Luchino Visconti, Death In Venice (1971)

Luchino Visconti’s Death In Venice is an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novel; it follows Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), a composer who, due to ill health, comes to Venice. The film explores the encounter of true beauty amidst the decay – Venice is struck down by a plague toward the end of the film. The music present throughout the film are Gustav Mahler’s the Third and the Fifth symphonies and the main character is himself a composer, while in the novel he is a writer. This change made by Visconti is important since it highlights the musical nature of the protagonist and connects him to the romantic music we hear throghout the film; it amplifies the intensity of Gustav’s feelings, but also provides a setting which facilitates the contemplation of beauty. Gustav is infatuated with the beauty of a stunningly beautiful youth, a teenage boy.

The Nietzschean concepts of Apollonian and Dyonisian are particularly relevant to the film; the protagonist, as his friend makes a remark in the flashbacks we see in the film, sets high moral standards of perfection and restraint upon himself (the Apollonian element) and suppresses the irrational and passionate Dyonisian element. During the flashbacks, we witness the conversations of philosophical nature regarding the role of the artist and whether the artist creates from the spirit or, as his friend suggests, through the senses. “Evil is a necessity”, says his friend while despising Aschenbach’s self control and the lack of passion for things, his sterile self-composure. The artist “feeds” himself upon the decay and sickness, his friend emphasizes, and good health is a dry thing, as well as the neglect of the passionate, sensual encounter with the world. “Genius is a divine gift. A sinful morbid flash fire of natural gifts”.

 

When Aschenbach comes to Venice, he encounters a grotesque figure wearing make-up and later in the film he himself tries to look youthful and gets a similar make-up resembling a death mask. Upon arriving to Venice, a corrupt gondolier takes him in the direction he doesn’t want to go; this points to the fact that Aschenbach’s encounter with Tadzio is not an act of his will, as he sees him he is momentarily infatuated and cannot escape the admiration of beauty he sees. The film conveys the appearance of beauty amongst decay, beauty degenerating into the grotesque and implicitly the degeneration of art, being either a pure form for the contemplation of beauty and the aesthetical or a sensual manifestation. In other words, degeneration and decay and the possibility of encountering beauty in its purity is the main theme of the film.

Aschenbach says that at his father’s house he had an hourglass and that “the aperture through which the sand runs is so tiny that… that first it seems as if the level in the upper glass never changes. To our eyes, it appears that the sand runs out only… only at the end.” The antinomies between youth and old age, sickness and health are deeply present throughout the film as well as  the perception of timelessness during the contemplation and admiration of beauty. Aschenbach’s  friend says to him that he has never possessed chastity since purity is a privilege of youth: “In all the world, there is no impurity so impure as old age.”

 

Vigorous line:

“You must never smile like that. You must never smile like that at anyone. I love you.”

Gustav von Aschenbach

 

In Plato’s dialogue thematically dedicated to eros and love, Phaedrus, Socrates says that although madness can be illness, it can bring us blessings. The form of “divine madness” Plato writes about is love that comes from Aphrodite and Eros. We can see that Gustav, after seeing Tadzio on the beach, starts composing, while we can assume that, due to his illness, he was not artistically productive before that. For Plato, the madness of love arises from seeing beauty and being reminded of true universal beauty. Gustav is vilely distressed when he does not see Tadzio and joyous when he does, he is completely obsessed with the boy; not until the last part of the movie does he engage in any contact with him. Tadzio is for Gustav, and for Visconti as a creator of art, an artistic form itself, like an ancient statue that majestically shines in the sun.

Whether Gustav’s affection for Tadzio is sensual is debatable, but the impression the film leaves is that Tadzio is a manifestation of Gustav’s obsession with beauty and perfection and that that relationship is erotic in the Platonic sense of the term. If we borrow Plato’s vocabulary, Gustav is “reminded” of the universal beauty which Tadzio represents in the material form. When he touches his hair and his hand shakes, it can be compared to the child’s desire to touch statues at a museum, but knowing that it is forbidden.

