click to buy 'Luchino Visconti' at Amazon.com(Third edition, London: BFI, 2003)

The received wisdom on Luchino Visconti involves citing his apparently contradictory nature as the basis for the uniqueness of his work. He, and it, embodies the seemingly irreconcilable: the homosexual, the Marxist, the aristocrat. The received wisdom is aired here, in this handsome new BFI volume, in the first few words of the backcover blurb. But, in the spirit of neoliberal classlessness, and with a disdain for identity politics, let us put such reductionism aside and attempt to expand the horizon of Viscontialia on the occasion of this publication.

The problems one faces in considering the late Count strikes me as not unlike those surrounding the figure of Oscar Wilde. Not so much the Wilde of the best known plays, but the Wilde of the poems and children’s tales: unashamedly grandiose, veering towards the cosmic, unafraid to move the audience, enthralled by history and, most essentially, flaunting an idiosyncratically antiquated model of High Art. Such are the points of contact between Wilde and Visconti. And, we could note in passing, Visconti’s Dorian Gray motifs (the fallen angels he preferred in leading or tangential roles) that typified his work from the mid-1960s onwards. Through such attributes there is also an equivalent for Visconti’s louche and paradoxical political radicalism. The late Derek Jarman, a noble of equal status in the world of Fags, ‘Fatcher and Fucking (1), described Wilde’s iconicism as a paradox of sorts. Oscar was “… an infuriating icon for queers – the complicity with snobbery, the foolish in him and the writing less interesting than the life.” (2)

Stephen Fry and Lucian Holland unveil 'A Conversation with Oscar Wilde 1854-1900', sculpted by Maggi Hambling

It’s a particularly acute problem since the majority are content to remain in animated conversation with Oscar via his plays and writings. In this respect the recent statue of Wilde, honouring Jarman’s dying wish for one, is entirely apt. Here Oscar is expansive, welcoming and frozen in mid-conversation, and to be found just off London’s Trafalgar Square. On he lives, in the heart of his adopted metropolis. A brisk walk to Soho, the site of several Jarman exhibitions, would place us in an equally relevant context for a tribute to the legacy of the historical Wilde, and one not much troubled by tourists or those strolling from the National Gallery to the theatres of the West End for an evening’s entertainment. Or, leaving them all behind, a taxi cab ride out into the wilds of Hampstead Heath for a night’s cruising. Wilde’s presence graces all such locations – the toast of the establishment to the underworld and points in between. And such a “contradiction” isn’t, apparently, problematic. Is this not now the case with the figure of Visconti and his work too?

Jarman’s sentiment is right – and if only Visconti were queer, or queerer. But it is almost all subtext and glances, unconsummated desires, mostly among the gilded ruins of the bourgeoisie. Even worse, a case can perhaps be made that homosexuality is thematically located within the ills of such decadent surroundings – the Dorian Grays both Angelic visions of the unsullied (as in Death in Venice) or upstanding fresh-faced, black-souled soldiers (as in The Damned). Visconti’s more general gay aesthetic is founded on such a parade of effeminate Aryan pretty boys (which first found full expression in the transvestitism of The Damned, a film Nowell-Smith places at the close of Visconti’s “Second Period” of film-making (3)). But this isn’t so radical. In fact, in the context of 1970s Italy, such things could still be said to barely venture beyond the realm of the heterosexual. Visconti’s gay aesthetic lacked definition and drive. It hadn’t the cruelty of Eisenstein’s gay imagery nor the palpable roughness of Pasolini’s borgate sexual odysseys.

This subtext to Visconti’s work which, as Nowell-Smith points out, only became public knowledge in the late 1970s (4), did not materialise in the expression of such desires much beyond a dry and academic sense of yearning and “feeling”. The subtext was never manifested in a felt quality. However, the homosexual subtext mingles, in a cosmic fashion, with those very notions of High Art cited above: beyond “queer” and “gay” – homosexuality as a purer love, one that dare not speak its name… the love of the Ancients. And so forth. It is difficult here to avoid a vision of Uncle Monty (of Withnail and I) looming out of the darkness with his sexual liberation of a 1930s vintage; the cries of “It is society’s fault – not ours!” It is also difficult to erase John Sessions’s wonderfully fussy and overdressed-on-a-hot-day performance as Dirk Bogarde, as Gustav von Aschenbach, as next door neighbour of Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine, in the BBC’s Stella Street – lecturing Roger Moore and David Bowie on the correct way to pass on (in the Savoy Hotel, after modestly breakfasting on warm bread rolls and a few grapes, if memory serves). Whatever sexual radicalism Death in Venice may have had – and it is Visconti’s most openly erotic film – has rapidly become emblematic of an earlier and quaint age of sexual repression.

