Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Leopard


Garibaldi's men are sweeping across Italy, the new order might overthrow the old, change, which is dangerous to some and deceitful to others, is violently sweeping across Sicily too, where the Prince of Salina, in his palace, surveys the impending new order or shape of things to come. He believes that change would mean that things don't change and essentially stay the same. These are the first glimpses we catch of the Prince of Salina as Luchino Visconti's The Leopard, a movie based on the novel of Il Gattopardo, written by Guiseppe Lampedusa, a Sicilian aristocrat. It appeared posthumously in 1958 and was followed by Luchino Visconti's film of the novel in 1963.

The Prince of Salina, played by a majestic Burt Lancaster is shown right from the beginning as a figure who, even inspite of his aristocratic hauteur, has an air of tragic sensibility about him. Living with his wife, children and his adorable nephew Tancredi, the prince knows that while violent change is inevitable, it will be ineffective. As Tancredi joins Garibaldi's men, the prince blesses him and yet seems assured of a return of the old status quo. The prince and his family leave for a holiday to one of their palatial houses in the countryside, a place swarming with revolutionaries, they stay for a night in a cheapish room, and yet the prince clings to his linen and ways with aristocratic fervour. The rebellion ends, Tancredi returns home, falls in love with the breathtaking Angelica, played by Claudia Cardinale and the prince arranges their engagement, in a way selling his nephew's family name to Angelica's father, a nouveau riche, a merchant parvenu. The rebels are now the king's army, the old aristocracy is invited to the senate, things have not changed.

The Leopard is a majesterial movie, an epic in true form, a sweeping panorama, a train of colours, a thoughtful paean to an age, to an idea. We begin with little sympathies for an aristocrat and we end feeling sorry for the prince of Salina, a kind of solidarity that has nothing to do with class or creed but the timbre of humanity. I might have expected Visconti to bring to his narration a Marxist sensitivity, as in Rocco and his brothers but nowhere did I find anything ideological in this movie, for while the prince does harangue, he does not preach, instead he does listen. The spectacle that is this movie, the drama, the lushness of the sets, the intimate details, the careful attention of everything one sees is the sign of Visconti's genius. It is not a period drama but a drama of a period captured with grace, with love and affection. Each image follows the other naturally, merging with the previous one without violence.

The hour long ball scene is the piece de resistance of this movie. When the ball begins, we are unaware of the drama unfolding. The genius of this sequence is time craftily mastered for an hour does actually seem a lot longer, for we too are a part of this lavish ball, as we follow hundreds of guests, as they partake of delights, young maidens and smartly dressed ex-revolutionaries dancing waltzes and mazurkas, and the new and old order exchange looks. This scene is an extravagance, a cinematic rarity and the colour, I repeat again, the costumes, the characterisation of each part of the ball in detail and effect is the highlight of this movie, something that cannot be even vaguely matched by Visconti's other films.

I was reminded of Edward Said's brilliant essay on both this novel and movie called A lingering old order. Even though Said' essay is on a different theme, that of lateness in style, there are acute observations, especially on the novel( sadly I haven't read it) and also on the movie. Said writes that "social disintegration, the failure of revolution and a sterile and unchanging south are evident on every page of the novel. yet, Lampedusa negates the Gramscian diagnosis and prescription. The prince stands for a pessimism of intelligence and a pessimism of the will. Nothing he does in the course of his work has any effect on the paralysis and decay that envelop him, his family, his class. The leopard is a southern answer to the southern question". Said goes on to say about the movie........

"The crowd scenes in the film, especially the Palermo street battles and the gigantic ball scene, testify to the prodigious powers of cinematic super-spectacles. The film's surface is lavish, large, expensive and overpowering. Visconti has said of this film that it is meant to be a realization of Gramsci's theory of transformismo, and this lesson is seen from the point of view of a prominent left intellectual and aristocrat, Visconti himself. This movie is in effect a wonderful costume drama whose mastery of cinematic technique obliterates not only the privacy of the past but also its very pastness, its irrecoverability, which is at the heart of Lampedusa's novel. What Visconti uses film to do to the Lampedusa novel is to add to it a sort of cinematically Proustian descant, the fin-de-siecle concern with overabundance, the leisure and excessive pleasure of the privileged class who do not give much thought to how much things cost".............

