for Djelal and Juanita
If every picture I made was about Italian Americans, they’d say, “That’s all he can do.” I’m trying to stretch.—Martin Scorsese, Premiere (1991)
Preliminaries for a Reading
Italian/American art forms—more precisely, literature and film—have often been defined as those constructed mainly by second-generation writers about the experiences of the first and second generations. In a recent essay on Italian/American cinema, for example, Robert Casillo defined it as “works by Italian-American directors who treat Italian-American subjects.” In like fashion, Frank Lentricchia had previously defined Italian/ American literature as “a report and meditation on first-generation experience, usually from the perspective of a second-generation representative.” Indeed, both constitute a valid attempt at constructing neat and clean definitions for works of two art forms—and in a certain sense we can extend this meaning to other art media—that deal explicitly with an Italian/American ethnic quality and/or subject matter. Such definitions, however, essentially halt—though willy-nilly by those who offer them—the progress and limit the impact of those writers who come from later generations, and thus may result in a monolithic notion of what was/is and was/is not Italian/American literature. Following a similar mode of thinking, Dana Gioia has more recently proposed a similar definition in his brief essay, “What Is Italian-American Poetry?” There, Gioia describes “Italian-American poetry . . . only as a transitional category” for which the “concept of an Italian-American poet is therefore most useful to describe first- and second-generation writers raised in the immigrant subculture” (3).
One question that arises is, what do we do about those works of art—written and/or visual—that do not explicitly treat Italian/American subject matter and yet seem to exude a certain, ethnic Italian/American quality, even if we cannot readily define it? That is, can we speak to the Italian/American qualities of a Frank Capra film? According to Casillo’s definition, we would initially have to say no. However, it is Casillo himself who tells us that Capra, indeed, “found his ethnicity troublesome throughout his long career” (374) and obviously dropped it. My question, then, is: Can we not see this absence, especially in light of documented secondary matter, as an Italian/American signifier in potentia? I would like to say yes. And in this regard, I would suggest an alternative perspective on reading and/or categorizing any Italian/American art form. That is, I believe we should take our cue from Scorsese himself and therefore “stretch” our own reading strategy of Italian/American art forms, whether they be—due to content and/or form—explicitly Italian/American, in order to accommodate other possible, successful reading strategies.
Because of the work of those who have offered alternative perspectives through some of the more recent analytical and interpretive tools of hermeneutics, deconstruction, semiotics, and the like we can readily broaden our view of what constitutes the Italian/American experience in the arts. I would thus propose that we reconsider Italian/American literature, for instance, to be a series of on-going written enterprises that establish a repertoire of signs, at times, sui generis, and therefore create verbal variations (visual, in the case of film, painting, sculpture, drama, etc.) that represent different versions—dependent, of course, on one’s generation, gender, socio-economic condition—of what can be perceived as the Italian/American signified. That is, the Italian/American experience may indeed be manifested in any art form in a number of ways and at varying degrees, for which one may readily speak of the variegated representations of the Italian/American ethos in literature, for example, in the same fashion in which Daniel Aaron spoke of the “hyphenate writer” and Aijaz Ahmad discussed new ways of considering “third-world” literature.
Reading Filming Writing
Having now offered these definitions of Italian/American art forms and how we can further redefine in a more broad manner what is and is not Italian/American, in this case, cinema, we can now turn to Joseph Greco’s Lena’s Spaghetti and see that it is, in fact, not an explicitly Italian/American movie. In fact, one may want to argue that there’s nothing Italian/American about this movie at all, except perhaps for the two words “Lena” and “spaghetti.” But I would contend that in this film there is something beneath the surface that, to a certain degree, reflects the director’s Italian Americanness, his enthusiasm for his heritage as a third- or fourth-generation Italian American. It is something that, in the words of Roland Barthes, instead of being, let’s say, the cardinal functions/nuclei or catalysers, would be, instead, something in the line of the indices or informants: that is, secondary signs—bits and pieces of information—that lie below the surface, which the regular viewer might easily overlook. And, here, when I say regular viewer, I have in mind the opposite of what we might call a “model viewer,” to echo Eco, or an “ideal viewer,” as someone like Chatman, Iser, or even Prince would have it.
