Friday, June 29, 2012

Understanding Auteurs: Pier Paolo Pasolini (Oedipus Rex and Medea)

Oedipus Rex (1967) marks an undeniable turning point in the filmography of Pier Paolo Pasolini.    Where Hawks and Sparrows (1965), for all of its virtues, felt in many ways like a tentative and somewhat awkward attempt to move forward after The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) brought the thematic concerns of Pasolini’s series of Christian films to their logical endpoint, Oedipus Rex is unmistakably a confident step into new territory for the writer-director. The black and white conflations of Christianity and gritty neorealism that comprised Pasolini’s early film works here give way to boldly colorful re-interpretations of classic myths, while primitive tribal music replaces the classical pieces used for the early films’ soundtracks.   In melding a completely new aesthetic direction with an eccentric and highly personal take on Sophocles’ legendary tale, Pasolini set a new path for his oeuvre and finally left any lingering traces of conventional Italian neorealist cinema behind him.

As if to mark Oedipus Rex as a sort of second debut, Pasolini cast Franco Citti, who began his acting career as the protagonist of Accattone (1961), as the titular figure.  Citti’s raw, plainly emotional performance played a huge role in the success of Pasolini’s first film, but his bracingly energetic work stands out even more in the context of an adaptation of a Greek legend.  The cries of rage and anguish that Oedipus periodically lets out are visceral even with the inevitable remove provided by the post-synched dialogue (which was standard in Italian cinema of the time).   Pasolini’s Oedipus is far from a stuffy, scholarly take on Sophocles; it feels immediate and impassioned in a way that few adaptations of classic literature do.  The controversial writer-director wasn’t aiming for a respectable middlebrow adaptation of a world-renowned work of art – he was out for blood.

Pasolini clearly did not take the transition to color cinematography lightly.  While Pasolini’s use of color is not as extreme as in Michelangelo Antonioni’s contemporaneous first color film Red Desert (1964), which included such bizarre sights as hand-painted trees, the vibrant sun-dried look of Oedipus Rex’s Moroccan desert locations is nonetheless a rather flamboyant change of pace from the stark black and white of Pasolini’s early films.  The writer-director didn’t start his film career as a particularly visually oriented director.  While there are some striking shot compositions in Pasolini’s earlier films, such as the headlight-lit gang rape of a prostitute in Accattone and the walking-on-water scene in The Gospel According to St. Matthew, those films seemed more oriented around their thematic ideas than their visual design.  Oedipus Rex reverses the equation, as the film plays like a series of beautiful, strange images that are supported by an elusive interpretation of a classic text.  It isn’t clear why the film, which mostly takes place in the same setting as Sophocles’ story, opens with a scene in pre-WWII Italy and closes with a scene in 1960s Italy, but the aggressively odd imagery gives the film a compelling poetic logic. 

The scene where Oedipus unknowingly murders his father and his entourage is a tour de force for Pasolini and cinematographer Giuseppe Ruzzolini, who punctuate the stabbings with blinding flashes of sunlight rather than the expected showers of blood.   But there is something interesting to look at in literally every shot, whether it is the wonderfully grungy tribal costumes worn by the cast or the impressively rugged Moroccan scenery or the inscrutable facial expressions of Silvana Mangano, who plays Oedipus’ mother.  Oedipus Rex isn’t the type of stiff, overly composed art movie that insists on its creators’ mastery.  The cinematography, for all of its beauty, retains a rough, visceral shakiness that makes the film feel like an improvised oil crayon drawing come to life.

Pasolini followed Oedipus Rex with Teorema (1968) and Porcile (1969), both of which we’ll look at next month, and then returned to Greek myth with his take on Medea (1969).  But where Oedipus Rex marked a bold stylistic departure for Pasolini, Medea feels almost like a poor man’s repeat of its sister film.  Up to this point, Pasolini hadn’t ever come close to repeating himself, each new film feeling in some way like an advancement of ideas presented in earlier works, but Medea finds the director covering the same territory as he did in Oedipus Rex without improving on that film in any way. 

There is still an abundance of extraordinary imagery (this time provided by ace cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri, working with Turkish locations), and the audio assault of esoteric African and Balkan folk music is impressive and distinctive.  Medea is too exotic to be truly dull, but Pasolini’s take on the material is tediously repetitive, awkwardly structured, and dramatically inert.  Jason (Giuseppe Gentile) is initially presented as the film’s protagonist, before the perspective abruptly shifts to Medea (opera legend Maria Callas, acquitting herself nicely in her only film role ).  Jason’s betrayal of Medea, which sets most of the actual plot in motion, happens late in the film and mostly offscreen, which makes it hard to have any sort of reaction to her violent revenge on Jason’s family.  That revenge is also inexplicably presented in two successive, barely distinguishable versions to no discernible dramatic effect.  A few of Pasolini’s films up to this point have been problematic for one reason or another, but Medea is the first one that finds the director repeating himself.

