Friday, May 26, 2006

Two Italian First Films

The first shot of Bertolucci's first film

Lately I’ve been renting DVD’s in pairs as a sort of exercise in putting together potentially interesting double bills and seeing what resonances might emerge. Most recently I watched, back to back, two Italian debut films from the sixties: Bernardo Bertolucci’s La Commare Secca (1962) and Marco Bellocchio’s Fists In The Pocket (1965). Both were on Criterion discs and included interviews with Bertolucci that were brief—just ten minutes apiece—but very helpful in understanding socio-cultural and aesthetic context. I must confess that I’ve had some trouble with Bertolucci’s post-Conformist films and so it was heartening to see and hear him in the present day, lucid and down-to-earth, marbles perfectly intact.

To begin with, some quick backstory: Pier Paolo Pasolini made his first film, Accatone, in 1961; Bertolucci served as assistant director. Pasolini then wrote a script called La Commare Secca, but lost interest in it as he became occupied with his second film, Mamma Roma (1962). Bertolucci—just 21—stepped in to direct La Commare Secca. (The title translates as “The Grim Reaper.”) The same year, he won a prestigious award for his first book of poems.

No offense to poets and littérateurs, but La Commare Secca doesn’t feel weighed down by words. (Proposition: In a pinch, cinephiles prefer carefully wrought images to carefully wrought words.) The “poetic effects” in the film (see still photo above) are visual. Bertolucci insightfully says that since the story, character and settings were already handed to him—via Pasolini’s script and its “Pasoliniano genre”—he needed to counter them by bringing something of his own sensibility to the conception of the film. Pasolini was a non-cinephile influenced by early Tuscan painting and its frontality of composition (e.g. Sassetti), evoking the sacred by filming his images as he might an altarpiece. Bertolucci rejects this Renaissance static frontality in favor of flowing and lyrical (and poetic) moving camera shots.

With interlocking flashbacks, the film tracks the last few hours in the lives of a few characters—mostly petty criminals, pimps, and street-wise youths—before the murder of a prostitute; they are all suspects in the crime. The dialogue, far from being “literary” or “poetic” is instead (marvelously) made up of casual and “unimportant” exchanges. When the movie ends, you don’t remember the words but instead the bodies, gestures and clothes of the characters/actors. A big accomplishment: we lose interest in who-dun-it, so de-emphasized is the genre element of the story. When the murder scene is finally shown, Bertolucci seems so distanced from it that he lays soft and meditative finger-picked guitar (!) over this brutal scene. A great touch.

One terrific sign that Bertolucci was already—despite his youth and his literary roots—thinking like a filmmaker: the accounts of the suspects, told in words to the interrogating police detectives, serve as voiceover to the images of those accounts. But the images contradict the words—the suspects are often lying—but it is, intuitively, the images and not the words we end up believing as the "true" account of what happened. Quietly, Bertolucci signals the primacy of image over word.

How’s this for symbolism? In Marco Bellocchio’s Fists In The Pocket, we have a provincial middle-class family raging with ailment and dysfunction: epilepsy, mental illness and incest. And the mother is stricken with blindness. The protagonist is Alessandro (or Ale), the epileptic son played by Swedish-born actor Lou Castel, whom I’ve seen twice before, both times in the role of scuzzy film directors—Fassbinder’s Beware Of The Holy Whore (1970) and Assayas’s Irma Vep (1996). Ale, simply, wants to rid his family of its embarrassment of debilities by means of….collective suicide and murder. Considering the film was made a couple of years before the student revolts of the late sixties, the impulse to “blow up” the sick and ailing bourgeois family unit was surely not coincidental. (Bellocchio even shot the film in his own mother’s house in the provinces!)

“The great advantage of first films,” Bellocchio has said, “is that you’re nobody and have no history, so you have the freedom to risk everything.” Fists In The Pocket is pugnacious (the title is a translation of “I Pugni In Tasca”), full of tonal swerving and shifting. Bertolucci theorizes that the difference between his films and Bellocchio’s might have something to do with their hometowns. Bertolucci is from Parma (elegant, refined, aestheticized) and Bellocchio from Piacenza (hard-edged, enshrouded in grim weather).

