The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

Lost in Translation

November 21, 2014 | by

Why has Italian cinema lost its appeal abroad?

lagrandebellezza01

A still from La grande bellezza, 2013.

It must be the Ponentino—the wind from the sea—blowing through the baroque gardens, or the scent of the Roman pines rising from ruins, but each time I return to Italy, I realize how much I miss its decadence. Yes, it’s this breeze, fresh yet melancholic, that makes me think of the persistent sense of fallacy in the eternal city. And while I can’t escape being mesmerized by Rome’s beauty, I question why contemporary Italian culture doesn’t travel or translate. It is as if Italy is appreciated only for what it was and not for what it has become.

While I appreciate the current popularity of Scandinavian literature, or the enthusiasm, periodically revived, for Latin American writers, I have to wonder why, or, indeed, if, Italian authors are less interesting to the Anglo-Saxon public than those spare, gritty Northerners and quixotic Latinos. Italy has produced a few celebrated authors, but there has never been a real fascination for our literature.

Cinema is a different story, perhaps because of its more immediate seductive power of images. La Dolce Vita was unique in making Romans feel that we lived, at least vicariously, in the caput mundi—the capital of the world. The film is the portrait of an Inferno costumed as a Paradise. Its glamorous description of Roman decadence generated a fashion, and people all over the world dreamed of enjoying those orgies, dressing in those stylish suits, driving those convertibles, listening to that music, and bathing in the Fountain of Trevi. As one character says, “to live within the harmony of perfect beauty.” Who wouldn’t subscribe to that fantasy? I would be the first, if I could ignore the fact that the intellectual who delivers the line commits suicide after killing his own children.

Federico Fellini has captured the city’s paradoxes—its wisdom and disenchantment, provinciality and universalism, morbid religiosity and virulent secularism—better than any artist before or since. And he did it again with Roma, Toby Dammit, and Satyricon, a science-fiction film set in a desperate, godless past. Since the heyday of neorealism, some of our best films have dealt with the same phenomena of glorious corruption and placid surrender to dissolution. It happened last year with La grande bellezza, directed by Paolo Sorrentino, a homage to Fellini, and la grande eccezione—the great exception in an otherwise fairly desolate artistic landscape. Read More »

8 COMMENTS

Another Bartleby, and Other News

October 23, 2014 | by

Black_Country_–_Borinage

Constantin Meunier, Pays noire (Black Country—Borinage), ca. 1893, oil on canvas.

  • “On a winter’s day in 1482 a scholar had an embarrassing disaster, leaving a blood-red blot of ink on the pristine page of a valuable book. He then compounded his crime by confessing, adding a note in the same red ink still legible after 532 years. On the desecrated page of the Historiae Romanae Decades, printed in Venice in 1470, he wrote: ‘Ita macula’—this stain—‘I stupidly made on the first of December 1482.’ ”
  • On George Whitman, the eccentric founder of Shakespeare and Company: “He could be welcoming. He could be gruff. He could be charismatic. He could be aloof … This was, after all, a man who on occasion expressed himself by throwing books at people, sometimes affectionately, sometimes less so—a love-hate gesture, or so it sounds, not unlike Ignatz Mouse hurling bricks at an eternally besotted Krazy Kat.”
  • Novelists, here is your picaresque, contemporary Bartleby: an Italian coal miner who shirked work for thirty-five years and is now collecting his pension. “I invented everything—amnesia, pains, hemorrhoids, I used to lurch around as if I was drunk. I bumped my thumb on a wall and obviously you can’t work with a swollen thumb … Other times I would rub coal dust into my eyes. I just didn’t like the work—being a miner was not the job for me.”
  • Let’s trade fossil casts: “In the first part of the twentieth century, casts of fossil specimens were key to paleo sciences. Because actual fossils were too valuable and rare to ship to international researchers, casts of fossils circulated in their stead … Paleoanthropologists would offer to trade casts of ‘their’ fossils to other researchers in different areas of the world, who had different looking specimens—the casts became a social currency.”
  • In praise of reading plays: “A great published script makes you understand what the play is, at its heart. Not just what a certain production was like, though it also ought to do a good job of that. It makes you understand how the play feels as a living work of art—how it sounds and behaves inside your head, a mental effort that matters more in reading a play than in reading any other kind of literature.”

