Rome and the movies– PARTIAL

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01/01/1999

Neighborhood: Uncategorized

Rome T&L (The Draft)

1.

The Widow would not speak to us. At first it seemed like it was simply a matter of scheduling. But day after day our request to meet with him was declined.

The Widow’s name was Roberto Mannoni. He was called “The Widow,” because of his devotion to the memory of Frederico Fellini, for whom he had worked in a variety of capacities on a number of films. Since the great director’s death, Mannoni had assuming the informal role of guardian of the Fellini flame. This wasn’t a figurative—he was literally in charge of the artifacts.

Through him, and only through him, could one gain access to the Fellini Museum. I very much wanted to see the Fellini Museum. Rome is not lacking in museums, but this was special. I had come to Rome to drop in on Wes Anderson’s set at Cinecitta, where he was shooting The Life Aquatic, and to hang around thinking about Rome and the movies.

In preparation for my trip I had scheduled a small film festival drawing on some highlights of the genre. There were many movies, many flavors, many moods and eras and stars, but in the end the filmmaker whose use of Rome was most persistent, conspicuous, and self-conscious, over the top, perverse, and beautiful, was Frederico Fellini. He even made a movie called Fellini’s Roma. It’s subject: A camera crew attempts to make a movie in Rome.

As if this wasn’t enough, the film maker Noah Baumbach, who co-wrote The Life Aquatic with Anderson, had told me that he and Anderson had made a couple of references to Fellini’s Intervista in their script. Made shortly after Roma, Intervista concerns itself with the attempts of a young journalist to interview a gorgeous movie star; it’s set is literally a movie set at Cinecitta. As in that film, The Life Aquatic features a Japanese film crew who constantly hovers around the action, speaking Japanese and gesturing excitedly. They are documenting the character played by Bill Murray, a kind of Jacques Cousteau explorer, deep-sea diver, and documentarian. In a word, a filmmaker. So it is, among other things, a movie about someone trying to make a movie, which is turn the subject of a Japanese Documentary. For this circles within circles, movies within movies quality, it seems Anderson’s movie might have a connection to Rome. Still, it was tenuous.

I asked Baumbach why “The Life Aquatic” was shooting in Rome, since there is not one single scene in the movie that actually takes place there.

“Well, when we worked on the script, we spent a lot of time at Bar Pitti,” he said, referring to the boisterous Italian café off Bleeker Street. “So the script always had an Italian feel. Plus, I think Wes visited Rome and really liked it.”

“Well, when we worked on the script, we spent a lot of time at Bar Pitti,” he said, referring to the boisterous Italian café off Bleeker Street. “So the script always had an Italian feel. Plus, I think Wes visited Rome and really liked it.”

At one point in “Roma,” Gore Vidal pops up. He’s dining outdoors with a large group. Food and wine are abundant. And he holds forth on an impromptu monologue on why he likes Rome.

“First of all I like the Romans. They don’t give a damn weather you are dead or alive. They’re neutral, like cats. Rome is a city of illusions. Not only by chance, you have here the church, the government, the cinema. They each produce illusions… like you do and I do.”

Days went by and The Widow refused us entry. At first it seemed merely a question of scheduling, but gradually it became apparent there was a problem. Carol, head of corporate relations for the studio, finally confessed that this was indeed the case. The problem was us.

“Someone told him that a writer and director from America wanted to see him,” she said by way of explanation.

“And that’s a problem?” I said.

“He thinks that you are here to steal his idea,” she said. Apparently there had been a temper tantrum, denunciations, refusals, and outright paranoia.

I am the writer; the director is Tom Dey, who is here with his wife Coleenna to take pictures for this article. Tom is in fact a director, but he was here as a photographer. The confusion was… Felliniesque.

“What idea!” I said, exasperated. “He thinks we want to steal the idea of a Fellini Museum and bring it back to America? What would we put in it?”

“No, no,” said Carol, blond hair in a bun, perfect American accent. She was was more than a publicist—she was head of a global PR, she was big picture. The studio, she had let drop, might soon be acquiring golf carts. “He thinks you want to steal the idea for his movie.”

I confess the idea that we were rapacious movie types here to steal from innocents pleased me a little, but not to the point that it was worth missing what was now a near Holy Grail: The Fellini Museum.

