Tuesday, May 24, 2011

William Friedkin in Conversation - A Journey Through American Cinema

William Friedkin in conversation in Rome
The 1973 movie The Exorcist appears on just about every list of Top Ten Horror flicks and has often been described by critics as one of the scariest movies of all time. It was surprising, therefore, to hear its creator – film director William Friedkin, in conversation yesterday evening in Sala Sinopoli at the Auditorium Parco della Musica – explain to Antonio Monda and Mario Sesti, that he never intended it to be considered a horror film, and that instead, he thought of it an exploration of faith. In Rome as the third guest in the 2011 season of Viaggio nel cinema americano (A Journey Through American Cinema), after encounters with Debra Winger and Christopher Walken earlier this year, the evening with William Friedkin followed the usual format - clips from some of the director's finest movies were shown, interspersed with a minimum of pertinent questions care of Sesti and Monda.

Kicking off proceedings with The Exorcist, in fact, it was clear from the outset that this was going to be richly entertaining – an extremely generous interviewee, William Friedkin was full of fascinating anecdotes, and seemed genuinely delighted to be able to chat freely and at great length about his working methods. The Exorcist won an Oscar for Best Sound and the director revealed that as a film-maker he has been enormously influenced by the radio dramas he listened to in the pre-television days of his childhood and that sound and images in his films are often created entirely separately. In The Exorcist, for example, in the midst of the extraordinary and terrifying sounds of Regan's exorcism, there are sounds taped during a genuine exorcism which took place in the Vatican and had been given to the director by a Jesuit priest – scary stuff indeed!

The ground-breaking car chase from The French Connection in which Gene Hackman – whom Friedkin confessed to having bullied constantly during filming, shouting and swearing at him to bring out the rage he needed for the camera - is in hot pursuit of a runaway subway train, was paired with another breathtaking car chase in To Live and Die in L.A., with CSI's William Peterson at the wheel. Seeing these clips again on the big screen reminded one of the dazzling stunt work and directorial skills of the days prior to the arrival of CGI, although Friedkin modestly played down his own work and praised some of the visually stunning effects by recent directors, in particular citing Paul Greengrass's work on The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Grumblings of dissent were heard from the adoring audience at the suggestion that the new special effects used to create chase scenes were now far better than anything he did back then; his declaration that he hated 3D movies, on the other hand, was greeted with a cheer and ripple of applause! Would Citizen Kane have been a better film if it had been shot in 3D? he asked ironically, I think not!

Saying that he loved chase scenes because they were one of the few instances in filmmaking that truly couldn't be reproduced in any other medium, he also told an amusing tale about how, in the absence of either subtitled or dubbed versions, cinemas in Thailand during the 1970s used to actually pause movies every ten minutes or so, in order that somebody could come out on stage and explain what had just happened on screen - I vowed to make films that required no dialogue to understand the action... You don't need dialogue to understand a chase scene!

Friedkin's wife, Sherry Lansing was also present in the audience, although when clips from two dramatically different movies with gay subject matter – The Boys in the Band and Cruising - were shown, it emerged that she isn't always a fan of her husband's work. She had apparently hated Cruising when it was first released in 1980. The film, a dark murder mystery thriller set in New York S&M leather bars, was met with controversy and angry protests from the gay community at the time, but in recent years has seen a positive critical reappraisal and is now seen as a somewhat nostalgic look at a pre-AIDS era gay subculture. When it received a lengthy standing ovation at a special showing at Cannes Film Festival last year, however, one person stayed buried in their seat – Ms. Lansing! She hated it! Friedkin said with enormous relish.

By a strange and somewhat sinister turn of events, Cruising is also linked to The Exorcist. In the earlier film a real-life radiologist and his assistant were used in the hospital scenes. Friedkin said that he had been surprised to note that the medical assistant had been wearing an earring and leather studded bracelet, audacious signals that the man was gay and unusual in those closeted times. He was shocked several years later to hear that this same man was in Rikers Island, accused of a brutal murder. Friedkin actually visited him in prison as part of his research for Cruising - the man confessed to Friedkin that he couldn't even be sure if he was guilty or not, because he had been so out of his head on drugs in that period. If visiting murderers in prison weren't enough, getting clearance to actually film in the real leather bars required a visit to “an old Mafia friend” of Friedkin, who owned the New York club scene at the time – his description of how they avoided police surveillance and bugging devices at the Mafia boss's home was pure cinema itself. So much so, in fact, that a film student in the audience asked if he could use the anecdote for a short film – Be my guest! was the reply, although the director declined to name any names... for fear of being killed! Friedkin was laughing as he said this, but how large a pinch of salt we should take with this tale from such a marvellous raconteur is anybody's guess!

At the end of a long question and answer session with the audience he was clearly in no hurry to rush off stage. In fact, when fans rushed the stage with DVDs and photos for him to sign, he grabbed a chair, made himself comfortable and stayed chatting to his admirers until he'd signed every last autograph. A wonderful evening!

