unplanned Sergio Leone deep dive (Duck, You Sucker & Once Upon a Time in America)

27 Oct
October 27, 2014

I’m used to thinking of the category “spaghetti westerns” as a fairly inexhaustible pool of films, so I was rather surprised when it clicked with me recently that the entire Sergio Leone oeuvre is comprised of just six mature films. Long ones, to be sure, and rather more chock-a-block with filmic references than I ever knew until I found myself on a Leone bender this month.

Once Upon a Time in America - Blu-rayMy head was originally turned a few months ago by the fall 2014 release announcement for the “Extended Director’s Cut” of Once Upon A Time in America (itself not a western, of course), which thanks to funding from Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, and from Gucci, runs 251 minutes, 22 minutes longer than the previous 229-minute cut. As someone who continues to be interested in film restoration in general, and the work of the Cineteca di Bologna in particular, I blind-bought the new Blu-ray edition on its September 30 release, taking the opportunity to finally watch this film and to have a first experience of it that much closer to the director’s original vision.

This summer had already seen MGM re-release The Man With No Name Trilogy, in an edition that replaces their 2011 release of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly with a new Cineteca di Bologna restoration. With the fresh flurry of interest in Leone the 2011 Blu-ray release of Once Upon a Time in the West could be had cheaply so I picked that up too. MGM followed up Warner’s release of America a week later (October 7) with a low-priced ($9.97 on Amazon.ca at this moment) Blu-ray disc of Duck, You Sucker, which means that all six Leone masterpieces are now available in high def.

Duck, You Sucker - Blu-ray - amazon.caAs it comes to us on this budget disc, Duck, You Sucker is sort of a hot mess. It has undeniable allure: it is Grade A Leone, it is all the more enjoyable for being rarely seen and hard to find, it is an evolutionary missing link between the two “Once Upon” films (and in fact it it was called Once Upon a Time… the Revolution in some European releases and that is probably the best title it had, certain much better than, for example, A Fistful of Dynamite). However it is a sub-par release of a damaged film. No further cleanup has been done since the 2007 DVD release, and thus the image contains plenty of visible noise and artifacts. The disc has no main menu, thus the film auto-starts on load, and has no new special features. However it carries with it the special features from the DVD release, including the excellent “Sorting out the Versions” doc, which at least makes it clear why certain transitions in the film really make little sense. The upshot is that the best that could be done with the elements at hand was done, in terms of restoring the film to its theatrical cut. But even the theatrical cut didn’t completely make sense, so in order to create a fully-realized artistically-integral cut of the film it seems unavoidable that someone would have to do what the Film Foundation just did with America and find additional elements and bring them back in.

Does all of that sound like a recommendation? It probably doesn’t. Therefore it’s incumbent on me to say, if you have ever enjoyed any of Leone’s films, you owe it to yourself to see all six of his masterpieces, the flawed ones. Duck, You Sucker, awkward title and all, is a compelling, intense film, and this Blu-ray release at least allows you to see the best-available cut in high definition. Now if you’ll excuse me, watching all six different commentary tracks on five different films hasn’t exhausted my interest in Sergio Leone, so I have to go read Christopher Frayling’s fascinating-looking book about him now.

 

film festival season is TIFFing my AFF

15 Sep
September 15, 2014

The best thing about the two-week marathon that ensues when you do the Toronto+Halifax film festivals back to back as I have this year is the wall-to-wall films. The worst thing aside from the sleep deprivation is the abiding feeling that you’re rather letting down the side by not promptly posting up reviews of every film on your blog.

But as that’s really not been possible, I present, in the place of 17 AWOL film reviews, a series of random festival observations from the past 10 days.

TIFF+AFF is actually a killer pairing. TIFF is really well organized, gets a lot of films that would never play in Halifax, and offers plentiful chances to see, and pose a question to, directors and stars in person. But the Atlantic festival gets a number, this year a large number, of films that are really hard tickets to get in Toronto, and presents them for less than half the price of equivalent Toronto screenings. And it does so all in one multiplex, which makes it dead easy to get from one screening to another. And tickets for the hottest international films are plentifully available, because Halifax audiences are much more interested in regional films than what’s going on elsewhere.

