Girlfriend in a Coma urges viewers to join its creators in neutralising ‘Bad Italy’ – a podgy monster, in Phoebe Boswell’s conception
photograph by Sky Arts
[…an inadvertently belated appreciation...]
Our 100th post-Gutenberg entry amounts to a standing ovation for two old media journalists — one Italian, the other English — who have unzipped their imaginations to create a model of transmedia fence-jumping, using digital tools to communicate subtler and more penetrating information than can be transmitted through either conventional opinion journalism or documentary film-making.
The key to realising their extraordinary ambitions for their collaborative video production, Girlfriend in a Coma, was the free hand they gave a hair-raisingly original and gifted young British artist and animator, the Kenyan-born Phoebe Boswell. Hers is a talent that had us scribbling the names of the manically brilliant English cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, his ghoulish American kindred spirits, Edward Gorey and Charles Addams, the Alice in Wonderland illustrator Tenniel, and Salvador Dali, as we ruminated about influences.
Girlfriend is based loosely on Good Italy, Bad Italy (2012), a contemporary portrait in a book by Bill Emmott, The Economist’s editor from 1993 to 2006. He is listed in the video’s credits as co-writer and co-director with Annalisa Piras, credited as director, and the prime mover behind the project. She is about ten years younger than Bill, who happens to be a former colleague of p-G’s remembered for true and exemplary collegiality. This makes it not in the least surprising that – as well as he plays his part as the video’s unassuming narrator, and as much as the narrative is technically filtered through his memories of Italy, his thoughts, and his feelings about Europe’s high-heeled boot — the production is saturated with a wildness and emotional intensity so unlike him that they could only have been conjured by his collaborators. Bill is clearly a first-rate encourager.
Annalisa (as referring to Bill as Emmott feels awkward, we’ll dispense with surnames) has explained how she sketched Girlfriend’s essential requirements for Phoebe and Jenny Lewis, Phoebe’s partner in animating her drawings and imaginings: ‘the Italian characters — the Good Italy, based on the female image since Roman times, the Bad Italy, a thug wearing a “Pulcinella” mask from the Commedia dell’Arte — and the ideas I wanted to convey, and they ran with it.’
Actually, they flew. Annalisa stayed closely involved: frame by frame, they flew together. (See updated Q & A about ‘the making of …’ here.) The result made p-G, a jaded lifelong observer of Italy, sit up and marvel, as if for the first time, about the paradox of a country easily seen as a screaming basket case — as far as economics and politics go — somehow managing to hold its place, for decades, among the world’s leading economies. If this trans-documentary has a single flaw, it is that it fails to offer an adequate explanation for the Italy that, against long odds, has not merely survived but often prospered mightily in modern times. But this is beside the point for Girlfriend — mistakenly slated by some critics for a lack of balance. It is a call to arms. It is a manifesto for the reform of a deeply marvellous but also staggeringly corrupt, inefficient, uncaring and misogynistic society.
Not that anything as dreary as ‘consciousness-raising’ remotely describes its tone. This is set by Phoebe’s surreal, dreamlike imagery, briskly intercut with footage frequently shot from clever camera angles that recalls the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, especially Blowup, and micro-clips from interviews – the interviewees as diverse as high-ranking politicians, Mafia prosecutors, all-too-understandably outraged feminists, top industrialists, historians, political theorists, the irresistible novelist-philosopher Umberto Eco, workers and inmates in a home for the disabled – that justify the video’s charming frame.
And what is that?
Italy is presented to us as a girl with whom Bill fell helplessly in love as a tourist in his student days. Not any old girl but an ethereal and languorous jeune fille who happens to be a touch eccentric, neurotic to the core, and assailed by homicidal inner demons – encapsulated in the figure of the mega-ogre with the Pulcinella mask. She has, for him, come to fit the skin-crawling title of a pop song by the Smiths; a girl so severely afflicted as to end up, virtually, on artificial life support.
No wonder Girlfriend was financed as an indie project – by Annalisa’s own company, Springshot Productions. Though her potted biography mentions her education in Rome in history, politics and cinematography, and two decades of shooting documentaries while she also served as the London correspondent of L’Espresso, we cannot imagine any part of the old media establishment backing such a commendably outlandish project.
That does say something disappointing in the extreme about the reluctance of our dominant communicators to get to grips with the future. Fear of the unfamiliar in other quarters – among arts reviewers – could also explain why p-G is writing about Girlfriend nearly a year after its release in Europe.
We learnt of its existence by accident, last month – having been mostly cut off from news about arts-and-letters at the time of its launch last November. Online searches show that though it did indeed cause the intended stir in Italy, at the loftiest levels, and was shown in art cinemas and nominated for awards in European cities, it has so far failed to be noticed for the right reasons. Though it has had some laudatory reviews in the Anglosphere, including a rave here and there, these have mostly been short (a single glowing paragraph in The Financial Times, for instance). Where, we have been wondering, are the lavish allocations of column-inches that this trans-documentary deserves? The colour photo-spreads? The probing investigations on the front pages of arts sections of how Annalisa, Bill and Phoebe came to be the pioneer-collaborators they are? The questions about their insights into the evolution of post-print media?
Funny, to say the least, that no one apparently saw plenty to write home about in watching the calm, gently reasonable ex-editor of a well-known magazine drifting in silhouette through shadowy stone arches, up and down dark stairways that evoke dungeons — sequences near the start of his narration that evoke both the vicious underside of Italy that includes the Mafia, and our narrator’s own unconscious mind.
