Parky At the Pictures (17/2/2023)
(Reviews of Nostalgia; Next Exit; and Make Me Famous)
Too few of Mario Martone's films have done the rounds in Britain. Both The Death of a Neapolitan Mathematician (1992) and The King of Laughter (2021) starred Toni Servillo, while We Believed (2010), Leopardi (2014), Capri-Revolution (2018), and The Mayor of Rione Sanità (2019) all competed for the Golden Lion at Venice. So, we should be grateful that Curzon has picked up Nostalgia, which was his first Palme d'or selection since Nasty Love (1995).
Long resident in Egypt, Felice Lasco (Pierfrancesco Favino) has not seen Naples since he was a youth. Wandering around his old neighbourhood, he discovers that his ageing mother, Teresa (Aurora Quattrocchi), is now living on the ground floor of the family home because old friend Oreste Spasiano (Tommaso Ragno) has cut her in on a deal to rent out the upper rooms. Frail and virtually blind, Teresa is pleased to see her son and reluctantly allows him to bathe her.
Keeping his room at the airport hotel, Felice checks out apartments and tends to his mother in the evenings. He is taken aback by the sight of youths on motorbikes firing guns in the street and pauses to listen to Don Luigi Rega (Francesco Di Leva) saying mass outdoors in defiance of the police and preaching about the need to reclaim the neighbourhood from criminal elements.
While lunching in a restaurant, Felice bumps into Raffaelle (Nello Mascia), who had doted on Teresa after his father died. Felice admits to not recognising him, as he has been away for 40 years and no longer thinks in Italian. But Raffaelle doesn't take offence, as they chat about the old days and his regret at not becoming Felice's stepfather.
Shortly afterwards, Teresa dies and Felice thanks Don Luigi for keeping an eye on her. He calls partner Arlette (Sofia Essaïdi) in Cairo to thank her for urging him to return to Naples so that he got to spend time with his mothe. She wonders if he's getting nostalgic, as he insists on staying on for a while and he thinks back to when Teresa (Daniela Ioia) used to tick him (Emanuele Palumbo) off for racing motorbikes with Oreste (Artem Tkachuk).
Succumbing to temptation, Felice buys a secondhand bike and roams around the city. He calls at the church, where Don Luigi has set up a boxing gym in the sacristy and lets the kids hang out in the courtyard. Sensing that Felice needs to talk, he lends an ear after the motorbike is torched and Raffaele advises Felice to stay away from Oreste, as he is now a dangerous gangster.
Don Luigi is appalled to learn that Felice was with Oreste the night a carpenter was murdered. But he reads into the case and shows Felice around the neighbourhood to show him how he is fighting Oreste for the soul of his parishioners. He cautions Felice about seeking out his old friend, as he will not have forgotten the threat he poses as a witness to his crime. However, Felice insists their brotherhood will protect him, even though everyone he meets is wary of `Badman' and his gang of teenage thugs.
It proves so, as Oreste allows Felice to visit his compound and satisfies himself that he is not going to blab or ally against him with Don Luigi. He acts tough, but Felice isn't intimidated by him and they agree to forget the past. The priest is furious with Felice for making the arrangements behind his back and hopes he can trust his friend's word.
Feeling settled, Felice starts doing up his apartment and sends Arlette a ticket to join him in Naples. He hosts a garden party for the kids from the church and gets them dancing to some Egyptian hip-hop. However, Oreste has been unsettled by Felice's presence and, wearing a hoodie and tracksuit bottoms, he goes into the backstreets and stabs Felice as he walks home after hearing Don Luigi's children's orchestra rehearsing.
There's an inevitability about the denouement that gnaws away at the viewer for much of the final third of this proficient, but rather perfunctory Neapolitan saga. Felice's adamance at remaining feels forced, although the fact he takes the decision without consulting his wife reinforces the sense of machismo that underpins his refusal to be intimidated by Oreste. Similarly, his readiness to confide in Don Luigi (after seemingly having converted to Islam) also has a hollow ring, even though the priest had been kind to Teresa and is striving to steer the kids away from the kind of temptations that ruined Felice's life.
