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IL MAESTRO: FEDERICO FELLINI AND THE LOST MAGIC OF CINEMA

Martin Scorsese

2/16/2021 9:00:00 AM

 

EXT. 8TH STREET—LATE AFTERNOON (C. 1959).

CAMERA IN NONSTOP MOTION is on the shoulder of a young man, late teens, intently walking west on a busy Greenwich Village thoroughfare.

Under one arm, he’s carrying books. In his other hand, a copy of The Village Voice.

He walks quickly, past men in coats and hats, women with scarves over their heads pushing collapsible shopping carts, couples holding hands, and poets and hustlers and musicians and winos, past drugstores, liquor stores, delis, apartment buildings.

But the young man is zeroed in on one thing: the marquee of the Art Theatre, which is playing John Cassavetes’s Shadows and Claude Chabrol’s Les Cousins.

He makes a mental note and then crosses Fifth Avenue and keeps walking west, past bookstores and record shops and recording studios and shoe stores, until he gets to the 8th Street Playhouse: The Cranes Are Flying and Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless is coming soon!

We stay on him as he turns left on Sixth Avenue and hustles his way past diners and more liquor stores and newsstands and a cigar store and crosses the street to get a good look at the Waverly marquee—Ashes and Diamonds.

He cuts back east on West 4th past Kettle of Fish and Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square South, where a man in a threadbare suit is handing out leaflets: Anita Ekberg in furs, and La Dolce Vita is opening at a legitimate theater on Broadway, with reserved seats for sale at Broadway ticket prices!

He walks down LaGuardia Place to Bleecker, past the Village Gate and the Bitter End to the Bleecker Street Cinema, which is showing Through a Glass Darkly, Shoot the Piano Player, and Love at Twenty—and La Notte is held over for a third straight month!

He gets in line for the Truffaut movie and opens his copy of the Voice to the Film section and a cornucopia of riches jumps from the pages and swirls around him—Winter Light . . . Pickpocket . . . The Third Lover . . . The Hand in the Trap ... Andy Warhol screenings ..Pigs and Battleships ... Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage at Anthology Film Archives ..Le Doulos ... and in the midst of it all, looming larger than the rest: JOSEPH E. LEVINE PRESENTS FEDERICO FELLINI'S 8½!

As he pores over the pages, the CAMERA RISES ABOVE HIM and the waiting crowd, as if on the waves of their excitement.

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Flash forward to the present day, as the art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, “content.”

As recently as fifteen years ago, the term “content” was heard only when people were discussing the cinema on a serious level, and it was contrasted with and measured against “form.” Then, gradually, it was used more and more by the people who took over media companies, most of whom knew nothing about the history of the art form, or even cared enough to think that they should. “Content” became a business term for all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode. It was linked, of course, not to the theatrical experience but to home viewing, on the streaming platforms that have come to overtake the moviegoing experience, just as Amazon overtook physical stores. On the one hand, this has been good for filmmakers, myself included. On the other hand, it has created a situation in which everything is presented to the viewer on a level playing field, which sounds democratic but isn’t. If further viewing is “suggested” by algorithms based on what you’ve already seen, and the suggestions are based only on subject matter or genre, then what does that do to the art of cinema?

Curating isn’t undemocratic or “elitist,” a term that is now used so often that it’s become meaningless. It’s an act of generosity—you’re sharing what you love and what has inspired you. (The best streaming platforms, such as the Criterion Channel and MUBI and traditional outlets such as TCM, are based on curating—they’re actually curated.) Algorithms, by definition, are based on calculations that treat the viewer as a consumer and nothing else.

The choices made by distributors such as Amos Vogel at Grove Press back in the Sixties were not just acts of generosity but, quite often, of bravery. Dan Talbot, who was an exhibitor and a programmer, started New Yorker Films in order to distribute a film he loved, Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution—not exactly a safe bet. The pictures that came to these shores thanks to the efforts of these and other distributors and curators and exhibitors made for an extraordinary moment. The circumstances of that moment are gone forever, from the primacy of the theatrical experience to the shared excitement over the possibilities of cinema. That’s why I go back to those years so often. I feel lucky to have been young and alive and open to all of it as it was happening. The cinema has always been much more than content, and it always will be, and the years when those films were coming out from all over the world, talking to each other and redefining the art form on a weekly basis, are the proof.

In essence, these artists were constantly grappling with the question “What is cinema?” and then throwing it back for the next film to answer. No one was operating in a vacuum, and everybody seemed to be responding to and feeding off everybody else. Godard and Bertolucci and Antonioni and Bergman and Imamura and Ray and Cassavetes and Kubrick and Varda and Warhol were reinventing cinema with each new camera movement and each new cut, and more established filmmakers such as Welles and Bresson and Huston and Visconti were reenergized by the surge in creativity around them.

