Friday, October 22, 2010

Film #36: Umberto D. (1952)

Director: Vittorio De Sica

Initial Release Country: Italy

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (no spoilers)

Financially strapped geezer getting elbowed out of apartment ponders suicide. Has a cute dog.

Uncut Version (Full plot synopsis, spoilers and all. Fair warning)

Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti) is a retired government pensioner in 1950 Rome. We see him with other retirees picketing for better pensions and learn that he is in some debt. This is only part of a larger problem, however.

Umberto owes most of his debt to his landlady, a self-absorbed social climber who has been raising Umberto's rent in order to force him out of her building. Umberto's only real friends seem to be his spunky little dog, Flike (pronounced like...well, “like”) and the pretty, guileless young maid (Maria-Pia Casilio) in his building. It doesn't take long to see that he is a rather lonely man who has no prospects to speak of. The only things that seem to keep him going are Flike and a mild sense of spite for the world around him, most notably his landlady.

Umberto and Flike in their dank, lonely apartment.

After becoming sick with a fever and spending some time in a public hospital, Umberto attempts to track down past friends and co-workers to borrow some of the money he needs to stay in his apartment. All of his efforts are, however, rebuffed. In the middle of hustling around, he loses Flike. After a nerve-wracking trip to the local pound, where he witnesses dozens of dogs put down, Umberto finds his trusty canine companion.

Following another bout of loan refusals from friends, Umberto comes a hair's breadth from panhandling on the street. His dignity, alas, does not allow him to stoop, though he tries to let Flike hold his hat out for a brief moment. At this point, he returns to his room, which is being stripped of his goods and remodeled around him. Despondent, he plans to end his own life by jumping in front of a train. Only one obstacle exists: Flike.

Umberto tries to find a boarding home for his dog, but cannot. He tries to give him to a young girl whom he knows, but her guardians will not allow it. He tries to fool Flike into running off with a group of young children in a park, but Flike will not part with his master. Resigned, Umberto decides that the only thing left for him is to take Flike in his arms and end both of their lives together.

Grabbing Flike and cradling him, Umberto slowly and slyly crosses the guard rails as a train comes. Just as the train roars close and he prepares to step in front, though, Flike resists and fights his way out of Umberto's arms, running from the tracks. Umberto runs after Flike, who is now too scared to come near his master. Rather than abandon Flike and turn his back on his own life, Umberto decides to coax Flike's trust back out of him and play catch. Our old pensioner has decided to live, as sparse as that life might be.

Man's best friend, indeed.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done before any research on the film)

This was an effort to get through.

I chalk this one up as another that fits in the category of “Great Films that I'll Never Watch Again”. I can't say that there's anything wrong with the movie. Judged on its own merit, it's brilliant. It does something that, at the time, was probably very new, and it has a genuine emotional impact in the end.

But God, did it take a long time to get there. And the movie is only 90 minutes long. It felt like 180 at times. Watching Umberto schlep around Rome from one miserable failure to the next was just plain depressing. It reminded me a lot of the only other De Sica movie I've seen: The Bicycle Thief. One unfortunate fellow with little to live for getting dumped on repeatedly by the people around him and life in general.

Doesn't sound like a fun viewing experience? It isn't.

As I said, though, I can't complain about any technical merits at all. The story is constructed well, the script seems decent (though what do I know – I don't speak Italian), the cast was solid, and the cinematography is incredible (probably the greatest strength, in fact). It's just that, in the end, I was left with a hollow feeling.

I must admit to how effective the sentimental aspects of the film are; namely, the relationship between Umberto and Flike. The three most striking scenes involve both characters: the rescue of Flike from the pound, Umberto having Flike hold out his hat to beg for money (for he's still too proud), and the grande finale of near-suicide/canicide. Still, I couldn't help but feel that this sentimentality was a bit cheap, as strong as it was.

This is a good example of one of the few Flike-less touching moments, when Umberto's desperation is high enough for him to consider begging:

Without knowing the exact history of cinema (though I'll be looking it up), this movie seems a forerunner of the French verite films of the 50s and 60s – that “realistic” approach that was rife with world-weariness and “everyday” problems, and the social ills that were the cause and/or effect. Those movies were hailed as edgy for their “realism” and their unflinching gaze at the uncomfortable truths of life. I hate them. They always seemed to have some sly tone of melancholy and apathy that was dressed up in a chic aesthetic, seeming to say “We're fashionable and hip, but we can be depressed, too.” Umberto D. has none of the fashion sense, but all of the sadness.

