Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Understanding Auteurs: Pier Paolo Pasolini (La ricotta and The Gospel According to St. Matthew)

Though his first two films contained serious religious overtones, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s point of view was never going to line up exactly with that of the Vatican.  Accattone (1961) and especially Mamma Roma (1962) posited that the underclass of ‘60s Italy was closer to God than the supposedly pious bourgeoisie of a society that called itself Catholic.  Unsurprisingly, Pasolini’s radical combination of Christian iconography and stark neorealism, which depicted pimps, thieves, and poor workers as modern religious icons, didn’t sit well with the church.  Even if Pasolini had presented himself as a straightforward Catholic, it’s unlikely that the church would want to be associated with an openly gay Marxist, though the director’s relationship to sexuality and leftist politics was probably no less complicated than his religious views were. 

Suffice to say, Pasolini was not generally considered to be a Christian artist at this point of his career.  In 1962, Pasolini was invited by Pope John XXIII to a dialogue between high-ranking members of the Vatican and non-Catholic artists.  Apparently something in this meeting struck a chord with Pasolini, as he subsequently visited Assisi to attend a seminar at a Franciscan monastery.  At some point during this trip, Pasolini came across a copy of the New Testament and read all four gospels straight through, in the process gaining inspiration for a film called The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964).

In the interim between the Assissi trip and the filming of The Gospel, Pasolini was commissioned to film one of the four segments for an omnibus film entitled RoGoPaG (the odd title being a combination of the first letters of the four directors’ last names:  Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and the lesser-known Ugo Gregoretti).  Pasolini’s 32-minute contribution was La ricotta (1963), a project clearly inspired by the preparation that that the director was doing for The Gospel.  In many ways, this short film is just as much a statement of purpose as The Gospel wound up being, and it finds Pasolini further developing his concept of the poor as the true modern spiritual figures while also offering a blatant criticism of the bloated epics that often passed for religious cinema in the 1960s.

La ricotta takes place during the filming of what appears to be a glossy religious epic in the style of King of Kings (1961).  The opening credits of La ricotta roll over color footage of the film-within-a-film’s crew doing a twist to a frivolous and simplistically repetitive pop instrumental.  After this jarring opener, the first instance of color cinematography in Pasolini’s cinema, the film alternates between documentary-style black and white footage of the cast and crew of the Biblical epic joking around between takes and static color shots of the actors in the film attempting to hold iconographic poses around a cross as frustrated offscreen stagehands yell commands.  The in-between takes scenes alternate between the distant and seemingly depressed director (Orson Welles) brooding from his director’s chair, and depictions of the struggles of a poor extra named Stracci (Mario Cipriani) to get some food for himself and his starving family.  Eventually, members of the cast mock Stracci by overfeeding him huge amounts of cheese and watermelon, shortly before a scene where the extra has to go up on a cross.  The huge amount of food that the poor man eats, combined with the awkward position he has to assume as he is “crucified” on film winds up killing Stracci.  Finally noticing his extra’s death, the director laments that Stracci “had no other way to remind us that he was alive.”

La ricotta is even bolder than Mamma Roma in its treatment of Italy’s underclass as modern religious icons, largely because the film is more openly critical of the hypocrisies of the bourgeoisie than the earlier films were.  Where Accattone was concerned entirely with poor characters, and Mamma Roma featured only brief glimpses of slightly more middle class figures, La ricotta features an entire film cast and crew who stand in for Italy’s upper crust.  Stracci’s status as an alternately mocked and ignored extra marks him as a clear representative of Italy’s suffering working class.  La ricotta makes its point rather bluntly, showing the characters that represent Italy’s dominant value system behaving cravenly while attempting to appear pious, while the character representing the poor is crucified right under their noses. But it’s a good kind of bluntness, making a fairly complicated point in a clear, concise, and memorable way.  It helps that much of the film is presented as a broad comedy rather than a humorless morality play. 

Pasolini also complicates the film’s potentially over-schematic plot by apparently identifying himself with Orson Welles’ director character.  While the film that Welles’ character is making appears to be the polar opposite of what The Gospel According to St. Matthew would become, and is obviously meant to be a critique of big-budget Biblical epics, Pasolini nonetheless has the Welles character read one of Pasolini’s own poems out loud at one point, suggesting an element of self-critique.  Though Pasolini celebrates the working class in this film and others, he also seems hyper-aware here of his own status as a relatively privileged middle-class citizen.  It seems that Pasolini may have doubted whether he, as a person occupying a similar social status to Welles’ character, had the ability to make a sincere religious film.