UK English has taken over the subtitling industry. Maybe this has been true for a while, but it seems like every foreign-language film that I have seen so far (and I believe that I’ve seen 7 that were subtitled in their entirety) has been subtitled in UK English. There has been much fancying, significant scoffing—of food, and there have been many lads. This is how I found myself watching a film (Mommy) that was made and set entirely in Canada but subtitled in an English dialect that no native or long-time Canadian would likely use. Perhaps the subtitling will be re-done in time for Canadian or US distribution but this raises an interesting question—does the UK-English-speaking audience at film festivals really significantly outnumber the North American festival audience? If so, that’s surprising to me. Maybe someone who understands the industry better than I do can weigh in with an explanation. I mean, I’m a card-carrying Anglophile so it’s no skin off my teeth. Uh, nose.

While we’re on the topic of subtitling… It is now widespread convention to subtitle even mildly accented English, in English. I am seeing more of this, this year, than I ever have before. Don’t people whose first language is not English find this just a little insulting? And are native English speakers really that thick? I’m talking about perfectly understandable English lines here, echoed as subtitles. I would really like to know more about how this has because a consensus practice.

Goodbye to Language 3D looked way better at the Ryerson Theatre in Toronto than it did at Cineplex Park Lane in Halifax and the only reason I can think of is that Dolby 3D is a significantly better technology than RealD. This is something that I have had no time at all to research so I have no idea if there’s a firm basis to this suspicion. If anyone else knows about the difference between these systems I would welcome your observations and links in the comments. This was the first time that I ever saw the same 3D film projected with the two different technologies in the same week, so it’s nothing I had ever thought to consider before.

Movie-going etiquette is sometimes worse at festivals than at regular commercial screenings. This is of course not true across the board but I’ve been amazed how many glowing smartphone screens have disturbed my viewing experience in the past 10 days. And tonight, for example, at a particular slow, quiet and long film (Winter Sleep) I had to deal with a compulsive foot-tapper somewhere behind me. Super distracting. I don’t remember anyone being that asinine at Guardians of the Galaxy but maybe I just couldn’t hear them.

I have come to derive some perverse enjoyment from the exit walk of shame. You know, where people bend forward and move quickly as they try to hard not to block people’s view as they give up on a screening and leave. As a general rule, the more people bail on a screening, the more I am enjoying the film. This year’s champion has been the nearly impenetrable The Color of Pomegranates, a Toronto screening from which literally dozens of attendees exited in bafflement. It was awesome.

Iraqi Odyssey (Samir): first look

08 Sep
September 8, 2014

Twelve years on from the 2002 documentary Forget Baghdad—an essential, if not widely known, film about the tragic dismantling of the Jewish community of Iraq—director Samir is back with the story of his own Iraqi family’s global diaspora.

As with Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, we have a filmmaker interrogating his own family to ferret out its history. Iraqi Odyssey is far less focused than Polley’s film, describing a rather more diffuse family narrative, but with more political weight. Samir takes a rather meandering route to illuminate the circumstances that forced his family to leave Iraq, and how his uncles, aunts, siblings and cousins came to live in such far-flung places as Auckland, Buffalo, London, Zurich, and Moscow.

Without a clear central thesis the early going of the film is rather slow, so much so that I found myself nodding off briefly at the early avalanche of family-specific anecdotes and factoids. But once the film begins to tell the story of rise and fall of Iraqi Communism, and its eventual co-optation by Ba’athism under Saddam Hussein, we begin to get into some fascinating history—including some remarkable injected archival footage of everything from street scenes to classic Egyptian Arabic cinema—that will likely be largely unknown to Western audiences.

Oddly, perhaps, the choice was made to create the film in 3D, which provides a kind of artificial space in which members of the family talk in the foreground while archival photos and film clips appear and disappear behind and beside them. The studio interviews are the only piece of the film that has actually been shot in 3D.

At one point in the film there are some brief but quite horrifying images of torture that happened under Saddam’s regime; later there is a similarly brief but shocking verbal recounting of torture. The film does not dwell on these topics but the abruptness with which they are interjected clearly caught off-guard some members of the festival audience in Toronto.

At its current running length of 162 minutes it does feel like a 90-100 minute film with all of the DVD extras thrown into the main cut. But that main spine of the film was for me a worthwhile reward for spending the time.

