Asa Nisi Masa.
There’s a scene in Fellini’s brilliant 8 1/2 where Guido, the blocked director struggling to make his new film, flashes back to his childhood living with a large family in a farmhouse. It’s late and the family has left the children alone and Guido’s cousin (or sister, or… whatever) awoke Guido to remind him: “Asa Nisi Masa.” That was their secret chant when looking at the painting on the wall. Those were the magic words to make the picture move, to bring it to life, to have it’s eyes point in the direction of treasure. “Asa Nisi Masa. Asa Nisi Masa,” they’d drone on and on by the light of the fire…
It has an effect on Guido, never really leaving his mind, so much so that many decades later a couple of magicians who at first appear to be frauds are able to pull the cryptic phrase from his mind. It’s a nifty cinematic trick, a bridge from the future to the past, showing us a little of the way the mind of Guido, Fellini’s stand in, works. And the way he feels that he’s losing his gift as a director, his magical ability to make the pictures move. But it’s also so much more.
“Asa Nisi Masa” is child speak pig latin for Anima, the unconscious true inner self in Jung’s school of analytical psychology as opposed to the persona, the outer aspect of one’s personality. Well, actually, it’s more than just that. Anima is the personification of the repressed feminine characteristics in the male mind (while animus would be the personification of the repressed masculine characteristics in the female mind). This deeper level is just another of the many reasons why this movie, originally titled La Bella Confusione (The Beautiful Confusion), works so perfectly, since it’s essentially detailing for us Guido’s intense confusion when it comes to dealing with women. He has to balance his voracious sexual appetite with his religious programming with what seems to be his inability to fully understand how or why relationships work. Or how to control them. And on top of it, there’s his creative impulses, and his desire to conjure up the magic words to make it all work, to fuse it all together to make the pictures move.
On my first viewing of 8 1/2 (given that title because it was total number of films that Fellini had directed, and this movie is all about him, a man working his through his issues, working through his block and finding himself still arrogant and egotistical but also filthy with talent) years ago I didn’t even come closing to picking up on what “Asa Nisi Masa” meant. I think you can understand the nature of Guido and his women pretty easily even if you don’t have words like Anima and names like Carl Jung to throw at it, but my interest in pushing deeper and discovering and devouring that extra bit came when I noticed those magical words, that special incantation to make the image come to life, in the pages of a comic book.
Casanova, created and written by Matt Fraction. Issues #1-7 (season 1, “Luxuria“) illustrated by Gabria Ba and issues #8-14 (season 2, “Gula”) illustrated by Ba’s twin brother, Fabio Moon. You can read the first issue here. As insane as it sounds, the series has been called the first important comic of the 21st century and I’m starting to lean in that direction myself, or at least happy to see that it’s a series unafraid of letting smart and fun go hand in hand together. I’ll let Wikipedia give you a general summary of the series: At the beginning of the first issue, Casanova “Cass” Quinn works as a freelance thief and espionage artist who has turned his back on the rest of the Quinn family. His father, Cornelius, runs the world spanning spy organization E.M.P.I.R.E. of which Casanova’s twin sister Zephyr is a top agent, while his mother Anna has been hidden away in a vegetative state for unknown reasons. Casanova is the black sheep of the family and only makes contact with his father when his sister is killed during a mission – they meet again and fight at her funeral.
The funeral is actually a turning point for Casanova’s life as a mystery device is planted on him without his knowledge, a device which thrusts him bodily into the inner sanctum of Newman Xeno – a bandaged super-genius hedonist running an evil organization called W.A.S.T.E (referencing Pynchon’s The Crying Of Lot 49, though taking it step further and having W.A.S.T.E. always stand for something different, like “We’re All So Terribly Excited” one moment, and something else the next). This Xeno, however, reveals that Casanova’s actually been transplanted into a parallel timeline – moving from Timeline 909 to Timline 919 – where Casanova was the dead E.M.P.I.R.E. agent and the very much alive Zephyr is the bad girl thief working for W.A.S.T.E. The morally ambivalent Casanova is drawn into a deceitful game where he appears as his own dead counterpart to work both sides of the W.A.S.T.E./E.M.P.I.R.E. coin.
From there, I’ll just add that it’s like Super Alias on magic sex drugs from the future, with Casanova going on missions for the good guys while also carrying out counter-missions at the same time for the bad guys and trying to keep his head above water when it concerns those who want to control him (and his very naughty, very fun sister). Some of the missions involve snatching up former E.M.P.I.R.E. agents who’ve gone all Colonel Kurtz on an island of orgone-fueled robot orgies or having to kidnap a David Blaine-like magician (David Blaine fucking wishes) who’s undergone a 12 year long meditation like procedure to turn himself into a living God while then having to come up with a robot double to replace the original because his counter-mission involves “creating a little zen chaos.”
The series is heavily influenced by Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius and things like Diabolik and Casanova is drawn like a much cooler version of 70′s Mick Jagger. The series impresses with each new issue with it’s continuous references, whether it be children named after old CIA torture manuals, aliases derived from albums by The Mountain Goats, or lines like “I want to shoot this guy so bad my dick is hard,” which both comes from New Jack City and manages to be a very nice, very not too subtle bit of foreshadowing.
