"The cinema is cruel like a miracle." -Frank O'Hara

Why do foreign films have to be so foreign?

I found it – the utterly asinine and sexist beer commercial that Scorsese referred to this 1993 letter to the New York Times.The ad is obviously satirizing a Fellini film, and was part of a larger campaign with the tagline, “Why ask why? Try Bud Dry.”

Fostering willful idiocy as a sales tactic? Yup, sounds like America.

Cesare Zavattini on Wonder [Sequences of a Cinematic Life, 1970]

Zavattini with the bambini

I love it when people send me things. Here is something a reader sent me yesterday, in response to my post about the novel and the subsequent film adaptation of Contempt.

No words we can write will ever change the age-old power of the vulgar interests that collaborate to distinguish the film from literature, creating two aesthetic systems and two moralities. We are content with the illusion that one day they will say: “from the very beginning, perhaps twenty individuals understood that the right wasn’t Hollywood’s, that the spectacle which began on the boulevards with the Lumière brothers was the beginning of the sickness.” The first theaters were called nickelodeons: a nickel was the price. And it was urgent to master the medium with a cost so low it could be within the reach of many individuals, like paper and ink, paints; film and lenses should have been brought into the home like sewing machines (then there would have been no producers, the apex of a bourgeois system, “applied” cinema, now defended, like a certain kind of publishing, by a wall of iron, the cliche about work being given to thousands of citizens). A return to man, to the creature who in himself is “all spectacle”; this would liberate us.

Set up the camera in a street, in a room, see with insatiable patience, train ourselves in the contemplation of our fellowman in his elementary actions. We will abandon trick photography, process shots, the infinite subterfuges so dear to Méliès. The wonder must be in us, expressing itself without wonder: the best dreams are those outside the mist, which can be seen like the veins of leaves.

—Cesare Zavattini

Contempt (Moravia first, then Godard)

On a friend’s recommendation, I just finished reading Alberto Moravia’s Contempt, which was adapted by Godard for his eponymous film. Moravia’s novels have served as fertile source material for several iconic European auteurs, including Bertolucci (The Conformist), and Vittorio de Sica (Two Women). A new edition of Contempt was published by the NYRB Classics imprint in 2004, along with Moravia’s Boredom. English translations of these novels had been out of print for close to 50 years, so their re-introduction heralded something of a mini-Moravia renaissance.

Known for his rendering of modern psychological states, Moravia’s novels are rife with cultural references, such as German opera and Greek tragedy. However, while Godard shares this proclivity towards reference, he abandons Moravia’s first-person narrative in favor of numerous meta-narratives, alienation over traditional identification with characters, and an all-over Brechtian estrangement of the audience. Godard keeps the basic framework of the plot intact, yet manages to produce a film that feels wholly alien to Moravia’s sensibility. For more on the distance between the two “Contempts,” there’s a lovely essay by Anne Carson that looks at both texts though the eyes of a classicist. But for me, the formal rigor of Godard’s film far surpasses the artfulness of Moravia’s writing—a judgement I concede is completely unfair since I read Moravia in translation. But to each her own.

Godard’s comments on the novel are less than charitable — perhaps he resented remaking a bestseller, regarding the text as yet another ugly manifestation of the highly commercial production. Regardless, his notes on the adaptation are uncharacteristically direct, revealing his intentions like an overhead light illuminating the corners of the room.

Godard on Le Mépris

Moravia’s novel, Contempt, is a nice, vulgar one for a train journey, full of classical old-fashioned sentiment in spite of the modernity of the situations. But it is with this kind of novel the one can often make the best films. I have stuck to the main theme, simply altering a few details on the principle that something filmed is automatically different from something written, and therefore original. There was no need to try to make it different, to adapt it to the screen All I had to do was film it as it is: just film what was written, apart from a few details, for if the cinema were not first foremost film, it wouldn’t exist. Mélies is the greatest, but without Lumière he would have languished in obscurity.

Apart from a few details. For instance, the transformation of the hero who in passing from book to screen, moves from false adventure to real, from Antonioni inertia to Laramiesque dignity. For instance also the nationality of the characters: Brigitte Bardot is not longer called Emilia but Camille, and as you will see she trifles none the less with Musset. Each of the characters, moreover, speaks his own language which, as in The Quiet American, contributes to the feeling of people lost in a strange country. Here, though, two days only: an afternoon in Rome, a morning in Capri. Rome is the modern world, the West; Capri, the ancient world, nature before civilization and its neuroses. Le Mépris, in other words, might have been called In Search of Homer, but it means lost time trying to discover the language of Proust beneath that of Moravia, and anyway that isn’t the point.

