I pugni in tasca / Fists in the Pocket (1965)

18 01 2023

The defining image of Marco Bellochio’s debut, Fists in the Pocket is undoubtedly the face of its protagonist, Alessandro, portrayed by Lou Castel. The devilish smirk belongs not to a calculating menace, but instead a tormented, fragile, and deeply disturbed son. If The Conformist retold the story of Fascism in Italy, Bellochio’s film instead tracks a deep ambivalence that must have been present in a period of political refractory. At the time of its making, Bellochio himself was active in the Italian Communist Party, but little to no ideology is detectable in the film’s surface, something that cannot be said for his follow-up film China is Near. Yet, there is an undeniable energy here compatible with his antifascism. Gallows humor is the intention here, but there is a rebellious spirit that manages to resist any political classification. It is a supremely satisfying as a portrait of, well, dissatisfaction.

Alessandro lives in his family mountainside villa with his blind mother, his sister Giulia, and two brothers, Augusto and Leone. All of them, save Augusto, suffer from epileptic fits. Its Augusto who is engaged to be married, to his lover Lucia, much to the chagrin of his siblings. Lucia receives a love note, presumably fabricated, by a lover of Augusto who does not exist. Meanwhile, Alessandro writes a love poem for Giulia. When he reads the daily papers for his blind mother, Alessandro dreams up non-existing headlines of immense violence and devastation, setting himself up for a future where he commits such acts against his family. To him, his brother’s marriage, and the prospects of a subsequent move into the city will so deeply dissolve the family that their physical extermination logically corresponds.

In the late 20th century and early 21st century, Lou Castel’s presence in world cinema was often a shorthand evocation of the May 1968 spirit. This is most obvious in Phillipe Garrel’s La Naissance de l’amour and Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep. The two films were made three years apart and Castel’s presence is contrasted in both films with Jean-Pierre Leaud, cinema’s definitive face of May 1968. Watching Castel in his debut is thus a marvel, as his incestuous closed off family plays out a claustrophobic chamber drama in step with the (then) recent geopolitical history of Italian fascism. Unlike his more explicitly political second film, China is Near, Fists in the Pocket never directly addresses any sort of political intentions. Instead, we are left with the sinking feeling that the twisted logic of Alessandro has been disseminated amongst his family (his sister Giulia seems to willingly share their incestuous tension) just as the twisted logic of Fascism was disseminated amongst Italy.

As his first film, Bellochio was starved for resources. Initially, he had intentioned his film to be the sort of naturalistic and poetic vision reminiscent of Jean Renoir. Infamously, two of his biggest cinematic heroes, Luis Buñuel and Michelangelo Antonioni, were dismissive of the film. While one can track the influence of all three, he has also innovated through limitations. While we are treated on occasion of foggy setups of the rolling mountains enveloping our character, we are more often forced to cohabit with them inside a large but tight villa. This works wonders for Bellochio considering the incestuous undertones of the film, emphasizing the limited world(view) and alienation from those on the outside.

Of course, the other massive component that worked out great for Bellochio is young Castel’s manic energy. He manages to operate on high and low with such (un)harmonious brilliance. He can take on the tender dissatisfaction of a Bressonian model in one sequence, and then burst chaotically into a fit of laughter during a funeral in another. While his intentions are often monstrous, one never feels at ease sacrificing all their empathy. His plot to eradicate his family suggests sickness, but his volatility makes it plays natural, as if a byproduct of an environment that harbors the possibility of such thoughts, as opposed to the pen of a screenwriter.

Il conformista / The Conformist (1970)

12 01 2023

Sometime in the past six months, I was on a first date. I’ll spoil it for you now: there was no second date. The conversation and company were pleasant enough, mind you, but nothing earth shattering. The interaction gave me one last impression, though. The moment politics ever so lightly became hinted at, the woman in question (who was a few years  my junior I should mention) informed me that “we all eventually feel the lure of conservatism.” On one level, I sort of understood here but on another I thought she had read perhaps one too many reactionary Times pieces about right-wing politics finally becoming cool for the youth. I thought of this woman several times while revisiting Bertolucci’s The Conformist, a film I hadn’t spent any time with in nearly a decade. On my initial viewing, I was blown away by it on a technical level but was left cold by a protagonist that I saw as a toothless coward. I was right then, Marcello Clerici is indeed a coward and someone who has deeply felt the aforementioned lure. However, time erodes the zeal of one’s idealism. As it stands today, I have more patience for the dilemma within Marcello and a result, am now absolutely moved by what must be one of the most beautiful films of all-time.

