Friday, September 30, 2011

Black & White, Part Two

In my last post, I talked about my weird habit of watching the DVDs of some color films in black & white on my TV.  I also tried to articulate some of the aesthetic rewards I get from watching black & white movies in general, giving some indication, I hope, of why I would resort to such a peculiar way of viewing these films.  Now, I don’t watch all of my DVDs in black & white, and there are many color films that I like a lot (I particularly like westerns to be shot in color).  But black & white cinematography is a vanishing art form that deserves special attention.  For this post, I’d like to talk a bit about the color movies that I do like watching in monochrome.  When I’m done, I hope that my pigment expunctions won’t seem so strange to you. 

For starters, you might wonder how I got into this habit of watching color films in black & white.  It all started with Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (花樣年華 , 2000).  Watching Wong’s story of an early-1960s extra-marital affair on the big screen reminded me of the films of the great Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni.  Where Wong’s earlier films had been photographed (in color by the amazing Christopher Doyle) in a kinetic cinéma-vérité style, the director rendered In the Mood for Love, inspired by the black & white Chinese-language melodramas of earlier decades, in a more stately manner.  Instead of fast-paced, hand-held cinematography, Wong slowed down his camera to float serenely and capture the subtle, unspoken emotions of his socially repressed characters, like Antonioni had done in his best films.  Given all this, I wondered from my first viewing what In the Mood for Love would look like in an era-evoking, Antonioni-esque black & white.  I wondered this even though the film beautifully uses a broad color palette in very intricate and deliberate ways, especially in lead actress Maggie Cheung’s parade of ornately patterned and pigmented cheongsams (her form-fitting Chinese dresses). 

After I bought In the Mood for Love on DVD a few years ago, the question continued to haunt me: How would this majestic movie look in black & white?  I didn’t know where my TV remote’s color control was at the time, but I decided to find it after a couple viewings of the film.  I located the button and turned the color all the way down.  I was delighted by what I saw.  Although the image was muddy in places (see Part One), the overall look of the film shimmered in silver.  Not only did the image remind me of the Antonioni of L’Avventura (1960) and L’Eclisse (1962), but black & white also did a better job of replicating In the Mood for Love’s dilapidated atmosphere of Hong Kong (actually filmed in Thailand) before the island became a chrome-covered economic powerhouse.  In addition, the absence of color did more to suggest the lead characters’ absence of emotional freedom, and Maggie Cheung’s face looked absolutely luminescent emoting in monochrome.  Even her colorful cheongsams still looked good in black & white.  I’ve viewed my DVD of In the Mood for Love a number of times since then, but in all that time, I’ve never watched it in color. 

The “juvenile delinquent” genre started with a handful of B exploitation movies like Jail Bait (1954), Female Jungle (1955), and Hot-Rod Girl (1956), films seemingly designed more to make a quick buck with a sensationalistic subject than serious dramatic meditations on the topic.  But Rebel Without a Cause (1955), directed by Nicholas Ray, marked an interest in the genre by one of the major studios, Warner Brothers.  I understand that the movie was originally intended to be shot in black & white, but the studio switched to color and a bigger budget to take advantage of lead actor James Dean’s burgeoning stardom.  I don’t know if that story is true.  It’s just as likely that Warner Brothers had always intended a prestige production to lift the juvenile-delinquent genre beyond the exploitation market.  But it’s always seemed to me that a “prestige” production of a juvie movie is about as incongruent as Lawrence Welk playing death metal.  

