Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 16, March 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Brunette

 

Nowell-Smith Meets Visconti, Redux:

The Old and the New

 

 

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith

_Luchino Visconti_ (Third Edition)

London: British Film Institute, 2003

ISBN 0-85170-961-3

250 pp.

 

For nearly four decades, the definitive study of the films of Luchino Visconti has been, and remains, that of Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, originally published in 1967. Visconti lived to make six more films after _The Leopard_ (1963), the last to be considered by Nowell-Smith in his original edition. Nowell-Smith momentarily caught up with the Italian director's late-in-life frenzy of production when a second edition of his book appeared in 1973, including new chapters on _Lo Straniero_ (1967), _The Damned_ (1969), and _Death in Venice_ (1971). Before his death in 1976, however, the director went on to make three more films -- _Ludwig_ (1973), _Conversation Piece_ (1974), and _L'Innocente_ (1976) -- and thus Nowell-Smith's classic text has been sadly out-of-date and incomplete for more than 30 years. It is the third edition, just published, which attempts, with mixed results, to fill this lacuna.

 

The new edition contains, along with brief considerations of the director's final three films, a new preface and a new conclusion, both written in 2002. For better or worse, Nowell-Smith has decided to keep intact the original chapters published in 1967, updating minor details with a few scattered notes. He offers these older chapters relatively untouched, as an exhibit showing what 'auteurist structuralism' looked like when it first appeared in the 1960s -- followed by Peter Wollen's groundbreaking study _Signs and Meaning in the Cinema_ (1969), which favorably referred to Nowell-Smith's book. As he puts it in the new Introduction, 'the text is thus presented as if in quotes, as a historic document' (4).

 

The effect of this decision, unfortunately, is to produce a fragmented, sometimes purposely self-contradictory text that will remind readers of Robin Wood's much-revised study of Hitchcock, which, though equally insightful, is equally frustrating in its makeshift chronological layering. Thus, in the Visconti book, a judgment published in 1967 can end up, annoyingly, being commented upon in 1973, in either a note or a new chapter, and then in 2003 there may be a comment upon the 1973 take on the original 1967 opinion. Particularly bothersome are references to directors, like Visconti and Rossellini, as though they were living, when in fact they've been dead for thirty years (as is assumed, of course, in the new material). There is also the question of the reliability and completeness of the cinematic texts upon which Nowell-Smith's original analyses are based. In the 2002 note commenting upon his 1967 analysis of _The Leopard_ he says that he has now seen, three times, the newly restored version of the film (in which the final ball scene is greatly extended), yet 'I find there is very little in what I wrote in 1967 that I would need to change' (93). He then proceeds to cite several crucial changes in the restored version of the film, which one suspects may very well have altered his response to it if they had been considered fully.

 

His method, happily and conveniently, is to examine the films one by one. While this has the tendency to reassert the autonomy of the fully self-present text and might potentially work against a more expansive sense of intertextuality, Nowell-Smith loves to range across Visconti's oeuvre and so a strong dose of intertextuality is already built in. However, he often jumbles the order of the films to demonstrate thematic or political continuities and readers not already intimately familiar with the developmental chronology of Visconti's films may have a hard slog of it. Thus, for example, when the chapter on _Senso_ is followed by the one on _The Leopard_ (since both treat the Risorgimento), we also jump from an Italian production to a production funded by a Hollywood studio starring a Hollywood actor. Though Nowell-Smith predictably attacks both the studio and the actor, we don't have the biographical or financial particulars to be able to judge what has changed and what stays the same from the earlier film to the later one. Similarly, _Vaghe Stelle dell'Orsa_ achronologically follows _White Nights_ because both, according to Nowell-Smith, are structured around metaphors.

 

But these flaws are, for the most part, relatively minor, and the original kernel of the book does provide the very interesting 'historic document' that Nowell-Smith would like it to be. He half-complains in the new Introduction that,

 

'as a result of [Wollen's book] and subsequent developments in film studies, the book soon came to be better known for two pages of discussion of the so-called 'auteur' theory than for the 150 or so pages devoted to Visconti and his films. Indeed I found myself being credited with the almost single-handed invention of a sub-theory, 'auteur structuralism', whose main tenet was thought to be the belief that the defining characteristics of an author's work were not always those that were most immediately apparent, nor were they necessarily things of which the author himself was aware. In fact I did not think of what I was saying as particularly original at all, although it was different from what most other people were saying at the time' (3).

