Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Il Bidone

Il Bidone (aka "The Swindle") (Federico Fellini, 1955) The Italian maestro in his hey-dey. 

This 1955 film follows a trio of grifters—Augusto (Broderick Crawford), Picasso (Richard Basehart), and Roberto (Franco Fabrizi)—who are low-level con-artists in search of the Big Score—even a Ponzi scheme will do. They drive into a small village, all pomp and circumstance, with as much respectability as a disguise or a decent suit can buy. Then, with guile and a healthy disrespect for people's own need for "easy riches" or a "too-good-to-be-true" deal, bilk the citizenry out of as much cash as they can find lying around. As priests (using the respectability of the Church), they convince simple farm-folk of "buried treasure." On a grander scale, they're developers collecting down-payments on rooms to a vapor-hotel that will never materialize ("The economy's bad and we've suffered some set-backs").  
For Picasso, there are dreams of becoming a famous painter (but in the mean-time he can forge a few masterpieces to get by, much to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife, played by the wonderful Giulietta Masina). Roberto, their chauffeur/get-away driver, is young to the game and is always looking for new angles so he can set off on his own crime-spree, free of "the losers" he thinks might be holding him back.   
But, the leader of the group, Augusto, is feeling the advance of age and getting a little desperate; he hasn't achieved any real fortune, just what can be piffled away on a falsely high lifestyle and an evening of prospecting at the clubs (he's not a high-roller, but he has to play one and that can get "spendy"). He is torn. He wants the respectability that a really big perpetual con (like the kind found in government circles and among the constabulary) can bring. In essence, what this overlarge, over-age boy in big pants wants in reality is what he only play-acts in his livelihood—a man of respect, a high roller, an adult, or his imagining of what that is. For Augusto, he hits "the brick-wall of Reality," in the presence of his very real daughter, for whom he wants most to be seen as a man of accomplishment, instead of the fraud he pretends to be.
I started out this review saying "the Italian maestro in his hey-dey" and have come to this point wondering if that is true.  I've often dismissed his latter films as inferior if more complicated and less grounded in reality to his 1950's films, which are more aspirational in nature. They're about wishing and hoping for success which eludes their protagonists—the street-performers of La Strada, the drifting men of I Vitelloni... and Cabiria. When director Federico Fellini became film-maker "Fellini," international artist, he seemed to lose that touch of "becoming," replacing it with observations of his new life "having made it," and finding it difficult to maintain as well as being empty, and finding it wanting. In a sense, Fellini was compiling an autobiography of his journey to success and beyond. Even his wife (Messina) complained that his Juliet of the Spirits wasn't about a woman's issues, but about his own. His movies about the glitzerati felt hollow and self-absorbed (appropriately).  
But, the director still aspired, although he struggled for subject matter (see ) or funding, especially in his later years, despite his international reputation. He retreated to fantasies and circuses, reality being not enough—and maybe not too sure anymore about what reality actually was, surrounded as he was by reputation, the expectations of fame, and the glare of the spotlight. Simple virtues and humble origins cannot be found on the soundstages of Cinecitta, or the boardrooms of Titanus
But, the aspirations continued. As if documenting Shakespeare's seven stages of life, Fellini's vision, aimed ever inward, began looking back, becoming nostalgic for those early times of "wanting" dreams, trying to reclaim them, make them real again. The films were not so much aspirational anymore, but seeking the times and memories of aspiration, when the world was full of possibilities, when wonder was more than kleig-lights and grease-paint, a fraud wanting to be real.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Don't Make a Scene: The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

The Set-Up:  Sir Arthur C. Clarke, physicist, futurist, and science-fiction author, said that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."*

One could replace "magic" with "miracles." And in so doing, one can replace it with "religion."

It's funny, but the science-fiction films I'm really drawn to have, at their dilithium crystal core, an element of the superstitious and dogmatic. Any film with "a sense of wonder" boils down in the petri dish to the meeting between science and religion.

