Super Mario

One of the great revelations of the last decade has been the breadth and depth of the Italian popular cinema, at last made available to non-Italian speakers through the subtitling efforts of companies like Raro Video and NoShame, as well as the private initiatives of many public-spirited cinephiles on the net. Thanks to the horror buffs, we’ve made great strides with filmmakers like Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda; Quentin Tarantino and his followers have unearthed such intriguing action directors as Fernando di Leo and Sergio Martino. Now, attention seems to be turning to the “commedia all’Italiana,” the remarkable surge of biting social comedies that accompanied Italy’s economic recovery in the 50s and 60s. Once widely distributed (and commercially successful) in the US, many of these movies have dropped out of circulation over the years, leaving major directors like Dino Risi, Luigi Zampa, Pietro Germi and Nanni Loy woefully underrepresented, but lately Raro, Criterion and Kino have been issuing rare work by Alberto Lattuada, Antonio Pietrangeli, and Marco Ferreri, hopefully with more to follow.

Mario Monicelli (above) may have been the best known of the group when he died in 2010 at the age of 95, but apart from “Big Deal on Madonna Street,” very little of his work (which includes nearly 70 titles as a director) has been visible of late in the US. Criterion has taken a big step forward with “The Organizer,” an atypically sober Monicelli film from 1963, with Marcello Mastroianni as an enigmatic labor organizer who urges factory workers toward a strike in turn of the century Turin. The film is a challenging blend of broad caricature and psychological nuance, of realist social reportage and stylized storytelling (more details here, in this week’s New York Times column). Monicelli’s equally complex “La grande guerra” from 1959 would make a terrific follow-up, but his long career has much to offer.

60 comments to Super Mario

  • David Boxwell

    MM’s contribution to BOCACCIO ’70, “Renzo and Luciana”, is by far the best of the four “chapters” in the anthology (and, ironically, didn’t get included in the first US distribution, because there were no stars in the cast). The wedding scene is just priceless: funny and sad in equal measure. Now available from Kino.

  • Not a big Monicelli fan, but he surely had great importance in laying the foundation of the so-called “commedia all’italiana”, especially with Big Deal on Madonna Street and La grande guerra. That said, I think Pietro Germi, Luigi Comencini and Alberto Lattuada were far better directors.

    About Boccaccio ’70. Don’t forget that screenplay for Monicelli’s segment was written by Italo Calvino, and in fact if you read his Marcovaldo you will find a very similar look at metropolitan life.

  • dan

    Dave, thank you for this article, a lovely tribute to Monicelli. I would consider adding to your short list of important italian comedy directos Luciano Salce. He made great films during most of the 60’s (some as segments in the popular omnibus format of those days, most of them shine bright even when followed by a Monicelli or a Pietrangeli) but it is his debut, IL FEDERALE (AKA THE FASCIST), with Ugo Tognazzi that must count as his best work. It’s nothing short of a masterpiece and I believe it qualifies as another lost treasure never before released on dvd in the states.

  • Thanks for the recommendation, Dan. That’s not a film I know but I will keep an eye out for it now. My short list was not at all meant to be definitive, so other suggestions are most welcome.

  • D. K. Holm

    Two good reports. DeMille is clearly one of those “two part career” directors, like George Stevens and David Lean, where the first part is made up of relatively realistic small material, and the second half of enlarged sweeping and grandiose subject matter.

  • Richard T. Jameson

    Second that recommendation for Salce’s Il Federale, which had some U.S. arthouse exposure in the late Sixties under the title Everybody Go Home (huh?). Georges Wilson costarred, and the film was one of comparatively few to win an appreciative review from John Simon. Wish I could recall what we had playing with it at our Edgemont Theatre in exurban Seattle, but I do recall that the Salce way outstripped the film it was nominally second feature to.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Always good news when a previously unavailable (to me at least) deMille picture is released – I look forward to seeing THE BUCCANEER!

    Having watched a lot of deMille lately I don’t really agree with D. K. Holm about the two part career. To quote Mitchell Leisen: ”DeMille had no nuances. Everything was in neon lights six feet tall. LUST, REVENGE, SEX. You had to think the way he thought, in capital letters.” This perfectly describes THE CHEAT from 1915, and with very few exceptions this remains at the heart of deMille’s storytelling, no matter if the story is domestic or biblical. Which is fine by me – I think deMille is one of the most entertaining filmmakers of all time, and at the same time very personal: to become The Great Showman of the movies he had to get complete control over the creative process, which also made him an auteur.

    To further continue the Leisen thread, Preston Sturges worked briefly as a writer on THE BUCCANEER, but after submitting a scene where Napoleon held a conference with his officers sitting in a bathtub and doing battle with a large map of Europe mounted on the wall like a window shade that wouldn’t stay down, he had to move on to other projects. deMille apparently didn’t like the idea of Napoleon as a comedian.

  • Steve

    This week’s column and discussion highlight how much of pre-1960s Italian cinema remains to be discovered. I have two questions: Are you (Dave Kehr) still collecting Italian movie posters? And: does anyone have recommendations for a book or books in English (perhaps Italian too) on Italian cinema from 1940s to 1960s? Thanks.