Burt Lancaster's performance is the driving force of this movie, around whom everything revolves and it seems so natural, so logical for him to do and act the way he does in this movie. He is as large as the ball room sequence, if not larger and yet, as he feels nauseous there, the fragility and impending death that he feels is effectively conveyed.
In the end, the prince walks towards the sea, kneels down in front of a church, Garibaldi's rebels are dying, the Risorgimento has failed, his aristocracy might survive for another hundred years, nothing has changed. He had rejected a senator's position earlier, for he declares that he lacks a politician's self deception. Sicily will not change, the prince declares, "our sensuality is a desire for oblivion" and we see him wishing for "perennial certainty". Even though the political concerns at the beginning of this movie are forgotten by the prince's personal concerns, Tancredi's love for Angelica, the ball scene, yet they are not swept away all together, for in the end and even during the ball sequence, we are in the palpable presence of things political.

I would have wanted politics to be this movie's main concern, but it is not. The prince of Salina speaks of jackals and hyenas replacing his order, and as Said argues, that might be us, the reader or the viewer. This keeps us at an arms length from him, for he is essentially an aristocrat and as Said further points out, Lancaster's performance and "authority derives from every other costume film made". Said compares Visconti to Adorno and Strauss and Lampedusa, as a theme of his book on lateness in style and says that their work "lacks embarrassment, with a certain profligacy, a desire to go the whole way toward extravagance, and an arrogant negation of what is acceptable or easy but also of a very risky yet adversarial pact with authoritarian systems".

Whatever is the driving force of Visconti's fervour in this movie, it is a true spectacle, a dream and a kind of movie which creates many myths.

19 comments:

Alok said...

I agree with everything you have said. I have also only seen the movie and not read the book. The essay by Said sounds fascinating too. Thanks for the excerpts.

Like you I was expecting some more politics, specially since Visconti was an ardent Marxist himself. The film I think is definitely not conservative, even though it mourns for the passing of old order and values. It is more conservationist rather than conservative... There is a critical self-awareness in the character of Prince which I found very touching .. that quote about sensuality and oblivion that you point out or the scene where he stares at the morbid painting and muses about his own mortality. He is aware of the faults of the aristocracy but is not very optimistic about the future either.

Actually I read somewhere that the book has an extended flashforward which Visconti chose not to include in which Tancredi and his beautiful wife also grow old and die, similarly disillusioned. This would fit with the general mournful take on the historical progress that the rest of the narrative also confirms... Once I get some time I will pick up the book.

billoo said...

Thanks for that, Kublai!

It's one of my favourite films as well. And the book is brill.

Don't think it is about "excessive pleaure" but a 'love of the world' (Arendt).

Nor do I understand why you say we start off with little sympathy for the aristocrat or the aristocracy.

Is it "mournful". No, I'm not sure that it is. There is a certainty about it, and this, to me, is mirrored by the certainties of the land, the stars, which never change in their patterns, though they still move, are still displaced. For everything to stay the same, everything must change!

Kubla Khan said...

Alok:
The critical awareness, that you mention is rightly quite touching. as the prince gazes at the painting you mentioned, he is not only aware of his mortality, but the consequences of everything going on at that time.
Said writes that the prince's daughter, Concetta, rejected by Tancredi, resembles the prince the most. She grows old in that feudal set up like her father and remains there, long after his death.
Visconti, it seems made movies that considered mortality and fading greatness towards the end of his artistic oeuvre.
Said's essay is on the expression of lateness in style, considering that both works, ie, novel and movie are late offerings in their respective careers.
also that this movie is an opulent Hollywood drama, as opposed to the neorealismo which we might have expected. the reality is that a reality has been depicted nonetheless.

Kubla Khan said...

