Good Movies

July 1990 CINEMA PARADISO 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) Cinema Paradiso. 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!

December 1990 METROPOLITAN 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.

Realistically 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.

If 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.

Murray 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.

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