film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Nights Of Cabiria (1957)

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We last saw Italian actress Giulietta Masina and Federico Fellini team up in his film La Strada, in which Masina played someone so childlike that it was a relief her character was not sexually exploited. Here, Masina stars as the prostitute Cabiria – a bit more worldly, but in other ways still just as naive.

We learn over the course of the film that Cabiria grew up fast after being orphaned as a teenager, finding her way to Rome and into sex work. But she is still determined to have a respectable life – she owns her own house, which is really a tiny shack near the train tracks outside Rome. But it is all hers, bought and paid for, even if she’s had to scrimp and save for it. She is also a romantic hoping that one of the tricks might someday turn into a decent man who would marry her. She’s repeatedly disappointed in her romantic search, however – in the very first scene, she is on a riverside stroll with her latest schmoopie when he suddenly seizes her purse and pushes her in the water, knowing she can’t swim.

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The rest of the film reads like a bit of a character study of Cabiria, watching her bounce back from that insult. She vents to her BFF Wanda (Franca Marzi) as they hang around their regular corner, on the hunt for johns. She shoots down a pimp’s efforts to recruit her, insisting she can take care of herself. She holds her own against some higher-class prostitutes who sneer at her second-hand clothes. She charms a famous actor (Amedeo Nazzari) after he’s been spectacularly dumped on the street, and he ends up taking her home – where all he does is give her a lavish banquet before hiding her in the bathroom when his girlfriend drops by to make up. She is unexpectedly moved by the kindness of a man who spends his own nights bringing food and clothing to the homeless people sheltering in the caves out in the Roman suburbs. Cabiria, we come to learn, is a quirky free spirit who secretly yearns to be a little less free, if the tradeoff is that she will finally feel truly loved.

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Masina gives just as charming and endearing performance as she did in La Strada. Her Cabiria is almost the trope-definer for the “prostitute with a heart of gold” – she’s saucy, quippy and independent, determined to get what she wants and get it her own way. Except her big trusting heart keeps leading her into trouble – Wanda keeps telling her she trusts men too much, but Cabiria’s fervent hunt for love blinds her to any red flags. She also still has a childlike understanding of trust and faith – she believes in meeting her Handsome Prince who will one day come to sweep her off into a Happy Ever After. At some level she knows she’s looking for Prince Charming the wrong way, and joins some friends on an afternoon outing to a shrine, begging God to help her change her ways. But an hour later, when she feels no different, she angrily assumes God’s refused her prayers and storms back to her old life. A chance encounter with a hypnotist later in the film also gives a glimpse of the sad, sweet, and naïve girl hiding at her heart – and we understand all the better how her naiveté leads her to trust the next guy who later takes advantage of her.

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And, we also understand the last scene. Cabiria suffers from several indignities over the course of the film – some she’s brought on herself, some just bad luck – and the end of the film finds her dejectedly walking down a street, in a little shock after her latest misfortune. As she walks, a group of friends who’ve been out for a picnic start walking nearby her, all of them in a party mood – laughing, cracking jokes, playing music. They’re all in such a good mood they even try sweeping Cabiria up in their fun, serenading her and greeting her warmly, turning the trudge along the street into an impromptu parade. And in the midst of her tears, Cabiria slowly starts to recover from her shock, smiling at them all; one way or another, she’ll be okay.

Administratia, Extra Credit

In Which I Disagree With Martin Scorcese

This is admittedly a digression from the Crash Course. Say this is more like you’ve run into your professor in the hallway and you get into a conversation on the way to class.

So Martin Scorcese is making some waves right now with an essay he’s written for Harper’s Bazaar, in which he finds some fault with the current state of the movie industry. He begins with a memory of being a younger film fan here in New York in the late 50s and early 60s, excitedly tracking down some of the films just then coming stateside from France or Italy, marveling how he would be able to jump from an Andy Warhol art film to a screening of The Cranes Are Flying to Jean-Luc Goddard’s Breathless, and capping things off with a screening of the latest work from Federico Fellini. Then he goes on to lament that today, “the art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, ‘content’.”