 

For Gustav this is forbidden, not only because of the social conventions, but because by experiencing beauty through the senses the Platonic element of observing the earthly reflections of the idea of beauty is compromised. Tadzio’s smiling to him compromises the aesthetic experience as well, since it brings an element of the emotional and sensual.   In this moment, Gustav’s degeneration commences regarding to experiencing Tadzio as a reflection of Divine Beauty. Gustav’s friend says: “No, Gustav, no. Beauty belongs to the senses, only to the senses.”

This is particularly the view Gustav is opposed to and he cannot accept since he sees art and beauty as coming from the spirit. In an ending scene, when Gustav is dying on the beach and observing Tadzio as he is illuminated by the Sun in the sea, blood is trickling down his forehead, the artist dies while observing pure beauty. Symbolically it may mean that when the artist is confronted with the purest form of beauty, he starts dying, since everything he may observe later would be degenerate in comparison with the Beauty he experienced.

Hrvoje Galić

Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire (1987)

 

The original title of the film Wings of Desire is Der Himmel über Berlin (Sky Over Berlin); the English title beautifully captures the main antinomy present in the film – the one between spirituality and celestial purity and the carnal, eroticism and sensuality. In Marion’s character, the sensuality and existentalist wondering about being-in-the-world (Heidegger) are both present, she frequently asks herself questions of profound meaning; her character is authentic. She is beautiful, sensual and radiates eroticism of elegant stature.

Titian Angel

Tiziano Vecellio, Angel, 1520-1522

Note: Tiziano’s Angel beautifully embodies the aforementioned ideas of celestial purity and carnality; Tiziano’s nudes can be contrasted to his Annunciation; the erotic and the divine are equally important for his work

On the other side of the coin is Cassiel, an angel who is portrayed as the angel of Temperance is in the Renaissance art; he is one of seven Archangels. At the end of the film, when Nick Cave performs and the meeting between Marion and Damiel is about to happen, Cassiel turns himself against the wall in sadness and a hint of anger arises. The film is abundant with existentialist voice-overs, but the carnal and the erotic aspect enriches it and makes it similar to its photography. Black and white often turn into colour palletes of symbolic meanings; most of the last half an hour of the film is shot in colour – when Damiel becomes a man.

It is interesting that the tale of Genesis and a primordial river that emanated life is rather detached from religious narratives; beautiful shots of trees and water show the essence of life, its origin in the abundance of nature. It is symptomatic that water is the element which is presented as a spring of life, everything came into being from water. The character which is in spiritual communication with Cassiel is the Storyteller, a keeper of man’s memories and a well of creation. He admits that he is old, he longs for days long past, but through his words everything is preserved and new tales come into being.

At the end of the film, Damiel and Marion meet and she has a monologue characteristic of Wenders’ work (Paris, Texas), she opens her soul to him, tells him that with him she can be lonesome, an idea that is associated with true companionship – “to be alone together”. Nick Cave performs in the background, we can hear his song “From Her To Eternity”, a song which contemplates suffering over a woman. One of the verses says:

But, Ah know, that to possess her,

Is therefore not to desire her.

 

Vigourous line:

 “When the child was a child, it walked with its arms swinging. It wanted the stream to be a river, the river a torrent and this puddle to be the sea. When the child was a child, it didn’t know it is a child, everything was full of life, and all life was one.”

Damiel

The Croatian novelist Vladan Desnica once wrote: “There was a multitude of religions and philosophies that claimed that a man has a soul, and that very soul is endless and immortal. It often seemed to me peculiar that never and nowhere there was a belief that a child has an endless and immortal soul, and later when it grows up, loses it.”

This Desnica’s belief can be compared to the main ideas of Wings of Desire. When Bruno Ganz’s character, the angel Damiel, listens to the thoughts of people, those thoughts are often banal and without substantial meaning, while the children who see him, smile at him and ask themselves profound questions. A phrase “When the child was a child” is a leitmotif of the film, it is often repeated; child has an endless soul and is entagled in much deeper existential questions than a grown man.

Children In the Sea

Joaquin Sorolla, Children in the Sea

A child is immersed into the world, the trees in the woods breath with life and life is similar to a dreamlike experience. Friedrich Nietzsche in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra tells a parable of transformation from a camel into a lion and then a child. A camel carries the burdens of the world on her back, the lion destroys those burdens, while the child has abundant creativity and carefree freedom for play. Heraclitus wrote: “Eternity is like a child playing at draughts, the kingdom belongs to a child.”

