Wednesday, January 31, 2018

It's a Big, Big, Beast

Sure, any behemoth is bound to cause trouble. But then there's The Giant Behemoth, a 1959 British version of the American monster film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. It's a less energetic film, the effects aren't as good. I do like the performances better in The Giant Behemoth but for the most part you're better off watching The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

The Giant Behemoth starts off nicely with a father and daughter (Henri Vidon and Leigh Madison) returning to shore with a boat full of fish. The setting is a beach in Cornwall and we get a nice little introduction to the town when the daughter goes to the tavern looking for her father and is shocked to find he isn't there bragging about his catch. It's the first of several occasions where the giant behemoth proves a master of the stealth kill.

But most of the film sticks with the scientists--a serviceable Gene Evans and an impressively grave Andre Morell who elevates the material quite a bit. There's also a memorable scene with Jack MacGowran as a palaeontologist getting increasingly excited as he realises these men are telling him there's a real live dinosaur walking around.

We don't see the beast for most of the film and until the last ten minutes or so he's little more than a neck and head, shot in live action, reminding me of the Loch Ness Monster in Terror of the Zygons. When the budget allows stop motion to kick in for the climactic scenes, it's not as good as Ray Harryhausen's work on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms but Willis O'Brien--who did the effects work on the original King Kong does create a long necked, massive reptile with personality. I liked the close ups of his head swaying back and forth.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Perfect Horror Triangle

Zombies are known for being pretty slow movers but apparently if you put a topless woman and a shark in front of one he perks right up. You can see this in the best scene of 1979's Zombi 2, which isn't actually a sequel to anything. It was put out as a sequel to Dawn of the Dead but there's nothing in Zombi 2 to explicitly connect it with George Romero's film. Zombi 2 reintroduces Voodoo to the zombie story, a classic component of zombie films that Romero's movies broke ground by moving away from. Most of the virtues of Zombi 2 are in that one incredible action sequence, the rest of the film is mostly a bit silly and lazy.

Well, this fellow has some nice screen presence. A boat drifts into New York Harbour and a couple cops board it to find no-one aboard but a big zombie who chomps the throat out of one of them. This movie's zombies really like to go for the jugular and there are a lot of shots of ripped neck with blood splurting out.

The boat belongs to the father of Anne Bowles, a young woman played by Tisa Farrow who gets top billing despite being little more than a wide eyed, swooning sack of potatoes throughout the film. If you want a textbook example of women and minorities getting short shrift in a horror film, this one covers the bases.

The zombies originated from an uncharted Caribbean island where Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson) is trying to save everyone despite the furious verbal abuse from his wife, Paola (Olga Karlatos). He also has to deal with the childlike superstition of the film's only black character, Lucas (Dakar), whose fearful dependence on the white man's wisdom makes him seen retrograde for 1934 in this film from the late 70s.

Anne meets a man named Peter (Ian McCulloch) she can unwisely tag along with into dangerous situations and allow to make all decisions for her and the two head to the Caribbean. They hitch a ride with a couple of vacationers played by Al Cliver and Auretta Gay. Auretta Gay really deserved top billing for this film.

Swimming practically naked with a tiger shark, she's part of the film's three way action sequence when a zombie taps in, springing from a mass of coral.

She fights off the zombie by grabbing a handful of coral and smashing it in his face, something which seems like it really shouldn't work but this guy is far from your average zombie. Using clear strategy and agility, the fellow actually wrestles with the shark.

If all the film's zombies were like this guy we'd have had 28 Days Later twenty three years early. It's a great scene, I certainly hope the poor shark wasn't traumatised by it. Both Auretta Gay and the actor playing the zombie--Ramon Bravo, who was also the shark's trainer--deserved the salaries of every other actor in the film put together.

