By Seth Abramson | Press Play February 28, 2014 at 3:29PM
This biweekly column looks at instances of film, television, drama, and comedy that are in some way self-referential—"art about art." Also discussed is metamodernism, a cultural paradigm that uses both fragmentary and contradictory data to produce new forms of coherence.
The first scene of The Great Beauty documents an interminably long outdoor rave on a scenic balcony owned by Italian novelist-turned-journalist Jep Gambardella. It takes some time for the camera to locate the film's star, as for many minutes it rests its gaze instead on a cacophony of delirious partygoers, many of whom are so enmeshed in riotous frivolity they seem creepily otherworldly--entirely removed from the space-time continuum the rest of us live in. As we soon learn, that's exactly the point: Gambardella, who decades earlier gave up a once-promising literary career after his first love inexplicably abandoned him, has spent most of his life living in Rome amid precisely this sort of rootless inanity. In one early voiceover, he tells us that the aim of his life so far has been not merely to be the life of every party, but to be so central to Rome's dissolute nightlife that he can, by word or deed, single-handedly ruin any party he attends. This destructive instinct presages the thematic arc of the film, which sees Gambardella vainly seeking meaning in the meaninglessness of his milieu. It seems a paradox, but the resultant act of witnessing the film permits is as meaning-laden an existential adventure as I've had the pleasure to experience in a very long time.
As the theme of this essay series has thus far been metamodernism in the arts--that is, the rapid oscillation between (and ultimately the transcendence of) conventional poles of affect like sincerity and irony, optimism and cynicism, knowledge and doubt--it'll seem convenient for me to say now that The Great Beauty is preoccupied, first and foremost, with exactly this sort of oscillation. But it's true; Gambardella lives in one of the world's most venerable cultures, yet traipses voluntarily through its dankest ephemera; his amorality mandates that he live in the present, but his mind turns relentlessly to a tragedy in his past; he repeatedly encounters objects and scenes of obvious moment, yet he always slips off, thereafter, into a cesspool of artifice, as if by rote. All in all, it's impossible to tell what portion of Gambardella's life is real and what portion is fantasy, a state of affairs nearly all of us can relate to in the Digital Age.
What's most remarkable about The Great Beauty isn't the concept behind the work, however, but director Sorrentino's uncanny visualizations of its particulars. The Great Beauty is not only one of the most visually arresting films in years, but also one of its most eclectic: each scene develops a distinct internal atmosphere through the auteur's selection of color palette, stage direction, and (most notably) musical score, giving the moviegoer everything from a sprightly neo-Surrealist scene of couples dancing at an outdoor wedding to an almost apocalyptic encounter between Gambardella, a lost child, and a sewer-grate in a crypt. The film, in other words, follows in its form the pattern of its hero's thoughts: it doesn't cohere so much as wend through marvels of every mood and description. The poles of reality and unreality, profundity and banality, sincerity and artifice alternate so rapidly between prominence and disappearance that the result is a state of suspended sublimity. If we define the sublime as anything that inspires awe in us because of its supernaturally elevated quality, The Great Beauty is exactly that.
Several scenes in The Great Beauty encapsulate this sense that it's possible to occupy the space between realities—that place where all is neither entirely real nor entirely unreal. In one such scene, the sixty-five year-old Gambardella has just slept with Ramona, the 42-year-old daughter of an old friend, and the two have awakened the next morning with plans of taking a day trip to the ocean. The scene begins with a shot of Ramona's arm hanging limply over the side of a bed; the way her arm hangs, one suspects that the body to which it attaches is now deceased. But then we hear Gambardella lazily coaxing Ramona to wake, and we realize that she's merely sleeping. Yet she doesn't stir, so Gambardella calls her name a second time, now with a note of worry, causing us (once again) to suspect Ramona is dead. But after several pregnant moments—during which the camera explores Ramona's entirely still face and upper body—the forty-something beauty opens her eyes. We relax; she's alive. But in the next scene Ramona's father is being consoled by a male customer at the strip-club he manages; "I'm so sorry about your daughter," says the customer. So is Ramona dead or alive? We never find out: she's not seen or spoken of on-screen again.
A second such scene is the funeral of a socialite's son. Prior to the funeral, Jep and Ramona (still alive) are seen preparing for the event at a local dress shop. Jep patiently, and not a little conceitedly, explains to Ramona that there's an art to acting properly at a funeral. The art, he says, demands two things above all: That the mourner not cry, and that he position himself in such a way as to be seen mourning (but not to seem to want to be seen mourning) by all those in attendance. He finishes his lecture by quoting for Ramona the sort of empty but seemingly meaning-laden platitude one might whisper in the ear of a bereaved mother.
