Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: Luchino Visconti
Why it’s daunting: An avowed Marxist as well as a bonafide nobleman, Luchino Visconti di Madrone was a walking contradiction, and his best films embody the tension between opposing political and aesthetic philosophies. Visconti has a sprawling oeuvre that varies widely in style (and, to a lesser extent, quality) and spans several eras of Italian filmmaking, from the neo-realism of 1943’s Ossessione through 1976’s L’Innocente.
In 1943, two years before Rome, Open City and five before Bicycle Thieves, Visconti fused noir and neo-realism into Ossessione, turning The Postman Always Rings Twice into a veiled Marxist critique under Mussolini’s watchful eye, and followed it in 1948 with La Terra Trema: Episodio Del Mare, a story of Sicilian fisherman struggling against greedy merchants and unforgiving nature. But Visconti’s political interest in the working classes was intermingled with his love of rococo finery. Salvador Dali dismissed him as “a Communist who likes only luxury,” and Senso star Farley Granger wrote in his autobiography that Visconti “was accustomed to having crates of fine leather gloves or handmade cashmere scarves or other luxuries sent for him to pick and choose from wherever he was.”
Potential gateway: Rocco And His Brothers
Why?: Critic and fellow aristocrat Guido Aristarco greeted the release of Rocco And His Brothers in 1960 as a retreat from the “dangers” of Visconti’s previous films White Nights and Senso, and a return to the realist principles of the director’s early works. The story of five brothers from a small village in Southern Italy who move to a big Northern city seeking fortune, Rocco is a classically neorealist yarn about the inhumanity of capitalist society, anchored by the quiet charisma of French star Alain Delon in the title role. (As was the style for Italian films of the time, Visconti’s soundtracks, including dialogue, were entirely postdubbed, enabling him to mingle foreign actors freely with his Italian cast.)
The subject matter must have relieved colleagues who worried Visconti had abandoned the left-wing project of ennobling the poor, but beneath the surface, the progression continues apace. Rather than cast his lot with one side or the other, Visconti plants a food in each camp, playing both ends against the middle. He effectively stages a climactic murder twice, first as a fatalistic tableau, and again, after a cutaway, as a frantic scrabble for life. At his best, Visconti is neither simply a (neo)realist nor a runaway aesthete, but both at once—an approach that, among other things, dismantles the simplistic equation of working-class life with gritty realism and upper-crust existence with high styles. (Of the DVDs currently on the market, Image’s domestic version is serviceable enough, but Masters Of Cinema’s vastly superior U.K. edition is a compelling reason to invest in a region-free player.)
Next steps: It’s difficult to winnow Visconti’s best films to a brief list, but why not start at the top, with his crowning masterwork, 1963’s The Leopard? Set in Sicily during the Risorgimento, the period that marked the end of Sicily’s existence as an independent monarchy and the emergence of an Italian state, the movie exults in the last gasps of the nobility’s opulence, even as it acknowledges and endorses, however ambivalently, the necessity of its end. Burt Lancaster (dubbed into Italian, although his voice can be heard on the truncated English-language cut included in Criterion’s well-appointed set) basks in the gilded age’s dimming flicker like the big cat of the movie’s title, a once-glorious animal turned languorous by domestic comfort. He sees the end of his class coming, and is self-aware enough to recognize the necessity of its extinction, but his democratic leanings are diluted by his visceral disgust with the ill-bred opportunists who swarm to take their place. Although the movie’s overstuffed frames pay tribute to the beauty of a bygone era, The Leopard doesn’t sentimentalize the aristocracy in the manner of Grand Illusion; with a few exceptions, the nobles are simply well-dressed cretins. During the gala ball that occupies most of the three-hour movie’s final third, Lancaster gazes out at the revelers and wonders if inbreeding hasn’t left them more like monkeys than men.
La Terra Trema works in the opposite direction: Rather the dragging a nobleman down to earth, the 1948 film elevates penniless fisherman to, as the great critic André Bazin put it, the level of “tragic princes.” The movie’s limpid beauty hasn’t been captured by any extant DVD, but E1’s new disc at least brings the film back into print for a Stateside audience. Issued alongside it, 1951’s Bellissima is a somewhat overlooked work, more conventionally structured but especially illuminating in the context of his other films. The initial pullback from a symphony orchestra to a radio announcer crassly promoting a contest to find the most beautiful girl in Rome for a pending film shoot sets the stage for a behind-the-scenes look at the movie industry that’s obviously inspired by Visconti’s own experience. Working mother Anna Magnani proffers her daughter in the hopes of raising their family’s status, but the attempt proves ruinous, exposing them to the corruption of the image-making industry. When Magnani and her husband have a fight, he yells, “Stop acting!”
Where not to start: Glorious as it is, 1954’s Senso is better saved for the experienced Visconti viewer (or at least one with solid grounding in Vincente Minnelli and Douglas Sirk). The movie opens in an opera house and, in a sense, never leaves it. Visconti, who was born in 1906, said he came into the world “as the curtain was raised at La Scala,” and no film more fully realized his operatic impulses. In Senso, as the filmmaker Mark Rappaport puts it, “decor is destiny.” Farley Granger is a slight presence as an Austrian lieutenant (Visconti wanted Brando) who tempts Alida Valli’s Italian countess toward treachery, but the fact that he threatens to fade into the movie’s elaborate backdrops is indicative of its seductive settings.
The tension goes slack in many of Visconti’s later films, as his ambiguous embrace of luxury gives way to full-blown decadence in films like The Damned and Death In Venice. The latter, the story of a decaying aristocrat (Dirk Bogarde) obsessed with a young man’s beauty, mirrors Visconti’s own relationships with younger lovers, including the actor Helmut Berger, whom he molded into a movie star bit by bit. The films themselves are suffused with rot, over-elaborate monstrosities that threaten to collapse at any moment, but their tragic flaws and their beauty are inextricable from one another.