Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film The Great Beauty opens with a quote from Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night about the powerful relationship travel has with the imagination. And then a prologue begins with ceremonial canon fire. The next thing we hear is a church bell counting out the noon hour with clarity and power. Simultaneously, the camera flies over the Janiculum, an archeological complex that features bell towers, heroic busts, a baroque fountain and slow-moving, distracted tourists.
The camera will move throughout the film—aerial views, sweeping panoramas, tracking shots, shots that push into the action or pull away. Camera movements are based on a director’s ideas about duration, the joining of time and image. A panning shot is a timed gesture that reveals the complexity or simplicity of a tableau. A tracking shot paces an object: a camera pushing forward emphasizes the moments when an object gains size and importance in the frame; a camera pulling backward emphasizes the moments when a central object is diminished for receding into the frame. Sorrentino’s camera work involves many different ways of presenting and thinking about time. It is fitting that the prologue occurs at noon, the vertical hour—axis of simultaneities. Epochal time, contemporary time and life span are stacked up for our consideration.
The prologue continues with church bells yielding to a women’s vocal ensemble—strong singing that carries over a plaza, the facade of a great church and statuary. The ensemble is shown in elegant, contemporary dress, which is an interesting counter-distinction to the medieval-sacred quality of the song, and a funny counter-distinction to the tourists, who putter around in sloppy, hot weather garb and visor caps. At the end of the prologue a tourist keels over, presumably from a heart attack. Or perhaps it was the beauty of the place, the spirit of the landscape charged by symbols of ancient gods and martyred saints that snatched the gawker’s life as propitiation.
The main story begins at midnight. This is the hour of possibilities, boisterous rhythms and ambiguous morals. We’re at a highly energetic rooftop party full of rich Roman sensualists and hangers-on. The celebration commemorates the sixty-fifth birthday of Jep Gambardella, an utterly watchable figure of elegance and up-all-night dissipation. Forty years ago, Jep wrote a great novel, The Human Apparatus. Apparently, he never attempted to follow it up. When he writes at all, it is witty art reviews for a glossy cultural magazine. His occasional panics for growing older are described by grand, but ultimately selfish or hollow gestures as a way of staying relevant in the gossip pages. Jep’s great problem, we come to realize, is that, even in his place of privilege in a city of beauty, he cannot connect to an awesome moment. That is, a moment that takes him above the material world. An experience that, no matter how brief, suggests the vastness of time. Such a moment is so personally directed it can enlarge one’s frame of reference, allowing one to see aspects of human behavior and experience without distortions of ambition, shame or jealousy. Jep is not blocked as a writer; he’s just somehow lost interest. His lack of an awe experience has caused him to lose faith in his powers of artifice. He’s become something of an agnostic regarding the power of drawing meaningful experience out of materials; he’s unable to touch and affect the intensity of Rome’s treasures and draw out something new.
The best works of art describe some crisis in the artist’s life. I doubt Paolo Sorrentino struggles with the ennui that comes with being an aging playboy. I think Sorrentino’s crisis has to do with making Rome cinematically new. Three giants—Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossallini, and Pier Paolo Passolini—have made celebrated films that take long, open looks at the city. The prologue I just described and the party scene that it bumps into show Sorrentino communicating with these masters of Italian cinema. He shows us landscapes, types of people and nightlife activity we have seen in cinema before. But he overcomes the crisis of familiarity with his strong ideas about duration. Long, expansive gestures that are panoramic shots are mixed with quicker shots of isolated objects. The camera’s titillating trail though a writing group of revelers is mixed with lonelier shots of the party’s outliers. Duration, gesture, rhythm—these are methods Sorrentino employs to bring new life to familiar images.
And one other tool as well: the use of site-specific art. It is interesting to me that the character Jep is drawn to outdoor artworks by young artists, pieces that attempt to “re-interpret” or else entirely lay over with new meaning some of the old and famous sites within the city. One work is created on a hillside near a ruin. This bit of performance art is a humorous set piece in the film but, in spite of the silliness, there is something remarkable and cool about watching people in contemporary dress sit in the grass on one of those storied hills and watch a performer play a politically charged scene against an enormous and glorious ruin. Another site-specific work in the film is a photography exhibit with the pictures fixed to a magnificently old wall.
