/ Movies /
Jan and I watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura last night. L’Avventura has been one of the most important movies to me since the dawn of my adulthood. I want to discuss, comment on, the movie and my relation to it, and also to its relation to European and American culture in and around 1960.
- L’Avventura, the Film
Girl and a Gun
Godard said that to make a movie all you needed was “a girl and a gun”. Well, that’s all Godard needed. Antonioni got away with almost as little. But if you ever want to see a movie where pulcritude is its own justification, see L’Avventura! I can easily imagine Antonioni directing Monica Vitti:
Imagine your water just burst!
Imagine you’re Mary and Jesus just aborted!
Imagine you just realized you really hate your lover.
Antonioni got the most dynamic, mysterious, inscrutable expressions from his cast, the actresses especially: the rich, bored, beautiful, non-too-moral, fashionable, privileged female characters. What do these expressions “mean”? I don’t know. I don’t care to know. Just absorb them! While noticing: a lot of garments get tried on, then discarded. While meantime husbands, friends, jobs get discarded. Some opportunity for an affair intrudes everwhere.
But, isolated as these affluent manqué souls are, church bells get rung, and get answered.
One publicity surfer whore, when not attracting mobs of Sicilian men onthe street, stands by a painting of a bearded classical man sucking on the left breast of a nude woman. Men stare at her starring at it: she stares at the starring men.
Sandro thrown money between her ankles. Her movement fetching the bills northward toward her crotch immediately takes first place in the erotic squirming department.
What a range of facial expressions! What a diapason of pulchritudes! of psychological depths.
What do they mean?
It doesn’t matter! It’s about character, not a particular character.
It’s about culture: misunderstood by the culture’s participants: few revolutionaries understand that they’re revolutionaries: though Antonioni did!
But L’Avventura doesn’t begin with Monica Vitti; it begins with Lea Massari as Anna: and Antonioni has just said to Lea Massari, “Imagine your water just broke!” or “Imagine you’re about to be raped by Somali pirates.” Every woman in the film, every affluent, leisured woman that is, is almost the lead.
There’s a great deal I’ll want to say about this film. I’m likely to scribble for a while, months, years, before I’m ready to sort my comments as a proper essay. But so much of what I want to blurt first has to do with not the film so much as reactions to and against the film, to and against what this or that person said about it.
Never forget, schools train us, corporations train us, to pretend to objectivity; but experience is personal: JFK getting shot, the end of WWII, gas prices climbing past $3 … are always experienced as Where Was I When … JFK was shot?
Where was I when I first realized that nations were no holier than churches? …
- L’Avventura and pk
I saw L’Avventura in its first run at the Beekman, NYC, 1960. All I had known going in was that it was making a stir, stirred debate, disagreement. My respected classmate, trusted movie buff, Sam Rifler, was crazy about it.
I was thunder struck. Man, here’s “movies” changing, right under our nose!
My memory of my exit from the Beekman is vivid. I was so wrapped up in the after-experience I couldn’t do anything practical: I failed to wait at the #4 bus stop, I didn’t walk to the subway. I wandered out of the theater, 56th-or-so near 5th, and wandered all the way home: Morningside Heights, Columbia: around 116th. I remember pausing at the Guggenheim, 5th in the 80s, and staring at my favorite building, using it to make my mind blank, like medittaion, so I could concentrate on still receiving L’Avventura, broad-band.
- L’Avventura, pk, and the world:
Then and Since
L’Avventura was a big hit at Columbia that year.
Sam Rifler iterated, “Oh, Monica Vitti is so beautiful.”
Jim Zito was my favorite teacher at Columbia. A year after our class graduated I till sat in on his classes, would run into him around the quad. One day Jim saw me, approached, blushed, and said, “I’m so embarrassed: the New York Times published my letter in which I explained L’Avventura to Bosley Crowther.” (I’ve still never seen Zito’s letter: did Crowther get it? even with Zito’s verbal genius? I doubt it: Bosley was an institution that couldn’t be budged, seemed beyond learning.
Wow: I just found, and read, the Crowther review online. I found Zito’s obit, but not his op-ed letter. I’ll look further.
OK: but now I have to explain my title: why Neo-Commie-Ism?
Because right around then my great friend Alan, whose hosting of me free in his Claremont Avenue apartment allowed me to hang around the old campus, took up with a new girl, Maria Theresa: Italian, did’t speak a word of English. I heard Alan was with someone new, then I met her at a party: love at first sight! We stood in the middle of the crowded room. I said “Fellini!” She beamed, and nodded, with enthusiasm. I said “Antonioni!” and she practically broke her neck with her bobbing. I was ready to proclaim her a genius. But a week passed, I saw her at another party. But in that week Maria Theresa had picked up a little English. Now I said, “Rosselinni!” or “Olmi!” But now Maria Theresa rocked her neck No-No! Said, “Oh, no: he’s a fascist!” or “Oh, no, he’s so bourgeouis.” Gradually I realized that when looking at Fellini’s I Vitelloni, and the Franciscan-ish simpleton places the wooden angel in the sand on the beach, Maria Theresa wasn’t resonating with a basic universal spirituality that surpassed dogma; she thought the scenario radiated pure Marxist propaganda. That is to say, Maria Theresa liked it! It was right.
Marxist propaganda: good. Marxist propaganda: very good; all else: bad!
