The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The 2007 film Le scaphandre et le papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is a dreamscape of images and memories told through the perspective of a man, Jean-Dominique Bauby, a stroke victim subsequently paralyzed who chooses not to roll over and die, but to live, and in doing so dictates a memoir through the exclusive use of one eye, an ingeniously arranged French alphabet, and the patience of a good-hearted nurse, Claude. The mosaic direction by Julian Schnabel (only his third film) radiates in bursts of color, gleams of light, and an incongruous relationship between spatiotemporal interaction and the real and the imagined. Imagination, along with the astounding capabilities of one who possesses great will power, lies at the heart of picture.

Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) is the 43-yeard-old editor of Elle, the cosmopolitan French magazine. As the film unravels we get glimpses and hints of troubled familiar relationships, of a rather privileged life, and of intimate relationship also in turmoil. But, before exact details are expounded, the first 15 or so minutes are presented in blurring close-ups, a continually racking focus, and an erratic range of vision, all to establish the condition, more than the character, of Bauby. The images, while sometimes quite graphic (the stitching of one of his eyes), then turns to the wistful and the winsome as the story, using the term loosely, begins to unfold through flashbacks and allusions. To further develop the plot and Bauby as a character, his mental state, we are also frequently presented to great effect with a series of non-diagetic inserts and scenes (glaciers crashing over the tune of a Bach concerto) to allow his thoughts to take shape in a tangible form. For example, could we imagine his “locked-in” physical condition, his containment and pressure, any better than through images of himself, in scuba gear, struggling under water? It’s a vivid representation that evokes so much.

Schnabel’s use of distinctively cinematic techniques (a flickering shutter effect, superimpositions, speed changes, and jump cuts) present a paradox of sorts in terms of narrative progression – they are at times irritatingly and distractingly authentic in their relating of how Bauby must see things, but they are also effective and impressive in their method. Schnable employs an assortment of filmic tricks whose functions are clear and superior, but they also border on being excessive. They serve their purpose, sure, and there are some great moments and images presented through this point of view – the masking of the frame when Bauby is wearing the “rabbit” hat works well – but it’s sometimes too much. We may get a phenomenal sense of Bauby’s visualizations, but I would contest that the truly emotional and most powerful moments are those that occur outside of this formal constraint. In this, I’m looking specifically at the relationship developing between Bauby and Claude and in the scenes where we see Bauby, both before and after the stroke, interacting with his father, with his family, and with his lovers. His Father’s Day at the beach is a stand-out scene, as is the playful homage to Francois Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) near the end.

The film is constructed in a markedly non-linear fashion, thus presenting, at least in the beginning, an obstruction of involvement and relation. I for one found it at times difficult to identify, and therefore to sympathize with, Bauby when so much is initially held back. We know not where he came from or who he really is. His pre-stroke personality is withheld. We are instead presented with a cynical, rude, and wise-cracking individual (albeit it at times a very funny one) who does not do much to elicit our compassion. Of course, given his condition this is rather understandable and this does, admittedly, get rectified as the film progresses. It could certainly also be argued that the moment near the end in which he drives in his new car, picks up his son, and actually is shown suffering the stroke works better at the film’s conclusion.

Performances are strong throughout, and they would have to be to keep the episodic structure flowing; and the cast of foreign film stars (including the greats Max von Sydow and Jean-Pierre Cassel) aide the picture a great deal. Locations too are crucial during the film: a balcony overlooking Bauby’s “Cinecitta,” a towering lighthouse frequently featured in the background, Bauby perched in his wheelchair sitting atop a stand of sorts in the sea. Acknowledgement should also be given to the film’s lack of overly-manipulative melodrama (no John Williams score here), instead keeping things focused and objective. Additionally, Schnabel handles tonal shifts quite well, balancing the serious scenes (as heavy as a diving bell) evenly with the more joyful moments (as light as a butterfly).

The aesthetic qualities of the picture and the general story of this man and what he accomplished are perhaps more impressive than path in which the film is told. Individual scenes are hit and miss, but the good ones are quite good, making up for the missteps. Imaginatively filmed and written, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly presents emotionally a fascinating portrait of a very driven and gifted man, in some astoundingly (and uniquely) cinematic ways.

Cinema Paradiso

If, as Martin Scorsese has suggested, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ say “everything that can be said about filmmaking, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two,” the latter capturing the “glamour and enjoyment” and the former showing the “aggression of it, how the camera violates,” (Thompson, 20) then surely Giuseppe Tornatore’s Nuovo cinema Paradiso (Cinema Paradiso, 1988) says to a similar extent, more than nearly any other film, so much about film spectatorship. While Tornatore’s picture captures a very distinct time and place, a unique era in motion picture viewing, its general themes, as they relate to the affects the cinema can have on a life, are universal and not restrained by any spatiotemporal border. More than anything else, this film stands as a love letter to watching movies in general, and watching them with a youthful eye (or mind) in a communal atmosphere in particular. That the film was a resounding success, especially in the United States—critically (currently with a 91% on the ever-popular Rotten Tomatoes Web site and recipient of the 1990 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film) and commercially (it’s 2002 director’s cut rerelease alone earned $11,990,401 in America according to the Internet Movie Database)—is emblematic of the film’s narrative and aesthetic make-up.

In the best sense of the word, Cinema Paradiso is extremely conventional. It’s also highly emotive, and it exists to a considerable degree in the realm of shared experience and memory, thus additionally contributing to its more conservative storytelling and stylistic characteristics. The film was made for many, and for a foreign language film especially, these features allowed for the film to reach the utmost people. As opposed to the predominate American views regarding so many foreign works of the cinema, with Tornatoe’s film here he creates a picture that is (1) easy to follow, (2) easy to relate to, and (3) unobtrusive and traditional (see, non-“artsy”) in its construction. All of this, again, to take nothing away from the picture, certainly aided its reception, most notably in America.

In terms of its narrative progression, though with a flashback structure, albeit a modest one, the film remains primarily a linear work. While it begins in the present day, recalling previous works by Italian masters Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in America) and Bernardo Bertolucci (1900), it regresses back, through the recollections of our protagonist, Toto. Initially seen as an adult, we quickly move back to his youth as we see his relationships develop; relationships, that is, with the older projectionist father-figure Alfredo (whom we first learn has just passed away—this acting as the catalyst for the memories and the later part of the film’s action), with his mother, with his teenage crush, and with, perhaps most importantly, the cinema. The opening scenes with the aged Toto are brief, and up until we are brought fully into the present time period, when the past does cut to a shot of the older Toto recalling what we have seen, the moments are fleeting and we are quickly back into his youth. As such, though the film is told via flashback, after that initial establishment and the initial break in continuity, Cinema Paradiso does take a primarily successive and continuous mode of plot evolution.

These facts of the film’s narrative greatly aides it in its approval, comprehension, and its relationship with the audience. By and large, film watchers are most receptive of a work that is straightforward and clear in its narration. This methodology has been practiced and preached since nearly the dawn of the cinema’s invention, particularly so in Hollywood cinema. It’s more than just a matter of placating an unwilling-to-work audience however. A film told in this fashion, as Cinema Paradiso so marvelously demonstrates, allows for the maximum amount of viewer/character relations and plot involvement. When we follow a character as he or she develops as a person, when we see them undergoing a series of obstacles as we get to know more about them, we connect, we relate, and we understand. With Toto, as we see him as a boy, then a teenager, we get a sense of his being in a way that doesn’t often happen in a more abstract work.

Still, the film is not without some level of narrative ellipsis. Through a match cut (one of a number of similarly and frequently occurring stylistic functions) we go from young Toto to the older teen Toto, skipping several years in between. Again, however, through the film’s already established form of storytelling, this isn’t so much jarring as it is a way to keep the film moving along rapidly and to the point. This would also be the case as the young adult Toto leaves his town on the train, following which we are in the present day permanently. These decades of omission are not treated as mysterious moments of plot exclusions. They are, once more, simply skipped to proceed at a conventional tempo. While Cinema Paradiso’s international version clocks in at just over two hours, the timing and pace of the film is taut. Admittedly, the picture develops in an episodic nature, but through its economy of storytelling Tornatore keeps things flowing smoothly and effortlessly.