  • @Richard: Everybody Go Home is Luigi Comencini’s highly recommended Tutti a casa, not Salce’s Il Federale (a good film, but surely not a masterpiece). Comencini’s greatest comedies are Everybody Go Home (originally intended by producer De Laurentiis as pseudo-sequel to La grande guerra) and A cavallo della tigre (written with Monicelli), but he also shot some interesting noirish pictures (Behind Closed Shutters and Girls Marked Danger) and highly enjoyable dramas (The Window to Luna Park, Heidi and Bebo’s Girl). He was a marvelous children director, a little De Sica I would say.

    Luciano Salce instead was a hit-and-miss director. He didn’t properly work in “commedia all’italiana”, because most of his films are based on a single star actor (Paolo Villaggio, Ugo Tognazzi, Alberto Sordi, Lando Buzzanca etc) rather then an ensemble, and his films often have a comic-strip structure: gag after gag, with not much story development. His most successful works are the Paolo Villaggio films, especially Fantozzi and his sequel Il secondo tragico Fantozzi, both based on books by Villaggio himself: a very acute portrait of Italian middle class, not far from Jack Kinney’s Goofy cartoons. I have also recenlty seen The Little Nuns, and enjoyed it very much.

    I would say in Italy we have two distinct traditions: comedy and comic film. Comedy was born with delightful Mario Camerini’s films starring Vittorio De Sica (Gli uomini, che mascalzoni…, 1932), was developed by directors like Monicelli and Risi and is now fully appreciated by both public and critics. Comic film, instead, had its specialist in Mario Mattoli, who achieved huge success working with star comedians like Totò, Macario, Aldo Fabrizi. Mattoli was born as a stage director, and his films always have a theatrical feeling (vaudeville theater, not bourgeois theater), but later films by Steno (An American in Rome) and Salce had a comic-strip feeling, sometimes a little tashlinesque. This is a full body of works that only now is being rediscovered by critics, and I think we still are going to have several nice surprises…

    e.g.
    Probably the best known Totò scene, from Steno’s Totò in Colours:
    http://youtu.be/pUBU1SJTLZg

    And Steno’s The Sunday Monster sketch, a Mario Bava’s Diabolik spoof…
    http://youtu.be/gqumVNiLj2U

    And the “fast-forwarded New Year” from Salce’s Fantozzi!
    http://youtu.be/Ud7scJ16hW0

  • nicolas saada

    Dave, THE ORGANIZER is indeed an unknown gem, released in France as COMRADES : it’s a vivid testimony of the effects of the industrial revolution in Italy. Most shots look like peiod paintings or photographs and the overall mood of the film is tense, almost gloomy. It’s a film I love.

  • That’s a useful distinction, Simone, between comedy and comic films, true of most other national cinemas as well. Among American cinephiles, Toto is probably the most misunderstood figure in Italian films; there’s a general impression that he’s a kind of fey French mime type, or at best a cloying Roberto Benigni predecessor, when in fact he is anything but: a caustic, unsentimental presence, with a physiognomy that at once defines him as a permanent outsider (he already looks like a caricature of himself) and gives him amazing expressive powers (he was, supposedly, a prince by birth: Antonio Focas Flavio Angelo Ducas Comneno De Curtis di Bisanzio Gagliardi). For a star comedian, he was unusually open to putting himself in the service of auteur directors, like Pasolini, Rossellini, Lattuada, Zampa, Bolognini and even Corbucci; when he died in 1967 he was working with the poet Nelo Risi (Dino’s brother) on a version of “Pinocchio” in which he was to play Geppetto, Brigitte Bardot was the Blue Fairy, and Carmelo Bene (a little bit the Italian Jack Smith) as the titular puppet.

  • Steve (April 24, 2012 at 3:57 am): Peter Bondanella’s “Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present” is an enormously appetizing book that makes you want to see most of the films discussed.

    Juicy Monicelli films include A DOG’S LIFE (Vita da cani, with Steno, 1950, on the same topic as Fellini in his debut movie), COPS AND ROBBERS (Guardie e ladri, with Steno, 1951), A HERO OF OUR TIMES (Un eroe dei nostri tempi, 1955, with a bravura Alberto Sordi performance), TOTO AND CAROLINA (Totò e Carolina, 1953/1955, banned at first), BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET (I soliti ignoti, 1958), THE GREAT WAR (La grande guerra, 1959, a great antiheroic war saga), THE ORGANIZER (I compagni, 1963), BRANCALEONE’S ARMY (L’armata Brancaleone, 1966, Medieval satire), COME HOME AND MEET MY WIFE (Romanzo popolare, 1974, on Milanese working class), MY FRIENDS (Amici miei, 1975, on marginalization), A VERY LITTLE MAN (Un borghese piccolo piccolo, 1977, on terrorism).

  • Richard T. Jameson

    Thanks, Simone S., for the clarification on the Salce-Comencini conflation. I confess to having qualms when the phrase “Tutti a casa” rose in my memory a few minutes after I posted my comment about Il Federale; we also showed Comencini’s movie at our art-movie outpost in the late Sixties, and they slurred together in my memory.

  • dan

    Simone – I can’t say I agree with you about IL FEDERALE (I count it as much more than just a “good film”) but i just love your Jack Kiney comparison – brilliant and very true. I think that the looseness of the narratives in his films is what makes them so special and unique. In spite their weird tempo they succeed to be more character driven than conceptwise or storywise. Although the LE MONACHINE can count as a classic “commedia all’italiana”, am i wrong?