Of course, some movies are sad as hell and I still love them. For instance, Aronofsky's The Fountain or Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood For Love. Umberto D. is a whole other kind of sad, even if there is redemption in the end. There's a worn-in, all-too-familiar feel to the situations in De Sica's movie. Perhaps this was his point; he wanted to make people squirm as they looked at the fallout of a society that turns its back on the elderly. For Umberto, the only thing that saves him is his faithful mutt, though even that's unintentional on said mutt's part.

A movie like this just leaves me feeling that humanity is scum, and I don't really need cinema to feel that way. Just watching the evening news is enough.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some further research)

After dwelling upon this movie for several days, and reading several essays on it, I've softened my stance a little bit. I am still quite positive, though, that I'll never watch it again.

It seems that this movie, according to people who know a ton more than I, that Umberto D. marked a bit of a transitional era in film making. Prior to its release, Vittorio De Sica could seemingly do no wrong. He had been a shining acting star in the 20s and 30s, and his first several films has met with popular and critical acclaim in the mid-40s. Umberto D., however, bombed horribly within Italy. Why? The explanation offers some interesting insights.

De Sica's earlier films were what is known as “neorealist”, meaning that they eschewed formal actors, formal stories, and elaborate production for much more naturalistic tales told by non-professional actors. The idea was to present fictional tales that told tragic tales in a near-documentary style. This approach apparently struck a chord with people, as they saw it as revelatory and cathartic. They made a clear statement about the ills of society and their effect on the individual.

Umberto D., while still in a neorealist style, removed some of the core elements, namely the overt condemnation of social malfunctioning. When I think back on it, this is true. One is not really meant to see Umberto as the victim of some soulless government machine. He's simply a lonely man whose seclusion is as much his own doing as his environment's. This seems like a small change of pace, so why such a dramatic shift in reception within its home country?

According to this essay by Peter Becker, it was basically timing. In the 50s, as opposed to the 40s, there was an optimism washing through Italy that precluded the “airing of dirty laundry” to other countries through film. The government of this time, which had considerable influence on media, saw Umberto D. as a pointless look at a tiny pocket of quiet sadness that still dwelt within its own borders. Feeling that it cast a poor light on their country, they panned it and stifled any chance it had at commercial success in Italy. Such was not to be the case in other countries, however, as places like the U.S., France and England hailed it as a masterpiece.

Umberto as he awaits the oncoming train that he hopes will end his life.

On revisiting the sentimentality of the movie, which I initially felt was a bit base, I think that my opinion has been swayed by Stuart Klawans in this essay of his. He analyzes the purpose of Flike in the movie and makes a great case that sentimentality need not necessarily cheapen a film's emotional impact. He sums it up with the line, “ If the main character feels that his humanity itself is slipping away, his sense of being a proper man, then why shouldn’t he have a sentimental relationship with a dog?” Well put, and this point actually makes me feel much better about being choked up at the end of the film.

Here's the final scene, which can certainly be appreciated without having seen the rest of the film. Be warned - it's a spoiler if you're into the mystery of the tale:

Umberto D. - certainly an excellent movie, though one that you need to be in a somber mood for.
That's a wrap. 36 down. 69 to go.

Coming Soon: Singin' In The Rain (1952)

If this blog has taught you anything about me, it's that I hate musicals. This movie, surprisingly, is one that I've seen and remember liking. I'll see if my opinion holds after another viewing.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Film #35: A Streetcar Named Desire

Director: Elia Kazan

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about twelve years ago.)

Teaser Review (no spoilers)

Loopy, pretentious southern belle moves in with sister and her abusive, salt-of-the-earth, meat-head husband in New Orleans.