While most juvenile-delinquent exploitation pictures of the studio era ended with an obligatory denunciation of youth led astray, the messy, rough-hewn atmosphere of those low-budget, black & white toss-offs captured and inadvertently affirmed the rebellious spirit of the kids on the screen (a good quality to distract from the “kids” being played by actors in their 30s).  To me, watching Rebel Without a Cause in monochrome replicates that low-budget atmosphere and better conveys the paroxysmal cinema stylings of director Ray, a bit of a rebel himself.  Also, the first time I watched Rebel Without a Cause was as a young kid on a black & white TV, and I was struck by the dramatic chiaroscuro lighting of the opening scene.  But when I saw the movie in color on a big screen for the first time, the scene looked much less compelling.  Now, when I watch Dean’s iconic movie, I do so — you guessed it — with my TV’s color turned down.  Yep, I wish that Rebel Without a Cause had been filmed in black & white.  However, if it had, I’m certain that post-1950s, more monochrome-averse audiences would regard it as dated; they would not have embraced it in black & white the way they have embraced it in color.  And the film — and maybe even James Dean himself — would not be the iconic avatar of discontented youth that has endured for decades.  

Lou Ye’s underrated Chinese film Suzhou River (州河, 2000) takes place in two narrative realms.  One is the ostensibly “objective” Shanghai of the unseen Narrator (Hua Zhongkai) and his disenchanted girlfriend Meimei (Zhou Xun).  The other is the Narrator’s more subjective imagining of the backstory of ex-con Mardar (Jia Hongshen) and his lost love Moudan (also Zhou Xun).  The Narrator imagines this strand of the film’s story because of Meimei’s growing friendship with Mardar.  The film’s story of Mardar and Moudan is a heartbreaking tale of love betrayed.  But we never know if what the Narrator imagines actually happened — it’s all in his head.  Even when Mardar and Moudan meet again at the end of the film, it’s all envisioned by the Narrator: we don’t know if the event transpired this way or how it led to the young couple’s fate.  I’ve always wanted to see Suzhou River draw a greater visual distinction between the two narrative worlds, so when I watch the film on DVD, I watch the “objective” portion in all its exuberant color, but I watch the story of Moudan and Mardar in black & white.  Monochrome endows this portion of the film with the frenetic energy of the 1960s New Wave, as it captures the ethereality of a fantasy world.  And it’s easy to assume that the Narrator’s daydreams would be in black & white: he is, after all, a videographer by profession, so he would likely have a cinematic imagination.  Another advantage, for me, of watching Suzhou River in monochrome is that it’s shot on a high-contrast color film stock that looks good in black & white.  A single film cutting between color and monochrome may seem like a shopworn device to some cinephiles, but in the case of Suzhou River, it enhances the complex and chimerical story. 

I don’t like all of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003), Quentin Tarantino’s tributary pastiche of Asian and occidental action movies (which, as its title suggests, was followed by a sequel), but I do like the episode in the film titled “Showdown in the House of Blue Leaves.”  In this lengthy segment, the lead character, a former assassin known as the Bride (Uma Thurman), seeks bloody revenge on yakuza donna and erstwhile colleague O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu).  The world of the film makes no pretense to be the world of the audience: actions and ambiance are hightened to mimic a hyperbolic, over-the-top actioner.  In this spirit, Kill Bill appropriately exaggerates its color scheme with bold saturated hues, in most sequences, that would seem more at home in a comic book than in the off-screen world.  The “Showdown” sequence has slightly more muted colors, but not by much.  This may be to evoke the female assassin of the color Japanese action movie Lady Snowblood (修羅雪姫, 1973), whose hairstyle and white kimono are the model for O-Ren’s appearance in her sword-fight scene. 

However, at one point during the Bride’s battle with O-Ren’s henchmen, Kill Bill suddenly switches to black & white for only three and a half minutes.  I can’t see anything in the story that would motivate this fleeting use of monochrome (the Bride pulls out a henchman’s eyeball, but so what?), so I’m sure it’s partly a salute to Japan’s black & white action movies.  Examples of the genre as late as Samurai Rebellion (上意討ち 拝領妻始末) and Samurai Wolf II (牙狼之介2:地狱斩) in 1967 and Kill! (キル) in 1968 were still being made in black & white, when most other Japanese features had long ago adopted color.  In fact, I think that in Kill Bill, Tarantino’s fondness for Japanese action movies from the 1960s explains the sequence’s early-’60s atmosphere, especially in the women’s clothing and hairstyles.  I like all kinds of black & white cinematography, but the look of Japanese monochrome movies from the early-’60s is my favorite: there must have been something about monochrome film stock in that place and time that gave it such intriguing high contrasts between the blacks and the whites and gave it such silvery grays.  I can’t reproduce this kind of monochrome by turning down the color on my TV screen, but because I like the Japanese films of the early 1960s so much, and because the “Showdown” sequence’s costuming conjures up that era, I like to watch that section of Kill Bill in black & white. 