(Maria Theresa note) (I think Alan was using Maria Theresa to commit social suicide. Maybe at first he just wanted to get laid, but to stay with her long enough to get married and adopt a black son had to be something else. I haven’t spoken six kind words to Alan since, reflecting mutuality I’m sure, but our mutual friend, the guy who introduced us, back in 1956, visited Alan and Maria Theresa in Rome. Maria Theresa worked as a film editor, worked for some of those guys we’d been raving about. Anyway, trucked along is a black PhD candidate from UW, Madison. This guy says to Maria Theresa, “You excoriate the US for its treatment of blacks, but look how you Italians treat Sicilians!” Maria Theresa screams “No, no: it’s not the same thing at all. You see, in America blacks being called stupid, filthy, syphilitic thieves is social and economic oppression; but Sicilians really are stupid, filthy, syphilitic thieves!”)
Well, by 1961 I knew a little social context for Italian neoRealism, and for lots of other European film culture contexts. As mad as Joe McCarthy may have been when I was in the seventh or eighth grade, there really were Communists in the world. And as dishonest and naive as Americans were with talk of freedom being bandied about, by a Bush, and another Bush, for example, some kleptocracies really did honor some degrees of freedom in some contexts, while other kleptocracies didn’t. Stalin was always too busy breaking eggs to ever actually make an edible omelet.
More L’Avventura and pk
Lots of movies had and would continue to affect me. But L’Avventura is one of two, both seen around 1960, 1961, both Italian, that affected me way off normal scales. Above I tell of wandering home on foot, taking a long time to get there, L’Avventura eclipsing all else in my mind. A bit later, probably just a couple of months, Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria almost put me into a coma. I had heard of it but ever seen it. I was biased against it for the nitwit reason that I’d heard it was as good as Fellini’s La Strada. Well, that violated one of my deepest faiths, that La Strada was unique: nothing could possibly be “as” good. Well, Alan and Judy and I took the bus down to the New Yorker theater on Broadway at 88th Street.
I was totally blown away. I couldn’t adjust to being so wrong: Nights of Cabiria was (almost) as good as La Strada. But never mind that: I had to inscribe every detail of this movie under my skin, and every macro vision. I had to inject it into my DNA. I had to mate with, to become, this movie: while it was fresh in my mind. I stumbled out of the theater. I trudged past the bus stop. Alan and Judy allowed it, they followed. But before long Alan started to speak. “Wow”, or some such, he began. No, no: I clenched myself, input blocked, censored. No talk, please, don’t anyone say anything. Judy squeezed my hand, asked if I were all right. No, no, please, don’t anyone say anything. Judy would want to go with me into the bed room, she’d want me to make love to her first thing on arriving. No, no: I have to concentrate. I’m receiving a tattoo on my soul: and it’s very painful.
One incidental word about Judy: Judy was Alan’s friend from high school. But she was much younger. When inviting me to share his apartment Alan took the room in back for his bedroom, leaving me the room in front, the room with the great shoji screen divider he’d designed and built. I had more beauty, he had more privacy. Judy came to visit him now and again. One day she comes to visit me, says hi from the doorway, May I come in?
Judy paused two ticks, then told me that her shrink had suggested that she’d benefit from an affair. Oh? I’m still listening. Am I interested, she asks, then clarifies, “I mean”, she said, “Are you available?”
Nice. Convenient. But intrusive. It would be months more before I’d meet a woman where I got the chance to open the flirtation. Hell, I’m supposed to be the male!
I begged Judy to leave me be while I tried to digest something. She was very resentful. Hurt, whining. But we’d had no future anyway. Wasn’t Fellini’s fault.
Btw, I remind one and all: told elsewhere at K: I saw Fellini: at the Casa Italiana, Columbia, when Satyricon was just coming out. He stood by the lectern, serenely scanning the sea of faces in the audience. His eyes crossed mine. His were sweeping, mine were fixed: on him. He paused, took me in, nodded, and resumed scanning.
Was communication total? Instantaneous? Electric? Franciscan spiritual? Or did he think I was a terrorist?
I haven’t started to talk about the film as film, as new, as original yet, thought I’m laying foundation as well as enjoying digression, but there’s something autobiographical here I have to mention while I’m thinking of it:
When I saw L’Avventura, shortly before Jim Zito came up to me and confided his public triumph, the Times publishing his letter, putting him on the op-ed page, I, Zito’s junior, was never-the-less a young buck. I was at the height of my lifetime of arrogance. I hadn’t done anything to speak of yet, but I could feel it coming: soon, any time now. But take film, specifically. Several friends knew a lot more film than I knew; but I knew a lot more film than any amateur I’d ever heard of: except for those guys first mentioned. And I was learning day by week by month. Did I understand L’Avventura? the way Zito proclaimed for himself? condescending to “explain” it to the NYT most famous film critic? its veteran? its first chair? I don’t know. I didn’t know then. I don’t know now. But: one thing was clear to me: I was at the age of ripeness, ready for innovation, ready to innovate. If Antonioni had done something to humiliate the old bucks, we young bucks were ready to take over. We didn’t have to know what we were doing. All we needed was that divine arrogance. The idea! God making the world, looking at it, declaring it “good.” Young buck!
If I didn’t understand L’Avventura today, I’d understand it tomorrow. I’d match it tomorrow, I’d surpass it tomorrow!
It was mine! By right of generation! By right of enthusiasm, of ignorance.
I don’t want to write something worthy of the Bible; I want to write something better than the Bible. With me on the cross I’ll take it all a step further than Jesus did.
It was my right! Did I sit in the repertoire theaters? inthe first run international theaters? Wasn’t I paying my dues?
Didn’t I get drunk in the Whitehorse Tavern and yack and yack about Truffaut? about La Dolce Vita? Didn’t the other drunks say I was an artist?
more comin, and more