Volume 21, Issue 8 / August 2017

Europe and a Cinema of Decadence

In this issue

Though not a genre per se there are many films that set their sights on the notion of a fallen glory, or a bounty of goodness gone too far. These films often focus on a lifestyle or class (usually upper) that exhibits both cultural and aesthetic elements of decadence. Often found in art cinema, even Hollywood had its master of decadence, with Josef von Sternberg’s Scarlet Empress giving cinema some of its greatest decadent imagery. A film that set the template for a whole generation of Italian Upper Class (or late Fascist) decadence was La Dolce Vita (1959), which holds court in our special issue. Fellini’s first true post neo-realist masterpiece, La Dolce Vita, was a film that gave a harsh identity to a jet set lifestyle that was the flipside of the Economic Miracle of the 1950s. The film gave birth to two words now part of our lexicon: paparazzi and la dolce vita (the sweet life). Elaine Lennon reviews a recent book by Shawn Levy entitled Dolce Vita Confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi, and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome which seeks to explain this tumultuous time in mid-20th century Italy. Elaine Lennon does a wonderful job of transmitting the joyous writing by which Shawn Levy captures that particular moment in time immortalized by Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. It is a great complement to Levy that his writing is able to capture that moment singular in its time, 1958, but timeless in its full cultural impact. A recent Italian film which is smartly aware of the tradition of grand Italian art cinema is La grande bellezza/The Great Beauty by Paolo Sorrentino (2013), a film that harks back in a conscious way to the great European art cinema of the late 1950s, early 1960s. One film in particular that serves as a template is Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Even though La Grande Bellezza is a more joyous film, it shares an episodic structure and a singular character Jep Gambardella, played by Toni Servillo, older in age than Fellini’s Marcello Rubini, played by Marcello Mastroianni, who has settled for less and is content to float through life enjoying its delicate offerings, while remaining emotionally distant and critical of the lifestyle they have grudgingly adopted. Both Marcello and Jep are writers who forego the more arduous path of literature in favor of journalism. The form of their life, their style, risks becoming more important than the content of their life (although as any good critic will ask, can you really separate the two?). Both Fellini and Sorrentino offer a view of a culture gone a little mad, a little self-absorbed. They offer films of great style, and great beauty, and great characters we can’t help but admire, faults and all. Daniel Garrett examines the many sided attractions of La grande bellezza, suggesting that it very well may be a great film. A subject across Italian cinema that is often used to examine and portray an aesthetic of decadence is the period of Fascism. From its politics to its art, Italian directors have often revisited the period of Fascism exploring aspects of power, style, sexuality, religion, and art (Rome Open City, The Night Porter, The Garden of the Fitzi-Continis, Seven Beauties, 120 Days of Sodom, to name only the most obvious). One of the greatest of such films is Bernardo Bertolucci’s Il conformista (1970). Indeed, the early scene where Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) goes to visit his mother at their once glorious villa, and then the mad father at a sanitarium, is the final word on Italian Fascist Decadence. In my essay I analyze the film’s transition between pre and post Fascist Italy by comparing two frames taken from the same narrative space across narrative time. Two director’s Bertolucci consciously borrowed from to model his own depiction of decadence in Il conformista were Josef von Sternberg and Max Ophüls. Josef von Sternberg for the performance style, art direction, and portrayals of sadism/masochism, and Ophüls for his camera movement, set design and themes of fatalism. The seductive nature of Ophüls forms the subject of the last two-part essay in this issue, by first time Offscreen writer Rita Quelhas, a native Portuguese writing in English. Max Ophüls is a director whose opulent aesthetics redolent with a fluidity of movement and mannered mise en scene has led many to refer to his cinema as being decadent, but in the good sense, of offering up an “unhealthy” dose of beauty. This notion of “unhealthy” beauty has an interesting link to Rita Quelhas’ (two-part) essay because she treats Ophüls’ The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) as a “diseased” cinema; a cinema which runs the risk for the viewer of being too powerful of an experience. Quelhas’ poetic formalism begins with Schefer’s cinematic theories of the “enigmatic body”, which sees cinema as a mirroring device which allows the viewer to self-discover their own “hidden self”. Cinema begins as a place where the viewer can engage profoundly with their own memories because, for Schefer, cinema has a “peculiar power to produce effects of memory” (Jean Louis Schefer, The Enigmatic Body: Essays on the Arts, edited and translated by Paul Smith, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995, 111). For Rita Quelhas The Earrings of Madame de…, Ophüls’ richly textured tragic love triangle, is a place where her own finely tuned attention to its formal charms rewards her with a very powerful emotional experience. As she attempts to learn what makes Ophüls’ characters tick, she gains self-knowledge. The powerful pulls and twists afforded by a cinema as seductive as Ophüls’ amounts to a form of “disease” where we risk being so powerfully engaged with the on-screen pain and emotional suffering that we suffer from a sort of “withdrawal’. In the first part of her essay Quelhas lays out the theoretical template, part cognitivism, part psychoanalysis, based largely on the work of French writer, philosopher, and film critic Jean Louis Schefer; and in the second part she applies the theory to a deliciously nuanced, at times personally revealing, and admittedly speculative close study of three key scenes from The Earrings of Madame de… . Quelhas gives a deeper shading to the often stated fatalistic nature of Ophüls’ forever moving crane and tracking camera shots which do not so much follow the characters to their destiny, but lead them to it. I am happy to present Quelhas’ work on Offscreen, whose mandate includes giving space to creative forms of film criticism and giving chance to new voices and new forms of critical expression. Quelhas’ writing is a demonstration of how engrossing and insightful descriptive prose in film analysis can be. Descriptive formal analysis does not have to be dull and flavorless. Quelhas’ essay proves this. One of my mentors, the late V.F. Perkins (1936-2016), who argued for the interpretive values of description in his seminal essay, “Must We Say What They Mean? Film Criticism and Interpretation” (Movie nos. 34-35, 1-6) —and also loved Max Ophüls— would have —I believe— appreciated this essay. (Donato Totaro, ed.)

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