Oh no, oh no, I got it all wrong. Well, not wrong, just: incomplete. I thought you were a secret Bogart inside a Cary Grant. Someone haunted, this-close to giving up, a former idealist, someone who even had heroic leanings——now jaded, half-ruined: all embedded inside the body of someone debonair, cosmopolitan, cunning. Someone who would wear a diamond tie-pin, even as a security guard.
But I’m forgetting another one who unites these qualities. After all: you drove a red Fiat sports car you brought back to the Philippines from Indonesia, attended lavish parties like an interloper (and held parties that way, too); were deeply glamorous, adored by women/admired by men, and always wandering back and forth from one or the other side of disenchantment. Question of your life being: were you a good man?
So: of course, you were Marcello Mastroianni. Especially Marcello Mastroianni in LA DOLCE VITA, which I haven’t seen since high school, and watched again today.
Of course, then I became Marcello Mastroianni, too.
Marcello in LA DOLCE VITA smiling at his father. Whom he says he doesn’t really know. It’s clear he loves him; what’s less clear is whether he likes him. I loved and liked you as I knew you; but who you were when I didn’t know you? That person, I can’t be sure of.
Marcello Mastroianni who always looks like an old man, even in his gorgeous prime. Charm is ancient. So is sorrow.
The only film I’ve seen of Marcello Mastroianni looking young is his penultimate film, and the last film released in his lifetime, made by Raul Ruíz: THREE LIVES AND ONLY ONE DEATH.
Marcello Mastroianni and his little, heavy smile in LA DOLCE VITA, toasting: “Papa.”
You, too, Papa. Multiple lives and only one death.
On the Internet I looked for pictures of the cars my father owned in the 60s and 70s and sent them to my mother, asking if they resembled his cars.
Her response, seconds later:
Shit, did I subconsciously name Madalina in my still-imaginary book and movie after Anouk Aimée as Maddalena?
The ghost of Marcello in Tony Leung in 2046. But then: it wouldn’t have been a ghost. Their characters were contemporaries.
The Balinese dancer at the beginning, with fragile gold leaf on his skin. My father loved that form of dance when he lived in Indonesia. Then: at the end of the film, when Marcello distributes feathers onto the drunken woman’s skin. From gold to feather. Metal to plumage.
Things to think about in LA DOLCE VITA: a thin, flaky layer that nevertheless sticks to the surface of the skin. About the morality of viscosity, of plating, of feathering. What goes on the surface. Covers up the flesh. What sticks. The superficial. Super + facies. Over the form. Or: over the face. Marcello’s hand over his face at the end of the film.
That dancer. The Asian boy at the beginning of LA DOLCE VITA, who begins to give information to Marcello. All the people of color in the film. “The Oriental woman is the only authentic woman in the world.” But this subject requires an essay of its own. Their presence, how they work in the film. Are made to work.
My teenage life as Cary Grant, as Marcello Mastroianni. F. describing my clothes when we first met in Salamanca. Where we wandered around all night. Salamanca in real life felt like my high-school Rome in LA DOLCE VITA.
Is that why I moved there, two weeks after turning eighteen, with only a vibration in my blood——if you go to this country now, you will meet the person of your life there. And so, as always, I followed my vibration; a tendency which obviously could have been my downfall, and still might be.
My ties. My white shirts, some of which had pearled cuff buttons. My black slacks and blazers. My way of being both passionate and utterly closed, which perturbed F. deeply.
He once walked in on me in a medieval chapel, possibly in the University of Salamanca. Crouching on the floor, hunched over a notebook, writing. In my own world. Surrounded with a nervous, intense, furtive, defensive energy. I saw him but didn’t really acknowledge him. He said I seemed irritated at having been disturbed within my own form of piety.
Something turned over in him at that moment, he said. He had been able to confirm what he knew lay behind the closedness. He wanted to say to me: “You don’t have to hide.” We had already walked around all night twice. Had already kissed. But still I was hiding.
He left me alone in the chapel. But he found me later, near a balcony overlooking a central courtyard in the University. We were alone for only a few moments, during which my roommate——with whom I had come to the chapel in the first place——wandered off to check something. He declared: “I want to see you again.” He was leaving in two days. In three seconds we made a date. My roommate returned. I pretended nothing had happened. He was half-amused, half-grave at my performance. He seemed to be thinking about what it would mean for him in the future: the way that I was.
Later that evening, I lied to my roommate and said I was taking a walk. I headed for the agreed-upon meeting place: the area in front of the University of Salamanca entrance, where a famous stone frog is always waiting to be found by tourists, to grant luck. Sometimes even luck in love.
I stopped a few minutes away from the meeting-place, at a fountain on the street. Breathing. Thinking: What are you doing stupid. Thinking: Are you really ready to walk into what will happen if you go. Thinking: Are you really ready to walk into what will happen if you don’t.
When I arrived, he was waiting, tucked into an alcove. He had been waiting for a while.
Today, saying: “I forgot that you fell in love with me when I was at my butchest!”
