Blog Directory CineVerse: September 2023

Weird tales of troubled love from Texas

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The Whole Wide World, directed by Dan Ireland in 1996, is a thought-provoking biographical drama adapted from Novalyne Price Ellis's memoir, One Who Walked Alone. That tome recounts her relationship with the renowned American author Robert E. Howard, who was known for creating the iconic character Conan the Barbarian and making significant contributions to the sword and sorcery genre of literature. The movie delves into the intricate and turbulent connection between Ellis, portrayed by Renée Zellweger, and Howard, played by Vincent D'Onofrio. They deliver compelling performances and demonstrate an on-screen chemistry, despite their characters proving romantically inharmonious.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week.

What makes this film memorable, thought-provoking, different, or distinctive? Its period detail authenticity and fidelity to its source material stand out. The picture offers viewers a genuine glimpse into the lives of Ellis and Howard, presenting a nuanced portrayal of their personalities and the challenges they faced in 1930s America. Ireland's vision and the film's cinematography received acclaim for successfully capturing the atmosphere and setting of 1930s Texas, immersing viewers in that historical context.

The Whole Wide World also delves deeply into the inner lives of and challenges faced by its characters, elevating it above a typical biopic. It explores concepts like creativity, incompatibility, loneliness, gender roles and expectations, and the human condition.

Additionally, it introduces new generations to Howard, an overlooked genre giant who had a major influence on the fantasy genre with his Conan, Red Sonja, and Kull the Conqueror creations. However, you don’t need to be a fan of the writer's work or be familiar with him to appreciate this film.
The leisurely-paced narrative requires some patience, especially among viewers who expect more frequent or earlier romantic fireworks, plot twists, character conflicts, or fidelity to genre tropes like an inevitable romantic reconciliation and affirmation of true love. The Whole Wide World takes its time fleshing out these characters and depicting the on-again, off-again relationship between Howard and Ellis. There is no requisite lovemaking scene, nudity, violence, or action sequences that one might expect to help juice the story.

The filmmakers utilize clever sound effects, like the imagined din of blades clashing and battle cries, to suggest how enmeshed Howard is in his fantasy world. The camera occasionally tracks ahead of D’Onofrio, framing him progressing forward with punches or sword swipes, to demonstrate how his imaginary worlds blur uncomfortably with reality.

One of this film's major themes espoused is staying true to your nature. The couple’s relationship can’t progress romantically because Howard stubbornly refuses to compromise on his commitment to the fierce imagination he believes is required to be a successful writer and due to his loyalty to his sick mother, a figure who motivates Howard to indulge in his fantasies and remain devoted to her care. 

Ellis, meanwhile, remains true to her calling as a teacher; although Howard influences her to explore writing, she prefers a more emotionally dependable partner and a more conservative and accepted profession. Howard’s beliefs, chauvinism, lusty visions, and cynicism about human beings conflict with Ellis’ more grounded disposition and optimistic outlook. Howard sees a world filled with corruption, evil, and sin while Ellis acknowledges the good that mankind is capable of. Still, his unbridled creativity and imaginative talent awe Ellis.

Professor Steve Vineberg wrote: “The Whole Wide World does something very unusual: it recycles the old tension between the westerner and the eastern woman (who is often a schoolteacher) but in a modern western setting (and with a western heroine), where the land has been thoroughly civilized and only a man like Bob Howard, who is neurotically solitary and somehow profoundly displaced, can continue to believe in the frontier. The film’s idea is that his vision of the world as a still primitive and dangerous place, where adventure lurks around every corner, is what enables him to write the vigorous pulp stories he writes.”

Doomed romance is also thematically center stage. Yes, there’s a meet-cute of sorts and several boy loses girl/gets girl back moments in this tale, but the viewer picks up on the significant incongruity and disparities between Ellis and Howard fairly early—gaps that can’t possibly be glossed over or fully bridged by the conclusion of the narrative. We don’t even see them kiss until at least halfway through the runtime. As soon as we realize and accept that this isn’t going to work as a love story, we can put increasing stock into the value of platonic love. The film then becomes more of an exploration of Ellis trying to navigate this friendship differently without completely severing her bond with Howard.

