KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

Film, Reviews

No new thing under the sun: Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty

by James Robert Douglas , February 4, 2014Leave a comment

The Great Beauty

Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty introduces its protagonist, aging journalist Jep Gambardella, right in the thick of things. After an airy, operatic overture Sorrentino immerses the audience in a busy rooftop party in Rome. A four-to-the-floor beat takes over the soundtrack, setting the rhythm for a series of shots that delineate a bacchanal celebration in progress. Models pose in cool indifference as lecherous men in suits make lewd propositions, while alcohol flows freely among the dancing limbs of the young and beautiful and the old and rich.

Eventually, between two lines of dancers, out steps Jep (Toni Servillo), coolly lighting a cigarette, his kindly face dazed under the influence of some substance. The party is a celebration of his 65th birthday, an anniversary that leaves him somewhat nonplussed. After a much-celebrated first novel in his youth, he parlayed his fame into a lengthy career as a reporter-princeling among Rome’s glitterati, but the film finds him stung by his inability to produce a follow up book.

In content and form The Great Beauty is plainly a tribute to Frederico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita — Jep could be Marcello from that film some forty-ish years on. But where that film is structured as a series of discreet chapters, each articulating some new facet of Marcello’s situation, Sorrentino is far looser in the way he shapes his material, to the film’s detriment.

As Jep begins along a meandering path toward facing up to his old age and his squandered potential, Sorrentino’s script places him in a loose series of episodes, each designed to culminate in a Joycean epiphany: in one he befriends an aging stripper, in another he confronts a saintly nun’s radical asceticism. One or two of these might be enough, but after a certain point the film feels like a long string of epiphanies.

Thankfully, Jep is as much tour guide as protagonist, taking the audience on a VIP journey into the aesthetic delights of Rome. The central pleasures of The Great Beauty are not narrative, but sensual; the film is a tribute to Italian art, architecture, bodies, and fashion.

Not coincidentally, it is this immersion in aesthetic distraction that is the core of Jep’s crisis as an artist. His writer’s block manifests as a kind of world-weariness. In one scene he visits the outskirts of Rome to report on a work of performance art, in which the artist flings her naked body at a stone pillar supporting one of the ancient aqueducts. We can tell by Jep’s expression as he lounges on the grass surveying the show — and by the cruelly probing questions he later puts to the artist — that he has seen this kind of display before. Having immersed himself in the parties and palaces of Rome nothing is new to his eyes, and therefore he can make nothing new. The city is both muse and siren, singing him to distraction and then to ennui.

This particular form of writer’s block is a familiar one. Just as a doctoral candidate is required to justify their thesis as an original contribution to their field of study, so any novelist, or journalist, or cultural critic worth their salt has an obligation to ensure that their work earns its place as a singular addition to the culture. But this kind of obligation requires a Sisyphean commitment that is itself a diversion from the essential task of creation. To contribute to a field one must immerse oneself in its present and its past. But this immersion often feels like drowning, as the torrent of information washes away one’s ability to attain the calm and the perspective that can be necessary to the creation of good works.

Although Jep seems to lead an internet-free existence, for writers in the age of digital publishing this problem stings acutely. The sheer quantity and pace of engagement required to stay au courant in one’s vocation can feel like a metastasising cancer spread over one’s ability to be productive. Some even might argue that digital culture itself is a distraction; it’s forms essentially shallow. But it’s a fallacy to believe that it’s engagement with the new (the untested, the trivial) that is the problem; that one should trade Mamamia for Medea. Engagement with the past can be equally inhibiting, as The Great Beauty shows.

Jep’s dilemma reminded me of Nietzsche’s ‘On the Use and Abuse of History for Life’, from Untimely Meditations. In this essay Nietzsche suggests that the key to a happy life lies in the ability to live unhistorically; to forget:

Anyone who cannot set himself down on the crest of the moment, forgetting everything from the past, who is not capable of standing on a single point, like a goddess of victory, without dizziness and fear, will never know what happiness is, and, even worse, he will never do anything to make other people happy.

Jep cannot forget, as we see in his nostalgic yearning for the young woman who took his virginity. He dreams of returning to the beach-side summer where she seduced him; like his novel, his time with her is an achievement that he cannot forget and therefore is unable to match.

But the root of his problem may be the city itself. His apartment overlooks the Colosseum, and each morning he can awake and gaze across of a vision of epoch-spanning history, before which his own present circumstances pale in interest. Rome itself is the obstacle to his creativity. In the Eternal City history is always present; nothing is forgotten and nothing can be new. Jep loses himself, as Nietzsche would say, in ‘this stream of becoming’.

The film closes with a stately epilogue, as the credits roll over a lengthy shot taken by a camera drifting down a river through Rome. The final weight of Jep’s journey on his state of mind is, perhaps, ambiguous. He might have found his crest of the moment, far above the river’s flow, or he might be carried downstream.

