What’s fucking maddening about this is I know I wrote an essay about Paisan, and I remember even thinking it was a good one; I just saw it the other day, occupying three pages in the same notebook from which I picked up the Children of Paradise essay. But now I can’t find it. Maybe it wasn’t actually there.
Fuck it. I remember the movie well enough to at least give these broad strokes: it’s another war movie, set in Italy, by Roberto Rossellini, a follow-up to Rome, Open City; and it’s also an anthology piece, which allows for a more comprehensive exploration of the postwar mood; it addresses PTSD in soldiers, the doomed maneuvers of rebel forces, the courage of civilians and the strange new shapes of romantic love. But, as tends to be the inevitable pratfall of anthologies, some stories work and others don’t, and the full package ends up feeling imbalanced (I just wrote a piece about this, soon to be published at Jitney, covering the new Coen Bros anthology). Paisan, fortunately, starts strong and ends strong, and we get glimpses in between of that powerful stuff that made a masterpiece of Open City. But the anthology as a whole felt like the portrait of a filmmaker working through his chosen subject matter with more work ethic than passion. It’s all rendered dutifully while Open City felt like he’d chiseled it outta stone with his fingernails.
Earlier this year I read and fell in love with Don Winslow’s novel The Power of the Dog. It’s the first volume in a trilogy about drug cartels in Mexico that also works as a history lesson. It’s violent, exciting, erotic, educational, and exhaustively researched. Apparently Winslow’s been on the literary scene for a while but only recently, with this series and another major novel about the NYPD, exploded to the heights of literary super stardom. I think I read somewhere that he just got an eight-figure payday for something, either movie rights or a book deal.
Anyway: I’ve bought and plan to read the second volume of that trilogy, Cartel, and I plan to wait in line at the bookstore this coming February when the concluding volume, The Border, is finally released. The reason I bring it up is because Winslow addresses this series of books in interviews as though they’re the heart of his career, the text he was born to write and toward which his earlier work was a set of building blocks.
So I’ve got this two-pronged fascination: on the one hand, I love this series and I’m really interested to see how it ends; on the other hand, I wanna see how Winslow sustains his own interest, as well as the reader’s, and if the trilogy will have vibes, upon its completion, of being a kind of fully-rounded opus.
Because I’d imagine that when you do encounter a topic that captures your heart and galvanizes you into a kind of creative renaissance, you wanna do as much as you can with it, wanna totally empty your bag of tricks, give it everything.
But there’s also the challenge of knowing when to stop. This is a particular issue with short-form work, whether it’s a short story of a vignette in a film, because there’s an easy middle-ground to achieve, where it’s longer than a short but too brief to be a feature. There’s something about that purgatorial middle-space that feels lazy and exhausting.
I do think that Rossellini is exercising restraint here but it often feels more like he’s trying to capture our imaginations with an idea, or a premise, more than he’s trying to compel us toward the characters.
The first story, wherein an American soldier bonds with a young Italian woman before some Nazis appear, is the strongest of the bunch, I think, so that one’s exempt, but I’m thinking particularly of the story that shows a beautiful young sex worker picking up a beautiful young GI and realizing that they fell in love at the start of the war, got separated, and now, though he talks of hodling out hope that he’ll see her again, he doesn’t recognize her as that woman. There’s a sad ending to it, and the feeling resonates as we move forward, but it felt cerebral where it should have felt more like a gut punch. it wasn’t the character that stayed with me so much as the haunting idea of how this might have actually happened. The tragic poetic irony.
Then there’s a section where a soldier goes to see a bunch of Catholic leaders, I forgot their title, and there’s some tension among them when they find out the soldier isn’t Catholic too — something like that, I don’t remember it very well, but it’s interesting that Rossellinin would do a story on love and another on resistance and another on God — we can see that he’s really trying to explore this hyperobject, the War, from so many different angles as though he’s hoping that a well-rounded study will somehow crack it open, reveal some great truth.
My friend Steve, the book critic, has talked on camera about his fascination with the macro elements of WWII, the bramble and clash of nations and ships, but also the tapestry of a trillion different stories, episodes in the lives of civilians all over the world whose lives were affected by the whole thing.
Even now, writing about it, I feel like I’m talking myself into a greater appreciation of Paisan, or at least of the ideas and motives behind it.
Ahdunno. I say this a lot in the Project but I think this is another instance of appreciating a movie more than I enjoy it.