Monthly Archives: November 2010

Goodbye, Jill Clayburgh

I remember Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman.

As Erica Benton – a New York woman coping with life after divorce – she conveyed a calm, even serene intelligence uncommon in American movies. Naturalistic and sensual, Jill Clayburgh appeared to be both brighter, and more striking, than our own friends and family and at the same time, exactly like them. That’s how she managed to be so effective as Erica Benton, who, in Paul Mazursky’s essential film of 1978, conveyed the experience of divorce quite plainly, in modern and very real terms. It’s that rare case of a polemical film free of polemic.

Part of what made – and continues to make –Mazursky and Clayburgh’s interpretation of the experience so resonant is that it didn’t read as an interpretation. They didn’t have an angle. They didn’t cop to “dramatizing” the situation with clearly defined, movie-made conflicts and resolutions. Nor did they get wrapped up in ideas or values. They just gave it to you. As the film’s tagline says, “She laughs, she cries, she feels angry, she feels lonely, she feels guilty, she makes breakfast, she makes love, she makes do, she is strong, she is weak, she is brave, she is scared, she is…an unmarried woman.” That’s it. The only thing Mazursky wants is for us to feel.

Perhaps that’s what makes the loss of Jill Clayburgh so personal. Remembering the film is not like remembering a movie, but like looking back on a conversation with someone you used to see a lot of. Someone you saw through a difficult time (God, that was a while ago! I wonder how she is? I keep forgetting to drop off the coat she left at my apartment.) Were Jill Clayburgh a movie star, or a conventional beauty of the kind we see too much of today, she would not have had that effect, and An Unmarried Woman would feel more like something we saw than something that happened to us.

A few years ago, I had a chance to speak with Ms. Clayburgh about the film, namely about how she and Mazursky managed to evince that feeling of happening to us. “I don’t know,” she said. “Think of the women and the way they dressed. I mean, you know, when you think of women getting together now in film, and I won’t say what, but they’re all dressed to the nines. Who the hell are they dressed for? They’re all so chic! We all looked good, but we weren’t done up. We were just…wonderfully…in our own characters.” That’s what lent the movie, and Clayburgh’s performance, the force of the zeitgeist. Wading in truthfulness, trusting integrity of observation, they happened to catch a wave. “There was something about Erica that was so interesting because she didn’t ask for any of this,” she added. “Feminism was in the air, but it hadn’t trickled down. It was a bit rarified. That makes Erica very vulnerable and kind of…I don’t know…like someone you know.”

I know her and I miss her.

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Last Night at The Rome Film Festival

It was like a scene from Modern Times. I was standing on line for the Rome Film Festival’s opening night screening of Last Night, unceremoniously packed in with some of the rowdiest filmgoers I have ever met, when, after about twenty minutes, I realized I was in the middle of an all-out protest. I had no idea over what. For a moment, I tried to negotiate myself out of the mob, but once they started moving toward what I hoped was the cinema, I figured staying with them would keep me from getting lost all over again. And now that I know why they were gathering, I’m glad I joined them, if only for a moment.

Hundreds of writers, directors, actors, and other employees of the Italian culture sector had turned out to protest government funding cuts that have taken, and will continue to take, a serious toll on film industry workers. They broke through the crowd of media and civilians that had lined up – presumably, to get a look at Keira Knightley or Eva Mendes, stars of Last Night – and spread themselves out, most of them sitting, over every square inch of red carpet, chanting and orating all the while.

It was quite a sight. Those of us who had already made it into the auditorium, watched it all on the big screen inside of the theater, which, in slightly uncomfortable contrast, was beginning to fill with the type of well-groomed movie people who probably don’t have to worry as much about their employment. Then again, maybe they do.

After a significant delay, the lights dimmed. Last Night’s stars and filmmakers were paraded in, a few words of introduction were made, the jury was introduced, and the lights dimmed further. The film began.