Among the devices utilized in Cinema Paradiso, this formulaic transitional strategy remains relatively uncontested by any other aspects of the film’s narration. The only possible exception, and it would be somewhat of a stretch, would be that through the film’s inclusion of scenes from multiple motion pictures a cinema-literate viewer can be slightly off-put and disjointed from total absorption in the fictional world by the repeated game of (even if subconscious) trivia in which one tries to name, or at least recognize, the various clips. Here, “Tornatore constantly plays his film off against the great works of Hollywood’s Golden Age, French poetic realism, and Italy’s own postwar classics in ways that provide an internal critique of the powers of cinematic fascination.” (Marcus, 200) While this feature may stand out to some as being incidental accompanying aspects solely for the knowing cinephile, what it also actually does is hammer home one of the main themes of the film, that of the cinema itself. For what better way to indicate the vastness of influence the movies can have in a life than to produce a film, as Tornatore has, that so deliberately provokes a movie-infatuated mind?

Somewhat less inconspicuously, Tornatore does allow for, stylistically, some notable flourishes. The penchant for match cuts has already been mentioned, and indeed this is repeated throughout the picture, as are aural matches, from bells and slams for instance. And though the editing of the film is seamlessly executed, it is not without some overt stylizations and moments of frenzy or whimsy (the montage of Toto and Elena eating a salad, running through the field, celebrating a birthday, kissing, driving, etc., is a good example of this). Some degrees of kinetic visuals are also evident in Tornatore’s choice of camera movement (lengthy tracks, rapidly moving dollies, a rotating perspective) and angles (canted framings and blatantly stylized compositions—see here Toto walking down the darkened street on New Year’s Eve with fireworks bursting). Tornatore is knowingly cognizant of these cinematic techniques, and their stimulating visual appeal, and he more than adequately uses the best of what illustrative tricks are at the disposal of the filmmaker. In a very subtle way, a love for the cinema’s stylistic devices comes through in the film just as much as a love for the cinema in general does.

What’s important to note with these features, however, is that, as opposed to, say, Godardian techniques, these examples of aesthetic ornamentation are not distancing but are, conversely, conducive to narrational involvement. For the most part, even with these occasional flights of cinematic fancy, like the narrative strategies, Tornatore employs fairly basic stylistic facets. As Peter Bondanella notes, he “is interested in a meta-cinematic, self-reflexive brand of cinema. But Tornatore rejects the kind of postmodern approach to his cinematic heritage typical of his contemporaries. … [he] may thus be compared to the great auteurs of another era, directors who combined technical skill, a heavy reliance upon literate scripts, and highly evocative imagery to produce an emotional response in his audience.” (454-455) Even with the above mentioned flourishes, he doesn’t really call explicit attention to the filmmaking process, nor does he set out to have the audience question his visual motives. It’s all part of capturing a very movie-inspired sense of wonder and beauty.

Crucially, as the film exists considerably within the walls of the movie theater and promotes the ideas of the cinema as it relates to the spectator, many of Tornatore’s visual stylizations revolve around glances. Be it characters watching the film (engrossed in the people and the world of make-believe), characters watching other characters (lustfully or adoringly), us in reality watching the film (immersed in the fictional happenings), or, seemingly at times, the projected diagetic film looking back and watching the audience, Cinema Paradiso is significantly about the gaze of the cinema, that often-analyzed aspect of the motion picture medium. Tornatore knows this is a powerful aspect of movie watching and plays on these notions by emphasizing the visual details of our filmic comprehension. This, in effect, works as both a stylistic (close-ups of eyes, sweeping pans over the attentive crowds) and narrative (signifying whom we should follow and relate to) strategy grouping.

Tornatore also produces, somewhat in accordance with the rather romantic makeup of the film in general, idealistic moments of narrative and style combinations in the more emotionally poignant passages of his film. Perhaps the most sentimental case of this fondness is when, unbeknownst to Toto, Elena arrives back in town and surprises him with warm embraces just when he’s at his most depressed, all of this taking place at night, outside, and in a rain storm no less. It’s representative of the film in a nutshell, it being an exceedingly touching work of sentiment, memory, and love. It is, to quote David Thomson, “mercilessly made, as a pump for tears.” (168)

With this incredibly popular film, Giuseppe Tornatore’s made Cinema Paradiso one of the great statements on film, by a film. We see that, for some, a movie theater is more than just a location of passive entertainment. It’s a place where memories are made and shared, where people escape, where people fall in love, learn about life, feel happy, feel sad, and on and on. And knowing this, and constructing his film thusly, Tornatore’s creates a film that not only reproduces these sensations but has the potential to produce them as well. Fashionable and common in terms of the story it tells and how it tells it, Cinema Paradiso is nevertheless an effective work, and a powerful one. Though it could be argued that these formulaic and romanticized aspects make for a less than challenging or substantial film, it could just as easily be contested that they epitomize what films do best: they move us, they inform us, they hold us captive and then carry us away in delightful or despairing rapture. Tornatore’s film shows, and embodies, movie magic and its place in the lives of so many.

Works Cited

Internet Movie Database: Nuovo cinema Paradiso.

Rotten Tomatoes: Cinema Paradiso.

Bondanella, Peter. Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. New York: Continuum, 2004.

Marcus, Millicent. After Fellini: National Cinema in the Postmodern Age. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Thomson, David. “Have You Seen …?” New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Thompson, David and Ian Christia, eds. Scorsese on Scorsese. London: Faber and Faber, 1996.

World War II Through a Comedic Lens

When Lina Wertmüller, with Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties, 1975), and Roberto Benigni, with La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful, 1997), chose to look back at the era of World War II, its beginnings, its horrors, and its aftermath, they would do so, daringly, in comedic fashion. Through the lens of the comedy, these two filmmakers broached a topic almost sacred in its sobriety, and presented issues relating to the holocaust, primarily, and did so in a tone hitherto only just hinted at. Wertmüller’s was a dark comedy of savage humor and vulgarity, Benigni’s was one of light, heartfelt emotion; both would result in films that were not just good, but ones that more than succeeded at what they were respectively setting out to do. Though with a similar time period and occurrence serving as a backdrop, the films Seven Beauties and Life is Beautiful deal quite differently, in terms of narration, thematics, and aesthetics, with the issues at hand.

From the outset, the picture beginning with images of violent intensity, juxtaposed audibly with Enzo Jannacci’s bizarre, humorous, and strangely surreal “Quelli che” (“Oh yeah”), it becomes clear that Seven Beauties is not going to be a typical film about the events of World War II. The fighting as such will be of little concern for Wertmüller. She, instead, would look at the absurdities of the happenings and the inner, more subtextural, conflicts during the period. This is highlighted in this opening sequence alone, where images of Hitler, soldiers, warfare and more are repeated, cut rhythmically to the music, and comically jumbled, making them all appear at the most funny, at the least peculiar. Wertmüller here takes such iconic images of the war and, in placing them out of their initial contexts, creates an abstract poem of allegory and allusion, of ridiculousness coupled with violence and humor. Yes, from this opening, we know this is not going to be just a “war movie,” nor will it be a typical, certainly not a neorealist, approach to the time, place, and the event of World War II. This montage goes on for more than three minutes before we find ourselves in the story proper, not quite sure at this point if what we just saw and heard had anything to do with the diagetic world of the film, or it was some sort of Brechtian technique to take us out of the story before we ever get in it. What we do know, however, is that Wertmüller is going to take us on one hell of a ride.

The song continues, but Wertmüller then changes film stock to color and we follow a single individual. This is signaling that we are now in the plot of the film and that this person is a character, not just stock footage. This main personality, we learn, is Pasqualino “Seven Beauties” Frafuso (Giancarlo Giannini), and he will be, for better or worse, our “hero.” And his introductory heroic deed to open the film? We find out that he is a deserter who stole bandages from a dead man and used them to fake an injury so as to more easily escape. The heroics of Don Pietro Pellegrini are long gone in a film like this. It’s now every man for himself, with disregard to political or national commitments or convictions. These, Wertmüller establishes right way, are to be the unpleasant truths of war, the part you don’t see in Hollywood films to be sure. The images are dark, dank, and unpleasant. As they walk through a downpour, the two characters, Pasqualino and his fellow deserter, discuss how much they hate Germany, why they don’t want to kill anyone, and then they ultimately arrive at a hillside where they see a group of men and women disrobed and shot down by the Germans. This, it would now seem, is to be a somber and serious look at war—but what a sudden shift in tone! As quick as she sets us straight, however, Wertmüller gives us dialogue in which the friend notes that they may as well be accomplices to the Germans for not stepping out and spitting in their faces, instead they run away. But, Pasqualino contests, “They’d have come after us and we’d be shot. Useless suicide.” Less than heroic, to be sure, brutally honest, cowardly, self-serving: the character development in this film will be as complex and distinctive as the story and the film itself. This is further brought to our attention by a break in the continuity narrative with a flashback, the first shots of which being that of a scantily clad, and rather obese, woman performing a song and dance routine. Brilliantly, this has all been in the first 10 minutes.

