Neorealism Goes Hollywood
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Hollywood is known for its blockbusters, a formula that's worked for years, but in the 1950s a sort of anti-Hollywood movement emerged. It was called Italian neorealism. In 1952, David O. Selznick was the Hollywood producer behind "Gone With the Wind," but after some critical failures, he was looking for a new direction and fascinated by neorealism. He decided to make a movie with Italian director Vittorio De Sica, bringing his wife, Jennifer Jones, onboard as the leading lady. What could have been one groundbreaking project ended in two separate movies - "Terminal Station" by Vittorio De Sica, and a second version recut by a dissatisfied David O. Selznick, with a racier title, "Indiscretion of an American Wife." Filmmaker Ernie Park, who goes by the name Kogonada, compared the two films in a video essay for the British Film Institute.
ERNIE PARK: There are a lot of elements of neorealism that are still debated. And that was part of my own challenge too; it is definitely a distinct approach or sensibility to cinema that really defines itself in contrast to the Hollywood norm, especially of that time and even in the present. So, I think that it's very grounded in reality and even a sense of real time itself. This subject or star that we often see in Hollywood is decentered a bit. And so, really, it's a film about the people who populate a particular space and time.
WERTHEIMER: Now, in "Terminal Station," which is the De Sica version, there are a number of examples of regular people appearing in the movie. And here is one. At the beginning of the film, Jennifer Jones is composing a telegram to her lover, Montgomery Clift, breaking off their affair. And while she's trying to compose her message, we see and hear other people sending other telegrams in the same office. Here's one:
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TERMINAL STATION")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Will arrive Brindisi 7 P.M. Meet at station. Blessings, papa, mama. Leave out "blessings."
WERTHEIMER: When David Selznick, the Hollywood producer, recut the film, he left out those folks in the telegraph office. Now, why did he do that?
PARK: Right. I think throughout what was really bothering him about the film was all this time that he was giving to these people who didn't play any role in the plot of the film. For him, it was a diversion from the star, his wife, you know, and the two main stars and the main story. So, I think, you know, every opportunity he had to take those moments out, he felt like it made for a better, more efficient film. And what you end up getting is you lose really the character of the film that De Sica created, which was not just about the stars but about the people in that particular place.
WERTHEIMER: The films have a different look as well because - it was what he felt the American audience wanted?
PARK: Yes. I think it was a formula that worked and is a formula that still works, which is that people go to the movies to see stars. You know, I think cinema is so much about the choices we make. And there is one system in which, you know, it is purely about entertaining and trying to give the audience what they want. And in the case of this movement that was happening around the world and for De Sica, it was about another sensibility, another set of values, and the human existence was a big part of it.
WERTHEIMER: Just a little bit later in both films, these two stars go into a quiet restaurant to talk about their breakup, basically, and there are a lot of tight close-ups in both versions. In this particular place, the two films seem to me to be almost identical. Aren't they just about alike?
PARK: They are. They're pretty similar. I mean, I think that there are sections of that dialogue that are cut out. So, Selznick's cut is still a little bit shorter. But he does keep a lot of those longer takes. And I should say that Selznick, in regard to Hollywood producers, he liked longer takes more than a lot of producers. And I think in some ways that's why he was drawn to this neorealism movement. But I think when it came to the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, he realized that he didn't like it as much as De Sica, you know. And so he did want to keep some of it but, you know, I think one of the wonderful things about these two versions is it shows you where both of these people are rooted in filmmaking and sensibilities.
WERTHEIMER: Let's just take a second to listen to Montgomery Clift and Jennifer Jones, two incredibly gorgeous people, in very tight close-ups saying heartfelt things. We'll just give you a tiny taste of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INDISCRETION OF AN AMERICAN WIFE")
MONTGOMERY CLIFT: (as Giovanni Doria) What am I to you suddenly? An old guidebook that you don't really want anymore?
JENNIFER JONES: (as Mary Forbes) Don't really want? Then you don't know what wanting is.
WERTHEIMER: Now, bring us up to speed on the film industry today. Are we still having this debate? I mean, obviously, we've got these humongous blockbusters. But we also have what we call little films. In fact, there's a whole chain of theaters that's just grown up in the last few years that shows little movies. Does the debate continue or do you think the blockbusters won?
PARK: No, you know, I think the debate continues. So, we know that cinema can be entertaining and it can be a place for escape. But I think that there's always been a group of filmmakers who are drawn to a different possibility, which is not about escape but really drawing us into our world, the world that we live in. And so they're not driven by trying to help us escape it but really feel it and get a better sense of it. So, I think that there's always been these kind of two sensibilities. But, you know, we know one is an industry that really can drown out, and really also set different expectations. I know anyone who's ever seen a film that's not driven by, let's say, escapism, it's almost confrontational to sit in a theater and see a film play out that's slower, that maybe decenters the subject. And it feels like almost a violation or something that feels so disruptive because we have such an expectation of what cinema should be. But I know the first time I was confronted by that kind of cinema, I remember feeling like nothing happened. But then that film would linger, you know, with me for days and I couldn't shake it off. You know, there are so many other films that might be impressive in the moment but they feel disposable. You wake up the next day. You almost forget about it, you know. There are these other films that you walk out and they stay with you and they kind of haunt you and maybe even alter you. I certainly have been altered by that kind of cinema myself.
WERTHEIMER: Filmmaker Ernie Park. He also calls himself Kogonada. If you want to look at his video essay, you can find it at the British Film Institute website. Thank you very much.
PARK: Thank you. It was really a pleasure to talk to you. I'm a real fan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.