One of the most surprising things about Peter Bogdanovich’s touching and fascinating sequel to The Last Picture Show (1971)–based, like its predecessor, on a Larry McMurtry novel–is that, far from being a trip down memory lane, this bittersweet comedy is largely structured around historical amnesia: the hero walks with a limp and has grown estranged from his wife and his former girlfriend has lost her husband and son, though the reasons and circumstances behind these and other essential facts go unmentioned: they’re buried somewhere in the forgotten past. The people we last saw in the small town of Anarene, Texas, are now 30 years older, and the only one mired in the past is Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), the town’s mayor, a self-confessed failure and something of a lunatic. His best friend Duane (Jeff Bridges), whose point of view shapes the action–he’s an adulterer who hasn’t slept with his wife Karla (Annie Potts) for some time, and whose main sexual competitor is his own son (William McNamara)–has struck it rich in oil and subsequently run himself millions of dollars into debt while Karla continues to buy condos for their children. When his high school sweetheart Jacy (Cybill Shepherd) returns home after a career as a small-time movie star, having lost her husband and son, old-fashioned movie conventions lead us to expect a renewed romance between her and Duane, but no such thing happens; instead, she becomes best friends with Karla, and the gossip is that they’re having an affair. Although the film is built around the town’s big centennial celebration, there are no big dramatic events in the usual sense; the film’s focus is the complications, readjustments, and discoveries of middle age, and it’s entirely to the credit of old movie buff Bogdanovich, who wrote the script, that there isn’t a single film reference in sight. Nevertheless, he’s learned the major lesson of Leo McCarey–that people and their tragicomic behavior matter much more than plot. I could have done without the use of “September Song” on the sound track at the end; but in many ways this is Bogdanovich’s first grown-up picture for grown ups, and his three leads–Bridges, Potts, and Shepherd–have never been finer. With Cloris Leachman and Eileen Brennan. (Golf Glen, Ford City, Esquire, Evanston, Norridge, Webster Place)
Leslie Thornton will present the remarkable, mind-boggling feature-length black-and-white work in progress that she has been making since 1981–a postapocalyptic narrative about two children feeling their way through the refuse of late-20th-century consumer culture. Thornton utilizes a wide array of found footage as well as peculiar, unpredictable, and often funny performances from two “found” actors. The five highly idiosyncratic episodes, which include passages in both film and video, represent the most exciting recent work in the American avant-garde that I know–a saga that raises questions about everything while making everything seem very strange. Don’t miss this. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Wednesday, October 3, 6:00, 443-3737)
From the Chicago Reader (September 28, 1990). This is the first time I wrote at length about what is still my favorite Eastwood film; the second time was many years later, and that piece can be found here. — J.R.
WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Peter Viertel, James Bridges, and Burt Kennedy
With Clint Eastwood, Jeff Fahey, George Dzundza, Alun Armstrong, Marisa Berenson, Timothy Spall, and Mel Martin.
I can’t say that I’ve been one of Clint Eastwood’s partisans. He was amusing as the Man With No Name — the mean, laconic hombre whose supercoolness suggested a hip Gary Cooper — in Sergio Leone’s mid-60s western trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), and fun in Coogan’s Bluff and Two Mules for Sister Sara shortly afterward. But for me the joke of this ornery, poker-faced, string-bean dude was already running thin as early as Dirty Harry (1971), a right-wing remake of High Noon that amplified Eastwood’s relation to Cooper and marked the point at which he was moving commercially into high gear. (To my mind, the gothic excesses and male hysteria of The Beguiled, made the same year — a Civil War tale in which Eastwood was seduced and unmanned by a bevy of females in a girls’ school — were much more interesting.)
Eastwood emerged from his apprenticeship with Don Siegel to direct Play Misty for Me (also 1971), the kinky misogyny of which, while undeniably quirky, was so unedifyingly unpleasant that I skipped his next several pictures, despite the enthusiasm of many colleagues for some of them (especially The Outlaw–Josey Wales and The Gauntlet). By the late 70s everyone from Orson Welles to Jean-Luc Godard — not to mention many of my smarter colleagues — was expressing admiration for Eastwood as a director, and while I could certainly see that he was a committed maverick who was making personal films, his macho sensibility and his political and aesthetic conservatism repelled me — or at least discouraged me from looking for anything deeper.
