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.

Blu-ray diary: The Gospel According to Pasolini (Pasolini 3b: Il Vangelo secondo Matteo)

05 Jan
January 5, 2013

“It won’t be a mainstream film in the common sense of the word, because this story doesn’t give anything to the audience, but… I’d like to say that it’s a story that gives everything by giving nothing.” 

— Pier Paolo Pasolini, before filming Il Vangelo secondo Matteo

The Gospel According to MatthewJudging from any number of reviews, blog posts, and comments that one reads online, Pasolini’s third feature film, The Gospel According to Matthew, is at least as baffling to, and misunderstood by, contemporary viewers as it has ever been.  For various reasons, it seems to confuse believers and non-believers alike. And yet with a few clarifications, and some brief context, I think it can be made much more accessible.

Pasolini made two very interesting choices with this film.  The first was to film just one of the gospels, rather than following the typical Jesus-film path of attempting to harmonize the four accounts, something that people have been trying for about, oh, 1850 years.

Pasolini has his own reasons for this choice but it’s interesting to note that until the modern period it was the most influential gospel. The fact that it rendered the Gospel of Mark superfluous, by containing almost all of it, played into this, as well as traditional placement as first in the canon (even though GMark was older). An additional factor was its alleged authorship by Matthew himself, one of the first followers of Jesus.

Masters of Cinema, who issued a fantastic Blu-ray/DVD combo edition (Region B locked) of this film last March, have made it a point of emphasis that they have changed the English title from that of its previous cinematic releases—The Gospel According to St. Matthew—to precisely translate the Italian title as The Gospel According to Matthew, without the “Saint” honorific. Their notes on their website as well as on the first pages of the packaged booklet quote Pasolini as having been caused “considerable anguish” by the pious addition to the English title.

But—and this is mostly a side point—the anguish (and the correction) do seem like misplaced emphasis when you consider that scholars, Christian and not, have recognized since the 1600s that Matthew wasn’t the author at all.  The fact that it is an anonymous text did not keep it from being associated, from a very early date in Christian tradition, with one of the first apostles, but the fact is, calling the author “Matthew” is really just a convention, in textual history terms. But Pasolini seems to have quite unaware of gospel scholarship in general, and his Vatican adviser, with whom he is seen touring Palestine in Sopralluoghi in Palestina, seems to have been rather conservative even in terms of Catholic scholarship.

This side of Pasolini that seemed to want to pay some homage to church tradition has perhaps led him to the second interesting choice, which was to limit all dialogue to lines found verbatim in the text. Since the Gospel was not written as a drama per se, this leads to various challenges that can seem a bit clumsy, including actors attempting to emote what they aren’t allowed to say.  One person’s rigorous minimalism can be another’s awkward over-acting, I suppose.

So, both of these choices function as boundary setting within which Pasolini, who prefers his aesthetic choices to have a certain rigour, tells one evangelist’s story.  Within these strictures he allows himself considerable freedom, as we shall see.  The additional move that he makes in terms of structuring is to divide the story into three acts.

Act 1: Three kings disorienting are.

Because of these minimalizing choices I think the opening act can be difficult to follow whether or not one is generally familiar with the story of Jesus. There is no annunciation of the coming birth to Mary, no Bethlehem inn, no stable, no manger, no shepherds come to worship. That is because all of those elements are found in the Gospel of Luke, not Matthew.

But even the uniquely Matthean elements of what we now call the Christmas story are altered in various details. There is no visual following of the star, no settling of the holy family in Nazareth. The family leaves to hide Jesus in Egypt on the advice of the angel, but in this rendering does so in broad daylight rather than under cover of night.

What is more, because Pasolini doesn’t permit himself to add any dialogue, several key characters must be presented on screen with no explanatory conversation to smooth the way. Mary, Joseph, the wise men/astrologers from the East, Herod and his council, all appear on screen with no introduction. Even the most knowledgeable/devout person will inevitably have some moments of wondering whom they are looking at.

Herod’s slaughter of the innocents provides some scenes that are both shocking and—at least, as I have always found them—unintentionally hilarious. The mothers running from the slaughtering soldiers with babes in arms are clearly carrying dolls in many cases, and when some of them are thrown in the air this becomes far too obvious, in a classic Saturday Night Live dummy-throwing sort of way.

These first scenes of the film are bound to be at least somewhat challenging unless one is forewarned.

Act 2: Miracles and sermons, again for the first time.

Perhaps the most obvious downside of choosing the Gospel of Matthew is the way that the text is organized. Rather than spreading Jesus’ parables and sayings through the narrative like GLuke, this material is famously pulled together into five “sermons,” some of them quite long. Four of them are included, along with stories of various deeds, in the middle section of GMatthew.  This presents two problems for a filmmaker.  One is the lack of any continuing narrative thread to follow. The other is the risk of boring listeners with too much talking, or in the case of believers mentally sending them back to church with material that they have heard too many times in the same way. In order to meet these two challenges Pasolini treats the source material much more freely than he does in the other two acts of the film.

