31st 03 - 2017 | 4 comments »

Fellini ∙ Satyricon (1969)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Federico Fellini

By Roderick Heath

Thanks to the enormous impact of La Dolce Vita (1960) and (1963), Federico Fellini’s name had been vaulted into the tiny canon of filmmakers whose names were household words. The phrase “Felliniesque” came to spell out a brand of gaudy, sensual, yearning artistry in the same way Hitchcockian meant suspense and DeMille meant the epic. Fellini’s panoramic grappling with the chaotic impulses of society at large and his own internal universe glimpsed in those two films had also seen the tension between the neorealist Italian cinematic model Fellini had inherited and the fantasticality, riven with expressionistic vividness, priapic excitement, and raw showmanship, that he was increasingly drawn to, seemingly resolved in favour of the latter. The rest of his career was to be given over mostly to riotous conjurations of spectacle, to the point where filmgoers would be split into camps, those who would by and large reject Fellini’s later works as monuments to self-indulgence, and those who would continue to greet them as carnivals celebrating artistic personality at last given its proper imperial status in the cinematic realm, in a way previously denied to all but the most rarefied talents. When his adaptation of the ancient Roman novel Satyricon was to be released in 1969, another version of the same book was also being filmed. So, Fellini’s name was added to the title, turning auteur into brand, a promise, an advertising gimmick, and soon his works like Fellini Roma (1972) and Fellini’s Casanova (1976) wore their authorial mark like haute couture designer labels.

Fellini had first moved beyond ’s fetid self-analysis approach when he made Juliet of the Spirits (1965), a showcase for his wife and consistent collaborator Giulietta Massina that also extended the navel-gazing favour to her, attempting to evoke a woman’s inner life in similar terms to his own autobiographical tale, in flourishes of visual rapture alternated with discomforting personal confessions and obfuscations. For his next feature (with Toby Dammit, his contribution to Histoires extraordinaires, 1967, in between), Fellini took up the fragmentary novel most often credited to Petronius Arbiter, a contemporary of the Emperor Nero, who was famed in his time as a fashion guru and style expert, who nonetheless eventually committed suicide during an epic banquet, an act intended as both escape from Nero’s wrath and a colossal goad to it. The weirdness, extravagance, and decadence of imperial Rome held obvious attractions to Fellini, as a place both to continue the theme of looking at civilisation’s discontents by turning an eye to the past, and a new stage to turn his new delight in pure optical rapture upon. The artistic atmosphere of the late 1960s had evolved at blinding speed, and in some ways Fellini had done his part to help it along. The monologue about doing away with the dead and dated parts of the modern soul in had been taken up as a generational creed along with aspects of the film’s technique and visual lexicon, and by 1969 Fellini’s once-scandalous approach to sexuality and other corporeal perversities was, if not exactly quaint, certainly restrained. Fellini’s artistic persona was fortunate in many ways, particularly as the things he was wrestling with inside himself were also the things he delighted in provoking others with.

Satyricon was a particularly challenging project to take on in this regard as the book revolves around a daisy chain of sexual couplings, many of which are homosexual. In Petronius’ book, this subject is tackled with blunt and lackadaisical acceptance in the classical way, if laced with Romanesque attitudes still sadly familiar to us today, in which gay activity was often a low and dirty business fit either for comedy or insults with political connotations. Fellini’s ongoing exercise in self-purgation might well have also driven him to take up such a subject. The director’s fascination with physicality as a realm too often ignored by filmmakers usually happy to offer up fantastic perfection, was rich with both fixated fascination and morbid unease. He filled his movies with galleries of oddball types, an allure that with Satyricon branched out into a more complete regard of the body as censorship limits fell away. Fellini’s love of the great, fleshy maternal body, reminiscent of a pagan faith stretching back to the Venus of Willendorf, celebrated in was his natural theatre of sexual delight, but he pushed past this to try and encompass all forms of carnality. Bodies fill every cinematic orifice of Satyricon, young and muscular, old and pendulous, withered and gross, bulbous and bountiful. A rebellious artist trying to throw off Catholic moralism was also trying to connect urgently with this dance of repulsion and delight. Fellini had offered up some broad queer caricatures in La Dolce Vita, and Satyricon finds him caught in a posture, at once fascinating and perturbing, of trying to encompass pansexual lust as just another wing of the museum.

Fellini also declared that Satyricon was less an attempt to delve into the past as it might have been but rather as a self-conscious modern attempt to dream it – or, as he put it, trying to give it the same atmosphere as an exploration of a Martian city. Right from its early frames, exploring the labyrinthine world where protagonist Encolpio (Martin Potter) subsists in Rome’s lowest, subterranean precincts along with the rest of demimonde populace, Satyricon inhabits a space replete with dreamlike extrapolations of ancient paraphernalia, whilst the characters walk, squirm, wrestle, play, fuck, and fight in spaces alternately narrow and cavernous. Fellini’s imaginative palate here might well have been stretching back to the spectacles of silent cinema. He had already hinted at his lingering fascination for the oversized zest of Italian cinema in those days when he referenced Giuseppe Pastrone’s foundational work Cabiria with his beloved 1957 tragicomedy Nights of Cabiria, a film that wryly correlated the exiled and enslaved eponymous heroine of Pastrone’s work with a would-be modern equivalent. Pivotal images and motifs from Pastrone’s film float to the surface here, like the face of the colossal temple of Moloch, here remembered in a glimpse of a huge sculptural face pushed down an alley, and a violent earthquake shaking the world of pathetically small people with contemptuous energy. Likewise the monumental sets (overseen by Danilo Donati) harken back to the likes of the grand silent projects of Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffith, whilst also taking licence from the oneiric worlds conjured by the German Expressionists. Satyricon takes place in a barely liminal place, a fact clear even before Fellini strays into a countryside where the sky glows hallucinogenic hues, like a ‘50s scifi movie’s approximation of an alien world, and ocean-going galleys that look like crashed spaceships, painted in hues alternately trippy and earthy thanks to the superlative cinematography of Giueseppe Rotunno.

