26 August 2007

The Song of the Road

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 5:29 pm

la-strada-machine-3in.jpgFrom Fellini’s La Strada (The Road), 1954, music by Nino Rota:

We aren’t there the first time Gelsomina hears the song. It was on the day it rained, the day Zampano couldn’t do his strong-man act, that they heard it, she and Zampano. She had performed some sort of incantation before their feeble campfire: “It will rain the day after tomorrow,” she announced when she was finished, but he didn’t pay any attention. He probably didn’t pay attention to the song either. Only later does she ask Zampano if he remembers the song. She hums the melody; the hard lines etched in his face do not soften.

She hears a different song when, overtaxed by his unremitting cruelty, Gelsomina leaves Zampano. Squatting on her haunches at the side of the road, uncertain of her next step, she hears them before seeing them: uniformed, marching in the grass next to the road, the three musicians play. Enchanted, Gelsomina rises and follows. In the town the tune is the same but now it’s slow, minor-keyed, mournful. The parade is bigger now: nuns, altar boys, girls dressed in white, a priest. Men carry a large crucifix and a shrine to the Madonna and Child. The throng jostles Gelsomina past a butcher shop, where a pig carcass hangs head-down from a hook in the window. That night there’s another show in town: the Fool, wings glued to his back, walks high above the square, his tightrope suspended between the top of the church and the roof of the building across the street. When the show is over Gelsomina remains in the square, alone but for the two drunks who harry her. She hears the church bell chime once and expectantly she looks to the sky. But her hope turns to despair as she hears the motorcycle engine approaching: it’s Zampano. He slaps her twice, drags her into the back of his 3-wheeled van, and drives her away.

When she awakens she finds herself surrounded by circus people pitching their tents on the outskirts of Rome. A violin sings in the distance: it’s the first song, the song she heard the day it rained. She follows the music and there sits the Fool, child-sized violin in hand, a smoldering cigarette wedged under one of the tuning pegs. The Fool teaches Gelsomina to play the trumpet. “Everything in this world is useful for something,” he tells her. “Even you have a purpose.” Jealous of his talents and infuriated by his taunting, Zampano nearly kills the Fool. He asks Gelsomina to leave the circus with him, but she decides to stay with Zampano: “If I don’t stay with him, who will stay?”

Cut loose by the circus and on their own again, Zampano and Gelsomina accept an offer to spend the night at a thousand-year-old convent. “She plays the drum,” Zampano tells one of the nuns, but Gelsomina brings out the trumpet instead. It’s the song she heard in the rain, the song the Fool played on his violin. Zampano snatches the axe from one of the other nuns and begins savagely chopping firewood…

I skip to the last time we hear the song. Another traveling circus, this one at the seaside. After the trapeze artist’s performance Zampano does his act, the man with lungs of steel breaking the chain around his chest for the ten thousandth time. This time there is no girl to play the dramatic drumroll and pass the hat. Zampano walks through town: amid the chatter of children he hears a beautiful voice humming a familiar song. Zampano calls through the barbed-wire fence to the young woman: How do you know that song? It must have been four or five years ago, she begins. That night Zampano, drunk and violent, gets thrown out of a bar. “You’re all big men in a crowd. I don’t need anybody. Just me alone. Just me alone.” He staggers to the beach in the darkness…



  1. now Ktismatics, compare the rather similar messages of this and Ratatouille: both films want to say that talent (or innocence) is prey to the envy of the mediocre. But there’s nothing in Ratatouille to match the moment when Zampano, alone with the ocean, realizes what he’s done. Emotionally speaking, I mean. This meat is somehow absent from modern movies. I don’t know why. Maybe Shaviro is right, maybe because we’ve had enough of conventional emotions.


    Comment by parodycenter — 27 August 2007 @ 6:08 pm

  2. La Strada is an even simpler story than Ratatouille, easily understandable by everyone. As for violence, a few punches and slaps ar thrown; sex is present only by mild innuendo. There’s an uplifting moral in a way. So why wouldn’t La Strada be an appropriate movie for children? Because the emotions are too raw? Children experience these emotions; in fact, all three of the main characters are childlike in their reactions to the world. One might assume that Zampano has been rendered bitter and cynical by a lifetime of hard experience, but nothing in the story justifies such an assertion. Even among young children the mediocre envy the exceptional and animal brutality is the preferred method for settling disputes. The adults are the ones who are afraid: they wish to protect themselves from sorrow. Maybe this is the privilege and the goal of adulthood in our time.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 August 2007 @ 8:58 pm