Hrvoje Galić

Michelangelo Antonioni, L’eclisse (1962)

It is somewhat ironic that we are commemorating a total solar eclipse which occurred in the United States a week ago, with a film that can be easily interpreted through Marxist lenses. Although, since the Cold War is over, one can afford such leeway. Speaking of the Cold War, L’eclisse was filmed in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and is heavily influenced by that very experience the world had gone through. Trees in the film remind of the shape of a nuclear blast, which is very likely rooted in our collective unconscious, if we follow Jungian psychoanalysis.

The film follows Vittoria (Monica Vitti – one of the most talented Italian actresses of that era), self-confident but fragile young woman who engages in romantic escapades or long-time relationships while seeming to be reluctant to allow herself to be seriously emotionally involved. She longs for security; as we can see at the beginning of the film when she lies in a fetal position, but she also longs for freedom and is repelled by what she perceives as impediments that men bring to her life.

The first man that we can see she encounters is her adolescent amour, the man who wants to marry her, but she escapes from such a possibility and encounters a young man of materialistic nature. He sees the world through the lenses of a man who mostly deals with numbers, money to be more exact. At one moment in the film, he says that he had dinner with “seven or eight billion liras”. When he meets Vittoria, all he talks of are his cars and the money he earned. The angles from which the scenes of Vittoria and her companions are filmed imply emotional distance (we can often see their backs).

What’s even more symptomatic are the scenes of the behaviour of businessmen at the stock exchange; Antonioni dedicates a fair amount of screen time to such scenes to highlight its barbaric and crude nature. At one  moment of silence is had for a “fallen comrade”; the angle from which the scene is shot makes it similar to a religious experience at a chapel. Both romances fail, the second mostly because the tender and poetic side of Vittoria simply cannot digest Piero’s crude materialism.

Stock Exchange

 

The two themes with which Antonioni deals predominantly in this film are the alienation of modern man and the  banality of romantic love. The first theme is explored in his early neorealist films (most notably Il grido), but is elaborated upon fully in the trilogy L’Eclisse is the part of. The scenes which deal with a woman who was born in Africa symbolize the need of modern man to escape alienation through immersion into the life of “primitive” people and intimate encounter with nature. Antonioni points out that this is impossible. The Westerner sees the Africans through the lenses of modernization theories which value other cultures according to their level of industrial, economical (etc.) development.

The banality of romantic love in the bourgeoise society has an important aspect that needs to be considered. Love is no longer destructive in the manner Homer depicts it (Troy is sacked because of eros), or as later poets and authors do. The main danger, as Antonioni sees it, is that romantic love becomes a trifle, a commodity which takes boredom away.

The beautiful final shots in the film show desolate town landscapes with worried and devastated people (the nuclear threat); the shots of water represent life which is slowly fading away into the nothingness of Boudelairean spleen permeating the industrial landscapes resembling those in Antonioni’s Red Desert.

 

Vigourous line:

 “There are times when holding a needle and a thread, or a book, or a man – it’s all the same.”

Vittoria

African Weaving

This line can be interpreted from several different angles. It presents Vittoria in a vulnerable moment of passive nihilism, but also the desire to transcend that feeling. It is important to note the symbolism of tropes she chose to say. A needle and a thread are intimately connected to the art of weaving. It is a delicate skill, but also the one which connects threads into something new, which can be beautiful and awe inspiring.

In Plato’s Statesman weaving is compared to the statestman’s role. He needs to weave divergent and analogue threads into a polity. A “book” can imply numerous things like exploring the uncharted seas, but also late-night boredom and fatigue. Associating all these tropes with the romantic relationship is intellectualy stimulating and interesting. It can inspire countless interpretations, the one that highlights the emotional state of the main character, but also her subconscious desires and imagination.

