I’ve been calling myself a fan of The Young Pope director Paolo Sorrentino for a while but I’d never seen his debut movie One Man Up. I reckon I’ve got a decent alibi for this Cinema Shame entry as the film didn’t get a UK cinema release only becoming available as part of a pricey (£60) Sorrentino box-set in 2011. It’s always interesting going back and looking at a director’s first film, especially if they have developed their own distinctive style. One Man Up is more understated than his later films but there a few hints of the visual flamboyance to come in films like The Great Beauty, notably an elaborate dream sequence featuring ballerinas.
Despite the title it’s a film about two men, one a footballer and the other an ageing rock star. Like the dual protagonists of The Double Life of Veronique (91, Krzysztof Kieslowski) they share the same name and seem to have some kind of otherworldly connection. However they are not mirror images of each other like Veronique/Veronika. Antonio Pisapia (Andrea Renzi) is a quiet man, a centre-half for a Seria A team who sports the classic mullet and moustache combination favoured by defenders in the 1980’s. Tony Pisapia (Toni Servilla) is a hedonistic pop singer who still dresses like it’s the 70s’ and performs his greatest hits to his loyal fanbase then drags his middle-aged entourage out to nightclubs when they’d rather be at home with their families.
We first meet Antonio during the half-time break in a match they’re clearly losing. You can tell by the way the manager (Italo Celero) takes off his jacket, swings it over his head, then throws it across the room, before launching into a spectacular rant targeting each player individually for abuse but also telling them what they should be doing out there on the pitch. While his teammates are terrified and stare at the floor, Antonio calmly offers tactical advice to his disbelieving manager. When it’s rejected he storms out of the dressing room and out onto the pitch where he takes the acclaim of the crowd.
Both of these introductions hint at their downfall. Antonio’s separateness from his teammates is emphasised in a later scene where he refuses a bribe to throw a match. One of the players who wanted to take the money goes studs up in a 50/50 challenge in training and destroys Antonio’s leg. Tony’s decision to bed a young admirer he meets in the nightclub costs him dearly when his wife catches them together and points out the girl is clearly underage. The Pisapia’s find themselves in limbo. Their careers are over but they’re still recognisable everywhere they go. Tony is probably going to jail, but Antonio has planned for this moment. He has developed his own tactical system and wants to try out his new ideas as a coach but nobody’s willing to take a chance on an untried young manager. Even his former club fobs him off with an empty promise of a job at some point in the future.
Sorrentino films pretty much all tell a similar story about an isolated male protagonist (usually a creative) struggling to connect with those around him. They either come to terms with some past traumatic event or destroy themselves. In The Consequences of Love an exiled mafia accountant puts his life in danger when he falls in love with a barmaid at the hotel he’s hiding out in. The Family Friend subversively reworks Beauty and the Beast into a tale of a vicious loan shark being tricked out of his fortune by a young woman. Sean Penn’s Robert Smith inspired rock star leaves his reclusive Irish home to hunt down the Nazi war criminal who tortured his father in This Must Be the Place, while in The Great Beauty Jep Gambardella’s hack writer is shocked out of his hedonistic complacency by the death of an old lover. Both protagonists in One Man Up fall into this category of being creatives at a moment of crisis in their lives, though to be honest I was only interested in one of them.
Antonio is loosely based on ex-Roma captain Agostino Di Bartolomei who struggled with depression after retiring from the game and eventually took his own life at the age of 41. There are plenty of films about rock stars finding themselves (Sorrentino revisits this theme with This Must Be The Place) but One Man Up is the only film I can think of about a footballer coming to terms with ageing out of their profession. It’s a portrait of somebody slowly drifting away from their own life. The attempts to create some otherworldly connection between the two men feels like warmed over Kieslowski and just gets in the way of the more interesting story. Maybe the contrast is needed between the two leads though to appreciate Renzi’s quietly moving performance. Servillo is a commanding performer and would go on to become Sorrentino’s regular leading man, but it’s Renzi who is the heart of the film.
