The cinema of Lina Wertmüller dangles before feminist critical theory like a poisoned carrot. One of the sharpest female auteurs of her time, Wertmüller is – in the modern vernacular – “problematic.” Her films present us with problems, often ones which we have no hope of solving. Seven Beauties is one such film, a slick and clever cavalcade of ugliness and grotesqueries on a historical scale that sees fit to incorporate pretty much every type of unpleasantness conceivable, from sexual assault to electroshock therapy to dismemberment to holocaust. Few filmmakers other than Wertmüller can flirt so openly with such nauseous subject matter and get away with it. She produced a picture that somehow achieves moments of great beauty and hilarity amidst the chaos, pain, and despair of abject human suffering.
Author: Eli Boonin-Vail
Lina Wertmüller leaves us with a lengthy quote and a mystery at the end of Love and Anarchy (1973). The quote is from diehard anarchist icon Errico Malatesta and the mystery is how we as an audience are supposed to interpret it after what we just saw. Malatesta advocated violence against the state and its agents as an essential component of class struggle and glorious revolution, yet died an elderly man far from home and conflict. Giancarlo Giannini’s dirty-faced provincial Antonio “Tunin” Soffiantini, the world-weary protagonist of Wertmüller’s film, is a young man heavily entrenched in a violent struggle against the state.
It is a rare film indeed that achieves both massiveness and subtlety. Jacques Tati’s magnum opus Playtime (1967) is one such film: a painstakingly choreographed comedic jeremiad against the encroaching inhumanity of modern life. Set amidst and against a massive steel and glass backdrop of consumerism, compartmentalization, and sleek luxury which the set creators dubbed “Tativille,” Playtime has a cast of hundreds yet manages to feel intimate, personal, and even voyeuristic. What the film cost its director is immeasurable, not merely in the years or Francs it took to produce, but in the raw creative energy it required from him. Playtime is to French comedy what 8 ½ is to Italian modern cinema, an unbridled project of passion which presents us with a worldview so complete as to nearly perfectly mimic the auteur’s own. Though less jaded and slow than many of its counterparts, it deserves to be considered as one of the boldest and most beautiful products of a French cinematic visionary.
Mel Brooks’ reimagining of the Spanish Inquisition in one segment of The History of the World Part I as a Golden-Age Hollywood Busby Berkeley-esque musical number, complete with dancing nuns and synchronized water torture, serves as his thesis statement on cinematic comedy. It would be easy to mislabel this scene – and much of Brooks’ oeuvre – as “shock comedy,” as it revolves around taboo subjects traditionally thought unfunny and aims for provocation. Torture, racism, antisemitism, and Nazism are just a few of the areas where Brooks looked for comedy in films like Blazing Saddles and The Producers, but in his absurdly crafted cinema, shock does not appear to be his endgame. Rather, Mel Brooks is a comedy auteur who pioneered what we might call “reclamation comedy.” The Inquisition musical number isn’t shocking so much as it is genuinely delightful despite being about an objectively horrific piece of human history. In its studious appropriation of classic Hollywood forms, it oxymoronically reconstructs a deadly serious subject matter into something that moviegoers, particularly Jews like Brooks, can laugh at and grapple with. Like the “Springtime for Hitler” number in The Producers, once the initial shock, subsides the audience is left to delight in comedy where we thought none could exist.
The groundbreaking animation spectacle The Iron Giant (1999) culminates in a well-known climax wherein the titular 60-foot robot saves the sleepy town of Rockwell, Maine by flying into low orbit and absorbing the full brunt of an atomic warhead. As he rockets towards what appears to be a megaton-heavy demise, he scrunches up his emotive mechanical face and announces “I’m Superman.” In the character’s final moments this line reiterates the core connection between the Iron Giant and his companion Hogarth Hughes, a plucky Mainer every-boy who bonds with the misunderstood robot through 1950s pop culture. It’s an emotional scene that launched a thousand prepubescent tears and a formative moment for many millennials who dreamed of telling and drawing stories themselves.