At the center of it all, there was one director whom everyone knew, one artist whose name was synonymous with cinema and what it could do. It was a name that instantly evoked a certain style, a certain attitude toward the world. In fact, it became an adjective. Let’s say you wanted to describe the surreal atmosphere at a dinner party, or a wedding, or a funeral, or a political convention, or for that matter, the madness of the entire planet—all you had to do was say the word “Felliniesque” and people knew exactly what you meant.

In the Sixties, Federico Fellini became more than a filmmaker. Like Chaplin and Picasso and the Beatles, he was much bigger than his own art. At a certain point, it was no longer a matter of this or that film but all the films combined as one grand gesture written across the galaxy. Going to see a Fellini film was like going to hear Callas sing or Olivier act or Nureyev dance. His films even started to incorporate his name—Fellini Satyricon, Fellini’s Casanova. The only comparable example in film was Hitchcock, but that was something else: a brand, a genre in and of itself. Fellini was the cinema’s virtuoso.

By now, he has been gone for almost thirty years. The moment in time when his influence seemed to permeate all of culture is long past. That’s why Criterion’s box set, Essential Fellini, released last year to mark the centennial of his birth, is so welcome.

Fellini’s absolute visual mastery began in 1963 with 8½, in which the camera hovers and floats and soars between inner and outer realities, tuned to the shifting moods and secret thoughts of Fellini’s alter ego, Guido, played by Marcello Mastroianni. I watch passages in that picture, which I’ve gone back to more times than I can count, and still find myself wondering: How did he do it? How is it that each movement and gesture and gust of wind seems to fall perfectly into place? How is it that it all feels uncanny and inevitableas in a dream? How could every moment be so rich with inexplicable longing?

Sound played a big part in this mood. Fellini was as creative with sound as he was with images. Italian cinema has a long tradition of nonsync sound that began under Mussolini, who decreed that all films imported from other countries must be dubbed. In many Italian pictures, even some of the great ones, the sense of disembodied sound can be disorienting. Fellini knew how to use that disorientation as an expressive tool. The sounds and the images in his pictures play off and enhance one another in such a way that the entire cinematic experience moves like music, or like a great unfurling scroll. Nowadays, people are dazzled by the latest technological tools and what they can do. But lighter digital cameras and postproduction techniques such as digital stitching and morphing don’t make the movie for you: it’s about the choices you make in the creation of the whole picture. For the greatest artists such as Fellini, no element is too small—everything counts. I’m sure that he would have been thrilled by lightweight digital cameras, but they wouldn’t have changed the rigor and the precision of his aesthetic choices.

It’s important to remember that Fellini began in neorealism, which is interesting because in many ways he came to represent its polar opposite. He was actually one of the people who invented neorealism, in collaboration with his mentor Roberto Rossellini. That moment still astonishes me. It was the inspiration for so much in cinema, and I doubt that all the creativity and exploration of the Fifties and Sixties would have occurred without neorealism to build on. It was not so much a movement as a group of film artists responding to an unimaginable moment in the life of their nation. After twenty years of Fascism, after so much cruelty and terror and destruction, how did one carry on—as individuals and as a country? The films of Rossellini and De Sica and Visconti and Zavattini and Fellini and others, films in which aesthetics and morality and spirituality were so closely intertwined that they couldn’t be separated, played a vital role in the redemption of Italy in the eyes of the world.

Fellini co-wrote Rome, Open City and Paisà (he also reportedly stepped in to direct a few scenes in the Florentine episode when Rossellini was ill), and he co-wrote and acted in Rossellini’s The Miracle. His path as an artist obviously diverged from Rossellini’s early on, but they maintained a great mutual love and respect. And Fellini once said something quite astute: that what people described as neorealism truly existed only in the films of Rossellini and nowhere else. Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D., and La Terra Trema aside, I think Fellini meant that Rossellini was the only one with such a deep and abiding trust in simplicity and humanity, the only one who worked to allow life itself to come as close as possible to telling its own story. Fellini, by contrast, was a stylist and a fabulist, a magician and a teller of tales, but the grounding in lived experience and in ethics he received from Rossellini was crucial to the spirit of his pictures.

I came of age as Fellini was developing and blossoming as an artist, and so many of his pictures became precious to me. I saw La Strada, the story of a poor young woman sold to a traveling strongman, when I was about thirteen, and it hit me in a particular way. Here was a film that was set in postwar Italy but unfolded like a medieval ballad, or something even further back, an emanation from the ancient world. This could also be said of La Dolce Vita, I think, but that was a panorama, a pageant of modern life and spiritual disconnection. La Strada, released in 1954 (and in the United States two years later), was a smaller canvas, a fable grounded in the elemental: earth, sky, innocence, cruelty, affection, destruction.