When accepting his Academy Award for The Great Beauty Sorrentino thanked Federico Fellini and Diego Maradona. It is clear he regards both men as being equals in terms of artistry. Maradona even appears as a character (though not sadly played by the real one) in Youth, while Cardinal Voiello in The Young Pope is an avid Napoli fan and relaxes by watching old clips of the Argentine legend on Youtube. It wouldn’t surprise me if once he’s finished with his HBO series Sorrentino follows it up with a biopic of Maradona.
First confession, I’m still trying to finish a list from two years ago so I’m going to ask other writers here to call me out on Twitter when I don’t manage to do one of these a month. I’m going to be flexible with this updated list and amend it depending on what’s available or if there’s something else I want to write about. Right now there’s a distinctly Italian flavour, but for the moment this will be my twelve.
- Blithe Spirit – Written by Noel Coward and directed by David Lean. Enough said.
- Berlin alexanderplatz – Making my way through Fassbinder’s TV series right now and by Christ does it feel prescient with its story of an embittered middle-aged failure embracing the rise of Nazism in 30s’ Germany.
- Roma – Big fan of Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty and people mention this as an influence so this I must see.
- One Man Down – Speaking of Sorrentino I’ve never seen his debut movie so it goes on the list.
- Daisy Miller or What’s Up Doc? –Depending on which one I can get hold of there will be a Peter Bogdanovich film present.
- Quartet – Merchant-Ivory are unfashionable today. Tarantino publicly dissing them in the early 90s’ probably didn’t help their reputations with younger audiences, but I’ve more time for their best work than his. Besides Quartet has Isabelle Adjani in it
- Police Story 3: Supercop – I thought I had seen this because there was a Michelle Yeoh movie titled Supercop for its UK release in the early 90s’ featuring a Jackie Chan cameo but that is apparently a completely different movie.
- Wings – Bloody hard to find but I really want to see this 1966 war film by Larisa Sheptiko about a female Soviet fighter pilot
- Unnamed Pasolini film. Seen Theorem & his Jesus film but very little else so must make amends.
- Hell Comes to Frogtown – I have no idea what this is.
- The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead – Favourite band as a kid. This documentary came out three years ago and I still haven’t seen it.
- La La Land: Was going to see this but went to see XXX: Return of Xander Cage instead.
- Tuff Turf: adding this to the list as well. 80s’ teen movie with James Spader as the new kid in town falling out with a local gang of punks. How the hell have I not seen this but I have seen director Fritz Kiersch’s Cannon produced Italian time-travelling barbarian movie Gor ?
My initial choice for a Cinema Shame confession was Robert Altman’s Nashville, but it led me instead to Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A. which I liked so much more. Rudolph worked with Altman on Nashville and he in turn helped produce this movie. Altman’s style of filmmaking is clearly an influence. Both films feature interweaving narratives, music by Richard Baskin, and some of the same actors. Welcome to LA. is also an ensemble piece, but these characters are representative of the city they live in, rather than what’s going on in the country as a whole.
There’s Carrol (Keith Carradine), a musician returning from London to work with Eric (Baskin) on a new album. Somehow he’s a successful womanizer despite having an appalling proto-hipster half beard which makes him look like Scooby Doo’s pal Shaggy. Carrol takes his music seriously and considers himself “authentic” which almost certainly means he’s a fake. His millionaire businessman father Carl (Denver Pyle) set up the record deal as part of a ruse to get him back home so he can persuade him to take an interest in the business. Carrol is more interested in reaching out towards his dad’s much younger girlfriend Nona (Lauren Hutton), a photographer who dresses like a 1940s’ private eye in a trilby and trench-coat.
Carrol also puts the moves on Anne (Sally Kellerman), the realtor for the house he’s renting. Her husband Jack (John Considine) is obnoxious before he even has a drink in him and has his lecherous eyes on young housekeeper Linda (Sissy Spacek). Linda also seems to have a prior relationship with Ken (Harvey Keitel), who works for Carl and feels put out that the old man intends to hand over the keys to his empire to a returning prodigal son. Carl is a consummate businessman and expects his wife Karen (Geraldine Chaplin) to play the role of the dutiful wife but she’s complicated and maybe a little damaged. She’s given to wandering the city cadging lifts from strangers and delivering monologues straight-to-camera about the impossibility of really knowing another person. “People deceive themselves don’t you think?”
