Making a Scene

When I was little I watched a lot of movies, because my mother was always making shirts, my father was painting his pictures to sell, and so to let them work in peace, my grandmother, my mother’s mother, would take us to the Stadium movie house and keep us there, me and my brothers, for two movies back-to-back, the four o’clock and the six o’clock shows.

I really liked watching my mother cut along the line to the paper pattern pinned to the cloth, and I liked it even better after she set down her scissors and started working on the sewing machine and then with a needle and thread alongside her two assistants, one blonde, the other dark-haired, and I'd play with the chalk, the tiny white buttons and the gold thimble, the bits of leftover cloth on the floor, while the kitchen took on the smell of new cloth mixed with the smell of food on the stove and the young women bent over their sewing.

I liked watching my father, too, who was tired from his other job on the railway but still sat for hours and hours in front of his easel, a cigarette hanging from his lips, with his long beard, his eyes dark from tension, painting what he called his commercial paintings, one canvas after the other of Paris, with the same gray clouds, gray buildings, little gray women strolling in the rain through Place de la Concorde, just like in Utrillo's paintings.

But the movies—ah, the movies—I liked them best of all, and the moment when I felt real joy, so much joy I couldn't keep from running around screaming, was right when one or both my parents, stressed out over finishing some order, couldn't take the noise anymore as we crashed around the two-room apartment, and they'd tell my grandmother: Mother (or Mama, if it was my mother talking), take these little shits to the movies (my mother would just say this little shit, but she was really pointing to all three of us, a gesture of exhaustion at our very existence), and don't come back until tonight.

Movies.

The movies.

Goin’ to the movies.

My grandmother silently obeyed. She dried her hands, which were always wet from rinsing vegetables or washing clothes or the floor or making us wash, and she'd take on this next chore like it was her destiny, without making faces but also with no real enthusiasm, my grandmother, who couldn't care less about movies or actors.

First off she got the three of us ready, especially me, because I was her favorite. She wiped my nose, washed my face, combed my wild hair, making a mound over my forehead that she called my little coconut. Since my coconut kept falling apart, she'd fix it, fix it again, and finally glue it down with a little Scala soap. Then she prepared herself with meticulous care. She was small, slightly hunchbacked, with an imposing nose, a widow at twenty-four. She still had thick, black hair, extremely long hair that she gathered in a bun on her neck. I don't remember what she wore at home; in my mind's eye, I see a dark figure, spent, the only thing shining about her those gold earrings like tiny yellow roses. But when she went out, she put on her best clothes, her underwear and slip with no holes or mending, her dark fancy dress, and she'd fill her one purse, her shiny black leather purse, with all her little belongings, except the rose earrings that sparkled in her ears, and then with what she brought along for us. If I complained we were taking too long, she'd tell me in a very serious, gloomy voice that bad luck could strike at anytime: she could drop dead on the street, and she wasn't about to go off looking like some beggar. My father, who loved to tease her, said this was complete nonsense. All this fuss, he said, was for that guy, that pizzicato, the candy man at the movies, and he'd laugh and shout from his chair in front of his easel with me shivering to go: boys, come and kiss your papa now, have fun, and make sure and keep an eye on your nonna with that pizzicato.

This pizzicato was a really ugly guy, or at least he seemed that way to us. He was called “pizzicato,” or “pinch,” because his face was all pitted with small pox. Maybe he didn’t just sell candy for a living; maybe he was an usher, too. Or maybe not—I think I’d remember—that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. Basically what comes to mind with him wasn’t that he led people through the dark theater by the swinging light of his magic flashlight but that he sold good things. When the lights went up at intermission, he’d come round with his square wooden tray full of licorice wheels, licorice strings, little licorice shoes, and candies of all kinds, toffees, little candy mice. He’d shout out, his voice sharp, mean—mice, candy!—practically an order to hurry up and buy, and afterward he’d look around with that slow stare of his. You pay attention to that guy, my father said. But I didn’t want to pay attention to anything, except the movie.

 

The trip from Via Gemito to the movie house seemed ridiculously, unnecessarily long. Though, really, it was just a short distance, and I knew the entire way by heart. Past soccer games in the spring and summer. Past the dry goods store where my mother sent me for things like spools, clothespins, coarse grogrèn.  Past Antignano’s market where I’d get cigarettes for my father, who smoked two packs a day and was always running out.

It was an easy walk.  Right when you stepped out the big front door, you faced the stadium, which for me, since I was just terrible at soccer and taunted for it all the time, had one merit only: this was how the movie house got its name. We’d turn to the left—my grandmother, my brother Geppe, my brother Toni, and I—then again to the left, and then keep going straight, toward Via Luca Giordano.  The movie house was just before the gelateria where I bought my gelato in the summer.

