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Category Archives: Italy

dsc02447-crpsmThe view from Caucana

Wrapping up nearly one year in Sicily – initially in Caucana, by the sea for 3 months, and then Ragusa since last January – I’m prompted by circumstances to draw an assessment as our lives move on now to another setting.

We arrived by serendipity:  summer of 2016 met a fellow who’d taken a workshop I’d done way back in 2003 in a small town, Gallo D’Oro, nearby Taormina.  It had been a very happy and successful 10 day affair, and those who took part in it had had a rich and good experience.  Giuseppe Tumino had gone on to other things in the film world here, making documentaries and organizing various events and he had a little festival on the Ionian sea, and finding out I was nearby, in Matera, recuperating from a back operation, he contacted me and asked if Marcella and I might play jurors.  We said yes, had a nice time, and along the way Giuseppe mentioned he came from Ragusa and would be going for the summer to his family’s beach house. Knowing that such beach towns are full of houses that sit vacant for 10 months of the year I promptly and indelicately asked if I might stay in his family’s place in the off-season.  And so we did, from October to December.

dsc03353-sm-smAlong the beach from Caucana to Punta Secca, one of a thousand fotos of sand

I spent the time recuperating, taking long daily walks along the beach, making photos, and along the way we met a friend of Giuseppe’s, Raffaella Spadola, who had a nice small apartment in Ragusa with a modest rent, and in January we moved there.  Ragusa is one of a string of baroque towns – including also Modica, 10 miles away, and Scicli another 10, and then a fair bit further towards Siracusa, Noto. These towns were all destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, and rebuilt splendidly in the style of the times, fully displaying the wealth that Sicily then had. Each town has a sizable Duomo (cathedral) and numerous other churches and Catholic institutional buildings – convents and monasteries, and palazzi for the church leaders and other wealthy people. And as well,  famed celebrations for patron saints, though these now seem mostly – like much else – mainly for tourists.  They are leached of the passion of only half a century ago, when the church still had a firm grip on society – a grip that has collapsed under the assault of modernity and consumerism.  The towns now are full of B&B’s and are busy during the summer tourist season, but largely dormant the rest of the year.



On moving here, perhaps owing to Giuseppe’s local influence, I was the subject of fame’s aura – supposedly I was well-known, a big director.  Which once upon a time might have appeared so – 30 years ago I materialized in Italian newspapers with articles and photos, films in festivals and other such ephemera – and so quickly hovering around were those for whom this acts like flame for a moth.  They had “heard of” (but most likely not seen, even if they said they had) All the Vermeers in New York.  Or something else.  They asked to interview me.  To have me for a party. Etc.  But quickly disillusioned by my willful failure to live up to their imagined expectations, the same people disappeared as brusquely as they had shown up – thankfully.   I guess I don’t exude Big Important Person, nor whatever goes with it.  Nor have I ever wanted to.

So I went about my modest business – took a ton of photos, did some collages, and began to shoot some kind of film. A kind of a reflex habit.  About Ragusa, or vaguely so, or maybe.


At one point some people here thought to do a workshop and arranged a screening of a film, La Lunga Ombra, at a local cafe/cultural focus, Le Fate. Ironically, this place, intended to celebrate Sicilian culture, is run by a woman from Romania. At the screening I said I might be making a film set in Ragusa and said if anyone was interested in helping or participating, to let me know.  The screening attracted maybe 20 people, and when a workshop was suggested they couldn’t manage to round up enough people to bother. However one fellow contacted me, a self-described art critic, who proved more than interested.  He was the kind of opportunist I’d seen before, jumping to take a ride on whatever “fame” coattails I appeared to have, eager to help and insinuate himself into importance.  He was, as usual, helpful, in that he provided a few contacts to local arts people, but then dug in turning himself into the virtual producer of a non-existent project.  After he talked with Marcella about local witches whom he said he knew, and other such things, and took his role with far greater seriousness than warranted, I let him know in no uncertain terms that he’d far over-stepped his boundaries and that I was a private sort of person, and he should bug off.   He did, though he materialized later to say he wished to write an article on my painting and photos for some Italian arts magazine, and to set up an exhibit at a local art gallery.  And then he disappeared a few months, only to pop up again several weeks before we were to leave.  He said he’d arranged to do an exhibit at a gallery in Ibla for the last week of our stay.  Rather abrupt and fast in my book, but I went to the gallery, met the guy running it, and said OK, though it all seemed rather rushed to me.  Italia!  Last minute as usual.   After a little discussion about how to hang the paintings – I said in little passepartout cardboard frames and directly rejected putting them directly on the wall with little putty things – we agreed to an exhibit for a week before we were to leave. They huddled a week and said to come in on a Friday morning, the day before the “opening”, to see and approve the display. Marcella and I arrived at the suggested time, and no one was there.  A glance inside suggested nothing had been done.  After a phone call the gallerist materialized 45 minutes later, and indeed nothing had been done and when Marcella inquired how he intended to mount the paintings he said, why with this putty.  I said no.  Things quickly degenerated and I said I could do without this hassle and to give me back my paintings. They wanted me to pay for the awful little postcard and poster things they’d made but had not put up anywhere.  I left with the paintings.  Marcella stayed another 20 minutes to listen and haggle, which resolved nothing.


CCSMRagusa, the new side


Meantime we’ve shot a bit of material for a film – an interview with a local photographer, Giuseppe Leone, who is quite good.  And we met with a painter, Giovanni Lisandrello. Perhaps this week, before leaving, we’ll go and shoot Giovanni. At the moment we have perhaps 50 minutes.  There’s a few others I’d like to film, though I lack enthusiasm and wonder why I should bother.


My doubts seem to have to do with the less than positive sense I have that inchoately gathers around the material.  Since arriving I’ve been struck by the crippling psychological effect that a very deep provincialism seems to have on those we’ve met – whether the one’s hustling to attempt to use “famous” me as a stepping stone, or those artists, like Giuseppe and Giovanni, who in their talks with us have transparently resented their parochial setting, trapped in the small city of Ragusa, despite their talents, and (as is so common) not really respected as they think they should be in their own community.  The provincialism works into everyone and everything, and distills down into something akin to the thought that if you are here, in Ragusa (or a hundred other small cities or towns in Sicily) then you are nothing.  It is a disease that eats into anyone with the least of ambitions in this kind of setting, and condemns anyone who stays, no matter their talents and skills.  And they seem self-aware of this, but are unable to either escape by leaving, or by refusing the mind-set of provincialism.  Flip side is the tribalism which affects all of Italy, in which your town, contrada, region, and finally person, is necessarily better than those others. It seems that everyone either feels the doors are closed to them, or they themselves close the doors.


RAGUSA 25 DOORS A SMsmDoors of Ragusa

When we visited Giovanni in his nice apartment nearby where we’ve been living, he was, along with his wife, gracious and kind.  We looked at his paintings – which I rather like – and talked.  He’s self-taught, and in fact worked with Giuseppe at the beginning in a photo studio doing retouching. Giuseppe turned to photography, and Giovanni to painting, each taking their own path.  Lissandrelli’s technique, which he learned doing more mundane house-painting as a youth, has a tactile sensibility which is quite strong in his paintings of the local landscapes.  Other works seem instantly archaic, like things dug up by archeologists.


At one point, probably feeling the need to inflate his importance, Giovanni mentioned he’d had an exhibition in New York, and he went to find a newspaper clipping about it. He came back with a very yellowed and worn newspaper page, where his showing was announced – in the advertisement of a car dealership on Long Island, doubtless an Italo-American immigrant from Ragusa who had “made it” in America.  The pathos was visceral.