Conversely, look at how Benigni begins his tale. This film will be, so we are told via voice-over, “a simple tale, but not an easy one to tell … like a fable.” Intentions here are clear, as clear as they are at the start of Seven Beauties, and like through the abrasiveness of Wertmüller’s opening, Benigni’s more romanticist notions also make its tone known from the off. Two Italians, one of whom is Guido Orefice, played by Benigni, are cruising down the open road, through brightly-lit scenic beauty. The style is simple, with no cinematic flourishes or exaggerations. When drama unfolds (their car looses its breaks) it’s almost incidental, even as they barrel down a steep embankment, crashing through the forest and a crowd of people. Benigni’s tonal establishment makes it obvious that a lightness and good humor will prevail here (in the beginning anyway). While the car is getting fixed, Guido as a character develops, and he turns out to be, as portrayed so marvelously by the director of the film, the total antithesis of Pasqualino. Guido is funny, charming, happy, and pleasant. As much as we may not be sure about Wertmüller’s initial characterizations—what kind of people are these deserters, what are they up to, where do they stand—with Guido we have utmost liking and acceptance immediately. He, and the start of Life if Beautiful, are as clear to read and understand as the azure skies above its opening locations; Pasqualino, and Wertmüller’s creation, are as multifarious and shady as the first environments of that particular picture. But, and this is key, they are both right away funny, though unquestionably in dissimilar ways.

As Wertmüller’s film progresses, continuing to utilize the flashback unfolding, itself a self-conscious stylistic and narrative device that more sharply associates and contrasts one scene from the one that precedes or follows it, we see how Pasqualino arrived at his current state. And at the same time, we follow him as he heads into his future, a future that will find he, and Wertmüller’s critical discourse, developing and intensifying. Benigni’s tale, on the other hand, though with one significant and story-quickening temporal ellipsis, moves forward at a steady, logical and continuous pace, clearly placing it more in the tradition of classic Hollywood storytelling. While Wertmüller’s storytelling devices are fashioned in such a way as to have the spectator question and become cognizant of the methods of narration, Benigni’s is one that seeks, and accomplishes, an emersion of emotional involvement.

The general shape of the narratives in these two films not only stresses the differences in filmmakers but in the stories they are telling. Benigni’s is a life-affirming tale of a father’s sacrifice, and defiance against the most dire of circumstances. Wertmüller’s, on the other hand, is an almost allegorical tale (a scathingly black one) that gains most of its impact in the more metaphoric and abstract analogies and statements, all through images, characters, and lives that are perhaps less than appealing. Other than with slight hints of the tenuous times to come (a horse painted with anti-Semitic remarks, comments on race inequality), Life is Beautiful takes nearly a full hour of screen time before it begins to truly delve into aspects of a darker side of life, the holocaust specifically, or World War II in general. Instead, we see the bumbling, romantic, and charismatic Guido finding himself a job as a waiter, surrounded by high class, and trying to woo the object of his affection, schoolteacher Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). Through a series of comical, and by no means serious, misadventures, he succeeds in finding his way into Dora’s, and the audiences’, heart. They have a child, they goof around, and all is, for the time being, good.

Now, in contrast, look at the initial moments of narrative establishment in Seven Beauties. Reading chronologically, that is, what leads up to Pasqualino’s life in the concentration camp, not the actual order in which scene are presented in the film, while they too may not focus explicitly in the events preceding up to the horrors of World War II, they nevertheless encompass an atmosphere of seamy sex and carnal violence. We see Pasqualino to be a chauvinistic man, a dirty man, an obscene man deep within the more dubious aspects of human life. He’s vain and domineering and oversees a family of equally questionable, and unattractive, sisters. He loves the ladies (to his mind he is a Casanova-esque womanizer), but there is no sense of Guido’s type of charm here, on the part of the characters, nor on the part of the audience. By the first hour or so of this picture, we see that Pasqualino loses one of his sisters to prostitution (he can’t abide, apparently having some sense of familiar pride), and he vows to, and succeeds in, killing her pimp/fiancé, and, after taking the body, chopping it to pieces, and stuffing it in suitcases for disposal, he gets arrested. This is not the fluffiness and magnetism as seen in Life is Beautiful, but they are all elements that play a crucial role in the lager, grand scheme of Wertmüller’s picture. It’s only in a non-flashback sequence about midway through the first hour that we see what sort of shape the film is ultimately going to take. Inside the camp, without any gloss over its depravity and danger, the at-this-point apolitical Pasqualino is forced to confront the threat he now faces. “How did the world ever get like this?” he asks.

How the two characters in the two films face the adversity and trials of the camps is where we get an interesting divergence, each with their equal amount of poignancy, interest, and, if one can use the word, amusement. Guido, notably in the camp with his son and his wife (who is with the other women separated from the men), is forced for his child’s sake to approach the dread in a, to say the least, unique fashion. So as not to scare the boy more than he already is, Guido creates an elaborate and hilarious in its manifestation story of the camp being essentially one big game, with everyone vying for points in order to be the winner. Brilliantly, and purposefully, misinterpreting the words of a German guard, Guido announces the “rules” of this game and his plan of making, to the best of his ability, the whole experience possible for him, but mostly his son, to endure. Never taking off his comedic mask, Guido, despite the hardships, the terror, and the anxiety, keeps things as fun and as entertaining as possible for his boy. As Peter Bondanella notes, “[H]e turns the often dirty and shameful events in the camps where people did anything possible to survive into a fabulous world play, inhabited by at least one benign clown.” (449) Even before the finale of the picture, these moments of playfulness and deception for the benefit of his son pull at the heartstrings to an exceptional degree.

On the other hand, when Pasqualino finds himself thrust into these most unpleasant of circumstances, he chooses not the high road, but sinks lower and lower into an emotion and dignity abyss, wallowing in self-pity. In other words, he “…touches rock bottom in his obsession with survival, and he is forced to earn his survival with a feat of sexual prowess, the seduction of the commandant…” and “Since our hero has been reduced by life in the camp to a physical wreck, the [commandant] first makes Pasqualino eat a bowl of food, then forces him to quiver at her feet.” (Bondanella, 363) This is in sharp contrast to the way in which Guido keeps with remarkable consistency his personality of humor and love. Believing that his place in the camp was a matter of bad luck, Pasqualino’s declaration to escape is proceeded by his decision (derived by another flashback in which his mother once assured him that in every woman, even an evil one, some decency exists) that his best method for flight, especially given his, he believes, exceptional ability to woo the opposite sex, is to appeal romantically to the large and in charge commandant, played by Shirley Stoler. No matter the death and degradation that surrounds, Pasqualino is now intent on finding his way out through his appealing, romantically, to this authoritarian woman, a daring, bizarre, funny, and disturbing premise. All of this would lead to, in Roger Ebert’s words, “easily the least erotic sex scene ever filmed.”

Despite their extremely different methods of perseverance and coping, the two films do share an interesting similarity in terms of what is actually being said about the conditions of a concentration camp, and to a larger extent the ideas of racial cleansing and mass executions. There can be little doubt that, through Guido’s humor and Pasqualino’s attempt at seduction, both regardless of their situation, Benigni and Wertmüller are commenting on the absurdity of the aforementioned dubious features of World War II. They are notions so dreadful and unimaginable in their horror that both filmmakers approach them so as to place their absurdity in a way that is heightened by the preposterousness of how the two protagonists handle them. This notion is especially alluded to in Seven Beauties when one looks at the parallels between the mental institution and the camp: the rows of “inmates,” the anonymity, the uniforms, the tortures, the despair, the appalling conditions, the women in charge, and the levels of deprivation committed by Pasqualino (the rape in the asylum and the murder in the camp). In the face of such absurdity, one must be absurd. Which location, in this film, is the craziest after all?

There is the sense that neither picture is, of course, meant to be taken literally. No doubt Guido would never have lasted as long as he does in a real concentration camp, and everything about Pasqualino’s actions seems exceedingly exaggerated and ridiculous. But realism in treatment does not appear to be of primary concern for either filmmaker, much to the chagrin of their respective detractors. Both approaches to storytelling here are distinct from a chronicle of sorts on the holocaust. Believable or not, these two films are more about telling engaging and fascinating stories than with detailing how the abhorrence of the historical happenings actually went down.