In this scene from The Day The Earth Stood Still, Dr. Barnhardt's trust in his "strange visitor from another planet" is remarked on: "You have faith, Doctor..."

"It isn't faith that makes good science," he replies. "It's curiosity." Just so. And the seeking of truth.

So, in the interest of truth, let's tear away the masks of the two characters in this scene: Barnhardt in a fictionalized version of Albert Einstein.

And Klaatu is Jesus Christ.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the great Christ allegories in movies. It didn't start out that way.  But somewhere while tinkering with Harry Bates' short story "Farewell to the Master," screenwriter Edmund North (who won an Oscar co-writing Patton with Francis Ford Coppola) and director Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, West Side Story) managed to have a Christ-figure walk around Washington D.C. (I'm surprised no religion has been based on it).

Think about it: A being comes to Earth, walks among us, is killed, then resuscitated with a message of Peace under duress: "Get along or you'll get gone." He takes on human appearance as "Mr. Carpenter" (ouch!), but instead of talking to the Scribes and Pharisees, he talks to Einstein, who writes "the new religion." 

And, besides, "Gort, Klaatu barada nikto" always sounded like Latin to me.

It is interesting that The Day The Earth Stood Still was made during the 1950's, when the Cold War was at its most frigid and the chill spread into the this country under the twin guises of patriotism and political opportunism. Suspicion was everywhere, and the film proposes that the only way to re-direct our baleful glares from each other was to unite them to a common threat.**

But its cautionary anti-nuke theme was stronger in this earlier version of the screenplay, and Klaatu is less charitable, more bitter and condescending, with the promise of fire and brimstone. The screenplay as produced keeps him wise, but concerned, more of a good guy with a mission of Peace...if we change our ways.

We are left with an open-ended choice and the issue unresolved.

You gotta have Faith.   

The Scene: A flying saucer has landed in the United States Capitol  Its occupant, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), has been wounded in the tense stand-off between himself and the National Guard ringing the landing-site. With the co-operation of the Army, the alien is allowed to live among the populace, gathering information and seeking out the best way he can spread "The Word," his message that he has traveled to deliver to the Earth. In his efforts, he has visited the office of Dr. Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffee), completing an equation that Barnhardt was working on—in a way of leaving "a calling card."

Script deletions from the film are in RED.

as the M.P. Captain and Klaatu enter the front door, which is held open for then by Hilda. She gestures them toward the half-open door of Barnhardt's study, where Barnhardt can be seen puzzling over the problem on the blackboard. The Captain knocks on the open door to attract his attention and enters with Klaatu.
Barnhardt turns from his deep preoccupation at the blackboard, chalk in hand.
M.P. CAPTAIN: This is the man you wanted to see, Professor.
BARNHARDT(studying Klaatu curiously): Thank you, Captain.
M.P. CAPTAIN: I'll wait outside.
He steps out into the hall, closing the door. Barnhardt continues to study Klaatu for a moment, then points to the notations he made on the blackboard. There is a controlled but anxious excitement in Barnhardt's attitude.
BARNHARDT: You wrote this?
KLAATU (nodding easily): It was a clumsy way to introduce myself -- but I understand you're a difficult man to see. (glancing at the blackboard reproachfully) I thought you'd have the solution by this time.
BARNHARDT: Not yet. That's why I wanted to see you.
Klaatu glances at the work Barnhardt has been doing on the board. Then he points to one of the expressions in an equation.
KLAATU: All you have to do now is substitute this expression--(pointing to a specific place)--at this point.
Impressed and interested, Barnhardt tugs at his chin as he studies and weighs the results.
BARNHARDT (slowly, thoughtfully): Yes -- that will reproduce the first-order terms. But what about the effect of the other terms?
KLAATU: Almost negligible... With variation of parameters, this is the answer.
BARNHARDT: How can you be so sure? Have you tested this theory?
KLAATU (with a slight smile): I find it works well enough to get me from one planet to another.
(Barnhardt stares at him blankly)
KLAATU:  I understand you've called a meeting to study our space ship.
BARNHARDT (As though unsure of what he's heard): Yes -- yes, I have.
KLAATU: I am Klaatu.
(noting that Barnhardt's expression is changing from amazement to incredulity)
KLAATU:  I spent two days at your Walter Reed Hospital.
KLAATU: Room 309. My doctor's name was Major White -- and I had a very attractive nurse called Ruth, who's getting married next Wednesday. 
(Klaatu waits for this to sink in, then speaks with quiet authority)