Himself returning to contemporary themes after a number of period pieces, Martone and cinematographer Paolo Carnera make atmospheric use of the labyrinthine Rione Sanità locale, with the scenes at the local catacombs adding a sense of mystery (does Felice leave incriminating evidence against Oreste among the skulls?), while also enhancing the notion of the Catholic Church battling for the soul of the city.
In many ways, Martone and Ippolita Di Maio's adaptation of Ermanno Rea's posthumous novel is a companion piece to Nasty Love (aka L'amore molesto), another prodigal tale that drew on Elena Ferrante's debut tome. Yet, notwithstanding the Super-8 flashbacks that are neatly incorporated by editor Jacopo Quadri and accompanied by Tangerine Dream's `Lady Greengrass', the narrative becomes increasingly melodramatic after Teresa dies and Felice is drawn into Don Luigi and Oreste's respective orbits.
The characterisation is sketchy. Yet Pierfrancesco Favino gives Felice a mournful gravitas befitting an exile with plenty to trouble his conscience, while Aurora Quattrocchi is poignantly fragile as the mother hanging on for a last glimpse of her child. Francesco Di Leva also contributes some muscular piety as Don Luigi (who is based on an actual Camorra-crusading cleric), while Tommaso Ragno makes the powerful `malommo' feel more like a prisoner of his citadel than the king of all he surveys.
Ultimately, despite the hope that Felice sees for the future, the past catches up with him. His decision to stay feels foolhardy, as the pre-credits quotation about knowledge and nostalgia from Pier Paolo Pasolini testifies. But Martone does enough in the initial reconnecting sequence to show how Felice is sensorily seduced by the sights, sounds, and tastes of the youth that had been stolen from him.
An intriguing idea quickly finds itself running along familiar lines in Mali Elfman's debut feature, Next Exit. Riffing on notions explored by Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1944 play, No Exit, this existential road movie is well played and brims with insight into modern living and human nature. However, Elfman neglects the brave new world she has invented, with the result that this feels more hidebound than haunting.
Following the release of video footage of a young boy playing cards with the ghost of his dead father, it has been accepted by many that the afterlife exists and that death is not the end. Consequently, crime and suicide rates have plummeted. But Congress is still sceptical about Dr Stevenson (Karen Gillan) and her Life Beyond institute.
Rose (Katie Parker) and Teddy (Rahul Kohli) are true believers, however, and are delighted at having been accepted for Stevenson's volunteer research programme. Despite being strangers, they agree to drive from New York to San Francisco in a rental car they have managed to hire with her licence and his credit card.
Insisting that she drives, Rose (who hates her first name, Blossom) finds Terry garrulous and intrusive and refuses an offer to share his fast food. She also resists all inquiries about her past and her motives for heading west. He confides that he has spent a pointless decade trying to make it in the USA and now considers Life Beyond as his last opportunity to do something notable.
Trading insults outside their separate motel rooms, Rose and Terry slam their respective doors and put on the TV. However, something spooks Rose, who gets drunk and falls asleep in the bath. She misses their 6am start time and Terry teases her when she finally joins him at the adjoining diner. Pulling off the highway to vomit, Rose reminds Terry that they are not pals and are not in this enterprise together.
In getting distracted while describing a failed overdose attempt, Rose fails to see a man standing in the middle of the road and kills him. She is furious that he has used her to commit suicide and damaged their wheel in the process. Terry tries to cheer her up by telling her about his bungled tweenage effort to kill himself using vitamins and she admits that she had once tried to slash her wrists with paperclips.
They are interrupted by Jack (Tongayi Chirisa), a Catholic priest who helps them change the tyre while promising to deal with their corpse. He believes Dr Stevenson is stealing God's gift of life, but refuses to judge the travellers for the decisions they've made. Indeed, he hears Rose's confession before they drive on.
Stopping at another motel, the pair play the `Never Have I Ever' drinking game in the bar. A border patrol cop named John (Tim Griffin) overhears and buys a bottle to join in. They laugh drunkenly at each dare until Terry taunts Rose by claiming never to have killed anyone. To their dismay, John downs five glasses before recalling how he and his partner cooked a Mexican family of five by accidentally locking them in a desert shed. Such is his PTSD-related agony that he shoots at the television set and the barmaid asks Terry and Rose to leave.
