“Looking out, he did not have any definite thought but rather a confused tangle of thoughts; and one sentiment occupied his mind overwhelming any other: the full and lively reawakening of his old love of Rome, for sweetest Rome, for immense august unique Rome, for the city of cities, the one that is always young and always new and always mysterious, like the sea” (210).
– Gabrielle D’Annunzio, Il piacere
The Opening Five
After writing/directing a paean to Jewish neuroticism, suffering and retribution; in This Must be the Place (2011)[i], where Sean Penn plays an overtly sensitive glam rock Nazi hunter, Paolo Sorrentino goes much more askew from the politically-correct-beaten-path in La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty 2014). The extent of what we will call his ‘reactionary subterfuge’ is likely unbeknownst to most, and only perceptible beyond the mere surface level visual brilliance of this carefully crafted film. Indeed, in creating this work Sorrentino accomplishes nothing less than the construction of a reactionary masterpiece. Many critiques of the film simply gloss-over the message; some miss it completely, those of a liberal inclination applaud the portrayal of the existential nakedness of the human condition; skillfully traversing the implications that could be drawn from its reactionary message, obscuring it into their own petty intellectual onanism, while few others are much nearer the mark. The film accomplishes its reactionary message through the technique of juxtaposition:
“Moreover, the same split of high or standard speech and vernacular reflects the multiple dichotomies informing the film: the music (church music and techno or pop music), the characters (cultured and ignorant, young and old, upper-class and lower-class), interior design (the décor of the aristocratic palaces and the contemporary furniture of the rich and trendy), art (Renaissance paintings and Roman statues vs. performance art and action-painting), camerawork (the sweeping tracking and panning shots interspersed with jittery montage sequences). One is tempted to read the juxtaposition of these contrasting images and sounds as a technique that emphasizes – not so subtly – the beauty of all that is “old”, and casts a negative light, or even ridicule, on all that is “new”, seemingly purporting a conservative authorial discourse (one of the recurring critiques directed at Sorrentino’s cinema in Italy). In fact, the contiguity of opposites, with its implicit openness, its moral and aesthetic challenges, is what makes the film a powerful, emotionally and intellectually stimulating cinematic experience. It does not want to provide definite answers or role models, and cannot be labelled ‘political’ in the revived tradition of a specific socially-committed genre, but it strikes at the heart of a culture that needs to look at itself in the mirror as the necessary premise for change.”[ii]
Indeed it is in the contrasts, the sharp juxtaposition, of the old sacred Traditional world and the profaned secular postmodern one that the film finds its reactionary meditation – ‘purporting a reactionary authorial discourse.’ The opening scene lays it on thinly to be later applied in blotches. A.N. Whitehead characterized the European philosophical tradition as a “series of footnotes to Plato,” and to examine the opening five minutes of the film is to understand the message of the work in its entirety; the remaining two hours plus are but a drawing out of the opening five minutes. By putting pressure on this opening scene, more so than any other review, we can ascertain more of the film’s reactionary message which is set against the modern world.
The story of Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty is told through the existential crisis of Jeb Gambardella (Toni Servillo). Jeb is a cultural journalist, who makes his way through snobbish high society, critiquing it, while firmly being a part of it[iii] – once upon a time showing greater promise in his sole book. Jeb, shares the city of Rome’s birthday, and in many respects is the contemporary personification of the Eternal City itself; as an old man, some undying homage to a past glory; vainly stimulated by the society of the spectacle and insipid decadence that surrounds him. Our protagonist is a bemused ineffectual intellectual, whose own vanity and superficiality (paying for Botox for example) outstrip his critiques of modern art and the Catholic Church; both dead horses. In this way Jep fits nicely into the leftist milieu as a cultural hero of their own fashioning, such that Brecht’s “‘heroes’ are resourceful, humorous nobodies.” Jeb aligning towards the intellectual Jewish Leftist Saint Walter Benjamin, who deconstructs Plato’s highest form of man, as the untragic sage, while displacing the heroic from the warrior towards the fragmented mensch as hero, a sentiment that Jep shares; “We’re all on the brink of despair, all we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little.” With an attitude like this, vaguely trying to bargain a beauty that has long since expired in a pool of debauched modernist shit, it is no wonder Jep could be conceived as a leftist hero. This is not merely a compliance or resignation towards a kind of Heraclitean/Cronos epistemology in which the flux of things renders them ephemeral – not just as Tommaso Landolfi puts it in a short story of a deformed breast, “It would seem that we must be contented by joys that are not only ambiguous and twisted, but even fleeting.” There is a resignation here much deeper and more cutting in which the idealism that built the West, the platonic form and the perennial apollonian statue, have ceded to the ephemeral and Dionysian in a cosmology of self-referencing decay.