So all very familiar places, but they were still just one annoying blotch of light that burned my eyes. I hurried on, dragging my brothers behind me. Our grandmother would shout: you get back here—don’t step off the curb—you’ll wind up under a car. I’d stop. The last thing I wanted was for some car to run me over before I saw the movie.

I have no memory of ticket counters, cashiers, tickets, moviegoers in the lobby. I don’t remember worrying about getting there before the show began. What’s in my mind is the lovely lilt of lively voices, the noises, the thrilling music, what I heard when I set foot in the theater, what my ears anticipated that my eyes would see. My grandmother would open the gray door just a crack. Out burst voices, music, noise. We almost always entered in the dark, this I’m sure of, and my heart pounded as I pushed through the heavy curtain, wrestled free from the folds, and finally peered into the dark theater.

My eyes went right to the screen; I couldn’t help myself. Then I’d look for my grandmother, but the dark had grown even darker—I couldn’t see her or my brothers—still, I was less afraid of losing them than losing one single frame or line of dialogue. So I’d stop in that dark nowhere and turn back to the movie, and I’d take deep, voluptuous breaths, take in the stale, third-show air, the smell of excited bodies, the cigarettes and cigars, the dusty, pawed-over curtain I’d just escaped, the worn wood, the shoes.

Meanwhile my grandmother would find seats with the pizzicato’s help, get my brothers seated, and then she’d come back for me, yanking me along. She was the one who plunked me in my seat and made me stay there. If it were up to me, I’d have just kept standing: by that point, all I could do was watch the screen.

 

There’s a photo—one of the few from my childhood, back then, hardly any photos were taken—with my mother in a very elaborate, tight hairdo and wearing a dark coat with an astrakhan collar, and she’s holding my brother Toni, a newborn in a cap and covered in a white wool cape. To her right is my brother Geppe, his bright face peeking out from the hood of a gray cat-fur coat. I’m on the left, in a coat, hat, and even gloves. Thanks to my mother’s tailoring skills, the four of us look very well-off, and with my hat on, I especially look like the first-born son of some rich signori.

Since Toni was born in January, 1948, and he’s certainly there in the photo, a baby just a few months old, then my father, judging from our heavy clothing, must have taken that picture (but where’d he get the camera—was it borrowed?) no later than February or March of that year. So at that moment I was five, Geppe was going on four, my mother was twenty-seven, my father, whom you couldn’t see but had just clicked the camera, was thirty-one. It’s an instant in black and white from sixty-two years ago, but it doesn’t say anything about what we really were. You can tell this with my mother, who has nothing to do with the exhausted young woman from all my childhood memories: on this occasion, she’s dressed up like a movie mama, elegant and seductive. You can tell this by looking at my brother and me, so neat and polite, in an entirely contrived way. The only traces of the actual present you’ll find are the secret devil horns I’m making down by my left side, with my index finger and pinkie (at that time, I was always making devil horns, which upset my parents, so doing it while they were taking my picture probably seemed like a bit of silent spite), and then in my brother’s restless face, because my brother was as slippery as an eel and trembling to hold still. Otherwise, we’re a movie out on the street. We’re pretending to be in a class other than our own, with different habits, beautiful and well-dressed.

But I haven’t dug up this photo to talk about all this; what I really want to do is describe what happened after that click, so I can tell you exactly when my passion for the movies began.

Our pose blew apart, I think, like holding in your breath too long. To our surprise, Geppe yanked free from my mother and started running down Santarella Street, his right arm whirling round and round. My mother called out his name in alarm, my father swore and hurled after Geppe in long strides, shouting: stop before you fall and hurt yourself—stop. He grabbed him just before Geppe hopped off the sidewalk. Geppe took it badly. He screamed and struggled; he wanted to keep running and spinning his arm.

That spinning arm was my invention; it was an airplane propeller. We were obsessed at that time with being airplane pilots, but while I hid this flying from my father because I was deathly afraid of him, Geppe, who wasn’t afraid of anyone, didn’t give a damn and practiced flying whenever he liked. We flew, as best we could, through the two rooms of the apartment, down the hall, down the stairs, down the street, racing around, making the sound brooon and spinning one arm. I don’t know about my brother, but for a while I was even planning to launch myself from the second-floor windowsill and take off, spinning my arm like crazy. Once I sat on the windowsill, legs dangling out, I was so sure I could do it. Then, I’m not sure why, but I changed my mind.

