One spring weekend, I found myself talking up the Boston Common as some visiting Italian friends and I walked through the still half-frozen park. Pleasantries had already been exchanged, and I was casting out questions that I hoped my rather quiet companions would respond to with longevity and gusto. This failed to happen. I switched tacks and began to babble on about a topic that could sustain me, at least, until we reached our destination: film. More specifically (I hadn’t given up on trying to engage the Italians), I started praising Paolo Sorrentino’s latest movie, LA GRANDE BELLEZZA. Almost immediately, one of my friends let out a booming, derisive laugh that shocked the conversation out of its plodding torpor.
“What?” I asked rather defensively. I was already articulating a counterargument to his objection in my mind.
“Eh, there was nothing original about that movie. It’s already been done. Fellini did it fifty years ago and he did it better than Sorrentino.”
This criticism hardly took me aback, as it has been the most prevalent comment leveled at the film, with reason. LA GRANDE BELLEZZA is in many ways a 21st century LA DOLCE VITA, replete with a protagonist seeing through, but ultimately succumbing to a decadent society, gorgeous shots of Rome and secondary characters that closely mirror those of Fellini’s masterpiece. However, Sorrentino’s work contains an introspection and spirituality that sets it apart from its much more cynical predecessor, which in my opinion allows it to transcend the ignoble label of “remake.” I told all this to my Italian friend, who vigorously shook his head and said, “No.”
“But that opening dance scene!” I protested.
“What about his fixation on his first love–Marcello never had any nostalgic obsessions!”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Well, good artists borrow, great artists steal,” I concluded with resignation.
Picasso’s words never seemed more fitting than in that moment. I only prayed that Hollywood producers weren’t using that maxim to justify the present regurgitation of every hit movie from the last century.
This stalemate over LA GRANDE BELLEZZA stayed with me in the days that followed. Despite my earnest pleas that it really was a distinct work of art, part of me had to acknowledge that Fellini’s undeniable influence somewhat overshadowed the impact of the film. Sorrentino’s movie lingered in the murky territory between what is considered original and what is a retread.
Coincidentally, another film from 2013 also joined the Italian work in this creative limbo. Critics were quick to note the blatant similarities in plot between Woody Allen’s BLUE JASMINE and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Allen’s film is a perfectly acceptable interpretation of Streetcar; it is well written and tragic, just as the work it was based on. Nevertheless, upon exiting the theater after viewing BLUE JASMINE, I was already dismissing it as quite forgettable. Perhaps I was instinctively and unfairly comparing it to the brilliant cinematic adaptation of Williams’ play–but then again, doesn’t my immediate relegation of Allen’s work to a subordinate position prove that it cannot stand alone as a film? Whereas a clear hierarchy emerged in this instance, in the case of LA GRANDE BELLEZZA and LA DOLCE VITA, the two were equals.
The main distinction between LA GRANDE BELLEZZA and BLUE JASMINE is that the latter seems to depend more on the time period it is set in to differentiate itself from its source material. Its temporal location in the post-2008 American recession colors viewers’ opinions from the get-go, considering that the antagonist of the film, Jasmine, was married to a philandering and corrupt investment banker. BLUE JASMINE’s progression is almost identical to that of Streetcar; although without the dramatic rape scene, the audience’s sympathies are even less inclined to fall on Jasmine. Really, what it comes down to is this: BLUE JASMINE is more of a cover, to borrow from music terminology, while LA GRANDE BELLEZZA is a variation on a theme.
The history of film is essentially littered with variations on themes, as clearly evidenced by recent years. One of my all time favorites, THERE WILL BE BLOOD, shares several elements with Orson Welles’ legendary CITIZEN KANE. THE DARK KNIGHT, while not exactly of the same caliber as P.T. Anderson’s work, ostensibly borrows from the American classic, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. As if these examples were not enough, Martin Scorsese has openly pointed out the resemblance between SHUTTER ISLAND and THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. There are hundreds of other movies that could illustrate this point with equal success, whether they be considered “high art” or schlock.
In fact, plot redundancy is such a common phenomenon that scores of critics, writers and psychologists have attempted to establish a finite number of archetypes in narrative drama. Take 19th century French writer Georges Polti, who analyzed written works from the time of the Ancient Greeks to his present day and determined that most pieces could be categorized by 36 dramatic situations. These include “crime pursued by vengeance,” in which a protagonist seeks a villain who has wronged him or her in some way, and “the enigma,” in which a protagonist must solve a mystery. More recently, English critic Christopher Booker published a mammoth volume entitled The Seven Basic Plots, which is the culmination of his 34-year long mission to condense the plots of works of literature, films and other dramatic forms into seven universal themes. Booker’s categorizations include “the quest,” “rags to riches,” “the voyage and return” and “overcoming the monster,” amongst others. Though both he and Polti list an ample number of titles to support their conclusions, many critics and writers have dismissed the very idea that works as nuanced as Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying can be thrown into an umbrella “quest” category alongside medieval grail stories. Certainly any attempt to undertake a method of classification similar to the ones these two authors have laid out will lead to reduction, regardless of the viability of such a system.
For all I know, every book and movie of the last century may neatly fall into one of these 36 dramatic situations or seven basic plots. In the case of cinema, this assumption should bear little significance, for the advancement of a narrative, unique or classifiable, is not the defining purpose of film. Movies derive their artistic integrity from their conception of time and space, which is why directors, editors and cinematographers play a central role in the production of a film, and writers a lesser one. While most films do have stories and characters, they are dispensable and ultimately serviceable to the technical aspects of the film. This is easily forgotten when one considers the rather generous relationship between cinema and narrative throughout history, in which narrative and its elements have triumphed at the expense of cinema. After all, society has always had an obsession with characters and the actors that portray them, or else the dialogue that comes out of their mouths. Very rarely do you find audiences fawning over the composition of a shot, though perhaps this is symptomatic of the general misunderstanding of film theory most people, even some critics, have.
The current misguided direction of film criticism is the focus of a recent piece by rogerebert.com’s editor-in-chief Matt Zoller Seitz, aptly titled, “Please, Critics, Write About the Filmmaking.” Too many professional movie reviewers, Seitz argues, are dedicating the entirety of their columns to social or narrative commentaries on the film in question without the slightest treatment of stylistic or technical decisions. He beseeches critics to “call attention to the fact that we don’t just mysteriously, magically feel things while we’re watching movies and TV shows: that the filmmaking is what made us feel those things.” This plea is relevant because, to some extent, the public does depend on critics to inform not only its film choices, but also its viewing experience. When critics stop writing about form and filmmaking, audiences stop paying attention to these things as well.
Perhaps this epidemic is partly to blame for the way we judge films with recycled plots. Yes, LA GRANDE BELLEZZA basically follows the same narrative trajectory as LA DOLCE VITA, with minor differences. However, to utterly dismiss the former because of its unoriginal plot is to deny the very essence of film and what distinguishes it as a unique form of art. Does the 2013 movie imitate the lighting of the 1960 masterpiece? The mise-en-scène? Here’s my plea: Fault Sorrentino’s editor for including redundant scenes in the second half of the movie. Claim that Fellini’s use of space to represent the moral and emotional distance between characters could never be matched by the Italian newcomer. Just don’t call LA GRANDE BELLEZZA a remake. It’s not.