Back on the Big Screen: “Visconti, Flaherty and Travis Bickle”

by J.R. Hammerer

This column will highlight the films playing in New York City independent theaters and repertory houses each week.

Via IFC Center
Via IFC Center

Many directors have created new forms and tones, but Robert Flaherty invented his own genre. An adventurer and an explorer, Flaherty pioneered the documentary with his landmark 1922 film “Nanook of the North,” taking a camera up to the Arctic Circle to record Inuit lifestyles. Despite his importance, Flaherty’s films weren’t entirely “real life” documentaries – he admitted himself that much of “Nanook” was staged at the location, and his noble-savage views of the people he documented concealed strong condescension. And yet Flaherty’s search for remote locations, for worlds and societies far from our own, resulted in films that were rough and ragged, that documented man fighting amongst the elements.

The final “docu-fiction” of Flaherty’s brief career, “Man of Aran,” is one of the crowning achievements of its genre. This time Flaherty travels to the Aran islands off the coast of Ireland, where he finds a people living in premodern conditions against the rocks and the sea. We see how they survive off the land, growing potatoes in the thin soil and fishing from the high, sheer-faced cliffs. Again, there is dramatic fakery involved – the central family was “cast” from various locals on the island, and the way of life shown had already been modernized way before Flaherty showed up. But it’s a rare film, one in which you can feel the harshness of the rugged country, and the brave hardiness of the men and women who live on it.

At the other end of the spectrum lies the grandly succulent works of Luchino Visconti. Born into the then-dying Italian aristocracy, he found himself drawn to theatre and opera, and to high, classical drama. When he transferred to film, he worked in the neorealist school of everyday struggles and nonprofessional actors before moving to the lush, richly melodramatic works that made his name. Films like “Senso,” “Rocco and His Brothers,” and “The Leopard” retained neorealism’s sense of place and rich emotional textures, but added a heightened emotionalism and an epic scale. He loved caressing the details of his worlds, even when he was ostensibly criticizing the behaviors of their inhabitants. This tension, between a fabulist style and the cuttingly real, between the iconic and the intimate, was what set Visconti apart.

“Sandra,” his follow up to the Cannes-winning “Leopard,” takes the tension and turns it into a live wire. A retelling of the Electra legend, it follows the entrancing Claudia Cardinale as a woman returning to her ancestral home for a ceremony commemorating her late father. Her older brother reappears there after being absent for years, and the two siblings resume their old relationship, which is just a little too intense to be well-adjusted. Throughout, Visconti’s black-and-white photography caresses the crumbling walls of their Gothic mansion – which is both spacious and claustrophobic all at once – and the zooms and odd angles lend a queasy unease to the events. The final confrontation is a display of perfect, harrowing theatrics, in which the actors couldn’t project greater depths of feeling if they were singing arias.

Masters on the level of Visconti don’t come along too often, and so we must consider ourselves lucky in America to have Martin Scorsese still among us. From the underworld chronicles of anger and alienation that made his name to the experiments in genre and form he always wanders off to, he has proven himself a national treasure and one of the all-time greats. Indeed, his famously comprehensive knowledge of the art has led to the synthesis of multiple cinematic strands in his work. Old Hollywood classics, European art cinema, genre B-pictures, underground avant-garde – they can all be found in his work, blended together into a fierce, unique, and moving personal language. At the risk of sounding presumptuous, allow this author to say that Scorsese’s body of work contains it all, with every different stylistic, formal and emotional property of cinema all rolled into one.

“Mean Streets” may have set off Scorsese’s career like a shot, but it is the seminal “Taxi Driver” that realized his extraordinary potential. A dark, grimy brew of a movie, it roams through urban discontent and very real loneliness while a slowly churning rage bubbles to the surface. Robert De Niro’s dissociated, disconnected Travis Bickle soaks up the decay of a nightmarish New York, and attempts to redeem himself as a purging avenger with horrifying results. Beyond the hypnotic, terrifying reverie that Scorsese induces with his direction, the core of aloneness and being cut off permeates everything inside “Taxi Driver,” from the grainy, dirty images to the percussion of Bernard Herrmann’s score. Sure, everyone quotes from De Niro’s powerful performance by sneering, “You talking to me?” But they always forget the next bit: “Well I’m the only one here…”

“Man of Aran” plays Mon, Nov 25 at Anthology Film Archives (32 2nd Ave). “Sandra” plays from Mon, Nov 25 to Thu, Nov 28 at Film Forum (209 W Houston St). “Taxi Driver” plays from Wed, Nov 27 to Sat, Nov 30 at IFC Center (323 6th Ave).

J.R. Hammerer is a staff writer. Email him at film@nyunews.com.

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