I was feeling pretty cultural this past week, so I tried to channel Goethe.
More pinhole scenes: one at Piermont, NY, and one on the Teaneck town green, with two exposures of me ghosting in there.
I was feeling pretty cultural this past week, so I tried to channel Goethe.
More pinhole scenes: one at Piermont, NY, and one on the Teaneck town green, with two exposures of me ghosting in there.
I would describe my reaction to reading Mussolini: A Biography, by Denis Mack Smith with two words: shock and astonishment. How could a treatment of the political life (the author describes it as a “political” biography of Benito Mussolini) evoke such reactions? I mean, he’s been dead and documented for seventy years, right? Well, I never knew much about him or his reign, mostly because Hitler and the Nazis attract so much more attention and treatment in the media, but his story is indeed incredible.
I came to this book after reading Mack Smith’s biography of Cavour, and parts of his history of modern Italian politics, as preparation for visiting Turin and the Piedmont region. Cavour was the first prime minister of the newly united Italian state and was a count in the Piedmont region which dominated the new nation, and from which its constitutional monarch, Victor Emmanuel, came. Some readers of the biography of Mussolini complain that it lacks in-depth analysis of its subject, or the historical context, and this is true: at times it reads like a chronicle of choices made and statements uttered, and there is some significant repetition in his evaluation of these, but the simple chronology and recounting of events is itself so outlandish that it has tremendous value, I think.
Reading this biography, I have to doubt that I even understand something I thought was very clear: What is fascism? Or what was it? Certainly it has taken on a life of it’s own, down to the recent history of Chile and Argentina, to mention a few states, but when Mussolini invented it, coined its name, created its symbols, it was, as this book shows, simply a vehicle for him to gain power. Hitler, monstrous as he was, had a program that extended beyond himself: he saw a 1000 year Reich based on his hellish principles. Mussolini simply juggled about 100 balls at once, keeping them all in the air, so he could continue to rule – that was Fascism for him.
The incredibly detailed and notated biography reveals that Mussolini’s rule was based on several basic principles:
With complete control of the press, comes the freedom to create the big lie. Italy has the greatest army in Europe, ten million men at arms (his generals knew that it had barely 1/10th that number), a major military defeat is trumpeted as a great victory, the train system is proclaimed the best in the industrialized world, running 100% on time (journalists from abroad noted, before they were ejected from the country for saying it, that the system was a shambles.)
His government was totally centralized in his own person, and he became increasingly remote from reality, surrounded by sycophants who posed no threat, and who were totally incompetent in their posts. Mussolini seems to have actively sought dullards and incompetents to appoint to positions of nominal power, but he rarely listened to them anyway. Many times he delivered himself of incorrect opinions on matters of economics or military import and refused to be corrected – that would diminish his prestige – even to the point of accepting awful terms in the negotiation of foreign treaties rather than backtrack. It was rule by an egomaniac “play-actor” backed up by vicious criminal gangs who made out while the gettin’ was good.
How did this gimcrack, ramshackle, jerry-rigged chaos come to run a modern state? The author’s explanation seems to be that two principle factors were at play in the post-WWI era that was threatening to many established regimes: Mussolini was some kind of a political genius; the liberal political establishment let him take power. He was brilliant at picking the right moment to act, ruthless in employing lies and violence, totally without scruple, principle, or consistency, other than in his drive for power, and he knew how to inspire loyalty. He was a demagogue, in other words. And the liberal bourgeois establishment, which could have destroyed him easily at many critical moments in his rise to power, feared him less than the communists, a familiar story. Like Hitler, he too was voted into power, a fact which annoyed him greatly as he felt it was more proper for a fascist leader to seize power with violence. But he was willing to live with that… Even when Mussolini was still only member of parliament and was personally implicated in a murder of a prominent opponent, the dominant establishment parties dealt lightly with him. They sat and listened as he insulted and harangued them in speeches, even as his party members instigated fights on the parliament floor. They were utterly exhausted as a political class, and this was both a cause, and a rallying cry of the Fascist ascendancy.
