Saturday, July 28, 2012

Understanding Auteurs: Pier Paolo Pasolini (Teorema and Porcile)

Teorema (1968) is perhaps the most difficult of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s films up to this point, a work that brings many of the director’s pet themes to their logical conclusion while remaining almost maddeningly elusive about what those conclusions are.  Rather than follow the sea change in aesthetics and theme that Oedipus Rex (1967) seemed to suggest, Pasolini again pursues the conflict between Italy’s Christian ideals and its complacent bourgeois realities.  But the conclusions that the writer-director reaches in Teorema are far less easy to summarize than those in Mamma Roma (1962) or The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), both of which made challenging but easy to identify points about the cultural confusion of the society that Pasolini lived in.  One can come to certain conclusions about various thematic aspects of Teorema, but there is far more ambiguity built in to this film’s structure than there is in Pasolini’s previous films.

Teorema focuses on a typical upper-middle class nuclear family whose daily routines are disrupted by the inexplicable arrival of a strange, quiet man listed in the credits as “the Visitor” (Terence Stamp).  The Visitor seems to bring out the latent desires and frustrations in every member of the household, prompting them each to make bold changes in their lives.  The father (Massimo Girotti) decides to give up control of his business, letting his workers take charge.  His wife (Silvana Mangano, returning from Oedipus Rex) experiences a sexual awakening, feeling passions that have presumably disappeared from her dull married life.  The son (Andres Jose Cruz Soublette) realizes to his shame and humiliation that he is a homosexual, with the Visitor allowing the boy to experience what is apparently his first same-gendered sexual experience.  The daughter (Anne Wiazemsky) tentatively breaks free from her sheltered “good girl” status through her own sexual relationship with the Visitor.  Even the maid (Laura Betti) is affected by the strange man’s presence, as he prevents her suicide attempt and ultimately prompts her to return to the humble village where she grew up.

The Visitor leaves the family just as abruptly as he arrived, and his disappearance has a tremendous impact on the household.  Only the maid seems to take a positive inspiration from the mysterious guest’s visit, as she begins to perform miracles in her old village, ranging from curing a child of what appears to be leprosy to mysteriously floating above a building.  Once again Pasolini seems to be suggesting that the poor are closer to the peasant roots of spirituality and are therefore the only ones in a position to accept true religion.  This positive interpretation is complicated, however, by the bizarre and highly ambiguous conclusion to the maid’s story, which finds the woman instructing one of her disciples to bury her alive for no discernible reason.  

The effect that the Visitor’s leaving has on the bourgeois family is no less mysterious, and in many ways more interesting than what happens to the maid.  It would be easy for Pasolini to take a high and mighty position and mock the wealthy family for their banal concerns.  But although the members of the family are used more as representative figures than fleshed-out characters, Pasolini seems to empathize and even identify with their existential struggles.  The son who struggles with his sexual identity is going through feelings that Pasolini undoubtedly dealt with as a homosexual growing up in a macho culture, and the fact that the son ultimately channels his frustrations through increasingly violent abstract art suggests a particularly bracing autocritique.  The wife’s futile search for transcendence through tawdry sex with young hustlers may have also hit close to home with the writer-director, who was allegedly murdered while attempting to pick up a gigolo.  Pasolini’s biggest howl of despair comes from the father, who renounces all ties to his business, strips himself of his clothes, and goes out into nature.  But the father cannot simply become one with the world in the style of Saint Francis.  He is too much a product of his middle-class industrial world to escape from it, and the film ends with him utterly lost in the middle of a weird volcanic wasteland, screaming incoherently at the camera.