This isn’t the first time he’s made an argument about “the art of cinema” and how it differs from “movies”. In 2019 he famously made waves by dismissing the MCU as “not cinema” – it was cheap expendable stuff, he seemed to imply; people cared more about film as an art form back in the day, he said then. And he says that again now, and this time puts forth an example of what he means; most of his Harper’s essay is an ode to Fellini’s artistry in particular, with Fellini’s film 8-1/2 as Scorcese’s favorite work.

Now, on the one hand I do get what Scorcese is saying about film as art. There is a difference between a film that is the latest entry in a franchise, and a film that is a smaller passion project. Scorcese says that right now, “content” is a catch-all to describe “all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode.” And there absolutely is a difference between a David Lean movie and a Superbowl commercial.

I’m afraid I disagree with Scorcese on two points, however. His earlier comments about the MCU got several people’s hackles up, as he seemed to suggest that since the MCU films weren’t “cinema”, that they were somehow a little….lesser-than, and not to be taken seriously. It’s possible he didn’t intend to leave that impression – but if he did, I couldn’t disagree more. Yes, superhero movies are big and flashy and special-effects-heavy, but the people writing for Marvel are saying some nuanced and complicated things in those films. The current WandaVision miniseries is painting a surprisingly complex portrait of someone seeking to escape trauma and grief, and is simultaneously presenting a satire of cheesy family sitcoms and how their handling of serious fare changed and evolved over time. And as for film – I went to see Black Panther largely because it was such a clear cultural touchstone, but I walked out surprised that it had given me some food for thought about distribution of natural resources and wealth, and a given community’s responsibility towards its neighbors in the global community. The fact that the people saying those things were discussing a fictional metal and were dressed in panther-eared armor didn’t distract me from what they were saying in the slightest.

In his current essay, Scorcese also seems to suggest that in the past, “cinema” was valued more by moviegoers; that it could be found on more screens, that it was more prevalent, that there was more of a demand for it. I disagree here as well – there has always been cheaper forgettable stuff, designed to appeal to the mass market, alongside the more “artistic” stuff. For instance, let’s take Scorcese’s beloved 8-1/2. That came out in 1963 – and while a handful of other “cinematic” works also came out that year, it also saw the release of some films Scorcese didn’t mention in his essay:

  • The Sun Of Flubber
  • The Day Mars Invaded Earth
  • Follow The Boys
  • Operation Bikini
  • The Courtship of Eddie’s Father
  • It Happened At The World’s Fair
  • The Nutty Professor
  • The Girl Hunters
  • Island of Love
  • Captain Sinbad
  • Jason and the Argonauts
  • Tarzan’s Three Challenges
  • Gidget Goes To Rome
  • Beach Party
  • Flipper
  • The Three Stooges Go Around The World In A Daze
  • X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes
  • Under The Yum Yum Tree
  • Gunfight At Comanche Creek
  • Take Her, She’s Mine
  • The Pink Panther
  • Who’s Been Sleeping In My Bed?

I would wager that Mr. Scorcese would not categorize any of those films as “cinema” either. I would also wager that back in 1963, he was tutting about them just as much as he tuts about the MCU today. And most importantly – I would wager that Mr. Scorcese doesn’t even remember that those films came out at the same time as 8-1/2, and that he was rolling his eyes at them.

My point being, then, that I suspect Martin Scorcese is making a complaint about how the movie business today cares less about art and more about commerce, but that he is basing his complaint on a selective recollection of what the movie scene was like when he was younger. He doesn’t remember those films today because they weren’t designed to be remembered, just like many of the films today aren’t designed to be remembered either. His remembering more Fellini on screens back in the 1960s isn’t a sign that the public cared more about art – it’s a sign that he cared more about art, and just forgot The Sun Of Flubber existed too. He’s also forgetting that many of the theaters showing the films he cared about were smaller independent outlets, as opposed to the big cineplexes showing Gidget Goes To Rome or other guaranteed money-makers.

