The Sad Story

The Sad Story

After World War II, cinema changed forever. Audiences developed a different kind of sensibility, and suddenly the stories that were being told, usually touched upon very depressive themes rather than  melodramatic ones. European cinema, particularly Italian cinema, managed to completely change the way we react and perceive film as an art form. Italian Neorealism was meant to tell stories that no one dared to tell before. It followed characters who came from poverty and struggle. The camera acted as a reporter, it zoomed in and shined a light on the unseen and the unwanted. There was Roberto Rossellini with his War Trilogy (Rome Open City, Paisan and Germany Year Zero). Then there was Luchino Visconti with Obsession and La Terra Trema. These were movies that came straight up from the ground, from the dirt, the ashes. The protagonists of these movies were the common folk, the poor and lonely. And yet, for me Vittorio De Sica was the one who did it best. Bicycle Thieves, his most famous work and one that is often considered to be the best movie of all time, because of its influence and incredibly audacious vision, opened up a world of post war depression. A world of ruined buildings and unemployed workers. It was honest. His other masterpiece, perhaps his most depressive and heartbreaking one, Umberto D. manages to explore what De Sica left out of Bicycle Thieves.

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An entire nation protesting.

Umberto D. is a hard watch. We witness as the ground crumbles under an old man’s feet. The world, the city of Rome, the universe, are all quickly changing, and not for the better. Umberto is struggling to survive, eating off the rests of food, sleeping in a tiny room, selling anything of value that he possesses, begging his so called friends for just a dime. His only companion? A sweet, intelligent dog. As we witness a few days in Umberto’s life we start to realize that Umberto’s story is the story of a whole nation, a whole underground world that is still there. We don’t see it. But it’s there. Poverty, starvation, loneliness and death. Umberto wanders around the crowded streets of post war Rome, in search of something, someone.

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Honest men are hard to find.

De Sica, like a true reporter with the eye of an eagle, shines a light on the Italian nation. A nation of poor men and women, of rich and privileged selfish people, of homeless dogs and pregnant young girls. Who would have dared to make a movie like this at that time? Umberto is not just an individual. He’s only used as an example by the filmmaker to paint a tragic, depressive, grim image. The camera tortures us with the old man’s presence. It squeezes him, it works him over and doesn’t let go. Sometimes it almost feels like we’re supposed to be on the side of those who take advantage of Umberto and his beloved dog. We’re forced to watch. We’re forced to breathe and struggle alongside the poor old man. You don’t have to like it, says De Sica, but you must think about it. Because yes, the cinematic screen can be a prison sometimes. You feel compelled to watch the moving image, and yet you also want to get away, go for it and run. De Sica’s movie is like a prison cell. You can’t find the keys to unlock it. You become his prisoner.

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The dog, a vagabond creature, is Umberto’s only love. A dying breed.

Umberto, played as usual (in De Sica’s movies) by a non professional actor, is our unwanted hero. Carlo Battisti, the actor and protagonist, brings the raw credibility, the touch of dirt a movies like this desperately needs to deliver its heavy message. We get a taste of a real poor sob walking the streets of Rome in the late 1940s. He’s our hero. He’s our leader. Battisti with his looks, his powerlessness, his innocence and desperation in his eyes, delivers one of the great performances in the history of motion picture. When he begs for money, we sense the humiliation in his gestures. A man, who maybe once upon a time was some kind of an important figure, a hard worker and bread winner, now stands on the street with his hand stretched out and begs for money. He becomes one of the many bricks in a huge brick wall.

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Humiliation.

 

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you deliver a punch to the gut. By directing and staging what people struggle to see on a daily basis. By delivering what most of us refuse to believe.

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Mad Gena

Mad Gena

I want to talk about a woman today. There are many women in film. Probably the first name that comes to mind is Meryl Streep. Or maybe Glenn Close. Grace Kelly. Lauren Bacall. Bette Davis. Joan Crawford. Rita Hayworth. Ingrid Bergman. Audrey Hepburn. Katherine Hepburn. And many, many more. However the one woman I cannot stop thinking about since having watched John Cassavetes’ magical Love Streams from 1984, is John’s wife, the great, fearless, ballsy Gena Rowlands.

