The James Clayton Column: Parlare Porco Rosso? The Italian Adjustment Bureau

James is back from a break in Italy where he discovered a shared, geeky love of Star Wars and Argento movies. Just don’t talk about Studio Ghibli…

Dear readers, I’d like to apologise for not filing columns the past few Fridays. I was abroad and was told to take a holiday from hack writing for a bit. I hope the break hasn’t caused regular readers any distress. (I know there are at least two of you. Yeah, you and your imaginary friend, thanks for coming.)

I decided I needed to make like George Clooney in The American and flee to the Italian countryside to find myself, resynchronise my soul and hide from threatening hostile forces. It was either that or the subconscious influence of The Godfather encouraging me to follow Michael Corleone’s route of ‘run away to the rustic old country and marry the most beautiful girl in the village while the mafia wars rage back home’. It didn’t happen like that, though. There were no romances with nippleless Italian women doomed to die in a car bomb catastrophe.

In reality, I spent time exploring and enjoying the country’s cultural treasures, met very friendly locals and worked as a summer camp tutor, attempting to entertain kids by doing Chewbacca impressions and doodling Darth Vaderified sheep for them during lunch break.

Amazingly, it turns out that the world opens up to you when you’re armed with Wookiee noises and a sharp HB pencil. Star Wars fanboydom proved fruitful, for example, when I taught a little boy how to say “May the Force be with you”, and in return learnt “Che la Forza sia con te” and got to rebuild his Lego model of Darth Vader’s TIE fighter. Another great geekout moment for my inner child came when one of my students proudly showed me the lightsaber he’d made out of toilet rolls and crêpe paper.

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It was all wonderful stuff, and communication difficulties were overcome and instant friendship was achieved as we all became one with the Force and celebrated our Star Wars love.

It strengthens my conviction that world peace would be possible if George Lucas was leading the UN. Earth will be harmonious when everyone puts aside their differences to contemplate Yoda’s wisdom and the beardy Saga Father is allowed to re-edit the Middle East peace process for the next for the next Blu-ray boxset release.

Clear conversation was possible, thanks to pictures, the excellent English ability of natives, and my own basic Italian (I speak pretty decent ‘Shitaliano’), but pop culture took things further. A shared geek streak and common enthusiasms can cross all language barriers, and communication breakdowns are less likely when culture creates a level playing surface and provides links.

This kind of shared awareness from any area (art, sport, history, politics, whatever) can plug the gaps where language fails or even form the bridges. As an example from my own recent trip, I was able to establish instant relationships by talking to a middle-aged man about Asterix comics and a shopowner about Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. (“Is beautiful! Is masterpiece!”) 

Unsurprisingly, in a country with such a strong cinematic heritage and social tradition (see Cinema Paradiso), film was an excellent icebreaker that facilitated great conversations with an array of diverse individuals. The most surprising was probably the chat I had with a 10-year-old who dug Dario Argento flicks, Suspiria and Profondo Rosso operating as our Rosetta Stone.

It just goes to illustrate how movies and familiarity with silver screen concepts can smooth over divisions and differences, but it can also go the other way as well. While abroad I got a clear affirmation that not all things translate or have travelled well to be popularly absorbed. When I ended up mentioning Porco Rosso, the Italian biplane pilot with the head of a pig who fights air pirates over the Adriatic Sea, I got nothing but bemused looks.

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Likewise, no one I encountered had seen My Neighbour Totoro and recognised that my pencil case (where I kept my child bewitching HB pencil) was the iconic Studio Ghibli character turned into a geektastic stationery container. Hayao Miyazaki anime, it seems, isn’t as well-known in Italy as huge brands like Star Wars or national auteurs like Dario Argento.

Convincing some Italians that this bizarro flying pig flick was real, they hired the DVD and hosted a movie night, thus experiencing the wonder of Studio Ghibli for the first time. For me, though, it was great to watch Porco Rosso afresh as a purely visual work.

Not understanding the dialogue because of the Italian audio track and subtitles, I got to emphatically appreciate just how awesomely beautiful Miyazaki’s animation is. Not compelled to dwell in narrative detail, I was free to lose myself in the immersive background scenery and colour of Porco’s anime alternate reality.

Eager to try more experiments like this and have a Cinema Paradiso-esque moviegoing experience, I tripped off to a local theatre a few days later to watch I Guardiani Del Destino (The Adjustment Bureau). The trailers and feature attraction were all in Italian, the interior decor of Cinema Cristallo was stuck in the 70s, and halfway through the flick the projectionist had to change the reel. That was all appealingly novel, but on a deeper level, it was interesting to reassess George Nolfi’s sci-fi romance on a solely sensory basis.

The Adjustment Bureau is a complex, plot-driven story, so when I couldn’t understand the plot exposition (for it was in a foreign tongue), I ended up appreciating it cathartically, rather than cognitively, focusing more on mise en scène to extrapolate meaning.

It’s amazing what you notice when you’re not concentrating on what characters are saying, and I don’t just mean the visible boom mic in the scene where Matt Damon brings Emily Blunt breakfast in bed. I came to see just how crucial John Toll’s cinematography, Jay Rabinowitz’s editing and the acting performances (especially Damon’s) were in carrying the narrative across to the audience.

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All aspects subtly serve story, and even if you don’t get all the details, you can clearly work out the core premise of ‘politician and dancer fall in love, but sinister hat-wearing men are working to keep them apart’. The aesthetic features effectively evoked character, mood and plot and I enjoyed The Adjustment Bureau as a modern silent film like WALL·E, firmly reminded of how cinema is fundamentally a sensory storytelling medium.

Travel really does broaden the mind and bring fresh perspectives on culture and human communication. It also proves that Wookiee growls transcend the language barrier. I say fly like Porco Rosso and share your passionate geek streak wherever you may roam.

James’ previous column can be found here.

You can reach James on his Twitter feed here, see his film cartoons here and more sketches here.