There’s something very elemental about the German play Woyzeck, the drama about a lower-class soldier (the title character) whose humiliation and cuckolding by his superiors cause his already delicate sanity to snap, leading him to murder his common-law wife.  For one thing, it has a strange history.  While regarded by several historians and critics as the first “modern” drama, Woyzeck was never completed before its young author’s death in 1837; it existed only in manuscript fragments until put together by another hand; it wasn’t published until 1879; and it wasn’t staged until 1913.  Given this precarious history, one must wonder to what degree its incompleteness has allowed for its champions to read elements into the text that wouldn’t be there had the writer finished his manuscript.  That writer was Georg Büchner, who is often lauded as the father of the modern drama — a real achievement for someone of such a young age.  To paraphrase Tom Lehrer’s comparison of himself to Mozart, it’s a very sobering thought that when this father of the modern drama was my age, he had been dead for almost three decades.  (Büchner died of typhoid at the tender age of 23.)  This unlikely backstory of Woyzeck’s incomplete nascency, its lying dormant for so many years, and its eventual resurrection as an important work of world theatre lends the play a somewhat mythological aura, especially to German audiences. 

Woyzeck has been adapted to several mediums.  Perhaps the best-known cinematic rendering is Werner Herzog’s 1979 film.  Most of the director’s movies have been shot in color, an element that helpfully heightens Herzog’s fascination for the world around him and that is more conducive to presenting the minute details of his often off-kilter images.  But the use of color in Herzog’s Woyzeck endows the costume drama with a warmth and picturesque nostalgia that clashes with the story’s very unsentimental examination of a man losing his sanity.  While Woyzeck’s production values aren’t lavish enough to endow it with the grandiloquent atmosphere of a Merchant-Ivory costume picture, Herzog’s naturalistic depiction of life in a 19th-century German town still does more to solace the viewer with period-piece prettiness than to make us critically examine Woyzeck’s descent into madness (and in particular, his lashing out at a person just as disadvantaged by society as he is).  Watching Herzog’s Woyzeck in black & white recalls the more critical Eastern European costume films of the 1960s, whose monochrome reflections on history stripped the past of any wistful admiration for a more innocent era. 

Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) is a bit different.  Like a lot of other viewers, I suppose, when I first saw this movie, I was overwhelmed by its opulent japonaiserie and its rarity as a Hollywood production with Asian lead characters.  It only gradually dawned on me that this Dickensian rags-to-riches story, with its plucky Japanese heroine who struggles against patriarchal oppression the only way she can — with her beauty — ultimately condones the patriarchy that oppresses her.  If lead character Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) can overcome her cruel circumstances with grace, determination, and talent, the film seems to say, then those (very picturesque) circumstances couldn’t have been all that bad.  The constraints that Sayuri’s domineering society place on her come across as her necessary, character-building means for growth and self-realization — a relatively positive stepping stone toward female empowerment — a bit like the difficult steps in a Shaolin monk’s martial-arts training.  Instead of giving a broader glimpse into why her hierarchical society forces her into very circumscribed roles, the story reduces its conflicts to a soap-operatic rivalry between Sayuri and her nemesis Hatsumomo (Gong Li).  Moreover, Sayuri polishes her beauty by tormenting her body before selling it to the highest bidder, this in order to achieve her desired social status.  And Sayuri’s ultimate triumph is complete when she becomes — don’t you envy her? — the mistress of a married and much older man, which the movie portrays in a favorable light. While the film does cast an occasional critical eye on Sayuri’s circumstances, the criticism never intimates a means of female empowerment outside of catering to the expectations of men. 

