“Manifesto for Alata, Transcinematist; or Winged Imagination, by GLB Pym” – Fiction by Amanda Sarasien

The Miracle of Light While Flying – Gerardo Dottori, 1931

Esteemed art historian & cultural critic GLB Pym returns to FLAPPERHOUSE to praise an underappreciated genius in “Manifesto for Alata, Transcinematist; or Winged Imagination,” Amanda Sarasien‘s high-flying fiction from our Spring 2017 issue.

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THE BLOTTING OUT OF THE NAME ENNIO ALATA from the avant-garde is a glaring stain upon art itself. While my left hand, armed with its pen, charges in frenzied formation across the page, my right hand holds aloft its battle standard, a three-hundred-meter strip of film, Alata’s masterpiece. I march against immobile sentries, lay siege to concrete parapets that mire this ivory tower in the swamp of centuries. My just war has three simple aims:

  1. To emancipate the name Alata from the trenches of narrow minds who dismiss him as a minor Futurist; who, guided by their arbitrary geography of genre, confuse map lines with walls; who shed ink like blood dizzy with defeat weak with worry wondering where is his art? Where are the relics of his creative rituals? Sighs dissolving on passéist lips extol the mummified manuscript the cadaverous canvas, while I revere animate art, the silver-screen breath the radio hiss the zoetic flash across the stage.
  2. To lay at Immortality’s feet this celluloid garland spirited from the underworld of oblivion. Let breasts projecting the white light of curiosity, undimmed by petty doubt, convene. Together we will revive argentine idols frozen in webs of x-ray shadow, return them to the empyreal screen where they will take up once again the silent dance of deities.
  3. To sing the ballad of Alata’s electric exploits, lightning bolts rending complacent clouds. This high-voltage life is an aura hovering over Time and Space supercharging the twentieth century. Heretofore, critics averted their eyes from its ultraviolet brilliance, banished it to the upper reaches of the ionosphere to avoid the constant shock of its vibrations. With just a few anecdotes, I will harness this violent current, feed it to the ravenous power station to pulse through a radial network of static chatter, conducting new energy heart oxygen spirit into the bloodstream of art. My oratorio will bring the man—airplane down to earth for a momentary landing before launching him refueled into the firmament.

 

Although enfant terrible Ennio Alata never signed his name to a single Futurist manifesto, Marinetti’s founding credo must for him have represented a creative call to arms. Why else would he have kept his clipping from the February 20, 1909, edition of Le Figaro taped to the wall above his writing desk until the day of his death? To what extent Alata hitched his artistic ambitions to the racecar that was Futurism, as it hurtled down its collision course with history, remains a subject of disinterested debate. But no matter how the arguments vie, lapping round and round one another, the outcome is always the same: Absent material artifacts to attest to the value of his artistic production, Alata is discounted as a fickle dilettante, his early death a loss modernism suffers unmourned.

My appeals to the critical elites to reevaluate Alata’s legacy in light of the film fragment whose contents I will, in due course, unveil, have all gone unheeded. Dr. Bertram Beake of Wexford, Chair of the International Society for Modernism, defiled my panel proposal with a curt rejection which may as well have been a slap in the face, as that would have stung less. I cannot help but find such a rejection ironic, given the Futurists’ own abhorrence of academia, of so-called cognoscenti heaping -isms on top of one another like gravediggers filling a crowded cemetery. That a stodgy conference on Futurism would constitute a farce of colossal proportions clearly scurried right under Beake’s turned-up beak. With this manifesto, I mobilize the vanguard of avant-gardists, those wishing to revolt against institutes and societies who stick the corpses of Modernist movements under glass with pins. Together, we will declaim the genius of this brief film, in a forum not unlike those Futurist Evenings which, in their day, so upended correctness. Alata, of course, would have approved.

