Monday, April 12, 2021

La strada

The Owl of the Tarp

I would venture to say that Fellini's La strada [The Road, 1954], one of the most famous "foreign films," gained its popularity through two aspects which remain indelible 'sousconscierie' for most who think back on this picture, the memory of which indeed matches the actuality of the story and the images onscreen: (1) simpering, 'simple' Gelsomina's (Giulietta Masina) and barrel-chested Zampanò's (Anthony Quinn) sado-masochistic relationship, replete with a chain that snaps before it is replenished once more; and (2) the totality of the landscape that looks as though Zampanò's motorbike-wagon-combo alone could traverse its mud-clumped topography. Emblazoned on one side of the vehicle's tarp: Zampanò's name. On the opposite: a naïve painting of an owl that might be a stand-in for Gelsomina... — no. The illustration predates Gelsomina's service to Zampanò — is the vestige, perhaps, of Gelsomina's sister Rosa's time with Zampanò, she who died in the 'care' of the vagabond. Sans toit ni loi — the chain is perpetually reassembled. 

Eternal return. The film begins where it will end, on the beach bordering Gelsomina's and Rosa's family home. "Gelsomina...!" sounds in the distance, sirened like a ghostly oath, echoed at the end of the film by Rota's famous theme sung by the woman at the clothesline. Gelsomina answers the call, reeds affixed to her back in an image not unlike something from Mizoguchi's Ugetsu monogatari. She will be sold to Zampanò for 10,000 lire. Mama reasons with her daughter: "It's not your fault you're not like other girls."

Zampanò will have his way with Gelsomina in the back of the wagon shortly after taking to the road. She awakens, smiles at him wanly, and wipes her eyes. Zampanò will later sleep with a bouncy donna following one performance, and another, more ravaged (if not necessarily older) lady in the aftermath of a wedding party, who seduces him in the most circumspect of phrases. The courtship of "il Matto" (the Fool, Richard Basehart) towards Gelsomina results in a deadly outcome. (The first time we see him is as a shade traversing a building in the midst of a tight-rope walk illuminated by projector lights and torches.) Some episode from Zampanò's and il Matto's past remains an open wound — Basehart's own death-wish or masochistic tendencies find him incapable of referring to Quinn as anything other than "Ciufile," a bowdlerization of "Fucile" (or "Rifle") and potential mockery of the old wolf's potency. One suspects un'avventura between il Matto and Rosa. 

Fellini will come full circle again when he parallels the ending of La strada with that of La dolce vita. As Scorsese might put it, both films conclude with a spiritual reckoning. One beautiful moment:

"Where are we?" "In Rome! That's St. Paul's!" On the soundtrack, a dove flitters by.  



Poemquotes 20: Three from Baudelaire's "Spleen and Ideal" (33-35)

 (my translations)

XXXIII. Remords posthume
[33. Posthumous Remorse]

When you will sleep, my beautiful dusky one,
At the bottom of a monument built of black marble,
And when you will have as alcove and mansion
But a rainy vault and a hollow pit;

When the stone, oppressing your fearful breast
And your flanks that a charming nonchalance softens
Will keep your heart from beating and from wishing,
And your feet from running their adventurous course,

The tomb, confidant of my infinite dreaming
(For the tomb will always understand the poet),
During those great nights in which sleep is banned

Will say: "What does it serve you, imperfect courtesan,
Not to have known why the dead weep?"
— And the worm will gnaw your skin like so much remorse.


 XXXIV. Le chat
[34. The Cat]

Come, my beautiful cat, onto my amorous heart;
   Hold back the claws of your paw,
And let me dive into your beautiful eyes,
   Mixed of metal and agate.

When my fingers at leisure caress
   Your head and your elastic back,
And my hand tingles with the pleasure
   Of palpating your electric body,

I see my woman in spirit. Her gaze,
   Like yours, amiable beast,
Profound and cold, cuts and cleaves like a dart,

   And, from head to toes,
A subtle air, a dangerous perfume,
   Floats about her brown body.


XXXV. Duellum
[35. Duellum {"The Duel"}]

Two warriors rushed, the one upon the other; their weapons
Spattered the air with flashes and blood.
These games, these clangs of iron make up the din
Of youth in prey to mewling love.