I had read the first season of Casanova (as they break up the storylines in easy to digest television-like mini batches, utilizing season premiere issues and season finale issues, “previously in Casanova” recap segments, etc.)(it makes it easy for a writer like Fraction to do something like this, which he clearly loves, then take a break and go work for someone like Marvel and make some actual money) about a year back and finally got around to reading the second one this past weekend. It was, unsurprisingly, excellent. And best of all, not at all what you expected. All the set up laid out in the last issues of the first season? Barely touched upon, and when touched upon, widely expanded, and the series was bold enough to barely even feature it’s lead character this time around, instead leading the excellent supporting cast take over for a storyline unofficially titled “When is Casanova Quinn?”
Each issue (and you can’t really see it in the above cover, but each issue usually has a vaguely Klimt-like quality that I love for it’s ugly simplicity) in the second season was good (and filled with the same kidn of treats for longtime readers and those who just generally pay attention as fans of The Venture Bros. would get) but then I got to #10 and the series became so much more for me. The issue starts at the masquerade ball reveal of particularly cruel version of reality TV. A young woman, the guest of honor, learns that the morbidly obese man that she thought was her therapist is actually the ringmaster in orchestrating every single event in her life over the past few years, every high, every low, and that it’s all been filmed for the enjoyment of his demented troupe and he whom call themselves The Secret Cinema. Her uptight banker boyfriend who she had to begrudgingly ask to perform oral sex on her? He’s actually a gay hustler with hepatitis, which she probably has now too. Your roommate? She’s been selling her panties online and using the money to buy hidden recording equipment in the bathroom. The kindly elderly landlord and his wife? They’ve been the ones in charge of putting disgusting things in her food. And all of it’s been filmed. And all of it’s been laughed at. She’s been the butt of these people’s jokes for a long time now as they’ve “focus group fucked and gang bang branded” her life into a narrative and as she breaks down at the reveal, they celebrate. They’re going to turn her out into some prostitution ring now that her human spirit is completely broken apart. “Asa nisi masa,” the ringleader says gleefully, caressing her tear-stained cheek as she kneels before him, emotionally shattered. “Open your head,” he tells her, “and the let the pictures come…”
“I want to shoot this guy so bad my dick is hard,” says Casanova’s sister, Zephyr, as she watches all of this on tape during a mission brief. She’s become the female lead with a twist of the second storyline, and is now working for a hi-tech super terrorist group calling themselves X.S.M. The S and M stand for Super Mechanix and the X stands for anything they want it to. The X stands for nothing, or anything, so therefore, “the X stands for everything.” They’ve been hired to kill the ringleader of The Secret Cinema, the large fraudulent psychiatrist Dr. Toppogrosso, and Zephyr’s the girl to do the job. But she doesn’t just want to kill him, she wants to destroy his whole organization, and for fun too, the same fun he takes out of destroying others.
She goes undercover as a mousy librarian-looking new patient of Dr. Toppogrosso’s and willingly sets herself up for one of his traps. She gives him information about herself and he begins his schemes on her, first hoping to shock her by blowing her car up in front of her, but it doesn’t shock her, she tells him. It excites her. She gives her statement to the police at the scene of the explosion and she checks herself out in the mirror of a car parked there. “it suddenly felt important to look good,” she tells the doctor, though she knew that one of his cameramen was hidden in that very car, capturing her admiring her appearance. Then she went and got ice cream from the supermarket. As much as she wanted, all of it because it was very unhealthy. At home, after devouring several cartons of the ice cream (“Gula,” the title of second arc, in addition to being a Babylonian goddess, means “gluttony” and in a lot of different ways, that’s very much what this storyline is about) she gets herself off right there on the couch. And again and again, she proudly tells the faux therapist. This blows his mind since she appeared to be such a timid creature when she first entered his office for her first appointment (she wears glasses after all!), but now he’s impressed, shocked, amazed. “Such naked candor,” he moans in awe. She smiles and says it’s something she’s gotten very good at, and asks if he’d like to see what else she’s gotten good as she removes her shirt in front of him.
There, tattooed right over her heart, are the words “Asa nisi masa.”
She then takes the doctor sexually right there in his chair, pulling him out of his amazement and into her. I won’t spoil the big reveal of the “Gula” storyline too overtly for you here, but what you’re seeing is a brilliant play on the male super sexuality usually on display in spy stories. That and the fact that “asa nisi masa” isn’t just the words that make the pictures move, it’s also the words that bring the anima to life. Oh, and I will add that Zephyr films her seduction of Dr. Toppogrosso and plays it later as she climaxes during a particularly fitting orgy of violence in a cinema.
In the backmatter to Casanova #10, Matt Fraction talks about how the name of The Secret Cinema came from an old Paul Bartel short film (that was later remade by the director into an episode of Amazing Stories) he had seen when he was younger. He also mentioned seeing 8 1/2 when he was younger and how much it affected him, especially the scene with young Guido, the director’s semi-autobiographical stand in. “You know why I love Fellini?” Fraction says, “because his movies feel like my dreams feel.”
In that same mini essay in the back of the issue, Fraction brings up something that I had forgotten, despite my vast reservoir of useless knowledge about classic films. Throughout the filming of the 8 1/2, Fellini kept a note taped to the camera as a constant remember to himself. It said, “REMEMBER: THIS IS A COMEDY.”
Fraction then mentions that he keeps a similar note taped to his computer monitor when he’s writing: DON’T SUCK.
Chicken scratched on a piece of paper in front of me as I write this are the words “Einmal ist keinmal.” They almost literally translate as “once is nonce,” or “once is never,” or even “one time is no time.” Why? I’m so glad you asked. Stop by tomorrow and maybe, just maybe, I’ll tell you. Until then, I’m going to see if I can make the pictures move…