Lena’s Spaghetti is the story about Herb—or Herbie, as his mother calls him—a lonely thirty-three year-old mailman who takes out a personal ad, and Hannah—or Lena, her adopted, fictitious name for their correspondence—a thirteen year-old girl who just moved to a new town. The correspondence that develops between them becomes the clay from which Greco sculpts a tender and lyrical story of two people in search of that something which is missing in their respective lives. Lena’s Spaghetti, one might say, is basically about love, or more precisely, about the blossoming of love, or, further still, the field, to use a metaphor, on which the seeds of love are sown and from which one may reap a harvest. In a similar vein, we might also see this reaping as a metaphor for artistic creation, precisely because there are, even though this is a film and there are no films represented in it, references nevertheless to artistic creation, albeit indirect. There is a reference to writing, first of all, in Lena’s diary, as well as the correspondence that takes place between her and Herb, who initially places a perosnal ad to which Lena responds. Secondly, there are also numerous references to painting. In fact, we see that the postcards that travel back and forth between Lena and Herb are reproductions of, if they do not at the very least echo, Renaissance art—we have the painting of the two putti, as well as the Mona Lisa that lies on top of a stack of mail Lena received from Herb. There is, in addition, the equally significant element of Herb’s own hobby, which is painting.
In dealing with the notions of artistic creation, or self-reflexivity, as well as the structure of a particular work, whether that work be written or visual, one also talks about framing and/or bracketing. In the beginning of Lena’s Spaghetti we find that Herb—someone yearning for a significant other, searching greatly for love—is literally framed by the two lovers who now wait for him to dole out their mail. Herb, that is, stands uncomfortably between these two people, as they, conversely, so naturally express their love for each other in front of him. Such framing/bracketing also occurs on other occasions throughout the film. The female letter carrier, Adele, is framed early on within the truck-door of her postal vehicle; later, when Herbie catches her reading his mail from Lena, she is again framed by her truck’s door; thirdly, she is framed once more at the end of the film, when Herb finally invites her to dinner. In a similar manner, Lena is also framed on a couple of occasions—in the mirror in the bathroom, where she appears to be the young girl she truly is; other times she is framed by the mirror in her room, where she is shown writing to Herb or reading his letters. The last time we see her in this framed situation, she realizes she must not write any longer to Herbie.
One of the more explicit examples of self-consciousness, or self-reflexivity, may be viewed through the lens of the notion of representation, that is representation of reality. What we, as viewers, see at the end of the film is, in fact, a sign of reality, in that which takes place when Lena decides she can no longer write to Herb because things have become, we might say, too hot for her; though in her case the more correct term might be frightening, since he now admits his love for her and that they should finally meet. In a previous shot, we saw Lena sitting on her bed, contemplating Herb’s letters. In this case, we see a similar shot in which she is now writing/narrating that she will not be able to meet Herb. What is significant here, as well as before, is that we are not looking at a sign of reality; that is, we are not looking at the interpretant of an object, as Peirce would call it. We do not directly see Lena, we see, instead, her reflection in the mirror. Thus, what we find ourselves looking at is a sign of a sign of reality; the image/concept, that is, is no longer separated from us, as would be the case, by one degree of separation—i.e., through one sign and/or image. Rather, this reality is distanced from us through a second degree of separation—that is, we now have a reflection (Lena’s mirrored image) of a sign (= interpretant), that is “Lena,” which represents instead what we would readily call an object, a notion, a signified, a concept.
It is also at this point where we witness a radical shift in Greco’s visual narration. The switching of scenes, which up to this point has been an almost seamless process, is no longer a smooth transition from the previous scene to the next. We now have a momentary blank, a black screen, a literal gap in the narration that is also, in its own right, a metaphorical gap that Wolfgang Iser discusses as part of his general notion of the phenomenology of reading. In this vein, such a gap constitutes for the viewer, especially the “model/implicit” viewer, a moment of repose for him/her to reconcile the information that s/he has gathered thus far, throughout the visual narration, in order for him/her to reconstruct a logical narrative sequence.
