It’s difficult for me to consider our visual obsessions without falling, head first, into the banalities of what may be, for some, a tiresome discourse. Of all the infinite sources worth referencing I’ll go with Susan Sontag to try and avoid this. In her book On Photography (first appearing as a collection of essays between 1973 and 1977), the sagacious writer noted the industrial efforts to turn citizens into “image junkies”. 30 years later, this study was duly expanded on in Regarding The Pain of Others (published one year before her death in 2004), surveying our morally anaesthetised lust for violent spectacles and their subjectivity. So, it’s a wonder how Sontag would react to today’s maelstrom of displays.
Despite the usual ballyhoo surrounding the main competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival it never managed to divert attention from Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's intrepid debut The Tribe. Prowling the rampant degeneracy of a boarding school for deaf and mute students the film appropriates moving images, eulogising silent cinema with a technically modernist finesse. I caught up with the high-spirited director via Skype to talk about this standout feature.
The negative connotations of this article’s title may already render Béla Tarr’s murky 1994 Hungarian feature Sátántangó an unappealing cinematic venture. Clocking in at 450 minutes, in black and white, it concerns a squalid farmland, bedraggled in relentless rainfall and its self-centred inhabitants who deserve not even a small sum of our sympathy. Without beating round the bush, it’s the running time that makes this picture a formidable commitment. Yet with each viewing my temporal senses have been displaced, my anxieties of an endurance test are alleviated, becoming calmly enthralled by this narrative beast.
A Prophet’s Lament: La Rabbia
In these articles there’s always wariness towards overused terms. I consciously try to avoid buzzwords such as “greatest,” “tour de force,” and “a masterpiece,” lest they become empty phrases. Occasionally the latter term is fitting, but still confined to personal opinion. Indeed these terms can operate for deceptive purposes, especially when marketing is involved. Saying all this, one word arises after the screening of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1963 documentary La Rabbia: timeless. The prophetic overtones of 20th century Italy’s headstrong polemicist’s archival diatribe of Western consumerism, revolutionary struggle, colonialism media, religion and endless warfare permits this, being viscerally close to home.
The reason for this is evident. From Europe to America, the transatlantic climate is seared by many of the aforementioned issues. Given the divine undertones of foresight, perhaps Pasolini would have relished in modern society’s inheritance if a mysterious death had not seized him in 1975. But even this pleasure would be enflamed by an incandescent anger and sorrow at the global tendency to perpetuate past mistakes. As a self-proclaimed Marxist, his outspoken political stance was imbued with Catholicism. And here’s where it gets complicated: an open homosexual on a pilgrimage, attempting to uncover the humanly sacred.
Based on these contradictory attributes Pasolini can be seen as one of the most intriguing headfucks in the arts. Yet nearly all of what is voiced carries such eloquence. Interestingly, when the producers saw the highly articulate power of La Rabbia they decided to juxtapose its leftist views with a second part by right-wing journalist and cartoonist Giovanni Guareschi. Sadly, this cut was withdrawn and never seen.
Perhaps seeing both together could have produced a stimulating exchange of thoughts on a turbulent zeitgeist that dominated the decade. Thankfully, Pasolini’s segment, packing an arsenal of arousing ideas, has been restored and reconstructed as according to the written script. After a brief prologue of white-hot nuclear explosions La Rabbia rhythmically segues from Hungary’s 1956 uprising to riotous Parisian nights, Cuban Revolution, impoverished immigrants and their colonised homelands on the cusp of emancipation. When the voice-over (which alternates between two of Pasolini’s artist friends) flippantly asserts, “these are the days of joy” and “victory,” every celebratory smile shown in Tunisia and across Africa feels more like a grimace.
Additional tinges of irony can be found when contemporarily leading actresses Ava Gardner and Sophia Loren appear. The privileged Italian icon’s humorous encounter with a fish-canning factory worker’s job in the scaling and disembowelment of eels casually implicates the perennial social division.
This moment anticipates a visual elegy to another glamorous symbol, Marilyn Monroe. Splicing together photographic material of her youth, the commentary laments, “You wore your beauty with humility” An unadorned still is contrasted with that characteristic smile of radiant, child-like joy, taken from a fashion magazine. It’s a touching obituary and, next to Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (released the same year), an on-point breakdown of stardom and bodily beauty’s vulnerability once corporately moulded for mass consumption.
One could view this section as a heartfelt predecessor to Pasolini’s unsparing vision – and final feature – of commodification in Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Like some of the director’s previous films the past is a central starting point when dealing with present concerns. A member of the panel discussion after the screening highlighted this as a driving force for adapting the popular literary works The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, Arabian Knights (which formed the gleeful Trilogy of Life), and two Greek Tragedies Medea and Oedipus the King.
The unrealised biopic of St. Paul epitomised this temporal unity. By transposing apostolic teachings to recent times Pasolini, in his words, addressed “it is our society for which he weeps and that he loves, threatens and forgives, assaults and tenderly embraces” This affectionate quote reverts back to the iffy but apt usage of timeless, with the restless pariah affirming all current affairs are cut from the same cloth of historical attitudes and events. La Rabbia encapsulates this belief, delivering a bitingly valid message on human nature. At once an epochal document, its clamorous waves of anguish continue to endure amid the chaos.