Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Rome Journal: When in New York

Lattuada’s Mafioso dealt with a Sicilian who works in an automobile factory in Milan. Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers also has to do with Southern Italians making their way in the North. Criminal behavior is prominent in both films and of course The Godfather deals with the immigration of Sicilians to America through the lens of organized crime. You’re always meeting Romans who have lived in America. Some have even grown up in the States and returned to Rome. Conversely Rome is filled with expatriate Americans who have picked up stakes and sought to reinvent themselves in the Eternal City. Like their Roman counterparts some stay for good and become Italians and some return home to take up where they have left off. For many Americans the return is not so much an act of surrender as a resumption of an important part of identity especially if they’ve become parents. It’s fun to expropriate a culture’s exotic ways and learning to speak another language idiomatically can be a little like donning a costume on Halloween. However, in the case of the Romans you meet in New York, there’s a qualitative difference. It’s rare that you meet a Roman or Italian, for that matter, who wants to adopt the accent of a New Yorker. Many Italians you meet tenaciously hold onto a Italianate persona, even when they’ve found a place for themselves in American society. They may settle down and only return to Rome once a year to see family and friends on the Christmas Holiday, but they're first and foremost Romans. When in New York, do like the Romans is their motto.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Memories of Underdevelopment

For those who saw Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment when it first was released back in l968, the movie is itself a memory. The Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, along with the Kennedy assassination were already history. . Now revisiting Memories, currently in revival at Film Forum, with its juxtaposition of the personal and the political (an almost schizophrenic bifurcation due to the revolutionary moment it describes), the layers of ambivalence may seem even more brilliantly apparent than when it first premiered. Modernism with its acute subjectivity has long been anathema in Communist and/or totalitarian societies which regard self-consciousness as apostasy, particularly in the underdeveloped third world context that Memories underscores (the Nazis famously promoted their shows of degenerate art). When the film came out, some might have looked at its protagonist, Sergio (Sergio Courriei) a wannabee writer in the early days of the revolution, who lives off the proceeds of some rentals and income he earned working in the furniture store he inherited, as a parasite. Sergio’s apartment is reminiscent of Bunuel with its expensive objects (particularly a pair of nude paintings) in disarray and its fetishism (Sergio rifles through the underwear of his ex-wife who has left for the States). Sergio himself is a relic, a bourgeois in a postcolonial society whose world weary conversation might include remarks about it being easier to be a millionaire Communist in Paris. One of the questions of the movie, of course, is why Sergio stays when many of others of his class are leaving and one clue lies in his own repugnance with the  milieu in which he was raised. Showing some degree of allegiance to the revolution is his revenge against complacency. One wonders what the Cuban censors were thinking since Sergio is an unequivocally appealing figure compared to some of the representatives of the common people who are portrayed (the family of a peasant girl he has seduced are portrayed, for example, as buffoons and blackmailers). On the film's 50th anniversary, the ideological complexity of the character is even more stark. Alea’s protagonist occupies a high-rise and one of the ways in which he engages the revolution is through his telescope. There isn’t even a pretense of connection between the sensibility of the highly interiorized narrator and that of the collectivity or crowd. And sadly or not that appears to be Alea’s ultimate point. Memories of Underdevelopment is a swan song for either agit prop or belly button gazing poetes maudites depending on which way you choose to see it.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Rome Journal: Ara Pacis


virtual reality at the Ara Pacis (photograph by Hallie Cohen)
Augustine and Augustus were both august figures and August is not the month to visit Rome, due to both the heat and the tourists. But speaking of Augustus, back in l938 the Ara Pacis, the enormous sculptural monument to the emperor, which is the Roman version of Hegelian dialectics (originally commissioned by the Roman senate in 13B.C.), was moved from the North of Rome to the Longotevere along the Tiber. It renders both the ideology and history of Pax Augusti. Then in l996 the Mayor of Rome commissioned the American architect Richard Meier to create a new housing which was completed in 2006. Today you can look at it through virtual reality goggles which turn the stone carvings into a living narrative of the first emperor in Roman history whose reign ushered in an era of relative peace (if you prefer looking at Augustus' reign in a more classic novelized version read John Williams' novel Augustus). The panels are a mixture of mythology from Romulus and Remus to major figures whose exact identities are still subject to question, but may have included Tiberius, Agrippa and more certainly Augustus himself. The Ara Pacis offers both a hagiography (like that found on the frieze of an Egyptian tomb) and a formative document providing both the governance and bylaws for the most long-lived governmental enterprise in human history. Though the Augustan era is remembered for its stability one still can’t help but recall Shelley’s famous words about another stone sculpture in “Ozymandius:” “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”


Friday, January 26, 2018

Rome Journal: Are Antiquities a Thing of the Past?

suburbs of Rome (photo: Alicia Patterson Foundation)
Tourists naturally visit cities like Rome for the antiquities: the Pantheon, the Colosseum, the Baths of Caracalla and the Theater of Marcellus. The Vatican doesn’t exactly qualify as an antiquity. It  didn’t become the center of Christianity until after the Pope’s came back from Avignon in 1377. But is the other Rome occupied by average people doing everyday jobs a future antiquity to which tomorrow’s traveler will be attracted? Or has the age of antiquities passed? Mussolini tried to qualify when he constructed the E.U.R. which would have been the home of the l942 World's Fair if the war hadn’t intervened. Now the Palazza della Civilita Italiano is one of many structures that remain and which could be considered candidates for landmark status. You see it looming on the skyline with its massive grid of futuristic windows as you drive from Fiumicino to the center of the city. In France you have Les Banlieues in England Council Housing and in Italy, it’s the Borgate, the housing developments also built during the fascist era. Few visitors get to see this side of the city, but while they have an enormous economic and sociological significance, they hardly evince the majesty that’s to be found at any of the sites of archeological digs that are perennially taking place in Rome. Some might term Silvio Berlusconi a modern day Caligula, but true grandeur requires the kind of empire that's been lacking for almost 2000 years.  Leonard Downie Jr. wrote a paper entitled, "The Modern Sack of Rome" (Alicia Patterson Foundation, l972). Could it be that antiquities are a thing of the past?

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Annals of PC: The Problems of Pussy Riot and Hole

It’s lucky there are bands with names like Pussy Riot and Courtney Love’s Hole. You may be ticketed by the forces of political correctness on a liberal college campus for saying “pussy” or even “hole” unless you’re a spelunker looking for a cave. But no one's going to stop you from saying the name of a band that has stood up to Putin. But there's a certain unwieldiness  to wearing a helmet every time you say "hole" and it can be disconcerting to have to intone “Pussy Riot,” ever time you want to use the word “pussy.” For instance the most horrible thing that a male or female could possible do is to praise a woman’s genitalia by saying “you have a nice pussy” and no one would dare say "here pussy pussy" to a cat anymore since the very words might be misinterpreted with the evidence eventually used against you. On the other hand imagine having to say “you have a nice pussy riot,” every time you find yourself enjoying your friend’s pet. It’s like having to carry that extra piece of baggage that breaks the camel’s back. Say you’d like to place a phallus in someone hole, who wants to be coerced into making it Courtney’s Love’s hole? Even if it might be true, it may be more literally than politically incorrect.