Parallel to the radical shift in narration is a radical shift in the narrative. The relationship, or the desired relationship between Lena and Herb changes dramatically. That is, that desire for the “unique female,” what we first saw in Herb’s personal ad, his search for the “unique female” at this point actually becomes concretized, whereas before in the writing, in the correspondence, she remained exactly that—an idea, words, signs—an idea on paper, never an actual human being. Thus, on the one hand, Herb’s desired person is now reified in the figure of Adele (= “unique female”), while, on the other, Lena’s (or, now, Hanna’s) desired person, a friend inasmuch as a friend is also emotional support, is reified in the young girl on the bus, as they now walk off at the end as friends. These dynamics thus come to a head as both desires are satisfied—the search for the “unique female” on Herb’s part, and the search and/or desire for a friend on Lena’s.
One significant aspect here with regard to writing, or the desire for writing, is that the activity becomes the conduit, the channel, or, to remain faithful to my initial metaphor of sown fields, writing—or better, the paper on which one writes (canvas, with regard to Herb’s painting)—is the field on which such seeds of desires and ideas are sown. At the beginning, Herb’s personal ad underscores the importance of writing as some type of source of satisfaction and/or happiness: “Like to write?” opens his personal ad. In a similar manner, Lena in turn expresses an analogous emotion when she states in her diary that “Lena [is] the only friend [she has].” And through writing, Herb and Lena create an imaginary relationship that brings them, though ever so temporary, a semblance of happiness.
But writing is also just that, writing. As stated above, it constitutes an imaginary world of ideas, notions, and desires that are not and/or can not be concretized. They remain in the realm of the imaginary. This harsh truth comes to light at the end of the film when Lena sends Herb her farewell letter. At this point, the two media—writing and painting—seem to be brought to the fore. In front of his painting of a woman eating spaghetti, Herb reads Lena’s letter, which she signs, “Your pen pal,” thus keeping herself within the realm of the written, far from the real world and far from Herb. Lena’s sign-off, that is, recalls the writing process as invention, as creation of a reality, if not as the art of writing—But not Reality! And in like fashion, Herb, in turn, replicates, albeit unknowingly, Lena, as he also has set up an imaginary world that exists only in the realm of paper and canvas, not in the concrete world.
Yet, writing as conduit, we may assume from the film’s ending, has a positive value within the greater scheme of this love story. This, I would submit, is signaled throughout the film in a number of ways. First and foremost, writing, or the delivery of the written word, is what Herb does. In this real world of the written, love may still blossom, though not between Lena and Herb. Instead, a relationship blossoms between Herb and his female counterpart, Adele, and writing (the written) has its integral role. Though they do not write to one another, as Herb receives his letters/cards from Lena, Adele reads them and, through her reading, in a very peculiar manner, we might say, also engages in an epistolary dialogue with Herb. After all, she is the one who actually delivers to Herb his mail! In fact, in delivering to Herb one of Lena’s last postcards, there is a moment when both Herb and Adele literally make a connection. As she hands Herb Lena’s postcard, still holding on to an end of it, she notices some paint on Herb’s nose. Herb, in the meantime, took hold of the other corner of the postcard, and, as they each remain grasping on to an end of Lena’s postcard, Adele wipes the paint off of Herb’s nose. What is significant here, of course, is that the two, for the moment, are literally connected by Lena’s mail (i.e., postcard) to Herb, which, in turn, up to this point, was the topic of conversation between Herb and Adele. Mail, in fact, is one of the very first, as also one of the very last, verbal signs we see—for the film opens with Herb in the mailroom of an apartment building; whereas the mailbox near Lena’s bus stop and the white basket in Adele’s truck are two of the last verbal signs we see. Thus, while mail is one of the reasons Herb initially moves to find his “unique female,” who just happens, temporarily, to be “Lena” (= a person with no face, hence a sign only), mail is the very reason why he and Adele eventually get together, when Herb offers to cook her an Italian dinner.