Otherwise, the film has a really convincing shot of someone's eye getting pierced by a piece of wood, but you're better off watching Un Chien Andalou if you want to see something like that. There's a really ridiculous sequence where a car goes off the road after hitting a zombie and Peter, sitting in the rear passenger seat, somehow breaks his ankle when the car gently butts up against a tree. It's like the man's ankle burst in a nervous reaction or something. There are a few scenes of dopey, standard zombie fight choreography where characters inexplicably back into the slow moving corpses that come from nowhere and women, of course, can't seem to handle guns and tend to freeze up when faced with reanimated dead. Which makes it all the more remarkable that Auretta Gay is so dynamic in that underwater sequence--nothing else in the film equals it.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The National Front Disco

Last night we may have seen the point where the writers just completely stopped trying to tell a coherent story on Star Trek: Discovery. Abruptly swerving into a clumsy political allegory, characters that fly completely off any semblance of tracks, and with some awkward action sequences, "Past is Prologue" did have some nice performances, some kind of nice call backs to Star Trek II to remind us Nicholas Meyer was working on this show, and the show finally introduced a few of Star Trek's best qualities that'd been lacking on Discovery so far.

Spoilers after the screenshot

It was nice to see the rest of the bridge crew finally being able to make substantial contributions to the conversation. They all looked pretty intriguing, I don't see why Tilly (Mary Wiseman) had to be doing a one woman show on the ship for the past few episodes. Maybe we'll get to know that cool looking cyborg lady better.

Meanwhile, on the Charon, a story that probably needed at least five episodes is crammed into one. Lorca (Jason Isaacs), who, as was established last week, has been Mirror Lorca all along, sets loose a small army of his followers who were conveniently stashed in nearby Agoniser booths. He assumes somehow that Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) has already figured out he's Mirror Lorca and that she's chosen to side with Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) despite the fact that this Georgiou eats people and wanted to have Burnham killed.

Was anyone else hoping to hear Georgiou play Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" on her pipe organ throne?

I hate allegory (for the reasons J.R.R. Tolkien has eloquently given) but I can't deny it's a classic Trek thing to do. But the hasty measures taken to turn Lorca into Donald Trump were exceedingly unwieldy. For one thing, I don't think Trump has the mental dexterity to pass as a Starfleet officer for so long. But his argument that Georgiou is allowing aliens to flood over the border--how does this argument gain traction in even the most delusionally racist minds? This is the Georgiou we saw recently slaughter a group of alien rebels.

I have to say, though, if aliens are trying that hard to get into the Terran Empire the alternative must be pretty horrific. Maybe they're running from the Cardassian-Klingon alliance that eventually took over the Terran Empire on Deep Space Nine?

I'm glad to have Michelle Yeoh back on the show but I would've liked more development of Mirror Georgiou's relationship with Burnham. Maybe instead of a Burnham who seems instantly absolutely certain of everything really fast, we could've had a period where she was studying Mirror Georgiou to find some hint of humanity, with moments where Burnham's preconceptions about human nature were challenged as she gradually was forced to admit she still feels a connexion with this woman. Though, since that's also probably the story that needed to happen with Tyler, there may be too many ingredients in this soup to leave any room for base.

Why does Burnham side with Georgiou instead of Lorca? All she knows about Mirror Lorca at this point is that she had a pretty good working relationship with him before she knew he was Mirror Lorca and that before that he was trying to overthrow Mirror Georgiou, the racist mass murderer. It's uncertain whether she figured out that Lorca had deliberately brought Discovery to the Mirror Universe but he would still seem a better ally than Georgiou. I'm forced to conclude she's fighting him entirely because he had a relationship with Mirror Burnham that went from parental to sexual. Which might be creepy though we know very little about it. He still seems a better bet than the Emperor who wanted to kill Burnham, the Emperor who thinks Saru (Doug Jones) is an entrée--Lorca, meanwhile, seems to have genuine respect for Saru. Maybe if, over a series of episodes, a rift had been established between Burnham and Mirror Lorca, maybe one were his sexual attraction to her was related to some patronising sense of superiority, this would have all played out more coherently. As it is, all we have is the memory of him complementing her ingenuity and courage when they first met. When he said "Context is for kings" he was clearly including Burnham in the "Kings" column.

Lorca kind of reminds me of when Derek Jacobi played the Master for an episode of Doctor Who. Up until the newest incarnation of the Master, Missy, he was one of my least favourite aspect of Doctor Who because he was such a two dimensional villain (though I have come to appreciate the complexity suggested by some of the hints at friendship between Roger Delgado and Jon Pertwee). But Jacobi had some layers to work with due to the Master's lose of memory and it was genuinely intriguing watching the cracks starting to show as the old personality started to assert itself over the decent man he thought he was. Then John Simm took over and he was just the boring old Master again. Jason Isaac's performance on Star Trek: Discovery has been similarly intriguing, forcing you to watch him to try to figure out what his motives really are, the ambiguity hitting just the right note to seem like a genuinely mysterious character. The flat character he abruptly becomes in "Past is Prologue" is inevitably a let down. I am hoping we'll get to meet Prime Lorca, though.

