Lina, Giancarlo, and Mariangela: Amore Pazzo

|Matt Levine| Bogey and Bacall. Tracy and Hepburn. Loren and Mastroianni. Giannini and Melato? As far as fabled onscreen couples go, the two leads who costarred in a number of Lina Wertmüller’s films in the 1970s – including three playing at the Trylon, The Seduction of Mimi (1972), Love and Anarchy (1973), and Swept Away (1974) – may not be household names. But it’s hard to think of a more volatile and hypnotic pair than Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato, whose cinematic passion was so often violent, raw, grotesque, and desperate. Seeing these three movies in close proximity is something of a revelation, uncomfortable though it may be to witness their caustic emotions bared onscreen.

In the film that brought writer-director Wertmüller international fame, The Seduction of Mimi, Giannini plays the titular character, a hapless Sicilian who bumbles from one political ideology to the next. He starts off as a poor sulfur miner in a small village who adheres to Communist beliefs only because his friends do. He makes the mistake of voting for a leftist (at the encouragement of his fellow poverty-stricken workers) and not for the patsy candidate propped up by the local capitalist Mob bosses. So Mimi, fired from his job and persecuted by the Mafia, has to abandon his wife and family and hightail it to Turin, where he naively believes “workers are free and respected” and capitalist crooks don’t control everything. 

It’s in Turin that he meets Fiore (Melato), a committed leftist who makes a living hawking the sweaters she knits on the side of the road. She’s a more socially conscious character than Mimi (which isn’t saying much) and arguably more nuanced than many of her later characters in Wertmüller films: “I’m nothing just now,” she says. “I have no party… With one group into bombs, another into banning work, we’re all on the Left, but we squabble among ourselves like enemies.” Mimi gawks at her, enraptured and oblivious, and before long he’s declaring his love for her with dialogue that could be seen as sincerely romantic or comedically vacuous: “I think of you dreaming at night, but not of me… All this love I have for you, great, desperate, useless as it is, is only my love and not yours.” So begins their tempestuous romance, based mostly on their perceived political affinities, which are genuine on Fiore’s part and less so on Mimi’s. 

The Seduction of Mimi hurtles forward at breakneck speed: Mimi and Fiore have a baby, the entire pregnancy skipped over in the space of one cut; a moment later, Mimi witnesses a Mafia don in Turin gunning down an entire restaurant but chooses to keep his mouth shut, his allegiances veering toward the side of the plutocrats. He receives a promotion at a metal factory as a sign of thanks from his politically-connected bosses, but ironically it’s back in the Sicilian town from which he came, sending him and his new family back to his sexually frigid wife and uber-conservative family (a milieu that Wertmüller enjoys exaggerating and ridiculing). 

The political ignorance of modern Italians (as Wertmüller sees it) is constantly mocked by The Seduction of Mimi: people adhere to whatever ideology is fashionable at the time, their lack of convictions ultimately dooming them in the end. The violent chauvinism and hypocrisy of Italian men, obsessed with their own virility, is also lambasted by the film, as Mimi is enraged to find out that his wife Rosalia (Agostina Belli) had an affair and became pregnant while he was away—which is ludicrous since he did exactly the same thing. As always, Wertmüller presents a perplexing and often infuriating set of contradictions: she’s a political leftist but not a feminist, as revealed in the climactic comedic scene in which Mimi tries to have sex with an obese woman, her abundant folds of flesh observed in lingering close-up; Wertmüller leans towards comedy but her subject matter is of the bleakest sort; she is concerned with very pressing real-world issues but favors a preposterous, chaotic tone, influenced in part by her years working with Fellini (she credits her assistant director position on as a formative experience); her visuals have the dynamism and power of silent cinema, but her dialogue is copious and firecracker-quick, spraying from the mouths of her actors in unbridled frenzy. 

Throughout The Seduction of Mimi—even and especially its most problematic moments (like a scene in which Mimi beats his pregnant wife and we’re not sure if it’s meant to be funny)—we have Giannini and Melato. You can’t take your eyes off of them, and their postdubbed dialogue is exhilarating to try to keep up with. The eyes of both Giannini and Melato, the radiant color of translucent jade, are transfixing. His weary face perfectly conveys someone who can barely keep up with the shifting times, and his hair becomes, somehow, marvelously expressive: curly and unkempt in his early scenes as a struggling worker, straightened and slick-back in his scenes as a burgeoning capitalist fat cat, complete with bushy sideburns and manicured mustache. Melato’s pale skin and elegant cheekbones suggest restraint and calm-under-pressure at times, while in other moments she’s furious and vitriolic, presenting her as someone both fragile and unbreakable, thoughtful and mercurial. They play off of each other marvelously; we believe they could fall cataclysmically in love, even though (as they realize by the end) they’re completely different in almost every way. The scene in which Mimi finally breaks down her defenses, proclaiming his love in a decrepit, unheated loft with a portrait of Lenin staring at them in the background, is a wonder to behold. 