Joanna and Michael Reed (Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington), a young and affluent Manhattan couple, are the sort of loft-living folk we see a lot of in today’s New York movies – in other words, people you want to be, but are glad you aren’t. Things start to fray, at least officially, when Joanna confronts Michael about a crush he may (or may not) be having with Laura (Eva Mendes), a business associate he’s been going out of town with.

What follows is a vaguely familiar riff on the jealousy ronde. We’ve all been there, in movies and in life, and for a good part of Last Night it’s tough to figure out why we’re back. But I was glad we were. Keira Knightley, who seems to grow more intelligent with every movie, takes such fearful pleasure in running into and then going out with Alex (Guillaume Canet), her ex-boyfriend, that watching her try to make up her mind, one forgets, at least temporarily, that there is still another half of the picture waiting in the wings. That half – the will they or wont they dance of Sam Worthington and Eva Mendes – lacks the spark of real attraction, the quiet glinting looks and bashful smiles Knightley and Canet plugged into the moment they appeared together on screen.

But my mind kept going back to the rally on the red carpet. Were they still holding out?

The Dolce Life

The best view of the red carpet, I realized, was from above.

Browsing the bleachers a full hour before even the press arrived for The Rome Film Festival’s world premiere restoration of La Dolce Vita, I decided, finally, on a front row seat next to a shrunken woman of about seventy. Surrounded by blankets and snacks and cigarettes, she looked like she had been waiting all day. “No Scorsese?” she asked as I sat down beside her. (Scorsese was scheduled to introduce the film.) I told her it was still early. He’d be here. Disgusted, she threw up her hands. “No Scorsese, no cinema!” I’m not quite sure I agree, but it’s hard to disagree.

Fifty years after La Dolce Vita’s original release, the film has been restored from its original widescreen negative for the clean up of a lifetime. The premiere, which was itself a thing out of Fellini – from Nino Rota on the loudspeakers to the paparazzi on the floor – saw an avalanche of beautiful stars that all looked liked twins, save for one. Early in the parade, before things got too frenzied, a black car stopped as close to the carpet as it possibly could, a policeman flew to the door, opened it (slowly), reached in, and out came a cane, a foot, and then the rest of Anita Ekberg. The place went nuts.

As the new stars began to appear, with their smiles and waves and tastefully torn clothing, the mighty Ekberg limped wryly toward the press line, accentuating every labored step with a grande sigh. She had a lot of carpet to walk, and watching her fight it, prodding it with her cane and laughing all the while was a thrill even the most immaculately restored La Dolce Vita would not likely upstage. Moreover, Ekberg was the only woman on the red carpet with a purse slung over her shoulder, as if she had just came from lunch. How could you not love that?

I moved inside the theater to watch the rest of the arrivals on the big screen, in close up. There I rediscovered Ekberg’s entire face. Tickled, I found her jack-o-lantern smile, enormous eyes, and high-pointed eyebrows told of a darker, wittier person than I remembered from the movies. But I have a good defense: after the Trevi Fountain scene, all you can do is remember the Trevi Fountain scene.

The camera then drifted away from Anita (what would have Fellini have done with a Steadicam?) to Scorsese, and the entire theater erupted in applause and cheers, and then immediately hushed to hear what he had to say. At that moment someone behind me whispered, “You don’t have to be tall to be big.” In other words, No Scorsese, no cinema.

Once the little giant entered the building, things started to move quickly. There were a few introductions and some clips before Anita Ekberg was brought out on stage (with purse) to remember the filming, which she did with sardonic glee. I’m not sure, but she may have cackled. In fact, Ekberg got so gleeful she didn’t even see the cortege of stagehands that had gathered to signal her time was up. So she went on, gleefully, and as her enthusiasm grew, they moved closer, until finally the cluster was on stage, practically standing beside her. Even then she didn’t see them. So deep was her Fellini trance, they had to literally, almost physically, interrupt her sentence to bring her back to the present. It was glorious.

Then Scorsese. Watching La Dolce Vita, he said, is like the dream sequence – Guido freefalling – that opens 8 ½. “You feel like you’re flying,” he said. “At times it’s frightening or even terrifying. But at the same time it’s liberating.” In other words, no Fellini, no cinema.