The Face of an Angel (Michael Winterbottom): first look

07 Sep
September 7, 2014

Instead of a theory of what really transpired in the death of Meredith Kercher, and what role if any was played in that by Amanda Knox, The Face of an Angel comes at us as a deconstruction of how the media represents such a story. But it ends up being something much different, and this viewer finds himself gnawing on tricky questions of how men represent women in life, literature, and cinema, rather than anything about the media’s relationship with its readers and audiences.

Centred on a fictional film director’s journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven, the story structure is explicitly modelled on Dante’s Divine Comedy. By moving the scene of the crime from Perugia to Siena, a connection is made with visual directness to Dante’s own time and environs. The hell sequences include decontextualized scenes of rough sex between the director (a convincingly obsessive Daniel Brühl) and a journalist (a smoothly professional Kate Beckinsale)—enough to make us wonder whether we are looking at an assault—but with no discussion after the fact between the principals. (Leaving one to wonder—you show me a man inflicting pain on a woman during sex, and we’re to understand it’s the man who’s in hell?)

Our director-protagonist’s next would-be Beatrice is a fresh and spontaneous young university student and waitress (Cara Delevingne, brilliant casting move), and it is through a rather more platonic relationship with her that he has a hope of gaining a more central insight into this story of murder.

Winterbottom has given us a film of layered complexity that ultimately argues that the worst thing about the did-she-didn’t-she debate about Amanda Knox is that it has robbed the real-life victim, Meredith Kercher, of central status in the story. But does this side-on approach to the material risk doing the same thing in a different way? I expect that will be the most debated point as people dissect this film.

so this is film festival madness, again

25 Aug
August 25, 2014

Last year I attended TIFF for the third time, but it was the first year that I stayed in Toronto through the entirety of the festival. This left me feeling like some kind of seasoned vet. When I started to plan for this year I decided that I would be more efficient, burn fewer vacation days, and head back home on the evening of day 6.

Based on last year’s experience I reasoned that 80% of the excitement is over after the first weekend anyway, and confidently booked my air travel.

Then came the TIFF lineup announcements, along with the news, that I must have missed earlier, that a new rule was in place to keep non-premieres out of those opening days.

The result: a glut of films on Tuesday and Wednesday (Sept 9 & 10) that I really want to see. Because, yeah, previous screenings at Cannes etc may diminish TIFF’s shine on opening weekend, but they tend to rather increase my interest.  I like all that European stuff, I do.

TIFF planning calendar

Now add to the mix the added difficulty of figuring out which films are TIFF only, and which I can see at the Atlantic Film Festival after I fly back to my Halifax hometown, and my planning calendar begins to look like this. Black for Cinematheque screenings, orange for TIFF-only new films, green for films that are also at AFF. (Not shown: red for Toronto gala screenings.)

Guess I’ll be rebooking some air travel? But first, on Tuesday, to pick my 3 TIFF galas, and then on Wednesday to pick 5 other TIFF screenings…

DVD diary: piecing together The Rage (Pasolini: La rabbia)

01 Jun
June 1, 2014

“The best thing in my half of the film—the only part of the film worth saving—is the sequence dedicated to the death of Marilyn Monroe.”

Let me cut to the chase and skip to the most useful bit of information that I can share—the 83-minute “reconstructed version” of this film, put together by Giuseppe Bertolucci, which has been screening as part of the complete Pasolini retrospective that has hit several major cities over the past couple of years—is not the version presented on the region-free DVD that is widely available from Raro.

The back text on the box of that release describes it as an “exclusive, uncut, restored version” and this is true—but the “restored” version is not the “reconstructed” version.

The “reconstructed” version is only available on a Region 2 (Europe-only) DVD which is, confusingly enough, also issued in a black, white, and red box by Raro.

It’s as if someone conceived of an ultimate video edition of La Rabbia, and then split the various elements of that package between two different discs/boxes, arbitrarily.

La rabbia restored version DVDThe more widely-available “restored” version (region-free) includes a 72-minute documentary hosted by Italian cinema critic & journalist Tatti Sanguineti, in which he describes in some detail the “reconstructed” version which would be issued seperately. Along with 5 different trailers, it also includes the much later (early 1970s) 13-minute short “The Walls of Sana’a”, a film which joined the successful effort to have Yemen’s historic city named a United Nations World Heritage site, and which makes for interesting viewing alongside Pasolini’s other developing-world studies such as “Notes Toward an African Oresteia.” None of these special features are to be found on the “reconstructed” version DVD.