“The point of Le Mépris is that these are people who look at each other and judge each other, and then are in turn looked at and judged by the cinema–represented by Fritz Lang, who plays himself, or in effect the conscience of the film, its honesty. (I filmed the scenes of The Odyssey which he was supposed to be directing in Le Mépris, but as I play the role of his assistant, Lang will say that these are scenes made by his second unit.)

“When I think about it, Le Mépris seems to me, beyond its psychological study of a woman who despise her husband, the story of castaways of the Western world, survivors of the shipwreck of modernity who, like the heroes of Verne and Stevenson, one day read a mysterious deserted island, whose mystery is the inexorable lack of mystery, of truth that is to say. Whereas the Odyssey of Ulysses was a physical phenomenon, I filmed a spiritual odyssey; the eye of the camera watching these characters in search of Homer replaces that of the gods watching over Ulysses and his companions.

A simple film without mystery, an Aristotelian film, stripped of appearances, Le Mépris proves in 149 shots that in the cinema as in life there is no secret, nothing to elucidate, merely the need to live—and to make films.

P.S. Another advantage that the film has over the book is the score—which I unconditionally love. You can download the iconic theme music here: 16 Le Mépris-Theme De Camille.

Mademoiselle Charlot [Chaplin, 1915]

I love this poster for the French release of Chaplin’s short film A Woman, in which he cross-dresses to fool the father of a girl he met in the park. He even shaves his iconic moustasche, and I have to say, he makes quite the handsome woman!

You can view the film here and here.

P.S. Anyone know anything more about the Himalaya Film Company? They seem to have distributed almost all of Chaplin’s early films in France.

Why Make Fellini the Scapegoat for New Cultural Intolerance? [Letter to the New York Times, 25 Nov 1993]

Eat your cultural vegetables, mangia!

Recently I came across this letter to the Times penned by none other than Martin Scorsese, a week after Fellini’s death. It elucidates, in no uncertain terms, why the “Cultural Vegetables” argument is so dangerous, because it so often leads to (or stems from) intolerance and ignorance. Scorsese rightly focuses not on individual films but a generalized allergy to work perceived as too dull, difficult, or foreign. (It’s sad that the “new” cultural intolerance feels very old hat by now). For all intents and purposes, this letter could be a manifesto for World Cinema Foundation, Scorsese’s incredibly important initiative to preserve films from all over the world.

To the Editor:

“Excuse Me; I Must Have Missed Part of the Movie” (The Week in Review, 7 November) cites Federico Fellini as an example of a filmmaker whose style gets in the way of his storytelling and whose films, as a result, are not easily accessible to audiences. Broadening that argument, it includes other artists: Ingmar Bergman, James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Bernardo Bertolucci, John Cage, Alain Resnais and Andy Warhol.

It’s not the opinion I find distressing, but the underlying attitude toward artistic expression that is different, difficult or demanding. Was it necessary to publish this article only a few days after Fellini’s death? I feel it’s a dangerous attitude, limiting, intolerant. If this is the attitude toward Fellini, one of the old masters, and the most accessible at that, imagine what chance new foreign films and filmmakers have in this country.

It reminds me of a beer commercial that ran a while back. The commercial opened with a black and white parody of a foreign film—obviously a combination of Fellini and Bergman. Two young men are watching it, puzzled, in a video store, while a female companion seems more interested. A title comes up: “Why do foreign films have to be so foreign?” The solution is to ignore the foreign film and rent an action-adventure tape, filled with explosions, much to the chagrin of the woman.

It seems the commercial equates “negative” associations between women and foreign films: weakness, complexity, tedium. I like action-adventure films too. I also like movies that tell a story, but is the American way the only way of telling stories?

The issue here is not “film theory,” but cultural diversity and openness. Diversity guarantees our cultural survival. When the world is fragmenting into groups of intolerance, ignorance and hatred, film is a powerful tool to knowledge and understanding. To our shame, your article was cited at length by the European press.

The attitude that I’ve been describing celebrates ignorance. It also unfortunately confirms the worst fears of European filmmakers.

Is this closedmindedness something we want to pass along to future generations?