  3. indeed i would say the accomplishment of the film (la strada) is that it doesn’t one-dimensionally condemn the villain, but shows as well how he was protecting himself from sorrow when he beat her up; such subtle characterization is also what distinguishes Disney from the rest of the animators, for in Ratatouille you see that the seemingly all crooked art critic has a contemplative and sophisticated side to him, how he observes people as a psychologist and makes philosophique conclusions. You see Ktismatics, psychology is a wonderful thing, it’s applicable everywhere, and you should thus overcome your penopausal worry that it doesn’t have any meaning, that it’s all in vain, that you won’t get through. Because it does. Very much so, Dr. Doyle. But when I mentioned my hero Shaviro I was aiming at the fact that what´s at play in La Strada, behind the ´´conventional´´ neorealistic melodramatics, is the Affect of Sorrow which everyone affects and is affected by, like Spinoza would say. It is not just these human emotions that are there, but also, a certain Weltschmerz, in this film, which Ratatouille hopelessly tries to simulate, but only accomplishes blandness. Now tell me how I should organize the rectal examination of the Golden Ass. Where should I begin research. His blog is a bit of a mess, namely.


    Comment by parodycenter — 27 August 2007 @ 9:32 pm

  4. I wasn’t sure of your meaning with respect to Shaviro, but I agree absolutely with what you say here: “what´s at play in La Strada, behind the ´´conventional´´ neorealistic melodramatics, is the Affect of Sorrow which everyone affects and is affected by.” Anything that anyone can feel is a link between the one and the all — even sorrow, even loneliness, even futility, even emptiness. Does this make me a mystic or a transcendent? It doesn’t matter really, as long as the strands are acknowledged for what they are, and if we — if I — allow these strands to find their way across the Void and over the Wall.

    I believe that a story must be predictable if the characters and the situations are caught in the workings of fate. La Strada is powered by an inevitability as powerful as the sea that drives its characters into madness, death, despair. But the predictability of Ratatouille is the manipulation of a force that would deny fate. In so doing it reveals itself as the other hand of fate itself.

    I wish you well in your voyages to the strange and mystic regions of the Golden Ass. I believe he is prepared to hear what you have to say. It’s surprising how much personal resonance you are able to convey, Parodycenter, given your blasphemically parodic persona. But you know, the holy Fool of La Strada was a mocker and a taunter, though he was also the gift and the inspiration who hovers between earth and heaven.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 August 2007 @ 10:10 pm

  5. Ktismatics you speak so poetically about my job as your court jester that I almost feel respectable about my sordid parodic pursuits.

    As for Hesiak, I embrace his affections as long as they are DECENT, but then again doctor that´s what I thought that time you told me to come to your office after the agreed hours, because you had something to show me that would not interfere with the transferrential dynamic.

    I just laughed my ass off because I saw the latest episode of COLIN that I had forgotten, where Colin says ´´I don´t really want a relationship with a queen´´ to which Marcia responds, ´´what do you want then? A parttime pansy?´´


    Comment by parodycenter — 28 August 2007 @ 12:14 am

  6. Or if you want you can think of me as a parodic Priest, who tells you stories with a seemingly subversive but utterly immoral subtext.


    Comment by parodycenter — 28 August 2007 @ 12:15 am

  7. Yesterday I read American Stranger for I think the first time. He had a long post about postmodernism which was okay, but here I’m interested in his link to a discussion by Umberto Eco of Casablanca, which, God help me, remains one of my favorites. Eco contends that Casablanca, instead of being written, wrote itself — or rather, that all the nostalgic kitschy themes and characters of the American collective psyche assembled themselves into an orgy of Hollywood corn that transcended itself and became iconic. You could make a similar case about La Strada, populated by stock Mediterranean characters, beginning with the Wailing Woman, Gelsomina’s mother, snaggle-toothed and black-clad, holding her face in her hands, the prototype for Munch’s abstract caricature. Even though the film is set in the barren ugliness of postwar reconstruction the feel is medieval throughout, imbuing the events with primal force, like a nightmare vaguely recalled from childhood. In this sense I believe in the kind of structuralism of Saussure, where the images and characters and settings weave themselves together with the inevitability of fate, and where the artist serves as a kind of master of ceremonies for this self-organizing circus of universal themes.

