I’d come to Sicily, so I told myself in my mind, to make a film. What that film was remained very vague, a thinly imagined sequence of images, or more just thoughts on how to make some images out of visions in my head. The images derived from past visits to Sicily, or images I’d seen in books. The medium was my now aging but hardly used Sony XDcam, a high-definition camera capable of remarkable clarity and resolution – as can be seen exquisitely in James Benning’s RUHR and PIG IRON. In nearly 2 years I’d shot almost nothing with it, though I loaned it out to a Korean filmmaker friend, Hwang Cheol Mean, to make a feature, and to some of my students to make some films – one showing next month in the Vancouver Film Festival, (A Silk Letter, by Kwang Sangwoo). I imagined wedding the XDcam’s resolution to the multiple imagery I’d explored a bit in my own Swimming in Nebraska, though taking a very different, more “classical” approach.
On arriving in Sicily I was immediately let-down, though rather predictably so – after all I had been to this island some 5 or 6 times in the last three decades – to Taormina, Siracusa, Palermo, Cefalu and Tusa and other places. And though I had found these places all arresting and fascinating, I had also, since 1978, been appalled at the squalid mess which Sicilians had made of their own land. Abandoned illegal buildings littered the landscapes, as did trash, dull high-rise housing, ill-designed periferia, a clatter of advertising signs, poorly built roads, and the negative din of the Sicilian way of living. And now an autostrada rises on stilts, flattening nature’s curves, impertinently striding across mountain and valley, reducing geology to a 2 dimensional diagram. Roads are crammed with macho drivers, 10 cm off your tail-pipe, racing to pass you on a blind curve, proving their manhood to themselves and their girlfriends; or stopped on a blind-corner for a quick espresso or to talk with a friend, arguing over double parking – a constant chaos of disorder and a disrespect for all organized ways of social living. And owing to pragmatic things – my summer vacation – we’d come in August, when the coasts and beaches are inundated with Italians al mare, making for an Asiatic urban density crammed on the beaches, a lemming-like cultural mass gang-bang. Not an auspicious time to be present. And in reality I knew all this before deciding to go there to attempt a film.
Almost immediately I felt the sense that I would make no film, though I did make a few desultory attempts at a few shots – shots having nothing to do with those I’d orchestrated in my mind: after all, the ones in my mind had no corollaries in reality. And something in me choked at the thought of aiming my lens at the squalid mess which reality presented. Driving inland from the coasts, there was some relief – suddenly vast open country-side, with small towns perched on mountain-top redoubts, warbly winding roads and little traffic, but with smoke-smudged skies making for a dull burned out landscape of dried fields, an almost colorless range of dim earth tones and darks, a flat off-white sky, and again – nothing of the images I’d imagined to make, which required bright blue skies into which to blue-screen other images, or dark areas where I could also imprint other imagery.
Compounding this disillusion was the on-going wrestling match in my mind about the whole process of even bothering to add another image to the already endless deluge which our culture makes automatically. Something in me resists, and whispers, “enough.” The “enough” runs from a desired Zen silence to a questioning of my creative energies: I ponder if I am burnt out, as all creative people at some time are, or gone to seed. Though frankly the idea that this might be so doesn’t bother me as I see it as a natural process – sure, we get old, tired of doing what we do and I’ve been making films for almost 50 years, and while I have vivid creative insights that intrigue me, most of the process has dulled into boredom. Unless the images are something I have never seen, I am immediately promptly depleted of energies, a voice inside saying “another fucking image like the others” and I stop. The images I had imagined were not those, but then they didn’t seem to want to materialize for me in reality. Instead there were only what the Sicilian landscape offered up – Baroque splendors, Greek temples, great mountainous ranges, deep valleys – all that was there, but encrusted with the ruinations of mindless modern man, rampantly destroying everything of value in the name of an idiot consumerism that seemed to leave us all empty, able to toss a plastic cup, beer bottle, a cigarette pack or whatever onto the grounds of a 2,500 year old temple now turned into a costly-to-enter Disney artifact, neatly fenced in, labeled, controlled, and always now the book/trinket tourist store at the exit, after paying 8 or 10 Euro to enter. Whatever I had imagined – despite my direct experience contradicting those visions – simply did not exist. The camera stayed in the trunk of the car as we meandered from Messina to Milazzo to Enna, to Cefalu, and Palermo. Yes, I took a lot of stills – competent images of no creative import at all – but the video camera, except for a few desultory shots, stayed unused. With each passing day it became clearer that whatever it was I had intended to make, the actual material in images did not exist, and not being Hollywood, I could not pay to construct them to exist. Instead what existed was a floundering and confusion, and a hard-nosed acknowledgment of a kind of defeat.
