A Private Venus

May 25, 2014

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Melville House Publishing calls Giorgio Scerbanenco the “godfather of Italian noir,” in its blurb for A Private Venus, first published in 1966.  Well, could be – how would I know?  It’s part of The Milano Quartet, a look at the black, dirty underside of that city that seems to have a lot of  noir in its cultural history (Manzoni, Stendhal) if you stretch the term a bit.  And Duca Lamberti certainly is a classic noir male [anti]hero:

Then he took his Lisa Ussaro and drove her home.  At the front door, they even shook hands, they might as well have said, “Thanks for the company.”  He went back to the Cavour feeling completely nauseated with everything, starting with himself, but not with her.

And he doesn’t think to highly of the human species.  He’s babysitting his sisters infant:

“…at one she drinks two hundred grams of milk with her eyes closed, almost without waking up, has a pee at the same time, and then she’s out like a light until tomorrow morning at six or seven.  I’ve always thought that kind of vegetable life is the most civilized.  I think civilization ends, at least for the human race, as soon as brain activity starts.”

Surely he understands that non-humans don’t have civilization, but his crackling cynicism sure is entertaining!

Duca is a doctor who has been barred from practicing, and spent time in prison, for a misstep early in his career when he empathized too much with a very sick old patient.  His father was a policeman who was relegated to a desk job after his arm was mangled in an assassination attempt down south, where he was battling the Mafia.  He wanted, “my son, the doctor,” but the son is a bit too much like the father, and shares his tendency to move outside the rules.  That gets him in dangerous trouble.  But he’s quite good at the crime gig, after all:

But Signor A had not appeared.  They called him Signor A rather than Signor X, because the man wasn’t an unknown quantity:  he was something specific, the chief pimp.  Duca didn’t know his name or physical appearance, but he knew he existed.  It’s like when you say the fattest man in Milan:  you’ve never seen him, you don’t know if he’s a chemist or a restaurant owner, if he’s fair-haired or dark, but you know he exists, it’s just a matter of finding him and weighing him, and then you’ll immediately recognize him because he’s the one who weighs more than anyone else in Milan.

Very logical and systematic:  he gets results.  Faster than his friends, the police.

The plot is a bit haphazard at times, but the suspense propels it forward, and Duca’s character.  You want to know if he will destroy himself or not.  There’s an emotionally damaged young man he’s hired to wean off of drink, a job tossed to him by the police chief who is an old friend; the kid’s engineer-martinet father, a plot element that’s a bit of a red herring;  a couple of young women with an awful lot of nerve and a bit too much intellectual curiosity; and some very creepy types running an European sex-traffic operation.  The title isn’t mentioned in the text, but the racket uses a photo-album to allow customers to pick out the girls they want delivered:  Everyone gets his private Venus, I guess.

The Mafia is a major presence in the book, but only as background, and as the unseen masters of the sex-ring.  Like the book Takedown, and the Italian films,  Mafioso and Gomorrah, its take on the mob is totally unsentimental and unromantic:  they are a bunch of brutal, murderous, gangsters, a cancer on the body of society.  It’s hard for me to imagine an Italian claiming, as people have for The Godfather, that the mob, even in fiction, is somehow a critical representation of capitalism…

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Waste, Italian Style

February 20, 2012

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.


Cartels

September 3, 2011

These days, I have garbage and economic cartels on my mind.  And Wall Street, of course.

In New York, the Department of Sanitation picks up residential garbage, but commercial waste is disposed of by private carters.  In the 1950s, the Department still picked up commercial waste on residential streets, i.e. streets that mixed apartments and businesses, but they discontinued that policy which opened up a vast market for private carters.  The Mob saw a great opportunity and moved in with force.

Until the late 1990s, the Mob controlled the collection and disposal of commercial waste with a cartel that all businesses were required to join.  Refusal was not a viable option.  It was, as they said, “A beautiful thing.”  Recalcitrant trash haulers were intimidated, firebombed, or beaten to a pulp.  Members of the club charged businesses exorbitant rates:  three, four, five, ten times what the cost would be in a market with competitive bids.  If any business protested, mom and pop grocer or Fortune Five Hundred multi-national, the answer was the same:  “Pay up!  Who youse gonna call?”

