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Nights of Cabiria

July 5, 2011

SPOILER ALERT: The following contains spoilers. The YouTube clip shows the very end of the movie, and what I write underneath also gives away everything. Needless to say, I recommend this movie unreservedly (it is my favorite movie along with only 3 others that I can call my ‘favorite’). So watch it, then come back and read this entry.

What is it about the celebrations at the end of Fellini’s movies that are so moving? Is it, partially—precisely—that they are so unwarranted? Only after everything is lost does Fellini think the party should start.

I’ve been haunted by that image of Cabiria’s teary eyes looking into the camera right before the movie ends. It resonates so deeply. And much like the rest of the film, it touches the viewer without words, because her actions, body language, and facial expressions say more than any line of dialogue ever can.

At one point she is in a ritzy district of town and walks down a lane. Coming opposite are two tall, obviously wealthy, cultured ladies, their backs to the camera. Cabiria’s short frame is dwarfed by comparison, and on her face, an expression of ‘I’m just as good as you, I can play with the best of them’. But right after she passes them, the facade drops, and you can see on her face all her insecurities and doubts. What a great scene.

This reminds me. Somewhere I heard an interview with an actor who said his best lesson in acting came when he realized that to play a drunk person is not about falling all over the place, but instead it’s about trying your best not to fall all over the place. To show the effort in not falling… because a drunk person is all the time trying to convince people he isn’t drunk.

Likewise, how easy it is to create a character who is naive. But how much more believable it is when that character is trying her best not to be naive, to project a facade of world-weary toughness as Cabiria does. This detail is what makes her character work, what makes you believe that she can actually exist, despite her cartoony proportions.

The attention to detail here is stunning, to the subtleties of every character in the movie, and not just the main ones. In one scene, Oscar the swindler spits out a toothpick before meeting with Cabiria. In another, towards the end, he is wearing sunglasses, a sure sign that he’s ashamed of what he’s about to do.

A scene that was cut: Cabiria finds herself on the outskirts of town, among the poverty of the homeless. But Criterion included it in their version, which was a wise decision. It should never have been cut, because it lends so much more power to the movie as a whole. Here we can imagine Cabiria’s likely fate after the movie ends, after she sold her house and had been cheated out of all her money. Knowing this makes the scene so much more powerful on repeat viewings.

As are many of the foreshadowings of the movie. The push into the river at the beginning is a parallel to the movie’s final betrayal.

Likewise, will the viewer be betrayed? This is what I wonder when Guilietta Masina looks into the camera. For it is Guilietta Masina looking into the camera, and not Cabiria. Or, rather, the possibility that it is both the character and the actor in that one moment, joining the viewer in empathy, is poignant.

She has no right to be smiling here, but she does. Cabiria looks at the audience as if to say ‘It’s okay. Everything will be fine’. The gall of her to be comforting us! Meanwhile Masina is saying ‘It’s okay, it’s just a movie’. But will it be okay? Will Cabiria be okay after the end of this movie? Likewise, will we the viewers be okay out in the world once the fantasy of the movie has ended?

Some say this is a hopeful ending, but I am not so sure anymore. You can see it as naive hope in the face of the cynicism of the world.

Or maybe the ending is a dare. Maybe Fellini is daring the viewer to do exactly that: to interpret the ending as hopeful. Because to feel hopeful after what we’ve been shown is to put yourself in Cabiria’s shoes: naive and willing to imagine a better future despite all evidence to the contrary. Will we dare to take on Cabiria’s fate?


Wendell Enjoys a Storm

July 5, 2011

It’s been raining a lot here lately. We’ve run out of options. Everyone has taken to looking out of windows. Here is my cat doing some of that:


This isn’t really an end of the year list, as these aren’t 08 movies (I only saw one 08 movie in 08) but rather movies I watched in 08.

Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

The strangest and best film I saw in 2008 is this little Thai film from 2006. It’s a beautiful, meditative, funny, weird experience… completely unique, it’s one of those movies that absolutely cannot be described.

