On this episode, we’re discussing Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971) with special guest and Visconti aficionado Jon Laubinger (Film Baby Film, The 25th Frame Media)! We go into the film’s themes of beauty, art, and decay, as well as how setting and geography fit into this dark tale. Jon also shares great insight around how Death in Venice fits into Visconti’s filmography, and how it gives life to ideas the director explores throughout all his work.
Paul Haggis’s Crash (2004) was well-received upon its release. It has a 74% on Rotten Tomatoes, was Roger Ebert’s favorite film of the year, earned the SAG award for Best Ensemble, won several Best Original Screenplay awards (including the Writers Guild prize and Academy Award), and (most notoriously) won Best Picture at the 2005 Academy Awards.
It was certainly a surprise win, over the perceived front-runner Brokeback Mountain, which had won many more Best Film awards throughout the season, and overall seemed the critical darling. Brokeback not winning Best Picture is often considered one of the great oversights of the Academy Awards, while Crash winning is a huge mistake.
I have never felt this way. Crash has always been the superior film to me.
It is a sweeping, all-encompassing look at prejudice, miscommunication, and connection in modern-day Los Angeles. Characters from all different walks of life come into conflict and collision with one another, and we experience the full human spectrum from the lowest and most deplorable acts to genuine humanity and compassion. At times, it feels exploitative, playing off historically institutional racism, and how systemic forces maintain the status quo of inequality and oppression. But it’s also not wrong in the portrayal of these systems as monstrous behemoths, leaving the individual feeling powerless and ill-equipped to surmount them.
It’s a movie that gets a strong reaction from audiences, and it’s not afraid to lay its cards on the table. Issues of inequality and prejudice are, frankly, most of the characters talk about, and all the action is linked to this central conflict of a lack of empathy and connection within such a densely populated community as Los Angeles. This thesis permeates all the action that transpires in the film which, for better or worse, has something to say.
I don’t know if Brokeback Mountain does. Set in the 1960s and 70s, it examines the connection and eventual love that grows between two mid-west sheep ranchers who work together one summer, and find a way to stay in each other’s lives even as they marry, have kids, and build lives away from one another. Their love truly sprouts out of nowhere, and it’s supposed to be the central through-line carrying the film. This unfortunately makes the ancillary characters and action hard to invest in, knowing it’s not the “main” love story despite the lengthy screen time the side stuff receives. And while it’s certainly noteworthy as an LGBT film that got mainstream appeal, its lack of a real message and tragic ending leave me puzzled as to why this is a movie to remember and revisit. The gay experience in mainstream film is plagued with death sentences, and fewer films seem to have the main characters make it all the way to the end, than the ones that don’t. Is it helpful and a good thing for the community to keep hashing out films in which the hero dies because he’s gay?
The Oscars are important to serve as time capsules, speaking to the culture, politics, and people of their respective eras. Crash feels very 2004 (for good and for bad), and it still resonates today for ongoing problems and discussions worth having. Brokeback Mountain may deserve praise for setting the groundwork for future “mainstream” LGBT films, like the excellent Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon, but on its own, it doesn’t seem to have an important, purposeful reason to stay in the conversation. If the awards ceremony back in 2005 set you off, I’d suggest revisiting Crash; 2005 and 2019 have a lot in common, and it’s still an important movie.
In 1950s Italian cinema, you can usually count on three things: black and white cinematography, realism (for the most part – magical realism is allowed), and definitely not musicals.
Carosello Napoletano (Neopolitan Carousel) is the inverse of all of these, making it a wacky surprise but an enjoyable departure from what we often think of during this period of film. Loosely speaking, it is the story of Naples throughout time, starting in the Medieval era up to the Unification, through the dawn of the 20th century and past World War I. It glides through these disparate time periods quite suddenly, using devices as concrete as sheet music blowing in the wind, to more melodic as “O Sole Mio” is sung in one scene, before the time-jump and the same tune is sung in the next era.
The Carosello kept jumping around so much, I honestly had a hard time staying on board and being fully engaged with the action, knowing we would bounce ahead shortly. In particular, the movie’s earlier segments told as a mix of operetta and ballet, with so much dancing and ensemble characters flying around it was tricky to monitor who was who, and whether it even mattered. (Would they be back again for the next song? Probably not.)
Things slow down by the 20th century, fortunately, and we get fascinating vignettes around immigration, the impact of war, and other historical moments in Naples’s history. A noteworthy segment has three middle-class men, sitting nonchalantly on a park bench, who notice a sign encouraging men to enlist in the armed forces. They begin fidgeting and tapping their toes in rhythm, matching the syncopated marching of an army. They suddenly burst up from their seat and march along down the street, joined by men of all uniforms and social classes, uniting together to perform their civic duty.