The mysteries revolving around who exactly the Visitor is (he could be interpreted, with equal justification, as a Christ or Satan figure) and how much he can be held accountable for the destinies of the family make Teorema the most challenging and intellectually stimulating of Pasolini’s films to this point.  At the same time, the intense yet ambiguous directions that the family members go in following the Visitor’s departure may make this the most nuanced and complicated of Pasolini’s provocations at this point.  That said, while Teorema is a triumph of bold thematic complexity, the script’s poetry doesn’t necessarily translate cinematically.  Where Oedipus Rex presented a huge leap forward for Pasolini as a visual stylist, Teorema is somewhat clunky from a directorial standpoint.  Aside from the highly memorable aforementioned final shot, and the effective use of Terence Stamp’s passive yet intensely sensual stare, Teorema is pretty basic on a visual level, with some of Pasolini’s overt attempts at stylization falling flat.  An early scene is arbitrarily presented in the style of a silent film, which might have at least been a charmingly weird diversion if Pasolini were more technically equipped to actually replicate the style of early cinema.  While the film is smartly and logically structured overall, it nonetheless opens awkwardly with a TV news-style report about the father’s business, a scene that could have easily been cut from the film altogether.  Teorema isn’t an easy film to warm up to, and in some senses it is a stylistic failure, but it is undeniably a major statement.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Pasolini’s next film.  Porcile (1969) is the most outwardly confrontational of Pasolini’s films to this point, and it was clearly intended to provoke a strong, possibly hostile response from its audience - which would be fine if it was at all clear what the writer-director was trying to say with this very muddled effort.   The film is divided between a mostly dialogue-free story set in the distant past that follows a man (Pierre Clementi) as he is mysteriously hunted through the same volcanic hellhole that was featured in the final shots of Teorema, and modern-day scenes set in a villa occupied by a Nazi-turned-businessman (Alberto Lionello) and his bored son (Jean-Pierre Leaud).  Continuous cross-cutting between the two stories suggests that Pasolini means to draw some parallel or contrast between the old-fashioned barbarism of the medieval story and the contemporary fascism found in the latter story, but it isn’t even remotely obvious what Pasolini’s intentions in combining the two stories are. 

While Pasolini’s films have sometimes felt a bit blandly directed, the strength of their ideas has usually made up for any visual deficiencies.  But Porcile seems intended only to provoke a knee-jerk response of disgust from the viewer, and ultimately fails even on the level of pure shock value.  For a film that prominently features cannibalism, beastiality, and Nazi war atrocities, Porcile feels awfully tame, allowing most of its potentially disturbing material to happen offscreen.  Most of the contemporary material is devoted to tedious scenes of the Nazi and his business associates tediously tossing half-baked philosophies at each other, or Leaud and his fiancée (Wiazemsky, returning after Teorema) sharing some abstract political frustrations.  The material set in the past fares somewhat better, if only because of the stunningly odd volcano location, but it mostly feels like a poor man’s version of Oedipus Rex, or even Medea (1969). 

The post-synched dialogue proves to be more of a problem in Porcile than it has in previous Pasolini films.  For the most part, audio sync hasn’t been a major issue in Pasolini’s previous films, though it is a little awkward to see Orson Welles’ part clearly dubbed over by a different actor in La ricotta (1963).  Where the Welles character was not a major focal point of La ricotta, Jean-Pierre Leaud is an important character in Porcile.  It is really distracting to see the well-known stand-in for the French New Wave being clearly dubbed by an Italian actor while playing a German character.  It is understandable that Pasolini would want to work with Leaud, one of the best and most intense actors of his era, but he is terribly miscast in this role.  The post-dubbing of Welles’ character in La ricotta is undeniably distracting, but there is enough else going on in that short film to nullify the issue.  Porcile, on the other hand, is nothing but a series of awkward, half-baked ideas signifying nothing.  With the murky, confused Porcile and the redundant Medea, Pasolini seems to be in a bit of a slump.  Hopefully his next project, a trilogy based on classic works of literature, will reinvigorate his art.

UP NEXT  The Trilogy of Life (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights)

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Processing I Was Born, But...

Expectations  The filmography of Yasujiro Ozu is perhaps the biggest blind spot in my knowledge of cinema.  Few filmmakers are as highly respected as Ozu within the critical community.  Aside from Akira Kurosawa, and perhaps Kenji Mizoguchi, Ozu is the most widely beloved of all classical Japanese directors, and his trademark minimalist aesthetic has left an indelible mark on the styles of modern masters ranging from Hou Hsiao-hsien to Jim Jarmusch.  Since I consider myself an admirer of all of the aforementioned filmmakers, as well as a number of the critics (such as Jonathan Rosenbaum, Roger Ebert, and Donald Richie) who consider themselves Ozu enthusiasts, I am a little bit ashamed to admit that I’ve mostly been bored by the few Ozu films I’ve seen.  Even Tokyo Story (1953), the director’s signature work, which is often cited as one of the greatest achievements in cinema, mostly registered as a dull chore to me when I saw it in college (though that was long enough ago that the film is probably due for a re-viewing).  I can respect naturalism and minimalism in film as long as the story, characters, and/or setting are interesting enough to keep the work compelling, but whatever makes Ozu’s projects special (beyond his undeniably distinctive tendency to frame his shots from the perspective of someone sitting on a tatami mat) has completely eluded me at this point.