 

Nowell-Smith also points out that, ironically, the hunt for the author in film studies corresponded with the proclamation of the death of the author in literary studies.

 

In the 1967 Introduction, which is reprinted in this new edition, he claims that auteurism is a 'principle of method, which provides a basis for a more scientific form of criticism than has existed hitherto' (10), a remark that clearly displays traces of early structuralism's totalizing empirical urge; but it's the kind of statement that, 35 years later, Nowell-Smith would himself presumably find amusing. More to the point, he maintains (not unreasonably) that the 'purpose of criticism becomes therefore to uncover behind the superficial contrasts of subject and treatment a structural hard core of basic and often recondite motifs. The pattern formed by these motifs, which may be stylistic or thematic, is what gives an author's work its peculiar structure, both defining it internally and distinguishing one body of work from another' (10-11). Perhaps most interestingly, he goes on to claim that there actually is no coherent structure in Visconti's films, thus working against the totalizing proclivity of the theory of 'auteur structuralism' at the same time as he employs it.

 

What is most interesting about Nowell-Smith's auteurism is that it does not lead to an excessive concern with the intricacies of formal technique for their own sake, as such a position might seem inevitably to do. In other words, his auteurist focus leads him *toward* rather than away from historical, political, philosophical, and theoretical concerns. In short, this is an auteurism that still has a role to play in film studies, and one that can take an appropriate, if somewhat circumscribed place alongside more recent cultural studies approaches. Twenty-five years ago, in an illuminating essay called 'Ideology, Genre, Auteur', Robin Wood said that the workings of ideology in cinema are perhaps most clearly manifested where genre and auteur intersect. He was speaking mostly about Hitchcock in the context of American genre films, but I think his view is equally applicable to European auteurist films as well, especially if we consider the art film, as David Bordwell suggested years ago, as a genre in its own right. Ideology, in other words, may manifest itself most clearly where it is activated and channeled through one consciousness -- self-divided though that consciousness must always be.

 

The inherent biases of Nowell Smith's 'structural auteur' approach can perhaps be seen in the virtual absence of any information regarding the production or reception of these films, but that of course is not a good reason to attack an overtly text-centered reading that must have been quite liberating in 1967. Rather, I think, it indicates merely that something more is needed now, and I doubt seriously if Nowell-Smith would disagree. Another manifestation of his auteurism is the virtual absence of any consideration of actors and acting (with the exception of the autobiographical elements in the characters played by Burt Lancaster in _The Leopard_ and _Conversation Piece_). Revealingly, Nowell-Smith omits actor names following the introduction of new characters, a practice I had thought universal in film studies. (Even the crucial Helmut Berger, Visconti's lover late in life and the star of three of his later films, is barely mentioned.) Which is not to say that he neglects character, for much of the book is taken up -- perhaps too much so -- with readings of figures that stress character psychology and motivation and that, on occasion, veer dangerously toward plot summary.

 

Nowell-Smith's great strength is his depth of literary culture and historical (and historiographical) knowledge, and he brilliantly brings these competencies to bear. Thus a discussion of _Vaghe Stelle dell'Orsa_ in the context of Baroque painting is unexpected and illuminating. More importantly, he is able to modify the standard view that Visconti is indebted for his historical approach to Italian Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci by throwing Gyorgy Lukacs into the mix. It quickly becomes clear that it was Lukacs more than Gramsci who sanctioned Visconti's political analysis of great historical moments (the Italian Risorgimento, the Nazi period), while at the same time allowing him to indulge in an orgy of the nineteenth century bourgeois realism that Lukacs so stoutly defended. Interestingly, Nowell-Smith prefers a Visconti who looks *through* his literary sources to the history that lies behind them, and faults the director's increasing focus, later on, on the cultural artifacts themselves. The chief problem with the latter approach, according to Nowell-Smith, is that, to be critical in regard to these cultural artifacts, a consideration of the apparatus of signification is necessary, and by definition this is impossible in a context of Lukacsian bourgeois realism. (Though this last claim may be debatable, a mistake like Visconti's ill-conceived adaptation of Camus's _L'etranger_, which Nowell-Smith thoroughly despises, becomes more understandable through the critic's insistence that there's no real event to anchor the film's interpretation, and hence there's little to do beyond attempting, lamely, to translate the style and general sense of anomie. Similarly, the critic loathes what Visconti has done to Thomas Mann's novella _Death in Venice_, which he says 'is not merely an empty film but a pretentious film -- pretentious and above all parasitic' (166). (On the other hand, in his point-by-point comparison of Visconti's last film, _L'Innocente_, with the second-rate Gabriele D'Annunzio novel upon which it's based, all the kudos, not surprisingly, go to the film.)