I can certainly see why some critics at the time found it to be pretentious. Richard Eder in the New York Times called it “a fashion pose masquerading as a position.” I liked its artfulness though. These characters are pretentious. They’re all selling themselves or trying to present a version of themselves they would like the world to see, but they can’t hide their pain from us. There’s one moment, a close-up of Lauren Hutton which is held for longer than is necessary until she directs her gaze right back at the camera forcing the viewer out of the narrative for a moment and to observe an actress playing a part. Baskin’s music recurs throughout the film. Sometimes it’s the same song but played a little differently and the repetition gives the impression everybody is moving to the same rhythm and feeling the same way. What really sold me on Welcome to L.A. though is Rudolph being one of the few American directors use Geraldine Chaplin as well as European filmmakers like Carlos Saura or Jacques Rivette did in their movies. She’s the main reason Welcome to L.A. goes on my list of Cinema Shame confessions.
Of all the Cinema Shame confessions I’ve made this is probably the most embarrassing. Up until a couple of years ago I didn’t even know Bill Forsyth’s comedy That Sinking Feeling existed. To make matters worse I’m Scottish, so I have no excuse for not having even heard of his debut feature. In my defence while growing up in the 80s’ Forsyth’s most famous films Gregory’s Girl (1981) and Local Hero (83) aired regularly on television. Occasionally Comfort and Joy (84) would appear in the early hours on STV but I can’t recall That Sinking Feeling ever appearing in the schedules.
It probably didn’t help That Sinking Feeling has only recently become available in its original form on DVD through the BFI’s Flipside series focusing on little seen British movies. Prior to that the only previous release featured the awful re-recorded audio track used for the film’s international release replacing the actors thick Glaswegian accents with middle-class voices and dubbed with all the skill and care usually reserved for kung-fu movies. For a long time this was the only version available.
A tongue-in-cheek disclaimer at the start of the film claims any similarities to the real city of Glasgow are coincidental, but it’s clear Forsyth is making a serious point here about the bleak prospects facing working class youngsters at a time when Scottish industries were in decline. That Sinking Feeling wears its social commentary lightly though and gives audiences a first taste of the understated often absurd humour of Bill Forsyth. Essentially the film is a series of comic set-pieces utilising Forsyth’s wonderful use of dialogue, and setting up sight gags that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the silent era.
Unemployed teenager Ronnie (Robert Buchanan) reflects on his place in the world and decides drowning himself in a bowl of cereal is no way to go out. Instead he decides he can make a small fortune by robbing a warehouse full of stainless steel sinks. Ronnie enlists his equally unemployed mates to pull of an elaborately planned albeit eccentric heist. There’s Vic (John Hughes) and Wal (Billy Greenlees), wannabe master-thief Andy (John Gordon Sinclair), and Bobby (Derek Millar) whose homemade chemistry experiments have led to the invention of a drug which causes suspended animation. It is to Forsyth’s credit that Bobby’s scientific breakthrough never feels incongruous even though it’s essentially science fiction. “Just think, waking up to start a new life in the Glasgow of 2068. The ring road will be finished” says a doctor later in the film and this mixture of absurdity and melancholy runs throughout Forsyth’s early Scottish films.
People often compare Forsyth to Alexander Mackendrick for obvious reasons but there’s a hint of Michael Powell in there as well. Powell made two great films in Scotland The Edge of the World (1937) and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) and both have great affection for its people and a sense of the landscape defining their place in the world.
Very glad to have finally seen That Sinking Feeling and might well follow up by re-watching Bill Forsyth’s later American films which I haven’t seen since they came out. Particularly his last Hollywood movie Being Human (1994) which flopped spectacularly despite the presence of Robin Williams but I remember being an interesting if flawed epic.
No idea why I avoided seeing New York New York. A musical paying homage to the Golden Age of cinema sounds like something I’d really like but somehow I just never got around to it until now.
