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Wind Taking Flight Among the Ruins

In the “Foreword” to his Conversations with the Wind Taking Flight, Gianni Celati states that:

Writing is a conversation with whoever will read us, and conversations carry us like the wind—we never really know what the direction will be. Here the “wind taking flight” is our name for that atmospheric force that words take on, scattering them across all sorts of subjects, from cinema to autobiography.

The way that Celati’s writing moves forward—that disorienting “sense of vast horizons” (Nunzia Palmieri), that aimless wandering with an eye driven by his anxious and eternally insatiable mind, that fluid pace of face-to-face conversations—is also found in the way that Celati makes movies.

Visions of Crumbling Houses, a documentary film from 2002, is a key example of how Celati translated his poetics of the “wind taking flight” into filmic language. The undisputed protagonists of the documentary are the abandoned, condemned farmhouses scattered across the Po River delta. In that post-9/11 moment, ruins and catastrophes had become the object of intense discussion by both journalists and academics. For example, in his essay collection Ruins, the author and essayist Marco Belpoliti brought our attention to the fact that, for the history of the West, the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first had been marked by two opposing and symmetical ruins: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the destruction of the Twin Towers. The rubble from the Wall—collected and sold as souvenirs—and the detritus and dust of the Twin Towers were a material presence of the first order, on screens that the whole world was watching; both became metaphors for our (post)modernity, signs that we used in order to read our symbolic and cultural history. In contrast to the “mediatic ruins” of Belpoliti, the ruins that the film of Celati documents do not make history; they are not extraordinary and apocalyptic events that command the world stage; instead, Celati shows us ruins that fall slowly, anonymously. And yet these images do permeate, crack through our imagination; they document that which the author and art historian John Berger, in his book The Shape of a Pocket, has called “the great defeat of the world” (207).

A true archeologist of modernity, Celati constructs his conversation about the Po River countryside in order to focus on its “infraordinary” destruction—to borrow a neologism from Georges Perec, who coined the term in contrast to “extraordinary.” The extraordinary is sensational, the stuff that makes headlines in our newspapers, whereas the infraordinary is what hides in the folds of everyday life. As John Berger observes, the Po River plain that we see as background for the film seems always to have served as a figure for such everydayness: “The plain of the Po dwarfs with the banality of a remorseless, regulated calendar” (134). Celati’s focus on those abandoned farmhouses emerges from an interest that grew over time during years spent frequenting this area; it is comprised of various stages and collaborations, including a partnership with John Berger. Two lines of research, in particular, formed the basis for Celati’s alliance with the British writer: first, Berger’s ethical concern for that peasant culture in danger of extinction in postindustrial Europe, and, second, the art historian’s aesthetic investigations into visible and invisible culture, beginning with his celebrated study The Ways of Seeing, published in the seventies.

In Visions of Crumbling Houses, Berger initially appears reading a text of his own, and then returns as an ersatz and visionary director, a character who, according to his whimsy, transforms the abandoned houses into theatrical spaces. Notably, in an act of ventriloquism that seems highly symbolic, each time Berger appears in the film, he is translated simultaneously, in voice-over, by Celati.

But let’s hear what Celati himself said about his film:

I understood that the crumbling houses shouldn’t be shown as melancholic relics of the past; they needed to appear as one of the most surprising aspects of a contemporary landscape. In a period where we tend to restore everything in order to erase every trace of the past, those houses carry signs of a depth of time, and so put the question: what should we do with our ruins? What is to be done with everything used up, archaic, whatever can’t be peddled as just another article for consumption?  (cited by Sironi 219)

Celati’s interlocutor, Mario Sironi, commented that these houses become “objects of affection,” that they both reflect and obstruct our period’s fanatic consumerism (219). In the case of two writers like Berger and Celati, whose work focused so squarely on a critique of visual culture, the term “affection” must be understood, first of all, in its phenomenological sense: the crumbling houses represent for both objects that incite them, reactivating their capacity for seeing the external world as it is. It is a question of finding a way of looking at all things without prejudice, a gaze that opens onto the external world. According to Celati, if we manage to free ourselves from presuppositions about a place (“that is, the presuppositions that a particular place has to be like this or that, and not otherwise” [Celati in Sironi 221]), we may sense aspects of that place as apparitions that take us by surprise. Rather than looking at a place from a distance, through a prism of preconceived theories, we have to learn to look around, and to look closely, to put the world into parentheses (according to that key expression from phenomenology), so that even the most banal sort of object may seep through the undifferentiated continuum of experience and habit and turn up as unexpected, a vision. Visions of crumbling houses, as a matter of fact.

If by 1986, with his Four Short Stories about Appearances, for Celati the narrator, appearances had already become objects of affection, for Berger too the term “appearances” is loaded with visionary symbolism that slips easily from “appearance” to “apparition,” from the familiar to the uncanny. “Our response to appearances is a very deep one and includes instinctive and atavistic elements. […] The look of the world is the widest possible confirmation of the thereness of the world and thus the look of the world continually proposes and confirms our relation to that thereness, which nourishes our sense of Being.” (Another Way of Telling, 87-88)

As Marco Belpoliti writes, Visions of Crumbling Houses isn’t an ethical film, nor is it a political film”; instead, it is “a philosophical documentary, just as, fundamentally, the storytelling of Celati is philosophical” (Belpoliti in Palmieri, 52-3). For Celati the documentary brings to the foreground the problem of perception: “The vision of a place emerges,” Celati writes, “not at all as a debate with ready answers, but as a way of thinking/imagining how the world is made” (222). In the first filmic sequence where we see Berger appear, we find him sitting at an outside table on the banks of the Po, as he reads one of his essays aloud. The off-stage voice of Celati is layered over that of Berger and translates him into Italian.