Bird made me substantially rethink my biases without actually overturning them, and two pictures starring Eastwood, both made by his production company and directed by his longtime associate Buddy Van Horn — one rather silly (The Dead Pool, a Dirty Harry thriller), the other rather good (Pink Cadillac) — were so personal and idiosyncratic that I began to warm to him further in spite of myself. His apparent distaste for both Dirty Harry and the character’s continuing popularity — awkwardly shoehorned into the plot via some terse remarks about the sickos who enjoy violence in movies — makes virtual nonsense out of The Dead Pool (as I wrote at the time, it’s the pot calling the kettle black). But at least it’s a kind of nonsense that one can feel some sympathy for — the impatience of an actor to move beyond the persona that made him famous; and his high-spirited ridicule of white supremacists in Pink Cadillac was no less bracing. Moreover, the feisty and likable heroines in both Bird and Pink Cadillac — neither of them psycho femmes fatales like the female leads in Play Misty for Me and Sudden Impact — made me reconsider dismissing Eastwood’s view of women as simply misogynist.
It seems clear that Eastwood is often at the mercy of the scripts he finds; while he obviously plays some role in shaping them, he generally isn’t the one who initiates them. Pale Rider might be better than the sub-Shane cornball pretension I thought it was when I saw it; but if it is, I would wager that this is because his direction transcends the script — not because the script in question doesn’t need transcending.
The quantum leap represented by White Hunter, Black Heart from the earlier Eastwood films I’ve seen, Bird included, is the result of three separate factors: (1) he’s working, perhaps for the first time, with a truly first-rate script; (2) he’s developed the directorial skills to get the maximum out of such a script; and (3) he’s attained a freedom as an actor that allows him to take the risk of serving both the script and his own direction rather than the predilections of his usual audience. As good as the script is, most directors I can think of would have botched it, and most male stars I can think of would have botched the lead part as well. To properly appreciate this film one has to see script, direction, and acting as three interacting and interlocking voices; two of these voices happen to belong to Eastwood, but interestingly enough, they are not the same voice — and without the intellectual ammunition provided by the script, neither one of them would have very much to say.
Peter Viertel’s 1953 roman à clef White Hunter, Black Heart may be considered a sub-Hemingway literary work, but I’ve never managed to get all the way through it. Viertel is the son of distinguished Eastern European Jews, Austrian writer and director Berthold Viertel and Polish actress and writer Salka Viertel, who settled in Hollywood in the 20s and became key figures in the intellectual emigre community there. Viertel himself became a novelist and screenwriter; among other pictures he worked on Hitchcock’s Saboteur, two Hemingway adaptations (The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea), and three John Huston features (We Were Strangers, The African Queen, and Beat the Devil), usually in collaboration with others.
In the case of The African Queen (1951) — the preproduction of which formed the basis for White Hunter, Black Heart – he was recruited in Europe by his friend John Huston to help polish a script written in Hollywood by James Agee. Before embarking for Africa, Viertel met with Huston in the English countryside, where it soon became apparent that Huston’s only real interest in the picture was the opportunity it provided for big-game hunting — specifically the chance to shoot an elephant. It also became clear that he wanted Viertel along mainly as a hunting companion, his job as screenwriter being merely an excuse. Having purchased a lot of expensive hunting equipment and blithely charged it to producer Sam Spiegel, Huston originally promised to go hunting only after the picture was shot; but his obsession with the hunt was such that he wound up flying to Africa with Viertel ahead of the cast and crew, ostensibly to scout locations but actually to stalk elephants — which he continued to do after the others had arrived (including Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, as well as Spiegel). Viertel, who ended up as the go-between, eventually found his friendship with Huston in a state of crisis — the sticky situation that became the main focus of the novel he published two years later.
Viertel’s novel, apart from its cachet as a behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood filmmaking in general and Huston in particular, belongs to a specific genre that might be called the critique of Hemingway from within — a kind of sportsmanlike one-upmanship whose practitioners include, among many others, James Jones, Norman Mailer, the neglected Bernard Wolfe, and even Hemingway himself (particularly if one includes The Garden of Eden, the fascinating and provocative novel that he never found the courage or wherewithal to finish). Judging from Viertel’s novel, as well as his film adaptations of The Sun Also Rises (a slick and uninteresting Hollywood reduction) and The Old Man and the Sea (an exercise in soporific piety), his response to Hemingway seems far from critical, but when faced with the crazed Hemingway-esque behavior of John Huston in Africa, he evidently began to have a few doubts.
