Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Late night cinematic ramblings

Just watched Fellini's Roma for the first time. And most of it for the second time. It's quite bizarre, entirely plotless, blurring the lines between movie and documentary -- a collage of clashing imagery and jarring noise. For the most part, it's a dark and almost apocolyptic vision of the city and the world. I've only seen two Kubrick films, but this reminded me of his style. The film was made in 1972, and the conflicts of society at that time are very much in evidence.

Gore Vidal appears as himself, speaking in English dubbed in Italian and then subtitled in English. He says:

Rome is the city of illusions. Not only by chance, you have here the church, the government, the cinema. They all produce illusions, like you do and like I do. We're getting closer and closer to the end of the world because of too many people, too many cars, too many poisons. And what better city than Rome, which has been reborn so often? What place could be more peaceful to wait for the end from pollution and overpopulation? It's the ideal city for waiting to see if it will really come to an end or not.
For me, the most striking of the many disconnected scenes in the film portrayed the entry of the film crew into a subway tunnel being dug under the city. Rome has only two subway lines, and they don't service many of the most popular destinations. This is because it's almost impossible to dig tunnels without running into important archeaological finds. Fellini uses this as a device to make a statement about art and progress. We descend through a roaring wasteland of subterranean pipes, tunnels, and ruins until we reach the forefront of the excavation, where giant robotic claws are eating their way through the earth. The work stops because a another cavity has been detected. The guide is exasperated -- work will have to stop for another two months while the archaeologists get involved. One of the foremen looks ill. The team starts up the insect-like claw and begins burrowing a tiny hole through the loose dirt. Suddenly the hole opens up and air begins roaring into the cavity. The team climbs through and finds a perfectly preserved, 2000 year old Roman house, filled with beautiful sculptures and frescoes. The camera lands on a figure bearing a striking resemblance to the sick construction foreman. The explorers continue to wander, witnessing mosaics covered by luminous pools of water, and come to a room with even more brilliant lifesize artwork. All this time, air is roaring into the cavern. Suddenly, though, the frescoes begin to dissolve, destroyed by the air. The very act of witnessing the art has destroyed it.

I didn't appreciate the movie at first. It rambles, and it's not the sort of movie that yields a clear message without a lot of thought. But the more I watched it, the more I got in the groove of Fellini's bizarre worldview.

While we're in the foreign film vein, I guess I could also offer my thoughts on L'Auberge espagnole, which I saw with my mom and brother in the newly-restored Avalon Theater in DC when I was home a few weeks ago. Unlike Roma, this movie has a very clear political message -- in fact, you walk out of the theater feeling like you've been beaten over the head. The tone reminds me of the sort of proletarian epiphanies found in radical novels like Jews without money and Germinal.

In this case, however, the utopian vision is not of a socialist paradise, but instead of pan-European unity brought into being by the youth of the continent.

This no doubt sounds heavy, so I should back up and say that this film is, first and foremost, a very amusing comedy about a bunch of college students in a cramped apartment in Barcelona. In fact, you could easily mistake it for a feature length version of MTV's The Real World. The residents of the apartment are from many different countries, and despite their initial stereotypes and squabbles, they end up becoming fast friends. But the movie also functions at a more allegorical level (true to form, the British characters end up literally in bed with the Americans), and its position on the development of a trans-national European identity are clear. In some places, the film has been released under the English titles "Euro Pudding" and "Pot Luck," which pretty much sum up the director's vision.

Today's Washington Post has an article about the exact phenomena chronicled in the movie. It seems young people in Europe are traveling between countries and breaking down cultural barriers like never before. It strikes me that Bush's myopic foreign policy is probably giving wings to this trend -- it's easy for people from many cultures to find common ground in their dislike for American unilateralism and military posturing.

In any case, I recommend this movie. If you're looking for a light comedy, you can enjoy it at that level. If you want something to think about, it's got that too.

All right, enough of this. I'm going to bed.

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