Tuesday, March 4, 2014

James Quandt on Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poet of Contamination

TIFF Cinematheque presents the revolutionary films of Italian filmmaker who changed the way we look at love and violence.

TIFF Bell Lightbox March 8 to April 12
TIFF Cinematheque takes a walk on the wild side with it series Pier Paolo Pasolini:  The Poet of Contamination, its third exhibition of Pasolini's films. Pasolini’s films to be shown within the retrospective include Accattone, Mamma Roma, Medea, and The Gospel According to Matthew, The Arabian Nights, The Canterbury Tales, Teorema, Hawks and Sparrows, Love Meetings, The Decameron, Porcile, Oedipus Rex and 120 Days of Sodom. They are not for the faint hearted. Anything and everything goes, interpreted within Pasolini’s characteristic view that life is as gritty, dark and threatening as it is beautiful and revolutionary. WE spoke with Senior TIFF programmer James Quandt.

This is the third time Cinematheque has run a Pasolini retrospective. Why did you think it was important to stage it a third time?

There are several reasons. One is that I maintain the Great Books belief that programming should continually make important bodies of work—especially ones as influential as Pasolini’s—available to new audiences. Four years ago indeed seems like a short time, but as a colleague pointed out to me, in the meantime the 14-year-olds who couldn’t see his films then can now do so. (Our recent Godard retrospective drew a very young audience, many of them seeing his films for the first time.) Second, with the transition to digital, it is becoming increasingly difficult, sometimes impossible, to secure classic films in their original formats (celluloid, 35mm) so I had to leap at the opportunity of Cinecitta Luce in Rome making all new 35mm prints of Pasolini’s work and touring them in North America. We very likely will never have this chance again! And nobody's work demands to be seen on film and on the big screen more than Pasolini's

He was one of the most controversial figures in the history of cinema. I would count only Rainer Werner Fassbinder as equally controversial. To me they are both cultural heroes partly because they’re passionate rejection of the society the country and the state was so utter. They used their art to launch their devastating critique of everything through thought was false and distorted around them. They were both homosexual, and it made them pariahs in their retrospective societies. And both of course had early deaths. Both died partly because of their roles of outsiders. There was a whole industry of Pasolini’s death books and documentaries debating the true story. Officially he tried to pick up a young hustler; he had a taste for proletarian young males, and was beaten to death on the beach outside of Rome. But many people believe that his death as actually orchestrated by elites who just couldn’t stand any more of his voice of criticism in their midst. These are pretty convincing documentaries. When you look at the police records of the murder there are so many contradictory statements.
Mamma Roma

Anne Brodie – This is the third time Cinematheque has featured the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini. Why return to him?

JQ - The thing I always find when I return to his work and Fassbinder’s, is that their notoriety overshadows basic facts. What matters most, is them as artists. As much as they hated their worlds, Fassbinder expressed an appreciation of the films of Douglas Sirk. They loved people in their specific industry. Early films like Accattone and Mamma Roma, starring Anna Magnani, and Pasolini was a freak about her, you can see the tenderness with which he treats people. These people were a lower class, not largely considered valid subjects for art. Neo realism changed that somewhat but Pasolini took it that much further. He spoke from knowledge. Rossellini came from privileged background so did Pasolini but he rejected his class. He spent a lot of time among the proletariat. One of the most amazing films in this series was LoveMeetings. In the early sixties, he went on the road with a portable camera and mic and talked to people in the church, to peasant woman about sex, people on the streets, it was largely a forbidden subject, at the time it was not done, with the immense control the church exercised over society. It was a dark and forbidden subject. It’s an amazing film, and shows his empathy and sympathy. It’s exhilarating but crushingly sad because you see society in thrall to a lot of what we would consider now destructive ideas about sexuality. His courage and bravery were astonishing.
The Decameron

AB - Pasolini’s attitude to violence is pretty matter of fact. It is as natural as making love or cooking. For instance, Medea murders her brother with a scythe, dispassionately, while others simply watch or pretend to ignore. It’s horrifying and there is zero morality imposed on it.

JQ - The hallmark of his work is his treatment of violence. One of his novels - he was poet, essayist and filmmaker - the novel that made him was A Violent Life. That is a very important feature of his cinema, not the kind we encounter in contemporary films. This is everyday street violence; the warp and woof of certain kind of life culminates in his most infamous work Salo, 120 Days in Sodom, one of the grimmest, most unbearable films to watch. And a lot of people have interpreted it as self-obituary, that he was writing an epitaph, I don’t buy it. It does stand as one of the most powerful statements on humanity in cinema. I forced myself to watch it. Even his story of Jesus is different from everybody else’, beautiful but harsh.
La rabbia di Pasolini

AB - What is thought of Pasolini nowadays?

JQ - He was an iconoclast and revolutionary. What I hope the retrospective reveals is this other quality this tenderness as an example of the stands he took to maintain his principals. In the late sixties when Europe was erupting in politics, transformations were happening. When it happened in Rome, he wrote an infamous statement that his sympathies were on the side of the police. It runs against everything you’d think about him, the youth and the society they’re attacking. The students were the bourgeoisie, from the privileged class; the policemen were from the lower classes. The proletariat managed to climb up in the world, by becoming things like policemen. His politics and class affiliation is the working class.

AB - Is there any filmmaker today who compares to him?

JQ - The sad fact is no. It shows that something has gone out of our culture in general; I can’t think of many filmmakers who put their career and life on the line frankly with their art, I can’t think of anyone, maybe Japan’s Nagisa Oshima. Pasolini was incredibly courageous.
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