The genre I’m referring to is an especially ambiguous one, because sometimes these authors’ quarrels with Hemingway wind up as backhanded validations. At its best, the genre is capable of yielding a good many potent insights: Wolfe’s “Dearth in the Evening” is a dazzling essay that begins as a parody-critique of Death in the Afternoon, continues as a philosophical inquiry into bullfighting, and winds up as theoretical speculation about why Hemingway committed suicide. (One of Wolfe’s strongest arguments is that despite Hemingway’s repeated attacks on the practice of endowing animals with human traits, his remarks about the nobility and tragedy of bulls in the ring — and the corresponding “comedy” of the eviscerated horses — are prime offenses in that realm.) But at its silliest — which includes much of Mailer along with Viertel — this genre seems to lust after Hemingway’s glamour while carping at some of his fine print. The problem I had and continue to have with Viertel’s novel is a more complex version of my objection to The Dead Pool, i.e., with the pot calling the kettle black. The book is so preoccupied with the male rivalry and jockeying for position of the two principals, Viertel and Huston stand-ins Pete Verrill and John Wilson, that one winds up with not much more than the image of two little boys comparing their respective penises. Perhaps if Viertel were a more lyrical artist he might have made something more luminous out of the subject (as did Nicholas Ray with his Bitter Victory), but for me the story never develops beyond its most obvious surface impression: two spoiled brats fighting to establish which of the two is more manly.
The script of White Hunter, Black Heart has been kicking around Hollywood in one version or another for quite some time. The final screenplay is signed by Viertel himself, James Bridges (the writer-director of The Paper Chase, The China Syndrome, and Urban Cowboy), and Burt Kennedy (a veteran western director) — strange bedfellows who I suspect worked on the script sequentially rather than at the same time — and Eastwood undoubtedly had some input as well. It comes across less like its sprawling source and more like a finely tuned short story; one of the best things about it, for Eastwood’s purposes, is that the Verrill/Viertel character, who narrates the novel, is here mainly reduced to a narrative device, like Thompson, the faceless reporter who treks through Citizen Kane.
To be fair, Verrill is more of a character than Thompson is — he’s not merely an observer, but an active and important participant — yet his function as a conduit between the audience and the film’s enigmatic central character is quite similar. (The casting of Jeff Fahey — a competent but rather low-key and unmemorable actor — in the part helps this strategy along.) Although the film opens with Verrill narrating as he arrives in England to meet the director of “The African Trade,” and although Verrill is around for most of the subsequent action in Africa, he exists mainly as a moral witness to the antics and behavior of Wilson. Without Wilson to give him meaning, he periodically fades into the woodwork.
In fact the only time the script falters is when Verrill becomes a little too prominent –s pecifically, when he makes a somewhat embarrassing speech about the nobility of elephants and why they shouldn’t be shot (”So majestic. . . . They’re part of the earth. . . . It makes one believe in God and the miracle of creation”) to which his companion replies, without irony, “You certainly have a way with words, Pete — no wonder you’re a writer.” The problem isn’t the sentiment (which doesn’t fully jibe with the book, in which Verrill actually shoots an elephant himself) but the mawkish way it’s expressed. Here as elsewhere, Verrill’s comments are designed to coincide with the viewer’s, but considering the doubts that are sown in other parts of the movie about Wilson’s uses of rhetoric, it’s a pity that Verrill’s weaker hyperbole — however much we may already agree with its general thrust — is given a free ride.
In all other respects, however, the film’s depiction of Africa is a model of tact, beauty, and suggestiveness; the superb musical score, credited to Lennie Niehaus and consisting almost exclusively of African music, could hardly be improved upon. And the transition between London and Africa, effected through a campy nightclub act with a gorilla and a blond ingenue, speaks volumes about the preconceived “Africa” that Wilson and his film company are bringing along with them.
Openly contemptuous of his producer (George Dzundza), abusive to his secretary, and hypocritical and patronizing to his mistress, Wilson bulldozes his way into the dual project — film production and elephant hunt — with charismatic wit, spite, and style that make his very life a nonstop performance. He’s a master of using both hectoring charm and aristocratic sarcasm to get whatever he wants, which is usually plenty, and at least half of his wisecracks — the film is quite clear about this — are expressions of contempt for women.
