Saturday, September 10, 2011

Side Door To Italy, Whistling on Horseback

 Not Enough of Italy

[This week, the good folks at the Red Room asked its members to write about Italy. Having nothing to say about the anniversary of 9/11 that isn’t being better said elsewhere, plus an odd perspective on the requested topic, I happily acceded.]

I love Italy. I've never been there, know only enough Italian to order pizza, and the way household economics are calculated, my wife and I are not likely to visit there anytime soon.

But I love Italy, anyway, like a distant lover. Hello Italia, from across both seas, digital and global!

I was not brought up to love Italy. When I was a boy in southern New York State in the early 1960s, a goal-line kick up the Hudson from the City, Italians were, within my family, spoken of dismissively. (Then again, so was most everyone else on two legs). Italian jokes commonly circulated around the schoolyard and on the bus. (Later, when I moved to Wisconsin, the exact same jokes returned as Polish jokes. In California, a few of them reappear as blond jokes; this leads to interesting notions about the mutability of ethnic humor, a subject I'm sure has been explored by sifting academic minds).

After my exile to the Midwest, my attitudes underwent a twist. In late 1967, this young stranger-in-town saw the classic Italian (or "spaghetti") western For a Few Dollars More at the Time Cinema in downtown Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Of all the striking merits of that then-despised movie, the most memorable to my mind was the lively, colorful, haunting, driving, inventive music score, written by a composer with the most exotic name I'd ever heard—Ennio Morricone.

Ennio Morricone instantly became my favorite musician, supplanting even The Beatles and Herb Alpert (no laughing, you with that 101 Strings collection you hide behind your Dylan albums whenever your hipster nephew pops by). Forty-five years later, with two hundred of his scores lining my CD shelf, he still is. (Hey, a man’s gotta have a hobby; and if you think I'm crazy, so is the rest of the planet.)

I did not suddenly tumble in love with all things Italian then. In the broad, flat middle of giant America in the pre-Internet, age, gaining awareness of anything beyond the Wisconsin state line was something of a chore. Cheese, beer and the Green Bay Packers, all that kept getting in the way. (I’d also say I'm more of a Europhile than Italo-phile.)

Over decades, my interest and pleasure in things Italian threaded lazily through my soul: the art of the Renaissance (especially Michelangelo); the rich, epic beauty of Italian cities, such as Florence; Italy’s grand colorful history, involving such figures as the Borgias, Machiavelli, and the Catholic Church, with the ritual, drama and intrigue played out under the magnificent heaven of their domes.

The rugged, sun-honeyed hills and mountains; the rich food and the exuberant face its people show the world. Italian filmmakers made many great films beyond the spaghetti westerns and continue to do so, lively compelling films.

On the dark and thrilling side, there's the history of Italian/Sicilian organized crime, and how it immigrated to America to plant its unique criminal subculture and how the Italian people still suffer from its poisonous shadow. Then there are coarse serio-comic antics of quasi-fascist Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. (If you think American politics is a grim circus these days, be glad we don't have Italy's.)

Aside from their sun-blasted surface details and desert landscapes (mostly filmed in Spain), those spaghetti westerns had little to do with the American West, in both myth and fact. Indeed, they weren't aimed at American audiences at all, and we were never meant to see them. Sergio Leone’s films, and the hundreds of other movies from that mash-up genre, were an indirect conversation among themselves and their audience—mostly moviegoers from Southern Italy—about Italian society and culture at the time. (A clue: note the absence or ineffectualness of the Catholic Church). They refashioned the surfaces and rituals of our myths as a way, in part, of looking at their own world.

From these films though--most of which are just as bad as the worst American B westerns--something of Italy’s flavor does filter through to us: the circus-like exuberance; the clownish, balletic violence, a combination of Punchinello show and low-budget opera; and, maybe most of all, a broad bright streak of individualism that’s so much like ours here in America. In that sense, it’s no wonder that some of the most ingenious, colorful and cock-eyed movies found an audience here.

Grazie mille, Maestro Morricone! Grazie mille, Italia!

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by Author

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.


Julie Schauer said...

From someone who has studied so much Italian, from the language to the art and architecture, I really like your commentary.....I was not familiar with Ennio Morricone and amazed that he is going full steam and still performing at nearly 83 years of age...

I was curious also by the bookcover of Salvator Rosa, whom I know as a painter of dark landscapes with small Biblical scenes that seem incidental to his interest in huge, powerful and at times overwhelming forces of nature.........perhaps he is the first "Romantic" painter.
You are correct to note all the varied intrigues of Italian culture throughout the ages. Hope you get there soon !

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks, Julie. I first saw the Rosa book at the Huntington in the early 2000s. I just picked it up at (maybe) random and just flipped after I flipped it open. He's also considered among the first "Gothic" stylists, I believe, because of those wonderful brooding, stormy landscapes. In fact, I believe I may have first read about him in a history of the Gothic movement.