Thursday, September 13, 2012

Full Aperture: Common Man

Difficult as it may be for some to imagine today, considering the current world-wide popularity of larger-than-life stories of super heroes with super powers doing super things filling our cinema screens, but there actually was a time, in a certain place, where those grand stories were utterly unthinkable.

Coming out of World War II, Italy’s economy was in shambles. Local audiences soon came to desire down-to-earth stories they could relate to, instead of a bourgeois fantasy they would never achieve. For them this was real life. And it was hard. There were no super heroes coming to “save the day”. The artists and filmmakers felt this way too. So…

Italian Neorealism was born. The briefly-lived genre celebrated the plight of the common man. And one of the most popular films of this burgeoning genre was a film by actor-turned-director Vittorio De Sica titled…
Bicycle Thieves.

Tell-tale signs of the movement include using non-professional actors, often even in key roles. Eschewing studio soundstages, the films were literally shot on the street (sometimes guerilla-style) and dealt with realistic day-to-day struggles of the lower class. Quite often Italian neorealism films would contain subtle (and sometimes overt) political statements and social commentary woven into the storylines. 

And quite often, the stories involved downtrodden children. Told from the vantage point of the helpless, the desperate, the innocent. Again by today's standards, and to the modern cinema-goer, these elements may seem off-putting. There's no escapism here. Reality is dealt with head-on and by design. Independent of any of their possible entertainment value, many of these films play as important documents of their time. Capturing and chronicling the emotional pulse of the period. Neorealism was saying "This is us, and this is our life."

The story deals with an unemployed man who finally finds work hanging posters (ironically advertising American films) around Rome. His devoted wife pawns the bed sheets so he can get the bicycle required to do the work. Yet on his first day it is stolen and, desperate to find the thief and get his bike back, he enlists the aid of his young son in the frantic search. It seems the whole town conspires to protect the thief, until he himself, in a final act of desperation, resorts to stealing a bike. (Hence the plural "thieves" in the original title.) And no one stands up to protect him from his actions.

As with many artists, filmmakers are keen observers. As such, they are very susceptible to influence and the final shot in Bicycle Thieves is an homage to the ending of many Charlie Chaplin films. Of course due to the popularity and quality of De Sica's film, it immediately influenced other films that followed, not only in Italy but also in the United States. 

One of these films is...
Little Fugitive.
Raymond Ashley, Morris Engel and his wife Ruth Orkin crafted a simple tale which, through the use of a small concealed strap-on silent 35mm film camera, captured New York not only as it really was, but also as it seemed through the innocent eyes of a child. Whereas Hollywood found it garish to show smudges or graffiti on walls when it portrayed NY on film, Little Fugitive relishes in exposing the streets as they really were. No purpose-built sets. Mostly natural lighting. No microphones (all sounds were dubbed later). They even pioneered hand-held documentary-style camera work in feature films. A sort of "neorealism" brought to the US via independent filmmakers in New York. Hollywood's little back door.   

It features a young boy (portrayed again by a non-professional actor) who is forced to travel alone through a grimy city (lower Brooklyn). Cruelly tricked into thinking he has killed his older brother while his single mother is away, he runs. To the only place he feels safe... Coney Island. Where no one takes him seriously. No one cares. Most importantly, no one even notices him. The film's scenes are beautifully composed and keenly designed to portray the boy's vantage point and keep the viewer in his shoes.

Naturally, when it played at the Venice Film Festival, the Italians were appreciative of its merits and awarded it the Silver Lion (for Best Director). Strangely, considering the film is mostly without dialogue, it was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing. Critically lauded at the time of it's original limited release, over time the film has gained a substantial cult following among the public and today is seen as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", and thereby has been selected for preservation by the US National Film Registry.

But even more appreciative than the Italians, were the French. In fact Little Fugitive is considered the catalyst for the French New Wave movement of the late 1950s. Famed director François (The 400 Blows) Truffaut claimed, “Our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn’t been for the young American Morris Engel, who showed us the way to independent production with [this] fine movie.”

