Phillip Lopate: “Anticipation of La Notte,” Part 2

1.

On the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, I was walking across the Loyola University campus from Von der Ahe Library to a 20th century poetry class. As I approached the entrance to the building, I heard screams, and then students poured out onto the lawn. “The president has been shot! The president has been shot!” For the next several days, I and most of the nation were fixated on our black-and-white televisions, numb but fearful, as though an existentialist doomsday were imminent.

I had only recently returned from a junior year abroad in Austria. In October 1962, I was sequestered in the Alpine mountains of the Tyrolean capital city Innsbruck, far removed from the global anxieties of the 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis. Back in Los Angeles the following fall, recovering from the heady freedom of being a student in Europe, where class attendance was optional, I bristled at the strictures of Loyola’s Jesuit discipline.

From that glorious Wanderjahr in Europe, and with a newfound passion for cinema thanks to my recent exposure to French and Italian New Wave films, life itself seemed, to my 20-year-old brain, to unspool like jump-cut sequences from early Godard and Truffaut.

In Innsbruck, I lived on a budget of less than $100 a month, and any indulgence in a movie meant a day without food. I went to the movies often. One November afternoon, as snowfall threatened, I splurged to see the latest Michelangelo Antonioni film, the finale of the existential angst trilogy he had begun with L’Avventura and La Notte. Dubbed into German for its Austrian presentation, this new film was titled Liebe, 1962; it was known in Italian as L’Eclisse. Sitting in the back row of that overheated cinema, where tickets were priced according to the most desirable distances from the screen, I was the only youth amid a sea of middle-aged women. I suspected most of them, lured by that promising title, had come to see a fashionable love story with the two most attractive actors of European cinema, Alain Delon and Monica Vitti.  What they did see, of course, was Antonioni’s most diabolical takedown of a traditional love story, one even starker than the concluding sequence on the golf course in  La Notte.

Recalling my experience in that movie theater with housewives and war widows — World War II had ended about 15 years earlier — reminds me of an anecdote that Phillip Lopate shares in the second part of his essay “Anticipation of La Notte,” about his student days at Columbia in the early 1960s:

Often, I would cut classes to catch an afternoon matinee at one of the little art houses in the Carnegie Hall area. Putting my feet up in the half-empty theater during intermission, I would listen in on the conversation of the blue-haired matinee dowagers: ‘I couldn’t make head or tails of that movie the other day! ... I’m glad you said that. And they don’t need to show such explicit stuff onscreen.’ Many an afternoon I shared with those old ladies, wondering what they were making of the capricious, Hitchcockian 360-degree tracking shots in, say, Chabrol’s Leda. Or I would roam around Times Square, up and down 42nd Street (then a mecca of cinema gold, both foreign and domestic), enjoying the reverse chic of seeing a sacred Melville, Franju, Walsh, Losey or Preminger film in such sordid surroundings.


2.

On that tragic day in November 1963, a day that had begun as just another mild, sunny autumn day in L.A., I was scheduled to present an explication de texte of a 20th century poem of my choice. Our teacher, Dr. Frank Carothers, was not one to hold forth in scholarly lectures; he enjoined each of us to engage with a more substantive understanding of the truth of poetry in our own (admittedly inexperienced) lives by standing in front of our peers. I had chosen the first of the Preludes by T.S. Eliot, then the reigning doyen of challenging poetry. Here is the text:

The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

And then the lighting of the lamps.


The final shot in L’Eclisse is a close-up of a burning streetlight, accompanied by a crescendo in the spare musical score by Giovanni Fusco. It’s possible that the parallels between the Eliot poem and the movie’s montage could have existed only in the mind of someone intoxicated with the idea of “cinema.” I never presented those remarks to my classmates, of course, but the parallels have haunted me to this day. Judge for yourself when you see this scene.