Pasolini’s answer to the narrative momentum problem is to break up and stretch out the story of John the Baptist’s imprisonment and execution, as well as his followers’ interactions with Jesus, in order to provide at least some kind of side-story narrative framework and backdrop for Jesus’ ministry. This works reasonably well, if stretching a bit.

His answer to the second issue is more interesting.  He cherry picks some of the most famous material from the Sermon of the Mount, and presents Jesus (played by a distractingly unibrowed Enrique Irazoqui) preaching it, but in no order that corresponds to this Gospel or the others. This apparent randomization amounts to a classic Marxist tactic—defamiliarization. By shuffling the deck he seems to be challenging the churched viewer to hear these texts, many of them quite radical, for the first time. And by presenting Jesus against various backdrops he makes it clear to possible objectors that he is anthologizing the material.

Pasolini also feels freer in this section to drop non-sayings material as well, relying on a few representative miracles rather than the whole list. In one case he constructs a miracle episode rather from scratch, taking Jesus’ pronouncements on healing a man with a disabled hand and redeploying them in the healing of a man who needs crutches to walk—purely for visual impact, one would think.

Act 3: Spirits in the material world. Jerusalem, betrayal, execution, muted resurrection, and no zombies.

Once Jesus comes to Jerusalem, confronts the money-changers in the temple, and otherwise begins to stir up trouble, the familiar sequence of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and execution is set in motion, and here Pasolini is back to following the general order of the Gospel text, with various omissions and tweaks.  The biggest omission is the fifth sermon, the thoroughly apocalyptic one that in the source text is given privately to Jesus’ disciples. Dropping the extended (two full chapters long) description of the end of days has the overall effect of drawing Jesus in more Marxist-friendly, material-world-focused terms.

By contrast, Jesus’ vituperative pronouncements of “woe” on the religious leaders of his day are included in full, even though they do little to move the story along—it is already thoroughly clear at this stage that they have it in for him. Call no one “Father,” Jesus says, providing a challenge that has always been a trifle odd-sounding for the faithful Catholic.

In Mamma Roma, he has already delivered us a filmic tableau based on da Vinci’s Last Supper, so here he instead goes out of his way to give us the anti-da-Vinci version—a peasants’ meal, disciples clustered wherever they can find a perch near Jesus, sans table.

Some viewers may notice a distinct lack of emphasis on the trial before Pilate. This is pretty much the opposite approach to that of Martin Scorsese, who in The Last Temptation of Christ decided to stunt-cast David Bowie in the Pilate role. Here Pilate doesn’t even merit a close-up. The release of Barabbas in place of Jesus is skipped entirely. I’m really not sure why.

GMatthew, true to its emphasis on apocalyptic matters, uniquely among the Gospels presents the death of Jesus on the cross as a kind of mini-apocalypse itself, complete with massive earthquakes and dead saints’ bodies emerging from their graves.  Pasolini’s film depicts the earthquake but, disappointingly for me, takes a pass on the saint-zombies. No doubt he considered that too visually distracting to put on screen.

Finally, there is the resurrection, which has an odd bid of re-ordering. The women who come to the grave on Sunday morning, rather than finding the stone rolled away already by an angel, see it fall over in front of them to reveal an empty grave. Perhaps more dramatic, but the source text version has the merit of at least explaining how the revived Jesus got out.

Pasolini also drops the story of the women meeting Jesus personally on their way to alert the disciples, cutting directly to Matthew’s final scene of Jesus’ last words to his disciples. Like the source text, Pasolini has no ascent of Jesus into heaven. In the end, Pasolini’s Jesus, even the resurrected one, is very firmly in this world.

I’ve been nowhere near exhaustive here in my list of Pasolini’s changes and omissions in his film of the Gospel of Matthew. I hope I’ve clarified the mix of artistic limitation and freedom with which Pasolini was functioning in the making of his film, and I hope that in turn this might help one appreciate much more readily this complex and challenging film.

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.

Year-end review (3/3): best festival films of 2012 (a.k.a. best 2013 films of 2012)

31 Dec
December 31, 2012

For the final instalment in my year-end roundup, I recommend 10 films to watch in the coming year. These are my favourites of the films I saw at TIFF and the Atlantic Film Festival this year. Happy 2013—see you at the movies.

The Attack (Ziad Doueiri)

US theatrical release in May

This movie deserves some kind of special award all its own for artistic and political courage. A film that would not be possible without Doueiri’s understanding of the two narratives of the Israel-Palestine conflict, it won’t be put forward as Lebanon’s entry for the best foreign film Oscar because it features Israeli actors. Doueiri told the Financial Times: “Israel and Lebanon are legally in a state of war, so having a film which represents Lebanon with Israeli actors in it is out of the question.” Perhaps the first time the conflict has been considered with this much depth and complexity in a fiction feature.