“Won’t someone explain to him that we’re journalists?” I said. “Giornalista!”

The word rang out in the studio press office, and immediately the idea that this word would be reassuring seemed absurd. Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is remembered for its iconic image of Anita Ekberg standing in the Trevi fountain, face tilted upward, her platinum blond hair falling back over that black strapless dress which barely contains her impressive bosom. That, and the wild partying of Rome’s café society. But the movie is about the rabid, mercenary, attack-dog mentality of the paparazzi.

Towards the end of the film they surround a woman who has just stepped off a bus with groceries under her arm. Her husband and child are dead, but she doesn’t know it, and stands there giggling awkwardly as their flash bulbs flash over and over. One of the best details of La Dolce Vita is the habit of the paparazzi of that era of giving the metal base of each flash bulb a quick lick. It’s a cross between a kiss and a suck. Like everything in that film, it seems charming at first, and disgusting by the end.

La Dolce Vita’s main character is a journalist who writes the accompanying copy to the paparazzi photos, played with suave assuredness by Marcello Mastroianni, though with a twist of absurdity that one would never see in, say, a James Bond movie.

Even by today’s standard, the later scenes of the film, when Mastroianni has rejected the woman who loves him for the party life are impressively degraded. Fellini manages to end the film on a bittersweet note, but the second to last scene involves a bunch of partygoers staggering out onto the beach at dawn. A strange catch is being hauled in by fisherman—it’s a weird, ugly sea monster, its mouth full of jellyfish, whose dead black eye is still open. They stare at it, giggling uneasily. It stares back at them, perhaps in recognition. It’s depressing.

But there are many other celluloid journalists on the make in Rome. The most famous is Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn playing a princess and Gregory Peck playing a journalist who, in desperate need of a scoop, strings her along in a romance, while his photographer friend (played by Edie Albert, who is perhaps the least convincing bohemian to appear on film), trails them, snapping away.

The movie is lighthearted and wonderful, and its ending, though bittersweet, has a certain dignity—Albert and Peck decide against selling their scoop. The nastiness of that film resides mostly in the pun of its innocent sounding title, which one can’t help assume pertains to journalists: Roman Holliday means having fun at somebody else’s discomfort, and it comes from Roman times when they used to go to the coliseum to see people getting torn apart by lions.

So perhaps the word “Giornalista” was not going to be the key to The Fellini Museum.

Carol assured me that she would work on it, and then we wandered out onto the studio lot and headed to commissary for a lovely lunch of Pasta and veal, Pellegrino, and then baskets of walnuts. All over the room people were sitting a the end of their meal, chatting, their hands working away next to little piles of cracked walnut shells.

2.

We all fantasize about destinations before we get there, and the fantasy I had been harboring about Rome involved a Vespa. The antics of Peck and Hepburn cruising the town on a Vespa were in the back of my mind, but I had been to Rome before, and the Vespa is, for me, one of the city’s treats. I pictured blue skies, and that marvelous color that confronts you all over the city, a patina of age and sun coloring the stones of gorgeous ruins, all rushing by.

I’ve always liked the unstructured mode of travel, and Rome on a Vespa lends itself to the unplanned pleasure. There you are speeding along, and all of a sudden there is the Circus Maximus beside you, the long lengths where chariots raced parallel to you, and the ancient structures built by emperors on the hill above, the world’s first luxury skyboxes.

Then you come upon the coliseum. It rises up before you with birds circling above and that wonderful strangeness of time and space conflating washes over you. This same building thousands of years ago, with similar birds circling above it.

You pull up at a red light at the top of a steep hill and your eyes lift to see the gorgeous Quarto Chianti (CHECK!), with their stone-carved grapes and images of the Gods at rest on each corner of the small intersection.

But it was raining hard on the first day. There was no patina, just the glossy grey of wet cobblestones. So instead I got down to business and went to visit a ruin. One is always confronted with ruins in Rome. Included in these ruins is whatever sense of yourself as an educated person you might have arrived with, since there is such a density of history, art, architecture, and religion that you are immediately made humble, should you have had airs.

In this case the ruin was located at Cinecitta, where so many films have been made over the years, and where Fellini was a kind of in house directors.

I pulled up in a car holding myself, my girlfriend Elizabeth, Tom Dey, and Colleena TK, and the husband wife team that would be taking photographs for this piece.