Yet between these two points of reference, thwarted queerness and Western European sexual repression, perhaps Death in Venice found its most grateful audience. In his Stonyhurst “memoir” of hyper-sexualised boyhood, Paul Golding recalls at length an interlude with his teacher-lover, both watching a BBC broadcast of Death in Venice over tea and scones:

And then I turn to glance at him, but the vision chills me, for the imperturbable countenance… is, can you believe, stricken with tears: not like those of Mr Wolfe, which were the tears of a secret love, nor those of my father, which were the tears of a lost boy, but with the tears of the girl with fleshy rosebud lips whom I suspected from the first moment; and I have to look elsewhere. Back in the film, the boy, the boy, the boy is running and laughing along the drabness of the ocean, and rolling on the sand and cavorting and falling until Bang: I grasp the irony – which is that I too have fallen, though not in a film. (5)

The film brings Golding’s demi-autobiographical narrator “out” to such an extent that he is able to reject his serial juvenile sexual encounters in favour of a “mature” adult queerness, focussed on his immediate school friends rather than allowing the focus of his teachers to rest upon him. We are, of course, in dangerous territory – now uncontained by the homosexual subtext; Nowell-Smith notes the element of the “pederastic” in Death in Venice (6). Golding is unapologetic for his status as willing victim in such a schema, which he saw reflected in the film with a kind of epistemological value to its melodrama. It would be suave to say that defensiveness about such subject matter informed the backlash against the film: Time Out refers to it as “so overblown as to become entirely risible” (7); Nowell-Smith terms it “brilliance… suspended on a void” (8); Ken Russell famously took the piss out of it in his Mahler and I can’t make my mind up as to whether it’s ridiculous or sublime after a fair few viewings. But alas, no – this cannot be argued; once again, Visconti’s radicalism was quite elsewhere.

Perhaps this notion of flaunting an idiosyncratically antiquated model of High Art is a definition of Wildean romanticism. Wilde’s heritage bears this out too – a long shadow that reaches as far as the parochial humour of the plays of Joe Orton and Alan Bennett, and even the charm of The Smiths. Romanticism, however, is generally at odds with progressive political art. In the first instance, this did not stop the Italian Communist Party (PCI) supporting his Senso (a plush melodrama almost without equal) over Federico Fellini’s La Strada (which had “deviated” from the tenants of Neo-Realism) in a supreme act of contortion, for the 1954 Venice Film Festival. Fellini remained Visconti’s formal rival, personally and professionally (he would refer to Visconti as “Viscontini” – appending the “-ni” denoting peasant stock). In the second instance, Visconti was lucky not to get the kind of near-terminal pasting from “progressive critics” that David Lean received for his Viscontian Ryan’s Daughter. But clearly the forces of progress soon saw Visconti as too old school by the time of his “Third Period” of filmmaking – a model not to be followed. Bernardo Bertolucci’s La Luna contains a gentle distancing from the Old Master. In one scene with an aged music teacher, senile and awaiting death, Bertolucci lingers on his hands. It is a homage to the opening credits of Visconti’s final film, L’innocente, which presents Visconti’s own liver-spotted hands turning the pages of the d’Annunzio book on which it is based. In the context of La Luna, a free-love Rome at height of summer (the emancipatory struggles of Roma, Città Aperta are only a distant memory in these locations), heroin, disco and the Bee Gees, Visconti is a relic of an earlier age.