For me, it had an added dimension. I watched it for the first time with my family on television, and the story rang true to my grandparents as a reflection of the hardships they’d left behind in the old country. La Strada was not well received in Italy. To some it was a betrayal of neorealism (many Italian pictures at the time were judged by this standard), and I suppose that setting such a harsh story within the framework of a fable was just too odd for many Italian viewers. Around the rest of the world, it was a massive success, the film that really made Fellini. It was the picture for which Fellini seemed to have labored the longest and suffered the most—his shooting script was so detailed that it ran to six hundred pages, and near the end of the extremely difficult production he had a psychological breakdown and had to go through the first (I believe) of many psychoanalyses before he was able to finish shooting. It was also the film that, for the rest of his life, he held closest to his heart.

Nights of Cabiria, a series of fantastic episodes in the life of a Roman streetwalker (the inspiration for the Broadway musical and Bob Fosse film Sweet Charity), solidified his reputation. Like everyone else, I found it emotionally overpowering. But the next great revelation was La Dolce Vita. It was an unforgettable experience to see that film alongside a packed audience when it was brand-new. La Dolce Vita was distributed here in 1961 by Astor Pictures and presented as a special event at a legitimate Broadway theater, with reserved mail-order seating and high-priced tickets—the kind of presentation we associated with biblical epics such as Ben-Hur. We took our seats, the lights went down, we watched a majestic, terrifying cinematic fresco unfold on the screen, and we all experienced the shock of recognition. Here was an artist who had managed to express the anxiety of the nuclear age, the sense that nothing really mattered anymore because everything and everyone could be annihilated at any moment. We felt this shock, but we also felt the exhilaration of Fellini’s love for the art of cinema—and, consequently, for life itself. Something similar was coming in rock and roll, in Dylan’s first electric albums and then in The White Album and Let It Bleed—they were about anxiety and despair, but they were thrilling and transcendent experiences.

When we presented the restoration of La Dolce Vita a decade ago in Rome, Bertolucci made a special point of attending. It was difficult for him to get around at that point because he was in a wheelchair and in constant pain, but he said he had to be there. And after the film, he confessed to me that La Dolce Vita was the reason he turned toward the cinema in the first place. I was genuinely surprised, because I’d never heard him discuss it. But in the end, it wasn’t so surprising. That picture was a galvanizing experience, like a shockwave that passed through the whole culture.

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La Dolce Vita

 

The two Fellini pictures that affected me the most, the ones that really marked me, were I Vitelloni and 8½. I Vitelloni because it captured something so real and so precious that related directly to my own experience. And  because it redefined my idea of what cinema was—what it could do and where it could take you.

I Vitelloni, released in Italy in 1953 and three years later in the United States, was Fellini’s third film and his first truly great one. It was also one of his most personal. The story is a series of scenes from the lives of five friends in their twenties in Rimini, where Fellini grew up: Alberto, played by the great Alberto Sordi; Leopoldo, played by Leopoldo Trieste; Moraldo, Fellini’s alter ego, played by Franco Interlenghi; Riccardo, played by Fellini’s own brother; and Fausto, played by Franco Fabrizi. They spend their days shooting pool, chasing girls, and walking around making fun of people. They have grand dreams and schemes. They behave like children and their parents treat them accordingly. And life goes on.

I felt like I knew these guys from my own life, my own neighborhood. I even recognized some of the same body language, the same sense of humor. In fact, at a certain point in my life, I was one of these guys. I understood what Moraldo was experiencing, his desperation to get out. Fellini captured it all so well—immaturity, vanity, boredom, sadness, the search for the next distraction, the next surge of euphoria. He gives us the warmth and the camaraderie and the jokes and the sadness and the desperation within, all at once. I Vitelloni is a painfully lyrical and bittersweet film, and it was a pivotal inspiration for Mean Streets. It’s a great movie about a hometown. Anybody’s hometown.

As for : Everyone I knew back in those days who was trying to make movies had a turning point, a personal touchstone. Mine was, and still is, 8½.

What do you do after you’ve made a picture like La Dolce Vita that has taken the world by storm? Everybody’s hanging on your every word, waiting to see what you’re going to do next. That’s what happened with Dylan in the mid-Sixties after Blonde on Blonde. For Fellini and for Dylan, the situation was the same: they had touched legions of people, everyone felt like they knew them, like they understood them, and, often, like they owned them. So, pressure. Pressure from the public, from the fans, from critics and enemies (and the fans and the enemies often feel like they’re one and the same). Pressure to produce more. Pressure to go further. Pressure from yourself, on yourself.

