The best thing about watching Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) was the way it simply washed over you. Instead of enlisting your subjective, material-level concentration – the one that makes you feel physically tense, or cringe, or cover your eyes, or roll them – it commanded your attention on what felt like a higher, more ethereal plain. In the way that rousing music plays across your subconscious with incredibly fine, pricked fingertips that set your nerves into a tremor of powerful but misty emotion, the film stimulated you without demanding that you keep a handle on a clear-cut storyline. Sorrentino presented you with thoughtful images and ideas with the same tangential brush-strokes as a very good contemporary artist.
It is odd, perhaps, that a film with a comparatively non-linear plot, a fair dose of content that I didn’t fully, in the literal sense I would generally use, “understand” and a strong bent towards surrealism – and magical realism; think rogue flocks of flamingos and humongous CGI giraffes – should strike me as being so consistently honest and insightful. Quirky symbolism, imagery and set pieces in film always tread the verge of pretentiousness, lack of clarity and, perhaps most dangerously, irrelevance. Even a (brilliant) film like Frances Ha, which centred on the very current Girls-esque milieu of female friendship and the vivid inertia of unemployment, was criticism in some quarters for being “pretentious” and solipsistic. So what is it that makes a piece of art relevant, in a way that any kind of solipsism inherently disallows?
The question of art’s relevance to the everyday has been pondered in essays, poems, plays and truisms since seminal artisans like Edmund Spenser were making their hypotheses and, intrinsically, their answers still remain as relevant as the question. Spenser calls art a “myrrhour” to life, but the complexity of symbolism, imagery and allegory in his arduously woven works would give Sorrentino a definite run for his money. The point in Spenser’s work is that the internal meanings and references – to Queen Elizabeth’s court, to the state of England or religion – build the language but then dissolve once their meaning is understood. There is no attempt to mesh all the symbols in the poetry together with the realities that they signify; they stand apart and both have an importance that subsists independent of the other. Even as he writes, the speaker in Spenser’s Amoretti modestly demurs to the beauty he cannot retell: ‘The glorious pourtraict…Made to amaze weake mens confused skil: / and this worlds worthlesse glory to embase, / what pen, what pencill can expresse her fill?’ The real world and the artistic ‘myrrhour’ are constant and symbiotic but they are not the same and there is no art (just a lot of arrogance) in trying to make them so, or in trying to tell stories that keep step with truth.
In modern art forms, like movies, it often feels as if we have moved on from this idea of art as somehow disengaged from the everyday, as something that lifts us by sheer force of expressive power into a heightened and brilliant world of emotions or aesthetics. As Grayson Perry pointed out this week in his first Reith Lecture for the BBC Democracy Has Bad Taste, beauty has become for some just a case of ‘reinforcing an idea we have already.’ In order to be ‘relevant’ or stimulating to a wide-ranging commercial audience, there is a distinct quota of meaning to fulfill, rather than an airy, ambiguous Spenserian height to strive for.
My trip to see The Great Beauty was sandwiched in between two other weekly film trips, which in some ways played out this idea of relevance as the reinforcement of a ‘quota.’ If The Great Beauty engaged the aesthetic, surreal level of my consciousness, Woody Allen’s new film Blue Jasmine harnessed my intellectual, social side – the part that would use adjectives like ‘scathing’ and ‘cynical’ and ‘astute’ – and Ron Howard’s Formula One biopic Rush was all about the physical.