Compared to the similar-themed films of the late Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi, who spent a lot of celluloid criticizing the plight of women in both old and new Japan, Memoirs of a Geisha does more to soothe the audience than awaken it to injustice.  Granted, Mizoguchi often relied on downbeat endings to drive home his critical points, endings that are anathema to today’s Hollywood and presumably not an option for Marshall’s movie.  So, perhaps the comparison is a little unfair.  Still, when I watch Memoirs of a Geisha, I like to imagine the Mizoguchian movie that might have been, that might have done less to dazzle the eye and more to challenge the mind.  Therefore, when I watch my DVD of Memoirs of a Geisha, not only do I turn the color all the way down, but I also turn on the disc’s English subtitles and French soundtrack.  (If the DVD had a Japanese soundtrack, I’d listen to that instead.)  Through the monochrome and between the lines, I can catch glimpses of that phantom feminist film that Hollywood will never make.  

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Black & White, Part One

I’m a nut for black & white movies.  All things being equal, I’m liable to find a monochrome image much more fascinating than an image in color.  I’d usually rather watch a black & white movie up on the big screen than a color one.  Flipping through the channels of my TV, a black & white image will command my attention and take my finger off the remote in a way that color images seldom do.  But I also do something on occasion that confirms my enthusiasm for monochrome (and maybe confirms my slipping grip on sanity as well): there are a number of color movies that I prefer to watch on my TV in black & white.  Before you ship me off to Bellevue, I’d like to say more about that, and more about black & white in general.

What is it about black & white cinematography that I find so fascinating?  I’m sure that part of its appeal to me is nostalgic.  When I was growing up, local television stations would regularly broadcast vintage black & white movies, which is how I discovered cinema in the first place.  As a kid, I enjoyed those gentle monochromatic universes with their simpler conflicts and guaranteed happy endings — insulated from the realism of lived experience — that seemed easier for a young boy to take in than the grittier contemporary fare (only later would I learn about the Hollywood Production Code, which mandated that films of that era be family-friendly).  But even then, my young mind wondered why more recent films didn’t use the option of shooting in black & white. 

As I grew (or at least got older), I developed a taste for more unidealized views of the world and for non-Hollywood films.  Then, black & white came to mean something new to me: since many of the canonized “great” motion pictures had been shot in monochrome — The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Citizen Kane, La Strada, The 400 Blows, Through a Glass Darkly — that kind of cinematography signaled a worthwhile work of art made some time in the past.  But while my interest in black & white began with a basis in nostalgia, it didn’t stay there. 

‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ (1919)

Of course, with the rise of color television in the 1960s, viewers have become resistant to monochrome images.  And many audiences simply will not watch films that aren’t in color.  (I’m told that a major reason why Peter Jackson produced his 2005 color remake of King Kong was because younger movie-goers refuse to see the black & white original.)  Nowadays, a director or producer will need to have considerable clout with the studio brass in order to make a Hollywood-financed movie in monochrome: Lenny (1974), Manhattan (1979), Raging Bull (1980), Rumble Fish (1983), and Schindler’s List (1993) are all by big-name directors tackling important themes.  But even then, a director’s pull is sometimes not enough.  I understand that Martin Scorsese expressed an interest in wanting to shoot his Hustler sequel, The Color of Money (1986), in black & white (like its progenitor) but was quickly overruled by the studio (imagine how ironic the title would be if Scorsese got his way).  And I heard something similar regarding Brian De Palma and The Untouchables (1987).  Except for its use in commercials and isolated vignettes in feature films or TV shows, black & white cinematography appears to be all but extinct. 

Scorsese’s ‘The Color of Money’ (1986): colorless

So, why do I watch some color films in black & white?  Part of it is my own resistance to this vanishing of monochrome in contemporary cinema, as well as evoking another era of filmmaking, but that’s not the whole story.  The visuals of most movies are rendered more ordinary by color.  Even in those films where the color has been adjusted to make the picture somewhat non-naturalistic (such as 2000’s Tears of the Black Tiger), polychrome’s imitation of the off-screen world will still usually lead to an uncritical acceptance of the image as little more than a “window on the world.”  