As Rose helps Terry get into bed, he tells her about the American father who abandoned him as a child and how he returned all the letters he had sent him unopened. She is touched when he curses him for having condemned him to a miserable existence and slumps on the floor at the end of the bed, dealing with her own demons, as static flickers on the TV screen, even though it's not switched on.
She resorts to hostility on waking in his room, but he persuades her to spend the day having fun. After he fulfils an ambition to shoplift, they pick up Karma (Diva Zappa), a hitcher who is heading to California to watch a meteor shower with her hippy aunt. While Terry and Karma survey the night sky at a gas station - and learn that a legal challenge to Beyond Life's operation has been successful - Rose uses his phone to track down his father and he reluctantly agrees to a diversion.
They find Joe (Marcelo Tubert) in a bar near the garage where he works. Rose goes in first to provide support, but Terry picks the wrong man to start venting at. Narrowly avoiding a punch on the nose, he sits beside his father, as he wins a big prize on a video poker machine. Careworn and quietly spoken, he buys Terry a drink and calls him his `young friend'. The casual token of affection prompts Terry to bolt for the bathroom, where Rose urges him not to let the moment pass and enjoy putting the record straight. But Joe has gone by the time he emerges and Terry has to settle for fulminating at Rose, as she assumes Joe's identity for a role-playing rant that ends in a passionate kiss.
As they lie in bed together, Terry asks Rose what drove her to Dr Stevenson. She recalls rebelling against her mother because her sister was so perfect and then losing touch out of shame after quitting college and racking up debts. When her mother died, however, her sister took her in without a word and Rose felt settled until she slept with her brother-in-law and ran away to deal with her sense of treacherous desolation.
Detouring to Arizona, they call in on Heather (Rose McIver) and Nick (Nico Evers-Swindell). The latter dreads the truth emerging when Terry ignores him. But Heather is relieved to see her sibling and goes along with her story that they are eloping to Las Vegas before starting again in London. As they part, she tells Rose to focus on her own problems not hers and reminds her that each time she disappears she breaks off another piece of her heart.
Teddy implores Rose to pull over and talk, but she keeps driving and they arrive at Life Beyond early next morning. Despite his decision to drop out, Rose insists on going into the passing room, where the nurse begins the procedure. Kneeling beside her, Teddy pleads for another minute to convince her to change her mind. But Rose wakes in a limbo space, where she is confronted by episodes from her past and the guilt she has long felt for walking out on her mother and betraying Heather.
Walking towards a light, she realises it's a porthole window in a door and sees Teddy grieving. Rose pushes through and halts the drug flow in time to cling to the man who has given her a reason to live. Following a trip to the beach, she shrugs when Teddy asks her what she had experienced and jokes it was like nearly dying. Much to his surprise, Rose tosses him the keys for the journey home. As the credits crawl to a close, Teddy suddenly remembers that the car is on his credit card and she is taken aback when he announces that he has to collect his dog, Stanley.
In her 2018 short, Do You Believe in Ghosts?, Mali Elfman revealed that her 90 year-old grandmother, Clare, was known as Blossom. The connection with Elfman's feature bow may be tangential. But this charming short, which was scored by the director's composer father, Danny Elfman, feels like a reassuring hand on her wrist as she made the transition from being a producer with the Fun Size Horror collective.
It's also worth noting that her father made his feature debut on brother Richard Elfman and Matthew Bright's Forbidden Zone (1980), as this the absurdist musical involved a door that gave access to an alternate universe. Suffice to say, unlike Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert's Everything Everywhere All At Once, this didn't get showered with Oscar nominations.
Elfman's affection for the characters in her Sartrean romcom is readily evident and Katie Parker and Rahul Kohli respond with excellent performances that are bolstered by some acute supporting turns. The spikiness of their initial exchanges feels a bit forced, as there is no real reason for them not to be civil on first meeting. Once Teddy starts getting on Rose's nerves, however, their badinage feels less scripted, while the mutual trust between Kohli and Parker sees them through the stickier moments of the inevitably sweet denouement.
