Archive for category: Blu-ray & DVD

Blu-ray diary: cinematic Christs, parody first, myth second (Pasolini 3a: La ricotta + Sopralluoghi in Palestina)

03 Jan
January 3, 2013

Ro.Go.Pa.GOne of the lesser-known oddities in the Pasolini oeuvre is his short film, “La Ricotta,” his contribution to the 1963 anthology/omnibus/portmanteau film Ro.Go.Pa.G., which also featured segments by Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, and Ugo Gregoretti. Pasolini’s segment is by far the strongest (“Il Nuovo mondo” plays like a parody of a Godard film, Rossellini’s “Illibatezza” is, frankly, dorky, and “Il Pollo ruspante” was responsible, I’m pretty sure, for killing Gregoretti’s short career as a director). “La Ricotta” is an admittedly somewhat heavy-handed satirical piece starring Orson Welles as a self-important, intellectual film director—Pasolini having some fun with his own image—making a film about the passion of Christ.

Yes, Pasolini satirized the act of making a Jesus biopic before doing it for real (The Gospel According to Matthew/Il Vangelo secondo Matteo followed next in 1964), and as “La Ricotta” demonstrates, took great delight in creatively and jarringly mixing the sacred and profane. Pasolini was tried in an Italian court for this film’s “outrage against the established religion” and received a three-month suspended sentence, later overturned on appeal. The film’s release was delayed but eventually allowed with significant cuts.

Ro.Go.Pa.G. was released (can we assume, intact) on a fine Blu-ray/DVD dual edition by Masters of Cinema this past August. I can recommend it strongly even in the absence of extras (other than a trailer), for its excellent image quality.

My absolute favourite moment features a reporter asking the film director character if he ever thinks about death. “As a Marxist, I never give it any thought,” deadpans Welles. Perhaps a not-so-sly way for Pasolini to indicate his self-awareness about the limits of materialism.

The Gospel According to MatthewThe first couple of times that I saw Pasolini’s third feature The Gospel According to Matthew (also released in 2012 in dual format by Masters of Cinema) I wasn’t aware of this back-story, but as I recently watched his Palestine location-scouting documentary Sopralluoghi in Palestina (included as an extra on the latter disc) suddenly this gay, Marxist atheist’s desire to prove himself capable of a sober treatment of Jesus made a lot more sense to me. The film documents how Pasolini toured around Israel & Palestine and eventually, disappointedly came to the conclusion that he couldn’t film Il Vangelo there.

In the opening scenes I was perhaps surprised to see that Pasolini’s location expert was not a scholar of ancient history per se, but rather an ordained Catholic priest. But as the film rolls on, an interesting dialogue and dialectic unfolds between the two principals. It is nothing as “spontaneous” as today’s shot-on-video reality docs but it does, to an interesting extent, explicate how Pasolini came to direct the film as he did. And along the way it has some interesting things to say about why we cling to ideal images, and what brings about our disillusionment.

More about Pasolini’s Gospel in my next post.

DVD diary: an un-virginal Mary (Pasolini 2: Mamma Roma)

30 Dec
December 30, 2012

In North America, only the final four Pasolini features are available on Blu-ray, three of these in Criterion’s Trilogy of Life package that was released just last month. A further four (Accatone, The Gospel According to Matthew, Oedipus Rex, Medea) are now available on Blu-ray discs zoned for Europe. Of the four that are available only on DVD, two have seen spiffy new European releases in the last year. That leaves Teorema (issued on DVD by the BFI in 2007) and, sadly Mamma Roma (Criterion 2004) as the Pasolini films that have gone the longest without a fresh video release.

Mamma RomaI decided to wait no longer for a Blu-ray edition of Mamma Roma, and picked up Criterion’s double DVD box during the most recent Barnes & Noble Criterion 50% off sale. I’m glad I did. No doubt the eventual HD treatment will improve contrast significantly in a handful of night scenes, but the transfer looks pretty good for DVD.

The story is simple but powerful. A prostitute tries to leave her life of many years for the sake of her son. Her efforts result indirectly in tragedy for her and him.

Watching this film for the first time, two things really stand out for me.

The first is what a fast learner Pasolini was. This film shows very much the same aesthetic preferences as his debut Accatone, but with more finesse, less confusion. The repeating/leitmotif scenes technique is still present, the close framing, and the construction of a world through dialogue rather than a documenting of a natural world. But here it all comes together in organic fashion. As Anna Magnani’s Mamma Roma strides through the night-time cityscape of Rome, her meetings with the city’s night creatures are choreographed rather than naturalistic, and this works to efficiently convey her emotional state at certain key junctures in the narrative. These scenes are like a musical without actual songs.