Turning now to a discussion of what is or is not explicitly Italian/American about Lena’s Spaghetti, as I have already stated earlier, one may surely argue that, on the surface, there is no Italian/American quality to this film—except, of course, for something as blatant and, dare I repeat, banal as Hanna’s made-up name, “Lena,” and her trumped-up recipe for “spaghetti.” Yet, were we to engage in a discussion of implicit and explicit semiosis, we might easily find that a dose of Italian Americanness and/or Italianness exists in the film’s visual narrative in the foreshadows, in the background, namely, beneath the surface. In this regard, then, any sense of Italianness and/or Italian Americanness becomes, like that of Herb’s mother’s English speech, an accent; it adds flavor to the narrative but it does not necessarily move it into one or another specific direction. To cite once again Roland Barthes, the Italian Americanness of Lena’s Spaghetti figures not so much as integral parts of the narrative logic, rather as those indices and informants that we saw before—bits and pieces of information that, while they are not necessarily the main component of the film’s narrative, underscore those aspects of the story-line such as character, feeling, atmosphere, and philosophy, as well as aid in the authentication of the so-called facts of the story-line.
Other examples of Italian/American signs appear in other parts of the film. Along with the above-mentioned accent of Herb’s mother and her salutation of “ciao,” we also have two specific names mentioned on two different occasions—Uberto and Evalina—that conjure up images of, if not specifically Italian Americans, at least Latins, be they Italian or Hispanics. Again, here, too, we must keep in mind the notion of intentio lectoris—that is, the reader’s interpretive arsenal in ascribing significance to these two signs (Uberto and Evalina). These names, I would add, seem to appear at a moment of need and comfort, when Herb seems to be at his two lowest moments in the film. The first time is just before Lena writes to him for the first time, as he, at home seemingly alone and dejected, receives a phone call from his Italian mother in which she offers to fix him up with Evalina’s daughter. The second time these Latin names appear is toward the end of the film, when Herb is, once again, feeling dejected after Lena’s farewell letter. Here, too, Herb’s mother’s accented voice reappears to offer, unknowingly once again, comfort and solace in her willingness to fix him up, for a second time, with Evalina’s daughter. On both occasions this seemingly Italian/ Mediterranean mother, as we might readily consider her, comes to the rescue.
A sense of Italian Americanness is further articulated throughout the film via these and other secondary signs. In the postcards that travel back and forth between Lena and Herb, for instance, we find, as we saw above, reproductions of Renaissance art in the recurring paintings of the two putti, the cherubs. Secondly, I remind my reader once more of the Mona Lisa that stands out atop the stack of mail Lena received from Herb. Thirdly, food, and more precisely, spaghetti, becomes the common denominator. Namely, the appearance and function of food in this film serve as a sort of elixir, that linchpin that initially binds Lena and Herb, as it also ultimately brings together Herb and Adele. That is, food is the initial nexuses for the epistolary relation-ship between Lena and Herb, as well as the ragion d’essere of the first date between Herb and Adele.
Of course, what is ultimately significant, here, is that spaghetti—that is, the recipe for spaghetti—brings together the lonely people in this film. It is food that initially binds them. It is food, specifically Italian food, that brings together these three people, fictionalized and real, and ultimately to some degree, we may assume, satisfies their wishes and desires. Indeed, in the end, it is Italian food that actually brings together Herb and Adele. So, that while this is a story that is highly American, a simple love story in that we witness only the beginning of their love story, it obviously takes place between two seemingly non-ethnic Americans. On the other hand, somewhere in the background of this story, we may easily perceive echoes of an Italianness and/or Italian Americanness that continues to rise throughout Greco’s visual narration.
To conclude, finally, with the statement that this is, among other things, an Italian/American film, I would submit thusly only inasmuch as America is that very kaleidoscope, a country of unique individuals that form a unique population, made up of people from all different origins, who at one point or another try to become part of a mainstream, that is assimilate, and yet often tend, conversely, to hold on to various bits and pieces of their heritage. In this sense, then, Lena’s Spaghetti is precisely that. It is an American film, that is by no means explicitly Italian/ American, that is at the very best implicitly Italian/American insofar as this American film has been, here and there, peppered with the director’s Italian heritage.
Lena’s Spaghetti, directed by Joseph Greco, screenplay by Rachel A. Witenstein. Senior Thesis of The Florida State University School of Motion Picture, Television and Recording Arts. The Florida State University, 1994. The film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, September 1994.
These first few pages are a condensed version of a much larger section of my essay, “In (Re)cognition of the Italian/American Writer: Definitions and Categories,” Differentia, review of italian thought 6/7 (1994): 9–32, where, through a Peircean semiotic lens, I propose a redefintion of the Italian/American writer from the perspective of both chronology and cognition.