Hrvoje Galić

 

Martin Scorsese, Mean Streets (1973)

Mean Streets is one of Martin Scorsese’s early pictures and a very personal one. As it is well-known, he wanted to become a Catholic priest and grew up in Manhattan, in Little Italy, a famous New York neighbourhood. He later reminisced that it was like a “Sicilian village”. The film follows Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a psychotic young man aspiring to become a respected mob member. De Niro plays the part with virtuosity (he was 30 at the time) that anticipates his later tour de force performances in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Mean Streets is not just a milestone in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant career, it may very well be one of his finest pictures. The film deeply influenced Wong Kar-Wai’s first movie As Tears Go By.

De Niro’s genius is openly manifested in the portrayal of his character’s erratic behaviour and is an antipode of Harvey Keitel’s character Charlie, who is calm, rational and does not succumb to desires easily. A shot in which Johnny Boy shoots in the air trying to shoot the lights on the Empire State Building is a synechdoche that points to the type of character Johnny Boy is. His ravaging irrationality puts him at odds with men he cannot control, as he cannot control himself.

He does not care for family bonds, religion, or anything whatsoever that does not bring him pleasure. He has no fear at all, a characteristic that Aristotle defined as immoderate folliness. On the other hand, for Charlie, family and religion are important, and that, paradoxically, puts him in an impossible position of trying to save a man, whose head is deep under the water, from drowning. Shots of fire are often shown in the movie and its symbolism is twofold. On one hand, fire represents temptations that can lead to divine punishment of suffering in hell; on the other – madness. Fire, along with water is an element that is commonly associated with madness (for connections between symbolism of water regarding to madness, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia is a perfect example).

Bob Dylan’s song Joey, originally from the album Desire can be beautifully juxtaposed to the world of Mean Streets.

 

The world of Mean Streets can also be compared to the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, most particularly his The Idiot. Prince Myshkin has epilepsy, as does Teresa; Charlie can be compared to Prince Myshkin, a naïve man who is trying to “save” his erratic and murderous friend Rogozhin; Johnny Boy is a version of the latter. The Idiot ends with main characters either succumbing to madness or ending up in Syberia, and Mean Streets does not end on a much lighter note as well. On the other hand, music in the film (e.g. the Rolling Stones) gives the grave matters it discusses a tone of playfullness; lighthearted humour, bar fights and improvized scenes, ultimately bring the viewer enjoyment.

 

Vigorous line:

“Nobody tries anymore… Just tries to help, that’s all, to help people.

Francis of Assisi had it all down.”

Charlie

El Greco, St. Francis’s Vision of the Flaming Torch

Note: Martin Scorsese uses El Greco’s Christ in his latest film Silence

Francis of Assisi was born an Italian as Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone. He was a founder of the Franciscan order; in 1219 he went to Egypt to convert a sultan to put an end to a conflict. In the country chapel of San Damiano, the Icon of Crucified Christ spoke to him with words “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” Keeping in mind these anecdotes, we can perceive the appeal St. Francis had to Charlie. In the opening captions we can see Charlie shaking hands with a Catholic priest and at the beginning of the film he says: “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home.” During the film there are numerous voice-overs of Charlie’s introspections from which we can learn much about his character, religiosity and social views.

He is a ridiculed figure at times because of his devotion to Catholicism; his constant aim during the film is to save others from themselves. At the end of the film, he lies and makes up a story about himself (just like Odysseus did in Homer’s work) to “save” a Jewish woman from the life of prostitution. On the other hand, during the dialogue by the sea, Teresa tells him that everyone must take care of himself (a Nietzschean worldview). Their moral stances are in a constrast, and we can see internal tensions in Charlie’s character as well. He tries to live up to the appearances that he thinks must be upheld, but at the same time follows his principles.

 In a way Mean Streets is a morality tale. It would be much different if in the end Charlie pays  the ultimate price, but it seems that Scorsese wanted to praise Charlie’s way of living not as a naïve one, but heroic and worthy. We can ponder if his devotion to family and helping Johnny Boy is of any use at all and that precisely is Scorsese’s brilliance. Mean Streets is a film open to interpretations, moral discussions and at the same time serves as entertainment. Its twofold characteristic – it brings both enjoyjment and material for reflection – makes it a brilliant piece of art.

Hrvoje Galić