Sunday, August 08, 2004

Lina who? Robert Hunt reaches deep into his files and recalls a mid-Seventies folly...

I was moving files out of a drawer and just reached the last handful: Wajda, Warhol,Welles, Wenders,Wertmuller. The last one took me by surprise. I imagine that many people interested in movies would be surprised to know that there was a time when Lina Wertmuller was a media cause celebre, subject of NYT profiles and cover stories: in fact, it might not be unreasonable to assume that most under the age of thirty will not even recognise the name at all (despite the recent blink-and-you'll-miss-it remake of Swept away...)
But things were quite different for a brief moment in 1976, when Wertmuller's blend of cruel comedy and politics found a home in American art-houses. Art-house taste at that time was set largely by a kind of snobbism (It's not that different now) and while a few of the giants of the Sixties (Truffaut and Bergman, most consistently) still made annual appearances and the occasional light comedy could break through (Anyone remember Cousin, Cousine ?), the audience had splintered. Individual directors had cult followings, but Eric Rohmer's fans generally weren't likely to have much in common with Ken Russell's. The American cinema was generally ignored. The occasional taboo-shattering scandal (Last Tango, The Night Porter, In the Realm of Senses) made for good conversation, but no one wanted to commit too seriously to them.
In this climate, Lina Wertmuller was the perfect director for the movie snob with Marxist and feminist intentions. Her films were political,feminist, serious. Or at least she said they were. And she talked a good game.
Wertmuller first entered the US arthouses with a modest hit called The Seduction of Mimi. Swept Away, with the same stars,Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangelo Melato, did even better. By the time Seven Beauties opened, New York Magazine had placed her on the cover calling her "the important European director since Bergman". Earlier Wertmuller films were given a belated U. S release. Hollywood stars plugged her movies on talk shows.
Talking to Wertmuller's fans could be exhausting, yet somehow you got the feeling that it was like talking to one of the fairy-tale emperor's supporters just after their hero had paraded nude past their block. She was praised as a political satirist, until you pointed out that both the political and comic points came from having her prole Everyman heroes (usually played by Gianini) abused by someone powerful (frequently a woman) and taking revenge by abusing them in turn, hardly a clear feminist statement. If you pointed out that the politics were simplistic and the humor crude at best, usually saved - barely- by Gianini's droopy-eyed appeal, they'd insist that the films you had seen were flawed, but whatever Wertmuller item you had missed was the masterpiece that saved her reputation.
But it must have appeared obvious to even the most devoted that Wertmuller's films didn't quite live up to her lofty claims of political insight, and that her penchant for lengthy titles like was at best pretentious, and worst, nonsensical. And wasn't it odd for an alleged Marxist/feminist that her biggest supporter in the US was the conservative critic John Simon (author of the "most important since Bergman" quote)? .
By the time her 1965 Let's Talk About Men was revived in 1976 (it was, coincidentally, the first film I ever reviewed in print), the game was up. In her interview with Simon, she had described the film as "extremely feminist", evidently confident that her US fan club would never see it: it turned out to be a standard, but minor, Italian farce, the kind of thing that arthouse audiences had given up on by 1965.
Like many European directors who find American success, Wertmuller was able to move up to international co-productions with American stars, but the audience lost interest by the time A Night Full of Rain (or if you prefer, The End of the World in our Usual beds on a Night Full of Rain) appeared, pairing Giannini with Candice Bergen. (European critics, by the way, were puzzled by the whole Wertmuller fad, much as you might be if you heard that a foreign magazine had just described Daniel Petrie or Joel Schumacher "the most important American director since Scorsese" or some such nonsense). By 1980, she was almost forgotten in the US, though a few of the Hollywood deals eventually resulted in The Seduction of Mimi remade as a Richard Pryor vehicle, and Swept Away was reworked, even prior to the recent Madonna interpretation as Overboard.
I didn't open the Wertmuller file. I know what's in it: old production notes and a glossy reproduction of the "New York" cover story, reprinted by one of her US distributors. To re-read them now, nearly 30 years later would simply raise the obvious question: What on earth were they thinking?

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