Some mornings, I go down to the coffeehouse and drink an Americano with two guys who’ve lived in my Italian-American neighborhood for 70 years. For roughly 60 of those years they’ve been best friends in the vein of Frick and Frack, Tom and Jerry, Felix and Oscar. I call them the Muppet critics because they really are just like the old grumps on The Muppet Show. Whenever I hang out with these guys, they argue about everything from the true point of the Civil War to the relative merits of Godfather Part III to which of them is aging worse. Outspoken as I normally am, with them I mostly clutch my coffee and my sides since I’m laughing so hard I’m afraid everything is going to split. They’re good eggs—gruffly kind, street-smart, devoted to the neighborhood and their wives. They were protective and practical when I was going through my miserably drawn-out breakup. (“Eh, you want us to beat him up, Lise?”) They religiously watch the NY1 show on which I appear. (“Your red lipstick needs to make a comeback, doll.”) They problem-solve my issues from weird car noises to money woes to difficult colleagues. They tell amazing stories about back in the day. They pour over the newspapers and debate the major controversies of the day. Then they razz each other some more.
This morning one of them told a joke he’d heard from “a real Jewish guy.” (Our neighborhood borders on the Chasidic section of Williamsburg.) The joke went like this: Abraham and Yosef were imprisoned in the same cell for 25 years. When they were finally released, they walked out of the building, single file. Abraham walked ahead. Yosef trailed behind him, shouting, “Abraham, I forgot to tell ya….”
If you’re blocking a sidewalk or subway entrance and don’t notice because you are fiddling with your phone or iPod, I’ll politely ask you to move a few times. Everyone gets distracted, I grok that. But if you don’t come correct after that, I’ll just shove past you and whatever indignation you subsequently express. As far as I’m concerned, you’ve forfeited your right to be heard and I’ve already moved on. And, no: New York didn’t make me this way. Rather, I’ve made it here for 20 years because I already was like this. I come from a long line of people who wouldn’t have survived if they’d swallowed other people’s shit. I’m convinced all the real New Yorkers—not those on the five-year post-university plan; not those who drift on money they didn’t earn themselves—do. That doesn’t mean we don’t feel compassion and affection and respect for each other. It just means we rely upon a social contract in which no one matters more than anyone else. If we didn’t, 8 million people from all walks of life would never successfully coexist in such a small geographical area. So come correct or don’t come at all. New York is a city of tough lovers–and it’s one of the many reasons that, even in this Hades weather, I love it so.
I spent two of yesterday’s most sweltering hours at New York City’s Film Forum, transported to the big black-and-white glamour of L’avventura, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 travelogue. Many of my colleagues swoon over this film’s contribution to film grammar, its exploration of the myriad faces of love, and they’re right to do so. I sat amongst some of them yesterday and their faces looked uncharacteristically sweet, even innocent, as they watched, rapt, in that screening room. That innocence is part of why I gladly, worshipfully surrender to the Italian director’s films again and again, especially in summer. In his still and silent and perfectly framed worlds dwell the purest respite I know outside of actual nature.
For Antonioni’s films almost—almost—compensate for the terrible swamp that New York invariably becomes every summer. I know many who sing New York summers’ praises, and when I was young I was one of them. To people’s complaints that they missed nature in New York, I’d reply that in New York we humans were the nature. I still think that’s true. Bumping against each other with virtually no personal space, we prowl about, sniffing each other’s butts, brandishing our feathers and guarding our turf as fiercely as any beast in the wild. If our jungle happens to be concrete, what of it?
But every year I feel less charmed by the gorgeous mistakes we New Yorkers tend to make in our unbearably hot summers—by our flaring passions, our sticky bodies, our business exposed every which way. I long instead for the one thing that’s hard to order up in this crazy apple unless you’re on a billionaire’s budget: quiet. A silence, uninterrupted by anything except for the ripple of a pond, the warble of a bird, the rustle of wind snaking through trees. Maybe the ice clinking in your glass.
A reverent hush used to prevail in movie theaters no matter what was playing but now the volume of soundtrack-booming movies and moviehouse attendees can deafen you. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Nothing is more glorious than the denizens of Downtown Brooklyn dancing along to Step Up, and what would a crash-and-burner like Fast and Furious 6 be without the satisfying crunch of metal? But mostly the noisiness of a movie-going experience makes me feel like I’m in the middle of Times Square. Today.
L’avventura doesn’t, though. About a woman and man who fall in love while searching for his missing girlfriend, the movie is blessedly quiet, as if it doesn’t wish to miss any detail of its own sensuality. And nor should it. Antonioni’s characters are always animalistic—nearly mute in their raw expressions of envy, sorrow, fury, desire—and thereby even more purely human. With L’avventura as with all of his films, plot is to some degree besides the point and time moves glacially, if at all. What matters is staying as present as a cat, as a child, as a lover, as a beginning and as an ending. And that entails listening as well as looking.
There in Film Forum yesterday I succumbed happily and wholly to the roar of the ocean, to the shadows cast by lovers kissing against a sea wall, to the whisper of bedsheets against a woman’s skin, to the ecstasy of her legs, nude, as they kicked in the air, and to the click of her shoes upon the cobblestones of a city street. It all looked and sounded wonderfully cool and even more wonderfully lonely. Much like nature herself.
L’avventura can be seen in a lush 35mm restoration at Film Forum July 12-25. Go see it.