We first meet Alata as a child of five or six, at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, riding the moving sidewalk around and around the Gallery of Machines for hours (no one who witnessed it was quite sure how long, for they had not seen him step onto it). Apparently, he had wandered away from his guardian and, fascinated by the contraption, had climbed aboard without, however, a plan for getting off. No matter. Bystanders interviewed by Le Temps, once the child’s circumambulation had begun to attract attention, described the minor as radiating a calm, even beatific, expression. He had simply resisted all attempts to reach onto the moving sidewalk and hoist him off. By then a childless couple from Trieste had planted themselves at a strategic spot along the loop and were conducting an interview by fits and starts to ascertain with whom he belonged. The wife would utter a question as he slid by, then wait until he had completed another lap to hear the answer and pose a follow-up query. Following this elliptical dialogue, the couple, by the name of Alagna, consulted Exposition authorities who wanted the boy – and the small crowd he had drawn as if by magnetic force – out of their Gallery so security could shut it down for the night. Having received the officials’ enthusiastic permission, Signora Alagna offered her hand to the boy she had named Ennio, managing somehow to coax him off the moving sidewalk and back to Trieste with not a word of protest from the devil-may-care foundling.

From then on, young Ennio Alagna continued to evince an obsession with mechanics and electricity. Happily, with his moving-sidewalk revolution, he took a turn straight into the hearts of two wealthy parents, who indulged – and funded – his venturesome experiments. Even when, as so often happened, they ended in explosions from which this child of fortune managed to escape unscathed. Ennio would last see them when, in 1908, he took off for Paris, the scene of his début, having heard rumors that a Frenchman by the name of Louis Blériot had pioneered a series of aircrafts, with varying degrees of success in getting them off the ground. Though I have found no documentary evidence to support my version of events, I like to believe that Ennio was the spark for Blériot’s most celebrated design, the Type XI monoplane, which the Frenchman flew safely across the English Channel July 25, 1909. We do know, from letters written home to Trieste, that Ennio was an habitué at this bustling avionic atelier, though record of these visits does not exist in Blériot’s papers, perhaps because the latter considered him a nuisance. Two months later, Ennio could no longer contain his desire to get into the air himself, taking off from Edinburgh but plummeting down to earth only one hundred yards from Hadrian’s Wall. To this day his intended route remains unclear: Was he in fact attempting to traverse almost the entire length of Great Britain, an astounding five hundred miles? In any case, reports confirm that he survived the crash with only a few broken bones and, as he strode away from the wreckage, was heard to mutter only, “Walls don’t keep the enemy out, they keep me in.” His parents were not so fortunate. In what amounts to an accident of both Space and Time, their tram car went off the rails at the route’s most treacherous, uphill stretch just past Trieste’s Piazza Scorcola – mere minutes after their son’s brush with death but one thousand miles away – and both died at the scene.

Ennio’s fateful flight attracted little notice from the European press – a minor Scottish newspaper buried the headline on page four – but it launched him into the orbit of master propagandist and founder of Futurism Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Of course the novice aviator, now an heir, knew Marinetti by reputation, having clipped that manifesto nearly nine months previously. Whether the Futurists pursued Ennio or vice versa, we cannot be sure. Nevertheless, this unfledged movement – with its idolatry of speed, industry, virility and provocation, its rejection of a critical establishment it saw foundering on the ruin-strewn shores of classicism and decorum – would land the aimless airman at his destino. It was Marinetti who knighted him with the surname Alata, exchanging the staid Alagna and all its noble genealogy for the Italian word meaning “winged.”

Alata, who had never expressed an interest in the arts, now found in Futurism an outlet for his feckless experimentation. He returned to Trieste just in time for the first Futurist Evening, in January 1910, and began directing his technical talent, as well as his fortune, toward the design of explosive backdrops for the controversial performances. According to Alata’s own journal, which he began keeping at this time, the cacophony of Futurists shouting their manifestos to a jeering crowd was complemented by the visual stridence of Alata’s sets, including, in certain iterations not elsewhere documented, a barrier of green cardboard flames running the length of the stage and a scale model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa reinterpreted as an ultramodern agglomeration of geometric shapes, out of which the stage actors poured yelling obscenities. His crowning achievement was a jumble of various-sized boxes wired with flashing lights. When a flying tomato, hurled out of the audience, missed its target and struck one of the boxes, sparks flew, starting a small fire which only spurred the performers to even more artfully perverse antics, as they scurried around to extinguish the blaze. Alata never let on that the short-circuit had not, in fact, been intentional, and the Futurists eagerly sought him out to realize whatever wild fancy happened to flit through their exhaust-addled brains.

