Phillip Lopate: “Anticipation of La Notte,” Part 1

One has to guard against the tendency to think of one's youth as a time when the conversations were brighter, the friends truer and the movies better. I am quite willing to let go of the first two, but it does seem to have been my luck to have come of age during a period of phenomenal cinematic creativity. I like to think of the early Sixties as the "heroic" age of moviegoing, if one can call heroic an activity that consists of sitting on one's bum and letting one's thoughts be guided by a parade of cinematic sensations.

This is the opening paragraph of film critic/scholar Phillip Lopate’s essay recalling his college days in the early 1960s. Titled “Anticipation of La Notte: The Heroic Age of Moviegoing,” it was included in his second book of personal essays, Against Joie de Vivre, published in 1989, and again in his 1998 anthology of film writings, Totally, Tenderly, Tragically, an absolutely magical tour of his love of cinema, from art films by Ozu and Mizoguchi to the lesser-known screwball comedies of Jerry Lewis. His essay on the very first New York Film Festival of 1963 was written while he was still an undergraduate student at Columbia University.

La Notte is, of course, the Michelangelo Antonioni art film released in February of 1962. It stars the two most honored European actors of the time, Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau, along with newcomer (and partner of the director) Monica Vitti, fresh from her success as star of Antonioni’s previous film, L’AvventuraLa Notte was truly the most eagerly anticipated film of the time, even allowing for the Francophilia surrounding Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol, the former Cahiers du Cinéma critics who became seminal filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague.

La Notte is more than suffused with the existential ennui of the early 1960s; it is wallowing in it. Here is the trailer:

Don’t be misled by the trailer’s suggestion that this is a bacchanal of Milan’s idle rich. The real soul of the movie, its dark heart, lies in this final scene of husband and wife caught in the dawn’s raw light as they walk from the party to what looks like the fairway and then a sand trap of a golf course. Here the wife recalls their early, now lost love. (The video is squeezed to Academy aspect ratio.)

A too literal landscape metaphor for their vitiated lives? This was the zeitgeist. And for a new generation of filmgoers and filmmakers, coming out of postwar trauma as children, it was movies — not novels — about the confused, lost and damned that spoke to the imminent youth quake, one which would, in a few years, take to the streets in waves of cultural, social and political protest. Case in point: the evolution of Jean-Luc Godard from the noir-esque Breathless to the Maoist dicta of La Chinoise.

It might be difficult for young filmmakers and filmgoers today to understand how strongly their counterparts were influenced by European and Japanese art cinema from about 1955 to 1970. It’s hard to imagine in today’s multiplex era, where “entertainment” is mostly Marvel franchise movies or action films full of splattered body parts cum drivel that passes for dialogue. Of course, there are adult dramas today, and even adult action films, that gain wide release, such as the recent Academy Award nominees Black PantherGreen Book and A Star Is Born. But the anomalies that so recall 1960s arthouse picture are the foreign-language Best Picture nominees Roma and Cold War, both of which were, of course, photographed in black-and-white — so retro, so meant to be taken seriously (and I mean that with no trace of irony). 

Lopate’s essay captures that pure (maybe even naïve by today’s standards) faith that movies truly mattered and could afford us rich insight into life’s dilemmas, qualities that had previously been attributed to the novel. But even beyond his retrospective look at a past era of cinema, Lopate’s essay is simply a great read. Like all of his work, it elevates his personal life experience into a broader perspective.  Lopate is truly a late 20th century Montaigne, a writer who has superseded the notion of “a time in the sun” and continues to write so personally, so engagingly, today.  Here is the first part of “Anticipation of La Notte: The Heroic Age of Moviegoing,” along with a few relevant trailers. The second half of Lopate’s essay will be part two of this post.

One has to guard against the tendency to think of one's youth as a time when the conversations were brighter, the friends truer and the movies better. I am quite willing to let go of the first two, but it does seem to have been my luck to have come of age during a period of phenomenal cinematic creativity. I like to think of the early Sixties as the “heroic” age of moviegoing, if one can call heroic an activity that consists of sitting on one's bum and letting one's thoughts be guided by a parade of cinematic sensations.

