Frame from Portrait, 1963
Sitting down at their kitchen table in the one heated room of the house, the family was gathered around – 8 children, aged 38 down to 12, and the parents. They’d just brought me from the Stazione Centrale of Milano to their home in Cassina Amata, at the time on the still-rural flanks of the city. It was early January 1963, in the midst of a brutal winter. Outside the street was mud and ice, and farm fields surrounded the tiny town and its church. A few new 5 story apartment blocks stood in the distance wrapped in Po valley fog. It reminded me of an early Antonioni film, like Il Grido.
They did not speak English, and my Italian was at best a handful of words. I had fifty dollars, 19 years, and had met them a year and a half earlier when they picked me up hitching in Como, 30 miles to the north. Then they’d taken me home and set me down for a good Italian pranzo and asked me to stay. I’d said no back then, though I had no schedule and could have said yes, but something dissuaded me. And now I was back.
In our shared non-language, they inquired how long I would stay. Not wanting to seem overbearing, I suggested two or three nights. This begot a table of unhappy faces, and despite the communal absence of words, somehow the number was escalated to three weeks, at which point they seemed happy. Thus began my new adventure in Italy, and, though neither they nor I understood it at the time, I had found a family, at least of some kind.
The door to the left was to the kitchen & dining room; up the stairs were the bedrooms, the window on the left being the boys one – with me there were 5 of us in there. The only heated room was the kitchen.
Mamma GesuinaPapa Leopoldo
It was bitter cold that winter, record-breaking, which confined me, and everyone else at home, to the kitchen – a high-ceiling basic room, with a big dining table suitable for the 10 of the family, and me. I had almost no money and couldn’t afford to take the tram into nearby Milano, a 30 or 40 minute trip, initially through farm fields and then transitioning to city. I think I went there 3 or 4 times in two months, once to get some film stock and another time to see about a repair on the cheap Japanese telephoto I’d bought with the Bolex. (They wanted more than I could afford and dissembled the lens and fixed the flopping iris blade myself and so I learned to not be afraid of such things and when feasible do not hesitate to dive into the innards of cameras, computers or anything else usual left to “the pros.”)
For some weeks, trapped in the kitchen, with nearly always a handful of people in it, I was surrounded with constant chatter. Italians are culturally wired to talk, to argue, to be social. I am by instinct more or less a loner, though I can readily be social as well. For that time I was forced by circumstances into more or less non-stop socializing, though handicapped by my being unable to say much. Instead I listened. I took walks in the little town and connected words in shop windows to items. I tried to read the newspapers. And listened, slowly learning by osmosis, however badly, this new language.
Frame from Portrait, 1963
Meantime I fell into the family routines: the decanting wine from a big demigianna into bottles for the table; once a week scattering home-made pasta all around the dining-kitchen room on sheets of newspaper to dry overnight; killing chickens on a wall in the muddy courtyard. At the same time I began to work on my first film, which would be a portrait of Matilde, the youngest child in the house. I filled pages of a notebook with scribblings, and in my mind this blossomed out into a feature, though it ended as a little 15 minute short – something far more appropriate to my means, financial and experiential. I was, after all, just a beginner.
And in a way I went crazy, or perhaps I proved to myself I already was crazy, or at least very deeply alienated from the world I lived in. I did things which, as I told the family, I would have thrown myself out of the house for doing. I recall once tossing a broom on the roof of the house; one evening I found myself under the kitchen table during dinner, acting like an animal. I don’t recall what other things I might have done, but surely there were other things.
After three or four weeks, my Italian grew to be enough to actually have a discussion, never mind that my vocabulary was sharply limited and such things as past or future tense eluded me, so I spoke in a simple first person, present tense, manner. But I could talk. And so one evening, now that it was possible to communicate, everyone sitting at the table, I tried to tell a bit of myself, among the realities being that I refused to go in the American military. Three of the Rebosio sons had already done their tour – sent to the south of Italy, Sicily, whereas soldiers from the south were sent north. This was because parts of northern Italy were in dispute with Austria and there were little guerilla actions going on and the government perhaps wasn’t so sure of the loyalties of those there. So the northerners guarded the south and the southerners the north.
In various orders: Cesarina, Ezio, Ambrogio, Lodovico,
Aldo, Rosanna, Mariangela, Matilde
The family, once they understood, said I should return to the US and do my duty. And, somewhere along the line in this discussion I realized they did not understand – not my terrible Italian, but “me.” As this crashed into my adolescent mind I burst into uncontrollable weeping – here my fresh newly-minted seemingly understanding “family” did not actually know or understand dear “me.” It was a kind of psychic breakdown, and I had no option or brakes. I wept overtly, and one by one the parents, and then sons, abandoned the table and left me alone with two of the older sisters, Rosanna and Mariangela.
