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LIST CANDIDATE: AND THE SHIP SAILS ON (1983)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Barbara Jefford

PLOT: Loaded with distinguished guests, a transatlantic luxury liner sets off at the dawn of WWI to bury the ashes of a deceased opera diva on the island where she was born.

Still from And the Ships Sails On (1983)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: It may not be top-tier Fellini, but middle-tier Fellini still sails past most of the competition—at least, when the director sticks to his odder impulses and remembers to pack a pachyderm in his hold.

COMMENTS: As befits the film’s 1914 setting, And the Ship Sails On starts out as a silent film, showing a crowd of onlookers watching celebrities arriving to board a luxury liner, complete with slapstick pratfalls for the amusement of the children. The only soundtrack is the quiet whirring of a projector. Then, sparse background noises slowly creep into the sound mix, followed by the introduction of a piano score and sparse formal dialogue. The black and white fades into color, and in about ten minutes we move from what could have been vintage newsreel footage into a full-fledged late Fellini movie.

Besides the revered ashes of incomparable soprano Edmea Tetua, various musical dignitaries and well-wishers board the funeral ship, including Ildebranda, a diva whose insecurities are exposed by the praise lavished on a deceased woman whose fame she will never attain; and a trio of elderly choirmasters; an English aristocrat and his insatiable wife; a portly, baby-faced Prussian Grand Duke and his scheming retinue; a homosexual; a mysterious young beauty; a rhinoceros; and a dozen-plus others. They are all introduced and commented on by Orlando, a journalist who’s documenting the voyage and who often speaks directly to the audience. Later on, rafts of Serbian refugees fleeing the onset of World War I will board to swell the onboard throng. Along the way, the passengers will play a wineglass symphonetta, stage an impromptu vocal competition in the boiler room, attend a seance, and (temporarily) face down an Austro-Hungarian battleship (or, at least, a Hasbro model of a warship).

The Fellini film And the Ship Sails On most resembles is Amarcord, in its choice to focus on a community instead of a central character and on a collection of vignettes instead of a single story. Unlike the classic of the previous decade, this one is not anchored by the director’s nostalgia and love for his subject. The destination is fixed—the passengers will eventually end up spreading Edmea Tetua’s ashes into the Mediterranean—but seldom has a journey seemed so aimless; it’s a road trip movie without a road. It may be Fellini’s last “great” movie, and at the very least his last epic; but in many ways, it feels like the work of a young artist, playing promiscuously with different styles and ideas like he’s just trying things out, still figuring out what works. Sets and psychologies both change from realistic and detailed to artificial caricatures, and Fellini drops in postmodern distancing bits, like a character who remarks, “How marvelous! It looks fake!” while gazing at an obvious matte sunset. Maybe the maestro is just being playful as old age approaches; this is a movie whose takeaway point, after all, is praise for the salubrious properties of rhino milk.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“At its best moments ‘And the Ship Sails On’ floats serenely above the realities of ordinary movies – not to deny the validity of those realities but to expand the imagination.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (1973)

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DIRECTED BY: James MacTaggart

FEATURING: Sarah Sutton, Brenda Bruce, June Taylor, Judy Parfitt, , Geoffrey Bayldon, Richard Pearson, Raymond Mason, Anthony Collin, Douglas Milvain

PLOT: On a boring, snowy afternoon, young Alice discovers that she can walk right through the large mirror over her fireplace; there, she finds herself in a parallel universe, competing in a life-size chess game ruled over by the Red and White Queens, and meeting such strange characters as Humpty Dumpty, the White Knight, and the twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Still from Alice Through the Looking Glass (1973)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Even though this is actually one of the better film or television adaptations of the “Alice” books, it’s extremely low budget and bare-bones, shot-on-videotape look prevents the visuals from getting as wild or fantastical as they might be.

COMMENTS: Although most filmed versions of Lewis Carroll’s novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) include elements of his sequel “Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There” (1871), this production is one of just three or four adaptations of the second book standing alone. Some consider “Through the Looking Glass” to be the better of the two “Alice” tales, being simultaneously stranger and more sentimental than its predecessor. Aired by the BBC on Christmas Day 1973, this trip through the mirror really looks like a 40-year-old television show; that is to say, the budget is rock bottom. The lack of fancy special effects means that this is basically all (brilliant) dialogue all the time, which may strike some as boring. For those who have read the novel, however, this is actually one of the few adaptations that is genuinely amusing (at least in fits and starts), as opposed to just odd. During the sequence depicting the “Jabberwocky” monster, for instance, the combination of threadbare effects (the monster resembles a sock puppet) and gesticulating, posing actors, renders the silliness almost -esque, which seems to have been intentional. The lack of big name actors also makes this version somewhat unusual, since most other “Alice” productions are chock-full of luminaries (the biggest names here did their notable work later, Red Queen Judy Parfitt in 1995’s Dolores Claiborne and Humpty Dumpty Freddie Jones in ‘s The Elephant Man and Dune). The performers (including future “Doctor Who” sidekick Sarah Sutton, who looks about eleven years old here) stand in front of primitive blue screen backgrounds that resemble John Tenniel’s original book illustrations, and generally have a fine old time, particularly Jones, who is basically just playing a giant head. This is also the only “Looking Glass” I’ve seen where the White King (Richard Pearson) is more memorable than the White Queen (Brenda Bruce). The droll performances, including Geoffrey Bayldon’s unexpectedly acerbic White Knight, almost make up for the shoestring production values in this 74-minute program (not 66 minutes, as it says on the box). There are flaws to be sure: the calamitous dinner party finale is nowhere near as crazy as its counterpart in Hollywood’s 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland, for example.  But although this production is unlikely to please the kids, it’s a surprisingly pleasant experience for oldsters who’ve been raised on the original books.

Since this is a DVD of a little-known television program, the disc has no extras and is presented in mono sound. The image, while a little soft, looks presentable enough for a video that has probably been sitting in the BBC vaults for four decades.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Very free and dreamlike at times… . The pacing is strange, but then, so is the story being told so somehow that seems appropriate even if in some ways it does hurt the movie. All in all, as dated as it is and as stagey as it is, this is worth tracking down simply because it’s quite an effective take on the book and one that treats the subject matter seriously and without the need for parody of or modernizing of the original text.”–Ian Jane, DVD Talk (DVD)