ISLE OF THE ROSES: One last note on Rimini, from the Footnotes to History website: "In the early 1960s, engineering professor Giorgio Rosa constructed a platform eight miles offshore from the Italian city of Rimini. After a storm swamped the platform, another was erected in 1965. The 4,000 square foot platform boasted several businesses. The Italian authorities took little notice of the platform, since it was in international waters at the time, until May 1, 1968, when Rosa declared the platform an independent nation. Two months later, the platform was illegally occupied by the Italian Navy, who then illegally removed Rosa and proceeded to illegally destroy the entire country with dynamite. The Isle of the Roses is therefore, along with Carthage and New Atlantis, one of the few nations to be utterly removed from the face of the earth by military action."
Rosas then returned to the mainland where, according to Erwin Strauss' invaluable How to Start Your Own Country (Loompanics, 1979), he took to darkly declaring, "This country is all Mafia."
Also: my recent review of All the Rave has apparently been reprinted in the Houston Chronicle, the Pittsburgh weekly Pulp, and a paper in Virginia Beach. And possibly other places, too; please let me know if you spot it someplace new.
The Tempio Malatesta had been built, in fact, to honor the last and best loved of Sigismundo's mistresses, Ixotta degli Atti, whom he had finally married. It had not one Christian icon in it, but contained a monument proclaiming Divae Ixottae sacrum -- sacred to the Divine Ixotta. When Ixotta died, Sigismundo Malatesta entombed her there, under a plaque saying "Ixotta of Rimini, in beauty and virtue the glory of Italy." The rest of the temple was dedicated entirely to the gods of ancient Rome.
If you can imagine a Barbary ape with pepper up his nose, Uncle Pietro said, you can imagine how Pope Pius II, the reigning pontiff, jumped and howled and screamed when he found out about this heathen temple....
"[Malatesta] supervised every tiny detail, even writing long letters to the artists when he was away serving as mercenary general to other princes, when he wanted to raise more money to make the tempio even more outrageously stupendous," Uncle Pietro said. "All the tracery, you will notice, consist of variations on the intertwining of his initials with hers -- S and I."
Sigismundo loves Ixotta: it resonated from every lovely statue and erotic painting to every soaring arch and illuminated column.
Wilson is taking some artistic license here. Everything he writes above could be true, was widely believed to be true in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but is not necessarily regarded as true by most historians today. The entwined S and I, for example -- it looks like a dollar sign, and to some eyes might suggest a church built by a mad Objectivist -- does not likely refer to Sigismundo's love for Ixotta, if only because her name was usually spelled Ysotta or Yxotta while she was alive. Wilson has picked the historical interpretation that worked best for his novel, a perfectly legitimate thing to do -- but misleading if you're given to taking things literally. Lord knows (and maybe Ixotta does too) that the people who come to the temple to worship today do so in the name of Jesus, not some long-forgotten mistress to a Renaissance warlord.
Rimini is also a short bus ride from San Marino, a city-state bounded on all sides by the Republic of Italy. Long ago, it had to fend off Malatesta's armies; today it remains independent while Rimini is a demilitarized beach town.
For the most part, San Marino is an ordinary city surrounded by ordinary sprawl, notable mostly for an overabundance of car dealerships, but at the center of the statelet is a trio of stone towers, surrounded by shops, museums, mediocre restaurants, and modern-but-medieval government buildings. There's a Grand Fenwick quality to the place that I like, reinforced by the admirably low-key plaques in the museums. A set of archeological finds are described as "more or less important." Artifacts from a monastery are "not very high quality objects." And then there's this charming sentence: "No one knows what the original building actually looked like, but it must have been somewhat different to this." Someone in San Marino is either very honest or very bitter.
I had read that communists as well as anarchists were involved in the social center movement, but I had assumed that these were eccentric communists -- "autonomists," say, or maybe some Rosa Luxembourg types -- not Stalinoids. Nope. There's even a picture of Lenin inside, in place of the Gaudi-like art that apparently decorates other social centers around Italy. ("Betrayer of the revolution," Leslie mutters when she sees old Vlad's portrait on the wall.) This particular project was once more philosophically diverse, I'm told, but the communists eventually kicked the anarchists out. One consequence is the Castroites gathered outside. Another is that the squat is now self-managing in name only.
I could see why anarchists would want to build D.I.Y. alternatives to the welfare state. But why communists? Seems there's a tradition in this country of civic virtue among the Reds. Antella contains a casa del popolo, a community center sponsored by the group previously known as the Communist Party. The party's name and politics are now more social-democratic, but the casa is still there. Young people see concerts and movies there; old folks come to play cards.
We were going to get a tour as well of Controradio, a formerly (and maybe still?) unlicensed radio station that I'd written about in my book Rebels on the Air. But this fell through: I walked by the station, took a couple pictures of the front door, but never got to go inside.
I don't mind that. Back at the villa, the electricity flickers off and on. People light candles, pour wine, pass around tomatoes and bread and Pringles. ("Even revolutionaries like Pringles.") The rain slows and we climb into the car; and then, with water and mud, we slide down the road to Florence.
In that spirit, Christopher Lasch, the Bill Cosby of dead populist historians, once complained that the culture industry always seems to approach Middle American characters with contempt. Sometimes, he said, it deploys the kindly condescension of "compassion." Other times it's more directly contemptuous, depicting the professional elite as noble and cultured and inland Americans as ignorant boobs.