Another takeaway? It's a big, beautiful world out there with opportunities just across the horizon. This film is aptly titled because it suggests several ideas: that there’s a place in this big world for misanthropic dreamers and oddballs like Howard; that Ellis’ future is wide open, with many different paths available to her; that, like the painted sunsets and glorious sunrises Ellis and Howard witness together, beauty can be found in even the most humdrum locales or during worrisome times; and, even if you are separated from friends and loved ones by vast distances, the written word—in the form of a letter, pulp story, or book—can shorten that divide and bring us closer.

Similar works

  • Biopics of famous writers like Finding Neverland, Becoming Jane, Shadowlands, Tom & Viv, Capote, Shirley, Trumbo, The Life of Emile Zola, Wilde, Kafka, Emily, Miss Potter, and Vita and Virginia 
  • Charing Cross Road
  • Doomed romance films like Atonement, The Bridges of Madison County, A Royal Affair, Letter From an Unknown Woman, Casablanca, Portrait of a Lady on Fire


A French confection with familial themes

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Mon Oncle, a French comedy helmed by and starring Jacques Tati and the second in a trilogy featuring the Monsieur Hulot character, made its debut in 1958. The film received widespread critical acclaim, clinching the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1959 and garnering a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival during the same year.

Click here to access a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this movie, conducted last week.

What makes Mon Oncle distinctive, different, memorable, and resonant? The Hulot character is funny and fascinating. Tati had introduced Hulot in his earlier picture, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday in 1953; this well-meaning yet clumsily endearing personality frequently clashed with the modern world, delighting audiences for standing out as a humorous nonconformist misfit. Hulot symbolized an older, more traditional way of life struggling to coexist with the swift modernization and technological advancements of post-war France. Mon Oncle offered him an ideal platform to expand upon the Hulot character while also delving into key themes and ideas, including the impact of modernization and consumerism on society.

Mon Oncle, as in other Tati movies, emphasizes visual humor, clever manipulation of sound, and a not-so-subtle social commentary. The film leans on physical comedy rather than dialogue, skillfully utilizing the characters' physicality and their interactions with the modern world. The movie also abounds with clever and inventive visual gags and comedic set pieces.

It’s obvious this is a meticulously designed and arranged film that relies heavily on careful blocking, precise acting choreography, focused art direction, and preestablished spatial dynamics. Every shot appears painstakingly planned to ensure maximum comedic payoff with the characters and situations in each sequence, and proper comedic timing is key, especially with multiple characters and objects competing for our attention in most shots. Mon Oncle is a triumph of fastidious direction and synergy between well-rehearsed actors.

Tati was famous for his scrupulous attention to detail and unwavering commitment to crafting a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. The director went to great effort to shape and personalize each scene to achieve his preferred comedic and thematic effects. Roger Ebert posited: “He was a perfectionist whose precise construction of shots, sets, actions, and gags is all the more impressive because he remained within a calm emotional range; Hulot doesn't find himself starving, hanging from clock faces, besotted with romance or in the middle of a war, but simply puttering away at life, genial and courteous, doing what he can to negotiate the hurdles of civilization.”

The framing and lensing of Mon Oncle is noteworthy, too; Tati commonly uses long shots, without close-ups or zoom-ins, to tell his story, as well as long takes, allowing typically multiple characters grouped within most shots to interact and interplay or contrast with divergent action. The result is that the actors are permitted to let a scene unfold organically, without excessive editing to advance the narrative, and we the viewer must often choose which characters and actions to concentrate on in a busy shot.

Tati’s camera choices also lend the film a voyeuristic feel. In his Criterion Collection essay, Matt Zoeller Seitz wrote: “Much of Mon Oncle is…a voyeuristic comedy in which the only person spying is the audience; Rear Window played for whimsy. Like the characters in Hitchcock's apartment complex, Tati's people are sketches of urban anthropology. The film's situational humor encloses them—boxes them, figuratively and sometimes literally, like zoo animals (though at least zoo animals know they're caged). We study them, realize how much we share with them, and smile.”

Per Slant Magazine reviewer Christian Blauvelt: “For much of the film, we see his alter ego, M. Hulot, from the back, so that the camera—and, by extension, we the viewer—are forced to share his puzzlement over the functional architecture and ludicrous gadgetry that have taken over his world.”

