Friday, 8 April 2016

On Blu-ray - David Hare and correspondents contemplate Visconti's White Nights and Cukor's My Fair Lady (from Facebook)

A baby faced Marcello lights up the screen with a cheesy grin against one of Luchino's cardboard recreations of Venice in the 1957 Le Notti Bianche from Dostoevsky. The screen is from a new Cristaldi Blu-ray, Italian friendly only, no English subs. So this can be no more than a preview of what might come from an English friendly label down the track.

I have never cared much for the film, ranking it at the bottom of his pre Vaghe Stelle dell' Orsa (1965) period. This new transfer really showcases the totally studio bound artificiality of the production, which could only have been as resonantly powerful on the big screen. It looks amazing, like Kubrick's studio recreation of Greenwich Village in Eyes Wide Shut. On my own big screen and a projection setup all this sumptuously lit artifice, along with a poignant and stinging Rota score and a very deliberately and theatrically staged and blocked mise en scene is trying to persuade me to like this much more than formerly. And I am enjoying it very much. But there remains an insurmountable problem with the casting. Marcello at this point needed a few years more of experience and a relatively cruel director like Fellini in La Dolce VIta to get smart enough to play alienation. In this adaptation of a neurotically brooding short story from the master of blackness he looks so ingenuous all he seems to need to immediately cheer up is a football to kick around the set. Far FAR worse however is Maria Schell who plays it like Bambi without her chewing gum on the set of a William Asher Beach Party pic. The one actor who can and does resonate with the material, albeit for only the few seconds he appears is Jean Marais, elegantly dubbed and disturbingly still for his few shots. Visconti's film barely whispers the noia until Marais steps into frame and he commands DP Rotunno's most shadowy lighting. One yearns for more of him and less of the kids.

The source for this 1080p is not a new restoration like the recent 4K from Ritrovate for Rocco, but an older, very fine 35mm resto from Cristaldi, which was almost certainly performed around the same time as the same studio executed a gorgeous new 35mm of the contemporaneous Bellissima (1954). Now there's an early Visconti we should all be lapping up in HD.

...and some conversation...