13244002_1011873302212586_2477487878487431767_oPaintings by Giovanni Lissandrello

Leone, the photographer, has a lovely studio, with many wonderful photos on the walls – the better being from Sicily before it became modernized and lost most of its aesthetic and cultural frisson.  They are like stepping back in time, though within Leone’s life-time – showing how rapidly this part of Italy changed.






rev161810(1)-oriPhotographs of Giuseppe Leone


So there’s some days left, and I think to think some more.  I don’t think there’ll be a film about Ragusa, though perhaps some of the things shot will materialize in some future work.  Or perhaps drift into the decay of digital oblivion.  Like everything.



A final note: the night before leaving, the art critic fellow – Giorgio Giovanni Guastella by name – went in the night and deposited a deep key scratch on our car (actually Marcella’s mother’s car), doubtless in his mind exacting revenge for whatever my imagined crimes.   Of such stuff is provincialism made.



586Edoardo Albinati

Sept 30 2016

Not long ago, in May, my wife Marcella showed me a notice she’d seen in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, a little polemic about all the five finalists for the Strega prize  (Italy’s most prestigious literary award) being from Rome in this year’s round.  Among those listed was my friend Edoardo Albinati.  This naturally perked up my interests, and I sent him a brief note, and not much later was prompted to send him congratulations for having come out the winner.  As a finalist he’d already been subjected to the literary press mill, and as winner he was due to be buried under an avalanche of journalists, critics, in paper and on TV.

And then, this month, came another round-about notice – he would be appearing in an event in Matera, Marcella’s hometown, where we’d been staying in or near since February. Last week we went to Matera to see him in company of a psychoanalyst and writer, Luigi Zoia, and field researcher and blogger, Luca Mori, along with, as it turned out, a somewhat too talkative moderator, Marino Sinibaldi who has a radio program on literature, Fahrenheit.  The event was called Materadio, and was a broadcast.


Marcella saw Edo as he and his wife Francesca entered, and I went to briefly greet him as he worked his way to the front area in the cave-like space of the Casa Cave. We had a few words, and he advanced to the stage set and found his seat, looking rather, to my eyes, uncomfortable. After a while he came back out to talk with me a bit, and remarked how he wasn’t sure he could talk in the cave-setting there, as if the weight of the place would suffocate him. Old Matera – the Sassi – is composed of such places, houses and such carved into the soft tufo, formerly essentially caves, later decked out with facades, some ornately Baroque, but most very simple. Edo returned to his place on stage and had his 15 minutes of the 50 allotted. Afterwards he was hustled off for another hour of photos and short interviews with the press. I kept a discreet distance, and then joined by Marcella, we talked with Francesca while waiting for the press press to cease. Finally Edo emerged and we went to have a drink and some words before they returned to their hotel.

I met Edoardo in 1990, in San Francisco. A friend of his, writer Sandro Veronesi, (a Strega Premio winner back in 2004), had suggested he meet my friend Jim Nisbet – also a writer, of detective novels – who lives in San Francisco.  Jim had done a little part in my Rembrandt Laughing, and tried to work with me on Sure Fire.    And so fortuitously I met Edoardo there through Jim.  And – so Edo told me over our drinks – back then he piled into my VW van of the time, and we drove to the famed City Lights bookstore in North Beach, and, he said, I had an accident on arrival. I do not recall this at all, and am certain I had no accident as I never had any in San Francisco, but maybe I bumped a curb or something.  At all events, I met him and he me.  Such are the odd ways in which I seem to meet my friends, living out of a van, a nomad on the earth.

Some years later, in 1994, having decided to live in Roma, we met again, and on lining up a film production, quite surprisingly to me, I asked Edoardo if he could help in scripting. It wasn’t really a script in the usual sense, since I don’t seem to work that way. Rather, as we went along, I’d have a scene in mind, and I’d ask – sometimes – either that he loosely translate a text I’d written and adjust it to be Italian, or I’d give him a vague generalized idea of what I wanted to convey, and he’d write out a long monologue or whatever. It was very much a collaboration, with me setting brackets, and Edoardo bringing his vastly greater knowledge of Italy – its cultural and political realities – into play, and writing what was needed.

Interestingly, when I took the film – along with Edoardo and a few of the actresses in it – to the Venice Festival in 1995 – the Italian critics, who had rather rapturously greeted my earlier films, harshly critical of America, mostly recoiled at Uno a Me, a somewhat serio-comic critique of things a la Italia. They accused me of not knowing enough about Italy, about having a superficial view, and, well, of failing to make a variant of Roman Holiday, celebrating all things Italian, but instead of having made a critique of Italy after the Years of Lead, and in the midst of the corruptions of Berlusconi and the Mani Puliti era. The critique had been my idea, and in truth I thought I knew enough about Italy to make such a critique. But the more subtle, inside, critique, had been Edoardo’s – he wrote the dialogues and monologues that carried the argument I had framed. Italy is a tribal society, and while it is perfectly OK for a Florentine to harshly speak of, say, Siennese, or any other city-state/culture combo, should a goddam foreigner make a critique of la bella Italia, then the tribal antagonisms dissolve, and a national tribalism congeals in defense of the often indefensible.   Venice taught me that.  My cultural stock in Italy never recovered from this assault – I went from “the most important American independent filmmaker” in the Italian critic’s press opinion to Mr Nada. In hindsight I’d have to say my critique has held up well over the years, and back a bit Rai Tre, which funded it, apparently re-broadcast it a good number of times, so I was told, owing to viewer requests.



uno-72Stills from Uno a Me, Uno a Te, et Uno a Raffaele

In the years since Venice, when in Italy, I’d see Edo when I could. While living in Roma (1993-5, and then 1997-2001) I walked not a few times from my place in Trastevere to his writing offices just north of Piazza del Popolo, to his home in the north side of the city , and visited him a few times outside Roma, once in Sperlonga.

In 2006, shooting a quick, no money one-week or so feature with the actress from Uno a me, Eliana Miglio, and Simonetta Gianfelici, and Agnese Nano, whom I’d worked with in a workshop in Sicily the year before, Edoardo played a role drawn from his recent stay of 6 months in Afghanistan. The film, La Lunga Ombra, was about the undertow effects of 9/11 on Italian and European “intelligentsia.” Edoardo’s role was essentially as himself, a person who’d spent time in Afghanistan, being interviewed by a television journalist. The film came out quite well, but I couldn’t get anyone in Italy (or the US) to screen it – turned down by every festival. My view is that the politics of it were simply too severe for kiss-ass, corporatized festivals to accept while the Iraq war was in full flow.  And probably a film made, however well, for $100 just couldn’t compete in the increasingly commercialized world of art.



edoclosehandStills from La Lunga Ombra

After I left Italy in 2002 and returned to the USA, I saw Edoardo far less – circumstances of life. Though whenever passing through Rome in the following years, I tried. Once a meal in his home with Francesca, and the last time we met at a metro station and had a quick pizza nearby in the north of Rome. And now again, finally, in Matera.




I bought his book in the only bookstore in Matera likely to carry serious literature, and have promised myself to read it, in Italian, all 1,292 pages of it.  It might take me quite some time, but when it is over my Italian will be a hell of a lot better than it is now.  The book, so I’ve read, is about a famed and ugly case in Roma, the Delitto del Circeo, in the mid ’70’s, and is also a touch autobiographical.