UP NEXT  Teorema and Porcile

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Collections: El-P - Collecting the Kid

Featuring the tracks:  Death of Buck 50, Jukie Skate Rock, Post Mortem Use Me 2, Feel Like a Ghost, Time is Running Out, Telemundo (Bombing Theme), Slow Sex (Love Theme), Constellation (Remix), The Dance, The Day After Yesterday, Oxycontin, and Sunrise Over Bklyn

Though El-P’s Definitive Jux record label is no longer in business, recent releases by artists in the label’s orbit serve as reminders of Def Jux’s legacy of carefully constructed, wildly ambitious, and gorgeously packaged albums.  El-P’s own Cancer 4 Cure album is as densely detailed and spellbindingly surreal as anything the producer/rapper has ever done, and Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music, produced in its entirety by El-P, is even better.  Cancer 4 Cure and R.A.P. Music were both clearly conceived of as albums rather vehicles for singles, making them anomalies in both their genre and in the ITunes age in general. 

Still, like any ambitious perfectionist with experimental tendencies, El-P has produced a lot of ephemera that doesn’t fit on any of his solo albums or those of his associates.  His series of weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamix mixes feel randomly constructed even by the loose standards of hip hop mixtapes, with demo-ish outtakes brushing shoulders with unused beats, remixes, studio chatter, and selected moments from other people’s songs.  (The third volume, which is basically a suite of hip hop instrumentals, is the exception to the rule, and the only one that feels like a proper album).  2004’s Collecting the Kid falls somewhere in between El-P’s “for hardcore fans only” mixtapes and his essential solo albums.  There are several songs here that El-P fans won’t want to be without, but they are frustratingly mixed in with tracks that devotees will already own as well as a handful of filler cuts that probably didn’t need to see the light of day (or that are better appreciated in other contexts).

The bulk of the compilation’s tracks are moody instrumentals, many of which come from El-P’s score for the little-seen 2002 film Bomb the System.  El-P’s Bomb the System work shares many of the same qualities as RZA’s exhilarating score for Ghost Dog:  the Way of the Samurai (1999), with the lurching funk of “The Day After Yesterday” standing out in particular as one of El-P’s finest beats.  Collecting the Kid is bookended by rare efforts outside the hip hop genre.  “Death of Buck 50” is a creepy, percussion-free bit of ambient synth music that would make Brian Eno or Aphex Twin proud, while “Sunrise Over Bklyn” is a lovely collaboration with the experimental jazz musicians from the Blue Series Continuum.  That said, the latter track’s inclusion on this collection is somewhat puzzling, since it also appeared on El-P’s full-length jazz fusion album High Water, which was released at right around the same time as Collecting the Kid.  Though “Sunrise Over Bklyn” is one of the highlights of that album, it seems like an odd choice to represent El-P’s jazz work here, since it is one of the tracks from High Water where the producer’s input is least evident (he seems to have mostly provided some mood-enhancing background synthesizer squeals).  “Get Modal,” a more precise fusion of hip hop and jazz, might have been a better representative track from High Water, though again, including anything from that contemporaneous album on Collecting the Kid seems weirdly unnecessary. 

It’s tempting to say that El-P should have simply released his instrumentals from Bomb the System and left the rest of the tracks here on the cutting room floor, but that would leave a few worthwhile songs stranded.  The remix of “Constellation Funk” turns the least-compelling track from El-P’s Fantastic Damage (2002) into an eerie, mind-bending slice of mutant R&B with vocals by Stephanie Vezina.  “Constellation” is a model of creative remixing, retaining the best properties of the original track while transforming it into something completely different.  Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the instrumental remix of Mr. Lif’s “Post Mortem,” which hews so close to El-P’s original beat that its inclusion here seems utterly pointless. 

There is surprisingly little rapping on Collecting the Kid, and it is disappointing to look at the liner notes and see that the only Def Jux artist besides El-P to make any vocal appearances here is Camu Tao, perhaps the least talented MC from the label’s impressive roster.  Shockingly, Camu’s appearances actually provide two of the best moments on the compilation, and they suggest that his talent may simply never have been properly framed in album format before his untimely 2008 death.  “Jukie Skate Rock” is a fun play on old-school dance-rap, while “Oxycontin” is a disconcertingly operatic piece of feel-bad storytelling with unhinged warbling from Camu.  “Oxycontin” was originally conceived of as the first part of a Def Jux “rap opera” that would tell the story of a relationship falling apart because of drug addiction; part two, a duet between El-P and Cage, appeared on one of the Def Jux Presents compilations, but apparently this promising concept never went any further.  Thankfully collections like Collecting the Kid exist to ensure that lost gems like “Oxycontin” have a home, even if they are unfortunately surrounded by too many half-formed songs or tracks that are already available in better contexts.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Collections: Jan Svankmajer - The Ossuary and Other Tales

