/ 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. [Actually, if I recognize the painting’s subject correctly, it’s not the breast of a nude woman so much as the breast of a nude (of course) goddess! She’s adopting the human hero: depicted is the ritual for adoption.] 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 starring 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?
Nights of Cabiria
2015 06 15, drafted @K. 2004 12 20: my draft on first seeing Cabiria got censored (censorship by-kill) before it got completed. I still haven’t completed it! but here’s what I’d drafted:
Every young man approaching age twenty-three was subject to the draft. Some guys accepted the right of a civilian draft board working in concert with the military to draft them. I didn’t. The school had drafted me when I was six or so, held me till I was eighteen. Then an orchestra of pressures pushed me into college. Now I had a year in which to despair that I’d be drafted into the army. One kind of Limbo replaces another. Was my life ever going to be my own? And if it were my own, what did I want to do? My body had finally succumbed to the hormonal rage to get laid. Individuals who can display themselves successfully in the meat market expend enormous sums of energy on the display, then on the act, then on trying to untangle the mess that inevitably follows.
Researchers have just discovered that healthy male crickets die much younger than malnourished males because they burn their energy in mating calls. Balzac wrote that a night of love cost four good pages of a novel. I wasn’t working on a novel, but I wanted to be free to if the urge struck me. Decide, Knatz: what kind of vain immortality do you want to pursue? Influence? Fame? Or children? Or do you just want sex for oblivion? like drinking?
Guess what folks: like many another young man, I wanted it all. Well, maybe not the children part, not yet anyway. I wanted to write something that would make people’s jaw drop (though I didn’t want any pressure on me to repeat, to do it again, and then again. How could I listen to jazz ten hours a day (and drink for ten, some hours overlapping) if someone was pushing me with deadlines, tempting me with money?
How could a society hit you in the face from childhood with a Bible that forbade killing (while telling stories of little else) with one hand and draft you into the military with another? Even if you became a chaplain’s assistant, or a medic, for two years, you would still be part of the machine that kills. One guy types the papers, another guy pulls the trigger: both are part of the same engine of destruction.
Some guys turn this mess toward what they see as their profit. They scramble around in the machine looking for advantage. They allow themselves to be trained as officers, they work with and for the machine: or they sell things war related: white or black market. I wanted to drink, to get laid, to listen to jazz, to have a great novel come to me. I wanted everyone to hear my brain waves: and reform. I wanted everyone to stop killing and to listen to Duke, Basie, Bird … instead. Or I wanted everyone to go to see La Strada: for the twelfth time.
Well, have I made a mess of that? Something of what I mean should come through — if anyone’s trying to listen, to read.
Here was the situation: I’d fucked up my graduation: late with a paper: as usual. (Why? I could have slapped something out on time: maybe done it better on time than late. Why did I have to be late? Prima donna? Because my mother was always late? Because my family revelled in lateness?) (Once ensconced in Cuernavaca, Ivan Illich would be precisely one hour late for appointments with Americans: to give them a Mexican sense of time.) …
My friend from college, Alan, had taken an apartment on Claremont Avenue, just behind Barnard. He knew I didn’t have a dime, knew I had no plans for making a dime. But he had a good allowance, his father a corporate lawyer. Alan invited me to be his roommate for free. I took it. Some girl Alan knew from Fieldston High School, Judy, would come around. She came into my room, told me that her shrink had suggested that she needed an affair: was I interested? Uh, sure. And I started that minute to fuck her brains out. No, pk, don’t get off into that: get to the movie.
Alan sticks his head in the door. Fellini’s Cabiria is playing at the New Yorker. Indeed, it’s playing with Black Orpheus. Are we interested?
Hmm. Black Orpheus is one of my favorite movies. In the couple of years since it had come out I’d seen it a half a dozen times. Fellini is one of my favorite movie makers. But that was based on La Strada. La Strada was so great, so poetic, so spiritual … so holy … Did I dare to see something else by him? Thus far, I’d resisted. Indeed, I had been told that his Nights of Cabiria was “just as good”. That was blasphemy! How could it possibly be? Telling me that was like saying that Jesus had a brother who was also a Messiah. Telling me that was like telling me that if I thought the Sermon on the Mount was great, I should have heard the sermon he gave by the sea.
2015 06 15 I now see a faith in one of something, and only one of something, as dovetailing with monotheism. The flaw may have been in me, but it was in the culture before it was in me. It’s a natural flaw.
pk lived in a finite universe. pk wasn’t at all sure he wanted his universe to be bigger.
That was one side of pk. Another side wanted all the information, all the experience, wanted to be scientific, reasonable. I looked at Judy. Judy looked at me. “OK,” we told Alan. And got ready to book.
We entered in time for the beginning of Black Orpheus. God, I love that movie. In fact I was so satisfied seeing it again, seeing Orpheus holding the dead Euridice fall off the cliff, the two corpses joining a flower in its gigantic symmetry, seeing the new Orpheus play the old Orpheus’s guitar to make the sun rise, that I was full, ready to go home, listen to Furtwangler do Beethoven, feel Judy heaving under me, trying to grind me against the ceiling with her hefting hips. But no: I’d finally take this occasion: see my second Fellini film.
More than two weeks have passed since I first made space for this narrative. As so often happens, the empty foundation lies here, no structure erected. Not knowing how far I’ll get this time either, I’d better outline:
Cabiria played. Cabiria concluded. I was too stunned to move. I couldn’t speak. I could barely walk. Judy and Alan and I emerged back out onto Broadway, sunlight smack in our eyes. Judy and Alan, themselves affected by the movie — I think Alan had already known it: Judy was our junior by a few years, less experienced, less exposed — maintained a few minutes silence. Then they started smiling, talking, getting on with the rest of our lives. I couldn’t join them. I was paralyzed. I didn’t want there to be any rest of my life until I’d swallowed Cabiria whole, digested it, committed every detail to long term memory, made sure no end unraveled.