Love and Anarchy, from a year later, also features Giannini and Melato as would-be leftists caught up in the torrents of history. Admittedly, in this case they’re not romantically involved, but anarchists bent on killing Mussolini in the days leading up to World War II. Giannini is Tunino, an ignorant farmer inspired to join the anarchist cause when his beloved uncle is killed by Mussolini’s fascist forces; Melato is a prostitute named (a little too blatantly) Salomé, whose own lover, a leftist, was killed in Milan by Mussolini’s army. Tunino hides out in Salomé’s brothel in Rome for a few days, given shelter as they plot how to kill the dictator during a demonstration on the city plaza, and it’s during that time that Tunino falls in love with another angelic prostitute, Tripolina (Lina Polito). 

In some ways, this is Wertmüller’s most melodramatic movie, given to tropes like the hooker with a heart of gold and the price of political sacrifice. But it may also be her best. The shadowy cobblestone streets and elegantly crumbling buildings of Rome provide marvelous scenery for this story of impending doom and fleeting love in a world unfit for it. There are also some hilarious moments despite the grim political atmosphere, embodied by the absurd character of Spatoletti (Eros Pagni), a despicable fascist (and Mussolini’s security advisor) who spends his time joking about massacring rebels and pinching the ass of any woman he comes across. He’s a furious and hypnotic parody of fascism, as loud and narcissistic as Trump and almost as stupid. 

Love and Anarchy, despite its copious and often provocative dialogue, shows Wertmüller’s silent-movie proclivities at their finest; some of the best moments, including a sexually charged stare-down between two characters during an acoustic rendition of a resistance song, contain imagery reminiscent of something like Sunrise (1927). Throughout these three films, Giannini is Wertmüller’s Charlie Chaplin and Melato is her Louise Brooks: the former graceful but in over his head, sad and hilarious, his put-upon toughness a disguise for feeling vulnerable in a difficult world; the latter sexy and steely but hiding something wounded, aware that she’s generally smarter and more capable than the men surrounding her, but also beneath them in the social hierarchy. It’s remarkable to see a writer-director and her two stars so completely on the same precarious wavelength. 

As the characters are dwarfed by urban design and architecture in Love and Anarchy, it’s tempting to think of another triumvirate of a director and movie stars in Italian cinema: Michelangelo Antonioni, Alain Delon, and Monica Vitti, who in L’eclisse are made inhuman by their insignificance in relation to the constructed, consumerist world around them. But the characters in Wertmüller’s film do remain human, their admirable but destructive ambitions ultimately revealed to be inconsequential in the face of rampaging fascism. That’s largely due to Giannini and Melato, who suggest unspoken depths beneath the movie’s surface storyline: is Salomé jealous of the love between Tunino and Tripolina, and that’s why she urges him to go through with the assassination? Are they both basically nihilistic, knowing that love and sex matter little when death (at either their own hands or those of Mussolini’s goon squads) waits around the corner? There’s more subtlety and ambiguity here than in the other collaborations in this series, and it’s a refreshing change. 

By far the most problematic film that Giannini and Melato starred in for Wertmüller is 1974’s Swept Away (with a full title of Swept Away…by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August), though it may also be the most interesting. Melato plays Raffaella, a boorish capitalist who’s enjoying a seaside vacation on the yacht of her wealthy intellectual husband. She’s beautiful, privileged, carefree, outspoken—she makes no attempt to hide her disdain for those socially and economically beneath her. The world is “a shithole full of starving people,” she concludes, and ridicules the inhumanity of Communism, sarcastically saying that Stalin’s concentration camps were “well-run.” (One of her friends says that’s nothing compared to what the U.S. did to Hiroshima.) 

Giannini plays a lower-class Sicilian sailor named Gennarino, a deckhand on the yacht. He bristles at her behavior from the start, glowering at her when she complains about the coffee being too cold or the pasta too bland. Things get even worse when he tries to sail her to an isolated island on a small rubber dinghy for a day of sunbathing; inevitably, the boat stalls, they drift at sea for days, and eventually crash ashore on a deserted, edenic island. 

Swept Away is nothing less than a titanic clash in a primal setting—not only a clash between man and woman, but between political ideology, capitalism and communism, master and slave, the haves and have-nots. It’s funny and sophisticated, at least for a while: as Gennarino tries to avoid Raffaella on the island, he blurts, “I can’t get away from you. It’s worse than Coca-Cola!” In one of the most fascinating scenes in the movie, Gennarino catches some fish, starts a fire, and prepares a feast for himself; a starving Raffaella gazes at the meal from a distance, and Gennarino forces her to pay for her food, an echo of the capitalist exchange she holds so dear. First, he forces her to pay with money, which is absurd on this island where currency means nothing; second, he forces her to pay a more carnal and emotional price. 

