I 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 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 the location was a Greek Island, 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 1997, after finishing my second animated film Desert Dive Inn, I received a Bush Fellowship. The Bush Foundation was established in the 1950’s by the eponymous 3M Corporation executive to fund creative and social work. The individual artist stipend in 1997 was about forty thousand dollars, a big sum for me. The fellowship contract stipulated that I focus primarily on creative work during the year in which I received the money, not working more than quarter time at any other paying job. My first thought when I opened the notification letter was, “I’ll take a leave of absence from teaching at the Arts High School and travel to the cliff top house from Contempt.”
I booked a flight to Rome, leaving from Minneapolis in January, 1998 and returning in March, about ten weeks of freeform travel. This was my first trip to Europe, my first experience with jet lag and my first extended stay outside of my own language. 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 imagined that my obsession with books and movies had prepared me for travel, but the actual experience was more alienating than anticipated. I walked aimlessly around 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 plan the next morning was to find 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 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 his shoot.
I wandered with my sketchbook around Rome for a few days, drawing sculptures and stray cats. On one walk I passed a movie theater that played current Hollywood films. I understood from the posters, however, that the films were overdubbed in Italian and not subtitled. In an interview with Jim Jarmusch, he described watching movies in Japan without subtitles and actively superimposing his own story upon the visuals. 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 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 on a hotel television.) As I sat waiting in the theater for the film to start, a man approached 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 there 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 more irritated demeanor and said “No, scusa.” He shook his head and walked away and it 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 a ferry left for Corfu. The collapse of the Albanian economy had created the Mediterranean refugee crisis of that moment 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. I walked on fallen olives and saw that 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 the 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 that which I’d seen in the film, but 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 the sea outdid their romanticized depictions in films and travel posters.
I began to wind my way through the Cyclades, staying approximately a week on each island, letting the infrequent offseason ferries determine my route: Syros, Tinos, Mykonos, Naxos, Santorini, Rhodes and back again to the port Piraeus near Athens. During the winter only one hotel and one restaurant were open for local business in each town. I fell into a daily routine: 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, rugged mountain peaks emerging from the sea, my ten weeks felt like 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.
Into this glorified, voluntary confinement a movie arrived once a week with the ferries. The port town held a 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. The 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 or by switching back and forth between alternating reels on two projectors. The little flashing dots that the audience saw at the end of reels were a cue to the projectionist that the switch was coming.
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 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 incrementally through the story, the emotions in the breaks grew more intense. Eventually, I was adopted as a member of the local circle and handed a bottle of beer. By the end of the film, over 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 only memory of one of them is freeing a goat from a wire fence. He had tangled his horns 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 of a distant past 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 came to me 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 fundamental metaphor of staking a civilized claim in the wilderness. My daily sketches of these landscapes, as a slightly more abstract analogy, always began with the wilderness of a blank white page. I organized that mental space, also an unmarked space, by committing graphite marks to the paper and leaving a record 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 reassuring 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. My main activity became meaning, making a metaphorical path through the unfamiliar world I experienced with my senses and emotions, leaving a line of marks like footprints behind me. These are now my memories of the place.
One day late in the trip, during my second stay on Tinos as I made my way back to Piraeus, I climbed to a now-familiar spot at the very top of the island where a weathered stone crucifix stood. At this altitude, the wind was 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 that my confidence had returned along with an appetite and enthusiasm for the future. I felt like myself again, but renewed and independent. I had survived the death of my marriage, the chastening of my youthful expectations. It struck me as remarkable that the people we loved could evolve from an inextricable part of our daily lives to an uncomfortable, depressing circumstance and then to a merely bittersweet and manageable past. This arbitrary desert exile, motivated originally by a misconception while watching Godard's Contempt fifteen years earlier, had provided a necessary path through the wilderness for me.