  • Alex

    Mario Monicelli is a directed I always wanted tp like far more than I have in the viewing . I love Iralian comedy –Ugo Tognazzi, Toto, Albero Sordi, osbscure films like Mario Bonnard’s “Gaston” that I ran across as a kid exposed to the Chilean release cricuit ca.960 and I love heist films from the noir classisc to Soderberg’s “Oceans’ 11.” However, I’ve never felt much pulse or wit or contagious humor in “Big Dea;.” I like film with class content –especially that of historically detailed class politics — (as well as Mastoinni) but, Alas, “The Oganizer” bores me. Gove me the reputedly boring “La Terra Trema,” or some ’60s Francesco Rosi any day.

    “Il Federale” sounds good.

  • Must admit I find The Organizer pretty boring too. But, as I have already said, I am not a Monicelli fan.

    Luciano Salce’s Il Federale is a classic story-driven comedy, but in my opinion it isn’t that masterpiece, also because I rate it as just an addition to a very popular sub-genre, the WWII comedy (Comencini’s Tutti a casa, Risi’s La marcia su Roma)… I like Salce’s film, it is a “good film”, but I am not sure it is highly reprensative of his original style, and however in that sub-genre I like Comencini’s works much better. That said, I do like it.

    Le monachine (The Little Nuns) is very funny, but I dobut we can properly call it “commedia all’italiana”. Of course, there is a certain interest in social reality (as in later Fantozzi films), and if you think about Rossellini’s monks in Paisan you will see there is a (tiny) connection, but in my opinion it has a gag-driven structure, far from Monicelli or Risi’s works. I don’t consider this as a flaw, and I really like some of its characters, but perhaps we should try to distinguish between comedy (character-driven) and comic film (gag-driven), because otherwise we can miss Salce’s own personal style…

    In Italian comedy, screenwriters are often as important as directors, and while Monicelli and Risi often worked with Age & Scarpelli, Salce filmed many screenplays by Castellano & Pipolo, who had a bad reputation because their scripts were usually filled with low-class jokes and un-original slapstick gags. Le monachine, however, is a pretty classy work, and in my humble opinion some naif touches (e.g. the company stocks flying in the fan heater = socialism!) even have a certain René Clair quality.

  • dan

    Simone, don’t you think that the gags describe the character? IL FEDERALE seems to be driven by both. The story, a classical one about forced journey of two conflicted personalities stuck together, lives or dies by the force of the heroes’ personality clash alone, so it’s not much more than a justification for physical movement. That movement seems to be the cinematic expression for Tognazzi’s process of neglecting his past sense of duty.

    Anyhow, LE MONACHINE is indeed classy. and fun.

  • Michael Dempsey

    The Mario Monicelli thread and Antti Alanen’s mention of “Guardie e ladri” (“Cops and Robbers”) brought the film back to mind 26 years after my only look at it (in a theater).

    This picture lingers in memory as a witty, bittersweet comedy about a cop and a thief who, while constantly striving to foil one another, develop what might now be called a co-dependent relationship.

    If memory serves, the humor arose from the facets of this relationship (Toto plays one of the title figures) rather than jokes. The recovering but still downtrodden aura of its setting, a post-World War II Italian city (don’t recall which one), added a measure of resonance to the proceedings as well.

    Back then, I mentioned it to people who had a development deal somewhere. This sparked a flicker of interest in an American remake. But the notion went nowhere, and even at the time I felt that it would not play in a US context because of the faintly melancholy tone (not unlike that of “Umberto D” if, again, memory serves) provided by the setting, which had no equivalent in this country.

    Would love to have an opportunity to see this again — in part to learn if recollection has led me to overrate it. I hadn’t known that Mario Monicelli co-directed the film with Steno (Stefano Vanzina), since the print I saw, unless I misread the credits, named only the latter as director.

  • Barry Putterman

    Dan’s suggestion that EL FEDERALE might be driven by both gags and character is, I think, an important distinction within Simone’s valid demarcation between comedies and comic films.

    As Simone suggests, films with star comedians are by their very nature more gag driven since the audience has primarily come to see the comedian be funny. Further, the star comedian has a very well defined persona, which means that he will most often be playing the same sort of character in every film with little variations. But even within these limitations there are going to be important differences.

    A comic persona such as Buster Keaton defines himself as being different from the society which surrounds him. So the film will have him going from one experience to another showing ways in which he is at odds with different aspects of the culture without needing to connect to a strong narrative, because Keaton himself is not very much attached to the other people in the narrative.

    In contrast, Harold Lloyd defines himself as being fully integrated into the culture he lives in, and so his striving to achieve something within hat society will necessitate the gags being more attached to a story of him relating to the other characters and their positions within the social order.

    By the same token, while Bob Hope’s comic persona is closer to Lloyd’s and his vehicles will be relatively more story driven, the comic persona of Bob Hope with Bing Crosby is closer to Keaton’s and their films will have looser structures which often only serve the purpose of holding the strings of gags together.

    Of course people such as Sordi and Tognazzi are still more “comic actors” then the American comedians I have just mentioned so literal comparisons couldn’t be made. I’m using these American comedians as examples simply to suggest the wide range of variations possible within the two distinct styles.

    Simone, knowing so much more about the depth ad breadth of Italian film comedy history, could no doubt speak with authority about how these and other variations work in those films. And I, for one, would very much like to hear him do so.

