The next film shown at Ebertfest was Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood (an extraordinary film about 4 black girls, teenagers, living in a housing project in a Parisian suburb – my review here). As with many of these films, I had seen Girlhood on a small screen at a press screening. To see it on that enormous screen at the palatial Virginia Theatre was amazing! You just cannot compare the two experiences!
After each screening, there’s an onstage QA of some kind and I was moderating the one for Girlhood. It was a great group, and the bunch of us had had lunch together beforehand, to talk about the film, which was a great dry run for our discussion. The panelists were Rebecca Theodore-Vachon, Eric Pierson (he had moderated the panel I participated in the day before), Matt Fagerholm, and one of the stars of Godard’s film Goodbye to Language, Héloïse Godet, who had flown in for the festival for the Godard film. There were a lot of interesting things to cover with Girlhood and since I was moderating I wanted to make sure we got it all in. There’s the racial element, which is fascinating, as well as Sciamma’s interest in another minority – girls – a subject she explores in extremely specific and beautiful ways in all of her films (Water Lilies, Tomboy, and now Girlhood. Eric Pierson went to the University in Urbana, and now teaches at the University of San Diego. Matt Fagerholm writes for Rogerebert.com and is so enthusiastic about Girlhood (it is his favorite film of the year so far) that he had printed out a couple of pages of quotes from the director, to bring up during the discussion. Rebecca Theodore-Vachon also writes for Rogerebert.com as well as other venues, and is interested in diversity of representation. There had been hopes that the lead actress, Karidja Touré, would join us via Skype, but – just like the character in the film – she had turned her phone off! She was in the middle of her mid-term exams, so I think that had something to do with it. She’s a wonderful actress and it’s hard to believe this is her first film. She carries it. She is in every scene. Our discussion onstage afterwards was fantastic and all of the panelists were wonderful. We talked about the paucity of stories about black girls, and how that situation affects our perceptions (especially the perceptions of black girls: if you only see yourself intermittently onscreen, and if you never see yourself as the center of the action … what does that do to your perception of how society views you? I mean, the question answers itself). It was great to have Héloïse onstage with us, giving us the French perspective about the Paris suburbs as well as the huge problem of racism in France. The questions from the audience were great, and I think people really enjoyed the film, and it launched a wonderful discussion that went on for the rest of Ebertfest. One of the points I made was that the common trope for “female friendship” (in film, anyway) is that girls tear each other down, girls are catty, girls get together and fight about men. NONE of that is present in Girlhood. OTHER things are present, and there are other issues and problems, but – in general – female friendship is a powerful thing, and means a LOT to women, and yet we so rarely SEE it. These girls have each others’ backs. These girls create a powerful and supportive second family. Sciamma is also smart enough to know that when a bunch of girls dress up to the nines, more often than not they are NOT dressing for male attention. They are dressing for each other. “Oh my God, you look so cute.” “You look amazing in that.” “I love that dress on you.” Rebecca and I talked about that a lot, how refreshing it was to see that reality expressed onscreen. It was a wonderful discussion.
This is my third Ebertfest, and the second time a silent film has been shown, with the accompaniment of the awesome Alloy Orchestra (who write their own scores, and perform it live onstage as the movie plays). Last year was the phenomenal 1924 Lon Chaney vehicle He Who Gets Slapped (a masterpiece), and this year was the 1926 Rudolph Valentino film The Son of the Sheik (sequel to the massive hit The Sheik, which solidified Valentino’s position as a star – the first male sex symbol). Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips introduced the film, and he’s such a wonderful dry presence: “It’s only fitting that after Girlhood, we should watch The Son of the Sheik, filled with dubious sexual politics and racial stereotypes …” Ah, humor. Phillips gave some great background on the film and on Valentino. He talked about the love of all things Arab in the 20s. But the way Phillips put it was, “The 20s were lousy with sheiks.” I’m still laughing. In The Son of the Sheik, Valentino plays a dual role: the sheik from the first film as an older man now, and also the sheik’s son. Valentino apparently loved doing it, and there was some split-screen photography, with father and son in the same frame, that was quite well-done for the time. And Valentino was terrific as the older man: with whiskers, and a different posture, and a kinder demeanor. The Sheik is one long rape fantasy, but The Son of the Sheik has some other aspects to it: huge hilarious group fight scenes, horses galloping over dunes (they filmed in Arizona, I believe, and the conditions were atrocious and everyone got very ill, including Valentino, and the shoot probably contributed to his early death). The music played by the Alloy Orchestra was wonderful, a sort of constant drumming going on (afterwards, they said that was the main reason they wanted to take on scoring this movie, because it gave them a chance to utilize the hand-drums) – and God, there’s nothing like live music accompanying a movie! Valentino, as the “son of the sheik”, is relaxed and easy. He became a star before he really learned how to act, and he learned on the job. Here, he is to die for. There’s one totally erotic moment when he kisses Vilma Banky up her arm. It is positively carnal. His eyes are closed, and there’s a submissive quality to how he kisses her, a surrender, and her eyes literally rolled back up in her head. This is really powerful stuff. The women of the 1920s knew a good thing when they saw it. This was not “emoting”. This was a man who very calmly and openly expressed that private part of himself, his sexuality, and it feels like the real deal. No wonder his funeral rivaled the passing of a statesman. Seeing it on the big screen just drove home the fact that Yes, Rudolph Valentino was the first male sex symbol, and yes, he delivers.