In the wee hours of the morning, Marcello Clerici receives a phone call and promptly leaves his hotel room. He enters the back of a car wordlessly and is escorted away. The driver is Manganiello, an assassin, and the two, we later learn, are on their way to an assassination. Marcello is deserting his new wife, Giulia, in the middle of their honeymoon. Marcello tells us of a past he is trying to leave behind, most specifically a homoerotic encounter followed by an accidental murder. Leading up to the present, Marcello has told associates and friends that his marriage to Giulia will be one of two key events that will help him achieve a sense of normalcy that has forever eluded him. The other event is the assassination, in this case he is assigned the elimination of a former mentor, Professor Quadri, a left-wing dissident to Italian fascism deemed dangerous by Marcello’s employer.

Following the release of his sensational second, Before the Revolution, filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci meditated on the conflict of being a Marxist with a bourgeois background. “Naturally in every bourgeois Marxist, who is consciously Marxist, I should say, there is always the fear of being sucked back into the milieu he came out of, because he’s born into it and the roots are so deep that a young bourgeois finds it very hard to be a Marxist.” Such a personal conflict is made quite explicit in Before the Revolution, when the main character Fabrizio is torn between his straightlaced upbringing and the idealism of the revolution. The dynamic is different for Marcello in The Conformist though. He has already made his mind up, a complete dedication and obedience to Fascism will solidify his position as a man. Without it, he is incomplete and lost.

As compelling as all of this is, The Conformist is not simply a character study and much of its magic would be lost if so, much of the details weren’t expertly juggled with temporal indeterminism. The film’s source text, a novel of the same name by Alberto Moravia. The novel is told is a straightforward and linear fashion. I haven’t read it but such a structure suggests a defensive strategy in elucidating Marcello’s choices. Bertolucci plays with time more here: using the drive to Professor Quadri’s murder as the setup for a sort of frame story. But we just back and forth from past to present with such stunning dexterity. Certain sequences that would have felt like evidence for Marcello’s cruelty and cowardice begin to take on the energy of a non-sequitur. One of the film’s most stunning visual sequence, when Marcello visits his mother, feels spontaneous even as it is visually poetic.

Bertolucci populates his film with several such set pieces. They have an energy in them that resemble the creation of a young director explicitly inspired by the French New Wave yet rendered in a cinematic grammar that is miles away from Jean-Luc Godard or the various imitators he launched during the 60s and 70s. Bertolucci considered himself a disciple of Godard and The Conformist was a conscious attempt to escape from his influence and do something entirely unique. This is made explicit by the fact that Professor Quadri’s Paris address was (allegedly) the same as Godard’s at the time. So, while the spontaneous energy is palpable it is rendered under an entirely new and different visual grammar, one that eventually inspired just as many imitators as Godard himself. It’s fitting that The Conformist was released at the beginning of the 1970s, because countless new filmmakers spent the rest of the decade chasing the look that Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro perfected here on first try.

It’s as though, almost out of nowhere, Bertolucci birthed an entirely new aesthetic with little to no precedence. His intention to forge a new path outside of the shadow of the New Wave is perhaps helped by the period of the story, but the jump between 1968’s Partner and this is not something that can be explained away by the mere interjecting of 1930s art deco iconography. It’s a new visual style. The markers of the past have been played with it, expertly, to forge something completely unique. The dazzling nature of each sequence must have registered as a shock to audiences in 1970, because it still manages to do the same today. On my initial viewing, I was left cold by a protagonist I found to be cowardly, but times makes fools of us all, and now Marcello’s inner turmoil renders this stunning portrait something far more poignant than I had originally understood it to be.