It is nice to see everyone seems to be using viewscreens now instead of holograms.

Twitter Sonnet #1079

Misplacing sums retires mice to tails.
A passing lock rebuffs the largest grief.
To pepper soup's to loose the baby's wails.
The standard tea by half is all too brief.
The amber pudding held a gummy bug.
In op'ras sprung the dates for haste delay.
To fires draw the frozen shadows snug.
For giants wrought of eyes the songs allay.
The scarab rows reformed in jelly wine.
For fixing rows of ceiling tombs recall.
The scalps're lately spun in thinning twine.
More lakes than springs could salad days forestall.
The river brings the brains to party shops.
The fractured marble surface clouds the stops.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Kingdom for the Con

What kind of man would be capable of, and have a desire to, strike out into unknown territory to rule over a people he's never seen or heard of? Not just scoundrels but a very particular kind as demonstrated in 1975's The Man Who Would be King and in the Rudyard Kipling novella it's based on. John Huston directs Sean Connery, Michael Caine, and Christopher Plummer--each perfectly cast in this beautifully and excitingly filmed adventure.

The Wikipedia entry for the novella quotes Kingsley Amis as calling Kipling's story "grossly overrated," calling it a story where a "silly prank ends in predictable and thoroughly deserved disaster." Amis is ahead of his time with this criticism as to-day internet critics often express dislike for stories without "sympathetic" characters, by which they typically mean morally pure characters. But John Huston, director of Treasure of Sierra Madre and The Asphalt Jungle, would not have needed persuading that a story about people motivated entirely by greed and a lust for adventure would be one worthy of attention.

Though it's not quite accurate to say the men portrayed in this film are thoroughly selfish. At the beginning of the film, in a bit of business invented by the filmmakers, Peachy (Caine) lifts a pocket watch belonging to Kipling (Plummer) at a train station. When he discovers a fob attached bearing a Freemason symbol, Peachy's irritated but goes to a lot of trouble to board the train and get to the same car as Kipling to return it. This is a more cinematic way of getting across what Kipling, the author, does with more dialogue and backstory in the book with similar results--the narrator, Kipling, finds Peachy to be a charming, oddly innocent rogue and the two men are excited to meet fellow Masons in India.

This isn't the last time we see Freemasonry in the film or the novella and it functions in a very interesting way. On one level, we have the British in India where they are culturally isolated, and then there's the even smaller circle of the Freemasons. Plummer's Kipling tries to explain to someone that the appeal of Freemasonry is that it represents a philosophy of brotherly love. Yet by it's nature it's exclusive and through it Peachy and his collaborator, Dravot (Connery), gain the valuable assistance of Kipling in their quest to subjugate the population of Kifiristan. I was reminded of something Margaret Atwood wrote recently in an article about recent circumventions of due process--"The Cosa Nostra, for instance, began as a resistance to political tyranny." Something that came from noble intentions can be misused to destructive results without the participates even being fully aware of it. But in talking about ruling gangsters, I was reminded of Vladimir Putin and to a lesser extent Donald Trump. In an interview with The Atlantic recently, Masha Gessen described Putin as a man who "set out to build a mafia state. He didn’t set out to build a totalitarian regime. But he was building his mafia state on the ruins of a totalitarian regime. And so we end up with a mafia state and a totalitarian society."

But I suspect Putin and Trump are more conscious of their own selfishness than Dravot. Huston elaborates a bit on the councils Kipling mentions Dravot holding once he becomes king. When one villager asks permission to raid another village because his own village has a deficit of grain, Dravot instead sets up a system for a common granary to provide for everyone, sounding probably not coincidentally like Joseph in Genesis. Despite Peachy's urging that the two of them make off with the great treasure while the getting's good, Dravot starts to be seduced by his own PR. And it's easy enough for him to flatter his vanity with magnanimity when his kingship was delivered to him so easily. It's not like he and Peachy made the dangerous trek and conned the local leaders because they really wanted to save anyone. But the natural impulse is there so long as he doesn't have to make any sacrifices. Which unfortunately he's called upon to do when the priests forbid him from marrying a beautiful peasant woman named Roxanne, played by Michael Caine's wife Shakira.

