Thursday, 22 May 2014

Is Boredom the Great Beauty?

When boredom strikes, throw yourself into it. Let it squeeze you, submerge you, right to the bottom. Boredom pulls things out of their usual contexts. It can open ways up for a new configuration of things [...] by virtue of the fact that is has already deprived things of meaning (Joseph Brodsky)

 "Are you bored?" asks a targeted ad on my facebook wall. Well, I have been reading a lot about boredom today. But the accompanied link to a career in the armed forces is perhaps a rather radical remedy to my ennui. Leaving aside for this post the MoD's rather dubious recruitment strategies, channeling the video game-like thrill of military combat as a distraction from the humdrum of life on the dole, the ad reinforces a common perception. Boredom is something that constantly needs to be policed against and kept low. Metaphors of disease are common in the discourse of boredom; perusing a popular search engine revealed numerous suggestions for curing this psychical numbness. Living in a moment of historical opportunity and accessibility -particularly for myself, a relatively privileged middle-class male engineered to be out doing something, being someone- is boredom something akin to a guilt complex, a disappointment of failing to live up to oneself?

I would like to argue a more sympathetic case for boredom - not (simply) for the perversity of promoting boredom as a lifestyle choice but because I feel that we're denying something fundamental to the human condition in seeking to wish it away. It is also -as we can see from the example of La Grande Bellezza's Jep Gambardella- well nigh impossible to avoid banality, even in moments of great beauty. Thus to maintain such a strong aversion to boredom is only to set oneself up for even greater -and potentially more traumatic- disappointment.

Pascal: he took boredom very seriously indeed,
believing it to be a dangerous sensation
synonymous with extreme self-perception
and capable of killing off God 
Philosophy, great at probing aesthetically-worthy notions such as melancholy and anxiety, the sublime and the authentic, has not been so forthcoming on the more common moods that afflict humanity. A handful of thinkers -for the most part, solitary eccentrics existing on the literary fringes of their philosophical moments (Pascal, Kierkegaard, Pessoa)- have taken boredom seriously (see Lars Svenson's A Philosophy of Boredom). A tendency of this class, as exemplified by the Brodsky quotation above, is to see boredom as an opportunity for opening up a “new configuration of things”. A morality of boredom arises: to be bored is to reject the shallow diversions that seek to monopolise our cognitive space. It is to reflect on the Heideggerian fundamentals of our I-ness and strive to live in a way that is more responsive to our inner needs.

La Grande Bellezza's protagonist does not obviously rise to this moral calling. "I didn't want to just live the mundano", Jep Gambardella tells the viewer in one of the choral-backed flights into the mind of the failed writer cum modern day flaneur. "I wanted to be king of the mundani." The English subtitles translate mundano/i as 'high-life', capturing the Martini-drenched decadence of the parties through which we -along with most of the Rome's botoxed oligoi- have come to associate Jep. What is lost, as the similarities to the English mundane imply, is the sense of shallowness of these social diversions (divertimento, fun, diverting).

But the point of La Grande Bellezza is not to present Jep's awakening from all that somnambulant wandering he does down the Tiber banks and through the party train. (For a film with so many street scenes, there are few instances where a character is walking to a specific destination.) It's more about how only through becoming inured to disappointment (in ourselves, in life, in beauty) can one fully comprehend (ourselves, life, beauty). For this Jep is the archetype. At one point he jokes -or is he lamenting?- about how Flaubert failed to write a book about nothing. I'm not sure what the significance of this comment is -Jep's interlocutor isn't interested enough to quiz him on this. Is he admiring the idea of a book about nothing or rather is it the lived experience of failure – Flaubert's unsuccessful pursuit of nothing- that momentarily fires Jep's imagination? Jep could be Flaubert's double. Or, for that matter, Johann Georg Hamann who, in response to a criticism of his laziness, proclaimed that it is easy to work, whereas genuine idleness is really demanding on a human being.

For me the essence of Sorrentino's film is contained in the words of the 104 year old Sister Maria. On a
pilgrimage to Rome to climb St John Basillica's Scala Sancta steps on her knees, the masochistic missionary spurns the curiosity of the capital's chattering classes by refusing all interview requests, allowing only her face and frame, devastated by asceticism, to stand as a powerful rebuke to contemporary hedonism. After a night spent at chez Gambardella she does, however, strike up conversation with her host and grants him insight into one of the great mysteries of her humble existence, why she only eats roots: “Because roots are important”.

Sister Maria's Roman Holiday
Pithily banal. Thwarting expectations of something profound. The response not only encapsulates the film's sense of disappointment but seems to tear down all attempts to find greater meaning beyond the mundane. This is followed by that final scene where the ultimate arrival at the great beauty is remarkable if only for its sheer cliche, the memory of first love. It could be Nicholas Sparks book: that summer night on the coast, the hypnotic sloshing of the surrounding sea, the rays of a lighthouse intermittently sweeping across Jep's face -once young, now old- like the “haggard, inconsistent flashes of beauty” articulated in the course of our protagonist's discovery that he can write a new book. (“Flashes of beauty”, profound but inextricably worldly; is this not a pun on the flash of Elisa's breasts? Remember Ordet: her soul's in heaven, but I loved her body too.)

"Let me show you something"
Like everything else about La Grande Bellezza, it is both mundane and utterly beautiful. Beauty is described as “un trucco”, translated as 'a trick' but also a word for 'makeup'. It is the surface that counts, the mundano; there is no Malickian transcendence, just sex on the beach and other flashes of wonder. Through his boredom -understood as the withdrawal from the active pursuit of greatness- Jep is able to open himself to all the surface beauties of the world. Sorrentino shows us these moments that arrive and pull us out of the drama proper. Think of the erotic dancer in that florescence room at Jep's first party, dancing with such elegance, such pride, a world away from the surrounding madness. She is separate, singular, bathed in the music of Decoder Ring's 'More Than Scarlet' that washes over her like a warm melodic shower. She could be on the stage of the Bolshoi.

Damiel comes down to Earth  in Wings of Desire...
Sorrentino's distinctive visual style, where the camera lunges and swoops, drifts along surfaces and floats through walls, owes much to Wings of Desire. As we drift in and out of Jep's thoughts are we not like Wender's angels? In a way Damiel and Cassiel are a paradigm of reflective boredom: completely observant of the beauty and tragedy of human experience but utterly powerless to access it and thus lose themselves within its myriad distractions.
...could Jep be another of Wender's fallen angels? 

Sorrentino of course hasn't made a boring film, at least in the way we would usually deploy this pejorative. But he has made a film for people who are comfortable being left on their own, who do not need the distractions of heavily-laden plot to sustain interest and, like Jep, are interested in the idea of a book about nothing. I'm fully aware that to many people this is epitome of the deathly dull. So too is Ozu, and Tarr, and Kiarostami. But I love them. For much of my life, since I bought the video of Wild Strawberries at the age of 14 and began my love affair with Bergman (my gateway drug to Dreyer, to Bresson, and all the others who populate the world of cinema that I call my home), I've been aware that what I find essential, my beauty, is boring to many friends, family, housemates. Often the question is “how do you know about this film?”, but essentially what is meant is not curiosity but an expression of bafflement, verging on outright hostility, to my wanting to spend my time watching these strange films. Perhaps they are right and the life of cinephile is boring. We spend sunny days in dark rooms on our own, watching films that are uncompromising in their efforts to ask what it means to be human. But I don't know why anyone would want to do anything else than watch films, that play of image and sound. Un trucco.  

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