We found our guesthouse in Venice, not far from Piazza San Marco, around 11pm. Venice closes early. It’s hard to find any good food that late, and we survived with a mediocre calzone. “Mediocre” in Italy is still palatable.
Tuesday morning, we met Ray’s cousin John at the Biennale ticket office, located two minutes away. We bought tickets for our first showing for later that night, a double feature of “Sangue del mio Sangue” and “Anomalisa”, and John got tickets for all of us to see “Heart of a Dog” the next day.
The vaporetti, the water buses which take you from one island to another, are expensive. 7 euros per trip, or 60 euros for unlimited travel for a week. Since it seems we will probably return within the next five years, we decided to get 50-euro passes which let us use resident fares, 1.40 euros per trip. The line to do this, while not long, was very slow: several people in front of us were getting passes themselves, and each requires taking a picture, and the attendant has to fill in many fields in a form, and a contract has to be printed out. It gave us a chance to talk to the people in line, including Elena, an Italian art-history grad student from Rome.
In the afternoon we took it easy, recovering from our long travel the two days before. We then went to Lido, where the films are shown, and met John at the Golden Lion for Aperol spritzes and had some smoked salmon on potato salad as our dinner. The Golden Lion is a bar immediately across from the main red-carpet area where all the stars arrive for their films, in fancy Renaults driving very short distances. Two years ago they were Maseratis.
“Sangue del mio Sangue” is an Italian film about a man investigating the goings-on at an 18th-century monastery. His brother had committed suicide after an affair with an involuntary nun there, who they were trying to get to confess to having seduced a priest using the services of the devil (as if that were necessary). She was weighted with chains, pushed off a cliff into a river, after having been told that if she floated that would indicate her guilt, while if she remained submerged that would prove her innocence. Shortly after she failed to surface, they brought her up. She was next similarly threatened with fire. Ultimately they built a brick wall around her, where she apparently lived for decades. The film cuts to the present where a man with the same name wants to help a Russian man buy the abandoned monastery property. Everybody turns out to be vampires. There were never any clear lines drawn between the persecuters of the nun and the Russian investors, but you are bound to note the similarities, if any.
“Anomalisa” is the newest film from Charlie Kaufman, director of Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, etc. It is animated, and it soon becomes apparent that all characters are voiced by adult males, except for Lisa, who is an anomaly. (In fact, all but Lisa and the protagonist are voiced by the same person.) It’s a lot of fun, in a fugal way. Few image themes, many variations.
Wednesday we met John at his hotel, bought tickets for Thursday’s movies, and saw a few exhibits around town. The India/Pakistan pavilion had a cute digital mirror which showed us ourselves as we looked 30 seconds ago. It also had a room one of whose walls had five guys in Lahore, Pakistan talking to us. Unfortunately the sound was very bad and it was pretty impossible to tell what they were saying. They spoke good English. One was a dress designer.
The New Zealand pavilion had a display about the NSA, more informative than artistic. Political art has that problem. We saw a Sebastio Salgado / Illy exhibition with large detailed black and white photos of people making coffee sustainably. As we walked around, we ran into Elena, and talked for awhile. A small “shrine for girls” in a small chapel had a pile of saris from girls raped in India, a pile of hijabs from girls abducted by Boko Haram, and a pile of garments made by slave laborers. We took the boat to the Armenia exhibit on San Lazarro, where there is a monastery which has a printing operation, with a museum showing vintage typesetting equipment. Elena was there as well, and she came with us to have a spritz before our upcoming movie.
“Heart of a Dog” is an amazing hypnotic meditation by Laurie Anderson on love, death, and her dog. The trouble with seeing hypnotic movies when being jetlagged after long travel days is that I kind of fell asleep — I look forward to rewatching the movie when it becomes available.
On the ferry back we met a German woman named Tina, who tagged along with us to a pizza place way out in Cannareggio. We waited a long time to be seated, and Tina eventually said she was too hungry and tired to wait and went back to her hostel. We finally were seated, and the food arrived, one dish at a time, each after a long interval. It was quite tedious and late, but everything was good, especially the artichoke and prosciutto pizza.
Thursday we went to the Arsenale to see one of the two main art exhibitions of the Biennale. The theme is “All the World’s Futures”. There were several cute exhibits, but I’ll have to look at the pictures to remember what they were. We were there for about six hours, a grueling day. It also didn’t seem to have a lot to do with the future. The number of artists is depressing, who are still publishing position papers and getting grants as if Fluxus was the Dernier Cri.
