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.
Anita Ekberg as a Dolce Vita mermaid, complete with ebony fins.
In my adult life I truly don’t remember such a lovely—or well-earned—spring as the one we’re having. For years New York City has gone from brutally cold to brutally hot with nary a window of mild weather. But we’ve enjoyed nearly a month of it already after our treacherously long winter: the rain is big and headstrong and creatively inspiring; the sun makes a French movie out of a trip to the corner deli. And the thrilling, still-temperate nights render us all a big Fellini blonde splashing in a fountain. Officially I am pleased. Unofficially I am ecstatic.
Of all the months in the year, this is the one that belongs to Mary and the archetype of the divine mother—and that’s exactly what our city, our country, our planet needs right now. I always feel both Mary Mother and Mary of Magdalene are more misunderstood than any other abiding symbol in our culture. Rather than “whore” or “virgin,” the two represent to me a beautifully still and compassionate energy: wise, receptive and regenerative. As a friend reminded me recently, May is another name for the Mother Goddess, Maia or Maya; in Northern Europe she was called Maj or Mai, the Maiden. And today, May Day–or Beltrane, as it is sometimes known–is the Celtic festival of fertility. This is when transformational powers are released, allowing us to break free of old patterns and renew our commitment with the earth and the deepest parts of ourselves. It is now that we should take off our shoes and wiggle our feet in the soil, any soil. Or just go outside and breathe as deeply and quietly as possible. Don’t make a wish, don’t set goals, don’t try to will anything into being. Just be willing. Just be. Breathe in that amazing beauty all around us. Tap into the big, peony-scented energy. It’ll take you all the way to May 31st—which, no joke, is the Feast of St. Mary.