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

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:

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.

Ryoji Ikeda, The Transfinite [Park Avenue Armory]

A video from Ryoji Ikeda’s installation at the Park Avenue Armory, which is a minimalist data panorama with some Imax oomph. (Don’t mind the background chatter about Ai Weiwei.)

Clothes Make the Tramp

In January 1914, when Chaplin had been at Keystone for a few months, Mack Sennett asked him to come with some new ideas for gags. It was at this time that Chaplin invented the character of the tramp.

Kid Auto Races At Venice [1914], in which Chaplin’s “Tramp” character makes his debut.

I was in my street clothes and had nothing to do, so I stood where Sennett could see me. He was standing with Mabel, looking into a hotel lobby set, biting the end of a cigar. “We need some gags here,” he said, then turned to me. “Put on comedy make-up. Anything will do.”

I had no idea what make-up to put on. I did not like my get-up as the press reporter. However, on the way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small moustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression.

I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the make-up made me feel the person that I was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on to the stage he was fully born. When I confronted Sennett I assumed the character and strutted about, swinging my cane and parading before him. Gags and comedy ideas went racing through my mind.

The secret of Mark Sennett’s success was his enthusiasm. He stood and giggled until his body began to shake. This encouraged me and I began to explain the character: “You know this fellow is many-sided, a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure. He would have you believe he’s a scientist, a musician, a duke, a polo player. However, he is not above picking up cigarette butts or robbing a baby of its candy. And of course, if the occasion warrants it, he will kick a lady in the rear — but only in extreme anger!”

– Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography [1964]

Clear, Sharp, Brilliantly Lighted…

A little bit of cheesecake from a smut catalog to brighten up your Monday, courtesy of Jim Winkel of Vintage Sleaze. Don’t we all want to watch movies that are clear, sharp, and “brilliantly lighted?” Bonus points if they star Lilly “Lady Bountiful” Lamont.

Field Trip! Jerry Ohlinger’s Movie Materials Store

Fellow cinephiles and obsessive collectors, I want to let you in on one of New York City’s best-kept secrets: Jerry Ohlinger’s Movie Materials Store. Located on a dreary strip of West 35th Street, it looks pretty unremarkable from the outside (and truth be told, gives off a Forbidden Planet/fanboy vibe, complete with the requisite Scott Pilgrim poster — not that there’s anything wrong with that. But inside lies one of the most incredible poster collections in the world.

I’m not kidding: it’s movie poster mecca. One-sheets, two-sheets, British quads, lobby cards, you name it. There’s also an incredible archive of film stills and ephemera, such as press books and magazines.

Almost worth getting a record player just for this piece of vinyl.

A copy of Photoplay magazine. P.S. I vote we bring back this term for movies.

One thing I love about Jerry’s is that it’s an absolute mess. The layout is not pretty or shiny nor “merchandised” to appeal to consumers. Jerry’s flea-market finds are scattered around the store, and if you want to see materials for a particular film, an employee will consult “The List” (also ancient) and find it for you. The store has been around for over 25 years, though not always at the same location.

Here’s a nice bag with the former address on 14th street.

I asked Bill, the softspoken employee who let me fool around for an hour and not buy anything, what his favorite movie poster in the store was. He brought out a lustrous Seurat-inspired one-sheet for Laurence Olivier’s A Little Romance:

And here’s a lobby card from the same film featuring a fourteen year-old Diane Lane (her first!):

Here’s the poster for Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, which I saw recently and have become obsessed with (translation: post coming soonish).

The store also has some rare materials from the 20’s and 30’s, including crumbling film stills (some hand-colored) that start at $100. These set my vintage heart aflutter:

More of what I would purchase inasecond if I had unlimited funds/infinite wall space:

This poster forGentleman’s Agreement was designed by Norman Rockwell.

A Dirty Harry Poster features a very clean design.

Geez Louise I love this poster for Diary of a Lost Girl.

RIP Claude Chabrol, Coolest wryest deviate filmmaker ever.

This Spanish poster for Alphaville is awesome.