The first dog I ever loved was the big black dog in LA DOLCE VITA. What did I write somewhere, once? That dogs always seem like immigrants, and they usually are. The black dog at the feet of Iris, the poet in white. The dog’s beautiful ears, coat. The dog had qualities that many large dogs have, which is why I love large dogs (even though I’ve never had large companion animals and was for a long time only able to admire dogs from afar): a kind of fidelity, fatigue and otherworldliness.
The reporter talking about Anita Ekberg’s Sylvia as she comes off the plane. Sylvia, who like Balestre and Senna, knows the meaning of sunglasses. When she refuses to take them off.
The reporter saying that she’s going to be in a film with color. But LA DOLCE VITA is a film that can’t be in color. It needs its allegorical black, white and gray.
Marcello in black suit and white shirt at the beginning of the film. And at the end of the film, the inverse: white suit, dark shirt at the end.
Allegory being: you start out only dark on the outside. Still light on the inside. But you end up: only light on the outside. Dark on the inside.
Late in life you often wore a pale tan suit with a red turtleneck. But in black and white, it would have looked like this:
Men who end by covering their necks.
F. never covered his neck in Salamanca, even though it was bitterly cold, for September. All those nights walking. When he left the city after two weeks and arrived home in Munich, he promptly came down with a bad case of bronchitis. A bad case of bronchitis, and love. In love with a girl who couldn’t say words like that yet. Despite having upended my entire life and come to another continent in pursuit of exactly those words. Those words and what they would carry.
Couldn’t say them to his face, anyway. But the morning F. left the city, running to catch his bus because we had overslept——when I was sure he was gone and couldn’t hear me——I walked through Plaza Mayor, down Calle Zamora. I called you in California, from my cell phone, at a terrible cost. Or did you call me, that morning? I don’t remember. It was one in the morning for you. Of course you were still awake. You hadn’t taken your Ambien yet, or it hadn’t worked. You missed me. I missed you. I said: “Papa, I’m in love.” I said it as if I were saying: “I’m going to die.”
Is Marcello at the end of LA DOLCE VITA the person you would have become if you hadn’t come to the States? If I hadn’t chosen to remain an American——and forced you to come back with me——rather than agree to run away with you and live as a kidnapped princess in the Philippines?
So much in LA DOLCE VITA depends on the telephonic. Voice from afar that nevertheless enters the space you occupy. Ghostly voices. Ghostly apparitions. What you can hear but can’t see. Or: what you can’t even hear. What you have to believe, if you can. Like the voice of an angel. The sacred has much to do with listening. Not just with the ears.
At some point, you even wonder if Maddalena is a ghost. Anouk Aimée has that quality about her. She has it in Jacques Demy’s LOLA. Somehow you’re always already mourning over her.
Perhaps my Madalina wasn’t, or wasn’t only, named after Aimée’s Maddalena, but after the girl on whose face LA DOLCE VITA fades to black. The girl in the last scene with Marcello. The film’s last scene, which is a negative-mirror of the film’s first scene: Marcello in a helicopter, hauling a statue of Jesus on a rope, mime-flirting with girls on a rooftop. In his black suit. The girls couldn’t hear him, understand him. But lack of understanding is not always an impediment to seducing or being seduced. I would even hazard to say: it rarely is.
At the end of the film it’s Marcello who cannot understand. Can’t understand the girl. The sound of waves crashes between them, like the sounds of waves and storms that Marcello’s friend Steiner had played, earlier in the film.
The girl’s gestures. What she’s trying to say to him, which he can no longer hear.
But you heard me, right. In the coma, you heard me. You heard me when I said I loved you. When I told you not to be afraid. You did not become Marcello at the end of LA DOLCE VITA. The difference is: you loved. Really loved. And let yourself be loved. Really loved.
Were you a good man? The thing is——besides loving you enough to promise to die with you and then loving you enough to listen when you asked me not to: I did, also, like you. I liked you so, so much. I still do.
What did I say at the end of “Self-Portrait as Lancelot”? Hearing is the last sense we lose.
In the ICU, being told by my cousin: “I loved your father more than my own.”
Her father being my father’s older brother, whom my father adored and emulated. This brother being also debonair and cunning. Also a playboy. But lacking, I think, lacking my father’s real style, which was all in heart and brain.
A strange fact about this uncle: all of his hair, every single strand, turned pure vanilla-white in high school, and remained that way for the rest of his life. I called him Uncle Ice Cream, or Uncle Vanilla. Uncle Benilla, since his name was Benigno. An Italian name, too.
I see now; this uncle, my father’s brother——this was the real Marcello. The one who would successfully go all the way to the end of Marcello in LA DOLCE VITA. And because my father loved his brother, he would try to emulate him. But he was deeper than both the uncle and Marcello. He could not stop believing. This was your mistake, and thank god for it.
This uncle, who was one of the men captured during the Bataan Death March. When tripping or slowing with fatigue would get you shot or bayoneted to death.
This uncle jumped off a bridge into the Pampanga River and was shot in the leg by Japanese soldiers. He woke up with malaria, in the house of a woman who was nursing him back to life. This woman became his wife.