Perhaps Ozu’s famous films of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s are simply not for me, but rumor has it that his silent era work is in quite a different style, less slow-moving and more comic than his well-known understated sound dramas.  I recently attended a screening of A Story of Floating Weeds (1934), the only silent Ozu film I’ve seen at this point (he didn’t start working with sound until 1936), and was pleased to find that it was much more entertaining and, from my perspective, much more evidently lyrical than his sound films that I’d previously seen.  Floating Weeds still seemed a little too minor and rudimentary to me to qualify as an important work, but I was more engaged by it than I was by the later Ozu films that I’m familiar with.  I’m hoping that the oddly titled I Was Born, But… (1932), which is generally the most highly regarded of Ozu’s silent films, will be the one that finally makes me understand what I’ve been missing in his work.

Responses to the Film  In comparison to Ozu’s sound films that I’ve seen, I Was Born, But… is fairly conventional on a stylistic level.  Where late-period Ozu films like An Autumn Afternoon (1962) stubbornly refuse to divert from their highly specific yet blandly rigid shot compositions and painfully slow editing patterns, I Was Born has a relatively fast pace that feels entirely appropriate for the child-eye perspective of its narrative.  The film follows two grade-schoolers (Tomio Aoki and Hideo Sugawara) as they ditch class while trying to hide their clandestine activities from their father (Tatsuo Saito), whom they look up to and fear in equal measure.  The boys’ view of their father is irrevocably altered when they see him behaving submissively in front of his boss and colleagues.  Misunderstanding the necessary compromises of adult life, the children begin to view their father as a weakling, which brings the father’s own latent feelings of inferiority and disappointment to the surface.

One of the most striking things about I Was Born, But… is how genuinely natural it seems.  It is rare to see such life-size storytelling or acting in a film from the silent era, but everything in Ozu’s film feels plausible and lived-in.  Ozu’s later work can sometimes seem like it is straining too hard to appear unadorned and realistic, but I Was Born offers a convincingly low-key look at the world of schoolchildren (and at the world of adults as viewed through the eyes of schoolchildren).  On a pure laugh out loud basis the film can’t compete with the silent era work of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, but Ozu isn’t providing jokes here so much as he is bemusedly observing the behavioral patterns of young children, while also casting a cutting yet sympathetic light on the absurdities of the grown-up world of business.  When the film becomes a bit more melancholy and serious in its last thirty minutes, the effect isn’t remotely jarring, because the understated performances of Aoki, Sugawara, and Saito undercut the script’s potential for melodrama as surely as they prevent the earlier part of the film from feeling like an extended episode of Little Rascals.  Whatever the film lacks in obvious, easy entertainment, it makes up for in bittersweet insight into the pleasures and pains of growing up.

Afterthoughts  I Was Born, But…  is not the type of movie that necessarily impresses right away, despite being more conventionally entertaining than some of Ozu’s other well-known works.  But it is a movie whose truly realistic tone and casually insightful comparisons between the world of schoolchildren and the business world of adults has stuck with me days after watching it, and that I suspect I will continue to think about for a long time to come.  Aoki and Sugawara are an unforgettable duo, full of charisma and charm even though (or perhaps because) the film never goes out of its way to make them seem adorable.  Saito is completely credible as their father; one can see how he would be both a beloved patriarch at home and a man who has resigned himself to a slightly boring life as a modest businessman.  The film’s understanding of the relationship between its three central characters is the source of all of its humor and drama.  Perhaps if Ozu ever went for jokes or pathos he would’ve made a more obviously “hilarious” or “moving” picture, but the film’s bemused, observational tone got in my head in a way that a more calculated movie would not have.

