It’s Boxing Day, a perfect day for slothing on the sofa and succumbing to the magic world of the movies. I’ve noted before that I think this period of Neptune in Pisces (2011-2024) should be great for the moving image. One thing that’s already clear is that we’re going through a wonderful period for TV drama. Now that we watch episodes back to back, we’re diving right into that ocean of imagination in just the way our ancestors immersed themselves in those huge novels back in the 1850s, last time Neptune was in Pisces.
In this country at any rate, something else has happened at the same time, the “news” is not what it used to be. News has become more sensational, more parochial and somehow less real. In fact, reality seems clearer at the moment through the fish-eye lens of fiction. The downhill slide of news and factual reporting has only made fiction more alluring.
We all know that bad things happen, but that doesn’t mean we live in a wicked world. We need fiction these days to give us a reality check from the news. Why not download a stream of movies instead of hearing, in detail, about the ghastliness of the world, or the antics of a celebrity? Happily, lots of great fiction is being created in all media — film, television and books.
This week, I’ve seen three recently made movies, which I thought exemplified quite different but equally powerful aspects of the planet Neptune. Neptune, the planet, rules film, and you will find him making his presence felt in the charts of film stars and film makers. The qualities of the sign through which he transits are often reflected in the cinema. When Neptune was in Aquarius for example, we had all those cyber-tales. In Pisces, he has reached his own sign, his domicile, his domain, so he can act freely and be fully himself. The sign of Pisces has limitless imagination.
A couple of fourteen year old boys find a man hiding out on an island in the Mississippi River. He’s living in a boat caught in a tree, and his name is Mud. The boys are memerised and enthralled by the man’s stories, his casual knowledge of Native American superstitions, and the sheer romance of his situation. The movie borrows beautifully from Great Expectations — is this Magwitch? — and Night of the Hunter, which features another tattooed miscreant, a pair of children and the mighty river — and Stand By Me, but most of all it is a homage to Tom Sawyer, another wide-eyed, good-hearted boy on the shores of manhood by the wide Mississippi.
The land look so dull and ugly and flat, the people who live there brutal and conformist. In contrast, the river is magical, dreamy, enchanting and the people who live and work with her are romantics and rebels. But the world of Neptune is treacherous, of course, especially when it comes to telling truth from lies.
A Late Quartet
The film follows a few months in the life of a world famous string quartet as the group attempts to deal with profound emotional upheaval. The four musicians have been playing together for 25 years, but their real relationships are only gradually revealed through the course of the film, and what this means for their joint performance is not clear until the last scene.
It’s worth seeing just for Christopher Walken’s speech recalling an encounter with the great cellist Pablo Casals. But all the performances in this film are beautiful. The late Philip Seymour Hoffmann plays the role of second violinist with his usual intensity. This is a movie about the act of performance itself. How deeply you need to feel to be a great musician, and how hard it is to control that passion and put it to the service of the music. It’s no wonder the acting is so marvellous because this is how it is for great actors too.
Neptune is, of course, a planet that is associated with music. You’ll find it prominently placed in the charts of musicians. But it’s also a planet of overpowering emotion, the kind of emotion that seems to be hardly of this world. Not all transits from Neptune need bring a tidal wave of feeling, but they so often do. A Late Quartet shows people managing that Neptunian tidal wave by paying homage to music itself.
La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty)
Neptune is here again, but this time with a very different face. Jep Gambardella is an elderly columnist who has lived, made and observed the Roman high-life, tottering from party to party for half a century. He’s the person Marcello Mastroianni’s character in La Dolce Vita might have become after years of mondanita. But the Rome of the 2000s is a charmless empty place, where elderly people “party”, get botox treatments from a guy who looks like a lumberjack, and snipe at each other, and the young, which means anyone under 50, are either mad or dead or absent.
La Grande Bellezza is a shining satire about the zombie gerontocracy that runs Berlusconi’s Italy. Of course, alongside Toni Servilio, the city itself is the star, and as we watch Jep watching the empty revels at his rooftop party, overlooking the Colisseum, it’s impossible not to think of the Borgias, the Farneses, the Caesars, who bought beauty for Rome, but for whom the price was corruption of the soul.
When Neptune goes wrong, we associate him with Dionysiac folly: harmful hedonism, madness. We associate him with gossip, slander, the floating world of celebrity — exactly the place which Jep inhabits.
This is a very complex movie, filled with memorable images, and layers of meaning. As well as being a portrait of Rome. It’s the story of Jep as a failed artist. In his 20s he wrote a novel called The Human Apparatus, which was apparently very good, but he prostituted his talent to a newspaper in exchange for Roman highlife, and as a result lost his inspiration. He swapped one Neptune, inspiration, for another, hedonism. Be careful how you worship the gods.