Kirk Douglas at Venice Film Festival, 1953
I like timeless style, not vintage style. I like classic films, not old-fashioned films – incidentally, I regard ’70s films as classics as well (one of the best decades in cinema in my opinion, along with the ’30s and ’40s), and they all must be good films, which not all classic films are anyway. I want to regularly stress out the above-mentioned because I am sometimes told I am nostalgic just because I write about classic cinema. First of all, for me to be nostalgic it would have meant living through that period. I didn’t. Secondly, I don’t like living in the past. It’s not about contemplating the old days and imagining that everything was better back then. But I know for sure what was indeed better: a different values system, respect for privacy, talent and substance presiding over celebrity and fame. When looking good was more about self respect and less about self importance, when being glamorous was more about attitude than looks. When people and actors were individuals, not striving to act and look like they came from the same factory. Before the quality of stardom was absolutely debased. Before celebrity culture, when actors were actors, when actors were true stars by simply being themselves and did not need a posse of stylists and publicists fluttering around them. Before glamour, class and mystery were gone.
I keep thinking of François Truffaut’s tribute words to Gloria Grahame: “The beautiful eyes of Gloria Grahame make you die of love, then wait a little longer, until another movie is released.” That kind of screen magnetism is lost today. Not only that, but the media machine makes it impossible to look forward to a promising film these days without already knowing minute details of the production. There are still good films being made, yes, and I ferociously write about them when I come across one. But films that linger on in your memory for years, performances that impress you in the way a classic actor held the screen, a genuine moment that makes you feel as if something special is created in front of you? That is something much more difficult to attain with new than with old movies.
Warren Beatty, Venice Film Festival, 1956, Archivio Cameraphoto
The world of film today is certainly also a product of our modern-day society, a society governed by advertisers, marketers and the media, all of whom use celebrity culture as a weapon of mass distraction. It is impossible for me not to look around and realise that there has been no other generation which has so diligently recorded itself for accomplishing so little than this generation, Generation Facebook. Not to acknowledge that would mean to give up hope entirely, to surrender to accepting that the Internet and social media are the end of culture. Because the human kind has no future without culture and education. If to be old-fashioned means not being proud of being part of the social media age, then be it, I am old-fashioned. Except that I am not. I don’t have an old-fashioned, old-school set of rules. This is about the golden rules of style and class and culture. And I stick to them.
That said, the history of film is still being written and film festivals have an important role in that. The oldest film festival in the world, at its 75th anniversary, starts today in Venice (it runs until September 8). But I don’t want to talk just about the Film Festival, but also about the Venice Biennale as one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the world for over 120 years. Established in 1895, the Biennale has an attendance today of over 500,000 visitors at the Art Exhibition alone. In the 1930s, new festivals were born: Music, Cinema (founded in 1932), and Theatre. In 1980, the first International Architecture Exhibition took place, and Dance made its debut at La Biennale in 1999.
Monica Vitti and Michelangelo Antonioni at Venice Film Festival, 1962, Archivio Cameraphoto
Over the recent editions, the Venice Film Festival has proven to be a fortuitous marker on the road to awards-season glory. The fest’s past five line-ups have yielded premieres of films that went on to be major players at the Oscars (this may indeed not say much by my book, but the fact remains), among them Gravity, Spotlight, Birdman, La La Land and The Shape of Water. This year, the fest will be presided by Guillermo del Toro, the 2017 winner with The Shape of Water.
There are 21 films in the line-up competing for the Golden Lion, of which these are the ones that have caught my interest: Jacques Audiard’s western The Sisters Brothers, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhall and John C. Reilly; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, another western directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, with James Franco and Liam Neeson; Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, a look at Vincent van Gogh’s time in Arles, featuring Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac and Mads Mikkelsen; Olivier Assayas’ Non-Fiction, with Juliette Binoche and Guillaume Canet; Vox Lux, directed by Brady Corbet, starring Natalie Portman and Jude Law. The Other Side of the Wind, presented outside the competition, is a film made from 10 hours of raw footage shot by Orson Welles across six years in the 1970s, a mockumentary complete with a film-within-a-film that satirises both classic Hollywood and the avant garde era that came next.
Joaquin Phoenix in “The Sisters Brothers” (2018)
Another film that will debut at this landmark Venice edition and which I am particularly looking forward to is Alfonso Cuarón’s highly anticipated ROMA. The director’s first film since Gravity, which opened Venice in 2013, Roma is reportedly another visually groundbreaking spectacle (Cuarón shot the film himself) and visionary work, an autobiographically inspired, black-and-white film set in Mexico City in the 1970s. The director returned to Mexico to make the film, his first in his native language since Y Tu Mamá También (2001). “I always wanted to make a film and be comfortable with it when I finished it,” Cuarón told IndieWire. “With Roma, I was satisfied with it when we finished. I was very happy with it, and that’s because it’s the first film I was fully able to convey what I wanted to convey as a film. It’s a story in many different shapes and hints of emotions that have been present since the moment I wanted to be a director.”
Oscar Isaac and Emmanuelle Seigner in “At Eternity’s Gate” (2018)
Among the 13 documentaries presented out of competition, there is a Peter Bogdonavich-directed film about legendary silent film star Buster Keaton entitled The Great Buster. Venice Classics section features the world premiere screenings of a selection of the finest restorations of classic films carried out over the past year by film libraries, cultural institutions and production companies around the world, committed to the preservation and cultivation of the cinematographic heritage and the rediscovery of neglected or undervalued works of the past. Among this year’s Venice Classics restored films are The Naked City, directed by Jules Dassin, Street of Shame by Kenji Mizoguchi, Last Year at Marienbad by Alain Resnais, The Killers by Robert Siodmak, The Ascent by Larissa Sheptiko, Death in Venice by Luchino Visconti, Some Like It Hot by Billy Wilder. The setting for Visconti’s film adaptation of Thomas Mann’s classic Death in Venice, Hotel des Bains, has reopened this year and will host a photographic exhibition with materials from the historical archive of the festival in honor of its 75th anniversary.
I have a rule of staying away from reviews – and I couldn’t agree more with the Venice fest’s embargo on reviews – until I myself have the chance to watch the movies. But I will keep an eye on the press conferences and, yes, on the actors attending the festival to some extent. But when the film stars will start disembarking on the Hotel Excelsior dock, I just know that my thoughts will fly way back to the true cinema stars. The kind of stars that I remember for every performance and every look in a film. Because the truth is I still rely largely on black and white films to keep my fascination with cinema alive.