Yuwen, the camera then panning over to Zhang, isolating them both from the peacefulness of the scene: a slow expansive moment revealing the impossibility of their love. The film’s laconic rhythm, its drifting sense of time, its uncanny use of dissolves within scenes that feel like prolonged exhalations of breath, along with the unassuming, yet tender performances (all in supreme contrast to the psychedelic flights of fancy in the Minnelli picture) made this a definite highlight of the festival.
A section of the festival where I spent considerable time was called ‘Censored, Recovered, Restored.’ The title says it all: films that were repressed in one way or another at the time or after their making. And while the section wasn’t exactly bursting with wrongfully maligned masterpieces, the ones that I saw all had something going for them, in spite of, or possibly because of their flaws.
First up is Austrian Georg W. Pabst’s Geheimnisvolle Tiefe (“Mysterious Shadows,” 1949) a wacky nonsensical work of B-movie schmaltz, described by the München Filmmuseum director Stefan Drössler in his introduction as ‘definitely not a masterpiece.’The film was universally panned upon its premiere in Venice, flopped at the box office at home, was instantly forgotten, yet here we were watching a restoration. The familiar story of a woman, Cornelia (Ilse Werner), caught between two men: Dr. Benn Wittich (Paul Hubschmid), a genius inventor and paleontologist with a life-risking hobby for cave exploration, and Robert Roy (Stefan Skodler), the money obsessed industrialist, a born product of the postwar German economic miracle, someone that treats everything, including Cornelia, (who, though at first engaged to Wittich, becomes, after a series of illogical emotional upsets, his wife), as trophy objects. Yes, you can see the neat unfolding of dichotomies at play here: passion versus wealth, knowledge versus power, and love versus its commodification. What rescues the film from devolving into embarrassing sentimentality, aside from some humorous banter, is the relish with which Pabst has indulged in by creating some remarkable set pieces. Roy’s glasshouse villa is an extravagant structure of architectural confusion combining the airy simplicity of the Bauhaus school with the gaudy grandiosity of a court palace, while Wittich’s modest rooftop apartment, with large windows looking onto a skyline of factory towers (another reference to prosperous postwar industry?) doubles as a laboratory full of test tubes, ancient skulls, minerals, and one hilariously large stuffed gorilla. And, of course, the cave sequences: it’s definitely the first time I’ve seen in a film a couple ice-skating in an underground cave as Wittich and Cornelia do (take that Werner Herzog!); or in the end when Cornelia is searching for Wittich, who is hopelessly lost in the very same cave, and miraculously finds him by falling through a hole. The wonderful implausibility of it, reminiscent of a Brothers Grimm fairytale! But behind such excessive absurdity are images potentially bearing unsettling metaphors. If you consider the period in which the film was shot—a mere four years after the war, the trauma and horror of Nazism still fresh in the collective consciousness—it’s possible to read these very different men as both living out two extreme tactics of escapism from the atrocities of the war and the postwar present. Wittich, the lofty idealist and perversely inward-looking, retreats into the study of the geological past; Roy, power hungry, flaunts his wealth, while simultaneously fleeing into it. Perhaps Pabst’s film as a whole is just as much a part of that same impulse to forget, to obfuscate the past with kitschy adventure stories, no matter how fun they are to watch.
Compare that attitude to the one I saw in the World War II film, None Shall Escape (1943), about a fictional Nazi war criminal, Wilhelm Grimm (!), played with hardened Teutonic menace by Alexander Knox, on trial for crimes against humanity in Poland. Directed by Hungarian émigré André De Toth, who witnessed the German invasion of Poland in 1939, it is a bold film ahead of its time, the first wartime Hollywood film to detail the Nazi program to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population as it was still occurring. What for American audiences 70 years ago was possibly too depressing (or improbable) is today a disturbinglyprescient document of what was to come. The film also had the courage to show how the cinema apparatus was complicit in victim degradation. There is a scene wherein the Jewish people of the German occupied village of Litzbark—where Grimm is Reich Commissioner—are forced, starved and depleted, to line up for food, while German soldiers command them to smile. We wonder why when suddenly there is a cut revealing a cameraman and camera filming the smiling Jews as they accept their measly rations. Soon the cameraman is told to cut, he stops rolling, the food is confiscated, and the prisoners are beaten away. It is a moment of truth revealing the potentially wicked capabilities of cinema, no magical dream machine here, only dangerous toxic artifice.
And finally, the notorious The Last Movie (1971) by the great Dennis Hopper—another work that probes that fruitful amorphous territory between reality and artifice in cinema. A film that was pulled from distribution by Universal, and largely unseen by general audiences, The Last Movie also suffers (or benefits) from the salacious stories that surround its production in the Peruvian mountains: juicy headline grabbing anecdotes of drugs, alcohol and orgies. No doubt, some of that does seep into the film; it’s a wild trip charged with an aura of intoxication, a ‘systematic derangement of the senses,’ in the words of poet Arthur Rimbaud. Yet I also see Hopper earnestly trying to make a new kind of radical spontaneous cinema that breaks with what, at the time, had become the ossified language of linear storytelling. Hopper plays a stuntman named Kansas down in a Peruvian village shooting a Hollywood Western about Billy Kid, with Sam Fuller as director. After the shoot wraps, he remains behind to live with his lover, a prostitute named Maria (Stella Garcia). Meanwhile, the villagers, entranced by the film crew, build their own cameras and cranes out of bamboo and shoot their own movie on the Hollywood set with real violence; eventually casting Kansas as a kind of sacrificial lamb and in the end he dies. (I think.) There are also these tangential narrative strands that don’t go anywhere, such as Kansas and his friend Neville (Don Gordon) hunting for gold, with direct allusions to John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). That all sounds straightforward, but the editing is all over the place, cutting back and forth within scenes and plotlines, subverting the standard formula of beginning, middle and end, which can be equally exhilarating as it is annoying. There are also these dreamy musical interludes of Hopper riding on a horse to Kris Kristofferson tunes with these spectacular John Ford-like vistas of the Peruvian landscape in the background. The result is a beautiful mess, an organized chaos with Hopper as the (mis)guided force leading the movie towards the precipice. There is no doubt to the brilliant dynamism of his performance; one moment he is quiet, sensitive and timid, the next he’s a drunken violent asshole. Like the movie itself, there is an immediate freeness to his acting, he moves and speaks every line as if for the first time.
Applying Ginsberg’s method of ‘first thought, best thought’ to making movies, Hopper’s picture is many things: a personal love letter to the Western, a dissection of our (in)ability to distinguish between on and off screen violence, the dangerous allure of cinema, a playfully self-reflexive jab at our unquestionable belief in the stories that movies tell, a cinephilic celebration and deconstruction of film language, exposing its trickery, whilst also reveling in it. Insertions of ‘Scene Missing,’ repeated takes of the same scene, along with shots of the film slate or sound booms are there as gimmicks to remind us that this is all a movie. That might sound like the type of postmodern trick we expect from Godard, but it’s deeply embedded in the kind of movie Hopper is trying to make.
The Last Movie is far from perfect, and it’s a good thing it is. Instead of a stale masterpiece stamped with a mark of approval, it’s an ecstatic yawp, a gleefully irreverent piece of termite art chewing away at its own borders.