It was in 1959, while a junior in high school, that my craving for celluloid and my avocation as a film buff began. Certainly, I had always liked going to movies; my parents had sent us off, when we were children, to the neighborhood double feature every Saturday morning. But the notion of motion pictures as an art form only struck me when I was about 15. I bought Arthur Knight's survey, The Liveliest Art, and went about in my thorough, solemn way trying to see every movie listed in the index. One thing that attracted me to film history was that it was relatively short, conquerable compared to other artistic fields. The Thalia theater's repertory schedule became my summer-school catalogue that year, and I checked off nearly everything as a must-see, still happily unable to distinguish beforehand between the worth of an M and a Captain from Koepenick.

I went so far as to subscribe to a series of Russian silent films at the Kaufman-92nd Street Y, defiantly attending Earth the night before an important exam. But Dovzhenko's poetic style put me to sleep; even now I have only to picture waving wheat and apple-cheeked, laughing peasants for my eyes to start to close.

In my last two years of high school, I was restless and used film showings as a pretext to get out of Brooklyn, away from my family, and explore the city. The 92nd Street Y, the Sutton and the Beekman introduced me to the posh East Side; the Art and the 8th Street Theater were my ports of entry to Greenwich Village; I learned the Upper West Side from the Thalia and the New Yorker. It was a Flaherty revival at Columbia University that first gave me the idea, walking through the campus afterward, to apply there for admission.

Sometimes a film-club ad would lead me to some church basement in Chelsea to watch an old Murnau or Preston Sturges projected by a noisy Bell & Howell set up on a chair in the back of a rec room. Often, I was the youngest member of that film-addict crowd, whose collective appearance made me wonder what I was getting myself into. They were predominately male, lower middle class, with the burdened look of having come straight from work with their rolled-up New York Post and ink-stained trousers; they had indoor faces with pendulous eye bags, sharp noses ready to sniff out the shoddy, and physiques that seemed at once undernourished in some parts and plump in others, the result of hasty delicatessen meals snatched before screenings. They looked like widowers or young men who had never known love — this was the fraternity I was about to join. Some seemed abnormally shy; they would arrive a few minutes early and sit as far away from everyone else as they could; at "The End" they would leave without a word. Occasionally, one of the old, bald-headed veterans would engage me gregariously in spasmodic conversation — an exchange of film titles punctuated with superlatives, snorts, complaints about the projection or the sight lines — and I would come away touched by his kindness for having talked to an ignorant kid like me, and perhaps for this reason would feel sorry for him.

Whether the film had been glorious or dull barely mattered, so long as I could cross it off my list. The development of a taste of any sort requires plodding through the overrated as well as uncovering the sublime. If the movie had been genuinely great, I would leave the screening place inspired and pleasantly conscious of my isolation, and wander the streets for a while before taking the subway home. I came to love the way the gray city streets looked after a movie, the cinematic blush they seemed to wear. When the film had been a disappointment — well then, all the more was it a joy to get back the true world, with its variety and uncanny compositions.

At Columbia, I discovered the general appetite for films was much higher than it had been at my high school; even the average student was willing to experiment with difficult fare. I remember going down to the Village one Friday night with a bunch of other dateless freshmen to see Kurosawa's Ikiru, part of a memorable season of Japanese premieres. 

Before the movie, just to get in the mood, we ate cross-legged on the floor at a Japanese restaurant. I adored Ikiru, with its perversely slow framing scene of the wake and its heart-wrenching flashbacks; but it also meant a lot to be sitting before it in a row of studious boys who I hoped would remain moviegoing friends. My own gang, as in Vitelloni— except it didn't happen with this bunch. It took a while before I found my real film companions.

From time to time, film criticism would appear in the Columbia Daily Spectator by an upperclassman, James Stoller. His articles were so stylistically mature and so informed that they seemed to me to be written by a professional quarterly critic rather than a college student. I developed an intellectual crush on this Stoller: if his opinion differed from mine, I would secretly revise my own. I had been, for example, avoiding Satyajit Ray's films because their packaging suggested what Andrew Sarris called "dull UNESCO cinema." But Stoller wrote that the Apu trilogy was great, so I went, and he was right.

Finally, I decided I had to meet James Stoller. Palms sweating, I summoned the courage to call his room from the phone downstairs in his dormitory. I explained that I was a fellow film lover. Could I stop by sometime and talk with him? Sure, come on up, he said.

It shocked me to see the great critic living in so tiny and shabby a room: a double-decker bed; a narrow desk, which he shared with his roommate; a single chair; and books. We had no place to sit but the lower bunk bed. It always surprised me — having come from a ghetto — that parts of Columbia should look so seedy and run-down. I suppose I was expecting the Ivy League to be a step upward.