This behavior on my part was neither social nor gallant. I realized that my friendships were unravelling in direct proportion to my efforts to keep Cabiria in its present skein in my mind. That was too bad: Cabiria, Fellini, was what I wanted for my life’s partner.
La Strada had etched itself into my permanent soul with its opening shots: dunes, a back bearing fire wood, a wretch doing the bearing. Then: Gelsomina, the idiot girl, her beach, her mother, their hovel, too many children. Then: Zampano (Anthony Quinn!), his Harley, his ownership of the mother’s children (having already bought Gelsomina’s sister in a previous year). Zampano’s sub-hamanity, his facile pragmatism: having it emphasized to him that Gelsomina was no scholar, Zampano just gruffs that he’s trained dogs.
So: with the first shots of Cabiria I was sure that I’d been right.
Robert Anton Wilson models the psyche as being comprised of the Thinker and the Prover. The Thinker thinks something, then the Prover proves it: no matter what balderdash the Thinker has thought. That’s why we need science: to check and correct the Thinker, teach him a little humility: to loosen the grip of the Prover: make him at least slightly acquainted with better proofs.
Cabiria (again the non-pareil Guilietta Masina) walks along a canal, now clinging to some guy, now pirouetting with girlish juices. See? The canal may be water; but it isn’t the ocean. The canal is civilized; the beach is elemental. La Strada jams male and female together like fire and water, like oil and match, like government and fascism; here was Cabiria matching female to male in a wholly more ordinary way: she loves him, he’s at least putting up with her …
Boy, was I wrong. Oh everything I thought was right: I just wasn’t letting Fellini get on with it. Yes, Cabiria brings Gelsomina closer to civilization. That’s good. The more elemental myth has already been accomplished. Now shut up and let him get more modern. If you’ll just sit still you’ll see the male brute aplenty.
I did. The guy grabs Cabiria’s money and pushes her into the canal.
The pimp takes 50% of the whore’s gross? 90%? 60%? 40%? This pimp takes 100%: and tries to kill the golden goose.
Cabiria gets out of the canal. Goes home to her miserable shack. In her misery, she embraces a chicken.
Good God! All my lights lit up. And I was 100% attention.
Something I didn’t weave in: but must account for: Nino Rota’s music. The very second that I heard Nino Rota’s music I should have realized. (Years later, going to see The Nights of Cabiria with Hilary at the Bleeker Street Cinema (I think it was playing that time with The Seven Samurai — Aye, caramba!), the seats were full. The management was holding the next crowd in the lobby while the current feature finished. Hilary and I move toward the vee neck formed by the staunchions and velvet-masked chains as the music track crescendo’d: but its very swelling hit me in the solar plexus: cum Proust’s la madeleine! There I was, wrapt in the movie’s climax as though I were inside the theater! having sat through the whole thing already! My eyes were squeezed shut, but the tears squirted through anyway. I was back in the New Yorker, sitting in the dark with Alan and Judy, a basket case.
Fortunately, Kurosawa rapidly put me in HIS place: with an opening very much like that of La Strada! a bundle of sticks on a wretch’s back launches the situation! mountains, forest and valley instead of dunes and surf: still, utterly elemental.
I gotta break again. The most important part is coming.
Independent of what will follow after my break: I wish someone who is in touch with Fellini would find this and show it to him — while he’s still functional.
Hey, Fellini … I’m the guy who was staring at you from the audience at the Casa Italiana around the time of the release of your Satyricon. The moron professor who introduced you didn’t even know who you were. And clearly, the bulk of the audience knew your name but not the spirit of your work. [I’ve described that encounter elsewhere. (Search.)] I was staring at you so hard. You scanned the audience, swept across my fix, stopped, came back, and we riveted: for a moment. Surely you can’t have forgotten.
I can’t know how you interpreted what you saw. I was trying to assimilate you whole. I can well imagine that it looked like threat: or more like your satyr in La Dolce Vita than like your figures regarding the angel on the beach in I Vitelloni. But I assure you that, however predatory I looked, what you saw was worship.
2005 08 31 It’s the still unsaid part of this sequence that speaks the loudest to me, but unless you know the film well, you’re not likely to guess much of it. So I’ve got to get to it, give others a chance. But something else prods me back here today: I only just realized that filmgoers of 1957 were expected to associate the name Cabiria with Giovanni Pastrone’s 1914 Cabiria. This film, which I’d never heard of also strongly influenced, DW Griffith, changed the course of the movie that became the incomparable Intolerance! and indeed the whole course of movies, the whole language of film.
Knowledge is always local. We never know all else it might connect to. In math, the contents of a parenthesis remains indefinitely ignorance of how many greater parentheses it’s contained within. Thus, judgments too are local.
2015 06 15 OK, it’s goddam past goddam time to say what I goddam meant:
Cabiria gets robbed by her pimp. Cabiria prays in a cathedral along with other whores. They forget their vows, forget their prayers, Cabiria wants to remember. But of course Carbiria falls in love with another predator. She sells her house, carries the cash, goes off with sleazeball: he grabs her purse, pushes her off the cliff: not quite. Screwed again, broke again, a life-time of whoring, klepted. Giulietta’s moon-face, the universe’s logo for grief, lights the dark lane. Revelers come by, signing. They smile at Cabiria, this odd creature on their road. Cabiria too smiles: Christianity in sum!
It’s better to have loved, and been screwed, than never to have loved.
Never mind the money. Never mind it being too late to learn.
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