Eastwood’s performance as Wilson, which incorporates some of Huston’s gruff vocal tonalities and mannerisms, appears to be the major stumbling block for many spectators, apparently because they can’t make the jump from Eastwood’s usual lowbrow, taciturn persona to Huston’s highbrow, oratorical persona. It’s true that Huston’s favorite book was James Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel one can’t imagine Eastwood having much fun with, and it would be absurd to expect a perfect, seamless match between these two disparate and distinctive macho personalities. But in fact it’s the gap between Eastwood and Huston that makes both the performance and the film as a whole so devastating as a critical portrait.
As luck would have it, I saw White Hunter, Black Heart while I was reading Simon Callow’s recent book about Charles Laughton, one of the finest studies of acting I’ve ever read. At one point Callow quotes from Bertolt Brecht’s “Small Organum for the Theater,” and it fits Eastwood’s performance to a T: “The actor appears on stage in a double role, as Laughton and as Galileo; the showman Laughton does not disappear in the Galileo he is showing; Laughton is actually there, standing on the stage and showing us what he imagines Galileo to have been.” I’m certainly not suggesting that Eastwood set out to apply this principle systematically; he clearly arrives at it instinctively and on his own terms. (I’d even be willing to concede that he might have gotten there by default — although it’s worth pointing out that the actorly representations of Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall seem to be guided by similar principles of suggestive commentary; Marisa Berenson as Hepburn is especially canny.) Whatever brought him to this particular performance, it is the key to what makes White Hunter, Black Heart so remarkable. Viewers who can’t abide the notion of Eastwood as Eastwood offering a detailed running commentary on Huston — an analysis so rich and varied that it takes on not only Huston’s brand of machismo and misogyny and his self-deceiving posturings, but Hollywood bluster and colonialist arrogance in the bargain — will be deprived of the powerful polemical thrust of this movie, which drives the final nail into the coffin of the Hemingway ethic.
I’m not trying to suggest that Eastwood’s attitude toward Wilson/Huston is one of simple and unambiguous condemnation; it’s more one of detached curiosity tempered by an increasing amount of skepticism. If the character finally winds up seeming like a fool, Eastwood hasn’t made that judgment from a safe and superior distance; he’s implicating aspects of himself and his own persona along the way. If he had somehow contrived (with the use of heavy makeup, say) to make his impersonation of Huston letter-perfect (and Oscar-ready) rather than merely suggestive, most of the point of his performance would have been lost, because in the final analysis this isn’t simply a movie about Huston and what he represents. It’s a movie about Eastwood examining Huston via himself, and examining himself via Huston — a series of transactions that, thanks to all the issues broached by the script, proves to have a great deal of intellectual content as well as truth.
What emerges is not a pretty picture. The film winds up saying things about the Ugly American in terms of both Hollywood and colonialism that carry additional force and conviction because a conservative like Eastwood is voicing them (as a director, not as an actor). It tells us, among other things, that the self-styled anti-Hollywood Wilson is actually the epitome of Hollywood, that his supposedly uninhibited behavior is a form of psychic self-imprisonment (and his macho stoicism is at least in part a form of emotional and sexual cowardice), and that his self-righteousness about intellectual, moral, and sensual freedom is ultimately an excuse for tyranny and sadism. His eloquence and charm aren’t overlooked either; it’s a complicated portrait. But I don’t think anyone can accuse Eastwood of letting the character off easy.
The film’s centerpiece, set on the patio of an African hotel restaurant, involves Wilson responding with emotional violence to anti-Semitic remarks from his female companion (Mel Martin) and then with physical violence to the white hotel manager’s abuse of an African waiter. The scene is reportedly an almost verbatim account of two events that actually occurred when Huston and Viertel were in Africa, transcribed by Viertel immediately afterward, and what is remarkable about them is the highly complex and conflicted sense of moral priorities that they reveal; in one fell swoop, Wilson’s apparent hatred of racism, his virulent misogyny and sadism, his gallows humor, and his appetite for gratuitous violence are all exposed, and the viewer is left to pick up and sort out all the pieces.