Needless to say, once he was in power, the industrial interests were happy to connive with him in his program, confident that his outlandish plans for the economy would never be implemented, the case with most of his pronunciamentos. As Mack Smith frequently notes, the actual effect of his proposals and pronouncements was not so important; to keep those balls flying in the air, the appearance was all that mattered.
In architecture, the Renaissance was a bit of a fad. Suddenly, the Gothic style represented barbarity and uncouth, crude, and deficient aesthetics. Later on, John Ruskin would disagree, and deplore the wholesale abandonment of medieval styles and craftsmanship in favor of the reigning form of the classical temple front.
The changes in church facades show the faddish aspect of the Humanist wave in all its glory.
Here’s a church front in Padua: simple brick, with the shape of a standard Roman Basilica – high central aisle with two lower sides aisles.
Here is a huge church in Venice with roughly the same form, but some gothic ornament added.
The Renaissance came, found facades of brick, and like Augustus and Rome, left them of marble. Pagan temple facades abound, covering the brickwork of the Christian temples. Architects worked for generations on novel combinations of columns, pediments, hiding the form of the basilica or reflecting it in the shape of the facade. This example pretty much masks the side aisles with a nearly square front.
Eventually the thrill of imitating the ancients began to wear thin, and architects went in search of new excitement, including dynamic Baroque styling, and little ‘jokes’ that their sophisticated patrons would enjoy. Notice the pediment over the main front door that is broken into three pieces, something that would have made Palladio vomit.
Bellagio is a beautiful place, set on a promontory between two arms of Lake Como, the Swiss Alps in the distance, lush vegetation all around, mild climate…no wonder Stendhal, Manzoni, and Virgil, to name a few, loved it.
Searching for the location of our hotel, after booking it online months ago, I saw this image on GoogleMaps. A villa with a front lawn extending the width of the town?
Last week, I found myself there, walking that grassy avenue, the Vialone. It was built by the owner of Villa Giulia, visible on the right, with formal gardens at the lakeside, so that he could have an unimpeded view of both arms of Lake Como. It’s always a bit strange to find oneself walking terrain that one has previously only known from a map or aerial view. Was someone watching me from above?
The Moro Affair seems like an oddly lighthearted name for a book about the kidnapping of a prime minister that ended in his murder. I was dimly aware of these events when they happened in the late 1970s, but my knowledge of the violent fringe group, The Red Brigades, was limited to newspaper headlines, Anarchy Comics, and various hipster cultural references of the time. Leonardo Sciasica’s examination of the case is weird, confusing, and not all that illuminating, adjectives that are frequently applied to the case and other tortured explanations of it.
Moro was at the helm of the Italian government when the Christian Democrats made historic overtures to the communists to form a stable government. Kissinger was not happy. Moro was on record as being in favor of swapping prisoners to save lives when confronted by terrorists: Why did his own party refuse to save his life? Was he sacrificed? For what, by whom? Was there CIA involvement? Were the Italian police bureaus severely disorganized and incompetent, or were darker forces at work?
Gomorrah (2008), a film by Matteo Garrone, is based on a journalistic account of crime families in the Naples region of Italy, by Roberto Saviano, who is certainly a very brave man, and whom Berlusconi denounced as unpatriotic. It follows five stories of people whose lives, as are all lives in the region…in Italy? are touched by the mob: two stupid young kids who dream of big time success as mobsters, and fancy themselves the new Scarfaces of Naples; a master tailor working in the illegal knock-off industry that produces counterfeit haute couture gowns; a young kid who wants to find his future with the local gang while a turf war rages; a mousey accountant who handles payouts and who finds himself in the middle of the same war and wants no part of it; and a young college graduate who gets a job in the waste disposal business.
The film uses non-professional actors and is produced in a neo-realist, or vérité style: it is profoundly disturbing. I suggest it as a pendant to Mafioso for those in thrall to the Coppola-Scorsese melodrama view of the mafia. Scorsese ‘presents’ this film, and I’m sure he thinks Goodfellas is similarly hard hitting, but in Gomorrah, an MTV soundtrack is notably absent. For those with a special interest in waste, American or Italian style, this film is informative. The northern industries send their toxic waste to the south, where it poisons the land. The managers look the other way, assured that the disposal is clean,as the Americans say. The price is irresistible.