La rabbia reconstructed version DVDThe “reconstructed” version (Region 2), for extras, has instead a series of short interviews with various authorities: Cineteca di Bologna director/president Giuseppe Bertolucci, writer Vincenzo Cerami, Pasolini’s assistant director on La Rabbia Carlo di Carlo, photographer Mario Dondero, art historian Luigi Ficacci, and poet Valerio Magrelli. The reconstructed version starts from farther back in Pasolini’s planned order (rather than with the 20th sequence, about the Hungarian Revolution, with which the Pasolini-Guareschi half-and-half version rather abruptly begins). It drops the Guareschi half/film, and adds instead as an appendix some revealing moments from interviews with Pasolini.

If the two packages were put together into a single Blu-ray edition, the result would be a handy, single edition that would contain all of the elements that a motivated viewer would need to try to comprehend this supposedly failed Pasolini side project.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that ideal edition is ever going to happen, because Pasolini’s experiment with collage-based filmmaking has never been seen as central to his oeuvre. Or to put it plainly, successful. Even the wide-ranging and tolerant DVD Beaver calls it “less interesting as a film than for the story of its conception, reception, its withdrawal from circulation and disappearance, and its and rediscovery/restoration.”

I’m not completely convinced that’s fair. For one thing, that opinion seems to have been formed without viewing the reconstructed version.

Briefly put, that history is as follows:

  • The film was originally conceived as a 100-minute collage of archival/newsreel footage of geopolitical events, put together by Pasolini. Such a version, without the added poetic narration that Pasolini wrote and partially recorded, was shown to the film’s producer early on.
  • The producer promptly lost his nerve, or at least had second thoughts, and reconceived it as two 50-minute halves by different directors, with a right-wing section to be created by Giovannino Guareschi as a balance (or something) to Pasolini’s left-wing viewpoint.
  • Since neither director viewed the other’s film before creating their own, the film was not in fact the filmic conversation of two voices that it was promoted to be, and thus ended up not only a failure of nerve but also a failure as a film experience—two difficult voices talking into the air, as it were, in succession, with no mutual engagement. The two halves of the film truly had nothing substantially to do with each other.
  • The film was quickly withdrawn from circulation (reasons are debated), and its two halves would be intermittently screened independently over the years, in the form of B&W 16mm prints that were missing the colour material from the original.
  • The lost colour negatives were discovered in 2005 which allowed the “restored” version to be issued on DVD in 2008.
  • The “reconstructed” version followed soon after.

The reconstructed section that has been added to the “head” of Pasolini’s film, does, it must be said, feel different from the subsequent material. Yes, it features the words that he wrote, over the same footage with which he had planned to match those words. But, in the total absence of originally shot footage, it is Pasolini’s fluid-yet-abrupt editing style, and not just his poetic-philosophical mode of expression, that makes his surviving original half feel like a Pasolini film. It’s clear that even the most faithful reconstructor cannot fake that.

But I still recommend it as the version to watch first—and so I think that the right choice has been made to feature it in the retrospective screening series. It is not just that it includes more of Pasolini’s original vision—it is also that the additional material helps to contextual and introduce what follows. What is more, the notes that come with the DVD booklet are excellent for filling in the historical background of the newsreel images that flicker by. They open up the film’s references to a current viewer.

So here’s my recommended viewing order: 1) reconstructed version, 2) documentary from the restored-version DVD, 3) restored version.

Lastly… how remarkable is this film’s poetic flight out of images of delusion, death, and destruction into this tribute to Marilyn Monroe?

Shoot, like a golden dove.
The world has taught you [how].
Thus your beauty becomes [the beauty] of the world.
A beauty of the stupid ancient world and the ferocious future world which was not ashamed
of alluding to the budding breasts of a younger sister [or]
to a tiny belly so easily seen naked.
And for this reason it was beautiful: beautiful like the sweet, coloured beggars,
the gypsies and the daughters of shopkeepers who win beauty pageants in Miami or Rome.
The world taught you [how] and thus your beauty was no longer beauty.
But you continued to be a child,
as silly as ancient times, as cruel as the future …
And between you and your beauty possessed by power
there was all the stupidity and cruelty of the present.
Shoot, like a white shadow of gold.