The film’s perfectly articulated final scene is nothing short of astonishing. In terms of framing, pacing, cutting, mise en scène, and Eastwood’s performance — a matter of gestures, postures, facial expressions, and the delivery of one indelible word — it shows that he’s not only a much better director than Huston ever was, but potentially a great one. Dirty Harry fans longing for the old Clint are likely to be puzzled and distressed, but I’m reminded of James Agee’s reply to the fans who couldn’t forgive Charlie Chaplin for abandoning the tramp to scale the dizzying heights of Monsieur Verdoux: “Very young children fiercely object to even minor changes in a retold story. Older boys and girls are not, as a rule, respected for such extreme conservatism.”
Clint Eastwood’s most assured and interesting job of direction to date is an adaptation of Peter Viertel’s roman a clef about the events preceding shooting of The African Queen, with Eastwood playing the John Huston part–a director who decides to shoot a movie in Africa in order to hunt elephants. In a daring departure from his usual roles, Eastwood doesn’t so much impersonate Huston as offer a commentary on him and on macho bluster in general, and thanks to the beautifully structured script by Viertel, James Bridges, and Burt Kennedy–which also has a lot of interesting things to say about colonialism and Hollywood (both separately and in conjunction with one another)–it’s a devastating portrait of self-deceiving obsession, and a notable improvement on Viertel’s book in terms of economy and focus. With Jeff Fahey, George Dzundza, Alun Armstrong, Marisa Berenson, Timothy Spall, and Mel Martin. (Water Tower, Lincoln Village, Golf Glen, Norridge, Ford City)
From the Chicago Reader (September 14, 1990). — J.R.
THE ICICLE THIEF
Directed by Maurizio Nichetti
Written by Nichetti and Mauro Monti
With Nichetti, Caterina Sylos Labini, Federico Rizzo, Heidi Komarek, Renato Scarpa, Carlina Torta, Lella Costa, and Claudio G. Fava.
There is still so much we have to learn about TV! — Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus
Some people have called Maurizio Nichetti the Italian Woody Allen, an unfortunate appellation in more ways than one. Not only does it not do him justice, it also attributes to him an urban snobbishness that couldn’t be further from his world and persona. In the New York Times, where Allen’s movies are ranked higher than the late works of Welles and Antonioni — apparently because Allen, unlike Welles and Antonioni, reflects the worldview of many New Yorkers — the label can only backfire. But take a look at both actors and ask yourself which of the two is funnier.
The first time I saw a Nichetti movie, all it took was the opening sequence to convince me that there was no contest.
At an international conference in Milan, a distinguished participant suffers a stroke. A desperate call is made across the city to Colombo — a short nebbish with a mop of hair and a Groucho mustache, who operates a hilltop refreshment stand — for a glass of mineral water for the poor man. Colombo hurtles down the hill with his tray and sets off on a heroic journey across Milan, during which, among countless other mishaps, the glass of water is sprayed with exhaust fumes, covered by a policeman’s cap, and speckled with white paint before a bee ceremoniously drowns in it.
This is the opening sequence of a poetic, lunatic farce called Ratataplan (1979), the first feature of director- writer-actor Nichetti (who plays Colombo), the world premiere of which I happened to see quite by chance at the Venice film festival, where it won the Golden Lion, then went on to become a monster hit, running as long as six months in some Italian cities. I was there not for the festival but as a participant in a three-day international conference called “Cinema in the 80s” — a deep-dish Tower of Babel affair devoted to “language, industry, and audience,” where three dozen jet-lagged filmmakers and critics from six countries tried to converse in five languages with simultaneous earphone translations. No one had a stroke, but there were moments when we felt we were drowning in our own gibberish.
After that experience, Ratataplan, a comedy completely without dialogue, was an exhilarating revelation, brushing away all the cobwebs and confusion. Here was the cinema of the 80s–not just a fresh comic vision and film style, but a view of the modern world’s insanity that told me much more than three days of lectures. Some parts of the movie — a weird, absurdist collection of screwball skits — were more successful than others, but the whole thing was fresh and unpredictable. The striking uses of pantomime and sound effects occasionally suggested the influence of Jacques Tati (who, I later learned, adored the film), but the overall effect was original — a portrait of the anomalous present that could only have been conceived by a poet.
Born in 1948, Nichetti trained in architecture and theater before finding work as an acrobat and circus clown. He started out in movies scripting cartoons for animator Bruno Bozzetto, including Bozzetto’s Allegro non troppo (1976). He also appeared in that film, in the live-action linking sequences, as a beleaguered and befuddled animator. But his charming gifts as a clown give no warning of Ratataplan’s shrewd and singular observations on the peculiarities of contemporary life: they are at once prescient and unpretentious, deceptively simple and provocative. For instance, there’s the scene in which the shy Colombo collects odds and ends from the city dump and puts together a robot replica of himself with a video camera inside the head. Guiding his suave, remote-control double out the door with a fixed steering wheel, like a puppeteer, and picking up its precise point of view on a TV monitor, he manages to make a date with his downstairs neighbor and take her out disco dancing without ever having to leave home.