Accatone asks you to sympathize with a pimp, whereas Mamma Roma is about a prostitute—a much more sympathetic central character.

The second point is that Pasolini’s Jesus obsession is not something that suddenly appears in his third feature, The Gospel According to Matthew, but some that is hinted at in Accatone and is on full display here. The film is famously bookended with scenes that reference da Vinci’s Last Supper at the beginning and Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ at the climax.

I have always been impressed with Denys Arcand’s Jesus de Montréal, which I consider to be the most powerful cinematic portrayal of a contemporary Christ figure, but I now realize the extent to which he was standing on Pasolini’s shoulders. For example, Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau), Arcand’s protagonist, develops a fevered sweat as he heads toward his fate, and I’m now inclided to see this as having been picked up from Pasolini’s Ettore (Ettore Garofolo).

More to come on this point in the next couple of Pasolini posts.

One further note on the Criterion edition: the second disc contains a number of solid supplements including La ricotta (1963), “a 35-minute film by Pasolini starring Orson Welles as a director who sets out to make a film about the Passion of Jesus.” This short film was originally part of the feature-length anthology film Ro.Go.Pa.G., also featuring segments from Jean-Luc Godard, Ugo Gregoretti, and Roberto Rossellini. Ro.Go.Pa.G has recently been released by Masters of Cinema as a Blu-ray so I will be viewing that version of La ricotta and covering it my next post.

Blu-ray diary: stumbling through Accatone (Pasolini 1: Accatone)

29 Dec
December 29, 2012

So I have a little cinephile project on the go. I intend to watch all 12 of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s feature films, over the next four months or so.

(There is an ambitious version of this project, which is probably not going to happen this year, where I also invest many hours to read all seven of his major source texts: the Gospel of Matthew, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Euripides’ Medea, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, The Arabian Nights, and de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom.)

AccattoneNaturally enough I decided to start at the beginning with Pasolini’s 1961 directorial debut, Accatone, which made its Blu-ray debut on the Masters of Cinema label in March of this year (which edition, like most from MoC, is locked to Region B).

(There is a 2003 Region 1 DVD in existence but I can’t vouch for its quality.)

I will be perfectly honest here and tell you that things got off to a bumpy start. Perhaps I was a little too cocky, diving in at the deep end. Even watching the first scene I was having trouble figuring out who was who and why people were saying the things they were. By the last half hour of the film I was really starting to check out.

I found that other Italian master of oblique cinema, Michelangelo Antonioni, rough going at first, too, until I figured out what was throwing me off—his habit of cutting from one scene to another with no transitional cues.

Antonioni followed this practice rigidly, find it to be the most natural or honest way to construct a film, but the end result for me as viewer is that sometimes a scene will progress for some time before I realize that the location has changed and time has elapsed. For me this is 90% of the reason why his films can be considered difficult.

I conquered this by simply giving myself permission to stop and rewind at will in the middle of watching, until I’m absolutely clear where all of the scenes start and end. It’s a little more demanding than just sitting and watching, but the end result is that I’m able to “get” his films on first viewing.

Pasolini’s Accatone, I discovered, has more difficult aspects to its construction than even Antonioni’s films. I had real difficulty keeping track of some of the character relationships and even who we are seeing at given moments.

What saved me this time was the extremely helpful critical commentary by Tony Rayns. He is very good at sorting out which difficulties are a result of deliberate aesthetic choices by Pasolini, and which are just the result of inexperience by the director.

Perhaps the most valuable thing that he points out is that Pasolini simply avoids wide shots and, crucially, establishing shots, as part of his reaction against neo-realism. He would rather his film construct its own reality, rather than to create the “effect” of “naturalism,” which he had come to see as false.

The net result of this in technique is a lot of tight shots, the camera always on the speaker.

During late sequences of the film, some time after a scene that only briefly establishes that the police are investigating the titular protagonist, we get occasional cuts to a pair of eyes. The view is meant to infer from this that Accatone is under police surveillance, but without the commentary’s help I didn’t make that connection. It’s important to undestand this because it makes the film’s ending seem much less arbitrary.

Rayns also helped me understand that while Pasolini does throw the viewer into various scenes without the help of any establishing shot, he tends to present matching scenes later on, illuminating by sheer repetition the significance of the locations and people, and expressing the development of the narrative by the differences between the scene “versions.” Once you understand this the film is a lot less confusing.

But for all that, the film is still a bit of a mess, if an inspired one. I can’t really recommend Accatone on its own as a starting point for Pasolini—although watching this new Blu-ray with the commentary on is actually a great introduction. 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, which I will consider next.