By contrast, monochrome cinematography emphasizes the compositional form of the image over a naturalistic mimicking of the objects within the frame.  This is something I first noticed as a kid while watching black & white horror movies from the 1930s and ’40s on TV.  This characteristic of the monochrome image intrigued me as a youngster, and as I watched more and different kinds of black & white movies, I became more attuned to how the figures were arranged and represented on the screen than I was when watching a color image, especially one whose verisimilar depiction of the world practically pleaded to be taken for granted. 

In other words, black & white cinematography encourages greater activity on the part of the audience to create the world on the screen — to recognize the lived off-screen world, with its myriad pigments and hues, in the positionings of the various shades of black, white, and gray within the frame.  So, watching a film in black & white is comparable to the way a viewer recognizes the lived world in the blatant brushstrokes of an Impressionist painting.  This more active spectatorship also requires the viewer to infer color upon the monochrome elements when necessary.  Below is a scene from Charlie Chaplin’s black & white comedy Modern Times (1936).  Although the gag in this clip hinges on the color of an object, that object, to the viewer, is not the color it’s supposed to be.   Because the audience must “read” a different color into the object than the one it is on the screen, this makes the scene funnier, I think, than it would have been if shot in Technicolor: enlisted to “complete” the scene’s coloration, the viewers have a greater involvement in the on-screen event and thus a greater engagement with the playing-out of the gag:

Black & white can also endow a film with certain qualities more difficult to achieve with color.  A striking example is the difference between the black & white movies and the color movies directed by Yasujiro Ozu.  I’ve written elsewhere that I’m not a big a fan of Ozu’s films, but I still respect his unusual style (low-to-the-ground camera angles, eyeline mismatches, lingering shots without people in them, etc.), a style that seeks to represent a frame of mind that could be called spiritual or transcendent.  Although Ozu’s stories, taken as a whole, strike me as disagreeably reactionary, he does seem to capture a meditative atmosphere in his movies’ quieter moments.  

Ozu’s black & white ‘Tokyo Story’ (1953)
Of his postwar family dramas, the ones in black & white instill these scenes, where little overt action is taking place, with a sense of the ephemerality of human existence and (especially in his unpeopled shots) the enduringness of a world that will go on when the characters — or even all of humanity — are no more, this despite his stories themselves being decidedly human-centered.  Because people don’t perceive the world in monochrome, Ozu’s use of black & white places the audience at a remove from the world of the characters.  By rendering these relatively static, relatively mundane scenes in black & white, Ozu displaces an anthropocentric view of his characters with a potential perspective unbounded by a human lifetime, a perspective where the human-valued phenomenon of color is superfluous.  Despite their regressive qualities in other respects, Ozu’s black & white films hint at a plane of existence beyond the mortal world.  

Ozu’s color ‘An Autumn Afternoon’ (1962)
When Ozu turned to color in 1958, his films lost this atmosphere of ethereality.  His polychrome images harden their subjects into concrete material objects solidly existing in the here and now.  Because naturalistic color encourages the viewer to take the image at face value, any non-anthropocentric intimations are harder to perceive in the director’s polychrome images.  In color, Ozu’s films don’t quite capture the transcendental atmosphere of their black & white brethren, even though the director retains his unusual close-to-the-ground, jump-cutting film grammar.  As a result, his color scenes lacking in major events seem all the more uneventful. 

In trying to describe Ozu’s use of black & white, the word “timeless” comes most readily to mind.  His monochrome films have an air of “timelessness” about them — a sense that what is transpiring on the screen need not be rooted in any one era — in a way that his color films do not.  In fact, his color films look dated by comparison.  But “timeless” isn’t an especially helpful word: all things material, including film, are of a time, regardless of appearances.  Still, Ozu’s color films appear instantly located in a particular time and place while his black & white films do not. 