See his “Moments in Italian-American Cinema: From Little Caesar to Coppola and Scorsese,” From the Margins: Writings in Italian Americana, eds. Anthony Julian Tamburri, Paolo A. Giordano, and Fred L. Gardaphé (West Lafayette: Purdue UP, 1991): 374–96.
He then continues to say that “in such writing Italian-American experiences and values are delineated in dramatic interaction with the mainstream culture.” See his review of Delano in America & Other Early Poems, by John J. Soldo, Italian Americana 1.1 (1974): 124–25.
One problem with definitions of this sort is that they exclude any discourse on the analogous notion of, for example, the “hyphenate” filmmaker. I refer to Daniel Aaron’s “The Hyphenate Writer and American Letters,” Smith Alumnae Quarterly (July 1964): 213–17; later revised in Rivista di Studi Anglo-Americani 3.4–5 (1984–1985): 11–28.
Dana Gioia, “What Is Italian-American Poetry?” Poetry Pilot (December 1991): 3-10. Now, with a brief postscript, in Voices in Italian Americana 4.2 (1993): 61-64, followed by a “Response” by Maria Mazziotti Gillan (65-66).
Gioia, also, does not distinguish between ethnicity passed from one generation to the next vis-à-vis a member’s decision of the subsequent generation to rid him/herself of and/or deny his/her ethnicity, when he states that “[s]ome kinds of ethnic or cultural consciousness seem more or less permanent” (3).
What is important to keep in mind is that one can perceive different degrees of ethnicity in literature, film, or any other art form, as Aaron already did with his “hyphenate writer.”
Recent writings of Italian/American literary history and criticism have transcended a limited concept of Italian/American literature. New publications (literary and critical) have created a need for new definitions and new critical readings, not only of contemporary work, but of the works of the past. More-over, these new publications have originated, for the most part, from within an intellectual community of Italian Americans. A first successful venture at theorizing the Italian/American experience in literature is an acutely original contribution by Robert Viscusi, “De vulgari eloquentia: An Approach to the Language of Italian American Fiction” (Yale Italian Studies 1.3 : 21–38) which remains today equally fresh. Three other historical markers of Italian/American studies include Helen Barolini’s best-selling anthology, The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writing by Italian American Women (Schocken, 1985); Ferdinando Alfonsi’s anthology, Poeti italo-americani (Carello Editore, 1985); and the above-mentioned anthology, From the Margin: Writings in Italian Americana; all three constitute firsts in their genre and format vis-à-vis Italian/Amerian literature. Other publications include the establishment of journals such as la bella figura and VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, and the resumption of the journal Italian Americana, as well as the recently published Differentia 6/7 (Spring/Autumn 1994), a special issue dedicated to Italian/American literature and culture, and Mary Jo Bona’s anthology, The Voices We Carry. Recent Fiction by Italian/American Women (Guernica, 1994). Finally, forthcoming in 1996 is Fred Gardaphé’s study, the first book on Italian/American literature in more than twenty years, Italian Signs, American Streets (Duke UP).
In his response to an essay by Fredric Jameson on national allegory and third-world literature, Ahmad took issue with what he considered Jameson’s limited and reductive assumption that third-world literature revolves primarily around the notion of a national allegory. This notion that literature may revolve primarily around one or two notions in order for it to be considered such—or perhaps because it is considered such and not something else—may be seen as an analogue to the case of some ethnic literatures in the United States. Namely, that an ethnic literary piece has to contain certain thematic motifs or adopt specific formalistic structures in order for it to be considered part of that certain ethnic rubric. Otherwise, the work and its author are considered not to belong necessarily to that very same group of hyphenated writers. This somewhat reductive notion of categorizing art forms, limits our ways of examining them, I would suggest. For more, see Aijaz Ahmad’s response: “Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the ‘National Allegory’,” Social Text 17 (1987): 4; now in In Theory (London: Verso, 1992).
