Copyright © 2011 by James Clark
On the isle of Ischia a funeral is in progress at the ancestral cemetery reserved for members of the Carlucci family. The current scion of the clan, “Carlo,” manages the tony Grand Hotel Excelsior, and with him this day are four of his clients. “Wendell Armbruster, Jr.” and “Pamela Piggott” are a 30-something couple (he from Baltimore, she from London) in the process of having her mother and his father buried, side-by-side, as befits lovers. Carlo asks what inscription should go on the headstone. “Willy and Kate” is the first draft (the deceased being Wendell Armbruster Sr. and Katherine Piggott). Then Pamela finds apt the additional term, “Willy and Kate Carlucci.” Junior, who had been slow to warm to this situation (his respectably married father having died at Ischia [in Kate’s arms during a car accident] putatively during a solo sojourn to attend to health problems as met by the island’s historic thermal mud baths), concurs, “I’ll go for that.” How does it become apt that an Italian alias cover those lives—removing from their Anglo-Saxon story line a pillar of his church (drawing evangelist Billy Graham to preside over the Baltimore observances) and his country’s economy (the president of the United States directing Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State and supposed expert on questions of antithetical aliens, to be in attendance) and a lady residing in Britain all her life? Billy Wilder’s exploration of that strange state of affairs constitutes the heart of the generally dismissed film, Avanti! (1972).
Wilder is on record as pronouncing Avanti! a failure due to giving the mistaken impression of being a comedy (he having intended a tribute to a work he loved beyond any other, namely, David Lean and Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter). I maintain the film is far from a failure and is, indeed, a comedy.
The “comic relief” factors that Wilder regretted do indeed tend to be overblown; but they no more kill the movie than do similarly overstated sprightliness in masterful musicals. In fact, I think it’s useful to regard this production as—to borrow from Jacques Demy, in reference to his film, Lola—“a musical without music.” The hotel’s house band does sprinkle forth a thread of Italianate lounge tunes—one of which, “Senza Fine” (“Never-Ending”) constitutes a theme song in dedication to bittersweet magic, where the entire interactive presence is suffused with matters rapidly coming to an end, notwithstanding leisurely lunch breaks. Though that motif plays a significant role in the film’s arresting payload, it is the delicate nuances of the emotions coming to bear in the rather complex narrative that must particularly engage one here, for their “musical” treasures, their sensuous logic.
As protagonist of a convoluted retrieval of his father’s corpse, Jack Lemmon’s Wendell Jr. generates a spate of agitation productive of subversive energies as unsettling toward 1960s “counter-culture” as it is toward pre-1960s rubrics. Pamela insists that his very rich father and her manicurist mother were in love, and that therefore over the period of their ten-year summer rendezvous Kate was fine with the only material gift from Willy being a dozen long-stemmed roses every Christmas. On hearing this, the self-satisfied young-but-old corporate executive thinks to set her straight along lines of, “Love is for filing clerks, not the head of a [thirty-seven-units] conglomerate.” True enough, perhaps, were Willy only Mr. Conglomerate, that is to say, a coagulative source of calculation on behalf of material well-being. But those visits to Ischia were after bigger game (even bigger than that roiling in the book he left only half-read, namely, Future Shock); and Wendell Jr. is about to discover what that slant on profit-taking is about. As you can see from his early-days snapping at Pamela, Wendell Jr. emanates a flinty combativeness as palpably tasteless as the red and white checkered golf outfit he’s into when hailed to drop everything and go to fetch his dad via Alitalia. The film requires close attention to painful lapses like his pointedly and audibly whispering to Carlo—at the morgue, while the sting of discovering cracks in Sr.’s iconic predictability still freshly shocks him as does Pamela’s ardent complicity—“Ask Fat Ass if she wants a ride.” (“No thank you,” she promptly retorts.) (Enveloping his cutting and at the same time ludicrous hauteur—as Carlo’s effort to conceal the scandal breaks down, Wendell Jr. comes to a fishtail and freeze, and yells out in disbelief, “Time!”—are swirls of obdurate powers with which his presumption dovetails, however awkwardly. On the plane ride to Rome, he sits next to a priest distraught at the prospect of a crash and aghast [along with the crew and other passengers] at his joining another man in the same tiny washroom, to exchange clothes and thereby get out of the incongruous golf gear. At Customs in Rome he feels the heavy hand of its bureaucracy due to a mix-up of ID stemming from the swap. Snarling, “I know you foreigners. I know how you love to push Americans around,” he promises retribution via some officials he can sick on them.)
