A favorite David Mamet line obliterates the “sure-fire” entertainment offered by the new film adaptation of Stephen King’s It. In the 2000 movie State and Main, the always edgy-yet-conservative dramatist-polemicist has a character describe her small town’s habits: “Everyone makes their own fun. If they don’t, it’s not fun; it’s entertainment.”
I embraced that memorable wisecrack while enduring the deliberately calculated torture of It, in which the legend of a child-killing in a New England small town foreshadows the creepy, murderous, zombie fascination that now characterizes Millennial entertainment. Stephen King potboilers, usually set in New England, as is State and Main, are manufactured to convey a kind of American Gothic, but they don’t define our cultural space or history so much as exploit a credulous, juvenile weakness for secular superstition and self-punishment.
It only seems like “fun” if you fall for King’s obvious, contemptuous treatment of American innocence. Director Andy Muschietti gears up what is basically a campfire tale (It was previously filmed as a 1990 TV miniseries), using all the King devices that many people in our broken, beyond-ersatz culture have come to mistake as authentic.
In Spettacolo, villagers comment on “the barbarism of modernity.” They worry about the collapse of Monte dei Paschi, the oldest bank in the world, which sponsored their costly venture in teatro povere (impoverished theater) — part of a larger anxiety over banks’ usurpation of the role of churches. “It’s the end of the village, of everyone getting richer.” But the real issue here is the collapse of cultural unity; longing for revelation is implicit in the title “Spettacolo.” It’s understood that art is “not a luxury” (as American poet Audre Lorde proclaimed, in line with Mamet’s sense of necessity). The culture preserved in Spettacolo helps explain why Italian political films are invariably superior to American political films — in which rhetoric overtakes the emotional and spiritual expression of experience.
Malmberg and Shellen, an American husband-and-wife team, are eccentric enough to appreciate that difference. Their own approach is imagistic, lending the villagers’ production an unforced visual beauty (marked by a Google truck-camera seen snaking through Tuscan farmland). As in Malmberg’s awe-inspiring 2010 documentary Marwencol (about Mark Hogancamp, a traumatized New York painter and fantasist who, after a brutal assault, turned his own therapy into primitive art), Spettacolo explores the redemptive aspect of creativity. This American expedition into Italian culture creates a sense of urgency that makes up for Gianfranco Rosi’s tendentious immigration documentary Fire at Sea. Calling Monticchiello “the town that played itself,” Spettacolo requires more than a strictly politicized interpretation of the modern crisis represented by It. As the villagers chant against “selling our national heritage,” Spettacolo defends art that does not come from the top down but from the inside.
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles, at Amazon.