Samson Slaying The Philistine, Giambologna, V&A, London

Some time ago, while living in London, I’d visit museums – Tate, National Gallery, British Museum, the V&A, and others.   In my haphazard manner I was studying.  I’d take photographs, sometimes make sketches.  Occasionally I took notes.

, a Flemish sculptor working in Italy, did a number of mythological works, among them the Samson Slaying the Philistine at the V&A.  At the time this piece drew my attention I knew little of nothing of the artist, and not having had any kind of “classical” education;  having never read the Bible, I knew equally little about the story of Samson, only that when his hair was shorn, he lost his strength.   What drew me to the sculpture were its dynamic qualities, its psychological and physical capturing of a primitive hand-to-hand fight.  I both photographed it, and shot it with video, as well as did sketches.  Only recently did I bother to Google the story that lies behind it.

Also at the V&A there is a hall with plaster casts of Michelangelo’s Slaves series, which along with many other people, I find extraordinarily compelling.   Of them I did only sketches.

This past year, invited to Jerusalem for screenings at the Cinematheque, I was asked if I also had somethings suitable for a photography gallery, and I used the request  to finally transfer analogue photos of the Samson sculpture which I had long thought might make a  strong collage.   The two versions here were my first attempts, which for me are not quite satisfactory – in part because my understanding of Photoshop  is so limited.  I’d like to use  transparency masks to make the collages more subtle and organic.   One of these days….   These collages should be about 6 feet high.

Giacomo Serpotta, in another tonality, for the Oratorio de San Dominico, also in Palermo.  Here the sense is weightier in overall tone, if in turn the actual “content” seems lighter – a seeming procession of ladies of high society parading the metaphoric virtues (which one doubts they had themselves).

A belated bust of Serpotta, done with nothing of his skill

Palermo, Oratorio del Rosario in Santa Cita

Exiting from the clatter of the fetid streets of la cala in the center of Palermo, and entering a side-door to Chiesa di Santa Cita, one climbs a set of stairs and an open balcony welcomes with several young women chattering away, one of whom asks to see your pass for the Palermo Baroque church tour.   She glances, nods, and resumes her conversation.  A notice on the wall says no photography.   We enter into a flood of light, the sun bouncing off the white stucco walls and the dazzle of a wedding cake decor, so dense as to make the eye and mind whirl.  There is no one there.  Sedately, to the far end, a dark Carlo Maratta Virgin of the Rosary attempts and fails to distract.  You are in the Oratorio del Rosario of the Chiesa Santa Cita, caught in the delirium of Giacomo Serpotta’s rococo world, where a swirl of sculpture and ornament overwhelms the senses.   It is, in some ways, all too much – an assault so forceful that it seems to defeat its own purposes.  How is one to look at all this when it seems every surface is swarming with a delicate white meringue of whipped egg whites, all expertly formed into the most delicate of portraiture, as well as the customary billow of clouds and cloth, and an avalanche of putti?  The immediate response is almost to pass out, to flee from this overload on one’s senses, and perhaps, taste.

And yet, beneath this riot of plaster excess, there are myriad quiet corners, exquisitely detailed little stage-sets, telling, as usual in Italy, the same story to which Italian art was shackled for almost two thousand years.  Here it is told with a lightness of touch that amazes in its simple delicacy, especially when framed by the tumult of putti and angels which adorn this place of putative prayer.

Recently restored, this chapel is the work of Giacomo Serpotta (10 March 1652 – 27 February 1732), who specialized in stucco – a kind of plaster which he made more sophisticated by mixing in marble dust which gives it a more brilliant and hard surface.  Stucco must be worked quickly, while still wet.  Once set it may be carved, more easily in the mixture which Sepotta used.   A native of Palermo, the city and other places in Sicily are graced with his work.  Evidently he never left Sicily, and so is little known elsewhere.  I had never heard of him before despite a fairly reasonable acquaintance with Italian art.

In the same church, in a chapel adjacent to the center, reconstructed since major damage caused by bombing in World War II, is another dizzying chapel, this one with mixed marble in-lay.  As with the Rosario the initial sense is that of being overwhelmed, but if one stays, and looks with care, it is full of amazing and lovingly done details which seem literally to sing.

Bedda Sicilia !

In a small church in Modica, Sicily, I came across this work of what I would think qualifies as folk art.  There was no information, and I assume it is an unheralded example of anonymously made religious handicraft, which by the handles on its side seems to suggest it is likely taken out during celebrations, during Easter.   Lacking all academic instinct I did not inquire, or even note the name of the church (or town).  Instead I marveled at its lively, cinema-like orchestration; the vivid characterizations (clearly out of keeping with present “politically correct” views).  And I took many pictures.

Nearby, another work, clearly done by similar hands, revealed a truly moving sense of pathos and defeat.

While scarcely the equal of “fine” art – Donatello, Bernini, Michelangelo – there is something in the crude and primitive qualities of this tableaux which cuts deeper in an emotional sense.   This Christ is far more believable to me than those of Michelangelo’s wet-dreams, such as that in the Chiesa di Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.

[If anyone reading this can identify the church in which this work is located, I’d much appreciate knowing.  I think it is in Modica, and if I were there I think I could readily walk right to it but a Google map doesn’t seem to get me there.]

Though not at all religious, when in various places I tend to visit churches, especially in Europe, or South America, or, as well, temples in Asia.  While scarcely an academic, I think I am drawn to these places as they tend to tell you much about the cultures in which they were built, and which have (or haven’t) preserved them.   As the apparent trajectory of most civilizations seems to have transited a major period in which religion was the dominant organizing mechanism – determining roles, status, and social values – churches and temples are a repository both of a culture’s highest level in the arts, and at the same time provide deep clues as to the essential grounding of that culture’s present day behavior, even if, for the most part, the religion has been left behind.   This summer, traveling in Italy, a place with which I am pretty familiar, having traveled there many times and lived there some years, and where I was in my own description, a “church junkie,” I indulged this habit again. Fortunately we were in different areas and I was able to see many new places, some of them utterly amazing.

While I could easily find my way there if in Bologna, a Google search fails to help me identify the church where this painting is, one of a series, this one depicting the execution of saint whomever she is.  As painting it is neither famed nor I  imagine thought by any experts to be “good.”  What I found remarkable was its Nude-Descending-Staircase compression of time, a morbid inversion of animation.

Italy, by the grace of its sun and warmth, its geological terrain, mountains and lakes, and long dazzling coastline; by its cuisine, and the unfolding richness of its cultural heritage, is a place of extraordinary sensuousness.  Sometimes it seems as if every part of it had been caressed by a lover of amazing talents, and we are given the residue of millennia of such opulence.   Nature, architecture, the arts – sculpture, painting, music, theater and city planning – all offer up a sumptuous feast for the eye, ear and palate, not to mention the brain.   One drowns. Which perhaps explains the seemingly perverse constancy of the morbid death-oriented imagery which the Catholic religion regurgitates endlessly, a nearly infinite litany of torture, the body maimed in myriad creative manners, such that the long list of saints which are celebrated in paint and stone seem primarily known for the manner in which they were dispatched from this earth, rather than for what they did in this life.

Thus, for example one of my favorite places in Rome, a bit off the beaten tourist path, is San Stefano in Rotondo, an ancient basilica begun in 468.  Architecturally it is an unusual structure, round from the outside, and inside with both circle of columns, but also a wall which bisects the center, with arches in it; light enters through a high clerestory.  The effect is a place of an embracing calm, a perfect architectonic centering which inherently induces a meditative state.  Such is the architecture.