The setup is this: Delon and Vitti have spent the afternoon in playful lovemaking in his office/apartment. Standing at the doorway before she leaves, they promise to see each other tomorrow, the day after that, and then even that evening at 8 p.m. at the street corner of a construction site where they have met earlier in the film. After she leaves, there are several shots of each of them looking uncertainly toward the camera, shots that are not included in the abbreviated video posted below. There is a certain doubt in their eyes. Then, we cut to a sequence of 57 highly stylized shots (also abridged in this video), all near the street corner where we expect the two lovers to appear. The afternoon turns to twilight, then to night, to “the lighting of the lamps.”

Unlike my colleague Phillip Lopate, my personal sense of juvenile ennui, desperation and angst did not lead me to the brink of suicide. Maybe it was the still smoldering coals of a once blazing fire of Catholicism and its repudiation of self-destruction as an escape from the travails of life, but the even more raging fire of love for cinema did lead me the following year to enroll in the new graduate film program at USC. Like Lopate, I am still a student of this always self-renewing art.

Here is the second part of Lopate’s “Anticipation of La Notte”: 

It is a truism that moviegoing can become a substitute for living. Not that I regret one hour spent watching movies, then or now, since the habit persists to this day, but I would not argue either if someone wanted to maintain that chronic moviegoing often promotes a passivity before life, a detached tendency to aestheticize reality, and, I suppose, a narcissistic absorption that makes it harder to contact others. ‘Only connect,’ people were fond of quoting Forster at the time. For me, ‘connect’ meant synchronizing my watch with the film schedules around town.



Often, I would cut classes to catch an afternoon matinee at one of the little art houses in the Carnegie Hall area. Putting my feet up in the half-empty theater during intermission, I would listen in on the conversation of the blue-haired matinee dowagers: ‘I couldn't make head or tails of that movie the other day!. ... I'm glad you said that. And they don’t need to show such explicit stuff onscreen.’ Many an afternoon I shared with those old ladies, wondering what they were making of the capricious, Hitchcockian 360-degree tracking shots in, say, Chabrol’s Leda. Or I would roam around Times Square, up and down 42nd Street (then a mecca of cinema gold, both foreign and domestic), enjoying the reverse chic of seeing a sacred Melville, Franju, Walsh, Losey or Preminger film in such sordid surroundings.



In retrospect, the mystery to me is, how did I pay for all those movies? Even taking into consideration student discounts, early-bird specials and the fact that movies were so much cheaper then, I must have spent a good part of my food money on tickets. But at least I could keep up with Stoller and Zill.



Nick Zill had been living in a railroad fiat on West 106th Street, along with three other roommates. Since one of Nick’s roommates worked in an art-film distribution company, he was able to bring 16-millimeter prints home to screen. The first time Nick invited me over for a screening in their living room, I stumbled over bodies and wine bottles to find a space on the floor. The idea of being part of a small, ‘invited’ group watching a bona fide rare movie, Renoir's La Marseillaise, was heaven. I had been infected early on by the mystique of the lost, the rare, the archival film; one had only to advertise a movie as ‘forgotten’ and I could barely stay away. Like an epicure dreaming of delicacies he has never tasted, I would fantasize being elected president just so I could order a screening in the White House den of Visconti's Ossessione (then tied up in litigation) or Eisenstein's Bezhin Meadow, or all of Louise Brooks's films, or that Holy Grail of cineastes, the eight-hour Greed. And here I was, ensconced in a similar lucky place, the very hardness of Nick’s wooden floor a mark of privilege. Most of the West 106th Street audience had a less reverential attitude, drawn simply by the lure of a free movie.



When Nick told me he was moving, and that I could take over his room if I wanted, I jumped at the chance to become a resident member of the West 106th Street film club. Perhaps I should have thought twice about it. In this dilapidated tenement building, which the city has since torn down, the rooms were so dark and closet like that Zill once used one for a sensory-deprivation experiment, locking his younger brother in and covering the windows. My own room looked out on a brick wall, and its only light source was a naked bulb that hung from the ceiling like a noose.



I mention the squalor of our living conditions because it seems somehow connected to the movie hunger. Not only did the silver screen offer a glamorous escape, it sometimes did just the opposite, held up a black-and-white mirror to our grainy, bleakly uncolorful lives. One found romantic confirmation in the impoverished locations of Italian neorealist and French New Wave pictures. If the hero in Diary of a Country Priest (which I had since seen) could die in a humble room like mine, the shadows forming a cross on the cracked walls above his pallet, then my own barren walls were somehow blessed, poeticized.



