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Apr
03

The constant Casanova

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Here we go again.

Here we go again.

If you think the tides are predictable, consider the movie industry and Venice.

Many and varied have been the films made here, from “The Wings of the Dove” to “Death in Venice” to “The Tourist” and on and on.  And those are just a few titles in English; plenty of other nations have sent their troupes here to act out among the canals.  Has anyone seen Nenu Naa RakshasiLes Enfants du Siecle?

But you can’t go wrong with Giacomo Casanova.  Sure, we’ve seen Effie Gray‘s life detailed — it’s finally coming out this week — and George Sand and Chopin (all so famous in their day), but these are not marquee names.  Casanova, though, is a product with no expiration date; his exploits, real or imagined, have made him film fodder no fewer than eleven times.  Sorry, make that twelve, counting the one they were shooting here a few days ago.

Amazon is getting into the streaming-films game (see: Netflix and Marco Polo), and this version of the madcap entrepreneur’s life will focus, I was told, on Casanova after he went into exile (think Paris and Budapest).  It was a movie-worthy life pretty much up to the end.  He was definitely not all show (or as they say here, “Beautiful vineyard but puny grapes”); here is something he wrote about his famous escape from prison which deserves to be read and remembered:

“Thus did God provide me with what I needed for an escape which was to be a wonder if not a miracle. I admit that I am proud of it; but my pride does not come from my having succeeded, for luck had a good deal to do with that; it comes from my having concluded that the thing could be done and having had the courage to undertake it.

Now back to me and our two days with the boats.

Dawn is a great time to be out filming.  Not much traffic, and plenty of atmosphere.

Dawn is a great time to be out filming. Not much traffic, and plenty of atmosphere.

Sunday  morning before dawn, at dawn, after dawn.  The task was for Alvise Rigo, a member of our boating organization, Arzana', to row Casanova's stunt double up and down a small stretch of the Grand Canal.  Happily, there was little wind and few waves and not a whole lot of current.  But it was chilly and damp, and sitting still for an hour or two couldn't have been very pleasant.  But like the man said as he removed the elephant droppings after the circus closed, "What?  And give up show business?"

Sunday morning before dawn, at dawn, after dawn. The task was for Alvise Rigo, a member of our boating organization, Arzana’, to row Casanova’s stunt double up and down a small stretch of the Grand Canal. Happily, there was little wind and few waves and not a whole lot of current. But it was chilly and damp, and sitting still for an hour or two couldn’t have been very pleasant. But like the man said as he removed the elephant droppings after the circus closed, “What? And give up show business?”

Making a movie, from what I have seen, is like writing “Remembrance of Things Past” on an endless series of postage stamps.  Enormous amounts of toil involving equipment, technicians, objects of every sort, humans of every pay grade, and uncounted hours of just loading and unloading things, setting them up and taking them down, are dedicated to putting even the tiniest fragments of story on film.

Last Sunday and Monday the filming was in high gear in Venice; at certain crucial moments Giacomo would need a boat, and Lino and I and several others were there with two vessels: a small mascareta that just sat there and looked boaty, and a gondola, a replica built several years ago of the type used in the 18th century, to aid his escape (or so it appeared).  No costumes or makeup for us this time, we were just the boat wranglers.

Which was fine with me.  Although I thoroughly enjoy getting paid, even just a few euros, for just standing around doing nothing, doing something is better in most ways.  So we had episodes of rowing, and pushing, and pulling, and lifting, and watching mobs of multilingual people doing stuff you are unable to comprehend in any useful way.

Here is something I discovered: When the director yells “Silenzio!!” just before “Action!” you can hear a baby hiccup in the hospital on the mainland.  You cannot believe how many noises there are in normal life until it’s imperative that you hear nothing.  That was the most entertaining thing of all: What is that tiny little humming behind that building at the end of the street?  How can shoes with rubber soles actually make a sound going over the bridge behind you?  The canal is blocked by a watch-boat at both ends to block traffic.  The waiting boats have to turn off their engines.  Total silence falls.

Then the church bells start to ring.

Finally they stop.  “Action!”  (Action.)  “Cut!”  (Lunch.)

Then we rowed the boats back home.  That was it.

Fred Astaire once stated that he only “did it for the dough and the old applause.”  For me, no need to rush on the applause.

Dawn was lovely, but they needed fog. Happily, they'd brought their own, pouring out of canisters and swept around by someone with a big wooden paddle. Being a fog designer must be a very specialized skill.