Whilst signalling a never-never approach to the Roman text, Fellini’s method actually allows him to get at the essence of another age in ways many more familiar approaches never manage. He creates an infinitely strange scene, full of painted faces and tinny jewellery and totemic objects, ringing dust and febrile sweat and stinky-looking clothes, all so immediate they threaten to peel themselves out of the screen and haunt your nostrils. The early scenes depict Encolpio living in fetid poverty, a student who seems to have abandoned his studies in favour of cohabitation with his beautiful young slave and lover, Giton (Max Born). But his fellow and former lover Ascilto (Hiram Keller) crows on the fact he’s played a vengeful prank on Encolpio by selling Giton behind his back to the actor Vernacchio (Fanfulla) as a pretty face for his stage. Encolpio, after fighting with Ascilto and forcing him to tell where Giton is, confronts the actor, who surrenders the boy when a rich man in the audience reminds him he’s already on thin ice for his habits of satirising the Emperor, making the actor afraid of any further legal troubles. Encolpio is gratefully restored to his bed with Giton, only for Ascilto to come in, and the boy promptly votes to go with him instead, leaving Encolpio alone and desolate again. The earthquake causes the underground complex where Encolpio lives to collapse, and he barely survives. Later, visiting an art gallery, he encounters a friend, the poet Eumolpus (Salvo Randone). He invites Encolpio along to a banquet being held by the immensely rich Trimalchio (Mario Romagnoli), who fancies himself a poet as well, but is really a might vulgarian who oversees orgies of self-congratulation and indulgence.

Trimalchio’s orgy is the kind of sequence Fellini always went to town with, an extravagant show of what wealth pulls into the plutocrat’s orbit, but lacking the bohemian bravura that often gripped similar scenes in his earlier films. Trimalchio’s festivities are instead crass spectacles where Homer is recited but the real entertainment highlight is the master ordering Eumolpus to be thrown into the kitchen oven as a punishment for his drunken outburst, after he’s pelted with food for reciting his poems. Trimalchio’s servants do drag the poet down to the kitchen and pour scalding matter on his face, but stop short of actually throwing him into the oven. Trimalchio boasts of his desire to own lands right down to Sicily so he travel the length of Italy without leaving his own property, and confesses to a youth spent as sex slave to both master and mistress as part of his long apprenticeship before becoming a crony of the Emperor, with the inference that anyone else who wants to get somewhere needs to get on with such an apprenticeship. Roast animals filled with smaller treats are sliced open, disgorging their goodies like steaming viscera. Trimalchio is carried up through the hills to visit his future tomb, play-acting the mourning rites and genuflecting obligated by his death for his pleasure whilst he’s alive, only for one of his friends to narrate a comic narrative about “the Matron of Ephesus,” a bride mourning her rich husband who falls in love with a soldier detailed to watch a hanged man’s body in the same cemetery. After the soldier’s charge is stolen, the widow quickly volunteered her dead mate’s body as a replacement to save her new lover from punishment: the moment you’re dead, even the greatest man isn’t worth shit.

The alternately tedious and violently compelling proximity of Eros and Thanatos is an obsessive refrain in Satyricon, depicting a world mostly lacking the kinds of safety cordons between activities and moral precepts we’re used to today precisely because the cycles of life and death move much faster, push harder, demand reflexive action. Antihero Encolpius is finally stricken with impotence – “I’ve lost my sword!” – in the film’s concluding scenes, stripping him of his purest device for expressing his life-lust after his many adventures driven by his own erotic urges and those of others. The only quality that elevates him over most of these others is that he is sometimes touched with an effervescent poeticism that comes at the end of such ventures. When Encolpius and Eumolpus stumble drunkenly away from Trimalchio’s company, they fall down on a ploughed field as the poet recites rapturously and offers his spiritual gift of poetry to the younger man: the path through absurd plenty and grotesque wealth has granted the two men a moment sheer, unbridled beauty and essence-grasping. But Encolpius’ finds his life about to take a strange turn, as he’s picked up from the beach where he fell asleep by slavers and dumped in the cargo hold of a ship, where he finds himself accompanied by Giton and Ascilto.

Friends of the emperor are collecting attractive young men for his sport whilst voyaging to his private island, and this wayward trio have been imprisoned on the ship of rich merchant Lichas (Alain Cuny). During the course of the voyage, Encolpius spies on the master of the ship and his wife Tryphaena (Capucine) in their floating pleasure dome. Caught in the act, Encolpius is forced to battle Lichas, who dresses as a gladiator and fights well. Instead of killing the younger man, Lichas prostrates and ravages him. This twist leads into pansexual romps that finally result in Lichas, smitten with Encolpius, engaging in a marriage rite with him, under his wife’s seemingly approving gaze. But when the ships reach the Emperor’s island, the passengers are just in time to see the Emperor (Tanya Lopert) surrounded by assassins sent by a usurper. The Emperor commits suicide before they can kill him, so they board Lichas’ ship and when he protests their actions, he’s swiftly and brutally beheaded. The prisoners are all dragged off to serve new masters, but Encolpius and Ascilto manage to give their captors the slip and traverse the rocky, unfamiliar shore they’ve been stranded on.

Petronius’ Satyricon was a bawdy, talkative, cosmopolitan affair, both a lampoon of a civilisation at its height and a product of it, sarcastically annexing the wanderers of Greek and Roman mythology and forcing them to play out a humorously debased version of those myths, in a manner other artists would take up from Alexander Pope with his The Dunciad to James Joyce with Ulysses. Fellini, although building his film around characters and incidents from the source, nonetheless offered a very different artistic and conceptual beast, transmuting his basis into something that often looks and feels like the kind of crazy dream you’re supposed to have after eating cheese and olives before bedtime. The book as passed down to us is actually a series of portions and extracts, with perhaps hundreds of other pages still missing. Fellini tried to incorporate the disjointed impression this gives the reader in his own film, which segues with dreamy dissolves and interludes between phases of a narrative that stutters forth as a series of tableaux, resulting in an initially bewildering, even maddening sense of flux pervading proceedings. He also bolstered the impression by utilising deliberately mismatched dubbing for the cast, which, as was common in Italian films of the time, was polyglot. Potter, a British actor, had established his fides for this material starring in two 1968 teledramas, Nigel Kneale’s future-shock parable The Year of the Sex Olympics and Philip Mackie’s The Caesars, an intelligent precursor to the better-known I, Claudius. But he was asked to provide the eye of Satyricon’s storm rather than give a star turn, his form an integral part of the wider canvas.