Do what I might, however, I was unable to find more than a few moments a week of daily life charged with that poetic transcendence I had come to expect from the movies. I wanted life to have the economy and double meaning of art. But more often I simply felt torn by a harsh, banal pain that had no cinematic equivalent. As the unhappiness increased, I began, almost in mechanical response, to think of killing myself.



If I reflect back to what brought on this crisis, I have to admit that it all feels very remote by now; I am no longer the teenager I once was; every cell in my body has since changed, biologically if not cognitively. Still, I can try to piece together the reasons. Some of my pain, I suspect, came from the fact that I had been a ‘star’ in high school, while my first year at Columbia, surrounded by other high-school stars, plunged me into such anonymity as to make me misplace all sense of self-worth. Too, I was living on my own for the first time. Though I had run away from home, I think I felt ‘abandoned’ by the ease with which my parents had let me go. They were too financially strapped to help me, and I was wearing myself out at odd jobs while studying full time. In the process I managed to lose 40 pounds [≈ Medium-sized dog]: a 6-footer, I had gone from 165 pounds [≈ Large dog] to a gaunt 125, as though trying to prove, against my own assertions of independence, that I was unable to take care of myself properly. Malnutrition may have affected my mental outlook more than I realized; in any event, I began to feel utterly hopeless and tired with life. I saw patterns of despair everywhere: in the street, in the sky. The arguing and drug taking of my roommates filled me with distress, contempt and self-contempt for failing to forgive them. The urge to destroy myself took on an autonomous momentum and ironclad logic of its own. In retrospect, I was suffering from a kind of disease of logic, predicated on an overestimation of my reasoning powers; another way of putting it is that I was living entirely in my head.



Some of my unhappiness had to do with virginity. I was unable to break through to women — not only sexually but on all levels — to ask them for the least human companionship. Going to Columbia (an all-male school at the time), and immersed in this milieu of latent homosexuality, which was threatening my identity in its own way, I was frightened of women yet filled with yearning for them. It pained me even to see lovers taking liberties on the screen. Movies, saturated with the sensual, mocked me by their constant reminder that I was only a spectator.



At the same time, movies helped push me deeper into a monastic avoidance of the body. In the cinematic postulant, there is an ascetic element that exists, paradoxically, side by side with the worship of beauty: a tendency to equate the act of watching a film with praying. One day I was at my job at the library, cataloguing book slips, when, light-headed with overwork and lack of sleep, I heard someone address me from behind. `Are you a Benedictine?’ I turned around and no one was there. It seemed I had had an auditory hallucination, but even if I had merely overheard a scrap of conversation, I was spooked by the sense that someone was mocking me, unmasking my shameful monkish nature.



In Godard's Masculin-Feminin there is a scene with the hero, Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud), sitting in a movie theater watching a Swedish film. On the sound track are his thoughts: ‘This wasn't the film we’d dreamed of. This wasn’t the total film that each of us carried within himself ... the film that we wanted to make or, more secretly, no doubt, that we wanted to live.’ Paul's confusion between movies and reality, his yearning for an alternate existence, his absorption of all the social distress and pain around him and his inability to connect with women, driving his chic girlfriend away with his gloomy over seriousness, add up to the fate of many Godard heroes: suicide. Unless I am mistaken, suicide was in the air, in the cinematic culture of the early Sixties; perhaps it was no more than a facile narrative solution for movies made by young men who were fond of indulging their existential self-pity. In any event, I fell right in with the mood.



Between screenings of Vigo’s L'Atalante and Zero de Conduite at West 106th Street, I told my older brother that I was thinking of killing myself. Distressed, he counseled patience, but it was too late to listen. Vigo’s dream of a man and a woman drifting down the Seine in a houseboat, touching each other, seemed insultingly unreachable.



