Monday, September 29, 2008

Palimpsestual New York

During my junior year of college I lived in a Renaissance villa in Sesto Fiorentino, outside of Florence. My two favorite things about the villa were its beautiful courtyard garden (where I spent many an hour struggling to read Dante's Inferno in Italian) and its proximity to hills full of olive groves where I would go running. My favorite course was on Italian film and literature with Professore Vincenzo Binetti. (Il mio corso preferito e' stato sugli filma e letteratura italiani con Professore Vincenzo Binetti.) That's when I fell in love with Bertolucci's Il Conformista, all things Fellini, and Italo Calvino.

Professor Binetti was always using the word "palimpsest." It was sprinkled in his vocabulary as if it were as common a word as "interesting." We students speculated that he had come across it in his Ph.D studies, and assumed it was a common word in English. The first time he used it, we had no idea what it meant. Through trying a variety of spellings on Google, we found its definition: "a manuscript page, whether from scroll or book that has been written on, scraped off, and used again."

I grew to love the word, and am reminded of it over and over again in New York. The city is like a page that has been rewritten many times. For me, for others, in our experiences, in our literature, in our movies. Standing on a corner, with steam rising from the street, cars and people hurrying about, and iconic buildings rising to touch the sky, the city can easily look like a movie set-- a scene from a Woody Allen film. Or it can take me back to a book's description of the city, as if Stingo should be standing near me watching Sophie. But it's also just a corner, that I need to cross, to get on the subway to head to class.

I don't know the city yet, and don't think I'll ever feel at ease with it the way I did with D.C. It's more challenging, more complex, and more hostile than D.C. Hostile sounds like a bad word. It may just be in my mind because there's a man living in earshot of our apartment who screams obscenities at random times throughout the day. Like right now. I am not sure who he is or if he's actually talking to anyone. There's never a response, though my roommate once yelled back at him to shut up. It didn't work.

This weekend, the independent theater Film Forum was showing a remastered version of The Godfather. I had not seen it in years and had forgotten just how good a movie it is. There is also some enhanced quality of immersion when seeing a film in the city where it is set. This week, that film will be the dominant one layered over my perceptions of the city. Though I hope my week entails much less violence.

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