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METAMERICANA: Paolo Sorrentino’s THE GREAT BEAUTY Is Exactly That

METAMERICANA: Paolo Sorrentino's THE GREAT BEAUTY Is Exactly That

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.

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Comments

sharkey

"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."

Well, that’s a thoroughly convincing argument, right? To paraphrase: "I may be guilty of saying something incredibly trite and unoriginal about a visually lavish but intellectually hollow and pretentious movie — but I hope not."

Quelle rigeur!

Ephraim

To nitpick for a moment, the extended rave scene is not the first "scene" of the film. The film opens with an a cappella group of women singing Arvo Part's "My Heart's in the Highlands," which presupposes a much more deeply historic, less postmodern uprooting than the scene you posit as the opening driver of the film. Too, I wonder if Jep is more self-aware of this dialectic than the author gives him credit for. At one point, Gambardella says, "E tutto sedimentato sutto la chiacchierino e la rumore." The English subtitles translate this as: "It's all settled beneath chit-chat and noise," which is a fair approximation, but a more literal translation would read, "Everything is sediment underneath chattering and rumor," which hearkens back to the idea of a latent permanency, an historical meat beyond the ephemera and fantasy of the Digital Age.

Nelson

A lovely meditation that does justice to an extraordinary film.

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