So, turning down the color on my TV set can bring out qualities in a film that aren’t so apparent when watching them in full hue.  Although watching a color film in monochrome doesn’t automatically endow the movie with an Ozu-like sense of the transcendent (even Ozu’s polychrome films seen in black & white have a hard time producing that effect), it can alter my approach to what is on the screen. 

Of course, merely draining a polychrome film of its color doesn’t usually create an ideal black & white image.  Color movies, to state the obvious, are made to be seen in color.  As such, these movies are shot on color film stocks, and most of them, especially today, capture a wider range of tones than most black & white film stocks can.  For an ideal black & white image, the film stock will need a certain amount of contrast to set the photographed objects apart from each other.  Most color film stocks don’t use this higher degree of contrast because color acts as its own means of object separation.  And even those color film stocks that do have a higher degree of contrast are often lit more to emphasize the hues within the image.  So, when watching a polychrome movie in black & white, the objects tend to be similar shades of gray that smear into each other, which gives the frame a muddy quality.  (For an example, see the color-siphoned frame from Notting Hill [1999] below.)  

‘Notting Hill’ (1999) with its color removed: muddy
Also, an ideal black & white image will have its main subjects within the frame “pop,” will have them stand out in relief from less important objects and the background, usually by making the central elements brighter than the others.  But because of its film stock’s broader tonal range, a color movie in monochrome will seldom make its important visual elements stand out, and those elements that do “pop” are usually the wrong ones.  

The aspects of the color motion-picture image that I have just discussed are given great consideration by cinematographers.  Most directors of photography on feature films go to significant lengths to chose film stocks, choose exposure settings, choose the color palette, and carefully fine-tune the hues within the frame for a pleasing and/or thematically informed image.  In other words, they put in a lot of work to get the “look” of the film just right.  So, if they knew that I watched their many-pigmented movies in black & white, the cinematographers would probably hunt me down and turn my TV set’s color back on. 

For the second part of my post, I will talk about a few color films that I prefer to watch in black & white and what I get from watching them that way — unless I’m interrupted by a posse of angry cameramen breaking down my door

Siskel and Ebert’s ‘Hail, Hail, Black & White’ 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

My Answers to ‘The Movie Ifs Game’

Not long ago, the website Movie Fan Fare asked its readers to answer a few hypothetical questions.  These questions were inspired by the book If... (Questions for the Game of Life) by Evelyn McFarlane and James Saywell, but the website’s queries concerned themselves exclusively with film.  Here are Movie Fan Fare’s questions and my answers to them:

1. If you were in charge of casting the movie of your life, who would play you?

I actually asked myself this question several years ago, and in all that time, I haven’t come up with an answer. (If someone else were doing the casting, they’d probably go with Peter Dinklage — if he’s not too rugged.)

2. If you could dine alone with any person from any period in movie history, who would you choose?

Hands down: Groucho Marx (although I’m not sure I could withstand his barbed wit directed at me). If I were in a more romantic mood? Joan Chen (although there’s the matter of the husband thing).

3. If you could change the ending to one movie, what movie would you alter?

Piccadilly (1929): Wilmot and Shosho discover that interracial relationships are not a sin against nature, and so does everyone else around them. The couple get married, and Shosho graduates from dancer to co-owner of the successful nightclub. Happy ending! (I also have an alternate ending to Triumph of the Will, where Hitler announces that he’s going to become a monk, and he returns Germany to democracy. But that one’s a bit less clear to me.)

4. If you were to occupy the world of any movie, which movie’s world would you enter?

The Tahiti of The Bounty (1984).

5. If you could eliminate one movie from the face of the Earth, which movie would it be?

In the real world, I’m on the side of those who say that no movie should be eliminated from history. Free speech and all that. But this is a hypothetical world we’re talking about, and in that world, my answer is Philip Kaufman’s xenophobic, blood-libelous Rising Sun (1993).

6. If you had to switch places with a movie star and live his or her career, which star would you trade places with?

[The author of the post said that he would choose George Clooney, not only because of the actor’s “impeccable good looks,” but also because of his good selection of projects.  I also picked Clooney for the same reasons.]