Connery and Caine are perfect in this film, as good a pair of rogues as any to adventure with, and Huston shows he's lost none of his mastery of the medium at this point. The film's budget is well on display with fantastic location shots in Morocco substituting for Kafiristan.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Quadruple Folds

The trilogy of Doctor Who audio plays that began with the Fifth Doctor story, The Burning Prince, and continued with the Sixth Doctor story, The Acheron Pulse, concludes with a Seventh Doctor story called The Shadow Heart. The story of Prince Kylo (James Wilby) and his doomed love for the Princess Aliona concludes here though the audio play spends less time with that than it does with a very clever and amusing time travel plot.

It begins with the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) stumbling into a bar with a massive gunshot in his chest, seeking the assistance of a couple "snailers"--scavengers who pilot a large space snail through debris fields looking for valuable salvage. We learn the Doctor is being pursued by The Wrath, a dangerous robotic civilisation that the Sixth Doctor reprogrammed in the previous story to devote all their energies to justice. Unfortunately, this has led the Wrath on a campaign to kill everyone because, as the older and wiser Seventh Doctor realises, deep down, "Everyone's guilty of something." I would have liked a greater exploration of this contrast between Six and Seven--it makes a lot of sense. I always thought the darker, more mysterious personality of the Seventh Doctor was related to Six's final story being The Trial of a Time Lord--with the confrontation with the Valeyard teaching the Doctor the dangers of a simplistic, zero tolerance morality. But maybe there's something like that in an audio play I haven't listened to yet.

Since Seven seems to know everyone and even what's going to happen, it becomes clear that he's folded back on his own timeline. I wondered if we were going to get the second half, from the Doctor's perspective, of the story first and the first part second but writer Jonathan Morris has something even more complicated in mind. There are one or two places where I thought Morris lost track of what he was doing but mostly it's a pretty solid construction of . . . well, it's like, Doctor B remembers what Doctor A did who followed from Doctor C, who was instructed by Doctor B, operating on instructions A gave to his cohorts . . . Anyway, it's really good. Mostly the story follows the perspective of the supporting characters, one of whom is an American bounty hunter played by Deep Space Nine's Chase Masterson. Keeping it from the perspective of the supporting characters adds to the feeling that the Doctor is executing an extremely complicated plan though, as he admits, he loses track himself now and then.

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Complex Lover or the Spy

Is it better to say Mata Hari was a powerful, successful spy for the Germans, or that she was unfairly made a scapegoat by popular sexist notions? I wonder if Carrie Fisher was pondering this when she wrote the teleplay to the 1993 episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, "Paris, 1916". From a story by George Lucas and directed by Nicolas Roeg, it's exceptionally good television and portrays an improbably complex relationship between a sharp, worldly Mata Hari and a sweet teenage Indiana Jones.

Roeg, the director of Walkabout, Bad Timing, and The Man Who Fell to Earth directs an episode that easily outshines "Verdun, 1916", the episode with which "Paris 1916" is paired so that Lucasfilm could release the episodes as a single film, called Demons of Deception. Both have the same credited cinematographer but the lighting is so much lovelier and the production design produced from such keener instincts for colour it's difficult to believe the two are part of the same series, despite sharing a star.

"Verdun, 1916" has some nice action sequences but suffers from the same problem most of the series does--lacking the ingenious sequences pairing charismatic but fumbling characters with perfectly orchestrated action choreography of the films, the television series, with its endless string of famous figures, too frequently had the feel of an unimaginative "info-tainment" history lesson. But "Paris, 1916" creates actual characters and makes Indy more complex as well.

Sean Patrick Flanery, who never really seemed like good casting to me, at least not as good as River Phoenix, is used well here for his very youthful look and demeanour in a story about a young man figuring out the subtleties of romance with a very capable instructor in the form of Mata Hari. Italian actress Domiziana Giordano plays Mata Hari, who's 5'8", according to the only source I can find on google that has a height for her, two inches shorter than the real 5'10" Mata Hari, and three inches shorter than 5'11" Sean Patrick Flanery. So it must have been a creative decision to make her look much taller than him.