Despite whatever reservations Pasolini may have felt about his ability to depict the life and death of Christ, he ultimately went through with his plans to depict the Passion in his third feature-length film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964).  Departing almost entirely from the expected aesthetic of Biblical films, The Gospel is presented in a gritty black and white, neorealistic style that suggests what it might have looked like if cinema verite documentarians had been present during Jesus’ lifetime.  While the filmmaking style is similar to the aesthetic that Pasolini had previously adopted on Accattone and Mamma Roma, the context and setting of the new film is obviously radically different.  The effect makes The Gospel seem like one of the only truly serious Christian films.  (The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese’s 1988 depiction of many of the same events, is also a serious film, but it is clearly intended as a radical interpretation of Biblical stories, whereas The Gospel seems more like an attempt to get an accurate version of Jesus’ life on screen).  If I were a Christian, this would almost certainly be one of my all-time favorite films, but even as a non-believer I can appreciate The Gospel’s sincerity and ambition.  It is clearly Pasolini’s most major and important cinematic statement to this point, and certainly one of the best religiously themed films ever made.

Working without a script, and condensing the events of Matthew’s Gospel only to the point needed to bring the film to an acceptable length, Pasolini brings the story of Jesus (too often depicted as a schlocky epic) back down to earth.  The rough edges of Pasolini’s early films – the sometimes clumsy edits separating scenes, the occasionally stilted dialogue readings of his largely non-professional casts – are present here as well, and once again the almost-documentary feel makes the film feel more grounded and realistic than a normal movie.  For his Jesus, Pasolini cast a Spanish economics student named Enrique Irazoqui, whose dark complexion and short black hair gives him the appearance of an actual person from the region where Christ is said to have lived rather than the conventional blond haired and blue eyed depiction of Jesus in most Christian iconography.  There is something unusually believable about this film’s version of Christ, both as a member of the community depicted in the film and as a half-supernatural prophet who receives visions from God.  Even the miracles that Jesus performs in the film are presented in a matter-of-fact way that makes them seem less like spectacles than like simple facts of life.  The effect of Jesus walking on water was probably handled fairly simply, most likely accomplished by Irazoqui walking on an unseen platform under the water, but it is filmed in such a low-key way that it seems simultaneously miraculous and realistic.

It would certainly be reductive to say that The Gospel According to St. Matthew is simply an example of neorealism.  Aside from the period setting and the occasional glimpses of the supernatural, the film has a fairly elaborate and complex use of background music that greatly expands on the beautiful use of classical music in Pasolini’s previous features.  Where Accattone used multiple snippets of a Bach composition, and Mamma Roma utilized a handful of spiritual Vivaldi pieces, The Gospel draws music from a variety of different genres and sources.  Classical music is prominent once again, with bits of Bach and Mozart appearing alongside snatches from Prokofiev’s score for Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938).  A version of the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” appears at several different points, and there is also a snippet of a mournful Robert Johnston blues in one of the later scenes.  The most striking and beautiful piece of music in the film is an African chant called “Missa Luba,” an ecstatic piece of music that appears during a number of the film’s miraculous events, such as Jesus’ birth and his later resurrection.  Luis E. Bacalov also contributed some original music to the film, rounding out what is by far the most eclectic selection of music in any Pasolini film to this point.

Pasolini’s growing skills as a stylist are felt not only on the soundtrack, but in the way that he stages some of the film’s key scenes.  His depiction of the Sermon on the Mount is particularly striking, with a closeup of Jesus’ face making each line feel personal rather than preachy.  Each line is also clearly delivered on a different day, with the weather changing behind Jesus’ head, even as the whole multi-day sermon is edited together as one continuous speech, Christ’s demeanor unchanging whether it is the middle of calm day or the beginning of a stormy night.  The decision to film Christ’s pre-crucifixion trial from a distance is uniquely tasteful; rather than overdramatize Jesus’ persecution with a bunch of expressionistic horror shots of his accuser’s grimaces, as Mel Gibson did in his hysterical Passion of the Christ (2004), Pasolini puts the viewer in the perspective of someone in the crowd, emphasizing our commonality with the film’s non-Christ characters rather than overplaying the sliminess of the men who put Jesus to death.