Variations (Nathaniel Dorsky)

This was an amazing and blissful movie. I saw this along with the other 3 excellent Dorsky shorts that Andy Ditzler showed at the Eyedrum for his Film Love series. Abstract juxtaposition of images that are oddly emotive and effective. Editing, pace, colors and light.

Harlan County, USA (Barbara Kopple)

One of the very best documentaries. You feel like you really went through it all by the end; it’s ugly and brutal and dirty, and features some of the most interesting people you wish you had met.

Other great discoveries:

  • Vagabond (Varda)
  • Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (Gianvito)
  • Innocence (Hadzihalilovic)
  • Ritual in Transfigured Time (Deren)
  • Nanook of the North (Flaherty)
  • Hoop Dreams (James)
  • It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra)
  • Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Paradjanov)
  • Planet Earth TV series
  • Film Ist (Deutsch)
  • Turtles Can Fly (Ghobadi)
  • When Father Was Away on Business (Kusturica)

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(not necessarily movies released this year, in fact, most weren’t)

1. A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf)
2. Dust in the Wind (Hou)
3. Bamako (Sissako)
4. Celine and Julie Go Boating (Rivette)
5. Color of Pomegranates (Paradjanov)
6. Eternity and a Day (Angelopoulos)
7. Samurai Rebellion (Kobayashi)
8. Bemani (Mehrjui)
9. A Summer at Grandpa’s (Hou)
10. Inland Empire (Lynch)
11. Half Moon (Ghobadi)
12. Kandahar (Makhmalbaf)
13. To Be or Not To Be (Lubitsch)
14. End of Summer (Ozu)
15. All About Lily Chou Chou (Iwai)
16. Old Joy (Reichardt)
17. Love Film (Szabo)
18. Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi)
19. Some Like It Hot (Wilder)
20. I’m Not There (Haynes)
21. Network (Lumet)
22. The Shop Around the Corner (Lubitsch)
23. Tokyo Twilight (Ozu)
24. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Naruse)
25. A Man and a Woman (Lelouch)


Dylan’s not there–he doesn’t appear in the movie (well, except for a small clip at the end, as a shadow of himself, almost). A series of actors who “weren’t there” play him, a series of substitutions. The movie reproduces and quotes numerous other movies from other Dylan documentaries to Fellini’s 8 1/2, and in a way, referencing these highlights the fact that we weren’t there. A reference is an acknowledgement of existence, of knowledge, but also an acknowledgement of absence.

You start to realize that the actors playing him aren’t all trying to act like him. Exact replication isn’t the goal here (except for Cate Blanchett who does an excellent job). When you have a black boy play Dylan, it makes relating to him as Dylan, as “there”, that much harder, and that is part of the point of the film. Richard Gere doesn’t even TRY! He acts exactly like Richard Gere in all his other shitty movies. But it’s this quality that makes the movie unique and much more interesting than other biopics.

It shuffles between reference points as well as styles. A black and white scene reminiscent of 8 1/2 is followed by an interview with Julianne Moore in full color, reminiscent of a mockumentary. Though the film is so restlessly shuffling, it manages, amazingly, to capture something about Dylan. The nonconventional storytelling style really benefits here in being enigmatic and revealing at the same time. Who is this person? We are asked to do the other half of the work, to place ourselves there in our minds.

It’s not without fault. The performances were spotty. Some were amazing, like Cate Blanchett who was really great at her role about 90% of the time, Charlotte Gainsbourg, who gave a real standout performance here, even though she didn’t really do anything that spectacular. She was just very convincing and lovable and real. There were bad performances too, Richard Gere was awful, the black boy was good when he was playing the charismatic Dylan, but he was awful when he tried to act meditative, David Cross as Allen Ginsberg was so much of a joke that it was hard to judge how well he played the role. But in a way it doesn’t really matter, the format of the film absorbs the bad performances because the film itself draws attention to the fact that none of this is real, you’re constantly aware of the fact that this is acting, and that’s part of the point. It’s almost like an exercise, but one in which there is a little bit of heart, which is what redeems it. The incredibly generous heart of Dylan, or part of it at least, comes through all the noise and makes the film that much more convincing. He’s hiding in the film, even though he’s not there.