Where had I learned, at five years old, that an airplane has propellers, and propellers turn? Maybe my father told me as he pointed to some airplanes up in the sky. Maybe I saw them in photos or in the comics, or I saw some toy metal planes. But I’m not convinced. When I spun my arm, I saw a propeller that was extremely real; while I played, I heard and created the sound of an airplane; I was in the cockpit, and it had all the exact gadgets of a cockpit. So I tend to think that I first saw an airplane and a spinning propeller at the movies. When you’re five years old you invent a spinning arm—and that’s the propeller and you’re the pilot in the plane—only if you’ve had an airplane right there, with those sparkling circles set in the wings and all that metal and noise.

Then the year 1948 or maybe the end of 1947 seems about right: that’s when I began to understand what I was watching at the movies. During the late Forties and early Fifties, I continuously came up with these games. I was like the children Coleridge spoke of, who scold the flowers, pretending they’ve been bad, and so to do this, the children must resort to the words in which they themselves had been scolded and whipped. I gave life to dead matter through my own experience; through my own experience, I killed off what was living. I invented actions and reactions, both spoken and unspoken; I put on a show with everything, made use of everything, transformed everything as I saw fit. Coleridge says these games are precocious displays of poetry (that is, verbal artifice), past passion (that is, statements of intense emotions already lived), and pleasure (meaning, the pleasure of re-imagining one’s life through gestures and speech). I’m not sure if my games had these three qualities. During that period, my mother, between tasks, would look up at me, confused, and say: your head’s always in the clouds—let’s hope you don’t wind up addled like your father, with visions of grandeur. But it was too late to hope I didn’t have this particular illness: I was sick already, and getting sicker all the time. Movies provided wonderful experiences that I knew I could recreate to perfection. Put it this way: if Coleridge’s children had seen the movies I saw when I was little, they’d have done a lot more than just scolding flowers in grown-up voices. Someone like me, on fire with movies, was lost in a delirium of breath-taking fantasies. If not, then why did I think I was a pilot; and that I had a plane, down to the last detail; and that my windowsill wasn’t a windowsill at all, but a runway, ready for take-off?

 

My brother, lucky kid, wasn’t sick in the slightest. He just twirled his arm to burn off energy. So he ran around for months making a propeller because he found it entertaining. He ran around the theater and didn’t give a damn about the show or the audience. Once at the Ideal Theater on Via Scarlatti, the nicer movie house where my parents took us, my father, mother, and I were all trying to watch the movie, when my brother started racing around: this tiny, tiny kid shot down the right aisle, then under the screen, then popped up the left aisle, to the back of the theater, and started all over again—propeller going all the while. Finally my father jumped up, completely pissed off, and in the dark, the movie rolling on the screen, he grabbed my brother, stuck him in his seat: stay put. But it was no use; Geppe squirted away again and went back to running. What was up there on the screen just didn’t interest him like the actual space, so much space, in that room full of seats and people. So pretty quickly, my parents stopped taking him to the movies and only took me, because I kept quiet, my eyes wide, my mouth hanging open, while I stared at the screen like an idiot.

This brought on even more excitement. My grandmother took us to movies in the afternoon, but my parents took me in the evening, after supper. My mother made herself look beautiful, to compete with the actresses; my father made himself look somewhat handsome, to compete with the actors; and Geppe watched. He didn’t care about going to the movies with them: he cared that I was going without him. If he realized I was getting ready to leave, he’d shriek, wail—no one could calm him down. So I hid. Our parents would go, and I’d wait by the front door. Our grandmother distracted my brother in the kitchen while I slipped out the door and down the stairs.

I enjoyed this deception: the hiding out, the creeping away down the shadowy hall, listening for Geppe and my grandmother, keeping an eye on the kitchen door, the frosted glass sparkling in the light. For me, the movie had already begun. But now, as I write about that dark boy with red cheeks and sparkling eyes who was calling for me, anxious, looking under the bed, running to the kitchen for nonna to come help him find me, while I hid in the corner, crouched behind the cupboard, waiting for just the right moment to steal away, now, as I write, I feel what I didn’t feel back then: the weight of my betrayal.

 

Going to the movies with my parents was never the same as going with my grandmother. My father was distracting. I’d feel him watching me, seeing if I was awake, if I was enjoying the movie, and I’d have to turn and look happy just to reassure him. Those times he found the film extremely moving, he’d ask: you like it, and I felt obliged to nod yes, but I was also proud to confirm I liked exactly what he liked. He kept looking all around in the dark to see if anyone was watching his wife instead of the movie or being suggestive while smoking a cigarette next to her, breathing smoke into her jet-black hair. This made me nervous; I was afraid he’d explode, and yet I also wished the time would come when we’d have to fight, side by side, he and I, to save his wife, my mother, from being kidnapped. He smoked a lot while he watched the movie, and I’d notice the scrape of the match, the little burst of flame, the red circle of burning tobacco.