This is where the movie gets infuriating: Wertmüller spins the master-slave relationship on its head when Gennarino forces Raffaella to give in to him, and then love him and become obsessed with him, through physical abuse and rape. There’s the unambiguous indication that Raffaella truly wanted this victimization all along and enjoys it (a hugely problematic trope also familiar from Wertmüller’s All Screwed Up). By the end of the film, a truly twisted and codependent passion has been built through violence and subjugation. If Swept Away starts as a comedy, its most representative shot is actually a bleak and silent image of Raffaella staring at black sludge lapping onto the rocky shore—a visual symbol for her self-perception and her view of human nature. 

Swept Away is massively powerful and thought-provoking, but sometimes for the wrong reasons. One critic called it “the most outrageously misogynist film ever made by a woman.” There’s more to it than that—the sadomasochism that Wertmüller portrays is political as well as sexual, suggesting that the capitalist elite are not only dependent on the oppressed classes but also secretly desiring their own downfall at their hands—but that doesn’t excuse the simplicity or callousness of the violent rape fantasy that Swept Away espouses. Arguably, though, a problematic film made by a female director about sex, power, oppression, and subjugation should be seen and debated precisely for its nauseating contradictions. 

Once again, through it all, there is Melato and Giannini, who give human form to the cerebral ideas and provocations that Wertmüller unleashes. One could call Wertmüller fearless for presenting these radical themes, but the real fearlessness is courtesy of Melato and Giannini, who embody these characters and their extremely skewed states of mind. On this sun-drenched island, their beautiful bodies frequently exposed, their sparkling eyes radiating hatred and desire, the ugliness inside of these characters is indelibly conveyed by Melato and Giannini.

These three films—The Seduction of Mimi, Love and Anarchy, and Swept Away—are undoubtedly Wertmüller’s creations. When they excel, it’s because of her audacity: her blend of political ideology and sexual power play, of farcical comedy and utterly bleak tragedy, her mix of silent-film elements and mile-a-minute dialogue, her remarkably vivid and mobile camerawork (courtesy of cinematographers such as Dario Di Palma, Giuseppe Rotunno, and others). But when they fail, it’s also due to Wertmüller’s occasional prioritization of idea over character, provocation over sensitivity, and her adoption of some seriously callous depictions of women. 

What I’ll remember from these three films are Giannini following Melato around the snowy streets of Turin as a mournful operetta plays on the soundtrack, or Melato and Giannini having one last desperate kiss (in front of his supposed beloved) as he prepares to kill himself for the sake of anarchism, or the two of them lying naked on the beach, feeling twisted and depraved and rabidly in love. These films were brought into the world by Wertmüller but they belong to Giannini and Melato, two overpowering and captivating movie stars that deserve their place in the pantheon of cinema’s greatest tempestuous duos. 

Lina Wertmuller’s films continue playing at the Trylon thru September 29. You can purchase tickets for the remaining films; Love & Anarchy, Swept Away and The Seduction of Mimi here.

NAKED CITY & BRUTE FORCE: A Jules Dassin Double Feature

Still from The Naked City (1948)

|Geoffrey Stueven| The Naked City was directed by Jules Dassin, as stated, but its lead creative force is journalist-turned-movie producer Mark Hellinger. His affinity for Weegee’s extraordinary 1945 photo book Naked City animates what could have been a fairly tepid noir. The book Naked City was a freewheeling and feverish glimpse under the veneer of mid-century city life. The Naked City adds a definite article, for a somewhat less definitive translation of the book’s themes. Hellinger is there at the outset, in lieu of opening credits, telling the audience who made the picture, who the stars are, and why we’ve been so suddenly dropped into a helicopter view of New York City: to see the rhythm of life as it’s truly lived, and slowly descend on one of millions of possible stories.

The movie is never more haunting than in the bleak and beautiful views of this opening sequence, which makes an essay of establishing shots and weaves in parts of a story we don’t realize has already started. It also offers a few visions of shocking death that seem indifferent to the Production Code, and most closely channel Weegee’s work (he was involved in creating some of the film’s static shots.)

Photo from Weegee’s book Naked City (1945)

The Naked City then proceeds as the story of a dead woman who never gets to speak, a device that proves alternately eloquent and frustrating. What might seem like the film’s biggest mistake, the completely phony reactions of friends and lovers to news of the woman’s death, is from a different angle its eeriest evocation of her life’s loneliness and disconnection. Later, the pair of detectives investigating her murder encounter the woman’s parents. When the mother’s angry litany of “I hate her” gives way to inarticulate grief upon seeing the body, the characters’ habits of indifference and victim-blaming are finally given a counterpoint. The film comes closer to the reality of death and the uncharitable reaction of the living than most noirs.

