I first saw Jean Luc Godard’s “Contempt” at Lawrence University in the early 1980’s. The long, apartment-bound argument between Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot resonated more deeply with me later, when I saw the film again in my thirties after my divorce. What impressed me most during that first viewing was simply the producer’s house on the cliff edge and the Mediterranean landscape surrounding it. I assumed that this location was a Greek island, perhaps because the characters are shooting “The Odyssey” as the film within the film. (I learned decades later that the house is actually on the Italian island of Capri.) Walking out of the Film Club auditorium in Appleton, Wisconsin, I resolved to travel to the Greek Islands at some undefined future moment in my life.
In 1997, after surviving the five-year production of my second film “Desert Dive Inn,” I was rewarded with a Bush Foundation Fellowship. The Bush Foundation was established in the 1950’s by the eponymous 3M Corporation executive to fund creative work and social advocacy. In 1997 the individual artist stipend was about forty thousand dollars, a considerable sum for me. The fellowship contract also stipulated that, during the year in which you received the money, you wouldn’t work more than quarter time at any other paying job; you were obliged to focus primarily on your creative life. My first thought upon opening the notification letter was, “I’ll take a leave of absence from teaching at the Arts High School and travel to find the cliff top house from ‘Contempt.’”
I booked a flight to Rome, leaving from Minneapolis in January of 1998 and returning in March; I recall that I had about ten weeks between departure and return. This was my first trip to Europe, my first experience with jet lag, my first extended foray outside of my own language and, by the time I arrived in a tiny penzione near the Termini Station in Rome, I was bewildered. “I’ve just committed myself to two and a half months of travelling!” I lamented, as I stared through my stained window at a crumbling wall. Somehow, I had imagined that my obsession with books and movies had prepared me for travelling, but the experience in actuality was more alienating than anticipated. I walked around in the busy, unfamiliar city, feeling shy without the language, timidly bought an odd-smelling sausage in a small grocery and then slept heavily.
My first intention when I awoke the next morning was to locate the Fontana di Trevi, which I would recognize from the famous Anita Ekberg/Marcello Mastroianni flirtation in “La Dolce Vita.” What I found was a diminished, scale-model version of the fountain, wedged into a tight alley and completely lacking the grandeur that I remembered from the film. I wondered if perhaps Fellini had constructed a more magnificent replica in the Cinecitta studios for the purposes of his shoot.
I wandered with my sketchbook around Rome for a few days, drawing sculptures and stray cats. On one of my walks I passed a movie theater that played current Hollywood films. “Great, this is a way for me to get my bearings,” I thought. I understood from the posters, however, that the films were not subtitled, but overdubbed in Italian. An interview with Jim Jarmusch came to mind, in which he described watching movies in Japan without subtitles and actively superimposing his own narrative upon the visual experience. That night I watched “The Jackel” in the same manner. My only clear memory of the film is that Bruce Willis plays a professional killer and that the unnaturally dissociated voice emerging from him often growled va bene or tutto va bene or va bene cosi. (I later heard Captain Kirk speaking with the same voice in an episode of “Star Trek.”) As I sat waiting in the theater for the film to start, a man approached me and asked something in Italian. Just as I was about to respond, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Italian,” it occurred to me that I would then have to explain why I was here to see a film overdubbed in Italian and so I just shrugged my shoulders emphatically and said “No.” He looked surprised, scanned the four or five empty seats next to me and asked his question again with a skeptical tone. I adopted a slightly more irritated demeanor and said “No, scusa.” He shook his head and walked away and it immediately dawned upon me that he was asking if he could sit in the empty seats next to me. As the lights began to dim, I crept to a remote back corner of the theater.
A few days later I took a train south to the port town of Bari where I planned to connect with the ferry to Corfu. The Mediterranean refugee crisis of that moment had been created by the collapse of the Albanian economy and, as I walked through the port, I passed groups of mute, placeless people who had just crossed the sea on rafts and had been herded into makeshift pens. Once on the ferry, because this was the offseason for tourism, I found myself alone with a group of Italian truck drivers. They chain-smoked, passed a bottle and, when they looked in my direction, would laugh derisively and say something that ended with the word ‘signora.’ Eighteen sleepless hours later, I arrived in the port city of Corfu, rented a room and tried to sleep while I listened to noisy sex through a wall with a rough-hewn wooden cross hanging on it.
The following day I boarded a bus at random and rode to a village called Paleokastritsa, which I now know is near the home that Gerald Durrell describes in his memoir “My Family and Other Animals.” I climbed a steep stone-cobbled path, passing an old woman leading sheep and goats downhill with a stick. At a certain point, I was walking on olives that had fallen on the ground; they were surprisingly juicy and red inside like a berry. The path led to a monastery where I briefly watched monks squeezing oil out of olives with a squeaking wooden press. Then I walked to the edge of a cliff and looked down upon the shifting sea; I had suddenly arrived in “Contempt.” The landscape resembled exactly that which I’d seen in the film, but it was deeper and more resonant, a great blue world of air and sky and water and rock, atwitter with bird sounds and redolent of almond blossoms. Remarkably, these islands and this sea outdid their romanticized depictions in films and travel posters.
