Voluptuous Immobility: Death and Legacy in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard and Martin Brest’s Meet Joe Black

To Martin Brest, who "left us" much too early, despite laying a very large egg. 

"All Sicilian expression, even the most violent, is really a wish for death. Our sensuality, a wish for oblivion. Our knifings and shootings, a hankering after extinction. Our laziness, our spiced and drugged sherbets, a desire for voluptuous immobility, that is…for death again.”
   -Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster) in Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) (1963)

    I finally got around to a belated viewing of Martin Brest's now infamous Gigli (2003) a full decade after its doomed theatrical release. I approached the film with the naïve hope and an arrogant confidence that the hullabaloo of negative press and critical rancor that surrounded it amounted simply to much-ado-about-nothing. "The hoi polloi is so often wrong and their cruel dismissals so often unwarranted," I pep-talked myself.  Basically, I was hoping for a Heaven’s Gate kind of situation. (Yes, despite its still dubious reputation, I am a staunch defender of Heaven’s Gate, and have cheered its recent reappraisals with a big gloating bellow of "I toldja so!") But with director Martin Brest behind the camera on Gigli, how bad could it be? This is what I asked myself before showtime. After all, this is the same Martin Brest who gave us the mischievous but compassionate Going in Style (1979), the skillfully orchestrated Beverly Hills Cop (1984), the uncommonly witty Midnight Run (1988), and the flawed but likable Scent of a Woman (1992). I’m not mentioning his Meet Joe Black (1998) now, but I’ll get to that shortly.

   I watched maybe about an hour before I just couldn’t bear it anymore. It is rare for me to not finish a picture once I start it. In all candor, it stands right, left and bloody center as a towering monument to bad taste; I frankly found myself dumbstruck by its singular, near indescribable awfulness. I also felt stupid looking back at my earlier hope and confidence. So alas, it was indeed good reason that dictated critics being sent into paroxysms of rage and indignation, and their poison pens being sent blazing into the art of the insult with gleeful abandon. And their invective was nothing if not colorful. Unfortunately, it also sent Brest into "Salinger-esque" retreat and early retirement. An excellent December 2014 Playboy article by Matt Patches attempts unsuccessfully (but no less intriguingly) to trace Brest after his disappearing act. The apoplectic response to his movie was perhaps too much to handle, though it was also reported that Brest had the movie taken away from him and re-edited. As much as I’d like giving him the benefit of the doubt, I find it hard to imagine that anyone or anything could improve upon the woeful material on display in the release version. (Sorry, Marty, wherever you are.)

   Brest, like Michael Cimino in his day, became a poster boy for the perils of Hollywood largesse. The worst side-effect of the Gigli fallout, however, was that it gave newly minted Brest skeptics and detractors license to further deride his previous effort, Meet Joe Black, the film I would surely call his most elegant, aesthetically pleasing, and outright beautiful. It might not be fashionable to lavish it with such praise, but I'm laying my cards on the table. The ravishing Meet Joe Black is one of my “crusade pictures,” that is, the misunderstood or outright dismissed films that I defend to the bitter end. It is also one that I have recommended to people, especially those who know it only by reputation. Without shame, I have repeatedly proclaimed it a film maudit (literally "cursed film," but beyond that, one worthy of re-evaluation).

Just as much a reinterpretation and extrapolation of Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) as it is a remake and re-envisioning of Mitchell Leisen’s Death Takes a Holiday (1934), its purported source, the three-hour Meet Joe Black was of course accused of prolixity across the board -- mostly because it more than doubled the length of Leisen’s "original," adding a number of subplots, thematic threads, unexpected narrative detours, and skillfully protracted dramatic moments and movements.

   The math works out just fine however, as Meet Joe Black is just one-half Death Takes a Holiday, no more and no less.  Needless to say, romantic director Mitchell Leisen's story, a genteel high-concept farce, is much more streamlined.

   With its $90 million pricetag and the expected starpower that comes with all those zeroes -- boasting Brad Pitt at his most "beefcake" in the lead role -- it has become habit and de rigueur to overlook Meet Joe Black as a piece of filmmaking and to simply accept it as just another Big Bad Studio Film, and a flop at that. At this juncture, it is apropos to note vis a vis that the film did go into profit, thanks to the predictably discerning European audience. Stateside, it made back about half its negative cost, whereas it made double that across the pond. To me, one of the reasons for this is clear.