Reaction stills from The Naked City (1948)
Still from the morgue scene in The Naked City (1948)

Elsewhere, its points of interest are as varied as the “city of stories” framing suggests. In one astonishing scene, young detective Halloran briefly returns home to nuclear family splendor outside the city, where Mrs. Halloran repeatedly implores him to whip their child for leaving the yard. “Why me?” he asks, in high cheer. End scene. Is there any way to take this, except as the most archly ironic parody of American domesticity ever conceived, whether in film or sketch comedy? Amazing that this scene precedes television, and the laugh track. But in other ways, The Naked City seems quite simple and timid. For a film that considers the full range of human life to be within range of its lens, it is weirdly taken with the idea that playing the harmonica is the greatest possible eccentricity.

The film’s shifting perspective, roving omniscience and grab-bag of ideas likely owes as much to the sometimes awkward fit of Hellinger’s and Dassin’s perspectives as it does to the source material. There seems to be a consensus view that the chase sequence that ends the film, up high above the Williamsburg Bridge, is Dassin showing his hand as a stylist, somewhat at odds with the photorealist ambitions of Hellinger. Funnily, it’s the moment the film finally becomes exciting in a sustained, visceral way.

Stills from The Naked City (1948)

In the superior Brute Force, a pulpy prison break drama rooted in the inhumanity of the carceral state, the material stands on its own. It’s a better Dassin showcase, too, more noticeably the work of a distinct creative force. Enter Westgate, a perpetually rained-on prison with a population at twice capacity, no opportunities for rehabilitation, and an administration intent on exerting control over the inmates, winding up the “human bomb.” A few of the employees inside are would-be foils to this state of things, but the power-hungry lead guard considers kindness a weakness and enforces his own policies.

As the guard, Hume Cronyn embodies some of the more distressing examples of coded homosexual villainy in classic Hollywood (seeking favors, er, “information,” from an inmate, then dooming him when not reciprocated? check; framed photo of muscled marble bust in well-appointed office? check!), but it’s certainly a terrific and surprising performance. I never imagined Cronyn as a quietly menacing sadist, either.

Still from Brute Force (1947), Burt Lancaster on the far right

The film also marks Burt Lancaster’s second screen credit, after The Killers, and it’s odd to see such an obvious leading man still anchoring an ensemble, disappearing for long stretches. Still, the unflinching determination with which he bites into a sandwich (after reading the paper message concealed inside) reveals him as the film’s true star, if any doubt lingers.

The prison break climax leads to an ending so bleak that it plays like a subversion of the Production Code, even as it follows its prescripts. There’s no sense of punishment being meted out by moral authority, just one of tragic miscommunication, hopelessness, and the teeming humanity behind prison walls.

Still from Brute Force (1947) prison riot scene

Brute Force and The Naked City play as a double feature all weekend long at the Trylon, buy your tickets here. If you’re interested in checking out Weegee’s photo book, it’s largely out of print except for a reprint available on Amazon. However, it is in circulation in the Hennepin County library system.

Ellen & Christa

Art by Charlie Couture

|Benjamin Savard|

An unexpected thought weaved its way through my experience of seeing Alien at the Trylon: Haven’t I seen this before? At first, this seemed silly: of course I had seen the movie before. I remembered it well. I knew the characters by name and could still brace myself for the jump scares. But something felt unnerving in my rewatching, déjà vu laced with dread. I knew the film would end well for Ripley and Jones, but I couldn’t shake the anxiety. It felt like a familiar nightmare was being projected onto the screen. 

One of Hollywood’s oldest tropes is the everyman-turned-hero. We are all familiar with the ordinary man (it is almost always a man) who is thrust into extraordinary circumstances and rises to the occasion to save the day. From Richard Hannay to Bilbo Baggins to Ash Williams, these are the characters who inspire a glimmer of hope that you—pedestrian you—could be the hero of the story given the chance. Ellen Ripley is a personal favorite and one of the rare examples of a woman inhabiting this trope. Not only did she become the unlikely hero of the movie, but she did so in an era and genre notorious for mistreating women or ignoring them entirely. Ripley also stands out because of the way Alien plays with audience expectations of what is ordinary. When the film was released in May 1979, manned spaceflight was still rare and miraculous: only 29 humans had ever left low earth orbit. Watching astronauts on a glorified tugboat complaining about their menial work was delightful in its strangeness. 

The exceptional-turned-mundane setting is the perfect backdrop for Ripley to emerge as a hero. She is introduced as a warrant officer of the unremarkable Nostromo, neither in command nor the lowest ranking crewmember. Her role seems purposefully unspecific. We see her interact with everyone from the maintenance workers to the science officer to the captain. She assists in a bit of everything and does it competently. This fluidity helps connect her to a broad audience: no matter what job you imagine having on the Nostromo, you feel like Ripley would be right there with you. 