Uncut Summary (The full monty, spoilers included. Fair warning)

In a rough quarter of 1950s New Orleans, the young and beautiful Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh) steps off of a train. She finds her sister, Stella, at a nearby bowling alley with her husband, Stanley (Marlon Brando). Blanche is searching for refuge at Stella and Stanley's house since the last bit of the family estate, Belle Reeve, is now lost. Stella welcomes her sister to stay with her and her husband, though Blanche is far from forthcoming and Stella and Stanley's place is modest, to say the least: a tiny tenement shared by several other people.

At Stella and Stanley's, things become trickier. Upon hearing Blanche's tale of the sale of Belle Reeve, Stanley begins to show the man he is. The handsome and imposing but territorial man that he is realizes that anything sold to his sister-in-law is, according to Louisiana law, half his. He sees Blanche as an interloper, and perhaps even a con artist who will merely take up limited space in his apartment.

One of Blanche & Stanley's earliest confrontations.

Months wear on, Blanche stays, and things become gradually more tense. Stanley and Stella show themselves to have a textbook abuser/victim, co-dependent relationship. Blanche quite heavily puts on the airs of a southern sophisticate, though the job is a bit poor and neurotically desperate. The brutish Stanley grows ever more frustrated and begins to dig into Blanche's past. What he finds is that Blanche, far from being an innocent victim of encroachment, was at the heart of a scandal in her and Stella's hometown. She had an “inappropriate relationship” with a 17-year-old student and was relieved of her duties. In addition to this salacious story, Stanley also uncovers various rumors that Blanche had been a months-long resident in the nearby town of Auriol, where she “entertained” many different men until she was kicked out of her hotel.

Just before and as Stanley is uncovering these dark details of Blanche's past, his friend, Mitch (Karl Malden) falls deeply in love with Blanche, seeing her as a true southern gentlewoman. Mitch is a lonely man, getting on in years, and sees Blanche as an undreamed of chance at marital happiness with a beautiful woman. One evening, while out with Mitch, Blanche has a moment of clarity, drops her guard, and confesses to a traumatic experience from her past: As a teenage girl, she had inspired the love of a young man. However, the young man learned that he could not be with her and killed himself. This seemed to create a fracture in Blanche's mind. One that never fully healed in the subsequent years.

The psychological fissure continues to be pulled apart by the forces at play in New Orleans: Mitch's desperate desire for her hand in marriage, her sister's need to know just how she can help, and, most strongly, Stanley's scalding rage at her mere presence and demand that she move out. Everything comes to a head on the night that Stella goes into labor and is brought to the hospital. Left alone with the mentally fragile Blanche, Stanley unloads on her. He bullies her, both physically and mentally, culminating in rape, and she snaps. Stella returns to her apartment to find her sister in mental shambles.

In the end, Blanche is taken away by people from a mental institution, under the auspices of taking a cruise with a past gentleman caller. Unable to any longer tell fantasy from reality, Blanche eventually goes, uttering the well-known line, “I've always relied on the kindness of strangers.” Watching impassively all through the heart-rending affair is Stanley, all but counting the seconds down that he will get his tortured sister-in-law out of his life. Mitch is present and is disgusted with Stanley's insensitivity, but nowhere near as disgusted as Stella. She takes their baby to the upstairs neighbors, swears never to return to such a callous man, and closes the door behind her.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any further research)

This is a weird one for me. Great story, great acting, fantastic direction. In fact, I can only think of one thing that I didn't like. Unfortunately, that one thing will keep me from ever watching this movie or the play again. What was the one thing?

A heaveh suhhthuhhhn drawuhl, maaahh deeyuh.

You can chalk this one up to being a peccadillo of mine, since it really makes no great sense. There aren't really too many accents that get on my nerves. When you add in the fact that I was raised in Texas, you wouldn't think that a southern drawl would bother me very much. Yet, in Streetcar, Blanche DuBois's accent is (intentionally) so put on and heavy that I couldn't take it. It merely accentuates (yuk-yuk) how flimsy the veneer is that she's trying to keep up.

Here's how I know I lost my rationality watching this film: I was actually pulling for Stanley for the better part of the movie. I did come around at the end, and see him for the detestable gorilla that he is; however, for most of the film, I wanted him to burn down the paper palace that Blanche had tried to construct around herself. I'm not exactly sure if this development was Tennessee Williams' intent, but I was so agitated by Blanche's airs that I wanted them utterly annihilated, even if it was done to satiate a modern day Thug like Kowalski.