Basilica di Santo Stefano al Monte Celio, Roma, after recent restoration

As if to counter-balance the beatific calm of this structure’s form, the walls are lined with relatively crude frescoes made in the 16th century depicting, as in a horror show, the death-theater of a sequence of saints.   Sometime, I suspect in the 19th century, labels were stenciled onto them, probably to point to literary description: who, when, how….

Aerial view, San Stefano in Rotondo

Again and again, Italy confronts us with seeming opposites.  The lovely small cities curled upon a craggy mountain-top,  roofs tumbling down the flanks of their settings; the wonderful narrow streets leading to the sudden openness of a lovely piazza, the dazzling high vistas overlooking an agricultural valley – all these are not the happy product of intelligent design and pure aesthetics, but are rather the by-product of times of constant war and piracy.  It was an enormous added cost to build on such heights, inaccessible and willfully, deliberately, difficult to reach.  Everything needed to be hauled up – food, water, the resources to make things.  All of this was a huge burden, and in a time when all of our work-saving machines did not exist:  if it came up it was hauled by man or animal.

Opposite Enna, Sicily, is Calascibetta, whose people are “stupid” said a very young and bright teenage guide to us; so much for neighborliness

As a culture Italy is a dense mosaic of isolated towns and cities, each rooted in a particular and peculiar history, so deeply embedded that most inhabitants feel more of their town or city than of a nation.  The sense of being Italian seems only to emerge during World Cup football tournaments, when rooting for the Azzuris is a collective national mania, or when Italy is criticized by an outsider, even if it is the same critique Italians level against themselves domestically.  In these two cases the regional and city identifications lapse and Italians are, if only briefly, “one.”   This regional identification derives from not so long ago, when most cities were in fact little states, busily warring with one another, making alliances, and breaking them.  Fidarsi bene; non fidarsi meglio. Hence the city walls, fortifications, and tendency whenever possible to build them on readily defensible heights.   Down below were armies, brigands, and insecurity.   This was Italy’s history from the break-up of the Roman Empire until Garibaldi’s campaign unified the peninsula in 1860.

Giuseppe Garibaldi

The fragmentation of Italy into smaller units, centered on a city or region, is seen clearly in the shifts in styles in the arts and architecture.  While, for example, the Baroque is a general style (1600-1800) its effects shift considerably as one moves down the peninsula, from the relative austerity to the north to the often heavy and opulent excesses of Sicilia.   These “tastes” are also reflected in the balance of the culture – food, dress, music, and of course, behaviors to match.  Those to the north despise the southerners as “beasts” and  point variously to their wild driving manners, their menagerie of organized crime syndicates  – the Mafia, Camorra, ‘Ndrangheta – their corruption, and other proofs of the lower status of the mezzogiorno. Never mind that the country’s most recent scandals have come out of Lombardy and Milano, with its leading star being none other than Silvio Berlusconi, the Premier, who now seems chronically mired in mud, whether it is fiscal, legal or sexual.   And is also in bed with the Sicilian Mafia.   As were his predecessors.  Still, even a casual survey of the Italian boot finds it more orderly and Germanic to the north, and more, well, maybe African, as one heads south.   Such are the blessings of Italy’s traditional regionalism and diversity.

Mosaic, Rimini

[With a backlog of pictures from Italian travels of the last few years, I will start to print some here, soon, the first groups to be called Sicilian Suites.]

Piazza del duomo, Siracusa

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.

Cefalu beach, Sicily, around August 10

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.

Church interior, restored

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.

Duomo, Agrigento

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.

Greek temple in Agrigento

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.

Nagasaki, August 1945Berlin, 1945

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…

Ordinary cafe offerings, Gela

[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]:

Marco dell’Utri, of Palermo, long time confident of Silvio Berlusconi

June 30.

Arriving in Italy, as usual, I was  immediately told the latest communal unhappinesses.   For the moment it’s two things: the dell’Utri case, in which a long-term close associate of Sig Berlusconi, President of the Consiglio – to say the top guy here – one Sig dell Utri, was sentenced to 7 years in prison for association or some such with the Mafia.  Of course Berlusconi asserts this is merely another case of the “red” judiciary finding one reason or another to attack him.   This is scarcely Silvio’s only brushing with the mafia, simply the most recent.  Most Italians accept and believe their man has had long associations with the Sicilian brotherhood, securing his first wealth from them, and being indebted since.  Of course, a predecessor, Guilio Andreotti, many times President del Consiglio, was not thought to be connected to the Mafia, but to be perhaps its top man or at minimum the puppet of its cupola. Berlusconi’s mentor, the Socialist Bettino Craxi, was just plain corrupt and died in exile in Tunisia.   Life as usual in Italia.

Andreotti, Berlusconi, Craxi

The other matter of unhappiness is a law designed to close down reporters (and implicitly others) from spilling the facts on such things as state-sponsored telephone tapping.  This has, typically, brought out the usual (leftists) to the piazza.  And naturally has inflamed the newspaper headlines which normally inflate any modest matter into inch-thick typefaces.  Rhetorical amplification is the standard in all things Italian. Sempre in crisi, la bella Italia.   These matters of bold type will be supplanted in weeks with new matters of equally cosmic political weight.

Of course, aside from these theatrical matters, Italy is mired in the same economic fix as much of Europe, with high-unemployment, a large deficit, and is facing a grim future of alleged “austerity.”   This is translated in local terms to even more social distrust than is usual in cynical Italy, home of Machiavelli, and the standard operating procedure, “fidarsi bene, non fidarsi meglio” or “to trust is good, not to trust is better.”  So a friend informed it was more necessary than ever to keep a firm hand on a handbag on the street, or that her husband, working at a high level for major corporations, had to now haggle afterward for the contracted pay.  To say, life as customary in Italy, but bumped up a level or two, so that what happened almost always with the plumber or car mechanic, now happens at an executive corporate level.   Of course, this is only to be expected in a culture which has a motto like theirs.  It is ingrained into the soul at an early age and expresses itself in a constant of argumentativeness, a propensity for cheating,  of rhetorical inflation of all things problematic, so that social life, and its political expression, becomes a constant background noise of negativity.  This, for any human, is a appalling situation requiring denial – which I think most Italians adapt as a defensive posture even while they fully participate in it, thinking their tendency to butt in line, stop traffic for talking to a friend, or wangling an advantage by whatever family connection will serve,  etc., is all normal if done by themselves, and only objectionable when done by someone else. The companion is a theatrical mask of happy sociality as seen in the constant kissy-faced greetings and departures, hugs and tactile contacts to signify bonding where all bonds are suspect.  Deep inside, the person kissing and being kissed awaits the knife in the back.  The fabled mafia “baci di honore.”  Benvenuta a Italia, where this story is ancient and the “lessons learned” have poisoned the culture for millennia.  The later addition, perhaps of necessity, of the Catholic religion’s obsession with “forgiveness” make for a toxic combination in which collectively all confess to being cattivo (bad) and all are given a blanket pardon.  Little wonder in such a world that a blatantly bad soul like Berlusconi rises to the top like cream, as he exemplifies the real Italian character to perfection: a master of deceit, from his hair implants and face-lifts, to his toes playing footsy with teen-aged girls on his private estate in Sardinia – a modern-day Caligula.  And many, if not all, in la bella Italia admire this capacity to wiggle and wangle through the thickets of Italian law and politics, and get to play with the bimba’s to heart’s content.   It makes their line-butting and small-time cheating all the more palatable, while making the priestly taste for small boys rather understandable.

