Film in Venice
IFVENICE IS sinking into the sea, or dissolving into polluted air, or becoming uninhabitable because of its odors, it would have been hard to have guessed so in the brisk days of early September, as the city hosted the annual Giornate del Cinema Italiano-- "the Birthday of Italian Cinema."
The festival's center, filled for ten days with a bizarre collection of European filmmakers, promoters, and journalists, was the Campo S. Marguerita, one of the friendly public spaces that suddenly open out of the city's alley-like streets into irregular areas of pavement edged with small cafes and trattoria, centered with a carved stone well-head that once furnished the neighborhood with water, and filled, in between, with the sleek, lurking cats that for some reason resemble fish, with kids kicking a soccer ball of the walls or, early in the day, with vegetable stands.
The festival's promoters set up a large screen at one end of the long piazza, clustered a series of closed-circuit TV units at the screen's base, and proceeded to make the place headquarters for the part of the festival devoted to "anti-fascist film-making." The first offering on the open air screen was about a socialist leader murdered by Mussolini; it was followed by the first in a set of "open debates" among the audience. Round the clock the television screens showed tapes of interviews on social questions. On a large easel nearby stood hand-written manifestoes calling for reorganization of the film industry and continued opposition to fascism.
Italian leftist rhetoric is among the most juvenile and ineffectual in the world. Italy has a large communist party, including, rumor has it, most of the gondoliers on Venice's canals, but the party shares the capricious instability characteristic of all Italian politics. A few years ago, a popular film appeared here presenting a scenario in which the Communists won a majority in the general elections and then, in despair in having actually to take power, accused the liberal parties of rigging the election to force them into that political hot seat. Rhetoric riddled with both stubbornness and naivete dominated the festival's discussions about putting filmmaking in the hands of the people, or documenting the country's social ills.
AMONG THE DIRECTORS whose films were shown, there was a surprising absence of the directors that have shaped American notions of the native Italian cinema, and an abundance of the cheaper blood-and-guts thrillers that are the trademark of Italy's most successful commercial cinema. De Sica--whose current illness elicited a message of good cheer from the gathering--was represented by a single film, Pasolini's Orestiad was presented, and Bertolucci's pseudopolitical Before the Revolution was dusted off, but Fellini received no recognition, and Visconti figured only as the object of indignation at news that the director was abandoning professedly leftist views to make his next film for a wealthy rightist publishing concern.
This was perhaps one of the mildest provocations Visconti has offered the festival and the city itself: his latest Ludwig is a disaster excused only by reports that the director's illness forced its completion by a substitute, and Death in Venice, the films, which first marked Visconti's decline from films about decadence into decadent films, was most of all an insult to the city whose landscape and legend he abused.
The festival's highlights were, predictably, the well known American entries. Huston's Fat City, and Ralph Bakshi's animated Heavy Traffic. A British entry, Ken Lach's pseudo-documentary study of a family and their "maladjusted" daughter, called Family Life, also drew a surprisingly large amount of attention, attracting one of those impossible, unpoliced Italian lines where people stand three abreast, and little groups from time to time try to shove their way to the front.
Fat City, which appeared in this country a couple of years ago, was apparently fresh and attractive to most of the audience, but Heavy Traffic, even with the impossibility of rendering its accents and dialects into Italian, was the star of the show. The film was generally overpraised in the United States: critics seemed taken for some reason with the idea of using cartoons of people instead of animals, apparently viewing it as an advance over Walt Disney. But few of the technical tricks come up to the level of Fritz the Cat, Bakshi's earlier effort, which demonstrated the possibilities of x-rated animation with such scenes as, to choose one, a fight in a bar viewed from the pocket of the pool table.
The most praised tricks in Traffic--the superposition of characters on an Edward Hopper painting of a restaurant or a Godfather parody in which the Mafia leader is shot up while eating spaghetti, are heavy-handed by comparison. The device of framing the film with shots of the cartoonist Michael at his favorite pinball machine is intended to serve as a metaphor for Bakshi's brand of East Village existentialism but since Tommy it's a pretty trite trick. The conventional film segments at the end only expose the paucity of the caricatures and if Bakshi is forced already in his second film to resort to autobiography--he sees himself as a kind of Dustin Hoffman character, and shamelessly tacks "Scarborough Fair" onto the sound track--then is much touted "possibilities" must be questioned. Animation demands new tricks all the time, and it seems doubtful whether any one-man show--and especially this one--can continue to provide them for very long.
OF ALL THE documentary or overtly political films, Louis Malle's Humain, trop humain--the title is cribbed from the French for Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human--succeeds in a way probably never intended. The journalistic techniques of Malle's immense study of Phantom India have here been restricted to one French automobile factory. An effort is made to depict the process by which the cars are produced, in brief, at the beginning of the film, from steel sheet to test track, and then studies of individual workers at different stages of the process are shot in elaborate detail. The film verges on boredom. But frequently, as in the best Godards, the director has timed his camera to cut away just when things grow unendurable. Boredom is an important part of real social documentation, although in spite of it we never feel here that these workers are too immiserated. At some points the deftness of a spray painter, or the practiced touch of a door fitter, becomes surprisingly absorbing; at others, the jerky, repeated shifting of an eye as a girl watches her machine, or a stoic machinist impart the pain of a single muscle and the exhaustion of an unmoving face.
The effect, on balance, is that of a cinematic intelligence ruled by an ideology so vague that it lets us grow as fascinated with the process of production as with the experience of the individual worker. We learn that there is craftsmanship as well as tedium on the assembly line. We come away with a sense of the immediacy of the jobs themselves that opens up a large ideological space between shots that mock Pompidou visiting an auto show and those that cannot help but celebrate the flow of enameled bodies or a welder's master touch.
In that sense the film escapes the adolescent dogmatism which those in charge here, in their groping way, were trying to impress on the whole festival.