Friday, November 27, 2009

Variety Lights (1950) - #81

Enough with the usual professionals, the conceited, pretentious. This is the time for unknowns.

After a run of films requiring deeper digging and heavier lifting on my part to adequately explore their mysteries, I'll enjoy the relative ease and brevity of reviewing Variety Lights. La Ronde was going to be a quick, lightweight diversion (so I thought) but the unexpected complexity of the narrative structure preoccupied me for several days. Rashomon is famously deep and thought-provoking and The Furies required me to read a whole novel on top of decoding the film's unique blend of Freudian psychology, Western saddle saga and imported film noir elements. So it's been awhile since I had a simple film to scrutinize and write on here, but Variety Lights fits the bill nicely over the course of this busy holiday weekend. For starters, it's as stripped-down a film as Criterion ever released - no special features, a very brief written essay - just the film and nothing more beyond the English subtitles. Dating from Criterion's early years, it offers only a mediocre transfer, with lines, scratches and other artifacts frequently intruding on the image. I bought the DVD a few years ago, when I learned it was going out of print. When Criterion reacquired the rights to the film, they elected to re-release it earlier this year as part of their bare-bones (and less expensive) "Essential Art House" series. I'm still not sure if they upgraded the transfer for the new edition or not.

Variety Lights probably earned its inclusion in the Collection because it happened to be the directorial debut of Federico Fellini, who went on to create several landmark films in cinematic history - but at the time of this movie's release, of course no one knew what was in store. That's not to say that the film is without its charms. As the title implies, it's all about "entertainment" and it succeeds in that task, bringing us behind the scenes a bit to get a taste of what it was like for a bedraggled vaudeville troupe trying to eke out a living in the small towns of postwar Italy. The tone is comic throughout, and this early work foreshadows later Fellini productions that trot out a parade of oddball characters: social misfits, beautiful and/or voluptuous women and striving, pent-up men, all trying to make some sense out of the chaos swirling within and around themselves. I still have a lot to learn about Fellini so I don't have much more to say about his career at this point, so I'll just focus on the film at hand.

Variety Lights plugs directly into the tradition of showbiz films that build their plot around the career of a central character, or two, or three. In this case, our main focal point (and a very pretty one she provides) is Liliana Antonelli, played by Carla del Poggio (who happened to be the wife of Fellini's co-director.) The narrative arc tells the story of how Liliana goes from this star-struck, naive young girl sitting in the front row, dreaming of her life in show business...

To this!

The man singing in the first clip is Checco, the aging, self-styled leader of the troupe whose ambitions and dreams for success grow more implausible with every dispute and reversal that erupts within the company. He deals with money problems, jealousies and petty feuds among his players, and derisive audiences who've seen it all and attend mainly to harass the performers and stave off the boredom of provincial life. Drifting from one decrepit music hall to the next, never sure about their compensation until the money is actually in their hand, their life on the road is a constant struggle.

A fateful late night encounter on a train between Checco and Liliana kicks the narrative into gear, as they both size each other up as holding a key to future good fortune. For Lili, he's her entree into the glamorous life, and for Checco, Lili represents his chance to play Svengali, cultivating her obvious physical beauty into theatrical success (actual performing talents being merely a secondary consideration in her case.) And perhaps, if all goes well, a more intimate acquaintance between the two of them as part of the bargain. Only problem is, he already has a female companion, Melina Amour, with whom he shares a bank account and plans for future domesticity. So he's put in the position of having to disguise his romantic/lecherous intentions as managerial oversight and promotion of talent.

Of course, he's a bit of a bumbler, thrown off his game by her charms and flatteries, thinking he's pulling a smooth one though all around him see the game she's playing with him. Unable to realize that he only represents a stepping stone in her path to bigger and better things, Checco only succeeds in mangling his relationship with Malina and getting in well over his head when he tries to wedge his way up to higher levels of the entertainment racket. The plot follows fairly predictable twists and turns but the vibrant personalities, picturesque locations and utter lack of malice on the part of the characters keeps it all feeling pretty fresh as we bounce from one scene to the next. The film itself unfolds very much like a vaudeville program: some song and dance here, a comedy sketch there, absurd recreations of "the classics," grim stunts involving chewing broken glass and and when all else fails, bring out the girls in bikinis!

Here's another, longer clip I found online that shows Checco as he wanders the streets looking for performers willing to work in a new company he's putting together. The entrance of a black American trumpet player who speaks fluent Italian and drops in the occasional English phrase was a fun surprise. And get a load of the typically boisterous, argumentative exchanges between characters. It's fun to listen to even if you don't understand a word they're saying (and again, sorry - no subtitles!)

My quick take on Variety Lights is that it's a fun diversion, certainly worth checking out just to get in on the ground floor of Fellini's career and the quirky, occasionally bizarre theatrical scene it documents. Released at the tail-end of Italy's neorealist era, Variety Lights doesn't pack the same existential punch as Bicycle Thieves but is certainly capable of stirring a compassionate response from viewers as we reflect on the hard-pressed existence that its oddball characters endured, and how utterly unwelcome such an unkempt, flabby and over-aged crew would be in today's American showbiz marketplace. (I can't help but wonder if the various performers just happened to be at Fellini's disposal through random acquaintances or if he actually put out a casting call to line up the marginal talents that he immortalized on screen.) A scene of the famished company frantically gorging themselves at a rich man's table when he invites them to his villa (with his primary intention of seducing Liliana) was both humorous and pitiful, especially watching it on Thanksgiving weekend! The life lessons Variety Lights offers to me are to avoid putting myself in a position like Checco's (swooning over a girl too tantalizing and pretty for my station in life) but to also remember its ending. Despite his failures and setbacks, Checco's dream stayed alive - he didn't lose his appetite for the next big thing. I like that kind of idealism in a person, even if it sometimes comes at the price of having to play the fool.

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