NO COMMENTS

This Week on the Daily

October 19, 2014 | by

zorn

Anders Zorn, Portrait of Emma Zorn, 1887, oil on canvas, 15.8" × 23.9".

In a not-so-glamorous Las Vegas, Kerry Howley watches as a UFC fighter starves himself before weighing in, visiting all-you-can-eat buffets just to see everything he’s missing:

In the twenty-four hours between weigh-ins and the fight, Erik would gain twenty pounds, and he took great pleasure in imagining of what those pounds would consist. The Rio Buffet, he informed me, offered three hundred distinct dishes, seventy varieties of pie, an array of “bars,” including a sushi bar, a taco bar, and a stir-fry bar. He knew its small army of friendly spoon-holding servers, its fifty yards of curving black countertop, its unaccountable progression from sausage pizza to cocktail shrimp to scrambled eggs to lentil soup to crab legs to fried fish to sushi to green salad to gravy-slathered pork chops to honeyed ham to flank steak to barbecue ribs to burritos to tacos to waffles to spring rolls to dumplings to sweet-and-sour pork to eggs Benedict to bacon to one giant vat of ketchup to croissants to cubed mango to green-bean salad to seven kinds of lettuce to the gelato-and-pastries bar whose delights are too many to enumerate but which Erik would attempt to enumerate if given the chance.

Forrest Gander on the mysterious end of Ambrose Bierce, a hundred years ago: “According to witnesses, Bierce died over and over again, all over Mexico.”

Jeff Simmermon started a band with a guitar, a typewriter, and a pair of chickens who peck at toy pianos. They wanted to tour Japan. Al Sharpton got mixed up in it, and the whole affair provided a strange and invaluable lesson about artistic ambition and closure...

A new Italian novel takes Antony Shugaar back into the Years of Lead, a time of kidnappings and earthquakes and cholera epidemics: “Those who say they want to leave this country, or simply spend their whole lives saying they want to leave, do so because they want to save themselves. Well, I’m staying here. Because I don’t want to be saved.”

Plus, Sadie Stein’s dispatches from Berlin, where the chefs carry around Spinoza’s Ethics and the cabbies are fluent in Patrick Modiano; Terry Southern goes skeet shooting; and all of us get an irrefutable, statistical answer, at last, to that most pressing question: How often do Oscar Wilde’s characters fling themselves onto couches, sofas, and/or divans?

NO COMMENTS

Wanna Be Like Everyone

October 14, 2014 | by

Italy in the Years of Lead.

Berlusconi_stencil

Photo: southtyrolean, via Flickr

In the Italy I first knew, the Italy of the midseventies, political debate seemed to constitute the molten core of every dramatic conversation. My Italian was good and improving, but it never really got good enough to penetrate the mist of political verbiage. “Compagni, cioè, nella misura in cui” was the standard Italian catchphrase, mocking the loopy revolutionary discourse of the time: “Comrades, I mean, to the extent to which…” If the militant jargon was eye-glazing, the newspapers printed a language that can only be compared to the incense-clouded Latin of the Catholic Mass, a series of hieratic shibboleths that resembled Abstract Expressionist dance, the high holies and sacred mysteries of a Kabuki facade behind which deals were being cut.

But one aspect of the political debate became dazzlingly clear to me on a July afternoon in 1977 when my flatmate Angela burst into the small apartment we shared; she had the day’s newspaper and sat down to read it at the kitchen table. Angela was tall, with a crazed serpent’s nest of curly, hennaed red hair, intensely exorbital brown eyes, stunningly uneven buckteeth, and a dangerous temper. She dressed in the uniform of leftist Italian students: vest over peasant blouse, long embroidered skirt, Dr. Scholl’s clogs, oversize velvet purse riding at hip height.