In fact, prior to that discharge of primitive resentment in the guise of righteous indignation, Wendell Jr. had begun to be touched by the dignity of Pamela’s awe and sadness in face of the void at the morgue. Contributing to the elevation of the moment was the musical motif that had gathered around the soaring Alitalia flight amongst fleecy clouds at the outset. As Pamela goes through the process of identifying her mother’s body and, after a long pause in lostness and grace, swearing “I do” [recognize her], Wendell Jr. is seen in the background, stilled by the honesty of her physical attitude. She makes two bouquets of the clutch of daffodils (having, before going into the old structure—a former church, with its honeycomb stonework and gentle flow of light, itself a vehicle of takeoff—delighted in finding in her well-used Italian dictionary that the word for daffodils is trombonccini, with musical implications as well as warring features, along lines of blunderbuss). Then she places one on each of the creamy and soft textured sheets covering the bodies on adjacent tables. “Thank you,” he says, in marked contrast to the shrill peevishness of his arrival in Italy. But the oppressive regulations introduced by the coroner—far more complex and fraught with trouble than the simple “I do” (with its links to love)—induces Pamela to propose they dispense with the deadening export licensing. “Why don’t we bury them here?” where there is warm sunshine in such abundance, in contrast to their home towns. Junior quickly becomes enraged at the prospect of such a sleazy denouement (having fiercely remonstrated just an hour before, “Didn’t he care what people would say?”), as robbing him of being a prominent part of a public and attention-getting show (including the glee club of the Coast Guard, Senior having played a part in that organization aligned against nefarious offshore influences) of respect for conventional priorities. “They’re not the Unknown Soldiers. They were the Unknown Lovers. Let’s just keep it this way!” Then he’s back at his hotel suite, working on the eulogy he’d be addressing to gratifying throngs, and finding righteousness not very rewarding. “…a tireless crusader for all that’s decent… A dirty old man, that’s what he was!”
Armbruster soon has to factor into his reflexive crusading a reality of cutthroat invasiveness helping induce some second thoughts. “Bruno” the valet has photos of the controversial lovers swimming and sunning in the nude, and he wants the youngster to pull strings to have overturned his deportation from America. The Trotta family, into whose vineyard the death car intruded, has stolen the bodies and will return them only after receiving a large cash payment (in German Marks—that is to say, entailing yet another assault: “… No dollars… With your economy sick like a dog… we can’t take the risk.”
In the course of schmoozing Pamela to recover the bodies she supposedly wants so ardently to maintain in Italy that she would steal them –“That kook!”—Wendell Jr. recovers the traction into cogency he briefly came across at the morgue. He doesn’t get off on the right foot with this musical (tuning) mission as freighted with a moral crusade which the boredom of his phone contacts with his wife makes iffy—“How’re the kids?…Oh, watching the Orioles’ game… What’s the score?… Say “hi” for me, between innings.” Pamela refuses to open her door to him, he gets Carlo to use his pass key, finds her lying in bed in the dark, she tells him, “I’ve never been called Fat Ass,” and he’s back at the frat house—“Did I say that? Well, shame on me!” He gets on track for love handles if not love by trying to calm her anxieties, about being a bit chubby, by noting that one of his companies does well manufacturing silicon for body enhancements she doesn’t need. Then, satisfied she hasn’t hidden the goods in her suite, he urges her to have dinner with him at the hotel restaurant, as their parents did so many times over those summers—partly in hopes of getting her to talk (“I’m on a schedule!”), but partly for something else that soon becomes apparent. He frames the invitation partly to appeal to her loyalties, but also because the adventures of his naughty dad have begun to make some sense to him. “It’s more like a farewell gesture to them. They would like that.”
The dinner event marks Wendell’s almost imperceptibly taking a chance on cosmopolitan modernity. On first seeing the Excelsior he had, from out of a trajectory roundly denouncing espresso, pouted, “It doesn’t look like a Hilton.” And though he was to, on struggling to keep up to Pamela’s stripping and jumping off the dock and into the sea, regress along lines of his insisting being so way cool he’d seen Oh, Calcutta! twice (but she was going too far), his entry into the hotel’s patio dining room, overlooking exquisite hills and shoreline in twilight, brings him to an order of business far removed from that tedious funeral. The band has nothing to do with rock and roll and the quite elderly clientele on the dance floor (doing some kind of madrigal steps to a plaintive homage to twilight) leaves Armbruster within a rare moment of quiet reflection, as if having landed on another planet. Pamela arrives, still zipping into with some friction one of her mother’s dresses (he’s in Sr.’s double-breasted blazer, another borrowed outfit to mark a change in tenor), and they’re both worlds away from the reign of the viscosity of life. Drinks and menu come to be cued by the preferences of the dead, stolen and strangely impressive lovers (as does their being seated at Kate and Willy’s special table), but Pamela’s anxieties about caloric intake strike a discordant note (she’s brought along an apple as her quota) which now fails to rankle with Wendell. He’s pleasurably bemused by that arthritic dance floor, which includes a ninety-year-old baron and his two willowy blondes in nurses’ uniforms. The band sidles over and that theme song begins to ring bells, the former enemies now at peace. Wendell had asked the waiter, “What would they have ordered?” and