VJ Day celebrations, New York, 1945. Despite her reservations Francine (Liza Minelli) spends the night with obnoxious jerk Jimmy Doyle ( Robert De Niro). Both turn out to be musicians. She’s a big band singer, he plays the saxophone. For reasons even Francine does not seem to understand she begins a long term relationship with this joker. Their destructive romance contrasts with the success their musical partnership brings them professionally.I sat down to watch New York New York with with high expectations because I tend to prefer Scorsese’s more atypical movies than the gritty violent dramas people consider his default setting. I’ll take After Hours (1985) or The Age of Innocence (1993) over Goodfellas (90) any day of the week. New York New York a fine film beautifully shot by László Kovács and fuelled by nostalgia for the classic musicals of the 40s’ and 50s’. Boris Levan’s set design perfectly recreates the artificiality of studio built sets, which were meant to look better than real life ever could. The excellent musical numbers are a mixture of jazz standards and new tracks by John Kander and Fred Ebb, writers of the stage-play Cabaret. I wish I could really love it, but there’s just one problem.
This guy.De Niro gets a lot of stick for his career choices over the last twenty years but this is by far his worst performance because it diminishes an interesting film. For a practitioner of an acting style which supposedly encourages ‘authenticity’ De Niro is unbearably mannered here. Minnelli seems naturalistic in comparison and wears a barely concealed look of astonishment in every reaction shot to her co-star’s over-acting. The lack of chemistry between them is obvious from their first meeting during the VJ celebrations when Jimmy sits down uninvited at Francine’s table and pesters her for a date. These early scenes are meant to echo the first meeting between lovers in a screwball comedy who begin their courtship by hating each other but the attempt at witty repartee falls flat partly because De Niro is about as charming as cement.Casting actors with two very different acting styles is deliberate. Minnelli is showbiz royalty, the daughter of Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, while De Niro honed his technique at the Actor’s Studio. This contrast between the magic of old Hollywood and the grittiness of Scorsese’s work is there in the story too. New York New York might stylistically recreate the crowd-pleasing escapism of the Hollywood musical but at the movie’s heart is a troubled volatile relationship and it’s as tough as anything Scorsese has made. While I’m ashamed of not having seen New York New York until now I don’t feel as guilty as DeNiro should for gurning his way through it.
I am not that familiar with Cecil B. DeMille’s output apart from his Chuck Heston movies The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and The Ten Commandments (56), which I can remember watching on television as a kid some Sunday afternoon years ago. I’ve always regarded DeMille as being a pious old bore but it seems I misjudged him. Cleopatra is hugely entertaining. A mixture of grand spectacle and Hollywood melodrama. Despite the historical setting Cleopatra feels modernistic in tone. Claudette Colbert’s smart and sexually confident Cleopatra is a fast-talking dame who wouldn’t seem out of place downing cocktails in a speakeasy. Instead of faux Shakespearian dialogue Colbert engages in the kind of repartee she would swap with her leading men in films like It Happened One Night (34, Frank Capra).
This may seem incongruous to anybody who expecting a historically accurate period piece but DeMille is more interested in entertainment. Like the Liz Taylor Joseph L. Mankiewicz 64’ version it’s about visually stunning set-pieces and the allure of beautiful movie stars. It does however manage to get beyond the myth of Cleopatra as a gold digging man-eater and sympathetically presents the lack of choices available to her in the face of Roman expansionism.
The film begins in 48 BC with Cleopatra’s exile. Fearing she will cause problems at a peace treaty with the Romans, the Prime Minister of Egypt has Cleopatra abducted and left to die in the desert. Julius Caesar (Warren William) agrees terms for her younger brother Ptolemy to become King of Egypt albeit under Rome’s rule. That is until a scantily clad Cleopatra is snuck back into Alexandria and delivered to him in a rolled up carpet. Though she tries to seduce the ageing Caesar it is by offering Egypt as a route towards India that wins him over rather than her womanly charms. It’s more of a business relationship. They both see the mutual benefits in her being Queen of Egypt and an ally of Rome.