    And, if he is out there listening at the moment, I would also like to hear Gregg Rickman’s thoughts on the subject.

  • Robert Garrick

    Back at NYU in 1976, I took Stanley Kauffmann’s class on Italian Cinema. Kauffmann loved all things Italian, and he pretty much loved all Italian film. I was not as universally enthusiastic but Kauffmann had a “first class temperament,” as Holmes once said of FDR.

    Anyway, I am pretty sure that Kauffmann showed “The Organizer” in that class. My recollection is that Kauffmann was a fan of that film and also of “Big Deal on Madonna Street.”

    By the way, Kauffmann (who has written film criticism for The New Republic since 1958) turned 96 yesterday.

  • Robert Garrick

    We should note here the death of Ernest Callenbach, the founding editor of “Film Quarterly.” In the 1970s, before film schools were everywhere, there were only a few important scholarly film magazines in the United States. “Film Comment” was (then and now) the main one, followed by “Film Quarterly.” “The Velvet Light Trap” joined this list in the 1970s.

    At least one former FQ writer, Michael Dempsey, is an occasional contributor to this blog. Callenbach, like Dave Kehr but a quarter century before, was an English major at the University of Chicago and was associated with Doc Films there.

    Neither Callenbach nor Dempsey had any use for the auteur theory or for many of the favored auteur directors, but Callenbach would have loved a piece on someone like Mario Monicelli.

    Regardless, I remember his magazine fondly, and I learned a lot from reading it. Read his obit here:

    http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-ernest-callenbach-20120425,0,2839981.story

  • Dan: “Simone, don’t you think that the gags describe the character? IL FEDERALE seems to be driven by both.”
    Yes, of course. But, as Barry Putterman suggests, in a comic film (at least in a GOOD comic film) the gags always describe the character and his relationship with the environment. I haven’t rewatched it in the last five years, but in my opinion Il Federale is a little more comedy than comic because we care very much about the character’s evolution: he starts as a Fascist “robot” and at last he gains a certain degree of historical awareness. But it is also true that Salce’s film is filled with gags, as typical of its works: in that sense I find this film an interesting melting pot, but I don’t consider this as an highly representative film neither for Salce nor for “commedia all’italiana”, because this is an attempt to repeat Everyone Go Home‘s success (the story-concept is pretty similar) but stressing the comic side. Then, of course, cinema is not made up of “case history film”, and you always have a wide range of variations, especially when you talk about Italian comedy…
    By the way, this was the first film Tognazzi played a “complex” character, and of course actors are very important in this kind of distinction: usually, when you have Mastroianni, Gassman or Tognazzi you have a comedy, while with Totò, Macario or Villaggio you have a comic film. Sordi and Manfredi used to play both.

    That said, Italian comedy often relies on looser story structure than American classics. Just think about Il sorpasso (The Easy Life) or Everyone Go Home, both exploiting road-movie structure. So, perhaps, being exposed to a great amount of Italian cinema I find Il Federale more story-driven than an American viewer would.

    @Michael Dempsey
    Cops and Robbers is a great film, even a non-Monicellian have to admit that! It has a wonderful script, penned by Ennio Flaiano (La dolce vita screenwriter) and novelist Vitaliano Brancati, developed as a comedy variation on Bycicle Thieves theme: a cop has to catch a thief in order to keep his job, but the thief too has to keep on stealing, because he has got a family too.

    Talking about Totò: his work on stage was very “abstract”, but that didn’t work in his ’30s purely comic films, so in the late ’40s producers asked for more structured stories, often satiric account of everyday life (Totò cerca casa = Totò looks for house) or spoof of Hollywood movies (Fifa e Arena = Bold and Sand). Still pure comic films, but with a tiny storyline. Monicelli, both as screenwriter and later as director, had much to do with this development, and in fact Monicelli’s own films are the only ones Totò has complex, “realistic” characterization. Cops and Robbers, in this regard, is their best work, also because Totò faces Aldo Fabrizi, another great comedian.

    Steno/Monicelli… They worked as a team on their earlier films, but for each film they made together is usually very simply to tell who is the main “auteur”: just read the credits! If that’s credtited Monicelli/Steno, it’s a Monicelli’s film, if that’s credited Steno/Monicelli, it’s a Steno. The last two films they signed as a team, however, weren’t shot by both, and in fact they are quite opposite picture: Steno’s Totò e le donne (Totò and Womens) is a comic-strip film (with Totò addressing to camera), while Monicelli’s Le infedeli is a drama/comedy.

  • “The Great War/La grande guerra” has a scene of Vittorio Gassman quoting Bakunin. How often do you see that in a movie?

  • Gregg Rickman

    Barry, thanks for seeking my input. My experience with non-U.S. and British star comics is very limited, as films with Japanese, Swedish, Russian etc comedians are hard to see over here in the US (this may have changed with the advent of streaming; anyone have any recommendations?). The Enoken film I’ve seen is the one directed by Kurosawa, and my Totos are limited to films by star Italian directors. I’ve often wondered if any of these comedians (besides the French comics Linder, Tati and Etaix) were (or developed into) director/auteurs; is there a Hindu Jerry Lewis-style “total filmmaker”?

