The Ephemeral Real, Part I

By Drew JohnsonAugust 26, 2014

The Ephemeral Real, Part I


a boat on its side in the water, removed from the Italian coastline last month … in a film, The Great Beauty, forever. This is the first article in a series of six.

Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty is a fine movie — won an Oscar and so forth — but I’m writing this because of a single, odd, not entirely characteristic image which jumped out and stuck with me through the balance of the film’s 142 minutes. The film doesn’t lack for images. In some ways it’s all images: beautiful sequences, long, slow shots from perfectly placed cameras. There’s a divisive, music video quality to it all — indeed my shot comes within a montage over which Damien Jurado’s “Everything Trying” plays. And I should mention that the plot doesn’t matter so very much to what I’m putting in play here. Suffice it to say that Toni Servillo plays Jep Gambardella, a bon vivant of the Roman high life, a journalist, a sometime novelist. That’s about it.

But, after the death of a friend, Jep finally follows through on one of his editor’s requests: that he visit the Costa Concordia. He does and we see him see the shipwreck. That’s the image.

Ephemeral Real 1
The Costa Concordia, an Italian pleasure ship, ran aground and capsized near Isola del Giglio, off the coast of Tuscany, in January of 2012. The captain left the ship early, couldn’t be persuaded to return, and is facing prosecution. Thirty-two people died.

Last month, the ship was floated and hauled off to the shipbreakers. But, before that, the shipwreck sat in plain view, and was included almost as a throwaway in The Great Beauty. For some Italians, it was a symbol of national malaise, not unlike the handwringing over the far more lethal South Korean ferry disaster earlier this year. Ship of state — some analogies die very hard.

As of this week, any version of this image is impossible.

But this image, within the film — a man looking out at a shipwreck or, more to the point, a fictional character looking out at a real shipwreck — kept me thinking. For the image itself there were obvious antecedents. The atmosphere of the scene and of the whole movie is Fellini’s, something Sorrentino doesn’t sidestep but goes right at throughout the movie. But the view of the figure looking seems like something else, and of the viewer looking over the figure’s shoulder? If the image were urban, Caillebotte, but it isn’t — it’s coastal, so Caspar David Friedrich springs to mind. But it wasn’t the composition that truly struck me, I realized. It was the circumstance. And I gave it a name — the ephemeral real.

I’ve always been interested in events so large that they can’t be removed or obscured from the fictional world without leaving visible scars.

Ephemeral Real 2
Looking at the image, puzzling over what else I’d seen that was like it, I decided upon some rules. No buildings, for example. Old buildings are great pretenders to time and great movie sets, but they’re not only so common in movies that they scarcely register, they’re incredibly common for most of us in daily life. Admittedly, in some parts of America, there are now long stretches of construction where nothing is more than 15 years old, but — for me at least — that’s still the less common experience. The different buildings on a city block pull us back and forth through time. We don’t even notice. And the ephemeral real is something one notices.

Also, the ephemeral real is almost always noticeably real. By this, I not only mean no CGI — no CGI seems obvious — but also that the real imposes composition and cinematography on the film rather than vice versa. Filmmakers want to include the object to the point that they’re willing to let their aesthetic lapse. Sorrentino wants the Costa Concordia and so he shoots it where it rests dramatically, but rather statically, on its side, from the shore, over Toni Servillo’s shoulder. You can bet that no one would conjure a CGI shipwreck resting at such a mundane angle. Shooting a real object, just like shooting a real face, produces a sense of the filmmaker’s collaborating with things he cannot quite control — this feeling is heightened as more and more of what we see coheres as only the products of the blank screen cohere is conjured from nothing.

Finally, the ephemeral real must be playing itself or some near equivalent. The leap between reality and fiction can’t be too far. I’m going to break this rule at least once (maybe a couple of times) myself. But let me tell you what the ephemeral real isn’t: while the treasury house at Petra is included in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (and is grander than anything purely planned and CGI’ed in The Crystal Skull), Spielberg leaves the reality of the place so far behind — a first-century Nabatean mausoleum becomes a supernatural refuge for Holy Grails and medieval crusaders — that the real is just a party hat, a mask.

Ephemeral Real 3
For, in The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino’s journalist exists in a post-Berlusconi Rome very much like our own. He’s able to step easily from his world to the Costa Concordia and back. Another way of saying it is that the Costa Concordia is in Paolo Sorrentino’s Italy, too.

So, those are the three things I care most about. The ephemeral real must be 1) an object that is time-sensitive and whose sensitivity to time we are aware of, 2) clearly “composed” by the real world and whose inclusion disrupts the reigning invented aesthetic of a film, even if only slightly, and 3) the object must play itself or a near-equivalent.

In its oldest English usage, the word ephemera refers to a fever that lasts only for a day. I don’t find that inappropriate here, thinking how a sudden flash of the real can feel within a visual fiction. Fever, too, reminds me of something Guy Davenport tells us: that the original meaning of surreal was not a dreamlike effect, but a heightened sense of reality. More than photography, cinema has laid claim to the provinces of dreams, madness, and religious visions, of our perception in moments of panic, disaster, and euphoria, even of that waking feeling of the surreal: déjà vu.

Think of the ephemeral real as a cousin of déjà vu, then — a particular strain of the heightened, feverish way our sight weaves in and out of alignment with what we think we know and where we think we are.


LARB Contributor

Drew Johnson’s grandmother played piano to accompany the silent films showing at her father’s theater in Pearl City, Hawaii, in the 1920s. Johnson’s other grandfather managed the Rialto — a B-movie theater in Danville, Virginia — in the ’40s and ’50s: monster movies, live performers, barbecue. In his own lifetime, Drew has spent some hours staring at the screen. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, The Literary Review, VQR, New England Review, The Cupboard, and elsewhere. His essays and other writing have appeared or are forthcoming at The Literary Hub, The Paris Review Daily, The Cincinnati Review, The Believer, Bookslut, and elsewhere. He lives in Williamsburg, Massachusetts — by way of Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, and Florida.


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