   The film's relative intimacy suggests a perceived imbalance in the expected reciprocity between a movie's length and its flair for spectacle. On the latter front, Brest finds spectacle in Academy Award winner Dante Ferretti's exquisite design, and the “saffron glow” of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's rendering of that design. The European audience has never been discomfited by epics of pure intimacy, as Americans have. On the contrary, they have lauded them. I can name many such titles whose lengths belie their intimate scale: Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore (1973), Werner Schroeter’s Palermo oder Wolfsburg (1980), Philippe Garrel's Regular Lovers (2005), Cristi Puiu’s Aurora (2011), most anything by Jacques Rivette. Key to understand here is that these films, along with Meet Joe Black, protract the drama rather than distend it. Distension implies strain, whereas protraction implies premeditation -- and in this case, careful premeditation. American studios and American audiences traditionally reject such alternative, daresay subversive, treatment of cinematic duration.

   The European epic to which I most compare Meet Joe Black does indeed offer that traditional historical epic sweep typical of three-hour length. Luchino Visconti’s Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) is based on Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa’s posthumously published saga of Italy’s Resorgimento (literally “Resurgence”), during which Giuseppe Garibaldi and his “redshirts” battled the royalist army for the unification of a fractured Italy in 1860. The novel and the film tell the story of Sicilian aristocrat Don Fabrizio Corbera, the prince of Salina, who simultaneously resists and, in good conscience, welcomes the political groundswell that sweeps the land. He also realizes with great sadness, however, that he will have no place within the new society it births. When the prince’s firebrand nephew Tancredi, previously a redshirt, intends to marry Angelica, the daughter of a nouveau riche beneficiary of the revolution, the film culminates in a nearly hour-long dress ball sequence during which she is introduced to the local aristocracy.

   The dress ball is symbolic of the end of an era, the last gasp of decadence, the viking funeral given a newly irrelevant man’s deflated dignity. The prince is a “leopard,” the member of a mournful dying breed who can neither take comfort or refuge in denial, nor bargain his way out of the new, bitter reality. This dress ball is, of course, perfectly analogous to the 45-minute birthday ball that caps off Meet Joe Black.

   Both Visconti’s and Brest’s films are pristine portraits of opulence and privilege, and conspicuously so. Both are about the nature of legacy, and both are about fear -- specifically, fear of the calamitous loss of that legacy, opulence and privilege. Both Burt Lancaster’s Sicilian prince and Anthony Hopkins’s communications magnate William Parrish are gray ghosts, the tragically irrelevant men of their age. (Al Pacino’s character in Scent of a Woman is also a “gray ghost,” as are the trio in Going in Style, but this subject is best reserved for another essay.) While The Leopard climaxes in the lengthy dress ball sequence, Meet Joe Black culminates in the 65th birthday gala thrown in the Hopkins character’s honor. Hopkins, the recently defrocked and humiliated chairman of the board of his own communications empire, knows that his death awaits at party’s end.  It has been agreed upon by both parties: himself and the handsome grim reaper who has breezed into his charmed life.

   At an earlier point in the movie, Hopkins’s wordly, dyspeptic William Parrish angrily laments, “I don’t want anybody buying up my life’s work, turning it into something it wasn’t meant to be. A man wants to leave something behind, and he wants it left behind the way he made it, with a sense of honor, of dedication, of truth. Okay?” One can certainly see how The Leopard’s Prince of Salina could relate to Parrish’s dilemma. And beyond that, the Joe Black/Angel of Death character is the prince’s death dream (and death wish) manifest. About midway through The Leopard, the prince launches into a soliloquy about death: “Sleep, my dear Chevalley, eternal sleep…that is what Sicilians want. And they will always resent anyone who tries to awaken them, even to bring them the most wonderful of gifts. And, between ourselves, I doubt very strongly whether this new Kingdom has very many gifts for us in its luggage.”

   The prince speaks of the desire for “voluptuous immobility,” in other words, the luxury of a dirt nap. As an aristocrat who knows only the best of everything, the Prince understands and can perceive the ultimate “luxury” left unspoken and unconsidered. “All Sicilian expression, even the most violent, is really a wish for death. Our sensuality, a wish for oblivion. Our knifings and shootings, a hankering after extinction. Our laziness, our spiced and drugged sherbets, a desire for voluptuous immobility, that is…for death again.”