Dawn was lovely, but they needed fog. Happily, they’d brought their own, pouring out of canisters and swept around by someone with a big wooden paddle. Being a fog designer must be a very specialized skill.

Canisters at the ready, they wait for the next cue.  And by the way, the fake fog (or real smoke, or whatever it is) had a fairly unpleasant odor that made you think of a factory that had avoided inspections for quite a while.

Canisters at the ready, they wait for the next cue. And by the way, the fake fog (or real smoke, or whatever it is) had a fairly unpleasant odor that made you think of a factory that had avoided inspections for quite a while.

IMG_6746  casa

Moody.  Keep it going because the sun is coming up.

Moody. Keep it going because the sun is coming up.

IMG_6722  casa

In the intervals between fog banks, the sun continued to rise; at 7:05 or so, it hit the mosaics on the facade of the Salviati palace.

In the intervals between fog banks, the sun continued to rise, like it does; at 7:05 or so, the light hit the mosaics on the facade of the Palazzo Barbarigo.

Next stop was by Campo San Giacomo dell'Orio, where Alvise waited to be told where he had to meet the fog again.

Next stop was by Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio, where Alvise waited to be told where he had to meet the fog again.

But wait -- the coat's not funky enough.  A pump canister sprayed some unpleasant color on the fabric -- perhaps he needed to look as if he'd slept under a bridge.  His wig certainly gave that impression.

But wait — the coat’s not funky enough. A pump canister sprayed some unpleasant color on the fabric — perhaps he needed to look as if he’d slept under a bridge. His wig certainly gave that impression.

Did I just mention the wig?  Evidently it was too neat, or clean, or something.  Can't have that, so on with another substance.

Did I just mention the wig? Evidently it was too neat, or clean, or something. Can’t have that, so on with another substance.

And more waiting....

And more waiting….

Fog!  That's his cue!

Fog!  That’s his cue!

Lino and I rowed the gondola over to our next location, behind Campo SS. Giovanni e Paolo, where it was our turn to wait.  Just think: Somebody came rowing by that Lino knows. They exchanged variationson the "What are you doing here?" theme and the friend rowed on.

Lino and I rowed the gondola over to our next location, behind Campo SS. Giovanni e Paolo, where it was our turn to wait.  Somebody came rowing by and just think — it was somebody that Lino knows. They exchanged variations on the “Working hard?” “Hardly working” theme  and the friend rowed on.

Monday morning we all met (and this isn't even "all" yet) at S. Francesco de la Vigna.  On such a glorious spring morning, what more could we need but....

Monday morning we all met (and this isn’t even “all” yet) at S. Francesco de la Vigna. On such a glorious spring morning, the only thing missing is….

Fog!  This time we've got heavy-duty blasters that look like dustbusters gone berserk.

Fog! This time we’ve got heavy-duty blasters that look like dustbusters gone berserk.

Yep, we're getting up to speed, koff koff.  Can anybody see the actors?  Are they even here?

Yep, we’re getting up to speed, koff koff. Can anybody see the actors? Are they even here?

Action!  Casanova races ahead of his faithful accomplice toward the waiting gondola.  It took approximately 20 seconds. They did this five times,

Action! Casanova races ahead of his faithful accomplice toward the waiting gondola. It took approximately 20 seconds. They did this five times,

The humble mascareta was being prepared for its big moment.  It was loaded with fishing nets, which the accomplice stopped to wildly rummage among on the way to the gondola.  But this will be the close-up shot of said rummaging, so we need to do as much titivating to the boat as they do to the actors.

The humble mascareta was being prepared for its big moment. It was loaded with fishing nets, which the accomplice stopped to wildly rummage among on the way to the gondola. But this will be the close-up shot of said rummaging, so we need to do as much titivating to the boat as they do to the actors.

There were so many people clustered  around the boat peering at it that I thought maybe it was about to give birth or something.

There were so many people clustered around the boat peering at it that I thought maybe it was about to give birth or something.

Yes, Mr. DeMille, it's ready for its closeup  now.

Yes, Mr. DeMille, it’s ready for its closeup now.

Preparing for the next fragment: Casanova in the boat (to which he has just raced, you recall).  But something is missing, you say?  Tehre is a boat in the distance prepared to correct that...

Preparing for the next fragment: Casanova in the boat (to which he has just raced, you recall). But something is missing, you say?  Ah, but there is a boat in the distance prepared to correct that…

FOG!!  It's going to be bearing down on us any minute.  This point is correct historically, may I mention, so kudos to the researcher.  There was loads of fog, which was a huge help to the fleeing hero.  Koff Koff.