Outside the Futurist Evenings, however, Alata’s contributions to the project were limited. Critics have concluded he lacked the creative horsepower of his comrades and had begun to lose interest. Such reasoning is, at best, slipshod in its disregard for context. As the First World War loomed, the Futurists bickered amongst themselves, united only in their unbridled nationalism and relentless campaign for Italy to enter the conflict. Alata remained above the fray, turning to his journal to express misgivings about Futurist ideology. A wordsmith he was not, and the often sparse account is so riddled with doodles and diagrams that it has long deterred scholars from picking over its carrion legacy. I, on the other hand, came to the journal armed with three biographical details which complicate Alata’s conception of Italianness. First, he was resident in Trieste, a multiethnic city which, at this time, officially belonged to Austria-Hungary and was a principal casus belli in the Futurists’ cries for war. Second, Alata, fond of telling his origin story, felt the mystery blood coursing through his veins and perhaps feared his entire being could, at any moment, reject its transplant Italian name. Finally, in 1913, Alata began courting in earnest a young Slovene, Julijana, with whom he had grown up. Only the pages of his journal attest to the relationship, however. Not only were the Futurists dogmatically opposed to the bourgeois moralism they saw epitomized in the institution of marriage, they often expressed an antipathy for the Other, and Alata would have found no allies among them. In short, a portrait emerges of a man watching the walls being built in every direction, unsure on which side of the barrier that left him but feeling enclosed nonetheless.

This gradual withdrawal coincided, at first, with a sharpening of personal focus which represented Alata’s most prolific period. One area of preoccupation seemed to be skywriting, which he envisioned as a new artistic discipline, pairing Leonardesque specifications for a new airplane design with detailed sketches presumably intended for realization in the skies. The sketches themselves ingeniously defy artistic medium, incorporating pointillist arrangements of polychrome “smoke” with onomatopoeic poetry evoking the roar of an airplane engine. What a pity that he likely never came close to executing them. And even if he had, the pictures’ impermanence would have disqualified them from serious evaluation by Bertram Beake and his ilk.

But it was Anton Giulio Bragaglia’s experiments with cinematography which most piqued Alata’s curiosity. Although it appears he never met his Roman counterpart, and therefore could not have participated in the development of a Futurist cinema, Alata did adopt much of the vocabulary of Bragaglia’s manifesto. In particular, the word photodynamism appears frequently in his journal, accompanied by complex diagrams which may represent independent attempts at improving upon projection technology.

The outbreak of war would interrupt Alata’s enthusiasm for this new techno-art form. Despite his ambivalent patriotism, the erstwhile aviator capitalized on this opportunity to return to the skies and without hesitation enlisted for Italy. Whether his military service was welcome depends on whom you asked, for Alata could not resist ornamenting routine maneuvers with death-defying stunts. Among his fellow soldiers, he gained a reputation as an airborne entertainer, whose feats raised all eyes from the squalor of the trenches and the fields littered with body parts. To his commanding officers, on the other hand, Alata’s tiresome antics repeatedly jeopardized the mission. One imagines their concealed relief when, not six months into enlistment, his plane misfired on take-off, and his relatively minor but numerous injuries forced him to sit out the rest of the war.

Over the next few years, Alata was in and out of the hospital, undergoing successive operations to repair his eyesight, a faculty he never fully recovered. It was in the few years following the war’s end that another medium captured his imagination. While convalescing from his final operation, a faint music glimmered in the darkness, streaking the black veil with an orchestral aurora borealis. He rose from his bed and went in search of those silvery violins bobbing in a sea of static and wandered into the medical director’s office just as the physician was testing his new broadcast radio set. Alata instantly recognized the artistic possibilities of this device, and immersed himself in the writing of radio plays which showcased his increasing virtuosity with sound effects.

