Sunday, June 17, 2012

Salvatore Giuliano (1962) - #228

Any small town in Italy can become a museum.

Even though Salvatore Giuliano doesn't rank too highly as a household name among the Criterion Collection's fan base (only 55 "Likes" at this moment, compared to over 1000 for The Game, which was just announced for a September 2012 release the day before I wrote this,) the real person referred to by the film's title, his handsome looks and the "Sicilian Robin Hood" myth attached to his reputation were all quite familiar to Italian viewers of 1962. Through international news reports, many others around the world also came to know about, and even admire, the impressive longevity of his outlaw exploits in postwar Italy as he eluded swarms of Carabinieri assigned to root out his band of armed rebel sharp-shooters from the rugged mountains and protective villagers who provided shelter and maintained their strict code of silence when asked to divulge the bandit's recent whereabouts. Born into a typical peasant family, Salvatore Giuliano began his insurgent-slash-criminal career as a young adult in 1943, when World War II was reaching the height of its fury. But he was spared enlistment in the Italian army when the Allies landed on his island and began their northward march that eventually led to first Mussolini's and then Hitler's downfall over the next two years.

Like many people at the time, Giuliano was involved in the black market trade, and one day exchanged gunfire with a military policeman that left him wounded and the cop dead. Eluding capture, he quickly employed his leadership charisma and innate organizational abilities to equip a gang of similarly dispossessed men with the weapons and skills they needed to present a formidable force advocating for Sicilian independence from mainland Italian rule. For a time, he enjoyed the status of a folk hero, using the surplus of his looting to support his community and thereby win their favor. In turn, Giuliano's popularity was exploited by regional politicians and other well-connected interests to advance their own agendas, resulting in a complicated network of seemingly contradictory alliances requiring strong dosages of deception and well-founded paranoia to navigate. More than a study of the man himself, Salvatore Giuliano is an examination and at least a partial dissection of the jumbled, violent, hypocritical authoritarian mess that despite its shortcomings, still maintained an unshakable grip on all aspects of Sicilian society.

The film that bears his name is not a biopic in any way - it's more like a recreation of the best documented and notoriously pivotal events that established Giuliano's legend, and controversies generated by the criminal prosecutions that followed his death, after most of his inner circle had been rounded up and held to account for their crimes. Watching the film brought to mind similar, more famous (in my circles) figures like Pretty Boy Floyd, John Brown and Che Guevara. I even thought about Osama bin Laden in his role as a larger-than-life character who inspired loyalty among hard-pressed Muslims for awhile before meeting his ignominious end. That association makes me anticipate Kathryn Bigelow's upcoming Zero Dark 30 just a little more than I already had, to see how or if she handles the covert skullduggery that goes into such an operation, or if she'll just shoot a glorified Navy SEAL recruiting video. Giuliano, who only appears elliptically on a few occasions in the film (mainly as a dead body,) remains an irreducible enigma at the center of it, a force of human nature that sets all sorts of events and destinies in motion without giving us any insight as to his deeper motivations or ultimate objectives.

Even though most of the political goals for an autonomous Sicily were eventually achieved in 1946, Giuliano's appetite for power proved much too enticing for him to willingly give up his authority when the cassus belli had expired. He kept his operation intact, moving on to ransom kidnappings and a violent protection racket, persecuting communists and other left-wing types up until the summer of 1950, when his corpse was found in a courtyard in the tiny village of Montelepre, his home town. After a brief voice-over introduction, the narrative begins, revealing Giuliano's dead body in close-up as it's being forensically documented, with a select media presence allowed in for a few strategic minutes to get the official story into the press, then quickly shooed away before they can ask too many questions.While starting a film by showing the end of its story then moving into flashback mode was already a well-established tradition by the early 1960s, director Francesco Rosi breaks up the telling by frequently jumping backward and forward in time, with only a few text overlays and brief narration (by Rosi himself) to orient us when we first encounter a new fragment of the visual evidence he's compiled. His technique is effectively disruptive in approximating  the difficulty faced by future investigators charged with the task of figuring out what exactly happened when Giuliano died. The cognitive dissonance is especially unsettling the first time through - we can practically smell the corruption and betrayal going on behind the scenes, but it's hard to determine exactly who is back-stabbing who. Repeated viewings result in even more uncertainty as we work our way through the material a second or third time and realize that the pieces of his puzzle simply don't connect very well.

Going into my first viewing of Salvatore Giuliano, I had no knowledge of this story, or of Francesco Rosi, who had made a few well-received films before this one but whose esteem and influence grew remarkably based on his work here. I really enjoyed the discovery of both his hard-edged documentary-like style and how he explores what had already become a flamboyant and easily glorified folk narrative by stripping it down to its taut essentials. A more conventional, less politically confrontational director could have played it much safer, but Rosi had a different purpose than mere commercial success. He deserves (and gets) a lot of credit for initiating a steely, realistic portrayal of contemporary political corruption in the cinema of his times, as he peels back of layers of secrecy and avoidance regarding the influence of organized crime in Italian society. And of course, when we're talking about organized crime in Sicily, we're dealing with the Mafia.