Pasolini’s Jesuses (Pasolini retrospective 4)

18 Apr
April 18, 2014

The TIFF Pasolini retrospective is over, now; the final screening was last Saturday (Salò, April 12) and though I’m pained to have missed the last 11 screenings, I can count myself lucky for having been in Toronto for the first five. My favourite of the lot was the one that I have perhaps seen the most times—The Gospel According to Matthew (Il vangelo secondo Matteo, 1964), but I almost missed at least the first few minutes, narrowly avoiding entering the wrong screening room at the Lightbox.

The last-minute change of theatres was due to an extra screening that had been added to meet overwhelming demand for Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls—a later screening, introduced by Adam Nayman, author of It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls, had sold out well in advance. If I had accidentally ended up in the wrong theatre on this night, those first few minutes would have been confusing…

Verhoeven and Pasolini might seem an improbable director-swap, but in fact the two have at least one relevant quality in common—a long-held fascination with Jesus.  Of the two, it is in fact Verhoeven who has the greater command of Jesus historiography; although his PhD was in math and physics, he developed quite an expertise in the historical reconstruction of Jesus’ life. He was a voting fellow of the Jesus Seminar (the only one without a related graduate degree), and—according to a mutual online acquaintance who was also in the Seminar—reads Koine Greek (the original written language of the Gospels) “like a newspaper.” As you might know if you have read, for example, the excellent Grantland feature on his directing career from a couple of months ago, Verhoeven published in 2008 a scholarly biography of Jesus, and has long harboured plans to direct a historical Jesus movie—plans that so far have failed to come to fruition.

You might well ask whether such a film—the life story of Jesus narrowed down to the parts that are historically possible and probable—would be possible even to make. For his part, Pasolini felt sure that it wasn’t—at least, not for him. “If I had reconstructed the history of Christ as he really was I would not have produced a religious film because I am not a believer… I would have produced a positivist or Marxist reconstruction at the most, and thus at best a life which could have been the life of any one of the five or six thousand holy men who were preaching at that time in Palestine. But I did not want to do this, because I am not interested in deconsecrating: this is a fashion I hate, it is petit-bourgeois.”

Pasolini was much more interested in the Christ of myth than the Jesus of history (a cliched distinction that buries some complications, I realize), and nothing gives greater proof of that than the Christ narratives and Christ figures that dominate many of his films: Franco Citti as the titular pimp in Accattone, Ettore Garofolo as the ill-fated son in Mamma Roma, Terence Stamp as an almost-otherworldly seducer in Teorema. It is almost too obvious to mention but there is also Pasolini’s infamously court-case-inducing, supposedly blasphemous short film La Ricotta, featuring Orson Welles in a brilliant comic turn as a bourgeois Jesus-film-making director. La Ricotta features not just one but two Christ-figures—the actor portraying in the film-within-the-film one of the thieves crucified with Christ, and the actor portraying Jesus. The former turns out to be the true proletarian Christ of the narrative, while the latter is implicitly false.

I sometime encounter statements that seem to marvel at the thought that this highly secular, gay, Marxist intellectual directed a movie about Jesus that leaves in most of the significant miracles and contains no dialog that doesn’t come directly from the Gospel, but this rather overlooks the fact that the Jesus of Il vangelo secondo Matteo is, by my count, the fifth in a series of at least six cinematic Christs that Pasolini deployed in his films.

What is more, the specifically Matthean Christ is there, indirectly, in his very first film, Accattone, via a looped excerpt from the finale of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion that repeats on the soundtrack. Pasolini would bring back this piece, along with the tune of a famous aria from the same oratorio, on the soundtrack of his film of Matthew’s Gospel. I recently attended an excellent performance of this Bach oratorio here in Halifax, and read along, musical number by music number, with Victor Lederer’s excellent Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: A Closer Look. I found myself once again thinking about, you guessed it, Pasolini (who, you might also guess, was such a student of Bach’s music that he wrote a study of the sonatas).