Peter Kemp Wonderfully written account. Thanks for posting.
David Hare Where do you rate the movie Pierre?
Peter Kemp Never saw - Just love your playful, evocative analysis of it. Yet another film I have to see. At some future stage. I like MM in just about anything except a non-starter he did with Julie Andrews called TCHIN TCHIN directed by Bea Arthur's closeted hubby Gene Saks (no auteur by anyone's standards). Hardly a film to clink glasses over!
Noel Bjorndahl You are such an elegant and incisive writer, David. I remember loving this film so I can only hope that one comes out with subs in my fast diminishing lifetime.
David Melville Wingrove The studio recreation is not of Venice but of Livorno (aka Leghorn) - a workaday Italian city full of canals (or 'scali') and shrouded in mist. The 'studio bound artificiality' was a deliberate choice by Visconti. He wanted to pay homage to French Poetic Realism and and give the feeling of an entirely illusory world. Maria Schell's performance may seem overly cute to modern viewers but she was a huge star at the time and audiences found her work genuinely moving. It may not be a masterpiece like VAGHE STELLE and others, but the dance scene with Dirk Sanders is one of the most disturbingly erotic sequences in Visconti's output. Are you not being just a bit too harsh?
David Hare Thanks for the correction on location David. The Venice of Senso compared to this is a mixture of location and soundstage and also bears little resemblance to the Livorno presented here. But the LIvorno of Notti is emblematic surely, and its fog and shadows are equally emblematic. It should be said VIsconti probably still felt the need to showcase his cred as a studio director and completely shake off the terminally limiting (and invented by American writers) moniker of so called neo-realism. The movie is still among his worst IMO along with another disastrously written and conceived high toned literary adaptation, Lo Straniero/L'Etranger/The Stranger adapted from Camus in 1968, again starring a Marcello who's left even more at sea than he is in this picture. Visconti's downfall and artistic collapse which shades all his films after 1965, seems to me to be the need to abandon personal expression to court the arthouse audiences and pander to these realms of "good taste" and "High Culture" all better left to a totally shallow director like Zeffirelli. He parallels Losey during his Liz/Burton phase in that sense. V's films from this period are empty chambers of decor and costume and production design literally trampling over the elements of narrative or mise en scene or genuine feeling. Notti is the earliest of such "contrivances" and it still fails for me, alas, even in its relatively simple aims. As a mood piece saluting the Realisme Poetique of Carne et al the movie is certainly salvaged by Rotunno, Rota and Visconti's own decoupage. But in the terms of Susi Cecchi's and V's screenplay it never comes to term with what Schell's character actually is - a totally central pivot for the story - an existential Femme Fatale who has no role besides being a phantom? or Visconti's' own heterosexual panic projected into that phantom? If this were the intention then why not take the screenplay and character down the path of a Schnitzler story, for example? But whatever or however you write the part there's simply nothing you can do with Schell, an actor with the charisma of a mosquito and even less talent. Her long career reveals a chasm of worthless drek- with one single other film of stature in which she is, at least, credible, Clement's Gervaise. The rest is forgotten and best so.
Peter Kemp 'the charisma of a mosquito' - LOVE it!
David Melville Wingrove You obviously have strong views on Maria Schell. Have you seen her in the Alexandre Astruc film UNE VIE, based on the novel by Maupassant? It's a great film and she is simply stupendous in it. Personally, I loathe Neo-Realism (or, indeed, realism of any sort) so Visconti's later films are the ones I truly love. Zeffirelli a shallow hack? Well, at least his films look good and reflect his own tortured gay Catholic sensibility. I do agree though that LO STRANIERO is ghastly!
David Hare David life is too short for me to have any views on Maria Schell. She is simply appalling in this which is nothing more than part of an analysis of the film and one of the prime reasons it consistently fails.
Bruce Hodsdon Geoffrey Nowell-Smith Cinema One book on Visconti in my view still the best writing in English I've come across on V, even if it has subsequently been qualified by the author. N-S sees WN as an extreme example of the anti-realism tendency that runs deep in V, "its spiritual descendants are to be found in Jacques Demy (Lola, Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and Last Year at Marienbad." In V's work N-S sees aspects of the same tendency operating in Senso, notably "in the way the world of art (opera and painting) is used as an ideal image and a corrective against which actuality can be judged." N-S concludes that in other aspects WN links most closely to Vague Stella/Sandra. WN was widely attacked at the time as a sign of V's abandonment of realism but N-S points out that this begins with his use of semi-expressionist techniques in La Terra Trema and "the creation and manipulation of a bizarre social world in Bellissimo." N-S makes a case for WN "being absolutely central to V's oeuvre."
Bruce Hodsdon Don't think I agree with you about Schell based on viewings of the film 20 yrs ago. Aren't you confusing the performance with the role David? Based on my now distant recollection I think I would agree with N-S who notes that "on the level of actuality Natalia is an hysterical little bitch...The extraordinary thing in the film is that she is allowed to triumph, that the ideal becomes a reality. WN is not a sentimental film. On the level of observation it is lucid and even realistic."
David Hare Bruce, I am preoccupied with things relating to capitalism and finance at the moment but I think' you've said several crucial thing about V and critical frameworks responding to him which I will try to address tomorrow when I'm less fraught.

Bruce Hodsdon More passing on fragments of N-S's analysis David. I would rank Visconti's oeuvre as one of the most difficult to unravel which N-S has substantially done for me.

The knockout Ascot sequence from Cukor's film of My Fair Lady (1964) with incomparable production desisgn by Gene Allen and Cecil Beaton. This is the absolute high point from the spanking new Robert Harris 6K restoration mastered on a new Paramount Blu Ray which now sets a quality benchmark for the film's value and longevity.

