Part of the price we have to pay, it seems, for the international art-film mardi gras of the ’60s and ’70s is the discomfiting experience of watching the giants inch into their dotage, refusing against better judgment to retire. While some have maintained a degree of grace (Kurosawa’s Madadayo, premiered this September on TCM, was lovely and adroit), some, like the ailing Michelangelo Antonioni, are encouraged by habit, ambition, or desperation to press on. A full decade after being hit with a massive stroke in 1985, Antonioni assembled Beyond the Clouds from a selection of his own short fiction, with Wim Wenders contracted as backup for insurance purposes and to direct a series of connective “interludes” following “the Director” (John Malkovich) as he dallies around Italy.
It’s not easy to endure, despite—or due to the embarrassment of—an all-star cast (Fanny Ardant, Sophie Marceau, Jean Reno, etc.). Antonioni’s dreamy, pretentious fickle-finger-of-fate mini-tales struggle to wrestle with love and desire, but truck in adolescent ideas and delight in nothing so much as undressing their many young actresses. The good deal of preposterously casual (but lifeless) sex in the movie seems only to invoke an itch the 83-year-old filmmaker can perhaps no longer scratch. The dialogue, backgrounded by actors standing around lovely Mediterranean byways, is witheringly silly—”Nobody watches sunsets anymore,” somebody opines apropos of little; “Love is an illusion,” someone else shamefacedly utters. The thing is, at least in parts, Beyond the Clouds doesn’t feel all that different from many other Antonioni films; a reevaluation of the man’s oeuvre, after one undergoes the “story” in which “the Director” (“Malkovich, Malkovich!”) stares down the peachy Marceau until she non-sequitur-ily tells him she murdered her father, doesn’t seem very promising. Was he just fashion?
**Arnold Schwarzenegger certainly was, of a sort, and it seems as if the days when the popular culture rather generously made a home for this hydrant-headed dummkopf are coming to an end. Indeed, End of Days is Arnold’s idea of stretching, playing a vodka-chugging security guard whose alcoholism hasn’t interfered with his round-the-clock (and unreferenced, but c’mon) weight training, and who is called upon to stop Satan (inhabiting Gabriel Byrne’s body and bank account) from making the beast of many backs with poor Robin Tunney and thereby fulfilling the Revelations. Making even the fibrillating sheepwash of Stigmata look sophisticated, End of Days is 85 percent explosions and editing idiocy (a window can’t break without director Peter Hyams cutting between five different angles) and 15 percent Arnold trying to grow a third dimension. Seeing him try for “sad” is like watching a dog try to talk, but his climactic Christian epiphany, even preceded by Arnold’s own crucifixion and Last Temptation, is more than I think remaining Arnold fans are ready to bear. The last-ditch eventuality of T3 notwithstanding, Arnold may be running out of options.
**Definitely TV’s film-culture event of the year, Turner Classic Movies’ premiere of the new, quasi-restored 242-minute version of Erich Von Stroheim’s notorious 1924 classic Greed is about as essential as television gets, not to mention the most startling reason yet why cinephiles should be grateful to the spare-no-expense Ted Turner. To the existing two-hour-plus film, legendary as being less than a quarter of Von Stroheim’s original cut—but in fact (see the new Film Comment) just less than half of the length Von Stroheim finally settled on—the reconstruction has added a full 115 minutes of existing footage, new intertitles (from the original script), and hundreds of recovered stills, as well as a new score and a new digital application of Von Stroheim’s originally smudgy gold-tinting to certain objects within the black-and-white image.
Despite panning-and-irising handstands, the voluminous use of stills doesn’t flow with the movie; the effect is something like Ken Burns doing The Gold Rush. What we’ve got now is more of a piece of visual scholarship, itself a unique, invaluable, and hypnotic thing. Von Stroheim’s rep, after a long dormancy, has been on the rise, and this is the best evidence of his work you’ll get until someone finds those lost five hours in some Ukrainian subcellar.