Pazartesi, Ocak 29, 2007

Oedipus Rex

Oedipus Rex (Italy, 1967) * * * *
D: Pier Paolo Pasolini

I was in Seattle, a grad student and feeling very alone (all of my friends were in Wisconsin or elsewhere), and beginning to watch a lot of movies--it helped that I lived down the street from Scarecrow Video, one of the finest video stores in the world, with a copy of nearly every film ever released on video. I saw a DVD of Arabian Nights, the back of the box had some striking imagery, and it was from the early 70's and rated NC-17, so I thought: why not? It was my introduction to two vast worlds that would be stamped upon my consciousness for at least the next seven years (so long it's been): the world of the Arabian Nights, which eventually led to taking a grad course in Orientalism that changed my life, and the world of Italian neorealist master Pier Paolo Pasolini. In a way, I suppose, I'd been prepared for Pasolini much earlier, being one of those many kids who'd discovered Monty Python and the Holy Grail and treated it with avid devotion; that film, directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, looks like a Pasolini film and plays like a Pasolini parody (Bresson, too, if you've seen Lancelot du Lac). The key word here is "grubby." Pasolini's films are intellectually rich but as dirty as a deep puddle of mud, which you can practically see smeared on the lens. I chalk this up to his devout Marxism, and firm alignment with the working class--somewhat hypocritical, as he was pretty much a member of the bourgeoise. I don't know that that's what attracted me to Pasolini; his political writings give me a headache. No, it was his "Trilogy of Life"--The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1974)--visually arresting, shot like documentaries, and containing iconography culled from either classical art--Brueghel, Bosch--or more ancient and alien images. Most of all, they emphasized the power of storytelling, and played as simple, vulgar folk tales, the kind one person might tell another on a hot day by a dusty street in a small provincial marketplace. While he worked to de-romanticize the classics he was adapting (there are no magic lamps in his Arabian Nights), emphasizing the earthiness of the stories, the fundamental nature of his project was romantic. He envisioned himself a hero of the poor, and elevating their stories to the level of art. Often, as with his masterpiece The Decameron, he succeeded, although at other times (as with The Canterbury Tales), he fumbled in his brash experimentation. My love for Pasolini continued with The Gospel According to Saint Matthew--still the greatest film ever made from the Bible (did it help that Pasolini was an atheist?)--and even with Salo: or 120 Days of Sodom, one of the most harrowing films ever made about fascism, and a repudiation of his Trilogy of Life, but at the same time a further exploration of how elevated, intellectual thought can be realized on a visceral level (in this case of blood, sadomasochism, and feces). When I recently revisited Pasolini (viewing Mamma Roma and the short "La Ricotta") after indulging in my own private film course--Primer 500--I was still struck by the mixture of invention, humor, and emotion present in his work. Pasolini was not a natural filmmaker. He was a poet who believed that cinema could be an important tool in poetry, and he picked up the camera with an occasionally awkward hand. He cast non-professionals to fill out his cast, and while the result was sometimes worthwhile, at other times the anachronistic dubbing (usually by a more professional, theatrical actor) could be boggling. But Pasolini loved mismatched juxtapositions. The Gospel According to St. Matthew, while set in Jerusalem, featured traditional Afro-American gospel music on the soundtrack. It had no reason to work, but it was transporting.