The scenes involving Karen Gillan's boffin feel detached from the rest of the picture, while the events at the clinic are largely unpersuasive, especially when compared to similar scenes in Benjamin Cleary's Swan Song (2021) and Corrado Ceron's Aqua e anice (2022). But Rose's saunter between life and death is so deftly depicted that it makes it all the more frustrating that Elfman makes so little of the Heideggerian notions of existence and forfeiture that underpin her premise. Moreover, Rose and Teddy scarcely seem curious about their post-expirational prospects and how they would benefit from their ghostly status. And what happened to the subplot about closing the facility down? Niggles rather than blemishes, but they rather add up.
MAKE ME FAMOUS.
There can't be many artists meriting a full-length documentary profile who have virtually no online presence outside the film itself. But a search for Edward Brzezinski primarily brings up references to Brian Vincent's Make Me Famous, which examines Brzezinski's struggle to be taken seriously in the Greenwich Village of the 1970s and 80s against the flourishing of such contemporaries as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and David Wojnarowicz.
Hailing from Michigan, Edward Brzezinski lived in a dilapidated building on East Third Street in the East Village part of Lower Manhattan. Across the road was a men's shelter, which gave his bedsit-studio a bit more credibility than its name, The Magic Gallery. Fellow artists Walter Robinson and Peter McGough laughingly recall his most notorious contribution to the SoHo scene, when he failed to realise that Robert Gober's `Bag of Donuts' was on display at the Paula Cooper Gallery and had to be taken to hospital after consuming a snack coated in poisonous resin.
Gallerist Sur Rodney Sur, model Claudia Summers, photographer Marcus Leatherdale, and artist/lover David McDermott speak of his intensity and eccentricity, his prolificity and drive to succeed, as he produced portraits with perfectionist precision. However, his series of Bianca Jagger images is dismissed for knocking off Andy Warhol, while painter Duncan Hannah disapprovingly recalls how Brzezinski hustled persistently, even handing out invitations at other people's events (which was not the done thing).
But art historian Joseph Masheck greatly admires `Crucifixion' (1983) and claims him as an intellectual Expressionist. Summers likes the portrait that captured her inner messiness, while fellow artist Scott Covert has fond memories of spending an entire day posing for Brzezinski, only for him to destroy the canvas in frustration.
He had studied photography in San Francisco before coming to New York, which was having its 70s moment, thanks to places like Studio 54, Max's Kansas City, and CBGB. McDermott and Hannah argued over whether the Third Street gang were `new wave' or `beyond the new wave' while putting together a show at Club 57 to bring the Upper West Side elite downtown. Brzezinski was desperate to impress, but McGough dismisses him as a `boob', who was always rubbing people up the wrong way by trying too hard.
Canadian street artist Richard Hambleton, artist-cum-cartoonist James Romberger, and English artist/musician Marguerite Van Cook recall the squalor in which Brzezinski lived and his eagerness to belong with the cool set. His stencil show at The Magic Gallery is lauded by Frank Holliday and Kenny Scharf for anticipating the style that has made Banksy and Mr Brainwash darlings of the art world. But he made a greater impact by throwing a glass of red wine over Italian gallerist Annina Nosei after she had failed to keep a promise to view his latest works. She seems amused now, but was scared that Brzezinski was sufficiently psychologically unbalanced to attack her. When she bumped into him on the street, therefore, she disarmed him with a hug and a party invitation, which led to him getting a show with Larry Aldrich.
Around this period, dealers and collectors were avoiding painting. However, films like Amos Poe's The Blank Generation (1976), James Nares's Rome `78 (1978), and Eric Mitchell's Underground USA (1980) caught the eye of the major players and artists like Basquiet and Schnabel found willing buyers. Actor Eric Bogosian and gallerist Patti Astor are at a loss, however, to explain why Brzezinski failed to find a patron, when the likes of David Wojnarowicz hit the heights.
He championed Brzezinski, as did critic Gary Indiana (who was not a Wojnarowicz fan, as we see from a stoned rant) and Romberger and Van Cook, who gave him two shows at Ground Zero. But Astor claimed not to have room for his stuff at her Fun Gallery, especially when he started producing large pastiches of religious scenes that commented on the AIDS crisis that claimed friends like John Sex.