I can’t say that I Was Born, But… has made me a full-blown Ozu fan, but it is hands-down the best of his films that I’ve seen.  It creates a genuine sensation of realism, whereas some of Ozu’s sound era films seem to underline their modest style to such a degree that they become unconvincing (as well as dull).  I used to avoid seeing Ozu movies for the most part, but I can now appreciate his silent era aesthetic, and I look forward to seeing such movies as That Night’s Wife (1931), a film that has been described improbably but intriguingly as “Langian,” and Tokyo Chorus (1931), one of the film’s that challenges I Was Born’s title as Ozu’s most popular silent film.  Maybe it’s time to give Ozu’s more famous sound era work a second chance as well.  Good Morning (1959) is actually a partial remake of I Was Born, But…, so that might be a good place to start, but there are certainly many other highly acclaimed films to choose from.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Processing Last Year at Marienbad

The structure of this post is borrowed from Jonathan Rosenbaum’s classic essay “Edinburgh Encounters:  A Consumers/Producers Guide in Progress to Four Recent Avant-Garde Films”

Expectations  There are few major filmmakers who I feel less qualified to write about than Alain Resnais.  I can respect his position as a massively important director who played a huge role in defining the European “art cinema” that polarized intellectuals in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but I haven’t found the same level of pleasure in watching his films as I have in those of his Left Bank contemporaries (and sometime collaborators) Chris Marker, Jacques Demy, and Agnes Varda.  This is not just a matter of the few Resnais features I’ve seen failing for me on a pure entertainment level – they’ve also seemed stubbornly opaque on a thematic level, sticking rigorously and humorlessly to a distanced aesthetic that seems designed to force home a point that I am nonetheless completely missing.  Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961) both sailed over my head when I watched them in college, and the stern, austere tone of Resnais’ direction has thus far prevented me from exploring his latter feature filmography much further.

I’m not proud of not getting it, and the support that many critics and filmmakers that I respect have given to Resnais over the years makes me suspect that the fault is with me rather than the films themselves.  Great works of art tend to be confounding, and while some have an immediate impact that compliments their challenges, others need time to reveal themselves.  A number of films that I would now rank among my all-time favorites, such as Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963), and Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967) (to stick with French examples), confused and/or bored me on my initial viewing, only announcing their many virtues on latter viewings and further reflection.  Given the controversial cultural position that Last Year at Marienbad held in the early ‘60s, when it was simultaneously a surprise multiple Academy Award nominee and one of the targets of Pauline Kael’s influential anti-“art film” essay “The Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties,” there must be more to the film than the tedious, pretentious navel gazing that I remember.

I also saw Marienbad under less than ideal circumstances in college, on one of those sad early VHS’ where the film seemed to have barely been remastered (or even formatted to fit the screen) in any way.  The gorgeous still shots I’ve found of Marienbad on the Internet bear little to no relationship to my memory of watching the movie on the dinky TV/VCR combo that I had in my college years.  Equally surprising are the mentions I’ve seen of the film being, on some level, a parody of Hitchcock and classic film noir; what I regarded as ridiculous self-seriousness may have actually been deadpan humor.  I also consider Resnais’ famous short essay film Night and Fog (1955) as the only properly serious film about the Holocaust, so I can’t bring myself to dismiss one of his most famous feature films simply because I vaguely remember it being boring and confusing.

Responses to the Film  The two stylistic aspects of Last Year at Marienbad that immediately stand out (and that continue to be striking for the duration of the film) are Sacha Vierny’s rich deep focus cinematography, and Francis Seyrig’s chintzy organ score.  A big part of what continues to make the film feel awkward and unpleasant to me is the unstable combination of these elements.  It feels at times like a bunch of footage from an unfinished Orson Welles film (since deep focus black and white unavoidably conjures thoughts of Citizen Kane) put through an Ed Wood post-production process (the obnoxious, virtually wall-to-wall organ music seemingly coming from an extremely low-budget horror film).  A large part of what Resnais seems to be after here is an investigation of the ways that different contexts can radically change the meanings of any given event, so it is possible that this bizarre collision of sound and image is intentional; and given how carefully Resnais has obviously controlled his images, it’s hard to imagine that he would lose control of the film’s soundtrack.  But the music is continuously distracting, an ugly blemish on the frequently breathtaking imagery.  It’s possible to get hypnotized by the aesthetics of a film like Mulholland Drive (2001) even if its meanings never become clear, simply because every aspect of its style feels dazzling and of a piece; but the equally baffling Last Year at Marienbad never fully takes off because its clash of styles doesn’t add up to a poetically coherent vision.