The flip-side is the cultural elevation of saints to untouchable pedestals, where virtue becomes unattainably distant unless you are into real hard-core masochism and would like to have your head, breasts, arms, or legs chopped off, or grilled, or baked in a bronze horse, or be burned at the stake, hung, disemboweled, or otherwise dispatched from this world to the hypothetically better one in the sky.  This cartoon tale is plastered across every church in Italy, of which there are many, albeit in this day the congregations are primarily tourists, shuffling along, gazing at this panoply of torture all (mostly) elegantly framed in the rich colors of Giotto, gold-leaf frames, and other tricks to cover the actual content: the supreme masochist is Christ, who, depending on which era and geography, hangs from his cross, a gorgeous gay hunk (see Michaelangelo’s Christ with Cross in the Chiesa sopra Minerva) or a Mel Gibson-style bloodied corpse further to the South where the baroque takes on an oppressive heaviness absent to the north.

Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St Peter

The second tier of this theological drama are the Apostles, to be seen in their various modes of departure according to Christian mythology: St Peter crucified up-side-down; St Paul beheaded, and on through the whole list of the magical 12, to arrive at Judas, the bad luck number 13, who committed suicide.  Only Saint John mythically eluded being dispatched before mother nature beckoned.  After this august list, comes the chorus of myriad lesser saints, each seemingly celebrated not for what they did in life, which often-times remains highly obscure, but rather for the grisly manner in which they exited this life’s stage: trampled, gouged, burned, toasted, chopped, baked, boiled, become pin-cushioned with arrows – in whatever manner one could abuse the animal flesh of man, Italians have dreamed it up (of course they are not alone in this creative thrust.)  The churches of Italy offer a full course of elegant imagery in all of this.  (A jaunt further north, to the images of Grunewald in, gives another more Germanic flavor, and another uncanny glimpse into another culture.)

Depending on your political inclinations, this process continues – if Left, it is St Pasolini, whose body was crushed by a contemporary beast, the automobile, and whose last images confirm as usual his sainted corporal existence.  If Right, there are the martyrs who bombed the nearby, as I write, Bologna train station, in 1982, or of course, Mussolini, whose body was appropriately mangled, and thus given the sign of a certain sainthood.

Benito Mussolini and Clara Petacci

I suspect most Italians would laugh at such a correlation of their deep historical roots and their contemporary society.  The laughter would be nervous though, a discomfort with the nature of fate, of it being suggested that their present behavior, as demonstrated in their politics, or in the common everyday practices of their lives, was stamped into their DNA, something inescapable.

[For us, an interlude of 12 days, in Lisbon, Toledo, Madrid, and now resuming for the balance of the summer our Italian sojourn.]

Tiles in bar in Madrid

Yesterday, July 19,  flying in from Madrid in a Ryanair cheapo flight (whose draconian baggage limits caught many and upped the costs of flying 100%) – a flight delayed in Madrid for 2 hours in a nod to the present economic crisis (the Barcelona air-traffic controllers had gone on strike at the fiscal squeeze being placed, just as had the Metro employees in Madrid) – the mostly Italian passengers applauded, as it seems only Italians do, as we landed.  What this burst of applause means must suggest something of Italians.  But what?  In a culture in which the term “sono professionista” (I’m a professional) is often used to block all further discourse and especially questions as to the competence of the person using the phrase, perhaps the applause is for the successful accomplishment of the “professionista” up front, whom all internally doubt to be capable.  In my brief time of working, or attempting to work, in Italy, the assertion “sono professionista” sent cringes through my soul, it being a certain sign of the imminent fuck up.   Or perhaps it is an acknowledgment of the Shakespearean assertion that “all life is a stage” and the Italian operatic sensibility in its current phase of decay takes the simple matter of being an airline pilot as a show-biz role, something warranting a reward of applause on the safe delivery of the airplane’s cargo to its destination.   The same herd of Italians will promptly, once the wheels touch ground, unbuckle, rise to get their luggage, and be told by the staff – which must be accustomed to this behavior pattern with Italians – to sit back down, buckle up, and stay seated until the pilot has finished taxiing to the disembarkation point and announces so, turning off the little buckle-up sign right in front of their eyes.  These days this behavior is also accompanied by the mass turning on of cell phones, and the admonition to keep electronic instruments OFF until notified its OK. Few listen or obey.   Perhaps the applause is for the luck of having arrived at all despite the chronic violation of these various rules by those applauding?

Approaching almost anywhere, globalized graffiti, Inc., in this case Rome

And today, July 22, we were to depart Bologna for Roma and then swiftly on towards Matera, in Basilicata.  Gone to the family car held by sister Chiara, to be borrowed the coming month, a turn of the key betrayed a dead battery of a car unused the last month or two.  Waving down, with battery cables in hand, a car, we got help which shortly soured: the key/anti-theft mechanism seemed to not work, of which a later word indicated this quirk had been on-going the last year.  The “trick” to by-pass it didn’t work, and our journey turned into a 4 hour car-side vigil for Marcella (windows downed on the last juice of the batteries, the key trapped in the vehicle, and luggage, cameras, valuables therein, and sister’s key having been slipped under the doorway, we were trapped.)  A later walk, talk, tow-truck, and luckily nearby car mechanic resulted in a typical Italian prognosis: 12 days until the item would arrive, 400 Euros in cost to replace the malfunctioning key mechanism (sure to escalate in both time and money), and Marcella and I were Bologna’haid another day.  (In Seoul I am sure this would have been resolved in a few hours, at far less cost.)  And the summer’s plans were skewed, as the cost of a rental car for 5 weeks is excessive for me (1200 Euro + gas, etc), and now we scramble to alter the summer’s plans – where to go, how, a little existential crisis to spice the summer heat.

Since I was a child, landing on a primitive airway in Rome in 1951, and then taken on a train ride to Trieste in which Italians shared what little they had in that time of post-war poverty, I have been in love with Italy.  Like many kinds of love, it has inverted, become a love/hate.  In more recent times the hate has predominated, as I and most certainly Italy have changed, in ways antithetical.  Italy, in the face of things modern, seems to have lost touch with itself, defacing the abundant beauties which almost every town holds, the centro perhaps almost intact, but the surrounding areas encrusted with squalid ill-thought modern buildings,  highways, and further out American-style suburban sprawl eating into the country-side.  Within the centro the tackiness of our globalized world has intruded in the form of the usual corporate branding logos and the now near-universal graffiti, here defacing a heritage of extraordinary architecture and urban design.  This is not the desolate world of the Bronx, circa 1978 or so, when graffiti represented a flush of creative life in the face of urban death, but rather now a knee-jerk genuflection of gangsta alienation whether in Toulouse, Madrid, Copenhagen, Moscow or Rome.  The periferia’s have invaded, bringing with them their tracings of gangland aesthetics.  The past is utterly disrespected, but its erstwhile replacement has none of the cultural weight which gives the old its heft.  Instead a unity of universal ignorance washes over everything, a Simpsonite dog-piss assertion of “I own this,” however wrong and false, sprayed on a wall built 500 or 1800 years ago, by Michaelangelo or Giulio Cesare.   The alienated scrawl reeks of the New York of crack-heads but incorporated by Nike, the globalized claim “just do it – this is mine” writ large and in a dull uniformity lacking all originality.  A McDonalds of the mind blankets the landscape, its fraudulent branding of individual personhood enriching the spray-paint makers and reducing the local to cartoon universality.  In keeping with the source, the way is often littered with needles and discarded condoms.