Mon Oncle also plays like a silent film; we don’t necessarily need the subtitles to contextually comprehend what’s going on with the characters and what they are communicating. Interestingly, Tati created both a French language version and an English version of Mon Oncle, the former nine minutes longer and the latter employs slightly different staging and performances.

Granted, there isn’t much of a plot to this movie. The overarching themes are the primary narrative thrust, and the story unfolds as more of a series of vignettes focused on Hulot and his sister’s family.

A noteworthy theme is the schism between modernity and tradition. This movie subtly critiques the relentless march of modernization and contemporary society's preoccupation with technology and progress. Monsieur Hulot, Tati's character, embodies an endearing, old-fashioned charm that starkly contrasts with the overly mechanized and sterile environment of his sister's modern home. Seitz further wrote: “Keenly aware that modernization eliminated some cherished virtues—solitude, contemplation and a sense of connection—Tati’s comedies show us how technological changes dismantled the old idea of community.”

Additionally, Mon Oncle explores the consequences of dehumanization and disconnection, which can occur in the wake of excessive reliance on technology and adherence to contemporary norms. The Arpels are too focused on shoehorning the latest gadgets, styles, and innovations into their lives, preferring form at the expense of function and letting these trappings define them at the expense of living as fallible but authentic human beings.

Similar works

  • Other Tati films with the Hulot character, including Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Playtime, and Trafic
  • The films of Charles Chaplin featuring the Little Tramp, especially City Lights and Modern Times
  • The Graduate, another film critical of a “plastic” society and a patriarchal generation overreliant on materialism and hollow values.
  • Mary Poppins
  • The Party


Take a rock around the clock 50 years later

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Fifty years ago, George Lucas hit one out of the park with American Graffiti, a comedy-drama film that serves as a memorable coming-of-age story. Set against the backdrop of the last night of summer vacation in 1962 in Modesto, California, the film follows a group of young individuals as they share their final evening together before embarking on separate journeys into college and adulthood.

The film boasts an ensemble cast and is renowned for its period piece details, its memorable soundtrack featuring iconic rock and roll tunes, and its exploration of themes related to youth, rebellion, and the inexorable march of time.

Premiering on August 11, 1973, American Graffiti achieved both critical acclaim and commercial success. It garnered multiple Academy Award nominations, including a Best Picture nod, and ultimately secured the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The film's triumph played a pivotal role in shaping George Lucas's career, providing him with the resources and recognition necessary for the development of his subsequent project, Star Wars.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film conducted earlier this month, click here. To hear the latest Cineversary podcast episode marking the 50th anniversary of American Graffiti, click here.

American Graffiti is deserving of commemoration five decades onward for numerous reasons—not the least of which is it’s an incredibly fun and entertaining work that balances comedy, romance, and light thrills with more serious underlying themes like the uneasy transition into adulthood, ambition versus comfort and complacency, fear of obsolescence, and more—evergreen messages that can transcend generations.

Long before the first Star Wars film, it’s a movie that proved George Lucas had real talent—maybe not so much as a director than as a storyteller with big ideas and a knack for innovating narratively and technologically, as he and his collaborators demonstrate in American Graffiti with its groundbreaking sound design and cross-cutting between four main characters, which was considered controversial at the time.

American Graffiti is among the most influential films ever made, especially when you consider its soundtrack, its heavily copied story template, and the way it helped fuel the 1950s nostalgia craze in the 1970s.

For a film depicting adolescents on the cusp of adulthood, it’s also the rare coming-of-age picture that isn’t heavily focused on teen rebellion or overtly critical of the establishment or older generations. This is primarily about kids having fun while also having to face difficult choices, but there are no serious conflicts. No one dies, gets arrested, protests authority, or delivers a teenage angst sermon.

American Graffiti is also worthy of respect and admiration because, even 50 years later, it serves as that rare example of a little film that became a huge cultural phenomenon on the strength of a fine script, excellent casting, good acting, great music, and zeitgeist luck. It’s one of the most profitable motion pictures ever made considering its meager initial budget, which reminds us that unlimited financial resources certainly don’t guarantee a work of lasting quality. In our current era of Hollywood bloat where sequels, remakes, superhero movies, and films tied to products and brands rule the roost—yielding diminishing box-office returns—it’s refreshing to remember that some of the best movies ever made were small productions lovingly crafted by talented mavericks and visionary filmmakers.