Here's the famous "Stella" scene, which all by itself conveys the nature of the abusive relationship and primal, animalistic lust that Stanley inspires:

I can only liken this bizarre accent hatred of mine to the way that we all dislike certain foods – you can't fully explain why you don't like it – you just don't like it. I suppose its a testament to the tale that I was pulled back from the brink of seeing Stanley as some kind of blue collar hero, and actually seeing him for the lout that he is. In this spirit, let me move past my displeasure at Blanche DuBois's over-the-top Louisiana lilt and take a look at the many strengths of the film.

The story, while crushingly depressing, is brilliant. Blanche is an immediate enigma who we are interested in learning more about, just as Stanley is. Hers is one of the finest examples of character development through slow reveal that I've ever seen. I went from seeing her as merely arrogant to hopelessly selfish to pathetically abused, and finally to sadly wasted. While she does make this transition within the tale itself, the gradual revelations about her past offer different facets and causes for her twisted attempts at gaining attention. When I realized that she has, essentially, been used up and crushed by an unknowable number of people in her past, I saw her as far more sympathetic.

Stanley is, of course, the force of nature that makes things move in this story. His relationship with Stella seemed to lay bare all of the details of abusive relationships that now seem shamefully cliched: verbal bullying and physical abuse followed by the woman leaving him, only to return when he feels remorse. The remorse is certainly authentic, but born of a sad realization that he has harmed the one person who seems to understand and love him. Things calm down for a while, and then the cycle begins again. In the middle of such a dysfunctional relationship, a mentally ill person like Blanche doesn't stand a chance.

The performances are, truly, extraordinary. While his mumbling, guttural linguistic style was starting to settle in for this role, Marlon Brando is frighteningly believable as the barbaric Stanley Kowalski. As in roles like The Wild One and On the Waterfront, he was a slick-looking head-turner. This makes it all the more powerful when you see him turn into a reprehensible animal.

Vivien Leigh is the other obvious standout. As hard as I found it to sit through the interminable front that she puts up as Blanche, her performance is of undeniably brilliant quality. In a sense, she's almost like the dark, battered version of her role as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind (a film that I really can't stomach). The nuances of shifting from manipulative to pathetic are so skilled that the uniquely sad character of Blanche is wholly plausible. When I look at it objectively, I can't deny how incredible Leigh truly was.

The semi-sleeper is Karl Malden, who does a great job as Mitch, the kindly, if somewhat dim, man who falls for the broken Blanche. Even if I didn't really identify with him, I had to come down on his side as being deeply saddened by Blanche's ultimate fate and fully sickened by the actions of his once-pal Stanley.

A Streetcar Named Desire is, without a doubt, a great story, and one which Elia Kazan did a masterful job of adapting to the screen. I almost regret not being able to get past that one trivial aural bugaboo of mine so that I would be able to watch and appreciate its merits again. Alas, I can't.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after further research)

Not much that's terribly surprising about this film in the articles and reviews, though the adaptation process contains some familiar plot-lines.

Tennessee Williams' original play apparently was even more brutal, dark, and vague in terms of the character representations. In the film, it's rather clear that Stanley in meant to be seen as more of a villain, and Blanche more sympathetic, even if neither one of these characterizations is black or white. This is more pronounced by the “punishment” of Stanley in the film version, by way of Stella leaving him at the end. The play is far less clear-cut, with Stella actually seeking comfort in her brutish husband's arms.

According to articles, including the original TIME magazine article, Streetcar was one of the earliest movies to truly deal with “adult” themes. Or at least, deal with them as much as it could within the confines of the Production Code, which was still in evidence, even if its grip was beginning to loosen.

Within the original TIME review, it was interesting to see that the reviewer was not really impressed with Vivien Leigh's performance, thinking that she was outdone by the surrounding cast. I can't say that I agree, as I think that Leigh was excellent. Just couldn't get past that da-yuhmn ayk-se-yunt.

That's a wrap. 35 down. 70 to go.

Coming Soon (I hope): Umberto D. (1952)

The list finally turns back to some foreign-language entries, though this is one I know nothing about. We shall see how it goes.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.