This isn’t entirely fair. Conversation Piece was a 1976 attempt at full-on contemporaneity – impinged upon by, to quote Nowell-Smith, “a brave new world of student radicalism and sexual liberation” (9). And let us recall that Bertolucci at this point was fashioning Novecento (in which Burt Lancaster, thankfully prolonging his McCarthy-induced European exile, also essays an elderly, melancholy patriarch), an epic in the 1930s sense, a Gramscian Gone With the Wind. Should Bertolucci make a Part Three of Novecento, as he promises from time to time, he will find himself in the timeframe of Conversation Piece long after Visconti. Here Visconti’s lover Helmut Berger plays a 1968 waif, seemingly moonlighting as a toyboy. The film contains drug references, nudity and the ambience of la strategia della tensione (something which “would have been instantly recognisable to the Italian audiences at the time the film was released” (10)). It grapples worthily with the changing world of Italian society – and thus is an attempt on the part of the Old Master to follow the maxim of The Leopard, “We must change to remain the same.”

The film seems formally rather beautiful (11). Gone is the frenzied bad film grammar of the previous few films (crash zooms, sometimes executed while tracking at an angle, a peculiarly Italian trait but one Bertolucci claimed can here be accounted for by Visconti’s immobility) and in its place is the stately pace and downplayed compositions that would determine L’innocente too. Conversation Piece is by far Visconti’s worst film. It seems so disorientated on almost every level. Had the influence of Harold Pinter (12) remained, massively at odds with Visconti’s lush, melodramatic sensibilities, making for minimalist, dissonant chamber music as blasted out by full orchestra and choir? This isn’t to say that it’s a “bad film” per se; it fits squarely into the Eurotrash canon (and, indeed, I recent caught Helmut Berger being interviewed by Antoine de Caunes for Channel 4’s Eurotrash), along with the dire La Strega Bruciata Viva. Indeed, Visconti’s camp Nazis of The Damned went some way to inaugurating this entire Eurotrash subgenre. It was therefore to the section on Conversation Piece that I first turned in Nowell-Smith’s book, after the breezy introduction, which mentions a meeting with Visconti and outlines the genesis of the book and its surprising reception.

Conversation Piece

Conversation Piece is one of the three “new” films covered in this, the second update on the text (the last was in 1973, from the 1967 original). Thus the previous two versions are contained almost wholly unaltered (some typographical errors are corrected and a dozen or so new footnotes added). Nowell-Smith’s rhetorical writing style is lent further nuance in this; at times he indirectly addresses his 1967 self via a 2002 footnote. The new additions provide commentary on their predecessors. It is a style that is particularly likeable – it evolves arguments and conversations across the field of meanings, at times providing an in-built critique of its own methodology. In essence, it isn’t so different to the much-criticised “schizophrenic” dialogues of David Thomson, as in his study of Welles (13), but is done with subtlety and is unhurried. And there is a constant across the decades: the book still essentially articulates unreconstructed auteurism. Considerations in the light of wider theoretical frameworks are present, but are mostly implicit. It’s ascetic too – there’s little in the way of a wider context and only a light smattering of biography. So I find myself noting once again in relation this series (14) the absence of any consideration of the key debate surrounding the 1954 Venice festival, as mentioned above. This was more than a matter of reluctance to enter into a process of de-Stalinisation at a crucial moment (the Hungarian October was just around the corner and would exact a high price from the PCI for their, and Palmiro Togliatti’s, failure to do so). It was also a familial argument within the European Left of the type that raises questions over the nature of the limits of radical artistic oppositionism that are of a fundamental relevance today. Have we been outdone by the Visconti-Wilde equivalent – too many sides to engage with resulting in an overlooking of the more problematic and timely ones? Or is Visconti’s work now irrelevant?

The inclusion of the unviolated texts of 1967 and 1973 (“The text is thus presented as if in quotes, as a historic document.” (15)) is slightly disappointing too. Nowell-Smith notes he was unwilling to rework the text, even in the light of his own reticence and admitted embarrassment about some of his conclusions, lest the whole edifice collapse. Perhaps he has bigger fish to fry (16) and his preoccupations now seem much to do with the survival of the European cinematic tradition, particularly as a bulwark against North American cultural hegemony (17). Had he done so, however, this would have been a fascinating thing – akin to von Aschenbach’s visions of youthful idealism towards the end of his days in Death in Venice (18). And the original editions, part of that lovely, compact Cinema One series, are still often available via Ebay and so within reach for Visconti completists and archaeologists of film theory. Perhaps the BFI could initiate a trade-in policy – a fiver off the 2003 edition upon receipt of the 1967 or 1973 editions? And, like those designer labels who will buy your old jeans to recycle the distressed denim rather than artificially age new denim in the manner of Dolce & Gabbana, the BFI could flog these vintage editions to the fashion-conscious undergraduate cinephiles who frequent the Riverside Studios rather than the National Film Theatre. The 2003 edition sports thinner paper and contains large black and white illustrations. The 1967 version was a “pocket edition” whereas the bigger 2003 versions, paperback and hardback, need a shelf. Here is another loss. It is no longer the done thing, or possible, to watch a double bill of Visconti in the late, lamented Hampstead Everyman and then read up on the experience on the underground on the way back home.