FOG!! It’s going to be bearing down on us any minute. This point is correct historically, may I mention, so kudos to the researcher. There was loads of fog on the fateful day, which was a huge help to the fleeing hero. Koff koff.

And of course, the original Casanova didn't have much spare time to check his e-mail.

And of course, the original Casanova didn’t have much spare time to check his e-mail.

 

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Jan
09

Look me in the eyes

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Muhamed Pozhari (La Nuova Venezia, no credit line given).

Muhamed Pozhari (La Nuova Venezia, no credit line given).

The year has started with a spontaneous act of courage which has heartened many people, especially those whose default opinion of humanity is not lovely at all.

It was December 31 — New Year’s Eve, around 3:00 PM.  Muhamed Pozhari, a 25-year-old illegal immigrant from Kosovo who kept body and soul connected by day work as a mason, was pushing a handtruck loaded with bags of cement from Piazzale Roma to Rialto.

As he began to horse the heavy load over the bridge spanning the rio dei Tolentini, he heard cries.  A man, soon identified as Maurizio Boscolo, 63, had fallen in the canal.  Theories were contradictory but it seems that he slipped while attempting to recover his 20-euro banknote which had somehow wafted into the water. Boscolo was (understandably) flailing around, with few or no results. It didn’t look good.

According to reports, various passersby stopped passing by and stood there, looking. I can understand the stopping; I can’t understand the standing there. (One report says that at least one person began to take photographs, but I have completely shut my mind to that, especially if it’s true.)

“I was crossing the bridge when I saw the man who had slipped and fallen in the water,” Pozhari later recounted.  “He was looking me in the eyes, desperate. Everybody was standing there looking and I felt like I had to do something. I jumped in to save him.

“The water was very low and he was sinking in the mud.  I tried to pull him up but in doing that I was also sinking in the mud.  Then two people came to help.”

Muddy, freezing, soaking wet, the two men were hauled ashore.  Pozhari no longer had his cell phone or his ID or his money, because he hadn’t stopped to take them out of his pockets before plunging in. Boscolo, however, no longer had his 20 euros or, not long afterwards, his life.

The excitement was now divided between the victim and the savior.  Some people offered Pozhari money, which he refused.  Staff at the nearby Hotel Papadopoli asked him to come in and have a hot shower, but he refused because he didn’t want to have to start answering awkward questions about his identity and all. However, an architect whose studio was nearby, Pozhari later related, induced him to come inside, where he accepted a shower and a change of clothes, and some pocket money.

Then Pozhari went home, back to the mainland where he was staying with friends. I suppose he intended to just disappear again into his under-the-radar world, complete with post-trauma insomnia, except that that night he began to feel ill. Freezing temperatures and possible mouthfuls of canal water and, I imagine, also emotional stress, were having their effect.  So he went to the Emergency Room, where he was kept overnight in observation.  He must have been feeling seriously bad, considering how eager he had been hours before to avoid awkward questions, the kind of questions they also ask on hospital intake forms.

When he eventually learned that the man he’d tried to save had died, he began to cry. In any case, he hadn’t been able to sleep “for two nights,” he said. “But if I hadn’t tried to do something, I’d never sleep again.”

Not meaning to trivialize tragedy, but you would be amazed at how many tourists slip on the steps in front of the Palazzo Ducale and get fished out by the gondoliers.  Not made up.  This kid isn't looking  for anything, but the temptation to move closer to the water seems to be irresistible.

Not meaning to trivialize tragedy, but you would be amazed at how many tourists slip on the steps in front of the Palazzo Ducale and get fished out by the gondoliers. Not made up. This kid isn’t looking for anything, but the temptation to move closer to the water seems to be irresistible.  My advice: Just don’t.

Now the story takes a happy turn.  He’s been in Italy for five years; three years ago he applied for an immigrant permit (permesso di soggiorno) as a political refugee.  His request was denied, and he was marked for expulsion, but he decided to stay anyway, which explains his need to remain invisible to people in uniform.

But now, in the space of not even two weeks, his application for a permesso for “humanitarian reasons” has been granted. Furthermore, a friend and fellow Kosovaro has stated he’s ready to give him a full-time job and stand as guarantor for him in any way that might be necessary.

Many studies have been conducted to analyze heroic actions, why one person will jump into the water fully clothed to rescue someone while another stops to take a picture. But one thing strikes me: Pozhari’s comment that the victim was looking him in the eyes.

