11 March 2012

Reality is What Happens When You're Busy Making Other Plans -- Neo Realism, Ripley & None of that Jazz

No no.

Years ago I knew someone who'd just had a dream realized as he'd been accepted into the air force. He'd always wanted to fly planes. The day before he was to leave for the air force he was riding his motorcycle and a drunk driver ran into him. He was in the hospital for months. By the time he was released there were still more back surgeries and more hospital stays. The chance at flying was gone. He became addicted to painkillers. After a few years of pain and drugs, drugs and pain he hanged himself. Or hung himself. Either way he was just as dead. We're supposed to find meaning in such things and believe that everything happens for a reason. Yeah it does.

Only 40% of Americans believe in evolution. No idea how many believe in gravity. Many state legislatures are considering bills that would require schools to teach creationism. Don't know if similar bills would be put forward requiring schools to teach the idea that Zeus is really the ruler of all gods.

Today I watched La Terra Trema (1948) a movie set in and starring a Sicilian fishing village and its inhabitants. Luchino Visconti, a co founder of Italian neo realism and a man of a million strongly held opinions, directed.

This is a film about defeat. About the seeming impossibility of those born poor to work their way past subsistence living. If you didn't know that Visconti was a communist, La Terra Trema would be a giveaway. Evil comes in the form of the wholesalers who following the dictum of never giving a sucker an even break. The fisherman are at their mercy and to rebel is to invite a resounding defeat that serves to illuminate the daily defeat of being the working poor.

La Terra Trema centers around one family and their noble effort to defy the wholesalers and make it on their own. In many countries at many times this would be the happy story of young capitalists succeeding through hard work and ingenuity. But this a film from the Italy of the late 40s and early 50's. All it takes is one intervention from mother nature to leave our heroes beaten and ultimately humiliated. So it went.

Even at nearly two and half hours, with nary a scenery chewing big star in site and despite the sad fate awaiting the family, this is a wonderful film to watch from beginning to end.

(Side note: it would be wonderful if the Criteria Collection would get a hold of La Terra and do a restoration. The current print does not begin to do the film justice.)

Yesterday I watched The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) for the first time since its theatrical release. I'm glad I gave it another look as its got much to recommend it including some fine nuanced performances from Matt Damon in the title role and other cast members such as Jude Law, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cate Blanchett as Marge (Gwynth Paltrow was, I believe, a casting mistake.) The story is a compelling one, being about a sociopath who really just wants to be loved and later to become his new best friend. But the screenplay and direction of Anthony Minghella were solidly mediocre. Too much of the dialogue was pedestrian and the cinema photography was unworthy of the settings (mostly Italy) and the story itself. The late Mr. Minghella brought as much verve and style as does Ron Howard. Which is to say, none.

Damon's performance from 13 years ago suggestged a young actor on the cusp of stardom and some serious work in really good films. Clearly he has opted for stardom, all too often prancing about Jason Bourne and all too seldom sinking his teeth into a role like Mark Whitacre in The Informant! (2009).

His portrayal of the complex Ripley (from the Patricia Highsmith's novels) is immediately beguiling not to mention fascinating. We are at once repulsed and seduced by the duplicitous Ripley, who only wants...What? Everything, perhaps? He is  calculating, he is spontaneous, he is naive, he is ahead of everyone. We root for him and then are shocked by him. The heartbreaking murder of his last victim, over which he sobs while committing it, is an indelible screen moment.

Alain Delon had taken on the same role in Rene Clement's Purple Noon (1960) nearly 40 years before. Which I viewed for the first time last weekend. Comparisons between the two films seem mandatory but I'll nonetheless forgo the ritual. They are such different interpretations with Delon bringing a different sensibility to the Ripley character. Purple Noon suffered from a tacked on ending meant to appease audiences but really for the benefit of prudish film execs. Along the way Purple Noon is actually more pulse pounding than the Damon version. It also created a much different relationship between Tom and Marge.

Both films suggest the manner in which an amoral person can ingratiate himself into all manner of circumstance, taking advantage of people as he goes. Sort of like many of our political creatures.

These sort of people live in this line from Sylvia Plath: Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing.

And there it is. Death, tragedy, defeat. The impossibility of succeeding in all ways. But we live in a world where canned peaches taste good. So there.

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