Stoller himself gave an impression of fastidious hesitation and social awkwardness. I had come prepared to play the role of the freshman ignoramus and so was puzzled when he reacted incredulously to my praise of his articles, retreating into a modest shrug. When I asked if he had been yet to Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura, the cause célèbre that had just opened and which I was dying to see, he said he had, and fell silent. "Well, what did you think of it?" I prodded, expecting him to erupt with the equivalent of one of his articles. "It's — terrific, I guess, I'm not sure, I need to watch it a few more times …. Go see for yourself." He was uncomfortable being put on the spot.

I rushed to see L'Avventura. It was the movie I had been preparing for, and it came at the right time in my development. As a child, I had wanted only action movies. Dialogues and story setups bored me; I waited for that moment when the knife was hurled through the air. My awakening in adolescence to the art of film consisted precisely in overcoming this impatience. Overcompensating, perhaps; I now loved a cinema that dawdled, that lingered. Antonioni had a way of following characters with a pan shot, letting them exit and keeping the camera on the depopulated landscape. With his detachment from the human drama and his tactful spying on objects and backgrounds, he forced me to disengage as well, and to concentrate on the purity of his technique. Of course, the story held me, too, with its bitter, world-weary, disillusioned tone. The adolescent wants to touch bottom, to know the worst. His soul craves sardonic disenchantment.

I rushed back to Stoller, now ready to discuss the film. He listened patiently and with quiet amusement to my enthusiasm. Indeed, this turned out to be our pattern: I, more ignorant but more voluble, would babble on, while he would offer an occasional objection or refinement. It was only by offering up chatter that I could get him to correct my misconceptions and to educate me cinematically.

This was not yet the era of film-appreciation courses. Nor would we have dreamed of taking any offered; it was a point of pride to gather on our own the knowledge of our beloved, semi-underground subject, like the teenage garage-band aficionados of today.

Stoller introduced me to his friend Nicholas Zill, a film-obsessed sophomore, and we soon became a trio. Zill was a mischievous, intelligent boy of Russian Orthodox background who was given to sudden animated inspirations. The three of us took long walks together in the Columbia neighborhood, leapfrogging in our conversation from one film to another. Once, coming to a dead stop on the sidewalk, Zill asked me in horror, "You mean you haven't seen Diary of a Country Priest?" At such moments I felt like the baby of the group.

Zill and I both shared a zest for the grotesque, or what has been somewhat ponderously called “convulsive cinema,” “the cinema of cruelty.” I must say, these predilections were kept to the level of aesthetic appreciation; in our daily lives we were squeamishly decent, even if Zill, a psychology major, seemed to like cutting up rats. Nothing pleased us more than to talk about the beggars' orgy in Viridiana, or the maiming finale in Freaks, or choice bits in Psycho. We would go on in this perverse vein until Stoller was forced to remonstrate (which was probably why we did it). Stoller always championed the humane, the tender, the generous, and domestically observant moviemakers: Renoir, Ophuls, Truffaut, Satyajit Ray, Cukor, Borzage. It was typical for a powerless student like me to be drawn to Bunuelian fantasies of surrealist immorality and Raskolnikovian license. Much rarer was it to find balanced humanity in a 19-year-old, like Stoller. If I have come around over the years to his point of view, at the time I was looking for antisocial shivers, sliced eyeballs.

Nick Zill wanted to make movies — as I suppose we all did — but he went further in imagining bizarre film scenarios. He had already shot a film in high school; I remember it only as a disorganized romp of him chasing pretty girls, or was it pretty girls chasing him? In any case, he had registered an organization called Filmmakers of Columbia with the Campus Activities Office, so as to be able to borrow equipment and accept university funds should one of his projects ever get going. Filmmakers of Columbia existed only on paper; there were no meetings, even the title was pure wish fulfillment. As it happened, there were a number of “isolated” Columbia filmmakers (i.e., not in our circle) around, the most notable being young Brian De Palma. We did not know whether to consider De Palma's hammy experimental shorts like Wotan's Wake intentional or unintentional jokes, but we agreed that he had no future as a film director and that he was not a seriously knowledgeable, rigorous cineaste like ourselves.

