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.
There’s the group of boys (the “Losers’ Club” representing nostalgia for nerdy adolescence (as in Stand by Me); small-town manners made creepy (Dolores Claiborne); familiar domesticity made scary (Carrie); and self-conscious guilt turned into irrational menace (The Shining). Among his glossy perversions of Norman Rockwell, Muschietti even tosses in some shrieking from The Babadook; the image of the child’s slicker, stolen from Don’t Look Now; and the Barnum & Bailey trickery of the clown villain-demon Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), who stalks the Losers’ Club. All this formula proves that Muschietti has a commercially shrewd grasp of what triggers today’s jaundiced moviegoers and TV-watchers, raised on shock effects and paranormal frights, much of it derived from King’s own clichés. King’s world represents our culture’s degradation and depravity — not “fun” but perhaps the most synthetic Hollywood sentimentality ever to be mistaken for Americana.
Spettacolo, by Jeff Malmberg and his co-director Chris Shellen, fits Mamet’s prescription. This real-life drama is about Monticchiello, a village in Tuscany where the population of 130 puts on an annual outdoor summer-theater production. It may well be the town’s last such event. The aging villagers want to revive social interest among the distracted youths, whose faces are constantly buried in electronic devices, so they make their own fun, as Mamet explained.
Feeling the global financial crisis and the threat of foreign speculators, the villagers mount the play to express consciousness of their own history and destiny. “The spettacolo [itself] is everyone asking what should we talk about,” says the play’s director, Andrea Cresti, describing the yearly improvisation of an original play, a tradition that began in 1944 when the villagers first acted out a fierce tragic battle between Fascists and partisans. They call the spettacolo an “autodrama” that connects art to politics — arising from immediate individual need — as we are seldom encouraged to think about in today’s world of entertainment. That’s the world in which It exploits the innate corruption of human nature, disguised as Stephen King’s critique of social tenets, while refusing moral or political exploration.
Spettacolo is a cultural rumination more than a documentary. Malmberg and Shellen ignore Cresti’s politics to focus on the villagers’ efforts to make what seems like a homegrown version of a Bertolt Brecht play. They quote the adage “Better that a farm fall to ruin than be rebuilt by a stranger’s hands.” It’s a grassroots illustration of the instinct to preserve cultural tradition. This was also the essence of Fellini’s Roma (1973) as well as the neo-Brechtian films of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, whose Night of the Shooting Stars (1983) gave an early iteration of Monticchiello’s pageant. The Tavianis recently continued that process in Wondrous Boccaccio, a deliberate artifice that uses medieval culture to address modern concerns.
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.