While sex may be at the fore in the latter part of Seven Beauties, it is basically nonexistent in Life is Beautiful. And other than in sections near the end, or by allusion and dialogue, the same could almost be said about violence. Neither is heavily featured in Benigni’s picture; again, this is not only aside from the primary purpose and tone of the film, but the director also takes the stance that it is generally accepted through popular understanding and knowledge that most know what went on in camps such as these. The hint and undercurrent of potential and existing violence will suffice, until, that is, it becomes essential to the concluding of the plot.

With Seven Beauties, however, violence, and the concept of violence, gets a far more contemplative treatment. Out in the populace, Pasqualino’s killing of the pimp is viewed by some as heroic, and he himself revels in the idea of being “The Monster of Naples.” There is a respect, a lightness, and some bizarre level of admiration attributed to his murderous behavior. His “honor-killing” of sorts has a degree of acceptability. Violence, in this fashion, can be with its reasons. But, when one looks at the violence inflicted by the Germans at the camp (and elsewhere) one is instantly appalled, as are we when Pasqualino must ultimately murder a fellow captive. All instances are murder(s), but in their contexts Wertmüller calls attention to their complexities. Does a “legitimate” reason justify the deed? Why do the characters, and we as spectators, react and interpret so differently the two actions? Citing Jerzy Kosinski, Millicent Marcus notes that, “Wertmüller wins our sympathies for a despicable protagonist by making him a cartoon character, and since we have laughed at Pasqualino all along, this tempers our reaction to the monstrosity of his final deeds.” (Marcus, Italian Film, 316)

It’s not an explicit treatise on the nature of violence, but certainly in comparison to Life is Beautiful Seven Beauties does approach these issues in a more dialectical manner, and it is in the balance between comic and tragic moods and this “only apparent levity” that “offended some critics, who believed it implied Wertmüller’s equation of petty crime and mass murder.” (Bondanella, 363) The killing of a man, even a pimp, is no petty crime, and this, in my view, is the only act of comparison, not, by any means, an equal one. But, it does try, as R.T. Witcombe writes, to “link the Fascism of the streets of pre-war Italy with the atrocities committed in a Nazi camp...” (250) Marcus also calls attention to the structure of Wertmüller’s film insofar as the way it lends itself to such drawn comparisons. It “plays on the violent contrast between the prewar life of the protagonist and his current plight in the camp, constantly [shifting] from present to past as a way of foregrounding the ironic relationship between … Pasqualino’s two conditions.” (Marcus, After Fellini, 283)

Aesthetically, Benigni and Wertmüller also present the two films in two immensely differing approaches. Matching its general tone and ideal, Life is Beautiful is composed (and this is in no way a fault) in a straightforward visual style. Framings are clear, open, and balanced. Benigni emphasizes only what need be, only when necessary. He utilizes a consistently smooth and inconspicuous maneuver of the camera, and close-ups are used at their most effective when they are purely for the purposes of emotional manipulation. Lighting is bright (even the camp bunkers are lit extensively) and most of the scenery, definitely at the beginning but even near the end, is clean and accessible. Like the way in which much of the violence is left to the mind's eye of the audience, the locales, interiors and exteriors, often leave no real trace of unpleasantness. Despite some allusions to Italian films of the neorealist period (can anyone ever steal a bike in an Italian picture and not recall De Sica?), Life is Beautiful yields no similar treatment of the environment or the mood of those war years.

Conversely, with Seven Beauties, only adding to the ugliness and unseemliness of the actions and characters in the film, Wertmüller presents the film in such a manner as to accentuate the grime, the dirt, the claustrophobia, and the pervading unpleasantness. A hand-held camera adds to the sense of uncontrollability, of being at the mercy of the situation with no restraint. Her lighting choices leave many scenes, before (the murky wilderness) and during the time at the camp, situated in, if not always darkness, at least an almost repellent overuse of artificial and distorted illumination (the green during the infamous lovemaking scene is a good example). The living conditions, again before and at the camp, are also unkempt; they are dirty, crowded and seem to ooze sweat, tears, blood and a palpable feeling of discomfort. Close-ups in Seven Beauties are not just for emotional purposes (though they do work psychologically); instead they serve to emphasize frequently the unpleasantries of the picture: scared faces, ugly faces, angry faces, evil faces, and the final close-up of Pasqualino’s “haggard face” which “convincingly suggests that some values are more vital to human existence than survival.” (Bondanella, 365) As unassuming as Benigni’s direction is, Wertmüller, reserving her right for experimentation in the “art film,” directs with several instances of self-consciousness, calling clear attention (as in the credit sequence) to the more provoking discourses the film presents.

Brilliant, involving, and quite satisfying in their own ways, Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties and Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful present the modern world’s most infamous tragedy in unique lights, in unique examinations, through the unique generic fashion of the comedy. The characters and stories are markedly different, but they are both engaging and generate strong reactions. That neither can easily, nor immediately, be dismissed is a testament to their individual power, and at the heart of both pictures is, and this is certainly rare in a holocaust film (which neither movie really is), humor. Savage or touching, the wit in both pictures reveals the potential for further exploration into this most terrible of historical atrocities, and it also points towards an aspect of the cinema that allows for such unthinkable approaches to, indeed, become not only thinkable, but filmable.

Works Cited
Ebert, Roger. Seven Beauties. Original review, April 16, 1976. 604160301/1023
Bondanella, Peter. Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. Continuum: New York, 2004.
Marcus, Millicent. After Fellini: National Cinema in the Postmodern Age. The Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2002.
Marcus, Millicent. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1986.
Witcombe, R.T. The New Italian Cinema. Oxford University Press: New York, 1982.

Italian Cinema: New Directions in the 1960s

More than a decade removed from the rubble and ravaged streets of immediate post-war Italy, well into and beyond the reconstruction and stabilization of the years following, ushered in with a prevailing sense of modernity and a new sociocultural system of existence, and driven by a new desire for “La dolce vita,” Italian cinema in the early 1960s and through the decade was one of innovation and change. In this new wave of Italian cinema we begin to see a people coming to terms not with their past (those days are done) and not really with the future (who can predict it?) but with the now, with the immediate, with the vitality of the present. Looking chronologically, the films Divorzio all'italiana (Pietro Germi, 1961), Il sorpasso (Dino Risi, 1962), and Matrimonio all'italiana (Vittorio De Sica, 1964) all broach the topic of established and acceptable social customs in opposition to the burgeoning instability and verve of a kinetic modernity.

Germi’s film examines these ideas through a dark comedy about a man, Ferdinando (Marcello Mastroianni), trying to think of a logical, and legal, way to get a divorce from his wife so that he can marry his true object of desire, his 16 year-old cousin. In just that brief synopsis we see already just how the two features of Italian life are at odds with each other. The illegality of divorce, the stigma that goes along with it in Italy at the time, is representative of the social systems already in place. The way in which Ferdinando goes about his plan for an acceptable divorce (setting up his wife to be unfaithful so that he can subsequently kill her and move on) stands as a rather overt attack on social mores. It, in many ways, “reflects the freakish absurdities of Italian society while mimicking the forces that created them.” (Liehm, 216) In this new modernity, which, as just one of its consequences, contains if not encourages a considerable amount of selfishness, only the simplistically viewed and reasonably inconsequential murder of ones spouse can therefore alleviate the burden of an outmoded social restriction. This, surely, is a sign of the times.

The ways in which Ferdinando is shown to be annoyed with his wife, Rosalia (Daniela Rocca), also emphasizes the rather banal reality of these characters. Regardless of any positive attributes she may have, he, and thus the film, as he is clearly to be our protagonist, only see her and her smothering (over)affection. Could this have been practical grounds for divorce in years previous, or is this just symptomatic of a new way of looking at all facets of life, not the least of which is marriage and family? Here, we see just how bitingly Germi “dissect[s] the senseless and unwritten codes of behavior governing relationships between the sexes in that male-dominated, insular culture.” (Bondanella,150).

The fact that the neighboring community supports the decision to murder his adulteress only adds to the feeling of absurdity in the picture; indeed, Peter Bondanella notes how, “Germi’s plot—and that of most Italian films dealing with social customs—may be described as the reduction ad absurdum type wherein a ‘social question is magnified, reducing the action to chaos and the social question to absurdity.’” (151) Here, their scorn for Ferdinando as he initially (though intentionally) does nothing to avenge his “honor,” the way they are so exhilarated when the deed is done, clues us in to just what Germi is commenting on with this film. Though there are rules, as seemingly ridiculous as they are, the breaking of these rules, while apparently almost necessary for one to live ones life as desired, are equally preposterous. In a world where the social custom dictates that one can not legally get a divorce, where the scheming to ultimately kill one’s wife is the final solution, what shape is modernity taking? Is this where society is heading?