And the good news is, that hasn’t changed today. In 2018 I went to see Black Panther at an Alamo Drafthouse theater, but could also have seen it at any one of six different other movie houses within three blocks of that theater. I later saw Infinity War and The Force Awakens at similar big-box movie houses. But I also saw Call Me By Your Name and Get Out at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s theater, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri in another smaller theater, the same place where I’d go on to see Parasite a year later. The artistic films have always had to compete with the big dumb popcorn films, and all such films manage to find their audiences and after a couple decades it’s the artistic films are the ones people are more likely to remember. Or, rather, it’s the quality films people are more likely to remember – for there are some quality films masquerading as big dumb films sometimes.

So I wouldn’t worry about things, Mr. Scorcese; cinema is doing just fine, as fine as it always has.

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The Cranes are Flying (1957)

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Soviet films flummoxed me a couple years ago. But this one charmed me.

Veronika (Tatiana Samoilova) and Boris (Aleksey Batalov) are Muscovite sweethearts in the summer of 1941, just before the USSR enters the Second World War. They still live with their respective families, three floors apart from each other in the same building, but are old enough that both families have started expecting a proposal soon. But for now the lovers content themselves with sneaking out at dawn to watch the sunrise, cavort in the park, and watch cranes in flight before sneaking home back to their respective beds.

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After one such meeting, Boris gets an urgent wake-up from his cousin Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin) – the Germans have just invaded on the Western border. In a flush of patriotism, he volunteers for the army – even though it means he’ll ship out on Veronika’s birthday. He urges his family to give her his gift – a stuffed toy squirrel, into which he has tucked a love note. Veronika rushes to the army’s assembly station hoping to see him off, but just misses him; both families begin the long wait for war’s end.

War is hell, however, both on the battlefield and on the home front. Veronika’s parents are killed during an air raid, and Boris’ family takes her in. When she freaks out during another air raid, Mark – who’s always had a crush on her – takes advantage of her panic and rapes her. Boris, meanwhile, goes missing during a scouting mission and no one seems to know where he is; and instead of being able to wait for him in Moscow, Veronika and Boris’ family are all relocated to Siberia; Veronika is now married to Mark, having been pressured into it after Mark’s indiscretion. Still, she holds out hope that somehow – someday – she will hear from Boris again.

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It’s admittedly a sentimental plot, and uses several of the same cinematographic tricks from earlier Soviet propaganda films that left me cold. But here, they simply work. The camerawork isn’t in defense of a heady socio-political message; it’s in service to a poignant love story. There’s a sequence mid-film, where we see Boris on the battlefield and he’s shot – as he loses consciousness, he hallucinates himself back at home, he and Veronika happily skipping down their apartment building stairs on their way to their wedding. It’s poignantly dreamlike – lots of closeups of happy family members, Veronika beaming at him, her veil swirling about them both. Later, Veronika has a weak moment in Siberia and considers killing herself – her mad dash to the train station is shot with a shaky hand-held camera, following the rush of her steps as she runs.

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But the chemistry between Samoilova and Batalov is what really sells this film. Samoilova in particular – Veronika is a bubbly, spunky thing at the very start of the movie, and Boris is clearly wrapped around her finger. They clearly love each other – but they also clearly have enormous fun with each other, and it’s amazingly endearing to watch – which makes the wartime tragedies that befall them both all the sadder. Samoilova does equally well selling the sadder moments of Veronika’s story later; Veronika is thrown by some bad news towards the film’s end, but instead of going into histrionics, she just steps into another room to collect herself, then steps back out, resigned, and gets back to what she was doing.