The film works best when the full Carosello comes together. The single segments don’t quite stand on their own, but the terrific finale brings all of them together. It’s Christmas in Naples, and a family we’ve been following most of the film (the backbone to our time-traveling adventure) doesn’t have a roof over their heads.
A son of the family gazes sadly into a window display, where a massive Nativity display is set, in an awe-inspiring moment of beauty. Italian Nativity scenes are unique in that they contextualize the birth of Christ within their own community; Nativity sets are massive, including bakers, accordion players, clowns – figures who probably weren’t roaming around in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, but their inclusion brings the story of Christmas closer to home (literally) and makes the community part of the miracle.
The camera pans out to show a living Nativity of Naples. The impressive Naples set we’d seen for the previous two hours is shown in its full, stunning sound-stage glory. The people we’d followed through centuries of history are all dancing together in the piazza, transcending time and place for the annual celebration. As lumpy as its parts may be, the whole of Carosello Napoletano is a colorful, thought-provoking, and touching look at the eternal spirit of Naples.
I didn’t like Bohemian Rhapsody. I couldn’t tell you what was the particular moment that the movie stopped working for me, but it hit early on that this wasn’t my kind of movie. I tend to not go for biopics anyway, and this by-the-numbers telling of the story of Queen, and particularly lead singer Freddie Mercury (played by a struggling-to-speak Rami Malek), was full of all the tropes, speeches, and awe-inspiring (diagetically) moments that turn me off of the biopic in general.
But then. A few weeks ago, in peaceful (though deliciously catty) protest to the film’s unexpected success in the awards season, from its Golden Globes win for Best Motion Picture – Drama to its Academy Award nominations (including Best Editing), a tweet went viral showcasing (what the poster says) was an example of how poorly the film is edited: the scene in which Queen meets John Reid, their manager-to-be. The clip is edited jarringly, with cuts following every single line and quip throwing the audience around like they’re the victims of the coven from Suspiria. It’s hysterical, and I don’t know if it’s meant to be.
Reid asks Queen what makes them unique on the rock scene, and Mercury replies, “Now we’re four misfits who don’t belong together, we’re playing for the other misfits. They’re the outcasts, right at the back of the room. We’re pretty sure they don’t belong either. We belong to them.” And also, no two band members are alike and yet they can collaborate in perfect harmony. These descriptors aren’t very well earned, as nothing much indicated prior to this that they are misfits (other than that they have a couple clunky performances?). The claim that no two are alike is pretty hysterical coming from Roger Taylor, who (in the film, to be clear) is as bland and transparent as the other three non-Mercury band members. The three are not afforded distinguishable personalities, and really come together to be one united character as a “normal” foil to Mercury’s wild antics.
This particular scene is fun to pick apart, but the whole movie is full of goofy editing and preposterous dialogue. Another wacko moment comes when Mercury brings his then-girlfriend Mary and the band to his parents’ house. He’s at the other end of the room, fixing himself in the mirror, and announces he’s officially changing his name from Farrokh Bulsara to Freddie Mercury. “I’ve changed it legally,” he tells the others from across the room. Cut to a close-up of Mercury, apparently talking to himself himself in the mirror: “No going back.”
For me, Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t work as a real movie. It’s all over the place, there’s no real arcs to speak of, just scenes happening and taking place over time. It reminds me of Ryan Murphy works like American Horror Story at their worst: centered around a “strong” (bossy, arrogant) lead character, who knows all and senses the success lying ahead, surrounded by mindless buffoons who have nothing on the magnetic figure among them. It almost feels like a cartoon, or drag performance, or something else over-the-top in a different plane from the basic tenets of storytelling.
But it’s watching Bohemian Rhapsody through this lens that it works better. I don’t know if I can say it’s “so-bad-it’s-good” (because it’s still not good), but it’s like a master class in how filmmaking can go wrong, and lessons we all can learn as storytellers. There is absolutely a meaningful story to be told in here; Queen is one of the great musical artists of the 20th century, and they (and we) deserve much, much better. Though taking the film on its own terms, as a preposterous idol worship flick, with sloppy dialogue and an intolerable lead performance, it’s kind of fun to watch the disaster unfold.
