[originally published in a booklet for the DVD release of Partner by NoShame in 2005]
The political and the sensual meet in the cinema of Bernardo Bertolucci. His visually dense and stylistically labyrinthine films are among the most beautiful — and the most provocative (The Last Tango in Paris) — ever made.His career straddles canvases both epic (1900,The Last Emperor) and intimate (Luna, Besieged), from defiantly Italian stories that reverberate with the echoes of Italy’s Fascist past to international dramas that explore culture,history, and spirituality around the world. All of them are beautifully crafted works attuned the texture of experience and the magic of the moment.
[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, May 15, 1998]
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View
presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors
for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for
the 1996 primary season, and if the populace is unaroused, U.S. senator Jay
Bulworth (longtime Democratic activist Warren Beatty) is downright unhinged.
His marriage is a charade, his brain long since pickled by rhetoric, his soul
in fealty to fat-cat lobbyists. His effort to pour his old liberal wine into a
new conservative bottle may get him reelected, but will that help him live with
himself? Not really. After taking out $10 million in life insurance for the
sake of his daughter, he applies to a shady sort named Vinnie to arrange a
“special research project”—a contract on … Jay Bulworth!
There are a handful of dialogue-free moments in Wonder Wheel, and they come as an enormous relief. Woody Allen’s talky drama—the 48th feature for the 82-year-old director—has a small group of characters yammering at each other for much of its 101 minutes. But there are a couple of times when the central figure, Ginny (Kate Winslet), is allowed to be alone with herself and her thoughts. Ginny frets, or flips through her movie magazines, or ponders doing something terrible in order to cling to the slim thread of pleasure she has recently had in her life. For a few seconds the movie breathes, partly because a terrific actress is allowed to bring her power into the space—and partly because these are among the only moments in the film when everybody isn’t trying way, way too hard to make something happen.
Last year I surveyed a number of Blu-ray releases from the Warner Archive, which is predominantly a line of manufacture-on-demand DVD-Rs offering films that otherwise wouldn’t support a traditional DVD release. It also, however, releases a few choice Blu-rays each year. The difference between the formats is that the Blu-ray releases are in fact pressed discs and they feature high-quality transfers as good as any classic released through Warner’s traditionally-marketed Blu-ray line.
Because they are available only by order online (through Warner Archive, Amazon, and other outlets), they don’t get the kind of public profile that commercially released and distributed discs get. So here are some of the highlights of the past few months (or more).
42nd Street (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – Released in 1933 by Warner Bros., which specialized in snappy, fast-paced pictures with working class heroes and street smart characters, 42nd Street launched a series of great backstage musicals that featured lavish production numbers in a Broadway culture where the depression was a reality just offstage and the dancers were one flop away from the breadlines. Lloyd Bacon directs the dramatic sequences while dance choreographer Busby Berkeley took this opportunity to completely reimagine the musical production number for the possibilities of cinema. This film is as much Berkeley’s as Bacon’s.
Warner Baxter stars as the Broadway producing legend who lost everything on the market crash and puts everything on the line to create one last hit and Bebe Daniels is the leading lady who hooks a sugar daddy (Guy Kibbee in leering old man mode) to finance the show. Ruby Keeler plays the chorus girl who takes over the leading role on opening night, a showbiz cliché that played out in real life: the film elevated Keeler and Dick Powell, who plays her boy-next-door co-star and love interest, to movie stardom.
The Conformist (Raro, Blu-ray, DVD) opens in the deep blue of dawn, an intense, vibrant azure with a hint of ultramarine that blankets the city like an ocean. Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a petty bourgeois Italian who just wants to disappear into the fabric of his society, specifically Mussolini’s Italy in the 1930s, has volunteered to be an informant for the Secret Police. He doesn’t believe in the Fascism, he just wants to belong, and under the glow of this overwhelming blue he heads off to oversee the political assassination he has been called to facilitate. This is the temperature of his dispassionate nature, the calm of conformity that he desires, but even under this comforting ocean of reassurance, he remains anxious and out of place, a pretender to this society who wears his convictions like a suit. It’s all about appearance.
I focus on this blue because until now, it has never enveloped me so as I watched Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970). I’ve seen the film on 16mm college prints, on 35mm revival prints, and on Paramount’s DVD from a decade ago, but this restoration brings out Vittorio Storaro’s colors with a richness and a depth I’ve never seen before. For the first time those hues have reached through the screen and into my experience.
Color is central to the experience of The Conformist, pushed to intensities beyond what we could call natural yet nothing so actively artificial as the great MGM Technicolor musicals or as symbolically loaded as Antonioni’s Red Desert. It’s not some much unreal as hyper-real, a subjective reality as seen through the eyes of Marcello, a man seeking comfort in conformism and compromise. Those blue filters create a deep blue ocean of a sky, a perpetual twilight that is at once calming and unsettling. If it represents Marcello’s ideal state of stasis, it threatens to drown him as much as comfort him, and its chilly atmosphere suggests his amoral compromise. He may desire Anna (Dominique Sanda), the young wife of his former professor, but it sure isn’t love, and he’s quick to shut off any human connection to her when his mission as an agent / informer for the Secret Police comes to fruition. He has no love for his own beautiful, shallow, and silly petite bourgeois wife Guilia (Stefania Sandrelli), who is “all bed and kitchen,” he tells his best friend, a blind radio personality who spouts Fascist propaganda on a daily basis.
Often, watching movies like Thor and The Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, not to mention SIFF’s overload of uninspired fare, a movie-lover can sink into despair, convinced that contemporary directors are totally incompetent when it comes to creating coherent form and movement within framed spaces. Then you luck into Carlos Saura’s Flamenco, Flamenco, a visual banquet that serves up so much cinematic artfulness and beauty, your faith in the power of movies is reborn.
In his 10th celebration of Spanish music and dance, octogenarian Saura re-teams for the sixth time with master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky). Storaro’s gift for painting with light is perfectly suited to capturing the fluid spaces which Saura fills and energizes with flamenco’s fierce, colorful forms.