She's frequently shot like this, like a great bird clutching its prey. Her size is enhanced in other ways--I loved how she looks in this breakfast scene with a massive, fur lined dressing gown.

She almost looks like she was designed by Aubrey Beardsley. But I suspect there was also an intended ode to Greta Garbo's portrayal as Mata Hari in the 1931 film--Giordano has more than a passing resemblance to Garbo. But "Paris, 1916" is far less sentimental than that film.

Though in Fisher's teleplay there's something of pre-Code Hollywood's embrace of the sexually mature and experienced woman personified by the likes of Garbo or Marlene Dietrich in contrast to the Victorian woman-child. After Indy confronts Mata Hari after he's seen her with another lover, her response is to give him a lesson that reminded me of Dietrich's "I've Been in Love Before".

INDY: I can't believe you kissed that old goat.

MATA HARI: How could you say you love me and not trust me?

INDY: You've been lying to me! You don't love me, you've just been using me for your own vanity.

MATA HARI: When you said you loved me, was that true? I mean, really true, from your heart?

INDY: Well, no, not exactly.

MATA HARI: So you've been lying to me! And that's all right for you, not for me? And why did you tell me if it wasn't true?

INDY: Because it's what you wanted to hear! And it's not as if I don't care about you, I do.

MATA HARI: What you care about is the pleasure I give you. I'm so much older than you, I've had so many lovers. But what would be the point of telling you this? I like you and I don't want to make you unhappy.

In one of their first scenes alone together, the breakfast scene, she concocts a fantasy for him. She tells him about dancing naked in a temple for a master Yogi, then stumbling "sprawling" before him. She says he took his clothes off and got on top of her and when Indy, horrified, asks why she didn't run away, she tells him vaguely that the power he had over her was very strong. Indy later learns that, as in reality, Mata Hari's background in Java was completely invented as part of her stage persona. This story she tells him is entirely to arouse him, a fantasy about female passivity and male dominance, but the fact that she orchestrates the fantasy to seduce him makes her interaction with him almost the opposite of the impression created by the story. She is his teacher and her power over him is very strong.

She's teaching him how respect functions in relationships based on lust and fantasy. She has no desire to hurt him, he simply isn't experienced enough to separate his idealism from the truth of human sexual appetite. All this takes on an added poignancy when considering how these worldly bedroom fantasies appear in the context of accusations of espionage, particularly in the light of public opinion still influenced by Victorian morality.

There's also a really delightful couple at the beginning of the episode played by Ian McDiarmid and Jacqueline Pearce. Pearce's disapproval of Mata Hari, attempting to steer Indy away from such a disreputable woman, gives some hint of this public attitude which would eventually play an integral part in Mata Hari's downfall.

Twitter Sonnet #1078

We rue connexions broke by chewing dawns.
The chomping night referred to chains the shop.
Digesting crews repaint the eaten prawns.
A swallowed fish foretells its gold'll stop.
In dusty hands the butterfly emerged.
The building tree established girder leaves.
No question met where phony scalps submerged.
The tightened thigh could blame elastic greaves.
The peace reclines between appointments kept.
In careful cuts the timing breathed to taste.
As weapons moved their thieves and masters slept.
Between tomatoes stretched a shrouded waste.
The chances clot in catacombish skies.
The pins permit excess of ninety tries.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Who's a Good Werewolf?

How do you spot a werewolf in human form? Would it look like Peter Cushing, Charles Gray, Michael Gambon, or someone else? 1974's The Beast Must Die poses the question so the wealthy Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart) can decide which of his guests to hunt and kill. With a werewolf that is clearly a large and very friendly dog and a peculiarly funky soundtrack, this movie is heavy on cheese but it's still a lot of fun.

It begins with this title card and a narrator informing us we'll be given a chance near the climax to stop and give our answers, to see if we've figured out who the werewolf is. For the record, I came up with two solutions--the person I thought it would be if the movie was playing fair, and the person I felt like it would be if the movie was deciding it entirely on narrative construction. I thought it would go with the latter but I was happy it went with the former.

