"Under The Tuscan Sun"
Director: Audrey Wells
Elizabeth Block

San Francisco has long offered Hollywood classical and magical movie locations. It is also a city where experimental and independent filmmaking, film festivals, and all around cinephilia thrive(s). As an “experimental” filmmaker, I routinely sit in dark theaters, genuflecting to the projected light. But after watching many failed or less than fulfilling art house or alternative films that assume because they exist outside of the mainstream they are better than Hollywood movies, I often reexamine the value and even the urgency of the Hollywood B movie. I believe in alternative filmmaking, yet I’m equally uneasy writing off Hollywood. Perhaps if it were the 1980s or even the 1990s, the Hollywood B movie, might fall on my deaf ears. We reside in the early twentieth century—and no rocket science observation—these are profoundly difficult American times. While I’m not easy about grading a studio system movie (let alone grading students), I use the term Hollywood B movie, more as a marker of a film that would evade DVD release in the international classic distributor, the Criterion Collection. Neither do I believe an Academy award or nomination film automatically deserves an A rating.

Perhaps most appealing about the Hollywood B movie, and in particular the romantic comedy genre, is its ability to give a viewer a brief forget-about-everything-for-a little-while vacation from a destroyed economy, a “post-war” that feels more like renewed colonialism, a government daily whittling away constitutional rights, an increasingly under-insured work force, and egregiously reduced arts funding. I preach a little, but not aimlessly. These circumstances beckon me into the movie theater to see a work I might usually resist.

Under the Tuscan Sun, sheer 2-hour escapism under any circumstances, becomes seductive as both a desperately needed holiday from American patriotism and patriotic Hollywood, and a delightful stereotype of San Franciscan counter-mainstream American demographics. Based on the book by poet turned best selling memoirist, Frances Mayes, the story recalls what transpires after Mayes’ divorce cum writer’s blocked San Francisco existence that finds renewal on a trip to Tuscany. On her vacation, Mayes (played by Diane Lane) takes the money from her divorce settlement, and buys and renovates a broken down home in Tuscany—the home being the story’s obvious metaphor for her life.

Though Frances Mayes is a straight divorcee, eagerly looking for love in all the wrong places, her Tuscan home—like her San Franciscan non-biological family—resists old-fashioned family values, in favor of expatriate communing and Asian lesbian parenting. Of course, we expect these views from a San Francisco poet and from a San Francisco native writer/director of the film, Audrey Wells.

There is nothing new under the sun of Under the Tuscan Sun. It is formulaic with a touch of post-Ellen Degeneres hip. It is full of full-bodied classical allegorical love storytelling (And what’s not to love about love?). The Tuscan earth takes the breath away, like a stock photographic landscape downloaded as a screensaver. It is every lonely romantic’s Sunday afternoon cuddle.

In Hollywood, a market formula rarely refracts through the 35 mm camera lens of a women writer/director. In the Hollywood romantic comedy genre we have come to recognize as predominantly Nora Ephron territory, Wells offers a Hollywood-style alternative to the mainstream white woman’s journey to happily ever after. Wells perhaps identifies with her well-educated, frustrated writer protagonist. Diane Lane, who plays Frances Mayes, carries what might easily be a traditionally unappealing writer-character into the realm of adorable. Of course, we could wage a serious class critique of the affluent white woman writer—we have written this battle against Virginia Woolf—and the luxury of being able to choose to leave America. We could easily go there and say the film smacks of paternalistic liberalism.

But really, a fleeing America idea seems so worth exploring at this moment in history. The idea of choosing a seemingly idyllic Italian countryside that has learned its lessons of fascism (complete with weathered Federico Fellini actress played by Lindsay Duncan). Such a delightful contrast against American obsession with war and technological profit proves unexpectedly profound for a nice little romantic comedy. In some way fulfilling her desire to make films that “change the world,” Audrey Wells, by way of Frances Mayes, provides a necessary post-present American expatriate dream temptation. Am I stretching my interpretations?

-- Elizabeth Block

Elizabeth Block is a writer/filmmaker who recently completed her first novel, A Gesture Through Time. She has received numerous awards for her writing, and recently exhibited her 16 mm film at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in San Francisco. She is currently writing a screenplay.

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Copyright Web del Sol, 2003

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