Also awesome: Isabel Sarli from behind in La Mujer de mi Padre.

I am curious about High Yellow — anyone seen it?

Beautiful, and not bad at all.

That’s all I got, but that’s certainly not all that Jerry Ohlinger’s has got to offer. Take a trip, geek out, and take advantage of this cluttered, old-school NY haunt and its treasures. And then head to K-town for some bibimbap after.


Blair Mclendon, WKCR Arts Programmer and lover of obscure cinema. (Forgive the blurry iPhone photo.)

Fellow Cinephiles — here’s a chance to hear me spout off in a different medium. An interview will air tonight (September 9th) at 9:30 pm on 89.9 FM and online at (click on the “listen now” button in the upper right hand corner). Topics covered include Steve McQueen’s Hunger, “Slow” cinema (more satisfying than slow food), auteurism, Cassavetes, you name it.
Blair Mclendon, who invited me to be on the program, is a diehard cinephile from San Diego who is taking a class with Andrew Sarris this semester — I have to admit I’m a little jealous. Anyway, have a listen!

On Terrible Movies with Julia Roberts

So: she’s everywhere, with her big teeth, and I can’t stand it. Eat Pray Love has reared its ugly promotional head. For a non-eating (ok, maybe that part’s not true) atheist-leaning cynic such as myself, I cringe every time I see a poster, a promotion, or goddess forbid, the trailer. Aside from making me question the accomplishments of feminism on a daily basis, I also can’t fathom what exactly is supposed to be entertaining about the plot:

People: THIS IS A MOVIE ABOUT A WOMAN WHO GOES ON VACATION. Go on vacation yourself. Or plan a staycation and eat some Neapolitan pizza. Do not go see this move.

Those who know me probably can picture my face at this moment. But for those who can’t, here you go:

Don’t I look ready for a “vacation” at the insane asylum? Doctor, If I wrap myself in a celluloid, will it go away?

My reaction to the trailer was similar to my response to the advertising campaigns for It’s Complicated and The Ugly Truth,
which — even though I never set foot into a movie theater to see these puppies — made me physically recoil upon looking at them. The posters in particular made me feel so sad for Meryl Streep and wish the oh-so-boring Katherine Heigl would stick to the middling Grey’s Anatomy and JUST STOP doing bad chick flicks that made me avoid fuschia at all costs. Manohla felt my pain too.

I generally have little to no tolerance for these demographically-determined commercial movies, and choose not to see them. (And to those who will criticize me because I obviously haven’t subjected myself to the torture of actually watching the film: you don’t need no weatherman.) But I wondered what the point of detesting them so virulently was, until I came across this quote from the inimitable Andrew O’Hagan:

“Maybe I’m too young in the head and haven’t spent enough time in Los Angeles or psychoanalysis, but I think it’s quite important sometimes to hate things, not to be amused by them, or loftily tolerant of them, but to want to cut off their oxygen supply and mash them into the ground, thereafter to plant something lovely in their place. Maybe a bad novel is just quieter, a bad gallery hanging almost private, while terrible movies starring Russell Crowe seem to come bounding towards you from every space in culture, leaving you no choice but to reach quickly for the elephant gun and fire…” (From his essay “Two Years in the Dark”)

That’s it exactly — bad movies are simply inescapable in our current media environment. You can’t not know about The Proposal or Julie & Julia or [fill in any movie with an aggressive advertising campaign here] even if you avoid all television, as I do. I’ve come to the crotchety conclusion that I find this noise offensive. But this also poses a significant challenge for good films without publicity machines behind them: how do they break through the awful and incessant blathering that these films make? That was once the critic’s role — to convince audiences that taking a risk on art could reap rewards far beyond Oprah-isms applied like a salve to society’s wounds. But can anyone really escape the jaws of Eat Pray Love, and America’s sweetheart’s teeth? Maybe the answer is to fight fire with fire, and mash it up into oblivion. Here’s a parody starring a Tibetan monk for the road. Let’s hope there’s more where that came from.