The BFI has recently mounted a touring retrospective of Visconti’s main films. This has provided an invaluable series of opportunities to see the films in the only way that they should be seen. The big screen is an essential for Visconti. The pace, the internal rhythms and the ‘scope are all fatally reduced in any other medium. The bigger canvas is necessary to convey the sense of history, and the performances which Visconti geared towards this. Visconti’s work was eminently cinematic, attained a cinematicism – and herein was the power of the totality of his vision. Gramsci takes second place to Lukács in this respect. Nowell-Smith sees Visconti as a proto-Lukácsian (19) and cites Lukács as “the honest broker of Marxism and the bourgeois tradition” (20). This is one way of describing another contradictory nature; Lukács’s reactionary Stalinist phases didn’t prevent his being punished for his fairly heroic anti-Stalinism prior to the Hungarian October. And perhaps it is this reactionary element in Visconti’s work that has failed him; in the final analysis, he was on the “wrong” side – that is, he articulated from within the enemy’s camp from the outset; spoke their language. Thus he did not afford himself space for real innovation, turning instead to nostalgia and Empire ambience. Perhaps this is why a queer reading of Visconti fails to find new depths in his work. After all, Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni are of the same generation and yet there seems to be at least a couple of decades separating their differing sensibilities. Antonioni was freer; he lacked Visconti’s respect for cinema as High Art – something that would have found theoretical justification in Lukács.

The Leopard

More precisely, Visconti was offering what Lukács, after the 1956 invasion of Hungary, was terming prospettivismo – the element of a structuring socialist perspective, the foundations of which had been routed by the Modernist conception of art (in terms of “art” as something that need not attain a totality of expression, a completeness of reflection of the wider world). In Visconti, such “perspectivism” is realised across the interlocking narratives of a panorama historical sweep. Hence the PCI’s support for Senso. And this is why the central metaphor of The Leopard, the passing of the bourgeoisie and the old order, touches on the central questions about the changes in Southern European society in the early 1960s. It is from such a vantage point of rapid industrial change that such a question is posed to the history of the region then just beyond living memory. And to think that just a couple of years before the PCI were busy ignorantly condemning anything not Neo-Realist in form and nature!

In such an operation, Visconti was indeed a great filmmaker. He seemed aware of this perspectivism too; in interview, he speaks in a detached, observational manner – able to describe Rocco and His Brothers as if it has all the heightened emotional complexity of opera (21). Nowell-Smith laments “Perhaps it is because we no longer expect movie-makers to be profound thinkers that Visconti’s greatness is no longer appreciated as it should be.” (22) How true. And here is a lesson to all filmmakers today then – especially those who praise Visconti, cite him as a foundational influence, and yet whose work seems devoid of this essential quality. Visconti showed what was possible. Echoing Nowell-Smith, David Walsh recently commented:

So many notions taken for granted today by artists, including filmmakers, need to be challenged. One of the greatest weaknesses of contemporary art is a disbelief in its own significance and capacities. In North America, in particular, decades of official philistinism and reaction, as part of a general social regression, have beaten down a good many of the more sincere or sensitive souls. Meanwhile, charlatans and various essentially talentless people have been feted.