I began to wind my way through the Cycladic Islands, staying approximately a week on each island, allowing the infrequent, offseason ferries to determine my route: Syros, Tinos, Mykonos, Naxos, Santorini, Rhodes and back again to the port Piraeus near Athens. During this time of the year most towns had only one hotel and one restaurant open for local business. My routine on the islands was always the same: wake up, eat a boiled egg and yogurt in the hotel, search for a three-day-old International Herald Tribune newspaper in English that I would read slowly to the last word and then hike in a different direction than I had the previous day. I would return for lunch to eat some indefinable part of a goat with a fractured bone protruding from watery tomato sauce, drinking a large bottle of Amstel beer. Despite the desolate beauty of the islands, which I saw as the rugged tops of mountains emerging from the sea, my ten weeks began to resemble a prison sentence. I’d follow a path to a cliff’s edge and sit looking at the water, like Steve McQueen on Devil’s Island at the end of “Papillion,” cultivating patience.
One of the compensations in this glorified, voluntary confinement was the movie that arrived once a week with the ferries. Every port town had a weekly screening in a provisional theater with whatever print appeared, usually a recent Hollywood film. Unlike the Italians, the Greeks subtitled films, keeping the original language soundtrack. One night, in an old fort above the port town of Naxos, I endured James Cameron’s “Titanikos” over the course of five hours. The screening lasted that long because the cinema had only one 35mm projector. 35mm prints were shipped on twenty-minute reels and a projectionist normally created the film’s continuity by mounting the whole print on a platter system as I had done in the Pillsbury Auditorium or by switching back and forth between two projectors, one reel at a time. The little flashing dots that the audience saw at the end of reels were a cue to the projectionist that the switch was imminent.
I sat in a damp stone room with two dozen locals on folding metal chairs. We watched twenty minutes of the film. Then a necessary intermission followed to mount the next reel on the sole projector, with the breaks extending into smoking, talking, drinking and eating grilled cheese sandwiches. During the first few reels, I sat on my own as an outsider, waiting a little impatiently for the movie to begin again. As we progressed slowly in this fashion through the narrative, the emotions in the breaks grew more intense. Eventually, I was adopted as a member of the tribe and handed a bottle of beer. By the end of the film, nearly five hours after we set out together, everyone was weeping and slapping their chests in identification with Leonardo DiCaprio’s nobility. A big woman with a pronounced moustache took me in her arms and lifted me off the ground, sobbing powerfully.
Outside of these once-a-week film screenings, my days were often so uneventful that my major memory of one of them is freeing a goat from a wire fence. He had tangled his horns in the fence while grazing. After I worked his head out of the wire, he walked casually away from me, pausing and turning back with a look of benign gratitude and then disappeared over a hill.
In these undifferentiated landscapes, agrafa - unwritten places, I became increasingly aware of the paths I followed. On a largely undeveloped island like Tinos, one could walk almost anywhere because the vegetation was so sparse. But inhabitants, in a time much removed from the present, had decided that some routes were better than others and had stacked low rock walls to designate an official path from somewhere to somewhere else. A phrase entered my mind one day while walking, “Somebody built these paths who didn’t want to do everything for the first time anymore.” Stacking one rock upon another is a significant gesture; a path is a fundamental metaphor of staking a civilized claim in the wilderness. My daily sketches of these landscapes, as a slightly more abstract example, always began with the wilderness of a blank, white page. I organized that mental space, also an unmarked place, by committing graphite marks to the paper and creating a representation of my experience. On February 14th, 1998 I wrote this description in my sketchbook next to a drawing of olive trees:
I’m sitting, drawing a row of olive trees curving out of sight over the edge of a hill, a bird croaking at me from a safe distance. I have a colored pencil called “olive.” It’s nice to have a color named specifically for the thing you’re drawing. Though, in truth, the leaves are a little drabber than the pencil indicates.
I sat looking at olive trees, listening to a bird. I drew the olive trees. And then I described the act, and the limitations, of my representation of the scene I was experiencing. My main activity was making meaning, making a metaphorical path through the chaos of the world I experienced with my senses and emotions. I’m doing the same thing by laying down this sentence now, leaving a line of marks, like footprints, behind me, writing the unwritten landscape of my memory into being.
One day late in my trip, during my second stay on Tinos as I made my way back to Piraeus, I climbed to a familiar spot at the very top of the island where a weathered stone crucifix stood. At this altitude, the wind was always strong and constant. I spun with my arms extended, leaned into the wind, and scanned the horizon in all directions. I saw other islands that I’d climbed previously, vibrating in the haze of distance, and I recognized suddenly that my confidence had returned, along with an appetite and enthusiasm for the future. I was myself again, but renewed and independent. I had survived the death of my marriage, the dissolution of my youthful expectations and ideals. It struck me as remarkable that the people we loved could transition from an inextricable part of our daily lives to an uncomfortable, depressing circumstance and then to a merely bittersweet and manageable past. In retrospect, this arbitrary desert exile, motivated originally by a misconception created while watching “Contempt” fifteen years earlier, provided a necessary path through the wilderness for me.