This deeply sardonic film appears anti-humanist at first glance but that’s not true at all. Bellocchio constructs Ale not simply as a psycho-sociopath but as a complex character in whom he invests great sympathy. Ale twitches (physically, emotionally, mentally) in constant restlessness with the status quo. Suddenly, the camera might abandon what is happening in a room and plunge to a close-up of his hands running slowly across a table-cloth, caressing it creepily. (Body movements as a chart of psychic perturbations.) Gestures and events erupt unpredictably, making perfect sense in hindsight: At his mother’s wake, he sits by the body, then suddenly swings his legs and stretches them on the coffin, parallel to his mother’s. (Sacrilegious, funny.) Ale and his sister hurl their mother’s furniture and possessions into a bonfire, and the anarchic charge of the scene calls to mind the pillow fight in Vigo’s Zero De Conduite.

Castel’s mercurial performance is central to the movie. He resembles Brando from some angles, and his sister—remember I mentioned the icky undercurrents of incest?—even has a picture of Brando tacked to her bed. Castel’s de-stabilizing performance fits perfectly with Bellocchio’s risk-taking, incendiary tone. In his comments on the film, Bertolucci applies Pasolini's dichotomy of a “cinema of prose” (=Bellocchio) and a “cinema of poetry” (=Bertolucci). But Bertolucci's theory sounds too pat and clean to me. Fists In The Pocket is rough and raw and rancid—and that doesn’t make it any less poetic than the bits of torn newspaper floating preciously in the wind in the opening shot of La Commare Secca. Poetry comes in many flavors, tones and colors; not all of them taste sweet, sound lyrical or look beautiful.


Blogger phyrephox said...

Like the recent post on the Cinemarati blog comparing the Malle and the Ozu, I love the idea of creating double-bills on home video and seeing how each film informs the other. Terrific writing girish, I'll have to add these films to my list.

May 26, 2006 1:17 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey thanks, Daniel.
(And Daniel was referring to this post by Michael.)

May 26, 2006 1:22 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, I really enjoyed this essay, and I particularly like this distinction:

"Pasolini was a non-cinephile influenced by early Tuscan painting and its frontality of composition (e.g. Sassetti), evoking the sacred by filming his images as he might an altarpiece. Bertolucci rejects this Renaissance static frontality in favor of flowing and lyrical (and poetic) moving camera shots."

That's a great description of visual style.

It's interesting how accomplished filmmakers like these were when they were young; while I've seen neither La Commare Secca nor Fists in the Pocket, I get the sense from your post that they display great skill and great promise. It reminds me of Louis Malle, who made Elevator to the Gallows at the age of 24. In the Cinemarati post and discussion you link to (and thank you for linking to it, by the way), you mentioned Charbol; he had already made a few good films in his 20s and was 30 when he shot Les bonnes femmes, which I think is a an accomplished film.

Like phyrephox, I I'll be adding the Bertolucci and Bellocchio to my list.

May 26, 2006 2:18 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Michael.

Here's one dilemma I constantly face:
On the one hand, the number of excellent films available at our fingertips grows ever more each year.

But on the other hand, I increasingly feel the need for movies to sorta breathe inside me for a while before I can sit down and blog about them.

For instance, I saw these films (twice each) between a week and two weeks ago. And only this morning did I feel ready to put something down about them.
With the result that I always feel that I'm watching fewer films each week than I should be. (It's not like it's work--watching movies is fun!).

One thing I'm sure of: I need to improve my time management skills....

May 26, 2006 3:48 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, I feel the same way. I sometimes feel that I need to rush myself to see certain films, and yet I also feel the need to slow down so that I can spend the right amount of time letting a film sit with me before I move on to the next one. This dilemma only gets worse with the increasing availability of good films.

As a result, I also feel that I watch fewer films than I should.

May 26, 2006 4:20 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Girish, you just said a mouthful in that last comment! I hear ya, feel ya, see ya and raise ya. Looks like you're doing a pretty good job with your blog management skills though; the other day you were calling yourself a slacker compared to Frisco film bloggers, but you've now put out three high-quality posts since my last one.

I watched La Commare Secca last year but almost immediately realized I wasn't going to get much out of it, not without seeing a lot more Bertolucci first. (at the time I don't think I'd even seen the Conformist yet.) I hope to revisit it someday.

May 26, 2006 4:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"I hear ya, feel ya, see ya and raise ya."
Brian, you're funny.

Zach & I were chatting about your site when I was in New York, and what a valuable resource it is. I bet that if I lived in Frisco, reading Hell On Frisco Bay would spur me to catch many more theatrical showings of films than I might otherwise. You provide great selfless service through the blog. By comparison, most of us are narcissists. :-)
[For proof, check out the name of my blog!]

