31 December 2012

Film in Venice

While trying to write a short story set in Venice (or to pass the time while not writing a short story set in Venice) I've watched the films I'd yet seen on some click-generating "Best Films of Venice" slideshow. To save your time, I'll start with the judgment and proceed from there.

Summertime>The Wings of the Dove>Don't Look Now>Death in Venice

But you needn't see any of the films, though I would only classify Death in Venice as unwatchable (strange how one cannot argue the pedigree of the writers bringing us these depraved visions: Henry James, Daphne du Maurier and Thomas Mann). It's notable how Venice is, repeatedly, a cesspool of vice and decay where romance and beauty are secondary to simply making it out of the city alive.

In the four films, the only scene I'm taking with me is Katharine Hepburn's anxiety alone on her first evening in Venice, the romance and light all around her as she turns this way and that, trapped by Midwestern ignorance and good manners. The horror of a life lived in Akron, Ohio stretches her face into a permanent grimace, her hard voice scratching over the placid Italian of Isa Miranda and Rossano Brazzi.

The Wings of the Dove is dour, leaden with Iain Softley's sub-Merchant Ivory opulence. Helena Bonham Carter plays Kate Croy as a blackhearted schemer, trapping the lame, unattractive Merton and Millie into a game not worth playing. Carter makes an average matador, capering through the black and red bacchanals, crisscrossing the drunk canals. 

Nicolas "How Lurid Can I Get" Roeg (the director of, most recently, Puffball: The Devil's Eyeball) authors what reviews indicate is the finest Venetian film: Don't Look Now. What I got was Donald Sutherland's terrifying curly wig following a red slicker through a Venice as empty as a horror film. And Roeg's facile reliance on forward and backward jump cutting is better done in, say, Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway, shot the year before. The only curiosity is the old parlor game of freeze-framing Sutherland's sex scene with Julie Christie and deciding whether, at a given moment, his p is actually in her v (as a sidenote, it seems the appropriate time to mention that Donald has a son, born in 1974, named Roeg Sutherland).

The folly of chasing beautiful blonde creatures continues in Death in Venice, a film so appalling it makes me reassess my affection for some of Visconti's other work. Dirk Bogarde's Gustav von Aschenbach seems less interested in the "ideal beauty" of Tadzio than in finding out exactly how much white makeup he can pile on his face and how heavily he can sigh into his mustache. After a long two hours of watching everyone's complexion shift from healthy to Ronald McDonald I was hissing, "Die! Die already!"

For palette cleansing, I turned to The Talented Mr. Ripley, with Tom's sumptuous, canal-side rooms a more indelible setting than anything in the aforementioned films and the blood from the razor blade darkening the waffle knit of his robe as he murmurs, "Marge..."

There's also the sweetest third in The Tales of Hoffman, when Powell and Pressburger slither through Venice, dripping with creativity. The vision is noxious: gas-green waters studded with pier pilings silhouetted to resemble gondoliers. It has magic, as black as it is, with the evil maestro casting emeralds and rubies and diamonds from wax.

So the WTT Travel Advisory is to not visit Venice though, one imagines, there might be more worthwhile films made by actual Venetians.