Neighbors and community in this film can not be ignored. They embody the old ways, if you will, the stabilization of the social customs. It’s therefore an interesting commentary on the part of the filmmakers then that they are still granted such importance. While, as mentioned, the films here are not necessarily looking to the past, they can still not escape from the past. As much as Ferdinando may act out and deviate from these ridged societal restraints, he is nevertheless indebted to, and dependent upon, them.

The intertextual reference to Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita here (also starring Mastroianni) is more than just a Godardian allusion. Not only is the picture shown, but the scandal that came with the feature is also acknowledged. This is a new kind of film, a new kind of life; it’s a new way of looking at this life. La dolce vita (“the sweet life”) is not just an incidental movie showing in town. It is clearly a sign of what is coming, what is developing in this cultural clash between implanted social customs and the evolving concept of modernity. More than a metaphor for modernity, La dolce vita in Divorzio all'italiana is a sort of metonym—it is modernity. With entirely comedic intentions (and the result is hilarious), Germi and Mastroianni specifically, do a good deal to make this picture not only a wonderful film but also one with a purpose.

Risi’s Il sorpasso, equally amusing, takes the theme of social norms being contested, assaulted, and perhaps ousted by a modernity and runs with it, literally so in this “road trip” of bombastic behavior and an even more explicit selfishness. Here, impulsive and self-absorbed Bruno (Vittorio Gassman) meets quite by accident Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a naive, good-natured, young law student. After some convincing, Bruno takes Roberto with him on what amounts to an episodic odyssey through modern life and its struggle against nearly all normative notions of social behavior and existence.

Bruno, throughout the picture, has a total disregard for proper behavior; he is loud, arrogant (or, perhaps, just overly confident), and irresponsible, noisily honking his horn at Roberto’s quiet family home (and everywhere really) for example. He also displays a total distain for established rules and order, speeding and serving dangerously on the road without a care in the world. While this undoubtedly makes for a rather intriguing and even appealing character, Risi also sets up Bruno to embody a modernity that is making a direct break from social customs, possibly dangerously so. This, then, is arranged to be in contrast to Roberto, who represents the struggle to cope with and conform to a changing contemporary life. Though he has his youthfulness, he is weighed down in the regulatory aspects of society’s acceptable conventions. It is, after all, no coincidence that he studies law.

As the two start to get friendly and bond, we see them each unravel the layers of their personality, revealing, in essence, an image of Italy at the time. Bruno, it is eventually shown, does understand responsibility. Back with his ex-wife and daughter, he begins to gravitate towards a familiar association. Suddenly, he cares and wants to be with them, particularly the daughter Lilly, who is dating a much older man (for which, see those established social customs of responsibility, ethics, temperance). His apparent recognition of his own faults yields to a slight, if genuine, understanding of what is in fact most crucial in life, even if the notion is fleeting. Roberto, conversely, lets himself go somewhat by the end of the picture. He makes bold steps, admitting that the days spent with Bruno have been the best of his life, and finally trying to contact the girl he has had a crush on. The relationship between he and this neighboring girl represents in many ways a view on modernity itself. With modernity we tend to think of youth, or at least younger people, and the eventual break in his shyness points towards a path to some degree of modern life for the young student.

As far as an ideal concept of modernity, Bruno is about the best example there could be. His attitude and actions are absorbing. There’s little doubt about it, he’s a funny guy, a walking adventure, and his heedless behavior and his disregard for authority and authoritarian social systems stand as, for many, unattainable, though desired, exploits. His modernity is one of pure energy, of doing what one feels like, when one feels like, without consequences or policies. This modernity is all about the now, having a good time, making the most out of life, getting your kicks any way you can. To quote Scarface, “the world is yours.” But, as we see (the end couldn’t be more tragic) this doesn’t often work out totally for the positive. No matter the shape of a blossoming and invigorating modernity, the literal and more abstract customs of life are restrictive, sometimes for the better (there’s a reason one isn’t supposed to drive like Bruno does). Bruno’s behavior also gets himself in a fight and, whether or not he is actually cognizant of it, his actions truly hurt people. It may all look great to behave in such a fashion, but society dictates moderation and responsibility. Within a modernity of impulse and dynamism, any given system of customary social manners is continually conflicted.

Perhaps showing his affinity for years gone by, without actually focusing on them, De Sica with Matrimonio all'italiana begins with World War II, then moves on to some more than 20 years later in the life of a suave, womanizing businessman, Domenico (Mastroianni again—there is, indeed, no actor who so magnificently, so totally and convincingly expressed masculine trials and tribulations in an increasingly conflicted and perplexing society during this period in Italian film) and a cunning prostitute Filumena (Sophia Loren). In this picture, aside from the accepted modes of personal behavior, De Sica also uses the idea and the front of commerce and materialism to represent societal customariness, particularly relevant in this age of “economic miracles.” The ways in which Domenico and Filumena diverge, to varying degrees, from both is where most prominently this picture looks at the contention between Italian customs and a more idealistic concept of modernity.

With a sort of Visconti-esque quality, De Sica directs the film in a rather operatic manner, with melodramatic emotions, bursts of (unfortunately faded) color, and heighted, mood-manipulating musical accompaniment. This itself acts as a example of the above mentioned contention. It’s not at all unusual for a filmmaker to use these features in order to tell its story, it is, really, rather customary. But in 1964, and especially looking now, there is something decidedly old-fashioned about the construction, something not modern. Matrimonio all'italiana as a film bridges the gap between what is normal in Italian society (pure, simple, passionate storytelling) with what is modern (flashbacks, shifts in tone, self-conscious stylizations). But, of course, the real impact of this film as a movie displaying the questioning of these social customs against superlative modern perceptions goes beyond the mere artifice of the image.

While a considerable amount of the film is set is the past, there is again the connection with Visconti, notably the two great films Senso and Il gattopardo (as well as, later, some of Bernardo Bertolucci’s work), in the way De Sica, frankly less successfully than the other two, composes the film to discuss modern ideas in a setting of a previous era. That’s why, even as the film takes place in the past, it is very much about 1964 modernity and culture.

Industrialization was by this point a major part of the new Italian life, and as a lesser-noticed side-bar to that was the increase in more modest businesses. Money was now an integral and popular part of life in many parts of Italy. But, as that was the case, just getting by became of the utmost importance. In a new modernity that was heavily dependent on monetary factors, without those factors one was left behind, seemingly out of place.

With that in mind then, Domenico and Filumena are situated as being completely caught up in this aspect of modern life, and they are markedly attaining their established place in perhaps uncustomary ways. Domenico, though successful, occasionally seems to be not only inconsiderate of his employees but also of his business itself. It acts as simply a way to get the money he wants, to get what is required to live the life he wants to live (this a common theme of modernity). There isn’t necessarily anything personal about it. Similarly, as the profession necessitates, Filumena, as a prostitute, also does not have any private ties with her work, that is, until Domenico comes along. Generally for her though, her initial work is also simply a way of attaining funds. This would change as Domenico courts her and hires her; her work becomes more acceptable, even if their relationship doesn’t. Nevertheless, there is still the impression that she is not, possibly, working for, or loving, Domenico for all the right reasons—it would appear that much of what she does is simply for the betterment and satisfaction of her three chidden. This, of course, is not exactly a negative motive. As such, with this picture the character of Italian social customs, here those being specifically relationships and enterprise, are combated by the requisites and desires of a modern life.

The ideal concept of modernity for the two is also shattered, though that is maybe too harsh of a word, by the social traditions concerning responsibility and growing old. Like both Divorzio all'italiana and Il sorpasso, modern life, with its fervor and vitality, can not last in this film. By definition, modern is in the now, but there is always something after, and though one may not want to, in most cases to live and succeed thought should be given to that future. With Matrimonio all'italiana, De Sica is presenting two characters who, while previously having been caught up in the impulses of modern living, are now having to face the fact that Italian social customs do not always go away, but can often remain, still with their requirements. A life of promiscuity, a life of irresponsibility, and a life of concern for only the immediate can have its consequences. The film ends in a depiction of what is most commonly viewed as a preeminent social custom—marriage. But this is far from a Hollywood happy ending. Their idealized modern living is still infusing, negatively, their customary wedded bliss.

