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Unlike Trovatore, Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera isn’t an opera I know. When I checked it out, the scene Bertolucci adopts from it at the end of La Luna turned out to fit his film’s dramatic logic quite as well as the one from Trovatore. Again, two men vie for a woman – she is married to Renato, but loves Riccardo, the Earl of Boston (based on the historical King Gustav III of Sweden, who was assassinated at a masked ball). The affair is chaste, but Renato, convinced otherwise and also politically motivated, kills Riccardo at the ball. The latter explains his wife is innocent of infidelity and, expiring, pardons Renato. It’s a masked ball, so Renato has to discover which masquer is his target; earlier, he asks the page Oscar, who is first coy with the secret then reveals it. In Bertolucci’s film, Joe wanders the set looking for his mother. Her friend sings him Oscar’s line: “Saper vorreste di che si veste, quando l’è cosa ch’ei vuol nascosa; Oscar lo sà, ma nol dirà …” (Oscar knows which costume but won’t tell). No tidy equivalence is to be drawn between the roles in the two dramas, but when Joe’s Italian father puts together his knowledge of who he is and what Joe has been up to (drugs and such) he slaps him. Maybe all Oedipal wrongs are now put right. What’s more, the film is at least as much Caterina’s story as it is Joe’s, and it seems that unlike the Verdi heroines she plays, she gets to have the better man in the end.

Never mind the garish set; and at least it has Italian subtitles. I couldn’t find one with English. Needless to say, this scene owes everything to the finale of Act II of Don Giovanni — a subject for a future post.

EDIT I surely meant Act I.

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Here is a punchier modern dress version:

The only one I could find with English subtitles (from the Met) lacks musical fire. YouTube is your friend. Indeed, I’ve been delighted to discover this resource. As is commonly the case, it serves less well for anything out of the way (it would have been nice, for instance, to find a clip of the corresponding scene in Bertolucci’s film) but copyright only seems to apply to quite commercial material.

Finally, all three performers here are superlative:

After her husband’s death in a car crash, opera singer Caterina takes her son Joe with her on tour in Italy. The two meet her former lover, Joe’s biological father. The film employs two extended operatic scenes: one from Un ballo in maschera at the end, which is perhaps a family reunion; and the duel scene from Il trovatore, where the eponymous troubador and the Count vie for the heroine Leonora’s affections. She is played by Caterina, and we watch Joe move from the audience to the backstage world where the theatrical illusion is created. As the diva’s son he apparently has free rein to wander where he pleases. Verdi’s opera has an absurdly complex backstory. Manrico, Lenora’s true love, is the son of Azucena, a gypsy from the rebellious mountains whose own mother was burned at the stake by the Count’s father. Count Luna (nudge nudge) thus has a political as well as an amorous motive to kill him, quite apart from the question of vendetta. But it turns out (bear with me) that Manrico and the Count’s brother were swapped as infants. Azucena threw the wrong baby onto her mother’s pyre — her own son, not the kidnapped sibling. So when the Count has Manrico executed in the final scene, Azucena finally achieves vengeance; blood is thicker than water. The structure of Bertolucci’s backstory is simpler — Joe’s father isn’t who he thought he was — but the situation is paralleled in the rivalry of the two men. Joe’s tour of the smoke and mirrors behind the performance echoes his discovery that all was not what it seemed. According to one website I saw while researching this post, Bertolucci had just completed ten years of psychoanalysis when he made the film.

Elif Batuman is a Turkish-American writer who opted to study literature rather than creative writing. A couple of years ago she reviewed Mark McGurl’s study of the MFA writing ‘Programme’:

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n18/elif-batuman/get-a-real-degree

Here are a couple of links for the defence, from a creative writing professor and McGurl himself:

http://www.themillions.com/2010/10/what-we-teach-when-we-teach-writers-on-the-quantifiable-and-the-uncertain.html

http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?id=200

Fredric Jameson’s altogether more sympathetic and arid recent review of the paperback edition of McGurl, also in the LRB, fleetingly mentions “the increasingly self-centred and obsessively reflexive cast of this literary production”, only to defend it as a “colonisation of subjectivity, its transformation into new experience(s)”. Ouch! But education, in the school of life or the academy, isn’t about turning inward. You have to have something to write about. “Show don’t tell”, “find your voice” and the like are no more than practical maxims to avoid egregious unwriterliness(es) — for instance, didacticism or pastiche. Once adopted as a programme of indoctrination, they are a recipe for uniform vapidity, however sensible they might be as rules of thumb (or ladders to be thrown away) while we remember that they are just other writers’ prejudices. Batuman is witty about this and also about meeting real, oversized Russians while writing her thesis.

Jameson analyses how such prescriptions, when taken as a programme, favour a whole literary approach. But that is the opposite of fresh and innovative. If you want “the colonisation of subjectivity” there is Friends.

I was delighted to discover this YouTube video of the Slovenian philosopher discoursing on the TV series set in run-down Baltimore:

It’s a long video and many other similar ones appear to be available. In this case, it’s a minor annoyance that the clips discussed aren’t shown, but they themselves can be found by searching on YouTube.

Žižek’s celebrity enables him to riff on as he likes. The result is generally focused and refreshing.