This is worth a quick explanation for those not familiar with the structure of this and other oratorios. Bach’s three-hour-long musical extravaganza mixes narrations that are pulled directly from the Biblical text—sung by various soloists who are effectively taking the roles of individual characters from the Gospel story—with other songs and hymns that effectively comment on the action not from the point of view either of the characters or any authority figures of the church, but from the point of view of a present-day pious individual. How great the suffering of Christ, the choruses tell us, attempting to articulate and incorporate or inspire our thoughts for us. What a debt we owe. How shall we then live?

In Pasolini’s Il vangelo, we have, as with Bach’s oratorio, verbatim words of the Gospel in the mouths of the characters—but the dialogue has this and nothing else. Is Pasolini inspired not just by the emotions of the oratorio, but indeed by its structure? If Pasolini is attempting to create in this way, we have the scripture, but what provides the commentary on it? In Pasolini, the commentary is purely visual. It is in the landscapes, and in the faces of the cast.

What Pasolini realized early on was that he was not going to be able to accomplish anything by attempting to reconstruct with historical verisimilitude the people and the landscapes of Jesus’ time. In the documentary Seeking Locations in Palestine (Sopralluoghi in Palestina) we see Pasolini touring the irreversibly transformed Biblical lands, realizing from the first day that he cannot shoot there. The Israeli Jews are modern and prosperous, the Arabs are an impoverished underclass, he observes—neither will do to portray Jewish peasants of two millennia past, and the landscapes of places like Nazareth are thoroughly modernized.

Instead, Pasolini chose to work by analogy. For locations, he chose Italian locales that would feel archaic and visually communicate the essence of the Biblical locations. For Bethlehem, for example he used the caverns of a village between Lucania and Puglia. He worked similarly with the casting. His cast members, including all the Jewish characters, are often unmistakeably Italian, but he cast them based on how effectively they could portray members of their characters’ economic classes. Those choices were themselves based on many layers of Christian tradition—Pasolini said in an interview: “About half of them were of humble origin; others, like Matthew, did have a more intellectual background, so I chose an intellectual for him.” Ferruccio Nuzzo was the intellectual in question; Pasolini also cast a young Giorgio Agamben in the role of Jesus’ disciple Philip.

None of this seems very intuitive in the post-Gladiator age of CGI reconstruction of ancient locales, and I have to say that I really didn’t understand Pasolini’s approach at all when I first saw his film. It was the first Pasolini film I’d seen, and I had no sweet clue why ancient Israel was being represented by the people and locations of rural Italy—it seem rather awkward to me, quite frankly. But coming back to this film, in 2014, in the form of a fresh 35mm print beautifully projected at the TIFF Lightbox, I felt I was not just viewing a pristine image, but seeing much more clearly the aesthetic strategies driving the film.

Blu-ray diary: Canon nearing (Pasolini 9: The Decameron)

26 Mar
March 26, 2014

In the Decameron I filmed the way I know how: more than ever in my own style. But while in Porcile and Medea my game was atrocity, now strangely it’s happiness. A happy work (made with great seriousness, of course) seems to me to contradict all expectations. It’s complete disobedience. (But maybe I’m lying.)

Pier Paolo Pasolini, interviewed November 24, 1970

Making the decision to read Pasolini’s source texts before viewing each of his last four feature films, all of which are literary adaptations, rather derailed, for a while, my plan to watch all 13 features in the space of a year or less. Rather than charging straight ahead from Medea to The Decameron, I took the time to read all 800 pages of the McWilliam translation/Penguin edition (and posted a brief review). I probably could have prepared just by reading the 10 stories of Boccaccio’s 100 that made it into the movie (helpfully listed by Wikipedia) but it’s a work I’ve long been wanting to read and I wanted to soak up the flavour of the entire text.

Finishing the book, and the timing of this ensuing Blu-ray screening (I viewed the BFI’s UK release—I’ll get around to the Criterion edition as well at some point), delightfully coincided with the opening of the Dalhousie University Theatre Department production of Patrick Baliani’s stage adaptation, which I took in last night.