“Sorrentino’s idiosyncratic use of character engagement thus constitutes the perfect vehicle for his narrative themes; rather than merely representing alienation, Sorrentino replicates this alienation in the viewer.”[iv] This reading of the film begs the question as to whether (post)modern art can go anywhere beyond this alienating point? Why is making the viewer feel alienated an elevated aspect of modern art? Why not connected? Rooted? Traditional art was about uplifting the human spirit towards idealisms. One should question whether this movement in modern art is due to the ascendency of the pariah into the social center, thus making a pariah of the center itself – universal waif-dom – or ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’ as the Stalinist regime described it.
The film opens with a quote from Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Voyage au bout de la nuit, which tells us something about the direction and the spirit of the work. Journey being Celine’s first novel, one without his notoriously virulent anti-Semitism, but the act of conjuring the Good Doctor brings such associations to mind,[v] as well as an intolerant disgust with the modern world. While Celine was a man who suffered enormously from the weight and soullessness of modernity, which he applied to his largely autobiographical characters such as Bardamu in Journey – Celine was however able to volition a political program to make the world a place more in tandem with his step; in his unapologetic support of fascism. In contrast, one is tempted to fault the likes of Sorrentino and those artists who prefer not to become politicized, who only want to portray the ugliness of modernity as projecting the existential void – the otiose coquetry of that art which imagines depth through exploring the meaningless wandering that is the ethos and soul of our liberal system – as in Celine’s earlier work. That to leave ‘it’ open-ended, without political volition or definite answers, axiomatically produces a product of liberal thinking – politically directionless like floating protagonists. One senses this strain of apolitical decadent nihilism, (known philosophically as ‘positive nihilism’), within late modern Italian cinema generally, chiefly in the celebrated work of Federico Fellini. Fellini’s 8½ being a film that The Great Beauty obviously draws direct inspiration from. Fellini’s movie tells the tale of the inability of a director to find a meaningful story – likened Jep’s inability to find ‘the Great Beauty’ – and also harkening back to Celin’s Bardamu and his inability to find anything resembling light at the end of the modern tunnel. Fellini was often criticized by the left for his political disavowal or refusal to engage in political ideas. The ending of 8½ is a part of this private retreat into aestheticized nihilism, which was a part of early 20th century surrealism that Fellini was a late adherent to. In the final scene of 8 ½ the entire cast, as well as some crew, including Fellini’s real life wife, dance around a giant edifice, slightly resembling a rocket jutting up into the sky. 8½, being largely autobiographical, and a part of its surrealist element was the blending of art with the aspects of Fellini’s personal life; the director had the edifice constructed so that the public and his crew, who worshiped him as ‘Maestro’ would assume that he was in control when in fact, he did not even have a script. But the film’s depicted chaos was a lie, as Fellini and his team agonized excessively over every detail of the film, which is part of the reason why it transcends its own lie into a more elevated artistic space. In other words, control was never sacrificed, it only appeared to be so – the hand is only invisible to those who are willfully blind to the puppeteers holding the strings. The end of the film 8 ½ – is the triumph of the lie of Anglo-American capitalism – the relinquishing of control, faith in the invisible hand and the ‘joining in the dance’ is a top down illusion. The idea of lassiez faire creating a beautiful world makes sense only to the high bourgeois, who can consume unendingly, from one party to another as Jeb illustrates. Indeed Celine’s Bardamu muses on the wealth fantasies of the underprivileged, of his own: “Everything would be changed, the forbiddingly hostile world would turn into a playful, docile, velvety ball, rolling at your feet. Then and there, perhaps, you’d throw off the exhausting habit of dreaming about successful people and enormous fortunes, because then you’d be able to put your hands on all that. The life of people without resources is nothing but one long rebuff and one long frenzy of desire…” (177). Thus, the relinquishing of control celebrated at the end of 8 ½ is liberalist ideology par excellence – laissez faire – be here now, ‘tune in, turn on, drop out’ all products of the Dionysian aspect of the market mechanism through which the rich are free to exploit and profit. The post-ideological world fails to offer viable solutions instead masking itself in an abundance of Dionysian flux, enjoyable for those affluent enough to hold the keys to ‘palaces’ (as Jep himself is permitted in one scene). One is herein tempted to draw a parallel with Sofia Coppola’s body of semi-shallow dalliances; often focusing on the rich and famous, who are able to float freely, but are still ‘alienated,’ – a poor little rich girl’s boohoo.[vi]
Following the Celine quote, the camera lens opens with a canon firing; this is a tradition that marks the victory of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s Red Shirts against Napoleon III’s army in 1849, for both nationalist independence and for the abolishment of Papal powers over Rome. This tradition occurs daily at noon on the Janiculum, a hill east of the Tiber, named after the Roman god Janus, who represents the portals of the past and the future. Thus, Sorrentino, is inviting us to contemplate the past with the present in the same way that his protagonist Jep, sentimentally recalls his own personal history, which itself functions as a kind of mirror for Rome, this is accomplished in flashback scenes. Next we observe a man looking at a masonic monument dedicated to Garibaldi’s mission to capture the Eternal City, which reads “Roma o Morte” – Garibaldi’s slogan. Then shown quickly is a bust of Gustavo Modena a 19th century actor who sought to reimagine the theatre as a “weapon in the struggle for Italian freedom and independence.”[vii] Is Sorrentino inviting us towards this very radical tradition and if so the question arises, freedom and independence from what?