Every one of Tom's guests could be fairly suspected for one reason or another. Paul Foote (Tom Chadbon) is a strangely hairy man, an artist who paints murder victims; Arthur Bennington (Gray) seems reluctant to touch the silver candlesticks and is indignant at any suggestion there's something odd about him; Jan Gilmore (Gambon) tries to flee the estate when he finds out what Tom's up to; Arthur's wife, Davina (Ciaran Madden), has the suspicious name "Davina"; and Peter Cushing plays Professor Lundgren, a lycanthropy expert who fervently insists at the dinner table that werewolves are as much victims as the people they attack.

Rounding out the cast of famously sinister actors is Anton Diffring as Pavel, Tom's assistant who monitors the cameras placed throughout the estate from a special control room. He and Tom politely debate the existence of werewolves--but Tom is thoroughly convinced.

Tom's wife, Caroline (Marlene Clark), gets into arguments about it, too, at the dinner table in front of the guests. These escalate a bit artificially and both actors seem to be delivering their lines with passion that really isn't in the material. Any time Cushing or Gray is on screen, though, the material is elevated by two actors who know exactly the right moments to be over the top or subtle with this kind of material. Gambon is good, too, with naturally good instincts as an actor but he doesn't seem to have learned how to hit the oversized notes for this kind of material yet.

As for the wolf? He's a good dog, yes he is. I felt kind of bad for him when the helicopter pilot was hugging him so that we'd think the beast was attacking him.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Greatest Worlds

It's been over ten years since I last read a book by Ursula LeGuin, who passed away two days ago. So I can certainly say her works linger in my mind long after reading them, certainly more than many other authors I read over a decade ago. I first read her over twenty years ago, though, in high school when I encountered Wizard of Earthsea which compelled me to seek out Left Hand of Darkness, then The Dispossessed, a few other novels in her Hainish Cycle, and then The Lathe of Heaven as well. Looking over excerpts and summaries to-day I would credit LeGuin with teaching me at a young age the value of understanding other perspectives, of appreciating the complex factors that form a human personality. Whether in her works of fantasy or her works of science fiction, a consistent virtue in her work is the fascinating exploration of people and how and why they think as they do.

Looking over several quotes from her at Wikiquote, I see many keen and insightful statements, some of them almost reminding me of Oscar Wilde.

As a fiction writer, I don't speak message. I speak story. Sure, my story means something, but if you want to know what it means, you have to ask the question in terms appropriate to storytelling. Terms such as message are appropriate to expository writing, didactic writing, and sermons—different languages from fiction. The notion that a story has a message assumes that it can be reduced to a few abstract words, neatly summarized in a school or college examination paper or a brisk critical review.

And this is absolutely true. What I learned about the value of understanding other perspectives didn't come from LeGuin saying to me, "You need to understand other perspectives!" but by taking the time to invite me into another time and place and showing me how they work. The fact that the books are deeply enjoyable is related to this.

There's something frantic and inherently fearful when people cling to messages over a portrait of experience. As LeGuin also said, "The artist deals in what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words." It reminds me of Oscar Wilde again, saying that art is "the perfect use of an imperfect medium." It's precisely in the lack of precision, the dovetailing of impressions of visceral experience and human relationships, that we get to something that truly speaks to human nature. Partly it's simply the virtue of "showing not telling," partly it's that people naturally respond better to the companionable tone of storytelling over the rebuking and restrictive tone of the prescriptive lecture or sermon. When Ged goes on his journey in The Wizard of Earthsea, it's not a story about how we should be more like Ged but simply about who Ged is and what we do with that is entirely up to us.

The world seems especially in need of more voices like LeGuin's and I'm very sorry to see her go.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Abundantly Sweet

It felt like a good time to watch La Dolce Vita again. In Federico Fellini's 1960 masterpiece about tabloid culture that avoids any canned, lazy morality, he portrays the peculiar mixture of the notoriously shallow with a fervent pursuit of the truly divine.

The film's almost three hours long but when most people think of the film, especially people who haven't seen it, they think of the relatively short segment starring Anita Ekberg, particularly her famous dance in Rome's Trevi Fountain. In the film, her only audience is Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) and a kitten. A writer for gossip magazines who undergoes a personal struggle throughout the film between pursuing a world of glamour and a world of intellectual stimulation, Marcello tries to tell Sylvia (Ekberg) what she means to him earlier in the film as they dance together.