James Robert Douglas is a writer and cultural critic in Melbourne. His work has been published in The Big Issue, Junkee, Meanjin, and Screen Machine




9781863957434

Kill Your Darlings

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their June picks

Looking for a book recommendation? Staff from Readings bookshop share what they’ve been reading this month. Read more »

lisa-gorton_the-life-of-houses

James Tierney

A Novel of Longer Exhalations: Lisa Gorton’s The Life of Houses

It’s sometimes said that each book teaches you how to read it. That each way of telling a story needs to not only beguile anew but needs to tutor the reader in the ways to best attend its pages. Read more »

9781743316337

Danielle Binks

Finding Books for Young Readers: The Reading Children’s Book Prize

James Patterson once said, ‘There’s no such thing as a kid who hates reading. There are kids who love reading and kids who are reading the wrong books.’ So how do we get the right books into the hands of budding bibliophiles? Well, the Readings Children’s Book Prize Shortlist is a great place to start. Read more »

clouds-of-sila-maria-1

Rebecca Shaw

The curse of the ‘gal pals’

As a well-known humourless, angry, hairy arm-pitted, feminist lesbian, I encounter daily issues that I can place on a scale from things that mildly irritate me all the way to things that completely offend me. Read more »

2691149967_01b38304f3_b

Rebecca Shaw

Fuck Yeah: Swearing like a lady

I had been trying to pinpoint exactly why the HBO television show Veep brings me such joy. Yes, it is a very funny, very well-written show with a great cast, but that didn’t quite go far enough in explaining the immense enjoyment it gives me. The eureuka moment finally struck when I stumbled over a compilation video of the best insults from the show. Read more »

AnneEdmonds-300dpi-sml-860x450_c

Alexandra Neill

Curse of the Comedienne: When comedy comes before gender

At this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I saw only shows by women. I did this for several reasons: to support great comedians, to force myself to see more shows I knew nothing about, and because I really like comedy by ladies. I also did it because I was curious. I love comedy, but increasingly have been bothered by the obvious gender disparity. Read more »

Zombies

Michelle Roger

It’s All Just Preparation for the Zombie Apocalypse

‘She’s just another Walking Dead hanger-on,’ I hear you say. Well, yes, I am partial to a bit of walker action. And yes, I may have entertained the odd erotic daydream about a crossbow carrying, scraggy-bearded redneck – but this is not where my zombie obsession began. Come gather around people. Hear my obsessive zombie-loving origin story. Read more »

tom-cruise-jack-reacher-premiere-postponed

Chris Somerville

A lit match in a box of wet dynamite: Tom Cruise is Jack Reacher

I first watched Jack Reacher a few years ago, in a spate of insomnia. The plot is a confused mess, both needlessly intricate and incredibly simple. I’m not going to go into it, mainly because I don’t actually know why the people in this movie do anything. Read more »

Partisan

Joanna Di Mattia

To experience the world with blinkers on: Ariel Kleiman’s Partisan

Partisan beautifully evokes that complex space between childhood and adulthood, when we start to question the worldview we have inherited – when we begin to see the world through our own eyes. It is both a coming-of-age story, and an innocence-coming-undone story. Read more »

Zombies

Michelle Roger

It’s All Just Preparation for the Zombie Apocalypse

‘She’s just another Walking Dead hanger-on,’ I hear you say. Well, yes, I am partial to a bit of walker action. And yes, I may have entertained the odd erotic daydream about a crossbow carrying, scraggy-bearded redneck – but this is not where my zombie obsession began. Come gather around people. Hear my obsessive zombie-loving origin story. Read more »

OITNB2

Anwen Crawford

Still in Prison: The limitations of Orange is the New Black

No, I haven’t binge-watched the entire new season of Orange Is The New Black in one sleepless, bleary-eyed frenzy. This season, the show’s third, doesn’t lend itself to that kind of viewing. The pace is slower, the cliff-hangers missing. Read more »

kim-kardashian-selfish-cover-main

Brodie Lancaster

We Are All Kardashians

For the past five years, I have loved and been obsessed with the Kardashians. Specifically, the E! reality series that made them famous. I often feel the need to intellectualise why I like these series and the people on them – you know, because I’m not a moron, and these are shows about morons, for morons. Read more »

ss_8df8236403f5aad45eeedd33d2bd545e45435b39.1920x1080

Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

CrawlMeBlood_20150607_261_LoRes copy

Jane Howard

Adhocracy: Lifting the curtain on the creative process

Every June long weekend I wrap myself up in several extra layers and make my way to the Waterside Worker’s Hall in Port Adelaide for Adhocracy, Vitalstatistix’s annual hothouse that brings together artists from around the country for a weekend of creative development. Read more »

Orlando #2 - THE RABBLE

Jane Howard

This Is a Story of Artistic Excellence

This is a story of the first four plays I saw at Malthouse Theatre. It’s a story that can only continue as long as support for independent artists continues; it’s a story that can only keep growing as long as support for independent artists grows. It’s a story of where artistic excellence comes from, and how we get to see it on our main stages. Read more »

AnneEdmonds-300dpi-sml-860x450_c

Alexandra Neill

Curse of the Comedienne: When comedy comes before gender

At this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I saw only shows by women. I did this for several reasons: to support great comedians, to force myself to see more shows I knew nothing about, and because I really like comedy by ladies. I also did it because I was curious. I love comedy, but increasingly have been bothered by the obvious gender disparity. Read more »