Archive for month: March, 2014

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.

 

Revisiting Mamma Roma (Pasolini retrospective 1)

09 Mar
March 9, 2014

The TIFF Pasolini retrospective (Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poet of Contamination) kicked off at the Lightbox last night with a packed screening of Pasolini’s second feature, Mamma Roma. This was my first big-screen viewing of this film and, in fact, only my second theatrical viewing of any of Pasolini’s films, and needless to say I was thrilled to see it in its intended size and format.  The archival 35mm print that was screened was the same Cineteca di Bologna restoration (2002 if I remember correctly) that formed the basis of Criterion’s 2004 DVD release—still the best version available for home viewing.

Some of the other screenings coming up in the series are more recent restorations and/or fresh prints and I am looking forward to seeing ever more pristine editions of his films.  The home-video nerd in me is just a little bit disappointed to see that no further restoration work has been done on Mamma Roma because it suggests that we won’t be seeing an HD release of this classic in the near future.

The screening was prefaced by a talk from Italian cinema scholar Luca Caminati, who lent some helpful insight into Pasolini’s technique and continuing relevance in the first portions of his presentation, but later had people looking at their watches when he began to theorize about how Pasolini resolved the 1960s-era debates around representational art versus its opposites. On the topic of Pasolini’s continuing relevance he mentioned various examples of contemporary art inspired in various ways by Pasolini, including the Sharon Hayes video piece “Ricerche: three” which premiered at the 2013 Venice Biennale.

On the technique side he mentioned how Pasolini made his images more painting-like using a telescopic lens for medium-to-close shots, effectively flattening the frame, magnifying the sense of an opaque backdrop, as can be seen in the image above. This was a technique developed for him by his cinematographer, Tonino Delli Colli.

Caminati also mentioned the way that Pasolini deploys images of the sublime ruins of the ancient Roman aqueduct juxtaposed with the new housing developments of the postwar Italian boom. I realized that I hadn’t paid sufficient attention to this recurring image during my previous DVD viewing of the film, but projected at theatrical size it could not be missed. TIFF I cannot thank you enough for programming this series.  On to Accatone!