A large part of what makes Pasolini’s depiction of Jesus so convincing is that he doesn’t use Christ to stand in for any sort of cause.  He simply presents the story of Jesus in the most realistic manner possible.  While some commentators have referred to Pasolini’s version of Jesus as a Marxist, there isn’t much in the film to back that claim up; while Jesus delivers the famous line about a rich man entering Heaven being less likely than a needle passing through a camel’s eye, it isn’t as if that line is given more emphasis than any of Jesus’ more gnomic pronouncements.  The film makes no attempt to convert viewers to a particular cause (including Christianity), and the version of Jesus presented in the film often seems as weird and unapproachable as a guy walking on water and claiming to be the son of God would if you actually encountered him in real life.  Pasolini’s version of the Jesus story is the most convincing in popular culture precisely because it isn’t trying to sell the viewer anything, or use the story to justify any particular social agenda.  It is a simple story told directly, powerfully, and beautifully.

UP NEXT  Hawks and Sparrows

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Masterpiece Test: F for Fake

Year of Release  1973
Country  France/Iran
Length  88 min.
Director  Orson Welles
Screenwriter  Orson Welles
Editors  Marie-Sophie Dubus and Dominique Engerer
Cinematographer  Francois Reichenbach
Score  Michel Legrand
Cast  Orson Welles, Oja Kodar, Elmyr de Hory, Clifford Irving, Francois Reichenbach

Perhaps the most unfair and inaccurate piece of received wisdom in all of film history is the idea that Orson Welles spent the majority of his career attempting (and failing) to live up to his cinematic debut Citizen Kane (1941).  Aside from ignoring the fact that Welles spent much of his creative life as a major innovator in radio and live theater, as well as a highly charismatic and versatile performer in other directors’ films, this idea incorrectly suggests that Welles was interested in (or should have been interested in) replicating the look and feel of Kane rather than in constantly staking out new territory.  While Citizen Kane is undoubtedly on the shortlist of works that can even come close to living up to the burden of being the consensus “greatest film of all time,” there are a number of other Welles-directed films that one could argue are even more bold, ambitious, and distinctive than his outstanding debut.  Serious Welles scholars have made reasonable arguments for The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Lady from Shanghai (1948), Othello (1952), Touch of Evil (1958), or Chimes at Midnight (1966) as the director’s most impressive achievement, and it’s hard to imagine anyone who actually takes the time to watch less-acclaimed efforts such as Macbeth (1948), Mr. Arkadin (1955), and The Trial (1963) thinking that they are anything less than interesting.

My personal favorite Welles film is his final theatrically released feature (assuming that the mostly complete The Other Side of the Wind never makes it to the big screen), the wildly goofy and seemingly uncharacteristic F for Fake (1973).  I stress the playful charm of F for Fake because the economic circumstances surrounding the trajectory of Welles' filmmaking career (starting with a movie made with virtually unlimited studio resources and ending with a series of projects cobbled together with scraps of foreign and personal financing) have created a false conception of him as a “tortured artist.”  While Welles was as skilled a tragedian as anyone, he also had a highly irreverent sense of humor and was undeniably an inveterate ham.  Huge swaths of perverse humor are present throughout all of Welles’ films, even in tragedies like The Magnificent Ambersons and Othello – and, for its first hour or so, Citizen Kane is essentially a comedy – but F for Fake is animated almost completely by Welles’ enthusiastically jolly spirit.

F for Fake is somehow simultaneously the least characteristic and most personal of all of Welles’ film projects.  In place of the obvious hallmarks of Welles’ recognizable visual aesthetic – chiaroscuro lighting, slanted camera angles, rich black and white cinemtagoraphy – F for Fake features extremely rapid editing and frequent unpredictable shifts between documentary footage and various types of scripted material, mostly filmed in color.  Where Welles’ other released films all qualify, to greater or lesser degrees, as narratives, F for Fake is an “essay film,” which means that it is loosely related to other freewheeling documentary/fiction hybrids such as W.R. Mysteries of the Organism (1971), Sans soleil (1982), and A Tale of the Wind (1988).  But the aforementioned films are as different from each other as they are similar.  The unpredictable, stream-of-consciousness structures of essay films make their content inextricable from their creators’ personalities, meaning that each film belonging to this quasi-genre is utterly distinctive.