Michael Phillips led a great discussion afterwards with the Alloy Orchestra, and gave some great background on the film, as well as on Valentino. (I wrote a huge post about Valentino here.)
The movie that night was the 1993 film A Bronx Tale, Robert DeNiro’s first time in the director’s chair. He’s only directed one other movie. Too bad. A Bronx Tale is a great film. Here is Roger Ebert’s 4-star review. I saw it in the movie theatre on its first release and loved it to death then. It not only holds up but shivers/pulses with a kind of timeless energy that feels almost prophetic. The racial aspect of it for one thing … I had forgotten that element of it, and the danger and violence of it. It’s not as explosive as Do the Right Thing (both films, by the way, were produced by the same guy, John Killik, who was in attendance at Ebertfest this year!) but it treads the same ground. DeNiro’s style is intuitive: flashy when it needs to be flashy, quiet and observational when you don’t need anything else. He cast it beautifully. There’s an incredible sequence when the Italians jump in their car to go fuck up the black kids on the next block. The radio blares in the Italians’ car, and the jukebox blares at the bar where the blacks are hanging out – and at the moment of violent contact, both songs continue at the same time. The music is at war too. It’s brilliant. But there are so many brilliant small touches like that throughout. Chazz Palmenteri was in attendance as well and it was a thrilling QA that occurred afterwards. Hilarious and raucous.
Richard Roeper and Leonard Maltin asked the questions. The story of how A Bronx Tale came to be is well-known, and Chazz Palmenteri is really the one to tell it, but here’s a bullet-point version. It’s the true story of his childhood. He grew up on a street in the Bronx ruled over by a Mob guy (in the movie he’s called Sonny, although that was not his real name). It was kind of a benevolent dictatorship and all the little kids idolized this guy. He was like a movie star. Then one day, when Palmenteri was 9, 10 years old, he was sitting on his front stoop, and there was some altercation that went down, and Sonny shot a man in the head, right in front of Chazz. He saw the whole thing. Chaz’s father, Lorenzo, was a bus driver (just like he is in the movie), and was determined that his son would grow up with values, and not “waste his talents” (the saddest thing in the world, according to Lorenzo). The entire film is true. It’s autobiographical, even down to the black girl he dated from the next block. And his racist friends. Etc. Chazz P. moved out to LA and very quickly started working regularly in television. He got some good recurring roles. But he had a sense that if he wanted his career to go to the next level, he would have to write something for himself. He was taking an acting class at the time, and so he started writing out this story – of his witnessing a murder, and this guy named Sonny, and all these memories. And he started working on it bit by bit in his acting class. He did all the parts. He played himself, he played Sonny, he played his father. This, of course, then became a one-man show, that eventually played very successfully in Los Angeles, before moving to off-Broadway where it became a smash hit. It became a hot hot property. Palmenteri was offered money by every studio in town for the script. He wanted to be in it. Nobody wanted him to be in it because he wasn’t a name. He kept saying No. And the prices offered kept rising. The prices rose as high as $1 million. This man was offered literally a million dollars and he turned it down. Then one day Robert DeNiro came to see Chazz Palmenteri in the play. They met backstage. De Niro told him he had been looking for a project to direct, and he wanted to direct A Bronx Tale. He didn’t want to change the script. Chazz P. said, “But I have to be in it” and De Niro said, “Of course. You’ll be Sonny, I’ll be Lorenzo, I don’t want to change a word of it.” De Niro was good to his word.