For Dylan and Fellini, the answer was to venture inward. Dylan sought simplicity in the spiritual sense meant by Thomas Merton, and he found it after his motorcycle accident in Woodstock, where he recorded The Basement Tapes and wrote the songs for John Wesley Harding.

Fellini started with his own situation in the early Sixties, and made a film about his artistic breakdown. In so doing, he undertook a risky expedition into uncharted territory: his interior world. His alter ego, Guido, is a famous director suffering from the cinematic equivalent of writer’s block, and he’s looking for a refuge, for peace and for guidance, as an artist and as a human being. He goes for a “cure” at a luxurious spa, where his mistress, his wife, his anxious producer, his prospective actors, his crew, and a motley procession of fans and hangers-on and fellow spa-goers quickly descend upon him—among them is a critic, who proclaims that his new script “lacks a central conflict or philosophical premise” and amounts to “a series of gratuitous episodes.” The pressure intensifies, his childhood memories and longings and fantasies arrive unexpectedly through his days and his nights, and he waits for his muse—who comes and goes, fleetingly, in the form of Claudia Cardinale—to “create order.”

8½ is a tapestry woven from Fellini’s dreams. As in a dream, everything seems solid and well-defined on the one hand and floating and ephemeral on the other; the tone keeps shifting, sometimes violently. He actually created a visual stream of consciousness that keeps the viewer in a state of surprise and alertness, and a form that constantly redefines itself as it goes along. You’re basically watching Fellini make the film before your eyes, because the creative process is the structure. Many filmmakers have tried to do something along these lines, but I don’t think anyone else has ever achieved what Fellini did here. He had the audacity and the confidence to play with every creative tool, to stretch the plastic quality of the image to a point where everything seems to exist on some subconscious level. Even the most seemingly neutral frames, when you take a really close look, have some element in the lighting or the composition that throws you off, that is somehow infused with Guido’s consciousness. After a while, you stop trying to figure out where you are, whether you’re in a dream or a flashback or just plain reality. You want to stay lost and wander with Fellini, surrendering to the authority of his style.

The picture reaches a peak in a scene where Guido meets the cardinal at the baths, a journey to the underworld in search of an oracle, and a return to the clay from which we all originate. As it is throughout the picture, the camera is in motion—restless, hypnotic, floating, always bearing toward something inevitable, something revelatory. As Guido makes his way down, we see from his point of view a succession of people approaching him, some advising him on how to ingratiate himself with the cardinal and some pleading for favors. He enters an anteroom filled with steam and makes his way to the cardinal, whose attendants hold a muslin shroud in front of him as he disrobes—we see him only as a shadow. Guido tells the cardinal that he’s unhappy, and the cardinal responds, simply, unforgettably: “Why should you be happy? That is not your task. Who told you that we come into the world in order to be happy?” Every shot in this scene, every piece of staging and choreography between camera and actors, is extraordinarily complex. I cannot imagine how difficult it all was to execute. Onscreen, it unfolds so gracefully that it looks like the easiest thing in the world. For me, the audience with the cardinal embodies a remarkable truth about : Fellini made a film about film that could only exist as a film and nothing else—not a piece of music, not a novel, not a poem, not a dance, only as a work of cinema.

When 8½ was released people argued over it endlessly: the effect was that dramatic. We each had our own interpretation, and we would sit up till all hours talking about the film—every scene, every second. Of course we never settled on a definite interpretation—the only way to explain a dream is with the logic of a dream. The film doesn’t have a resolution, which bothered many people. Gore Vidal once told me that he said to Fellini, “Fred, less dreams next time, you must tell a story.” But in 8½, the lack of resolution is only right, because the artistic process doesn’t have a resolution either—you have to just keep going. When you’re done, you’re compelled to do it again, just like Sisyphus. And, as Sisyphus discovered, pushing the boulder up the hill again and again becomes the purpose of your life.

The movie had an enormous effect on filmmakers—it inspired Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland, in which Fellini appears as himself; Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories; and Fosse’s All That Jazz, not to mention the Broadway musical Nine. As I said, I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen 8½, and I can’t even begin to talk about the many ways that it’s affected me. Fellini showed all of us what it was to be an artist, the overpowering need to create art. 8½ is the purest expression of love for the cinema that I know of.