Getting back to that thespian troupe, it’s incredible to think that so many of these actors were relative unknowns back in 1973. American Graffiti catapulted the careers of Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Charles Martin Smith, Mackenzie Phillips, Paul Le Mat, Candy Clark, and Kathleen Quinlan. This is one of the most impressive young casts ever assembled.

This also remains a highly revered and critically acclaimed work, placing #62 on the AFI’s top 100 films list and garnering a 97% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

American Graffiti’s approach to music was pioneering. Using pop tunes in Hollywood films had been done before in works like The Graduate and Easy Rider. But perhaps taking a cue from Peter Bogdonovich’s The Last Picture Show two years earlier, Graffiti is that rare film that used popular period songs as diegetic music (heard by the characters in their world), with no traditional score or original music written for the film, with spectacular results. The early rock and roll tunes are perfectly chosen to accurately represent the late 1950s and early 1960s; like a Greek chorus of sorts, their lyrics are often used to comment on the mood, action, or character in that given scene. The vintage rock and roll music laced throughout American Graffiti serves as a character unto itself (Elvis's music is noticeably missing because they couldn’t afford the rights to his songs). This was one of the first soundtracks that became a blockbuster album, a trend that would continue with the Saturday Night Fever and Grease soundtracks later in the decade. The music becomes a character unto itself in this film.

Additionally, the sound design by Walter Murch moved the goalposts by demonstrating that you could make the music and audio effects sound three-dimensional and realistic within the universe the characters inhabit. Murch called this effect “worldizing,” and it involved not only creative editing but also blending a song’s original recording with a re-recorded take of that song played in a space where a character might hear it, such as within a school gymnasium. Murch also added aural directionality, echo, acoustic depth of field, and other effects to the sounds and songs, allowing us, for example, to hear what it might sound like in a passing car playing that music. Lucas said that he “used the absence of music, and sound effects, to create the drama.” The aural aesthetics in this film likely inspired the innovative sound designs in The Conversation, Nashville, Apocalypse Now, and other films of the 1970s and beyond.

American Graffiti also includes one of the most memorable postscripts (a text epilogue informing us what happens to one or more characters in the film) in movie history. We learn the fates of Curt, Steve, John, and Terry, one of whom will die soon, another who will go missing in Vietnam, and only one of whom escapes his hometown for a presumably bigger, better life. Famous postscripts were used previously in movies like A Man For All Seasons and Army of Shadows. Perhaps American Graffiti’s decision to use a postscript epilogue inspired the postscript endings for Barry Lyndon, All the President’s Men, Animal House (also set in 1962), and several other later films.

The popularity of American Graffiti was a strong catalyst for the 1950s revival trend that caught fire in the 1970s. In the wake of American Graffiti, the TV series Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and Sha Na Na got the green light, and several films depicting this era were released, including The Lords of Flatbush, Cooley High, American Hot Wax, The Buddy Holly Story, and the box office smash Grease. Wolfman Jack, a DJ synonymous with the early rock n roll era, also enjoyed a career boost. Later, other films set during a similar late 1950s/early 1960s period proved popular, including Diner, Stand By Me, Back to the Future, and Dirty Dancing.

American Graffiti can be credited for kicking off the nostalgia craze—a trend that continued in subsequent decades. Movies like Forrest Gump, That Thing You Do, Dazed and Confused, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Licorice Pizza, and Lady Bird, and TV series like That ’70s Show and The Goldbergs likely owe a debt to this work, which proved that audiences long to revisit bygone times from their younger years or yearn to be immersed in an interesting cultural era that may seem simpler, safer, and more enjoyable than our modern stressful times.

Little White Lies writer Daniel Allen wrote: “Here (nostalgia) is a force explicitly deployed by Lucas – gazing back towards a specific period and the music, fashion, movies, and events that came from it. These tap into the fond memories and positive associations of those in the audience who lived through the era, using the viewer’s sentimental affection to bolster the film’s emotional impact. Nostalgia is such a potent tool because it is a form of escapism from aging or the bleak present. If you’re suddenly feeling rather old or unsettled by the modern world, why not watch a movie that captures your teenage years? It helps that the 1950s saw the arrival of popular culture as we know it – shaped by the youth and defined by film, television, celebrity, and music. The baby boomers were the first generation to benefit and American Graffiti became the first film to capitalize on their affection for their teenage years.”