The action takes place mostly in a neighborhood with architecture that looks like something out of the futurist dreams of Antonio St. Elia.
Listen, Let’s Make Love (1967) is an Italian film set in Milan: the image (on Netflix, of all places!) was grainy, the sound poor, and everyone is dubbed, even though some of them seem to be speaking their lines in English. Some call it a satire, some an erotic comedy or drama, and some call it Eurotrash. I’ll go for the satire and erotic drama, although there is no kissing, no nudity, and certainly no sex. (Perhaps it was filmed, then censored – the Italian laws changed at the end of the 1960s, making possible a slew of sex comedies and dramas with the likes of Laura Antonelli). I’m still not quite sure why I watched it.
The film opens with shots of Milan and some heavy female breathing in the musical score. There is a funeral, and a countess laments that she cannot attend, though the man who is being buried was her lover for twenty years, because all of Milan would talk. Lallo (Pierre Clementi – an actor who inspires strong opinions) comes from Naples to attend his father’s burial and take up his profession, that of a gigolo to the social élite – mostly women, but now and then men. His father left him nothing but his profession, and a room full of nice clothes.
Lallo proceeds to have a series of liaisons, including one with his aunt, before her husband flees with her to Venezuela to avoid prosecution for cooking his books. In a story with Naples, Milan, financial élite, affairs with aunts, and an oblique mention of Stendhal in the dialog, The Charterhouse of Parma must come to mind, and maybe even Before the Revolution. The northern women like to make fun of Lallo’s Neopolitan upbringing, but that doesn’t stop them going to bed with him and showering him with gifts.
Things just sort of happen in the film. It’s hard to fathom the characters, but then, most of them are shallow socialites. The characterizations are not deep, and Lallo’s inner life, if he has one, is a mystery. He slides into his niche as available male quite easily. At times, he shows a nervy sarcasm: “I am determined to sell myself to the lowest bidder,” and when he gets a killer look from a woman he dumped for a better client he says, “She gave me a look that mussed my hair!” He has an early conversation with a friend of his father’s who gives him good advice on how to conduct himself in this business – seeing more of him would have added something to the film. He only reappears at the end when, losing patience, Lallo kicks his current woman in the ass, sending her sprawling in the snow at a costume party where she’s dressed as a nun: he appears in a full batman costume and expresses his exasperation with Lallo.
Lallo has fallen in love, truly, so he says. He wants to marry the daughter of the countess. She lies to him, saying that the young woman is his half-sister. He dresses in full regalia to somberly lend his presence to her wedding to another bourgeois. A jarring note of reality hits you like a brick in the head when the countess speaks the facts of life to her maid and accomplice in deception: These young people…They can dress as they like, think as they like, have political ideas, and do what they want in private. But, at least in Milan, money marries money!
The film has a lush soundtrack that veers from sounding like Muzak to commenting on the imagery very well. The design is a tour of high-end 60s style and fashion, sometimes with an impressive and disturbing look to them.
I finally watched The Godfather (1972), all three hours of it. One of my motivations was the discussion over at Man 0f Roma in which I participated. As I watched, I couldn’t help comparing it to Mafioso (1962), a truly marvelous film. Now that I’ve seen The Godfather, the only thing I want to do is read the Mad Magazine satire of it.
I’m sure that Copolla knew Mafioso well, and scores of film noir movies too. There seem to be many parallel elements, perhaps homages, perhaps simple allusions, perhaps just coincidence. To me, The Godfather was, first of all, boring, and second, extremely pretentious. It cements Coppola’s reputation in my mind as a vastly overrated guy who loves movies and is really good with a camera. If only he’d left the idea part to somebody else. (Maybe one day I’ll make myself watch again Apocalypse Now.)
