Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Grotesque Circus

If Neorealism had a mascot it would probably be that majestic mythic bird rising from the ashes, the phoenix. The techniques of Neorealism are not uniquely Italian, but rather could have developed anyplace under the same conditions, for instance, with Satyajit Ray in India or more recently with Asghar Farhadi in Iran. However, it was birthed in Italy and is known as Italian. I believe the social conditions of Italy at the time, economic depression and post-war decay, are the main contributing factor in the development of Neorealism. I suppose it is only right to give credit to the fathers of the baby as well. Martin Scorsese described Italian Neorealism like a seed which grew into a tree. The branches, Scorsese said, were made up of the Neorealist directors: Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio de Sica, Luchino Visconti, Alessandro Blasetti, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Federico Fellini.

These fathers cradled an ideology of struggle, truth, poetry, and compassion through a post-war environment, beginning a new engagement with reality. These fathers saw their medium as central to reestablishing society. The desperate financial situation forced them to hone in on high-concept story without all the glamor of before. Through mirroring reality they show faith in human potential and teach us that our lessons are just beneath the surface of our everyday numbness. Their existentialist medium, which centered on lack, shows us how to find value in the very act of surviving, of living. A grotesque circus life may be, but if you stand up and direct your own movie, you become a magician who leads others through the procession of life.

Italian Neorealists saw value in remaining true to life. One could almost say their motto was “life as it is”—which happened to be the name of the documentary we watched in class, and I believe a quote from Vittorio de Sica. With this motto in mind, it should not surprise the viewer when a Neorealist film turns tragic, as in Bicycle Thieves by Vittorio De Sica in 1948. The family starts off in a bad way and when things are looking up, the father’s bike is stolen, leaving his job and family’s survival in danger. So the father tries to steal a bicycle, gets caught, and is admonished by the crowd. Societal oppression on all of us whittles away our sweet impressions, chipping away our humanity until we become machines, adults, moving slowly through the crowd, each the same as the next. His son saves him from the crowd, but he seems to be sinking into defeat. Then just when you think it’s the end, son and father lock eyes, both in tears, but at the same time seem to move again with a confidence returned now hand-in-hand. Father and son exchange lessons throughout the movie. In this last case, the son must take care of the father.

Neorealist directors tried to eliminate complex camera setups involving cranes and tracking shots. They would allow the camera to watch and hopefully disappear. They wanted the camera to engage with reality. Engagement with reality meant real things like locations as opposed to sets, ordinary people versus actors, and an ordinary modern story. This is all true in Bicycle Thieves. The movie moves slowly through the streets with little happening, though tension builds and we become invested in the story all the same. This desire to engage with reality lead to focusing on concept, as opposed to action and glamor. Central Neorealist themes are lower class people in crisis, poverty, oppression, and transcendence. As opposed to highly motivated action shots, Neorealists show a series of settings, images, and subtle actions without announcing directly their meaning. The action involved with the plot is rather simple and characters have little to say. Again, all of this is seen within Bicycle Thieves.

I think it was only natural for the Neorealists to overturn the star system. It is difficult to follow the canon of Neorealism with a giant personality on screen, sucking up the attention like some dim-witted black hole. But it is also difficult to get a good performance out of amateurs, so, they mix in real people doing real work and cast the star against type—like a homeless prostitute. Vittorio de Sica wanted his actors to be blank canvasses, molded at will. But Federico Fellini broke away from many of these techniques, like simple settings or camera movements, while maintaining the themes or theory behind what each film is “up to”.

If there was a theme tying all the films we watched in class together, I think it would be similar to Matthew 18:3: “And he said: I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In the films we watched there was often casual abuse of children. In Bicycle Thieves the man training Antonio nonchalantly kicks a beggar kid, people in the street ignore and bump into Bruno, a car almost hits him, and a creep is into him in the worst kind of way at the market. Children represent innocence. Children are born with nothing, continue to have nothing, but continue and happy nonetheless. They come into a world made by those before them and struggle to survive in the world where they don’t make the rules. But they still play music, sing songs, play games, smile—they keep trying. Children find beauty and awe around every corner. I think they’re right; become children.