This movie also contributed to the subgenre dubbed “one crazy night,” in which the events occur over a single day or evening. After American Graffiti, similar “one crazy night” narratives included Porky’s, After Hours, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Dazed and Confused, Can’t Hardly Wait, Superbad, Project X, and Booksmart.

As far as precedents, American Graffiti was inspired by Fellini’s I Vitelloni and has drawn comparison to other earlier works like 8½ (which also has a beautiful angelic muse character), The Last Picture Show (another period drama with characters stuck in a dead-end town), and The Wizard of Oz (which, like this film, features a magical “man behind the curtain”).

American Graffiti is, of course, a strong reflection of its creator and the talents he lends to this film. Lucas infused his upbringing and memories of cruising culture into the story and personalities. He set the tale within his hometown of Modesto and wrote three characters who personified Lucas at different points of his adolescent/young adult life. Terry serves as the nerdy high school Lucas; John is Lucas as a hot rod-driving junior college student; and Curt is the ambitious Lucas who needs to escape his hometown to fulfill his creative dreams.

Per Lucas: "It all happened to me, but I sort of glamorized it. I spent four years of my life cruising the main street of my hometown, Modesto, California. I went through all that stuff, drove the cars, bought liquor, chased girls...a very American experience. I started out as Terry the Toad, but then I went on to be John Milner, the local drag race champion, and then I became Curt Henderson, the intellectual who goes to college. They were all composite characters, based on my life, and on the lives of friends of mine. Some were killed in Vietnam, and quite a number were killed in auto accidents."

Working with a small budget on a tight 27-day schedule, Lucas had to improvise some of the filmmaking. He encouraged his cast to adlib some of their lines and movements, often choosing flubs, mistakes, and happy accidents in his final cut. He rigged a two-camera system between two adjacent moving cars to capture crosscut shots between two drivers, for example. And Lucas employed Techniscope cameras to lend the film a 16 mm appearance and more of a documentary look.

Quentin Tarantino was particularly enamored of Lucas’ directorial choices. He said: “Lucas invokes the candy-colored pop ephemera of the fifties in his visual scheme. The green hues of the fluorescent bulbs that light the liquor stores, hamburger stands, and pinball arcades that the characters loiter around. The bright colors of the jukeboxes, diner neon signs, and the candy apple red and canary yellow of the hot rods that cruise up and down the main drag. Lucas poignantly parades all this in front of us with the added knowledge that all this glorious chrome and paint and pomade is about to go out of style and be replaced by space-age sixties chic.”

Interestingly, Lucas threw in meta nods to creations by him and producer Francis Ford Coppola, including John’s license plate (a reference to THX 1138) and Dementia 13 (Coppola’s first film), listed on the movie theater marquee.

Among several prominent themes plumbed from American Graffiti, the end of innocence permeates many scenes. This period is carefully chosen, signifying the conclusion of a simpler, safer, and more innocent age: the “golden” period of the 1950s, just before the British Invasion changed pop music forever, Kennedy was assassinated, the US entered the Vietnam War, and political and cultural turbulence took over. The postscript epilogue adds a somber tone to all we’ve seen prior: We’re told that Terry dies in Vietnam, John is killed by a drunk driver two years later, and Steve never leaves Modesto; only Curt makes it out of his hometown (living as a writer in Canada, suggesting that perhaps he chose that country to escape the draft).

Sun-Times critic Richard Roeper wrote that 1962 was considered by many to be the “spiritual end of the 1950s…In that same vein, the film’s release in 1973 coincides with the spiritual end of the 1960s. The period piece setting and the timing of the release were just perfect…So much had transpired in our world that the relatively short, 11-year span between the time when the story is set and the release of the film seems vast.”

Ambition versus acquiescence, or growth versus stagnation, is another evident subtext. Curt is the only major player who departs his hometown. Tellingly, he’s also the sole character who finds and receives wisdom from Wolfman Jack, a Wizard of Oz-like sage who tells Curt “It’s a great big beautiful world out there.” His friend John, on the other hand, serves as the cautionary tale dramatis personae: the young man living on past glories, four years post-graduation, who knows he’s fallible and not having much luck in the ladies department.