May 26, 2006 8:40 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Filmbrain on Takeshis'.

May 26, 2006 8:42 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Very nice piece Girish, and all the more admirable for the mere fact that I've never been able to successfully complete such a piece, though I've tried several times.

But then again, perhaps I shouldn't do double-bills of Bugsy Malone and Vengeance is Mine and expect to find a common thread. ;-)

May 26, 2006 9:04 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Filmbrain, I've never seen Bugsy Malone but Vengeance Is Mine scared me more than the blackest fright flick...amazing film.

May 26, 2006 9:14 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

We should do a horror film blogathon (around Halloween, if no one's in the mood for it before then). Or maybe I just say that because I watched Romero's Dawn of the Dead again last night and was just now reading a writeup of Kwaidan and remembering how much I liked the film (quite a lot. No, more than that. There you go.)

Girish, even though you've named your site after yourself, there's still a wonderful modesty and generosity that comes through. I don't tend to consider that narcissistic.

May 26, 2006 10:09 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

P.S. you've just reminded me of a friend in town who occasionally gives her husband the gentlest of reprimands, like so: "I wish you wouldn't talk about my husband like that."

May 26, 2006 10:12 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa--A horror film blog-a-thon on Halloween sounds perfect. I'm in!
I've always been a huge fan of a slightly lesser-known Romero film called Martin. I might tackle that one.

May 26, 2006 10:15 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"P.S. you've just reminded me of a friend in town who occasionally gives her husband the gentlest of reprimands, like so: "I wish you wouldn't talk about my husband like that."

May 26, 2006 10:15 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

G: If you haven't already, you might want to Netflix Romero's Season of the Witch.

May 26, 2006 10:33 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Flickhead, I hadn't even heard of that one. Thanks for the tip; I'll queue it up for sure.

May 26, 2006 11:27 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I saw Martin theatrically at the Denver Film Festival many years ago. Another obscure Romero film I like is Bruiser. I checked IMDb and noticed that Romero also directed a documentary on OJ Simpson!

May 27, 2006 12:24 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

I just watched Fists as well. I think the best bit is the late scene where Ale goes to a party with his brother and ends up shuttled into the shadows -- he may not want much to do with the status quo, but the status quo clearly doesn't want him around either. Good film, at any rate.

And, for me at least, a horror blog-a-thon would be a bit redundant... :-)

May 27, 2006 12:33 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

I love Romero, think his masterpiece has got to be Day of the Dead--and am willing to blog a long post defending that assertion...

May 27, 2006 12:55 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Flickhead, you might be one up on Stephen King on that one--he recommends Martin and the first two Dead films in Danse Macabre (published in '81, so no mention of Day of the Dead), yet he doesn't mention Season of the Witch. I've never heard of it; I'll have to check the local indie store and see if they have it.

May 27, 2006 1:43 AM  
Anonymous Marina said...

Ok, this isn't on the subject, but just found this surreal short - 'Guernica'.
You can watch it here:
Still can't verbally express how it feels, probably like observing Dali's, Picasso's and Gogh's works at the same time. Strange. Yet beutiful.
Anyway, hope you like it!

May 27, 2006 8:26 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa, Flickhead, Noel, Peter ~ I've seen just two Romero films, both of which I love: Night Of The Living Dead and Martin. I'd like to see many more.

There's a nice horror-film documentary on DVD called American Nightmare with great (and articulate) interviews with Cronenberg, Romero, Wes Craven, etc. Romero turns out to be a humble, avuncular guy with thick-rimmed glasses, utterly down-to-earth and cool.

May 27, 2006 8:30 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

I first saw Season of the Witch in 1976. It was playing under the title Hungry Wives at a drive-in theatre in Buffalo, as part of a triple feature. The other movies were Mario Bava's Four Times That Night and the legendary Chesty Morgan as Double Agent 73.

That drive-in holds a lot of special memories for me...such as the double feature of Night of the Cobra Woman (starring Joy Bang and Slash Marks!) plus Giant Spider Invasion, which co-starred Alan Hale as the police chief. His first line in that was "Hello, little buddy," a slightly inebriated homage to Gilligan's Island.

May 27, 2006 8:30 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Marina. Is it the Resnais short film from the 50s?

Flickhead, do you remember which drive-in or where it was?
That's one American experience I've never partaken: a trip to the drive-in.

