Showing posts with label Liza Minelli. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Liza Minelli. Show all posts

15 March 2018

Babylon, Babylon

by Eve Fisher

Baker Banana.jpg
Baker - 1926
My husband and I have been watching Babylon Berlin on Netflix.   It's a guilty pleasure, not because of the sex, which is actually pretty unappealing.  (NOTE to future producers to broaden your audience:  most women aren't turned on by naked women being taken by big fat slugs in kinky and/or violent ways, i.e., raped or whored. Just a thought.)

No, my real problem is that it's so historically inaccurate. (Yeah, I think that way.)  For example, the video below (SPOILER ALERT - there is some nearly nudity).  My problem isn't with the girls in bananas - that's straight up Josephine Baker - but the people on the dance floor in the video, who are basically freaking line dancing.  I mean, it is a 1920's Berlin nightclub, full of smoke, alcohol, and opium, so there wouldn't be much coordinated syncopation going on, if you know what I mean.



Marlene Dietrich in her breakthrough role
The Blue Angel, 1930
Plus, like Cabaret, there's the constant effort to ram home (in more ways than one) how decadent 1920s Berlin was, but using modern Hollywood ideas of what kinky / sexy is.  Take a look at Marlene Dietrich:  that's her breakthrough role, as Lola in The Blue Angel.  That was the hottest, sexiest, kinkiest thing that had ever been seen on film in 1930's Berlin.  Well, let me assure you that, in Babylon Berlin everyone has been made up, eyebrowed up, thinned down, shampooed and conditioned, and generally made into someone entirely different than what was cooking in the Berlin stews of the 1920s.  They did the same thing in Cabaret.  Only in Cabaret, everyone's pretty clean cut - even Sally Bowles.

Liza Minelli doing Dietrich in Cabaret
Actually, you can tell that Cabaret's an American movie because it uses "divine decadence" to promote straight up family values.  Sally Bowles has Daddy issues, will do anything for money and/or love and/or attention, and is sleeping all over the place (I think it's the first movie where the word "syphilis" is used in a joke), even though she's "as fatale as an after-dinner mint".  But after she has an abortion, well, it's pretty obvious that Sally's going to end up on the skids, the streets, and the morgue.  In the same way, the menage-á-trois weekend with Sally, Brian and Max, is there to confirm how futilely, half-assedly decadent the German nobility was.  That's why, when the blue-eyed blond-haired youth starts singing "Tomorrow Belongs To Me", he seems like a refreshing change to the Cabaret Berlin Babylon.  And even after the camera has pulled back and shown the Nazi uniforms and swastikas - I'm not entirely sure that the director grasped that some people might still root for them.  Pauline Kael noticed in her review at the time that "Bob Fosse, the choreographer-director, keeps the period—Berlin, 1931—at a cool distance. We see the decadence as garish and sleazy." (Wikipedia).  In other words, we're observers, safely at a distance, and at a distance, the Nazis can look good:  At least they'll clean the place up.

But back to Babylon Berlin, which does not have THAT problem, but instead suffers from massive PCS, a/k/a Plot Complexity Syndrome:  No one is ever who or what they seem, to the point where you can't help but wonder where they're buying all those disguises, and what phone booth are they using to put them on.  And why no one ever recognizes someone's long-lost whatever by their freaking voice, which wouldn't change, even if everything else has had plastic surgery...  And of course, every twist has another twist that twists back on itself and then corkscrews.  And it would take a silver bullet from the hand of Dracula himself to kill some people off.  Shooting them, pushing them off tall buildings, beating them to a pulp - it just makes them mad.

The problem with PCS, in movies or in novels, is that the excessive plot takes up all space for actual characters.  Yes, we're given heroes and heroines, but they don't have time to actually, think about anything, or have more than four basic emotions, fear, lust, anger, and...  well, maybe just the three.  They're too busy:  there's sex, there's violence, there's the few moments actually at work, there's more sex, there's drugs, and they're always running from or to or after somebody or something.  That's another reason I call Babylon Berlin a guilty pleasure:  there's no there there, except for the plot, and that'll just give you a headache.  Stick with the visuals, kid, it's a lot more fun.