I once read of a German fighter pilot during World War II who shot down a number of British planes in an aerial battle, and seriously damaged another.  As the German approached to deliver the fatal blow, the two pilots locked eyes.  The German flew away.

An article in Scientific American entitled “How the Illusion of Being Observed Can Make You a Better Person” (by Sander van der Linden, May 3, 2011) explains that “Humans (and other animals) have a dedicated neural architecture for detecting facial features, including the presence of eyes. This built-in system, also known as “gaze detection,” served as an important evolutionary tool …. What’s interesting is that this system largely involves brain areas that are not under voluntary control. Experiments have shown that people are unable to inhibit responses to gaze even when instructed to.

I’m not saying that I think that Pozhari wouldn’t have leaped if Boscolo’s eyes had been closed. After all, it wasn’t the eyes that conveyed the information that he was in danger of drowning — anybody could see that.  But they did convey desperation, and Pozhari couldn’t not respond.

So in a strange way, now that I think about it, Boscolo saved Pozhari.

 

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Sep
29

Something about George

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This was not a scene from George Clooney's wedding, for some unknown reason.  ("Departure of the Bucentaur Toward the Venice Lido on Ascension Day, 1770," by Francesco Guardi).

This is not a scene from George Clooney’s wedding; nothing against him, but here the flotilla and ship of state were appropriate for a city marrying a sea. (“Departure of the Bucentaur Toward the Venice Lido on Ascension Day, 1770,” by Francesco Guardi).

Venice has had its share of noteworthy visitors over the past millennium or so — popes, kings, emperors, and so forth.  The usual cast of characters in your usual empire.

This weekend we had George Clooney and his bride, Amal Alamuddin, whose four-day wedding festival was quite the talk of the town. Not all happy talk, but that’s normal for here.

By now my trusty readers must be able to imagine the range of comments.

On the positive side:  She’s gorgeous, she’s brilliant, her clothes are amazing.  And may I add my own personal drama, my inability to decide which I would rather have, given the choice: Her 7-carat diamond ring, or her hair.  I don’t think it’s fair that she gets to have both.

On the negative side: The lavish partying will not have much effect on the local economy (read: Expensive outsiders hired); blocking areas off for security (from whom?) such as the Rialto and even a stretch edging the Grand Canal, will create inconvenience for the indigenous people; all the glamour will not specially improve the image of Venice in the eyes of the world, considering the depressing degradation that continues unabated.  The roiling maelstrom of waves caused by the journalist-bearing taxis and assorted motorboats accompanying the espoused pair and their A-list guests created more than the usual madness in the Grand Canal, inspiring yells of anger from gondoliers.

Several people interviewed by the Gazzettino have essentially said “Who cares?”  More specifically, one woman opined, “He’s got a big villa on Lake Como.  Why couldn’t he go there?”

Many of these remarks go to show, once again, that Venetians are phenomenally hard to impress.  But what would be the opposite extreme (assuming that an event of this magnitude could go to an opposite extreme)?

This is what the "other extreme" might have looked like. ("A View of a Wedding at a Church in the Venetian Lagoon," by Giuseppe Bernardino Bison.)

This is what the “other extreme” might have looked like. (“A View of a Wedding at a Church in the Venetian Lagoon,” by Giuseppe Bernardino Bison.)

Let’s imagine for a moment that they had decided to get married in Eek, Alaska or Bland, Missouri.  In such a case, I think the whole town would have been totally agog, what with housewives bringing homemade coconut cakes to their hotel and draping big streamers and banners over the main street, like on Homecoming Weekend: “WELCOME GEORGE AND AMAL,” and there would be a parade like on the Fourth of July, with baton-twirlers and the big fire truck.  And fireworks.  And the local paper — say, the Bat Cave, North Carolina “Bat Biz” — would publish a long article, as they used to do in the old days, describing every dish eaten and every frock worn and every wedding present bestowed.  We’ll have to wait for People magazine to do that for us.

A few details have sneaked out (despite all the vaunted vows of complete silence).

For example:  They (he, she, their wedding planner, whoever) didn’t like the furniture in their five-room nuptial chamber at the Aman Canal Grande hotel.  Too modern.  So they had it changed.  Out with what was there, which was put into a temporary storage tent, and in with a batch of antiques.  I have NO DOUBT that their taste is better than the decorators’.  I’m just saying.  They didn’t complain about the Tiepolo fresco on the ceiling, fortunately.  Maybe they didn’t notice it.

Also:  The palace on the street behind the hotel was finally undergoing repairs, hence was covered with scaffolding.  Ugly!  So they paid to have it removed and, I presume, put back when the party was over.