 

One of Nowell-Smith's best and most illuminating tactics is to help us understand one film by comparing it -- in its largest philosophical outlines -- to another. This tactic is so much in evidence in his discussion of the director's adaptation of Camus's _L'etranger_ that most of the chapter is actually given over to an in-depth analysis of _The Leopard_ instead, focusing on the reality upon which the novel is presumably based. Yet Nowell-Smith never really convincing explains how this 'historical real' is available to us through the subsequently-produced cultural artifact, and why the filmmaker consistently chose to rely upon this superfluous mediation in the first place.

 

But if the real of history is only problematically available in these films in ways that Nowell-Smith perhaps does not want to face, his historical readings are often excellent. His discussion of the relation of nineteenth-century Italian novelist Giuseppe Verga's analysis of the Southern question to Visconti's Marxist-inflected one in _La Terra Trema_ is solid and illuminating, as is his exploration of the operatic nature of much of Visconti's work, which goes beyond facile comparisons made in the interim by lesser critics. Nowell-Smith not only claims that opera is central to Visconti's method and subjects, which is obvious, but specifies the exact and complex ways in which this is the case. (For example, his discussion of how the characters in _Senso_ portray real figures and opera characters at the same time.) While discussing the complexly anti-neorealist film _Bellissima_ (1951), he moves easily to a smart consideration of the role of laughter in Visconti's films. Even better is his linkage of the director's comedy in the short called _Il Lavoro_ to his stage productions, the latter an area that most film critics seem happy to avoid. His discussion of the relationship between the historical events recounted in _Senso_ and the post-war political situation is also illuminating, as when he has Visconti asking himself: 'Did the revolution that might have happened in 1943-7 fail in the same way and for the same reasons as that of 1860-70? Or did it not also fail *because* the first one had failed, because the ruling class was allowed to establish a tradition of continuity . . .' (71). Importantly, however, Nowell-Smith also understands that the main focus of Visconti's analysis in this film 'is concerned with the relationship of personal and class attitudes, rather than with political forces external to the main drama' (71). Even better is his insistence -- contra those who reject Visconti for his supposed 'decadence' -- that, beginning with _Senso_, the themes of 'moral degeneration and moral incapacity' that arise 'are to be understood first of all historically, as products of a response to a historical and class situation in which the individual feels himself bound by the past and unable to adapt to the present' (77).

 

One problem that arises from Nowell-Smith's heady focus on grander subjects is that occasionally the specificity of the individual films gets lost. Furthermore, space limitations (the book is jam-packed with large photos) prevent Nowell-Smith from offering more than a handful of close readings. The result of this commitment to an intellectual rather than a formal approach to the films is that cinematic techniques often rate little more than a hasty paragraph or two tacked on to the end of each chapter. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that these scattered paragraphs, though brief, often do give evidence of a very sharp eye; for example, in his demonstration of the way space and colour in _Senso_ signify class relations, or the manner in which the binary thematic division of _White Nights_ is spatialised by means of the bridges over the canals featured in the film, or in his telling if slightly unfair complaint that _The Damned_ is 'expressionism with nothing to express' (152).