If a carter got out of line and actually submitted a bid for service that was below the cartel price, the Mob came down hard.  If the carter actually won the job, taking the “stop” from a cartel member, howls of protest were heard:  “He stole my stop!”  Restitution would be paid, or the stop would be forfeited.  The heavies in the cartel would try to set the rebel straight.  Submitting low bids did nobody any good.  It only ‘educated’ the customer that the price structure was simple gouging.  “And when that happens, who wins?  The customer wins”  Can’t have that!  It was the American way.  As the gangsters liked to say, “Hey, it’s a free country!”

I learned all this from a book called Takedown:  The Fall of the Last Mafia Empire.  It’s an in-depth recounting of a three-year NYC undercover operation that resulted in the complete destruction of the mob cartel.  It began by chance, when a detective interviewed an honest carter who just wouldn’t knuckle under:  some thugs walked in and asked who he was.  The carter, thinking fast, and knowing that being caught talking to a cop was a death sentence, said “That’s my cousin Danny.”  Thus was Rick Cowan, Irish NYC detective transformed into Danny Benedetto, member of a large Italian-American family that had been in the wastepaper business for generation.  He carried a wire and worked himself into the cartel for years, living a double life that I cannot imagine.  As Danny, he paid enormous amounts of extortion to the Mob, and got it all recorded.  The principals, among the Alphonse “Allie Shades” Malangone at the top, were convicted, fined, imprisoned, and debarred from the industry in perpetuity.

Reading this book, I reflected on the similarities between the mob cartel and the wall street cartel.  They both have beautiful things going.  Wall Street buys the politicians, makes the rules, comes up with derivatives that serve no purpose other than to generate massive fees, produces junk mortgages, and it’s all legal.  Transparency is anathema them all.  But what really got me, was a certain catch phrase.  When a cartel member was bumped from an account by an honest low bid, the cry was,  you have to make me whole! That is, pay me extortion to compensate me for loosing my good deal.  I thought I heard that during the Bear-Stearns debacle.

“In this room are people who have built this firm and lost a lot, our fortunes,” one Bear executive said to Mr. Dimon with anger in his voice. “What will you do to make us whole?”

After the takedown, prices for commercial waste collection in NYC fell by 40%, and in some cases much more.  The service vacuum left by the exit of the mob outfits was filled by big companies coming in, and they promptly began to raise their prices.  As a friend of mine who is an expert said on an NPR production about the topic a few years ago, prices are nearly back where they were under the cartel.  And the carter who started it all remarked, “The only difference between the Majors and the Boys is that the Majors won’t really kill you.”  Well…that’s a pretty big difference even so.

This is an excellent book to read if you want to know what the Mob is really like.


Two Criminal Tales

March 1, 2011

Le Trou, is a film from 1948 about a prison break in Paris. Goodfellas, need I say it?, is a film from 1990 about the mob in NYC.  I watched these two films over the last two days, and it was like visiting two alternate universes.

First, let me say that Le Trou (Jacques Becker) is a fantastic movie.  Spare and incredibly suspenseful, it pulls off the amazing feat of turning the hardened criminals into …not quite the good guys, but exemplars of humanity.  Homo faber, man, the maker, with incredible ingenuity, patience, and perseverance they plan their escape from a fortress in the center of the city.  Loyalty to one another is what makes them go, and betrayal stops them. The film has virtually no music score.

Goodfellas, well…it is based on fact. (In fact, both films are based on accounts of actual events.) The reason I watched the entire flick after seeing bits of it on TV, where it is played endlessly, was because of the part about the biggest heist in American history at JFK, but that is hardly treated in the film. Many say it is realistic, and Scorsesee said he wanted to show what the mob lifestyle was really like, what the violence was really like, cold, brutal, disgusting. Oh well…the millions of young men who love the film probably have a rather different take on Martin’s masterpiece.  They love it. It’s an entertainment, giving away the store by using an endless soundtrack of contemporary music.  How seriously can you take a mob movie that has Hendrix and The Stones rocking out as guys get whacked?

Nothing in Goodfellas compares to the one scene in Le trou in which the two cons peer at a Paris street from a manhole, watch a taxi drive by – freedom! – before going back inside to retrieve their comrades for the big escape.