Tarantino said of Curt’s soul searching: “Curt’s not really questioning going to college. He’s questioning the idea of leaving all the people he’s ever known. But even more than the humans he leaves behind, Curt’s questioning leaving the rituals of community that the young people of Modesto partake in… He’s the only one who realizes how temporary these rituals are. Curt knows if he gets on that airplane tomorrow morning – everything that the film so nostalgically celebrates – he can kiss all that goodbye. The town and the life he leaves, won’t be the town and the life he returns to. If he even does return, which in all likelihood, he won’t. Curt seems to know once he leaves he’s not coming back. Curt knows the boy who exists today will no longer exist even two years from now. That’s why he’s contemplating staying too long at the party…Personally, I think Curt always knew he was going to get on that airplane. He just wanted it to be his idea and not some pre-ordained destiny. His wandering around all over town all night was just Curt’s way of saying goodbye.”

Ponder, as well, how American Graffiti promulgates the “strange bedfellows,” or “opposites attract” message. Each of the main characters, or their partners, is pushed out of their comfort zone and forced or coerced to pair up with someone unexpected or opposite to their nature—usually with positive results. John is obliged to escort the much younger Carol around in his Ford Deuce Coupe but in the end doesn’t detest her company; Curt is trapped to spend the evening with a street gang but is ultimately accepted into their ranks; Candy agrees to cruise with Terry and, despite his embarrassing exploits, indicates a willingness to date him again; Laurie breaks up with Steve and drives away with bad boy Falfa, and Steve is tempted by a carhop friend, but the pair eventually reconcile.

Lucas’ work is also a rumination on the pervasive influence of pop culture and contemporary technology on our generation. American Graffiti’s adolescents live their lives around cars and cruising, radio and rock and roll, and fast food. The movie reminds us of how the suburbs burgeoned in postwar America with the building of mass highways and the proliferation of automobiles, and how dominant pop culture became geared around teenagers and their interests. Roger Ebert testified to the importance of the film as a sociocultural artifact, saying “American Graffiti is not only a great movie but a brilliant work of historical fiction; no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie’s success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant.”

Lastly, consider how the film dabbles with that Melvillian trope of the elusive search for the “white whale”—or in this case, a T-Bird-driving blonde whom Curt pursues over most of the runtime, fueling his carpe diem passion and serving as a motivating muse but always remaining out of reach.

How can American Graffiti possibly feel resonant in 2023 and beyond? Many viewers can’t help but feel nostalgic for what had to be a less complicated and stressful age: a time when the joys of riding around in cars, tuning into the radio, hanging with friends minus any gadgets or social media, and hoofing it at the school dance were popular pastimes for young people. Hearing the vintage music, in particular—all-time classics by Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and the Comets, and The Beach Boys—makes one ponder how vital and powerful those songs must have been in their original era. American Graffiti’s greatest gift continues to be its power to transport us to a simpler time when 21st-century stressors didn’t exist. Of course, every period and generation has its advantages and disadvantages; if you were from an ethnic minority or female in 1962, it probably wasn’t such a golden age, and teenagers 60 years ago certainly faced their own unique sets of challenges. Yet as subjective and myopic as this retro vision of a departed culture may be, American Graffiti allows us to live vicariously through some captivating characters who engage in downright fun escapades and experience epiphanies large and small while also revisiting the emotional urgency, delicious self-indulgence, and motivating angst of our long-passed adolescence. As far as time capsules go, when swallowed correctly this one remains fairly potent.