Both films have a returning son. Michael Corleone returns from WWII, in uniform, as a hero, and with a blonde New England love in tow. (I have to be honest: Dianne Keaton always evokes in me the sensation of hearing fingernails scratching a blackboard.) He tells her about his family – doesn’t seem to phase her, although she’s taken aback a little bit. He doesn’t want to be part of “the family business,” he says. Then his father, Marlon Brando, in a role I just couldn’t take seriously – but then, perhaps, I’ve seen too many caricatures over the years – is gunned down. It’s as if Michael’s genetic base takes over, and he acts as if he’s been a mafia hit man his entire life. The transition is instantaneous. Or was he like that before? In which case, his re-entry to the “business” is robbed of all the dramatic tension it’s supposed to have.
After he kills the guys responsible for his father’s shooting, he is sent to Sicily for a prolonged stay, away from the gang war that ensues. There, he embarks on a Odyssean idyll (he should be in NYC with the guys), traipsing about the country with his faithful protectors, elegantly courting a local beauty, discovering the mysteries of his violent Sicilian roots. “Where are all the men?” he asks during a visit to his ancestral hill town. “All dead in vendettas – here are their memorial plaques.”
We see him happily strolling away from the camera, down a country road, with his love, followed and supervised by her family, a few paces behind. (Later, we will see him walking down a New England street, towards the camera, with no attendants, talking to his WASP-love object, convincing her to marry him. There are other such oppositions. For instance, on his wedding night, his modest, virtuous wife drops her negligee revealing her nubile breasts before they embrace. Michael’s hothead brother, constantly unfaithful, consorts with sluts who are always shown having sex fully clothed, or slopping about in similar lingerie, loosely in place. The natural, the earthy vs. the corrupt and urban, yeah, yeah, yeah…) After a passionate wedding night and some happy days, the violence of America catches up with him, and his wife dies in a car bomb meant for him. (Is this a direct quote from the Big Heat? In that movie, the blonde, loving wife of the crusading detective is killed in the same accidental way. The actress in that movie was Marlon Brando’s sister! Surely, not another accident?)
Oh Italy! Oh Sicily! So dark, so tragic and violent, yet so beautiful! Oooooh! Indeed.
In Mafioso, Antonio returns to his home town after years away in Milan, where he has found success as an industrial engineer. He is a modern Italian; rational, super-precise, perfectly in tune with the capitalistic economic miracle lifting Italy out of its post-war impoverishment, except for the South, of course. The film begins as a comedy, playing on the prejudices of the the northern Italians about their uncivilized peasant cousins in the south, a farcial clash of manners.
Antonio brings his wife – a beautiful northerner, light and blonde – and two pretty daughters to meet his family for the first time. She offends them first by smoking, and then by not eating ravenously at the banquet they prepare. After a while, she grows to like the place, and the family warms to her. She enjoys the sun, the scenery, the food, the intense and comforting embrace of family, kin, community.
On a walk through the town on the way to pay homage to the local Don, Antonio’s wife asks innocently, “What are all those plaques?” Embarrassed, Antonio tells her they are memorials to dead men. They pass a wake – “How did he die?” “Two bullets!” He hurries his family away – it’s funny, but ominous. They stop for ice cream with some old school chums of his. “Here comes so-and-so, don’t speak to him!” Antonio obeys, but his wife cannot understand why he shuns an old classmate, not understanding that he is now a marked man.
Unlike Kay, in The Godfather, who sees what’s going on and just seems to accept it, or asks to be happily lied to, Antonio’s wife is kept truly in the dark. Antonio is the one who is filled with anxiety about the truth – he doesn’t want her to know. The truth of the mafia is like a growing dark, horrific cloud, gradually moving over the landscape.
Antonio finally is given an offer he cannot refuse – he must perform a hit for the Don. He is transported to America to carry it out, after a brief, exhilarating sight-seeing drive through New York City. The Old World brings its filth to the new, in contrast to The Godfather. He returns to Italy, his wife and everyone none-the wiser, thinking he’s been on a hunting trip to the country. He is now trapped in a horrific nightmare existence, a murder on his conscience, unable to tell anyone, especially those he loves, the truth. And who knows when he may be asked again to perform a “little service for” them?
I have never seen any other movie like Mafioso. Disturbing, funny, horrific. I regret the three hours I spent watching The Godfather, a “soap opera for guys,” as one colleague, who likes it, dubbed it.