7. If you could have a film composer from any period in movie history write a symphony for you, which composer would you enlist?

My first choice would be Philip Glass — he would write something out of this world.  My second choice would be Danny Elfman — he would write something fun.  And my third choice would be Nino Rota — he would write something heartbreakingly beautiful.

8. If you were the bad guy in a movie, which film villain would you become?

Scaramanga from the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). I don’t want to kill anyone. But the threads, the women, the private island, the Christopher Lee coolness? I’m there!

9. If you could do something (outside of making a film) that would make movie history, what single thing would you want to accomplish?

To rescue as many lost, decaying, or destroyed movies as I could — especially Juraj Jakubisko’s destroyed Czechoslovak film The Deserter and the Nomads (Zbehovia a pútnici, 1968). I guess I’d want to make up for question 5.

10. If you could add one question to the Movie IFs Game, what question would you submit?

If you could recast any movie from any time with any actors from any time, what would the movie be and who would the actors be?  [My answer inspired my post on recasting the role of the Fool in La Strada with Roberto Benigni.]

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Foolishly Recasting ‘La Strada’

In many ways, Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954) is a near-perfect film.  From its opening shot of the idyllic seashore, the film abruptly switches to a scene of an impoverished mother selling off her child, a scene that might have come from a miserablist Italian neo-realist film.  After this, La Strada beautifully balances its somewhat paradisical view of the rustic countryside with its more realistic view of the hardscrabble people who live there. Anthony Quinn’s turn as the cudgel-faced itinerant strongman Zampanò and Giulietta Masina’s as Gelsomina — the clownish, childlike woman he “buys” from her mother and often abuses — remain two of my favorite performances in cinema.  The musical score by Nino Rota has rightly become legendary.  And Otello Martelli’s camerawork captures both the lyricism and the cynicism of Fellini’s vision.

But in other ways, La Strada bugs me a bit.  One way is its depiction of a woman, even one who’s mentally underdeveloped, faithfully sticking by the man who abuses her.  Granted, Gelsomina makes one unsuccessful attempt to escape Zampanò, and her innocence makes his brutishness all the more apparent.  And Fellini obviously isn’t advocating spousal abuse.  So, this issue isn’t enough to repel me from the film.

However, another facet of the film also bothers me whenever I watch it: I think that Richard Basehart was miscast as Il Matto — the Fool.  

Richard Basehart in ‘He Walked by Night’ (1948)
Now, I don’t mean to challenge Basehart’s talent as an actor.  In the right role, he can be a very compelling screen presence.  My favorite Richard Basehart performance is as a serial killer in the film noir He Walked by Night (1948).  His handsome face gives the appearance of an all-around regular guy, but the rest of his body language conveys something sinister lurking inside.  Speaking very few lines of dialogue for a movie lead, Basehart still seethes with a restless intensity that energizes every scene he’s in.  In He Walked by Night, Basehart was perfectly cast.  In La Strada?  Not so much.  

The role of the Fool in La Strada cries out for a performer with a comic on-screen presence.  As an actor, Basehart can call upon many traits, but comedic warmth isn’t one of them.  The incongruity of the performer to the part is compounded by the choice of the voice actor who dubs Basehart in the Italian-language version of the film.  Where Basehart speaks with a moderately deep voice that one would expect from a man of his sturdy bearing and full-grown appearance, the voice synchronized with his lips in La Strada is a high-pitched near-falsetto.  To anyone familiar with Basehart’s speech from his other roles, the speaking voice of the Fool is a vexatious distraction.  But more than that, Basehart’s solid physicality clashes with the slightness of the Fool’s vocalization.  It’s as though the filmmakers tried to compensate for the on-screen actor’s serious demeanor with an ill-fitting comic voice on the soundtrack.

Richard Basehart and Giulietta Masina in ‘La Strada’ (1954)
Okay, so all of this raises the question: Whom would I prefer to see in the role of Il Matto, the role of the Fool? 