Jep, who it seems can take or refuse any writing assignment he wants to, is curious to see these site specific pieces because he (perhaps consciously or perhaps not) wishes to find again the power of artifice—the trick artists employ for drawing experience out of materials, the ability to charge familiar objects with a new vigor.
Coming out of the movie theater into the shrill light of a clear and cold January afternoon in Dallas, I was thinking very hard about Jep Gambardella’s dilemma. I am impatient to feel awe in my home city. Dallas ain’t Rome—the grammatically troubled understatement of all understatements. But Dallas possesses plenty of interesting locations for graceful and critical site specific art. Yes, there are permanent site-specific gems, such as Henry Moore’s sculptures outside City Hall. But the opportunity for site-specific work I’m calling for here is of the improvisational or temporary variety. Gesture, experimental performance, the improvisational assembly of a temporary sculpture or collage, or the painting of a temporary mural—these are activities that break up the everyday in fascinating ways. They make passers-by reckon with the unexpected. It surprises them out of the thoughts of their agenda and into the present moment. By manipulating space and creating an experience that seems to come out of the blue, site-specific art causes commuters to re-navigate and re-negotiate familiar ground.
I don’t know why we don’t have more guerrilla or improvisational work in Dallas. There are prolific artists in the city who call Dallas a scene—or an emerging scene. It is interesting, though, that the features of the city itself, all its shiny ambition, its fixed situation in a prairie, and the quality of light that falls on it, play only a minuscule part in what this scene is—or what it is becoming. Love Dallas or hate Dallas, ignoring the physicality of it ought not to be an option for the artists that live here.
Some likely paces to cause a scene:
The underground tunnels
White Rock Lake
The Lochwood Library
Any DART Rail Station
My call for Dallas-based artists to take on more street-level guerrilla tactics is different than recent calls in these pages for area artists to go punk and “fuck some shit up” because I would like these guerrilla activities to facilitate the experience of awe. A recent study at Stanford titled “Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being” finds that the experience of awe brings people into the present moment, influences decisions, and makes life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise. Only a killjoy would dismiss punk rock. But a reach for awe stretches far beyond punk’s limited aesthetic, and awe’s effects are more serious.
Dallasites have a long history of associating themselves with the psychological figure of the rugged individual and the psychological narrative of self-reliance. Today, this stuff is just a lie in the mind. (The lean aesthetics of those archetypes are burst by the city’s high obesity rate; Dallasites spend most of their time indoors.) All manner of screens have replaced the importance of watching all manner of weather patterns blow over the landscape. Dallasites likely gain awe experiences from their children and their pets—which is beautiful, but it is unlikely they seek awe experiences through art. The Stanford study suggests that awe is an essential function for well-being. I’ll wager that the typical Dallasite—although, probably not conscious of his or her motivations—tries to fill an awe gap in his or her life by scanning YouTube videos and watching movies with tons of special effects. I’ll wager further that the typical Dallasite uses “awesome” only in the teenage sense of that word.
Dallas, like any city, possesses landmarks capable of bouncing light in such a way, directing wind in such a way, cutting a figure against the sky in such a way as to summon an awe experience. Sometimes a lucky commuter will catch this sight on his or her own. An encounter with a group of artists making a sign to such phenomena will involve several more commuters in the experience. I argue Dallas-based artists can and should reclaim “awesome” with events and happenings that alter ordinary commuter time into periods of luminous details.
The full quote by Celine that starts the film The Great Beauty is this: “To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.” Site-specific art can make a life-long resident see landmarks of the city as a traveler would, as if seeing them for the first time. It can alter an ordinary commute into an experience of awe—or at the very least an experience of delight. Artists can profoundly touch and effect the intensity of Dallas—if only something could motivate them to do some work outdoors.