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When the cinema returns to the future The walk and Spectre. Freedom balanced on a tightrope by Oscar Iarussi
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A frame from The walk

Legend has it that the father of the Lumière brothers considered the cinema, just invented in 1895 in Paris, “an invention with no future”. It didn’t quite turn out like that, which says a lot about parents’ perspicacity. In fact, the cinema is undoubtedly a semblance of the time machine, the nearest you can get to man’s dream of travelling to different ages, whether it means bringing the spirits of the past back to life or creating an enticing future.

Every now and then a few films manage to reaffirm this dreamlike and yet profoundly “realistic” power of the Cinema. They are not always art films like the ones – favored by Woody Allen – that have the word “death” in their title. Quite the contrary: often flights of fantasy resisting the “immutable” present or forays among utopias and dystopias are lurking in spectaculars produced for the masses. Think for instance of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and of Return to the Future by Robert Zemeckis, which in the first half of the 1980s had a significant influence on conjectures about the future, creating pop models and archetypes that even made their way into our idiomatic language.

In recent weeks cinemas have been showing the latest film by Zemeckis, The Walk, a biography of the French tightrope walker Philippe Petit at the climax of his legendary feat on 7 August 1974. Petit walked for an hour up and down a cable suspended between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, 400 meters above the ground without the slightest protection, apart from the deities of heights. The same gods were looking away on September 11, 2001, when the Towers were struck and brought down by two planes controlled by Islamic terrorists. The film has already been reviewed in these columns (Vito Attolini, 2 November), but here it is important to highlight the paradoxical “nostalgia for the future” that Zemeckis and his main actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt manage to instill. Obviously The Walk makes no mention of the collapse of the Towers – the most over-exposed media event of all time, watched and re-watched millions of times – but it inevitably comes to mind. It is impossible not to “re-watch” September 11 2001, with the retrospective gaze of 1974 and with the protagonist’s “airy” grace. 

The day after the attack, the writer Don DeLillo spoke about the “ruins of the future “ in a memorable article: “People falling from the towers hand in hand. This is part of the counter-narrative, hands and spirits joined, human beauty in the crush of meshed steel. In its desertion of every basis for comparison, the event asserts its singularity. There is something empty in the sky”. (In the Ruins of the Future, Harper’s Magazine, December 2001).

Emptiness in the sky, emptiness on the ground (Ground Zero) and emptiness on the screen. The short film by Mexican Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, one of the eleven directors who tell “their” 9/11 in the anthology 11’09’’01, is dominated by darkness, interrupted now and then by the flash of people in “free” fall from the Twin Towers. A desperate affirmation of identity: suicide amid the collective massacre. In the background, a confusion of voices recorded that day, cursing, amazement, excited reports, a radio Babel that gradually becomes a litany, a mantra, a collective prayer. 

Iñárritu went to the heart of the issue: the need to make the reality shown in the fiction come true, the “rediscovery” of the world. And he was not alone in enveloping the event on the screen in darkness. A far more “political” director, Michael Moore, made the same choice in Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). The relentless anti-Bush satire relents in the scene devoted to the hitting of the Twin Towers and Moore lets the voices on the dark screen spell out the tragedy that caused three thousand victims. 

The mocking, poetic walk in the epilog of The Walk, a challenge to the police and the force of gravity, piece by piece symbolically “rebuilds” the fallen skyscrapers and restores their sidereal light: bright when already out, like stars and like desire (with their shared etymology). So Zemeckis continues to wish for the “return to the future”, obsessed by the tomorrow that could have been changed only in the past… Ah, if only Osama Bin Laden had known that “creativity is the perfect crime”, as in the title of a book by Petit!

For two buildings that “rise again” on the big screen, here are two more that are wrecked at the beginning and the end of Spectre: an old palace in Mexico City and a very modern tower in London. It is the twenty-fourth chapter in the saga of 007, by the British director Sam Mendes with Daniel Craig now even doubting himself and therefore very likeable. James Bond falls in love with the disturbing youth of Léa Seydoux (who in the film has the Proustian name of Madeleine Swann), but he doesn’t turn his nose up at the mature allure of Monica Bellucci, the first Bond-Milf of the series, a widow. 

Is another world possible for 007? In Spectre the nostalgia for an “alternative” future is related to the role and the methods of the secret services, now the prerogative of a super-technological power that prefers to intercept/blackmail/manipulate all and sundry instead of the old action in the field. And where, says Ralph Fiennes (the new M), the license to kill also means “the license not to kill “. 

You have to look a person in the eyes before pulling the trigger, adds the director of “MI6”. And he says it to the odious young “know-it-all”, the friend of the current minister, who is unifying all the secret services in the world, carried away by the desire for Big Brother-like omnipotence. The plan also envisages the “scrapping” of Bond and company. But 007 and his friends will not let him get away with it, escaping from the explosion of the high tech skyscraper on the banks of the Thames. It is a spectacular demolition and, unlike that of the Twin Towers, here it is the corrupt wing of the services that plot the attack.

Far more than what we saw, argued the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, it was what we didn’t see of 9/11 that affects us with unfamiliar violence, leaving us at the mercy of chaos. On his part, “deconstructing” the event, Derrida asked: what happened in the Boeings? What happened in the Towers? And what can we expect after an attack of that sort?

Now, in his way, 007 tries to give an answer: we have to expect a growing lack of democracy and an elusive reality which, in Spectre, only becomes recognizable again in the Moroccan desert. Do we have a chance? Yes, getting lost in the eyes of a Madeleine or walking a tightrope with our head in the clouds. There’s not always an unhappy ending.


From: La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno, 12 November 2015

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