Vive L’Amour (1994)

10 01 2023

Early in Edward Yang’s 1985 film Taipei Story, one character makes an inquiry about another’s recent visit to Los Angeles. “LA is just like Taipei” we’re told, and the tone suggests neither disappointment or excitement, but rather a neutral observation. The beginning of a shift in global capitalism is relayed in the Taipei depicted in Yang’s earlier film, it is firmly entrenched by the time of Tsai Ming-Liang’s second feature length film, Vive L’Amour. Like Yang’s film, real estate and development figure into a main character’s profession. The high-rise apartments whose construction forebodingly linger in the background of that film become the site of the (in)action in Tsai’s film. Here, no one mourns the death of a national dream because our protagonists seem to have always been lost, and thus never privy to such a false promise.

Hsiao-kang stumbles upon a key left in the door of a luxury duplex. He impulsively steals it and returns to the building with the intention of squatting there. Unbeknownst to him, the key was left behind by a young real estate agent, May Lin, who picks up a sporty drifted named Ah-Jung. The two return to the same building for the beginning of their trysts. As a result, the building has three tenants, none of whom are actively renting the space. Hsiao-kang and Ah-Jung run into each other. The argument that follows seems to beguile the former and agitate the latter. The three visibly struggle to make connections in an increasingly modern Taipei, but they manage to have a formed a bizarre connection through pure luck.

In the popular critical evaluation of Tsai, there are few critics who fail to compare him to Antonioni. The focused and glacial poetry of the celebrated Italian undoubtedly informs Tsai’s visual syntax. Tsai’s first film, Rebels of the Neon God, maintains a kinetic energy relative to the rest of his filmography. Here, though, we are firmly in the cinematic territory that informed the rest of Tsai’s career. Indeed, the setup here of three lost individuals accidentally encountering one another seems to mirror the end of Antonioni’s masterpiece, L’Eclisse. In that film, the two would be lovers fail to reconnect in the alienated space of modernizing Rome. In this case, the distancing of modernization has malfunctioned to the point where it brings strangers together, but the result is neither encouraging nor invigorating.

Instead, the trio seem even more sad and more lost after their incidental contact. Ah-Jung and May Lin can at least distract themselves in the hour of carnal activity, but this physicality is fleeing. Instead of being nourished by their interaction, it’s another bit of personal maintenance to keep the capitalist project churning. The booty calls act as a temporal placeholder for May Lin in-between apartment viewings, they seem to provide as much (or as little) relief as the cigarettes she chain-smokes throughout the film. Both act as temporary distractions from an ever-present but benign personal pain, but nothing seems to bring her (or any of the other characters) any real pleasure, let alone fulfillment.

Unable to access the physical intimacy demonstrated by the other two members of the squatting arrangement, Hsiao-kang acts as the film’s ultimate loner. His behavior is that which is most intimate. After the film’s close-up opening of the apartment’s key, we switch to a shot of Hsiao-kang wandering a convenience store. The angle bears the resemblance of a security camera, and Tsai’s camera seems to operate with the same logic. I think it is less the static nature of his camera that trips up less attentive audience members, and more the fact that he is very interested in documenting rather mundane moment. It is in these mundane moments that the psychosexual tension present in all of Tsai’s collaboration with his muse Lee kang-shang, begins to boil to the surface, eventually reaching (to me) its ultimate climax in their greatest achievement together, The Wayward Cloud, which was still 11 years away at this point.

For all the very dense subject matters that Tsai expertly juggles in this drama, I think it is extremely important to emphasize one of the most neglected elements of his work: his humor. For as much as Antonioni is present here, so too is Tati. Where I might find Tati to be sometimes too silly and slapstick, one would be hard-pressed to make the same accusation of Tsai even as he is working under the same terrain. To me, the film’s most brilliantly hilarious sequence occurs when Hsiao-kang, in the process of a suicide attempt, stumbles through the hallways to watch Ah-jung and May Lin in the middle of intercourse. It is dark, of course, but Tsai manages to strike the ever-delicate balance, his gallows’ humor never backfires with emotional irresponsibility, and it is partly due to his incomparable patience behind the camera.