Watch a short video of William Friedkin graciously signing numerous autographs at the end of the evening below or click here to watch on YouTube.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Franca Valeri in conversation with Sabina Guzzanti: "da Studio Uno a ieri: la mia televisione"

Sabina Guzzanti and Franca Valeri on stage in Rome
Italian comedienne and authentic national treasure Franca Valeri celebrated over sixty years in show business earlier this year with a month long stint at Teatro Valle in Rome, that embraced not only her theatrical work with a brand new play Non tutto è risolto, as well as a reprisal of one of her most popular monologues La Vedova Socrate, but also her greatest movie roles with a showing of Parigi o cara. No survey of Franca Valeri's career would be complete, however, without a look at her groundbreaking work in television comedy.

In a packed Sala Sinopoli at the Auditorium Parco della Musica last night, the ninety-year-old actress was joined on stage by Sabina Guzzanti, a comedienne who is part of a younger generation of female performers who undoubtedly have Franca Valeri to thank for having opened the door for them when television was still in its infancy. Incidentally, Sabina Guzzanti, with her outspoken criticism of Silvio Berlusconi, has been the victim of extremely heavy-handed censorship in Italy and has, to all intents and purposes, been banished from Italian television, and one had the sense that it was the younger of the two who hankered most strongly for the old days of television in yesterday's discussion. At the outset, however, Franca Valeri had made it clear that this wasn't to be a nostalgic evening...if anything, it would be an historic evening!

Opening with a clip from her last television appearance, an adaptation of Abraham B. Yehoshua's autobiographical play Possesso in which she plays his Jewish mother, she was then joined on stage by Urbano Barberini, who had played her son - as he has on numerous occasions – in that piece. In true, This Is Your Life style, he then introduced a video message from Yehoshua himself, in which he praised her performance and said that since his own mother had died, he now thought of her as his Italian mother! Later on in the evening, Dario Fo, would also appear in another video message singing his own high praise for the actress.

What surprised me most watching the clips yesterday evening was the realisation that some of them – in particular the hilarious show called Le divine that parodied historical female characters as diverse as Nazi collaborators, Mata Hari-style spies or drunken Hollywood divas – were transmitted as long ago as 1959, yet the humour felt incredibly contemporary and decades ahead of its time.

The greatest television comic actors, regardless of where in the world they are working, are undoubtedly those who manage to create a cast of characters that enter into the collective memory of the viewing public. Whilst Franca Valeri may not be well known outside her native Italy, creations such as “La Sora Cecioni” for the RAI have indeed entered into the annals of Italian television history – when she closed the evening with a live recital of the first ever La Sora Cecioni sketch ("Signora" Cecioni in Roman dialect) it brought the house down and this extraordinary performer left the stage to deafening cheers and a standing ovation.

Watch a vintage clip of Franca Valeri as Sora Cecioni below or click here to watch on YouTube.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Omara Portuondo and Chucho Valdés | Auditorium Parco della Musica | 8 May, 2011

Presented by Santa Cecilia It's Wonderful!

Chucho Valdés and Omara Portuondo with Lázaro Rivero (double bass), Andrés Coayo (percussion) and Julio Barreto (drums)

Cuban diva Omara Portuondo is no stranger to the Auditorium Parco della Musica, returning to the venue often, not only as a solo singer, but also together with the musicians with whom she shared the spotlight in Wim Wender's documentary Buena Vista Social Club, the film that introduced this extraordinary artist to a worldwide audience and international acclaim. Sunday evening was the fourth time I'd seen her perform in as many years and it was, yet again, a very special event – this time Omara Portuondo was accompanied on stage by legendary Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdés.

The couple last worked together when Valdés played on the delightful track Nuestro gran amor – an album highlight - on Omara's last CD Gracias. This appearance of the couple in Rome was part of a European tour to promote a brand new recording - a collaboration called simply Omara & Chucho, a modest title for an album by two legends of Cuban music, but befitting the affection, not to mention mutual admiration, that these two performers clearly have for one another, resulting in a musical complicity and on-stage chemistry that made Sunday evening such a wonderful concert.

Valdés opened the evening, a giant of man who seemed almost shy as he took the stage, giving a humble nod of acknowledgment to the already exuberant audience, before sitting at the keyboard and stunning us with a piano solo of dazzling dexterity played with an air of seemingly nonchalant ease and sense of fun – what an opening! Then, to the improvised piano chords of Beethoven, Omara took to the stage to perform Llanto de Luna; singing gently at first, she then slowly, but surely, mesmerised the audience with the warmth of her interpretation and range - at eighty-one her voice shows no sign of losing any of its power! An enormously charismatic personality, she quickly had most people up and out of their seats, clapping and dancing for the next number Y decídete mi amor - throughout the entire evening she effortlessly alternated between the tearful torch song singer of heartbreaking songs like Si te contara or the spine-tingling acappella version of 20 años, and the playful dancing Havanna club singer of numbers such as Que quieres que te diga, sweeping the audience along with her at every turn.

When Omara, Chucho and the extremely talented young musicians in the band returned to the stage to a standing ovation and thunderous cheers for an encore, Omara asked the audience to name the song they most wanted to hear, obliging us with the unanimously requested Dos Gardenias, remembering the late Buena Vista Social Club member Ibrahim Ferrer in her introduction to the song. Every time I've seen Omara Portuondo perform, she has never really looked like she wanted to leave her adoring public and Sunday evening was no different. The audience was on its feet and cheering for more, so out they all came yet again for one final energetic encore before the band left us to Omara's chanting goodbye “Ciao Ciao!...Ciao Ciao...!” Unmissable!

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