All the building in the Cinecitta campus are a pale brown. The Italians are very good with brown. All the shades of brown and orange and ochre are their specialty, the color of sunlight at the end of the day, but this brown was a bit drab. Maybe it was the rainy day, but the place felt run down.

A movie studio is a bit like a crime scene. There is the feeling of great occasion, perhaps a crowd standing around rubbernecking, but nothing ever seems to be happening.

At Cinecitta there are no palm trees. Instead there are huge pine trees, and everywhere on the ground gigantic pinecones the size of tiny pineapples, which no one, it seems, can resist kicking. So my first minutes on the hallowed ground of Italian Cinema were spent kicking a pinecone, pausing to look up and see others, a great distance away, doing the same.

The sprawling campus of a film studio bears a strange resemblance to the site of an archeological dig. As we drove past the pale brown buildings of different shapes and sizes, we glimpsed here and there evidence of entire civilizations. Here was a medieval street, the façade held up in back by scaffolding. A gigantic version of a 19th Century bicycle lay propped beside a building, as though a giant had just run in and use the bathroom inside. We passed Teatro 5, the largest soundstage in Europe, where Fellini shot most of his films. The old beige pant of the buildings was chipping.

Finally, at the back of the studio, we came to a cement water tank, about three feet deep. Oceans, lakes, and rivers had existed here on film, but now it was empty, no deeper than a wishing well. Along its rear was a replica of New York City’s Waterfront, circa 1863. The faded wooden shanties made a continuous façade and took me by surprise until I remembered Scorcese’s Gang’s of New York had shot here. In the middle of the empty tank, almost directly in front of old waterfront, was the surreal sight of the prow of a boat pointing directly upward.

“That’s Wes’s boat,” said Tom.

“I guess there is a scene were it sinks,” Elizabeth said. “I mean, given the angle.”

Next to the sinking version was a even keeled version of the same boat, gunmetal grey but with an eccentric orange trim. The two boats and the shantytown all sat there like decorations left over from a party whose guests had long since left.

Even stranger than the juxtaposition of these two totally different eras and locations was the way that both Scorsese and Anderson’s sets strove for realism, but Anderson’s boat was at once totally realistic and yet somehow out of a dream, which is to say a double dream, the first being the dream of a movie, and the second, the dream of Wes Anderson’s imagination.

Rain drizzled upon us and we stood around looking lost on the back lot. Four people. Two couples. We each stand alone, looking somewhere else against a grey sky, half a sinking ship pointing upwards in an empty concrete basin behind them. It might be a scene from a movie, I thought.

3.

Coleena TK is a professional photographer. Tom Dey, however, is a director, and a friend of mine. He is tall, slender, and little self-depriving in the manner of a lot of perfectionists I’ve known. He’s extremely upright and handsome – he put himself through photography school working as a male model – but sometimes there is a hint of boyish confusion edging his determined eyes. When he wears stylish clothes, they always look new and itchy on his shoulders.

Once, when I had just met him, I challenged him to change his life. We met through a mutual friend in the strange energy of the opening night of the Brooklyn Museum’s Sensation show. People were walking around in the dim light with buttons on their lapels featuring Mayor Giuliani’s face with a slash through it—he had threatened to cut the museum’s funds days earlier. From that strange scene we embarked on an evening of drinking.

It was a moment of mutual crisis for Tom and me. We were both in a state about women. We talked about everything and went from bar to bar. Then, thinking that Hollywood was maybe not a great place for human connections, I had a rather presumptuous suggestion.

“Make your next movie an independent, and personal. Go small,” I said. “You’ll be surrounded by beautiful, interesting women.”

He looked at me coolly, as though I was out of my mind.

“Small? My next movie is going to be huge,” he said.

I had been so sure about the wisdom of my advice that his certainty shocked me a little.

His next movie was Showtime. It starred Eddie Murphy and Robert DeNiro, which is about as huge as you can get, if measured in terms of egos on a set. In terms of box office it was less huge.

The woman he was fretting over, Coleena, was now his wife. So it was a happy ending! When we drove back from Cinecitta she sat next to him in the taxi. Yet there was some unnamable twist of irony to the act of going huge. He was being careful about what his next project would be. He wanted to pick the right script, and was working on one himself.