Billoo, hi....
I had expected it be different, not knowing the novel etc. the opulence, even of the countryside is beautifully excessive. it is rich, plush and it, together with a prince, smacks of decadence. thus the sympathy bit. but, this is all together forgotten by us as we continue to watch, thus the little revolution that there might be is soon forgotten.
Said writes about excessive pleasure, but that is his reflection on costume dramas generally and that this being a Hollywood- lancaster-2oth century fox production.
Said's concerns are aesthetically relevant and he identifies mass-consumer forms here, profligacy etc which i mentioned in the post.
that said, this is a great movie. i am glad that we all like it.

billoo said...

Sorry, don't know what terms like the countryside is "beautifully excessive " mean (or even can mean)
Or, indeed, what it means to say the countryside is "decadent".

And I really don't see the "decadence" bit to be honest.

I remember reading that Said essay (but nt the content)so correct me if I'm wrong Kubla, but didn't Said say the film is more about the triumph of style over substance?


Neorelaismo 0, Hollywood nausea 1

:)

Kubla Khan said...

Well....Billoo....

Beautifully excessive means precisely that.....Visconti does not show anything bare or depressing, apart from a few scenes, and this is in consonance with the decaying opulence of the prince and his class. I have, thanks to my own prejudice, little sympathies for princely figures, hence the disappointment in the beginning.

Visconti......began as a fascist and then converted to Marxism, another reason i thought how he might have treated a theme differently than others. yet, ideological concerns, as noted are not dominant in this movie. in other words, there is a conversion midway, wherein, the prince lets us in, into his contemplative side, a human side, even princes, I know, are human.

Regarding 'Seeing' the countryside, as decadent, you don't trust that etc, , i mistrust most landscapes, their being benign etc, but then by nature, i am a bit suspicious. i don't think a beautiful thing is necessarily just that. in the prince's garden, a soldier lies dead, stinking. beauty hides terror, usually. And the prince is surrounded by princely gardens. that to me is always decadent.

As far as Said's essay is concerned, you are familiar with its outward concern. i won;t repeat it. suffice to say here that Said admires the movie, and his criticism is that of the mass-consumer forms in which both Visconti and lampedusa work, as he says. i have not read this novel, so cannot speak much. but as someone who has watched a few Visconti movies, this movie is opulent, thats why i wrote about it.
cheers

Kubla Khan said...

Well....Billoo....

Beautifully excessive means precisely that.....Visconti does not show anything bare or depressing, apart from a few scenes, and this is in consonance with the decaying opulence of the prince and his class. I have, thanks to my own prejudice, little sympathies for princely figures, hence the disappointment in the beginning.

Visconti......began as a fascist and then converted to Marxism, another reason i thought how he might have treated a theme differently than others. yet, ideological concerns, as noted are not dominant in this movie. in other words, there is a conversion midway, wherein, the prince lets us in, into his contemplative side, a human side, even princes, I know, are human.

Regarding 'Seeing' the countryside, as decadent, you don't trust that etc, , i mistrust most landscapes, their being benign etc, but then by nature, i am a bit suspicious. i don't think a beautiful thing is necessarily just that. in the prince's garden, a soldier lies dead, stinking. beauty hides terror, usually. And the prince is surrounded by princely gardens. that to me is always decadent.

As far as Said's essay is concerned, you are familiar with its outward concern. i won;t repeat it. suffice to say here that Said admires the movie, and his criticism is that of the mass-consumer forms in which both Visconti and lampedusa work, as he says. i have not read this novel, so cannot speak much. but as someone who has watched a few Visconti movies, this movie is opulent, thats why i wrote about it.
cheers

billoo said...

Intersting that you mention prejudice, Kubla. could this, perhaps, be why you think it is "excessive" or the landscape is "decadent" (sorry, I still don't understand what that word means when applied to a landscape!
I can imagine a sad landscape, a barren one, but decadent??)


Beauty hides terror.
again, I'm not sure. There is no terror in the reaction of the people. And just look at the body again. It's picture perfect!

As for princely gardens *always* being decadent I simply don't get that. What, because they belong to a prince?