Pasqualino Settebellezze 1975 film poster.jpgThat cannot be said about my favorite of all "babylon" type movies:  Lina Wertmüller's 1975 Seven Beauties.

Seven Beauties is what they call a picaresque movie.  Episodic, and all revolving around our hero Pasqualino Frafuso a/k/a Settebellezze, i.e., "Seven Beauties".  He's called that because he has seven very unattractive, unmarriageable sisters, and his role as the man is to keep them all virtuous until marriage.  Meanwhile, of course, Pasqualino's doing every woman he can get his hands on.  Giancarlo Giannini is brilliant in the role:  Pasqualino is a self-obsessed dandy, a wanna-be Mafioso, and a fool - God, what a fool! - and we can't take our eyes off of him.

Here's the basic plot:  Pasqualino kills a pimp who's whored out his oldest sister.  That lands him in jail; he pleads insanity. That lands him in the insane asylum; he volunteers to fight in WW2. And that lands him in hell. He ends up in a German concentration camp, and how our hero survives that has to be seen to be believed.

How everyone who survives has to be seen to be believed.   (To the right is the clip shown at the Oscars.  While I couldn't find it with subtitles, I'm not sure that it needs it.)

Along the line, Seven Beauties expresses ideas about Italian manhood, womanhood, life, survival, and the long-standing difference... dislike...  sometimes war, between Northern and Southern Europe.  This shows up in everything European, literature, art, habits, war.  The Southern view of Northern Europeans is that they live so much in their minds and their jobs that they've lost all sense of nature, of humanity.  As Pedro, an anarchist in the concentration camp says:  
Pedro: But soon, very soon, a new man, a new man will be born. He’ll have to be civilized, not this beast who’s been endowed with intelligence and obliterated the harmony in the world and brought about total destruction just by disturbing nature's equilibrium. A new man… able to rediscover the harmony that’s within.
Pasqualino: You mean, put things in order?
Pedro: Order? No, no, the orderly ones are the Germans. No, a new man in disorder is our only hope. A new man… in disorder.
Meanwhile, Northern Europeans look down on Southern Europeans as a lazy group of hedonists who work only enough to get in a harvest and then spend the rest of their time eating, drinking, and screwing.  They're poor, and it's their own damn fault, they're like rats or sheep or...  Why do you think the Germans enjoyed putting the economic screws to the Greeks so much?  They deserved it.

Look, the real war between the North and the South is, at base, the war between the rich and the poor.  And the poor win because they will do anything to stay alive.  The Commandant of the concentration camp in Seven Beauties says to Pasqualino, "You disgust me. Your thirst for life disgusts me. You have no ideals. You have found the strength for an erection, that’s why you'll survive. All our dreams for a master race—unattainable.”  

Seven Beauties has all of the decadence, sex, and violence that anyone could want - plus a hell of a lot of humor that pushes the boundaries of everything and everyone.  But it also has a thirst for life - a sheer enjoyment of life - that no other "babylon" movie I've ever seen has.  

Seven Beauties, dedicated to:



The ones who don't enjoy themselves even when they laugh. Oh yeah.
The ones who worship the corporate image not knowing that they work for someone else. Oh yeah.
The ones who should have been shot in the cradle. Pow! Oh yeah.
The ones who say, "Follow me to success, but kill me if I fail," so to speak. Oh yeah.
The ones who say, "We Italians are the greatest he-men on earth." Oh yeah.
The ones who vote for the right because they're fed up with strikes. Oh yeah.
The ones who vote blank ballot in order not to get dirty. Oh yeah.
The ones who never get involved with politics.  Oh, yeah.
The ones who....  

Watch the rest of the opening sequence on the right and find out who the others are.

BTW - Lina Wertmüller became the first woman in history nominated for Best Director for Seven Beauties (and it didn't happen again until 1993, with Jane Campion's The Piano) and Giancarlo Gianinni was nominated for Best Actor for playing Pasqualino.
John Avildsen won that year for Rocky.  Lina was robbed.