The Last of the Perugians

Davide Berretta
Photo: John Cochran

In the wee hours of the morning, in a plaza set in humble Perugia, a lovely little slice of Italy, a drunken 20-something party boy kicks at the empty beer bottles at his feet and curses into his mobile in crude, raw dialect. Modern man, as embodied in this raging fashion case, hardly compares to the historial and architectural grandeur that surrounds him.

Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong, tolls the bell in the bell-tower, chipping away the quarters, the halves, and the full hours remaining before environmental services will start cleaning up after this mess. It's 3:30am and I'm drunk. I'm sitting on the steps outside of the Cathedral, Perugia's social epicenter on early Saturday nights, amid the empty beer bottles and cigarette butts. I'm not feeling swell about myself either, since an hour ago I came back from a trip to some watering hole just to find out that my friends had left the club without waiting for me. My cell phone, with its dead battery, has disappointed me again. Finally, I was turned down an ego shattering three times by members of the opposite sex at the club and only now I realize the big yellow pineapples on my Hawaiian shirt might have something to do with those rejections.

At least, though, I'm not alone. About 50 feet from me stands a young man with kilos of gel in his hair, wearing a T-shirt that says SEXY BOY. Shitfaced and aggressive, he's yelling something lewd into his mobile. It's a sorry sight that makes me think a bit. But before letting myself be dragged into reflections on modern man, particularly Perugian men, and the rest of the world, let me give you some background.

I'm away from Perugia most of the year. Two years ago, I left this city of my childhood to attend college in the US. No regrets. After 19 years of cohabitation, Perugia and I had grown sick and bored of each other, like you get sick and bored of a friend, once you can predict what joke he is going to tell the next person that comes along. Perugia and Perugians is an open book to me, as I am to them: shops are closed on Mondays, and people hardly ever say "thank you". As for me, ask anybody and they'll know which bar you'll find me in on Saturday nights. Plus, this provincial city didn't seem to offer me much in the way of drugs, fornication, and publication opportunities. So I thought it best to pack my stuff and sail off to a snotty New England liberal arts college, where I might have a better chance at such things.

Once at college though, instead of engaging in the above activities, much to my surprise I found myself feeling trapped in a state of malaise: I spent most of my spare time playing Tetris in my room and the little fun I had on weekends seemed fake and unsatisfying come Monday. Only later I realized what ailed me: I was homesick. It's not like the longing for my hometown brought tears to my eyes or anything like that. But during the wintry Pennsylvania nights — bored out of my wits and with the Internet connection down — I would allow myself to indulge in brief imaginary tours of the city where I had grown up. In my mind I would leave my tiny apartment in Pennsylvania and find myself walking Perugia's narrow, stone-paved alleys. I enjoyed my recollection of the gentle curves of the centuries-old arches and vaults, delighting my retinas at the sight of so much authentic medieval stone.

At night, before sleep descended upon me, I would try to recall the best names of the Vie, Perugia's very streets and avenues. Narrow Via would indeed offer only a clove of sky above it, and Closed Via would, sure enough, end at an ancient stone wall. I would sneer at Philadelphia's grid system where 1st Street comes right before 2nd Street, when remembering how Via Bear, Via Wolf, Via Joy, and Via Silence would intertwine into some meandering, unpredictable shape.

So every summer I finally fly back to Perugia, and I remember why the city my mind draws during those virtual tours is devoid of people. As I come back by car from the airport I am never ready for the abyss of moronism about to open up before me. I make my way up the hill the city is built upon and enter the old part of town, hugged tightly by the Etruscan and Roman walls. Driving along the gardens, I rush through the unexceptional via Battisti to finally arrive to the main square where the orgy of capitals, vaults, and stairways awaits me . . . and there they are. Packs of 30-somethings, their hair ranging from greasy to completely absent, wearing Prada pre-wrinkled shirts. They're on the hunt for young girls to prey upon. Said girls move about in skittish clusters. They wear bold, black and white stripes — the dreaded zebra pattern that is popular here — running wild around their skirts. At the other end of the square there are the ever-terrible hordes of red-capped kids on a school trip, swarming about every surface they can climb upon or crawl through. They kick footballs and chase the baffled pigeons, which foolishly fly back, only to be chased again, and again.