KLAATU: If you are not interested -- or if you intend to turn me over to your Army -- we needn't waste any more time.
Barnhardt hesitates for a long, thoughtful moment. Then he goes to the door, opens it and speaks to the Captain outside.
BARNHARDT (to the Captain, his voice a little unsteady)
You can go now, Captain. Please thank General Cutler and tell him -- tell him that I know this gentleman.
Barnhardt closes the door and turns to find Klaatu watching him with a faint smile. Barnhardt sinks into a chair, trying to adjust his mind.
KLAATU (dryly): You have faith, Professor Barnhardt
BARNHARDT:  It isn't faith that makes good science, Mr. Klaatu. Its curiosity.
(unable to conceal his interest)
BARNHARDT:  Sit down, please. I have several thousand questions to ask you.
KLAATU (ignoring the invitation): I would like to explain something of my mission here.
BARNHARDT: That was my first question.
KLAATU (with some bitterness): It was my intention to discuss this officially -- with all the nations of the Earth -- but I was not allowed the Opportunity. I have come to realize since that your mutual fears and suspicions are merely the normal reactions of a primitive society.(gathering his thoughts) We know from scientific observation that you have discovered a rudimentary kind of atomic energy.
KLAATU: We also know that you are experimenting with rockets.
BARNHARDT: Yes -- that is true.
KLAATU: In the hands of a mature civilization, these would not be considered weapons of aggression. But in the hands of your people--(he shrugs and shakes his head) We've observed your aggressive tendencies, and we don't trust you with such power.
BARNHARDT (puzzled): If you mean that you are afraid of us--
KLAATU (with cool impressive emphasis): We want to be sure you don't make -- let us say -- an unfortunate mistake. We know the potentiality of these developments and we are disturbed to find them in the hands of children... You see, we've had atomic energy for five thousand of your years.
(indicating the telephone)
We discarded instruments like this many centuries ago.
(he paces thoughtfully)
KLAATU: So long as you were limited to fighting among yourselves -- with your primitive tanks and planes -- we were unconcerned. But soon you will apply atomic energy to space ships -- and then you become a threat to the peace and security of other planets. That, of course, we cannot tolerate.
BARNHARDT (thoughtful and impressed) These other planets -- do they have peace and security?
KLAATU: We had our atomic wars -- thousands of years ago.
(he smiles wryly)
After that we fought with bows and arrows. Then, slowly, we learned that fighting is no solution -- that aggression leads to chaos.
BARNHARDT (with deep conviction): We scientists understand this. Even we primitive scientists.
BARNHARDT: What exactly is the nature of your mission, Mr. Klaatu?
KLAATU: I came here to warn you that, by threatening danger, your planet faces danger --
KLAATU: --very grave danger. I am prepared, however, to offer a solution.
BARNHARDT: Would you care to be more specific?
KLAATU (evenly): What I have to say must be said to all concerned. (with a suggestion of deference to Barnhardt) It is too important to be entrusted to any individual.
Barnhardt is forced reluctantly to accept Klaatu's refusal to go any further. After a moment's thought, he speaks seriously, but with a twinkle in his eye.
BARNHARDT: I gather that your efforts on the official level were not entirely successful.
KLAATU (sternly, as this unpleasant episode is recalled): I come to you as a last resort -- and I confess that my patience is wearing thin.
(with Jovian annoyance)
KLAATU: Must I take drastic action in order to get a hearing?
BARNHARDT (uneasily): What -- what sort of action do you mean?
