International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 17, March 2005







Geoffrey Nowell-Smith


'It Ain't Me Babe': A Response to Brunette



Peter Brunette

'Nowell-Smith Meets Visconti, Redux: The Old and the New'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 16, March 2005


Peter Brunette concludes his review of my revised _Luchino Visconti_ (first edition 1967) by asking for a book which 'will revisit [Visconti's] films with all the additional weapons that the subsequent four decades of film, cultural, and gender theory have provided us'. I can only reply, in the words of Bob Dylan (another great admirer of Visconti): 'It ain't me you're looking for, babe.' It's certainly not a book I would want to write, though maybe Brunette would. One of the pleasures of re-presenting the 1967 and 1973 texts in 2003 was being able to pick up the story almost as if the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s -- with all their associated theology and dogma -- hadn't happened. Of course some things have changed since 1973, notably the way Visconti's homosexuality (always known about but never discussed) has pushed its way up the critical agenda. But on the whole the absence from my book of the things Brunette is looking for causes me no grief at all. I wrote a very different kind of book, with different virtues and different vices, and as far as I'm concerned that's how it should be. So what follows is partly a response to specific criticisms, partly an expression of difference, and partly an affirmation of things I believe. In affirming these things I do not necessarily have Brunette as a target and would not wish him to feel targeted. The points I would like to make can organised into seven parts.


1. Brunette refers flatteringly to my original _Visconti_ as 'definitive'. What a millstone! It was never intended to be definitive. If I had thought it was likely to be judged in that light I would never had the desire or courage to write it. It became definitive only by default. Visconti went out of fashion and nobody stepped in successfully to write a better or fuller book. The 2003 edition does not aspire to be definitive either, though I would like to think that the filmography is pretty accurate and complete. Nor is it comprehensive, which is different from definitive since it is possible to be both comprehensive and comprehensively wrongheaded. It is also not faultless, though the faults Brunette ascribes to it are often, in my opinion, not faults at all.


2. Auteur structuralism. Another millstone! What I proposed in the 1967 _Visconti_ was less than a theory, though it may have become one in other hands later. I offered a guiding principle which boiled down to two propositions: (a) that films can have underlying structures (narrative or other), which can be seen as generative of surface forms; and (b) that these structures are 'unconscious', or at any rate non-conscious. Proposition (a) is surely uncontentious and something of the kind underlies most theorisations of genre. Proposition (b) now seems to me shaky and liable to take one on to dangerous ground. Since we are talking 'auteurs' here it invites the supposition that the unconscious in question is a personal one, that of the author. I would now want to be cautious, to say the least, of ascribing attributes to a personal unconscious. I make this point in the 2003 Conclusion. As for proposition (a) in the 1967 edition I found it useful in my comparison of _Ossessione_ (1943) and _Senso_ (1954), and in my discussion of _White Nights_ (1957) and _Vaghe stelle dell'Orsa_ (1965). (_The Leopard_ (1963) is not the last film covered in that edition, as Brunette at one point claims.) I am now less interested in structures and more interested in surfaces. My descriptions of the surfaces of the later films clearly did not impress Brunette, as he refers to them as 'plot synopses'.


3. Brunette would like to see the application of more theories. I would like to see fewer. The theories that run riot around film studies function to distort history, to blur cultural specificity, to obscure vision, and to put a spurious patina of objectivity over the operations of subjectivity. Sadly this is true of much 'psychoanalytic' theorising too, which is a denial of the truth of psychoanalysis. There can be astute psychoanalytic writing about films, but I do not consider myself adept, and prefer to leave it to the handful of people who are good at it.


4. Homosexuality and 'gayness'. Visconti's homosexuality is a known fact. During his life it was something which, as Richard Dyer elegantly put it recently: 'Everybody knew, and nobody knew.' Nowadays everybody knows everything, and it is the subject of much comment, though more in Britain and the US than in Italy. Should I have said more, either in 1967 or 2003? And if so, more about what appears in the films, or more about what is known about his life. As far as the films are concerned, it is the case that in many of them, as I say in the 2003 edition, there is a distinct homosexual eyeview, presumably ascribable to the director. (In _Senso_ not only is the bodily focus on Farley Granger, but poor Alida Valli is sometimes made to look like a drag queen.) But how relevant is Visconti's personal life to this? Like many directors, homo- or heterosexual, Visconti liked to get off with his leading players. But for a critical work, as opposed to a biography, it only seems to me relevant in the case of his relationship with Helmut Berger, whom Visconti models into something approaching a film star, in spite of Berger's lack of talent (or any other redeeming quality). Brunette also refers to Visconti's 'gayness'. Is this just another word for homosexuality, or does it mean something different? I presume that the point of the word is to take Visconti's homosexual orientation out of the realm of simple same-sex object choice and into that of the way this choice is experienced, lived, and expressed in certain cultures. The problem is that the paradigm culture for 'gayness' is the Anglo-Saxon world (or parts of it) today. You cannot talk about Ancient Greek homosexuality as gayness. Even for the relatively near culture of Italy in the 1950s and 60s I think the term can only mislead. None of this is to imply that there should not be gay (or better, queer) readings of Visconti's films, but they would have to be either cross-cultural studies, or exercises in intersubjectivity (see 6, below).


5. Notwithstanding 3 and 4 above, I could probably have developed my throwaway remark about Blasetti as 'superego' by looking at the way that Visconti's films contain many father figures, very few of whom are fathers. It would also be interesting for someone to make a comparative study of _Ludwig_ and Derek Jarman's _Edward II_, two films about homosexuality and kingship, but the one naturalistic and introverted, and the other anti-naturalistic and exuberant.


6. Brunette refers in passing to the 'subjective' judgements, particularly in the early part of the book, which he rightly points out are not all as self-evident as I may have thought at the time. I should like, however, briefly to make the case (not against Brunette but against wider trends in film studies) in favour of subjectivity and judgment in aesthetic criticism. Acts of judgement (in the sense of 'this *is*', not in that of 'this is better/worse than that') are intrinsic to the encounter with a work of art and equally intrinsically subjective. There is no court of appeal against them, except at the notoriously fickle bar of public opinion. Judgement may, however, have to be moderated in the face of other subjectivities. For a writer, these are those of the presumed readership. A writer can only say 'I see this', and readers can agree or disagree, be stimulated to see more or differently, or find what they read devoid of illumination. No amount of ancillary fact (about budgets, or on-set love affairs) or theorising (about genre or gender or the Unconscious or whatever) can substitute for the encounter of subjectivities around a shared aesthetic object. Sometimes judgements can be mistaken or irrelevantly and obtrusively value-laden, and no judgement is final. But that should not mean massaging the act of judgement out of existence. And because no judgement is final, and because no subjectivity is free of presuppositions in the act of making a judgement, there is always room for judgements from alternative points of view. The queer readings of Visconti's films that have been around since the 1970s are a case in point. I still can't see everything that the producers of some queer readings would like me to see, but I see some of it better than I used to. The only thing I can't get my head round is the idea that _Death in Venice_ is a great film.


7. In Emil Weiss's 1996 film _Quartier Lacan_, the psychoanalyst Jean Clavreul says (I quote from memory): 'The psychoanalyst must be a theoretician. That is, he must be able to modify his theory whenever he engages with a new patient. If you're not prepared to do that, then maybe you're in the wrong job.'


Queen Mary, University Of London, England



Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, ''It Ain't Me Babe': A Response to Brunette', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 17, March 2005 <>.









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