It’s telling that each of the three films here are comedies, or at least contain comedic elements. This allows for a somewhat more acceptable degree of criticism. It is also expressive of how, “[m]ore or less consciously, the makers of comedy films aimed to record, year after year, the changing face of society’s behaviour [sic], values, and customs, to hold up a critical but light-hearted mirror to the nation’s foibles.” (Nowell-Smith, 591) The comedies of the period, dubbed commedia all’italiana, were also notable in their critiques by the ways in which they would lay bare “an undercurrent of social malaise and the painful contradiction of a culture in rapid transformation.” (Bondanella, 145).

By the 1960s, international cinema, Italian film, and Italian culture were all shifting, all struggling to live in the present while thoughts and reminders of the past were never far behind. Peter Brunette cites Gian Piero Brunetta when looking at the change in Italian cinema during the start of the ever-developing decade of cinema. Brilliant in its explanation, the citation deserves a full reproduction here:

"The birth of a center-left government, new lifestyles, the rapid process of industrialization, the rise in mass consumption, the new distribution of leisure time, the maturation of a new social and political conscience, the change in sexual behavior and in social habits, the phenomenon of mass emigration from the south toward the large industrial centers of the north: all of this finds, in the cinema, a terrain that reacts immediately. Precisely in 1960s Italian cinema – like an extremely sensitive seismograph – notes and registers, with perfect timing, all the processes of transformation in the economic, social, and political life of Italians." (22)

The future seemed limitless with anything possible. It wasn’t hard to idealize a new, modern life, but sway as they might, those reveling in this contemporary existence could not completely separate from the social customs of the establishment. Regardless, however, this contention was not only vitally important, it was the very cause of so many great works of filmic art the world over. As much as conceivably outmoded traditions may appear to some as restrictive hindrances, they were required in order to have something to work against. An ideal concept of modernity is not possible without a contrast of some sort. With the three films examined here, the three filmmakers all present modern films, infused with modern ideas, characters, and behaviors, all looking at how one functions in a contemporary and volatile world while still maintaining some semblance of social order and custom.

Works Cited

Bondanella, Peter. Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. New York: Continuum, 2004.

Brunette, Peter. The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Liehm, Mira. Passion and Defiance. Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, Ed. The Oxford History of World Cinema. Oxford. Oxford University Press, 1997.

Weimar sensibility in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s mise-en-scene

In the period of Germany’s Weimar Republic, a unique and volatile pre- and post-war era within a window of less than 20 years, the German people were experiencing a torrent of new ideological, social, and political views. What was once normal was giving away to the new and unusual; what was typically viewed as quintessentially German was now being inundated by outside influences, by strange and foreign people and their imported cultural baggage. Whether or not these elements were as directly and obviously portrayed in the cinema as some like Siegfreid Kracauer would argue, there can be little doubt that film, this most popular, class-spanning and innovative of the arts, was indisputably influenced to one degree or another by this state of the German populous. The times were surely changing, and in no film like Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari 1920) do we get a sense of what this meant for the cinema, let alone the German films of the period.

Like other historical filmic movements (Italian Neo-Realism, Soviet montage cinema, and the French Nouvelle Vague, as just some famous examples), German Expressionist films take their cue from what was happening in that respective country, in that particular time. The familiar and the strange were at odds in the real world, and they were the same in the cinematic.

One only has to look at the still frames in any cinema history book to see where this strangeness was most frequently represented in many Weimar-era German films; the set, the mise-en-scene, is the most commonly discussed and easily recognized feature of these expressionist films, Caligari being a prime example. The pervading sense of uneasiness, anxiousness, and, as Sigmund Freud calls it in his essay “The Uncanny,” the unheimlich, is taken from the minds of the German population and given an outlet in the locales of Caligari. There was something shocking by having this style represented in the cinema, in its visuals and its narratives. There, on the big screen, exported across the world, these films had a technique never before seen in the movies.

The set design of Caligari was a blending of real locations, that is, places that do and can exist (offices, the home, a fair), with a pattern and look that is anything but normal. This contrast between the standard and the surreal is where much of the film gets its power and where we see the German feelings express themselves. Places that the German people we accustomed to were exaggerated and skewed in such a way that an unnerving sense of horror and torment were brought to the forefront. The labyrinthine townscape in Caligari, the incessant and repetitive rotation of scenic elements (causing, according to Freud, “a feeling … that recalls the helplessness we experience in certain dream-states”) and the irregular and warped images of domestication created a mood on screen that matched that of the audience.

A dizzying array of pointed lines and sharp light/dark contrasts made parts of Caligari seem as though we were in the mind of a distraught individual (which, perhaps, we are). While the characters in the film, most specifically Dr. Caligari and Cesare, can be deemed “strange,” in their behavior, their look, and the danger they bring to the Holstenwall town, certain parts of the film show that the setting is warped in ways that do not only relate to them – for example, the city clerk’s office and the embellished chairs.

While the German inhabitants were physically and mentally in a condition of unrest, so too is the film. Locations and most characters are in a constant state of abnormal movement. Sidewalks lead to places they shouldn’t, people (most memorably Cesare) move in jarring strides, and even the structure of the film, beginning and ending with a framing story that encompasses a possibly false primary story, causes the entire film to twist and turn and topple upon itself. The set develops a life of its own, giving the sense of mobility. We see this in Freud’s essay when he cites E. Jentsch, making a note of “‘doubt as to whether an apparently animate object really is alive and, conversely, whether a lifeless object might not perhaps be animate.’”

It is also worth noting the increased modernity that was overtaking Germany at the time, especially in terms of urbanization and artificiality. This is shown to great effect in Caligari, chiefly in its lighting style (painted shafts, for instance) and in the fact that the whole film, indeed most all German films of this expressionist movement, was shot indoors on a stage. This is a further distancing of the real.

It is remarkable that during this period of turmoil and strife these great filmic artists were able to tap into the popular zeitgeist and create works of such telling beauty – “The uncanny that we find in fiction … actually deserves to be considered separately. It is above all much richer than what we know from experience; it embraces the whole of this and something else besides, something that is wanting in real life,” says Freud. Their far-reaching influence spanned the globe, most prominently in the approach to light- and shadow-play seen later in the American films noir. All the same, even if the German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari had not had such a meaningful and lasting cinematic power, what stands alone as simply the films of this Weimar epoch are extremely valuable as art and as statements of a culture. To varying degrees, the films of this time are a revealing window into the Germans’ minds, souls, fears, and anxieties.

Work Cited
Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny,” trans. David McLintock.
London: Penguin, 2003: 123-162.

Being a “good fella” in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas

Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film Goodfellas is perhaps the greatest gangster picture ever made. It is nearly unrivaled in its texture, its details, and its expansiveness. And, given that it so thoroughly encapsulates its gangster life-style and so methodically relates the lives of its gangster characters, it comes as no surprise then that, as part of such a system, it also covers territory always present (explicitly or implicitly) in the gangster crime film: masculinity. These gangsters are, first and foremost, men, and as such they have quite distinct ideas of proper masculine behavior, attitudes, and inclinations. There is a mob-based code of conduct that could just as easily be seen as representative of a more broad set of male-based codes. Men are at the crux of the gangster film, and they are (as the title of the film suggests) of major prominence and importance in Goodfellas.

Honor, honesty, resilience, and assertiveness are crucial aspects of this male-dominated gangster society and this film. Amongst these men, the notion of masculinity takes shape in the ways in which the main characters watch out for each other and cover for one another. It’s telling that after Henry gets busted for selling cigarettes, the crowd of waiting men call out that he has “broke his cherry.” Here his entering into manhood is a result not of some first sexual escapade, but of getting arrested and keeping his mouth shut, telling the authorities nothing, and not ratting on his friends. Within this male-ruled world, such issues hold sway over the more commonly held others. “Jail [or, at least the threat of it in this case] becomes a ritual of manhood,” notes Fred Gardaphe.” (107)

To the gangsters in Goodfellas, part of their masculinity also manifests itself in the form of their possessions and their appearance—“If the clothes make the man,” writes Gardaphe, “than Scorsese realizes gangster manhood through the costuming of his characters.” (106). The most respectable of the men in the film are those with money, who own the finer things in life, and who can afford to get away with their criminal lifestyle by paying off whoever needs it. As much as the men in this film hold their status by such material items as rings and shoes, part of their sense of masculine ownership also extends to the power (thus ownership) they have over individuals. Be it the way Jimmy (notably nicknamed “the gent”) keeps police and others at bay by slipping cash here and there, or the way he bullies and roughs up/persuades Morrie, the men here declare their dominance through convincing, though certainly cruel, ways, and this is a major part of their masculine set of mind, this view of “men using violence to assert their authority.” (Gardaphe, 106).

