Tough, lean and spare, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) was an epic swords and sandals picture coming fast on the heels of Ben-Hur and Cleopatra. Yet despite having its own careening version of a chariot race and the requisite legions of ornately costumed extras amidst spectacularly palatial locations, the tone is surprisingly somber. Much of the first half takes place in the dead of winter, and the performances seem pensive and cool, or manic and edgy. Anthony Mann, best known for his noirish westerns, suggests death through the autumnal season, the Roman legions marching through snowy fields and shadowy pine groves, and the candles and torches flickering ominously in dark rooms.
The oppressive mood gives depth and shading to the pomp and circumstance of ancient Rome, and an extended and potentially tiresome scene where the emperor (Alec Guinness) greets emissaries from every corner of his empire, each with different colorful flags, armor, and titles of honor, is tempered by the fact that the king of the world has a lingering pain in his lower abdomen (a close-up of the emperor’s trusted Greek adviser, Timonides (James Mason), has a gnawing, sweaty intensity, as if he is already imagining his master’s demise). Layers of snow or smoke drift over the widescreen images, obliterating any sense of David Lean’s epic cinema, and the score by Dimitri Tiomkin is frequently low-key. In many scenes, there is no score at all, but the uneasy absence of music in favor of wind or rustling leaves.
The plot in many ways resembles Gladiator, with a heroic tribune, Livius (Stephen Boyd)—fresh from his victories during the German war—selected by his beloved emperor to succeed him. Disgusted with jealousy, the emperor’s son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), falls into a kind of narcissistic death wish, wanting to plunge himself into suicidal battle against the barbarians. Senators and philosophers conspire to wipe out the already ill, rapidly fading emperor and plant Commodus on the throne. The hero and villain are surprisingly passive here, with instincts driving them to introspective dread or inward rage, and the story is driven not by generals and fighters, but by crafty thinkers—like Mel Ferrer as a blind political leader who smilingly volunteers to present the emperor with a poisoned apple.
There are battle scenes that don’t climax with victory cheers; before the moment of jubilation can occur, a general will turn and scold the handful of gladiators that behaved like cowards, quickly followed by a scene where he is casually pushing them off a bridge as punishment. If there is any levity to be found in the proceedings, it’s from the evil, self-centered Commodus. It’s an eccentric performance by Plummer, which dominates the film. He easily steals the show from Boyd’s wooden hero and the gorgeous Sophia Loren, who summons up sex appeal but little more as the love interest. From the moment Commodus appears, he seems loose, jangling around in his armor with hands flapping back and forth, and grinning so much it seems like he’s trying to hide the fact that he’s emotionally constipated and strangely dissatisfied.
Plummer twinkles with glee, clapping his hands and happily soaking up attention, and his charisma is so strong that he often gets his fellow actors to laugh with him. But it’s also because he’s just so weird. When he wears the golden laurel leafs on his head, they’re slightly crooked, and his monologues don’t follow the rhythm-and-flow of classically trained actors—his words pour out with stop-and-start cadences and are punctuated with nervy smiles. While The Sound of Music made Plummer a star, one sees this early performance and can imagine a career mirroring that of Christopher Walken (or maybe more like that of his daughter, Amanda Plummer). When Commodus says of his potential enemies, “I will destroy them,” it’s almost cheekily flippant, like a child knocking over castles in his sandbox. He’s offbeat, not in lockstep with the beautifully formal images and senatorial tone, and Mann seems very aware of the freaky energy he brings.
It would have been a different movie if Kirk Douglas or Charlton Heston played Boyd’s Livius (Heston by this point had enough of wearing a toga, and had just played El Cid for Mann only three years earlier), but I wonder if it would have been any better. Heston or Douglas, dominant alpha males, wouldn’t hesitate to seize the day, but Boyd is oddly deferential to Plummer. He’s less of a hero, and the movie doesn’t spark during his quiet romantic scenes with Loren. But this leaden quality adds to the mummified tone of the picture. At the midway point, when the sky turns bright blue, the costumes grow more colorful, and the villain achieves his goals, the tone is warmer and the orchestra more expressive and jubilant. That touch of irony makes The Fall of the Roman Empire feel modern, perhaps even more so than Gladiator, which is traditional, even conservative, in its values of family and self-reliance.
