Deaths in Venice
Catholic blogger Eve Tushnet watched the Benjamin Britten opera of DEATH IN VENICE a few nights ago and semi-live-blogged some of her impressions here. I read Thomas Mann’s novella about 12 years ago, in grad school, though not for a class per se. I saw Luchino Visconti’s film twice, but both times as an undergrad before reading the novella (though I just spent about 40 minutes skimming through the film with one finger each on the Fast-Forward and Play buttons to refresh my memories, which I obviously wouldn’t call a proper viewing).
I have never seen Britten’s opera,¹ though I find it interesting and more-than-suggestive that both Visconti (1906-1976, made his film in 1971) and Britten (1913-1976, completed his opera in 1973) were both homosexually-inclined, fascinated with boys, and living near the end of their lives — and thus quite similar to each other and Aschenbach. But not like Mann (1875-1955, wrote his novella in 1912), who was middle-aged and had homosexual inclinations, but struggled against them. And both Visconti’s film and the Britten-opera-as-Eve-describes-it² struggle against the novella’s resistance to being adapted into visual mediums.
Visconti made several major changes to Mann’s novella, ditching the whole set up in Bavaria, turning Aschenbach the writer into a composer, and by heavy use of Gustav Mahler’s 3th and 5th Symphonies on the soundtrack. The first two of these choices are dubious, but I think the third succeeds magnificently, turning the film into primarily a sensual experience, rather than a narrative per se. The Mahler music is Romantic and big (we can hardly notice its absence) but also ominous, portentous and decadent. It’s feverish, but not in a hyperactive, “fast” way. It’s intrusive on the film as it should be — the opening credits and opening scene, before a word is spoken, are absolutely magisterial, the dying 19th century drifting off to sleep to be broken by the honking horn of the 20th. It also perfectly matches Visconti’s painstaking re-creation of fin-de-siecle Venice, elegiacally caressed by slow and careful pans that don’t want to let go and by much-faster zooms (plus sudden flashbacks in and out of Aschenbach’s earlier life) that intrude on the action like thunder. Together, the two things (Visconti’s camera and Mahler’s music) conspire to create the means through which the film works — as a kind of opera-film (Visconti also was a famous opera director in Italy) and as tone poem to the beautiful impotence of death and decadence.
But both the film and the opera suffer from having to show Tadzio — to represent him literally, as a person apart from Aschenbach’s consciousness. He embodies Camille Paglia’s analysis of the Beautiful Boy-as-Destroyer archetype. In the film, the performance given by Bjorn Andresen is, in conventional terms, very bad, though it does “work” in a highly intellectualized way. He doesn’t say a word, which keeps him at arm’s-length, at some level an “object,” albeit a seen one rather than a described one. But it still seems crude and ham-fisted for Visconti to keep showing him looking to the camera, turning, and posing like he was on a New York catwalk. It tends, particularly by its incessant quality, to reduce the material to a simple seduction tale. Or rather to reduce it to an impotent wish. Visconti attempts to restore the Mann’s philosophical ambiguity via flashbacks, but Aschenbach’s friend-critic overacts stupidly (a not-uncommon defect in Visconti’s work) and it tends to break the mood. Just as Eve thought the words of the opera, both in themselves and in having to listen to Aschenbach’s exhausted voice singing them, were aggravating and/or redundant. Happily, there isn’t much dialogue in the Visconti — which solves the problem of Eve not liking Aschenbach’s voice (dunno what she’d think of Dirk Bogarde). And yes, the end in the Visconti also is wordless, and frankly I don’t know how an opera would convey the finality of Aschenbach’s death and his wishful hopes as effectively as Visconti’s cuts between makeup-dribbling, sweaty closeups of Bogarde and sunset-tan-drenched long shots of Tadzio, far away in the shadow of the setting sun.
¹ My one exposure to Britten has been the use in Claire Denis’ film BEAU TRAVAIL of his Billy Budd — another novel with homosexual undertones that Britten and a contemporary film-maker made literal and explicit.
² I don’t see the need to continue using such a neologism beyond the necessary first reference. I have stated upfront I have not seen Britten’s opera and every time henceforth I make a statement about the opera beyond the obvious factual, assume that I mean “the-opera-as-Eve-describes-it.”
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