Friday, September 28, 2012

Understanding Auteurs: Pier Paolo Pasolini (Salo)

The “Trilogy of Life,” for all of its flaws, brought Pier Paolo Pasolini a great deal of acclaim and a relatively high amount of commercial success late in his career.  But the eternally provocative writer-director gradually grew disenchanted with the trilogy’s optimistic and hopeful view of the world as a playground of art and sex.  Around the time of the release of Arabian Nights (1974) Pasolini denounced the worldview expressed in his own trilogy in an Italian newspaper.  In an essay entitled Abjuration from “The Trilogy of Life,” Pasolini wrote:

Even the “reality” of innocent bodies has been violated, manipulated, submitted to the consumerist power:  or rather, this violence on bodies has become the most macroscopic datum of the new human epoch…Private sexual life (such as my own) has undergone both the trauma of false tolerance and of corporal degradation; and in sexual fantasies what was once pain and joy has become suicidal disappointment, formless sloth…

Therefore, I am adapting myself to the degradation, and I am accepting the unacceptable.  I am maneuvering to reorganize my life.  I am forgetting how things were before.  The beloved faces of yesterday are beginning to fade.  I am – slowly and without alternatives – confronted with the present.

This matter-of-factly hopeless and despairing viewpoint animates every frame of Pasolini’s final film, Salo (1975), a simultaneous adaptation of Dante’s Inferno and the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, and set in the last days of Mussolini’s Italy.  You might expect a film with this pedigree to hold something back, to avoid graphically depicting the atrocities described in Dante and de Sade’s literary works.  But Salo holds precisely nothing back – the film is essentially an uninterrupted succession of scenes in which a group of powerful fascists torture, rape, humiliate, mutilate, and/or kill a group of very young looking men and women.  These acts occur almost uniformly in the direct center of the frame of Pasolini’s shot compositions, which, in a surprising but effective rebuke of his standard rough verite style are generally cold and static, essentially forcing the viewer to take the perspective of the fascists.  Pasolini intended for the film to be “indigestible,” and indeed it is extremely difficult to stomach; chapter headings such as “Circle of Blood” and “Circle of Shit” aren’t metaphors.  Knowing that the actors are actually eating brownies when their characters are supposed to be eating huge amounts of feces (in one of the film’s most notorious scenes) doesn’t make the scene any easier to take.  The nonstop degradation is occasionally punctuated by strikingly incongruous and weirdly sinister moments of physical comedy that have the exact opposite effect of “comic relief” and only make the film more disturbing.  There are also some creepy and haunting ambiguous moments, such as a scene where one of the fascists’ wives inexplicably jumps out of a fourth story window.

No one has ever made or will ever make a movie as horrifying and troubling as Salo.  There are a lot of films that have provocative subject matter or grisly, realistic looking violence, but it’s impossible to imagine one that stares directly into the heart of darkness to the extent that Pasolini’s final film does.  Many films are disturbing; Salo is emotionally scarring.  I can’t imagine anyone sitting through the entirety of Salo without at least once covering their eyes or getting literally sick to their stomach, and personally I can’t imagine watching the film more than once in a lifetime.  I virtually always rewatch a film that I’ve already seen if I’m going to write about it for this blog, but I had to make an exception in this case.  Though I’m basing what I write here on four-year old memories, Salo has left a mark on me that will make it hard to forget.  It’s the only film that I’ve seen that I think of as a genuinely traumatic experience.

Ironically, the very things that make Salo unwatchable are also what make it brilliant, and possibly the greatest achievement of Pasolini’s career.  The director’s strategy of distancing the viewer from the nameless victims and putting us in the cold, voyeuristic perspective of the fascist torturers initially seems offensive, but Pasolini’s moral goal (and lunatic ambition) with this film seems to be to beat the latent fascism out of each viewer.  Salo takes the desire (that we all have on some level) to have power over another human being and pushes it to its logical extreme, using Brechtian distancing effects to present our lopsided societal structure in its most base and disgusting light.  The film refuses to allow us to redeem ourselves, even through Pasolini’s most cherished social causes.  A victim who gives the Communist salute is gunned down mercilessly; another one praying to God is forced to literally eat shit.  Instead of coming to any real resolution, Salo ends mysteriously with two male victims waltzing together, leaving the prior violence hanging in the air.  It’s a relentlessly disturbing experience, and a profoundly uncompromising end to one of the cinema's most philosophically complex filmographies.