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Godfather – Mafioso

October 18, 2009

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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.


Naples, Trash, Calvino…

January 16, 2008

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What a horror! Mountains of garbage, frightful stench, and rats of a size I don’t even want to imagine. The terrible spectacle of a great, ancient center of culture being buried in crime, corruption both social and physical, and raw garbage. Will they ever dig themselves out of the hole they are in? Modern civilization depends on the efficient disposal of our wastes, both solid and liquid (via sewers) and the system is broken in Naples, Italy. For years, it was “out of sight, out of mind,” but no longer!

This brings to mind a story by the late, great Italo Calvino, who surely would have appreciated the terrible historical and moral lessons provided by this horrific situation. The story of which I am thinking comes from his book, Invisible Cities, a series of vignettes, alluding to Marco Polo’s Travels, about imaginary cities described by a visitor to the court of the Great Khan. Each one has fantastic qualities that only Calvino could come up with, described with irony, wit, humor, and deep humanity.

In “Leonia”, he tells of a city in which all consumer items are used only once, and then discarded! Everything – sheets, dishes, toothbrushes, furniture – people are surrounded only by the new. The old is carted away daily by the quiet uncomplaining heroes of the city, the municipal garbage men. But all is not well in Leonia, surrounded by mountain ranges of rubbish:

The greater its height grows, the more the danger of a landslide looms…

Here is the entire text of the story:

The city of Leonia refashions itself every day: every morning the people wake between fresh sheets, wash with just-unwrapped cakes of soap, wear brand-new clothing, take from the latest model refrigerator still unopened tins, listening to the last-minute jingles from the most up-to-date radio.On the sidewalks, encased in spotless plastic bags, the remains of yesterday’s Leonia await the garbage truck. Not only squeezed tubes of toothpaste, blown-out light bulbs, newspapers, containers, wrappings, but also boilers, encyclopedias, pianos, porcelain dinner services. It is not so much by the things that each day are manufactured, sold, bought that you can measure Leonia’s opulence, but rather by the things that each day are thrown out to make room for the new. So you begin to wonder if Leonia’s true passion is really, as they say, the enjoyment of new and different things, and not, instead, the joy of expelling, discarding, cleansing itself of a recurrent impurity. The fact is that the street cleaners are welcomed like angels, and their task of removing the residue of yesterday’s existence is surrounded by a respectful silence, like a ritual that inspires devotion, perhaps only because once things have been cast off nobody wants to have to think about them further.

Nobody wonders where, each day, they carry their load of refuse. Outside the city, surely; but each year the city expands, and the street cleaners have to fall farther back. The bulk of the outflow increases and the piles rise higher, become stratified, extend over a wider perimeter. Besides, the more Leonia’s talent for making new materials excels, the more the rubbish improves in quality, resists time, the elements, fermentations, combustions. A fortress of indestructible leftovers surrounds Leonia, dominating it on every side, like a chain of mountains.

This is the result: the more Leonia expels goods, the more it accumulates them; the scales of its past are soldered into a cuirass that cannot be removed. As the city is renewed each day, it preserves all of itself in its only definitive form: yesterday’s sweepings piled up on the sweeping of the day before yesterday and of all its days and years and decades.

Leonia’s rubbish little by little would invade the world, if, from beyond the final crest of its boundless rubbish heap, the street cleaners of other cities were not pressing, also pushing mountains of refuse in front of themselves. Perhaps the whole world, beyond Leonia’s boundaries, is covered by craters of rubbish, each surrounding a metropolis in constant eruption. The boundaries between the alien, hostile cities are infected ramparts where the detritus of both support each other, overlap, mingle.

The greater its height grows, the more the danger of a landslide looms: a tin can, an old tire, an unraveled wine flask, if it rolls toward Leonia, is enough to bring with it an avalanche of unmated shoes, calendars of bygone years, withered flowers, submerging the city in its own past, which it had tried in vain to reject, mingling with the past of the neighboring cities, finally clean. A cataclysm will flatten the sordid mountain range, canceling every trace of the metropolis always dressed in new clothes. In nearby cities they are all ready, waiting with bulldozers to flatten the terrain, to push into the new territory, expand, and drive the new street cleaners still farther out.