PICKS OF THE WEEK
I clowns (The Clowns) (A)
Italy/France/Germany: Federico Fellini, 1970, Raro Video
At the age of seven, little Federico Fellini, of Rimini, Italy, ran off with the circus.
Luckily for us, the circus returned him to this parents after a few days. And Fellini grew up to become a small-town wastrel (with his Rimini friends, whom he later immortalized as I Vitelloni). Eventually, he went off to Rome, where he became a failed student, a successful cartoonist, part owner of the Funny Face Shop (which sold sketches and photos of American G.I.s for loved ones back home), a jack-of-all-trades for a troupe of traveling players (including a spunky young actress named Giulietta Masina), a scriptwriter for radio, plays and films (including Rome: Open City and Paisa for Roberto Rossellini), and finally, a world famous movie maker (La Strada, La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2). For decades, he was the biggest directorial star of Rome's Cinecitta Studios -- where, in 1970, at the age of 50, Federico ran away with the circus all over again.
The wondrous result is The Clowns: a sometimes neglected but truly delightful little film, bursting with glee, made originally for television in 1970. The movie, while not that well-known, is Fellini's fondest, funniest tribute to art, to show business, and, above all, to the companies of clowns who romp and screech and slug each other and pratfall their way around all the circus sawdust and tinsel of all the world, and whose white or raggedy faces, fixed smiles and wild uninhibited behavior terrified him when he was seven -- but attracted him very deeply as well.
Fellini, as always, uses his somewhat fanciful autobiography as a frame. The Clowns is a documentary filmed in Rome and Paris among mobs of actual circus people (Joseph Bouglione, Jean Houcke), actual clowns (Charlie Rivel, Louis Maisse, Alexandre Brugny de Brailly, Ludo, Nino, the Fratellini family, and Charlie's daughter, Victoria Chaplin), another circus-loving film director (Pierre Etaix) and even a circus historian (Tristan Remy).
But it's also part (a big part) mockumentary, in which most of the scenes are staged and actors play the presumed technicians and members of Fellini's supposed film crew (and Fellini himself plays "Fellini"). It's part dramatic/comic reminiscence of Rimini (the seeds of Amarcord are here, and we see such later Amarcord mainstays as the midget nun and the fascists, examples of "real life" clowns). And it's part rumination on the eternal variance and tension between the two main types of circus clowns: the White Clown and the Augusto.
The white clown is white-faced, graceful, aristocratic, a gentleman and dandy, often smiling. The Augusto is a tramp-clown, with shabby clothes and a sorrowful countenance, often frowning, the butt of innumerable jokes by the white clowns and everyone else.
In one of the movie's more memorable moments, the sober-looking Fellini is asked by a pompous interviewer about the symbolism of the clowns, and, before he can finish his reply, two empty buckets fall on the heads of both of them.
So, which are you: a White Clown or an Augusto? After The Clowns opened in Madison in the '70s, my University of Wisconsin friend Gerry Peary went around classifying members of the Madison film and university communities (a stellar bunch) as one or the other. But it's not a simple question. Nor is The Clowns a simple movie. The end of the show, like that Rimini beginning, is a comic orgy of rampaging Italian clowns that turns sad, turns happy, turns happy-sad-happy and then ends with one of the loveliest scenes in all of Fellini: the clown duet to "Ebb Tide."
My God, what a scene! If you don't clench up a little when the last trumpet notes of "Ebb Tide" ring out -- its exultation, climax and diminuendo -- and if sometime while watching this movie, you don't briefly want to run a way and join the circus, then maybe you need a squirt from Clarabelle or a bucket on your head.
Oh, and Anita Ekberg is in The Clowns too. And she's funny, dammit!
What a lovingly assembled little package this is: The movie's been digitally restored and given new subtitles, and the set includes the Fellini short A Matrimonial Agency, his episode in the multi-part 1953 anthology film Love in the City; Adriano Apra's visual essay Fellini's Circus; and a beautiful 50-page booklet containing Fellini's own writings, his reminiscences on the film and plenty of Fellini drawings as well.
Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed (A-)
Germany: Alexander Kluge, 1968, Facets
Kluge is as intellectual a radical filmmaker as you can find, and Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed -- is as intellectual and radical a film as he ever made, a black-and-white dramatic treatise on art and politics and their hybrids that no one on earth could accuse of selling out to anybody
The heroine is Leni Peickert (played by Hannelore Hoger of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum), an intense but seemingly humorless circus-lover whose circus-loving father died and left her with a passion to run a circus herself, and to somehow mix the acts with her other obsessive interest: radical anti-war and anti-capitalistic politics. Without ever cracking a smile (but occasionally stripping to the buff), Leni hires performers, talks with experts, plans acts, find tents and even hangs around with some very photogenic elephants -- but somehow never gets it all together. She winds up instead at a TV station, where she and her comrades try to mix art and politics, or news and politics, once again, with disastrous results.
If you're going to watch Artists: Perplexed though, this is the version to get. Facets has included, as an extra, the 1970 short The Indomitable Leni Peickert, which is described as a follow-up to Perplexed. But Leni is less a follow-up than the actual culmination and climax of the first movie, and they should be seen together.