Still, Marienbad’s visuals are too impressive to ignore.  The film’s stiffness, which I found so off-putting on first viewing, is undeniably present, but now seems to me like part of an aesthetic strategy to alter the usual purpose of actors in movies.  Whereas a conventional narrative film would treat the people on screen as characters, Marienbad turns them into statues whose functions can be shuffled around depending on their position in the frame.  The humans-as-statues metaphor is made explicit in a lengthy sequence in which the two main screen figures, an unnamed man (Giorgio Albertazzi) and a woman (Delphine Seyrig) create a series of competing narratives explaining what an ambiguous lakeside statue might be depicting.  The male statue sees something and is pointing it out to the woman, says Albertazzi’s character, as the camera work seems to confirm his hypothesis; no, it’s the female statue who sees something and is calling it to the man’s attention, says Seyrig’s character, as the camera shifts position to suggest that she may be correct.

The statue sequence is essentially a mini version of the whole film.  It seems equally likely that Marienbad is a film about two lovers reuniting a year after their initial tryst, as Albertazzi’s character continually insists, or that the two are meeting for the first time, as Seyrig’s character argues.  The meaning of everything in the film is constantly in flux, which does undeniably make Marienbad an audacious and highly original experiment in narrative and cinematographic structure.  But because everything is up for grabs, the film lives or dies on the strengths of its individual moments, and is inherently somewhat of a hit or miss enterprise.  Some of the effects are pretty cool, such as a series of quick, white-hot flashes of a memory (or fantasy?) of Seyrig emerging from a speech that Albertazzi slowly delivers in a dark room.  The problem is that not every one of the film’s destabilizing effects is equally successful, and shoving them together in a non-stop succession prevents the film from being much more than an occasionally interesting, but frequently dull, parade of experiments.  

Afterthoughts While the experiments of Resnais (and screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet, a close collaborator who deserves roughly equal credit for the film) were certainly ahead of their time, they seem somewhat dated today.  Meta commentary on the nature of genre and narrative is now largely a tiresome cliché.  Intellectually, I can accept why Last Year at Marienbad would’ve been startlingly original in the early ‘60s, but it now feels a little bit old hat.  Granted, Marienbad’s utter lack of winking at the audience separates it from modern mainstream meta like Family Guy, and the film could conceivably work for someone as an evocation of erotic longing even if they miss the many nods to Hollywood melodrama.

But to the modern day viewer (or, at least, me), Marienbad’s deconstruction and reassemblage of suspense, melodrama, and noir clichés feels dated and off-putting.  The film is formally inventive but its deterministic tone feels weirdly rigid, as if Resnais was too reverent to the poetic pretensions of Robbe-Grillet’s script.  Marienbad doesn’t feel as playful as it needs to be to succeed as a droll comedy, but it also doesn’t feel substantive or intense enough to qualify as an effective drama.  On a pure formal level, the awful background music detracts from the impressive imagery.

Why does Marienbad fail for me, while Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010), which is also concerned with continuously reframing an ambiguous relationship between a man and a woman, largely succeeds?  Aside from my distaste for the organ music in Marienbad, which has no real corollary in Certified Copy, I think it has to do with Kiarostami’s comparatively low-key aesthetic and his willingness to let his lead actors (Juliette Binoche and William Shimmell) behave like real people, even if they pointedly seem like different real people at various point of the film.  Where Kiarostami manages to credibly evoke the beginning and the end of a relationship in surprising ways that sneak up on the viewer due to Certified Copy’s largely naturalistic aesthetic, Resnais beats the viewer over the head with Marienbad’s formalism to the point that his lead couple seem mostly like indifferent cogs in a machine.  Last Year at Marienbad deserves credit for innovation and daring, but it is a fundamentally flawed film that now seems like a relic of its era.