After writing about Ratataplan for American Film, I was delighted to hear that a small independent U.S. distributor had picked it up. But the movie never opened. I heard that it had been previewed for a few New York critics — our cultural commissars when it comes to national releases of foreign films; they were not amused, so that was that. Four years later, it turned up briefly on cable, its onomatopoeic title (meant to suggest a drum cadence) shortened to Rataplan; but it wasn’t reviewed and it never came out on video.
Years passed. I heard reports of two more satirical Nichetti features — another commercial success in 1980 and then a relative flop in 1982 — after which Nichetti had been working exclusively in Italian TV, creating and appearing in a popular variety show called Quo Vadiz and a long-running kids’ show called Pista (roughly akin to Sesame Street, but done in his own invented language), and directing a good many commercials. I was beginning to wonder whether the humorlessness of a few Manhattan stiffs was going to keep Nichetti’s work off American screens indefinitely.
It took seven years for Nichetti to secure the creative control he wanted to make a fourth feature. The Icicle Thief won the grand prize at last year’s Moscow film festival, and soon after, I saw it in a packed house on the opening night of the 1989 Toronto film festival. It fully lives up to the promise of Ratataplan without any hint of repetition (pantomime and echoes of Tati are no longer apparent), and that joyful North American audience found it hilarious and wonderful. Seeing the movie a month later at the Music Box during the Chicago film festival with an equally rapturous audience, and subsequently learning that the film had been picked up by a small U.S. distributor, I figured it was only a matter of time before Nichetti was declared a comic genius and his other pictures were shown coast to coast, the New York commissars notwithstanding.
Scattered reviews started appearing around January — some enthusiastic, some not — after the movie was previewed in New York, but the film still didn’t open. Is history repeating itself? Knowing how treacherous it is to be a small independent distributor today — competing with a handful of multinational conglomerates that control everything from the MPAA ratings to what gets hyped on Entertainment Tonight — and considering how expensive it is to open any picture in New York, I fear The Icicle Thief may not be around for long. In any event, now that it’s finally playing in Chicago as well as New York, I suggest that you see it as soon as possible. If you wait too long, you risk missing what is probably the best and funniest Italian comedy of the past decade.
Part of the brilliance of The Icicle Thief — which charts the gradual interfacing of three separate plots — is that it’s much easier to watch than it is to describe. The three separate yet connected stories involve a real-life TV program that shows movies, the family in a movie showing on the program, and a family watching the program. Nichetti, this time playing himself, arrives at a TV studio in Milan where the movie program is about to present his latest film — The Icicle Thief, a black-and-white hommage to De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948) about an impoverished family struggling to make ends meet in the postwar era. (In the movie within a movie, Nichetti, without a mustache, plays the out-of-work father, Antonio Piermattei.) Claudio G. Fava, a real-life film critic who hosts this real-life film show, is grumpy about having to present Nichetti’s film, which he hasn’t seen, rather than either of the two films he’s prepared spiels for: John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’armée des ombres (1969). This doesn’t prevent him, however, from rattling on about the beauty and sincerity of The Icicle Thief.
Meanwhile, a typical middle-class Italian family — father, pregnant mother, and two kids — finish up their dinner and start distractedly to watch the movie. The mother (Carlina Torta), who thinks she may have seen the film before, complains that Fava is giving away too much of the plot, and she spends time on the phone with her mother chatting mainly about pumpkin pasta; the father reads a magazine, and generally pays attention to the screen only when there’s a hint of sex; the little boy is busy with his Lego set; and the little girl is scarcely to be seen.
