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Tuesday, November 09, 2010

My Most Recent Business Plan, Except I'm Louis Prima, And I Keep Showing Up


It's exceedingly hard to run a business.

I really don't care what kind of business it is, either. They vary widely, of course, but they'll all kick your ass. Digging ditches or personal shopper, makes no never-mind. If you've ever made out a Schedule C you know exactly what I'm talking about.

It's hard to tell a story properly, too. Most entertainments are only modestly entertaining, -- if that -- and ephemeral. It's a rare thing that endures for a good long time in the world of movies and music and art. The producers generally just throw everything at the wall to see what sticks. Most of what they throw at the wall actually should be hitting a fan, if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor.

People are making their own fun with entertainment at this point. The reason people yell at the screen now instead of sitting in rapt attention are manifold, but the number one reason is the stuff on the screen isn't very good; and like a buffet of tidbits, the audience is trying to fashion a plate of fun for themselves. The cook can't seem to do it, so you do it yourself.

I watched a movie I've owned for a long time: Big Night. It's on VHS, so I know I've had it a while. It's a story about two Italian immigrant brothers trying to make a go of it in a restaurant in New Jersey in the 1950s. They are failing, and try to pull their business up from oblivion by hosting a celebrity for one "big night." It's both good entertainment and a good look at business. I don't talk while it's playing. It's doing all the work for me.

Like the best kinds of distillations of the human condition, Big Night uses the plot device of splitting one person's personality between two people, and having them rub up against one another. It's a useful dichotomy for the examination of the business ethic. One brother, Segundo, is running a restaurant and concerned with the mercenary aspects of running a business; his older brother Primo is the brilliant cook, concerned with being an artist with his food. Neither is a complete person without the other. The back and forth between them, as they search for the balance between being true to themselves and earning a living is as fascinating a portrayal of what it means to be creative and make it pay as I've ever seen.

The movie works on many other levels, and I wonder if the authors of the play -- as this movie is surely just a play with a camera pointed at it-- would even acknowledge my appraisal of the one person split into two plot device. I think artists always have this rolling around in their minds without admitting it. They wish to deny their self promotion, as it seems to smack of commerce. But watch the credits roll by sometime. Even a little movie is a serious business. Let the artists indulge themselves with their imaginary aversion to filthy lucre. Like good manners, I don't care why they say the right thing.

If you want to know what it is to be a brother, and an Italian, and an artist, and a businessman, and an immigrant, watch this movie. If you want to see why I never recovered from meeting my wife the very first time, look for the woman in the red dress at the final meal. Don't get me wrong; that's not her. My wife is prettier. Whether I am Primo or Segundo has yet to be determined.

Sometimes, when the Schedule C looks up at me from the desk, I wonder if I might try being Pascal, the brothers' venal but engaging and successful competitor from down the street: "I am a businessman. I am whatever I have to be at any given time. Tell me what, exactly, are you?"

Watch it.



11 comments:

misterarthur said...

La Torta! Fine, fine movie.

Casey Klahn said...

Yeah, I did watch it way back when it came out. It is a keeper.

Check out the scene near or at the end where Primo breaks the eggs one-handed and cooks them all in one cut - no editing.

DaBear said...

I too own this on VHS - being of Sicilian heritage it brings a certain warmth.

SippicanCottage said...

DaBear- I am Siciliano as well. The brothers are from Bologna, but it's close enough.

Rumford is full of goombahs. They worked in the mill in their hundreds. I was mildly shocked to see an Italo-American club on the outskirts of town when I first came here. A UFO would have seemed less out of place to me. Learn something new every day.

DaBear said...

Salude -- I just returned from Sicily where I retreat every year . One can only survive so long without decent oil, vino,olives and veal.Some of us give thanks for Primo restaurante hereabouts.

Jewel said...

One of the more amazing experiences I had as a piano teacher was trying to teach a family of Sicilian immigrants. The father, Sal, owned two pizzerias with his brother and was doing quite well. He lived with his wife and two sons in a newly-built, upper middle class housing development and spoke mostly Italian in the home. La Sposa, a beautiful young woman with not a word of English in her mouth did all of her grocery shopping in Little Italy™ on their regular weekend shopping trips to New York. She bought only Italian products. Even her laundry soap and household cleaning products were all from Italy. My minimal Italian was enough to endear me to La Famiglia for life.
Sal was a quick study, and had a knack for the piano. His son Pietro,was another story. I just couldn't teach him anything.
Our lessons were always interrupted by Mamma, Skyping from Palermo. Blah blah blah is the same in Italian as it is in English. Compounding La Sposa's need to talk to Mamma was the papagallo's (parrot's) endless squawking. Little brother Davide added to the decibel levels with his constant interruptions.
No one learned to play the piano in that household. Not even Sal, who always had to tend to business and couldn't put in the time for either lessons or practice.But I got much from it.Lessons on how much truth there is in the stereotypes we make,with panettone.
I came for their lessons one Monday, and walked in on La Sposa, her 4 sisters and Mamma visiting from Sicily. 6 of them, sitting around the kitchen island, each holding a scratch-off lotto ticket in one hand and a quarter and a lit cigarette in the other. They blah-blahed with each other happily, and tossed the scratched tickets into a large pile in the middle of the table.
I said "Buon giorno come state mi chiamo Gioella sono la maestra" and went down to the rec room and attempted to give a lesson to Bambino and Babbo, who was usually not present for his boy's lesson.
Poor Pietro. Every mistake proved he hadn't practiced, and Babbo smacked the back of his head while the boy protested.They argued with each other, and the boy would make another attempt, fail, and bring a new rain of head smacks and curses down upon himself for wasting Babbo's money. Needless to say, our lessons soon ended, Babbo was the only one to learn anything at the piano. I, on the other hand, learned a lot.
La Dolce Vita, infatti!

Mizz E said...

For heaven's sake, I thought I was the only person who LOVED this movie enough to own a VHS copy. I'm so thankful my Dad was a grocer and my Mom was a good cook. Thank you for deftly spotlighting this gem of a film.

Mizz E said...

Blowing kisses to Jewel for the link.

SippicanCottage said...

Mizz E- Thanks for reading and commenting. Jewel is aptly named.

I have a hinky radio/cd player in my workshop. Because of the dust, the cd player works about as reliably as a North Korean missile. If I get it to "catch," I leave the disc in it as long as it works.

I've listened to the soundtrack to Big Night a couple hundred times this week. Hey! Mambo!

Jewel said...

You'll be amazed at how many little towns have large Italian communities within them. And always, the best restaurants are Italian. The best Sicilian pizza I ever had was while living in the small, rundown factory town of Berwick, PA. Known in PA as home to the winningest AA high school football team in the state, it boasts a thriving Italian community with an Italian Club, too. And not too much else.

Gringo said...

I worked in a Ma and Pa pizzeria- Sicilian pa and Irish ma- when in college. Long hours, good people.
I'll have to look for the movie.