   Both the prince and William Parrish find their final respite in dances with respective young women: for the former, his nephew’s fiancee (Claudia Cardinale); for the latter, his youngest daughter (Claire Forlani). The women’s respective romantic partners could be argued as analogous. If William Parrish daughter Susan is smitten with Brad Pitt’s Joe Black, is the Alain Delon character in The Leopard, Tancredi Falconeri the Garibaldini, an angel of death in some figurative sense? Perhaps, yes. The prince’s acceptance of Garibaldi’s revolution takes on a certain whimsical dimension due to Tancredi. He covets Tancredi's youthful idealism, just as much as he is amused and dismayed by it. Tancredi’s now oft-quoted line “If things are to stay as they are, they must change” is met with a quiet, acquiescing grimace on the prince’s part; there is an inconvenient truth in his nephew’s nifty slogan. The whimsicality and callowness of the Joe Black character conforms with how the prince sees Tancredi, who is the usher of the inevitable, just as Joe Black is for Parrish.

"Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen."  ("Now and in the hour of our death. Amen.")
    -the opening of Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa's novel The Leopard

"Then all found peace in a heap of livid dust."
    -the closing of the novel The Leopard
       (translation: Archibald Colquhoun)

   Many Visconti scholars have argued the emotional and psychological proximity that the filmmaker shared with his protagonist in The Leopard.  He knew what the prince's calamitous loss meant in a very direct sense, despite his own loss being self-imposed.  Born an aristocrat himself, and a descendant of Milan's ruling dynasty, Visconti renounced these roots to align himself with the Italian Communist Party.  Indeed, his breakthrough film La Terra Trema (1948) is a neorealist documentary-drama anthem to the residents of a poor fishing village in rural Sicily.  Though remained a cultivated, urbane individual, renowned and even notorious for directing lavishly designed operas (and discovering legendary opera diva Maria Callas), he remained politically committed, and this is appreciable in his films up to and including his classic Rocco and His Brothers (1960), likewise an epic of supreme intimacy.  With The Leopard, he makes a leap towards the more formally epic, and all an epic entails, with visual extravagance in surplus.  At the time of release and its subsequent winning of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, this leap was perceived as a curious but glorious left turn.  The Damned (Il Caduta Degli Dei) (1969), the saga of a German industrial dynasty during the rise of Nazism, and Ludwig (1973), a biopic of Bavaria's mad king and builder of extravagant dream castles, both saw him continue down the path of directing films that indicted decadence while simultaneously putting it on unfettered display.

   On a personal note, Visconti is my favorite Italian director.  I count many of his films, including La Terra Trema, Senso (1954), Rocco and His Brothers, and The Leopard as favorites.  I find that I connect with him most on an emotional level, as his films not only consider the aforementioned loss but transfer its associated feelings onto the viewer.  There is no more powerful film, in this regard, than The Leopard. His ability to do so is matched and indeed augmented and poeticized by his abilities as a technician and craftsman.

   Beyond The Leopard's various narrative parallels to Meet Joe Black, there exist clear stylistic and visual ones as well. Shallow focus, diaphanous lighting, and sure, steady camera movement, all especially present in the climactic set pieces, speak to a refined sense of decoupage in both films. I would even venture to guess that Brest consciously takes cues from Visconti in his own film. Admittedly, Brest appropriates Visconti tropes for an unmistakably Hollywood-engineered and financed film produced for mass consumption, but his aesthetic approach is scrupulously tasteful in ways that few other pieces of Hollywood product are.

   How many Martin Brests do we really have left in today’s mainstream Hollywood machine? Most of the auteurs working today succeed in spite of the system, but seldom within it. Within only lies the safety of anonymity. This is why I cannot countenance any digs made against Meet Joe Black, clearly one of the most personal and profoundly cinema-literate big budget efforts of its time or any time. I love it as much as I love the arguably more sophisticated The Leopard. Gigli or no Gigli, Martin Brest unabashedly gets my support, for his individuality and his precision. The problem is that when he had to go, he didn’t go in style, and as evidenced in his work, that’s not like him.

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