Upon revisit, Satyricon actually proves quite straightforward, if still governed by its own rambling, discursive attention patterns. Throughout the film, Fellini reduces the screen to a kind of moving fresco filled with bodies and architectural designs, atomising the visual experience. The act of travelling with and through Rotunno’s camera is as vital an act as paying attention to the story or dialogue, indeed moreso, as we are immersed in Fellini’s constructed world. Trimalchio’s banquet is repeatedly punctuated by guests staring at the camera as if it was another, fallible, intoxicated person present to witness this panoply of excess, and elsewhere the photography crumbles into variegated impressions, obliquely viewed. A tracking shot through the underground zone Encolpius inhabits at the outset cruises along a boulevard teeming with vendors, pedestrians, and flotsam of a floating world, and domiciles off the way filled with denizens including ordinary families and prostitutes with clients, all of them reduced to a kind of macrobiological diorama: the fecund business of being conceived, born, surviving, and dying laid out in a wild, near-mindless nest of human animals. Trimalchio’s banquet repeats the same motif, starting with a purification ritual where the guests bob up and down rhythmically in the nude, before the feast where they’re laid out in their prone rows like sardines served up not as food but as witnesses to generosity of the gross overlord. Satyricon certainly offered Fellini a chance to act out his most licentious fantasies about the past as well as way of appealing to the new mood of the cinema audience with his high-psychedelic vision.

And yet Fellini offers such marvels whilst fumbling towards a new fulfilment, however perversely realised, of the old neorealist ideal of laying out society for the camera to see in all its layers. His mural seethes with a sense of life as lived in different zones, with Encolpio’s journey spans highest social level to highest, by dint of his status as bohemian student and artist, perpetually broke but connected with the minds of the empire, and then as a fool of fortune scooped up and dumped down by the shifting tides of social action. The schism between mind and body had been a central theme Fellini chased down again and again, purveyed through figures like the clown in La Strada (1954) who operates from the most bestial urges and evolves into an empathetic human too late, to ’s Guido Anselmi, tormented by the needs of his physical and erotic selves even as his intellectual and emotional aspect constantly strives to reconcile his facets. His final acceptance of himself and attempt to move past it opened the gate for Satyricon, which dives into a vision of the past that sees that age mostly free of such schisms. No-one is surprised by any urge of the body or mind, although there are opposing reactions to free indulgence. When Encolpius and Ascilto enter an abandoned villa looking for plunder, they instead find an African slave girl hiding away, who joins the men in a threesome, an interlude that’s notable as perhaps one of the few truly joyful erotic moments in the film. The girl giggles in aroused delight at the two men caressing each-other, three free-and-easy people momentarily released from various forms of bondage in a moment of careless sensual indulgence. Earlier, by contrast, a society wife kissing Trimalchio’s mate with tentative Sapphic fascination stirred the macho outrage and lust of her husband.

Fellini also attempts, amidst all the carnal fetishism, to dig into problems persistent in our communal life. Access to all that splendour is the lot of the rich and powerful. Others are forced to take their pleasures where they can, and the use of other people’s bodies, sexual and servile, is endemic. Encolpio is initially frantic in his desperate desire for his nominal slave, whom he nonetheless gives the freedom of choosing his own path, only to be repaid when the boy rejects him immediately. Vernacchio’s actor troupe hacks off body parts from slaves purchased for performances, then have the actor playing the Emperor “restore” them. Eumolpus is the voice of reason and beauty partly hiding a jealous man longing for sensual delights, bemoaning the decay of artistic and receptivity both thanks to the insidious power of Mammon and luxury dulling the senses whilst craving a little such dulling himself. Trimalchio is revealed as ancestor and avatar of the magnates and moguls who danced through Fellini’s contemporary panoramic works, promising horns of plenty to the agreeable and destruction to the upstarts and time-wasters. The downfall of the young Emperor brings not liberation but a reactionary new regime, no less violent but seemingly more puritanical, celebrating itself with triumphal processions. Some seed here for Fellini’s branding of Fascism as a mixture of holiday camp workout and Busby Berkeley production number in Amarcord (1973). A shot of the crew of Lichas’ ship hauling in the carcass of a dead basking shark recalls the discovery of the mutant sea monster at the end of La Dolce Vita, signalling a continuum, the confrontation with the strangeness of nature and its role as bewildering foil to human arrogance.

One of Fellini’s boldest and strangest inventions was the figure of a hermaphrodite albino, worshipped as a holy oracle and demigod by people in the surrounding district to the profit of his keepers. In the fourth of the film’s hazily bracketed chapters, Encolpio and Ascilto, looking for a way to make some money stranded far from home, kidnap the demigod with the aid of a hulking local. But the trio haven’t reckoned with the pampered and crippled oracle’s inability to survive the heat and dryness of the landscape, and s/he dies of dehydration. The angry third man attacks his fellows in this disastrous enterprise for their ignorance, forcing them to fight back, and Ascilto knocks him out. The hermaphroditic oracle embodies Fellini’s fascination/fear in the flesh taken an extreme, one that edges into territory anticipating David Lynch’s images of perverted birth in Eraserhead (1976) and the new flesh sagas of David Cronenberg, as the sorry creature pants desperately for water. Incapable of speech, rotund breasts jutting from a sickly white form, the oracle is a weird survival of a misbegotten creation ironically taken up as an icon of religious fervour, and an expression of hazy sexual identity beyond the healthy jutting pricks and mighty breasts of Fellini’s homier fantasies. Encolpio, played by the blonde-haired Potter, and Ascilto, by the dark-haired, aptly satyr-like Keller, occasionally come across as arch queer caricatures with their flashing eyes and sneering, revealing the limitations besetting Fellini’s efforts to escape old frames of reference. But then again, everyone else is turned into a Hogarthian study in essential nature, in the yawing lusty mouths of the high society women and the voracious maws of the menfolk.