Sometimes I would go over to my friends' rooms and pass the time looking through their film-magazine collections. Stills on glossy periodical stock particularly fascinated me. To stare at a shot from Gilda, say, with Rita Hayworth in her sheath dress before a palm-treed nightclub stand, was to enter a fantasy as satisfyingly complete, in its own way, as having seen the movie. A single frame, snatched from 23 others per second, is not intended to possess the self-complete wholeness of an art photograph, but for that very reason it evokes more the dream of continuing motion. Stills from the silent era, with their gestural intensity and powder-white ingenues' faces; soft-lit glamour shots from the Thirties; the harsh key lighting and seamy locales of the Forties — all were infinitely suggestive of the way the reigning fashions, film stock, décor, directorial style and technology blended to produce a characteristic period image.

The desultory quality of these browsing sessions showed we were perhaps not so far removed from that age when we'd collected comic books and baseball cards. The point was not to read the articles straight through (one could always go back for that), but to be splashed by a sea of information: film festival roundups, news of film productions, historical rediscoveries. By leafing through these magazines together, we shared a mood of sweet latency, imagining the films we had in store, like provincials dreaming of life in the capital. Cinema was a wave originating elsewhere, which we waited to break over us. This waiting had something to do with the nature of adolescence itself; it also reflected the resurgence of European films at the time.

To be young and in love with films in the early 1960s was to participate in what felt like an international youth movement. We in New York were following and, in a sense, mimicking the cafe arguments in Paris, London and Rome, where the cinema had moved, for a brief historical movement, to the center of intellectual discourse, in the twilight of existentialism and before the onslaught of structuralism.

In retrospect, I may have undervalued the American studio films of the early Sixties. At the time, having just lived through the Eisenhower Fifties, I was impatient with what seemed to me the bland industrial style of most Hollywood movies (then symbolized by the much-maligned Doris Day); I could spot Art much more easily in foreign films, with their stylized codes of realism (sex, boredom, class conflict, unhappy endings) and their arty disjunctive texture. It took a certain sophistication, which I did not yet have, to appreciate the ironies behind the smooth-crafted surfaces of the best Hollywood genre movies. Our heroes in the French New Wave explicitly credited Hollywood films with the inspiration for their own personal styles, of course, but I accepted this taste partly as a whimsical paradox on their part without really sharing it, except in the case of rebels like Samuel Fuller or Frank Tashlin, whose shock tactics made them “almost” European.

Sometimes, instead of studying, I would end up in the film section of the college library poring over books on movies by writers like Bela Balasz, Raymond Spottiswoode, Siegfried Kracauer, Hortense Powdermaker — even their names were irresistible. Or I would struggle through the latest Cahiers du Cinéma in the periodicals section. As if my French were not imperfect enough, the Cahiers critics confounded me further with their profundity-mongering style, rarely passing a simple judgment without at the same time alluding to Hegel. I was never sure that I fully understood anything in Cahiers, except for the interviews with salty old Hollywood directors, and the rating system, with stars like a Michelin guide: ** a voir, *** a voir absolument, and a black dot * for abominable.

Sight and Sound was a breeze in comparison, although I was ashamed to admit to my friends how much I got from the English journal. It was considered stodgy and rearguard, perhaps because it was the official organ of the British Film Institute, but probably more because it took issue with Cahiers du Cinéma's auteur line —and we were deeply devoted auteurists. (I am using this term as shorthand for a critical approach recognizing the director as the main artist of a film, and looking at the body of a director's work for stylistic consistencies.)

I hesitate to raise a last-ditch defense of the auteur theory, so tattered has its flag become in recent years. Suffice to say that I remain loyal to the ideals of my youth. Say what you may against the auteur theory, it was good for adolescents: it gave us a system, and — more important  — it gave us marching directions; it encouraged hero worship; it argued for the triumphant signature of selfhood in the face of conformist threats; it made dear distinctions between good and bad; and it blew the raspberry at pious sentiment.

Andrew Sarris' auteurist breakdown of American directors, which first appeared as a special issue of Film Culture, spring 1963, influenced us deeply partly because of its ruthlessly hierarchical ranking system: Pantheon Directors; Second Line; Likable, But Elusive; Esoterica; Less Than Meets the Eye; and that most sinisterly fascinating of categories, Fallen Idols. It was here we learned to curl our lips at respected names like Fred Zinnemann, David Lean and Stanley Kramer — liberal directors whose hearts and themes may have been in the right place but whose earnestly conventional handling of mise en scène seemed unforgivable.