The contrasts between the austere monuments, which are rooted in the grand historical imagination and the goofiness of real people expunged from historical considerations is played out by a quotidian women smoking and reading the morning paper, then a man asleep on a bench, then a fat man giving himself a wash from the pristine waters of the beautiful Fontana dell’acqua Paola. The fountain complete with its baroque-neoclassical ‘chapel,’ is one of these idealized beauties of traditional art that almost, as in the Leonard Cohen song, ‘oppresses’ those not of its grandure. Is Sorrentino insinuating that none of these people deserve the beauty around them? And do all of them profane it with their presence? None of them has a life mission, a higher purpose which itself can give fruit to greatness, no nationalistic goal to build monuments to; they just exist; degenerate moderns, without purpose or place.
Conspicuously missing from this juxtaposition between the old august and the new irreverent is the fascist interregnum. Films like Il grido dell’ Aquila (The Eagle’s Cry 1923), by director Mario Volpe, fill-in the missing link between these dialectical worlds and ontologies:
“The unity between the veterans of the Garibaldi war, the victims of World War I… and the new fascist generation… The final sequence of The Eagle’s Cry Symbolizes the indestructibility of the fascist ‘revolution.’ A small boy waves the fascist flag in an empty square. The camera approaches, men come marching along, and the boy disappears in the middle of an endless crowd in black shirts. People come into the frame from all sides, creating the impression of an entire nation in movement and of imminent victory. There is just one outcry: ‘Roma o Morte!”[viii]
But Sorrentino does not wade into these waters. He does not offer solutions, content to create and profit from l’art pour l’art, thus, “It does not want to provide definite answers or role models, and cannot be labelled ‘political…”
The camera then moves inside the fountain, within a portico overlooking the waters, wherein a choir of women wearing black, as in solemn mourning costume, chant a hauntingly beautiful aria whose reverberation[ix] seems to spread outward in the same direction of the fountain waters towards the Tiber and Rome below. Is this the fountain of life? The baptismal fons vivus? From which the soul, the essence of Rome emanates? The camera then cuts rudely to a group of Asian tourists who are being given a guided tour, the Italian cicerone, speaking in some Asian language. One of the tourists breaks away from the pack to snap some photos of the city, the Asian man stands smiling in a self-satisfied manner as if he had just conquered Rome[x] – and in that gesture culture and history and glory is transformed into pastiche of the cold mechanical gaze of his touristic camera’s lens.[xi] A segment echoing our betrayal by our capitalist class, which has created this system whereby capital and people flows increasingly from East to West.
Curiously the chanting women now have their backs turned as the Asian tourist snaps his photos, the subtle gesture of their turned backs betrays the mechanical gaze of his camera’s lens onto their world, as if his vulgar theft of the essence of Rome, should not be taken at face value,[xii] the Asian man then suddenly drops dead – after all should they not know more than most about the sacredness of a forbidden city? With the tourist representing the intrusive alien Other now dead Sorrentino places us inside the fountain’s interior wherein the choir of women continue their chanting, the camera zooms out past the lead a cappella (literally ‘as in the chapel’) towards a window pane overlooking Rome, has the death of the tourist, signifying the disappearance of the Other and the removal of globalizing synecdoche re-sanctified Rome – is this what Sorrentino is trying to tell us? As if to reinforce this reading the scene ends with the rest of the tourists walking off screen leaving the frame for the fountain and its baroque chapel and reverberations alone. Perhaps, the fountain functions as a miniature signifier of the city and its soul – a metaphysical synecdoche – with the feminine principle[xiii] of the fountain’s waters mingling with the singing voices and the masculine principle signified by the concretization of form its temple structure – Ezra Pound’s ideogram. The camera flows from outside the portico and over the waters of the fountain as the movement of both camera and water seem to coalesce with the soul held in the reverberations of the sacred chanting, carrying with them a hallowed ode to the Eternal City as it is revealed in all its majesty below.[xiv] At each point Sorrentino offers us a contrast, conflicting images and juxtaposes that confuse the inexperienced or ignorant viewer, like the vulgar tourists, they just will not ‘get it,’ they may partake in it, they may steal it, they may pay to fuck it, but they are not of it. But if one is of its source and able to read into the soul of the Eternal City, to see, they become a part of its essence and are admitted to its sacred and transcendent beauty which poured itself into the cup of Western Civilization.