Almost no place is immune, though our recent visit to Toledo made an exception.  A long ago visit to Toulouse saw its mostly two-story center converted into a comic book, top to bottom, its lovely architecture no longer readable.  When living 10 years ago in Rome I saw this incremental journey of  defacement shift from the grim walls of Tuscalana and Nomentana, then into Testaccio and San Lorenzo, and then the walls of Trastevere.  Since it has crossed the banks of the river into the heart of the city, now to be seen anywhere, be it on the ancient Roman walls, or the magnificent baroque churches, once sacrosanct and now but another surface to announce another version of “Kilroy was here.”    There is though, now little left to kill.

Bust in the Pincio

Back when I lived in Rome I filmed the busts of the Pincio, a park above Piazza del Popolo, where the 19th century bourgeoisie had memorialized themselves in sculpture – bankers and writers and businessmen juxtaposing themselves to Italy’s greats – Galileo, Dante, Michaelangelo and Marconi and the long illustrious list of others whom history has graced on this lovely land.  Their noses are knocked off, cigarettes dangle from their mouths, and their faces are smeared with paint and nazi swastikas on their foreheads, an ironic commentary on the very short lives we lead and the “respect” we are accorded by the future.  The barbarians have sacked Roma yet again.

Nowadays almost every nook and cranny of the past is reduced into a variant of Disneyland, often in the name of “education.”  The Caravaggio’s of the Chiesa della Francese are adorned with explanatory framing, placards explaining to the herds of tourists their meaning.  Only 15 years ago I could stand solitary for a half-hour at this place, soaking in the images (though needing to plop a coin in the lighting system); today one fights for a place to see as crowds jostle to read the plaques and gaze in unison, fingers pointing out the obvious, murmuring wisdoms to their husbands or others.   The same occurs in almost every place of beauty or exception, the price of cut-rate mass tourism which has seen the floors of the Siena cathedral covered with cheap Masonite boards to protect it from the bus-loads of visitors who disgorge each day, shuffling over the ancient stone patterns, following their guides, who now can offer only a picture of what their presence threatens.   Whether a human artifact, or natural, all our globe is now so diminished, with hiking trails and garbage leading to the peak of Mt Everest, which recently was “conquered” by a 12 year old.  As the most remote is converted into an adventurer’s McDonalds its corollary is the oil smeared across the gulf of Mexico, with 8 billion souls assuring no square inch of our earth has been left untouched by human foot or hand, or the consequences of our occupation.  Italy serves as a cautionary example, its extraordinary history and heritage now perversely acting as an instrument of its destruction.

In the backyard outside where I write this in Bologna, in the darkened evening, the sound of television floats – I went to look and below in the open yard below, the glow of a screen illuminates the family which gathers before this altar, outside, watching.  Doubtless, since he owns and controls almost all of it in Italy, the content is determined by Silvio Berlusconi, broadcasting his view of the world to each home here.  His view of the world is animated by leering older men prancing with scantily clad bouncing breasts, giggling at inanities and off-color jokes.  Of course, one could easily claim this was always so, since the emperors who ruled Rome’s empire, on through the lurid excesses of the Church-led renaissance, and thence to the present.

From my film, Roma, un ritratto

[Now in Matera, where unsolicted, I heard from a barman, serving me up a cappuccino and hearing my English, tell of how he’d lived in Philadelphia 5 years, and had a son legally American, and they’d both like to go back as there is “nothing here” for them. (Good luck on finding a job in the USA these days).  Then in an impromptu meeting with an aunt of Marcella’s she began a lament of how shameful it was to be an Italian these days, and how she and her husband think to move abroad, to France, or somewhere, anywhere.  They are  a comfortably well situated professional couple, retired.  And then a friend of Marcella’s, last night, talking with another friend who lives now in Modena, was saying how she’d like to move back to the area, to be with her boyfriend, from her good job in Venice.  The other friend humorously but seriously admonished her that there was nothing here she could find for work, and suggested she’d do well to hold onto her job in the north.

These sentiments have been repeated in various forms for me over the last 15 or 20 years – laments over a corrupted, stagnant,  futureless Italy, snared in the bellezza of its past.  It’s population is aging, it requires for menial jobs the many immigrants from Africa, the Philippines, South East Asia and India, though increasingly it becomes hostile to them.  Caught in a cross-fire of contradictions – a sumptuous landscape, cuisine and wine, deep-set corruption, a historically rooted lethargy, paralyzed by its own history – Italy is a place of indefinable sadness where youth are alienated and lost, looking towards a life of endless waiting or looking to escape.  At a casual tourists glance you would never imagine it.  But it is so, as Italians are constantly telling themselves, though if a foreigner says it they will rebuff it with a seizure of cultural unity.   Added July 29 2010]

[For a bit of explication and confirmation of my thoughts, see this article from the NY Times, Aug 1, 2010][

On Saturday, December 5th, there was a demonstration in Rome, against Silvio Berlusconi, 73, the head of government.  He’s also head of many other things, including the media – both state owned and private – including television and some newspapers and major book publisher Mondadori.  And one wonders what else.  He is also Italy’s richest man.  In the past year he’s been mired in one scandal after another, with his wife, former show-girl/actress, Veronica Lario, 53,  leaving him with acrid comments about his compulsion for younger girls,  for whom he threw parties at his huge villa on Sardinia, inviting teenage girls from around Italy, and bringing them in on state transportation.   The papers had recently found him to be “friends” with a 17 year old Neapolitan girl (at the time they met), Noemi Letizia, which seemed to be the final straw for Veronica.

Veronica Lario, almost ex-wife of Berlusconi

Noemi Letizia, Silvio’s “friend”, now 18

The organizers of the anti-Berlusconi demonstration of yesterday, initiated over Facebook, claimed nearly a million participants; the police said 90,000.  Rather a discrepancy there, and likely somewhere in-between (a large in-between) lies the truth.  Or perhaps we should say that between the lies, perhaps there is the truth.

Gaspare Spatuzza

In the last days a Mafia pentito, Gaspare Spatuzza, in the context of the trial of a Berlusconi associate, Marcello Dell’Utri,  fingered Dell’Utri and Berlusconi as persons abetting the Mafia, who in turn aided Berlusconi politically (Sicily votes heavily for him).  [For those not in the know, Berlusconi has had numerous court dates himself, all so far smudged by the curious nature of Italian law.] Such charges have swirled around Berlusconi for years.  But then they also swirled around former “Socialist” premiere Craxi as well as former “Christian Democrat” Andreotti.  To say it’s an old story.  Currently Berlusconi, a former cruise ship crooner,  is attempting to have a new law passed by his Parliament (with a majority of Popolo delle Libertà, formerly Forza Italia, his own personal party, in collusion with Bossi’s La Lega Nord and Gianfranco Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale, formerly the MSI, the surviving fascist party) which would curtail the statute of limitations on laws which might otherwise put Silvio behind bars.  To say the head of the Italian government, in keeping with recent – and ancient  – Italian tradition, is deep in sordid matters.  A reading of Italian history, from the Roman Empire, to the Papacy, to the Renaissance, and modern history all betray the same (old) story, and a passing acquaintance with the language(s) of the peninsula confirm a vibrant and rich vocabulary of insult, anger, hatred, and violence, all of which surface in everyday reality in la bella Italia.   They’ve had 2000 plus years to hone these qualities to perfection.

