Wednesday, May 8, 2013

May 7 - first day back!

My return to New York was also a return to the movies, and the city continues to be the best place for film lovers in the world. Yes, L.A., even better than you.

Roberto Rossellini's Voyage to Italy (1954) (or as it's referred to just about everywhere but the Film Forum calendar, Journey to Italy) has managed to elude much attention from scholars and film fans over the decades since its release, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it paired the director with his controversial real-life amour Ingrid Bergman. Andrew Sarris and Francois Truffaut, the original auteurist scholars, were admirers of the film, but it has largely been forgotten in favor of focusing on Rossellini's pre-Bergman work. It's interesting to consider that even as his marital indiscretions with his Swedish muse and wife have been forgiven over time, his films with her still tend to be dismissed. One has to wonder why this particular film has been chosen for a re-evaluation over their other collaborations; Stromboli (1950) is particularly interesting, and has much in common with his neo-realist origins, and Fear (1954) is a fine psychological thriller. Both are better than Voyage to Italy. Beautifully restored by the consistently great Cineteca di Bologna, the re-release of Voyage to Italy is not a complete waste of time, but is also not a revival to get overly excited about.

Bergman and George Sanders play Catherine and Alex, a British couple on their first vacation together alone, driving through Italy to reach Naples, where Alex hopes to place his late uncle's villa on the market. As the two begin to notice that not only are they happier when they are without the other, but they are developing overwhelming romantic desires for others, the journey becomes more uncomfortable and reaches a boiling point with an explosive argument over a borrowed car that leads to words they both wish were never spoken.

We are really given very little information about who Catherine and Alex are, making their eventual discovery that they don't really know each other very well slightly more effective. We don't know either. Sanders, who always tended to be smug and condescending in everything he did, provides vivid contrast to the emotional highs often found in Bergman's performances. If they seem mismatched, all the better. This is a couple that has very little in common, except perhaps the fact that they don't love one another. Based on a novel by Colette, the woman we can also blame for Gigi (1958), the slight narrative of the film is enlivened by striking black and white cinematography by Enzo Serafin. The camera prowls the museums, ruins, and streets of Naples and Pompeii, serving as a fine travelogue of 1950s Italy while also providing comparisons between the doomed couple and the stone works of art. There are also interesting casting choices that outsider film fans will admire. Paul Muller, later to become a member of Jess Franco's regular troupe of thespians, plays a beatnik-type tagging along with a trio of free-wheeling lady tourists, and Leslie Daniels, appearing here as the caretaker of Alex's uncle's villa, somehow followed up his esteemed work in European arthouse films with a memorable co-starring role as the doctor's assistant whose arm is gorily torn off in The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1959/62). From Rossellini to Jan in the Pan...that's quite an actor's journey.

A disastrous ending can completely undo a film, no matter what good came before it. In the case of Voyage to Italy, the final scene seems to contradict everything Rossellini was trying to accomplish in his exploration of a marriage disintegrating. If this was the ending of the novel, it's a wonder that the director even bothered adapting it in the first place. For the master of Italian neorealism to conclude his story with a wildly unrealistic and stylized Hollywood ending voids much of the film's effectiveness. It destroys what could have been a minor, but noteworthy entry in his oeuvre.

You probably know of The Source Family (2012) even if you think you don't. If you've seen Annie Hall (1977), Just the Two of Us (1970), Alex in Wonderland (1970), or Cisco Pike (1972), the Source restaurant, a mainstay of the Sunset Strip in 1970s Los Angeles and home to the Family, is featured prominently in key sequences in those films. As featured in this documentary, the Family even inspired a skit on "Saturday Night Live". Where the Manson Family and Jim Jones' Peoples' Temple have shifted public awareness of cult mentality into negative images of mass murder, mindless followers, and megalomaniacal leaders, Jim Baker's Source Family was quite a different animal. This group began with a health food store and blossomed into a 140-person commune of men, women, and children following a self-written philosophy combining the best elements of major world religions. Of course, all good things must come to an end, and the Family's existence lasted a mere five years before Baker's unusual behavior (including adopting 13 wives and moving the family headquarters to Hawaii) led to family members heading for the hills and eventual group disintegration following their leader's death. Baker, known first as Father Yod and then as YaHoWha within the Family, had a fascinating life story even before he, but to reveal more of this unusual story would rob you of the wonderful surprises in store for the adventurous spectator.

The most incredible aspect of the documentary is the sheer volume of archival material used. Assigned by Baker with the task of documenting the Family and its history, Isis Aquarian (the film's associate producer, and ex-girlfriend of famed photographer Ron Raffaelli, also interviewed here) captured daily life, meditations, and key events of the Family's existence in photographs, audio recordings, and home movie footage. Maybe the best material is to be found in the film's soundtrack, made up entirely of original recordings by the Family's rock band, the YaHoWha 13, which released a staggering nine albums in a very short period of time. Original copies of the LP's sell for top dollar among collectors today, but the curious can check out the few CD releases available. Most are available on iTunes listed either under Father Yod and the Source Family or the Yahowha 13. There is even a mammoth 13-CD boxed set, now out of print, that looks to be the final word on the musical world of the Source Family.

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