Rush’s screen-time was dominated almost completely by burning rubber of one kind or another; volatile cars on rainy concourses took turns with the prerequisite boobs-on-bedspreads Hollywood montage of James Hunt’s sexual conquests. One excruciating scene counterpointed Lauda having his lungs vacuumed in hospital with Hunt, on the hospital room’s television screen (meta!), celebrating his wins by spraying champagne and grabbing girls. The race scenes elicited that bizarre, physical tension of uncontrollably fearing for the life of someone who you factually knew couldn’t die in that particular scene because they survived until 1993 or are still alive (Hunt and Lauda respectively). In Blue Jasmine, the excruciation was all psychological. Allen intercut between the past, showing Jasmine as a rich trophy wife, and the present, where she works as a dentist’s receptionist and scrounges off the sister whose money her husband lost. The direct sense of ‘relevance’ in both films comes not only from their retelling of real life stories – the 1976 Formula One season and the effects of America’s financial crisis – but also from their reinforcement of recognisable tropes. The fading beauty and the wilful cad in Jasmine and Hunt, the invulnerable pragmatism of their less attractive peers Ginger and Lauda, the vitriol of the mighty fallen and their descent into alcoholism and drug addiction, the rich cheating husband and the poor man he crushes beneath his feet, the tortoise beating the hare.
In Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, English student Rain remarks: ‘Life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television.’ There is a cycle at work whereby in both of these films, however different they may initially seem, the banality of real life is not so much reinforced as revivified, enhanced and raised up so that it appears as a tropological picture – an artwork – describing something we can recognise but never so definitively experience. The word ‘relevant’ originally comes from the Latin word ‘relevare,’ meaning ‘to lessen or lighten,’ which altered in Medieval Latin to mean ‘raising up’ before it took on its modern meaning of pertinence and connection to reality. This idea of relevance as simultaneously ‘lessening’ or ‘lightening’ our sense of reality and reaching up towards something beyond it makes sense of the art we see in cinemas as an, admittedly distant, relative of Spenser’s ineffable ‘myrrour.’
This same effect is captured in The Great Beauty although, in my humble opinion, with a more subtle and classical craftsmanship than in the other two films. For me, the problem with films that try to wrangle too directly with reality and tap into your physical or social consciousness, is that they are in danger of falling flat (literally) in the endeavour. In their efforts to resurrect and revivify what has gone before – or even, bizarrely, what is going on now, in the case of films like The Fifth Estate – they can end up seeming trite, inaccurate, offensive or banal (at least Julian Assange seems to think so.) By taking their place in the commercial miasma of neatly repackaged ideas and timeworn, ‘relevant’ stories, they arguably sacrifice, to some degree, their claim on a transcendent, indefinable ‘myrrhour’ that has flickered, for centuries of devoted artists, in and out of view.
In imitating real life, these films seem to dance to a fragmented yet constant, rhythmic beat, which isn’t new but never quite reaches a state of predictable calm – like the worst kind of snorer. Sorrentino, on the other hand, has spoken of his desire to capture “a kind of lassitude” that currently exists in Rome, “a sense that the nerve centers of the country had fallen asleep on their couches at home.”[1. Quoted from Rachel Donadio’s article La Dolce Vita Gone Sour (and This Time in Color) in The New York Times, 8/9/13] The Great Beauty does follow a ‘lead’ character, the inimitable Jep Gambardella, Rome’s primo novelist-cum-socialite played by Toni Servillo (with that wonderful face, like a crumpled duvet soaked in caramel sauce), and it has contemporary context: the highs, the lows and the onset of crows’ feet among Rome’s arty elite. There is definitely a recognizable socio-cultural commentary running through the film about the status of art among a privileged social milieu, as seen in the ironic interview scene when Jep tries to eke sense out of an experimental performance artist whose ‘art’ is just her running into a wall. This is obviously no incomprehensible surrealist phantasmagoria, à la Luis Buñuel, [2. If you haven’t already, watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BIKYF07Y4kA] but a current, ‘relevant’ piece of art.
Nevertheless, the sense of inertia and a country ‘fallen asleep’ in The Great Beauty seems to capture a bubble inside the hurtling reality of time, bringing with it a sense of relief and novelty – being ‘raised up’ and ‘lightened’ – that is less exhausting than some types of dogged, lifelike ‘relevance’. And, more than anything, it left me with the sense that I didn’t need to talk it out for an hour; with a comfortable silence on the walk home, rather than more talk. Like the sea that rippled on Jep Gambardella’s bedroom ceiling, it was a thing apart from the frantic and monotonous rumble of the everyday.