Are we being invited, in this segment, to believe that Italy is where Bill’s muse or — from one perspective in psychological theory — anima, in the form of this Girlfriend, resides? Later in the video, one of the readings from Dante Alighieri that interrupt the narrative periodically goes, ‘O lady, you in whom my hope gains strength.’ This is stimulating allusiveness. In the hands of Girlfriend’s creative quartet, it hugely enhances all the information it packs in – is sophisticated, successful sugar-coating for the flow of statistics, miniature history lessons and political science lectures that barely register as anything so dull.
Some highlights (not necessarily in the right sequence):
• Blisteringly incisive insight and commentary in clips from interviews with Roberto Saviano, a (now) 34 year-old investigative journalist and novelist obliged to live in hiding, under police protection, from Mafiosi infuriated by his revelations. His handsome shaved head, winglike black eyebrows and dark eyes shot in stygian gloom are in perfect harmony with the sinister animation sequences.
• Bill talks to the intellectual and left-leaning Canadian-Italian industrialist, Sergio Marchionne, who made his name by restoring the fortunes of Fiat; who hopes that we will see the evolution of a healthier form of capitalism, and says that ‘People who engineer the free market have a responsibility to keep it clean.’ His point is underlined by the words of Dante – reaching us by way of the disembodied voice of the actor Benedict Cumberbatch – to which we listen looking at a panorama of industrial sprawl, probably Turin: ‘[Y]our avarice afflicts the world:/ it tramples on the good, lifts up the wicked.’
• Maurizio Viroli, a slender, elfin professor of political theory at Princeton sits at a dining table talking to us over the remains of what appears to have been a simple, vinous meal all the more delicious for its informality. He points out that the three main leaders of the 19th-century Risorgimento or ‘resurgence’ that created modern Italy – Cavour, Mazzini, and Garibaldi — ‘had a deep religiosity inspired by currents of Protestanism – Jansenism.’ He adds that ‘all three were critical of the Catholic attitude of making deals with those who are powerful,’ and he mainly blames the Catholic Church for the besetting national flaws, ‘sloth and moral weakness’.
• Sad, wraithlike, girlish figures sketched by Phoebe rise from Lake Pellicone, a dramatic expanse of blue set in a rock-walled canyon. Dante’s lines, here: ‘This miserable way / is taken by the sorry souls of those / who lived without disgrace and without praise. / They now commingle with the coward angels, / the company of those who were not rebels / nor faithful to their God, but stood apart. /’ In the rocks above the water, in another superimposed animation, the demonic ogre bashes Bill’s girlfriend.
• Bill cycles around a deserted, sparkling Ferrero chocolate factory, dressed in one of a succession of dapper outfits, many in brilliant colours that recall swinging ‘60s London. The ghastly, thankfully deposed Silvio Berlusconi, three times Italy’s prime minister – who did not keep his promise to appear in the film — was apparently thinking of Bill’s appearance as well as his politics in nicknaming him ‘Lenin,’ yet the cumulative impression he makes is a hybrid of Agatha Christie’s brainy Hercule Poirot, Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, and Amélie’s beloved globe-trotting garden ornament in the film by that name.
Not many experimenters with post-Gutenberg communication will have either the funds or connections to match the excellence of the musical sound track, or engage the likes of Cumberbatch for poetry recitations. What any of us can still learn from Girlfriend is the importance of re-conceiving from scratch our presentation of what we want to say; of not merely pouring well-worn forms and conventions for shaping information into new-media bottles, but grabbing the chance to communicate what was virtually impossible to communicate before about non-fictional places, events and people.
As far as we can tell, Girlfriend is as scrupulously factual as the finest old-fashioned print journalism. But it exploits special capacities of moving pictures to show us how the facts about its subject impress and affect its chief observer and fact-gatherer, Bill, drawing us beneath the surface of hard reality into psyche – with the animation sequences drawn and directed by Phoebe ensuring a clear demarcation of the boundary between the actual and the strictly impressionistic. One parallel for such innovativeness that we mentioned in a recent post is Carl Djerassi’s revisiting, re-sifting, and powerful re-enlivening of the mental preoccupations and lives of pre-war intellectuals in his Four Jews on Parnassus – by recasting them as dialogue; as a spikily argumentative conversation.
This appreciation of Girlfriend will end with a whiff of the uncanny. A day or so after we first watched it, we kept thinking of Blowup, and wondering why. After we had tapped a tentative explanation into a keyboard, we went to the Wikipedia looking for the year of the film’s release – 1966, and there was a New York Times arts correspondent attributing part of critics’ reaction to this ‘stunning picture’ to the way it is ‘beautifully built up with glowing images and color compositions that get us into the feelings of our man,’ its photographer-protagonist. No, there was nothing uncanny about that discovery. The spine-prickling came from being told something we never knew, in the same Wiki entry. Antonioni had used as the backdrop for Blowup’s carnivalesque opening scene (below) the plaza of a London office building — part of a streaky-concrete-and-glass specimen of Brutalist architecture — where we had once toiled long past sunset, years after we had forgotten details of the film. … And that was the office where, bizarrely, we once worked with Bill.
Did Girlfriend’s collaborators have Blowup in mind when they were mulling over the look and feel they wanted for their project? We must remember to ask.