The next scene begins abruptly with a close-up of a screaming Euro-trash woman at a party; herein Sorrentino is using montage, which is linked in Benjamin’s mind with the principles of Verfrendung (alienation), that supreme summit of modern art. The sacred chant has been replaced by the intense bass of techno music – contrasting the profane with the sacred once more, the Traditional and the modern. The contrast cannot be clearer, as the rest of the movie elucidates, but a footnote to this masterful opening, carrying on its theme, as Jep the leftist hero expresses an existential longing for some deeper meaning as Nietzsche’s Last Man.
Sorrentino does not dwell on the presence of the Other, at least not with a heavy hand. But indeed there is a consciousness that is aware, as per the Asian tourists, of this fatal embrace, whereby our cultures become kitsch, schlock and pastiche through the consumption of the Other, and our people become bastardized, mongrelized and further fragmented through their inclusion – rather than enriched, or carried forward, but cataloged, captured, and mutated. The Other is explored in the film in various capacities,
the Asian tourists, Jeb’s maid, a Filipino, is the most recurrent, their relationship is one of condescending playfulness, herself the stand in role for the racial invasion of Europe and all other European homelands resulting when a society becomes too bourgeois, materialistic and decadent to perform its own labour – she cleans up Jep’s mess when he’s done partying and will inherit the coliseum for it. We are also shown a Saudi briefly eating with his veiled consort. These subtle inclusions of the Other, betray what a healthy, autarkic, organic community should be,[xv] not the globalized vision of mass vulgar tourism and transnational migration that the world has become, whereby the nation state functions as a shell for capitalism, rather than the reverse. Italian fascism understood that a certain kind of tourism is emasculating, “For having overcome the age-old awe of the foreigner who for centuries was able to roam at will pillaging our country, at having shaken off a certain sense of inferiority with regard to other Europeans.”[xvi] Fascism was about pride in oneself and experienced a certain loss of it from foreigners looking to gorge on the delicate corpse of culture, but this was the European foreigner of yesteryear, which pales in comparison to the humiliation of the Other tourists of today.
In so far as a journey is an archetypal symbol, tourism is travel with a superficial or consumptive journey. The luminaries of those journeys of yesteryears were Nietzsche’s ‘Good Europeans,’ making a pilgrimage to what Goethe called, “the capital of the world,” by which he meant Western Civilization – among the two previously mentioned were Yeats, Gibbons, Pound, Stendhal, Byron, Dumas, etc. whose pilgrimage bore fruitful inspiration, available only to the select few, those who understood the Civilizational importance of Rome, at times perhaps more so than the natives themselves. However, the sentiment expressed by Judi Dench’s character in the film adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View (1985), when she haughtily says “they’re all peasants,” articulated the condescending underbelly of this journey to the South at least when it became more widely available, bourgeois and fashionable. As the backdrop of the ‘exotic’ locale reduced the nation itself to a vehicle for English dalliance; regarding and regulating the Italians to the backdrop of the story; there is, of course, a historical coincidence herein, whereby the power of the world shifted from the South to the North of Europe around the Seventeenth Century – a movement that fascism sought to balance.
Beauty is Reactionary
Three things are need for beauty: wholeness, harmony and radiance.” – St. Thomas Aquinas
But in The Great Beauty, the decadent Italians we meet, these modern Italians, in their newfangled bourgeoisie society exist in order to stimulate their senses, meaning has been lost. The film is exceedingly reactionary to the modern world by showing glimpses of a lost beauty, in the flashbacks sequences of Jep as a boy, running through Roman gardens with nuns in their habits in playful pursuit, these memories show a wholesome beautiful spiritual life and social totality based on tradition, now mourned after – not simply the Blakean loss of innocence. This life is no longer available.