In this way, Fellini accesses one of the defining elements of a pre-modern literature and mythology, where the characters are functions of social or moral values or their antitheses, and embodiments rather than creatures of psychological reflexes. Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of his protégés and a successor as Italian cinema hero, was moving into similar territory with his takes on Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969), equally strange if cooler-tempered, headier explorations of the past through a meshing effect of artifice and authenticity in dialectic. Also like his former collaborator, Pasolini would eventually be drawn to study the recent past evil in Italian life, in Salo (1975), through the prism of classic literature, the dose of black arsenic to Satyricon’s bitter but heady wine in contemplating the twinning of erotic excursion and will to power. Ascilto, when first glimpsed, crawls out of the shadows like a big cat, almost the actualisation of Encolpio’s disruptively horny id. The film’s most beatific visions of human nature, ironically and yet also as a consequence to all this contemplation of appetite, mostly involve death, although it’s also present in Encolpio and Lichas’ surprisingly lovely wedding sequence, an episode of tender affection, complete with the aging businessman dressed as a young bride, that defies cynicism. Following their initial escape from the galleys after Lichas’s murder, Encolpio and Ascilto stumble upon an abandoned villa. They’ve just missed the suicide of the master (Joseph Wheeler) and his wife (Lucia Bosè), after farewelling their children on the road, apparently having been obligated to die as adherents of the dead emperor: the husband commands his wife not to do the same as he slices his wrists and slowly bleeds out, but she follows him into death.

The quiet, even ethereal evocation of loving in the face of death is later rhymed with Ascilto’s death at the hands of a boatman-turned-robber: when he finds Ascilto’s body, Encolpio pauses for a sad rhapsody over the man who has constantly baited and betrayed him but has also been, to the end, a being of enormous life-force, teasing, pushing, defying, aggravating, invigorating. The salutary, totemic quality of these rhyming scenes privileges the characters in them with a sense, however fleeting, of substance achieved in having lived, as opposed to the blithe insubstantiality of actually living, and the tenacity of affections in the face of nihilism. Lichas’s death, which sees his headless corpse collapse to the deck whilst his heads bobs in the water, achieves on the other hand a bleak and shocking effect of suddenly curtailed life and raw violence, his wife gloating from the boat and his husband shocked back out of the bliss of his brief, peculiar nuptials. This moment is linked in turn to Encolpio’s later fight for survival when, in punishment for the oracle’s death, he’s cast into a labyrinth and forced to battle a hulking executioner wearing a minotaur mask. This scene, shot in sweat-inducing close and oblique shots that distort and cut off understanding of the geography, conveys Encolpio’s utter existential desperation as fate has brought him to this nightmarish zone.

Encolpio escapes death by pleading for mercy from the executioner (Luigi Montefiori), who strips off his mask and vows fellowship with him. Encolpio soon learns he’s been the victim of a mean prank, an amusement for the citizens of a town who celebrate a day in honour of Momus, the god of laughter, and his reward for his elegant pleas is to be presented to a woman, Ariadne, whom he must have sex with to cap the festivities. But this is when Encolpius finds his experiences have left him with only a limp noodle. Fate tosses him a salve as he encounters Eumolpus, who has stumbled his way into a lucrative governorship and has now given himself up to pure hedonism in a brothel called The Garden of Delights. Now he’s surrounded with concubines who happily take to the task of trying to restore Encolpius’s virility in a hilarious ritual where some beat him on the buttocks with twigs whilst others ride a swing over his head, with Ascilto gleefully joining them to pile insult upon injury. Finally Encolpius goes to visit a witch, Oenothea (Donyale Luna), whose own tale is pointlessly but amusingly narrated as her past involves lighting tortures with the radiant power of her crotch. But whilst he does regain his potency with the witch, Encolpius is distracted from the fight that claims Ascilto’s life, like a karmic retribution, the loss of his wild and impish second self.

Soon Encolpius learns that Eumolpus has also died, just before he was about to make a voyage to sell a fortune’s worth of slaves. But Eumolpus was at least well-prepared for that end, as, with his body wrapped for the grave, his creditors learn that he’s promised them a slice of his fortune in his will if they will quite literally eat him, piece by bloody piece, a gory task the businessmen nonetheless agree to. This makes for the poet’s perfect kiss-off to banal beings of money he hated so much, and the reductio ad absurdum of the tale’s refrains of wealth, possession, corporeal meaning, and death. Encolpio meanwhile joins the freed slaves in making off with the ship and sailing to a remote island that becomes home and haven. The fantasia finally flickers out to a close with Encolpius reaching a state of being roughly coincident with maturity, joining the escapees from the reach of the imperial yoke, entwining the achievement of personal and political freedom and signalling both as states towards which humans are doomed to strive through all the cruel and amusing learning processes of existence. Perhaps the most pungent quality of Satyricon from today’s perspective, which is sometimes ironically celebrated as an artefact of the era of its making in a manner not dissimilar to the way Fellini in turn looked back to the distant past as a time of lawless possibility, is its attempt to encompass basic extremes of human nature in a manner free of sentiment or nostalgia, enslaved to no-one’s idea of what cinema should look or sound like except its creator’s, vibrating to its own madcap penchant, at once feverishly beautiful and garishly ugly. The film’s last conceit is one of its most brilliant, after commencing with Encolpius’ laments before a wall covered in graffiti, by returning to this motif with the characters all painted on ruins standing on the lonely sea-shore. These people echo through time in faded, remote images, the thrumming blood of their lives turned to dust but some transcription of their nature left persisting in art, fixing their baleful gazes upon the denizens of another, perhaps no wiser time.