A few nights later, I swallowed 20 sleeping pills with the aid of a quart of Tropicana orange juice. I had already written a suicide note with quotes from Paul Goodman and Freud — I can laugh at it now — and I lay down to die in my sleep. But stomach pains kept me awake: the beef stew I had eaten earlier at Columbia's dining hall (it is that wretched institutional food I have to thank for being alive today) and the acidic orange juice refused to digest. After an hour’s uncomfortable attempt to ignore the stomach and think easeful, morbid thoughts, I leaned over the side of my bed and vomited — whole chunks of beef stew and carrots in a pool of orange juice. Then I called out to my roommates and told them what I had done. They rushed me to St. Luke’s Hospital, where my stomach was pumped — so unpleasant but revivifying an experience that when the resident asked me in the middle of it why I had tried to do myself in, I was unable to think of a single reply. I stayed in the hospital’s psychiatric ward for two weeks.



The afternoon I was released, my brother met me at the hospital and we went straight downtown to see a double bill at the Bleecker Street Cinema: Grand Illusion and Paths of Glory. Still movie-hungry after a two-week drought — or else piggishly overindulgent, like a tonsillitis patient demanding all the ice cream he can eat — I insisted we race uptown to see Zazie dans le Metro, the Malle film that Stoller had praised in a recent review. What an orgy! I had gotten suicide out of my system, but not cinema.



I must backtrack a little. Before the suicide attempt, at the beginning of my sophomore year, Stoller, Zill and I had agreed that Filmmakers of Columbia should run its own film series at the college, both to show movies we wanted to see and to raise money for future productions. Zill had surprised me by proposing that I be made president of the organization. Granted, his fear of being held fiscally responsible for our new venture may have had something to do with offering me this honor, but I accepted it with pride.



We began sending away for film-rental catalogues and, when they arrived, poring over them like kids let loose in a candy store. We were free to order any movie we wanted to see, provided it was available in 16 millimeter — and provided we occasionally considered commercial factors. It might be interesting, for instance, to rent all of the Brandon catalogue’s Eastern European arcana, but if nobody came to Ghetto Terezin or Border Street, we would still have to shell out the $75 rental. The decision was made to balance our schedule with obscurities like Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln and Border Street on the one hand, and moneymakers like Hitchcock’s Notorious and Rock Around the Clock on the other. We booked the films, wrote the blurbs, ground out a flyer and held our breaths.



Nick called me at the hospital, unable to believe, among other things, that I had attempted suicide two weeks before the opening of our Filmmakers of Columbia series. Shouldn’t that have been enough to live for? No, I insisted stubbornly. Nevertheless, I got swept up immediately and fortunately into the venture, making business phone calls from the psychiatric ward while Zill and Stoller ran around town distributing flyers.



The first night of the film series drew a sellout crowd for Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel and Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks (a homoerotic short that had not been seen in New York for many years). I was so excited counting the money we made that I couldn’t watch the movies. The next day, the dean called me into his office and told me he had heard about Fireworks, and to ‘keep it clean from now on.’



A happier period began for me. Stoller introduced me to a woman named Abby, and we started going out together. Though the affair lasted only three months, it served its purpose. I also began writing film reviews for the Columbia Daily Spectator and stories for Columbia Review, the literary magazine, and no longer felt so neglected on campus. Moreover, the film series was a big hit, and was to continue successfully for years — helping to put me through college, in fact. Susan Sontag, who was then a religion professor at Columbia and already a force in the New York cultural life — especially to us cineastes— gave her blessing to the series by periodically attending. Stoller and Zill gradually withdrew from the activity, although they continued to offer programming suggestions. And Jim Stoller provided one of our most memorable evenings by agreeing, after lengthy persuasion, to play piano behind Pabst’s The Love of Jeanne Ney; it was a treat to see him overcome his compulsive modesty and perform in public.



We were all waiting impatiently for the sequel to L’Avventura. La Notte was said to feature a dream cast of Jeanne Moreau, Marcello Mastroianni and Monica Vitti. Meanwhile, the art theaters kept our excitement at a boil by showing some of Antonioni’s early films, like Il Grido and Le Amiche, which only deepened our admiration for our own ‘Michelangelo.’