As a result, many serious or semi-serious artists have been led to accept the fact of their own “smallness.” … [Thus it seemingly becomes b]etter to decorate one’s little corner, have an “artistic career” and stand aloof or pretend to stand aloof from pressing social and intellectual problems. In this manner, the discouraged or defeatist artist helps reinforce and police his own impotence. (23)

Or, as Seamus Heaney puts it in relation to the question of an intrinsic “value of art” and the ways in which the assumptions of High Art along such lines had been assailed by the historical fact of the Holocaust:

Yet if it is a delusion and a danger to expect poetry and music to do too much, it is a diminishment of them and a derogation to ignore what they can do. (24)

And Visconti remains an example of the ways in which relevance is possible – even within a formally conservative framework. Nowell-Smith refers to “works of grand ambition in the Romantic tradition” (25), “novelistic and even saga-like in structure” (26) and constructs his conclusion around this virtue (27).

Nowell-Smith also notes that the only remaining auteur in the “present generation of Italian film-makers” who is “able to carry on Visconti’s inheritance in the sense of being able to command a substantial budget and a large international audience for a serious film” (28) is Bertolucci. It seems to me that the ridiculous Franco Zeffirelli should be included here too, the one time Assistant Director to Visconti, also his lover, and now on the right of the Berlusconi mob, for whom he served two terms as a Senator in Forza Italia. Perhaps in Nanni Moretti, who exemplifies Fellini’s legacy and organised the recent protests against Berlusconi’s opportunistic attempts at law reform, we have a coda to the old Fellini/Visconti rivalry.

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  1. A proposed study by Alan Beck; cf Derek Jarman, Smiling in Slow Motion, Century, 2000, p. 3.
  2. Jarman, Smiling, p. 86
  3. Nowell-Smith, Visconti, p. 210
  4. Nowell-Smith, Visconti, pp. 211-212. One of the first sustained considerations of this was in Laurence Schifano’s 1987 book Luchino Visconti: The Flames of Passion (published in English by Collins, London 1990). This rather conventional biography says little about the films.
  5. Paul Golding, The Abomination, Picador 2000, pp. 316-7
  6. Nowell-Smith, Visconti, p. 162
  7. John Pym, editor, Time Out Film Guide, Fifth Edition, Penguin Books, 1997, p. 193
  8. Nowell-Smith, Visconti, p. 170
  9. Nowell-Smith, Visconti, p. 200
  10. Nowell-Smith, Visconti, p. 193
  11. I cannot be entirely certain; the film remains obscure and readily available only in dubbed and panned and scanned video versions, sometimes a couple of generations down. I understand that a DVD release is imminent.
  12. Nowell-Smith notes Visconti’s mounting of Pinter’s Old Times. It isn’t recorded here, but the ill-will between them may have had something to do with the tetchy personal and professional relationship between Visconti and Pinter’s collaborator Joseph Losey, culminating in the 1971 Cannes festival; see David Caute, Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life, Faber and Faber, 1996, pp. 273-4.
  13. David Thomson, Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, Abacus, 1997
  14. Halligan, Benjamin, The Felliniesque Besieged: Fellini Lexicon by Sam Rohdie, Senses of Cinema Issue 24 Jan-Feb 2003
  15. Nowell-Smith, Visconti, p. 4
  16. In 1999, Nowell-Smith edited The Oxford History of World Cinema for Oxford University Press.
  17. See, for example, Why Hollywood – given to the Institute of European Studies (University of British Columbia): http://www.ies.ubc.ca/events/pubs/smith.html. Accessed May 2003.
  18. I hope Professor Nowell-Smith forgives me for this. I have no idea of his age but the 36 years between the first and third editions of this text suggests his status as a very eminent British film writer and theorist can be measured in years as well as publications. The heyday vigour of his prose remains a constant, of course.
  19. Nowell-Smith, Visconti, p. 154, 217
  20. Nowell-Smith, Visconti, p. 154
  21. A fair few of these interviews were used for the lengthy BBC Arena Visconti profile; tx 19/4/03, BBC4.
  22. Nowell-Smith, Visconti, p. 216
  23. David Walsh, San Francisco International Film Festival – Part 1: A Modest Proposal: A Cinema of Ideas. Accessed May 2003.
  24. Seamus Heaney, Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001, Faber and Faber, 2002, p. 69
  25. Nowell-Smith, Visconti, p. 4
  26. Nowell-Smith, Visconti, p. 214
  27. Nowell-Smith, Visconti, p. 222
  28. Nowell-Smith, Visconti, p. 211