The moral of 1993’s Jurassic Park (“Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should”) bounces back in our faces with Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. This shameless fourth sequel of the reanimated-dinosaur franchise treats its replicant behemoths like children cruelly separated from parents and their native home, Isla Nublar. It’s hard to ignore political analogy when on-screen activists urge that dinos be cared for as part of Senate lawmakers’ global responsibility to relocate the needy refugees fleeing the threat of Isla Nublar’s erupting volcano. Cheap sentiment is everywhere these days.
Wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and park manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) represent humane activists; they’re the ASPCA for prehistoric creatures. This quasi-romantic team’s routine CGI action-movie rescue mission exposes the dastardly plans of villainous capitalists and clone-science zealots. New moral: Just because we can recognize opponents with different political and economic motivations doesn’t mean we should malign them.
The film’s subtitle is earned because punishment through explosions, chase scenes, carnivorous monsters, and shallow personality quirks is too distractingly mindless to give audiences the thoughtful, ethical reflection of mature art. Fallen Kingdom offers the perfect political allegory — and distraction — desired by conservatives who want to enjoy the same junk movies liberals do.
It’s a matter of sensibility, which (to amend Breitbart) is upstream from politics. The lack of complexity in the knockabout Jurassic series (minus Spielberg, who made the first two films to balance the seriousness of Schindler’s List and Amistad) now stops short of cultivating sensibility. It works only at the level of hopeless sensationalism, like Ready Player One, preventing viewers from understanding their own aesthetic nature and that of others.
For this reason, Luchino Visconti’s 1973 Ludwig, newly restored to its full 238-minute length (originally shown in the U.S. at 173 minutes), is of the essence. Its visual and intellectual opulence contrasts the insipid, special-effects-laden Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and provides a master’s lesson in sensibility.
Visconti, among the handful of cinema’s very greatest filmmakers, is up to the task of this huge theme.
Visconti’s subject, Ludwig II of Bavaria (who reigned from 1864 to 1886), was known as “The Mad King” for spending his personal revenue to realize his private dreams. Careless about politics and war, he sought “happiness in the unattainable, in what falls outside the rules.” An opera obsessive, Ludwig sacrificed his position through profligate patronage of Richard Wagner (Trevor Howard) and his scheming entourage, intently pursuing the sublime. It so happens that Ludwig’s indulgence, based in his own sexual and emotional impulses, produced castles that are monuments to the legacy of Western art and architecture. Visconti, among the handful of cinema’s very greatest filmmakers, is up to the task of this huge theme.
Ludwig’s legato dramatic rhythms reveal Visconti’s own mastery of staging operatic extravagance at La Scala. It’s an early, grander example of what video-game-based filmmakers such as James Cameron (Avatar) call “immersive.” Ludwig’s straightforward historical narrative works impressionistically, so that the life of royal protocol and ritual imposed upon Ludwig comes across visually; the paradoxes of privilege and confinement, folly and duty, are enthralling. It’s a true intellectual epic on the scale of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and in its way it surpasses Visconti’s highly praised The Leopard (about Italy’s Risorgimento) through its introspection — the filmmaker’s rich expression of his own sensibility as an aristocrat and artist with Marxist sympathies.
Visconti transcends the latter by empathizing with Ludwig’s eccentric aesthetic taste. Elegantly discreet, Visconti is also boldly honest about Ludwig’s personal sexual conflict (as in the king’s exquisitely fraught nighttime pickup of a nude soldier by a lake: “Take this cloak.”). Visconti’s intelligence is more sophisticated than contemporary sexual politics; he exposes the duplicity of Machiavellian statecraft that recognizes homosexuality yet still proves pernicious. Ludwig’s lack of interest in diplomacy affects his attraction to his cousin Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider), and his loyal military aide-de-camp Count Durckheim (Helmut Griem) counsels him to proceed “with great care.”
Not an exercise in “depravity or decadence,” as homosexuality used to be termed, Ludwig presents Visconti’s powerful understanding of how the complexities of individual desire oppose the political ruling order — political realism that even progressives still won’t own up to. (Ludwig uses flashbacks from “contemporary” interviews with doctors and diplomats — a strategy Warren Beatty callowly imitated in Reds, absent clarity and context. Cinematographer Armando Nanuzzi photographs the witnesses’ personalities so that some resemble Francis Bacon paintings.)
Visconti grasps Ludwig’s isolation, captured in Helmut Berger’s extraordinary title performance of childlike naïveté and stifled masculine ego. At his most passionate, his pale face and dark hair with wide, arching eyebrows are as beautifully intense as those of Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara. Yes, Ludwig’s lavishness, refinement, and complexity link to the most voluptuous historical epics: Von Stroheim’s The Wedding March, Sternberg’s Scarlet Empress, Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. Then, when Ludwig, overindulged and aged before his time, is arrested and institutionalized, he paces among the austere black-and-white décor of a confined room, listening to a tinny music box — politically imposed aesthetic deprivation. It’s as moving as John Wayne’s farewell to the military in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
Ludwig expands upon the existential poignance of The Magnificent Ambersons in the sequence where Romy Schneider’s awed Empress Elisabeth, sensing doom, walks through the extraordinary interior colonnaded corridors Ludwig commissioned. If you don’t understand why Visconti takes us on this mirrored, chandeliered tour (like Claudia Cardinale walking among huge genre paintings in The Leopard), then you don’t understand cinema — or the depth of the homage Visconti achieves.
The real-life fantasies Ludwig constructed in his privileged, alienated situation convey a man’s search for “a harmony of the soul.” Visconti accompanies Ludwig’s quest to fulfill the possibilities of imagination — he explores the resources of an individual human’s vision. Walt Disney understood it, too, modeling Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty castle on Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein castle, thus giving the mad king a longer-lasting mark on pop culture than the Jurassic Park series. Ludwig is a spectacle of broad history and private passion. Watch closely; it is a triumph of sensibility by a filmmaker with a gift that’s been called “voracious observation.”
Author’s note: Ludwig has begun a week-long engagement at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.