The whole film feels like a big breath of fresh air as well, possibly because this was one of the first Soviet films made after Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev publicly denounced his predecessor, Josef Stalin, and the iron grasp he’d had on Soviet life. Under Stalin, filmmakers had to put a positive spin on Soviet life, and their films had to hew close to a party line; under Khruschev, however, filmmakers could finally acknowledge the losses of the Second World War. They could also tell stories of ordinary people instead of praising historic leaders. Director Mikhail Kalatozov jumped at the chance to do both with this film, to lovely effect.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (1957)

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First, I need to offer you all a big apology for the long silence.  There was a bit of upheaval here in the apartment; Roommate Russ had an unfortunate and serious bad reaction to some medication he was taking, and had to be rushed to the hospital for a couple days (in the middle of a blizzard, to make everything a bit more complicated).  I’d already been given leave to work the whole week from home – the snowdrifts would make my travel to work a little more difficult than normal – so when he got out, I was on hand to help him finish off recovery, through the use of indulgent food, friendly conversation and movie screenings.

As it turned out, one movie was precisely what the doctor ordered. Roommate Russ had already told me he was curious about Gunfight At The O.K. Corral, since he’d seen it as a child; he said that a lot of it had gone over his head back then, and he was curious how he would receive it today.  He loved this rewatch so much that he ended up shifting my own opinion on it a bit, and I’ve even asked him to share his own thoughts; I’ll put up a link to his blog when he’s ready.

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As you’d guess from the title, this is another take on the famous Wyatt Earp/Doc Holliday Tombstone gunfight, which we’ve previously seen in My Darling Clementine.  This take hews a bit closer to history, but still takes some liberties with the tale, particularly with the friendship between Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) and Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas).  The real Earp and Holliday kept coincidentally running into each other as they tooled around the West, Earp in search of a permanent U.S. Marshall placement and Holliday seeking a better climate to ease his tuberculosis.  The movie Earp and Holliday start out as “frenemies” – Holliday is on a self-destructive path, determined to drink and gamble and hellraise his way to death before his disease takes him, and Earp is determined to rein him in mainly to keep order, and so their turning up in the same town is more intentional.  The antagonism turns first to grudging respect, then to a mutual appreciation by the time the famous gunfight takes place.

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It’s a pretty talky and heady take.  I ultimately was lukewarm on the film; ironically, if they’d focused more exclusively on the Earp/Holliday relationship I may have liked it better.  However, the film also tries to cram in details about Earp and Holliday’s love lives, and the women get pretty short shrift – Jo Van Fleet is “Kate Fisher”, a saloon girl stuck in a love/hate hellscape of a relationship with Holliday, and Rhonda Fleming is “Laura Denbow”, who seems to exist solely to be the woman Earp sacrifices in service to his duty.  Getting even shorter shrift is Olive Carey as “Mrs. Clanton”, mother to the clan who started the famous gunfight – she’s only in one scene where Earp brings the youngest Clanton boy, Billy (Dennis Hopper) home from the drunk tank and then sticks around to warn him against the gunfighting life.  She wrings her hands a time or two, fretting that she’s told Billy again and again to straighten up, and then after Earp’s words finally sink in with Billy, she thanks him effusively….and that’s it.  Rather, that’s almost it – there’s a moment on the morning of the famous fight which visits each of these women in turn, showing them peering through their various windows with furrowed brows as Their Men go off to fight.  Roommate Russ argued that for its time, including the women’s perspective was a novel detail, but for me it felt like a bit of a pandering sop and I would have preferred to skip it.

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The gunfight itself was another story.  A stunt choreographer I know told me once about how all of the best-done fight scenes had to tell a story instead of just being flashy violence – and this gunfight absolutely does so.  We see strategy play out, and we see how people change their approach as the fight ebbs and flows; we know it and feel it when various people fall in battle, and when one character finally comes to a tragic end, it feels like he’s earned that end, instead of being a maudlin bit of schtick.  I got curious enough just now to look up who choreographed that gunfight – unfortunately the IMDB entry only lists the stunt fighters themselves.  Whoever planned out the fight deserves a credit, in my opinion.

The gunfight was the part I appreciated most, and it was apparently the part that young Roommate Russ remembered best.  This rewatch, though, hit him much more profoundly – more so than it did me – so he’s preparing a few words himself. We’ll link you soon!