film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

La Dolce Vita (1960)

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Roommate Russ came home shortly after I started watching this; he couldn’t stay to watch with me, but said he’d seen it before in a film class, and as he left he wished me: “Enjoy the unfiltered cigarettes and ennui.”

There definitely was plenty of both. La Dolce Vita is largely the story of Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a gossip columnist meandering his way through Rome’s post-War club scene – both as a writer and as a participant. One minute he is covering a press conference with a curvaceous “Hollywood starlet” (Anita Ekberg) or reporting on a pair of kids who claim they’ve seen the Virgin Mary; the next he is trying to seduce the Hollywood starlet, or hooking up with an heiress ex-girlfriend (Anouk Aimée) in a stranger’s bedroom. Marcello, and the rest of the cast, are kept busy doing a lot of scandalous things – but it doesn’t seem like people are having very much fun doing them.

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But it seems that’s the point. Throughout, Mastroianni plays Marcello as a bit of a bitter cynic – he has a devoted fiancee named Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) but seems tired of her; even when he’s rushed her to the hospital following an injury, he still gets itchy and calls up Maddelena, the heiress ex, while waiting to see Emma. He swears to the starlet that he’s enamored of her, but doesn’t even bother trying to speak to her in English. When his estranged father suddenly turns up for a visit, Marcello can’t think of anything else to do but take his father to a night club, where Dad ends up hooking up with yet another of Marcello’s old conquests and ditching him.

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The only time Marcello seems to really come alive is when he’s hanging out with his friend Steiner (Alain Cuny), an intellectual man of leisure. Steiner seems to be a real confidant of Marcello’s – it is Steiner who knows that Marcello really wants to write a serious book, and it is Steiner who hears Marcello’s complaints about Emma. It is with Steiner that Marcello can talk about things like imagist poetry and Sanskrit grammar and Bach fugues instead of “who’s screwing who”. Marcello attends one of Steiner’s dinner parties mid-film, where Marcello is thrilled to rub elbows with poets and professors and musicians while Emma dotes on Steiner’s two adorable children. Marcello gushes to Steiner that he’s convinced now, he’s going to straighten up and get a respectable job and finally marry Emma and settle down and have kids like Steiner because this seems idyllic. But Steiner strangely discourages him – for reasons which eventually, and sadly, become clear.

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Ultimately Marcello has a choice between following his high-minded aspirations, or selling out. The problem is that selling out comes with a lot of perks that look awfully tempting, and can indeed bring a good deal of comfort and pleasure – for a while. And then you’re left even further away from your old goals than you started, and not even the thrills that thrilled you are within your reach anymore – and then what?

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Eyes Without A Face (1960)

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Side effect first: I’m of a sufficient age to keep getting the old Billy Idol song stuck in my head whenever I see the title of this film; if you are as well, feel free to listen to it at the link above and get it out of your system. Because 1960 French film has absolutely nothing to do with that song.

Instead, this is the tragic tale of a father who’s going to desperate lengths to help his daughter. Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a renowned plastic surgeon, has been guilt-ridden after causing a car crash which disfigured his daughter’s face. But he’d already been conducting experiments in skin grafting, working towards the ability to do a full face transplant – so he steps up his research in a desperate effort to heal Christiane (Edith Scob), who’s been shut away in the house and wearing a plastic full-face mask in the meantime. The only problem is that his research suggests he would need a living donor. And thus far, his donors haven’t been exactly 100% willing…..

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Critics and scholars don’t seem all that sure how to categorize this film. Dr. Génessier’s actions are horrific – he sends his secretary Louise (Allida Valli) to find his victims by befriending students and other young women new to the city and luring them back to Génessier’s house. There’s also some body horror and gore – one mid-film sequence actually shows Dr. Génessier performing the surgery to remove one donor’s face, complete with oozing blood and peeling and lifting the skin off and….well, to be honest I had started covering my eyes when the scalpel came out so I couldn’t really tell you, but from the glimpses I got it sure looked oogy.

But Dr. Génessier’s motivation keeps this from feeling like a straight-up horror film. He doesn’t like that he has to do this; he always hopes each time that this time the surgery will work and he won’t have to put himself or Christiane through this ordeal again. He even intends to care for and look after his donors once the surgery is complete, giving them the sumptuous attic suite and the mask he’s created for Christiane thus far (although, it rarely works out that way….). And Christiane is showing signs that she’s not entirely compliant either – she’d been engaged to her father’s surgical assistant Jacques (François Guérin), but has been kept from contacting him “until the surgery finally works”. And each time it fails. So she’s kept from calling him even longer, and watching her father try to bring in yet another unwilling donor and going through it all again. Christiane is starting to lose faith that this is ever going to work, and when Dr. Génessier and Louise ignore her pleas to just give up, she realizes ultimately she has to act somehow. (There’s more gore in that scene – all I’ll say is that I suspect that the creators of the Game Of Thrones TV adaptation may have been inspired by this film when they were trying to kill off the character Ramsay Bolton.)