from there Pamela begins to ease up on the ascetic food. (On her laying down that dreary law, he eschews sniping about kookiness and instead says, with a pleasant smile, “I admire your will power.”) One of the songs is “Katherine,” dedicated to her mother. It cuts off and sweetens Armbruster’s flare-up about love being for filing clerks. At this point he still assumes she has Kate and Willy hidden away somewhere. (Nevertheless, when she returns to the theme of their being able to enjoy that glorious climate [while their parents have lost it forever] his face relaxes and we see that he is now moved by her kooky enthusiasm.) But then the emissary from the Trottas arrives, and it’s a brand new ball game. On returning at dawn from his extra-innings of hard ball at the Trotta family bocce pitch, he finds her on the bandstand, mike in one hand a champagne glass in the other, never letting go of the heavenly rightness of this transcendent sensual embrace firmly eclipsing the absurdities at surface level. “If we don’t hurry, we’ll miss it!” is her add-on to the smile on her face by way of greeting Wendell. He’s towed in the wake of her rapturous retracing the wise steps of her mother to the dock and into the sea. Catching up with her sunning on a rock, he lies back and asks, “I wonder what they’d talk about here.” She replies, “I’m sure they didn’t talk at all… When you’re in love you don’t need words… A look, a touch can say it all… The guide book is right. Italy is not a country. It’s an emotion.” If this seems to coincide with Summer of Love fantasy, we are promptly disabused from that seeming by Wendell’s rushing to cover her breasts with his socks (the only undergarments that didn’t fall away during his swim) when she attracts the attention of a boatload of fishermen. Add to that the ever-opportunistic Bruno capturing it all on Polaroid from a cabana on the dock, and we realize that especially he—but also she—have lives to live in the hurly-burly of survival preoccupations which militate against adolescent limitedness. “That was quite the loveliest night of my life,” she tells him on their return to the non-Hilton. Headed back to a retailing job in cloudy London, and a flat burglarized by her recent steady (a rock musician involved with something [faddishly, in those days] called, “The Apostles”), she would, like him (and like the lovers in Brief Encounter) face a future informed by a dilemma of adult synthesis. Their “Good night, Willy”/ “Good night, Kate,” delivered that morning as they enter their respective suites, is their little joke to each other about working at attaining to stolen moments.
The film’s last movement begins in a major key, and then enters upon fascinating nuances of the minor register. Bruno is murdered in Pamela’s room by his pregnant girlfriend, irate at his compass set for the U.S.A. Pamela’s belongings are shifted, by orders of Carlo, to Wendell’s room to spare her getting entangled in the ugly aftermath. On hearing only of the shift of property, she imagines Wendell to be in love with her and eager to play out a second generation of the “emotion” that is Italy. She chides him playfully, “You do have your cheek… I don’t mind being taken as a sex object. But you have to make a game of it…,” that is to say, find logic or elevating structure in the “emotion,” in the absence of which “… it takes all the fun out of it!” The quiet zing of her occupation of Wendell’s turf—zapping his cock with her hand pretending a pistol shot as she strides through the bathroom where he has stood up in the tub—comes crashing to earth, and her embarrassment is touching. Wendell’s wife happens to call at that point, distraught that this so-called “Interpreter” is no mere functionary, but seemingly always hanging around his bedroom; Pamela takes the phone and says, “I’m short. I’m fat. And I’m not very attractive.” After hanging up, Wendell tells her, “Stop putting yourself down. You know who finds you attractive?” He interrupts her talking of making a fool of herself by easing her onto the bathroom scales, asking (twice), “Permesso?” (“May I come in?”), and having her say, “Avanti!” (“Come in”), and they kiss and have one night alone. As they enjoy their breakfast in bed, we cut to a noisy chopper zooming above that inviting shoreline, under the direction of someone Wendell’s wife spoke of as perhaps cutting through the red tape stranding the funeral party. “A friggin’ bore!” was his take at that point, and he proves very close to the mark. But he’s a clever bore (biting off self-satisfied “game plans”), and his ruse of making Sr. a diplomat (“There’s no regulation about being alive”) with diplomatic immunity from the unforthcoming rules of that game, draws from otherwise disgusted Jr. a quiet, “That’s neat.” The rout he precipitates involves placing Bruno in a spare coffin to play the part of the (unobserved) star of the funeral back in the U.S.A. that he did so want to return to, and bidding farewell to Kate and Willy at Carlo’s magnificent property, with their devoted musicians evoking a bit of splendor themselves, and the Trottas making some extra cash doing the heavy lifting. Then it’s on to the chopper, Wendell making the lame joke to her, “If you lose as much as one pound, it’s all over between us.” “It’s all over between us” being the new song of the hour, Pamela continues to smile and cry at the same time, standing with Carlo as the chopper disappears.
But “Senza Fine” accompanies the departure into the blue Italian skies. Pamela had gone from extensively using her Italian phrase book to bringing off without a hitch a sense of silent, demure hotel manicurist working with Wendell as “Jo Jo Blodgett” barges in on their bedroom. The wit of that performance would stand her in good stead going forward into her gloomy homeland. Where does that leave Wendell?
They may never meet again. But their now-keen appreciation of the “emotion” and its musical possibilities endows them with a special dramatic kinship that we the audience can assimilate for the sake of our own darkly nuanced comedies.