"mass consumer forms"
at this point I feel like shooting myself!
More f'ing analysis!

Oh well, I give up...

Kubla Khan said...

The word decadent, among other meanings, also means luxuriously self indulgent.
Aristocratic demeanour, with its trapping, is always so. it does not signify moral decadence as such naturally. they could be that too. they usually are, though moral decadence is a point of view.
re the landscape being decadent, ah, you misunderstand me, as usual. the word in this regard meant for me a landscpe that is tottering with revolutions and dead people, ignored in the new wave of rebellion and compromises, as in this movie, the prince is invited to join the senate etc

I think even the most innocent meadow can hide terror, of a potential type, a darkness, an uncertainty that humans have had in relation to natural landscpes eg huge mountains, oceans etc
i do not believe in the healing power or solace of habitats etc

i do not write with any certainty here. my own opinions, for want of a better word are transitory, contingent on other tussles going along simultaneously. i hate any kind of attitude that is permanent. i might not like in the future what i admire these days.

on your blog, you talk of fake, phoney blogs. the freedom of the internet is this....just don't read what you don't like. this internet world does not force solipsism on anyone. our volition remains ours. i fail to understand how you can question the very act of someone liking or hating something, for after all, the 'awareness' you speak of might be real for some people, their critical stand might actually be based on evidence etc. in your recent post, you have equated it with other extreme voices, which is a farcical stand. i usually read what i might not like, but i cannot question the exigency of those positions always. i try and ignore things.
with one click, anything can be deleted.
cheers

billoo said...

Kubla, we have a very different idea of 'aristocratic demeanour', I guess. I don't know, but is that possibly why you say we "start off" with little sympathy for him? Isn't that really what *you're* bringing to the film?

As for tottering bodies, i don't know, maybe I missed it. But the dead person in the fileds hardly points to "terror"-his dead body resembles more a classical pianting than horror! And even the battle scene is all very colourful -not a whiff of horror or terror" about it!

You do not believe in the solace of landscapes. Fair enough. But I think that is precisely what the 'landed' had/have -but it's not just them. It seems that 'revolutionaries' are always trying to dispalce those who are rooted. I think Simone Weil makes the same point.

Fundamentalists, too, can only think in terms of virtual worlds and have no connection with the land or the people.

why can't you question someone hating something? I simply don't understand that. A racist who says he simply hates pakis is not to be questioned? That's just what he feels? Similarly, someone who harps on about the 'decadent west', 'the Jew', as many do in this country, is really expressing, in my opinion, their own self-hatred most of the time.

this argument is really very old. If you don't like it switch of the t.v. and so on.

well, Kubla, no-one is saying that it is a matetr of force. But the will, the volition you talk about, doesn't, to my mind, exist absolutely independently of society and can be swayed one way or the other. The very act of autonomous choice depends on a pre-existing world, language. Fergus Kerr's Theology after wittgenstein is very good on this.

With one click... Not so sure, images and words can stay with us, even as traces.

Kubla Khan said...

Billoo..Hi

I am enjoying this actually, this 'reading' of a movie, which isn't actually a reading anymore.

now, the countryside again....yes....when people die, and the countryside is silent, any silence for that matter, it becomes complicit in ignoring that horror. we have recent examples of genocidal intensity, and silence all around. this is decadence for me, my 'transliteration' of it. i approach this issue factually, not philosophically ( i am incapable of philosophy but i philosophize)

2.you find the street battles colourful. i find them desperate, anarchic and 'useless'. i derive no atavistic pleasure from death, anyone's. after people fall down, even a successful revolution is useless if people die for it.( i had had this personal idea till i was delightfully surprised by Alexander Herzen's philosophical ideas on this issue. plz see Berlin...Russian thinkers....i am impartial towards russian lit.)

Solace in landscapes? i meant the metaphysical kind.....how does it come about...this has nothing to do with the movie.....i was digressing.

Re switching off, i meant that as a response to your last post, where you lament fake blogs and you equated certain opinions with Bush, mullahs etc. that was an extreme opinion on your part. i suggested...don't read them. you are free to ignore them, any interpretation of 'awareness' or dullness...that is what i meant by a click. i was not talking about anything else. it was a concrete suggestion.