    (A partial exception: I was once fortunate enough to see a film by the Czech comedy team of George Voskovec and
    Jan Werich, WORKERS LET’S GO, Martin Fric, 1934. It was pretty hilarious, too; I still recall a gag involving the mass destruction of shrubbery. They contributed to the screenplay, which was evidently an outgrowth of their popular prewar political cabaret. Voskovec, of course, had a whole postwar career as a character actor in the U.S.)

    A couple of observations. I recently watched the Eclipse set of Basil Dearden films, three out of the four of which I liked (SAPPHIRE, a drab policier halfway between the world of GIDEON OF SCOTLAND YARD and an INSPECTOR MORSE episode; THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, a drab caper film memorable for its male love story; VICTIM, a drab social problem film too nervous about its male love story; ALL NIGHT LONG, just drab). Researching Dearden I found he broke in with the British star comics Will Hay and George Formby, who I am familiar enough to suggest that the drab prewar world they operated in helped shape Dearden artistically. We are of course well aware of how many major American directors of the sound era came out of the slapstick comedy of the ‘20s. The discussion of Italian directors here suggests that this may be a worldwide phenomenon.

    I mentioned in a previous thread my recent attendance at a lecture on Jacques Tati by scholar Malcolm Turvey. Building on Tati’s own comments, Turvey pointed out how conscious Tati was of the American slapstick tradition, and made a distinction between active American comics like Chaplin (who grab and manipulate props – he instanced his eating of a shoe in THE GOLD RUSH, his mime suggesting its delicacy) and Tati, who liked gags built on props manipulating themselves, as it were (the tire that turns into a funeral wreath in M. HULOT’S HOLIDAY). It occurred to me during Turvey’s lecture that there was in fact an antecedent for this insistence on gags built around props taking on a life of their own, which eventually comes to seem very contrived – and that would be many many gags in Harold Lloyd’s comedies. Lloyd of course wasn’t the brilliant mime Chaplin and Keaton (and Laurel and Hardy and some lesser known silent comics as well) were, but a skilled actor who created the “Harold” persona with the aid of a corps of gagmen. When Barry writes of “his striving to achieve something within” an established society necessitated “gags being more attached to a story of him relating to the other characters and their positions within the social order” than Keaton, I have to say that my experience is different; Lloyd’s gags often seem very contrived, worked up by the gag writers to give him something “funny” to do. (Tati’s similar gags are of course fully expressive of his world view.) The more hands-on gags of Keaton, Chaplin, and the great Roach comedians’ films (Chase, Davidson, L & H, with and without Leo McCarey) seem more integral to their various comic universes… unique to each comic. I’ll investigate this further next time I watch a Lloyd. I’d add as well that my experience of many Keaton films is of a relentlessly strong, building narrative (OUR HOSPITALITY, SEVEN CHANCES, THE GENERAL) although some of the films (notably the shorts) are more discursive.


    On a different topic, I liked Ernest Callenbach very much; thank you Robert for memorializing him here.

  • Michael Dempsey

    Chick Callenbach was a model editor who welcomed new writers (me included) and gave their efforts probing attention without trying to impose his own viewpoints, which he expressed with wit and eloquence in his own contributions to “Film Quarterly”.

    He was open to any any and all approaches to films and filmmakers — including auteurism — that could yield fresh perspectives. Which is why I believe it’s by no means correct to say that “[n]either Callenback nor Dempsey had any use for the auteur theory or for many favored auteur directors.”

    Perhaps this idea derives from his publication of essays by Pauline Kael back in the day, including her famous (or infamous) attack on Andrew Sarris and other auteurists.

    However, auteurism was well and truly represented in the pages of “Film Quarterly” when I was writing for the magazine, and so were most of the favored auteurs, along with several others who also received this kind of attention (such as, in my case, Paul Cox, Ken Russell, Ridley Scott, James Toback, Roland Joffe, and Godfrey Reggio).

    Our many over-the-phone sessions ironing out essays and interviews will always be a treasured collective memory for me. Chick never in my experience simply blue-penciled other people’s writings, leaving the author to discover the changes only after publication. He collaborated — which sometimes meant major alterations or deletions, other times word-for-word acceptance. Working him was elating because, aside from his unfailing intelligence, he was one of the most wonderfully genial and good-natured people I’ve ever known. It was always a delight to speak with him, both via the (pre-Skype) phone and in person.

    Likewise, it shouldn’t be forgotten that, years before the environmental movement attained its current visibility, he gave it a major jumpstart with his novel “Ecotopia” and other books (one of which is called “Living Poor With Style”).

    Goodbye to this exemplary figure, whose mark will not soon fade.

  • Robert Regan

    Pauline Kael was as much an auteurist as Sarris. She just admired different auteurs.

  • Talking about Italian comedy and comic film… I presume this is a pretty rare clip from Buster Keaton’s first Italian film, L’incantevole nemica (1953).
    http://youtu.be/fzUIkbfB_E0

  • Barry Putterman

    Gregg, you have a good point about there sometimes being strong narratives in Keaton’s films, In fact, COLLEGE seems in many ways to be a commentary on THE FRESHMAN. However, it is Keaton’s complex detachment within his participation that keep the stories in the background for me.

    As for Lloyd, I think it is the intention for the gags to grow out of the plot situations which results in a more universalized rather than individuized circumstance. How well the gags are devised and executed is up to the individual viewer to judge. But maybe if you pretend that I said Charley Chase rather than Lloyd you will have a clearer picture of what I was trying to get at.