Against this backdrop, the crew meets its fate. As they perishes one by one, Ellen Ripley remains. Over the course of the movie, she transforms from capable but ordinary shipmate to victorious survivor, becoming one of the most iconic characters in film history. The Nostromo’s mission may have collapsed into disaster, but it somehow feels right that Ripley makes it through. She’s the quietly adept one, the one you couldn’t take your eyes off, the one you saw yourself in. Of course she has to survive. 

Sometime during the second half of the film it hit me.

Photo edited by Benjamin Savard

I was born more than six years after the Challenger disaster, but it has always had a strange power over me. There have been many national tragedies during my lifetime, including several on larger scales and others that I watched unfold in real time. However, the one that causes me the sharpest grief is the Challenger. The hope and death of Christa McAuliffe hits close to home. 

She and I are both from Concord, New Hampshire. She taught social studies at the high school I graduated from. I grew up nine houses down the street from Steve, her widower. Though she died a decade before my earliest memory, the connection I feel demonstrates how deeply rooted her legacy is within the Concord community. Every January 28th we would turn on the regional news to rewatch the launch, the explosion, the slow horror of realization in the crowds below. Every five year anniversary, when the story again became noteworthy, we could watch the same footage on the national news. But to us, Christa McAuliffe was always relevant. I was raised to be like the community around me: forever proud, forever in mourning.

It was McAuliffe who made the Challenger a national spectacle before any tragedy. The president announced the Teacher in Space competition on live television. Eleven thousand teachers applied, ten were chosen as finalists, and one would become the first civilian in space. Of the millions of Americans that followed the selection process, how many felt a kinship with McAuliffe? Like so many others, she was the kid who fantasized of becoming an astronaut, but whose adult life took a different path. Now she had been given the opportunity to fulfill her dream and leave the bounds of earth. The story we had seen so many times in fiction was coming true: the ordinary person was going to become a hero.  

And so I found myself unexpectedly overwhelmed, connecting dots between the Challenger and Nostromo that exist perhaps only to me. Seven astronauts: five men, two women. What was supposed to be a simple mission turned into a life and death struggle. At the center, one crew mate draws the most attention. She’s earnest and competent and easy to spot with her jumpsuit, wide smile, and mop of reddish-brown curls. She’s the one you can see yourself in. Of course she has to make it out. 

In the dark of the theater, I watched as one triumphantly survived but felt myself still in the shadow of the one who didn’t.

Edited by Shivaun Watchorn

The Trylon played Alien as part of this summer’s Magnificent Desolation series. If you missed it, don’t worry! It will come around again soon. In the meantime, check out our fall programming here.

BARBARELLA Without Jane? Impossible.

Art by Adam Loomis

|Sabrina Crews| During my recent volunteer shift at the Trylon, I watched a dazed, nineish-year-old boy walk out of Police Story. The kid, a little breathless, looked up at his guardian and, referencing a trailer he’d seen earlier, said, “Dad, whoa. What was up with that, that Barbarella?” Dad shot a glance at me, cleared his throat, picked up his pace, and they were gone. I never heard his answer.

As much as I wanted to witness that conversation, I’m preoccupied enough with the question. Like, the kid just watched 106 minutes of groundbreaking acrobatic stunts and explosions, and he’s still shook from the three-and-a-half minutes of Barbarella that preceded it? What’s up with that?

The simplest answers here—cleavage, bare legs, guns, an orgasmatron—aren’t necessarily correct, especially when you can get most of that (not the orgasmatron) in a Jackie Chan movie. No, there’s only one force in that trailer potent enough to compete with high-speed car chases and suicide backflips in a developing straight dude’s memory and that, in a word, is Jane.

Unparalleled sexiness is only part of it. Jane Fonda even said she approached the role of Barbarella earnestly. It was never her intention to play into the vamptitude that Jean-Claude Forest’s original comic book character exudes. While her opening striptease might already render that strategy useless—the girl, I guess, can’t help it—keep watching and you’ll find aspects of Jane’s performance that seem defiantly, well, unsexy. She speaks not in a sultry alto but no-nonsense baritone. Her portrayal of the astronaut’s virginity is more schoolmarm than corruptible ingénue. She also wasn’t the first, second, or even third choice to appear in the titular role. 

Producer Agostino “Dino” De Laurentiis offered Barbarella to a string of illustrious Euro babes, all of whom promptly refused: Virna Lisi (too fed up with Hollywood), Sophia Lauren (too seasoned), and Brigitte Bardot (too protective of her image). Some sources also include Raquel Welch (too little info available). As it turns out, Brigitte and Jane shared more than a potential role—specifically a husband, specifically Roger Vadim, who later joined Barbarella as director. According to noted biographer Patricia Bosworth, Brigitte and Jane also shared the occasional meal, which Jane reportedly cooked, and an ambulance ride—along with Vadim’s former flames Catherine Deneuve and Annette Stroyberg—when the filmmaker fell and broke his shoulder on the set of 1964’s La Ronde. It was a memorable bonding experience for all involved. How French. 