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Gena is an actress  whose career in the entertainment industry has spanned over six decades. She is still rolling strong. A woman that always went all out in her roles and maybe that’s why she is so interesting to me. During a time when classic Hollywood always had the same prepared formulas, ways of writing, ways of directing and ways of acting, such a formidable force of nature like Gena emerged at the end of the 1950s and shook the world of film with her incredible attitude. Women at the time were mostly paid to play devoted wives, widows who’d fall for the gardener, objects of obsession and trophy girlfriends. Even the great actresses like Katherine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall played these stereotypical parts at one point in their lives. Then something happened to cinema. The beat generation appeared out of nowhere. The hippies joined in. European cinema and the idea of Cinéma vérité (‘the cinema of truth’, a style of documentary filmmaking) started taking over the once magic film industry in the West. Suddenly all the rules were being broken all at once, and one of the people responsible for this was Gena and her natural approach to acting. Gena was married to the great late John Cassavetes,  master of improvisation and an inspiration to all the New Wave filmmakers and other young explorers like Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin and Francis Ford Coppola. Gena, on the other hand, is still to this day an inspiration to all modern actresses. You’ll see glimpses of her in Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Tilda Swinton and Jennifer Lawrence. The question is, why is that? What was so unique about Gena Rowlands?

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Gena was special. She still is. She is 86 years old now and still going strong. Her years of multiple collaborations with her husband in movies like Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, Opening NightGloria, and Love Streams made of her a legend of realism in the acting field of cinema. There was something very weird about her. Perhaps the word ‘weird’ doesn’t do her justice. Mad. yes, there was something absolutely mad about her. She rocked the screen. Her characters were always hurt, squeezed into a pulp, used, abused, damaged, and yet she always managed to stand up and face whatever challenge awaited her. She played women with problems because she understood the situations her characters found themselves in. She knew what she was doing and yet we, as viewers, seem to be completely blown away by her spontaneity, sometimes unsure if what she is doing on screen doesn’t reflect her actions off screen. Take A Woman Under the Influence for example; the main character is a loving wife, a dear mother, but most of all a sick, trapped person. Trapped inside her own mind, tormented by her painful condition, crowded by her corrupt thoughts. It’s one the most harrowing experiences to watch her character stumble on the floor, yell at herself, run out on the street wearing nothing but a dressing gown and slippers, wait for a bus that never comes. We cringe, we want to turn it off and yet Gena’s presence keeps us glued. Every character of hers is like a well oiled machine, it just keeps on moving forward, speeding up, never taking a break. In Minnie and Moskowitz, Gena, who plays Minnie, cannot find true love. How do you play a character like that? How to you show to the audience the fact that you can’t find love? Love is not material. We don’t know what love is. So how does she do it? Gena becomes the character. That’s her secret. She puts all the rules, all the laws of golden Hollywood acting behind her and pours her soul into every scene. She understands the character and she understands life. She understands the difficulties a woman faces on a daily basis. Maybe she even understood the importance of her roles. After all, nobody up to that point was interested in seeing a film solely focused on a female protagonist. Every audience member awaited a Rock Hudson, or a James Dean or a Cary Grant to appear on screen and dominate the story. Maybe that was her secret. With each character she brought something new. Usually it was something heavy, difficult to digest and yet, there she was carrying that incredibly heavy burden on her back. Gena felt compelled to do justice to her characters. She never went overboard. There was always a certain limit to what her character could do. As viewers we try to root for her, but that craziness, that madness of Gena sometimes prevents us from doing so. When I watch her, I want to cheer, I want to say ”You go, Gena. Show them how it’s done”. But her characters aren’t Superman. They can’t save the world and they were never intended to do so. They make mistakes, they’re goofy, they’re naive and too honest. They stood out. They were outsiders, and usually we don’t cheer for outsiders, do we?