17th 04 - 2016 | 4 comments »

Knight of Cups (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Terrence Malick

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By Roderick Heath

Terrence Malick’s late period has seen him more productive than ever at the cost of robbing his output of the almost magical allure it once had through scarcity. Once he was easy to idealise as an emissary of artistic stature redolent of a very different time and cultural frame, the reclusive poet broadcasting occasional, deeply considered artistic happenings from on high. But when he brings out three films in five years, he becomes just another filmmaker in the marketplace. Yet his work has defied the usual crises and swerves that befall aging auteurs to become ever more personal, rarefied, and bold, charged with a sense of questing enthusiasm and expressive urgency. Whereas in his early work I tend to find what Malick wants to say a bit obvious even as he laboured to say it in the most ravishing way, his later work suggests an attempt to articulate concepts and emotions so nebulous and difficult they cannot be conveyed in any meaningful way except when bundled up in that strange collection of images known as cinema, gaining a sharpness and urgency that risks much but also achieves much. This is a large part of why I’ve been moving against the current and digging what Malick’s been putting down all the more since The New World (2005). The New World marked a point when Malick really first nailed the aesthetic he’d been chasing, apparently formless in the usual cinematic sense, but actually fluidic and dynamic, more like visual music than prose, his stories unfolding in a constant rush of counterpoint, the visual and the verbal, each nudging the other along rather than working in the usual lockstep manner of standard dramatic cinema.

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By comparison, I recently revisited Days of Heaven (1978) and find it gorgeous but inert, like a fine miniature in a snow cone. The pursuit of a horizon glimpsed in a dream, at once personal and lodged in a folk-memory, admirably articulated, but too refined, too stringently, self-consciously fablelike to compel me. The New World finally set Malick free because it allowed him to alchemise his preoccupations and poetic ideas, his obsession with the Edenic Fall, into the simplest vessel whilst still engaging with concrete history and a very solid sense of the world. Somehow Malick has become, in his old age, at once the wispiest of abstractionists and the most acute of realists. Knight of Cups feels like another instalment, probably the last, in an unofficial, but certainly linked cycle he started with The Tree of Life (2011) and followed with To the Wonder (2013). Malick has been translating his own life into art for these films, albeit tangentially, through a mesh of disguise, displacement, invention, and simple reflection. Knight of Cups completes the sense of journey from songs of innocence to songs of experience; the depiction of childhood’s protean possibility rhymed with adulthood’s regretful mourning as depicted in The Tree of Life has given way to the specific portrait of love found and lost in To the Wonder, and now, hedonistic abandon and the open void of modernity amidst the elusive promise of the land. It’s a report in the moment that rounds off the tale Malick’s been contemplating since The New World, a portrait of what’s become of that innocent land the white man conquered.

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Christian Bale inhabits the role of Rick, a screenwriter living it large in Los Angeles, but dogged by a lingering inability to form real emotional connections and the gnawing onus that is the fate of his family. That’s just about all the plot there is to Knight of Cups, which unfolds like a fever dream of recollection, pushing the flowing, vignette-laden, high-montage style Malicks’s pursued since The New World to a point that is both an extreme and also a crescendo. In compensation, Malick adopts a very simple, but perfectly functional division into chapters, each named for a card in the Tarot and dominated by a depiction of one of Rick’s relationships, whether passing or substantial, with various women and family members, or turning points in his experience. “The Moon” recounts his grazing encounters with dye-haired young wannabe Della (Imogen Poots). “The Hanged Man” depicts his uneasy relationship with his father and brother. “The Hermit” follows Rick through the indulgences of Hollywood, attending a party hosted by mogul Tonio (Antonio Banderas). “Judgment” sees him briefly reconnecting with his ex-wife, medical doctor Nancy (Cate Blanchett). In “The Tower,” Rick is tempted by Mephistophelian manager Herb (Michael Wincott). In “The Sun,” he becomes mesmerised by a fashion model, Helen (Frieda Pinto), who embodies pure beauty and practises tantric yoga. “The High Priestess” sees him hooking up with stripper Karen (Teresa Palmer), and visiting Las Vegas with her for a dirty weekend. In “Death,” he becomes involved with a married woman, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), who falls pregnant and doesn’t know if the father is Rick or her husband. Finally, “Freedom” depicts his ultimate decision to leave Hollywood and finding happiness with Isabel (Isabel Lucas), a girl he often sees dancing on the beach.

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The Knight of Cups is also a tarot card, of course, one that notably changes meaning according to how it’s looked at, encompassing the alternately quicksilver brilliance and inane nature of the young adventurer and will to disorder, a reminder of the closeness between the two. Rick is evidently the Knight, one who is not so coincidentally often in his cups. He’s also correlated with the prince in a fairy tale his father is fond of who travels to a distant land on an important mission but is bewitched by a magic potion and forgets his identity. Near the start of the film, Rick meets with two agents (Patrick Whitesell and Rick Hess) who have orchestrated his transfer off a project on which he was floundering and attached him to a top comedy star, a move that brings Rick to the peak of his profession. Rick lives nonetheless in a small apartment that barely displays any sign of real human habitation apart from his bed and laptop, as two thieves find to their chagrin when they break in and try to rob the place. He is shaken by an earthquake close to the film’s beginning, the first momento mori that jars him out of any sense of confident self-satisfaction. Soon, Rick wanders the city gobbling up sensations and distractions. He cavorts with models, actresses, and scenesters he can now pull with his growing wealth and freewheeling enthusiasm, but is nagged at by the omnipresent evidence of a concurrent reality, represented by the down-and-out folk he brushes against on the streets of LA.