Vive L’Amour begins Tsai’s relationship with brilliant endings. Here, May Lin is stranded following another tryst when her car refuses to start. She walks through Daan Forest Park. The park’s construction began in 1994, fittingly after the eviction of longtime squatters. In the film, the park bears little resemblance to a place of tranquil beauty. Instead, piles of unattended dirt float above inhabitants. The sequence begins with May Lin walking through the space herself, and it feels completely alien to us. One wonders what the constant cycle of destruction and reconstruction of our surrounding space does to us. As the sequence continues, a wider shot reveals subjects more willing to participate in the simulation. Amidst an active construction site, people jog, walk their dog, and read the morning paper. They give us an insight into what park might one day resemble, but the juxtaposition feels preposterous. May Lin, meanwhile, sits down at a bench and cries. Tsai’s camera watches for 6 and a half minutes. The film ends.

Whity (1971)

23 05 2020

In a career of consistent evolution and steady experimentation, it would be difficult and unwise to pinpoint any particular film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder as a particular outlier. Personally, my recent revisits have suggested to me that any bifurcation of his career is short-sighted and threatens to erase a singular and unique vision (and politics) embedded throughout Fassbinder’s career. And yet, Whity, made in 1971, does qualify as that outlier film if we must participate in such an exercise. After all, this is his sole flirtation with the western but more importantly, the distortion of that genre’s skeleton is viewed through some of the most virtuosic camera movements in his career. The peculiar stylistic choices in Whity reflect the formal austerity of Fassbinder’s earliest dramatic experimentation, but they are rendered with a color palette that is uniquely stunning. In a career filled with precise compositions and beautiful visuals, Whity is a singular achievement.

Whity is the bastard mulatto son and in-house slave of the Nicholas family, prestigious plantation owners in the American South. The family consists of patriarch Ben and his two sons, Frank and Davy. They are joined by his new and much younger wife, Katherine. Whity’s partner in servitude is his mother, a blackface “Mammy” who cooks the food for the perpetually unimpressed whiteface Nicholas family. While his mother’s psyche seems long gone, broken down by her servitude to the family, Whity instead takes some pride. He willfully steps in as the literal whipping boy when patriarch Ben snaps at Frank for his inadequate masculinity.  The family’s shared sexual frustration is deepened by his presence, which sharpens their mutual hatred that inevitably turns them against each other.

Premiering nearly a full two years after Katzelmacher, Whity initially bears a strong stylistic difference from Fassbinder’s first masterpiece. Structurally, though, it plays like something of a revisit. Like the residents of the apartment complex in the earlier film, the Nicholas family here is bounded by their hatred. The prejudices against the Greek immigrant is replayed and replaced by the prejudices against Whity, a black man in the American South. The power structure in this film stands on a firmer historical ground, which allows Fassbinder to take a slightly different route. The shared hatred eventually tears both units apart, but the Nicholas family’s rupture is punctuated by a sexual frustration present in their inability to integrate their interracial desire that bubbles to the surface through Whity.

Just like in Katzelmacher, the one subject who resists the group-hate is portrayed by Fassbinder’s muse Hanna Schygulla, and in both films, she becomes the love interest of our titular outsiders. Here, she plays Hanna, a composite cabaret singer informed in equal parts by Marlene Dietrich and the musical collaboration of Brecht and Weill. Ported from those contexts, such a character wouldn’t fit too comfortably in the fabric of a Hollywood Western. Whity, however, plays like a nightmare collected from half remembered cinematic experiences which makes any incongruent elements fit snugly, while also suggesting the exceptional density of the text. Comparing Whity to filmmakers as divergent as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Raoul Walsh suggests something of a mess, but the grab bag of inspiration is organized as a cohesive experiment that results in something that can only be Fassbinder.