Oedipus Rex I steered clear of for a long time, because, well, it's a famous incest story, and in Pasolini's hands I thought it could be dangerous. This is the man who'd made Salo, after all. Now that I've finally watched it, I regret waiting so long. Like the Trilogy of Life, it is shot in desolate landscapes with ancient, crumbling architecture that is convincing and awe-inspiring. It's Morocco we're seeing, and the music seems to have African tribal beats and agonized, wordless vocals, but the anachronism pays off here as it did in his other films. While the film maintains his neorealist's impulse for documentary-style realism (the camera, as ever, is handheld, and seldom looks for formal compositions), the Moroccan desert and the choice of music creates a purely psychological realm, more Jung than Freud, where the archetypes of the collective unconscious can act out their eternal tragedy. The costumes may be authentic (I assume so), but look as alien as those in Satyricon, which this film at time resembles--except that Pasolini never digresses and keeps a tight, miserly focus on the narrative. The cinematography is striking and colorful. There are only slight touches of surrealism, such as a sequence in the beginning of the second act, where we see diseased bodies lying prone in the desert and in the city, perfectly aligned with each other, but even this seems to evoke the exaggerated theater of Greek Tragedy, and these dead, semi-nude bodies might as well be our masked Chorus. Despite this, and a brief but memorable prologue and epilogue set, jarringly, in the twentieth century, the film is focused on the reality, not the fantasy, of the story--such that you can almost feel the sting of the desert rocks against the soles of your bare feet--even as the emotions are over-the-top tormented in the Greek tradition.

Pasolini is keenly interested in Oedipus Rex as a parable of the dangers of knowledge. It's not so much that Oedipus is fated to commit these accidental crimes. It's that he must be compelled to ask Tiresias what it is he will do, and, later, what it is he's done. I was reminded of the Oedipal moment in Zhang Yimou's excellent epic The Curse of the Golden Flower: long after the incest has been committed, the true relationship between the two lovers is revealed, and while the sister runs off screaming, the brother asks his stepmother: "Why did you tell me?" Here, Tiresias insists that everything would be fine if he weren't compelled to tell Oedipus the truth. There's even a moment when Oedipus' mother--who, of course, is now his wife--mentions that it can't be as bad as all that, for isn't it every son's secret wish to sleep with his mother? (It's the one moment of direct Freudianism in the film, and would seem to be a little too much if it didn't make her character so much more interesting. You get the idea that she regrets her actions not because of what they are, but because of how they affect her son, whom she dearly loves--possibly without conflict.) When Oedipus blinds himself, he is deliberately robbing himself of knowledge, becoming nothing but a dumb flute-player in the street; I almost wonder if Pasolini sees this as a repudiation of atheism for religion--a false comfort afforded against the empty, meaningless cosmos. But it's also the ultimate tragedy of the unconscious, the defeat of reason and rational thought, sabotaged by the body or the Id. Oedipus had been king, gained Corinth, and touched the heights of his potential, but in order to do so--however unwittingly--he had to perform the basest actions.

All of this is well known and famous; it's the most over-analyzed piece of storytelling in the history of civilization, with the possible exception of the Bible. It's Pasolini's prime accomplishment, then, that he makes Oedipus Rex fresh and essential. He gives it a reason to be filmed. I didn't think I needed to see this film, until I was watching it, and realized I'd never seen anything like it. Never mind that I knew the story backwards and forwards. To watch Pasolini's adaptation is to see a brilliantly primal production, as though the players emerged straight from those strange fire-pits below the desert sun, where we see the villagers dumping their dead. He understands the most essential element of retelling a Greek tragedy: these emotions and the crimes behind them will recur again and again, just as we see, at the beginning of the film, the modern father staring into the crib, envious and spiteful of the admiration stolen from his lover.

The Far Too Late Top Films List for 2006

My top 15--to be revised as I see more movies in the next couple weeks (the "Oscar films" are just coming out in Madison).

1. The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky)
2. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu)
3. Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell)
4. Volver (Pedro Almodovar)
5. The Curse of the Golden Flower (Zhang Yimou)
6. Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro)
7. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron)
8. The Departed (Martin Scorsese)
9. Mutual Appreciation (Andrew Bujalski)
10. Inside Man (Spike Lee)
11. Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood)
12. A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman)
13. Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (Albert Brooks)
14. A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater)
15. Borat (Larry Charles)

Here is my wife Anne's list.