In the brief time I’d been in the house, I had taken up a new pleasure – wine. While earlier I had drunk American 3.2 beer, here in Italy the usual was wine. In quick order, as it was in the wine-cellar, and no one seemed to mind, I got in the habit of having about a half-bottle of the home-decanted over the long and full lunches, and then would over the afternoon have a bit more. Evening dinner, still more. And so on this night of weeping, Rosanna and Mariangela and I concocted a little minuet. Outside it was snowing, and I announced I was going to “take a walk” and perhaps sleep outdoors. A thinly veiled suicide proposal, doubtless under the sway of way too much booze and my wounded still-teen soul: They did not understand me !
Ah ! And like a good teenager this was affront enough to question whether living was worth the candle. Or so it seemed that night. Hence did we did a little round-a-lay as I would go to the wine cellar for a slug more of drink, Rosanna and Mariangela would hasten to block me and I would then head for the door, to take my “walk.” And they would block the door. This went on until I was good and drunk, and the sons came home after their round of the cafes, and escorted me to bed. This grand theatrical event was henceforth called “La Notte Famosa” – the famous night.
Frame from Portrait, 1963
And yet, despite my dubious ways, they did not kick me out. Had I been in their shoes I would have sent me packing. But they were different. And so I spent the next month and some shooting my first film, with little 12 year old Tilde my subject. I had far broader thoughts – about society, life, and a head full of the usual portentous youthful crap, which I scribbled into a note book, and imagined this little silent film would be a feature. Reality intervened and it shrank to a small little 13 minute portrait of a sometimes reluctant Tilde, dressed in her black school dress. It is rough and primitive, and very much a “first film” though one which seemed also to announce that I was a natural filmmaker. I was 19. Later the film would get my first real review, in Chicago, by none other than Roger Ebert, writing in some alternative paper of the time, 1965 or so. It screened at the Aardvark on the near north side, a place like the paper he wrote for long since gone. He liked it. And far later, in 2015 or so, EYE Film Museum and their archive in Amsterdam would make an archival print of it.
As spring began to arrive in Cassina Amata I took advantage of the warmer weather and went hitch-hiking, once up into the mountains where I stayed overnight, shooting a sequence for Portrait, sleeping in an empty hutch in a snow covered farm field. Another time I went on a Sunday to Lago Maggiore. And another time I headed north, to the top of Lake Como, passing the small town where Mussolini had been captured and killed. A guy in a sports car picked me up and said he was headed to St Moritz. It was spring in the valley and I unthinkingly said, “great” and we went up the mountain passes and snow stood by the side of the road, deeper and deeper until it was meters. We got to St Moritz, a ritzy ski town then and now. And he dropped me off in the center and I probably had less than $10 on me. Initially I thought maybe to go into a hotel and ask if I could sleep in the basement heating system room, or something like that, but then thought no way they’re going to buy that. And then in the cold I wandered around trying to find the working class neighborhood, thinking maybe someone would take pity on stupid me. It didn’t at the time occur to me that St Moritz was a very classy town and would have no working class district, but that dawned on me as I tramped in the snowy streets of fancy suburban chalet houses. And then I came across a house under construction and the sounds of voices came from it. With some doubt I approached it, and some one, a worker, answered the door and in some way I was able to explain myself. I was invited in, sat down for a dinner – a hearty soup and bread as I recall – and then given a place to sleep. Somewhere along the way I figured out that it was the local custom for a work crew to live in the place they were building. I had found the working class neighborhood and they did as I’d imagined and hoped. The next day I hitched out of town as early as I could.
Each time I would return from these excursions the family would be amazed, so crimped were their mental horizons. For them a trip to Torino, less than 100 miles away, was a major deal. For me it was a thumb stuck out by the side of a road.
As March arrived, and in the valley spring burst with warmth, I had finished shooting the film and had to think about editing. I knew of the film school in Rome, Centro Sperimentale, and was tempted (mistakenly) by the name to head there, but somewhere I became leery of my capacity for negotiating what I wanted in my limited Italian, and instead opted to head for London. I think perhaps I was also just hungry for English. Many decades later I was to teach a bit at Centro Sperimentale – the circle closes.
Leaving my little bit of material goods there with the Rebosio’s, I told them I was headed to England to go to edit my film, and that sometime I would be back. If I recall properly la Mama cried at my departure, like I was her own beloved son. It was strange, and for a young screwed-up adolescent kid, moving. Mama Gesuina.
Little did they, or I, know what this sojourn in the Rebosio home would mean. I headed towards the UK, into a long adventure, my Bolex tucked into my backpack, a guitar at my side, and thumb in the air. In hindsight, it was a trip that would never stop. But there would be returns.
Photo, summer 1963, Olso, Norway