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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

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘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.’

    Mike, I am sure you know about Japanese comic book called manga. Always regarded as art by Japanese critic and intellectual. In earlier time, hanga, Japanese woodblock print, was cheap picture that ruling class of feudal period did not appreciate as art but was art to ordinary person, some good quality, some bad quality, as you have written. European artist and critic immediately appreciated hanga as art from end of nineteenth century, and from then hanga was appreciated by all Japanese classes as art.

    Until modern period, there was class distinction in appreciation of art in Japan. I do not think it was like that ever in America;.

  • Barry Putterman

    Junko, I think that it is likely that there has always been an element of class distinction in art appreciation in all cultures. Indeed, that distinction is all but codified here in the terms “classical” and “popular.”

  • Gregg Rickman

    Mike, thanks for calling my attention to Pierre Rissient’s extra on the HOUSE BY THE RIVER disc. I would love to listen to him lecture on films and directors he’s enthusiastic about. I got the impression, though, from McCarthy’s very appreciative documentary, and from his in-person vibe, that he’d be talking “at” me rather than “with” me. At the Castro yesterday someone asked him which directors and films he thought were overrated, and he said that while people might scream, VERTIGO was one (someone obligingly screamed). The parallel I’d draw would be to Jean Desailly’s character in THE SOFT SKIN (one of Truffaut’s several underrated films). In an interview Truffaut talked about why he had the soft, doughy Desailly hold forth passionately on his academic speciality, Balzac, in a scene: “Even an unappealing man becomes appealing when he discusses his work.” And he indeed lights up in the scene. So, yes, I would love to hear Rissient lecture on Lang or Walsh.

    Alex, thanks for the clarification. This is all personal taste, but I paticularly love TWO ENGLISH GIRLS and THE GREEN ROOM. But in his later films Truffaut succumbs I think to a crowd-pleasing niceness that hurt him artistically. The key moment came in SMALL CHANGE when he has a little kid fall from a window and pop up unhurt. As we should know from his earlier great films about childhood (THE 400 BLOWS and also THE WILD CHILD) life scars children. This retreat into fuzziness in his later work did not portend well for him; I think he was undeniably in a steep artistic decline when he died. (I guess that would include the WOMAN NEXT DOOR scenario you admire!)

  • Gregg, please pardon my absence for the last few days — just trying to sneak in a little rest and recreation between some monstrous projects. Pierre Rissient has been a personal friend of mine since the mid-70s, and while I’m not sure where the “you must like a film for the right reasons” remark comes from (or why Todd McCarthy should choose it as representative of Pierre’s thinking), it’s probably relevant to recall that Pierre was a fighting member of the MacMahonists, an auteurist group of the 1950s that separated itself from both Cahiers’ spiritualism/idealism and Positif’s sentimental Marxism with a sort of muscular realist approach that, in particular, disdained the use of special effects and complicated visuals — anything that would distort the spatial integrity of the shot or the continuity of an action. Hitchcock and Welles were out; Walsh and Preminger were in (though just how they reconciled their taste for absolute realism with stylists like Lang and Losey is not clear to me). The MacMahonists (who took their name from the theater, the MacMahon, near the Place de l’Etoile where they liked to congregate) had their own publication, the fascinating and now quite rare “Presence du cinema,” and a list of preferred auteurs that included Allan Dwan, Vittorio Cottafavi and Jacques Tourneur, to name a few neglected by Cahiers. Their finest writer was probably Jacques Lourcelles, whose wonderfully eccentric and wide-raning “Dictionnaire du cinema” remains one of the best-thumbed books in my library, a constant source of suggestions for new films to see and new directors to investigate.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Dave, thanks for the imput. As I recall Sarris makes a reference or two to the MacMahonists in “The American Cinema.” I actually saw a film at that theater when I was in Paris in 1998 (Zinnemann’s THE SUNDOWNERS – hardly an auteurist pick!). I dare say Rissient would be a wonderful dinner companion; he’s clearly someone who knows everyone. Would love to see some of the group’s writing. There is no body of writing by Rissient, who’s more of a raconteur and behind the scenes taste-maker (in addition to Eastwood, he/the film gives him credit for the international recognition of Kung Hu, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Lino Brocka, Abbas Kiarostami and others; of American directors he heavily supported Jerry Schatzberg in the 1970s and Alexander Payne today). All of this is fine, of course.

    McCarthy builds his film around the phrase “you must like a film for the right reasons” and as I say Rissient acknowledged the thought was his if not those exact words.

  • Junko,

    Thank you for the information about woodblock prints – this is all new to me.
    I know the woodblocks created a sensation in Europe. Many Impressionist and later cubist painters collected them. They offered a high quality vision of something new.

  • jbryant

    Off topic: A couple of William A. Seiter films are coming up soon on TCM:

    May 3, 10:30 a.m. EST: CHANCE AT HEAVEN

  • I agree with Dave Kehr (April 30, 2012 at 3:09 pm) about Jacques Lourcelles and his wonderful Dictionnaire du cinéma. During our Robert Siodmak retrospective a few weeks ago I found some of the best writing on his films in that book. About Pierre Rissient and “having to like a film for the right reasons” I don’t claim to understand what that means, but I admire in him his total commitment and always having the courage of his convictions.

    I love François Truffaut, his whole life as un homme du cinéma, his lifelong passion for film history and criticism inseparable from the films he made himself. From a young radical he grew to become an establishment figure, a maker of quality popular cinema, and proud of it. A key to understanding Truffaut is José-Maria Bergoza’s Leçon de cinéma: Truffaut, made in 1983 in two parts with Truffaut watching his films and discussing them. Made a year before he died one can feel his passion and joy of life, the foundation for everything he did. Something happened to Truffaut after Antoine et Colette and La peau douce, but I’m grateful for every film he made. La Femme d’à côté is a shattering film. Les deux Anglaises et le Continent is far from the quality of Jules et Jim, but it is its memorable companion piece.

  • Alex

    Antti Alanen,

    In my experience of myself and other Truffaut viewers, three big factors differentiating lovers of post “peau douce” film from detractors of such films are whether or not one finds the “adult” Jean-Pierre Laude charming or alienating, whether one find Truffaut’s post-peau “joy of life” (once detached from the early work’s profound melancholy) beguiling or dull, whether one thinks the thriller/mystery efforts evoke more sense of creative passion or painting-by-numbers.

    I do also find “La Femme d’à côté” shattering, a more fitting companion piece to “La peau douce” than the leaden “Les deux Anglaises et le Continent” is to “Jules et Jim.”

    On another sort of party pooping — my experience of “Modonna Street” as clunky, I’d add that excellent comedy thrillers/mysteries seem rare to me –and mostly along the lines of ROMANTIC comedy thrillers/mysteries. OnlY CHARADE, HOW TO STEAL A MILLION, THE DARK CORNER and a number of “thin man” films (esp. AFTER THE THIN MAN) and their imitators (e.g., STAR OF MIDNIGHT) come to mind. (Several Hitchcock come to mind — but they seem to me too marginally, if wonderfully, comedic. So does “Quai des Orfèvres” but it’s probably too somber.) Lots of merely okay efforts though (e.g., TOPKAPI, MANHATTAN MURDER MYSRTERY.)

  • K H Brown

    I think that now the most interesting filmmakers to look at are those who Cahiers ignored and whom Positif and especiallly Midi-Minuit-Fantastique championed. Truffaut’s cinema/Britain incompatility (or incompossibility) seems absurd when considering Powell, Dickinson, Fisher, Hamer etc.