  1. Pan’s Labyrinth (wonderful bloody fantasy)
  2. The Fountain (beautiful story about love and life and death)
  3. The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (very strange and surreal)
  4. Volver (the importance of mothers)
  5. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (it’s better to die at home)
  6. Shortbus (the joy of sex)
  7. An Inconvenient Truth (what is wrong with the world)
  8. Letters from Iwo Jima / Flags of Our Fathers (we are all the same and should stop shooting at each other)
  9. Sick Girl (the best feminist horror film ever made)
  10. Curse of the Golden Flower (absolutely beautiful Chinese soap opera with ninjas)
  11. A Scanner Darkly (drugs are bad, even for the narcs)
  12. A Prairie Home Companion (death and the importance of moving on)
  13. Children of Men (the importance of children and what is worth dying for)
  14. Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (Albert Brooks movie about how comedy is not always universal)
  15. For Your Consideration (Christopher Guest movie about how silly the Oscars are)

Anne's Others List (or movies Anne saw for the first time this year but are older, in no particular order):

1. A Woman is a Woman (Godard almost-musical)
2. Cowards Bend the Knee (Guy Maddin movie where a man named Guy Maddin falls in love with the nurse performing an abortion on his girlfriend and it gets stranger from there)
3. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Pedro Almodovar’s film about a woman trying to decide what to do about her boyfriend who is leaving her)
4. Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr movie about the fear of the unknown)
5. The Eagle (Rudolph Valentino movie)
6. Bad Education (My first Pedro Almodovar movie, this is a film noirish movie about assumed identies)
7. Devil’s Backbone (a great horror movie about how you really should worry more about the living than the ghosts)

Perşembe, Ocak 18, 2007

What I've Been Up To Lately

For the past two years I've been putting my MFA in Creative Writing to use by working on a novel which is called (tentatively) "Iasmina and the Thief." This blog has become a little neglected because between working on this novel and that blog that people actually read (Optical Atlas) has left me with very little spare time (or eyesight) to watch a lot of movies or subsequently write about them. This may change in the coming month, however, as the UW-Cinematheque starts up its spring semester with a series of Jacques Rivette films, beginning with Celine and Julie Go Boating (which I've already written about), and I'm pretty excited about that; I also want to do a post about the Christopher Lee Dracula films, which is my junk food of the moment. I recently cancelled cable TV, an act which has generously given me a large allotment of time, and I've been responding by voraciously reading and writing. This is where the loss of eyesight comes in. I also have difficulty sleeping when I write a great deal, because I tend to write in the evenings, leaving my brain so active that it can't easily shut off when I go to bed. As a result, I get no sleep, work for eight hours while staring at a computer, go home, read, write at another computer, get no more sleep. I feel completely drained right now. My wife Anne has been begging me for more chapters, as she's been reading this book as I've been writing it, and it's been fun to play with her expectations of what's going to happen next (it's as much a serialized novel as I've ever written), but it also gives me a push to keep going and, more importantly, get a move-on with this book that I've for too long set aside to concentrate on Optical Atlas and movie-going.