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The film’s prologuelike opening scenes see Rick on the town, riding the streets with models and partying hard in scenes of ebullient, carnivalesque high life, where geishas and costumed artistes frolic and life seems utterly ripe. An experimental film being projected on the wall invades the film itself, a beautiful woman shifting through guises, masks of cardboard and make-up floating around her face, identity turned protean and cabalistic—essentially introducing the basic theme of the film around it. Then, the earthquake shakes the town. In the first “chapter,” Rick meets Della, who describes Rick’s problem as one commonly diagnosed in writers by those close to them: “You don’t want love—you want a love experience.” But she also recognises that he’s a man who’s been switched off on some fundamental level for some time. She begs him not to return to such a state again, and the rest of the film depicts his struggle to really feel and open himself up. Rick’s deeper spiritual and emotional maladies are soon revealed as he visits his father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) at his offices, in a strange sequence that might be memory, dream, or a blend of the two, as Joseph seems to be alone in a vast building and washes his hands in filthy water. Joseph’s health and sanity become niggling sources of worry for Rick, whilst Joseph boils over with Learish anger and sorrow. Rick also maintains an uneasy relationship with his brother Barry (Wes Bentley), a former junkie turned street minister, often submerged in the shoals of human wreckage Rick contends with. These three beset survivors are closely bonded by rivets of love and wracking pain because of the suicide of a third brother, Billy. When any of the three come together, they often clash, sometimes in heated and physically eruptive manner: a dinner the trio have together devolves into Barry hurling furniture around.

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Rick’s success has been achieved by remaining switched off because of a fear he admits in contemplating his failed marriage to Nancy. Nancy, in a motif reminiscent of Javier Bardem’s minister in To the Wonder, is glimpsed treating broken and sickened individuals from the fringes of society, contrasting Rick as he eddies in a zone where he’s aware of his inconsequentiality even as he experiences a very real sense of burden. Joseph’s thoughts are repeatedly heard in voiceover, as if the ailing father is trying still to guide his Rick, who, nominated as the successful progeny, wears the double burden of fulfilling the familial mission and holding up, psychically if not financially, the remnant of their pride and prospect. But Rick’s perspective is not just one of fashionable ennui: it’s one that touches everything he sees with a sense of charged fascination and transient import and meaning. One of the film’s high points is also one of its seemingly most meandering and purely experiential, as Rick wanders Tonio’s estate surrounded by a boggling collective of random celebrities and pretty faces. Rick explores the gaudy environs of Tonio’s manse, a gigantic placard advertising tasteless wealth, a neo-Versailles, whilst on sound we hear Tonio’s explanations of his love life, comparing his womanising habits to daily cravings for different flavours of ice cream, the confession of an easy sybarite.

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At first, the smorgasbord of flesh and fancy is bewildering and entertaining, the perspective that of a professional rubbernecker, but as the day goes on, booze is consumed, people dance and cavort, and eventually start plunging into the pool. Malick commences this sequence with shots of dogs chasing balls in the water, and then models dressed in haute couture similarly immersed, complete with giant heels digging at the water. He sees something both beautiful and highly ridiculous in visions where rose petals flitter through the air to rest on the shoulders of the anointed, straight out of some neoclassical painter’s concept of decadent pleasures in the days of Rome. By the end, everyone’s in the water, squirming in the liquid, a crescendo of absurd yet affectionate observation of the desire many have to exist within a perpetual party. The LA setting robs Malick of his usual places of meditative peace, the wavering grasslands, the proud sun-scraping forests. Swimming pools, the omnipresent symbol of prosperity in LA, become under Malick’s gaze numinous portals aglow with fervent colour, places where the moment anyone enters they instantly transform into a different state of being. They’re tamed versions of the ocean, a place Rick constantly returns to with his women or by himself, the zone of transformation and grand, impersonal force. Something of a similar insight to one Sang-soo Hong explored in his The Day He Arrives (2012), charges Knight of Cups, if in a radically different fashion, as Rick’s various relationships, whether brief or substantial, see him constantly returning to the same places and sights to the point where they seem both interchangeable and looping—going to the beach, driving the streets, visiting his girlfriends’ homes—evoking the evanescent rush of the early phases of love, but then each time seeming to reach a point where he can’t go any further. At one point he’s visited by old friends who knew him as a kid and have kids of their own, a zone of experience he hasn’t yet penetrated, emissaries from an alien land.

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One noticeable lack from most of Malick’s earlier films was real, adult sexuality. After finally delving into that with To the Wonder, Knight of Cups is frankly sexy, as it portrays Rick’s successful entry into a zone that would strike a lot of young people as paradise. But there’s still a fascinating, childlike sense of play apparent in the film as Rick cavorts with naked nymphs he picks up. Malick moralises none of this, seeing it merely as the inevitable result and pleasure of putting a large number of good-looking, well-off people into a similar environment and letting them have at it. Knight of Cups brings the implicitly autobiographical narrative Malick wove through The Tree of Life and To the Wonder into a new phase, patterned seemingly after Malick’s time spent as a screenwriter in the early 1970s and leading up to his eventual self-exile from the movie industry. Again, of course, there’s good reason not to take all this simply as memoir, but rather as a highly transformed, aestheticized attempt to convert experience into poetry. That aesthetic is one of memory—fallible, fluidic, selective, associative. But there’s no hint of the period piece to the result, which is as stylistically and sociologically up-to-date as anything I’ve seen lately, engaging contemporary Hollywood and indeed the contemporary world in all its flailing, free-falling strangeness, the confused impulses towards meditative remove and hedonism apparent in modern American life.

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Knight of Cups is, as a result, one of the most daring formal experiments I’ve ever seen in a feature film, an attempt to paint entirely in the mode of reminiscence, a tide of epiphanies. Malick’s early films were obsessed with the exact same motif of clasping onto a mood, a way of seeing, an impression from the very edges of liminal experience. But his techniques have evolved and transformed those motifs and are now inseparable from them. Knight of Cups seems random and free-form, but actually is rigorously constructed, each vignette and experience glimpsed as part of a journey that eventually resolves in some moderately traditional ways. Amidst Malick’s now-trademark use of voiceover to give access to the interior world and thoughts of his characters and music to propel and define various movements, he also adds snatches of recordings of poetry, recitation, and drama, including John Gielgud’s Prospero from Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991) and lines from The Pilgrim’s Progress. With such hallowed, high-culture refrains snipped to pieces and rearranged into mantralike capsules of eerie wisdom ringing out, Knight of Cups finds a way to deal with the cornucopia, enfolding and smothering, that is modern life, as well as with Rick’s immediate personal concerns. Tto a certain extent, Rick is merely a scarecrow to hang it all on, the vessel of perception whose journey through life is, like that of all artists, one of both immersion and detachment.

