Monday, January 23, 2006

39. Another Woman

Just a few days after working myself up over Shelley Duvall, I watch The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970), a Vittorio De Sica memorial to the idea of the past--and a warning of its limits; after all, it is the past, and one is always moving away from it. I think it's apt, then, to consider a devoted attachment to the past and the dangers of doing so, and the hoped-for, hard-won freedom as the past is left in the past: the picture stars Dominique Sanda, and seeing her reminded me that she as well was an obscure object of desire. I didn't see this film when it was first released, but I remember that she turned me into a moonstruck calf in Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 (1976), a film I went to see for De Niro and Lancaster, but Sanda sent me into a dreamy flip-take. And I've sometimes wondered why I have a soft spot for the often-clunky Damnation Alley (1977), and the Internet Movie Database reminds me that it too features Dominique Sanda. Cherchez la femme, and how.

But I don't want to write about Dominique Sanda, at least not directly. It's the picture that I see, the garden itself, a framed remembrance, eventually a bitter taunt. In its story of a Jewish-American family that wanders half-conscious through the early years of Mussolini's fascism, until it catches up with them, as organic as any change--from ripe to rot, for instance--The Garden of ... is a kind of providential moment for me. In tandem with my meandering reminiscence of Shelley Duvall and lonely post-adolescent fits and starts, De Sica's film, in its presentation of Sanda as a beautiful enigma that unfolds like a crumpled letter of goodbye, rescued me from partial slumber. Sanda's character, Micol, smiles at the man with whom she grew up, Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio), and who loves her with abiding devotion, staring at her with blind love--"the only kind," as Tom Waits sings--until she stares back, as she sleeps with another man. Like Italy itself--or my hapless cinematic affections--the reward of his gaze is a kind of betrayal.

Now, I'm not here to discount the fun of looking at "purty guls," as the old man puts it in Flannery O'Connor. Duvall and Sanda certainly filled a gap, if I may indulge in a confusing image. And I don't mean to be flippant; but I remember another young fool, a friend of mine who hang-dogged after the pre-Moonlighting Cybill Shepherd, whose Neo-Protestant level gaze--and was that a smirk? One could never tell--brought him to a low estate every single time, especially in The Heartbreak Kid (1972). You want to figure it out, ask Bruce Jay Friedman, who gave 1970s Lonely Guys a voice--OK, a mewling, distant, desperate one, but the truth shall set you free.

Or not; I'm brought back to the Finzi-Continis, who are summarily processed for the concentration camps, kept waiting in the same classrooms where Micol spent her soft-focus childhood. Again, at this precise moment in my ruminations De Sica provides a sad truth. As he did so many years earlier with his monumental The Bicycle Thief (1948), in The Garden of ... he allows us to watch our small vanities and large losses combine in a film that understands our indulgences, but is honest in its admonishments. And I think De Sica forgives us, as well, as we sit out there in the dark, at least enough to give us a glimpse of the garden--even while he closes the gates.

(Note: A minor admission: The final image in this blog is not from The Garden of ... but from Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970), another film about fascism, except, as you can tell, hysterical. But I found the image fitting and evocative; personally, I'm reminded of the full-tilt opening sequence of Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1983). Which only exacerbates my confusion over The Woman-Image, since Dominique Sanda now morphs into Sandra Bernhard. The mind reels.)

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