The movie begins, and it’s actually closer to an affectionate pastiche of Italian neorealism than a parody, and adequate rather than brilliant as such, though it does contain a few wry variations on its models. It gradually becomes apparent that one reason the family is so impoverished is that the parents are both fairly lazy: Maria (Caterina Sylos Labini), hoping to make it in show business, spends all her time rehearsing with a trio of singers in a nightclub, leaving her infant son playing on the floor with, among other things, loose electrical wiring. The father, Antonio, makes the rounds on his bicycle looking for a job, but it is their cherubic little boy Bruno (Federico Rizzo) — who works in a filling station and appears to do most of the cooking and house repairs — who seems to be the principal laborer; even the local priest (Renato Scarpa) hands him a mop and pail. Maria is hungry for luxuries — she dreams of having a crystal chandelier like one she saw in a movie, with pendants resembling icicles — and her frustration about their poverty leads to many quarrels with Antonio.
Eleven minutes into the movie, it screeches to a halt before the end of a scene (oddly, even the actors seem taken aback), breaking for a string of glitzy color commercials selling American-style images of the good life: candy bars called Big Big, an artichoke aperitif, an all-temperature detergent, and aerodynamic cars. In the studio Nichetti goes into a rage about these cuts and intrusions. We return to the family watching TV, and after the film within the film resumes, it gradually emerges that the one-way communication of TV is starting to become two- way, and that the apparent discontinuity between the film and the commercials is breaking down as well: the little boy, slowly building an elaborate Lego model of the Kremlin, is eating a Big Big candy bar, and Bruno, eating a dinner of cabbage, eyes it greedily from the TV; a bit later, Bruno starts to sing the Big Big jingle to himself, and Antonio and Maria wonder where he heard the song.
Antonio gets a job at a glass chandelier factory, and to please Maria, he steals one of the chandeliers with “icicles” for her. On his way home, there’s another break for commercials; just as a voluptuous model is diving into a swimming pool in the middle of the car commercial, the TV studio suffers a power failure — a power failure that also affects the family watching TV. When the power comes on again, the model, still in color, is drowning in the river, in black and white, that Antonio passes on his way home.
Things get progressively stranger and more intermingled; Maria winds up inside the detergent ad, and her disappearance combined with the strange appearance of the bathing beauty leads to Antonio’s arrest. Aghast at what’s happening to his movie, Nichetti leaves the studio and boards a train that takes him into the neorealist movie, where he tries to straighten things out. For the family distractedly watching all of this on TV, however, everything seems to be perfectly in order.
Superficially, Nichetti’s cockeyed construction resembles that of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, as well as certain aspects of Gore Vidal’s novel Myron. Allen’s and Vidal’s conceits, which involve the interfacing of movies and audiences, are initially hilarious as well as suggestive, but they both gradually run out of energy and conviction, thanks in part to the increasingly apparent attitude in both works that the mass public is a pack of blithering idiots. Nichetti’s conceits prove to be stronger and more sustaining not only because they lack this condescension, but also because they’re grounded much more firmly in telling observations about movies, TV, and the contemporary audience; anchored in the present rather than the 30s (as in The Purple Rose) or the 40s (as in Myron), their social meanings cut much deeper.
In the last chapter of The Ticket That Exploded, William Burroughs proposes that “what we see is determined to a large extent by what we hear,” and suggests that if we turn off the sound on our TV and arbitrarily substitute any new sound track, the new sound track will not only match and seem “appropriate,” but will also determine our interpretation of the images. I think one could add that the reason his experiment works is the fundamental discontinuity of both TV itself and the way that we watch it. I’m thinking not just of commercials and other forms of program interruption but the interruptions that we commonly impose ourselves — whether we leave the room, engage in other activities, switch channels, adjust the controls, or simply let our attention drift. Sound tracks, story lines, familiar faces, and countless other conventions conspire to make the experience seem continuous, but only an act of massive repression on our part can sustain such an impression.
Family TV watching offers a particularly rich and varied model of how this discontinuity functions. One of Michael Arlen’s best TV columns for the New Yorker (”Good Morning,” collected in The View From Highway 1) simply charts the manner in which a typical middle-class family consumes with their breakfast one morning the news and The Flintstones — alternately and piecemeal, in random bites. Nichetti’s family of TV watchers is similar, and part of his comic point is not just how inattentive TV makes us, but how each of us imposes her or his own agendas and forms of continuity on what’s being intermittently watched.
It’s worth adding, however, that the pre-TV Piermattei family are every bit as distracted and divided in their concerns as the contemporary family watching them — the perpetually neglected baby and his unseen near-calamities are only one example of this — so the issue is not “TV or not TV,” but human nature in relation to fantasy. Indeed, an important part of Nichetti’s humor comes from the similarities between these two families in spite of their radically different circumstances. Consider the unremarked resourcefulness of the two little boys; significantly, Heidi (Heidi Komarek), the model from the car commercial, is the only one in the movie who truly appreciates Bruno, and his mother is the only one who truly appreciates the commercials, though they both live in worlds 30 years apart from the objects of their appreciation.