    In fact, there may well be better examples on both ends than Keaton and Lloyd. But those are the ones I chose, and those are the ones I’m now stuck defending.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Barry, you’re right about “Keaton’s complex detachment” overall. The story may be intricate, but the center of our attenton is Keaton. He had, I think, to work doubly hard for a good story. GO WEST is the classic example of his staff hauling a lot of gags, and cows, into place, but K’s contribution (and character) is so paricularly strong here that it doesn’t make any difference. When Clyde Bruckman presented him with “The Great Locomotive Chase” he was so pleased that he gave him co-directing credit (for THE GENERAL) for that alone.

    Simone, thanks for the clip. He worked more than once in Italian cinema; for an appraisal of his last feature, released here as WAR ITALIAN STYLE
    (Luigi Scattini, 1967), and its two popular Italian comics Franco & Ciccio, see David Kalat at http://moviemorlocks.com/2011/01/29/keaton-international/

    “Pauline Kael was as much an auteurist as Sarris.” But was she a posthumanist?

  • Barry Putterman

    Gregg, and Clyde Bruckman lived off his work with Keaton for the next thirty years. Having overdosed on “The Abbott & Costello Show” during my childhood, it was an unsettling experience to see those gags in their original incarnations when I got to Keaton.

    Was Pauline Kael a posthumanist? Well, according to your declaration during that debate, she is one now. And, if we wind up going back to that debate in the immediate future, I may soon join her.

  • jbryant

    “Was Pauline Kael a posthumanist? Well, according to your declaration during that debate, she is one now.”

    So she’s a posthumous posthumanist?

  • Alex

    “Pauline Kael was as much an auteurist as Sarris. She just admired different auteurs.”

    Well Kael was enthusiastic about certain directors. But so was James Agee.

    But isn’t “Raising Kane” –with its raising up of Mankiewicz to at least co-equal status with Welles Re KANE– an anti-auteurism thesis?

  • Alex

    Woody Allen (as quoted in Davis’ 2002 “Afterglow”) wrote incisively on Kael: “She has everything that a great critic needs except judgment. And I don’t mean that facetiously. She has great passion, terrific wit, wonderful writing style, huge knowledge of film history, but too often what she chooses to extol or fails to see is very surprising.”

  • “isn’t ‘Raising Kane’ –with its raising up of Mankiewicz to at least co-equal status with Welles Re KANE– an anti-auteurism thesis?”

    It would appear to be wouldn’t it? Along with her “Circles and Squares” article in “Film Quarterly” it would seem that Kael is opposed to auteurism. Transforming Kael into an auteurist is revisionism at its purest to some people.

    That she liked certain directors is undisputed but she regarded few(if any of them)as artists worthy of the name.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Kael Wars recur on this and other movie sites as often as (gulp) Kubrick Wars. I’m more curious as to readers’ opinions of Pierre Rissient, the (very well connected)
    publicist and “man of cinema,” who’s being showcased at the S.F. Film Festival this year. I’m fresh from seeing Todd McCarthy’s 2007 documentary on him, and he’ll be introducing his handpicked selection, HOUSE BY THE RIVER, there tomorrow.

  • Oliver_C

    As Kael herself regretfully observed in old age, she wouldn’t have championed “trash” so much if she’d known just how much of it cinema was going to end up with.

  • Alex

    “that she liked certain directors is undisputed but she regarded few(if any of them)as artists worthy of the name.”

    I think Kael regarded Renoir as pretty generally a great artist. She regarded many directors as artists at times (e.g., the Antoniono of “L’ Avventura” and the Truffaut of “Jules et Jim”), which seems to me preferrable to regarding given directors as either artists or not.

  • Barry Putterman

    It seems that it can’t be emphasized too much that the auteur theory comes at a particular time in film history and relates primarily to viewing the work of directors working within the studio system in terms of their potential as artists rather than the then accepted view of them as artisans. Critics who subscribed to the theory had an overall general agreement on which studio directors had produced artistically successful careers as reflected in the groupings in Sarris’ “The American Cinema.” Pauline Kael did not accept the premise of the auteur theory and did not agree with those who did on the artistic merit of many of the directors it favored.

    After the collapse of the studio system, there was a period of time when the director was considered the central component in Hollywood movies, and most of the American directors whom Kael championed operated primarily in that era. I’m not certain where Kael went after that period ended and the studios were subsumed within conglomerates, since I basically had stopped reading her (and lost munch of my pervious interest in current Hollywood movies) by that time.

    Many auteurists also liked the directors whom Kael championed in the 1970s, but the cohesion built around the theory’s view of the studio system was beginning to break up. I dare say that there is much more agreement among auteurists on this site regarding who are the worthwhile American directors of the films from 1920-1970 then there is for the films of 1970 to the present.

  • Alex

    BTW,

    Bill ‘Moose’ Skowron, 1930-2012.

  • “She regarded many directors as artists at times (e.g., the Antoniono of “L’ Avventura” and the Truffaut of “Jules et Jim”)…”

    Which is to say that she was not an auteurist. Any given artist makes some great works, some good works and some bad works but is always an artist when making art whether good or bad. For Kael, a movie director was a craftsman who occasionally produced an art work that was good.

