Monday, May 11, 2015

It's All Been Done Before: Cinema Repeating Itself

There are some people out there who love to tell you that there are no new ideas in Hollywood.  Everything is either a remake, reboot, sequel, or based on a previous story.  In some ways it’s true, but to be honest Hollywood isn’t the only part of the world repeating the work of the past.  Foreign films are just as guilty of the strategy, and even when a work aims to be original it inevitably draws rather obvious comparisons to a previous picture.  Welcome to post-modern film theory.

The thin line between homage and plagiarism has existed since cinema began.  Unlicensed shot-for-shot remakes of popular movies were rushed out almost immediately in cinema’s first decade.  In some cases historians have a hard time distinguishing who ripped off whom.  For most modern film fanatics, the trend picked up steam a during the French New Wave.  It was celebrated to throw little in-jokes and references to earlier films.  These directors were paying tribute to the movies they loved before with character names, props, locations, costumes, even exact shots.  It’s something Quentin Tarantino has taken a lot of criticism for doing more recently.

There are two recent foreign language films I wanted to talk about that don’t exactly seem to pay tribute to earlier films but remake them in a way that’s hard to mistake.  Those two films are Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013), and Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013).  Each film is living and embodying the national cinema of it’s respective pasts so unapologetically that it’s almost insulting. 

The Great Beauty

I’d like to start by saying I loved this film.  You know what other film I loved?  La Dolce Vita.  This film is La Dolce Vita with an older protagonist and shot in color.  I’ll accept the fact that Federico Fellini has been dead for quite some time and since no new Fellini films appear to be surfacing anytime soon, this is the next best thing.  In fact Sorrentino’s film is considerably better than the last two plus decades of Fellini’s work.  Fellini had a tendency to push himself to grotesquery almost as an involuntary urge to top himself, or at the very least not repeat his previous work.  When it came time for him to make Intervista, he blatantly embraced the past and made something of a sequel to La Dolce Vita.

You could say Sorrentino is channeling the late Fellini, inspired by his work and the pre-eminent chronicle of Rome’s social aristocracy.  Or you could say he remade the film in his own image, similar to how Rob Zombie remade Texas Chainsaw Massacre and called it House of A Thousand Corpses.  Now comparing anything to Corpses is clearly an insult, so let me remind you Sorrentino’s film is actually good.  Unlike Zombie he is a director who does seem to have some clue as to how to make a movie.  His leading man doesn’t quite have the charisma or youth of Marcello Mastroianni, but it might make the imitation too unmistakable if he did. 

Toni Servillo does a fine job in his role, and like Mastroianni and Fellini, is a frequent collaborator with his director.  Servillo has appeared in 5 Sorrentino films, but isn’t exactly a stand in for the director.  Fellini and Mastroianni were born 4 years apart, so many liked to view Mastroianni as a more idealized version of Fellini.  A stand in for the director and although the autobiographical undercurrents of La Dolce Vita weren’t quite as pronounced as they were in 8 ½, it does make a valid argument.  It’s more reasonable to say Mastroianni played a version of Fellini that wasn’t real, but much more cinematic.  Complete with imaginary problems Fellini sometimes projected upon himself.

Servillo is actually 11 years older than Sorrentino so we’re not exactly picturing the aging actor as an idealized version of the director/author here.  I was looking at Servillo as a more mature but just as aimless Mastroianni.  His character wrote one book decades ago and is still getting his ass kissed because of it.  He’s been part of Rome’s high society and spends his time talking politics and philosophy with a bunch of aimless rich people.  In one particularly touching seen an older aristocratic couple is getting by renting themselves out to parties as guests.  The Duke’s and high born people of the ancient Rome still exist in this world but are seen as more living museum pieces.

Servillo’s character Jep is part of high society, whereas Marcello seemed to be allowed to hang out there.  Jep wrote a classic novel as a young man and has pretty much milked it ever since, writing a few puff pieces here and there to sustain his lifestyle.  Marcello seemed more ambitious to crash the party, kept around because he was amusing enough.  Both films deal with a search for purpose in the world and also with a confused look at what exactly is art.  Jep sees two separate artists perform in the film and seems to dismiss both as cheap charlatanism, as if to say the only people making art have pushed it too far out that it ceases to qualify as such.

The film is well worth searching out but it helps highlight my point that it isn’t just Hollywood repeating itself, but that these new films with old themes can still be good cinema.  Perhaps it is a bit unfair knowing that any film featuring rich people in Rome is probably going to draw some comparisons to a Fellini film at some point in time.


Like The Great Beauty, Ida also won the best foreign language film Oscar, but that isn’t the reason I’m including the two here.  In fact I had to look that up after the fact, which shows how little that particular award means.  It channels the earlier film to pay a particular tribute to another kind of world cinema in the early 60s.

Whereas The Great Beauty is all about some rather glamorous and empty soul searching, Ida is much more rooted in history.  Pawlikowski wanted to beat you over the head with what he was doing here.  The film itself is somewhat subtle.  Several things remain unexplained or vaguely alluded to, but stylistically he is very blatantly evoking the bleak Easter European cinema of the early 60s.