Throughout filming Barbarella in Italy, Jane—battling an eating disorder, a speed addiction, and an alcoholic spouse—feared that Roger secretly thought her body didn’t measure up to ex-wife Bardot’s. Vadim had met the French film star when she was 15, married her when she was 18, and subsequently turned her into an international sex symbol. With two marriages and ten films behind him, Roger fell for Jane at her 26th birthday party. They were still newlyweds when, in 1966, Dino invited Jane to appear in Barbarella. Jane chucked De Laurentiis’s letter. Vadim retrieved it. Didn’t she realize that sci-fi sex comedies were about to have a moment? She should do it. He would too. Eager to please her man, Jane acquiesced. 

Babarella opened in October 1968 to lousy reviews. In The New York Times, Renata Adler dismissed it as a “special kind of mess,” and wrote that while Jane performed as well as she could have, Vadim presented her naked body to viewers “as usual, slowly, like some proud and solemn chef.” Although Fonda allegedly forfeited the title roles in Bonnie and Clyde and Rosemary’s Baby to make Barbarella, she snapped back with a Best Actress Oscar nomination in 1970 for They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, and in 1973, a divorce from Vadim. She also couldn’t have anticipated the enduring impact Barbarella would have on contemporary culture, particularly pop music. Everyone from Duran Duran to Prince to Ariana Grande wink-nods to the space goddess. If the film’s cemented cult status had Lisi, Lauren, or Bardot reconsidering their refusals, we’ll never know. 

You could maybe argue that Jane’s an amalgamation of Barbarella’s prior three contenders. She possesses the golden-age elegance of Sophia Lauren—she was blessed with her father Henry’s genes, after all—and Virna Lisi’s intent, smoldering gaze. Her opening nude scene jump-starts Barbarella with a velocity so fierce it rivals, if not eclipses, Brigitte Bardot’s naked launch of the Godard masterpiece Contempt. But I say she’s more than the sum of these parts.

By playing it straight, embracing her idiosyncrasies, and letting her body take care of the rest—as little faith as she might’ve had in it—Jane proved she should’ve been the frontrunner all along. She was so much more than sexy; she was a Hollywood singularity. She still is. That’s why, being not just fourth in the running for Barbarella, but fourth in its director’s succession of partners/centerfolds, Jane Fonda—talented, agreeable, insatiably curious and still figuring herself out, not unlike a certain famous 41st-century space adventurer—was the wife who captured and never relinquished Roger Vadim’s heart. And it’s probably why, 51 years after the film’s release, prepubescent boys (and/or bourgeoning high-camp aficionados of any gender preference and sexual persuasion) leaving their friendly neighborhood repertory cinemas with their dads can’t get sweet Jane out of their heads.

Edited by Greg Hunter

The Trylon, in partnership with Cult Film Collective, will be playing Barbarella as part of a double feature with Silent Running starting this weekend, Friday, July 11 and going through Sunday, July 14.

Where Are We Now: MOON, 10 Years In Retrospect

|Benjamin Savard|

Art by Benjamin Savard

[ S P O I L E R S ]

The power of Moon is in its subtlety. Science fiction is best known for grandiose visions of the future: unfathomable leaps in technology, powerful alien beings, and conflicts beyond the confines of earth. But Duncan Jones’ 2009 film fits into the tradition of speculative stories told on a smaller scale. Moon limits the scientific progress to a few impressive but feasible jumps and keeps its focus almost entirely on one man in one location. The differences between the film’s reality and our own are minor compared to many others in the genre. What makes Moon’s future interesting aren’t the things that change, but the things that remain the same. Ten years ago Jones presented a vision of the future where technology has taken a plausible route toward immense progress but where corporations still attempt to exploit underclasses for profit. 

There was a time when “energy” was a dirty word. When turning on your lights was a hard choice. Cities in brownout, food shortages, cars burning fuel to run.

The minute-long promotional video that opens the film describes the global threats that come from the burning of fossil fuels. For audiences in 2009 and 2019 alike, this isn’t science fiction, it’s reality. The calm narration is accompanied by real footage of war, famine, and pollution. Through this, Jones signals that the world we are entering is firmly rooted in the one we know. The issues of this fictional world were once the same as ours: climate change, conflict over resources, and ecological crises. 

“But that was the past” says the Lunar Industries’ narrator of our problems. The answer is the company’s breakthrough in fusion power. With clean, ample energy provided by the moon’s stores of helium-3, the scarcity and environmental degradation of the early 21st century is no more. It would seem that we, as viewers, aren’t entering some dystopian future, we are getting out of our dystopian present.