While the imperial majesty of the city acts as a counterpoint to the depravity of its modern inhabitants, especially those of the ‘talking classes’ depicted in the film. One is reminded of Edmund Burke’s reflection on the extinguished “glory of Europe” brought about by the radicalism of the bourgeoisie revolution in France: “It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honour, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.”[xvii]
The film comparisons to Fellini and Antonioni are easy, but D’Annunzio, who is explicitly mentioned in the film, is just as important yet supremely overlooked in analysis. Not only did D’Annunzio “consider film the art of the future” at a time when few others made such pronouncements but his work on Cabiria (1914) a film with strong nationalist overtones set an early standard for historical epic in cinema. One could especially draw comparisons to D’Annunzio’s decadent novel Il piacere (Pleasure). Herein we have a precursor to the character Jep, in D’Annunzio himself, who like Jep was a foreigner to Rome and who, like Jep, “was eager to assert himself as a brilliant young poet, (writer) to win a place of renown among the wealthy noble families of Rome, to seduce its most beautiful women and scandalize the public” and also in D’Annunzio’s protagonist Andrea Sperelli, whose empty decadent aristocratic lifestyle and love for Rome mirrors that of Jep. The existential emptiness that formed around Sperelli’s ‘superfluous man’ lifestyle may have framed Sorrentino’s conception of the Jep character:
“But he had never found himself to be in such a restless, uncertain, confused state of mind. He had never experienced a more irritating sense of discontent, a more inconvenient malaise. Neither had he ever felt toward himself crueler impulses of anger and feeling of disgust. Sometimes, in some tired solitary moment, he felt bitterness rise up from his deepest innards, like sudden nausea; and he sat there mulling it over, troubled, without strength to expel it, with a kind of dull resignation, like a sick person who has lost all faith in being healed and is inclined to live with his illness, to withdraw into his suffering, to stink down into his mortal misery” (229).
This is a major feature of what Sorrentino manages to accomplish in The Great Beauty, in so far as it is a film about Rome, what Rome is, what it was and what it could be, it is also a film about suffering, in so far as Rome suffers and Europe as a whole suffers, ‘like a sick person who has lost all faith in being healed and is inclined to live with his illness.’ While D’Annunzio was able to push beyond decadence and volitionalize a political project; the proto-fascist nationalism of his time; one wonders whether Sorrentino is able to move beyond post-historical artistic desolation back towards the history and beauty that he utilizes to critique modernity. In his own words, “I wanted to emphasize the sense of emptiness to which we are irremediably attracted. Parties are the epitome of this void, they’re beautiful but senseless” (1).We become aware that Sorrentino himself may only be vaguely aware of what he does not have the courage to say; if parties are beautiful it is only in the Dionysian notion of beauty which is through the senses subverting reason. Parties as the immanence of the material body thronged into a sea of physical bodies, those depicted in the film represent the stimulation struggle that has come to define modern man. The body is willing; “I’ll screw you,” as one party-goer repeats to a lithe dancer who ignores him, but the psyche or soul is driven out, there is no real beauty. The notion of Liber and the bacchanalian cults is conveyed in the party montages; however the more temperate get-togethers, whence the talking classes gather for watery tête-à-tête are mediated by a post-political and cultural exhaustion – there is no counterbalance, no Apollonian social order to return to when the party is over, because it never ends, not really for these people – as in the comingling of the sacred chant and the Apollonian fountain. This movement towards a nihilistic playfulness is the vain role of art in a post-ideological age; joke as stimulation and distraction rather than a connection to ‘higher values,’ rather than a steadfastness or seriousness connected to something great and beautiful.
Leftist cultural guru Slavoj Zizek, observes a trend in Italian cinema generally, which he defines as the shift from political engagement to the post-political Real in the works of Bernardo Bertolucci; “whose works range from early masterpieces like prima della rivoluzione to late aestheticist-spiritual self-indulgences such as the abominable Little Buddha. This span achieved full-circle with The Dreamers, Bertolucci’s late film about Paris ’68, in which a couple of French students (a brother and sister) befriend a young American student during the whirlwind of the events. By the film’s end, however, the friends have split up, after the French students become caught up in the political violence, while the American remains faithful to the message of love and emotional liberation”[xviii] (59). We see here the leftist project exhausting itself in the orgy of its sexual politics. One important scene from Berolucci’s The Dreamers, that is relevant here, is the homage of the ‘running-through-the-Louvre’ scene from Godard’s French New Wave staple Bande a Part (1964). While the young students rush past the great works of art on display – in effect profaning the past and subsuming art to the youthful body, the museum becomes mausoleum, but Godard’s camera however betrays this post-historical youthful zeal and hangs back for a minute to contemplate The Oath of the Horatii (1784) by Jacques-Louis David, hanging on the wall with its neoclassical style, fascist salute and nationalist theme.
