Thursday, January 05, 2006

Damn Fellini wannabes...

I recently saw two films of the semi-autobiographical genre best established by Fellini's 8 1/2. One of these films was a painful train wreck that I wanted to be good but could barely even make it through, the other was an hour and a half of me laughing about as hard as most movies can hope to make me laugh.

Let's get the pain over with first.

Dario Argento has established himself as one of the all time greats of Italian horror. Suspira stands up their with The Mask of Satan (a.k.a. Black Sunday) and Zombi 2 (often called Zombi in the states) as one of the most well know by Americans. He is considered by some (I have not seen enough to have a set opinion) the master of the Giallo genre. He married Daria Nicolodi, who is a respectable actor. His father Salvatore Argento was a film producer who made many of his films until he died in 1987. I've left a few names out, but the point is: the Argento family has been pretty big in the Italian movie industry.

So it wasn't like Dario and Daria's daughters Fiore and Asia Argento had any pressure on them or anything... nope... none at all. No built-in fan base with preconceived expectations here.

Asia got a lot of attention from Americans (who weren't already fans of her dad) with her role in XXX opposite Vin Diesel. She really does strike me as a talented actress and I sincerely look forward to seeing her in Sofia Coppola's upcoming film Marie-Antoinette...

...but Scarlet Diva, Aisa's directorial debut, is a film I really can't give much love to. I want to. God I really do, but it's an amateurish mess! The film tell the story of Anna, the "saddest girl in the world," as she aspires to become a director and give up acting in the apparently cruel and thankless Italian film industry all while longing for the lead of an Australian rock band that she had a one night stand with. Drug problems, various ghosts of her dead brother, cruel mother, and the abusive/sadomasochistic relationship her best friend is having are all scattered about the film for Anna to tackle along the way.

The film starts out weakened by the poor acting of the extras and too-cheap camcorder look. It is dangerous to overlook casting small roles like this. Big budget Hollywood crews with cinematographers and top-notch sound editors can do a lot to hide poorly executed one-liner roles. This is mostly done by distracting the viewer away from them. If you don't have those luxuries, than you need to pay attention to the details. A digital camera will show every one of them with highlighter and neon signs. To make matters worse, these short roles are often those of fans (notable the dinner scene) and interviewers that harass her. This is really dangerous territory to muck up. Even Fellini can't escape the pretentious nature of the genre. If you make a film about yourself... you'll be damn lucky if all you end up doing is looking self-absorbed. If it weren't for the jarringly explicit sexual introduction, a lot of the opening would have evoked memories of my masochistic (only explanation I can fathom in retrospect) viewings of... well... anything Kelly Osborn did on Mtv.

(I know... Ouch...)

On the DVD Asia explains that the overall story is largely autobiographical, but that it had to be made more extreme and that that is largely where the blur between fact and fiction in it lies. I've got to disagree with her there. My second problem with this film is just how abusive it is to the viewer. I lost count of how many people try to rape Anna. I think there were four times (one implied while she was unconscious from a drug overdose) but it all becomes a blur. It's kind of like the last fifth of the film Demonlover... only the abuse is stretched out for nearly half the running time! I just got to a point where all the overdosing, rape and surrealist nightmares (when I complain about too many surrealist nightmares... that's a bad sign...) were too much. I really wanted the film to slow down and breathe. This was almost like watching an adaptation of Hubert Shelby Jr.'s story The Queen is Dead from his novel Last Exit To Brooklyn. It's not that I can't take hardcore brutal films. I've defended Irreversible many a time in my life as being one of the most powerful and moving films I've ever seen... (I was pretty outraged when a review board in Australia tried to ban it.) Oh, and I've read lots of Hubert Shelby Jr. I rest my case. The problem is that Scarlet Diva almost hides behind the abuse. The Violin in Psycho is a classic element of suspense, but imagine how suspenseful a film that seems to play that constantly would be? Asia seems to just wallow in saying LOOK AT ME! I'M A WHORE! I'll take a ride with a film through hell and back... just please make sure there's a payoff. Theses kinds of films are the worse to copout on, and I felt the ending to this did it in a real big way.

Now, there were interesting scenes in this. As I said, I did want to like this film. The moments where we are granted stillness left me wanting more. Give us more time where she is alone in her apartment doing mundane things like shaving her armpits. Give us more conversations with her gay friend who's thinking of giving up acting to be a gigolo. Drop some of the crazy sexual encounters like the lesbian on the couch scene. There is a good film in there somewhere. The nightmares were all solid ideas simply executed in to haphazard a fashion. If at any time a little money should have been splurged it should have been there. If there wasn't any money, than she should have utilized what she had to work with better. Nothing can ruin a gorilla film faster than ambition beyond means.

