Sight & Sound-Off: #10 - '8&1/2' and 'Bicycle Thieves'

For the next ten weeks, we will discuss the films that made it onto the Sight & Sound 2012 Best Films of All Time List (Overall and Director). In this installment, a tale of two Italys...and two intriguing artistic approaches.

The Second World War devastated Europe. All throughout the continent, the loss of lives and the upheaval of everyday life turned a once prosperous land into a series of sad struggles. The Axis powers, more specifically Germany and Italy, were left in literal ruins, forced into defeat by their leadership and misplaced sense of sovereign superiority. Out of this almost apocalyptic atmosphere came one of the most important innovations in the history of film: neo-realism. Begun in response to the lack of support from a spent Italian government, filmmaker vowed to make movies that approached their subjects with authenticity, truth, and above all, passion.

A few short years later, another approach would take over, attempting to bridge the gap between the documentary like aesthetic of neo-realism with the eccentricities of France's New Wave. It wasn't an attempt to return to the days of big budgets and even bigger cinematic dreams, but there was a sense that the everyman wasn't necessarily interested in experiencing depressing stories about himself. Instead, the entire scope of the artform was open for reinterpretation and improvement, leading to an universal shift toward more serious, substantial subjects. By the time of the American's contemplative post-modern phase, both conceits were absorbed into the medium, making their impact felt from arthouses all the way to the mainstream.A

So there's a strange kind of celluloid synchronicity to the fact that the 2012 Sight & Sound Poll results for the Greatest Films of All Time house examples of both in the number ten slot (overall and directors). In this case, the filmmakers chose Vittorio De Sica's heartbreaking post-War manifesto, Bicycle Thieves, while the main collective awarded the slot to Federico Fellini's achingly autobiographical 8&1/2. The former is a somber story about a desperate man in desperate times. The latter also features someone at the end of their rope, though instead of poverty and punishment, our hero is an auteur dealing with the forces of fame, family, and females. De Sica exposed the rest of the world to Italy after Mussolini. Fellini found a way to showcase a similar meaningful chaos, though within a completely different and highly insular dynamic.

Today, Bicycles Thieves would probably be considered too maudlin and manipulative to warrant a regular audience attention span. De Sica's skill at incorporating the truth about Italy's status as a struggling ex-enemy is brilliantly underlined by the narrative's simplicity. All Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) wants is a way to provide for his family. A bicycle appears to be the sound solution. When it is stolen, the film becomes one failed attempt at recovery after another, De Sica showcasing the growing issues facing the defeated nation. Juxtaposed against the always hopeful face of our hero's buoyant son, Bicycle Thieves illustrates the best attributes of the neo-realism movement. It takes real life and turns it into something akin to art.

Fellini takes the opposite approach and yet achieves the same ends. His harried hero is a director named Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni). His problem is work as well, but in this case, it's a bad case of "artist's block" as he tries to finish a sci-fi film he is working on. A trip to a local resort appears to be the answer, though flashbacks, dreams, and surreal setpieces underline the man's major issues. From a marriage in freefall to a mistress who wants all his time, Guido is given over to fits of forced self-examination. Perhaps his problem isn't the press or the pressures of his position. Perhaps, the problem lies somewhere deep within. Of course, Fellini turns this test into a formidable flight of visual fancy.

8&1/2 is as far from neo-realism as said style was from the Hollywood fantasies that filled world theaters before the war. Yet both films share a similar sentiment. Each one provides a center where a single change could potentially prove uplifting. One merely wants a bike to make his living. The other wants to be inspired for a return back to his days of critical acceptance. Both are burdened and pray for the relief from same. Both also have outside influences and uncontrollable pitfalls in their path.

De Sica treats this as the tragedy it is. Fellini wants us to laugh at his jet setting celebrity, but there is a sadness in Guido as well. For all his wealth and notoriety has provided him, he's inert. He's stuck in a situation that he didn't make so much as made itself around him. Similarly, Antonio is trying to find a way through a post-war maze of selfishness and despair. He's willing. The rest of his community isn't In the end, it's not really a question of wanting. Both films are about need.

Individually, both films argue reasons for their S&S inclusion. De Sica's slice of life feels as vibrant and alive as a documentary. It's actually closer to stumbling upon some Italian home movies with a narrative attached. The acting is so natural and unforced (mostly by non-actors) that you can forgive any hint of blatant tear jerking. Fellini, on the other hand, has had eight previous stints behind the lens to legitimize his visual panache, and everything about 8&1/2 exemplifies this. It's stunning and subversive, shocking and just a hair hackneyed. Granted, when the film was first released, few examples of the filmmaker in free fall subgenre existed. Today, it seems like every wannabe auteur has their own trip through the trials and tribulations of the industry to harp on.

Oddly both films also stand as time capsules, each on illustrating their era expertly. De Sica turns the late '40s into a sea of desolation. Fellini finds mostly positives in his view of early '60s Italian society. Everyone in Thieves is barely scrapping by. In 8&1/2, success has resulted in a nicer backdrop and greater possibilities, but the problems remain. No one's life is immune from sorrow - not the rich and famous, not the truly down and out. For the characters in De Sica's film, it's more than that: it's a matter of life and death. Guido may not be facing the same individual threats, but he's just as joyless. While it's hard to discern which approach is more appropriate, what we wind up with is a pair of motion pictures which surpass their premises to mean something more - much more. Perhaps that's why they are so special. Clearly, it's why they made the S&S Top 10.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.