Link to the Goddard and Bertolucci ‘museum scenes’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4MV1NLejQ0
While, Fredric Jameson tells us that Godard himself “had ’ideas’ no less theoretical than Brecht or Eisenstein, ideas about consumer society and Maoist politics which it was the task of the film somehow to convey, seems undeniable. But in Godard the status of those ‘ideas’ seems to have become as undecidable as those of the New Historicism (power, the Other, value)… It is no longer certain, for instance, that the heavily charged and monitory juxtapositions in a Godard film – an advertising image, a printed slogan, newsreels, an interview with a philosopher, and the gestus of this or that fictive character – will be put back together by the spectator in the form of a message, let alone the right message.”[xix] Jameson is saying a few things here relevant to our discussion of Sorrentino’s film, the first is the ‘undecidability,’ that is the open ended indeterminate pussyfooting bankruptcy of the New Left, which Godard and his products are an exemplary example of; ushering in Tarantino’s stylized cinema without depth,[xx] after all it was Godard who said that, “all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl,” meaning vicarious violence and sex – he was paraphrasing Griffiths who was being ironic – the irony seemingly lost by the time the game of broken telephone reached Tarantino. As Jameson says about Goddard being indecipherable by viewers the same can be said about Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, which like Goddard, takes that momentary pause at the ideological-historical-beautiful-dimension (“the Oath”) and exploits it, opens it up, revealing the schizophrenic character that results when the Oath is betrayed – instead of running through the Louvre, his characters Jep and Ramona (a female personification of Rome?) actually depart the party and travel back into the museum and palaces of the past – here, in this movement towards historical ‘roots’ there is a glimmer of hope.[xxi]
Well, contemporary art is mocked and ridiculed throughout as empty and pseudo-intellectual. One naked performance artist, named Talia Concept, performs with the communist hammer and sickle shaved into her pink painted naval hairs she runs head first into a brick wall, a now defunct aqueduct of Ancient Rome, she screams “I don’t love you” – the waters have long stopped flowing. Talia Concept is the personification of modern art, which has no meaning, l’art pour l’art, but as she says “love(s) to provoke.” Talia then says she doesn’t read but lives on “vibrations,” and is brought to tears by Jep for an explanation as it what exactly a vibration is? Finally admitting she doesn’t know – clearly. Central to the story and connecting it to the first scene is the metaphysical notion of vibrations (historical reverberations), in so far as the paideuma or in Spengler’s terms a Culture has a soul which itself vibrates from a prime symbol. Rome itself is such a prime symbol as a complete work of art and the heart of Western Civilization, whose soul emanates (vibrates) outward, first as the Roman Empire, then as Christendom, then through the Renaissance and once more through Fascism. It is such that people no longer understand vibrations, as Sister Marie the only truly ‘spiritual character’ in the film tells Jep, “roots are important.” Fredrick Jameson in Postmodernism, or, The cultural logic of late capitalism has described the post-modern position as “schizophrenia” occurring when there is a “breakdown in the signifying chain,” when man is catapulted outside of history, what he calls “historical deafness,” essentially when we lose, forget or are deracinated (literally ‘uprooted’) from our roots and when we fail like Jep to deepen them.
[i] – Interestingly, the humiliation that Penn’s father suffered at the hands of a Nazi prison guard was laughter which followed when he soiled himself. In so far as the crime against his Jewish dignity was slight, exaggerated and largely embellished as a resentment which grew with time this could also be a subtle commentary on the Holocaust itself. As a kind of mythologized metanarrative, a Rosenblat “it was real in my mind” fictionalized politik. While this reading of the film requires some playful deduction on the part of the critic. Jdate.com for instance gave This Must Be the Place – 4/5 Stars of David: “An actual Jewish movie! This Must Be the Place is the story of an ageing European rockstar who decides to track down the Nazi who tortured his father in Auschwitz, after finding out that he’s alive and well in America. Featuring performances from Sean Penn (Jewish grandparents), and Judd Hirsch, This Must Be The Place would have garnered 5 stars of David if not for the fact that Director and Screenwriter Paolo Sorrentino is Italian and not Jewish. Be warned, however, reviewers have not necessarily been kind.” http://www.jdate.com/jmag/2012/02/kosher-cinema-2/
While, a director like Kubrick can play with different genres, leaving each with an indelible mark of both mastery and personal imprint, like the sfumato of da Vinci, somehow present in both sketch and finished work, Sorrentino instead comes off as a bit of a flash in the pan, a potential one hit wonder, well thematic elements are replicated in many of his films leaving the impression of a style I instead read either mimicry masked as artistry or an immaturity coming into itself. While La grande bellezza is without a doubt an artistic masterpiece, and Sorrentino may in fact be an artist, no doubt, but maybe one without an authentic voice – or as one hopes, one who has just discovered it. Even someone as Warhol-like in trashy pop ostentation as Tarantino, is capable of achieving an imprint. One is reminded of Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s critique of Heinrich Heine as a remarkably talented wordsmith without authentic voice or feeling, the Jewish outsider playing with German-ness and doing it perhaps even better than the Germans, but without truly understanding or feeling it. This is the impression one gets when contrasting these two Sorrentino films, who is likewise a talented director, capable of producing stunning images and sounds and interweaving them in a play on von Tries, leaving lasting impressions, but his technical ability wanes as simply the highest echelon of the artistic “void” that he attempts to critique, thereby perpetuating it; Sorrentino offers the veneer of beauty rather than the actual thing – not just in Plato’s sense in Book X of the Republic, wherein art is conceived as a poor imitator of truth. Rather Sorrentino success in The Great Beauty is in showing the ugly truth of the modern world. Forcing myself to watch Sorrentino’s This Must be the Place, I was struck by the film’s emptiness and its mimicry of similar genre films, in it I read the Cohen Brother’s realism, recalling especially A Serious Man (2009), in dealing with its overtly Jewish elements, while one could easily recognize a kind of more annoying Tim Burton influence, a Edward Scissorhands protagonist and a Bettlejuice in type front. While there was also an Americana collection of oddball characters and superficial character relations with loose ends; which recalled Wes Anderson character driven romp-coms, the soft spoken and infuriatingly pent up Penn character and his upbeat firefighter wife played by Frances McDormand was not only unrealistic but blatantly idiotic, that speaks of the kind of naivety that one finds in Anderson bildungsroman films. Worst still is Sorrentino’s dreadful latest Youth (2015) in which the Last Man stumbles within a resort denouncing the political (an actor character dressed up as Hitler has a monologue about abandoning politics) and ogling at naked women. All this betrays an authentic artistic voice in Sorrentino, who is being lauded as the next big Italian writer-director, a la Fellini, but after duds like Il Divo (2008) and This Must be the Place, one wonders whether The Great Beauty was a fluke.