The family too takes a considerable role in the life of these gangster men. After brutally beating (presumably, they think, killing), and prior to burying Billy Batts, the group of Henry, Tommy, and Jimmy are nonetheless respectful, gracious, and humorous with Tommy’s (Scorsese’s) mother. The wedding between Henry and Karen is also a highlight of familiar relations (blood-relatives or otherwise) and a telling moment of the film; and later Paul and Jimmy go to great pains to make sure that, even despite Henry’s infidelities, their marriage remains intact. Maintaining a family, even with a girlfriend on the side and with the occasional domestic violence, is still a key ingredient of the male gangster proper. This quite unique form of marriage counseling on behalf of Paul is representative of a common element of Goodfellas, which Gardape point to as scenes where an “older man shows a younger man what men are expected to do.” (108) But, it’s all about maintaining this front of decency, of male roles in the family structure; once that is compromised, so it seems, then so too is the said male’s role in the gangster family.

Along these lines, we get the notion in Goodfellas of desperate father-figure searches, most obviously and prominently between Henry and Paul and Jimmy. Scorsese has said that “[the real] Jimmy was a professore type, in charge of the young kids,” (Thompson, 158) and [the real] “Henry Hill’s kids looked on Jimmy [Burke] as an uncle,” (Kelly, 275). This concept is what leads Gardaphe to cite critic Pellegrino D’Acierno in sayings that Scorsese’s films “comprise ‘a cinema of the sons.’” (101) The younger characters in Goodfellas are as much trying to preserve (for the most part) proper relations with their male superiors as they are trying to make something of themselves independently. This father/son dynamic is why the dishonesty Henry expresses towards Paul is so devastating. It is perhaps telling that, seeping across the real/fictional film line that Scorsese’s own father plays a pivotal figure in the film and Joe Pesci has acknowledged some real-life inspiration in his embodiment of the explosive Tommy: “I can draw on my temper because it’s terrible. My father had a terrible one.” (Kelly, 270)

Additionally, the respect garnered by these gangster characters, simply by others knowing who and what they are, also goes towards Goodfella’s general take on masculinity. One could look perhaps at the film’s most famous sequence (my favorite) where Henry takes Karen to, or more precisely though, the Copacabana nightclub. By his connections, by his abilities to maneuver the corridors of the night club, bypassing the lines and the “regular people,” Henry does a good deal to appeal to Karen. He is, to her, quite a guy. This is what a man should do. It’s amusing then, after the two have seated, that Henry tells Karen he is “in construction,” a stereotypically manly profession, one that does not, however, usually account for such rights and influence as Henry clearly has.

By being able to take what they want, when they want, how they want, the men in Goodfellas through their criminal acts, present themselves as outlaw heroes where such outlaw behavior is a prerequisite for the life they choose to lead. If not through violent means, how else are they to attain this sort of independence and influence? “Violence is a form of expression,” says Scorsese, “it’s how people live.” (Brunette, 140) The fact that they lead a life of crime is also a crucial element in their masculine framework insofar as it is emblematic of their nonconformity, to rules, to boundaries, and to acceptable modes of behavioral protocol. This is representative of the “‘tough guy’ masculinities” Gardaphe looks at in his section on “Rough Boys: The Gangsters of Martin Scorsese and Michael Cimino.” Like Scorsese earlier Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967) and Mean Streets (1973) some of the “rough boys” in Goodfellas have not yet become, as Gardaphe calls then, “wise men.” (101) They are younger hoods struggling to find their footing in this surprisingly complicated world of codes and conduct, with overtly masculine sensibilities.

Of course, given that many of these characters, most frighteningly Tommy, go to extensive lengths to declare their masculine superiority, “to challenge each other’s masculinity,” and make widely known their notably male supremacy, its little wonder that anxiety and violence pervades many scenes of the film. (Gardaphe, 107) The characters, again especially Tommy, are also out to prove something. This is part of Scorsese’s penchant a “culture of masculinity as a struggle to negotiate one’s place in a society that expects its men to be strong and tough enough to handle life on the streets.” (Gardaphe, 104). Violent and aggressive behaviors are synonymous with the views of these hoods with respect to being a man, and what that entails.

Scorsese certainly doesn’t endorse such concepts of manhood, yet in many ways he doesn’t look too expressively critical either, but given his affinity for such characters and his real life associations with such individuals, there can be little doubt that he is at least commenting on their behavior, on this way of life. Keeping more or less objective, Scorsese argues by the characters’ own destruction that this is not an ideal way to live. The glamour and power that go along with such masculine notions and views, and the subsequent violent and criminal actions that frequently follow, do not last. Not necessarily criticizing their deeds, Scorsese does present occurrences where the film makes it quite clear that this hedonistic, macho lifestyle is dangerous. It could be in the form of the always-insecure Tommy, desperate to continually reassert his strength and power (his masculinity), resulting in considerable bloodshed and even a breach of the masculine code laid out early on in the film; or, this over-the-top excessiveness of ownership and control resulting in materialism taking precedent over masculinity.

Martin Scorsese is arguably the greatest filmmaker working today. His films, illustrating a variety of themes, featuring an array of characters, are open to multiple readings. But amongst most of his work, certainly those pictures most well-known, ideas of masculinity and its relationship with crime and violence figure prominently. Known for his realism in portraying these issues, Scorsese from his first foray into the gangster and aggressively assertive male world, with the 1964 short It's Not Just You, Murray!, up through his latest offering on such subjects, The Departed (2006), has delved almost effortlessly into the often complex psyche of male thought and action. The frequent gangster milieu for Scorsese serves as an ultimate mythological, psychological, and sociological arena for the playing out of masculine dilemmas, often with violent and/or criminal elements. Just as filmmakers like John Ford and Sam Peckinpah have primarily set their male-centered filmic studies within the genre walls of the western, so too has Scorsese successfully found the surroundings of the gangster film to be his stage for masculine action, drama, and thought.

Works Cited
Brunette, Peter. Ed. Martin Scorsese: Interviews. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
Gardaphe, Fred. From Wiseguys to Wise Men: The Gangster and Italian American Masculinities. New York: Routledge, 2006. Reprinted in and cited from “Crime and Violence in American Film.” Baker, Aaron. Ed. Arizona State University Pearson Custom Publishing, 2009.
Kelly, Mary Pat. Martin Scorsese: A Journey. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1996.
Thompson, David. Ed. Scorsese on Scorsese. London: Faber and Faber, 199

The True Story of Jesse James

As reviewed for

The character of Jesse James, at least as he is commonly personified in the mythical terms of Robin Hood-esque anti-heroism, seems to be ideal fodder for the thematic proclivities of director Nicholas Ray. Though not of the same caliber of quality (but closer behind than perhaps it gets credit for) as most of Ray’s greatest works – They Live By Night (1949), In a Lonely Place (1950), Johnny Guitar (1954), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Bigger Than Life (1956) – The True Story of Jesse James, made in 1957 starring Robert Wagner in the title role, nevertheless stands as a solid representation of the auteurist notions commonly attributed to Ray. In this film, despite being a remake of (and actually briefly using footage from) Henry King’s Jesse James (1939), we get – stylistically, narratively, and thematically – a bringing together of much that makes Ray’s cinema so special.

The film begins with the bank robbery that would, we find out, be the nail in the coffin of the James brothers’ increasingly reckless and risky crime spree. But it doesn’t take long for the film to move from the ensuing pursuit as primary focus to instead begin the telling of this tale through flashbacks, striving more for a depiction of what brought Jesse, his brother Frank (Jeffrey Hunter), and the rest of his family and cohorts to this point. This goal of rationalization and explication is overtly proclaimed by the repeated comments made throughout the film by characters seeking to define, understand, and clarify Jesse’s actions. Who is Jesse James, they ask, what made him? Why does he do what he does? This is what Ray’s picture seeks to uncover.