Now this could have been a miraculous love story, if the uncle had been another man; but he wasn’t. When I knew him, he had at least two women he was calling “wife.” Which one was the mistress? I can’t remember now.
Marcello Mastroianni was in a prison camp during World War II, too.
It is also the other daughter of this uncle-as-Marcello who was hidden by my father when the military was coming after her. His niece. Who now lives in Utrecht. Where Joma Sison was arrested. Where Madalina will go, too.
That niece was named after my paternal grandmother. My father’s mother, who died of a rare form of spinal tuberculosis when he was a teenager, and for whom he became an orthopedic surgeon. To save her life, retrospectively.
Knew then what he knows now. But then he was fourteen.
I’m often told that I look like his part-Chinese mother, my unknown grandmother. When I moved to England, a female ghost kept visiting me, a ghost who resembled me and had the very long hair his mother was famous for. The ghost kept hovering over me as I slept, wanting to take a look at my face. She was never menacing. Just a little sad, and most of all, curious. Wanting to see me. See the face, which must have looked like hers. The granddaughter she never met.
When I was a child I liked boxes, bottles, beautiful containers. I once poured an entire bottle of my mother’s perfume down the toilet because she told me I could only have the bottle when it was empty.
Once, my father and I were in a Goodwill store. He was looking for silk ties. I was looking for books and trinkets. I found a beautiful box. Perhaps it was partly made of abalone, I remember the luminescent lid. I immediately marched to the counter, bought it with my own pocket money without waiting for my father, who was still perusing the tie rack.
Only in the car did I show him my prize. Immediately he burst into tears. I didn’t know why. When he could finally speak, he told me that his mother had had a box like that. And that, in fact, like me, his mother had often collected peculiar boxes and containers.
His look towards me was one of wonder and distress. He must have asked himself: how could habits that had been buried in his heart, buried in a long-dead body in the ground in the Philippines, have traveled this far, so far, wordlessly, reasonlessly? To this unexpected, late-in-life daughter.
Who was I, really? By that time, my occult quality had already been well-established, at least by my mother’s side of the family, who were convinced that my sick and fragile body came as a result of being too-loved by certain invisible creatures and ghosts. Chicken blood had to be spread around my house, to ward away my many mythical suitors.
But my father had only tolerated those beliefs and practices; a surgeon, a logical thinker, despite his love of romance and miracles. He would not believe that his daughter was a medium, some dwende-prince’s playmate.
But at that moment, in the car, perhaps he wasn’t so sure. He was still looking at me. He seemed to be reconfiguring his own thoughts about the knowability of another. What can a person be? What can a daughter be.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF PERCEPTION:
“Why can the memories recalled to the one-armed man cause the phantom arm to appear? The phantom arm is not a recollection, it is a quasi-present and the patient feels it now, folded over his chest, with no hint of its belonging to the past. Nor can we suppose that the image of an arm, wandering through consciousness, has jointed itself to the stump: for then it would not be a ‘phantom,’ but a renascent perception. The phantom arm must be the same arm, lacerated by shell splinters, its visible substance burned or rotted somewhere, which appears to haunt the present without being absorbed into it. The imaginary arm is, then, like repressed experience, a former present which cannot decide to recede into the past…
“But it would not be memory if the object which it constructs were not still held by a few intentional threads to the horizon of the lived-through past, and to that past itself as we should rediscover it if we were to delve beyond these horizons and reopen time. In the same way, if we put back emotion into being-in-the-world, we can understand how it can be the origin of the phantom limb. To feel emotion is to be involved in a situation which one is not managing to face and from which, nevertheless, one does not want to escape…
Memory, emotion and phantom limb are equivalents in the context of being in the world.”
When the girl turns to the camera with a smile and the world goes black. Madalina, was some thread of you stitched here, too? Or was it just me. It’s a smile that could make you fall in love, if you believed in it. A smile like a text that could make you a believer, if you could read it. It could make you good. It could save your life.
It saved yours. And that’s why you’re different from Marcello.
Marcello’s friend Steiner, played by Alain Cuny, looks like Wittgenstein in Derek Jarman’s WITTGENSTEIN. Music and philosophy. Thinkers with severe faces who die to the world.
Steiner, who is told by Iris: “You’re as primitive as a Gothic spire. You’re so tall you can’t hear any more voices up there.”
After Steiner’s response; the recording of stormy waves begins, erupts into the room.
Steiner, who kills his two children, then himself. Like a Thomas Bernhard novella. Like in AMRAS——only the two children in AMRAS survive their parents’ suicide. At first. Then one goes, too.
Watching as Steiner tells Marcello that the sound of the organ comes as if from inside the earth.
Then just a few hours later, being told by F. after orgasms: “You tremble so much during the buildup. It’s like a primal trembling. Like a trembling that’s not just you. Too irregular to come just from you. It’s beyond you, like part of something bigger. It’s like the frequency of the earth.”
What can a person be. What can a daughter be. But I’ve never only been one or the other. Always been multiple. Full of phantom limbs, phantom lives. Multiple lives and only one death? But no death yet, please. I can say that now, because I believe it. It hasn’t always been so. I had to fight to make it so.