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In most of her roles you get the sense that Gena is crazy, that there is something very unsettling about the way she acts. But that’s what makes her this great, avant-garde actress. It’s the raw truth that she represents, the sad moments and heart breaking finales. It’s the pain, the happiness, the embarrassment, the courage, all fighting one another inside of her mind, her gestures, her voice. It’s her relationship with Cassavetes. A relationship that was built on real love and devotion and understanding. John is one of the reasons Gena was so real. He knew her, he studied her and wrote the finest, most difficult roles just for his wife. And it worked. Gena had and still has that incredible spark of life in her eyes. That’s the sign of a unique, brilliant, fearless actress. A woman that changed the role of women in cinema forever. A woman under a very special kind of influence.

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This is Gena. Remember her.

God is Gonna Cut You Down

God is Gonna Cut You Down

Remember that post I wrote a while back about Sam Peckinpah’s revolutionary Western that goes by the title The Wild Bunch? In that post right there, I talked about how Peckinpah wanted to express his anger and frustration with the world he found himself living in (late 60s, Vietnam War casualties and the whole country going crazy) by painting his film of 1969 with an excess of bloody violence. He refused to accept the old Western style. He directed one of the most hard ass movies of the century and showing who he really was as a filmmaker.
However, I have some thoughts about another one of his movies (they’re all brilliant in their own ways: Straw Dogs, Pat Garrett and Billy the KidThe GetawayCross of Iron and many more), one of his later ones and the last one starring his dear friend Warren Oates. The movie I’m talking about is Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia released in 1974, a brutal story of a man being paid to retrieve another wanted man’s head. The problem is, the wanted man is already dead. Warren Oates stars as Bennie, a lone rider, a barman and an ex con, who’ll do anything for the right amount of money.

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Warren Oates stars as Bennie the desperado.

Alfredo Garcia is Peckinpah’s meditation on the sacred and profane. You might wonder if this is true, since his movies are usually very violent and were almost always X-rated by the distributors at the time. Well, I’ll tell you what; to hell with those distributors. Peckinpah was a troubled man and during the shooting of this movie he was influenced by Warren Oates to start abusing cocaine (which later lead to his premature death). His mind wasn’t in the right places, but his heart surely was because in the midst of all the bloody chaos that engulfs the main characters of Alfredo Garcia, there is always a theme of love, regret, betrayal, motherhood and devotion hiding underneath the layers of foul language and extreme violence. Why? Because Peckinpah refused to label himself as a B-movie director. Critics hated him, the material he adapted and the stories he tried to tell. Screw them, he kept on going and his movies are still relevant today just as they were back in the day.

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There is love in this movie. Lots of it. And it’s beautiful.

In Alfredo Garcia, Peckinpah has no mercy. His characters are still filthy, sweaty and violent. Bennie is a mercenary, an angry dog looking for something that isn’t there. Bennie, if you will, in some kind of twisted way represents the director himself. Warren Oates admitted that he tried to copy Peckinpah’s walk, way of dressing and all around behavior. Bennie IS Peckinpah. He is a man forced by the higher laws, squeezed to a pulp in order to find a dead man’s head. He sacrifices everything he has just for a stupid dead man’s head. Peckinpah was known at the time as the number one enemy of Hollywood producers since he once claimed that making movies in Hollywood was a torture and preferred to move to Mexico and continue his career over there. Bennie’s story is Sam Peckinpah’s story. Digging up a grave, opening a coffin and finding a useless, lifeless body was Peckinpah’s trade. Nothing in movies is sacred. Just like a dead man’s grave. Everything ends in blood, casualties and if you’re lucky, a newborn baby. Not all masterpieces carry Oscar nominations and this movie is one of them.

So, yeah. That’s Peckinpah for you. A director who had balls made of steel and a talent that so many people tried to deny him. Good for you, Sam. Good for you.

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The man himself, Sam Peckinpah.