Yesterday, Italian film producer (I think you could almost call him a film mogul) Dino De Laurentiis died aged 91 and depressingly I had to find out from a tiny article in my crappy local newspaper. There was no mention at all in the daily and weekly cultural TV programmes I watched today, which is kind of depressing.
The mini-article in the newspaper only mentioned De Laurentiis’ involvement in the Italian neo-realism movement and the fact that he produced classics such as Bitter Rice or La Strada. I’ve seen both as a teenager during my budding cineasm phase and only remember them as films about shouty Italian macho men treating women like crap. Perhaps I would be able to appreciate them better today.
But I mainly remember Dino De Laurentiis as the producer of SFF films such as Barbarella, Conan, the 1980 Flash Gordon, the 1976 King Kong and the David Lynch adaption of Dune. I saw most of those films for the first time as a teenager, too, around the same time I saw Bitter Rice and La Strada. In fact, my cineastic period was a direct result of SFF fandom.
As a teenager, I was very shy about my fascination with science fiction (because girls weren’t supposed to like “that stuff”), yet always on the look-out for ways to feed my SF addiction, while still remaining respectable. Enter De Slegte, a wonderful Dutch chain of used book stores. My Dad was working in the Netherlands at the time, so I spent almost all of my holidays between the ages of 11 and 16 in Rotterdam, roaming the city and hanging out in bookstores. Bookstores were great, because they had comics, which I wasn’t supposed to read, because they supposedly harmed kids’ reading skills. I eventually figured out that I could get around that by reading comics in a language other than German and passing them off as “language learning”. Bookstores also had SF books, but most of them were in Dutch, and while my Dutch was just sufficient for comics, it wasn’t enough for books.
De Slegte, however, that wonderful used book chain, had a huge store in Rotterdam which had not only comics but also a big department of coffeetable type art and design books, which I loved. They also had a cinema section with more coffeetable books on movies, including some on SF movies, all of which were in English. And they had a pile of Starlog backissues, all for prices that while not exactly cheap were still affordable enough for the saved up pocket money of a 15-year-old. So I would browse the film books and look at the pretty pictures of all of those fascinating SF films, many of which I had never even heard of. But it wasn’t enough to just look, I wanted to own those books, to be able to look at them at home and write down the names of the films in question. And I figured out, since they weren’t actually SF books, but books about films, I could buy them. In fact, I had a lengthy chain of justifications laid out, which basically meant that I needed to buy ever more books to make sense of other books, and that I wasn’t really interested in SF at all nor in films, not really, but needed all that to make sense of some art books on collectibles (oddly enough I was not ashamed of my interest in antiques) which included movie memorabilia. This elaborate code was so evolved that I even used it in my private diaries of the period. Never mind that my parents didn’t really care what I was reading, as long as it wasn’t comics or at least not Mickey Mouse comics.
Anyway, I got my film books, I read the sections on SFF movies some three hundred thousand times until I knew them by heart (I can still find any snippet of info or quote I need in those books some twenty years later without breaking a sweat). And eventually, when reading the bits about the Star Wars films and the entire chapter on SF films got too much, I branched out and read the rest of the books and learned a lot about film in the process. Since I now had a lot of knowledge about films, I naturally got curious and started watching whatever classic mentioned in my books showed up on late night TV (we didn’t have a VCR in the 1980s, because my parents believed renting movies was a waste of money). It was also a great excuse to watch SF films, any SF films, because after all I just needed to watch those films, because I had read about them. I found a lot of films I enjoyed, found whole genres and styles that I didn’t enjoy and developed Cora’s theory of cinema, which significantly clashes with most official theories of cinema. I also decided I wanted to be a film director, a career I pursued well into my early twenties.
Naturally, I didn’t take long until I came across Dino De Laurentiis. And naturally, I came across him in the SFF sections first. My books mainly covered Hollywood films, because at the time I believed that if it wasn’t from Hollywood, it wasn’t worth watching. So while I vaguely knew about Italian neo-realism, I wasn’t overly interested, though I did love (and still do) Italian sandal epics. If I noticed Dino De Laurentiis’ name in the credits of Bitter Rice or La Strada (and I likely did, because I always paid attention to credits), I probably thought, “Boy, he sure has come a long way from that stuff to Flash Gordon and King Kong and Dune.”
To be honest, I knew even back then that De Laurentiis’ SF and fantasy oevre wasn’t particularly good. For starters, my books told me so, and besides I had eyes. Even as a teenager, I preferred the 1930s originals of Flash Gordon and King Kong to the De Laurentiis versions of the 1970s and 1980s. I didn’t much care for Conan, mainly liked Barbarella for the groovy 1960s clothes, though I still have a soft spot for David Lynch’s Dune. However, those films were fun and more importantly, they were SF. As for Mr De Laurentiis, here was a guy who once used to produce important and artistic films about shouty Italian macho men and then went to Hollywood to produce SF films. And according to one of my beloved film books, he produced King Kong as a gift to his daughter. How could you not love a guy like that?
Comparing obituaries of De Laurentiis from mainstream and genre news outlets pretty much gives the same picture. The Guardian obituary focusses on his contributions to Italian postwar cinema, while the Tor.com obituary focusses on his contributions to SFF cinema.
So rest in peace, Dino De Laurentiis, who once produced arty films about shouty Italian macho men and left all that behind to go to Hollywood and produce not so great but fun SFF films.