Prolegomenon to a Phenomenology
A couple of weeks ago I finally sent off the manuscript of my book Fenomenologia del cinepanettone to the publisher Rubbettino. Riccardo Antonangeli and Luca Peretti had worked hard and had worked fast on the translation, and we went over and revised it carefully despite the pressure of time. It was hard to press ‘send’ because of the controversial nature of the cinepanettoni themselves (I keep thinking - have I done enough to explain them?), because of the inevitable feeling I had left so much out, and also because I suspect the book will be misunderstood. My anxiety means that I want in this blog post to discuss and defend the structure and content of the book and try to get my retaliation in first. A defence of a book that hasn’t yet been published is absurd of course: the study, when it comes out, has to stand on its own—and anyway, all books are misunderstood. Embarrassed at this need to mansplain, I’ve given this post a pompous title in the hope of discouraging blog visitors from clicking on it. Please, please—read no further!
Uomini uomini uomini
In a previous post I argued for the liberatory thrust in ‘Cacao meravigliao’, a carnivalesque episode of Anni 90, and by extension in the cinepanettone as a whole. My argument was constructed on the analysis of the performance of unruliness in female drag by white male Italian actors, and so begs the question: on behalf of whom is the transgression performed, and what are the costs of the transgression for other groups and identities? In the case of ‘Cacao meravigliao’, the cost seems to involve a stereotypical representation of the Other, the Brazilian ‘shemales’ whose abject, ‘composite’ bodies guarantee by contrast the unitary sex of the male protagonists. The cost for females is that they are effectively marginalized, confined to the roles of prostitute or wife, by the impersonation of unruly womanhood by men.
Trigamist Fabio Trivellone with his black family in Merry Christmas
As I wrote in a previous post, I spent most of June in Italy, taking the cinepanettone on a visit home. In this post I’ll talk about CineRoma, the three-week Notre Dame University seminar at the Villa Mirafiori, La Sapienza, 11-28 June, co-organized by Zyg Baranski (ND), Robert Gordon (Cambridge) and myself. I discuss here the seminar as a whole and the session I gave on popular cinema. In the next post I’ll discuss my keynote paper at the conference ‘Echi Oltremare. The Other Inside and Out: Italy and the Mediterranean’ (Rome, 14-16 June).
Interview transcripts (6): parlano gli scettici (Antonangeli, Garofalo, Missaglia, Schirò, Uva)
In this sixth edited transcript from the interviews conducted by Luca Peretti and myself on the cinepanettone I excerpt the words of four members of a focus group of male university graduates aged between twenty-four and twenty-six: Riccardo Antonangeli, Damiano Garofalo, Nicola Missaglia and Enrico Schirò. As I explained to them, there were representatives for us of a certa intellighentsia who I hoped would help us to discern the substance of, and get some of the reasons for, a widespread dismissive feeling towards the cinepanettone on the part of those who consider themselves educated and culturally well-informed. The next post will be about the fans of the cinepanettone, but these are among the sceptics: I want to take seriously the perceptions of the public, sympathetic or unsympathetic, to help to understand and analyse the appeal or not of the film di Natale.
Gli scettici: Garofalo, Antonangeli, Schirò, Missaglia
Joining the four members of the focus group is the academic Christian Uva, who teaches film at Roma Tre University and who has appeared several times in this blog (see here and here). Christian is the author of the best study I’ve found of the films of Neri Parenti, in which he is brilliant on the persona of Christian De Sica (see the end of this post for details). Our conversation focussed on the ideology of the cinepanettone and on some of its formal characteristics.
Appassionati per caso: Srivastava, Uva, O’Leary
A fishy something again
In the previous post I wrote about models for some of the comic situations or visual jokes in the cinepanettone. I mentioned that A Fish Called Wanda seemed to be a particular point of reference. To confirm this, I illustrate a couple of scenes from the film.
I wrote in the previous post about flattened animals. In the films discussed there, these animals (mice, cats, guinea pigs) are first flattened and then inflated. The latter doesn’t happen in A Fish Called Wanda where a plot strand concerns Michael Palin’s character Ken’s attempts to kill a witness who has implicated his jewel thief boss. She is a bad tempered old woman (Patricia Hayes) with three small yapping dogs (one of which has been run over by a car, above). The joke is that Ken is a mild mannered animal lover but he accidentally kills all three of the horrible little creatures before the old woman finally dies of a heart attack, much to Ken’s delight, as seen here.
This scene anticipates some of the taboo busting violence to animals and the aged in Neri Parenti’s cinepanettoni of the new century, as in this scene from Natale in crociera (2007), in which a naked Christian De Sica, ejected from his lover’s apartment, knocks an old lady unconscious in order to use her poodle to mask his modesty.