Gladiator actually has a very similar conclusion in terms of events, but the tone is quite different here, because even through Commodus is by this point a teeth-gnashing maniac (torching villages and staging crucifixions), his fate is tied to an empire ripe with potential. With his fall, the house of cards is doomed to collapse. The drawn out gladiatorial combat is surprisingly charged, not only because of its dynamic physicality, but also its surprising emotional depth. Again, even if the fight results in victory for the righteous, the implication of the film is that all fighting ultimately leads to a great failure. In most films, might makes right, without regard to the wisdom of diplomacy. Perhaps The Fall of the Roman Empire failed at the box office because that’s not the nature of the American spirit, where we want our good guys to punch out the bad guys, save the girl, and preserve the status quo. What it does sustain is a moral victory of sorts, suggesting we search our sense of compassion before we act.
Image/Sound/Extras: The Weinstein Company makes a big deal out of their limited collector’s edition gift of The Fall of the Roman Empire, having had some measure of success with their DVD release of the Charlton Heston/Anthony Mann epic El Cid. It is presented in the scope aspect ratio (anamorphic 2.35:1), and the print is restored in such a pristine manner the movie looks like it could’ve been made yesterday (except for some of the hokey dialogue, which is more earnest than today’s disaffected hokey dialogue). Likewise, audio quality is excellent and clear. The film-length commentary track features producer Samuel Bronston’s son Bill and his biographer Mel Martin, and they speak at great length about the heroism, social awareness, financial savvy, genius craftsmanship and, in general, all-around brilliant skills of Bronston, almost at the expense of discussing Anthony Mann, Sophia Loren, James Mason, and the rest of the talent. When they praise the cast and crew, it’s part of their complimenting the producer for assembling such a team. Even when discussing Alec Guinness, who scoffed at the tedious script, they say that George Lucas was surely inspired by this film when casting for Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.
On disc two, a 30-minute making of documentary rehashes some stories from the commentary, but at least the scope is expanded beyond the greatness of Bronston. The creative decisions behind the film, such as the strange casting choice of Stephen Boyd, are handled with colorful anecdotes (as it turns out, Boyd fit into all of the costumes). Also, several historians touch on some of the cuts made to the movie, trimming down its already mammoth length of three hours plus. Some character moments were lost and a few scenes play as slightly obscure, though it also accounts for the brisk pace of the finished film. Some of the other documentaries are rush jobs: one is a 10-minute look at the historical fall of the Roman Empire, while another, touching on Hollywood revisionism versus historical accuracy, is more of a primer on old fashioned Hollywood screenwriting. As usual, the writers get screwed, and this potentially interesting doc is over before it’s even begun. The 20-minute featurette about composer Dmitri Tiomkin gets into the “ugly, guttural, forceful” sounds that the composer went for, going for “suffocation” instead of a traditional, lush and romantic sound, with individual themes for each hero.
On disc three is a collection of historic films about Ancient Rome, all of which were shot on the state-of-the-art sets of The Fall of the Roman Empire. It’s funny to learn that the minds behind Encyclopedia Brittanica were every bit as much a bunch of hustlers as the Hollywood producers they were dealing with. In exchange for saying that the historical accuracy of this feature film was endorsed by the encyclopedia, they got to use sets and costumes for their classroom films. The films themselves are as mundane and sleep-inducing as what you might remember from History 101.
Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth
By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.
Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcome dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.
For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.
Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.
Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.
Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.
Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:
In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.
In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.
Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:
I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?
The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.
Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.
Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.
Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group
Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.
Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.
Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.
Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.
In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.
It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.
Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing
If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.
If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.
Will Win: First Man
Could Win: A Quiet Place
Should Win: First Man