The sequence fits the mold of many predecessors: speculative fiction films often borrow the credibility and assumed objectivity of newsreels to quickly establish settings. But unlike Citizen Kane’s “News on the March” or the riot montage in 28 Days Later, Jones begins the film with an advertisement. Moon’s introduction is told from a specific perspective: that of the company. The video’s authoritative voice mimics the tone of a news anchor, pushing the audience to believe the general truth of the future being shown. But the more we learn about the company later in the film, the more we question their authority. We felt like we were being informed in the introductory video, when we were really being sold something. Lunar Industries promised salvation from some of the world’s biggest problems, but they did not tell us the cost.

Jones expressed a desire to make a science fiction film for a sci-fi-literate audience — a film that would play with genre expectations and explore “fundamental human questions.” When writing and directing Moon, he achieved this by limiting the story’s scope. Locations are kept to only the moonbase and one rover. Technologies are either upgrades to existing tech or now ones based in sound theory. Most importantly, there are only three major characters: Sam I , Sam II, and Gerty. As a result, the setting feels plausible and intimate, the characters feel three-dimensional and realized. Thus the film provides Jones with a sandbox where he can play with tropes, subvert expectations, and ask the fundamental question: how much “humanity” does one need to deserve human rights?

Not one of the three major characters in Moon is conventionally human. Jones focuses the story on two clones and a robot who is intelligent but “not fully sentient.” Cloning and AI represent two very different ways of attempting to replicate humankind, and Jones uses our expectations of each to explore the characters’ humanity. Sam I and Gerty appear first. Upon introduction, we have no reason to doubt Sam I’s humanity and we have no reason to believe in Gerty’s. Sam I looks and acts like a conventional human and Gerty sounds and acts like a cross between Siri and HAL 9000. It is only as the story progresses that Jones flips these initial impressions. With the clone reveal, the film casts doubt on Sam’s authenticity. Through Gerty’s unexpected choices, we understand it is more human than it first appeared.

Despite the questions raised about who’s the “real” Sam, the film strongly affirms that the cloned Sams are just as human as the original. In fact, the emotional weight of the film is predicated on an acceptance that clones are beings worthy of full moral consideration, despite their artificial genesis. Jones helps to ensure this by keeping the perspective of the film with the Sams and depicting their human qualities beyond any doubt: moral reasoning, emotional pain, altruism, etc. These story choices urge the viewer to align themselves with the clones and understand that they don’t deserve the life that Lunar Industries has forced upon them. 

Gerty’s humanity is more ambiguous. Jones himself characterized Gerty’s actions as just part of its programming. However, the choices that Gerty makes in order to lead Sam II to the truth go beyond Jones’ characterization. Letting Sam II go outside and then giving him the password to the video system both explicitly go against its programming. When asked about Gerty’s inspiration, Jones pointed in part to the philosopher Daniel Dennet’s work on applying moral philosophy to machines. Dennet posits that any artificial being with self-awareness is functionally equivalent to a human, morally speaking. Gerty might not have human-level sentience, but its actions indicate that it has agency and a moral compass. This is what makes the decision to let Sam II wipe its memory so meaningful. Gerty downplays the effects, but in order to give Sam a chance at survival it is willing to lose its relationship with Sam and revert to a more primitive version of itself. It is only through the combined sacrifices of Sam I and Gerty that Sam II is able to escape: two artificial beings tapping into their humanity to help combat injustice. But what to make of that injustice?

The conflicts at the heart of Moon are undergirded by a quest, not for knowledge or human advancement, but profit. Internally the Sams struggle to understand their identity and externally they struggle to escape the moonbase. In both circumstances, Lunar Industries is the true enemy. The company created them, lied to them on an existential level, and forced them to work under false pretenses. The film’s introduction made Lunar Industries seem like the ideal capitalist solution to the world’s problems: The company has solved the energy crisis, helped avert global conflict, and counteracted climate change. And yet, they still engage in nakedly evil practices to pad their bottom line: Lunar Industries fabricated their own workforce in order to enslave them. 

A generous reading of the company’s actions might suggest that they genuinely believe that clones are not fully human and thus their exploitative practices are morally acceptable. However, the film provides explicit evidence that Lunar Industries knows better. They do not just clone Sam, they implant his memories into every subsequent copy. The false beliefs instilled in the clones — that each one is naturally human, he has a family to return to, and he will live a normal lifespan — are tools of control. Lunar Industries knowingly causes emotional distress to squeeze productivity out of their employees. The company must believe in Sam’s humanity because they use it as a weapon against him. What makes their treatment of the clones even more morally abhorrent is that it is clear that they would still be incalculably profitable without it. No company can hold 70% of the earth’s energy market and not have the funds to hire a reasonable number of workers for that moonbase. The company already has unfathomable profits and chooses to abuse human rights to add just a little bit more. Amongst all the fictional changes to reality in Moon, it is still a world where corporations exploit underclasses, even if they have to manufacture them. 