May 27, 2006 8:33 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Fun reading: Best of the 90s film lists from ArtForum.
(via Joshua)

May 27, 2006 8:35 AM  
Blogger girish said...

If you're in New York, you should meet up with David and catch a movie.

And now I'm off to Canada for the day. Just one good thing about the gas prices: the line at the border will be a short one.

May 27, 2006 8:37 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

G: Kenmore rings a distant bell.

May 27, 2006 8:39 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Ah yes, I've heard of that one.

May 27, 2006 8:42 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Steve, I like your post about the Bellocchio film. Lots of good points.

The party scene was the highlight of the film for me too. It seemed to me Ale also consciously rejected the others there by refusing to dance with the girl who asked him to. (She ditched the Hobbes-spouting egghead who was hanging around her. She seemed more interested in Ale).

May 27, 2006 9:13 AM  
Anonymous Marina said...

Girish, not actually. Actually, not.
It's a 3D animation by Marcelo Ortiz (, who has studied in the Vancouver Film School (interview with him for the school -
Quite different in style and theme from Resnais's.

May 27, 2006 10:16 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

girish, Dawn of the Dead after Night and Martin, is the critic's favorite; Day due to budget cuts doesn't fare as well, but I love it--think it's his bloodiest and most extreme, in all kinds of ways, a low budget Dr. Strangelove with gore instead of humor, or gore used as a kind of humor

May 27, 2006 9:53 PM  
Anonymous Marina said...

Talking about first films, or debuts, what struck me as a 'work of a genious' was the recently viewed 'Vacas' (a.k.a. 'Cows') by director Julio Medem. So symbolic in form and elegiac in content/atmosphere, it constantly and somehow inexplicably reminded of Lynch. I have to revise 'Eraserhead' and 'Mullholand Drive' in order to apprehend this teasing feeling and determine it into a clear, definite thought. Or, most probably, bury it as irrelevant.

As for Bertolucci, as much fondness I have for him, he has always seemed to me as a 'floating', sentimental poet - in the best meaning (most present in 'Stealing Beauty'). Still haven't seen 'The Conformist' or '1900' (and that I admit with not a little shameful regret) and 'Last Tnago in Paris' was a bit of disappointment, which reminds me to revise it too.
So, what I aim at is probably that directors in their 'ripe-years' do not differ from their 'green-years'. Like Bertolucci from 'La Commare Secca' (gaining the sense from Girish's post) to 'The Dreamers' and Medem from 'Vacas' to 'Lucía y el sexo'. Or was that the 'auteur theory'...? :)

Ashamed again to admit to not having seen anything by Marco Bellocchio although soon I'll be able to view 'Amore e rabbia', which gathers Bertolucci and Bellocchio (as well as Godard, Pasolini and Lizzani) - one short by each. That might be a fruitful spring of further comparison.

Anyway, a marvelous post, Girish. And even more on a second and third reading.

May 28, 2006 11:03 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Noel ~ The Romero tetralogy is something I need to see, perhaps together, to get an idea of the interconnections. It's funny: we don't really have a big tradition of horror films as a genre in India, so I didn't really grow up with them at all. Thus, it's the genre I know least well.

Thank you, Marina.
I only mentioned it in passing but of all contemporary "respected" filmmakers, Bertolucci (for me) has the most uneven oeuvre. I'd like to do a post about my personal response to his films.

Although The Conformist (which I only saw in its undubbed, un-cropped format last year) is a masterwork.

Your comment about him as a "sentimental poet" makes sense. One reason La Commare Secca feels different from his other films is the huge imprint of Pasolini--he is a great "rough-hewn" and "de-sentimentalizing" influence on the film.

May 28, 2006 1:07 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Palme D'Or to Ken Loach and second prize to Bruno Dumont.

May 28, 2006 5:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

One of my favorite music writers is Tom Breihan.
Here, he pays tribute to recently deceased Jamaican singer Desmond Dekker.
I was going to do a post on Dekker (with mp3's), but Breihan's comprehensive tribute makes that idea quite superfluous...

May 29, 2006 9:50 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Jim Tata on the rising number of literary fiction writers.

May 29, 2006 9:52 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Round-Headed Boy on Russ Meyer & Roger Ebert's band creation, the Carrie Nations.

May 29, 2006 9:53 AM  
Blogger girish said...

5 for the day: Authority & Subordination by Jeffrey Hill at MZS's place.

May 29, 2006 9:55 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Acquarello on Mrinal Sen's In Search Of Famine.