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My biggest complaint is that the film doesn’t really flesh Christiane’s character out much further than this; she is nothing more than the pitiful unwilling subject of her father’s work. She wrings her hands a bit wishing her father would stop, she gracefully wanders through her attic suite, once or twice she dares to call Jacques just to hear his voice and then hang up. In one scene she visits the lab to cuddle the stray dogs her father has been using for his early experiments. And that’s kind of it; we’re meant to assume things about her based on “she’s disfigured and ashamed about it, because she’s a girl”. But the film moves at a fast enough clip that I didn’t really catch on to that until after the fact. Even here, though, we could have cut a few minutes out of that surgery scene to give Christiane at least one more monologue, yes?

Nevertheless it’s a complete story. A weird and oogy one, but a complete one.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

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While this British film may have been a technical achievement – and the performances are indeed empirically good – I personally may be too old or too jaded, or possibly too American, to have enjoyed it properly.

Based on a 1958 novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is the story of Arthur (Albert Finney), a working-class nobody with an assembly-line job at a British bicycle factory. Arthur is not the most intellectually aspirational of fellows; he works only to make money to pay his parents some rent, and lives for the partying he does on the weekends, hitting up pubs with his cousin Bert (Norman Rossington) or fooling around with any woman willing to have him. Lately he’s been canoodling with his neighbor’s wife Brenda (Rachel Roberts) – although this is a little risky, since Brenda’s husband Jack (Bryan Pringle) is one of his superiors at the factory. But Arthur doesn’t care – he’s young and he’s clever, and fancies himself smart enough to stay out of trouble. After all, he’s already “smart” enough to avoid the trap of falling in love and getting married in the first place – in his opinion, opting for the conventional life of marriage-and-a-house-and-all-that leaves you “dead from the neck up”.

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However, Arthur soon gets hit with two big curve balls. First is Doreen (Shirley Anne Field), a pretty shopgirl he meets one weekend while stopping in at a different pub. Doreen is not a party girl, she’s holding out for a husband thankyouverymuch – but she’s feisty and sassy enough to intrigue Arthur, and pretty enough to make him start to re-think his attitude toward commitment. But not that fast – he still wants to sow his wild oats, and if Doreen isn’t willing he’ll just keep Brenda in the wings, going to chaste movies and dances with Doreen and then hitting up Brenda for some bedroom antics after. But then Brenda hits him with the second problem – she’s pregnant, and Arthur is definitely the father.

This film, and the Alan Stilltoe book which inspired it, were part of a growing literary and film movement in the UK in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Instead of the conventional, escapist films and plays from the 1940s and 50s, these “Kitchen Sink Realism” works focused on more working-class folk and their issues – poverty, domestic abuse, unplanned pregnancies (and back-alley abortions), and the lack of any real kind of options in life aside from going to work, going drinking in pubs, and going home. The main characters were usually young men who saw the emptiness and pointlessness of such a life and chafed against society expecting them to comply; it became such a trope that this genre picked up the second nickname, “Angry Young Men,” which in turn was applied to the authors and playwrights as well.

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It’s no surprise that the Angry Young Men were angry – British culture in the 1950s was heavily classist, repressive, and conformist. But then again, so was American culture, and so was much of the world’s culture. In 1960 the world was on the cusp of the Baby Boomer rebellion, which puts the Angry Young Men at the front of a wave which would soon sweep through and shake up society throughout most of the western world.

But the Angry Young Men weren’t alone, and England wasn’t the only place where this questioning was happening. And that was this American’s biggest hurdle – because I kept comparing Arthur and the other Angry Young Men to the Beats, the group of writers who were similarly critical of American’s conformist and repressive society. But instead of just pointing out the flaws of their society, like the Angry Young Men did, the Beats went on to try to carve out different paths for themselves – diving headlong into Eastern religion, jazz, environmental advocacy, racial equality, sexual experimentation, socialism, psychedelic drug use, and a plethora of other countercultural experiments. Not that their experimentation moved the needle much – in fact, many Beat writers ended up worse than they started. But at least they tried things – while the Angry Young Men, from the look of things, just pointed out the problems.

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In fact, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning seems to punish Arthur’s philandering, in a sequence which I found one of the most eye-catching in the film. Arthur has taken Doreen to an amusement park one night, and is surprised to see Brenda also there, with her husband and son – and her brother-in-law in the RAF, there for a visit with one of the guys in his platoon. Arthur manages to slip away from Doreen to have a chat with Brenda, meeting her on one of the rides where they can discuss Brenda’s pregnancy in comparative privacy. Except Brenda wasn’t quite as clandestine as she thought – and as their ride is slowing to a stop, they notice that Brenda’s brother in law is standing just outside the ride and glaring at them, the car they’re in whirling them past his angry glare over and over again. It’s an eerie sequence which bodes ill for Arthur, and shortly after he meets up with them he finds himself willing to give up Brenda and think properly of marrying Doreen (if a bit reluctantly).

So ultimately, instead of coming across as the Humble Everyman Speaking Truth To Power which the film no doubt wanted him to be, to me Arthur just seems immature and spoiled and desperately like he needs to just Grow Up already, and then the film ends when he finally starts to do exactly that. It’s likely meant to be a sad ending – but the only alternatives Arthur explores would be even more disastrous, so it is what it is. Now, if the film was about Arthur heading up into the Lake District to take a job as a fire marshal so he could practice meditation on his downtime, and then coming back to woo Doreen, I might have at least given him some credit for the attempt at bucking convention, followed by the regret that Society wouldn’t leave him be. But this plot just sets Arthur up for being a little…whiny.