In a very real sense, of course, the material deprivations of people like the Piermattei family eventually helped to produce the gaudy commercials, and one could argue as well that the environmental and spiritual deprivations of the contemporary family give an exotic allure to the small-town, church-centered community in the movie on TV. In fact, our isolation and independence from other eras is as much of a consumerist myth — dictated by the needs of merchandising — as our assumption of continuity when we’re watching TV; both are convenient fictions that Nichetti’s mischief deliriously unravels.
Another convenient fiction promulgated by commerce that Nichetti playfully deconstructs is the cherished (and profitable) notion that a movie is “the same thing” whether we see it in a theater or on TV. Nichetti repeatedly cuts from the neorealist film as a film to its grainy, reduced definition on a TV screen, and while his character, who rails against the cuts and commercial breaks, never alludes to this degeneration of the image, the visual evidence is unmistakable. This doesn’t mean that he’s arguing for the virtues of one medium over another; as someone who has worked for years in both, he’s clearly attuned to their separate advantages and possibilities, and he’s not blind to their interdependence, either. Ironically, The Icicle Thief was financed by Italian TV and is already scheduled to appear on the same program that the neorealist pastiche appeared on in the film, with Claudio Fava as host.
It won’t be interrupted by any commercials, however — which is just as well, because Nichetti’s commercial pastiches are so convincing (much more so than his imitation of De Sica), who could tell which was which? Although the film’s address is universal, it’s worth delving for a moment into certain conditions that helped inspire it, and that may well have been affected by it in turn. Italy has had commercial TV for only a little more than a decade, and with it came both commercial breaks and a greater number of channels showing old movies. (Commercials hadn’t been absent from state TV, but they were usually shown in autonomous bunches between programs.) One form of commercial interruption was already a central condition of Italian filmgoing; traditionally movies in theaters are broken up into two parts in order to sell ice cream and candy, and Italian directors even structure their movies to accommodate this convention. But the sudden availability of vast numbers of old movies on the tube and the brutally chopped up manner in which they were served had a combined impact on Italian film lovers that continues to reverberate.
In fact, last November, several months after the release of The Icicle Thief, the appellate court in Rome upheld and broadened a lower court’s ruling that private TV networks couldn’t interrupt films with advertising. Stating that these interruptions “alter the identity” of films and therefore violate the rights of their makers, the court declared that “any pause for huckstering destroys the integrity of a film, be it a classic or something a few rungs down the ladder.” (Sadly, the late Otto Preminger failed to effect a similar ruling when he went to court in the mid-60s for the same reason. Today, when huckstering in this country is widely felt to constitute integrity on a legal level rather than violate it, he’d probably be laughed out of court.)
Last year I met Nichetti briefly in Chicago, and he told me about his second and third features, which are so far unavailable here:
Ho fatto splash (Splash, 1980) is also about Colombo, but this time he’s the only character who doesn’t speak. Colombo goes to sleep at the age of six, in 1955, and wakes up 25 years later, unchanged mentally but now played by Nichetti, in a room with his female cousin, who shares a flat with two other women. (One of these women is Carlina Torta, playing the same character as the pregnant mother in The Icicle Thief nine years earlier; in fact, there’s a line in the latter film where she recalls her former flat mates.)
Domani si balla (Tomorrow We Dance, 1982) is a low-budget SF comedy, done in the style of French film pioneer Georges Méliès, about a UFO that comes to earth bringing happiness, specifically music and dance. This proves to be vexing to the people who run TV, who can’t stand the notion of people providing their own amusement. Nichetti (who speaks this time) and costar Mariangela Melato play two rebellious TV reporters who support the aliens. (It sounds like a screwball Italian version of Pump Up the Volume.)
Nichetti’s recently completed The Will to Fly, due out in Europe late this year, combines animation with live action and concerns “a man whose hands take on a life of their own.” Whether you’ll get to see it or Ratataplan or the two other features described above depends, of course, on many arcane factors completely beyond the control of you or me. But if you go to see The Icicle Thief and like it and send your friends, at least you’ll be casting a vote.