Welles’ film may appear at first glance to be a random jumble of sequences vaguely linked by a thematic interest in the slippery nature of the truth, and Welles certainly goes out of his way to keep the viewer from taking F for Fake too seriously.  An early scene involving the director treating a group of children to some magic tricks, including “finding” a key behind one of their ears, ends with Welles announcing “as for the key…it wasn’t a symbol for anything.  This isn’t that kind of movie.”  But despite F for Fake’s radical structure and lighthearted tone, the film actually presents a very intelligent and serious argument about the relationship of man to art and the indiscernible nature of the truth.  It would be too difficult to reduce the film’s arguments to words; the points that Welles makes here are too varied and too personal to be separated from F for Fake’s wildly discursive style. 

Suffice to say that F for Fake is primarily concerned with mocking “experts” of all stripes, from art critics to overly credulous members of the public.  Much of the running time is devoted to footage of professional art forger Elmyr de Hory, who successfully conned many of the world’s top museum curators into buying his convincing copies of famous paintings.  A key figure in many of these scenes is Clifford Irving, de Hory’s biographer who later wound up pulling his own hoax when he sold a news story about a fake meeting with super-recluse Howard Hughes to many major newspapers.  Cheerfully pronouncing himself a fellow “charlatan,” Welles spends many of his onscreen appearances performing magic tricks, telling outrageous (and quite possibly fictitious) stories about his own encounters with Hughes’ handlers, and enumerating a series of important hoaxes from his own career, from his lie-assisted entry into theatrical acting (in Scotland, a young Welles joined a theater troupe by pretending to be a famous actor from New York) to the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast. 

Despite F for Fake’s plotlessness and lack of an obvious throughline, its 88 minutes are packed with incident.  According to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s liner notes for the Criterion DVD, F for Fake took a year to edit, with Welles and credited editors Marie-Sophie Dubus and Dominique Engerer working five days a week to achieve the film’s uniquely spastic editing style.  The footage comes fast and furious, with periodic dynamic freeze frames that usually catch the people involved at moments where they have ridiculous facial expressions.  But the film’s joyous creativity isn’t found only in its unique structure and editing style.  The way that Welles stages the scripted material is often tremendously playful and original.  One lengthy sequence involves a supposed relationship between Welles’ mistress Oja Kodar (who reportedly had a large though uncredited role in shaping F for Fake’s script, as well as coming up with its title) and Pablo Picasso.  Welles continuously cuts back between footage of Kodar walking down a street in various stages of undress and reverse shots of photographs of Picasso gazing at her from behind a window shade.  As Picasso’s obsession grows, his photographed facial expressions become more extreme, until his photos are eventually replaced by funky Picasso-style paintings (still behind the window shade) showing a melting, disheveled face whose only recognizable facial features are enormous eyes.

The film’s rapid pace slows down and Welles’ tone becomes serious toward the end of the film when Welles visits Chartres, a massive unsigned work of art that was conceived as a union of God and Man.  As Welles melodramatically muses that there seems to only be room for Man in most modern discussions of art, a series of beautiful nighttime shots of the huge cathedral splash across the screen.  This mournful argument against authorship ironically recalls the opening images of Xanadu in Citizen Kane, bringing Welles’ filmic oeuvre full circle in the least likely way possible.  It’s just another paradox in a film that manages to be simultaneously frivolous and deep, documentary and fiction, difficult and entertaining, uncharacteristic and intensely personal.  Taking rare advantage of the full complex possibilities of cinema, F for Fake is a genuinely unique experience, a triumph as both an Orson Welles film and as a standalone piece of art.

F for Fake passes the Masterpiece Test

UP NEXT  From the jolly, rapidly paced F for Fake to Bela Tarr’s somber, austere epic The Turin Horse

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Catching Up With 2011: Movies

The ten films mentioned here each had at least one theatrical screening in the Milwaukee area in 2011, although I only caught up with them in the early months of this year.  