On the surface, Waiting for Guffman, Christopher Guest's mock documentary about a small-town play, fits Lasch's second category. The townsfolk of Blane, Missouri, don't just lack talent, sophistication, and the ability to grasp what stands directly in front of their noses. They are convinced that they do possess these qualities, and, laboring under that delusion, they make public fools of themselves. One might accuse the movie of cruelty as well as contempt. It is, Lasch could declare, a mean-spirited invitation to sneer at Missouri's wretched booboisie.
It is also one of the funniest films of the last 10 years, and along with the brilliant This Is Spinal Tap it set the template for Guest's subsequent comedies. However condescending it may be toward its subjects, Waiting for Guffman treats its audience with nothing but respect. Guest and his collaborators understand that many gags are funnier when they are allowed to lurk in the background, and they trust us to spot them there. There are no insulting efforts here to hammer home what's already obvious -- just constantly witty acting, writing, and direction.
And there is something more to this movie, a quality that defies the Laschian critique. Waiting for Guffman is as venomous as a good satire has to be. Yet there is an affection to it -- a sweetness, even -- that is anything but contemptuous. Blane actually seems like a rather nice place to live. The townsfolk enjoy the play as a pleasant diversion, and they don't mind (or even notice) that their neighbors aren't especially talented. When the players aren't rehearsing, they return to their ordinary professions: dentistry, travel-agentry, labor at the local DQ. At no point does the film suggest that these people are bad at their jobs.
In short: As corrosive as this movie is, it respects its characters' lives. It may lampoon them for being small-minded small-town people, but it only attacks them for pretending they aren't.
As the story progresses, an idea overtakes the troupe: the insane notion -- at first funny, soon almost tragic -- that their show will go to Broadway. A theatrical agent named Guffman has promised to attend their performance. He will "discover" them, the players hope, and turn them into stars. When this doesn't happen, they leave town anyway, all but one joining the lowest rungs of the entertainment industry. We see them in the film's closing scenes, a funny but unpleasant sequence that lacks the sweet affection that preceded it. What was charming in Blane becomes grotesque outside it. Our would-be entertainers have left behind their real livelihoods, not to mention the only appreciative audiences they'll ever find, to pursue the dream of celebrity.
You can argue that the filmmakers, successful entertainers all, are merely directing a calculated sneer at any ordinary American who aspires to join them in the limelight. One can find evidence for this in the slogan that adorned Guffman's posters: "There's a reason why some talent never gets discovered." Like so many movie ad campaigns, this is exactly wrong: The small-town players in Waiting for Guffman cannot act, dance, or sing, but none is less talented than, say, David Spade or Carrot Top.
But consider what the filmmakers have accomplished here. It's hard to launch a credible assault on the culture industry from that same industry's commanding heights. Many movies have tried; most, whatever their other qualities, are sanctimonious and hypocritical. (Witness Quiz Show and Natural Born Killers.) The pictures that pull off the trick are those that actively refuse to idealize the people who stand outside the center of media attention, from the would-be Broadway stars of Waiting for Guffman to the would-be bowling champs of Kingpin. Fulminate all you want that these movies are cruel or crude -- at least they're funny, and at least they aren't cliches. In Hollywood, those are substantial accomplishments.
Think about that. When Stoll ran a little website called smartertimes.com, he was a sometimes useful corrective to the Gray Lady. Now he runs a daily paper called The New York Sun. I'm sure it pays better, but it has neither readers nor content worth reading. If blogs are part of a media revolution -- and yeah, I think they are -- it's not because the people who write them could beat the Times at reporting, editing, or even opining. Some probably could. But most definitely can't.
In fact, blogger triumphalism aside, I'm not sure most of us could even fact-check better than the Times. I mean, it's not like we caught Jayson Blair. It's nice that the warblogging crowd has pointed out so many errors in the BBC's report on the rescue of Jessica Lynch. Good work, folks. But I get the impression that a lot of you are less interested in setting the record straight than in changing the subject: There were plenty of reports debunking the official story of the Lynch rescue before the British Broadcasting Corporation weighed in, and none of them included the BBC's nonsense about soldiers firing blanks. Yet those blanks are all you seem to be talking about. Why spend so much time taking the BBC to task and almost none probing the folks who might have gotten the first version of the story wrong, too? Could it be because one dubious report challenges your prejudices, while the other one confirms them?
Bloggers are at least as fallible as the Times or the BBC, usually more so. It's just that we dwell in this big electronic soup, where everyone's axes grind up against everyone else's and all those fallibilities cancel each other out. On an individual level, we've all got our heads up our asses, just like the unlamented Howell Raines. It's just that there's so many of us, and our asses come in such different shapes and sizes. It's so much more obvious when we're adjusting the facts to fit our faiths; and somehow, maybe, that makes it more obvious when the Big Media guys do it as well. Screw the emperor -- none of us are wearing any clothes.
RETURN OF THE WIRE: I caught the first season of The Wire in reruns, after Oz left the air earlier this year. What a wonderful TV show, or mini-series, or 13-hour film -- however you like to look at it -- a detailed and far from formulaic police procedural with well-drawn characters, a good ear for dialogue, a strong sense of place, and a skeptical attitude toward the drug war and toward all large, hierarchical institutions. (It wasn't above the occasional in-joke either, like throwing a line from a Steve Earle song into a criminal's mouth in one of the episodes where Earle played a recovering junkie. Or giving Baltimore's real-life police commissioner, Ed Norris, a bit role as a low-level detective.)
The second season/series/story arc starts tonight. I can't wait to see it.