In Nights of Cabiria, by Fellini in 1957, Cabiria is left destitute with no motivation to go on, wandering like Antonio in the end of Bicycle Thieves, when all of a sudden, a procession of children come out of the wilderness to join her on the road of life singing and celebrating. The children rejoice in the darkness of night. They call out joyfully, “Let’s get lost on our way home!” It’s not until we are in the throes of conflict with reality, when low and exploited, that we're given an opportunity to see. In Reflections on the Art of Living, Joseph Campbell wrote: "The dark night of the soul comes just before revelation. When everything is lost, and all seems darkness . . .then comes the new life and all that is needed." This is the end of Nights of Cabiria. Slowly the children spread their spirit. Through the passing of the peace Cabiria smiles and seems renewed. She looks into the camera, into our eyes, and invites us to join her.

Fellini does this same thing AGAIN at the end of La Dolce Vita (1960). Marcello, who has given up on everything, kneels in the sand, when a child calls to him from across the water. He is so wasted that he doesn’t recognize her and can’t understand. He gives up and is carried off by the drunken procession of given-up adults who drown out reality and suffering. They are no longer willing or able to see the world through childlike eyes. In this film, even the guy who seems to have it all together, the “intellectual,” successful, REAL writer gives up and kills his children on his way out, probably because he can’t stand to leave them behind to grow up and run the risk of suffering the same trappings of Italian society that he can no longer live through. So he shoots them in the prime of their innocence, gently sleeping in their beds, before he blows his own brains out. So tall he was. . . but only this big. Fellini seems obsessed with “matching the sacred and profane and casting doubts on both,” to quote Ebert.

In La Strada (Fellini, 1954), Gelsomina is like a child whose innocence shields her from the harsh reality of life. But then she meets Zampano, who beats her with a switch, like an animal, to break her of this inconvenient disposition. Gelsomina’s innocence seems to be renewed through the magic and insight of the fool, only to again be stripped away by Zampano through his murder. Zampano, like parents and authority figures, consistently treats Gelsomina like an animal or possession. But there is substance to his character, if you’re looking. This way he lives, his attitude, is learned. He is thinking behind that thick skull as best as he is able. He suffers like the rest of us and escapes in drink, like Marcello. The problem is, these accepted coping mechanisms only compound his suffering and anger, further indoctrinating him into the system of suffering. He misplaces his aggression on Gelsomina, who could love him, but he fears her madness in the end and doesn’t realize what he has lost until he learns of her death. Again, to quote Ebert, “a defeated man turns to the sea, which has no answers.” This scene really connected with me because I’ve been there before. It is painful. This ending shows us that though we don’t know it all, if we look deeper, there are clues. He may have been stupid, but he was smart enough to fit in. He feels, somewhere deep inside. No amount of drink can ever kill that feeling.

Depression, cynicism, anger, stoicism—these things are learned. Things learned by Edumund in Germany Year Zero by Rossellini in 1948. In this story, a boy who has nothing and no future in the aftermath of world war kills his grandfather in an act of mercy. He tries to live on, innocent in a guilty world, only to jump to his death in the end. Scorsese suggests this film is pleading with the nations of the world to have sympathy, compassion for each other, even the enemy. No longer trying to portray their society as superior, they become free to promote equality for all. Some alarmed elites translate this as Marxist propaganda, promoting a redistribution of wealth. After seeing Umberto D. (1952, Vittorio de Sica), an Italian Minister openly opposed Neorealism for “washing dirty linens in public”.

Like the other Neorealists, Fellini is always placing the camera to draw us in deeper. However, he uses more complex set-ups, using POV and tracking master shots that follow action as characters pop in and out of frame. Dancers smile invitingly at the camera as partners enter frame. The camera follows a group of people ¾ shot, tracking, as they walk and eventually turn toward the camera. Earlier Neorealists were probably making the best of a poor financial situation through their simply shot methods. Scorsese points out that later in their careers, most of the Neorealists made slight changes in style that disappointed purists. Fellini never was a purist, though. He was more concerned with substance and often used his own life story as a means to communicate. His soundtracks are dubbed, which is typical across the board, but each director develops a noticeable style in the score. Fellini’s is like a sad carnival mixed with a profound march. In other films, sound is often used as an accenting device which directly clashes with the images. This is true with Fellini to some degree.