Featuring the short films:  The Last Trick, Johann Sebastian Bach, Historia Naturae, The Garden, Don Juan, The Ossuary, Castle of Otranto, Manly Games, and Darkness Light Darkness

As a survey of its titular artist’s work, Kino Films’ 2006 DVD Jan Svankmajer – The Ossuary and Other Tales leaves something to be desired.  How Kino selected the nine shorts that comprise the set is something of a mystery.  If the DVD was meant to collect Svankmajer’s earliest, hardest to find work, then why does it jump chronologically from 1970’s The Ossuary to 1977’s Castle of Otranto, while leaving out seminal early pieces like Jabberwocky (1971)?  And why does the collection feature Darkness Light Darkness (1989), one of the Czech animator’s most famous and readily accessible works?  Clearly The Ossuary and Other Tales is not designed to be a “best of” collection, since this wouldn’t explain the presence of such “for hardcore fans only” films as Johann Sebastian Bach (1965) and 1968’s The Garden (a live action short so dull that I’ve completely forgotten its contents less than a week after watching it).  The Ossuary and Other Tales doesn’t seem to have been designed with any particular viewer in mind.  Serious Svankmajer fans will complain about the absence of many important and/or obscure films, novices may be turned off by the relative crudity of some of the earlier pieces, and casual fans hoping to gain some perspective about Svankmajer’s growth as an auteur will be confounded by the seemingly random selection of shorts represented. 

In fairness, Svankmajer’s versatility, as well as the wildly inconsistent quality of his short films, makes the idea of a truly satisfying “representative” collection of his works unlikely.  His art seems to have grown in fits and starts. The dazzlingly edited and wittily structured Historia Naturae (1967) feels much more mature (and much more technically advanced) than the slapdash mixture of black-and-white mockumentary footage and collage animation of Castle of Otranto, even though the latter film was made a full decade later.  In other cases, Svankmajer’s growth as an artist is visually evident.  In the context of this DVD, Svankmajer’s first film, a grotesque puppet play called The Last Trick (1964) feels like a mere warm-up for the inventively choreographed Don Juan (1970), which feels far more cinematic despite using many of the same filmed puppetry techniques.  Though the famous Romantic tale of Don Juan is somewhat of an odd fit for Svankmajer’s brand of menacing surrealism, the director clearly had a lot of fun staging it, and a multi-story puppet fight in which the clashing of swords provides the percussion for the background score is a technical tour de force. 

Though Svankmajer is primarily known as an animator (in fact, I’ve already labeled him as such), that is a fairly narrow descriptor of the director’s bag of tricks.  Svankmajer is really more of a collage artist, incorporating stray bits of live-action footage, claymation, puppetry, stop-motion animation, primitive Melies-style visual effects, and just about anything else he can get his hands on.  The Czech’s unpredictable eclecticism puts him more in line with fellow Balkan director Dusan Makavejev than with traditional animators like Walt Disney or Hayao Miyazaki. 

The jarring information overload of Svankmajer’s visual style can be overwhelming in a good way, as in Historia Naturae, where the rapid-fire flipbook style look at different classes of animal represented in every visual format imaginable is frequently exhilarating, and musically and humorously contrasted with slow, recurring shots of a human slowly raising a spoonful of food to their mouth.  (The morbidly funny conclusion finds the human replaced by a skeleton, as man is reduced to the same consumable state as the other species represented throughout the rest of the film).  Occasionally that same style can feel oppressive.  While Manly Games (1988) is a striking and memorable parody of European soccer mania (and the accompanying violence of hooliganism), the series of shots of claymation soccer players getting their heads destroyed in the goriest ways imaginable eventually becomes tiresome, making the clever finale (in which a live action TV viewer’s flat is overrun with sentient paper cut-out athletes) feel more like a welcome relief rather than the brilliant punchline that it ought to be.

One of the most memorable and sophisticated films on this DVD actually features no animation whatsoever.  The Ossuary could actually be classified as a documentary, albeit a highly experimental and unconventional one.  Svankmajer’s dispassionate, appropriately grimy footage of a horrifying death chamber, where enormous piles of bones have been artfully arranged into sculptures, is contrasted with the disembodied voice of a tour guide who seems entirely too proud of the monetary value of this weird alternate universe museum.  The guide’s fetishistic worship of the bones, combined with her paranoid insistence that no one touch anything, lest they face a heavy fine, is like something out of Kafka, but Svankmajer’s unpredictable editing patterns assure that The Ossuary could not be mistaken for the work of any other artist.  Even though The Ossuary and Other Tales is not particularly well thought-out as a collection, it undeniably features a great deal of innovative and memorable works of art.