This film is about crumbling houses. There are multiple interpretations, we know that it is a sign, but we don’t know how to interpret it [. . .] we need new forms of thought that align with our perceptions [. . .] we perceive those ruins, but we don’t know what to think about them, these houses transfigured by their state of abandonment [. . .] the ruins are relics, we are bewildered and get lost within them.

To my mind, the epistemological attitude of receptive bewilderment—much like a sense of reaching the finis terrae of consciousness, the limits of our given mental paradigms—echoes the Heideggerian concept of Gelassenheit (“releasement”). In his eponymous dialogue, the German philosopher declares that modern thought in the West has been characterized by a will to dominate the world through the use of reason, constructing the world as an object to be understood, grasped, and classified. In opposition to this sort of thinking, which he calls “calculating,” a cognitive activity that plans, organizes, and tallies, Heidegger proposes a form of “meditative thinking,” an epistemological attitude, in short, “releasement toward things” (54). Gelassenheit would be the characteristic attitude of thinking that opens up towards experience, not in order to capture it in a logical grid, but instead to become in itself experience. Such thinking would be, as Heidegger puts it, the coming-into-the-nearness of distance, thought which advances and moves toward Being, even as it keeps a certain distance.

Coming back, then, to those crumbling houses, we note how the film of Celati isolates their façades with exterior shots, a technique that Antonio Costa associates with a cinema of expectation, where we are given “the sensation of an unavoidable present, time that can’t be escaped” (63). The camera lingers, using repeated, often extended medium and long tracking shots of the exteriors of these farmhouses in ruin; it then enters into courtyards and dilapidated rooms, taking close-ups of rubble, of cracks and peeling paint on the walls, of empty window frames, of overgrown thornbushes and puddles of water. These scenes are shown without commentary, and are at times accompanied by contemporary music which amplifies the dissonance and distances the film from more typical commentary and documentary soundtracks.

The editing emphasizes this fragmentary and heterogenous world: it’s not a single story, but instead a diversity of representational forms, one placed on top of another in chaotic fashion, with several sorts of representation at times sharing a single space. We see a cargo van with a movie camera mounted on its tailgate, Berger reading his text in English, an actress who recites a theater script in a staged voice, interviews with local senior citizens shown on a mobile phone, debates on a train between Celati and his friends and collaborators, early twentieth-century films (Landscapes of the Past and Death of a Pig) projected in black and white on a screen in back of the theater: this multimedial polyphony effectuates a metanarrative reflection on the inherent limits of any form of representation, by design including the documentary of Celati himself. The filmic records of crumbling houses thus punctuate the documentary without being framed within an overarching narrative that explains them. They remain an enigmatic presence that reveals the depths of a way we have of seeing and being, one that can neither be anticipated nor controlled; we can only try to approach these crumbling houses, foregrounding the problem of perception, allowing it to become itself an object of experience, a form of becoming.

Heidegger once spoke of releasement, a way of thinking opposed to the calculative thought of modernity, Berger instead speaks of “pockets of resistance,” an expression also used to name a collection of essays he published in 2001. The diverse pockets of resistance that are in the process of emerging across the globe, according to Berger, lack a common political program, but the strength of their defense also lies in their necessary fragmentation.

Yet their heterogenity may be a promise.  What they have in common is their defense of the redundant, the next-to-be-eliminated.  […] The first step towards building an alternative world has to be a refusal of the world-picture implanted in our minds.  (213-14)

Celati’s crumbling houses, because they appear to us as useless ruins destined for destruction, may instead be envisioned as pockets of resistance, sites that refuse to accept the absurd vision of the world as it is offered to us, and break through the suffocating horizon that this vision imposes on us, denouncing our inferno from within. This resistance also occurs on a formal level: the film in fact strides forward with its unpredictable, fragmented pace, with the impulse of a wind taking flight, where the images of farmhouses alternate with written texts read together in order to document what the anthropologist Marc Augé has called “time in ruins.”

The visions that Celati and Berger share of their crumbling houses, precisely because of their mystery, scatter before the wind of a history in search of new pockets of resistance before the “great defeat of the world,” becoming phenomenological manifestations of a time in ruins subtracted from history, that inescapable cinema of expectation described by Antonio Costa. At the conclusion of Celati’s film, an actress recites these lines: “We too are inside that vortex of wind spinning around, inside that vortex we too, in falling, find our homes.”

Works Cited

Augé, Marc. Le Temps en ruines, 2003.
Berger, John. The Shape of a Pocket, 2001.
Belpoliti, Marco. Crolli. 2005.
Celati, Gianni. Case sparse. Visioni di case che crollano, 2002
       ---. Conversazioni del vento volatore, 2011
Perec, Georges. from L’infra-ordinaire. Species of Space and Other Pieces, 1997.
Heiddegger, Discourse on Thinking, 1966.

All images are taken from the Celati’s film Case sparse. Visioni di case che crollano, produced by Stefilm, Torino and Pierrot e la Rosa, Bologna, in 2002.

ANNA BOTTA is Professor of Italian and Comparative Literature at Smith College. Her current book project, titled Solid Mediterraneans, builds on previously published articles and the special issue “Mediterraneans” that she co-edited for the Massachusetts Review in 2014.

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