Ebertfest 2011 - Thursday

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In her current book, Never Say Die, Susan Jacoby writes about the plight of the poor and old in America: as she says, the largely invisible poor and old. The eponymous hero of Vittorio de Sica's Umberto D isn't entirely invisible. When we first see him, he is sneaking food to his dog at a center providing free meals and trying to sell a fine-quality watch to fellow elderly diners. A retired and dignified former civil servant with a 30-year career behind him, he puts on a good show, but everyone he knows shies away from the desperation they can smell as he bargains over selling his possessions to pay his landlady's bill and finds that he can't quite bring himself to beg on the streets. His ally in trying to survive his landlady's ever-increasing determination to throw him out is the maid, Maria, who is pregnant by a soldier - the one from Florence, or maybe the one from Naples. She secretly loans him a thermometer and visits him when he summons an ambulance and asks to be taken to the hospital. She even promises to take care of his dog.

He has belongings but no space he can really call his own. His landlady rents out his room for 1,000 lira an hour to adulterous couples while he's out, and even Maria strolls in without knocking to wave to her soldier out the window.

But the post-movie panel was all about the dog, Flike (as the subtitles spelled it), Umberto's constant companion is both his comfort and his trap: he can't trust anyone else to care for Flike, everywhere he needs to go refuses to let the dog in, he can't give the dog away, and, in the film's most overtly dramatic sequence, the dog won't let him commit suicide. Like Linda at the end of Natural Selection, he closes out the film with a moment of snatched happiness despite being doomed.

My Dog Tulip (2009), on the other hand, is based on a memoir written by the English author J.R. Ackerley (voiced by Christopher Plummer) about the 15 happiest years of his life, the years in which he was possessed by an Alsatian named Tulip. The movie is beautifully hand-drawn and painted by dog owners Paul and Sandra Fierlinger (Paul spent the panel discussion after Umberto D explaining that Umberto and his dog looked so wrong together that he couldn't get emotionally involved in the film). It is also both a warm and funny story (think a British, dignified version of , if Marley were a girl and his owner deeply concerned to make sure he married and reproduced) and a wicked commentary on English middle-class attitudes. And these persist: you could easily remake the movie and set it in modern-day Britain, replacing Tulip with a child.

The heroine of
Tiny Furniture (2010) , Aura (Lena Dunham) does not have many happy moments. She is, like Ben in The Graduate (1967), newly home after graduating from college, and, like Ben, has little idea of what to do next. She studied film theory, and frets that she is not qualified for anything. There is a plan she has been letting slide: she is supposed to move into an apartment with a friend who will shortly be arriving in Manhattan, not a place the uncertain can usually afford to live.

In the meantime, she is living back home, where her successful artist mother, Siri (Laurie Simmons), and younger sister, Nadine (Grace Dunham), have formed a unit while she was gone and seem to resent her as an interloper. Nothing seems to be going right and, again like Ben, she passively lets other people's desires make choices for her. She meets a couple of dedicatedly exploitative men, takes a badly paid, boring job because a friend makes that an easy path, and waits for her life's path to present itself. By the end of the movie, though she hasn't yet glimpsed that path, she's beginning to find her first stirrings of adulthood. If Jane Austen were alive now and a young filmmaker, this might be the movie she'd make - the detailed miniature painting on ivory is a fitting description.


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This page contains a single entry by Wendy M. Grossman published on April 29, 2011 6:06 AM.

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