–    Ehi, testa di cazzo!
–    Che cazzo fai?
–    Tuo cugino è un paraculo
–    Vaffanculo, fai solo cazzate
–    Porca puttana, mi hanno fregato sul resto della spesa
–    Sai dire solo stronzate
–    Quello te l’ha messo in culo
–    Me ne vado. Mi sono rotto il cazzo
–    Lì sono tutti dei coglioni
–    Ma va a cagare, stronzo
–    Quante pippe mentali ti fai!
–    Quella non c’ha le palle per farlo
–    Mi hanno fatto girare i coglioni stamattina
–    Con i tuoi soldi mi ci pulisco il culo!
–    Non mi frega nulla di quello che pensi

Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano

One of my favorite paintings, before which I have spent many hours at the National Gallery in London, as well as making tracings, a failed pastel, and sketched a kind of installation work centered on it.  It is one of a triptych of works, one other being in Firenze at the Uffizi, and the other one in Paris, at the Louvre.  This one is in the best condition, though the top section was lopped off somewhere along the line.  It was made in celebration of a battle which supposedly the Fiorentine forces won, but that is a lie – it was more a tie.  Very Italian that.

Andrea Della Robbia

Scissors in convent wall, Ravenna

Along with the travails besetting Silvio, in the last weeks there’s also been the case of Amanda Knox, 22,  young American girl caught up in another trial, for murder, in the lovely town of Perugia.  In brief, her roommate, an English girl, Meredith Kercher, 21, was found, throat slit and quite dead, two years ago.  Evidence, circumstantial and otherwise, pointed to a  22 year old Ivory Coast resident in Perugia, Rudy Guede, who fled to Germany, was caught and is already imprisoned following a “fast track” trial at his request.  It also pointed to Amanda’s Italian boyfriend of the time, Raffaele Sollecito, now 25, and Amanda herself.  Attempts of a cover-up, an apparent staged break-in, false accusations, curious behaviors on Amanda’s part, contradictory alibis and DNA samples all went into the mix, along with a scandal-minded Italian press combined to create a fine circus out of this.  This week Amanda was found guilty and sentenced to 26 years imprisonment, a judgment promptly complained about by the US press and by Senator Cantwell of Washington State from which Amanda hails, which found the Italian legal system wanting by comparison to the American one.

Amanda behind bars

Inside Italy, the past week also saw the former head of RAI, the Italian state television and radio system, and current President of LUISS (Libera Università Internazionale degli Studi Sociali), Pier Luigi Celli, publish a letter to his son in the newspaper La Repubblica in which he advised him, following his impending graduation from university, to depart Italy for more fertile grounds for his future.   This naturally begot a mixed response and a week of Italian newspaper and television discourse on the fine art of navel gazing.  There were those who, in typical Italian fashion, complained that the advice was idiotic since Celli was well-placed to find his son a good job – patronage – and he could count on doing well in nice corrupted Italia.  They didn’t say it that way but that’s what they meant.  Others commiserated, lamenting the frozen slow-motion quality of Italian society, where getting ahead is a matter more of who you know than what you know, and where the works are gummed up with low-level corruptions for getting your plumbing fixed, the post-office lines are legendary, and high-level corruption – like Silvio’s – merely amplifies that at the bottom.


Craxi and the crooner, 1984

[Craxi, the head of the Socialist Party and the former Premier, died in exile in Tunisia.  He was the mentor of Silvio Berlusconi, the current Premier.]

Some years ago, in 1993, having moved to Italy on my 50th birthday to carry out a long-time wish to live there, I quickly, through no particular effort on my part – basically going to some parties while riding in the short coat-tails of All the Vermeers in New York – lined up a producer and made a film there.   The producer was Enzo Porcelli, who was well-known as making more adventurous films, having done some with Bertolucci, Godard, and others, so he claimed, as well as B-grade schlock.  His ride at the time was Gianni Amelio, who was then making L’America.  He met me at a party and said, having heard I made films cheaply, he’d like to work with me.  I took the bait, and a few months later we were in production, working my way, unheard of in Italy: no script.  For a week we shot with the crew he suggested – a soundman, his assistant, a production guy.  I was doing camera on Aaton 35mm.  These guys were “pros” so I was told.  That meant they took boxes and boxes of crap to work with, when I just wanted the camera and the tape recorder and mike.  They dumped the stuff in the middle of my sets; they took a break now, a 2 hour lunch then.  After a week I stopped the production and said if we were to continue with these guys, we’d never come in on budget.  I fired the lot of them, including one alleged actress who froze like a deer in headlights as soon as the camera turned on.  Her Calabrian boyfriend came storming to my apartment/production office, pounded on the door, intimidated my production assistant into tears, and stood an inch from my face, announcing “sono Calabrese” which was supposed to send me quivering in fear to the floor.  I don’t recall what I said, but it was something like, “get the fuck outta here”, and he did, and I never heard anything more from our pumped up would-be hood.  His claim to apparent fame was he’d had a small role – virtual extra – in an Antonioni film.

Alberto Sordi, in Mafioso by Alberto Lattuada

The production resumed some months later, with a crew I chose – Theo Eshetu, an Ethiopian who had lived a long time in Rome,  a video-artist, and had never recorded sound.  He was my recordist and did fine.  Some guy who lived in San Francisco and wanted to work with me came over and was assistant (didn’t work out too well has he was hyper PC and found my foul mouth not to his tastes; from my side he basically didn’t know too much what he was doing); my production manager was an American-Italian living in Italy, Eve Silvestri.  Working my way, we cranked out the film fine, editing for the first time electronically for me, on an Avid, quite new in Italy at the time.  I was helped by my friend Edoardo Albinati, a writer now rather well-known, on some scenes where I wrote and he translated, or I suggested what I wanted and he wrote. The film was finished shooting in autumn, 1993, and we went into editing I think in December.  A week later I requested of Porcelli that he fire the editor, or more exactly the chain-smoking Italian Avid technician running the computer to my decisions, because I felt he didn’t really understand how the Avid system worked.  Porcelli declined, and we went on, and finished editing relatively fast, though Amelio’s film kept needing my hard-disk space, as he did endless long takes and hogged more gigabytes than there were at hand.   I tried to get the first take and for the most part that was it.   In February the edit was done, and it was time to mix, and Porcelli’s promise that there was a digital suite in Rome proved false after a visit to Fellini’s favorite sound studio on via Margutta,  where they’d said they’d have it soon.  In Italian that means in a few years if you are lucky.  I then shopped around and found a place in Vienna that could do it – I just needed to get the sound on external HDs and bring along the EDL (Edit Decision List – a computerized notation of all the elements of the film, where they went, and what had or had not been done to them).   We set a mix date, and when it was time to leave for Vienna Porcelli’s editor didn’t know how to generate an EDL or get the sound on the HDs.   In the same manner we missed two other mix-dates at other places in Europe, and I began to lose my patience.  I informed Porcelli (the name means “little pigs”) I’d set up a new date, now in July, and if we missed that, I’d take my name off the film.  Thus, in that month – with a Venice festival deadline looming – I took off for a sound studio in London, with the HDs, and five days scheduled for the mix.  Properly done this should have meant about a half-day loading the whole EDL into their system, and then commencing with the mix.  Instead, courtesy of Porcelli’s dear editor whom I’d asked be fired, we spent 2 and a half days searching for mislabeled sound, synching some places, and patching in lots of missing sounds from an EFX library.  I got 2 days to actually do the mix.  Porcelli complained I was taking too much time, and I exercised my Italian as above.