If you accept the answer in the commercial, why not take it to its natural progression:
Why don’t they make movies like ours?
Why don’t they tell stories as we do?
Why don’t they dress as we do?
Why don’t they eat as we do?
Why don’t they talk as we do?
Why don’t they think as we do?
Why don’t they worship as we do?
Why don’t they look like us?
Ultimately, who will decide who “we” are?

—Martin Scorsese
[New York, 19 Nov 1993]

Chroma [Derek Jarman, 1994]

I have been thinking a lot about color, and about artists and their relationships to their materials. I myself am a color junkie, and dramatic color is like a shot of adrenaline to me. The directors/cinematographers who share my chromophilia — Vincente Minnelli, Antonioni, Almodóvar, and Zach Cardiff’s cinematography in The Red Shoes immediately come to mind — understand the emotional essence of each shade in the spectrum. Red excites and stimulates. Green is a sedative. Yellow vacillates between sunny and sickening. Orange is talkative. Blue is always one of two moods: Yves Klein Electric or Plaintive Picasso.

From Picasso's Blue Period: Portrait d’Angel Fernandez de Soto

Lately I have been struck by the fact that the intensity of a certain hue is umbilically tied to its medium. Technicolor is indisputably the most significant development for color filmmaking in the 20th century, and one could argue that it precipitated a completely new approach to directing — new lighting, new make-up, even a new kind of acting. This is in stark contrast to digital filmmaking in which the majority of color correction happens in the post-production phase. Since the advent of digital, there has been a definite trend towards over-saturated colors that I would like to see go away, or at least toned down to avoid actors looking like Oompa-Loompas (then again, maybe they tan too much).

Becky Sharp, the first three-strip Technicolor film

But where does color come from? A filmmaker would think about color in terms of light or projection, but a painter would instantly think about paint and pigment. This understanding of color is first and foremost practical — pigments are not abstract, but material substances with chemical attributes. Paint has a particular consistency and texture. If you run out, you can’t complete your painting.

Derek Jarman’s book Chroma explores both the material and the spiritual implications of color, from the perspective on an artist who has worked in both painting and film. Written while Jarman was losing his eyesight due to complications from AIDS, it is an elegiac meditation on what colors signify, and how they exist in the real world. There are 19 vignettes in total, some named after different colors, along with essays on perspective, shadow and light, translucence, and iridescence.

I find it fascinating to read Chroma against the backdrop of Jarman’s films, which run the gamut from grainy 8mm shorts to 35mm Technicolor features. Here are some excerpts juxtaposed against film stills that showcase Jarman’s innate feel for color, both as light and pigment.

Caravaggio, 1986

May my black Waterman ink spill out the truth.

Chemistry and romantic names — manganese violet, cerulean, ultramarine and distant places, Naples yellow. The geography of colour, Antwerp blue, raw Sienna. Colour stretching to the distant planets — mars violet; named after old masters — Van dyke brown. Contradictory — Lamp black.

1919. The world is in mourning. Kasimir Malevich paints White on White. A funeral rite for painting.

When yellow wishes to ingratiate it becomes gold.

The Tempest, 1979

Red is a moment in time. Blue constant. Red is quickly spent. An explosion of intensity. It burns itself. Disappears like fiery sparks into the gathering shadow.
Wasn’t Dorian Grey’s brain speckled with the scarlet stain of insanity?
Painters use red like spice.

Wittgenstein, 1993

Pink is always shocking. Naked. All those acres of flesh that cover the ceilings of the Renaissance. Pontormo is the pinkest painter.

Jubilee, 1977

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas. This song could only be sung in Southern California around a swimming pool.

Sloan Square, 1976

Leni’s full moon falling through a crystal grotto in the High Dolomites
Blue movies
Blue language

The most stable of greens is the Terre Vert. The most elusive, the copper greens that turned all the Venetian paintings brown. Fugitive colour flies in time, and leaves us in a perpetual autumn.

The Last of England, 1987

How Now Brown Cow
There is nostalgia in brown. The touch of my mother’s soft beaver lamb coat in which we buried our tears. Brown simplified life.

Who has not gazed in wonder at the snaky shimmer of petrol patterns on a puddle, thrown a stone into them and watched the colors emerge out of the ripples…

Where did glass appear in my films? Faces distorted, pressed into the window.

And then there is Jarman’s Blue. Filmed in Technicolor, this cine-poem is both plaintive and electric, and is perhaps the saddest movie I have ever seen. It speaks for itself:

Why Ladri di Biciclette? [Vittorio de Sica, 1948]

Why seek extraordinary adventures when we are presented daily with artless people who are filled with real distress?

