Monday, October 18, 2010

Searching out the Sick Soul: La Dolce Vita, La Notte, Last Year at Marienbad

I've seen all three "Sick-Soul-of-Europe-Party" movies now... two recently, one (La Dolce Vita) a while ago. Everybody talks about these movies as being about the alienation of the pampered European bourgeoisie lifestyle, which I think glosses over a more specific reading: they are movies about the anxiety of detached reflection, the fear that in pausing to consider your life, you'll discover that there's just no real point to it. Some people (myself included, and Roger Ebert, as well) felt compelled by this.

Pauline Kael did not. She makes this strikingly clear in her essay for The Massachusetts Review (Winter 1963), entitled "The Sick-Soul-Of-Europe-Parties." She says,

La Dolce Vita, La Notte, and Marienbad are all about people who are bored, successful and rich--international cafe society--but in at least two of them we are told they are artists, and because we know that artists embody and express their age, its soul and its temper, we are led to believe that these silly mannikins represent the soul-sickness, the failure of communication, the moral isolation of modern man.

Fellini and Antonioni ask us to share their moral disgust at the life they show us--as if they were illuminating our lives, but are they? Nothing seems more self-indulgent and shallow than the dissatisfaction of the enervated rich; nothing is easier to attack or expose.

Kael seemed to come at these films from her entrenched spectatorial position: that she lives a well-supplied, respectable everyday life; that what matters in this world is self-evident. This is the point of view of the essential middle-class white-collar citizen, working for their money, just trying to make it though the day. Of course, Kael had the extra bit of detached self-awareness necessary to use that as a frame for analyzing movies. Even so, she made her lens obvious in a number of passages:

"I don't want to sound like a Doris Day character--the all-American middle-aged girl--but when I put the coffee on in the morning and let the dogs out, I don't think I feel more alienated than people who did the same things a hundred years ago."

"Forgive me if I sound plaintive: I've never been to one of these dreadfully decadent big parties (the people I know are more likely to give bring-your-own-bottle parties)."

"I was intrigued by the palaces and parks and wanted to know where they were, who had built them, and for what purposes (I was interested in the specific material that Resnais was attempting to make unspecific)."

Analyzing these three films from this perspective is natural and excusable, but I can't help but feel that Kael was willfully neglecting the point of view that the films are expressing. It's a point of view that she probably had access to, being a well-paid professional writer and film theorist, which are bourgeoisie professions par excellence (this coming from an acknowledged member of the same creative class, of course). Did Kael never indulge the idea that she may have been a cultural parasite, feeding off the structural and economic excesses that place such high value on "abstract thought" and "cultural literacy?" Had she never been scared by the idea that her ultimate role in the universe was the role of privileged navel-gazer? I think she needed to access these anxieties to see where these filmmakers were coming from.

By shoehorning herself into this critical perspective, Kael makes the mistake of treating all three of these films as unequivocally identical, when in truth, each has its own particular dramatic conflicts and lessons. Kael thinks that all three are over-determined by the message that "big decadent European parties are actually sad and pathetic," which isn't actually the message in any of them. If anything, it's merely the tone: the sad-heart-of-privilege is definitely a shared stage, and the idle celebration is an easy way to set that stage, but each film creates its own thematic undertones within this space.

For instance, I can't help but feel that Roman Catholicism is a strong presence in La Dolce Vita, and this may be why this feels like the most full-bodied and hopeful of the three films. Marcello and his band of adolescents don't take religion seriously, but even so, it lingers out there on the periphery of the story, offering a glimpse into a hope that some people can access, even if it's beyond Marcello's reach. This theme of religion and cosmic uncertainty seeps into the story in a number of places: the agony of suicide and death, just off-screen and outside Marcello's blinders; the appearance of father figures who inspire both admiration and ambivalence in the protagonist. The film may be unresolved; it may withhold its thesis; but it can't be accused of being empty of concrete meaning.

The wealth and false narratives, covering meaninglessness like plaster over a gaping hole, is a theme in the work of Resnais, as well. However, like all of his themes, it isn't rooted as deeply in the characters -- generally the film seems to be an exploration of appearances and aestheticization.

You could point to some religious concerns in La Notte, as well, but again, they don't have much emphasis. What does have a strong emphasis in La Notte -- which is minimally addressed in the other two films -- is the faux-creative disposition, the inauthentic position of the self-involved public artist. Kael throws light on this by rejecting the theme before she actually investigates it; she says Giovanni seems like a fake artist, with none of the tortured texture of a truly great writer. Without a doubt, Antonioni would probably make the same observation: Giovanni is not addicted to the act of creation, like a great artist, but rather to the public image that he can attain.

This also relates, in no small way, to Giovanni's relationship with Valentina, who acts as both a muse and a foil. She has everything the couple lacks: spontaneity, artistic ambition and humility, and some respect and regard for the marriage she threatens to break up. I think, as much as it's a simple interpretation to see Giovanni's interest in her as the capricious horniness of a middle-aged man, it's actually a form of possessive denial. Giovanni wants to possess her because she represents a lost part of himself.

Kael calls for a character in these films "who enjoys every minute of it, who really has a ball," who she says would be "the innocent American exploding this European mythology of depleted modern man"... and yet, she fails to recognize these figures when they arrive. They are Valentina, and Marcello's father, and perhaps even M, the husband in Last Year at Marienbad. These characters are the windows to the outside world, alluding to places that haven't become drowned in habit and aimlessness.

Of course, I have the urge to ask of Kael: why write so much about these movies, simply to say that they're generally shallow and overrated? I guess, at the time, the prevailing appreciation of these films was so strong that it was worth voicing some resistance. Kael is also one of the greatest critics in history, so I can't deny that she had good reason, even if I don't understand it. And I must admit, I don't mind the basic idea of a review-criticism hybrid essay, which is pretty much what this is. Even so, I think I got more out of the sick soul films that Kael did, maybe because I watched with a different pair of eyes.


G. said...

Good one. Of course, as much as we know that we need to walk in the shoes of those authors to understand them, we need to do so to understand Kael's writing way back. But the question sometime remains: that cinema was far from a good deal of American culture/cinema and the reasons for that run deeper.

Kim Scarborough said...

"being a well-paid professional writer and film theorist"

She wasn't when she wrote that. Her reviews for KPFA were unpaid, and she couldn't have been getting much money from small academic journals like The Massachusetts Review or Film Quarterly. Later, of course, after her first book was successful and she was working for McCall's and then The New Yorker, was a different story, but she certainly wasn't making a living from writing in 1963.