With my grandmother, it was a whole other story. She didn’t exist; what was happening on the screen swept her away along with my brothers. But she didn’t stay still: she kept hissing at Geppe who was wiggling in his seat and kicking the seat in front of him; she had to hold Toni who was bored and whimpering; she walked around with them in the dark, fed them something from her purse, gave them something to drink from the tiny flask she’d brought from home. But this fussing was always discrete, less because she worried about disturbing the audience than disturbing me.

She loved me so much that if I suffered, she suffered all the more—if I so much as twisted my mouth, she was angry at the person who twisted it. Through her love, boundless and unfounded like all real love, my grandmother was convinced that I was truly remarkable, not just sick with the same visions of grandeur as my father, whom she detested; and to ease my way along the path to my magnificent future, she tried her hardest to make sure I had every privilege: the best meat, with none of the white nerves; no tomato seeds or skin in my pasta; not even a bit of parsley or basil or other herb on my plate, because just seeing it there made me retch; perfectly peeled fruit, even grapes; the right to read tucked away in some corner of the apartment where my brothers wouldn’t disturb me; the possibility of seeing movies in blessed peace. Thanks to her, I disappeared into movie-time, safe from all distraction.

Such a joy.

The duration of a movie, enclosed between what came before and after, was like nothing else, was incomparable. Before came the worrying about getting there, going in, sitting down, forgetting there ever was a before. After came the struggle to hold onto the movie, to linger in a dreamy stupor, to push back the dull street, the outside air on a late afternoon or evening.

How I loved the air inside the Stadium movie house: smoky, sweaty, full of breathing, bad smells, darklight. Here, I’m being somewhat ironic with my descriptions, as I try to break this word down. But back then it was special, the same air, let’s say, that Johnny Weissmuller breathed in Tarzan and the Hunters or Lex Barker breathed in Tarzan’s Magic Fountain. It was so special, that when I stepped out into the fresh country air we still had in Vomero in the early Fifties, I felt disappointed, confused, aching, and I was sad not to be breathing alongside the animals and people on the screen, that I had to give up all that lovely air which, in that jungle of a theater, just kept floating along without me.

I don’t know if people still notice the change at the entrance or exit to the theater. Maybe so, maybe a child can tell, but the experience must be bland, not particularly exciting. There are too many other things to get excited over. But when I walked into the theater, I was in a complete rush to forget the mixed-up world I’d just come from, and leaving once again, I was completely listless when I had to readjust to a world—not of imagined black and white or splendid Technicolor—but of meaningless color, with confused sounds, words in dialect from home, no one moving around to background music. The time on the screen was what I longed for, what I couldn’t miss.

Truth is, I already knew about an extremely hypnotic time: story-time. At night, I hung on my grandmother’s every word while she told me stories in dialect, fairytales and stories from the lives of saints, and when I was seven or eight, I started reading everything I could, from hydraulics manuals to Heart. Through listening, reading, I saw, saw everything. An example: my grandmother’s story about the devil who disguised himself as a beautiful young lady and tempted Saint Anthony, saying, Sant’ Antuó, touch my tits, but Saint Anthony refused, and the lady, enraged she’d failed, burst into flames, flames everywhere, and so it had to be the devil himself, and when my grandmother told me this story, I saw the devil like a black smudge, and Saint Anthony in his brown habit, and the lady, blonde like my mother’s blonde assistant, with flames licking her tits that were just like the ones I caught sight of inside my grandmother’s nightgown when she tucked me in at night. Another example: when Mario, the young protagonist of “Shipwreck,” the last episode in Heart, chose to save Giulietta instead of himself, tossing the little girl into the water so the sailors on the lifeboat could rescue her, I saw the stormy sea; the boat; the sailors; Giulietta, blonde like my mother’s assistant, on the crest of a frothy wave; the ship; Mario, hair whipping in the wind, going down with the ship. But what I saw—and it was exactly this hallucinated sight that I found so entertaining—was never, never like a movie, never so precise or so structured, even if it moved.

I stepped into that dark theater and the lions and the snakes and the horses and the boats and the waves and the women and the men and Tarzan and Jane and Cita (I only learned recently that it’s spelled “Cheetah”) and the magic fountain and the hunters and everything—all of it was extremely real. They moved, breathed, roared, spoke, fired, and so composed a story that made you tremble in your seat. Sure, later I felt it was exactly this precision, this clarity, that made movies less powerful than oral or written stories, which are more indefinite by nature; but back then, as a boy, if it came to seeing the three musketeers’ adventures while reading or seeing them on the screen, there was never any doubt: it was better seeing them on the screen, always and forever. And so I sat, completely happy, and I watched.

From Fare Scene: Una Storia Di Cinema. Published 2010 by minimum fax. Copyright 2010 by Domenico Starnone. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2011 by Elizabeth Harris. All rights reserved.