The glaives are broken! like our youth, 
My dear! But the teeth, the biting nails,
Soon avenge the sword and the treacherous dagger.
— O fury of hearts ripened by ulcerated love!

In the ravine haunted by leopards and panthers
Our heroes, clasping each other viciously, rolled,
And their flesh will make blossom the aridity of the brambles.

This chasm, it is hell, thronged with our friends!
Let us roll there remorselessly, inhumane amazon,
So as to eternalize the ardor of our hatred! 


Thursday, April 01, 2021

Black Panthers

 Mind and Body

Varda's 28-minute documentary portrait, called simply Black Panthers [1968], is centered around the incarceration of Huey P. Newton for his alleged murder of Oakland police officer John Frey. Her film does not so much focus on Newton (who is interviewed on-camera from a cell) as it does on the "Free Huey!" gatherings that erupted in Oakland in the time surrounding his trial. Varda's portrait — shot obviously from the standpoint of a Frenchwoman and a mostly French crew — serves as an ethnographic observation of Black culture in America in general and within a specific moment of crisis. It's also a geographical account of the city itself: Bobby Hutton and Eldridge Cleaver, for example, took refuge in the basement of a house, shown, where fifty policemen fired a thousand rounds. Unassuming, clear as though it were 2021, this house, though obfuscated by its sheer normalcy.

Newton calls the Black Panthers (which he co-founded) "practical revolutionaries" that identify with anti-colonialist peoples and factions throughout the world — the Cubans, for example.

"We feel that Black people should be exempt from the army because they have nothing to fight for in Vietnam." A mix of desired rollbacks and restitutions, in the way that can only be born of a nascent revolutionary counter-movement, counter-majority (in contradistinction to the nefarious 'silent majority' bogeyman) made recognizable by uniforms that say: We belong to something and we are identifiable. 

Kathleen Cleaver says: "Separate the institutions from the citizens." 

Agnès Varda says: Turn the camera upon the historical moment and separate the citizens in discrete shots, in consecutive train, without hectoring voice-over (a voice-over presented herein only to ask a few rhetorical questions), and let Kathleen Cleaver speak. Only one white gets a shot at opining, and his state is one of befuddlement. "You know something's happening, but you don't know what it is..."

Newton is found guilty. The police in Oakland open fire on the thousands of placards themselves: as it's put, they "kill the posters of Newton and Cleaver."

This picture is not without smiling friends, but they're in black leather and powder-blue tees.

As a movie about the Black Panthers it's second only to Jean-Luc Godard's One Plus One of the same year. In her 2007 introduction to the film, Varda cites it as an historical document — but unlike in her look-back on Salut les Cubains, here offers no apologies. 


Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Uncle Yanco

Uncle on a Roadshow

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Varda's Uncle Yanco [1967], besides Agnès's purple sweater-top, is the moment when Yanco tells his niece something like, "The hippies like me because I have long hair." This statement perfectly exemplifies 1967 because it's the last year where the long hair hasn't really even grown in yet. Uncle Yanco is a portrait of love, reentanglement of uncle and niece, that captures the last optimistic moment in time in the Bay Area: before things got uglier for those who weren't even chanced to get ensnared in Vietnam...

Jean ("Yanco" the Greek) Varda, splendid artist, occupies the space of and between a passeur of media, like Agnès herself in her film researches. For Yanco, is his medium architecture? (Henry Miller called him the last architect.) Is the primary medium painting/collage?

In her 2007 introduction to the film, Agnès notes that she had "heard of Yanco in San Francisco" (from the Miller book?) — so she went to visit him, a curious family tree-graft! She had three days to shoot the utopia of 1967 Sausalito's "aquatic suburbia," which commences when she decides, "We re-enact this avuncular moment," with her embrace with Yanco. The children hold aloft in frame the gelatin heart. Varda makes a three-step out of her entrance, as in previous films, namely Cléo de 5 à 7

It's a question of art, but a question too of taste. This '67 annus mirabilis will soon push the critical question to the fore in its forcing one to consider popular (populist?) psychedelia against the entrenched norms, — entrenched as the traveler's loose teeth bulwarking an acid swish.