Re responding to prejudice....only facts can be pointed out. if the palestinian Arabs say, for eg, Palestine has been ravaged, taken away from us, stolen, and that the Us is a party to it and that we are victims of jews, that is not being anti-jewish, that is facts, not philosophy. there is a certain breed of Arab scholars, for eg, what i thnk, as embedded intellectuals like Ajami has been for years for eg and now Vali Nasr who are anti- arab arab, as Said w'd have called him.

to point that out is not prejudice or reflect decadence( it is there) but to remember.
'the tyrants fear of songs'( Darwish)

cheers as always, take care

Kubla Khan said...

As Wilde said, 'i hate arguments of any kind. they are vulgar and often convincing'.
i hope these comments are taken in the spirit they are written. i am all contradiction. i might disagree with my earlier comments tomorrow.
ciao

billoo said...

thanks for the reply, Kubla. I'm very contradictory myself so if this doesn't make much sense don't be too surprised!

I thought the street battles were so stylised as to make the notion of "terror" or "horror" totally redundant. I seriously don't think that this is what the book or film were about and that one can , sometimes, read too much of one's own into something.

only facts can be pointed out.

But in art is this really the case? is it justa matter of facts??

Well, Israel exists. That is a fact. But whether one should accept its existence or its annexation of the West Bank is quite another matter altogether. Why do you talk of facts?

some Jewish people hate Palestinians (and vice versa). I don't see why one should accept that as a "fact" and not comment on it : "i fail to understand how you can question the very act of someone liking or hating something"

What don't you understand here, Kubla?

as for your other point. Well, yes, one can always switch off. But then why say Hollywood produces "nausea"? You are free to...
Secondly, one cannot say this is a "fact". It is value judgement.

now, how is pointing out extremism itself an instance of extremism!

sorry, don't get it when you say "victims of jews" or who "we" is. If you're Palestinian then I can understand what is meant by "we" but if not, then I don't comprehend. So, are you Palestinian, Kubla?

And I think one has to be very careful in saying "jews". Why not say Israelis or Israeli policies or some Jews?

Kubla Khan said...

We have gravitated from Visconti to Palestine. interesting. Far from being palestinian, i am not even an Arab!
The 'We' was meant as an example.
Israel is a jewish state, with an internal apartheid between arabs and jews. that is official policy. that is a schizophrenic policy that has an internal mandate to this day. there is a law of return for jews everywhere, into israel. that is why i used the term jewish, with a logic that is official israeli policy, not something that is a palestinian creation. i must say...the palestinians are victims of victims!

it is interesting how you considered my being palestinian, just bcoz i pointed out some facts. i said Fitzcarraldo is deaf to the natives...that does not make me south american!

facts are indeed vital. they are the essence. philosophy should incorporate facts into any discourse. without it, it is only luminous dust.

pointing out facts and not accusing others of blatant injustice...one must not stop there. but there is no need to get aggravated about it.

consider Arendt...you quote her profusely. with philosophers of her ilk, there is a blindspot towards palestine. yet, one admires her writing. most recent philosophy by say Derrida has a definite orientalist slant, with the East per se caricatured, ignored and dissolved into a homogenous whole, which is not the case.

i am just beginning to 'read' what was previously read. this is only an attempt. it incorporates many prejudices, influences etc on my part. yet, the attempt is to 'understand'.

for eg, one of the writers i personally admire, Bolano...takes a high, lofty stand towards native 'gauchos', and that bothers me. yet, i think he is the only readable writer i have discovered in the last year or so. so there are different equations. we are not whole too, forming and unforming under various moons.

as always, it is a pleasure to discuss. comments are revealing. and yet, they are elusive too.
i plan to write a post on invisibility and authorship soon, may be.

billoo said...

Kubla, hello.
The point about Palestine is not that there isn't an injustice against the Palestinians. Of course there is!