Baliani’s play is almost the direct opposite of Pasolini’s film in theme and, to some degree, in tone—fascinating to see the degree to which readings of Boccaccio’s text can vary. Let it be said that the current crop of Dal Theatre students are a game, talented crew of performers who gave Baliani’s version a energetic workout, to say the least. But in the Baliani play, the background of the bubonic plague weighs heavily on the proceedings. Where the book is mostly diversion and escape, the play is weighed down with constant reminders of doom.

The play makes much of the tale of the scholar’s revenge—the perhaps-autobiographical revenge fantasy that others might suggest is both ethically problematic and a poor fit with much of the rest of the work. The ethical problem is countered partly by finding an improbable ray of hope at the end—a twist which diverges from the source text completely. For his part Pasolini didn’t include it amongst the nine tales that he chose, and in fact, there are only two tales that show up both in the Baliani play and the Pasolini film.

The Decameron itself is, needless to say, a challenging text for adaptation to any visual medium. As a lengthy collection of a hundred stories, most without overlapping characters, the main decisions are which small fraction of the stories to include, and what to do with the narrative framing device.

In the book, 10 young Florentines try, in the summer of 1348, to escape from the Black Death that is sweeping their city. They take turns each day in their country estate retreat MC’ing a round of story-telling, so that each of 10 days, each of the 10 plague-refugees tells one story. The Baliani play uses the group of young people to both tell and enact the stories, blurring the lines deliberately between those roles, while Pasolini’s film jettisons the framing altogether, relying on 10 original linking scenes that include dream sequence animations of paintings and a kind of framing story involving a painter (played by Pasolini himself), and an overall consistency of tone and visual expression to create something that feels more unified than the the typical anthology film.

In reality I was not just having fun with this film. I understood something very simple that it had taken me ten films to understand: namely, that cinema is a game… I’ve discovered play.

Even when Pasolini is playing he is doing so with rigour—in this film it is his way of insisting on what seems to me an essential quality of the source text. Boccaccio’s stories, for the most part, have a very un-fraught and down-to-earth way of presenting sexuality, and Pasolini insists on being cinematically true to that. In the story of the young man who pretends to be a mute in order to secure work and residence at a convent for the purpose of regular intercourse with the nuns, we get a scene with a young, sex-curious nun pulling up her skirt and giving him the wave-in, as we say, cutting to a head-on shot of his nude, tumescent member—yep, Pasolini sees no reason to flinch from the nun’s-eye-view of a naked boner (1971 seems like another world, now, doesn’t it?). But at the same time the film has really very little in common with porn as it is produced now—what the sexual scenes all have in common is a kind of innocent glee. They are well-lit to establish a joyful, carefree tone rather than to provide pornographic inspections of anatomy and sexual mechanics.

Pasolini, in this film, provides some flashes of mortality and doom around the edges, here and there, without reversing the overall direction and tone of his source text. It must have seemed a very daring film in 1971, and in some respects still seems today—but other than by its choice of stories it doesn’t seem to have the least bit of interest in correcting Boccaccio, or reading him against the grain. It is a cinematic argument that Boccaccio is forever contemporary, and in its own way I feel, on first viewing, that this film earns its own lasting relevance.

Notes:

  • The film has an intermission near the 57-minute mark.
  • Quotes from Pasolini in this post can be found in this fantastic book.

Medea (Pasolini retrospective 3)

14 Mar
March 14, 2014

Call me crazy but I think I’m starting to get what Pasolini is on about with this film. I’m not sure how many in the audience at last night’s nearly-full screening, the third in TIFF’s complete Pasolini retrospective, would agree with me… especially the woman two seats away from me who spent considerable time texting on her iPhone.

However I think Pasolini’s adaptation/palimpsest of the Medea myth, after thoroughly baffling me on first viewing, is starting to make some sense to me thanks to a fantastic book I picked up at the Lightbox gift shop—Pier Paolo Pasolini: My Cinema. It’s a coffee-table-appropriate book stuffed with incredible archival photos, and with text derived from Pasolini himself—interviews, articles, letters. For each of his films there are multiple such quoted passages. It’s as close as one could come to having Pasolini himself write the exhibition catalogue for this retrospective.