Kluge was an ex-documentarian, and he shoots Perplexed like a '60s documentary, full of wordy dialogues and cinema verite-looking scenes and monochrome montages. It's not a cheerless movie -- a couple of Beatles songs are on the soundtrack -- but it is relentlessly serious, though not unlikably so. I actually watched it twice, and would happily watch it again, if anybody wanted to see it with me. They really don't make them like this any more. Part of a series of Alexander Kluge films being released by Facets as The Alexander Kluge Collection; I hope they eventually put them all into a box set. (Extras: The Alexander Kluge shorts The Indomitable Leni Peickert and Execution of an Elephant, which makes use of Edwin S. Porter and Thomas A. Edison's 1903 Electrocuting the Elephant.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Tourist (B-)
U.S.: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2010, Columbia
The Tourist, a lushly photographed touristic Hitchcockian exercise in romantic-movie-thrillerism for Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, starts with impressive travelogue credentials. It's filled with ravishing views of the legendary city where Casanova plied his trade and Antonio Vivaldi composed concerto after concerto for his girls' school: filled with the glorious sights of those canals, the gondolas, the old hotels -- and of ravishing Angelina smiling and sashaying through it all, stopping traffic and inspiring voyeurism as only she. This is a city we'd probably all like to visit, and it's shot here by director-co-writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and cinematographer John Seale, with all the color and the luster they can, uh, muster. A huge advantage, that.
Which The Tourist then squanders. Von Donnersmarck, the thriller-savvy writer director of the Oscar-winning German Cold War surveillance suspense movie The Lives of Others, has two witty co-scenarists here -- Christopher McQuarrie of Bryan Singer's twisty, zappy The Usual Suspects (which has a twist ending) and Julian Fellowes of Robert Altman's Agatha Christie-ish, Jean Renoiresque Gosford Park (which does also). And one would have thought this talented threesome could easily acquit their assignment: restarting the agenda of Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest.
Initially, I had nothing but fond feelings and expectations for this film -- and for Jolie as Elise Clifton-Ward, and for Depp's typically whimsical and lightly fey lead male character, Frank Tupelo. Frank is a mousy-looking math teacher thrown into international intrigue when British spy and fugitive gang girlfriend Elise becomes his maybe-evil angel.
The plot? Elise, it seems, is the girlfriend of the mysterious Alexander Pearce, an international outlaw in flight from both Scotland Yard -- which has her on camera, manned by the obsessive Dana Andrews-ish cop, Acheson (Paul Bettany) nearly everywhere she goes, from Paris to Venice -- and from the killer-thugs of Russian mobster Ivan Demidov (played by Steven Berkoff, the rich scum of the first Beverly Hills Cop), from whom Pearce conned and stole billions of dollars, or enough to qualify him for a tax cut extension from the Republicans in Congress.
In the very first scene, a pretty cool opener, Elise, at a Parisian sidewalk café, gets a note from Pearce (a note she quickly reads and burns, while being monitored by the Yard guys) telling her to head for Venice, find some schnook of Pearce's own general size and build, latch on to him, and sucker Scotland Yard and Demidov into thinking the patsy is really Alex.
That's the itinerary. They meet, they flirt, they fake us out, they almost smooch, they run from cops and killers. Depp fumbles and shambles and sometimes looks as if he can't believe his good luck, and sometimes acts as if Brad Pitt were staring over his shoulder. Jolie looks more than ever like a European glamour star hottie out on a shoot, but has been dubiously encouraged to say little, and say it like Kristin Scott-Thomas.
Bettany is quite good, and his part should have been pumped up with another scene or two. Berkoff is just as snobby and sadistic as he was in Beverly Hills Cop. There's even a Bond around -- Timothy Dalton -- to complain about tactics. Ah Venice, city of dreams, where Angelina Jolie may pick you up, while Russky goons manacle you to a gondola. Ah Hollywood, which has a meet-cute for every occasion and a tale for every two cities. In English, French and Italian, with English subtitles. (Extras: commentary by von Donnersmarck; featurettes; out-takes.)
Exit Through the Gift Shop (B)
U.S.: Banksy, 2010, Oscilloscope
For the record, this sardonic, cynical, whip-fast Oscar-nominated "documentary" from the secretive street artist Banksy -- about an obsessed L.A. doc-maker named Thierry Guetta, who shoots a "documentary" about street artists like Shepherd Fairey and Space Invader (and Banksy), gets nowhere with it (because he has no talent), and then decides to become an artist himself, nicknames himself Mr. Brainwash, holds a huge L.A. art show, getting some L.A. Weekly people to (unknowingly) shill for him, and becomes the rage of the art world -- strikes me as fake. Or mostly fake. (Certainly Mr. Brainwash and his "art" are fakes.)
But Banksy is no fake. This movie made me laugh a lot. And, like all of us, I tend to forgive anyone who makes me laugh. (Extras: B Movie, a film about the "art" of Banksy; deleted scenes; Life Remote Control lawyer's edit.)