What that defeat is remains a bit unclear to me. I addressed this in part earlier in these pages when writing of An Audience of (N)one – of the present reality that for all practical purposes the only outlets for the kind of work I do is now festivals, and festivals offer a bad environment for that kind of work. And further, whereas not long ago – a decade or so – I could more or less assume a handful of festivals would show whatever work I do, I can no longer make that assumption. The last three or four films I’ve made – Over Here, Parable, Rant, and Swimming in Nebraska, all have either had no invitations, or only one or two, to no tangible effect. And contrary to 10 or 15 years ago, there is no little niche market, no chance at all of a sale to some Euro TV, to make a little money of it. So, on a practical, material level, there is no evident point to making such work. Nor do cultural pats on the head and ego-strokes really have any meaning for me. What is left is seemingly only my own pleasure in making things despite the final reality that when all is said and done, it seems they are made only for me. And I have to pay to make them! At 67 the enticement of this is rather diminished. So surely this is one element of my sense of defeat here in Sicily.
But it is perhaps a lesser element. Of more import is my feeling that in our current culture, the vast swirl of imagery no longer holds any weight of the kind I care about – something spiritual, something of what I find in art, something that moves the mind and soul. Or its weight is solely determined by what I feel to be utterly the wrong things: the devastation of Sicily’s urban and rural landscapes is caused by exactly the same thing which has raped the value of all images. That thing is money, and the system – capitalism – which has warped the human mind into an empty vessel of consumption, such that people can and will destroy the very things they assert to love and value in its pursuit. A beautiful landscape will be taken, encrusted with signs, marketed, sold, and as I have seen again and again in the last weeks, laid waste in the name of making a profit. Whether it is in the half-built concrete skeletons of “abusive” buildings to be found here, or in the “legal” hotels and second homes that have transformed once small and sleepy fishing villages into cheap temporary playgrounds for the urban masses, or it is in the clutter of vehicles that cram the highways, or the endless stores peddling the same things from one end of this island (or the whole world) to the other – the “brands” from MacDonalds to Gucci, to be found now almost anywhere – all these collude to trash the very world that we live in, and whose beauties we seem so adept at first dulling and then utterly destroying.
In such a world, it seems that another image, however well crafted, however deep in intended meaning or however well “artistically” conceived, becomes merely another instantly discardable commodity – as at a festival, where “serious” film aficionados flit quickly from one film to another, rushing to cram as many difficult-to-see films in a day or week as they can. To feed this frenzy seems to me an increasingly dubious matter pointing to a logic in which perhaps the proper response is renunciation – to simply stop, to withdraw, to be silent. Perhaps though, these are merely the thoughts of an older man who is soon to be made permanently silent, like it or not. Or perhaps the ruminations of an experienced soul that finally, as the closing comes, must acknowledge that it’s all really for nothing, a way to bide the time before the extinction of one’s self, or in the longer view, one’s entire culture, and finally universe.
The last days we’ve been wandering the remains of the Greek colonies which dotted the Sicilian landscape 2,500 years ago. In Selinunte, the less touristic of these, a vast upheaval of stones – toppled columns, lintels, capitals, walls, the gridded outlines of foundations – all hint at a once-vibrant culture in flower, then invaded, burned and destroyed by the Carthaginians, who, as it occurred, lost the Punic wars, laying the ground for many of the myths of our culture, myths which still echo today. In the sprawl of tumbled stone, one sees the carvings, the architectural sinews, the fragments of what was a great labor, and tries to imagine the culture which made this, as it were, all by hand. And these are but the hard elements – not the cloth, the food, the paintings, the less survivable materials of that long ago time. They had not our modern machines, and what is there was placed with labor – slave, animal, with very minimal use of the simple rules of physics: a bit of leverage here, a simple pulley there. The massive stones were carved and nudged into place, the columns with central pins, and gravity the fundamental architectural glue to hold it all together. Amid the jumble of these remnants it is difficult to piece together the serene world which it seemed must have intermittently existed, with its exquisitely designed temples rising on the crest of a hill, overlooking the dazzle of the Mediterranean’s rich blue. One tries, but falters.
