Pier Paolo Pasolini

From 1960 through 1975, the year he was murdered under still-clouded circumstances, Pier Paolo Pasolini (born 1922), Marxist agitator working outside of official communist channels, poet, novelist, literary critic and esoteric theorist, film director, and above all lyrical filter of all that passed through his creative life, steadily climbed to become the most significant voice from the Left in Italy, perhaps in all of Western Europe, throughout the global, social protest era. While lacking the gravitas of elder philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and paradigm-shifting prolific film output of Jean-Luc Godard, Pasolini worked on a broader front than either, setting his fires across a wider swath of intellectual territory. Each of these three pivot points are deeply rooted in, and responsible for, the historical course of the Left; Pasolini's incisive and inflammatory resistance to consumerist capitalist culture has proven visionary, and remains a key influence in Italian and American intellectual thought. He, and neither Sartre nor Godard, is recurrently hailed the cultural heir to Nietzsche, for his pithy questions and ripostes, blazing talent at philosophical transgression, bold unearthing of the West's source prejudices, brave advance upon bedrock bourgeois values, and his personal seizure by the outcast, “squalid” life that he vindicated (Pasolini not only talked a talk, but walked a walk). At a time when declaring oneself homosexual was dicey, Pasolini not only came out but challenged his audience to look in the mirror, finding and sharing the humanness of his gayness, as well as the agony and tenacious old ways of the destitute side of Rome where he found his element. Two dozen of his books have been translated into English; all 12 of his feature films, as well as most of his shorts, that he left to us are available on dvd in the U.S. with English subtitles.

Currently, there are also more than one dozen scholarly books on Pasolini in English, plus two critical biographies. Counting the hundreds of essays on Pasolini's films which appear in journals and anthologies dedicated to his work and to Italian cinema studies, the secondary literature's output for his film work is impressive. Attempting an overview of criticism would not only be nigh impossible, but a desiccated approach to an animated, difficult figure like Pasolini, who was at once fiery and austere. Instead, it seems timely to give some scrupulous thought to why the two films that have gained Pasolini the most fame/infamy, and which initially appeared to secure him status as a legendary provocateur, have found surprisingly wide but (at least on the surface) diametrically opposed audiences; the two films' broad cultural approval suggests both callowness when dealing with the antipodal heat of an intellectually taciturn titan like Pasolini, and a somewhat different dynamic that charges his work with scandals and scalding paradoxes emerges from what was first perceived.

Death by Hanging (1968, 118 mins., b/w, 1.85:1 ratio)

An impeccably unorthodox film perhaps permits an introduction to be a little bit free form. The last time I saw Death by Hanging in 35mm was March 8, 2003 at LACMA's Bing Theater. At the time, George W. Bush was preparing to invade Iraq, which was both obviously justified on lies and a foreseeably unwinnable policy. It was a frustrating and grim time. After the screening, I ran into a longtime film colleague, Robin Menken (who in 2012 would write the program notes for an excellent LACMA film series, “High and Low: Postwar Japan”). Both Robin and I had seen the film many times before, and had discussed Oshima's radical perspectives and the staying power of his movies. Feeling exasperated by coming events, I simply said about the film, “I can't believe how relevant this is.” Robin said, “It's the ultimate parody of the State,” and her striking, succinct description has remained lodged in my memory.

It is a misstep right from the beginning to say what DbH is “about,” except for a few remarks. Its origin is in a real-life event, the murder of two Japanese school girls by a minority ethnic Korean, Ri Chin'u. The attack and trial escalated into national news in Japan, in part because of its racial dimension. Oshima became fascinated by Ri's case when the story of the crime was first reported in 1958, and wrote an initial screenplay in 1963, the year Ri was executed. A book of Ri's letters was published, and Oshima, without discounting the crime, declared Ri “the most sensitive and intelligent youth produced by postwar Japan.” Oshima had a full decade to contemplate and gather his ideas for how to treat the prisoner and issues at stake; not so much to render a faithful, even-handed account of the relevant evidence (any competent TV movie or documentary could do that), but to develop, as it were, a line of attack on Japanese hypocrisy, justice's claims to foundations in morality, a broken social covenant and a consequent distortion to reality turned at odds against itself. As Oshima himself (with a noose wrapped around his neck) proclaims in the film's trailer, half declaring communist demands, half drolly mocking his artist's prestige, waggishly paraphrasing Dostoyevsky but all the while addressing the audience with utter sincerity, “As long as the State exists, anything is permitted. The State is guilty and we are absolutely innocent.”

Night and Fog in Japan (1960, 107 mins., color, 2.35:1 ratio)

It's 1960, a few months after organized student protests have failed to prevent Japan from renewing its security treaty with the U.S. (AMPO). A wedding ceremony between groom Nozawa, a veteran of the original opposition from a decade earlier, and bride Reiko, an activist of the current generation, seems to provide an opportunity to brush aside defeats, regard them as forgotten battles, and celebrate the two-fold promise of a new couple and a more united front for the movement. Unexpected guests arrive, however. They challenge letting business remain unfinished, which sparks heated debate and charges of betrayals, contradictions, and failing leadership that, even starting from noble intentions, has grown rarefied, detached and dictatorial.

What had been long dormant and repressed in the group is literally thrown open. A viewer can feel the current of arguments running through the air, passionately propounded by one individual after another. Film historian Joan Mellen called NFJ “a film about consciousness, the consciousness of these militants who... were willing to give their lives.” By ingenious and totally cinematic means, Oshima captures an ellusive sense of drifting, conflicted awareness surfacing, as the group launches into broiling dissent.

The film immediately casts aside the trappings of genre and a safe grounding in realism. NFJ is not an “instructional” or talking heads movie, nor a drama, suspense, fantasy or horror movie. Oshima is after a deep account of what went wrong, and will not rule out unusual means and evidence that help uncover the disintegration simply because they aren't sanctioned by normative cinema, a staid party line, or what we nominally call reality. The film will not come to final judgments for us, but will let us make up our own minds. What we can't discriminate as “real” or “immaterial” isn't necessarily unimportant, and indeed can be essential. Moreover, the director wants to lift the veil of storytelling, so that the artifice of fiction is exposed to viewers. Oshima, in short, wants all cards exposed before us so far as possible, including the structuring of narrative itself.