[ii] http://sensesofcinema.com/2014/feature-articles/cultural-and-political-exhaustion-in-paolo-sorrentinos-the-great-beauty/ An absolutely apt review by Carlotta Fonzi Kliemann, suitably titled “Cultural and Political Exhaustion in Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty.”
[iii] Is there a similitude here to the bourgeois sons of Jewish capitalists and their professed critical theory and Marxism?
[v] “Maybe those vast accretions of matter, those commercial honeycombs, those endless figments of brick and steel didn’t affect the habitués the way they did me. To them perhaps that suspended deluge meant security, while to me it was simply an abominable system of constraints, of corridors, locks and wickets, a vast, inexpiable architectural crime” (Journey to the End of Night, 177). Celine’s many faults with modernity are not limited to architecture and aesthetics.
[vi]Lost in Translation (2003) was Coppola’s only successful attempt at deconstructing the random void of modernity and the fragile and wistful connections between people who equally ride the tiger in a rich kid commiserating sort of way. Her other variations on this theme Somewhere (2010) being contemporaneous and unwatchable but the title and the character study give credence to the increasing rootlessness of modernity, corresponding to what French anthropologist Mac Auge has termed ‘non-places,’ increasingly being applied universally – somewhere is everywhere in so far as all places increasing resemble each other. The other variation on this light-handed, almost specking, insider criticism, is an imaginative debutante case study of Marie Antoinette (2006), which served to link modern decadence with that of the court of Versailles, let ‘them eat cake’ being analogous to Wall Street bankers toasting Champaign above the Occupy movement.
[viii] Liehm, Mira. Passion and defiance: film in Italy from 1942 to the present. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Print. 27.
[ix] How the song functions and what it actually is an important distinction to make. In the body of the essay I’ve examined how the song functions visually and intellectually in relation to the imagery, plot and camerawork. However, what the song actually is may also be telling, not least of the post-modern conflation it represents. What the song actually is, is as different from its function as the juxtaposes that Sorrentino uses in the film, the song is called “I Lie” by a Jewish American composer named David Lang, the majority of the song is done in arias that recall sacred church hymns of medieval Europe, while the solo is clearly in a German dialect. Herein, one could link the flowing of high culture (of Italian music) into Europe from Italian to German masters – but again the symbolic function is not what I want to examine here. The music is actually Yiddish (Hebrew + German) lyrics by some obscure Jewish poet named Joesph Rolnick. Herein, we witness the appropriation of European cultural tradition by the obscuring presence of the Other, breaking the authentic bond of Christian European Brotherhood within the guise of the very high culture form it created. The figure of the eternal Other, the Jew, on a messianic mission (which can be read into the poem’s lyrics) brings forth a destructive and divisive element into and through Tradition. Zizek’s Marxian-Lacanian formal is relevant here: 1 + 1 + a; “the two classes plus the excess of the ‘Jew” or the Latin plus the Teuton plus the Jew, in the case of Western Europe… “The objet a, the supplement to the antagonistic couple. The function of this supplementary element is double: it is a fetishistic disavowal of class antagonism, yet, precisely as such, it stands for this antagonism, forever preventing ‘class peace…’ the two classes complementing each other in a harmonious whole.” We see that the composer of the piece Lang himself is a personification of the negating and obfuscating Jewish presence. Lang following the Jewish lead subversion of Western Civilization in its American incarnation adopting the Frankfurt School’s usage of minority groups to ferment revolution and dispel criticism of his own tribe. In Lang’s own words about a play he was working on: “Almost everyone in the play is black,” Lang said. “Most of the characters are field slaves, who are present in every scene. And they know the truth. It feels as if, even though it may be supernatural, what really happens to this man is in some way his payment for slavery. That the system itself is so illegitimate and poisoned, that even the white power structure can’t survive.” Lang said he liked exploring the subject of slavery because “it unsettles people very deeply in ways you can’t put your finger on.” I could certainly put my