Accattone (1961) = B
Mamma Roma (1962) = B+
La ricotta (short) (1963) = B+
The Gospel According to Matthew (1964) = A-
Hawks and Sparrows (1965) = B-
Oedipus Rex (1967) = B+
Teorema (1968) = B
Porcile (1969) = D+
Medea (1969) = C+
The Decameron (1971) = C+
The Canterbury Tales (1972) = C
Arabian Nights (1974) = B+
Salo (1975) = A-

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Processing Zabriskie Point

Expectations  So far in these “Processing” posts I’ve looked at films by directors whose work I’ve had a hard time getting into despite the acclaim they’ve received (Alain Resnais and Yasujiro Ozu) and the one generally acclaimed film of a mostly disliked director (Ken Russell).  This month I’m looking at Zabriskie Point (1970), one of the least popular films by a director I do admire.  While I wouldn’t necessarily call Michelangelo Antonioni one of my favorite filmmakers, I do have an easier time appreciating his distinctive and innovative aesthetic than that of Resnais or Ozu, and there is no question that he was a better director than Russell ever was.  Antonioni’s breakthrough L’avventura (1960) might be a tough sell to today’s short attention spans, but it deserves its reputation as a groundbreaking cinematic landmark as much as contemporaneous classics like Breathless (1960) and 8 ½ (1963) do. 

That said, I can sympathize with those who are bored by Antonioni’s nontraditional emphasis on image and contemplation rather than narrative and action, and I have at time been one of those viewers.  Part of the point of L’avventura is to make its characters’ boredom and alienation palpable, which naturally has the side effect of making that great film a bit of an endurance test despite its stunning imagery, and its quasi-sequels La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962) sometimes feel like dull attempts to mimic L’avventura’s singular feel.  While I greatly admire the extraordinary cinematography in Antonioni’s color debut, Red Desert (1964), I have to admit that I remember practically nothing about the movie aside from a handful of very impressive images.  From the mid-‘60s to the mid-‘70s, the Italian Antonioni made several English-language films of varying quality.  Blow-Up (1966), the first of these, is as acclaimed as L’avventura is in some circles, but I find it to be perhaps the most overrated of all “classics.”  With its dated appropriation of British mod culture (which the film wants to criticize and use as a marketing hook simultaneously) and its laughable “surreal” ending, Blow-Up is almost embarrassing to watch.  The film’s plot (a photographer may or may not have accidentally caught a murder on camera) could’ve made for a solid conventional thriller – and it did when Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma made variations on it, with The Conversation (1974) and Blow Out (1981), respectively – but Antonioni’s characteristic distancing from the action is at its worst and least justifiable here. 

On the other hand, the last film of Antonioni’s English-language trilogy, The Passenger (1975), might be his best work, and perhaps the only of his films that could reasonably be called “gripping.”  Zabriskie Point is the film that came in between Blow-Up and The Passenger, and I’m hoping that it feels more like the latter than the former, even though the hippie milieu that provides the film’s setting makes me fear that it will look just as dated as Blow-Up.  Certainly the critics of 1970 weren’t kind to Zabriskie, and it doesn’t seem to have gained much of a reassessment since then.  Even the Netflix sleeve – which describes Zabriskie as “an interesting artifact of its time” – seems to be apologizing for the film’s existence.  Though Zabriskie certainly has the potential to provide a dire viewing experience, I can’t count a film by a talent as distinctive as Michelangelo Antonioni out that easily, especially since I have seen some really impressive still images from Zabriskie that suggest that it will at least be interesting to look at.  Antonioni’s films are never less than difficult, but they are almost always beautiful and occasionally intellectually stimulating, so I hold out hope that Zabriskie Point might be unfairly maligned.

 The Viewing Experience  It is immediately obvious why Zabriskie Point was universally panned upon its 1970 release.  The film’s awkward look at hippie culture probably already seemed dated in 1970.  Antonioni’s embrace of radical student politics and “free love” feels no less cynical (or out of touch) than the appropriation of hippie culture in contemporaneous exploitation films like Wild in the Streets (1968).  It doesn’t help that Zabriskie’s lead characters, a teenage drifter and a free-spirited secretary, are played by the incredibly stiff (if photogenic) nonprofessionals Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, or that their dialogue, despite being credited to five screenwriters, mostly consists of cartoonish ‘60s slang.  The story contains potentially exciting elements – Frechette’s character is on the run after it is mistakenly assumed that he shot a police officer – but Antonioni seems perversely uninterested in developing the narrative in any meaningful way.

Then again, Antonioni has never really been a “narrative” filmmaker, and Zabriskie Point often excels when it embraces its experimental side.  The cinematography by Alfio Contini is tremendous throughout, and the movie achieves a sublime beauty whenever Antonioni ditches the dialogue and acting in favor of pure visual splendor.  A few scenes that ought to seem corny and didactic are redeemed by Antonioni’s abstract approach.  An early scene showing a commercial that represents the bourgeois ideals of some “square” advertising executives is obvious audience pandering in conception, but Antonioni’s vision of literal plastic people inhabiting a sunny middle class world has a creepy visual power in execution.  A sequence in which the main characters and a bunch of unaccounted for hippie types frolic in a gypsum-splattered desert similarly transcends its kitsch factor through the sheer beauty of the imagery.  And the final sequence, a hallucinatory series of explosions set perfectly to Pink Floyd’s “Careful With That Axe, Eugene,” is arguably the most otherworldly and mind-blowing scene in any of Antonioni’s films.  The gorgeous slow-motion footage of debris flying through the air rivals 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) for elegant trippiness, and makes sitting through the rest of this deeply flawed film worth it.