It certainly doesn’t take the poetic, self-consciously stylish approach to Jesse’s life as Andrew Dominik did in the immensely underrated and magnificent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), nor does it reach for the psychological depths (at least not consistently) as Samuel Fulller’s I Shot Jesse James (1949), which actually focuses more considerably on Ford. However, what it does do is find a comfortable middle ground amid these two other great films dealing with the same topic. We get at once an almost journalistic recalling of Jesse’s life – as the opening titles tell us, a factual narrative of what really occurred is the picture’s aim – yet a majority of what we see is subjectively told through flashbacks, how the characters remember things happening. So, like Jesse James the legend, Ray’s film too falls between what supposedly really happened and what others personally said happened.

As noted, a considerable portion of the film is devoted to uncovering what made Jesse do what he did. It seems that this particular take on his life finds three main motivations: pure and simple badness, the Civil War, and authority, specifically older authoritative figures. Not only does this again fall in line with much of Ray’s work in the way it seeks to explain its characters (see James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, James Mason in Bigger Than Life, and Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell in They Live By Night as examples), but it also looks back to these and other previous films in some of its very explanations.

Beginning with the idea of the war as catalyst, Jesse’s mother, played by Agnes Moorehead, blames the battle and the “yankees.” She points to the northern, oppressive domination over their southern lifestyle as a reason behind Jesse’s actions and mentality. This is echoed later in the film when Jesse and Frank round up their posse and discuss how the intimidating northerners have made them all suffer and how robbing the banks wouldn’t be too bad anyway since they would only be full off northern money. The war waged on their territory threatened not only their land and way of life, but also their “southern pride.” Like Joan Crawford’s Vienna in Johnny Guitar, this sense of pride is enough of a justification for resistance, for taking a stand against the imposing forces. Jesse and the others feel threatened and abused and aggressively act out accordingly. In addition, this sense of disillusionment and bewilderment with the world they gradually find themselves in harks back to Ray’s noirs and their post-war opportunists, schemers, and lost souls.

The town pastor, Rev. Jethro Bailey (John Carradine), looks to the influences of evil, of the devil himself, as the origin of Jesse’s deeds. Perhaps, he seems to suggest, Jesse has just become a bad man. In one of the most dazzling sections of the film, Bailey recalls how, just hours after Jesse and wife Zee’s baptism, James begins his life of crime. We see though, as Zee and Jesse’s mother combat, that this conversion was actually instigated by northern sympathizers attacking the James home and killing a friend and less by Satan. This nighttime attack sequence is one of the film’s finest, using its primary technical features (color, sound, the mobile camera, and Cinemascope) to produce a gorgeously shot, haunting assault on the James household. The intense use of color (something Ray was certainly a master of) and sound in particular (here actually, it’s the lack of sound – sharp gunfire puncturing the otherwise silent scene: no score, no natural sounds, no voices) create a vivid moment of confusion, panic, and action, all dramatized by a play with light and shadow.

The third main suggestion for Jesse’s exploits comes from sequences and dialogue that point towards a general dislike and distrust for authority: commanding northern soldiers, adults, law officers, etc. Of course, Rebel Without a Cause springs instantly to mind here, and the comparison is not at all far off. Jesse is very much a youthful character, and given the close production proximity of Ray’s most famous picture (though most think of it as Dean’s most famous picture), its clear that he still has something to say on the matter of the older, authoritarian impact on the freewheeling, young. Like so many rebellious teenager films from the 1950s (Brando’s The Wild One in 1953 as just one example), Ray here presents the outlaw hero as one who is bucking the system and confronting the establishment as much as anything else.

Sticking with the Rebel Without a Cause comparison, and also recalling Bigger Than Life, Ray draws attention to notions of domesticity with this film as well, and the sense of supposed normalcy that goes along with it. After renting a house, Jesse and wife Zee (Hope Lange) discuss what they’re going to do with it, their family, and the town they now live in. Idealistically, they strive to be immersed inside the community, while conversely, perhaps impossibly, living outside the law. This conflicting existence is abruptly cut short when Jesse announces that he must leave for another job. It seems that while they may buy into the illusion of a settled down home and place in the neighborhood, Jesse’s chosen field will forever disrupt their hopes for a “normal” life.

Aside from the previously mentioned nighttime attack, The True Story of Jesse James is full of typical Ray flourishes in terms of style. Making complete use of the widescreen frame (again, something he does extraordinarily well), Ray composes a majority of his shots not only packing the frame from all sides with details, more often than not significant ones, but also adding a dimensional depth to his compositions. Having characters or objects placed prominently to one side or one section of the image foreground, in close-up, Ray also draws attention to what may be going on behind said character or object, sometimes much further in the background, highlighting it in the open, unoccupied widescreen space. It’s this combination of depth and the horizontal that makes for some very striking and realistic images. A line of individuals can stretch all the way across the frame, while their surroundings are simultaneously given due prominence. Added to this is Ray’s use of the tracking shot, further emphasizing the horizontal constriction of the film. When Frank brings a wounded Jesse to a family member’s house (where Zee is introduced) Ray again combines beautifully the horizontal with depth of field by tracking along their wagon while, at the same time, moving in on the fallen Jesse. Effectively utilizing smoke, light, and camera angle as well, Ray at one point films a nighttime train robbery quite masterly, causing a nightmarish sense of hypnotic pandemonium.

The film also has its moments of humor. Jesse is asked what line of work he’s in and he responds that its banking and railroads. And later much amusement is had (by the audience and by Jesse and Frank) when the brothers attend the trial of a captured gang member. Using aliases and thus unknown to those around them (no one has seen their faces) they speak openly and confidently to the prosecutor and, later, the detective assigned to their capture, neither of whom have any idea who they’re actually talking with.

Played by Wagner, Jesse here (like Brad Pitt playing him in Dominik’s film) is an attractive figure, a further element of the Jesse James myth. It’s important that if he is to be likable he is also to be handsome. At first, it does seem like Jesse gets into bank robbing with the best of intentions. It’s just going to be this once; he doesn’t want to make a career out of it; it’s for his family, his home. But this doesn’t last. In a self-destructive manner not totally unlike Bogart in In A Lonely Place or Mason in Bigger Than Life, Jesse abandons whatever positive ideals he may have had and heads down the path to his downfall, to loneliness and violence. Near the end, Jesse is a man obsessed, blind to dangers. He’s quick to kill anyone who wrongs him in any way. And, in contrast to not making a career out of bank robbing, he refers to their crimes as “our business.” Jesse seems to himself have bought into the Jesse James myth. This is comically made clear when, after gang member Cole offers some money to a poor elderly lady who gave them food and temporary shelter, Jesse, following his reading of outlandish published tales about himself, gives her $600 dollars, enough to pay off her entire mortgage and encourage the tales of his good nature and kindness. Once the man from the bank has collected the funds, however, Jesse immediately robs him.

After attempting to rob a bank in Minnesota, out of their normal territory and under paranoid circumstances, everything begins to go wrong. The town where the bank is located is remarkably united, everyone seeming to pitch in by blocking the gang’s escape and firing at them, killing most. This is in opposition to the tragic disunity that has developed within the gang. Jesse’s paranoia, his frenzied behavior and heedlessness, is one of the film’s most prominent psychological developments (this rivaled by the end of the film when Jesse realizes that even his own children have succumbed to the fable of Jesse James, his son and daughter playing with a wooden gun, the former “shooting down” the latter causing her to cry).

But finally though, it’s the betrayal of a friend that leads to Jesse’s demise. His being shot in the back by Robert Ford is well known and well documented – in western stories and films – and this picture is no different in its presentation. Ford, initially introduced in this movie off-handedly yet ominously as “Robbie,” is weasely and instantly suspicious (this no doubt aided by our established knowledge of his role in the story). Once shot and lying on the floor, the crowd that gathers is a testament to Jesse’s fame. Ford runs down the road proclaiming that he just shot Jesse James; the crowd runs the other way, toward Jesse. One character earlier commented that when the public doesn’t need Jesse James that will be his end; this was clearly not yet the case. Indeed, on their way out of Jesse’s house they steal miscellaneous objects of memorabilia.

There is much to admire in this typically neglected Nicholas Ray film; many of the hallmarks of his formal and stylistic affinities are present, even if the general story told has been recounted too frequently. And there are certainly negative aspects of the picture: the hokey flashback transitions are distracting and clichéd and some of the acting is not among the best in Ray’s work. Regardless though, working in a genre that revels in the use of the widescreen and color, his The True Story of Jesse James is a more than solid production. If this is indeed how Ray saw the life of Jesse James, if this is how he imagines the scenes and actions that comprised Jesse’s existence to be, then it’s impossible to imagine them ever presented any other way than in the medium of cinema, with rich colors and expansive Cinemascope.