Suddenly, the film lurches from this dark period to 2007, when Romberger and Van Cook received news that Brzezinski had died in a hotel room in Nice. Vincent is fascinated by this development and wonders if the report was accurate or whether Brzezinski was playing some sort of hoax, as he is considered a living person by the US government.
Museum director Robert Metzger joins Vincent and producer Heather Spore in Detroit to delve into Brzezinski's background. He discovers the collection of German Expressionism that profoundly influenced his style, while cousins Roger, Ted, and Sally reveal the loss of his overbearing mother at 16 and his difficult relationship with his older father. They remember `Edsie' being aloof and are surprised that Vincent is making a film about him.
Walter Robinson (who wrote Brzezinski's obituary) is also puzzled. But he's willing to participate, even though he can't remember much about his old friend's art. Collector Lenny Kisko is proud of having posed for Brzezinski and recognised the value of his work. He was a waiter at Lincoln Center at the time and started buying pictures, including some stencils and a satirical portrait of Nancy Reagan.
By the 1980s, Brzezinski was beginning to drink heavily and resent his lack of success when others were being feted for work he considered bogus. Hence, the doughnut protest, which is recalled with a degree of compassion by Jim Radakovich, Robert Hawkins, William Rand, and Julie Jo Fehrle. Gober is more wearily cynical about the incident, however, as Brzezinski made sure the press knew about it so that he could get his 15 minutes of fame.
A debate ensues about whether painting is superior to the kind of conceptual artistry that was started by Marcel Duchamp. Opinion is also divided as to whether artists with business acumen like Jeff Koons deserve to be valued more highly than honest toilers like Brzezinski. Mark Kostabi mocks him for relocating to Berlin around 1990, while McDermott apologises for letting his friend down in an hour of need. Fehrle describes finding him in a squat in East Berlin, while Rand remembers seeing him being beaten up in a bar for being gay. Flatmate Gerald Kuklinski notes that Brzezinski spent any money he made on paints, although McDermott suggests that he continued to work to avoid having to confront the painful truths of his situation.
Determined to discover the truth, Vincent, Spore, Romberger, and Van Cook fly to the South of France to trace Brzezinski's final movements. Drawing a blank in Nice, they decide to try Cannes. Eventually, the cemetery bureau track down an Édouard Brzezinski and they make a pilgrimage to his grave, with its simple wooden cross. What he never knew was that he would be deemed a key Abstract Expressionist and that some of his work would find its way into the Museum of Modern Art.
The New York art scene during this tumultuous time has been chronicled in numerous films, including Julian Schnabel's Basquiat (1996) and Tamra Davis's Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010), Christina Clausen's The Universe of Keith Haring (2008) and Ben Anthony's Keith Haring: Street Art Boy (2020), Sabine Lidl's Nan Goldin: I Remember Your Face (2013) and Laura Poitras's All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (2022), Max Basch and Malia Scharf's Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide (2020), and Chris McKim's Wojnarowicz (2021). Yet Vincent manages to find new things to say (both good and bad) about the milieu and its principal figures.
In truth, we learn little about Brzezinski's style and how he differed from his influences and his peers. But much is revealed about his lifestyle and how he was treated by those too wrapped up in their own careers to notice either his talent or his temperament. Clearly, he could be difficult. However, he was also as committed to his art as he was desperate to belong in a chic and occasionally cruel coterie that didn't always give him the benefit of the doubt.
Passing mention is made of Vincent Van Gogh, as he also struggled to fit in with the in-crowd. But, while he cannily comments on the commercialisation of the art world and the arbitrary nature of idolisation, Vincent avoids examining Brzezinski's psychological state in any depth, even though he captures his personality and the proximity to egotism and greatness that shaped his creative fervour and his refusal to compromise or conform. In many ways, his life was also his art, as he was always striving to give the perfect performance as a painter worthy of acclaim and fortune. Why else read simply to accumulate conversational gambits? Ultimately, the effort became too much and Brzezinski fled the Bowery. However, thanks to this melancholic, but sincere and brilliantly edited profile, his longing for a legacy has been fulfilled.