It was a dream experience. And it is one of those experiences that is an example of what can happen if you never give up. It’s like Sylvester Stallone, broke, writing the script of Rocky over a four-day period living in a room where he literally could touch both walls if he reached out his arms. And he didn’t want to sell it if he couldn’t be in it. And it all worked out. These are inspirational stories, for sure. And sometimes, yeah, life happens that way.
Chazz Palmenteri was fabulous in person. The audience was rolling in the aisles at some of the anecdotes about filming. The questions were fantastic, from all over the audience.
Some choice gems:
— On whether or not he hesitated before letting De Niro, a first-timer, direct his script: “He did all these movies with Scorsese. He had to have learned something, I thought.”
— There’s a great scene where all the big Mob guys on the block shoot craps in a crowded basement. Those were not actors. Those were the actual guys who had lived on Palmenteri’s block. Palmenteri said, “For the craps game, Bob insisted we use real money. At the start, we had $1200. At the end, we were $400 short.” So Chazz went around to everyone saying, “Come on guys, give it back.” Palmenteri said, “They couldn’t help themselves! They’re thieves, some of these guys!”
— Both De Niro and Chazz were pressured to hire a light-skinned actress for the role of Jane Williams, the girl that Calogero “C” at 17 dates. But they stayed firm. They wanted a dark-skinned girl, and they ended up getting their way, hiring the wonderful and beautiful Taral Hicks. Chazz said, “To be honest with you, that was really important to us. The girl I dated had dark skin, she was my first great love, and it was 1968, you know, it was rough, but we loved each other. It was important that she be that.” I appreciated that honesty, and I appreciated her performance so much. When she leans over to unlock his side of the car door, the audience erupted into cheers. What a payoff!
— De Niro involved Chazz in all aspects of filming. He was even in the editing room. He didn’t feel ever that De Niro was threatened by Chazz, or that De Niro wanted to “take over.” Chazz mentioned it to him once, and De Niro replied, “It takes as much talent to recognize a good idea as it does to come up with a good idea.” That attitude meant that De Niro didn’t care where good ideas came from. He was in the position to recognize them. There was one scene in the bar that De Niro couldn’t figure out how to handle. There was a lot of conversation amongst De Niro, Chazz P., John Killik, the cameraman, etc. No resolution. Finally, a guy who worked in the bar, flipping burgers in the kitchen, who had been overhearing the whole thing, called out, “Hey, I think I have an idea …” and he said his idea, and that was how they ended up doing it. Beautiful.
— Casting the little boy was a huge deal. He had to be right. They saw hundreds, probably thousands, of little boys. Chazz was in on all of the casting sessions, reading opposite the little kids. When 9 year old Francis Capra walked into the casting room, he started off by saying, casually, “Hi, Bob. Hi, Chazz.” Bob. Chazz. He was 9 years old. He basically swaggered into the room. De Niro and Palmenteri looked at each other like, “Does this kid have a set of balls on him or what?” De Niro gave Francis some pages to read, and right before he started the scene, Francis turned to De Niro and said, “Bob, do you want me to cry or not cry?” I am still laughing. Bob. Of course he got the job.
— De Niro as director: Just one example, again with that crowded craps game in the cellar. Of course no one thought they would actually film in that cellar. They’d have to build a little set. It was too cramped, too hot, too gross. But De Niro looked around and was like, “Nope. We’ll film it right here.” He got a lot of pushback on that: the ceiling, the walls, the heat, etc. But he liked working within that confined space, saying at one point, “Let your obstacles be your guide.”
— De Niro was obsessed with every single detail on the film. The shirt collars brought on endless discussions. The cars. The colors. The music. When they were picking music for the film, De Niro showed up at the sound mixing joint one day with a box set called “40 Years of Tony Bennett.” (You’d have to hear Chazz tell this story. It’s probably not as funny when I do it.) Chazz was like, “FORTY YEARS??” And they listened to every single song. “If we did the movie now, Bob would have had us listening to SIXTY years of Tony Bennett.”
I could have listened to Chazz Palmenteri talk for two more hours. I think we all felt that way.