Different Neorealist directors utilize these methods in different ways, often boiling down to story selection. For example, Scorsese says that Rosellini directs facts while de Sica directs emotions. Rosellini’s war trilogy, composed of Paisan, Rome Open City, and Germany Year Zero, illustrate this directing of the facts. The first film is about two homeless boys who are thrown into a workhouse, the second about American troops helping Partisans in the middle of the war, and the third is mentioned in an earlier paragraph. De Sica, on the other hand, made movies like The Gold of Naples and Umberto D. where humor, suffering, and transcendence all go hand-in-hand. The first, having physical and situational humor intertwined with death and adultery, and the second includes scenes where an old man struggles to survive and finds joy in his dog, who eventually saves him from suicide.

I feel Italian Neorealism impacting my every thought since I’ve started researching it after our class. It has also influenced documentary and photojournalism. It has supplied the Hollywood machine with sufficient fuel for remakes, spoofs, and re-imaginings. Nine cherry-picks the sexiest parts of Fellini and Italian culture. This alone could serve to illustrate the nature of Hollywood in one comparison, Nine to 8 ½, but I’ll share several examples. In general Hollywood avoids reality entirely, the opposite of the Neorealists, who attempt to stare deeply at reality and suffering as perhaps one does the sun, holding the gaze until blind or revelation is found. They spoofed Bicycle Thieves with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (Tim Burton, 1985). In this film, some impacts are still included, but are mocked or made light of at best. Sweet Charity (Bob Fosse, 1969) is a reimagining of Nights of Cabiria, but instead of Cabiria being a true working girl, she is a singing and dancing Broadway fool. I prefer the Cabiria who climbs into truck cabs, gets in fights, and hides in the bushes during police raids. And then there is Under the Tuscan Sun (2004), which seems to highlight our American fascination with these great films, but Hollywood’s inability to articulate anything more than bits and pieces of imagery. They even threw in a glass of milk at the end of the clip we watched, yuck.

We just can’t relate. Scorsese points out that our cultural heritage is young and probably best represented through the O.K. Corral, while theirs is thousands of years old and more like Gladiators in the Colosseum. Maybe the best illustration of our failure to communicate is The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) versus Ossessione (Visconti, 1942). Ossessione is often named as the first of the Neorealist films and is full of raw imagery and dialogue. A hairy man with rips in his clothes and holes in his shoes is having a for-real affair with this depressed-looking woman who wears the same dress. They’re both prostitutes, while in The Postman Always Rings Twice, the woman is the definition of Hollywood starlet and the man is clean and has classic, leading man features.

It seems that Fellini grows more and more towards escapism and grand metaphor, reaching through to the viewer’s subconscious, as opposed to the reasoning frontal lobe. I think 8 ½ (1963) illustrates this. It’s like a magic eye picture, where you have to unfocus your eyes to get the hidden picture. Besides Magical Realism, I think Felliniesque would be described through meaning or the film’s message. He also had many reoccurring characters and themes like the circus, processions, prostitution, voyeurism, exotic nightclubs, musical sequences, the seashore, scaffolding, dream sequences—things that seem to rest in a world of his imagination.

While some argue about Felliniesque or his Neorealist roots, I tend to lean more towards Felliniesque. It feels that he was following his conscious, telling the stories he felt within himself. The reasons for Neorealist connections are in his heritage, his moviemaking DNA. And many of the tools utilized, theoretical or practical, are just that—story telling tools—and quite effective whether pure or convoluted with Fellini mumbo-jumbo. They are sincere, sentimental, and touching, if you’re open to be touched. Fellini once said that Cabiria was the only one of his characters he was still worried about. . .I have to admit, I think about her a lot too. I hope she is okay.

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