No (Pablo Larraín)

Limited US release scheduled for February 15

If your eyes tend to glaze over at the mention of South American political history, don’t let that be a reason to miss this film. See it for Gael García Bernal in his best performance yet, see it for an original twist on 1980s nostalgia, see it for a powerful political story if that’s your thing, but above all see it for an involving human drama, the fulcrum of which is communication itself. Confidential to a couple dozen friends of mine: no self-respecting PR or marketing professional should miss this film.

Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)

Showing at Sundance in January 2013—the best way to catch this in Canada will be at an indie local TIFF Circuit screening

For me, Stories We Tell is better than Polley’s two previous films put together. In lesser hands an internal family story could have been insufferably self-indulgent, or inappropriately revealing, but Polley gets this just right. Credit has to go as well to her family, which seems to be entirely composed of photogenic people who are also compellingly well-spoken on camera.

Amour (Michael Haneke)

Already in limited distribution in the US and possibly poised to pick up Oscar momentum; also included in the TIFF Circuit

I will confess freely that I am not in general a Haneke fan (with the huge exception of Caché) but this film made me a believer. Haneke fans shouldn’t get the impression that he has gone sentimental—there is still plenty of edge here, but the film has something much more interesting to say than I’ve come to expect from him. And oh the performances.

To The Wonder (Terrence Malick)

Scheduled for US release April 12

It will be impossible for viewers not to compare this with The Tree of Life, as it continues in Malick’s new-found autobiographical vein, but don’t think of this as a B-side release. What it lacks in the cosmologically sublime sequences of its predecessor it makes up for in emotion and unexpected heartbreak. His most textually minimal script yet pushes the envelope; each successive film of Malick’s seems to want to find new ways to deploy his trademark overdubbed narration and this is no exception.

Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland)

IFC Midnight has the US rights

A treat for anyone who loves or loved giallo, Berberian Sound Studio is just plain delightfully weird. Toby Jones nails the role of the put-upon sound engineer who is swallowed into the strange little world of a 1970s Rome movie studio.

Barbara (Christian Petzold)

Has had a limited release in the US; also playing on the TIFF Circuit in Canada

A pleasing throwback to the kind of classically-made film that depends for its effect on telling a good story well. A film that will be tragically overlooked unless it scores a suprise Oscar (it is Germany’s nominee for best foreign film, deservedly so).

Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel)

The Cinema Guild (distributor of The Turin Horse and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) has the U.S. rights

This absorbing, unnarrated documentary is in a similar vein to Manufactured Landscapes (in that it looks at the industrial footprint on the environment), but executed in a much different aesthetic. The narration-free, immersive documentary about commercial fishing was produced collectively from footage shot on a dozen cameras passed between the filmmakers and fishermen while at sea. You have never seen anything quite like it.

Everyday (Michael Winterbottom)

Has already screened on UK television but still has a theatrical release scheduled for 2013; no word on North America

Winterbottom takes inspiration from the “Up” series of documentaries as well as the British kitchen-sink realist tradition to create something familiar yet unique.

Pieta (Kim Ki-Duk)

Korea’s entry for the Oscars; has a US distribution deal with Drafthouse Films

Pieta shocked a few people by winning the top award at the Venice festival, but probably shocked many more with its raw content. Repeatedly surprising, never pleasant, this is the toughest watch on this list.

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.

Year-end review (2/3): best 2012 films of 2012

28 Dec
December 28, 2012

A list of 2012 theatrical releases that I caught on the big screen this year. In a future “films to watch for” post I will round up favourites from the festival circuit, some of which will get wider releases in 2013.


It’s easy for me to pick a favourite on this list. Lior Ashkenazi and Shlomo Bar Aba are note-perfect as father-and-son Israeli Talmudic scholars whose natural conflict is exacerbated by academic differences and a thoroughly believable, deviously ironic mix-up. A case study in how a brilliant script can find the very great in the seemingly trivial.

Moonrise Kingdom

A Wes Anderson film so overloaded with Wes-Anderson-ness that it not only goes over the top but comes all the way back around to genuine brilliance. The stunt-casting of the supporting roles is inspired, and each of the stars takes the artistic license granted by the script and runs with it. But what really makes the movie is its riskiest moment, a moment of impulsive on-screen wounding that lets you know that the movie, with all its archness, is all in and invested in its protagonists.

Take This Waltz

Yes, there are unsteady moments, plot holes, a couple of cliched characters, but none of that seems consequential beside Michelle Williams’ searing performance. Bravely written, bravely acted, her character won me over single-handedly, although the unapologetically Canadian settings didn’t hurt either.