Writing "Iasmina and the Thief" is, in a way, an act of liberation from grad school and all those years of creative writing classes. Shortly after I graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle, I went ahead and finished up what had been my thesis, an unfinished satirical novel called "Redshifted Bodies," but I also started reading a lot of the things I read as a middle-school kid: Conan comics, Philip K. Dick novels. I wanted to rediscover stories. A grad class on "Orientalism" brought about the closest I've ever come to a complete religious conversion, only my religion into which I was reborn was the Arabian Nights, and I fell to my knees before Scheherazade. Since then I've obsessed over the Nights, and collected different translations, pastiches, and related films, and even recently jumped at the chance to see a UW MFA-Drama production (which was great). The thing about creative writing classes is that all they teach you is style. You pick apart sentences, but you don't really look at storytelling. To read the Arabian Nights was to immerse myself in endless storytelling that stretched in all directions, and I became addicted to that landscape. While I struggled to sell "Redshifted Bodies" to an agent (no one was interested in reading it), I tried to get a few concepts for a new novel off the ground, but couldn't get past the first or second chapters. I wanted to try my hand at a fantasy novel, but I also wanted it to be completely original and avoid the usual tropes and cliches--something I'd pick up if I were in a bookstore, and owing nothing to Tolkien (whom I love) or Dungeons & Dragons (which I don't). Nothing worked. But one morning I had a very strange erotic dream about a bedsheet that made love to a woman every night, and then attacked her husband when he discovered the affair. If I thought of this idea in the middle of the day, I probably wouldn't bother writing it down, but in the mornings one tends to get a little more intensely interested in underdeveloped thoughts. Within a few hours I finished a short story which I called, at first, "The Don Juan of Escalaba," and then, "Momish Berries." It was a comic/erotic ghost story about a young Don Juan in an imaginary island kingdom who sleeps with every woman in the city, until he finally seduces a lady of the highest court. When he's killed by imperial assassins, he becomes the ghost who haunts the bedsheet. There's more, which also reveals a dirty joke in the "Momish Berries" title, but never mind; when I finished writing it, and then had Anne read it and gauged her reaction, it seemed to me that it read like the first chapter of a novel. And then I decided that I might finally have an entry-point to that Arabian Nights pastiche that I'd been toying with writing. In fact, "Iasmina and the Thief" incorporates a number of different kinds of stories, from horror to romance to the comic and the epic--there's even a pirate adventure. Actually a closer model than Arabian Nights is "The Manuscript Found in Saragossa" by Jan Potocki, which is one of my favorite novels; it, too, links together a multitude of stories with a framing-narrative in which the storytellers are involved, and at many points there are stories told within other stories, as with parts of the Nights. My goal with IATT is to write a modern version, with a greater variety of genres, drawing from a wider range of folklore, and to push the "stories within stories" idea as far as it can go while still, ideally, holding the reader's interest in the framing story. IATT is a book about storytelling and reinforces the notion that we build our own histories in the storytelling form--essentially we are telling a story about ourselves, hoping to shape it--just as we tell stories on a regular basis as a method of describing to other people, say, some funny thing that happened to you the other day, or something you heard on the news. In the world of IATT, stories become so important to the characters that, at times, they forget who they are, and become lost within the stories they've been told. One of the pivotal characters is in fact trapped within a book.

So this has taken a lot of time away, and I don't know why I'm wasting my time writing this now, except that today is my much-needed "break" from the book, after pushing myself just a little too far in the past couple of days. My goal since Christmas has been to finish my African-styled epic, which has rapidly absorbed 120 pages or so of the book--and it was meant to be a very short story, begun when I didn't know what it would ultimately be about. That story is about twins, living in the mountains of a continent similar to Africa; one of them kills their mother, and the other vows revenge, but he's told by a seer that if he doesn't catch his brother before he leaves the mountains, he'll never find satisfaction, all the days of his life. He doesn't catch his brother in time, but spends years pursuing him, in the process acquiring a jade gem which allows him to communicate with animals and command them--meanwhile, his brother journeys into a hidden kingdom similar to Egypt, and has an adventure there that takes over many more pages than I thought it would, and when the two brothers finally meet--finally!--there is a big "war of the animals" and some tragedy and lots of creation myths, and monsters, and on and on, until at last you get to the end, and it sort of explains a great deal about where you were when you started, except that you can barely remember where you started. And that's sort of how I've felt lately. So I apologize, you non-existent reader of this blog, for not writing so much here lately.

But if you do want a film recommendation, I urge you to see the latest Zhang Yimou action epic, "Curse of the Golden Flower." It's the third in his trilogy that began with "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," and I enjoyed it the most. The first half is basically the ultimate Zhang Yimou/Gong Li costume drama (this is his long-awaited reunion with the actress with whom he's most closely associated), and the second half is like a Peter Jackson action sequence, but directed with broad, fairy-tale strokes. It's very underappreciated at the moment, so go in with an open mind and you'll get a great big-screen experience. "Children of Men," by Alfonso Cuaron, is also wonderful. Both films have one thing in common: they're "downers" that manage to be exhilarating because of the level of cinematic craftsmanship, and the brilliant clarity of the storytelling.

Talk to you soon about Dracula...