finger on the reasons Lang likes “exploring the subject of slavery,” thereby inducing white guilt so that “the white power structure can’t survive.” Later in the article Lang tells us he is reconstructing Beethoven’s only Opera, “Fidelio,” but this cultural appropriation is done for his own ideological purposes, “It has such beautiful music and some of Beethoven’s most noble and pure thoughts,” Lang said, speaking by phone from New York, “but the story and libretto are terrible. Just when you want the chorus to sing, ‘Down with tyranny and long live freedom,’ we get ‘Happy is the man who has a loving wife.’” In this context Beethoven, was championing a German conservatism which withstood the onslaught of the French Revolution, one need not wonder why Lang would like to revise such reactionary works, which affirm the family, folk and nation above the impossible desire for Judeo-liberal freedom and the alienation that they would like to impose. http://www.jewishjournal.com/music/article/the_passion_of_david_lang_20110531
[x] In so far as capitalism has subsumed the natural hierarchy of the world; it is no longer Marco Polo who discovers the East but the nouveau riche Asiatic hordes who feed on our cultures, often mindlessly.
[xi] “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and, therefore, like power.” Susan Sontag, On Photography, 4.
[xii] Perhaps beauty is what most enraptures the Italian sensibility; the desire for beauty. Their language is conflated with the notion, travel to the European peninsula and listen to them utilize, ‘bella,’ ‘bello,’ ‘bellissima!’ ad infinitum. Italians overuse “beauty” and its derivatives, the way the English abuse “brilliant” in their respective quotidian exchanges. Paris’s judgment after all was Venus, her self-contained classical body Botticelli and Ovid expressed in the Capitoline gesture; “As oft she lays aside her robes, half stooping covers her left hand her modesty.” This gesture is the perhaps the essence of a certain type of beauty, like most elevated things, cannot be approached directly, rashly, crudely, as a tourist capturing images.
The Greco-Roman myths themselves testify a proper recourse to capturing beauty; Actaeon struck by the beauty of Artemis and ripped apart by his own hunting dogs for the impropriety of his gapping jaw and lecherous gaze, Daphne was transformed into a laurel to escape Apollo’s lascivious chase, Narcissus condemned to his own beauty for rejecting the pleading love of Echo, while Diana who locked her inamorato, Endymion, in a cave away from the profaned gaze of Others. Beauty, when crystallized in the myths, if without modesty, is tragic. Now one might succeed in a bold attempt as in the case of Pluto and Persephone, or Zeus and Europa, but the divine rape is seldom without compromise and consequence. The union of cupid with his consort psyche which represents bodily desire and the soul was wrought with the help of the Zephyrus wind, the gentle summer breeze; “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
[xiii] We will meet a character who represents the feminine principle of Rome later, an aging stripper named Ramona – which itself is almost the Italian name for Rome ‘Roma.’
[xiv] If we think then of Rome as the material body (cupid/Jep), the soul (psyche/Ramona) is to be carried forward through posterity in the manner of tradition, but in the faithless world that Sorrentino presents in La gande bellezza this union is impossible, the gross materialism and intellectual compensation that dominate the film function as a bastardizing corruption which transmutes Culture into a stunning spectacle (what Jameson calls schlock or kitsch); confirming that the body is without soul.
[xv] The dichotomy of Tonnies’ Gemeinschaft (community) vs Gesellschaft (society) is indeed relevant here.
[xvi] Griffin, Roger. Fascism. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. 39. Print.
[xvii] Reflections on the Revolution in France (J. Dodsley: 1790) pp. 112.
[xviii] Zizek, Slavoj. First as tragedy, then as farce. London: Verso, 2009. 59. Print.
[xix] Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The cultural logic of late capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. 191. Print.
[xx] Tarrantino’s production house A Band Apart is named after Godard’s film.
[xxi] Jep, being a bachelor and a hypocrite, tells Ramona that “A family’s a beautiful thing.” To which she replies, “I know, but I am not cut out for beautiful things.” Is this not a commentary on the breakdown of the traditional family and the declining birthrate which is tied to the project of democratic liberal capitalism, which has sucked the beauty from the world and replaced it with the pleasure principle, Ramona is a stripper after all.