Photo montage by Theo Eshetu

On delivery of the finished film, I was due my final bit of pay, which in any event was very modest, but which I needed.  Enzo issued what in Italian is called a ricatto, basically a little slice of extortion, and told me he’d give me half my pay then, and then I’d get the other half after the Venice festival if I didn’t say anything bad about him or his production company, Alia film; otherwise he’d give it to a lawyer to sue me.   Playing the Italian film press for PR, he had previously planted stories that there were “problems” during the production, on the old “any PR is good PR” angle.   Arriving in Venice, Porcelli lurked around the edges of things while Eliana Miglio, the lead actress, and I and the others played the publicity game.  At the press conference I was immediately asked about “the problems” in the production, to which I replied that I couldn’t answer any questions because my producer would not pay me if I said anything bad.  End of press conference.

Andrea, Eliana Miglio, Paolo Glisenti (son, mother, husband)

The film played at the festival, and while a few far left critics gave it a nice review, the others were negative to scathing.  The film was called Un a te, uno a me, e uno a Rafaelle,  a line drawn from an early newspaper item at the beginning of the Mani Pulite scandal, in play at the time.  Had the film dealt with dirty doings from higher ups, which is what the scandal was about – corruption in the governing party, kick-backs, etc. –  instead of what I did, dwelling on the little everyday corruptions which make those at the top seem “normal,” I am pretty sure they would have lapped it up.  But I suggested it wasn’t the thugs at the top – Craxi and all – who made Italy dirty, it was Italian life itself that made such corruptions inevitable.  This was all done in a light-handed manner, a kind of comedy of manners, though there was one serious scene in which a character vaguely patterned on Raul Gardini internally presents to himself and the viewer the kinds of arguments that were used by people to justify their behaviors; in a subsequent scene the character shoots himself.  Gardini was a very big, well-known, dashing businessman, who ran an Italian yacht in the America’s Cup, but was deeply mired in the myriad scandals of Mani Pulite.  He committed suicide, which shocked the nation.  Perhaps my glancing intimations of this cut too deeply at the time for many.   Many of those critical were writers who were very pleased with my less-than-happy critiques of my America, but were disturbed when I brought the same eye to bella Italia. They tended to say I didn’t really know Italy well (even if Edoardo had written the most biting of the commentary).  It depends on whose bull is being gored it seems.

Raul Gardini celebrating a yachting victory

On the contractual date that Porcelli was supposed to cough up the balance of my delayed paycheck, nothing was forthcoming – nothing surprising about this in Italy.  I wrote him then and said we had a few choices:  we could go to court, and we’d both be dead before it was resolved; we could go to the press, and he being Italian, and Italy being Italy, he’d win in any such lopsided contest; or I could request that RAI 3 audit his production, which they had been led to believe was budgeted at $750,000 but of which only their $250,000 part,  plus another 30K from my leading star’s husband’s production company had actually been present.  Little Pigs promptly paid up the remaining sum.

I’ve been told in the years since that Uno a te has screened many times on Rai 3, something, so I was told, that doesn’t happen unless the audience figures are high.   A while back I took a look at the banged up DVD copy – from a VHS tape – I have of it, and it’s not a bad film at all.  And all too prescient about Italy today.

Strozzapreti sauce for pasta

One of my original reasons for moving to Italy was that in the US in the 80’s I’d met a good number of young Italians, who had left to try their luck in America.  I was curious how they could leave a place so beautiful, where every handful of kilometers can unveil a lovely small town, crammed with thoughtful architecture and wonderful art.  And the food ! It was hard to see leaving that behind for McDonalds and Burger King, American strip cities, and Las Vegas.  Admittedly New York has its energy, the West its vast and imposing landscapes, and the small town here and there has its charms, and cities like San Francisco or New Orleans their unique flavors.  But still, to leave Italy for more than a vacation seemed at the time a puzzle.   Five years in Rome, living “parallel” to the culture – to say I did what I could to side-step the more obvious unpleasant qualities of the place – helped me understand the compulsion to depart.

As lovely as it is, Italy is ossified, frozen in its corrupted culture, and when young and full of energy it offers little meaningful space for doing things.  Trivial things, yes – you can party, goof off, have “fun” but in an aimless manner; drag out university for years (because there’s no job when you leave), and live with your parents (because there’s no money).  If your sights are aimed elsewhere, what is on offer is a long, and lacking the proper connections, perhaps terminal waiting line.   From the most mundane of things – getting that plumbing problem fixed – to the more demanding, Italy offers an endless compendium of difficulty.  Enough to bludgeon even the most optimistic and cheery into a deadening submission.

The Italian motto is “Fidarsi è bene; non fidarsi è meglio.” To trust is good; not to trust is better.

To live one’s life under such a banner is to consign oneself to a permanent unhappiness, with fear that even a best friend might slip the knife in at some opportune moment.  Et tu, Brute? Unfortunately this motto is all too real in Italy, where nothing is to be trusted, one must keep an eye on everything, payments due must be coerced after a dance of attempted cheating is used almost by instinct and habit.  So while the evening’s ritual passeggiata seems full of social pleasure and joy, greetings with hugs and cheek kisses, in reality it is a social obligation, the daily wasting of an hour or two, mandated lest one be deemed anti-social, a solitario.  In Italy solitude is condemned as a mode of hell and having no friends is tantamount to being exiled from the community.


As hard as I am on bella Italia, I am not alone.  Like the young people I met in the 80’s, and others since, many have voted with their feet.  My wife Marcella, from Matera in Basilicata, says she does not wish to return to Italy to live, at least for the moment.  Quite recently her younger sister, Francesca, moved to try her luck in Ireland, having done a 3 month residency there and finding it more to her liking and more open to opportunities than her native land.   And my friends Eliana and Paolo tell me they are thinking of moving to Paris, and they more or less have suggested to Andrea that when his schooling is done (he’s studying acting at the Centro Sperimentale, the Italian national film school) he’d likely do well to move along elsewhere.   And a wonderful musician, Christian Ravaglioli, who we met near Ravenna last summer, visiting New York City in the last months, tells us he’d like to stay, but lacking a work permit must return.  Mr Celli, apparently, is not alone in his glum view of Italy in these days.  All the wonderful cuisine and wine, the sunny skies, the gracious architecture and spectacular art somehow fall short of providing the full needs of life.

As unhappy as it seems I make Italy sound, I think my own country is in far worse straits, as the readers of these pages know.  We are more corrupt and our corruption is more dangerous for our power.  And we are more dispirited as a people, ground under the feet of the corporate powers which now dictate our national life.   And somehow the poisons fed to us have paralyzed us no less than the malaise afflicting Italy has frozen their society.

Una mattina mi son svegliato,
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
Una mattina mi son svegliato,
e ho trovato l’invasor.
(che è morto per la libertà)

O partigiano, portami via,
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
O partigiano, portami via,
ché mi sento di morir.

E se io muoio da partigiano,
(E se io muoio sulla montagna)
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
E se io muoio da partigiano,
(E se io muoio sulla montagna)
tu mi devi seppellir.

E seppellire lassù in montagna,
(E tu mi devi seppellire)
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
E seppellire lassù in montagna,
(E tu mi devi seppellire)
sotto l’ombra di un bel fior.

Tutte le genti che passeranno,
(E tutti quelli che passeranno)
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
Tutte le genti che passeranno,
(E tutti quelli che passeranno)
Mi diranno «Che bel fior!»
(E poi diranno «Che bel fior!»)

«È questo il fiore del partigiano»,
(E questo è il fiore del partigiano)
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
«È questo il fiore del partigiano,
(E questo è il fiore del partigiano)
morto per la libertà!»