Django Unchained

I think I understand why Spike Lee doesn’t want to see this film, and I have to say I found it quite unsettling and, in moments, repellent. And yet the brilliance. Inglorious Basterds did not convince me but here is a very similarly conceived film that very much does. Tarantino seems to delight in indulging whims and tone/content swings that would ruin a film in less expert hands—it’s as if he has turned himself into the world’s leading expert in how to successfully make up one’s own rules of cinema.


If ever there was a character built to resist humanization, it’s James Bond, and yet Sam Mendes succeeded impressively at this unlikely transformation. Far and away the best popcorn flick of 2012, it manages one delightful surprise after another in defiance of the apparent creative exhaustion of the series. I have to wonder how it can ever be matched, let alone exceeded. Can I ask—how is it possible that the AFI has The Dark Knight Rises on their top 10 list, but not Skyfall?


Favourite restored re-release of 2012: Raiders of the Lost Ark, immaculate and un-fucked-with

Mild pleasures, guilty or otherwise: Wreck-It Ralph, The Expendables 2, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dictator, Friends with Kids, The Dark Knight Rises

Disappointments: This is 40, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Savages, Prometheus, The Avengers, The Bourne Legacy

Next post: the festival roundup a.k.a. 10 films to seek out in 2013.

Year-end review (1/3): best 2011 films of 2012

27 Dec
December 27, 2012

Because end-of-year film lists stacked with movies that haven’t even opened in your town are elitist in an annoying kind of way, and because, hey one year-end list just isn’t enough, I present the first of three “best film” lists for 2012.

Today’s post is really just a reminder of two fantastic films that seemed to slip unjustly into obscurity this year, and another one that didn’t. Without further ado, here are my three favourite films of 2011 that I saw in theatres in 2012.


In a way it’s not surprising that this intense, vastly entertaining film was so widely slept on. Dumped into theatres in the dead season, it suffered a double whammy as a film of a Shakespeare play—a truly obscure one, and in the original English. It is, simply put, the best Bardic adaptation in at least 15 years. Reframing a Shakespeare narrative in a contemporary setting has been tried several times but this represents something like the perfection of that particular artistic challenge. The modern-day alternate version of Rome, shot in Belgrade, rings strangely true; John Logan shaves down the original dialogue and reframes it brilliantly; director-star Ralph Fiennes surrounds himself with a perfect cast, with notable performances by Gerard Butler and Brian Cox.

A Dangerous Method

Pairing Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud with Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung seemed on paper like it ought to have been a home run, but if it wasn’t quite that it is no reflection on these two strong performances, to say nothing of Keira Knightley’s Sabina Spielrein. Somehow this talky movie does not quite have the bite that you might expect, but that is pretty much the only criticism I can make. This is a movie about ideas, and I wish there were more like it. Note to self: get around to reading John Kerr’s non-fiction source text.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The best production and set design in any movie since Children of Men. I found the visuals and setting of each scene so distracting that I missed a couple of significant plot points and went back to the theatre to watch the film a second time. If I wasn’t such a sucker for great design I probably would have followed the film just fine, but it really does offer much in a second viewing, and such films seem fewer and further between these days. And, um, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones. Come on.

Next post will be my best releases of 2012, a roundup of films that had wide(-ish) release this year.

first thoughts: Django Unchained

21 Dec
December 21, 2012

Three years ago in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg called Inglorious Basterds “a story of emotionally uncomplicated, physically threatening, non-morally-anguished Jews dealing out spaghetti-Western justice to Nazis.” From the trailers for Django Unchained I was tempted to think that Quentin Tarantino had simply swapped in a black man for Jews and white slavers for Nazis and more or less made the same film again.

But it’s not so. Maybe it’s just that the spaghetti-Western justice flows much more convincingly in a spaghetti-Western setting, but this film seems less strained, more organic despite the usual Taratino tonal swerves. In fact I was genuinely surprised, at the end, to discover that two hours and forty-five minutes had rolled by. It seemed like two hours to me.

The director may not be doing much for the preservation of good taste, but when it comes to the preservation of classical storytelling in an age of jump cuts and CGI, he seems like the last old master standing.

You should know going in that there are a whole lot of n-words dropped, there is much racist awfulness to set off the vengeance that ensues, and, yes, there is a black man man being torn apart by dogs, among other atrocities. If sublime excess is Tarantino’s brand, Django delivers on the brand promise in spades.

And indeed, the movie seems to be coming to a conclusion only to launch into a fully-fledged Act Four, including another risible cameo performance by the director himself. It says something for the film that even Tarantino’s lousy Australian accent is not enough to derail it.

That misstep seems inconsquential beside two amazing performances from Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz. Leo DiCaprio is pretty much note-perfect as well. I would watch this again, something I haven’t done with any of Taratino’s films since Jackie Brown.

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.