Following up La Dolce Vita? Difficult. Following up ? I can’t imagine. With Toby Dammit, a medium-length picture inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe story (it’s the last third of an omnibus film called Spirits of the Dead), Fellini took his hallucinatory imagery to a razor-sharp level. The film is a visceral descent into hell. In Fellini Satyricon, he created something unprecedented: a fresco of the ancient world that was “science fiction in reverse,” as he called it. Amarcord, his semi-autobiographical film set in Rimini during the Fascist period, is now one of his most beloved pictures (it’s a favorite of Hou Hsiao-hsien, for example), though it’s far less daring than the earlier films. Still, it’s a work filled with extraordinary visions (I was fascinated by Italo Calvino’s special admiration for the film as a portrait of life in Mussolini’s Italy, something that didn’t really occur to me). After Amarcord, every picture had shards of brilliance, especially Fellini’s Casanova. It’s an ice-cold film, colder than the deepest circle of hell in Dante, and it’s a remarkable and daringly stylized but truly forbidding experience. It seemed like a turning point for Fellini. And in truth, the late Seventies and early Eighties seemed like a turning point for many filmmakers around the world, myself included. The sense of camaraderie that we had all felt, whether real or imagined, seemed to break apart, and everyone seemed to become her or his own island, fighting to make the next picture.

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Fellini Satyricon

 

I knew Federico, well enough to call him a friend. We met for the first time in 1970, when I went to Italy with a group of short films I’d selected for a presentation in a film festival. I contacted Fellini’s office, and I was given about half an hour of his time. He was so warm, so cordial. I told him that on my first trip to Rome, I’d saved him and the Sistine Chapel for the last day. He laughed. “You see, Federico,” his assistant said, “you’ve become a boring monument!” I assured him that boring was the one thing he’d never be. I remember that I also asked him where I could find good lasagna, and he recommended a wonderful restaurant—Fellini knew all the best restaurants everywhere.

Several years later, I moved to Rome for a time and I began to see Fellini fairly often. We would run into each other and get together for a meal. He was always a showman, and the show never stopped. Watching him direct a movie was a remarkable experience. It was as if he were conducting a dozen orchestras at once. I took my parents to the set of City of Women, and he was running all over the place, cajoling, pleading, acting out, sculpting, and adjusting every element of the picture down to the last detail, realizing his vision in a swirl of nonstop motion. When we left, my father said, “I thought we were going to have our picture taken with Fellini.” I said, “You did!” Everything had happened so fast that they didn’t even know it had happened.

In the last years of his life, I tried to help him get his picture The Voice of the Moon distributed in the United States. He’d had a difficult time with his producers on that project—they wanted a grand Fellini extravaganza and he gave them something much more meditative and somber. No distributor would touch it, and I was truly shocked that no one, including any of the key independent theaters in New York, even wanted to show it. The old films, yes, but not the new one, which turned out to be his last. A little later, I helped Fellini get some funding for a documentary project he had planned, a series of portraits of the people who made movies: the actor, the cinematographer, the producer, the location manager (I remember that in the outline for that episode, the narrator explained that the most important thing was to organize expeditions so that locations were near a great restaurant). Sadly, he died before he could get started on the project. I remember the last time I spoke to him on the phone. His voice sounded so faint, and I could tell that he was fading. It was sad to see that incredible life force ebb away.

Everything has changed—the cinema and the importance it holds in our culture. Of course, it’s hardly surprising that artists such as Godard, Bergman, Kubrick, and Fellini, who once reigned over our great art form like gods, would eventually recede into the shadows with the passing of time. But at this point, we can’t take anything for granted. We can’t depend on the movie business, such as it is, to take care of cinema. In the movie business, which is now the mass visual entertainment business, the emphasis is always on the word “business,” and value is always determined by the amount of money to be made from any given property—in that sense, everything from Sunrise to La Strada to 2001 is now pretty much wrung dry and ready for the “Art Film” swim lane on a streaming platform. Those of us who know the cinema and its history have to share our love and our knowledge with as many people as possible. And we have to make it crystal clear to the current legal owners of these films that they amount to much, much more than mere property to be exploited and then locked away. They are among the greatest treasures of our culture, and they must be treated accordingly.

I suppose we also have to refine our notions of what cinema is and what it isn’t. Federico Fellini is a good place to start. You can say a lot of things about Fellini’s movies, but here’s one thing that is incontestable: they are cinema. Fellini’s work goes a long way toward defining the art form.

 is an Academy Award–winning director, writer, and producer.

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The ‘Lost World’ of Vittorio De Seta

J. Hoberman

2/14/2021 10:00:00 AM

Criterion Collection

A scene from Lu tempu di li pisci spata, 1954

Time stands still in the series of luminous short documentaries that Italian filmmaker Vittorio De Seta (1923–2011), not to be confused with his near namesake Vittorio De Sica, would later call “The Lost World.”

Made in southern Italy and Sardinia between 1954 and 1959, the ten films of “The Lost World” might be considered examples of a hyper-Neorealism. De Seta, who did most of his own cinematography, uses glorious color and luxuriant widescreen to enshrine the ancient, pre-industrial folkways and hardscrabble work lives of fishermen, shepherds, peasants, and miners—presented without an explanatory voiceover to distract from the filmmaker’s virtuoso camera placement.