Unfortunately, without the Futurists, Alata floundered in his efforts to disseminate the output of his creative energies. Mainstream radio producers found his dark, cross-genre plays bizarre, and sent him peremptory rejections which he fed, together with the scripts, to his sound machines, as if composting his defeats into a new varietal of performance collage. Consequently, his radio oeuvre survives only as outlines recorded in his journal. But neither would his work, experimental as it was, have found a home among the Futurists. The war had disillusioned many of the group’s former members, and they now disavowed as youthful folly the manifestos which little more than a decade before they had declaimed. Only Marinetti clung to the tattered sail of Futurism. Convinced the Fascists were a fresh gust of wind capable of propelling his movement to the status of state-sponsored art, he channeled his flair for propaganda into the promotion of Il Duce. Alata, meanwhile, found his winged imagination hemmed into a labyrinth of political extremes, his work cornered at every turn. His journal ends on July 14, 1925, except for a series of dated, inchoate drawings which continue well into the early nineteen-forties.

The art historical record has explained this sudden quietus as proof that following the war, Alata definitively abandoned his art, returned to Trieste (now part of Italy) and married Julijana. Indeed, they did settle down to a tranquil life together, of which the archive reveals nothing, not even the birth of a child. But what of the incomplete drawings? I have reason to believe Alata did not, in fact, retire; rather, he responded to the constant rejection by intensifying his creative experimentation. This hypothesis has been met with derisive laughter echoing down the hallowed halls of Academe. My earnest pleas to consider the evidence which has so fortuitously come into my possession were spurned. Passéists! But those who have read thus far are of a purer spirit, untrammeled by arcane schools of thought, by peer-reviewed journals brocading their uselessly narrow disciplines. You, who, moved by Alata’s story, are sympathetic to my cause: I call on you to abandon the sidelines and join me! As an initiation, let me finally lay bare the contents of that film which has so animated my mission.

The box was found moldering in the closet of a third-floor apartment I rented briefly in Trieste’s Città Vecchia. The apartment was above a cobbler’s storefront, and that day the grizzled craftsman himself hovered in the front window like a specter. Oblivious, as all phantoms, to his lost existence, he floated through a hesternal routine, listening for the doorbell whose once-incessant jingle still echoed in his ears, contemplating the hire of an apprentice for repair orders no longer piling up but trickling in. Perhaps he long ago nurtured the modest dream that his son would inherit the business and fill his restitched loafers, but pressed his lips into a sad, encouraging smile when the boy announced he would seek his fortune as a literary critic. My imagination running wild – for it was, of course, pure chimera, nothing more – I rented the apartment on the spot. Despite that warm first impression, the cobbler proved a most disobliging landlord, gruffly waving away my inquiries into the building’s former tenants.

Of greatest interest among the box’s contents was a film canister, nesting in a tangle of unused typewriter ribbons, pouches of decussated pipe tobacco and empty biscotti tins. With my cinéaste’s eye, I dated the film to before 1920 and therefore did not possess the equipment necessary for its viewing. Instead, I employed my rusty Italian in an exhaustive hunt through city registries for the resident who might have left behind this treasure. Ennio Alata stood out among the myriad smudged-ink names. Not because somewhere, in the archive of my mind, there existed its carbon copy, but because the name had appeared, together with the address in question, in an obituary listing some of the more sensational episodes I have narrated above. Seduced by this rough silhouette, I found myself torn between the enigma of the film and that of an electrifying life, only to learn, upon discovery of Alata’s journal in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma, that the mysteries were one and the same.

The fragment’s three hundred meters equates to a screen time of around ten minutes. But they are ten minutes of utter suspense. A room crosshatched with bright light shining through a barred window. Wallpaper in kaleidoscopic hues creates a geometric trompe l’oeil drawing the viewer into an endless tunnel. Three men walk into the room, stepping over green cardboard flames, and sit down at a typewriter. No, it is one man, replicated in two mirrors whose edges disappear into the infinite wallpaper. The man begins to type. Cut to a close-up of the typewriter. It is an Olivetti. As his fingers rain down over the keys, the typewriter page unspools. He is composing a love letter. The fingers stop. The typewriter is jammed. Cut to the man’s expression of dismay, as he indiscriminately presses keys, to no avail. Cut back to the typewriter. As the man pulls on the lever, the typewriter slides its carriage to the new line and, of its own accord, types BING. The silent film is awakened with a new soundscape, rendered in typeset. Fists slam onto the keyboard. Nothing happens. All at once, the keys begin bobbing up and down with abandon. Another close-up of the page, which is, itself, the motion picture, a typographic mise en abyme; as the page unfurls, faster and faster, it becomes a Cubist tableau formed of onomatopoeia and nonsense arranged in figures that snake across the paper. Then, BING BING BING, the page drops down three lines, centers itself and deliberately types the word MORTE. Zoom out. The man is slumped in his chair. A door, previously camouflaged by the prismatic wallpaper, opens, and a woman, catching sight of the dead man, rushes over to him, affecting exaggerated grief. She swoons over him but, raising her head, notices that the typewriter is still typing. Cut to the page. The contents of the original love letter are repeated, now plagiarized by the typewriter itself. The woman smiles, gazes at the Olivetti with a lovelorn expression. FIN.

