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.
Besides being stupid this article is offensive. What Dallas needs more than anything are decent writers.
Besides being stupid, the above comment is offensive. What dallas needs is less dick heads who can only respond to calls-to-action with abrasive cynicism absent of any kind of contribution to the city’s dialog. If your real response to this article is to start some rad shit, then I’ll gladly stand corrected.
I thought it a beautifully written article. Your vivid description of the film left me in awe. I could imagine the landscape and scene in my mind. It is now on my must see list. I also enjoyed the call for awe in our every day lives. My challenge to my photo students this semester is to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. To use their camera as an act of transformation–find or make the magnificent. Also I have my art appreciation students make site specific land art on campus each semester and it brings them back to a place of play, discovery and imagination. We don’t get to play enough as grown-ups and our creativity suffers.
I enjoyed the essay. After seeing the same film, I was moved, as well, by the various artistic expressions and juxtapositions mentioned. In the context of a beautiful and historical Rome, I hadn’t thought to contrast Dsllas as setting for such interactions. That said, I’ve enjoyed being in Downtown Dallaa, working to facilitate artistic actions within this environment, where I also live. I’ve worked with artists who’ve engaged some of the spots mentioned in the essay, and am motivated to continue this sort of interaction.
Nice review, and I appreciate the call to action.
Great review of a truly great movie – perhaps the best movie I’ve seen in a dozen years. Thanks to the MFA in Houston for screening it (twice). Hopefully it will be picked up by Houston’s Sundance theater for a longer showing. I also greatly respect the writer for imploring artists to use public spaces for meaningful work. Work that awes and amazes, work that foments public discourse, work that speaks to us and compels us to action, these have value to society. What value is there in making objects to decorate the homes of wealthy “collectors”?
An excellent essay inspired by a remarkable film. And who knew that the Lochwood Branch Library was such a handsome building?
The Lochwood Library is fantastic! I saw a screening of Richard’s work there in the perfect little theater space housed there. It should definitely be taken more advantage of!
I want to thank you for writing this piece. It moved and inspired me to do a project that had been sort of stewing in me for a while, but wasn’t fully formed yet. After reading your piece, I figured out what I needed to do…so thank you! I’m excited to do this project!
Hey, Michael Morris!
Please calm your little liberal academia police persona down. People have the freedom to express their ideas in this country and if you dislike it then find another media outlet. Glasstire has provided a place where people can give their opinions regardless of how cynical or misguided they may be. Life outside the ivory tower can be tough so deal with it. All gush and no rough truly sucks.
Dear Jerry ‘Troll’ Rook
Why not get back to slandering junior highers on 4chan/e instead of aimlessly blundering through glasstire to get some led outta your pencil. BTW, this is the internet…not ‘Merica!!! Let the big kids talk, aren’t you missing a Ted Nugent concert or something?
Yes rerry, you’re right. People have the right to be total dicks to one another with the safety of anonymity. Way to be an exemplar. And you’re comment doesn’t constitute rad ass shit, so I’ll stand by my former point.
And bra, rerry, I love a good flame war. Feel free to keep getting huffy and call me names. You’ll get under my skin if it turns out you’re someone who’s opinion I care about. So shoot for that.
Great essay. I’d just like to add that in my own experience of approaching institutions and landowners for public art projects, we were met with nothing less than enthusiasm and support for our proposals.
The Trinity River Audubon Center granted us the use of their incredible Antoine Predock-designed space for free for Square Dance (rental fees are in the thousands) and the owner of a vacant whole city block in Oak Cliff also gave us the land for 4 months and kicked in some dough as well for the Seventeen Hundred Seeds project.
People in Dallas want to see more visual art projects happening outside of the white walls and, admittedly, the object-driven art market and they are willing to fund them. The Idea Fund grant from the Warhol Foundation is meant to support these kind of projects, too.
This notion of “public” I find troubling. It is true Dallas seems to enjoy crowd funding outdoor art and happenings more than studio artists. The determination of public art as tripping over it walking down the sidewalk while being simultaneously educated as opposed to objects on white-walls doesn’t quite explain why “object driven” sounds derogatory when they both have markets, where “public” tends to cost more and is funded more often per-capita by being resource heavy.
Whether white walled, object driven, grant funded, visible from the freeway, or a schrodinger’s cat in a VIP room, a project, practice, or work is public even if you’ve only heard of it. Art asks nothing more of the viewer walking into a gallery (which are largely open to the public) than one who walked down the right street, and is always offered to the world. On the other end of the stick, the studio artist and white-wall gallery pay the way to offer the work to the public prior to funding and the “public” work sources the money from the public before it exists. \_(*.o)_/
Looking to institutions, landowners, or funding pools lays the ultimate burden on resources that are inherently finite. Hence, those projects though high profile, are limited and not particularly prolific. The idea fund, while gracious, is a waiting game that only funds UP TO ten projects across the enormous state of Texas per year. Although that is limited to projects that fall outside the normal relam of “traditional” funding, it is still a “traditional” grant. Simply lacking the organization or know-how to write the proposal is exclusionary. Additionally it favors needing the grant to operate.
Guerilla as noted in the article, and to my knowledge, is non-traditional by definition. It is applied to situations lacking in resources, as a workaround. A guerilla project doesn’t seek permission and only requires what is readily available. If it were otherwise we wouldn’t have the word. In that vein, it can be repeated endlessly, operate rapidly, and imagination is it’s limitation ;).
To Charles’ below comment, yes, perhaps the worst someone can say is no, but that’s sometimes a final blow. The best possible offer, i’d argue, is forgiveness.
“I am only concerned with painting.
Digital media and the internet only
happen to exist. They also dominate
the landscape and articulate our
conversation in 2013. My practice is
confused by an assumption of relevancy,
but there is no relevant in modernity.
Public exhibitions like digital media
are something very different from
painting itself. They are a political
contextualization of the role of [the
artist] in a larger community. The
painting itself has no role in that
community, it is beside itself, I
can’t imagine it has anything to say.”
-Justin Hunter Allen
The worst they can say is no
Justin, very well thought out. I enjoy art in open spaces, but I’m a bigger fan of inviting people into a curated space, challenging the idea that art is inaccessible.
The awe Jep is looking for doesn’t come from the objects in the city.