    I believe that Lynch wants to be a conduit for this sort of artistic self-assembly, using components that might be only slightly more pre-assembled than Pollock’s paint splatters. But Pollock was a careful craftsman of the cosmic assembly machinery, and he certainly exercised a lot of self-discipline in his post-painterly sorting out of the good stuff from the crap. The editing process for Inland Empire must have been a work of performance art in its own right.

    As for your priestly role, perhaps you too serve as a conduit for forces larger and more pervasive than yourself. If you happen to be attuned to the more sordid and ridiculous themes that permeate our existence, then it may be your sacred mission to expose them. As the Fool said to Gelsomina, after first pointing out her homeliness, her distaste for lovemaking and her inability to cook, “everyone has a purpose — even you.”


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 August 2007 @ 8:08 am

  8. Folks – being lost in myself, I have no idea how The Parodic One sould organize the reading of me, quite unfortunately. And Sir Doyle was right, that I am ready to hear whatever Dejan has to say. Strangely enough, there is in fact some sort of resonance, that, I think might actually have something to do with the hovering between earth and heaven of La Strada…which, crap, I now must see.

    BTW – I saw “Inland Empire” last night. I don’t know if this is a sign of my growth or a reflection in some change in Lynch’s work…but I thought it was comedic. Or, at least, I laughed.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 28 August 2007 @ 10:01 am

  9. Dejan – what did you mean by saying that my blog was a “mess”? I’m not on the defensive, actually. I am genuinely curious. At first I thought you meant to say that it didn’t follow an organized series of thematic or logical steps, like The Doyle’s. But then…I figured that’s probably not what you meant, so…??


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 28 August 2007 @ 10:29 am

  10. I meant that I get a kind of an anarchist vibe from it which reminds me of Greece somehow, maybe because of that donkey. (Readers, evidence enough that priests, too, can be narcissistic.)

    ktismatics I just discovered a link between the demon possession underlayer of the Empire and 1970s alien rape flicks like MANITOU and DEMON SEED. I also read somewhere about the links between transcendental materialism and Theosophy, with lots of talk about parallel realities. But no time right now to delve deeper into the issue.


    Comment by parodycenter — 28 August 2007 @ 12:38 pm

  11. this would be a good picture for your therapy practice, dr. Doyle



    Comment by parodycenter — 28 August 2007 @ 12:41 pm

  12. That is an excellent picture — portalic, mysterious, dangerous. I’m on my way out the door with 25 printouts of the latest Ktismatics post (shortened a bit to fit the page), brief description of my practice in the lower right corner, and the screen shot of Zampano’s motorcycle next to the Ktismatics heading in the upper left.


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 August 2007 @ 1:03 pm

  13. “I meant that I get a kind of an anarchist vibe from it which reminds me of Greece somehow, maybe because of that donkey.”

    Damn. You’re good. Funny to me that we think of “Greece”…what you REALLY mean when you say “Greece”…as “anarchist.” A good friend once said, in reference to “Greece”: “No wonder it didn’t last long. It was so fragile.”

    The Theosophy and transcendental empiricism thing was interesting.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 28 August 2007 @ 1:54 pm

  14. hesiak if i had to choose my politics it would be some kind of a christian anarchism, of the sort propagated by nikolai berdzajev. cause even these socialists, in the end, succumb to some kind of hierarchy.

    i also remembered a great movie called ´´mediterraneo´´ which for me stands for everything that´s positive about greece, and there are many more things i like in greece than here, on the westside. and so on. now i am reading some of your articles and preparing the probe.


    Comment by parodycenter — 28 August 2007 @ 7:28 pm

  15. Dejan – do you have anything in English on nikolai berdzajev? I can’t find anything, and I wish I knew who it was.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 28 August 2007 @ 7:38 pm

  16. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikolai_Berdyaev

    Hesiak, that’s because I misspelled the English transcription of his name, but this wikipedia link should lead you to the info. I want to rediscover his books as well (they got lost somewhere in my migration), especially the article in which he discusses the Great Schism, and his pledoi against Nietzsche, Darwin and Marx as the three greatest evils of the twentieth century.


    Comment by parodycenter — 29 August 2007 @ 11:20 am

  17. Aahh…the banality of evil.

    I will look that dude up. Thanks Dejan.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 29 August 2007 @ 11:45 am

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