I suppose the party at the Aman Palace was something along these lines, without the dogs, dwarves and Jesus.  ("Wedding Feast at Cana," by Bartolomeo Litterini).

I suppose the party at the Aman Canal Grande was something along these lines, without the dogs and dwarves  (“Wedding Feast at Cana,” by Bartolomeo Litterini).

But on the whole, for Venice this is just one more in an infinite procession of fancy guests and inconceivably lavish entertainments. In the Venetian Republic, when high-class people came for long visits, staying for weeks like relatives in the antebellum South, the city literally spared no expense.

When Henry III, King of France and Poland, visited Venice for a week in 1574, some noteworthy events included his attendance at the chanting of the Te Deum on the Lido (I presume at the church of S. Nicolo’, which is the only thing that was there), passing under a triumphal arch designed by Palladio and decorated by Tintoretto and Veronese.  Then there was the state banquet, held in the Doge’s Palace in the monster Great Council Room; not only were all the ladies garbed in white and draped with spectacular jewels — the tablecloth, flatware, plates, and bread were all fashioned entirely of sugar.  The table was decorated with elaborate sculptures of two lions, a queen on horseback between two tigers, David and San Marco, surrounded by kings, popes, animals, plants and fruits, also made completely of sugar.

Speaking of guests, Venice hosted, among others, Carlo Gonzaga in 1609, the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1628,  Maximilian of Bavaria in 1684, the Duke of Brunswick in 1685, Frederick IV of Denmark in 1708, Prince Frederick Christian of Saxony in 1740, the Duke of York in 1767, the Emperor Joseph II in 1769 and 1775. Pope Pius VI arrived in 1782 and Gustav III of Sweden in 1784.  To read the schedule of festivities and what was built from the ground up to entertain Prince Paul Petrovich, the son of Catherine the Great and his wife in January, 1782, is to stagger belief.

You’d have to replace a lot of furniture to come up to the level Venice used to consider normal on these occasions.

So while I invoke for the happy couple “good wishes and male children” (auguri e figli maschi), as the saying goes, I appreciate a general grudging resistance here to make too much of the just-concluded joining in holy — actually, civil — matrimony.

Because, as Ernest Hemingway summed it up in 1950:

“She used to be Queen of the Seas, and the people are very tough and they give less of a good God-damn about things than almost anybody you’ll ever meet.  It’s a tougher town than Cheyenne when you really know it, and everybody is very polite.”

These are not George and Amal.  I don't know who they are, but I saw them on Sunday morning with no entourage and only one  photographer, and I have absolutely no doubt that they were just as happy as the famous couple in the palace hotel just behind them.

These are not George and Amal. I don’t know who they are, but I saw them on Sunday morning with no entourage and only one photographer, and I have absolutely no doubt that they were just as happy as the famous couple in the palace hotel just behind them.

And the couple who got married the week before on Burano were also just as happy as our world-class stars. The sign over door says it all: "Oggi Sposi" -- today newlyweds.

And the two crazy kids who got married the week before on Burano were also just as happy as our world-class stars. The sign over the door says it all: “Oggi Sposi” — today newlyweds.

 

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Sep
11

September 11 again

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I have nothing new to add to what I’ve already written, but I want to say that the indefatigable Vittorio Orio rowed his gondola today (with a partner), to keep alive the memory of the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center towers.

Someday I’ll have a long talk with him to discover why he feels such an attachment to New York — specifically, to the firemen of New York — and more about this always moving gesture which he has made every year since 2002.

He focuses on the firemen for his own reasons, but is fully aware of everyone else who was there.  Meanwhile, it’s enough to know that he remembers.

Vittorio Orio on the stern of his gondola, rowing with a partner across the Bacino of San Marco toward some distant point.  Perhaps the basilica of the Madonna della Salute, maybe the length of the Grand Canal.  The point is, he went.

Vittorio Orio on the stern of his gondola, rowing with a partner across the Bacino of San Marco.  Note fireman’s helmet atop the coffin.

We all know that life, in some way, must go on. This glimpse of the morning's activity in the Bacino of San Marco is just one of countless possible illustrations. But Vittorio Orio is totally undeterred by this, which I think must be one really impressive illustration of what "remember" means.

We all know that life, in some way, must go on. This glimpse of the morning’s activity in the Bacino of San Marco is just one of countless possible illustrations. But Vittorio Orio is totally undeterred by this, which I think must be one really impressive illustration of what “remember” means.

 

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