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Knight at the Movies: Conversation Piece; Madonna: Truth or Dare; Shame
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2012-04-04

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Michael Fassbender in Shame. Still by Abbot Genser


The DVD/Blu-ray releases this week and next of Visconti's Conversation Piece, Alek Keshishian's Madonna: Truth or Dare concert film and director Steve McQueen's Shame offer prime examples of objectification, the movies' most primal appeal.

Subject matter and genre aside, the enduring allure of each of these movies begins and ends with its stars. And what a line-up of beauties to dream and fantasize about—Silvana Mangano, Helmut Berger, Madonna, Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan—reason enough to revisit this trio of films. Stunning looks aside, each film has additional compensations as well.

By 1974, when renowned Italian director Luchino Visconti began work on Conversation Piece, his penultimate film, his energy and creativity were quickly ebbing. Further burdened with a debilitating stroke, the director was still determined to continue working. According to the essay by Mark Reynolds in the lavishly illustrated booklet included in the restored Blu-ray release of the film, the answer for Visconti was a project much smaller in scale than one of his famed epics like The Damned or The Leopard.

The interior, apartment set storyline of Conversation Piece—in which a family of jet setters interrupt and shake up the hermetic lifestyle of Burt Lancaster as a stodgy, bookish art collector and historian—fit the bill perfectly. Visconti's scenario also supplied his real-life lover, Helmut Berger, with another juicy part—that of the petulant, swaggering kept boy/man of Mangano as well as the sexual paramour of both her son and daughter and the object of fascination for the professor.

The movie suggests that the professor is the surrogate father to Berger's sybaritic character, Konrad but the more potent scenario is closer to what Visconti and the eerily gorgeous Berger shared in real life. No matter how you view the relationship between the two, the film has aged a lot better than the bad reviews and scant audiences that greeted Conversation Piece upon its release would have imagined. Flawed and misshapen as the movie remains (the set-up is downright laughable and the acting is of the scenery-chewing variety in too many sections), it's also clearly the work of a master of the camera—albeit one in his autumn years.

Madonna: Truth or Dare, released in 1991, has also held up and remains a compelling record of the apogee of the Material Girl's music career. (Dick Tracy, released as Truth or Dare was being made, is the apex of her feature-film career.) This chronicle of the singer's Blond Ambition tour—mixing black-and-white, behind-the-scenes footage offsetting Technicolor-lensed highlights of the expertly contrived stage show—offers a lively portrait of the multifaceted entertainer. She's alternately the hard-as-nails, determined, remarkably astute show-business professional; the bratty, narcissistic, demanding diva; and the vulnerable loner who seems only to connect to her past when it services her present—and the movie, for the most part, is enormously entertaining.

In its nearly complete manipulation of the audience (Madonna, no surprise, produced and paid for the film), Truth or Dare is a complete sham. (The surest sign of this comes early in the "documentary," when Madonna's one refusal to allow the camera to film her is when she's about to take a business meeting.) In presenting an "honest," unvarnished portrait of herself, Madonna gives her one great performance in a movie. Musing at length in front of the camera, alone in various lavish hotel suites or kibitzing with famous celebrity pals as the tour moves from Japan to America to Europe, the singer-cum-actress is a bawdy, quick-witted, diminutive dynamo who imagines herself as the misplaced mother of her gathered back-up singers, band of gay dancers (with the exception of one tiresome homophobe who is given way too much screen time) and personal attendants (which, at the time, included her gay brother, Christopher, with whom she is now famously estranged).

The movie captures Madonna at the peak of her manufactured beauty and the film crackles with the combined force of that beauty and her hardened but very enticing personality. The film captures her at the moment she was about to reinvent herself again, morphing from the queer community's go-to hit machine into the world's push-the-envelope sex goddess to the refined British Lady, settled down into motherhood and domestic bliss (temporarily, as it turned out). Twenty years later, she's back working the dance floor from whence she came but as Truth or Dare clearly points out, the triumphs of the past, even the manufactured ones, can never really be recaptured.

Finally, there is Shame, director Steve McQueen's 2011 treatise on the dangers of sexual addiction in which the audience is alternately turned on by the brooding, handsome Michael Fassbender and his full-frontal nudity, and caught up in the sick-to-the-soul weariness of his character. I'm a huge fan of Fassbender's risk-taking performance and the film itself (which includes a devastatingly good turn by Carey Mulligan as Fassbender's messed-up sister), although the movie's subconscious moralizing about Fassbender's character straying into the "shocking" world of gay sex is something to be decried and called out. However, when it comes to objectification at the movies, thanks to Fassbender's naked bravado, Shame certainly set a new standard in mainstream cinema (in queer cinema, it must be pointed out, not so much).

Film note:

—Reports are not good on the darkening effect that transferring Titanic to 3D has had on James Cameron's 1997 epic, but this version hasn't been screened for the majority of film critics so I can't report on the rumors' veracity. As regular readers of this column know, however, I'm generally not a fan of the 3D process, which I consider nothing more than an attempt by the studios to revive what was a gimmick the first time around in the '50s and which I contend will inevitably wind up a two-time faddish loser. But sentimental softie that I am, the chance to see Cameron's epic mash-up of the fictional, doomed romance—with his epic, jaw-dropping, thrillingly detailed recreation of the tragic liner's maiden and final voyage—might be just enough to lure me back into theatres.

Certainly, there are worse ways to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the tragedy and if it will make my husband happy to take the voyage again; swoon over the beauty of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet (not to mention Billy Zane as her villainous fiancée); revel in the sass of Kathy Bates as the unsinkable Molly Brown and the late, great Gloria Stuart as the spellbinding storyteller who sets the plot in motion; and shed a few tears at the powerful fade-out as Celine Dion belts out the trillion-selling ballad over the end credits, who am I to deny him?

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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