Archive for category: Screening Report

Guillermo del Toro’s “Buñuel in Mexico” TIFF Master Classes & the state of Buñuel on film & disc

16 Nov
November 16, 2016

Last week’s “Luis Buñuel in Mexico” three-night master class with Guillermo del Toro at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto was a fantastic event. Before I get to some screening takeaways, I want to say up front that I really like how TIFF is delivering on curation & access with an event like this. $62.25 members/$75 general public for six films over three evenings—with GdT himself dishing insight—was value for money (and indeed sold out very quickly).  TIFF’s director of adult learning Theresa Scandiffio did a great job of keeping things on time and on point, and no doubt did a lot of work behind the scenes to make this event happen.

When del Toro first started dropping hints about this event, I was hoping it would be part of a broader retrospective of Buñuel’s work, similar to what London’s ICA did a year ago. As it turned out, three consecutive nights as one-off event worked out really well for me, as I was able to go to Toronto for a week and take in the whole thing.

Too often—and this is one of the first points that del Toro touched on—Buñuel’s Mexican output has been dismissed as inferior to his later, better-known European films like That Obscure Object of Desire, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and Belle de Jour. Del Toro’s six-pack of mostly-underappreciated Buñuel works included four films recognized to varying degrees as artistic masterpieces (Él, Nazarín, Viridiana, Los Olvidados), as well as two (deceptively) straightforward melodramas (Susana, El Bruto), and he came prepared to defend all of them. In the 1950s, he pointed out, Mexico was the Hollywood of the Spanish-speaking world, and films made there were dominating screens in Spain and elsewhere. If drama is a torture of despair, melodrama is a torture of hope, del Toro observed, and Susana and El Bruto, while respecting formula (something del Toro defends as a form of cinematic discipline), stir in plenty of subtle Buñuelian elements, with frankly sexual moments, playfully—and often darkly—Freudian imagery, and of course the inevitable dash of foot fetishism. I came away convinced that these two films are, in the words of Philip French, “significant bricks in a major oeuvre.”

Buñuel and Hitchcock are del Toro’s two favourite filmmakers, he told us, and Él, Buñuel’s most Hitchcockian film, was one of the two biggest discoveries for me personally, of the six films. Much like Rossellini’s La Paura, it’s a case of a master filmmaker deeply absorbing the techniques of Hitchcock’s British and early American films, and then taking that narrative to a darker place than Hitchcock was ever prepared to go. But, fascinatingly, it is also immediately clear that it was enormously influential in turn on Vertigo—leaving me with the feeling much like suddenly having heard for the first time the opposite side of a phone conversation.

Nazarín was the other film that fascinated me the most. The most Pasolini-esque of Buñuel’s films (yet preceding all of Pasolini’s films) with its ironic Christ-figure at the centre of the narrative, it was the most allegorical and perhaps the most difficult of the films on offer. Its narrative direction is not always clear but its individual episodes are fascinating; I very much look forward to a re-watch, perhaps paired with his later, similar film Simon of the Desert.

The other two films were more familiar to me. I remembered the gripping social-realist aspects of the award-winning Los Olvidados—I’d forgotten about the brilliant nightmare sequence, which I doubt I will forget again. Viridiana is by far the most familiar and most cherished of these films for me, but of course it’s been available as a decent Criterion-released DVD for ten years now.

And that brings me to one of the major issues that del Toro raised on the second night of the master classes—the poor quality of some of the prints. I was glad for the opportunity to see what are likely the best-available versions of these films, but the quality of the prints and transfers was, well, a mixed bag. Del Toro says that he would be willing to put some effort behind getting them properly restored and released as high-quality Blu-rays—if I can help out some way, Señor del Toro, and/or TIFF friends, sign me up! I would love to see that happen for all six, but especially for Él and Nazarín.  In the meantime, here are your best options for home viewing. None of them are available in an English-friendly Blu-ray release.


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.

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!