If only the rest of the movie had the same bite as the Ascot material however. I've never cared much for the title amongst Cukor's work, and it certainly doesn't come near his only other "real" musical, Les Girls for personal expression. Ever lumbered with the "big assignment" dead weight this managed to escape almost all of Jack Warner's bloody minded casting and production ideas, save for one crucial and horrible mistake which undermines the entire picture, and the considerable pleasures one can otherwise draw from the flawless performances of Rex and Audrey - Marnie Nixon. Despite Audrey's superb handling of a wildly superior Cole Porter score for Funny Face six years earlier, and her extant live-to film mezzo singing for the early part of the picture, Jack Warner handed the rest of the vocals over to Nixon who, apart from being the world's most boringly pneumatic soprano is far less capable of handling the Cockney twang than Audrey demonstrably does, when you hear her pitch perfect line readings. What remains in the vault of Audrey' criminally discarded mezzo tracks are included amongst a copious second BD of supplements that comes in this deluxe silver and black boxset. Harris' work on vision and audio is benchmark gold standard and could not be bettered -they even made a 65mm Eastman Kodak preservation print as well as the 6K and 4K downrez used for Blu mastering and theatrical DCP. So for Cukor completists and fans of the Lerner and Loewe canon, if not necessarily at the top my pile.

...and some more conversation...
Geoffrey Gardner You've made known your enthusiasm. Thanks for the all the info re the specs as well. One memory is that there was criticism of Rex Harrison for 'talking' his songs in the film version whereas he 'sang' them on the LP original cast recording that was in every household in the late 50s. There was also some suggestion that Cukor was not happy with Beaton, who came as part of the part of the package and wanted his usual George Hoyningen-Huene to rethink it all but no dice
David Hare Referring back to the (not always reliable) Lambert on Cukor THE director bristles when Lambert brings up the Jack Warner "High toned" choices for the adapatiation BS. He then goes on to reveal how much he enjoyed making the show, especially with Rex whose "parlando" singing as he calls it was all recorded live to body mike. This practise alone enabled Rex to grow his character into something one never usually sees in straight productions or indeed the 1939 Pygmalion - a strong man with a driving obsession. He is far too apologetic about Audrey, as though Jack was wrong to choose her over Julie Andrews (the only good decision Jack made IMO). Watching her performance anew, especially with a couple of the early songs sung by her, and her dynamic with Rex is quite stirring. I have never run hot on the movie but this presentation of it warms me somewhat. As for Warner throwing Dame Cecil Beatoin into the mix, who seems to have duchessed all over everyone, Cukor pays him some credit for taste relating to Edwardiana, and one can certainly now clearly see how much Cukor and DP Harry Stradling have worked around the rather cloying high queen brown and red stuffiness of Beaton's Edwardian decor for the Higgins house - it is now visibly evident Stradling uses unusually short lenses on the mediums not only to focus on the foreground and the players but layer the sets with incredibly beautiful depth and lighting. These visual elements of the production are now completely gorgeous. If only someone would give the some deluxe 6K treatment to Chapman Report, Let's Make Love, Bhowani Junction and Justine.
David Hare I commend this appreciation from Carlos Clarens' more contemporary summation of the film in his Cukor, for Secker and Warburg/BFI (1976). "At its best, the filmed My Fair Lady demonstrates that Shaw can do very well without all the Lerner and Loewe embellishments. The after-the-ball confrontation between Eliza and Higgins, when they allow themselves for the first time the luxury of baring their feelings to each other, she berating him for his lofty disregard for her humanity, he striking back at her calculated taunt that she must not be allowed to keep his ring is transposed almost intact from the original Shaw, and calls neither for music nor the conventions of the musical comedy. The director's response to the material is also visible in the film's other highlight, again a non-musical scene, and one that recalls similar situations in other Cukor films. Standing on the stairway, above her sponsors. dressed for the ball where she will get to dance with a prince. silent , tremulous with fear and anticipation, Eliza shares her fragile obsession with other Cukor heroines from Mary Evans on; who, in a splendid moment of illumination, discover a certain greatness in themselves."

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