Why would A Fish Called Wanda have been such a key source? Well, although production values in the film (particularly the lighting) seem dated now, the camera work and editing, and so the staging of the humour, are extremely precise. The casting of the ensemble is almost perfect and the performances are great, each part played with conviction and a kind of joy. And last but not least, it makes a strong part of its appeal its transgressive aspect and potential to offend: it’s misogynist hogwash (John Cleese’s Archie is married to a shrew, played with relish by Maria Aitken, and his weakness for cute young American flesh vindicated in advance); the film finds hilarity in disability (Michael Palin’s animal-loving conman with a stutter, as seen above); the use of profanity throughout; the representation of a woman’s frank sexual (and masturbatory) desire; and, as we have seen, a refusal to respect the traditionally protected categories of animals and the aged.
As my reference to misogyny above indicates, I do not pretend there is no ideological aspect to all this, but I do think that it challenges those who want to describe the cinepanettone as essentially ‘right wing’. I have invoked a sophisticated version of this position in an earlier post on the grotesque body in the cinepanettone. I quoted there the Italian academic (and good friend of mine) Christian Uva as writing that the ‘cattiveria’ in the cinepanettone is ‘serialmente e programmaticamente indirizzata verso precisi obiettivi che, come visto, sono sempre gli stessi, e cioè le cosiddette categorie deboli, quali le donne, gli anziani, gli omosessuali’ ( from ‘La politica del panettone’, in Michele Picchi and Christian Uva, Destra e sinistra nel cinema italiano: film e immaginario politico dagli anni ’60 al nuovo millennio (Rome: Edizioni Interculturali, 2006), pp. 165-72 (pp. 169-70)). I want to suggest that the transgressive/taboo busting aspect of the cinepanettone operates at a ‘lower’ or at least another level than that of politics per se. Uva notes this too when he goes on to say that ‘Culture’ as such is presented in the films as a ‘noioso patrimonio di “sfigati” esclusi dalla grande orgia della vita’ (p. 170). It’s an old argument (it’s been going on for decades in relation to the real liberatory potential of carnival and the carnivalesque as paeaned in Bahktin): is the breaking of taboos and the transgressive unmasking of politeness a challenge to oppression, or is it rather the brazen confirmation of principles and prejudices conventionally disavowed? My position would be that this question cannot be answered in the abstract. It’s an obvious enough point to make that it will always be historically and context specific, but I want to remind ourselves also that the person watching and listening, laughing or not, has a competence not to be underestimated, and most can tell the difference between audio-visual narratives and reality.
ps. a couple of points. Firstly, as I have already mentioned, one of the things that seems to annoy about the cinepanettone is the fact that its jokes are often unrelated to plot (this is a theme in Franceso Piccolo’s essay on Natale a Miami). Thus, De Sica’s leveling of the vecchia is a purely spectacular moment, with no purchase in the story, whereas our enjoyment of the death of the old lady in Wanda (and Ken’s reaction to it) is justified by its place in the plot and by the iterative motif+variation in the film. Secondly, an interesting further aspect of the ‘transgression’ in Wanda is the emphasis put on the deliberate ‘constructedness’ of Jamie Lee Curtis’ Wanda, who is seen to choose costume and and performance style according to the seductive purpose at hand; at one point she is even shown bleaching the hair on her top lip. (This is in opposition to the carefully disavowed construction of ‘natural’ beauty of the desirable woman in even as transgressive film as There’s Something about Mary - an intertext omnipresent also in the cinepanettone - where Cameron Diaz is, if I remember, never shown as anything but gorgeous and fully formed.)
pps. It occurs to me to complicate a little my point in the post-scriptum about jokes in the cinepanettone being unrelated to plot. Yes, our enjoyment of the delayed death of the old lady in Wanda is justified by its place in the plot and Ken’s repeated bungling attempts to rub her out, but Wanda is a single film (there was a sequel made, but that’s another story). Yes, many of the jokes in the cinepanettoni might be purely spectacular moments with no purchase in the story, but it is a serial form, and the effect between films is cumulative, in a different but analogous way to the Ken/old lady events in Wanda.
Vacanze di Natale (1983): Instant Nostalgia
‘Le madeleines di Proust sono ora prodotte in serie.’ (Emiliano Morreale)
Here I continue to extract some material from a forthcoming article written for the first issue of a new Italian journal of history and cinema edited by Christian Uva, entitled ‘Nostalgia per un decennio disprezzato: appunti sul primo cinepanettone’.