By the time the first ads appeared announcing the premiere of La Notte, I had worked myself into such a fit of anticipation that my unconscious mind jumped the gun: I began dreaming, for several nights in a row, preview versions of La Notte. When I finally saw it, the film became a normal extension of my dream life. Several of us went on opening night, waiting in line for an hour for tickets. I was with Carol Bergman, a Barnard girl whom I’d fallen in love with (and would marry a year later), and I held her throughout the film, perhaps undercutting the full impact of Antonioni’s despondent message. It was great to see an Antonioni movie through the comfortable bifocals of being in love; when one is happy, one can look at both comedy and tragedy with equanimity.



Primed to adore La Notte, I did. Especially the ending, with the camera pulling away from Moreau and Mastroianni groping each other desperately in the lush grass at dawn. We left the theater quoting the Master’s latest koan: ‘Sometimes beauty can lead to despair.’



It was Jim Stoller, as usual, who saw problems with Antonioni's new direction before the rest of us did. After voicing objections, in his La Notte review, about the ‘sloppily paced’ party sequence, the ‘leaden and insistent’ symbolism, and the academic ‘discontinuous editing’ in the walk sequence which was ‘used to develop a series of explicit, one-to-one meanings as in Eisenstein,’ Stoller went on to raise a more telling objection. Antonioni, he felt, had stacked the cards by denying any reference to a worthy model of behavior, any ‘point worth aspiring to,’ if only in the past, and any real engagement between the characters.



Of course, I disagreed at the time, finding Stoller’s demand sentimental. More to the point, this was disloyalty! I tried to argue him out of his position. But the words ‘card stacking’ continued to roll uneasily around my brain.



My own disappointment with Antonioni came later with Blow-Up, though that derived partly from a misunderstanding, having wrongly elevated him to the level of philosopher in the first place. I had followed the lead of the press, which trumpeted his every quote as a weighty pronouncement: ‘Eroticism the Disease of the Age: Antonioni.’ Even his interview silences were reported as evidence of deep thought. It was partly the burden placed on Antonioni to be the oracle of modernity that forced him into ever more schematic conceptions. When his subsequent films exhibited signs of trendy jet-setting, hippie naivete, and sheer woolly-headedness — even if the visuals remained stunning — I, like many of his fans, felt betrayed. It took me years to figure out that most film directors are not systematic thinkers but artistic opportunists. Maybe thanks to Coppola, Cimino & Company, we have reached a more realistic expectation of directors today; we are more used to the combination of great visual style with intellectual incoherence. But at the time we looked to filmmakers to be our novelists, our sages.



Film enjoyed as never before (or since) the prestige of high culture. English professors with whom I had difficulty making office appointments would stumble across my legs in Cinema 16 showings; they would interrupt themselves in class to gush about a movie; they would publish essays comparing Resnais’ ordering of time to Proust’s.



The euphoria and prestige that surrounded films in the early Sixties seem, in retrospect, deserved. The French New Wave — Godard, Truffaut, Varda, Chabrol, Rivette, Resnais, Malle, Rohmer — had all burst on the American scene at once; Antonioni, Visconti, Rossellini, Fellini, Bunuel, Bergman, Welles, Minnelli, Satyajit Ray, Wajda, Losey, Torte Nilsson and the Brazilian Cine Novo group were already operating in high gear; the New American Underground of Brakhage, Mekas, Warhol, Anger, etc. was in its heroic phase; and the lingering activity of such old masters as Renoir, Dreyer, Ford, Hawks, Lang, Hitchcock and Ozu provided a sort of benign historical link to the golden age of silent cinema. A whole apparatus had sprung up to support this moviemaking renaissance; the art-house circuit, new movie journals, museum and university studies, and, like a final official seal of legitimacy, the establishment of the New York Film Festival.



I covered that first New York Film Festival in 1963 for the Columbia Daily Spectator. The air at Lincoln Center on opening night was alive with high hopes, with the conviction that we were entering a fat time for movies. Everyone, from dignitary to hungry film buff, seemed grateful to the ones who had given us a film festival; New York City was finally linked with Europe.