Just received this as a gift from a most generous friend who ordered it all the way from Calcutta for me. Can't wait to see it.

May 29, 2006 11:02 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Strange are the ways of the Internets.
This blog's been around for a year and a half and the post that hands-down gets the most google search hits is this tiny one, for the Emmanuelle Devos pic.

May 29, 2006 11:10 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Strange indeed. Most of the images I've posted, even of obscure bands or LPs, don't show up in Google Images. Yet make a post about a documentary about strippers and boom, instant indexing and a traffic spike.

May 29, 2006 11:45 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Is it just me, or are the Cannes winners even more underwhelming than the selections? Of course, I'm still psyched to see Volver ...and at least I'm not dreading Flanders as much now. :)

Bellocchio's Fists in the Pocket is an interesting case; his films always seemed to be tinged with a kind of institutional"incestuousness" as a root of all contemporary social ills, like the implicit collusion between the church and the government to not negotiate with the terrorists during the Aldo Moro affair in Good Morning Night, the Vatican's contemporary practice of fast tracking saints in My Mother's Smile (usually for political or doctrinal expediency), or the moral ambiguity of following the letter of the law The Conviction, so it's always interesting to see Bellocchio take this metaphor so literally in Fists in the Pocket.

May 29, 2006 12:08 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ah, interesting connections with the other Bellocchio films, Acquarello. This is my first by him; Good Morning, Night will be next.

And yes, Cannes does seem a bit underwhelming this year, esp. compared to last year.
It'll be interesting to see the Cinema Scope and Film Comment coverage to get a better idea; so far, we've seen mostly the mainstream press first-takes, which can be off sometimes.

If there are not too many big hitters, I'm at least hoping there are some small and interesting surprises for the festivals later in the year.

May 29, 2006 12:23 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Bellochio has been a challenge for me. He hasn't had any decent theatrical distribution since Devil in the Flesh, and not all of his films are available on DVD or tape. I have yet to see anything from Slap the Monster until I saw The Eyes, the Mouth. Then after Devil, I've seen nothing until Prince of Homburg and his films after that.

May 29, 2006 4:19 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

The Jazz Page to End All Jazz Pages, modestly called instead "Bob Keller's Jazz Page." (via MeFi)

May 30, 2006 1:09 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa, that is one helluva page; it's going on the sidebar instantaneously. Thank you.

May 30, 2006 7:40 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Must-read post by the Cinetrix.

May 30, 2006 7:43 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Matt Zoller Seitz on "Rescue Me".

May 30, 2006 7:44 AM  
Blogger girish said...

The day will be spent writing. Noon deadline for the alt-weekly review of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Three Times which, unbelievably, is opening here in town. Back with a post in the afternoon.

May 30, 2006 7:48 AM  
Blogger Joshua said...

While I suspect your hunch that, in a pinch, cinephiles prefer images to words is correct, aren't there times when words themselves become images? I don't mean just the obvious -- title cards in silent films, for instance, which serve a pragmatic purpose but also a deeply aesthetic one -- but films in which words bleed out in order to form a shape. I hate Hiroshima Mon Amour, but it's the first example that comes to mind -- the endless voice over talking isn't meant to be speech, but to literally fill a visual void. Which is why it's not surprising that Godard was reminded of Faulkner when watching the film. Faulkner's books contain nothing but words, but even here, out in the literary wilds, words often serve a primarily sensory purpose. Faulkner was more influenced by Picasso than by Joyce, his great aesthetic love was modern painting and his books, particularly "As I Lay Dying" are lushly constructed physicals works of art, with immense detail spent to the ways words can evoke, either explicitly or implicity, the shape of his characters' lives. Certainly many great films employ the same device, usually in the form of voice over. Wayne Wang's "The Center of the World" comes to mind. Also the endless chatter of "Metropolitan" or the deeply intimate conversations of "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset."

May 31, 2006 2:30 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Great points, Joshua!
I read Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons for the first time a while back and had the exact same impressions.
(And of course, Picasso called Cezanne "the father of us all"....which is completely in line with your argument.)

I also realized that this is true with music as well. Listening to Coltrane note by note (in discrete, linear fashion) can sometimes be maddening, especially at quick tempos, but viewing his solo as evoking a kind of musical "invisible sculpture," with undulating contours, a sort of shape-shifting sonic cloud, is a more productive (and pleasurable) approach to his music, I think. That's how I listen to it, anyway.

May 31, 2006 10:13 AM  

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