Moon had its wide release in the aftermath of the financial collapse. The film received much acclaim for its “scientific realism” even from aerospace engineers after a screening at NASA. However, in the midst of the great recession, the film felt just as sound in its social realism. The subprime mortgage crisis had demonstrated that there was no depth to which financial institutions wouldn’t stoop when defrauding working-class people. The unemployment rate hit its nadir while Moon was still in theaters. Sam traded three years with his family for a steady paycheck. The desperation that must have led him to that choice seemed all too real to audiences in 2009.

In the final sequence of the film, Sam II is able to make his escape. As he flies off, we hear scraps of news bulletins relating to the fallout from his arrival. The first of these states that Lunar Industries stocks are falling, hinting that the public might feel the same way as we do about the treatment of the clones. Jones himself described the film has having a “hopeful ending.” However, the last news snippet comes from a broadcast of another sort and muddies the waters about Sam II’s future:

You know what? He’s one of two things: He’s a wacko or an illegal immigrant. Either way, they need to lock him up!

The line is played for laughs. It was written to parody of a type of conservative media that was familiar to audiences in 2009. That year, The O’Reilly Factor was the #1 show on cable news. Rush Limbaugh was the highest rated voice in talk radio. Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity had both just started their own solo shows on Fox News. The line could have been lifted straight from the desk of Stephen Colbert, who had recently won an Emmy for a similar caricature. I laughed at that line the first time I saw the film. I distinctly remember telling my friends that Moon was great and citing the final scene as what clinched it for me. Ten years on, the line no longer feels like satire.

Conservative media, by definition, has a slant. But was in the years after President Obama took office that they shed even the vaguest attempts at fairness or veracity. This accelerating decline can been seen in such fabricated scandals as Michelle Obama’s “proud of my country” line, President Obama saluting troops while holding a cup, and Hillary Clinton coughing. It is even more evident when examining the baseless conspiracies that right-wing media have turned mainstream: birtherism, death panels, Benghazi, private email servers, migrant caravans, and others. Fox News and like-minded talk radio have spent the past ten years leaning fully into the grift and white nationalism at the heart of American conservatism. And they have managed to set the national news agenda while doing it. (Not one of the above citations is from conservative sources because nonpartisan outlets have allowed conservative media to dictate the definition of “newsworthy,” lending legitimacy to right-wing lies and Trump’s agitprop.) 

In the decade since Moon premiered, Fox News and conservative radio have slid from easy-to-parody to impossible-to-parody. The film’s final lines are meant to be funny, but in a literal sense, they are an attempt to dehumanize and otherize Sam II as a pretense for “locking him up.” Far from being science fiction, this is the central way that conservative powers have justified the incarceration of millions of black, brown, and economically vulnerable people. It is part of the method they have used in stoking white resentment into greater power and greater inequality. The notion that Fox News would argue against the humanity of an enslaved human clone to help boost the profit of a private corporation is as plausible as any part of the film. We have seen how conservative media treats people who deviate from the traditionally white, cishet, male norm they propagate; is there any doubt how they would treat someone who deviates from the notion of “traditionally human”?

In Moon, we see only the quickest glimpses of the world back on earth: two video calls and two pieces of broadcast media. The film’s limited scope is what allows Jones to “focus on what it is to be a human being” — exploring the moral questions raised by Sam’s cloning before affirming his humanity beyond any doubt. The messages we hear from earth are brief, but serve as vital context for Sam’s story. The opening video establishes the time and place he inhabits, the video calls reveal the ways he has been deceived, and the final broadcasts hint that his struggles will continue once the credits roll. Since the film was released, however, these messages resonate in new and significant ways. There have always been organizations willing to cause suffering for money and Moon is predicated on the idea that there always will be. This seemed plausible in 2009 and after another decade of corporate malfeasance, it feels just about inevitable. Most striking of all, Moon’s final lines subtly predicted the exact means by which conservative media would justify that suffering and sell it to audiences for a share of the profits. 

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon and Michelle Baroody

Moon begins playing at the Trylon on Sunday, June 30 thru Tuesday, July 2. To purchase tickets or for more information, please visit the website.

NOTE FROM THE PROGRAMMER: Magnificent Desolation

| John Moret, film programmer |

The way I see it, the intersection of space travel and cinema is one of the defining elements of the 20th Century. These technologies changed our view of ourselves and expanded our imagination beyond our planet. They came to being alongside the fallout of the Industrial Revolution—the fall of the Russian and Ottoman Empires, the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the warming of the oceans.

Continue reading