In the same moment one sees the furious forces of hatred which drove the Carthaginians to expend all the inverse labor needed to topple the city and leave it a heap of rubble – as to say, “so much for your Gods and culture.” We see only the weathered stones, where once the same ground would have been littered not only with the earthly stuff of rock, but also caked in blood and the slaughtered corpses of the inhabitants. Such a wreckage would not be easily done, and required its own immense work, driven by some demonic need to delete the other’s culture – their gods, their temples, their world – as if it were a mortal offense that it merely existed. Against such a history the costly placement of the cities that followed, far up on a mountain top, begins to make sense: all the effort to haul the stones of architecture, the provisions for water, to bring foodstuffs to these places, and then to ornament them all with cultural, religious, artistic investment, which could not so easily be destroyed as those coastal cities of the Greeks – it falls into an understandable range. Still, with each town and city we saw – Enna, Agrigento, Scicli, Modica, Ragusa – each rich with a heritage of Baroque churches and palazzi, and remnants of earlier cultures – Greek, Sickel – the amount of pure work involved left me stunned. Today it is nearly impossible for us to comprehend the levels of social investment which these towns – each with a splendid cathedral and all its interior decorations, a bishop’s palace, numerous other churches, and many other palazzi, all built and decorated in impressive style – imply: all constructed in effect “by hand.” We really can’t comprehend how things were made without the advantages and efficiencies of electricity, of power tools, of all the things we now take for granted (and with which we so often build such graceless and ugly things). To imagine merely cutting the wood to make the framework by which the stones were placed to build the cathedrals is already beyond our capacities; to imagine the small army of craftsmen deployed to make the carvings which are an integral part of these structures must elude us. Nor can we comprehend the numbers of people involved, which by our measure is small. To then add that in those times those involved in agricultural production were not, as in ours, a few percent, but the great majority of the population, renders all this even more difficult to understand. That there was so much in effect “surplus labor” to devote to taking everything to the nearest high, defensible, site, and building there under great additional stress, and lathering it all with costly artistic values (for religious reasons), all points then backwards to the great labor which the Carthaginians gave to toppling all the material signs of the Greek community of Selinunte. Which, as Sicily inescapably does, brings one around to the immense power – however evidently perverse – of religion in human history: here it is clear it is one of the primal forces which propels human endeavors.
Again and again, the major elements of the historical remnants of society here are religious: the temples of the Greeks, the cathedrals of the Christians, the monasteries and convents, these are the focus of these societies, where the greatest social investment was placed. Conversely these were the sites which, as symbols of the core values of their societies, were the targets of enemies: Selinunte and its temples (along with the adjacent community) were destroyed because they represented the values of that culture. Similarly, if not in Italy, but further north, Catholic iconography was attacked in the Reformation, which focused on the purported false values which they represented: churches, convents and monasteries, were destroyed in the religious wars ignited by Protestantism.
Within my grasp, historically, I might only vaguely comprehend these things by their modern equivalents: perhaps the rubble of 1945 Berlin or Hiroshima, or more recently, the ravaged remnants of Babylon in Iraq, where perhaps unconsciously, the American military simply expunged from history traces of a civilization far far older than its own: “Kilroy was here.” The impulse to utterly destroy “the other” seems deeply implanted in the human psyche, whether we call the ground “religious” or “ideological.” The same story is to be seen in other parts of the world, where other non-Western cultures behaved similarly, obliterating all signs of those they had conquered, only to later themselves be conquered and subjected to the same erasure.
Juxtaposed to this massive lesson in human history, my small work in orchestrating for a brief moment the flight of photons from a complex and vulnerable projecting apparatus to a screen, and then to the inner screen of the spectator’s eye and then brain, each filtering in its own manner that actual image and its interpretation, all seems a self-evident folly. Combined with the other the other factors I’d confronted in Sicily I found myself paralyzed, at least in terms of making the imagined film. These and other far more mundane matters such as the pure and simple hassle of getting out the camera, mounting it on the lovely carbon-fiber Sachtler tripod, and then dealing with the iffy on-off button of the camera which I’d been warned by those who had borrowed it earlier was inclined to have a mini-mind of its own, going on and off randomly – that was quite enough to provide ample excuse to not do. Instead I found myself making 100’s of still photographs each day, yearning for a small HD camcorder, blogging, and inventing plenty of distractions to assure the would-be film was never given any chance at all.
In chess, a now-standard response to the opening White E4, is to bring the Black pawn C forward to C5. This was, in 1500 an innovative move, developed by some Italians and became known as the Sicilian Defense. It subsequently became popular for some centuries, though later it was criticized, and lost ground. In the last century it became used again, with chess masters employing it and is currently used 25% of games. Statistical analysis though shows it a 47% losing proposition, though simply being the second to play, is inherently to be placed on the defensive and a weaker position. It appears to me I made such a move on this Sicilian trip, and despite experience which should have cautioned me, at least in terms of filmmaking, this journey was a predictable loss. In terms of cannoli, granita, arancini, pizzoli, good local wines (and bad), and a vast array of arts from ancient (2,500 BC) to relatively recent (1800), it was a feast. Now to see if we can run, work, fast it all off…
[For more thoughts on Sicily see cinemaelectronica, or check here later when I hope to add some further thoughts provoked by these travels.
[A few days after posting this my friend Linn Ehrlich sent me this, which we can’t figure out how to post under comments so I’ll paste it here]: