The Fake Beauty (video essay explanation)
As belonging to the average cinematic western audience, I have been continuously exposed to Hollywood cinema since I was a child. All those romantic comedies, the incredible heroic crime movies, and the awesome adventure films which made me fall in love with cinema, have started to get a deeper signification when I began my studies in Communications. Indeed, I unavoidably have started to (over) think about any media text I come across, and in so doing, I consequently have questioned everything, both in terms of form and content.
As well as many other media productions, Hollywood has slowly made me sick for its being, as Scott MacDonald clarifies, a cinema of exclusion, reduction, denial, and repression. And that has been confirmed anytime I happen to watch a Hollywood movie set in Rome that demands itself to be realistic, or at least, to show the city for what it is for real. I had never thought of making a video essay about the way cinema, and especially Hollywood, (mis)represents Rome until I happened to watch in class Thom Andersen’s film essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, a 2003’s documentary on how Los Angeles has been mistreated and misrepresented by Hollywood cinema for the making of Hollywood movies. As Andersen deals with the misrepresentations of his city, while I was watching his film essay, I immediately thought of dealing with the same kind of misrepresentations and cinematic abuses of my city as well.
My video essay, self-explanatorily entitled THE FAKE BEAUTY – Welcome Back R(h)ome, already from the beginning points out the controversial issue of getting to know Rome only by watching mainstream movies set in and about it. The voice over starts off directly addressing the audience as they watch images of Rome from Sorrentino’s masterpiece The Great Beauty and Woody Allen’s comedy To Rome With Love.
My video essay is biased as much as all the narrative movies I have taken into account, because in first place, not even actual documentaries can ever be completely objective precisely like Martens self-consciously argued in his provocative performance-documentary Enjoy Poverty (2008); moreover, as I am Roman, was born in Rome, and have always lived in Rome, I will never be able to deal with my city, talk about or show it objectively. For that, my video essay straightforwardly asks the audience to take for granted nothing, especially my video, its voice-over, and all the arguments that carries on. “A movie telling the truth about movies”, which is the text that fades in after the title, is a contradictory and controversial sentence through which the viewer, right from the start of the video, should be called to watch my work critically, questioning everything she sees, avoiding any personal involvement. That provocative text crossfades into a cut from Michael Hanke’s Funny Games (1997), one of the most challenging narrative movies ever made in terms of meta-narrative, relationships between diegetic and non-diegetic and between protagonist and audience, and use of unfair cheats in narrative cinema. In short, Funny Games is the greatest movie from which I could have ever taken a clip to completely address the viewers and challenging them. The very short cut I have picked shows one of the protagonists of Funny Games breaking the screen wall by turning towards the camera and winking at the audience. As a matter of fact, there would have been no better way to start my video-essay, which precisely aims to relate closely to its audience.
To provide the viewer with an overview of how Rome usually looks like from the average tourist’s point of view, I then added a YouTube video made by video maker Oliver Astrologo that perfectly shows the stereotypical images of Rome. However, not merely did I embed the YouTube clip, in fact I rather edited it by giving it a dark and grainy look to mean Rome is much less shiny and clean. To cover the stereotypical images of Rome with a further veil of melancholic ‘realism’, along with the video effects, I attached as soundtrack to the YouTube video the Roman song “7 Vizi Capitale” by Piotta and Il Muro del Canto. This song perfectly points out the huge contrast between the shallow greatness of the city and the concrete, political, social, and personal struggles that lie at the very bases of Rome, as a non-idealistic city, but rather a real one. As the clip goes on showing all the amazing Roman architectures, streets, monuments, and artistic details, the rap song lyrics almost denies the beauty visually shown. Ironically enough, however, I edited the images of Rome from the YouTube video in such a way that simultaneously clash and match harmoniously with the rap song, which, towards the end, slows down and pulls the video back in reverse with no visual effects, as to claim that Rome is purely beautiful only if it is shown backwards, i.e. through a distorted and impossible perspective. Editing has allowed me to cut and rework scenes from found footage to which I have attached new meanings. Editing has the most powerful intrinsic quality of making things contrasting and matching simultaneously, in such a way to astonish both the viewer and the editor.
“Writing, of course, is writing, acting comes from the theater, and cinematography comes from photography. Editing is unique to film. You can see something from different points of view almost simultaneously, and it creates a new experience.” Stanley Kubrick (Cahill)
In order to compare the two kinds of cinematic representations of Rome, I had to limit my selection of movies to a very small sample, that is only very recent movies released between 2009 and 2015 set in Rome in current times. Indeed, it would have been extremely unusual and difficult to compare movies made and set in different periods. Furthermore, since my research was meant to be predominantly about form and aesthetics, I opted for only six movies, respectively three from Hollywood and three from Italian productions, which are all well-known, rewarded, and have entered the realm of popular culture. This way, I have allowed my video essay to be accessible to a large audience, as opposed to an academic elite only.
As the introductory YouTube video and the attached Roman song fade away, footage from Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love fades in accompanied by the voice-over directly addressing the audience, calling their attention on the aesthetics of the movie. Time seems not to exist in the Rome of To Rome With Love, for its dreamlike quality. In contrast, real life in Rome is based on time wasted in traffic jams and lines for traffic red lights. With a split-screen, I simultaneously show the real Rome while driving and the cinematic (unreal) city from scenes of Woody Allen’s movie, Sam Mendes’s Spectre (2015), and Ron Howard’s Angels & Demons (2009). I also used a clip from a car advertisement to funnily highlight how much time Romans are used to wasting in a lifetime on a car, just because the city is always way too crowded and traffic congested.