In one of the Medea passages—an interview from 1970—Pasolini says “I abandoned the Greek myth and started reading essays on the history of religions, ethnology, anthropology, with the result that little by little, my imagination began to move in that direction, basically leaving Euripides behind, though I did keep a few of his ideas…”

And later… “Medea… is based on the history of religions, on Frazer, Lévi-Strauss, Levi-Brüle [sic]. Reading their books gave me the idea to conceive the world of Medea as a symbolic fragment, an oneiric-visionary image of the Third World.”

OK. I can’t be sure of all the specific ideas from these scholars that Pasolini was wrestling with in the construction of this script, but I was able to draw one clear conclusion that really illuminated the first 45 minutes of the film for me—that section of the film that is not really based at all on the Euripides play. What Pasolini is doing, it seems to me, is to try to liberate the narrative with its climactic filicide from its typical rational frame—its strange place nestled in the foundation of the canon of Western literature. He wants us to see Medea’s murder of her children in the context of a more primitive world where human sacrifice was an accepted social practice with its own protocols. And he wants to dramatize the conflict between the primitive/child/myth world and the civilized/adult/reason world or Weltanschauung. If you like, he wants to blow up the bridge from the present/Western world to Greek myth and make us approach the strangeness of Medea’s murderous act from an entirely different direction.

This is why the film begins, it seems to me, with the gruesome sacrifice of a young boy. What Pasolini has inserted is a kind of call for which Euripides’ climax later supplies the response. Seen from this perspective, everything up to the theft of the golden fleece in the film no longer seems like an arbitrary, confusing preface. Pasolini’s cooked-from-scratch first act is nothing less than an attempt to set an entirely different frame of reference than that which is usually brought to contemporary readings of Greek tragedy.

Some of the scenes in the film have minimal or no dialogue (Pasolini refusing to provide standard psychological/motivational explanations for the narrative events), while others feature dense philosophical discussions and pronouncements that are not easy to absorb on the fly. So the film is really not possible to fully absorb in one viewing it seems to me. Pasolini said that Medea is “perhaps the most intellectualized part” of his oeuvre. For the first time—on third viewing—I am glad that I have stuck with this one.

Accatone encore (Pasolini retrospective 2)

09 Mar
March 9, 2014

Tonight I took in the second screening in TIFF’s Pasolini retrospective at the Lightbox, and let me just say at the start that the new 35mm print looked great—far better, in fact, than even the fine Masters of Cinema Blu-ray release led me to expect. For a first feature, shot in a deliberately rough/ugly style—legendarily so—it looks quite beautiful up on the big screen, to my eye.

When I blogged about my first viewing of this film, on Blu-ray, I wrote “If you just want to watch his films, sticking to the more significant ones, I’d say you’re better off jumping in with Mamma Roma.” I’m now even more convinced that TIFF did exactly the right thing by programming his debut as a follow-up on the evening after his second film. I think that watching Mamma Roma, which is a step closer to mainstream film convention, can help teach us noobs how to watch a more abrupt, challenging film like Accatone.

Pasolini’s films are already, to borrow a phrase from Roberto Chiesi, “so foreign to the conventions of present-day cinema,” so most of us need all the help we can get.

One such connecting point that I noticed this evening was the revelation that Stella, the apparent innocent with whom the titular protagonist of Accatone falls in love, is the daughter of a prostitute. This forms a link back from, or a pointer forward to, the fulcrum of Mamma Roma‘s plot. If we haven’t seen the second film it seems like a simple bit of narrative colour but in the light of Mamma Roma it takes on much more significance and indicates that Stella is in a complex struggle between her past and her possible futures—mirroring Accatone’s own crisis.

On the technique level, I think about the reverse dolly shots during key conversations in Accatone, and how the similar shots in Mamma Roma take on a more choreographed/consciously-artificial feel, almost like a musical without songs—a move that serves to emphasize how these scenes are elucidating the inner conflict of the protagonist. In Accatone the reverse-dolly shots seem to part of a more realist, filming-in-place aesthetic, but if you’ve seen Mamma Roma first you’ve been trained to understand these scenes as containing key information about the characters.

The first time that I watched these two films, I was much more enamoured of Mamma Roma than of Accatone. After tonight, the latter film, Pasolini’s harder-to-appreciate debut, has risen substantially in my estimation. After my first Blu-ray viewing, I felt I understood why Fellini didn’t appreciate it, but now after my first big-screen viewing, I understand why so many other people did.