Having said all that, Whity feels more like a particularly successful experiment rather than a fully completed masterwork. There’s maybe too many ideas going on here, and perhaps not enough time to elaborate on them. It’s telling that Fassbinder chose the western as his launching point, as it is perhaps the Hollywood genre that is most deeply informed by and embedded with the power structure of race. Of course, its presence is often a subtextual specter in such films or treated with an overdetermined and one-dimensional progressiveness during the revisionist stage. Here, it is informed by the interracial desire that is hinted throughout Fassbinder’s oeuvre and reflects the filmmaker’s personal struggle with the matter. This likely came from his own feelings towards Günther Kaufmann, who plays the titular Whity here. Resisting the two routes described above, Fassbinder grounds the film with an understanding of the complexity at hand and suggests any definitive statement as a fool’s errand. A side effect of his rapid-fire pace at the time, Whity lacks the brilliant, unfiltered reproduction of how individuals run amok as products of society’s power balance.

Again, though, I must emphasize the strengths of the film. This was Fassbinder’s first collaboration with Michael Ballhaus and the harsh austerity measures inform some of the sharpest colors achieved in their respective careers. The blackface/whiteface distortions present throughout points to the discourse on race, but it suggests a formal dedication that privileges individual compositions over the context of space. It formally recalls the similar dedication of Ozu and his red teapot or Antonioni and his repainted trees in Red Desert, but it is balanced by a perversity that resembles Paul Morrissey’s high-camp horror experiments that came two years later. As I mentioned earlier, such divergent influences suggest either a messy experience or a writer all too eager to namedrop, but in Fassbinder’s hands it makes perfect sense. Despite all the names scattered throughout this review, the truth is that only Fassbinder could make a film like Whity.

Schatten der Engel / Shadow of Angels (1976)

18 05 2020

In 1975, on a flight back from New York, Rainer Werner Fassbinder started a script that would eventually become Der Miill, die Stadt und der Tod (The Garbage, the City and Death). Intended for the stage, the script itself was greeted with such intense controversy that any attempts to dramatize the script were met with intense obstacles. The diagnosis of the text as anti-semitic was largely informed by a public dismissal at the hands of (fairly conservative) Nazi historian Joachim Fest. Those of us who champion Fassbinder’s work can’t be surprised by such a gross misreading. If anything, one wonders why other works weren’t greeted with such vocal opposition. His nearly stubborn refusal to indulge in the kind of identification common in narrative filmmaking informs Daniel Schmid’s interpretation of one of his most precise yet downtrodden texts. As it is, the ugliness depicted within is actually a pointed critique, rather than an endorsement.

Lily Brest is a streetwalker on Frankfurt’s West End. The once cosmopolitan district is now exceptionally seedy. She does not fare as well as her sex worker pals, and she often returns to her lover and pimp, Raoul, with no earning. This frustrates Raoul, who often requires that Lily’s earnings are punctuated with a graphic description of her labor. She spends one evening with an unnamed and wealthy land speculator, bluntly given the nickname The Rich Jew amongst the district’s less sympathetic individuals. The man pays Lily handsomely to listen to him speak.

Even a limited description like the one I’ve offered above points to the crucial misreading that engulfed Fassbinder’s script in controversy. Klaus Löwitsch’s character is never offered a name but is instead continuously referred to as The Rich Jew. It’s easy to build a critique with this, without even coming to terms with the immense complexities and contradictions within the text. In refusing to produce a positive representation, Fassbinder has passively bought into the logic that undergirded the Holocaust itself. This is a dishonest interpretation to me as his consistent ambivalence to morals more accurately depicts a world in where these prejudices live and thrive. It’s a reality that is unremarkable, which is perhaps why a film like Shadows of Angels can feel unrelenting in its darkness.

There is, however, humor to be found here. It’s the sort of humor Fassbinder specialized in, one that was able to exist within and yet apart from the tragedies his characters are often tasked with enduring. The tone is peculiar, but never mocking. Towards the film’s end, Lily’s onetime streetwalking compatriots reject her because of her apathetic tolerance of men. A tracking shot follows Lily as she walks the overcast streets of Frankfurt’s West End. As she continues to walk, the other sex workers (which include Irm Hermann) form a chorus, and the repetition of their presence marks a spatial disharmony unlike any in cinema. Much of what is humorous and profound in Shadows of Angels feels like a direct hit, an unfiltered interpretation of the source text mouthed by laconic bodies caught up in a trance at times, and a tango at others.