Classic Cinema at Bologna, Perils of a Paulette, from ‘Guilt Trip’ to ‘Vera Cruz’

Classic Cinema at Bologna, Perils of a Paulette, from 'Guilt Trip' to 'Vera Cruz'

The first time I ever saw a Personal Entertainment System on a plane was en route to Pordenone in 2005. I was so thrilled by it — I don’t think I even had a TiVo yet — that I looked forward to the return trip much more than I otherwise would have. And neglected to replenish my supply of reading material. Of course, it turned out that on the way back the system promptly went down and stayed down for the entire twelve-hour flight time.  

The system on my flight to Amsterdam en route to Il Cinema Ritrovato, XXVII Edizione, Bologna only went down for a couple of hours. But I was already less than enchanted with its choices, especially in comparison with the amazing I.C.E. system I’d been treated to on the 16-hour Emirate Air flights to and from Dubai, which made sleep superfluous. 

On my way to drown myself in restored and rediscovered masterpieces for ten days, first (and not without irony) I chose “The Guilt Trip,” figuring that a two-hander famously shot in front of a green screen (since la Streisand refused to travel more than “45 minutes of her Malibu mansion” would be more suited to a back-of-the-chair video screen than, say, “Argo,” “Deadfall,” or “Django Unchained” (all of which I’d actually seen already, anyway).

It was amusing to see that the 45-minutes-from-Malibu rule resulted in a much-photographed Victorian house on Carroll Avenue in Los Angeles’ Angelino Heights — complete with palm trees — standing in for one supposedly in San Francisco. (Couldn’t the budget run to inking the tropical interloper out?) I sampled “Nameless Gangster,” a Korean film billed as “praised by Time magazine as ‘the Korean mob film Scorsese would be proud of,'” long enough to realize that I’d already seen it at some festival or other, and that either Scorsese should be ashamed of himself or that the end of the quote was “not having directed.”

Then I segued to “Love,” a 2012 Taiwanese romantic comedy, because I find that rom-coms work well on the small screen,. It’s been compared to “Love Actually” and I’m a sucker for Shu Qi, the pillow-lipped actress who never quite became the international superstar I thought she would be. It’s during the frenetic and neither particularly romantic nor comedic “Love” that the system goes down.

I don’t return to “Love” when the system staggers to its feet again. I try “Broken City,” the Allen Hughes film about corruption in NYC politics starring Russell Crowe, Mark Wahlberg, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. It turns the trick not achieved on the Pordenone or Dubai flights: it beats me into submission and Dreamland.  I missed Griffin Dunne’s turn entirely, it seems, although I wake up not long before the end and still think that I followed the plot pretty darn well.

I then watch enough of “Hyde Park on Hudson” to discover that it’s actually worse than I thought it would be when I avoided seeing it last year. 

We arrive nearly an hour early in Amsterdam, so my five-hour layover becomes six. I have two books to while away the hours, both of which are destined to be given to Pierre Rissient, the legendary French producer/writer/festival advisor who’s presenting a restored Lino Brocka film in Bologna. I read “Shadow of Heaven,” the second novel of screenwriter Alfred Hayes, who Rissient thinks is the secret source of neorealism, through his work on “Paisan” and (uncredited) on “Bicycle Thief.”  The story of a Jewish union organizer in the Midwest just post World War II who is irresistible to women but seems to prefer turning them down to turning them on (forgive me), with occasional flights of stream-of-consciousness, is diverting but not a discovery.

I can’t slog much more than a few pages in to “Slim,” the 1934 novel about telephone linemen that was written by William Wister Haines, an often-filmed novelist and screenwriter most famous for “Command Decision,” a 1948 MGM movie starring Clark Gable. “Slim” was made into a 1937 film starring Henry Fonda and Pat O’Brien (not in that order on the credits!) and directed by the prolific but unsung Ray Enright. The book is over 400 densely-printed pages and seems both folksy and, well, a serious look at the life of telephone linemen. I decide I’ll wait for the movie, either on TCM or when Il Cinema Ritrovato restores and rediscovers him.  It could happen. 

As the waiting room for the flight to Bologna fills up, I spy Bruce Goldstein of New York’s great repertory house, Film Forum, in a Janus Films t-shirt.  When we emplane, I am seated next to Karen Stetler, the Criterion Collection producer, who’s presenting a new 4K restoration of “Richard III” in Bologna along with Peter Becker of Criterion and Grover Crisp, Senior Vice President, Asset Management, Film Restoration & Digital Mastering, Sony Pictures (whew). We share a cab into Bologna and our three assorted hotels.

After trying to sort out various hotel and ATM snafus, it’s time to head to the Pizza Maggiore, just half-a-block away, to join more than a thousand people for a free outdoor screening of “Vera Cruz,” the stunning Technicolor western directed by Robert Aldrich, starring Burt Lancaster, whose daughter Joanna charmingly introduces the film by narrating a slideshow of photographs of her exceedingly photogenic father. Il Cinema Ritrovato’s artistic director, Peter von Bagh, compares the prescient and influential 1954 film to its successors, the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and the brutal ones of Sam Peckinpah.

I can’t count how many times I’ve seen the film, but this time I’m even more taken with the ivory slot of Lancaster’s knowingly deployed smile and the lean elegance of Gary Cooper. (It’s amazing how generous Lancaster is with his costars, considering he’s one of the producers of the movie.)  I’m also reminded of the wealth of character actors in the Golden Age of Hollywood: Jack Elam, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson (as Charles Buchinsky), George Macready, Cesar Romero, and a host of others contribute, and there’s so much depth in the field that Lancaster feels free to gun down a couple of familiar faces within minutes of their showing up.

It’s a terrific movie. I’m happily reminded of the time in the seventies when I accidentally got to see Lancaster practicing quick-draws in the driveway of a Malibu beach house wearing only a red speedo and a leather holster — the stuff that dreams are made of.  But that’s another story…And the time that Pauline Kael and I discussed Lancaster’s supreme sexual assurance…And the time that my mother seemed uneasy that the bearded guy in the next booth at Musso and Franks was giving her the eye. I craned my neck around, turned back, and said “That’s OK, Mom. It’s Burt Lancaster.”  

I return to my cell revived. 

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When I first saw VERA CRUZ on a black-and-white TV as an adolescent, it was before I saw the Leone films and THE WILD BUNCH. When I finally saw VERA CRUZ on the big screen for the first time, at a western festival in 1973, I was bowled over by how much of it was echoed in the later films. Over the years I've been noticing that VERA CRUZ is finally getting the credit it deserves for its influence (and for being a great film in its own right). It came out the same year as SEVEN SAMURAI and those two films combined resulted in works that gave me and action fans everywhere so much to enjoy in the decades that followed. Thanks for the writeup.

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