Shooting in black and white is always a conscious “take me seriously” stylistic choice, and can often elevate a routine film into art house territory.  Where Pawlikowski takes it a step further is by shooting in the old Academy ratio of 4:3 and setting the film in 1962.  It’s not just a period film, but one that he hopes looks just like a Polish film from 1962 would. 

This goes a step further in the plot.  Long story short (spoilers?), a young orphan is about to take her vows at a convent.  She discovers that she still has a surviving aunt, who informs her that she’s actually Jewish and her parents were killed during WWII.  Ok so to look back on these films, complete with vague underhanded Communist bashing, make it seem exactly like a film of it’s period.  The scars of WWII hung over Europe, particularly Easter Europe for decades.  Whereas Italy and France seemed to move past a lot of these themes by the early 60s, most of Eastern Europe seemed fixated on the war.  Czechoslovakian cinema did it with a wonderfully subversive humor that masked the often scathing political commentary.  Polish cinema was a little less guarded. 

The problem I have with Ida is that it has no reason to exist.  I’d rather see some newly restored films from the period and experience authentic Polish cinema from the 50’s-60’s than this modern throwback.  It’s like when someone is telling you about a new band and referring to them as “Beatle-esque”, wouldn’t you rather just listen to the Beatles in that case?  You could say my problem with Ida is the same one many people had with the Sorrentino film.  I’ll grant you that, Fellini does a better job at being Fellini than Sorrentino does, but hell I’ve seen La Dolce Vita 10 times, I’d like to watch something a little different. 

Pawlikowski’s film seems to be digging up old wounds, with old techniques to say the same things countless European art house films have been saying since WWII ended.  Nazis were bad, the Holocaust was awful, many good people did horrible things to survive, etc.  I’m sorry if this sounds like I’m belittling a catastrophic historical event, I’m not, I just don’t get why this topic needed to be told again as if it were being told 50 years ago.  I feel like a couple decades ago we reached our peak of WWII and Holocaust themed films.  Schindler’s List seemed to be the definitive fiction film about the subject, and you can argue Roberto Benigni jumped the shark by making a dramedy about it with Life is Beautiful.  I’m not exactly bad mouthing Life is Beautiful, but that subject seemed to be officially exhausted in the eyes of cinema. 

In defense of Pawlikowski, he isn’t overtly dwelling on the Holocaust.  There’s a lot going on within the films brief running time.  He manages to make the film also slightly coming of age and a road movie without spending too much time dwelling on atrocities.  I just couldn’t help but feel throughout the film that this was extremely familiar territory to tread upon. 

Now a look at one more bonus post-modern example

Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

Nothing stops Woody Allen from making a movie.  For better or worse the man pumps out a new movie every year.  He will get serious on you, but won’t go too long without offering up something a little light hearted.  Magic in the Moonlight might not pack the same punch as Blue Jasmine, but it is definitely worth checking out for a pretty simple reason I’m about to explain.

Sometimes I’ll watch some random old movie, possibly on TCM or from the many depths of my film collection.  Regardless of the film/style/studio/director etc. it has this unique charm to it.  As if Hollywood were largely incapable of making movies that didn’t please everyone back in the day.  You often hear people lament about the golden age of Hollywood with the tacked on phrase “They don’t make ’em like they used to.”  Well Woody Allen heeded your cries and gave you a movie just like they used to.

Allen doesn’t make the stylistic choices Pawlikowski made with his direct reference.  He films Magic in the Moonlight like a contemporary film that happens to be a period picture.  The film stars Colin Firth as a hugely successful magician Wei Ling Soo whose actually named Stanley.  He is recruited by a fellow magician to help expose a fake psychic named Sophie played by Emma Stone.  Along the way shenanigans happen, and people may or may not fall in love.  I won’t ruin things because you should see it.

The point is that this film would be right at place with an MGM logo, and perhaps Robert Taylor or Clark Gable standing in for Stanley and Jean Harlow or Joan Crawford as Sophie.  It has lots of rich people hanging around in huge houses going on long walks, people discussing marriage almost immediately, but with enough healthy Woody Allen skepticism and intellectually high brow conversation to remind you who wrote it.  Allen channeled the popcorn entertainment he grew up with and made a contemporary version of it.  The story itself is probably too crazy to work in a contemporary setting and I think that’s one reason why critics were divided on the film.  No one would have batted an eyelash if this film were released in 1936. 

I’m not saying this is a masterpiece of old timey storytelling, just an example of one man paying homage to his predecessors and proving that yes you can still make ‘em like they used to.  Perhaps the mixed reception of the film might help explain how modern audiences are largely too cynical for old Hollywood.  It’s the same reason a damn good movie like Down With Love (2003) is rarely mentioned among the best romantic comedies of the last 20 years.  The reason I liked Allen’s film more than Pawlikowski’s is because Allen didn’t have to beat you over the head with his nostalgia.  He didn’t have to change the aspect ratio or shoot in black and white. 

If you are still interested in original storytelling, you can always just watch Birdman.