Knowing all this about Dey, I couldn’t help but approach our project in Rome in the spirit of making a movie. A movie about making movies in the city of Rome.

3.

Having been put off from the Fellini Museum, my thought was to wander around the set and see what was going on with Wes Anderson’s movie, but Tom, the director, was more proactive. For starters he decided to cast a Fellini shoot.

Right away we swept into a small trailer at the edge of a set where Tom, speaking rudimentary Italian, negotiated with a man for the services of some extras. Or perhaps they should be called models, since it was a photo shoot, not a movie that they were being cast for. Headshots were passed around. Money was discussed, a kind of polite haggling ensued (“Is that in Euros, or dollars?”), and the next day there was a shoot.

Tom chose the location—just outside the prop department. This unassuming building with the chimney jutting out of it, from which wood smoke slowly curled, had a peculiar kind of junkyard outside. There were Doric columns and fragments of sculptures. A giant foot sat next to some very impressive statues. The women posed and mugged and made faces as Tom and Coleena worked. It started to rain. There was a big commotion – everyone’s make up would run – but then the decision was made to keep going, and the sound of the shutter clicking blended with the plinking rain drops and the smell of wood smoke drifting out of the prop building’s chimney.

4.

One night towards the end of my stay I was sitting outside the Café TK, the famous hang out just off the Piazza Navonna, when I saw Rinaldo Barilari walk by. Even if we hadn’t met, I would have fixed my eyes on him, there was a certain charismatic menace to the way this barrel chested figure with the strong, almost threatening brow moved down the street. He had a thick mustache and brooding, angry eyes that seemed to be restlessly moving over everything in his path. He waved to a friend and called out a goodnight without breaking stride. Beside him was a blonde, very quiet, as though to staying out of his way. She walked a half step behind him as he slouched forward, menacing.

Here was the most famous paparazzi in the world, the self proclaimed “King of the Paparazzi,” and, at any rate, the man who inspired Fellini to invent the name, “Paparazzo,” which translates roughly to, “pest.” (CHK!)

I had met him a week or so earlier at the Café Paris on Via Veneto. By the time I arrived an extensive photo shoot had already taken place on the street, Barilari posing with his old fashioned camera—it was the kind where you have to insert a new flashbulb for every shot. The camera now rested on the table before him while he smoked and Coleena discretely snapped photographs and Barilari told tales of his greatness and prowess. (And here is the monologue that doesn’t exist because I can’t find my notes. I have emailed him, hopefully he will respond.)

I’ll say one thing for Barilari in high dudgeon—he’s got a powerful personality. When I arrived I encountered a table full of people. Barilari had some friends there to translate and general make a good impression. The staff of Café Paris, either out of deference to the fantasy making moment in which a photographer was being photographed, and or because he had in some way helped put the place on the map, served nuts and drinks and diligently attended our rowdy conspicuous table. But what really impressed me was that several people at the table had note pads out and were taking notes, or at least pretending. It was as though Barilari had projected an aura of glamour onto the activity of journalism itself, even in the rather debased form in which he (and the Mastroiani character in La Dolce Vita) practice it, that everybody wanted to be a journalist for a day, or an hour. I’ve never seen so many people who are not writer’s look so happy to be pretending to take notes! And all the whole Barilari raged on nonsensically and magically, talking about how he is unstoppable, he always gets his picture, and at the same time discussing his subject as though they are his friends, people whose privacy he would never invade.

Later we all wandered up the street o Harry’s Bar for more photographs. Café Paris and Harry’s were the scene of the original La Dolce Vita, the early sixties and late fifties, when Hollywood productions were being shot in town and people like Frank Sinatra and TK were hanging out. Now there is a hard Rock Café on the street, and these establishments feel as though they are existing within quotations marks, like a madam Tussaud’s that happen to serve food and drink, too.

At Harry’s Bar, Barilari is again greeted like royalty, or at least with the warmth of a long time regular. This, too, is a place he helped build. Downstairs at Harry’s the walls are covered in framed photographs of various celebrities shot on the premises. All of them are the handy work of this man with the powerful hands and a face that, in repose, still looks ready to attack. He points out various highlights, taking particular delight in a photograph in which a starlet is mushing her ice cream cone into the face of an intrusive paparazzi who is, of course, the King himself.

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