Rossellini series and Tag Gallagher

After a slow winter season for cinephiles in Los Angeles, the new Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum in Westwood–the site for UCLA Film & Television Archive screenings–is in full operation; that is, if you overlook the late film starts, the mistimed electronic subtitles, and the misplaced DVD remotes. (The inaugural screening of the Archive’s Roberto Rossellini series, Open City, was best by all these problems and more, which hardly diminished the exhilaration of seeing the film’s recently restored print.)

UCLA boasts an exciting March line-up that includes a lot of rare Rossellini titles (which, given the dearth of his work on video, is virtually everything he ever made); as an avid fan of his work, I couldn’t be more pleased. Unless a DVD company like the Criterion Collection has something up their sleeve, I doubt I’ll get to see acclaimed films such as India or the six-hour TV miniseries, Acts of the Apostles, anywhere else.

Last weekend, the Archive screened the ebullient Francis, God’s Jester (1950), one of the cinema’s most charming evocations of spiritual simplicity, humility, and compassion. Following the screening, Rossellini biographer Tag Gallagher limped to the stage (having recently broken his angle), and seemed almost bohemian with his long grey hair and casual manner. His appearance matched his maverick account (recorded in his Preface to The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini) of his desperate attempt to see a Rossellini film in Berkeley, which included hitching a ride with a mental patient and spending a rainy night huddled under some bushes. Gallagher also screened a video essay he made that echoed Rossellini’s rough-hewn techniques anchored by perceptive intelligence, and I was reminded how often cinephiles and critics seem attracted to filmmakers whose perceived temperaments match our own.

“What we want in movies is an attitude, a way of looking at things, a sensibility,” Gallagher insisted, a key notion for those of us who love Rossellini’s work, which often “suffers” from miserable prints, meager production values, and a loose approach to audio dubbing that can shock contemporary viewers. Whether this lack of polish is intentional or not, Rossellini’s sensibility is paradoxically amplified by his modest means; his films evoke the vital and deeply felt impressions of an inquisitive and sensitive artist struggling to find truth and meaning in postwar Europe. (Guy Maddin and Isabella Rossellini’s eccentric and moving tribute to Rossellini, My Dad is 100 Years Old, can be watched on YouTube, complete with unfortunate–but somehow fated–mistimed audio and video.) Perhaps Rossellini’s work is the ideal programming for an Archive settling into its new location, still seeking its groove; what other filmmaker’s work could so easily transcend such technical limitations?

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