Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A glorious Lina Wertmuller Retrospective starts Friday the Quad Cinema

I recently asked a young cineaste which Lina Wertmuller film was her favorite. Without missing a beat she shot back “Who?”

When I picked my jaw off the floor I just stared at her for a good long while.

“What?” she said.

“You don’t know Wertmuller?”

“No, Should I?”

“You’re the one always talking about there not being enough female directors and you don’t know the first woman to get an Oscar nomination as best director?”

“For what film?”


“Oh I have the Criterion. I haven’t watched it yet.”

She’s not alone. When I mentioned my desire to cover the Lina Wertmuller series at The Quad Cinema several of the Unseen family admitted to not having seen any of her films. It seems the one time Queen of Cinema has fallen on hard times.

In a weird way it’s kind of understandable after changing the face of cinema in the 1970’s she made a couple of odd choices and fell out of favor in America. Some how some of her films seem not to have played here in the States at all. The result is generations of film lovers really don’t know Wertmuller’s films except that Criterion put out SEVEN BEAUTIES and Madonna destroyed SWEPT AWAY in a remake.

The Quad Cinema in Manhattan is correcting that. Beginning April 14 when they reopen they will be running a retrospective of most of Wertmuller’s work plus the documentary about her BEHIND THE WHITE GLASSES. Anyone who loves film, especially if they have never seen her films, really must attend the series or lose their film lover club card forever.

When I was growing up the film lovers I knew really loved Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa and what now may sound surprising Lina Wertmuller. Wertmuller’s place in that group may sound crazy but when you consider that after working with Fellini on 8 ½ she went on to start her own career which peaked with THE SEDUCTION OF MIMI, LOVE AND ANARCHY, ALL SCREWED UP, SWEPT AWAY and SEVEN BEAUTIES it is completely understandable. That anyone could turn out one of those films was amazing but to do so in succession is unheard of.No one, not man , nor woman nor gazelle, no one ever hit five times out of the gate like that. She was writing literally with lightning.

People have written books about Wertmuller and her influence but to me her importance comes from a couple of places. The first is the look of her films. There is nothing quite like her films. The closest in look is her friend and mentor Fellini. She learned a lot from him, a love of faces in particular. But I think her biggest take away was her taking his advice to forget intentional technique and just tell her story as she would tell it to a friend. If she couldn’t tell the story the technique would never save her. The way she tells the story, a mashing up of drama and commedia dell'art/ musical theater (she started in the theater) would allow her to meld humor and heart break. Tragedy funny and humor tragic. All you need to is look at SEVEN BEAUTIES, which is funny and not, to realize how she balances that always.

In a very real sense all I I know of Italy I learned from Lina Wertmuller.

Wertmuller’s visual style, especially in her run of five classic films, is how I think of Italy. The faces, the colors, the emotion and sense of humor even I the face of heartbreaking tragedy is my mental picture of Italy.

To be certain her sense of the world is not that far from Fellini’s, after all she worked with the man, but at the same time her world is a real one.Her people are more real than Fellini’s simply because she never truly breaks through into fantasy. He technique may make things hyper real or ever surreal but at the same time  Wertmuller always remains grounded which is why films like SEVEN BEAUTIES, LOVE AND ANARCHY and SWEPT AWAY  still ring painfully true and still kick ass and break our hearts

To get into the mood to write up the Quad series I finally caught up with ALL SCREWED UP.  This is an untethered tale of a couple of guys and their friends who move in together in Milan. Everyone i always hustling to try to get enough money to move up the ladder. It is a pointed jab at society, capitalist and communist, that is also a wicked take, as all her films are, on the male female dynamic. If you look at how men and women interact in the film (or any of her films) you realize that this is closer to the way people really act. Sure there is a heightened sense of emotion and longing but these are real people.

The film is also a perfect example of her technique. Watch how she frames faces and moves the camera. The set pieces, for example all of the sequences in the kitchen are masterful while the slaughterhouse ballet is among the most amazing melding of beauty with grotesquery you’ll ever see. No one does what she was doing, not then and not so much now. Or if they are not so boldly.

While the film’s plot line comes and goes in favor of set pieces the film is still rightly considered a classic.

After you've seen a few of Wertmuller's films you'll sudden realize how influential she was. No one was doing what she was before she wandered into cinemas, and no one has been doing exactly what she was doing after-largely because no one could achieve the balance of comedy and tragedy  or the male female dynamic the way she did- though many tried and everyone stole from her.

If you have to pick Wertmuller films to begin with start with the big four: SEDUCTION OF MIMI, SEVEN BEAUTIES, LOVE AND ANARCHY and SWEPT AWAY, From their try ALL SCREWED UP and then work outward.

I know I should probably discuss her films but the realization that most people who are reading this have no idea what they are getting into makes me think you should approach the films as I was back in the 1970's which is to Simply just buy a ticket belt in and let Lina be Lina.

At the same time if you want to taste her films, or reacquaint yourself or even just learn something you need to see the great documentary BEHIND THE WHITE GLASSES which is an overview of her work and life as told by the woman herself and her friends and admirers.

The documentary which starts at the Quad starting on April 21st is a must see.

While not the be all and end all, the film gives some of her films only passing note, the film is a beautiful portrait of the woman as an artist. She is a ball of energy who is still constantly striving to create. The film covers her career from her days in the theater to her working as Fellini’s assistant on 8 1/2 on to now. The film concentrates on her work with Fellini, her first film, LIZARDS, and her peak period creating her five classics.

 It’s an amazing portrait which includes some great insight from a some of her collaborators and admirers (Scorsese) not to mention herself. I loved that she understood how her looking too closely at her fame and working for Hollywood kind of derailed her career. It’s a film that explains her influence and where the things she did came from. It’s a must see-Seriously even if you don't see any other film in the series you must see BEHIND THE WHITE GLASSES because it will put Wertmuller onto your radar and make you understand that she needs to be taken seriously once more.

Lina Wertmuller is one of the great masters of cinema and if you want proof you must go to the Quad Cinema starting Friday and see her films.

For more details on the series, the films and for tickets go  here.

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