“Italian films are first and foremost reconstituted reportage,” wrote the French critic André Bazin, an early champion of Italian Neorealism. Recently restored and newly available, De Seta’s films appear as the hot-house flowering of an Italian tradition. De Seta’s subjects never acknowledge his 16mm camera. Nor, with few exceptions, does the camera acknowledge modern technology (besides its own). The effect is powerful enough to transport some viewers back to the dawn of cinema. The critic Kent Jones has compared De Seta’s documentaries’ “poetic” economy of form to the one-reel Biograph films with which D.W. Griffith invented cinematic narrative.

Art films fashioned from documentary elements, the movies of “The Lost World” are more studied and accomplished than lay musicologist Les Blank’s vérité celebration of American folk cultures, less fragmentary and concentrated than avant-garde filmmaker Bruce Baillie’s lyrical reportage. They are closest to the late films of the ethnographer-aesthete Robert Gardner, a patrician like De Seta, who was born to a noble family in Palermo, Sicily. Both men’s labor-intensive work was largely self-financed.

Lu tempu di li pisci spata (The Age of Swordfish, 1954), De Seta’s first film, and the first of three depicting Sicilian fishermen, sets the template for his subsequent work. The movie opens at dawn with the sound of a worker’s chant and ends after the day’s catch at dusk, fishermen framed against the sky. In between, De Seta manages to show their labors from dizzying angles and in extreme close-ups, matching their skill and concentration with his own.

Less anti-capitalist than a-capitalist, De Seta’s first documentaries eschewed the criticism of poverty and underdevelopment implicit in Neorealist reportage like Michelangelo Antonioni’s truncated 1943 documentary People of the Po Valley or the work of muckraking photographers like Tino Petrelli. One wonders if De Seta, nominally a Communist, was committed to a celebratory view of labor or had rather internalized the rules enforced by Giulio Andreotti, the Christian Democrat official in charge of the performing arts (and later prime minister), who, concerned with Italy’s image abroad, campaigned against representations of Italy’s impoverished south. Perhaps it was both.

If not exactly a tourist film, Isole di fuoco (Islands of Fire, 1954) is a spectacular account of the Stromboli volcano’s 1954 eruptions, cross cut with a raging storm. Conjuring primordial struggle, orange rivulets of lava are juxtaposed with a terrain of ancient stone houses. Calmer but no less colorful, Pasqua in Sicilia (Easter in Sicily, 1955) feasts on the rude pageantry of a village passion play. Costumed centurions and capering devils pass through the narrow streets. The sense of pagan awe is palpable.

The least alienated depiction of labor imaginable, Parabola d’oro (Golden Parable, 1955) is a pastoral idyll focusing on the one of the least respected sectors of Italian society. Harvest time in Sicily: a gentle zephyr ruffles the wheat as, heroically molded by the low-angle camera, men and women work the fields. Although the movie follows De Seta’s dawn-to-dusk paradigm, it seems mainly shot during the late afternoon “magic hour,” when the light is most aureate.

With no indication whether the peasants are bringing in the produce of their own land or that belonging to a wealthy padrone, Parabola exemplifies De Seta’s celebratory filmmaking. In depicting the Sicilian sulfur miners, who, given their terrible working conditions, embodied class exploitation, Solfatara (1955) is less idyllic. Workers arrive in the misty dawn, crouch and crawl through tunnels to begin their daily drilling. A sudden silence and a montage of frozen gestures evoke the danger to their lives, if not its privation.

Nonetheless, Solfatara introduces a new element in the hitherto romantic “Lost World.” Subsequent documentaries of Sicilian fishermen, Contadini del mare (Sea Countrymen, 1955) and Pescherecci (Fishing Boats, 1958), complicate the idealization of Lu tempu di li pisci spata.

The fisherman of Contadini are introduced as singing silhouettes, but are later more purposefully shown constructing a corral of long boats and nets around a trapped school of tuna, hauling in the agitated fish with grappling hooks to create a thrashing, gore-stained hubbub that recalls the brutality of Georges Franju’s abattoir documentary Blood of the Beasts (1949). Pescherecci is less violent but even more insistent on the industrial nature of fishing (in this case, of sardines); here, the work songs are overpowered by the roar of boat engines. Still, the film is often beautiful as the somber gray-blue palette is illuminated by unexpected rainbows.

In 1958, along with Pescherecci, De Seta made two, more ethnographic documentaries in Sardinia. The desolate landscape of the island’s mountainous interior seems to have affected him in the same way that Carlo Levi, author of the hugely influential nonfiction novel Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945), was affected by his exile to the impoverished southern region of Basilicata. He is a foreigner in a prehistoric land.