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And yet Rick is hardly a nonentity, or a cliché emblematic of Hollywood shallowness. If The Tree of Life and To the Wonder were overtly concerned with spiritual and religious impulses as well as the worldly matters of growth and love, in Knight of Cups, that has faded to background noise. Here Malick suggests constantly that in the modern world, the divides we used to be able to set up to corral zones of experience—enterprise, spirituality, sexuality, intellectualism—cannot be maintained in such an age. The urge of the spiritual seeker is still lodged deep within Rick, perhaps all the more powerful when stripped out of the pieties of childhood and small-town life and set free in the louche embrace of worldly plenty. Armin Mueller-Stahl appears briefly as a minister advising Rick on how to try to engage with life as he moves closer to making a real break. But the matter here is the allure of the profane, and indeed, an attempt to create a truly modern definition and understanding of it—the intoxicating, but also dispiriting effects of superficialities, the strange hierarchies that turn some people into the tools and suppliants. Some have seen this work as an anti-Hollywood moan, but it’s not the usual shrill satire or snooty take. The narrative does infer that Rick’s role in the film world is so inane that it barely registers in his stream of consciousness. The essence of Malick’s complaint seems to me that although the movie industry attracts, employs, and sometimes enriches artists, it so rarely asks them to truly stretch their talents, like making Olympic-level sprinters compete in three-legged races.

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Malick actually seems to see Hollywood as rather comical, a candy castle for perma-adolescents. Rick’s dabbling in decadence is far from extreme: sometimes he gets blotto and has a lot of sex. Malick maintains much the same goggle-eyed, wide-open sensibility towards the strange places where Rick finds himself, from Tonio’s party to the pornocratic sprawl of Vegas and the strip club where he meets Karen. The placidity of a Japanese shrine offers the balm of calm, but Rick’s real transformative visions come amidst the partygoers of Vegas, a place that counts as some gigantic, if tacky, work of artistic chutzpah. There he gazes up at dancers dangling from the ceiling enacting a visualised myth of birth, slipping out of a chrysalis above the swooning, frenetic joyfulness of the people on the dance floor, an event of communal magnitude, something Rick is happy to exist within but cannot entirely join. Malick comprehends the magnetism of a place entirely dedicated to immersion in sensuality, a place where Rick lets the strippers lock him in a cage. Malick sees something genuinely telling here—that in the most adult of activities are the most profound expression of a desire to devolve back into the childhood, a place of play and free-form existence. But it’s also another stage for Rick to study to reveal his own persistent problem. It’s entirely logical then that in Malick’s mind, Karen, a bon vivant with a gift for moving freely and easily in the world, is probably the most complete and easy person glimpsed in the film, capable of chatting amiably with both pimps out in the surreal wilderness near the city and moguls ensconced in its gilt chambers.

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Rick’s fascination with all his women encompasses their ways of interacting with the world and their individual identity, and also their commonalities, their mirroring points of fascination and ironic disparities. The faint, but definite glint of hard, ambitious intent in Della’s eye as a wanderer far out of her zone both rhymes with and also contrasts Karen’s similar status as a wayfarer, but one who has no programme in life other than giving herself up to experience whilst making a living in the profane version of Helen’s job. Rick’s regret at never having a child with Nancy segues into Elizabeth’s bitter, crucifying pregnancy. Rick’s own internal argument is actualised in glimpses of characters who bob through his life. Cherry Jones appears as a wisp out of his past, someone who knew him and his family way back and who recalls how he once told her he felt like a spy in his own life. Wincott’s Herb declares he wants to make Rick rich, but Rick contemplates his ruined father, who remembers that “Once people envied me…” and measures the ultimate futility of success as measured in exclusively worldly terms. The Tree of Life evoked Death of a Salesman in certain respects as it analysed the figure of the American patriarch, and here Malick’s casting of Dennehy, who found great success playing Willy Loman in a recent revival, is another tip of the hat to Arthur Miller’s work. At one point, Dennehy is glimpsed treading a stage before an audience, one of several fragments scattered throughout the film of a purely symbolic reality and glimpses of oneiric netherworlds buried deep in Rick’s mind, as his father has become an actor, a seer, a fallen king, Lear on the heath or Prospero with his magic failing on his lonely isle.

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Malick’s methods chew up the talent he hires at stunning pace, but also presents an entirely democratic employment of them, in service of a vision that tries to encompass a sense of nobility in every individual. Knight of Cups is at once a display of Malick’s solipsism in this regard, his casual readiness to use a raft of skilled actors simply to inhabit the free-floating, sometimes barely glimpsed human entities that graze the camera in his films, and yet invigorating and reassuringly uninterested in the usual caressed egos of Hollywood film. Every performer is ore, mined for their most precise gestures, looks, words. Malick’s use of voiceover allows him to grant all characters their moment of insight and understanding as if gathering the fruits of years of contemplation, rather simply relying on what they can articulate in the flow of the banal.

