Casa Verdi or Casa Riposo di per Musicisti e Grabstatte (or Tosca’s Kiss, a 1984 film by Daniel Schmid)
The close of Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet (2013, inspired Hoffman says by Schmid’s film and the actual life of Casa Verdi)
They say that ‘time assuages,’–
Time never did assuage;
An actual suffering strengthens,
As sinews do, with age.
Time is a test of trouble,
But not a remedy.
If such it prove, it proves too
There was no malady.
– Emily Dickinson
Dear friends and readers,
I had another lesson in how hard it is for me to find myself anywhere without remembering Jim, without an enveloping sense of lacking him. I went for a third time to the Sunday morning film club at the Cinemart Theater in Fairfax in the hope of enjoying an intelligent absorbing and possibly unusual film and hearing informative and insightful talk. I did all that, but how much more meaningful it would have been had Jim been there. It was a 1984 documentary about Casa Verdi. I first heard of this place when Jim was an undergraduate and took a course in musicology, and wrote a paper on Verdi’s last operas. I remember him reading Verdi’s letters, talking about Verdi’s relationship with his librettist, his long-time partnership with a woman he finally married, and his endowing a mansion in Milan for aging musicians, composers, singers. I cannot have dreamed up that he mentioned this place, and now I’m thinking maybe it was when two Februaries ago now (three months before he was diagnosed) I went with Izzy to see Quartet, and naturally wrote a blog.
As I watched, I realized how idealized Quartet had been about aging. While this film is as upbeat, because these are not actors but real people at ages 75 to 95, we see frail people hanging on. Some of them were living in bare rooms. Many looked not well at all. One woman talked of her loneliness — her sons promise to visit but do not. Not all of them can still sing — though all have opinions, memories, and love music still. Gary Arnold, the Washington Post film critic who chooses the films, and leads the discussion, talked of how the film was restored, and how he wished that the weekly watching of operas on Italian TV at the house had been included since the people are (comically) hypercritical. The other people in the audience talked of how they were aware how lucky these musicians are — for old age for most people in a retirement home is often a bleak and lonely affair, often the person is impoverished too. They talk and can enact and are respected for their old memories. A woman whose career came to a height in the 1930s, Sara Scuderi, was seen singing alone and with others most often:
Some of the best moments: a tenor takes us (the film-maker and his camera are part of the film as the people are very aware of them) to an attic room and his trunk filled with his old costumes. He puts on a Rigoletto outfit and begins to sing and enact the role. At the close he takes off his costume, closes his trunk, puts out the light and walks back downstairs. Memories is a central theme of the film. In another sequence a composer shows us his two pianos, plays for us, and shows us his awards and prizes. A woman who taught the harp tells us of her brief career on the stage and her long career as a teacher. We see a photo of her young and beautiful in a ball gown playing her harp. A 90 year old woman in the cafeteria eating soup complains that the chorus (she was in a chorus) is the center of the opera and they are insufficiently appreciated and underpaid. One man singing a Verdi tenor with Sara Scuderi uses a phone booth inside Casa Verdi to die in. (This was a little too close to his reality for comfort for me.) As with Quartet we see gatherings where groups of people sing and play instruments. See slideshow.
The film lacked a focus; it seemed simply to end. Schmid did not give the kind of on-going sense of life the way Frederick Wiseman can. It was more like home-movies snatched here and there and then put togeher. There were many poignant songs of loss from Verdi, but this may just be central to Verdi’s oeuvre, so one cannot say this was a theme; but one sequence where a man played a violin brought tears to my eyes as the song was about the irretrievable past and how painful it is to remember happy times. (A Dante thought.) Someone else in the audience was struck by that and suggested it could have provided a satisfactory ending. Jim would have recognized and appreciated so much more than I was able to do. Perhaps he would have commented as he read about the place. He said more than once that Verdi was a secular person and maybe would have said Verdi wanted to memorialize himself outside religious norms. (The irony here would be the place was filled with Catholic icons and pictures.)
A salutary thought was I could not get Jim to join the film club with me, so he and I would not have gone to it together. I would not have known about it, since it’s the policy of the theater owner not to tell the film until 10 am that Sunday morning and many of the films do not become a commercially scheduled film. I’ve missed what was probably some early extraordinary years of these. The club is in its 7th year and goes on between May and October. I am told it was better in the first three because there was a second owner more interested in art films and another critic who would “close read” films. Arnold provides very interesting thoughtful background but only when prompted does he produce a critical evaluative comment. He is often apt but he can be dismissive and is clearly not interested in women’s issues — as one woman has told me the previous critic was. Since Jim wouldn’t go I was loathe to leave him and go off by myself. I was already “not paying attention to him” with my teaching, scholarship, the Net, writing. Most of the time too Jim walked out immediately after a cultural event; he didn’t like most popular conversation. Often it is jejeune, but not always and for three times I’ve heard sensitive thoughtful comments on the films. It was though another moment where I find I can’t escape him — I wondered how many people in the audience knew about music and operas and recognized the songs or history spoken of.
As last month I talked to someone afterward. This time I didn’t spill my coffee all over the floor (as I did last month). I had the presence of mind to buy a bottle of Minute Maid Orange juice. I did lose my car for a while. I had parked in close to the theater for the first time — usually when I’ve come (after 4 in the afternoon), it’s too crowded to get near. Well I couldn’t remember where I put it. Like Hansel without his bread crumbs. But I walked up and down the lines of cars and finally spotted it.
I find myself especially lonely in the car going along the highway coming home. I’m listening to Nadia May reading aloud the magnificent Daniel Deronda — which has a subplot about musicians and music.
Jodhi May as Mirah singing (Andrew Davies’s Daniel Deronda)
I thought I’d mention how strongly feminist it is: this time through I am so aware of the parallels between Mirah’s escape from her father’s attempt to sell her and Lucy Snowe’s anxious terror when she hits Bruges. I’ve listened to both in the car, once with Izzy in the car with me. Often people say there is little parallel between the Deronda and Grandcourt stories (named after the males) but in fact the women are utterly parallel: in the next scene Gwendolen comes home to learn how difficult it is for her to make real money, how she has not been trained to do anything but be a lady and teach others this — so the deadening mortification of governessing in a household where the mother strictly controls all her daughters’ education (thoughts as far as she can) is her fate unless she takes Grandcourt – and she has seen Lydia Glasher and her four children by Grandcourt.
Eliot (it seems to me) cannot but have a exemplary couple and fate and the beauty of Klessner and Miss Arrowcourt’s words as they come together to realize they want to marry are just splendid. There is no more beautiful sentence in all Eliot than these
Miss Arrowpoint (the arrows of her mind point unerringly to the heart of things)
“I am afraid of nothing but that we should miss the passing of our lives together (Bk 3, Ch 23)
I wish Elizabeth Bennet had said this to Lady Catherine de Bourgh:
“I will not give up the happiness of m life to ideas that I don’t believe in and customs I have no respect for.”
I am able to maintain your daugher, and I ask for no change in my life but her companionship.”
It’s this sort of thing in both Middlemarch and Deronda that make for the steadying influence on a soul hearkening to Eliot.
I’ll end with a photo taken of me about two weeks ago: those reading this blog may recall I took a boat ride up and down the Potomac with a few friends one Saturday evening. One person took photos with her cell phone and that’s see me between two people, one of whom with another friend I now plan to go to the 2014 Library of Congress National Book Festival with next Saturday. I hope to hear Alice Ostriker read her poetry, Clare Messud talk about her novels, Jules Ffeiffer discuss his cartoon art (among many others).