Good Movies

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July 1990
Directed by Guiseppe Tornatore with Philippe Noiret

Long-time readers
know that I am decidedly not a fan of foreign language movies: not
because it is a chore to read subtitles, but because they are invariably
horrible examples of aggressively avant-garde, anti-bourgeois cinema.
Hating as “commercial” movies that appeal to the average movie-goer,
the foreign movie-maker proclaims his superior esthetic sensibility
by scorning interesting plot, tight writing and directing, meaningful
dialogue, glamorous photography, or colorful settings. Instead,
the typical foreign movie has zero plot, minimal dialogue, and wastes
enormous amounts of time on close-ups of the brooding actors’ gloomy
faces, all seemingly photographed in the midst of some dark and
dank box. The ineffable and pointless boredom of these motion pictures
are apparently supposed to embody the alleged boredom of bourgeois
life. In actuality, it is not life, but these infernal movies, that
both embody and induce boredom.

The trouble,
however, is not with foreigners per se. Italians and Frenchmen,
for example, would rather and do spend their time watching Dallas
and Clint Eastwood than waste their time and money watching their
compatriots’ crummy movies. Moreover, it was not always thus. Jean
Renoir, the wonderful 1930s French movies featuring Raimu, and much
of the modern work of Eric Rohmer demonstrate that the problem is
not with the nationality or language, but with the depraved riffraff
who make today’s foreign movies.

But once in
a while there comes a shining exception to the rule. In addition
to granting Driving
Miss Daisy
its best picture award for 1989, the Motion Picture
Academy gave its foreign-language movie Oscar to Guiseppe Tornatore’s
lovely, charming, funny, and heart-warming (as well as heart-breaking)
. Disappearing fairly quickly from the screen the
first time around, it came back in the wake of the award. Go see
it: it’s the best foreign-language movie in many a year, and splendid
in its own right.

Cinema Paradiso
is a heart-felt autobiographical valentine by director and screen-writer
Tornatore to the small town in Sicily in which he grew up during
and after World War II. The movie is a rich tapestry of life in
the Sicilian town, a town without cars or means of entertainment
except the local cinema, where everyone crowds in to see the latest
Italian or Hollywood product. The central character, Salvatore,
marvelously played for most of the film by a child actor, is fascinated
by the life of the projectionist, the center of movie magic. The
projectionist, Alfredo, magnificently played by the great French
actor Philippe Noiret, reluctantly becomes a mentor to the boy,
whose father had been killed in the war. The local priest views
all the movies first, censoring out the – horrors! – kissing
scenes, which Alfredo lovingly clips out and saves.

When, over
a decade later, the movie theater burns down, a large shining new
theater is built, funded by a Neapolitan who had just won the lottery.
(As one local complains: “Those Northerners have all the luck!”)
In the new dispensation, the local priest no longer has censoring
rights, and the local youth go bananas at the love scenes: “Kissing!
After thirty years!” Loving the now grown boy, and blinded during
the fire, Alfredo orders Salvatore to leave the stifling atmosphere
of the Sicilian town, which has allowed him no real life and to
go seek his life and fortune in Rome, never to look back.

The death of
Alfredo, however, inexorably draws Salvatore, thirty years later
and famous as a movie director in Rome, back to his home town for
his funeral. He finds enormous change; the town, now packed with
automobiles and TV sets, has no more use for the movie theater,
which is being torn down for a parking lot. I won’t give away the
climactic discovering of Alfredo’s carefully wrought final present
for Salvatore, but suffice it to say that it’s at least a two-handkerchief
(decidedly non-avant-garde) ending. Don’t miss it!

Directed and written by Whit Stillman

Social realism,
we sometimes forget, does not have to be about the poor, the underclass,
or upwardly mobile immigrants. Social realism, even in New York
City, can be about the glamorous, wealthy, preppie Upper East Side.
In this lovely gem of a movie, this low-budget “sleeper,” Whit Stillman,
in his first film, brings us a sweet, affectionate, autobiographical
valentine about WASP preppie youth in New York. Not since George
Roy Hill’s wonderfully and hilarious The
World of Henry Orient
(1964) has the preppie/deb life been
so perceptively and admirably portrayed.

but affectionately, Stillman shows us a slice of life during Christmas
week, when the life of these college freshmen and sophomores is
one continuous round of expansive deb parties followed by all-night
flirtations and bull-sessions. As one reviewer marveled: these people
speak in whole sentences! Yes indeed, they are articulate, concerned
about ideologies, the future of their class (or whether it should
have a future!), about their own lives, and the intellectuals among
them about literature and culture. All this recalls the days not
only of my own youth, but also of all generations of youth until
the cultural cataclysm of the late 1960s. But the most heartwarming
aspect of this sketch of college youth today is the sweetness and
fundamental innocence of these young people. The one girl in the
group who sleeps around is known to one and all as “the slut,” and
it is gloriously as if the various phases of the Sexual Revolution
had never happened. The Old Culture still lives and this fact gives
all of us hope for the future of America.

Not, of course,
that the Old Culture is or was problem-free. Many of these young
people come from broken if upper-class homes, and suffer from paternal-and-stepmother
rejection. But they cope with these problems as best they can, with
sweetness, determination, and wit. The amiable, earnest, and artless
hero, living in relative penury on the dclass West Side (the only
spot in the film that looks – realistically – grubby),
is a particularly touching case of such rejection.

This hero,
by the way, begins this Christmas week as a seemingly dedicated
Fourierite socialist, but at the end of the week and the film, agrees
with his new-found friend: “Who wants to live on a farm with a bunch
of other people, anyway?”

The photography
is superb: never has the Upper East Side looked so sparkling and
glamorous; the only analogue is those wonderful Art Deco Park Avenue
apartments of 1930s movies, replete with 50-foot ballrooms, alluring
gowns, seltzer bottles on the sideboard, and Fred and Ginger doing
a turn. Here was a New York that served as a beacon and a Mecca
for decades of American youth. The 30s effect is enhanced by the
camera direction. Stillman writes that a low-budget required him
to go back to the stationary cameras of that Golden Age, and to
do so without the self-conscious preening swoops and zooms of modern
cinematography, gimmicks that mainly serve to call attention to
the camera itself rather than to the life and the action on the
screen. Budget or no, the technique fits extremely well and becomes
part of the overall magic of this movie.

you want to imbibe some hope about the future of American youth
and culture, rush to see this film before it disappears amidst the
welter of contemporary glitz, grunt, and gore. And who knows, one
muses on leaving Metropolitan,
maybe even New York City, that once wonderful Babylon-on-the-Hudson,
can one day be brought back to life.

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was the author of Man,
Economy, and State
, Conceived
in Liberty
, What
Has Government Done to Our Money
, For
a New Liberty
, The
Case Against the Fed
, and many
other books and articles
. He
was also the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report

Rothbard Archives

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