At that moment I would not mind if Attila and the Huns stopped by Perugia for a quick sack.

But this very same square is empty and quiet at 3:30 in the morning, and by now even SEXY BOY has calmed down a bit. The bits and pieces of his slurred monologue I have been able to decipher help me understand why he's so angry. Apparently Pecora (literally "Sheep" in Italian — don't ask — explanations could range from accusations of bestiality to the main industry of his native city) and the rest of his friends are now at the real club, the one in the outskirts of town where the music is loud and the party won't end until 7am. Without him. Our shared chagrin of being left behind, along with a reevaluation of his shirt in light of my pineapples and the tame, begging tone his rage has shrank into, shapes my newfound feeling that he's probably a good soul. "Yeah man, but shit. You could have waited for me man, come on. I'm alone in the fuckin' square man, you knew I wanted to come. Yeah man. I understand, but I wanted to come, man. Come on."

You see, this is your average young Perugian: not too literate, gelled like no tomorrow, wasting his parent's middle class income on expensive mobiles and clubbing; but all in all, he's got a good heart. As far as indigenous people go, after months in which Perugia shone in the back of my mind like a distant Valhalla, SEXYBOY is a bit of a letdown. Movies, high fashion magazines, cool MTV clips and artsy cologne ads would indicate otherwise, but looking at SEXYBOY, I realize how all over the world the imbecile youth fail to live up to the beautiful cities they populate.

So is it modern man who is out of tune with the world? I appraise the status of mankind, championed, in this case by, SEXY BOY, against the wondrous square where he stands. In the square, three gorgeous caryatids hold up the balcony of the magnificent Tribunal. I compare his taste in attire to the exquisite dinner I had but hours before; pesto garnishing fine pasta, a delicious products of skill refined over the centuries. Compared to such stone and pasta sauce, we youthful mortals don't look so good. Not to say food and architecture are perfect in this city, but looking at Perugia from the Duomo steps, the what stands before me is beautiful, but the people who populate it, less so.

But as I sway and SEXY BOY swears, who's to say such decadence as ours is not timeless? The late Roman Empire, Victorian England, hell, even the good old Louis XIV's times sound like places where debauchery mingled gracefully with culture and thought. And what if SEXY BOY, hair gel, crude vernacular and all, perfectly embodies 21st century Italy? Would his medieval counterpart be any more charming? Maybe SEXY BOY is not as skilled in the art of fencing, but he's free to work in the profession of his choosing, and he knows for sure the earth is not flat. Also, he doesn't smell like fish, or dung, and his preferred form of entertainment does not involve the hanging of poor farmers who steal out of necessity. Take that, Machiavelli.

What I realize is that Perugia reminds me of everything I am missing when I am in Pennsylvania, or Laos, or the French Riviera. In Perugia, there is a modest grandiosity permeating every building and every little street. It's precious and poor at the same time, built in a way today's Godless architects wouldn't understand. Its architecture celebrates the city, the rich families, and the Pope, but Perugia knows that all this is of the earth; heaven is upstairs.

There is also something purely human in Perugia's capacity to humble your spirits. The local dialect, prescribing all "O"s to be closed, as in brodo (sounds like "braw-duh") and most words to be half as long as they should be (lo vedi is shortened to 'l ve), makes any conversation with the locals endearing but also coarse. And if you walk the street, making your way to the latest exhibit of some fine XV century painter, and you pass the old man sitting in front of his garage, raking down his throat for that last glob of spit, you will smile and know that you're not living a contradiction; that's just the way things go in Perugia.

Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong. There goes the bell again, telling the last two Perugians in this square that it's 4:00am, and it's now time to leave, for real. SEXY BOY gets the cue, gives me a last, scornful glance and shuffles toward home. Good night, sexy.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.