In a recent podcast, Rebecca Drysdale noted that Pixar films tend to have a single scene or moment that serves as the overall thesis of the film; even when taken out of context, it represents the major theme of the narrative, storytelling in both the micro- individual moment and the macro- larger piece it’s embodied within.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a cinematic triumph in countless ways, achieves just that in a climactic scene on the beach. Housekeeper, nanny, and Jill-of-all-trades Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is on “vacation” with the family of her employer: Sofia, a middle-aged mother, and her children. Sofia and one of her sons go further inland, and Sofia asks Cleo (who can’t swim) to watch the other kids as they wade in the water. Cleo keeps an eye on the youngest, who’s playing on the beach, as two of the older children bob further and further away into the sea.
The camera stays on Cleo as she watches the kids, who have gone out of the frame. A few moments pass, and she calls out to them, but no response back. Cleo tells the youngest to stay put, and she makes her way into the ocean. She walks easily through the shallow end, then cautiously treads water, continuing out into the Atlantic as she braces the impact of waves pounding on her, nearly knocking her over, but she never falters, pushing forward until she finds the children, grabs ahold of them, and ushers them back to the shore.
In one masterful shot, Cuarón distills all the struggles, strengths, and love within Cleo. The preceding two hours of the Roma show Cleo facing countless horrors, travesties, and tragedies as a young woman without tools or means to combat the harsh reality around her. But she pushes on anyway. She can’t swim, but as a nanny and surrogate mother to these children, she does what’s needed in order to save them.
Death and violence are recurring themes in Roma. Like the undulating cadence of the ocean’s waves, they strike again and again, never ceasing to stop or allowing a breath for air. Cleo is embedded within innumerable hardships and trials through the course of the film, but her spirit of resilience and love doesn’t waver. Roma is a story of how someone can be shunned, abused, all but forgotten from society, and be the strongest and most compassionate person of all.
I’m excited to announce a new project! I’m joining the podcast game with Cinema Italiano, a podcast dedicated to the Italian experience as told by film. More details and information coming soon, and can’t wait to explore the world of Italian cinema together with all of you!
This episode features the following music excerpts:
For a musical that’s over 50 years old and permanently fixed in the public consciousness (or at least, that of musical theater fans!), the new production of Hello, Dolly! that hit Broadway in 2017 and currently touring North America is undeniably fresh, funny, and delightfully entertaining.
A great deadpan, tongue-in-cheek humor carried out throughout the entire show, never making fun of or mocking the original source material. The early opening number “It Takes a Woman,” the intro song by romantic conquest-to-be Horace Vandergelder (Lewis J. Stadlen), is sung diagetically only to his employees Cornelius and Barnaby, but men pop out from every nook and cranny to join in the chorus, only to disappear and reappear someplace else for their next cue. Barnaby (Jess LeProtto), a hopelessly lovesick young man whose main aspiration is to kiss a girl, delivers his exclamations with a straight “Gee, whiz!”, “Oh, no!” without ever winking at the audience – he’s in it 100%.
And of course we can’t talk about the performances without the the one and only Dolly Levi, played to perfection with warmth, love, and kindness by the legendary Betty Buckley. She plays a matchmaker out to maneuver herself into Vandergelder’s arms, and she’s the one running the show (both in the narrative, and literally as its star player). Though even as the puppet master pulling the strings, she never condescends or looks down on the lovesick fools around her; she grants everyone a genuine respect and dignity.
As simple as it sounds, this has always been one of the keys to Hello, Dolly! for me; it’s a story of genuine decency, with good people, actively looking to improve their everyday lives into something better. There are no villains, only mismatches; we see (to comedic result) how badly two would-be suitors pair together, as people switch dinner tables, break off engagements, steal forbidden kisses all to find that right person. There is no malice, and no harm in pursuing one’s own happiness.
In the show’s title song, Dolly expresses her nostalgia for days gone by and yearning to get back to that feeling:
I feel the room swayin’ for the band’s playin’
One of my old favorite songs from way back when
So, bridge that gap, fellas, find me an empty lap, fellas
Dolly’ll never go away again.
There was a time in the past when things were better, and Dolly is on her way to regain the joy and satisfaction her life once had. And sometimes it takes the wrong choices to get back on track: whether it’s Cornelius’s dead-end job at Vandergelder’s shop, where he’s underpaid and undervalued; or Irene Malloy’s engagement to Vandergelder, only to find out he’s not the guy for her.
Hello, Dolly! would have taken place 100 years ago, and was a period piece even when it first hit the stage in the 1960s. Despite this time lapse, we can’t help but see ourselves in the places and characters before us though, with people leading lives that are satisfactory but could use room for improvement. Just like for the citizens of Yonkers, perhaps Dolly is here to give us all that push for something more.