Functions, for Barthes, are units of content that drive the narrative. The essence of the function, according to Barthes, “is the seed that it sows in the narrative, planting an element that will come to fruition later—either on the same level or elsewhere, on another level” (89). Catalysers, instead, fill up space between the cardinal functions. In turn, indices index character, feeling, atmosphere, and philosophy; and, in addition, informants serve to authenticate, they are pure data of immediate and, I would add local, signification. For more on Barthes’s notion of narrative, see his seminal strucutralist essay “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives” (1966) in Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977): 79–124.
For various notions on this concept of the “model” and/or “ideal viewer,” see Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1979); Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1978); Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1974); and Gerald Prince, “On Textual Readers and Evaluators,” VS (Versus) 52/53 (1989): 113–20.
An Italian icon par excellence, the Mona Lisa appears in the background of numerous “American” films. One need only think back to the more recent True Love by Nancy Savoca.
For more on Peirce’s tripartite notion of the sign, see, for a quick overview, Charles Sanders Peirce, “What is a Sign?” (1910?) in Philosophical Writings of Peirce (New York: Dover, 1955): 98–104.
One may, indeed, speak in terms of self-protection and self-elucidation with regard to the character’s reflection in the mirror. Mary Jo Bona (“Broken Images, Broken Lives: Carmolina’s Journey in Tina De Rosa’s Paper Fish,” Melus 14.3–4 [Fall-Winter 1987]: 87–106) offers an acute reading of Carmolina in Tina De Rosa’s Paper Fish, when she states that Carmolina, in mimicking Leonardo, “writes in reverse both as a protection and elucidation of the self” (98), especially since, as Bona points out, citing Werner Sollors’s Beyond Ethnicity, “‘double consciousness characters may be attracted to mirrors, reflecting windows,’ [etc.]” (105). A curious difference between the book and the film, however, lies in who is using the mirror. As Bona points out, it is clearly the character, not the narrator, who uses the mirror. In the film, conversely, Lena does not consciously sit in front of the mirror in order to see herself in it. Rather, it is the directorial personality (or, narrating agency), what/whom in the literary text we might consider the author (or, narrator), depending on the circumstances, who places Lena in front of the mirror. Thus, we might look more toward Greco the director, and not Lena the character, and consider the mirror his self-protection and/or self-elucidation of his own double-consciousness (read, ethnicity) that is then mirrored (Pun intended!) in the character Lena.
See, especially, his chapter, “How Acts of Constitution are Stimulated,” The Act of Reading (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978): 180–231.
Indeed, because she belongs to the real world is one of the reasons why Adele can and does eventually touch Herb.
Trumped-up since she takes the recipe from a cookbook.
What is significant here for my reading strategy—as I assume the opening pages of this essay have already signaled—is that I adhere to Umberto Eco’s notion of intentio lectoris with ample conciliation to intentio operis, since any reader’s intertextual arsenal employed must always, to a certain degree, be context sensitive; in some way or another, that is, the reader’s decodification must jibe with the text. For more on Eco’s notion, see his “Intentio Lectoris: The State of the Art,” Differentia, review of italian thought 2 (Spring 1988): 147–68.
As Barthes reminds us, I would point out that catalysers, indices, and informants have the common denominator of being, with respect to nuclei, expansions. Nuclei, instead, form finite sets, which are governed by logic, and are at once necessary and sufficient.
Over the centuries, food has often appeared as a type of elixir or connector of people, be they characters in novels, short stories, plays, or, later on, in the cinema, a topic that deserves its own time and place. In the meantime, I would point out two recent studies on food: Gian-Paolo Biasin, Flavors of Modernity. Food and the Novel (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993) and Massimo Montanari, The Culture of Food (London: Blackwell, 1993).
One question that may rise here, and elsewhere, is how much of Greco’s implicit ethnicity is purposely hidden. With regard to such a desire on the artist’s part to mask her/his Italian Americanness, see Fred Gardaphé’s “Visibility and Invisibility: The Postmodern Prerogative in Italian/American Narrative,” Almanacco 2.1 (Spring 1992): 24–33.
My viewing copy of Lena’s Spaghetti came courtesy of the director, Jospeh Greco, whom I warmly thank. I also would like to thank Professor Mark Pietralunga who accepted an earlier version of this review for presentation at The Florida State University Conference on Comparative Literature and Film, 1995.