Watching Sátántangó (on DVD)

29 Sep
September 29, 2012

I’m playing catchup with Bela Tarr, now, because just over a year ago I saw The Turin Horse and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind.  That’s a film that is pardigmatic difficult viewing, gruelling by any measure, minimal, oblique, demanding—so by comparison Tarr’s seven-and-a-half-hour magnum opus Sátántangó is a pleasant surprise.  Yes it is demanding, but simply because it asks something like a full day of your time, and patience with its pace to boot.

However I still feel that watching The Turin Horse before Sátántangó had a kind of spoiler effect on my first viewing of the latter film, which I undertook this week on a single day (into the early evening).  Both films are concerned with presenting a kind of secular and modernist apocalypse.  There is so much thematic and aesthetic overlap that Sátántangó felt very familiar even on first viewing, and if a plot stretched over seven hours won’t make you impatient for a film to get to the point, watching almost the same point being made a second time by the same filmmaker definitely will.

The apocalypse of Sátántangó is minimal but not subtle—just in case we miss the point, some two and a half hours in, one character advises another to read the Bible’s book of Revelation. She specifically uses the alternate title of the book, “Apokalipszis” (“Apocalypse”) and not “Jelenések” (Revelation).

I completely understand how Sátántangó would come as a cinematic, um, revelation to someone watching a Tarr film for the first time, but for me it couldn’t quite deliver the same jolt.  However one thing that Sátántangó has on offer that The Turin Horse lacks is the compelling figure of Irimiás, played by Mihály Vig. He is a combined anti-Christ and false Muhammad who provides the film with a focal point and an admittedly slender thread of political theory.

The way that people follow leaders who promise a better life in the face of all common-sense evidence to the contrary forms the tragic framework for the story, and it is safe to say that Tarr sees the reasons for this as springing from within human nature, rather than imposed from without. Over the six years that (so I have read) this film was being made, Hungary began its first round of economic privatization, which would culminate with unpopular austerity measures a year or so after the release of the film.  In this context it is more than possible to see the film as meet-the-new-boss, same-as-the-old-boss prophetic howl.

Apart from the occasional, inevitable moments of boredom (even a cinematic masterpiece can’t stay utterly gripping for all of seven hours), two moments knocked me outside of the film.

One was the memorable shot of the men walking down the road as a powerful wind swept piles of debris along behind them. Jonathan Rosenbaum says that Bela Tarr is better than Hollywood at creating illusion with things like a wind machine and a rain machine, but in each of the sequences with the men walking in the wind, it is clear that the trees ahead of them and beyond them are not swaying at all. This actually occurs in a later sequence as well.  I found the obviously faked aspect jarring.  I don’t remember having this reaction to the storm scenes in The Turin Horse.  I can only conclude that Tarr has improved, with age, at simulating storms on screen.

The other was an exchange of funds that happens near the beginning of the film.  Futaki has found out that Schmidt and Kraner plan to keep the money that was (pooled? earned? stolen? received from the government?) by six others in addition to them, including Futaki. Schmidt buys off Futaki by offering to cut him in for a third, along with Schmidt and Kraner.  Schmidt has half of this money on him. Futaki asks for immediate payment. Fine so far. So why does Schmidt divide this half into further halves? Futaki now has 25% of the money.  Does Schmidt expect Kraner to do the same thing? Futaki would then have half the money.  Or does he expect Kraner to make up the additional 8%? In that case how are Kraner and Schmidt going to even things out? I possibly missed some key lines in the minutes that followed as I wrestled with the mental math.

With Sátántangó now such a touchstone of arthouse cinema that it has apparently become a dating/mating criterion, you would think that it would have seen the light of day on Blu-ray by now, but sadly this is not the case.  There isn’t even, in fact, an anamorphic DVD release.  Gary Tooze of DVD Beaver has done a good job of detailing the disaster that is the North American DVD release.

For those who can view European-region DVDs the Artificial Eye release, is definitely preferred, even with (or perhaps because of) the 4% PAL speedup, which shaves at least 15 minutes from the film running time.  Reel-change cue marks are visible as well as frequent visible artifacts. The image is completely uncropped such that rounded corners are often visible along with edge fading especially at the left and bottom.  The downside of this “purist” approach to presentation becomes awkwardly clear in a long tracking shot in chapter 8, following the migrants from behind, up the road to their new commune. The camera lens appears to be obscured by something at the right hand edge, and the fact that this is left in makes it pretty clear that Tarr expected this defective edge of the image to be matted out when projected. On the positive side the image is completely position-stable, indicating a digital frame by frame transfer. However the world still awaits a true-running-time, polished, high-def home presentation for this essential film.