We zipped over to Lido on the fifty-year-old water bus, and had sandwiches at the Golden Lion before heading to our double feature. “Remember”, a new film from Atom Egoyan, starred Christopher Plummer as a Holocaust survivor with Alzheimer’s. Like Julianne Moore in Still Alice, he had a letter reminding him of what he had to do, which in this case was instructions from Martin Landau telling him to find the guard who murdered his family at Auschwitz. It was pretty thrilling although the plot does not stand scrutiny. Scrutinize on your own time.
“From Afar”, a Venezuelan film, featured a middle-aged denture technician who picked up cute young guys and offered them money to come home with him and undress. It turned out that his motivation for doing this was nefarious rather than innocent.
Friday we saw several Biennale exhibits in Campo San Stefano, and then went to our afternoon movie. “A Copy of my Mind” was an Indonesian movie about a young woman who gives facials and a young man who uses Google Translate to make bad subtitles for pirated DVDs. She gives a facial to an important woman in a cushy prison, and steals a DVD which turns out to be a recording of a meeting where the woman facilitates bribes for government officials from real estate developers. Dangerous men come looking for her, but they find him instead. The two stars were in the audience, and we got to talk to them briefly.
Afterwards we went to Slip of the Tongue, a separate exhibition showing various cute things but if you are planning to go, be advised that “Piss Christ” is only there as a photo. No idea where the original is. After the evening’s spritz, we went to Gianni’s Pizzeria, a decent restaurant on the shore, and had delicious seafood risotto and grilled branzino, followed by a visit to the adjacent gelato place where we became somewhat of a sensation by eating one ice cream cone simultaneously. It was supposed to be a cup. Ice cream cones take much more concentration. There was a band playing rock and roll near by the whole time. As with the Gondoliers, their musicianship is at a high level and their choice of songs is blecch.
Saturday morning we saw an exhibition of very cute art. The thing which hooked me was a runway covered with little porcelain skulls which they invited you to walk on. There were also some wheelchairs made out of razor blades and paper clips, and some photos whose canvas was long and shredded and drooping in the center. Outside there were automated gamelans making a nice ambience. The man who made the automated gamelans apparently learned to program at a company in New York that makes sound effects for toys.
We then headed to the Giardini to see the other main art exhibition area (though first Ray headed back to the room to find his ticket, which had been misfiled as a souvenir). There we prioritized the national pavilions, dashing through the exhibition hall in the last half hour. The Great Britain pavilion featured Sarah Lucas, with two large balloonlike representations of Maradona, and several asses-and-legs with cigarettes in the hole. The Canada pavilion was fun, with a replica kiosk full of Canadian products, many of which were a bit out of focus. It also had a Rube Goldberg mechanism for sorting coins which didn’t sort them. The Australian pavilion was by far the best, in which Fiona Hall showed nests made out of shredded dollar bills, macabre cuckoo clocks, sculptures from loaves of bread, driftwood presented as animal sculptures, and elaborately fashioned sardine cans.
We picked up John and went to Al Mascarone, a small but very popular seafood restaurant a bit off the beaten path. The food was good: cuttlefish in black sauce, grilled sausage, and a creamy cod dish, all served with polenta. But then the owner wanted to have his picture taken with us, which led to complimentary shots of the best limoncello we’ve ever had, and an herbal amaro, and more pictures of us taken standing behind the bar.
Sunday we checked out early, and dragged our luggage through the empty streets to the Hertz office. We got our tiny Opel “Adam Rocks” stylish car with a wimpy engine, black with a white top and brown leather seats, and headed west. We stopped in Siena; I’d visited there for a day in 1979, but I’d completely forgotten everything about it. It has an amazing plaza shaped like a shell and sloped as an amphitheater. They race horses there in a festival. Fortunately there was no festival and parking was easy, when you found a parking meter that wasn’t broken. The cathedral has distinctive black stripes on its white marble in the style called “ablaq” from Syria to Andalusia. I don’t think Siena was ever Saracen, though. There were long lines even to find out how much tickets cost.
We drove on twisty little roads through the hills to Massa Marittima, where the celebrated mural we’d failed to see in 2005 because it was being restored, could now be seen through a window. The mural was discovered only very recently, and features a tree whose fruit is penises.
From there we drove to Livorno, found our airbnb and a place to park, with some effort — if you make the wrong left turn it could take ten minutes to get back to where you were. We ate some hearty cacciucco (a seafood stew), and went to sleep early. We got up early, and found our four-hour ferry to Corsica which we are on presently, along with our cute little car.