It was a banner year. The festival premieres included Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel; Olmi’s The Fiances; Polanski’s Knife in the Water; Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon; Bresson’s Trial of Joan of Arc; Resnais’ Muriel; Losey’s The Servant; Rocha’s Barravento; Mekas’ Hallelujah the Hills; Marker’s Le Joli Mai; Kobayashi’s Harakiri; ROGOPAG by Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini and Gregoretti; Blue’s The Olive Trees of Justice; De Antonio’s Point of Order; and Melville’s Magnet of Doom. There were also first-shown retrospectives of the uncut Ophuls’ Lola Montes, Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff, Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear. At the time, I did not appreciate what an unusually fortunate confluence of circumstances was reigning in the cinematic heavens; I thought it would go on forever with the same incandescence.



At college, I was still struggling with the question of whether to become a writer or a filmmaker. While writing came easily to me, I felt I had to try to make my own movie. I could not remain always a sponge for others’ celluloid visions. So, I adapted one of my short stories to a screenplay, took the profits from the film series, and gathered volunteer actors and technicians.



Orson Welles once said that Citizen Kane succeeded because he didn’t know what could or couldn’t be done in motion pictures. I wish to report that my movie didn’t work for the same reason. I chose an impossibly complicated scheme: three unreliable narrators in the space of a 20-minute film. Completed in my senior year, 1964, Saint at the Crossroads was ‘over two years in the making’: in addition to the usual problems with a tiny budget and a volunteer crew — camera leaks, personality clashes, absenteeism, inappropriate weather — the fancy sync-sound equipment we had rented for the dialogue scenes failed to synchronize. Sound was our undoing; in the end we had to rent a dubbing studio. The visuals, however, were very pretty, largely due to my cameraman, Mark Weiss, who alone on the set knew what he was doing. There was an obligatory Antonioniesque sequence in Riverside Park where boy and girl, walking together, grow farther apart with each shot. They reach the pier, where an elaborate tracking shot surrounds them as they kiss, then shows each looking away moodily at the water ….



I stayed up all night with the sound man to do a final mix, rushing to complete the film for its scheduled premiere. We finally got the mix done at 8 o'clock Saturday morning — just in time for me to grab a taxi to my job as a weekend guard at the Metropolitan Museum. As the cab approached the museum, I looked out, blinking my eyes in the morning light, and saw Susan Sontag and three men in tuxedos, laughing with champagne glasses in their hands as they tripped around the fountain. Right out of Last Year at Marienbad.



Saint at the Crossroads premiered at Columbia, paired with Fellini’s Il Bidone. Many of the exiting spectators were heard to remark ‘The sound was a problem,’ then lower their voices as they saw the filmmaker standing by. Once more Stoller came to the rescue, salving the pain with a positive review of Saint at the Crossroads in the Spectator. Admitting there were some ‘technical infelicities and rather disorienting violations of film grammar,’ he went on with a friend’s partisan eye to discover ‘some very considerable achievements. If Lopate continues making films — as he should — he will soon, or next, give us something of surprising originality and power.’ No thanks: I had had my fun; I would become a writer. It was easier and cheaper to control pens and paper than actors. Besides, I could not stand the prospect of again disappointing so many volunteers because of my inexperience. Making that one 20-minute film had taught me the enormous difference between having an aesthetic understanding of film and being confronted with the demands of transferring three dimensions into two on an actual set.



Gershom Scholem once characterized youth movements by their chatter, as distinguished from true language: ‘Youth has no language. That is the reason for its uncertainty and unhappiness. It has no language, which is to say its life is imaginary and its knowledge without substance. Its existence is dissolved past all recognition into a complex flatness.’ I am not sure I agree, even looking back with memory’s foreshortened lens, that this period of my youth was complexly flat; it seems in some ways to have been unusually rich. But certainly, we had no real perspective, which is why we called on movies to be our language and our knowledge, our hope, our romance, our cause, our imagination and our life.
 


 ©1998 Phillip Lopate. All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-385-49250-2.

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Gould, Bach and the Goldbergs

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