Cineversary podcast throws golden birthday party for American Graffiti

Thursday, September 14, 2023

In Cineversary podcast episode #62, host Erik Martin sends golden birthday wishes to American Graffiti, directed by George Lucas. Riding shotgun with him for this 50th birthday party is Barna Donovan, film professor at Saint Peter’s University and author of several books on the cinema, including Conspiracy Films: A Tour of Dark Places in the American Conscious. Erik and Barna go cruising back to the early rock and roll era to explore the moviemaking, music, and messages behind American Graffiti, why this film is deserving of our attention five decades later, and what we can learn from the picture today.
Barna Donovan

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download, or subscribe to Cineversary wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, AudibleCastboxGoogle Podcasts, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

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An arthouse classic that certainly doesn't conform to the norm

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

The Conformist, a 1970 Italian film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, is an adaptation of Alberto Moravia's 1951 novel bearing the same title. The narrative unfolds within the backdrop of Fascist Italy, centering around Marcello Clerici—a man of feeble resolve who ardently seeks validation by adhering to societal norms of the era. Crafted during a time marked by profound societal and political upheaval, the film is a probing exploration of themes like identity, political manipulation, and the individual's tumultuous endeavor to conform to oppressive ideologies. Bertolucci's directorial finesse, coupled with the dazzling and innovative cinematography of Vittorio Storaro, synergistically forges a film that is both visually captivating and artistically intricate.

Click here to listen to our CineVerse group discussion of this film conducted last week.

What makes this film memorable, different, and worthy of admiration? First, the cinematography by Vittorio Storaro is game-changing good, boasting curious colors, shades, and filters that accentuate a given shot or scene as well as fantastic lighting aesthetics that sometimes employ strong contrasts between light and dark or that capitalize on stunning beams and pools of naturally sourced light. Recall the scene outside the restaurant kitchen where the swinging light fixture creates an oscillation of light and color, or the lovemaking scene where the hues quickly change, or the flashing neon across Marcello’s face in in the opening shot. The movie’s look and lighting schemes serve as quintessential proof of how cinematography can provoke emotions and enhance the story.

The fascinating compositions in The Conformist continue to enthrall, as well. Often, characters are placed within the center of the frame, visually isolated or trapped within an imposing or vast milieu. This film benefits significantly from interesting and creative camera angles, giving us curious spatial perspectives from, for example, overhead, the corner of a room, or a canted streetscape view. Likewise, the filmmakers employ distinctive mobile camera shots and camera movements that linger long in the memory, from the low tracking shot of the blowing leaves to a sudden crash zoom to the jarring handheld camera shots as the assassins chase Anna. The filmmakers also borrow liberally in particular from two highly influential cinematic visual approaches: German Expressionism, and film noir.

This is a bold film, as well, in how it makes a political statement – arguably one that, although it focuses on the Fascist Italy of the 1930s and 1940s, would have been resonant and attention-getting in 1970, a time of political and social unrest in Italy. Interestingly, the movie provides lessons to be learned in today’s political climate, perhaps suggesting that there are many Marcello types among us right here in America who fall into a particular ideology just for the sake of conforming or repressing deeper problems.

The Conformist also remains fresh because it so effectively explores the psyche of a person at battle with himself. This is more of an intricate character study, in which we gradually piece together, through multiple flashbacks and a fragmented narrative, the reasons why a man has chosen to adopt conformity and fascism without fully committing to the cause. This film’s plot will likely disappoint those looking for a conventionally comprehensible narrative and traditional three-act structure. It challenges the viewer to remain engaged, ask questions about Marcello and his motivations, and determine why he makes the choices he does.

Per Vox writer Aja Romano: “In any other film, the driving tension would be the obvious question of whether Marcello will be morally bankrupt enough to kill the professor, simply to adhere to his vision of normalcy. But…it’s not the central question…Rather, Bertolucci is interested in a deep-focus look at Marcello’s path to the assassination, and when, exactly, he stops ironically participating in the game he’s signed up for and begins, for all intents and purposes, actually operating as a weapon of Italian fascism — even if he’s an ineffective one.”

Further proof of The Conformist’s many merits is how it inspired and influenced other filmmakers who have echoed, honored, and copied elements from it, including Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather II, the Pine Barrens episode of The Sopranos, and works by the Coen brothers and Steven Spielberg.

Perhaps most importantly, The Conformist is a film rippling with big ideas. The risks of blindly following or committing to a trendy movement, cause, or ideology that you can’t see with objective clarity is a thematic centerpiece. The Conformist symbolically uses the blind character of Italo and his sightless friends as a reminder that Marcello can be influenced by those who lack the foresight and vision to observe the truth or to see fascism for what it truly is. The film shows us that blind allegiance to the wrong cause, faith in bad leaders, and trying too hard to fit in at the expense of personal values can lead to regret, disillusionment, and existential crisis. Recall how Marcello unexpectedly falls in love with the professor’s wife—a woman who is his ideal and a type he has fantastized about before (as evidenced by how the prostitute resembles Anna)—yet he doesn’t follow his heart nor ultimately prevent her killing. His loyalty to Mussolini’s politics, even if it’s halfhearted and inconsistent, leads to the suffering and deaths of others.