  • Alex

    “She regarded many directors as artists at times (e.g., the Antonioni of “L’ Avventura” and the Truffaut of “Jules et Jim”)…”

    Which is to say that she was not an auteurist. Any given artist makes some great works, some good works and some bad works but is always an artist when making art whether good or bad. For Kael, a movie director was a craftsman who occasionally produced an art work that was good.

    x359594,

    Your view of auteurism is both reasonable and pretty consistent with the prevalent view at this site. I say “pretty consistent” because posts here are rather resistant to regarding works by directors dubbed auteurs as “bad,” indeed as less than “great.”

    However, I do not agree with your view.

    To say an “artist.. is always an artist when making art” is a tautology.
    Also writing of craftsmen who “who occasionally produced an art work that was good” seems to me a flawed view unless one also allows that such craftsmen may produce work that is occasionally “great” as well as good.

    On the first point, Truffaut’s work seems to me so lacking in plausibly “great” work after THE SOFT SKIN that it is sensible; not to regard him an artist’s after 1964 or so. (Indeed his Hitchcock pastiches strike me as hack work; his DAY FOR NIGHT a strained reach for art; and so on.) Parallel views are not uncommon in literary criticism (as with Bloom on Hemingway as done producing great art by his conclusion of THE SUN ALSO RISES.

    On the second point, François Truffaut expressed himself well on Carne (previously regarded by him as a director “de qualité”) when he said “I have made twenty-three films.
    Well, I would swap them all for the chance to have made ‘Children of Paradise.’”

    Further, I only think Kael would have regarded her favored director as craftsmen as opposed to artists mainly for the cases of those directors whom she regarded as mere entertainers –like Hitchcock. The strength of her distinction between art and entertainment strikes me as unfortunate (though it was characteristic of the American reviewer/critics in the ore-auteurism era). However, I do think that she regarded some directors –e.g., Renoir– as artists.

    I do agree that there are creators who work out of self-expressive impulses and skills with a degree of sustained success and that these are likely to do most great work and are of critical interest even when struggling to just do good work. I do agree that the best first guess at a film’s quality is the director, that the best general hypothesis for explaining film quality centers on the director, and that the most fruitful line for attaining continuity in film criticism is a focus on a director.

    But there’s a lot to be said for some film art as fundamentally collaborative –such as KANE and CHILDREN OF PARADISE– and there’s a lot to be said for genius of some directors as that of sometime artists (e.g., Truffaut).

  • “I do think that she regarded some directors –e.g., Renoir– as artists.”

    So did Dwight McDonald. For him Chaplin, Eisenstein, Renoir, Keaton and Griffith were artists. Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock,not to mention Borzage, Fuller, Ray, Arnold and Ulmer were not (assuming that he even knew they were.) I don’t think McDonald could be described as an auterist (but to his credit he was a Red.)

  • Robert Regan

    Dwight McDonald resigned from a regular column in Film Quarterly, because he would not appear in the same pages as one who considered The Birds a masterpiece. Guess who that was.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Robert — very interesting. Setting aside their opinions, critics divide I think into those who are tolerant of other opinions (a virtue our host obviously has, and I believe Chick Callenbach also enjoyed) and those who aren’t. Dwight MacDonald is evidently an extreme example of this form of critical intolerance, as is Pierre Rissient, who according to the Todd McCarthy doc, will argue passionately with you if you’re “wrong” and whose signature quotation is “It’s not enough to like a film. You must like it for the right reasons.” Apparently it’s on a T-shirt. He didn’t disavow the sentiment at SFIFF yesterday.

    No one I see has commented on Rissient; I was hoping Dave would give us his opinion of the claim made in the documentary that Rissient is responsible for Clint Eastwood’s success, as I guess he got PLAY MISTY FOR ME into Cannes. I myself am happy that Rissient liked his “four aces” whose pictures were mounted at the MacMahon in the 1950s — Preminger, Walsh, Losey and Lang — but not at the expense of the good directors he didn’t like.

    I did mightily enjoy the beautiful print of HOUSE BY THE RIVER screened in Rissient’s honor. As a companion at the screening noted, Louis Hayward’s performance is purely reptilian, like a lizard, although given the setting perhaps he was more of an amphibian. I loved the juxtaposition of Old Dark House and a corrupted nature (the polluted river).

    Alex, you wrote above “Truffaut’s work seems to me so lacking in plausibly ‘great’ work after THE SOFT SKIN that it is sensible; not to regard him an artist’s after 1964 or so. (Indeed his Hitchcock pastiches strike me as hack work; his DAY FOR NIGHT a strained reach for art; and so on.)” I agree that Truffaut is one of those rare directors, like Eisenstein and Welles (if you could count AMBERSONS and IT’S ALL TRUE as completed works, which they’re not) who began their careers by running off three straight masterpieces that changed cinema. In my opinion he made four or five other films later in his career that are also great movies, as well as several other outstanding works; he’s been criminally neglected in favor of his comrade turned Comrade, Godard. (My view is that Godard was interested in reinventing cinema and blew up classicism, while Truffaut was interested in reinventing and thus saving
    classicism.) Our opinions are just that, opinions, but I’ll challenge you on the “hack work” claim, as “hack work” is something done cynically, or resignedly, for money, and all signs indicate that Truffaut’s “Hitchcock pastiches” were sincere labors of love on his part.

