31 March 2014

A Life A Lot Less Ordinary -- Matteo Garrone's "Reality"

Its as if there is a walled city in which famous people live. Most of us are on the outside trying desperately to look in catching only glimpses.  Sometimes they appear outside and we can bask momentarily in their glory. Many of us know someone who is on the inside. They were once a classmate or a neighbor or a student or are a second cousin. I have three former students living within those walls including Andy Samberg. I used to have a boss whose step brother is Tom Hanks. More commonly we catch sight of them somewhere for a moment. My wife once saw Katherine Hepburn for example and I once walked by Danny Glover. Then French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his entourage jogged past the missus and I in Paris.

We regular folk cherish these moments and share them with others. Everyone has a brush with fame story. Maybe even an occasion when we had momentary access to where the special dwell.

Once you're inside those walls once you've starred in a film had a hit record or been a regular on a TV show you have access to others there too. When the school newspaper I was adviser for got a phone interview with Samberg six years ago he spoke of getting to meet heroes like Steve Martin and Paul McCartney while working at Saturday Night Live. Imagine if you're famous -- you can hobnob with other famous people many of whom you've admired for years. The rest of us schmucks are left with sending tweets to the famous praying for a response (I got one once from Bob Balaban thanking me for a compliment) But we know that we'll never sit down for a meal at a five star restaurant with them.

Part of the lure is immortality. The famous live on long after their deaths and leave behind not only a name that will be remembered but a presence in films or music or literature. Most of us die to relative obscurity and not even that without loving family and friends.

A few movies have explored the frustration of being just one of the masses for those who seek more. None were better -- in an often creepy uncomfortable way -- than Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1992). This is the story of a would-be comic named Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro) who cannot take no for an answer and becomes so desperate that he kidnaps a famous talk show host (Jerry Lewis) and blackmails the TV show to allow him to fill in.

(Actor Delroy Lindo used to occasionally work out at the gym I frequent. I only saw him a handful times but twice I observed people ask if he could look at their scripts. Director Walter Hill appeared for a Q&A at a retrospective of his films at the Pacific Film Archives a couple of years ago and one audience member used the opportunity to ask if Hill would look at his script.)

In Luchino Visconti's Bellissma (1952) Anna Magnani plays a mother desperately trying get her young daughter into show business going to increasingly great lengths to do so. Surely the next best thing to achieving fame and fortune is to have a next of kin climb to the heights.

In some respects the appeal of the gangster film comes from the same source. The successful gangster may not be famous but -- as is illustrated in another Scorcese film Goodfellas (1990) --but he does things on his own terms beholden to no one. The gangster will not be immortal but his (surely using only the masculine pronoun is apropos) time on Earth will not be confined to a nine to five job and playing by society's rules. As mobster Henry Hill says in Goodfellas: "For us to live any other way was nuts. Uh, to us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills, were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something we just took it." The movie gangster lives in a fantasy world where he is special just like the famous.

I was lucky enough to catch Reality (2012) --  directed by Matteo Garrone -- when it spent all of one week in a Berkeley theater last Spring. I watched it again courtesy of Netflix over the weekend. The film tells the story of Luciano a fishmonger in Naples who auditions for Italy's version of Big Brother (sad to say that such reality shows have infected much of Europe). He gets a call back for a second audition and is convinced he has done well and is a shoo-in to get on the show. It's the quick fix. Luciano has a decent job a wife three children and a loving extended family. He is in the full vigor of health and makes extra cash with a victimless scam. But he's ultimately just an Ordinary Joe -- or Gisueppe if you prefer.  Being a regular guy is clearly okay for a lot of people but for those with a modicum of talent it can be the height of frustration. Many people feel they are one lucky break from being discovered. If only someone would look or listen to their audition tape or read their manuscript they too could live within the walls of the glitterati.

Luciano is a personable guy very popular funny and even does some female impersonating. Once he gets a hint that fame and fortune may beckon his vivid imagination takes over and Luciano becomes convinced he's on his way. A spot on Big Brother would guarantee big bucks and big exposure and winning the whole enchilada would make one set for life. And it so close. The difference between a life of anonymity and national or even international renown can be a coin flip. Why not me? The idea -- when one gets at all close -- is beguiling and can turn into an obsession as it does for Luciano.

Will he ultimately get on the show? Will he drive his family figuratively crazy or himself literally crazy as he awaits word on his fate and tries to influence events beyond his control? These are questions best answered by seeing the film yourself. Suffice to say it is worth the time. Garrone is an excellent director whose previous films include Gomorrah (2008) which had a relatively good run in the States no doubt because it was about organized crime in Italy. Garrone lets the story and its characters speak for themselves. His camera work is subtle at no time does he try any trickery instead relying on simple medium focus shots -- although he begins and ends with camera shots from the sky that wonderfully bookend the movie.

Reality stars Aniello Arena who is a story unto himself. Prior to filming, during filming and I write these words, he is serving a life sentence in an Italian prison for a triple homicide. Say what? Marrone discovered him when he visited the prison to see some one of its theater productions. Arena was let out of prison for filming but being a lifer behind bars is Arena's true reality -- albeit as one who got to star in a film. Arena is -- by the by--  quite good and were it not for his incarceration might star in more films. Then again if he'd never gone to prison he wouldn't have gone into theater and been discovered and been in a film and isn't fame interesting?

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