In an interesting book on nostalgia in the cinema, Emiliano Morreale argues that nostalgia in its ‘postmodern’ form was born in Italy in the 1980s. He locates to the years around 1980 the emergence of a ‘nostalgia mediale e di massa’ that finds its motifs and Madeleines in lowbrow culture. Morreale signals Sapore di Mare (Carlo Vanzina, 1983) as a key text of the ‘new’ nostalgia, a film which releases a ‘fenomeno centrale’ of the period, that of the ‘filone “giovanilista-nostalgico”’ in Italian cinema.
The cinepanettone and the ‘wrong’ sort of spectator
In this and the next post I extract some material from a pair of forthcoming articles, one by myself and one co-written with Catherine O’Rawe. My own article is written for an issue of a new Italian journal of history and cinema edited by Christian Uva, and is entitled ‘Nostalgia per un decennio disprezzato: appunti sul primo cinepanettone’. With Catherine I wrote ‘Contemporary Italian Filmgoers and their Critics’, to come out as part of the collection Watching Films: New Perspectives on Movie-Going, Exhibition and Reception, ed. by Karina Aveyard and Albert Moran (Bristol: Intellect, forthcoming 2012).
In the next post I will talk about the fan nostalgia for the first cinepanettone, Vacanze di Natale (Carlo Vanzina, 1983). The theme I want to develop here is my hunch that the critical accounts of the cinepanettone may be bound to the date of production of Vacanze di Natale. In other words, the film is seen by critics as an exemplary product of the decade in which, for many, a new qualunquismo that would become a full-blown berlusconismo was born. This was the period when, for critics like Brunetta, the Italian ‘homo cinematograficus’ spectated his last, to be replaced by a fickle and inconstant comedy fan like the one for the cinepanettone itself. Is it the case that the cinepanettoni are so regularly and ritualistically denigrated because they are considered to appeal to the ‘wrong’ sort of spectator, a non-cinephile sensation seeker?
Massimo Boldi is a BODY (or, The Carnival Body and Culture)
A summer 2011 film hit in India was Delhi Belly (Abhinay Deo, 2011), a sophisticated comedy-thriller about three young male friends in the city of the title. The combination of gritty but stylized mise-en-scene, breakneck plotting, and generation-specific spoken idiom (the film was released in English and Hindi versions) has been hailed as something new in Bollywood cinema, though the chief motor of the comedy, as signalled in the title, is a primitive one. One of the friends, played by the handsome but corpulent Kunal Roy Kapoor, gets food poisoning and suffers diarrhoea at inopportune moments, moments found the most uproariously hilarious in the film at the screening I attended in a large cinema hall in Delhi itself. It is no accident that the character subjected to this indignity is the least slim of the three protagonists, nor that he is the one from whose mouth issue the choicest of the profanities for which the film quickly became notorious. His is the unruly body, the body that exceeds its social place by its bigness and double incontinence. His is the grotesque body that spills obscenity in the form of lurid speech and non-solid waste into its environment.
I begin this post with mention of an Indian film because it points to the universality of certain aspects of comedy, and suggests how inadequate is the criticism that dismisses the cinepanettone for its ‘vulgarity’ in the form of toilet humour. Comedy is deeply rooted in its linguistic and cultural circumstances, and it is often said that ‘national’ comedies in local languages are unexportable. But comedy also deals with something we all share: the body in society. We are, all of us, obliged to regulate the functions, needs and desires of our bodies according to the different and particular conventions and strictures of a given society, but the fact of the regulation is universal, and it is a perpetual concern of comedy to portray the non-conformity of the body to that regulation. Delhi Belly stages this non-conformity as a transgression of social rules and individual dignity, even as a transgression of genre boundaries. In one scene, the character has been forced by his loose bowels into the bathroom of a hotel suite while a shoot-out between his friends and local gangsters takes place in the bedroom, and physical gross-out comedy collides with gangster tropes.
The unruly body is a constant also in the cinepanettoni, and in its grotesque and incontinent form is found in Natale sul Nilo, in which the rotund and baby-faced Massimo Boldi plays a Carabiniere general on a holiday trip to Egypt. Boldi’s physical appearance gainsays the dignity of his rank even as he embodies the proverbial absurdity of the Carabinieri in Italian popular discourse. But indignity is further added to absurdity when he drinks some of the local water and suffers diarrhoea during a tour of the Great Pyramid.
Rome in a day: Oldoini, Uva, Boris
Luca Peretti and I started the day with a meeting with Enrico Oldoini (below), the director and scriptwriter of several Filmauro film di Natale, including Vacanze di Natale ‘90 and ‘91, and the Boldi entry from 2008, La fidanzata di papa’ (he works now mostly on television). Like many of our interviewees, he was remarkably forthcoming, sharing some interesting stuff on working with producers and his take on critical culture in Italy. Interesting too were his comments on the other directors and scriptwriters and their work on the film di Natale: he’s a genuine fan; he always sees the films and always laughs, he said.