"You're everything, Sylvia. You know that you're everything?" he tells her in Italian clearly beyond her grasp of the language. "You're the first woman of creation. You're the mother, the sister, the lover, the friend . . . the angel, the devil, the Earth, the home. That's what you are: the home!" And yet he barely knows her. His veneration for her quickly eclipses interest in her alcoholic and abusive fiance, Robert (Lex Barker). Marcello doesn't see Robert hit Sylvia--and Marcello doesn't seem to care when Robert hits him. Probably for the same reason he's losing interest in his own lover, Emma (Yvonne Furneaux).

He's cold and barely seems to listen to Emma when she argues with him in the car, as she tries to tell him that he already has the greatest thing, a real woman who loves him. But the film isn't simply a tale about a man losing his soul to something empty in exchange for a real relationship. We see Emma herself joining in a mob of people tearing apart a tree in a grotesque scene where two children falsely report seeing the Madonna. Is Marcello's distraction a sign of his shallowness or part of a realisation that his relationship with Emma was based on a shallow foundation? A seemingly wise old woman, a poet, advises him never to marry, always to be free.

This is at Steiner's (Alain Cuny) party--a man who jokingly describes himself as the devil earlier in the film when he talks about how a priest allows him to play the church organ. It's Steiner's social circle of artists and intellectuals that entices Marcello away from decadence--it's after Steiner murders his children and kills himself that Marcello fully gives into the orgiastic lifestyle. How do you connect Marcello riding on a woman's back like a horse at the end with the scene of horror that preceded it? One of the appeals of free ranging thought is that you don't know where it will go but Steiner, as the ultimate representative of that lifestyle, who earlier described his deep affection for his children, presumably followed that path somewhere horrible. Perhaps it is better to follow an idol than to question everything.

Anyone who denies the beauty of the fountain scene is very far gone down the path of cynicism. Those who would dismiss it as an exercise of the "male gaze" would miss the point. The heterosexual male attraction to women's bodies is only a convenient path to something bigger. Compare the quote from Marcello above with Reese Witherspoon talking about Oprah Winfrey at this year's Golden Globes: "And her hugs, Oprah’s hugs could end wars, solve world peace. It’s like your oldest, dearest friend has just seen you after the longest journey of your life--it’s that good. When she hugs you, it’s the greatest thing ever." This sounds silly to those of us who aren't fans of Oprah but to those who are it's a natural confirmation of the veneration they feel. One might say that Oprah works more to create her image, is more of an artist, but this would be a too typical reflection of how people underestimate the work an actor actually does.

Sylvia is very much involved in creating art, using her body as an instrument. We constantly see her making creative decisions--her refusal to remove her glasses for a reporter when she gets off the plane, her announcement that she's taking off her shoes at the party, her insistence that the music change from jazz to rock. Like many great artists, her impulse to create art continues even in the absence of an audience--she puts the kitten on her head when even Marcello isn't there to see her. And, of course, it's her decision to walk into the fountain. Is it because she's feeling too warm? No, she describes the fountain as beautiful and that's when she wants to enter it and become a part of it. The fountain is itself a great work of art, much as a film is a work of art, and Sylvia walking into it is not unlike signing up to be part of a film.

It's important to acknowledge the power in beauty to have a real conversation about the destructiveness of decadence. In the final party scene Marcello is compulsively critical and abusive and has lost his ability to communicate with the normal girl from the cafe who tries to say something to him from across the water. By this point, Marcello is lost in the world of beautiful party goers and the strange dead sea creature washed ashore.

Twitter Sonnet #1077

Through ancient phones the call remade the shot.
In tracing tape the duct refused the air.
The vision net withheld the optic spot.
The banished fish'll take a water spare.
A quoted man addressed the shouting lamp.
The audience ashore divides the book.
The pictured woman hailed the running champ.
Between the boats the cups'll have to look.
Hamburger ash despairs of mustard gas.
They want to trap the ferns beneath the branch.
A mashing tool prepared the spudded pass.
Decision tubers led us to the ranch.
Ingredients and stars configured right.
Galactic catsup stills to whiskey night.