KLAATU: Violent action -- since that seems to be the only thing you people understand.
KLAATU: Leveling the island of Manhattan, perhaps -- or dropping the Rock of Gibraltar into the sea.
Barnhardt stands staring at him for a moment, passes his hand across his brow. Then, as Klaatu watches, Barnhardt paces the floor, trying to digest what he has heard. After a moment, he turns to Klaatu.
BARNHARDT: Would you be willing to meet with the group of scientists I am calling together?. Perhaps you could explain your mission to them, and they in turn could present it to their various peoples.
KLAATU (quietly, evenly): That's what I came to see you about.
Barnhardt flings him a glance, then looks momentarily sheepish. But his own eagerness carries him on. He paces the floor thoughtfully.
BARNHARDT: It is not enough to have men of science. We scientists are too easily ignored --
BARNHARDT: -- or misunderstood.
BARNHARDT: We must get important men from every field. Educators -- philosophers -- church leaders -- men of vision and imagination -- the finest minds in the world.
KLAATU: I leave that in your hands.
BARNHARDT: You'd have no objection to revealing yourself at this meeting?
KLAATU: No -- not at all.
BARNHARDT: What about your personal safety in the meantime? What about the Army -- and the police?
KLAATU: My name is Carpenter and I'm a very earthy character living in a respectable boarding house.
BARNHARDT (smiling, but a little concerned): I'm afraid I can't offer you any real protection. I have no influence in cases of inter-planetary conspiracy.
KLAATU: I'm sure I'll be quite safe until the meeting.
BARNHARDT (he suddenly pauses, thoughtfully): One thing, Mr. Klaatu. Suppose this group should reject your proposals. What is the alternative?
KLAATU (with a sense of quiet, inescapable power): I'm afraid you have no alternative. In such, a case the planet Earth would have to be--
KLAATU: (he looks for the right word)--eliminated.
The implications of this statement leave Barnhardt speechless, his keen mind reeling.
BARNHARDT: Such power exists?
KLAATU: I assure you such power exists.
Barnhardt stands silent for a moment, trying to collect his shattered thoughts. Klaatu watches him as he starts pacing again.
BARNHARDT: The people who came to the meeting must be made to realize this. They must understand what is at stake.
(after a thoughtful moment, he looks up)
BARNHARDT: You mentioned a demonstration of force--
BARNHARDT: Would such, a demonstration be possible before the meeting?
KLAATU: Yes -- of course.
BARNHARDT: Something that would dramatize for them and for their people the seriousness of the situation.
BARNHARDT: Something that would affect the entire planet.
KLAATU (with a nod):  That can easily be arranged.
BARNHARDT (frightened by his easy assumption of infinite power):  I wouldn't want you to harm anybody -- or destroy anything.
KLAATU (easily): Why don't you leave it to me? I'll think of something.
BARNHARDT (with a nervous half-smile): Maybe a little demonstration.
KLAATU (thinking about it): Something dramatic -- but not destructive.
(intellectually amused)
KLAATU: It's quite an interesting problem.
(Barnhardt nods vaguely)
KLAATU: Would day after tomorrow be all right? Say about noon?
Klaatu's bland manner leaves Barnhardt shaken, almost wishing he'd never started this business.


The Day the Earth Stood Still

Words by Edmund H. North

Pictures by Lee Tover and Robert Wise

The Day the Earth Stood Still is available on DVD from Fox Home Video.

* It's one of Clarke's three laws, the first two being:
  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; when he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
** More recent examples of that scenario are seen in "The Architects of Fear"—an episode of "The Outer Limits"—and the graphic novel and film "Watchmen."