Is this the entire film? We cannot be sure, as a script has yet to surface. Indeed, the rather self-contained plot led me to believe I had in my possession a short. But, poring over the unidentified drawings at the end of Alata’s journals, it now appears they are diagrams he used to work out the special effect of a seemingly autonomous typewriter fed with an endless stream of pages, and that this film may have been a mere dress rehearsal for a feature whose plot and cinematography he would continue evolving over the next fifteen years. Yet more evidence for Alata’s authorship can be seen in the film’s color scheme. Although abstract arrangements of high contrasts were a typical feature of the Futurist film, the colors in this instance are so vivid that they come through even in black and white, perhaps because the filmmaker in his failing sight gravitated toward a palette which was, in many respects, ahead of its time. This film is decidedly Futurist in style, but it could not have been authored by Bragaglia or any of the others, for the simple reason that its existence was previously unknown. No self-respecting Futurist would fail to lay claim to – and publicize – a work which so fearlessly hooks its toes over the ledge of cinematic possibility and allow this child of the marriage between art and technology to languish in obscurity. Rather, it had to be the work of an outsider whose flash of genius, once caught on three hundred meters of film, would, for the rest of his days, lie trapped inside its frame.

In 1943, when German troops moved in to occupy Trieste, Alata and his wife fled the city to escape the mass deportations of Slovenes and anti-Fascists to nearby concentration camps. It appears his adoption proved an impediment at every embassy he visited, and seeing Julijana’s papers were in order, he urged her on ahead of him. They were to meet at the port of Marseille, where she would endeavor to find passage to America. Alata, however, never made it there. After wandering circuitously across Europe, following whichever combination of entry and exit visas would allow him to keep moving, he arrived at the border with France. Here his visa application was denied. The next morning he was found in his hotel room next to a suitcase containing his journal and a small, rather feverishly constructed, collage, its paint still wet. Apparently, he had clipped the word Alata from every denied visa application and arranged the cuttings into the shape of an airplane, soaring over a field of blood-red official seals painted over with bold black bars. A single passport photo looks out from the sky, pinning the viewer with its blank stare, as a pointillist galaxy of color spirals around him. Authorities investigating the death would find traces of morphine in the deceased’s bloodstream and rule it felo-de-se. At last, Alata had finished a work of art: his life.

So, who, having hearkened to the foregoing epic, will join my crusade? Let serried ranks swell the theater charge the stage shout in Futurist fashion our challenge to atrophied minds gnawed by the maggots of antiquity. As we sail on waves of thundery darkness, the projector will be our beacon, beaming Alata’s genius to the far corners of Eternity. Flip the switch and the snorting beast awakens, sinks metallic teeth into our celluloid sacrifice. Infused with incandescent breath, his stardust creation will vault across meters and millennia to land larger than life on the big-screen Olympus. Let us from our pulpit of silver-laced shadow exalt the name Ennio Alata until the whole earth quakes with our seismic paean. Arise! Defy the eclipse of the past. With battle-hardened cries, set free his feathered imagination send it soaring over walls launch it lightspeed into the future.

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 AMANDA SARASIEN is a writer and literary translator whose work has appeared in The Literary Review, The MacGuffin, and MAYDAY Magazine. She contributes film and book reviews at the sites Reading in Translation and The Mookse and the Gripes. You can find her on Twitter @amandasarasien or on the web at amandasarasien.com.

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