I have yet to see any other directing efforts by Asia Argento, but with time I will try to. That's the best compliment I can give this, She didn't totally scare me off from giving her another chance. One of the biggest reasons I'm ripping this film a new one is because she is so talented. She can do so much better and I just hope she learned a lot from this. I'm not sure I can take more than one more let down this big. Still, the DVD is worth looking into if you are a fan interested in learning more about her. The audio commentary and interviews are extensive and overshadow the film astronomically.

And now for the bliss...

Woody Allen's Stardust Memories has been on my to see list for a long, long time. It's probably one of his more divided films. I admit it's not his best work (light-years from his worst though) but it might actually be my favorite next to Annie Hall.

First off, this is Woody's 8 1/2. It is vastly inferior in so many respect's to Fellini's classic, and there is no getting around that. Where Stardust triumphs is not in subtle layers of bottomless depth, but in dense machine gun surface level stimuli. You can watch it over and over not so much to find deeper meaning but to catch different things that flew past you. This is Annie Hall with ADHD and then some.

I love this movie. Few films have ever come so close to me loving EVERY SINGLE SCENE as this has. Some are really beautifully shot, some are really funny, and others just tug the right strings in me. It's a scattered box of twisted smiles. My sister and her husbanded found the film horribly depressing... so I think it's probably worth mentioning that I found Eraserhead to be very funny. My sense of humor can be very twisted at times. I saw this shortly after taking Existentialism in collage. I think that helped a lot. Some of the jokes are hard to appreciate if you've not had that kind of experience, especially the one about his final exam.

As I already said, this film lacks a lot of depth in areas that have left others dissatisfied. The women of his love life are not as fleshed out or alive as those in Annie Hall and Manhattan were before it, but why should they be? Relationships between two people aren't exactly the focal point of this film. This film does not take place in reality. (There are aliens in hot air balloons for crying out loud!) We are looking through the tunnel vision of a character on the verge of breakdown. These are memories warped by one man's Rashomon effect. With the exception of his friend Tony's (played by Tony Roberts) opinion of his former love Dorrie, we get little to no outside perspective we can trust as unexaggerated. These women are enigmas because he never understood them, and in for the most part could hardly be expected to. Each is articulated to the extent of their purpose of their archetypes, and all three actors (Charlotte Rampling, Jessica Harper and Marie-Christine Barrault) perform their tasks wonderfully. That's all that should be expected of them. This is a film about Woody - I mean his character Sandy Bates - and only about him. Though it lacks his hypochondriac shtick, this is Woody at his most neurotic with no stops pulled. He's grappling with all the things that seem to weigh him down in life, from expectations as a filmmaker, relationships and family to just getting from one place to another with his shitty car and incompetent driver. A lot is left unresolved in such a way that you could say he probably was trying to juggle so many balls (or make so many women levitate I guess) that he simply for got to wrap a few up... if any of them. Though I see the flaw in leaving so much, I would have felt just as dissatisfied had this really come together as a neat package at the end. It would take too much away from the overshadowing problem he tries to reason for bother at all when all efforts in life are pointless.

Please refrain from the Seinfeld jokes, but in a very deceptive way Stardust Memories is a film about nothing. That often confuses people into thinking that it's... well... a film about nothing! Stardust is not a meaningless film though. It's just very blunt with what it has to say. Woody is an atheist. For years now he has tried to tackle the dilemmas that for him come with that view. He sees no grand reward or eternal afterlife. You live and then you die... and with time there will be no trace that you ever existed, so why bother? Most people don't like a film with that kind of question. They get angry when someone tells them that life is at best about those little moments of joy where you forget existence. No one wants a film about that! They want "all you need is love!" Still, it seems to be sincerely what Woody felt making the film. It was what he had to say. Take it or leave it, but don't say that he didn't say anything. In a lot of ways this was his first film to address that issue fiercely without patching everything up with a kiss or joke at the end. It looks like that's what's going to happen... but then he reveals that that's just the Hollywood ending. We are left with him standing alone in the theater after everyone has left. He's the lonely magician without any answers. I think he's still pushing that rock to this day.

When I try and think of American filmmakers that for better or worse brought modernism/post-modernism to the film medium, Woody reigns supreme. You look at films by directors like David Fincher, Quentin Terentino, Darren Aronofsky and Spike Jones... the influence is obvious. With Annie Hall Woody said it was ok to do whatever you wanted in and with a film. This is one of his most personal and experimental films of that spirit. He might not always conclude with the most rose-tinted view of the world, but if you are looking for some optimistic message in his work then I'd suggest this. Keep on trucking, even if the only outlook life throws at you is not cheery. Now at 70 years old, he seems to be still doing just that.



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