Pastori di Orgosolo (Orgosolo’s Shepherds, 1958) ponders the difficult lives of the men who tend the herds, milk goats, and make cheese by an open fire, enduring windy torrents of rain and sleet in their cave shelters. The experience inspired De Seta’s first and most important feature film, Banditi a Orgosolo (Bandits of Orgosolo, 1961), a forcefully laconic account of a shepherd driven by misfortune to become an outlaw. (The movie won a prize at the 1961 Venice Film Festival and intermittently surfaces for streaming, most recently on MUBI.)

De Seta made one more documentary in Sardinia, Un giorno in Barbagia (A Day in Barbagia, 1958), regarded by some as his crowning achievement. In ten minutes, De Seta maps the complicated daily routine of a town left largely to women and children while the men tend their flocks in the hills. Beginning with the shepherds leaving at daybreak and ending with their children tucked in for the night, the movie admires a poor but harmonious world of total, albeit gendered, industriousness, as the rhythm of wood-gathering and foraging gives way to communal bread-baking and sewing.

Criterion Collection

A scene from I dimenticati, 1959

The last and longest of De Seta’s documentaries, I dimenticati (The Forgotten, 1959), is almost a critique of Un giorno’s tribute to human persistence and ingenuity. Set in Calabria (where De Seta’s family was from), it depicts a mountain village at the end of an abandoned road, described in a rare voiceover as “an archaic, lifeless, forgotten world.” Noting the numerous difficulties the villagers endure, while implicitly asking why they cling to this precarious place, De Seta chronicles an annual spring celebration that involves cutting down a giant fir tree, stripping it, raising it up, and engaging in a competition to see who can shimmy to the top as the whole village gathers to watch.

The sense of absurdity is beyond poignant. The invisible narrator explains that this ritual is “the only chance for these forgotten souls to feel alive.” This world was lost long before De Seta found it.

Restored by the Film Foundation, the series “Documentary Shorts by Vittorio De Seta” is available for streaming from the Criterion Channel.

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NOTES ON FILM & RESTORATION

2/11/2021 9:00:00 AM

About 25 years ago, a writer I knew gave me a call. He was writing a piece about film restoration and he was taking a contrarian’s point of view. He didn’t have a problem with the actual practice of restoration and preservation per se, but with the advocacy for the practice. He had a Darwinian perspective: he maintained that the best films would always be cared for because they were the ones that had stood the test of time, while the less good ones would simply fall by the wayside and go the way of extinct species like the Perenian Ibex or the Dodo. I listened patiently, and then explained to him, as calmly and in as much detail as I could, that he was out of his mind.

There was the fragility of film itself, and the many ways that earlier stocks could deteriorate. There was the reality of vault fires, which had destroyed the negatives of many films that were long considered classics. There was the fact that the greatness of certain films was recognized only long after their initial releases, at which point they were deemed disappointments or failures—that list is endless, but The Night of the Hunter, which we covered a few months ago, is a perfect example.

And then there’s the question of changing standards. At this moment, there is a great obsession with “accessibility.” Is a given film too “esoteric?” Does it only appeal to the “elitist tastes” of “auteurists?” Such clichés are now rampant. At the highest levels on the accessibility meter would be films made within the last 10 years, officially sanctioned by the AFI or AMPAS (English language only, of course). At the very lowest levels would be avant-garde cinema, whose audiences are always small, dedicated and tightly knit. And within the world of the avant garde, the early work of the great Canadian musician, visual artist and filmmaker Michael Snow would surely register near zero. If one were to follow my old acquaintance’s test of restoration worthiness, the negative for Snow’s 1969 film <_ _ _>, also known as Back and Forth, would be wedged into the bottom of the stack at the darkest corner of a mildewed cellar. “This is the worst kind of art film,” begins the synopsis on the Directors’ Fortnight website (probably written by the filmmaker). “BACK AND FORTH takes place almost entirely in an empty classroom. Various people show up now and then. The gimmick here is that the camera continuously moves back and forth, at an ever-increasing rate of speed, and by the end of the picture everything’s just a blur.” In a 2007 interview, Snow fondly recalled a 1969 MoMA screening. “10 minutes into it a guy jumped up and said, ‘This is basically a piece of shit, I want this stopped,’ and another guy said, ‘Shut up, we want to watch this.’ They were facing each other and they started to fight. There were 20 or so people in the audience, all of whom got up and left once they started fighting.”