I simply don't understand you when you say we shouldn't point out acts of blatant injustice. This fact/value dichotomy is, in my opinion, one of Europe's greatest failings. Fact:there are far too many Gradgrinds!
No need to get aggravated? Are you serious? Are you saying that the intensity, the fire behind Said's writing was becuase of "facts"?

Anyway, I often hear muslims talking about Palestine -and rightly so. But then they are silent when it comes to Darfur or East Pakistan and many other things. So, I'm just a bit sceptical of why this has become such a focal point. And though my heart goes out to the Palestinians (and my Palestinian friends) I have to also say that I don't think the Arabs (or indeed the Palestinian authorities) have ever given a flying f'ck about Kashmiris-my own people.

And this "jewish" thing is tending towatrs the delusional with conspiracy theories and what not.

as for blindspots. Read the london review of books recent piece (or was it the NYRB).
Maybe you'll like this

But in general, many fine writers have their blind spots (Isaiah Berlin, for example..as Said rightyl points out)

Look forward to your next post and will check out Bolano if you recommend him so highly.

Take care,

b.

Anarchist said...

Billoo:
"But then they are silent when it comes to Darfur or East Pakistan and many other things"

They (Muslims) are silent? Is that your objective assessment? Or is it that you haven't heard anything? Does that mean if YOU have not heard then THEY have not spoken?
THINK, THINK about HOW you HEAR? and then THINK again.

Have you bothered to look for what they (Muslims) say about Darfur? Oh, no! you have not heard, so they have not said! Hah!

billoo said...

Well, anarchist, do try and calm down a bit! Writing in caps is terribly bad form on the internet.

That is my subjective assessment. I am muslim, all of my friends in England are muslim, and I have lived in a muslim country for ten years. And in all that time I have heard very little to convince me otherwise.

Now, if you've got a different experience or opinion then I'd suggest that you clearly state it instead of ranting like a lunatic.

anarchist said...

"Writing in caps is terribly bad form on the internet".
Of course, but using caps to stress a point is not, I presume?

"That is my subjective assessment".
Since I am not a Muslim, mine is an objective assessment (not)!

"And in all that time I have heard very little to convince me otherwise".
Any thoughts as to why that is?

I do have a different opinion. I believe that what we hear tend to be what establishments want us to hear. The reason why people get irate about Palestine cause is reactionary. I guess you are subject to the Orientalist view of the Orient as an Oriental yourself!

As for Arab attitude to Darfur, I suppose you never heard of this?
http://www.saudiembassy.net/2007News/
Press/PressDetail.asp?cIndex=305

"instead of ranting like a lunatic".
I am sorry, personal attacks are not my forte, so I cant respond to that.

bw

billoo said...

Sorry anarchist, I can't make head or tail of what you're saying.

But let me just try and address one point you've made.

"I believe that what we hear tend to be what establishments want us to hear. The reason why people get irate about Palestine cause is reactionary. I guess you are subject to the Orientalist view of the Orient as an Oriental yourself!"

Yes, I think you're right to an extent. There is always the establishment view. But my point was from my experience of living with muslims, talking with my muslim friends and from living in a muslim country. That might not count for much-I'm not saying that it does. I'm just saying that that is my opinion.

Who gets irrate about the Palestinian cause? I've hardly met anyone who fits that description.

Your last line is incomprehensible. What, exactly, are you saying? What is meant by 'subject to'?

I don't recognize anything such as 'the orient' or 'orientals'-except as staged productions.As someone who has always supported the Palestinain cause and led demonstrations at the LSE in their favour I fail to understand your point.

My simple point is this: instead of acting like the staged "oriental" who is always passive, always a victim, the subject of so-called conspiracies and intrigues, I think we have to recognize that since '67 there has been a tendency to delusion in some quarters.

That does not mean denying the obvious injustice of what has happened to the Palestinians or the Kashmiris. But it does mean that muslims who reduce the whole of their political anger to this one issue are quite unbalanced and perhaps being led down a path of infantilization.

Sorry, but I find the tone of your comments to be similarly shrill-whether you're a muslim or not.