While the split-screen is commonly used in many YouTube videos and essay films, among all of them I took inspiration from kogonada’s “What Is Neorealism?”, a scholar video essay created for Sight & Sound, British Film Institute in 2014. “What Is Neorealism?”, with the use of a split-screen and an explanatory voice over, identifies the differences in terms of editing between the two different versions of Vittorio De Sica’s Terminal Station (1953). Side by side, scenes from the first and the second versions of the movie are shown to compare their editing styles. While the first version, produced and distributed in Italy for an Italian audience, is aligned with the Italian cinematic style of Neorealism, the second version, released one year later in the United States merely reuses the film footage to tell a story with a very classical Hollywood-style editing. Similarly to kogonada, I have aimed to show the formal differences between the real life in Rome and the hyper-idealistic Rome represented in recent Hollywood cinema. The voice over comes in only to better explain what images and music already tell loudly by themselves.
In the second part of the video, I focused on the three Italian movies that I picked and how they, instead, much more realistically depict Rome: Gabriele Mainetti’s Lo Chiamavano Jeeg Robot (2016), Stefano Sollima’s Suburra (2015), and finally Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013). Starting from the Mainetti’s movie, the voice-over reminds the viewer about the difficulty of showing a city through a narrative movie. However, not surprisingly, Italian productions have reached a certain degree of realism in dealing with the representation of Rome, as in fact, Lo Chiamavano Jeeg Robot, completely set in Rome, shows the shinier sides of the city as well as the darkest ones, where pollution, crime, and life struggles come out, covering slightly the most commonly depicted shiny part. Climactically, Suburra’s darkness pops out almost demolishing the beauty we are used to when thinking of Rome by showing the rawest reality made up with corrupt politicians, poor suburbs, and much more. The question of realism here starts to get a more stable shape, still willing to be questioned by the viewers though. As in fact, throughout the entire video-essay, I never demand my work to finds a concrete solution or definitive answer to all the issues I bring up, but rather I tend to amplify all the questions I ask in order to challenge and shake the audience. The instigating attitude the my video is driven by has to do with the way Martens’s provocative film essay has inspired me, even though for my project I have searched for a less rough and mean relationship with the audience. While the coarse realism of Suburra is still vivid in the viewer’s minds, footage from The Great Beauty fades in accompanied though by a sad description of how Sorrentino in his masterpiece points out the huge gap between the beauty of the city which could never compete with the people’s tragic lives.
The third part of the video is the actual comparison between scenes from American and Italian movies edited into a split-screen. The straight-forward comments on the idealistic and optimistic representations of Rome by Hollywood relate well to the continuation of the video along with a further Roman folk song by Il Muro del Canto, whose rhythm follows the images to the fade out of the split-screen. This leaves room to The Great Beauty footage showing overviews of the city, which by this moment has become less great and even less beautiful. The question of realism is carried on by the voice-over until the very end, when I ask the audience not to ever stop questioning things, even the voice-over itself. The closing sentence “The great beauty to visit, the fake beauty to live: Rome”, however, does not leave any way to escape from the definite awareness of how all of us, as audience, consciously keep on getting satisfaction from watching cinematic idealistic representations of a so different reality.
The credits slowly go on until they fade out, however, much earlier than the soundtrack of the melancholic folk Roman song, which in fact hangs for a bunch of seconds the black screen. Finally, the song comes to the end, leaving the screen completely silent and dark for a couple of seconds, before an already-shown scene from The Great Beauty reappears, the one I have retitled ‘the disappointment scene’. One of the protagonist of The Great Beauty decides to leave Rome, because “it really fails him”: the only adequate conclusion to a video-essay about cinematic disenchantment.
Works Cited (Video and Essay)
Allen, Woody. To Rome With Love. Medusa Film, Gravier Productions, Perdido Production. US, 2012. Film.
Andersen, Thom. Los Angeles Plays Itself. Cinema Guild. US, 2013. Film.
Astrologo, Oliver. Roma. 2016. YouTube and Vimeo video.
Cahill, Tim. “The Rolling Stone Interview: Stanley Kubrick”, The Rolling Stone. August 27, 1987. Print.
De Sica, Vittorio. Terminal Station. Columbia Pictures, De Sica Productions, Selznick International Pictures. Italy, 1953. Film.
Er Pinto, Emilio Stella. “E io te Amo”. Italy, 2015. Song.
Ferri, Gabriella. “Roma Forestiera”. L’amore è facile, non è difficile. Italy, 2002. Song.
Haneke, Michael. Funny Games. Österreichischer Rundfunk Wega Film. Austria, 1997. Film.
Howard, Rod. Angels & Demons. Imagine Entertainment, Panorama Films, Skylark Productions. US, 2009. Film.
Il Muro del Canto. “Il Canto degli Affamati”. Ancora Ridi. Italy, 2013. Song.
Kogonada. “What Is Neorealism?”. Sight & Sound, British Film Institute. UK, 2014. Film.
MacDonald, Scott. “Sp…Sp…Space of Inscription: An Interview with Martin Arnold.” Film Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 1. University of California Press, Oakland. Autumn, 1994. Print.
Mainetti, Gabriele. Lo Chiamavano Jeeg Robot. Goon Films, Rai Cinema. Italy, 2015. Film
Martens, Renzo. Episode III: Enjoy Poverty. Inti Films Renzo Martens Menselijke Activiteiten. Netherlands, 2008. Film.
Mendes, Sam. Spectre. Eon Productions. UK, 2015. Film.
Piotta, Il Muro del Canto. “7 Vizi Capitale”. Italy, 2005. Song.
Sollima, Stefano. Suburra. Cattleya, Rai Cinema, La chauye Souris, Cofinova 11, Cinemage 9. Italy, 2015. Film.
Sorrentino, Paolo. The Great Beauty Indigo Film, Medusa Film, Babe Films, Pathé. Italy, 2013. Film.