Now under new management (real estate magnate and cinephile Charles S. Cohen) and guided by ace programmers C. Mason Wells and Gavin Smith, the Quad Cinema has returned, nearly two years after going dark for extensive renovations. The relaunch also follows the theater’s most disgraceful era, roughly spanning the first half of this decade, when the mini-multiplex, which first opened in 1972, wasn’t much more than a compostable toilet of four-walled abominations, dreck shown in a pay-to-play arrangement. I took the precipitous decline personally. After arriving in New York in 1996, I spent my first six or seven years in the city as a regular at the Quad, which was conveniently located on the same block of West 13th Street as the New School building where many of my M.A. classes were held. The theater, two blocks to the east of the LGBT Community Center, was the unofficial screening room of late New Queer Cinema from around the globe; I saw, to name just a few prominent, international lavender titles from the second half of the Nineties, Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together at the Quad, along with François Ozon’s See the Sea and Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry.
My memories of my time at the theater in the early 2000s revolve less on what I saw there than on who was in the dark near me: the SNL cast member who snacked and chortled his way through a French crypto-lezzie coming-of-age movie; Susan Sontag seated one or two rows behind me for Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown, avidly discussing where she and her screening companion would have dinner afterward (I think they settled on Japanese) and then, when the name Alain Sarde appeared during the opening credits, excitedly announcing to her pal, “He’s the same guy who produced Mulholland Drive!”
Going to the Quad, in other words, always promised some kind of adventure. That daring has been restored to the cinema, evinced in its supremely perverse, unexpected choice of inaugural repertory honoree (one of the theater’s four screens will be devoted solely to revivals). The Quad rep calendar kicks off with a retrospective devoted to Lina Wertmüller, the polarizing Italian filmmaker. During her 1970s peak, she inspired uncharacteristic gushing from tetchy New York critic John Simon. (The elderly opiniator, appearing as a talking head in Valerio Ruiz’s Behind the White Glasses, a 2015 Lina love-in that plays as part of the Quad series and takes its title from the octogenarian regista‘s signature eyewear, dooms his pet cause with this pronouncement: “In the whole history of the world, I think there’ve only been two great women directors: Leni Riefenstahl and Lina Wertmüller.”) Her equally impassioned detractors included the Voice‘s Molly Haskell (a typical burn, from the September 29, 1975, issue: “Wertmüller’s male chauvinism, her identification with the male sex, is more insidious”). The Quad salute to Wertmüller is the most extensive ever mounted in New York. It will likely be the last.
I say this as someone who has spent the past week immersed in Wertmülleriana, watching six of her best-known films, including Seven Beauties (1975), the concentration-camp picaresque for which she became the first woman nominated for a Best Director Academy Award (she lost to Rocky‘s John G. Avildsen). Several are ravishing to look at but murderous to listen to. Clamorous, fatiguingly unfunny farces masquerading as sociopolitical treatises, all put the “oof” in opera buffa.
The cram session marked my first viewings of her work; though I’d known Wertmüller’s name and the vaguely scandalous reputation attached to it for decades, I felt no urge to seek out her movies — and clearly rep-film curators in the city, until now, saw no overwhelming need for (or recognized the folly of) introducing her to the uninitiated. While I am depleted by this deep dive and will forever be triggered by the term stronzo — an epithet that dwarfs all other terms in the Wertmüller word cloud — I’m grateful to those brilliant sickos at the Quad for giving me the opportunity to finally confront this bizarre corpus and form my own opinions. At the very least, I now have intimate knowledge of what Haskell referred to, in that same ’75 column, as Wertmüller’s “gallery of female grotesques.”
With few exceptions, these distaff monsters are almost always poor, Sicilian, warty, and obese. The most paradigmatic performer with this physique in the LW oeuvre is Elena Fiore, whose enormous, dimpled, pimpled ass (more probably, the gargantuan, ghastly cheeks belong to a body double) exceeds, for a near eternity, even Wertmüller’s wide-angle lensing during a segment meant to advance a convoluted cuckolding payback subplot in The Seduction of Mimi (1972). Fiore’s scene partner in this gluteus circus maximus is Giancarlo Giannini, the actor most associated with the director, and the epitome of her sexy, soulful-eyed proletarian brutes. In Swept Away (1974) he plays the Communist deckhand, who, while stranded on an island in the Mediterranean, reminds Mariangela Melato’s shrill blueblood — “that fucking fascist bitch” — of the natural order of things between man and woman: rape, beatings, etc. In a 1976 Voice interview, Wertmüller had this to say to Haskell, who was calmly seeking clarification on this absurd film: “That’s what women didn’t understand. The Mariangela Melato character was really a man!”
To Wertmüller, silly gender terrorist, I say basta. To the Quad, I say welcome back — and more, please.
Lina Wertmüller: Female Trouble
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