Later, during a silent moment in the church where the funeral is being held, Jep suddenly stands up among the assembled crowd of mourners. His decision to stand at such an inopportune moment suggests that the entire scene is a fantasy, much like the fugue state Jep experiences when he looks up at the ceiling of his bedroom to see, instead of white plaster, the very waters in which he nearly lost his life as a teen. But when the much older Gambardella begins to walk toward the front of the church, we change our assumption: all right, we think, he must have been asked to give a eulogy. But when Jep arrives at the front of the crowd, his silence, and then his awkward statements about the deceased, are so surreal that we suspect, once again, that the entire event is imagined. Yet the way the deceased's mother arises, walks toward Gambardella, and kisses him normalizes the moment so quickly that we return, once again, to an acceptance of "reality." That Gambardella then whispers in the woman's ear exactly the absurd phrase he'd earlier, half-jokingly, told Ramona one might say to a bereaved family member; that these ingratiating words are accepted by their recipient as authentic; that Jep then agrees (with some others) to carry the casket out the front doors of the church; that Jep weeps uncontrollably as he's carrying the casket—all of these subsequent reversals generate the same sort of reality-to-unreality whiplash of the moments preceding.
There are other instances of such ambiguity in the film—for instance, an unforgettable scene in which a giraffe may or may not be present, made all the more "meta" by the fact that the scene's dialogue relates to the difference between trickery and genuine magic—but hopefully the above elaborations suffice to make the point.
It is often said, of the very best lyric poetry, that much of it is not factually true, but nearly all of it is emotionally true. This notion that there are different breeds of truth, and therefore different planes of reality that are equally true, is endemic to verse but less well-known in other circles. Certainly, it takes a mind uncannily willing to juxtapose Art and Life to see no qualitative difference between the two. Since the nineteenth century, poets have called this sort of willingness "negative capability"—a suspension not of disbelief but of belief, a state in which a man or woman exposed to a sufficiently complex artwork can permit the ignorance of awe to be an inspiring rather than debilitating experience. Few can achieve this state of suspended belief, for much the same reason that few people have ever been exposed to a moment they could honestly describe as sublime: It's frightening not to be anchored by the poles of thought and emotion we know so well, whether they be reality and unreality, beauty and ugliness, or hope and despair.
The great beauty to be found in The Great Beauty is the acknowledgment that in fact most of our lives are lived in this middle (in ancient Greek, "meta") state, and that much of the pain and doubt we experience is caused not by inhabiting such a space but by insisting we don't. We're comfortable saying that we know something, or that we don't; we're less comfortable saying that we do not know what we know. We're comfortable being able to ascribe simple adjectives to our mood—words like "optimistic" or "pessimistic"—but feel dangerously unanchored when we cannot honestly say exactly how or even what we feel, or what that should or shouldn't mean to us, or what it does or doesn't say about who and what we are.
Metamodernists (not coincidentally, much like Buddhists) know that the middle space between certainties is not a place of weakness and self-destruction, but of the kind of transcendence no other abstracted space can offer. Nor is ceasing to tell the story of oneself in terms of polar extremes disempowering; just as Jep begins his second novel after he realizes he can no more understand his own mortality as understand why his now-deceased first love abandoned him, one imagines The Great Beauty to be a screenwriter and director's acceptance of this same sublime ignorance. If, several days after seeing it, I still don't know exactly what I think The Great Beauty has done to or for me—except to know that seeing it was an experience I'll never forget—that's due not to ambivalence on my part, or to any infirmity in the film, but to my recognition that the film delivered on what at first had seemed like an undeliverable promise: to provide a glimpse of genuine and permanent transcendence.
The final shot of The Great Beauty is its most striking; oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, it's also its most understated. The camera, placed on the bow of a small riverboat, tracks what a person sitting in that spot might see—and might choose to look at—during a continuous, ten-minute slice of life that's at once almost entirely silent and almost inconceivably profound. What Paolo Sorrentino shows us here is how dramatically his film has changed its viewer; having experienced first-hand Gambardella's transformation from amoral playboy to spiritually awakened artist, we're now able to calmly see the world the way it was meant to be seen. My girlfriend and I sat transfixed as the closing credits rolled over this final shot, and I suspect many reading this essay will do the same if and when they see The Great Beauty. The sublimity of unknowing as a pathway to internal quiet and a form of transcendence may sound like New Age nonsense, but as I'm neither a religious person nor a devout spiritualist of any kind, I certainly hope it isn't. What I know for certain is that the 142 minutes I sat watching The Great Beauty were the most Real—capital-r "Real"—moments I've enjoyed in a movie theater. And that's good enough for me.
Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.