<_ _ _>, which was restored by Anthology Film Archives with the assistance of The Film Foundation (Anthology is now at work on Snow’s earlier Wavelength), brings to mind Snow’s frequently quoted 1967 statement: “My paintings are done by a filmmaker, sculpture by a musician, films by a painter, music by a filmmaker, paintings by a sculptor, sculpture by a filmmaker, films by a musician, music by a sculptor … sometimes they all work together.” A flat-screen kinetic sculpture, a plunge into the heart of perception itself, a transformation from the absolutely mundane into the uncanny right before our eyes… As a student, I remember the amazement of watching this film for the first time on a KEM. Was I going to run out and rave about it to all my friends who weren’t into movies? No. Was I going to call my parents and tell them to see it (if they only could) and take all their friends? Nope. Did I have an issue with the commercial film industry for “marginalizing” Snow’s work? No—two separate worlds. Was it “accessible?” Well, it was accessible to me, an audience of one. And if I reject the term “elitist” as a means of describing my solitary experience, that’s because I’ve come to see that it’s always a matter of one person at a time, with all the arts. Even a “mass art form” like the cinema—it’s great to experience anything in a crowded theatre, but in the end it’s always just the movie and you.

- Kent Jones

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THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955, d. Charles Laughton)
Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive in cooperation with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc. with funding provided by Robert Sturm and The Film Foundation.

BACK AND FORTH (1969, d. Michael Snow)
Restored by Anthology Film Archives with funding provided by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and The Film Foundation.

WAVELENGTH (1967, d. Michael Snow)
Restored by Anthology Film Archives and The Film Foundation. Funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation.

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NOTES ON FILM & RESTORATION 

2/4/2021 10:00:00 AM

On a couple of occasions, The Film Foundation has facilitated or participated in two restorations of the same film, the first photochemical and the second digital. For instance, Chaplin’s The Cure and Lubitsch’s Forbidden Paradise, both of which were restored on the first round by MoMA. The digital restoration of The Cure was carried out by the Cineteca di Bologna and L’Immagine Ritrovata, with support from the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation and the Material World Foundation, as part of their massive ongoing Chaplin Project. According to David Shepherd, they gathered sources from all over the world and scanned the best elements for every shot, which they then cleaned and stabilized. Damaged frames or passages were inserted from alternate sources when necessary, the contrast and brightness levels were balanced, the frame rate was corrected and the original title cards were recreated. The careful restoration of any silent film, at this moment in the relatively short history of film restoration, involves something like this process. It also involves making choices. “Each film was shot with two different negatives,” explained Shepherd in a Flicker Alley interview, “with two different cameras: the A negative and B negative. The A negative is clearly the better one. You can tell by little things that Chaplin does that are more clever and detailed in one than the other. We tried to restore to the A negative wherever we could, but if a shot was too damaged to restore, we put in footage from the B negative. If there was more material in the B negative that was because they edited it out in the A original.”

The digital work on Forbidden Paradise, also done at MoMA with funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation, involved a mixture of detective work, interpretation and creativity that, according to Dave Kehr, restored about 90% of the film’s coherence (two missing scenes were summarized by added intertitles). Anyone who remembers excitedly renting a VHS copy of a rare silent film only to go home to find a nonsensical and arrhythmic assemblage of ragged jump cuts will know what I’m talking about. I vividly remember renting a copy of Murnau’s The Haunted Castle, throwing it in the machine and almost instantaneously crash-landing in a state of absolute bewilderment. Mercifully, that film has been restored as well (another act of reconstruction, in this case by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, working from a nitrate negative and positive).

We know that preservation is an ongoing process, and that we must now constantly migrate preserved elements from one storage medium and/or system to another (bearing in mind that nothing has been proven to last longer than film). But restoration is also ongoing. There will always be new tools, offering increased flexibility and precision…and, inevitably, increased opportunities for choices made in the name of “enhancement” or “improvement” that are often, in the end, creative alterations or outright violations. The plethora of early moving images that have been stabilized and “up-resed” to 4K and 60fps (including films by the Lumière Brothers) is startling to behold, but they raise troubling questions about what images are and the wildly varying levels of respect with which they’re treated.

Going forward, every film will be passed from hand to hand into the future. We have to make sure that there is always love, reverence and humility in the handling.

- Kent Jones

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THE CURE (1917, d. Charlie Chaplin)
Preserved by The Museum of Modern Art with funding provided by The Film Foundation. 

Restored Cineteca di Bologna at L'Immagine Ritrovata, in collaboration with Lobster Films and Film Preservation Associates.  Restoration funding provided by The Film Foundation, the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation and the Material World Foundation.

FORBIDDEN PARADISE (1924, d. Ernst Lubitsch)
Preserved by The Museum of Modern Art with funding provided by The Film Foundation and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. 

Restored by The Museum of Modern Art and The Film Foundation, with funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation. 

 

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