Moreover, The Conformist explores objective reality versus subjective fantasy, as exemplified in the retelling of Plato’s cave allegory. That philosophical lesson reminds us that those who are surrounded by shadows and who don’t face the light can be fooled into believing falsities about the real world, truth, and facts. We learn that Marcello is one of these people, trusting erroneously in his flawed memories and succumbing to self-imposed pressure to adopt normality and conventionality to allay his doubts and fears and keep his past trauma buried. It isn’t until the very end of the film that Marcello internally acknowledges his error: that the valet who sexually molested him as a child whom Marcello believed he shot to death had survived, which deflates one of his motivations for becoming a fascist and trying desperately to conform to normalcy. In short, he realizes he’s been living a lie. The bars shown between him and the camera suggest that he’s now imprisoned by this harsh truth, damned to suffer for his lack of vision and lack of morals or conviction.

Vox writer Aja Romano wrote: “Throughout the film, we see Marcello deploying an ironic, cool detachment as he marches through his life; it’s this kind of passive participation without real participation that he thinks will allow him to conform without truly conforming. It’s not until the climactic final moments that he realizes, to his shock but not to ours, that this morally bankrupt approach has been built on self-deception all along.”

The famous last shot, in which Marcello turns to stare at the naked man on the other side of the bars, intimates perhaps that Marcello can free himself from his self-imposed prison of emotional repression by exploring his bisexual side.

But because Marcello is so confused throughout the story, he can be an unreliable narrator, which means we the audience can also be perplexed by his motivations. Per Andrew O’Hehir of Salon: “This movie has a profoundly damaged protagonist whose perceptions cannot be trusted. Whether the erotic triangle between Clerici, his wife, and Anna or the triangle of violence between Clerici, the professor, and Manganiello should be understood literally or as fantasy – and whether Clerici’s memories of sexual abuse reflect objective reality – is never clear within the frame of the film. Indeed, it cannot be clear in this kind of film, which is meant to illustrate a psychological and political phenomenon that is still very much with us, in which an individual surrenders his autonomy, his sense of right and wrong, and his ability to tell truth from lies, and willingly enslaves himself to a dominant ideology.”

The dangers of duality or trying to live two lives and the confusion it triggers is another major takeaway. Essayist Lucas Neumeyer posited: “There are two movies fighting for attention in The Conformist. These two stories diverge and intersect throughout the narrative creating a feeling of unbalance and confusion. One is a cold drama documenting a man’s insecurity and failures. The other can be described as a convoluted and tragic love story focusing on how uncomfortable a lonely man is around extroverted people and how lost he is confronting his own bottled-up passion. This conflict occurs in the head of a man who has ideas of self-fulfillment and happiness, but has trouble achieving them when his ambition battles with his conscience. It frames a story of inner exploration and outer isolation during a period of political turmoil and reform. It is a story that can reignite the emotional core of anyone who has felt confused for even a small portion of their lives… Marcello’s struggle to either conform to a higher power or lead an unfulfilling life is reminiscent of the classic premise of existentialism. The appeal of fascism and a higher order is a promise of prosperity and normality, but also a path of lack of responsibility.”

Lastly, ponder how effectively The Conformist conveys isolation and estrangement visually and thematically. Time and again Marcello is depicted within the frame as alone or distanced from others. We see how the swirling crowd of dancers single him out as separate from their group, we observe him frequently by himself in the backseat of a car, and we notice how he is often separated from others by glass.

Similar works

  • Reds
  • Taxi Driver
  • The Damned
  • The Night Porter
  • La Notte
  • The Seven Beauties
  • Ashes and Diamonds
  • Army of Shadows

Other films by Bernardo Bertolucci

  • Last Tango in Paris
  • 1900
  • The Last Emperor
  • The Sheltering Sky
  • Little Buddha


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