Miraculous, brilliant agility by an old man! For a few films now, Visconti has been undermining the abstract-theoretical superstructure that has served him for his entire life and oeuvre (as a guide or merely as an alibi?), which, since Death in Venice, he seems to be whispering ever more emphatically to those who are willing and able to hear it. A melancholic testament, a cultural pessimist dirge? Maybe. But what delightful and merciless sensuality is at work here! A film about a political and cultural generation gap? Perhaps. But what alertness to the skin of things and especially people! An aggressive, anti-fascist analysis of today’s Italian bourgeoisie? Why not? But how lyrical the sweep of his directing the actors! A gesture, a glance, an attitude, a presence are captured by the sophisticated camerawork with the most intense and intimate resonances! And finally – not in contradiction with what is said above – what radical leap from any romantic morality by the romantic pathetic Visconti!
The spectator is at an interpretive crossroads. The film has two access routes, only one of which can be followed at a time. The choice cannot be justified at the start of the film; it is arbitrary and yet decisive. Which of the two interpretations to follow? Because the film balances between self-pity and dubious social critique on the one hand and an all-consuming undercurrent on the other hand, resulting in a true underground film within that majestic message and confident realism.
I saw that marginal film in Conversation Piece, I admired and enjoyed it. As for the official version (which is also Visconti’s version), I have always found it irrelevant to my enthusiasm and emotions for his many films. More than ever, it seems to me a cover for his illicit preferences, an intellectual and commercial cloth thrown over the naked shoulders of his sensuality.
Am I the only one who suspects a marginal version behind the official version? (Only Wolf Donner in Die Zeit of 23 March 1977 sees the ambiguity of the latest Visconti films.) The criticism endlessly embroiders on the all-too-familiar theme of the aristocratic Marxist, the aestheticising critic of his time, the costumier-intellectual, the lover and indicter of decadence. It is a mythical photofit of Visconti with enough romantic contradictions to provide spectators and critics with ever new facile interpretive formulas. Who needs to actually “watch” his films anymore when one is offered such a rewarding, inexhaustible figure?
The Other Side of Romanticism
Is it disrespectful to drop Warhol’s name and the word “pornography” with reference to Visconti? Still, I would like to focus my (and your) compass on this for a moment, in order to explain Visconti’s path across and beyond romanticism. Romanticism is always the result of abundance, an excess of meaning and interpretations. Romanticism is the result of an excess of identification possibilities. Romanticism is too much intimacy, a terrorist closeness to characters and their histories. We understand too well, we understand too much. In that respect, Visconti never disappointed his audience, quite the contrary. He unravelled his characters into social backgrounds, historical conditioning, moral culture, emotive history. The dramaturgical progression of his film narratives was always well-organised, too well-organised. Characters and scenes were given “meaning” – and implicit laws and boundaries – from this interpretive richness. In his most recent films, this entire interpretive grid came loose, like a prosthesis that no longer fits, even though everyone thought he had become one with it. Everything is coming loose, just enough so that his sensuality could seep in through every pore uncontrolled, unmotivated and uncensored. The dense dramatic and interpretive fabric is torn open – the spectacle loses “meaning” but gains presence. The meaning, which mapped out our stroll through the spectacle as a kind of censorious morality, is now questioned. The absence of meaning excludes the path to romance and leads us towards the amoral, Warholian “fixing” of the image blanche [blank image] (as a variant of the voix blanche [soundless voice]) of pornography.
An old man (Burt Lancaster) has withdrawn from life in his Roman home among books and paintings. As tenants, a bunch of rich people invade his home and his intimacy. It is a classic situation in absurdist theatre: the relationship between the established owner and disruptive tenants. A classic space also for the absurdist power struggle: the room, the house as a territory under threat. The conventions and possibilities of this kind of theatre pervade the entire film – the physical and psychological power struggle between the two parties is one of its basic ingredients. The otherwise realism-oriented and abstraction-averse Visconti even preserves the improbably abstract nature of this kind of theatre. Surely it is no Losey film, no new Teorema, no hysterical Albee scenes? As spectators, we are constantly expecting eruptions with animal dimensions, but Visconti is sure to divert all scenes from that trajectory in time. The mechanism of brutal reckoning is bended into its opposite: attention, observation, watching with understanding. Psychological sadism is present as a possibility but is transcended, it is not denied but observed. It is not a law but a possibility. In this way, Visconti evades the predictable and mechanical nature of the absurdist and sadistic scene. He adds a new dimension to the impasse of words: a gaze without judgement or morality, a mute gaze (that makes no comments), as perfectly neutral as a camera lens.
A word that today no longer covers a clear aesthetic experience or dimension. We still use it, but it only expresses something quantitative, not qualitative. We call sublime what we find very, very beautiful, but we don’t use it to say how we find it beautiful. I have a vague idea of the place the word had in the past, of the kind of experiences and emotional afflictions it denoted. The sublime seems to me akin to the kitschy. The sublime is too beautiful, too touching, too rich in emotionality. Sublime is the intensity that becomes almost unbearable. (The sublime did not survive techniques of reproduction and democratisation because it cannot be separated from the unique surprise, the sudden discovery, the overwhelming ecstasy that precisely cannot be repeated, cannot be reproduced.)
Still, I want something of this word’s aura to illuminate Visconti’s latest film. For sublime are those visual flashes that make up the richness of the film: Helmut Berger casually placing his hand on Burt Lancaster’s shoulder, Lancaster dragging the unconscious Berger into his flat, Lancaster discovering a playful group-sex scene with surprise but without a trace of indignation, Lancaster receiving contradictory information about Berger in successive scenes with surprise and sympathy. These moments are sublime because they do not conform to any of our normal expectations as spectators. Because we expected everything from Visconti and Lancaster but not that, not the obligingness, not the sympathetic attitude, not the fascinated listening to that – for him – new sound and fury of the outside world.
Was Visconti making his umpteenth film about the latent fascism of the Italian bourgeoisie? Or is this political taxonomy for him, as for his characters, nothing but a common concession for organising (and disorganising) social intercourse? Because social intercourse is what the film seems to be about. Political, erotic and territorial barriers are as much obstacles as elements in that intercourse. Those barriers give us something to hold on to when formulating or censoring the intuitive truth that is spoken when touching and looking at each other. That is why I find Warhol and the triviality of pornography such a proper guide, such a proper measure of what Visconti has been doing in recent years. There is a rightness, an inner consistency, and an absence of moral hesitation that make Visconti’s films breathtakingly modern. It is our sense of physicality that we see at work on the screen: a theatrical nudity, an artificial naturalness, a perverse spontaneity. It is important to think both contradictory terms together, because modern physicality resides in this very tension, their unresolvedness, our continuous journey between both poles.
Images from Gruppo di famiglia in un interno [Conversation Piece] (Luchino Visconti, 1974)
This text originally appeared in Kunst & Cultuur, vol. 8, no. 11, 1 June 1975.
Many thanks to Reinhilde Weyns and Bart Meuleman
With the support of LUCA School of Arts, LUCA.breakoutproject