Why did I make that film? Well, after Sciuscià (Shoeshine), I read some thirty of forty scripts, each more “beautiful” than the one before, full of facts and interesting situations. But I was looking for actions which would be less apparently “extraordinary”, which could happen to anyone (above all to the poor), action which no newspaper wants to talk about.

Anyway, everything happened as follows: one evening Zavattini called me to tell me he had read a beautiful book, Ladri di biciclette, by Luigi Bartolini, and that the book had inspired him to write a story for me. The next day I read the first draft of the story. The story differs from the books fairly radically; the latter is really rather cheerful, colorful, and picaresque. It suffices to note that the protagonist of the film is not Bartolini’s but a bill poster who wanders through Rome in a desperate search for his means of transport. From that point, there is another atmosphere, other interests, more adapted to my own means and scope. Why did we then acquire the title and the rights to a book for which we planned a free adaptation? To acknowledge a remarkable writer who, with his vivid style, has given me inspirational motivation for my new film.

My scope is to trace the “dramatic” in everyday situations, the wonderful in small events, what many consider to be artificially embellished trivia. What is the importance, after all, of stealing a bicycle, one which is far from bright and new? In Rome many are stolen every day and nobody cares, since it is of no importance to the rest of the city. Yet, to lose a bicycle is a grave event, a tragic circumstance, for those who have nothing else, who use it to go to work, who cherish it in the turmoil of city life…

World on a Wire [Fassbinder, 1973]

I actually grew up almost alone without parents.

I really grew up like a little flower.

I’ve been seeing films since I was five, first, covered-wagon Westerns, and then, from the age of seven, I saw everything. I actually went to the movies every day, and later, two or three times a day, if possible.

Band of Angels, White Heat…the relationship between James Cagney and his mother, is I think like that between all my heroes and their mothers. Then Huston’s Asphalt Jungle was very important, and Howard Hawks, the gay stories…

What Sternberg does with light. The ability to tell stories in a roundabout way. It’s this extreme artificiality which is still, in my opinion, something very much alive.

Any film that is narrated conventionally all the way through would turn out like Chabrol and without the crime plot and simply using alienation technique, it might have turned out like a Godard film.

I don’t know, to me all stories are crime stories. To me the everyday oppression people experience is criminal. I could almost go as far as to say that you can’t really make anything but crime films. Everything should be declared criminal.

[Film stills from World on a Wire, opening this Friday at the IFC Center. Quotations from The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, and Notes by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.]

Giulietta’s Spaghetti Recipe


What's cookin' good lookin'?

This is the secret recipe that Giulietta Masina said was the “love potion” she fed her husband of 50 years, filmmaker Federico Fellini. He told Charlotte Chandler for her ghost autobiography, I, Fellini (1995), it was the one secret Giulietta never shared with him.

On the side, in a small pan, melt:

1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil


2 to 3 onions
2 cloves garlic
4 cups peeled tomatoes

Add the chopped onions and garlic to the oil when the oil is not boiling. It’s best to use extra virgin olive oil.
Use fresh tomatoes, if possible, or peeled canned tomatoes. Do not use tomato purée. Plunge fresh tomatoes into boiling water until the skins loosen, then peel, drain, chop, and crush.

Prepare the spaghetti pasta (for 4) by plunging it into boiling water until it’s al dente.

Pour the chopped garlic and onions into a larger pan, and add the chopped and crushed tomatoes.

With the tomato, the secret is to add:
1 teaspoon of sugar
1/2 a lemon’s juice

Sugar is the essential ingredient, and the lemon adds a subtle sweet and sour effect. According to Giulietta, it brings out the flavor of the tomatoes.

A dash of paprika
Fresh, aged Parmesan cheese

Giulietta always put on an apron because the sauce can “jump up” on your blouse. She was so happy to be cooking spaghetti after having been in hotel rooms. She said he (Fellini) could never leave her because he could never leave her spaghetti.

New Orleans [Arthur Lubin, 1947]

This movie, while short on decent story and plot, is a real treat for jazz fans.

new orleans eric rohman poster

The Swedish poster (designed by Eric Rohman) is a snappy photo-collage of all the great jazz musicians of the day. While they are all supreme jazz ambassadors representing the Big Easy, it doesn’t get much better than Billie Holiday backed by Louis Armstrong in this smooth number: