Archive for month: February, 2013

DVD diary: Theorem, or, the Discreet Collapse of the Bourgeoisie (Pasolini 6: Teorema)

12 Feb
February 12, 2013

Theorem/TeoremaIt had been about seven years since the first and last time that I saw Pasolini’s Teorema. It seemed a bolt from the blue; my only previous exposure to Pasolini had been The Gospel According to Matthew, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. When I think about how brilliant it seemed, and how some of the images from it have stayed with me ever since, it’s kind of remarkable that it’s taken me this long to get around to my current project of watching all of his films in order.

Screening it now, in sequence after his first five fiction features, I do a see some richness of reference to his previous work (especially Gospel and Oedipus Rex), and having that additional context does illuminate his approach to some extent, but even after all that the shock of its brilliance remains.  In his critical commentary on the BFI DVD, Robert Gordon calls this film a “high water mark of auteurist cinema” and that is precisely what it is to me.

Really great works of art teach you how to appreciate them, don’t they, and there is something of that quality to Teorema. This film essentially breaks the three-act rule to deliver its coldly passionate theorem; if A, then B. This two-part, bilaterally symmetrical structure prevents us from expecting the kind of resolution that a conventionally plot-driven film would inevitably deliver.

Something I really enjoy about both Antonioni and Pasolini is the way that both directors use the presence of particular books to tell us things about the characters (unlike Godard, perhaps, who likes even his choices for book cameos to be opaque/cryptic).  In Teorema we don’t need to know much about Rimbaud, or the art of Francis Bacon, but a little bit of acquaintance does help.  The only literary-referencing scene that is really difficult to understand without knowledge of the source material is a scene where a physical interaction recalls a similar action from Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich, so here I confess, not having read the Tolstoy, I was dependent on the explanation on the commentary track. By and large, though, the film’s points of reference add context but don’t demand to be completely understood on first viewing. Pasolini deploys minimal dialog here and for the most part lets the images communicate. It is his most purely visual cinema yet.

The 2007 DVD of this film (which I screened for this viewing) was already a huge upgrade from previous DVDs, but I am very much looking forward to the forthcoming BFI Blu-ray edition, which at time of writing is slated for release on May 13, 2013. If Masters of Cinema’s Oedipus Rex is anything to go by I know that this film can look even better. I will be double-dipping I expect.

Blu-ray diary: Oedipal, but not so complex (Pasolini 5: Edipo re)

10 Feb
February 10, 2013

So it seems that cinema must be naturalistic…

I want to stress the fact that now, at forty-five years of age, I have emerged from the wilderness of Freudian and Marxist dogma. But where have I got to?

Pier Paolo Pasolini, while filming Oedipus Rex

Oedipus RexColour! After experiencing six black & white Pasolini films in a row (four fiction features as well as two documentaries), colour comes as a revelation. Like Antonioni, with his first colour film Red Desert three years earlier,  Pasolini deploys colour masterfully in his first use, albeit with less overt symbolism than Antonioni. In Oedipus Rex Pasolini seems more interested in the way that it can create mood, tone, context.

It’s worth mentioning how excellently the colour is conveyed by the recent Masters of Cinema Blu-ray edition. I feel lucky to be having my first experiences of most of these films in such high quality versions.  It makes a big difference.

For a film about the Oedipal myth, with all of the Freudian baggage that might entail, Pasolini has created a remarkably unschematic, flowing narrative, at least when compared to his earlier films. Perhaps it helps to know the Sophocles play, but the narrative logic is pretty clear, I think, whether or not you’re familiar.

The opening scenes depicting the birth of Oedipus as a child in pre-way Italy are brilliant, and perhaps helped inspire a similar sequence in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

But for me the most masterful sequence is the patricide/regicide of Laius, which Pasolini rightly makes the centrepiece of the film. He finds a way to stretch the scene out, without it ever feeling stretched, and to make it visceral rather than grandiose. It won’t seem “naturalistic” to those over/exposed to the “realistic” and/or cartoonish excesses of today’s violent films, but it is, relative to his previous films. And it demonstrates that Pasolini could, indeed, do suspense.

I’m inclined to think that not just The Gospel According to Matthew, but also this film, left a lasting impression on Martin Scorsese and led him to film The Last Temptation of Christ around ruined/ancient structures, rather than constructing elaborate sets. I have to say that I’ve found this choice a bit distracting in all of these films. Filming in and around crumbling ancient edifices makes the settings “feel” old I suppose, but of course in the ancient time that these films were set, some of the buildings around them would have been new. Pasolini perhaps sensed this possible criticism and claimed that he was setting Oedipus Rex “outside of time,” and indeed he found ways to make the ancient-time portion of the movie (most of it) cultural neutral or at least hybrid.

It has to be said that Pasolini is so unflinching about the mother-love aspect of the myth/story that it seems nowhere near as horrifying as the patricide sequence. Silvana Mangano’s Jocasta handles everything with such equanimity (and is not shown mourning the death of her husband Laius) that her end comes rather abruptly.

One more thought about the problems of depicting myths naturalistically. The age of CGI has inflated audience expectations about what can be depicted visually, and has inflated narrative itself along with it. All of that externalization, rendering-as-surface, may work against the original function of such stories, becoming merely a distraction from the reality of the gods and monsters within. As Pasolini’s carnivalesque sphinx says to Oedipus before it is slain, “The abyss you thrust me into is inside of you.”

DVD diary: The little birds—and bad birds—of Pasolini (Pasolini 4: Uccellacci e uccellini)

09 Feb
February 9, 2013

I agree it is not very funny. It makes you think more than laugh. But when it was put on in Montreal and New York the audiences laughed a lot, to my great astonishment, unlike in Italy, where they were a bit disappointed… Pier Paolo Pasolini interviewed in 1969

Hawks and SparrowsOne thing I seem to be discovering on this film-by-film chronological tour through Pasolini’s films is that there really don’t seem to be any minor works in his oeuvre.  Certainly his debut Accatone has some of the limitations that one associates with a first film, but even a film like 1966’s The Hawks and the Sparrows (Uccellacci e uccellini), that opens with a series of gestures that seem wacky and flippant by turns, turns out to be Pasolini’s most accomplished and confident effort yet, and a serious (yet comic) examination of ideology as well—thought not too serious, as Pasquale Iannone says.

Masters of Cinema’s DVD (locked to Region 2) was released last year, and while I’m a tad disappointed that this film was considered too minor to receive the full Blu-ray treatment (or for that matter, any extras other than a trailer), it must be said that this is a really excellent transfer—pretty much the best anamorphic standard-def representation you could hope for. Iannone’s essay in the included booklet provides some useful context to a first-time viewer like myself. (MoC have more literally rendered the Italian title in English by dropping the definite articles, titling the film Hawks and Sparrows.)

The main title sequence, in a straight-up wacky move, is sung by singer-songwriter Domenico Modugno, and Pasolini follows that up with a series of call-backs  to Gospel According to Matthew, starting with recasting the previous film’s annunciating angel, Rossana Di Rocco, as a teen angel of a different sort (wearing wings, unlike in Gospel, because, as she explains, she’s in a play at school).

Soon Pasolini will fling us into a 13th-century story-within-the-story, in which he will shoot and frame the pronouncements of St. Francis of Assisi in exactly the same way that he did Jesus in Gospel. Our two protagonists, Totò and Ninetto Davoli as father and son (surnamed “Innocenti”) pop  up as medieval monks complete with suitable names. When the local villagers adopt Totò’s “Frate Cicillo” as their new favourite saint, a full-on festival breaks out complete with an amateur comic play, at which point we have a play within a play within the play, which disintegrates at the moment when Pasolini unleashes a mock cleansing of the temple, in his final reference to his Jesus movie.  But somehow Pasolini is so masterful that even his excesses don’t seem excessive.

For Pasolini the end of ideology is not just a moment for postmodern celebration, but entails a tragic side, most evident when he makes use of footage from the actual funeral of Palmiro Togliatti, leader of the Italian Communist Party from 1927 until his death in 1964. But this is juxtaposed with another scene featuring travelling clowns/entertainers—Pasolini’s way of “quoting” Fellini and incorporating the comic carnivalesque (a move which, for example, Terrence Malick imitates in Days of Heaven ten years later).

Pasolini is also not above using Benny-Hill-style sped-up motion for a laugh, and watch for a couple of comic moments that will be quoted in turn, later, in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian. But my favourite is a sequence that is rather hard to describe, but which entails Totò and his son/sidekick communicating with sparrows by using their… dance language?

In a scene that has, shall we say, aged poorly, Totò and Ninetto Davoli as father and son (surnamed “Innocenti”) take turns going off in a hayfield with the fantastical comely lass “Luna,” whom the father afterwards indirectly labels a “whore.” I think this was supposed to be the embrace-of-life-after-the-death-of-Marxism moment but unfortunately it now plays as something more like Luce Irigaray’s “hommo-sexuality.” So it is not just the mourning of the passing of communism that makes this film feel like it belongs to another age. I think the film works best for me when I think of that final sequence as a coda from another time rather than a summation or conclusion of what has come before.