So the influence of Italian neorealism was absorbed and interpreted into US filmmaking and that, in turn, rippled back across the Atlantic. As is evidenced by the charming featurette...
The Red Balloon.
Again the story focuses on a young boy, traveling (mostly) alone through a big city. And again the film is nearly dialogue-free. But this is not a French version of Little Fugitive. This is not even strictly a drama, but rather a fantasy. For the boy is accompanied by his newfound "pet". Not a dog. Not a cat. But a red balloon. One with a mind of its own it seems.  

Following the trend of using natural talents in lieu of trained actors, director Lamorisee cast his son as the lead (his daughter has a small scene as the girl with the blue balloon). 

Shot on location in the crumbling yet beautiful canal-like streets of Ménilmontant, Paris, the cinematography indicates that director Lamorisee wanted to have the balloons be the only pops of color in his otherwise cold blue-gray world. The children, dressed in gray tones, almost blend into the decaying surroundings. And naturally it's only the innocent children in the story who are open-hearted enough to befriend the balloons. The adults simply don't understand or accept them into their closed world. And when the local children without balloons discover little Pascal and his, they degrade into jealous hooliganism and destroy it.  

Some viewers found religious allegory in the plot, (with the death of the balloon at the hands of an "angry mob" and the later ascension of the only child who loved and believed in it) while others simply accept it at face value. It was shown to students in elementary schools across America in the 1970s, including my own and was widely appreciated. 

It went on to win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Today it remains an enduring short-cinema classic.
This intriguing mix of reality and elements of fantasy, of gritty urban landscapes and emotional isolation, was later captured so exquisitely in... 
Wings of Desire.
German visionary Wim Wenders’ fantastically emotional tale of angels living among us in a parallel dimension was (and is still) one of those rare events in my cinema-going life that had a great impact on me. I saw it at the (long gone) Biograph Theatre in Georgetown, Washington D.C. back in 1988. (A good year for movie watching.) The Biograph, along with other D.C. art houses: the Key, the Jennifer, the MacArthur, and the American, were an invaluable lifeline to good movies that just didn’t play in my little one-horse town. One by one they all shuttered. And I mourned each one. Like loosing a dear friend. And to me, each movie house is forever connected to the visions I experienced there. The emotional connections which I still feel the ghost of when I drive by the new CVS Pharmacy, now standing where the Biograph once stood. Cold and clinical, it's hard to imagine a less-emotional place than what it's become. It once was a glorious room full of enchanting stories of wondrous characters. Audiences laughing. Gasping. Crying. Now it's just another place to pick up discount mouthwash and hair dye. 

Anyway tangent aside, the much-celebrated film offers a quite unique experience. A camera that sweeps and flows from one building to another, from one life to another, from one thought to another. (Set to a lush yet lonely soundtrack from Laurie Anderson and Nick Cave.) Even as the angels permeate our daily lives and listen in to our deepest thoughts, they are still profoundly disconnected from us. ("Faraway, So Close" is an apt description and also serves as the title to the film's underrated sequel, released in 1993). Desire paints a world so dream-like, yet still so real somehow. It's a fairy tale... with sharp edges. And much like the children in The Red Balloon who sense the life spirit in a balloon, only the children in Wings of Desire seem to detect the angelic presence. No fear. Just an innocent curiosity. In fact, with all the adults busily scurrying about, focusing on the space directly in front of them, it is only the children who even bother to look up.

In visions of mostly gray tones (to simulate the dreary world of the angels sent to watch over us), Wender's camera drifts through previously restricted Berlin airspace and captures a bleak reality, transforming it into stark elegant beauty. The angels struggle to understand man. His reasoning. His purpose. Perhaps the ultimate exercise in futility.