Afterthoughts  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Zabriskie Point is unfairly maligned.  The film’s many flaws - from the wooden acting of the leads to the instantly dated attempts to cash in on a ‘60s teen culture that the filmmakers clearly had only a surface understanding of – are pretty much inarguable.  While it would be reasonable to argue that Antonioni’s cinema is essentially nonnarrative and shouldn’t be evaluated in the same way that more traditional movies are, it’s still impossible to defend Zabriskie’s glaring non-commitment to the plot events that it sets up or its laughably poor (if thankfully spare) dialogue.

While I can’t say that Zabriskie Point is a particularly good film, I can say that it is nonetheless absolutely worth seeing for its amazing cinematography and its utterly spectacular conclusion.  The final sequence of explosions will undoubtedly stick with me for a long time, and it has a hallucinatory sensory power that fully transcends its vague social statement (consumer products such as Wonder Bread are among the things being blown up, apparently symbolizing the revolutionary destruction of middle class values – or something).  I suspect that Zabriskie’s potent imagery will stay with me long after its pandering social message, hazy plotting, and terrible acting have faded from memory.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Collections: Chuck Klosterman IV

Featuring the articles:  Bending Spoons with Britney Spears, Mysterious Days, Crazy Things Seem Normal, Normal Things Seem Crazy, Viva Morrissey!, The Amazing McNugget Diet/McDiculous, The Karl Marx of the Hardwood, That ‘70s Cruise, In the Beginning, There Was Zoso/Not a Whole Lotta Love, Band on the Couch, Garage Days Unvisited, Something Wicked This Way Comes, No More Knives, Ghost Story, Local Clairvoyants Split Over Future, The Stranger, Dude Rocks Like a Lady, Untitled Geezer Profile, The Ratt Trap/How Real is Real/The Tenth Beatle/Here’s “Johnny”, To Be Scene, or Not to Be Seen

And the essays:  Nemesis, Advancement, I Do Not Hate the Olympics, Three Stories Involving Pants, Don’t Look Back in Anger, Not Guilty, Cultural Betrayal, Monogamy, Certain Bands You Probably Like, Pirates, Robots, Super People, Television, Singularity

And the story:  You Tell Me

Chuck Klosterman made his name as a first-rate pop culture writer with the heavy metal-themed memoir Fargo Rock City (2001), but has since divided his time between writing articles for magazines such as Spin and Esquire and publishing the occasional piece of fiction like the novel Downtown Owl (2008).  Most of Klosterman’s best nonfiction pieces appear in his best-selling essay collections Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs (2003) and Eating the Dinosaur (2009).  The rest are grouped together in Chuck Klosterman IV:  A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas (2006).  Though the title is ostensibly a jokey reference to Led Zeppelin’s fourth album (technically untitled but commonly referred to as Led Zeppelin IV), Chuck Klosterman IV feels less like a watershed moment than it does a set of B-sides and outtakes.

That isn’t to say that IV is a waste of anybody’s time.  The tone throughout is breezy and fun, and though many of the pieces don’t transcend their origins as magazine articles, it’s hard to deny that Klosterman is better at writing about pop culture than just about anybody.  IV’s best articles tend to either emphasize Klosterman’s relative distance from the people he is supposed to be profiling or use their subjects to make a deeper and more general statement about our culture.  The opening piece about Britney Spears is a surprisingly engaging example of the former, as Klosterman is flustered by Spears’ apparently sincere obliviousness to the Madonna/whore complex that she nonetheless aggressively exploited in her rise to fame.  A eulogy for Johnny Carson is a fine example of Klosterman using his ostensible subject to speak more generally to cultural phenomena, as he somehow turns an obituary into a persuasive argument that the plethora of choices that we are offered in our society makes us “consciously happier, but unconsciously sadder.”  More often, the articles are well-written and engaging but ultimately disposable, as is the case with some fairly standard pieces about thoroughly-covered bands like Radiohead and The White Stripes.  A number of the snarkier essays are funny and will provide a great deal of amusement for music geeks (a list of the “ten most accurately rated artists in rock history” is a highlight), but they tend not to get beyond a surface level of entertainment.

The most interesting pieces in IV are not necessarily the best.  A 1995 story about Fargo’s local rock scene (written when Klosterman was 23) is amusingly earnest and clumsy in comparison to Klosterman’s current, mature style, and feels like the germ of what would ultimately develop into Fargo Rock CityIV concludes with what would’ve been the opening 34 pages of a never-finished novella entitled You Tell Me, the fictional story of a sexually frustrated small town movie critic (written at a time when Klosterman was in real life a small town movie critic who may have also been sexually frustrated, but who probably did not have an apparently suicidal woman land on his car, as happens to the protagonist of the story).   These diversions are interesting and provide some unique glimpses into Klosterman’s writing style.  But like too much of IV, they feel inessential, suggesting that another of the book’s subtitles should’ve been For Fans Only.