  • I enjoyed very much Pierre Rissient’s video extra on the DVD of HOUSE BY THE RIVER.
    As an admirer of Walsh and Lang, shouldn’t we all be grateful for Rissient’s contributions?
    (My web-book on Walsh is now up to covering 56 films and 230 pages.)
    *
    I have always automatically classified all fictional films, books and comics as “art”. Some are art of high quality, some are of poor quality. But all are art.
    Discussions of whether a particular movie is “art” seem to me to be wrong-headed, useless and unproductive.
    Instead, it is better to admit everything is art, and move on to the important question: is it GOOD art?

    I also try to avoid the intentional fallacy: trying to judge a creator’s intentions to make art vs entertainment. Who cares if Raoul Walsh and Allan Dwan lived in environments where everyone thought of themselves as entertainers? They were highly creative filmmakers. Surely that is enough.
    *
    On a sillier note, saw a critical book at the library that argued that the US was moving towards “post-contemporary fiction”.
    Does this involve time travel? Should we alert the physics department?
    *
    Things You Didn’t Want To Know: As a little kid, my mother made me a pirate costume. I pretended to be pirate Jean Lafitte. It wasn’t till decades later that I saw De Mille’s THE BUCCANEER. Who knows if my mother learned about Jean Lafitte from the movie, or from her reading? It’s a really fun picture.

    Are pirate movies a genre? Real genres share huge interlocking tropes of images, themes, styles and story telling conventions. I haven’t seen this in pirate movies. Pirate films share an appealing central topic – pirates and sailing ships – but not a whole lot else. Maybe prate tales are a subject, not a genre.

    My favorites: THE CRIMSON PIRATE (Siodmak), THE PIRATES OF CAPRI (Ulmer).

  • Barry Putterman

    Possibly Jean-Pierre is otherwise occupied at the moment. I’m certain that he would have a number of interesting things to say regarding Pierre Rissient.

    It should be remembered that auteurism regards film in terms of directoral careers as much, if not more, than anything else; with the individual films comprising chapters in a cinematic biography. So, while each film will be examined in depth and will be judged to succeed to a greater or lesser extent on its own terms for a variety of reasons, all of the films will be of interest and value in that they contribute to a greater understanding of the entire career.

    And careers in directing films are like careers in any other endeavor in that they take a great many different courses and move to a great many different rhythms. Some careers begin in a burst of creativity which lessens in intensity as they go along, others begin at a slower pace and become more interesting as they go along. Some have wild fluctuations of differing “periods,” while others maintain a relatively steady pace.

    We often get into trouble speaking of “art” because that word, as well as the word “painting” has a variety of meanings which tend to blur unless you become very specific about the context you are employing when using them. If we were to call books “a writing” or “a work of writing” we would have the same trouble in that area.

    However, it does strike me that trying to divide works into art vs. entertainment categories or distiguishing the “right” or “wrong” reason why somebody should like or dislike a particular film is a great deal of energy exerted in the service of extemely meager results.

  • Alex

    Gregg,

    Well, you’re right to call me for dubbing Truffaut’s post-SOFT SKIN work—the Hitchcock imitations in particular– “hack work.” To begin with, I was thinking of a milder view of “hack work” than you –just as doing work on an externally assigned job. (I don’t think “hack” but rather find great merit in Joseph Epstein’s admiring reference to Ben Hecht as “a hack of genius,” a term I think catches the best runs of such the fine directors denigrated by Sarris by his “less than meets the eye” designation.) But even this use of “hack” doesn’t fit Truffaut’s Hitchcock imitations, which do seem to have been labors of love, if not exactly of self-expression. And which I don’t think are very good films.

    As for “great” Truffauts after the SOFT SKIN, I don’t personally think there are any, except maybe “The Woman Next Door” (original scenario).

    I do recognize that a lot of people like think there are several great films and a large pool of candidates for such: The Last Metro, The Green Room, The Story of Adele H.. Day for Night, Two English Girls, The Wild Child, Fahrenheit 451. But personally I find few of these either impressive or enjoyable. (To be candidate, only 400 Blows seems to me indisputably great, though I thought the same of Jules et Jim, love “Tirez sur le pianiste” and find La peau douce very beautiful in an anemic sort of way.)

  • D. K. Holm

    Just for the record the name is spelled Dwight Macdonald. Small “m.”

  • Peter Henne

    “It’s not enough to like a film. You must like it for the right reasons.”

    “distiguishing the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ reason why somebody should like or dislike a particular film is a great deal of energy exerted in the service of extemely meager results.”

    I don’t have any problem asking people who are already engaged in discussion to give some thoughtful reasons why they like a film, and I’m wondering if that’s what Pierre Rissient (someone I’m unfamiliar with) mostly meant. Some reasons seem plainly inadequate for liking a whole film instead of just a part of it, and plenty of other reasons get keenly debated, regularly here at our host’s site. Maybe we don’t get right answers in art, at least over many questions. But it is nonetheless fair to expect a reason to be supported. If a reason is insupportable, isn’t it just as disallowable as a wrong answer would be to a cut-and-dried question? Aesthetic reasoning doesn’t arrive at mathematical, right-or-wrong results, but it isn’t equivalent to carrying articles of faith either.

  • Barry Putterman

    Peter, what you say here, which I basically agree with, sounds a whole lot different from what Gregg is describing as Pierre Rissient’s approach. It sounds to me as though Rissient is aiming at not a mathematical but an ethical right or wrong answer. Of course, opinions will vary as to what is and isn’t unsupportable even among us denizens of the Dave Kehr site.