The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, France, 100 min.)
I wouldn’t argue that this modest tribute to silent cinema deserved any of the many awards that it received, but it is fairly entertaining in its own modest way.  Oddly enough, it is the silent movie gimmick itself that stands in the way of this being a truly superior piece of light entertainment; the narrative’s pathos would’ve been a lot more palpable if the rest of the world started talking while Jean Dujardin’s fading star remained silent.  It just feels awkward to watch clips of (what are supposed to be) talkies in silence.  B-

Aurora (Cristi Puiu, Romania, 181 min.)
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) is arguably the highlight of the Romanian New Wave so far, so it is more than a bit disappointing to report that writer-director Cristi Puiu’s follow-up is one of those tedious art films that mistakes lengthy, indifferently filmed scenes of non-action for probing psychological insight.  A filmmaker copying the groundbreaking aesthetic of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975) is equivalent to a graphic artist drawing inspiration from Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup paintings; once the point has been made, there’s really no need to make it again.  And even considering how important a lived-in feeling of stasis is to that style, there’s no reason that Puiu couldn’t have made the same point in one-third of this film’s running time.  The final sequence does take the aesthetic of boredom to a morbidly funny place, but it isn’t worth sitting through the rest of this three hour anti-epic to get there.  C-

Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 106 min.)
Steven Soderbergh’s take on the disaster picture charts the rapid spread of an H1N1-style virus as it travels from Hong Kong to the United States.  Some of the scenes depicting the resulting panic and chaos are effectively filmed and edited, but the sense of mounting dread is constantly undercut by the It’s a Mad Mad Mad World-style casting, which finds many impressive actors distractingly stranded in roles that seem to have been assigned to them arbitrarily.  C+

Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland, 102 min.)
Jean-Luc Godard is unquestionably one of the most important, influential, and interesting filmmakers of all time, so it’s a shame that his (allegedly) final feature is such a tediously random mess.  Apparently this is meant as some sort of commentary on the fallibility of digital video, but it mostly plays like a lousy experimental student film.  D

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, USA, 158 min.)
The murder mystery at the center of this film isn’t terribly engaging, even for those of us who haven’t read Stieg Larson’s mega-selling novel or seen the recent Swedish film adaptation.  But David Fincher is such an impeccable craftsman that he manages to make the many scenes of people sitting in front of laptops or reading particularly stupid passages from Leviticus seem exciting, and Rooney Mara is so sensational as the goth computer hacker protagonist that she makes up for the miscast Daniel Craig as her journalist sidekick.  B-

Hanna (Joe Wright, UK, 111 min.)
Joe Wright brought a welcome sense of energy to the potentially stuffy period pieces Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007).  The wild international action picture Hanna shows what a Wright picture looks like when it consists entirely of the attitude and stylishness that existed on the margins of his previous films.  It’s intermittently exciting to watch the titular heroine (Saorise Ronan) get chased across the world by an obsessive intelligence agent (Cate Blanchett, adopting a broad Southern accent for no apparent reason), but the pointlessness of the whole enterprise ultimately weighs the film down, especially when it becomes clear that Wright can’t commit to making either a propulsive action blockbuster or a freaky avant-garde head trip.  C+

Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, USA, 107 min.)
This documentary about the aftermath of a senseless murder begins as a well-reasoned anti-death penalty tract, but director/narrator Werner Herzog’s trademark curiosity prevents the film from turning into a didactic political statement.  As the (frequently riveting) interviews with the Death Row-dwelling perpetrators and the family members of the victims pile up, it becomes clear that the film is less a social argument than a poetic look at the profound effect that violent death leaves in its wake.  B

Moneyball  (Bennett Miller, USA, 133 min.)
Ace screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin deserve some credit for turning a book about statistics into a competent human interest narrative.  But at the end of the day, this is still a movie about baseball and math, and the viewer’s enjoyment is likely to be directly proportional to their interest in those subjects, despite the best efforts of a stellar cast.  C

Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, Portugal, 272 min.)  
This massive epic is the final film of wildly prolific director Raul Ruiz, who died shortly after its completion.  Considering the melodramatic nature of the narrative, and the elaborate way that it is told (with at least six different narrators picking up the story at different points), the film can feel a bit dry, and it certainly never lets you forget that it is over four hours long.  While the film sometimes seems to lack passion, it is nonetheless a visual marvel, with consistently breathtaking set  and costume design.  The cinematography was unmatched by any of 2011’s other films in terms of the richness of its colors, the depths of its compositions, or the inventiveness of its framing.  B

The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 117 min.)
Pedro Almodovar’s campy Frankenstein variation gradually reveals the origins of a plastic surgeon’s (Antonio Banderas) mysterious obsession with a patient (Elena Anaya) who he keeps locked in his basement.  The film lacks the perverse psychological investment that a director like David Cronenberg might have brought to it, but the plot twists are deranged enough to make the narrative gripping from beginning to end.  B