Ah, mise en scène! That camera style that favored flowing tracking shots and pans, wide angles and continuous takes; that followed characters up staircases and from room to room, capturing with rich detail their surroundings: the unfolding-scroll aesthetic of Mizoguchi, Ophuls, Murnau, Dreyer, Welles, Renoir and Rossellini. Not only did this style seem deeper and more beautiful because it allowed more of a spiritual, contemplative feeling to accumulate than the rapid montage style, it was, if you bought all the arguments (and I did), more ethical. Why? Because it was less “manipulative.” It offered the viewer the “freedom” to choose what to pay attention to in a long shot, like a theater spectator, rather than forcing the point with a close-up detail. The deep-focus style could also be seen as sympathetic to a progressive, left-wing political view because it linked the characters inextricably to their social contexts. In retrospect, some of these claims seem contradictory, a result, perhaps, of the admirable critic Andre Bazin's need to reconcile his own Catholicism and Marxism and film tastes, however farfetched the synthesis. There also seems something curiously puritanical about the austere aesthetic of refraining from making cuts — something finally self-defeating, as well, since movies will always be assembled from pieces of spliced film.

Nevertheless, I was so impressed by the style of slow cutting that each time a shot, having started to build up a pleasurable suspense in me, was broken by what seemed to me a “premature” cut to change the angle, I would wince, as if personally nicked. Watching television at home with my parents, during a filmed series like Maverick, I would call out the cuts, just to prove my thesis that the editing followed a predictable metronomic pattern of one shot every four seconds or so. Threatened with bodily harm if I kept up this obnoxious routine, I maintained the practice silently in my head.

It would infuriate me when the Times critic, Bosley Crowther (our favorite arch-Philistine), based his argument solely on content without saying a word about a film's visual style. How could he reject a film because he found the characters unsympathetic, or because of its “controversial” treatment of violence, organized religion, sexuality? Clearly, the real ethical questions were things like: Why did the director cheat with so many reaction shots? Why that gloopy slow-motion sequence?

For a certain kind of youth, the accumulation of taste becomes the crucible of self, the battleground on which character is formed. I must mention how much we hated Ingmar Bergman. Although his films had done more than anyone else's to build an audience for art films, his own popularity condemned him in our eyes: he was the darling of the suburbs and the solemn bourgeoisie who ate up the academic symbolism of Wild Strawberries

I once debated a fellow student for six hours because he called The Seventh Seal a great movie. Now I have come to love certain Bergman films (especially the early ones, like Monika and Illicit Interlude), but then, no, impossible. It was precisely because Bergman was so much an auteur, but not “our kind,” that he posed such a threat. Like political radicals who reserve their greatest passion for denouncing liberals, we had to differentiate ourselves from the Bergmanites.

Our man was Godard. His disruptive jump cuts and anarcho-classical sensibility spoke directly to our impatient youth. Belmondo in Breathless was our heroic mouthpiece, whether talking to the camera or lying on the pavement: underneath that fierce hoodlum's exterior we recognized a precocious, wounded film addict. With their cinematic self-referentiality, Godard's films showed me my brothers, those equally unhappy captives of shadows. I confess I also found solace in Godard's portraits of women as either fickle betrayers or masochistic victims, which dovetailed nicely with my own adolescent fears of the opposite sex.

Even when Godard seemed momentarily to flirt with the Right, this didn't bother me. At the time I was fairly apolitical: one should not confuse the early Sixties with the late. By 1968, the students at Columbia would have more important things to argue about than the merits of Gerd Oswald's Screaming Mimi. But in 1960-64, our politics were the politique des auteurs. We looked for our morality in form: “The angles are the director's thoughts; the lighting is his philosophy” (Douglas Sirk).

It may seem arrogant to identify more with the directorial/camera viewpoint than with the protagonists', but that was precisely what the auteur theory encouraged us to do. Besides, if I could take the position of “I am a camera,” this identification had less to do with superiority and more with fear and shyness, that shyness which in adolescence cooks up to pure alienation. If I went to a party, I would pretend to be filming it because I was too timid to approach the girls I liked. In classrooms where the professor droned on, I would escape by thinking, “Where would I place the camera if I were making a documentary of this?” Always my camera would start well back from the action, not only because of a preference for the long-shot aesthetic, but also because I felt so far apart from the vital center of life. Around this time, I even had a dream in which I was directing a movie sequence inside a greenhouse: I was sitting behind the camera on a mechanical dolly, and I kept calling for the camera to be pulled farther and farther back, against the technicians' murmured warnings, until finally I crashed through the glass. Had I been perceptive, the dream might have warned me that I was on the edge of losing control; instead, I accepted it as a satisfying omen that I was going to become a film director.

Phillip Lopate
Phillip Lopate


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


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