 

The theoretical ballast that the book depends on is often sophisticated, as in the delineation of the films' relation to history, but at other times much less so, especially regarding conceptions of realism -- for example, when he claims that _Ossessione_ is 'the most realistic of Visconti's films' (26), without providing any gloss on that notoriously problematic term. The same thing is true of his discussion of Visconti's complicated relation to neo-realism which would be more nuanced had it begun with a more detailed discussion of the nature of neo-realism itself. Similarly, when he takes up melodrama in _Senso_, his 40-year-old discussion naturally lacks any reference to the important theorizing regarding that genre that has occurred in the interim. Again, such an omission is completely understandable given his decision to regard the ur-text as a 'historical document', but less than satisfying if you want to better understand how melodrama works in these films.

 

Nor is there the slightest reference to anything that might resemble feminist, poststructuralist, or psychoanalytic theory, with the exception of a single strange reference to Freud in which, during an otherwise excellent discussion of _Bellissima_, Nowell-Smith atypically claims that the real-life director Alessandro Blasetti, who appears in the film, is acting as a kind of super-ego to it. In general, Nowell-Smith is not shy about offering opinions, but rather expresses subjective judgments as though they were obvious to everyone -- a good example is his description of Angelica's (Claudia Cardinale) invitation to the Count to dance at the end of _The Leopard_, a transcendent moment in which youth inclines to old age, but a gesture which he dismisses as 'naive flattery' (86). He also calls Cardinale's presence in _Vaghe Stelle dell'Orsa_ 'a gross error of casting' (109), then in a footnote from 2002 admits to being 'a bit embarrassed' by this negative judgment (122), which he now completely reverses. Perhaps this example also provides a useful warning about Nowell-Smith's many aesthetic judgments that are obviously more subjective in nature than he once thought.

 

The perennial themes promised in the structural auteurist approach gradually emerge: betrayal, from the very beginning, in _Ossessione_; sexual relations as always tied up with money and class (seen clearly in _Il Lavoro_); operatic melodrama, first foregrounded in _Senso_, and so on. And Nowell-Smith is at his absolutely most penetrating in his welcome appreciation of three of the director's most neglected films: _Bellissima_, _White Nights_, and _Vaghe Stelle dell'Orsa_. In his discussion of _Rocco and His Brothers_, he also gets right what is, I think, the central tension in Visconti's films, that between an intellectual belief in social progress vs a nostalgia for a lost world. While this is rather obvious nowadays, it wasn't when the book first appeared.

 

There is some evidence that the new chapters which close the new edition of the book were written in haste, since even the chapter on _Ludwig_, a film which Nowell-Smith rightly thinks is a masterpiece, is largely devoted to plot summary. The subsequent chapter on _Conversation Piece_, in which Lancaster plays a character who seems virtually identical to Visconti, is handled with amazing, perhaps excessive *delicatesse* regarding the autobiographical question, especially in its sexual permutations. In fact, the single biggest problem with the third edition is that the new chapters on Visconti's last three films are written with hardly a reference to the director's homosexuality. Such an absence would of course be understandable in the earlier versions of the book, since Visconti in his lifetime never 'came out' in the modern sense of the term, and in an earlier, gentler day, privacy was somewhat more respected than it is now. Yet by 2002 these facts about Visconti's sexual proclivities had become even banal, and at this point there is no excuse for avoiding the autobiographical aspects of a film like _Ludwig_, which is, after all, about a homosexual character (played by his lover) that the director was immensely attracted to.

 

For some reason, Nowell-Smith saves a discussion of Visconti's gayness until the new conclusion, where he offers some intelligent, if limited, general observations, to-wit that the principal manifestations of Visconti's homosexuality lies not so much in the display of homoerotic desire (though I think there is much more of this in the films than he realizes), but rather in the sadness that comes in not having had a family. Readers can make of this what they will. Interestingly, he criticizes Italian critics in his conclusion for having neglected this aspect of Visconti's life and creative production, but he has done the same himself, even in chapters written in 2002. But quite a bit in Nowell-Smith's treatment of this still immensely intriguing director remains absolutely first-rate. What we need now is something that will revisit these films with all the additional weapons that the subsequent four decades of film, cultural, and gender theory have provided us.

 

Wake Forest University

Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005

 

Peter Brunette, 'Nowell-Smith Meets Visconti, Redux: The Old and the New', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 16, March 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n16brunette>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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