Let’s just dump the chum in this water from the outset because I really think the Italian Studies movie isn’t what you think it’s about. Such a controversially proud thrust of a thought. But I really don’t. Why? Because everyone that is talking about this amazing movie, Italian Studies, is all about how it’s about memory, and amnesia, and some such non-sense. And I just don’t think that that is what this movie is about. The brilliant thing about this movie is that I’m not wrong… and you might not be wrong, all simultaneously, and perfectly. And in my opinion, that is the definition of the best kind of movie possible.
It’s a movie that purports to be about memory, amnesia, the importance of remembrance, or not… etc. but it’s not about that. So, if you really got into the movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (THAT’S ABOUT MEMORY!!!), or the movie Starfish (ANOTHER MOVIE ABOUT MEMORY!!!), then I promise you, this is a movie for you. And better yet? I am now dubbing this movie the King of the THiNC. Movie Hill for 2022!! Our first movie was The Innocents. And now? Our second movie, and the current reigning champ? Italian Studies. So, let’s do this shall we? But first, you will have to have seen this movie before continuing on. So, click one of these links – support my blog by provide 2cents in the coffers (I swear to god above… that’s how much I make.) I burn more calories getting the link than it provides in revenue. I do it just so you know where you can find the movies I talk about. If you still aren’t sure, check out this trailer – and know that you are failing me morally by watching it, and not just trusting me on this one.
Standard Italian Studies Overview
The high level, the 30,000 foot view of Italian Studies, and what it presumes it’s all about, is a woman who seems to have forgotten her way, and spends the duration of the movie, sliding about the city of New York… careening from one conversation, and location to the next. It appears as though she is a privileged nutter that is able to get away with stealing a banana here, finagling an open hotel room there… all in support of a single end, not figuring out who she really is. That’s it, that is what the movie seems to be about.
In a structuring lattice, the movie begins and ends in London. I thought I was going insane because in all the interviews it talks as though it was 100% shot in New York. Had to watch over again just to be sure I recognized the streets and locations. Regardless… the film opens and closes in London. And as Alina (Vanessa Kirby) walks the streets, she bums a cigarette off a woman, who asks if she recognizes her. Nope. No, I don’t recognize you. Huh. Weird. Oh, wait, is that when I lost my dog? And from there on, the movie retraces her steps in New York City as she wanders here and there, occasionally interviewing teens for a book that she is writing. As the movie ends, we snap back to London wherein Alina explains, regretfully, that she can’t reconnect with Simon (played by Simon Brickner), she’s promised her husband she is doing better, and that she won’t lose her way again.
Problems With the Standard Italian Studies Perspective
As described above, this is a movie – aka the one described above – is about a woman with a mental illness. She is desperately in need of medical assistance. She’s an amnesiac on the loose. She ties up her dog, walks into a store in New York, and walks out without her dog. She randomly wanders the streets until she meets a kid in a hot dog shop trying to sell her his hot dogs. And from there, he introduces her to various members of his circle, and then, in a moment of bad judgement, she kisses him, and then she realizes she has a dog. Her dog is her tether that brings her back to reality… she picks her dog up, and is released from the tortures of her spell of amnesia. Right? And then ending? The ending seems to intimate that she refuses to go say anything to Simon solely because she’s worried about incurring the chaos of another wrecking ball of amnesia. Problem with that? You can’t invoke amnesia. You can’t. It’s not a symptom you invoke at will. But it sure seems like Alina thinks she can… and it’s why she’s not saying goodbye to Simon, or checking in on him. Yeah, that just doesn’t jive for me. That perspective on the film just seems really janky to me.
Italian Studies as Artist Retreat
Let me first start us down this path with a quote from my own favorite author – David Foster Wallace – as he discussed the complexities of creating artistic literature capable of making the reader feel something, “It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies . . . in be[ing] willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort to actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet.” What has that got to do with anything at all?? Well, it turns out, we learn fairly randomly, that Alina is actually the author of a book entitled “Italian Studies.” Come to find out, Italian Studies is a book of short stories that investigates a group of friends, teens, as they go through various struggles and experiences together. But it would appear that Alina, after writing something, completely forgets about it… shelves it away.