As she read one article, something broke in her usually impetuous demeanor. “Oh, mamma mia, quanto mi dispiace,” she keened softly, expressing her sorrow. A NAP militant—Antonio Lo Muscio—had been shot and killed by police on a piazza in Rome, and two female comrades were shot and wounded. Angela was openly mourning the death of people who had killed policemen and hoped to overthrow the state. I was already afraid of her temper and her glare, but I was now aware that her political beliefs went to a place much more glamorous and romantic, and far scarier, than I had guessed. Read More »

5 COMMENTS

Disco Purgatorio

September 19, 2014 | by

Divina.

Divina. Photo: Antonio La Grotta

The Italian photographer Antonio La Grotta has done what some intrepid ruin pornographer ought to have done years ago: he’s taken pictures of Italy’s abandoned discotheques.

004

Topkapi.

In the boom times of the eighties, these discos sprang up across the Italian countryside, shrines to saturnalia and synthesizers. Now there are purgatories where once there were infernos. La Grotta describes these edifices as “fake marble temples adorned with Greek statues made of gypsum, futuristic spaces of gigantic size, large enough to contain the dreams of success, money, fun … ” Now the discos are just “cement whales laid on large empty squares, places inhabited by echo and melancholy.”

You can see more of La Grotta’s photos on his website and on Slate’s Behold blog, but you should set the mood first. Here’s Kano’s “I’m Ready,” seven minutes of blissed-out Italo-Disco that will help you mourn a bygone era and celebrate Friday night.

Expo.

Expo.

NO COMMENTS

The Professor and the Siren

August 9, 2014 | by

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s groundbreaking mermaid.

The-Mermaid

Howard Pyle, The Mermaid, 1910

By the side of the path around the circular, volcanic crater of Lake Pergusa, near the town of Enna in the center of Sicily, a carved stone marks the spot where Proserpina, the goddess of the spring, was seized and carried off by Pluto into the underworld. “Qui, in questo luogo,” proclaims the inscription. “Proserpina fù rapita.” This is the very place:

                                          ...that fair field
Of Enna, where Proserpin gath’ring flow’rs
Herself a fairer Flow’r by gloomy Dis
Was gather’d, which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world.
(Milton, Paradise Lost, IV)

I was giving a lecture in Palermo in 2011 and asked to see the entrance to Hades. My hosts from the university kindly drove me; it was early summer, the lush undergrowth was starred with flowers, and the tapestry of orchids, campion, arum, acanthus, clover, wild hyacinth, thyme, and marjoram was still green, tender, and damp. Next to the monument I found another sign, which pointed beyond the chain-link fence toward “the cave from which the god issued forth in his chariot.” Again, the use of the past historic declared the event’s definite reality. In a tangle of bushes and fruit trees, some rocks were visible, but the mouth opening on the infernal regions now stands in private grounds.

Ovid tells us, in his Metamorphoses, that the young girls who were gathering flowers with Proserpina that fatal day were turned into the Sirens—the bird-bodied golden-feathered singers with female faces of the Homeric tradition—and then went wandering about over land and sea, crying out in search of their vanished playmate. In “The Professor and the Siren,” Giuseppe Tomasi, Prince of Lampedusa, picks up these echoes when he evokes a passionate love affair unfolding by the sea in the ferocious heat of the dog days in 1887. However, in this late story, which was written in January 1957, a few months before his death, Lampedusa gives his immortal heroine the body of a fish from the waist down; in this he is following the more familiar northern folklore tradition of fish-tailed mermaids; of Mélusine, seal women or selkies; and of water spirits, called undines by the alchemist and philosopher Paracelsus. But both species share the special charm of an irresistible voice. In the case of Lampedusa’s mermaid, hers is “a bit guttural, husky, resounding with countless harmonics; behind the words could be discerned the sluggish undertow of summer seas, the whisper of receding beach foam, the wind passing over lunar tides. The song of the Sirens ... does not exist; the music that cannot be escaped is their voice alone.” Read More »

8 COMMENTS