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Whereas To the Wonder suggested Malick’s intention was to incorporate aspects of dance and particularly visual art into film, here Malick’s artistic arsenal is rooted securely in the language of modernist literature, likewise reconstituted in cinema. The rush of images has the ring of Joyce’s technique and the very last word heard in the film, “Begin,” evokes the famous affirmative at the end of Ulysses, whilst the visual structure recalls John Cage’s take on Joyce’s aesthetics, “Roaratorio.” But Malick also shouts out to some of his filmic influences. Della is initially seen wearing a pink wig, recalling a Wong Kar-Wai heroine, a nod that acknowledges the influence on Wong’s free-flowing style and obsession with frustrated romanticism on Malick’s recent approach. Malick also reveals selective affinities with some signal cinematic gods for filmmakers of his generation: as with To the Wonder, I sense the imprint of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965) in presenting the main character as both actor and viewer in his life. The narrative, like many artistic self-contemplations in film, recalls Fellini’s (1963) whilst other motifs evoke Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) as Rick circles photo shoots, fascinated and knowing about the arts of creating illusory beauties whilst confronting interior voids. But Malick ultimately rejects the roots of their works in a pernickety moralism that blends and confuses Catholicism and Marxism, chasing more a Blakeian sense of life and existence as a polymorphic surge that must be negotiated and assessed, but cannot be denied.

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Rick’s late agonistes with Elizabeth signal the end of the process Della identifies at the start, of Rick coming to life again but also facing the sort of emotional crucifixion from which his detachment spared him, both a price exacted and a perverse kind of reward found in genuine suffering: “It binds you closer to other people,” Mueller-Stahl’s priest notes. This event finally drives him out of LA, and he hits the road, exploring an American landscape of his youth and dreams that has forgotten him and that he, too, has forgotten. He seems to reconcile with his father and brother in a scene of violent catharsis, and takes his father to visit a former workplace, a heap of glowering, indifferent industry. By the very end of the film, Malick signals that Rick escapes LA, settles down with a woman, and finds a certain level of peace and healing living in the desert. Isabel seems deliberately filmed more as an entity than a person, the archetype of the type of woman who has flitted right through Malick’s work, a dancer and a priestess who leads Rick into caves for candlelit rites whilst the mountains that Rick has envisioned as symbols of everything his life wasn’t now soar above him. It’s arguable that in such imagery Malick finally retreats into a safe zone of symbolism, where much of the value of Knight of Cups is that it’s a work well outside his regular purview. But the truly radical quality of Knight of Cups is how completely untheoretical it is, the power of lived experience blended with urgent need to express in the most unfettered ways welling out of that experience. It’s both an explanation and a blithe feat of expressive legerdermain, not caring if we keep up. It’s cinema, stripped to the nerve.


30th 03 - 2015 | no comment »

How Strange to Be Named Federico: Scola Narrates Fellini (Che strano chiamarsi Federico, 2013)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Ettore Scola

18th Annual European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

It was strictly a coincidence, but a few hours before I viewed How Strange to Be Named Federico, I took a look at The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (2012), an experimental biography of Egypt’s biggest star told entirely through clips of her films. Bowled over again by the audacious approach Rania Stephan took to her subject, I was fully primed for this impressionistic tribute to the great Italian director by Ettore Scola, who modeled his own career to some extent on Fellini’s.

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Anyone interested in learning all about Fellini’s life and career should look elsewhere. Scola privileges impressions, memories, and imagination in offering some background on the director. In particular, Scola pays tribute to the camaraderie he experienced with Fellini, particularly when they both worked for the satirical newspaper Marc’Aurelio.

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Scola transitions between color and black and white cinematography, between reenactments and archival footage, and across decades to show the footprints Fellini left that Scola stepped into. We see a reenactment of a young Fellini (Tommaso Lazotti) showing his sketches to a front-office editor at Marc’Aurelio, who flips through them declaring them funny or not funny and then deciding they are good enough to bring to the attention of the head editors. The bullpen sessions of the illustrators, all with their own “columns” and all vying for the coveted center spread, is a wonder of competitive spirit, friendly banter, and creative foment.

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Scola first enters the picture as a nine year old (Giacomo Lazotti) reading Fellini’s cartoons to his blind grandfather. Ten years later, we will see Fellini’s introduction to the Marc’Aurelio office play out again when young Scola (Giulio Forges Davanzati) shows up, portfolio in hand, to see if he can make the grade. A rather sobering scene of some low-level functionaries of Mussolini’s fascist government coming into the editorial office and the illustrators standing at attention and giving their names and “rank,” that is, the sections they draw, created an uncomfortable reminder of the Charlie Hebdo attacks this past January.

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Film director Fellini (Maurizio De Santis), an insomniac, is shown driving with Scola to view the prostitutes standing on the streets to ply their trade. They pick up one hooker (Antonella Attili) who relates that her days in the life are nearing their end; she has saved money, which she has given to her boyfriend to purchase a house for them. The seeds of The Nights of Cabiria (1957) thus are sown. There are some other interesting tidbits about Fellini’s works, including the omission of Mastroianni among the great Italian actors the director tested to appear in Casanova (1976) and the enshrinement of Stage 5 at Cinecittà Studios as Fellini’s home.

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As the film moves into eras in which footage of the real Fellini and his film shoots are available, Scola gives us a behind-the-scenes look at some of the director’s classic films. Crane shots of Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni playing in the Trevi fountain in La Dolce Vita (1960) intermingle with footage and restaged circus acts from La Strada (1954), with his Fellini stand-in watching the proceedings. Hilariously, Fellini and Scola are accosted by Mastroianni’s mother, who complains that Fellini always makes her son look handsome, whereas Scola always makes him look like a vagabond. While some of Scola’s memories may be suspect, I have no doubt this incident actually took place.

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Scola distances himself from the film somewhat by having Vittorio Viviani serve as narrator, offering at least the semblance of an objective point of view from which the audience can take its cues. A familiarity with Fellini’s works makes viewing much more enjoyable and enlightening, as the movie feels a bit like a group of friends getting together to talk about a mutual acquaintance. A sampler of Fellini’s films at the end might jog a few memories, and offers, like a similar end montage of excised kissing scenes from Cinema Paradiso (1988), the only truly sentimental interlude of the film. The free-wheeling and affectionate moments that went before are almost as good as having the maestro back among us.

How Strange to Be Named Federico is the closing night film. It will show Thursday, April 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.


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