So, could it be that Italian Studies – the movie – is a story about an author who is actually retreating from the normalcy of life and is revisiting, investigating, the world of her characters that she created in the past? Could it be that Alina willingly leaves the world of reality only to escape back into the world of her characters? We know for a fact that these people she hangs out with are the people from her book. And we know that her book is already written at the time of her “memory lapse.” Could it be that Adam Leon, the writer and director of this movie, that in his crafting of this film – with the help of Vanessa Kirby (more on their process later) – they were tapping into the world of the creative? It’s almost like a reader taking a book from a library shelf, re-investigating this world of hers, immersing herself in it once again, and then stepping back out of it again. You see? You’ve done this before – right? Maybe you’ve painted something you are proud of, or written a short story, or thrown a pot… or whatever. You give everything to that creative enterprise. And then it’s gone. It’s behind you. You shelve your pot in some closet somewhere. And then one day, you pull that pot back out, and you immerse yourself in it. You remember that curve, the details of that glaze, or the choices you made that brought that pot to exist.
The Process of Creating Italian Studies
Part and parcel of the idea of an artist creating, and remembering, the way Adam Leon crafted this story is definitely strange. It came about through a partnership between himself and Vanessa. Here are a few interesting quotes from Adam about how the movie came to be:
“I do think it’s a lot about her connection [to Simon]. And I also think that he’s a character that we end up learning a lot more about than her, by the nature of what she’s going through. But I also have completely heard you. It’s a natural thing that came out of how the movie was developed. Vanessa and I wanted to work together, we started to develop the story, we started to develop the idea of what if we told this fully from her point of view, which would sort of un-moor us. It just felt like the right way to tell the story. And it really, it did come from Vanessa.”
“I don’t make improv movies so we had to prep this. Even if the script is 30 pages instead of 90 pages and has three scenes of dialogue and the rest is dialogue descriptions, we still need sort of guideposts. And then I just found the process thrilling. I think that during the making of it, the production was phenomenal. And during the making of it, I was like, “Oh, this is how I’m going to do every movie.” And now I do not think that because again, I think it was really right for this story.”
“We also felt that the interview space in the movie allowed for something that we weren’t getting access to, which was Alina being honest with herself and with others because she’s so protective of what’s happening to her in New York. She doesn’t want anyone to know and then when she’s in London, she’s protective in a different way — at first in a very typical cosmopolitan, “I’m here with my husband, he’s here on work and I’m going to be nice and be chipper and play that part”.
A Few Final Thoughts on Italian Studies
If we were to interview Adam, and talk to him about Italian Studies not being about memory – but rather – that it was about artistic sublimation instead, this transcendence into this otherness, this escape back into a past known world that was artistically created, he’d probably laugh. But I would pitch him, fairly insistently, that his film works better on this level, than on the level of memory and amnesia. Italian Studies being about memory is literally just a McGuffin of another sort. A lame device used for an excuse to film the streets of New York, which was Adam and Vanessa’s end goal. But to layer on top of this forgetting, a willfulness that is impossible in a scientific way with amnesia. To add this artistic abandon that also works for Adam and his own creations, to meld them together into this deeper conversation between the artist and the artist’s creation is more interesting. Better yet, the impetus for the creation of the book was based on these high schoolers… these kids, and their lives. Better yet yet yet… Italian Studies was based on the kids in the movie, their real world lives, their experiences, and their own realities. Did you notice that 95% of the actors used their real names? These kids were pretty legit. Sure, some worked in big shows and movies before (Maya Hawke, Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman’s daughter – talk about a pedigree – and Fred Hechinger was in White Lotus, etc.) but wide swaths of these kids were just kids. Which is art imitating life imitating art imitating life. It gets a little murky this far down in the trenches of the creative impulses.
But I adore movies like Italian Studies. Movies like Before Sunrise, or more recently, Columbus. Movies that unpack two characters and allow them to dialectically blossom? So good. So, whether you enjoy movies like this or not… or whether you think this movie is about memory, or about the artistic impulses… it’s really neither here nor there to me. But rather it’s about the end experience of our being alive in this world today. Whether we are adrift on the tides of New York, or in Columbus, or Paris… it’s about the collective experience of life that is real to us and that we are trying to learn from, grapple with, and understand.
Edited by: CY