Friday, April 29, 2011

SFIFF54 Day 9: Toby Dammit

The 54nd San Francisco International Film Festival has crossed its halfway mark. It runs through May 5th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting a recommendation and capsule review of a film in the festival.

Toby Dammit (ITALY: Frederico Fellini, 1968)

playing: Following the 7:30 PM Evening With Terence Stamp at the Castro Theatre, with no further screenings during the festival.
distribution: American International Pictures distributed Toby Dammit in this country in 1969, as part of the omnibus film Spirits of the Dead. Home Vision Entertainment released a DVD of the omnibus nearly ten years ago, and it's out of print. What's more, the print they transferred to disc was a French-dubbed one, lacking Stamp's voice on the soundtrack. Last year British company Arrow Films finally released Spirits of the Dead with the option to hear Stamp speaking his original dialogue in English. However this is a Blu-Ray only release. The opportunity to see a 35mm print of Toby Dammit, with the soundtrack Stamp prefers you hear, at a venue like the Castro, comes around approximately every 1.2 lifetimes.

An unspeakably arrogant actor named Toby Dammit travels from England to Rome to star in a pretentious-sounding Spaghetti Western based on the life of Jesus Christ. His producers drop names like Godard, Pasolini and Barthes as they pick him up from the airport and take him to vapid publicity events culminating in a garish Oscar-esque ceremony where he is to recieve an award and give a speech. Dammit, played by Terence Stamp, spends this entire film in an alcoholic stupor, barking about a Ferrari he's been promised as payment for his involvement in the picture, and beset by visions of a creepy little girl with a white ball, who signifies the Satan he's surely sold his soul to. It's a tremendous performance by a legendary actor, who will appear on stage before the screening for an extended conversation about this film and some of the many others of a career working with directors like Ken Loach, William Wyler, Steven Soderbergh, Peter Ustinov, Joseph Losey, Michael Cimino, Pier Paolo Pasolini (there's that name again!) and of course Frederico Fellini.

Loosely based on the story Never Bet the Devil Your Head by Edgar Allen Poe, Toby Dammit is Fellini at his most chillingly hostile towards his industry and perhaps towards humanity as a whole. Many of his films contain sequences that raise the goose-pimples, but this is the closest the iconic auteur ever came to filming a bona fide horror movie. Never before have Fellini-esque and Dante-esque seemed so synonymous; I'm reminded that the film that made the deepest imprint on the director as a child was Maciste In Hell when I contemplate the fire & brimstone colors he uses in the airport or the chthonian darknesses found later in the film. Yet Nino Rota's score is at its usual carnivalesque pitch, keeping the film from feeling too grim even if some of the images we're seeing are.

Vincent Canby read Toby Dammit as in fact a post-script to Fellini's La Dolce Vita, which will also be playing the festival this weekend, making up for its last-minute pulling from the festival 51 years after it was scheduled to open the fourth edition of SFIFF in 1960. Stamp's award and this Toby Dammit screening are something of a last-minute occurrence as well, having been announced only on opening day of this year's festival. Let's show that our city can pack the Castro for him on little over a week's notice; it's the least we can do after appreciating him in so many wonderful films over the years.

SFIFF54 Day 9
Another option: The City Below (GERMANY: Christoph Hochhäusler, 2010) When my good friend Ryland Walker Knight drops phrases of praise like "Resnais-like openness" and "tower of depravity" I listen.

Non-SFIFF-option for today: Royal Wedding at the Stanford Theatre. The Palo Alto venue opens a spectacular season of musicals today with this Stanley Donen film, paired with Vincente Minnelli's The Reluctant Debutante. Yes, I'm sure the pairing was picked to comment on the unavoidable hoopla of this past week. I can't say I've been intentionally following it, but I'm sure nothing that occurred was as elegant to see as Fred Astaire dancing on the walls and ceiling was in 1951, or is today, for that matter.

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