Of course, proposing to recast a canonical film like La Strada is as heretical to many movie buffs as proposing to recast Citizen Kane (1941) or any other cinema classic.  I appreciate these film aficionados respecting movie history as it now stands, but they can rest assured that I have no intention of sneaking into the vaults and replacing La Strada’s footage of Basehart with substitute footage of my own.  

I’m merely posing a foolish question, and here is my foolish answer: Roberto Benigni.

Roberto Benigni
I can already hear some readers gagging on their garganelli as they read that last sentence.  And I can understand.  But I’m not saying that Fellini should have picked comic-actor Benigni over Basehart for the role of the Fool at the time the film was being made.  When La Strada was released in September 1954, Benigni was one month away from turning two-years old, and back then, I understand, he didn’t quite have his comedic chops down.  I’m merely imagining what a vintage film might have been like if one of today’s talents had been able to fill one of yesterday’s roles.  Indulge me for a moment. 

Now, like a number of other critics, I agree that Benigni is — to put it mildly — not the most nuanced of actors.  For instance, I think that his Academy Award for Best Actor in Life Is Beautiful (La Vita è bella, 1997) was undeserved.  That film surprisingly pulls off the unlikely conceit of a Jewish father (Benigni) in a Nazi concentration camp convincing his young son that their imprisonment is only a game, but the Italian comedian delivers a one-note performance in a role that calls for a wide dramatic range.  I believe that the statuette was awarded more for the writer-director-star’s offbeat treatment of the Holocaust than for his emotional depth.  This particular Oscar can only be rationalized in that this apparently ever-optimistic character in this horrific situation was embodied by Benigni’s singular comic persona.

However, if he had been able to travel back in time and play the part of the Fool in La Strada, Benigni’s modest acting skills would have been compensated by the unique comedic qualities he could have brought to the role.  Where Basehart’s solid corporeality weighs down the Fool’s fluttering body, Benigni’s buoyant physicality is imbued with a lightness that billows above the more serious characters in his films.  In Benigni’s rubbery face and nonchalant disposition, I can see the character who dispassionately defies death on a tightrope, the character who temerariously taunts the furious Zampanò in one scene and then casually asks for his help changing a tire when they next meet. 

Anthony Quinn as Zampanò in ‘La Strada’
Also, had Benigni played the Fool, Zampanò’s manslaughter of such a joyful and gentle soul would have compounded the strongman’s brutish behavior even more, as though he had killed Harry Langdon or Harpo Marx — as though he had killed a true double for Gelsomina.  (Perhaps such a spiritual kinship to wife Giulietta Masina, who plays Gelsomina, is why Fellini chose Benigni to star in the director’s final film, The Voice of the Moon [La Voce della luna, 1990].)  As it stands, Zampanò’s murder of the serial killer from He Walked by Night just isn’t as effective.

Alberto Sordi in ‘An American in Rome’ (1954)
But you might say to me, “Benigni was still in diapers when La Strada was made.  Why even bother imagining such far-fetched transhistorical casting?”  Okay, fair point.  But I would at least like to see an actor with more comic warmth as the Fool.  If a would-be time traveler is too preposterous for you, how about a comedic contemporary of La Strada like Alberto Sordi?  After all, he was the star of Fellini’s two previous pictures: The White Sheik (Lo Sceicco bianco, 1952) and I Vitelloni (1953).  Which leads me to wonder: Did Fellini offer Sordi the part of La Strada’s Fool?  And if the director did, would the movie-star Sordi have accepted this supporting role?  As Il Matto himself might say, foolish questions.

For all I know, Fellini’s casting of Basehart as La Strada’s Fool is a stroke of cinematic genius that I’m simply too dense to see.  But my foolish imaginings remind me that movie viewers aren’t just passive spectators of the mass or classic images in front of us. In a manner of speaking, we’re co-creators of the way these visions and stories inhabit and interact with our minds, as the phenomenon of fan fiction can show.  And — who knows? — maybe our daydreams might eventually intervene in and impact the concrete world beyond our mind’s eye.  In that case, maybe my imaginings aren’t so foolish after all.  

Scenes from ‘La Strada’