A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of introducing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Decameron at MoMA, and to participate the following day on a panel about Pasolini in general and The Trilogy of Life in particular, alongside Richard Pena and Simon Abrams. It was quite wonderful seeing the films again on a big screen, but I’d already had my eyes popped by seeing them a little while earlier, on Criterion’s beautiful new edition of the three films. Really, the films, both on Blu-ray and on the screen, looked brand new in ways I never thought they would. It also revealed certain things to me about them, and about Pasolini the filmmaker, that I’d never quite considered before.
My earliest exposure to Pasolini had been through a fairly beat-up print of The Gospel According to St. Matthew at the American Film Institute in DC (back in their old auditorium at the Kennedy Center) and an even more beat-up print of The Decameron in the back of some guy’s West Village loft (shown off a single projector, so we had to wait between reel changes), both when I was in my mid-teens. After that, though, it got worse. Pasolini films weren’t readily available on home video, so one had to hunt down tenth-generation copies of one-light recordings of crap prints somebody had made somewhere along the line. (I wrote a bit about this in an earlier post on the first time I saw Salo.) As a result, I got to thinking of Pasolini as something of a primitive. The Decameron and The Gospel are consciously rough movies, but, thanks to my unique viewing experiences, so too were Teorema, and The Hawks and the Sparrows, and Oedipus Rex, and so on and so forth – because I saw them through layers of pixels and monotone fields of shadow and grain.
That’s not to say that I thought Pasolini was simple. Actually, he was one of the most articulate writers about film, politics, and literature to ever come down the pike. But, to my untrained eyes, the films themselves had a roughness, a certain artlessness that I found both puzzling and exhilarating; the aesthetic seemed very point-and-shoot, in a way that seemed almost confrontational to the more precise and elaborate work coming out of Italy at the time, from the likes of Antonioni, Fellini, Visconti, and Bertolucci (who had been Pasolini’s assistant on Accatone!). Occasional references in his compositions to Medieval or Renaissance art seemed fairly basic and awkward. Mind you, Pasolini was one of my favorite filmmakers – but for the clarity of his thought as expressed through the films, not for the complexity of his design. (Indeed, I found Pasolini the filmmaker much easier to handle than Pasolini the theoretician and critic; in most of his writings, he seemed to be operating at an intellectual level I could barely grasp.)
I tend, sometimes, to glorify this earlier period when certain films were harder to see. Others do it, too. We look back fondly on those times when we had to suffer through scratchy prints in far-away theaters, or to hunt down crap copies of long-hoped-for artistic Holy Grails. And, to be fair, there is value in this -- it allows one to appreciate the availability of something, and to better cherish the moment when you do get to see it.
But over the years, being able to finally see these Pasolini films in proper presentations – be it through the excellent DVD of Teorema, or Criterion’s infamous edition of Salo, or MoMA retros, I’ve been able to discover that I was wrong – hopelessly, stupidly wrong, about Pasolini the filmmaker. The rough, very direct playfulness on display in The Trilogy of Life represented a genuine stylistic contrast to the films Pasolini had made previously -- to go along with the obvious apolitical and non-psychological turn he was making in his thought and in his narratives. Essentially, he was leaving Marx and Freud behind in search of...well, not a Utopian vision per se, but a vision of a world that was almost pre-linguistic, and one where he felt at home.
To paraphrase what I said in my brief introduction: Even the villains in these films have a certain innocence and simplicity to them that feels very playful. This is a world that believes in miracles, where people have a very direct relationship not just to faith, but also to sin and the pleasures of the flesh. And the films themselves are very human – they’re full of close-ups of dirt- and grime-covered faces that offer a striking contrast to the movie-friendly faces you would ordinarily see on screen. Their rough immediacy suggests a world that has barely begun to come into being.
Pasolini may have adopted the guise of a primitive for The Trilogy of Life, but it was a guise, and it actually represented a conscious break with his past -- an indication that he was withdrawing from a very particular cinematic and cultural milieu and entering a new one.
But in order to be able to understand something like this, you need to be able to consider the finer points of a filmmaker’s style and the “affect” of his images. Without seeing a film like Mamma Roma properly, for example, you can’t quite appreciate the quality of the light in the later scenes, where Pasolini quotes Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ as Mamma Roma’s son Ettore lies dying, tied to a bed. (This is an allusion that’s much discussed; but without being able to see the film properly, it’s hard to tell the subtle changes in light as the film repeatedly cuts back to this image, or the way you notice the boy’s heaving chest, a sign that he is still alive. If you're not aware of these elements, the reference comes off as overly blunt, and not particularly thought-through.) And I'd never quite properly appreciated the tense, quiet precision of Teorema and Oedipus Rex, genuinely immersive films which reveal that Pasolini actually had a knack for suspense. He could withhold and reveal with the best of them, all the while enveloping his viewer in these bizarre, quasi-mythical worlds he’d created. All goes to show you: How one sees the movie matters, a great deal.