The misunderstanding of authorship and the new algorithmic filmographies are leading the public to an increasingly superficial and induced approach to cinema and seriality. A box office floplike the one that overwhelmed Amsterdam, the new film by David O. Russell – available on Disney+ from December 28, after a fleeting passage in Italian cinemas last October – records nothing more and nothing less than the lack of connection between product and audience, as regularly happens since the birth of Hollywood. It happens to good films, bad films, films ahead of their time, outdated films, badly distributed films: in short, it happens.
Beyond the lack of box-office revenue, this “case” however has been accompanied by a quantity of criticisms that seem to suggest a general lack of cinematic enjoyment capacity. «Huge gaps between lines», wrote the critic of the “Times”; «A non-thrilling thriller and a not particularly mysterious mystery», reiterated that of the “Wall Street Journal”; and again, in the “Chicago Tribune”: «The film seems to be moving sideways, or skipping like a needle on an old LP».
The usual cinema of the Golden age of Hollywood, classic cinema, much studied and little seen. Among the names interviewed in Who made that movie?the tomon of Peter Bogdanovich which collects his conversations with some of the most important directors of American cinema, Howard Hawks is one of the most outspoken in portraying himself more as a tradesman than an artist. “We were discussing who killed so-and-so – Hawks tells Bogdanovich about The Big Sleep – and we couldn’t come to a conclusion, so we wired Raymond Chandler. In the reply telegram, he gave us a name. We wrote to him “But it couldn’t have been him: at that moment he was on the beach”. By making this film I actually realized that there is no need to explain things. You know, you do good scenes, you make a good film, it doesn’t matter if the story goes well or not».
Russell’s film, one of the most overrated directors in contemporary American cinema, fits perfectly into this double trend: on the one hand, the mystery of classical matrix, on the other hand that cinema in which there is nothing to understand, but enough to enjoy. He does it with a story that he quotes Casablanca (Paris becomes Amsterdam) and the hard boiled 40s (starting with Chandler, in fact), plays with historical reality between conspiracies and conspiracy theorists (from Sinclair Lewis to It’s not possible hereup to the more recent Thomas Pynchon), embellishing everything with a cast all star (no Jennifer Lawrence among Russell’s loyalists, but Robert De Niro is back): after all, the postmodern is the new classic. Russell succeeds in this operation without getting lost in the cage of “nostalgia”, in that of parody, homage or unbridled citationism for its own sake, fashion, mannerisms.
Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) is an American doctor, a battered veteran of the Great War. With Harold Woodman (John David Washington) at the front he had a bad time, but Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), a nurse with an artistic nature, takes care of getting them back on their feet, the three together flee to Amsterdam. Love breaks out between Harold and Vivan, Burt watches. The three live in a bubble in which a breeze of carefree madness blows. When Valerie mysteriously disappears into thin air everything ends, she plunges back into reality, the two cronies return to the United States, with a baggage of ghosts in tow.
Years go by. Burt – who in the meantime has started a medical practice for veterans – Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift) is assigned to perform an autopsy on the corpse of her father, an important former general who died under suspicious circumstances. The young woman is frightened, she feels hunted. Murders, chases and twists follow, but without haste, with blissful calm. Burt and Harold thus find themselves, despite themselves, at the center of an intrigue on which the fate of the country will depend and which will lead them to mend the threads of their past.
Conditioned by a vision polluted by recent trends in audiovisual entertainment (Netflix and Marvel, increasingly oriented towards the practices of mind game moviefrom dark to Wanda Vision), and by directors such as Nolan or the Wachowski sisters who put their own into it, the spectator feels constantly challenged, called into question. He will never understand what happens, but he is placed in a (false) condition of participation. They are trap products. The next horizon foresees (even!) direct interaction: after a first experiment with Bandersnatchthe episode of Black Mirror multiple choice, a non-linear TV series is coming to Netflix again, kaleidoscopewhere it’s up to the viewer to choose the order in which to watch the episodes.
In this panorama of puzzle games and quantum universes, a movie like Amsterdam it can appear as an obsolete, humble object, so elementary as to short-circuit the spectator who is well prepared for the enigma but unaccustomed to the pleasure of viewing. On the contrary, David O. Russell signs his best directorial effort: honest and personal, imaginative and exuberant, but without going overboard into ramshackle territories as has already happened previously (The ♥ Huckabees).
Russell stages a particularly eventful reconstruction of the so-called Business Plots: in the early days of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first presidential term, behind the scenes of power some particularly influential wealthy industrialists tried to exploit the anger of war veterans for a coup, with the support of the Nazis. The plan had General Smedley Butler as the new fictitious president under their orders, but Butler testifies to a US Congressional Committee of Inquiry exposing this plot. All film writing, a mystery drama loosely anchored in historical reality, is filtered through the lens of comedy. A classic approach, to be precise: «Things like this cannot be taken too seriously. You also have to have some fun», Hawks always said about the Big Sleep.
By and large Amsterdam manages to be a film as committed (politically) as relaxing to the vision, again in the wake of the classics (We want to live! by Ernst Lubitsch). There are caricatured characters – madly romantic, brazenly arrogant, heroically indomitable, blissfully impudent – joyful, luminous moments of directing, which accompany a screenplay with an outdated flavour. At the center, as always, the outsidersthe director’s favorite protagonists (The positive side), who despite having to fight to stay afloat in a particularly cruel world manage to transform (on the screen) anger and frustration into light and cathartic music. The lens of comedy gives a poetic, light tone to the human events of the protagonists and the contexts from which they come (from which they escape and from which they keep returning) without ever ridiculing the pain of war, loss and love.
We can look for “plot holes”, analyze the photography (by three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki), take a history lesson to find out where reality and fiction intersect and where they don’t: Amsterdam above all, it’s a film that works, the old-fashioned way. It’s worth going back to quoting Howard Hawks, who remembers how on Susanna! rivers of ink have been written, psychoanalytical, socio-anthropological, philosophical interpretations and so on: «What was he thinking while he was shooting it?». «Nothing. I thought he was funny.”