This month’s Home Movies column threads on a broad selection of films. From a comic Italian picture to an atypical musical, this latest batch have been among some of the more pleasant surprises of the past month – it’s been a busy period for me as I’ve just managed to settle into my new apartment while getting through various work-related deadlines. It’s nearing the end of July though – time is flying.
Several years ago I was mesmerized by brutal range of emotions that Lars von Trier was able to extract out of Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves. Afterward, I was similarly leveled by Nicole Kidman’s performance in Dogville. And then there’s Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist – the most impressive female performance of the past ten years. Often spoke of in the same breath, Bjork’s performance in Dancer in the Dark falls in line with the series of female victims in Trier’s films, though perhaps the sheer brutality of what is on-screen seems a bit more tame in comparison to some of his more recent films. Obviously, that’s taking into account Dancer in the Dark’s brutal murder sequence and a gruesome hanging - perhaps Trier has simply desensitized me to his brand of miserablism. Cinema of this nature (one so grounded in the misery of people) simply doesn’t resonate with me as profound. If it weren’t for Trier’s firm directorial presence, I fear I would not have been able to maintain my measure of interest in picture.
On a scale of 1-10, my interest in watching Water for Elephants was… well, not particularly high on the spectrum. But I gave it a try, and surprisingly, the picture is effective. While utilizing a useless framing device to structure its narrative, it doesn’t have the same sort of intrusiveness that plagued a film like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. And much like Button, what really elevates Water for Elephants is the stellar collaborators at Francis Lawrence’s disposal – the gorgeous sun-drenched cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto operates in wonderful contrast to Jacqueline West’s Depression-era costumes and David Crank’s art direction. Unfortunately, a substantial dichotomy between the picture’s aesthetics and writing persists. Still, the triad of Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, and Reese Witherspoon diligently sell the material – and I was buying.
Pietro Germi’s ability to adopt a sociological lens without compromising his comedic tendencies in Seduced and Abandoned and especially Divorce Italian Style is nothing short of remarkable. Divorce Italian Style sees Germi analyze the communal nature of a Sicilian family, as Baron Ferdinando Cefalù (Marcello Mastroianni) yearns for his cousin while plotting an elaborate plan to coerce his wife into having an affair. Brandishing a nervous tick, Mastroianni excels as the sort of neurotic husband who fantasizes about a future that is really too good to be true. The film’s richness lies in how Germi constructs the Sicilian neighborhood – much like what was seen in Seduced and Abandoned, virtually every character’s actions are decided by the norms and mores of their community. Complimented by Germi’s excellent framing and clear understanding of his spatial setting, Divorce Italian Style is excels best as a portrait of a man who is confined by a social structure and his futile attempts to work within the system to get what he wants.
The wide range of characters that Buster Keaton took on through his career gives him a versatility that cannot be matched. Whereas I always favored Charlie Chaplin to Keaton’s work, I’m beginning to feel a change of heart. The loveable tramp found in City Light and The Gold Rush begins to look a little less complex when faced with the sissy schoolboy in Steamboat Bill Jr., the daydreaming projectionist of Sherlock Jr., or the egotistical one-percenter in The Navigator. What this allows is a level of flexibility in narrative and character that really does give Keaton an edge over his main silent-era rival.
The Navigator may just be Keaton’s best picture. It’s larger than the grounded Sherlock Jr., but somewhat less frantic than The General or Steamboat Bill Jr. It’s perhaps the most tightly constructed of all of his films – at a runtime of 60 minutes every scene has such a spontaneous comedic spirit that etches a smile onto your face. Along with being one of Keaton’s most impressive visionary works, it’s immediately identifiable on a personal level. It’s a love story first and foremost, where proving to both yourself and the person you love that you are more than what you may put on. It’s a matter of growing up and accepting a measure of responsibility that’s foreign to them. That’s where a lot of comedy comes from, as Keaton absent-mindedly goes underwater to fix a leak without the slightest clue of how to get it done. It’s all funny material, but there’s a poignancy attached to it that gives it added depth.