Leisurely, a love story unfolds, Peter Falk shows up (and makes a startling revelation), an angel, filled with longing, sacrifices his position and loses his wings, so he can taste an apple, get his hands dirty, and most importantly... love again in the mortal world. He decides to take his chances with the rest of us... down here in the myre. 

This leisurely pace displays a director thoroughly confident in his material. He's saying "this is my world, the door is open, and you're welcome to visit if you like." But he's not trying to make a movie for you. (One that he thinks that you think you want to see.) Perhaps that's the difference between an artist who makes films and a filmmaker.   

Wings of Desire ends with a dedication to his fellow directors who have so greatly inspired him: "Yasujiro Ozu, François Truffaut, and Andrej Tarkovsky, and to all the former angels." Again, one artist influencing another. Across geography, culture and time. The work remains to stand on it's own. To touch us. To teach us. It has the power to connect us, like nothing else.

And when considering the beautiful stark cinematography, the lonely honorable quest of a dedicated soul, and the leisurely pace of Wim's film, one can see its influence continuing to this day. The ripples of Wender's work is notable in the recent Hungarian film...
The Turin Horse.
This intriguing and challenging work, by directors Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, recalls the story of the whipping of a horse in the town of Turin, Italy, that supposedly set in motion a series of events that led to the mental breakdown of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The film is less concerned with chronicling Nietzsche's philosophies as it is with documenting the chore and repetition of daily life. It's a rumination on the heaviness of existence. Some viewers may appreciate the film for what it asks you, more than what it tells you. The valid questions it raises in your own head are worth considering. Of course there are those who don't want to think when they watch a film, but if you are reading this then you probably fall into the former camp already.   

Almost as an "experiment in film editing", the movie is presented in thrity continuous shots. Elaborate planning and scene blocking went into each take, which lasts several minutes. Instead of a normal production with hundreds of camera set-ups, cutting back and forth to show point-of-views, over-the-shoulders, reaction shots, etc., the movie takes on a deliberate "you are there in the room with them" feeling. We feel like we are spending more time with the characters and therefore create a greater connection to them.
That being said, this film does require more effort from the viewer. You are asked to be patient. This is the direct antithesis of MTV-inspired modern Hollywood filmmaking. Where the goal is to get to the "good stuff" as quickly as possible.

In many ancient cultures they would build religious temples in the most out-of-the-way locations. Why? Wouldn't it be easier for practitioners to get there if it was at the bottom of the mountain? The rationale is... the journey is where you learn about yourself. It's not meant to be easy. The answers are not all waiting for you in a room at the end. You must achieve your enlightenment through a personal experience. There is no easy way. You can't be given the answers... only shown the way to find them yourself.

The Turin Horse is the film equivalent. Here, you get a slice of life, not so much fantasy. And life unfolds day by day. And some days are not so different from the last day. We cook, we eat, we gather supplies, we talk, we sleep. We live. And we die. Joys are small. Which make them precious.

Film is a reflection of what we do. What we want to achieve. And ultimately... who we are. There's beauty to be found in that. Of course it's nice to sometimes lose one's self in a hopeful fantasy of 'good charging in to conquer evil', but that's all it is... "fantasy". The reality is that we have to endure life on our own. We earn our own success, or fall to meet our failures, with no help from supermen. The daily struggle of the common man (and woman) is the most honest story we can tell. The most relatable. And therefore, the most important. The silver screen becomes a giant mirror, for us to see ourselves and each other. So we can reflect back on what we experience and ask ourselves: Is it right? Is it the best we can be? It's okay to document our dreams and fantasies, where we hope to go, but not at the expense of ignoring our reality. Our lives are our legacy. And film currently remains one of the most popular means of collectively preserving our stories and spreading our messages. It's our gift to our grandchildren. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to do our best, to be our best, and to speak from the heart. And in the mad rush to make a dollar, I hope we all can remember that. The common man can be every bit as noble, as brave, and as resolute... as any super man. And his story, indeed our story, is always worth telling.

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