Cleopatra and Caesar travel to Rome as a sort of Ancient World celebrity power couple but the Romans are suspicious of her motives and turn against them. After Caesar’s murder she seduces one of his killers Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) as a means of defending her country but rather than being a pragmatic alliance this time it’s a wild ruinous affair. Wilcoxon is remarkable. Not for his acting talents which are limited but for his machismo. This guy is one of the manliest men ever to grace the screen. He makes Franco Nero look about as tough as Charles Hawtrey.
From here the film moves from a lavish costume drama to romantic tragedy as their hedonistic bliss is interrupted by the arrival of Caesar’s vengeful heir Octavian and his army. Demille throws everything and the kitchen sink into the second half of Cleopatra. There’s a massive battle sequence which is thrillingly orchestrated and surprisingly violent. Though the censorious Hays Code was in place Cleopatra was already in production meaning its ridiculous rules didn’t apply. During the battle there’s a close up of a spiked chariot wheel going through a soldiers leg. The very first image seen during the opening credits involve full frontal nudity, albeit discreetly filmed. There are plenty of allusions to sex and one blatantly S&M sequence as a herd of women in leopard costumes are lightly whipped during a feast.
It makes you wonder what kind of movies DeMille would have been free to make if that wee ferret Will Hays and his supporters hadn’t put Hollywood on a leash. I will definitely be taking a closer look at DeMille’s filmography. It seems historical epics were his chosen genre. He followed up Cleopatra by casting macho man Henry Wilcoxon as King Richard the Lionheart in a movie about the Crusades and that’s now high on my must see list.
My excuse for having not seen this before is it felt like I had already. At university Pickpocket would come up a lot during film classes. Paul Schrader essentially remade it twice with American Gigolo (1980) and Light Sleeper (92), which are two of his best movies. Both deal with protagonists operating on the margins of affluent social structures. They are loners by nature limiting their interaction with other people to work. Somehow they think this gives them freedom but they have made the world they inhabit small. Nobody really cares about them except for one person and they realise too late they feel the same. Both films share an ending, which I know from the interviews Schrader has given and articles he’s written is lifted straight from Pickpocket so I was never really in any great hurry to see Bresson’s movie.
Having watched it now it’s very much as I thought it would be. Spare, understated, and thematically interested in ideas from the existentialist movement which were becoming increasingly common in French cinema at the time. “Ce film n’est pa du style policier,” says a disclaimer in the opening credits and what follows must have seemed groundbreaking at the time. Plot becomes incidental to character and theme. Its influence on the emerging French New Wave is clear and it reminds me a lot of Jean-Pierre Melville’s equally influential Bob le Flambeur (56) which broke with convention by filming on location and making the setting part of the story. Melville’s film is lighter in tone though. Its world-weary protagonist gives in to his obsession. Michel (played by Martin La Salle) in Pickpocket however is a bit of a wet blanket.
We first see him stealing money from a woman’s purse at a horseracing event. The police arrest him but do not have enough evidence to charge him. Michel gives the money to a pretty neighbour Jeanne (Marika Green) to give to his mother. Later we learn she’s the first person he stole from. The police keep an eye on Michel with one of the officers even strikes up an odd acquaintance. He is mentored by an older thief who shows him the trick of the trade. The money seems incidental. Michel lives quietly in a sparse apartment. He philosophises about whether he is a thief at all. The answer to that is a fairly obvious yes to anybody other than a French existentialist. Michel isn’t as fascinating as he thinks he is. Less of a defiant non-conformist than a waster, he shows all the signs of addiction, the compulsion to steal, the excitement in the moment before he gives into his desire.
Pickpocket seems very much the archetypal Bresson film with its protagonist trying to find some kind of grace in a harsh indifferent world. A recurring theme in his work. I can appreciate its importance and its influence but I like other films by this director more. The Trial of Joan of Arc (62) with its screenplay gleamed from the remaining transcripts of the actual trial, his odd moving deconstruction of Arthurian romance Lancelot du Lac (74), and his final movie L’ Argent (83) which updates a Tolstoy short story and follows the descent into criminality of a young man falsely accused of laundering money.