That word isn't used overtly in Salvatore Giuliano - instead, they employ the euphemism of "the honored society," even though the subtitles translate the phrase as "mafia" on a few occasion, presumably for the convenience of an English-speaking audience. For the context offered through its gritty and intensely authentic reconstruction of Sicilian life and social codes, this film ought to be considered mandatory viewing for just about everyone who considers themselves serious fans of Coppola's Godfather films or Martin Scorcese's numerous forays into the world of the Mob. By establishing Giuliano's roots as a member of an intensely loyal indigenous community fighting back against corruption and injustice, the film enhances our understanding and effectively demythologizes some of the prevailing stereotypes and glamorous pretensions attached to the Mafia in popular consciousness.

The trailer embedded above, presented without the clutter of unnecessary subtitles, effectively samples the major scenes and themes that Rosi put together. Building on the neorealist tradition that he grew up in as an assistant to Luchino Visconti on La Terra Trema, as well as less celebrated commercial work like Raffaello Matarazzo's Tormento, Rosi used non-professional actors (all but two of the performances were given by locals who basically played slightly fictionalized versions of the roles they occupied in Sicilian society) and long takes on the actual locations where the historic events took place. Rosi's ability to direct and capture massive crowd scenes boiling over with frenzied emotion is impressive, but it was also aided by the fact that most of the people in those scenes had personal memories of the incidents. In dramatic contrast to the notorious reticence of the Sicilian locals to divulge their secrets, it doesn't seem to take much prompting to trigger the famous volatility of the Sicilian temperament, and when they finally do go off, the cathartic potentials are capably exploited. Whether it's a street full of shrieking women spilling from their homes in order to protest the detention of all fighting-age men, the mournful wailing of a mother examining her son's corpse on a morgue slab, or the blind panic of a Mayday gathering suddenly come under fire from gunmen hidden in the crags of an ominous looming mountain, Rosi's assured mastery in capturing the pathos generated by these situations commands our attention.

Likewise, he also succeeds in his depiction of the nihilistic coldness and chaos of guerrilla war, the pitiful confusion of men caught up in conflicts too large and complicated for them to either escape or control, and the damnable confusion that confronts truth-seekers trying to figure out what really happened and who was responsible for it. That sense of disconnect, a perception that important information is being withheld, misrepresented or is irretrievably lost to the ravages of time, death, forgetfulness, deceit or omerta, provokes a sense of hardening skepticism toward officially endorsed versions of the truth. Though Salvatore Giuliano's local subject of mid-20th century Sicilian culture and politics may now seem distant and irrelevant to our concerns, its larger themes of corruption and hypocritical collusion between forces of law and crime in the shadowy backrooms of power certainly apply. Indeed, one of the most appalling aspects of watching the film was the realization of how relatively easy it was for Rosi and his peers to perceive and reveal the cover-up, the insurmountable gulf between the government account of Giuliano's death and the much more likely (but ethically messy) report of what really led to his demise. One lesson of history I've drawn from this movie is that the powers that be have gotten a lot more sophisticated and effective at covering their tracks.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

La Jetée (1962) - #387

This man was chosen because of his obsession with an image from the past.

For a film of such brevity - a mere twenty-nine minutes, including credits, and only 1244 words in the English-version script, Chris Marker's La Jetée, has generated an inordinate amount of praise and fascination ever since it emerged, as if an emissary petition from humanity's future, from the more ethereal realms of the French nouvelle vague in 1962. La Jetée wasn't Marker's first film - he'd been making short political and avant garde documentaries, collaborating with directors like Alain Resnais and others for the previous ten years - but it's clearly the starting point for the vast majority of cinephiles who've come to admire his work. A cursory sampling of user reviews from IMDb reveals a few of the more extravagant compliments aimed at this film:

The most heartbreakingly despairingly romantic science fiction film ever made...  one of the most sublime moments in all cinema... not only the most important work of science-fiction cinema since Fritz Lang's masterwork Metropolis, but is also one of the most staggering achievements in the entire history of film... A masterpiece of the highest order. If there's anything like perfection, this short film would be the epitome of it... quite possibly the greatest film ever made...
I'll grant that I've cherry-picked through quite a few comments in order to put that selection together, but the fact remains, they said it, not me. Personally, I think they've over-hyped this modest and exceedingly clever little film, with the effect that most viewers who come to La Jetée after reading such effusive adoration are likely to either feel a sense of disappointment at not being completely blown away by the experience or some degree of peer pressure to regard it (sincerely or not) as one of the most astonishing, mind blowing events of their lifetime. At least, that was my experience upon first watching the film several years ago, when the DVD was first released. While I found the film intriguing, ingeniously constructed and highly admirable for what it was, I still don't quite see the justification for placing it in the most rarified stratosphere of cinematic spectacles. I doubt that it will even go down as my favorite film of 1962. So my intention here is to restore a little balance to the equation, by playing along with the mind-bending visual and narrative puzzle that Marker constructed and illustrated with such meticulous discipline. In that regard, pertaining to his efficiency and brilliance in assembling his photographs and sound design to mesh so seamlessly with the slim narrative, he certainly deserves a lot of credit. But still, it's hard for me to put an artist, even one as talented and perceptive as Marker clearly is, at the top of the auteurist ranks when my gut tells me that for the most part, when all is said and done, he's mostly just messing around with us. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

If you haven't seen La Jetée or need a refresher, you can check it out here:

So here are some comments and questions that arise in my mind as I watch and try to figure out, for the umpteenth time, just what it is that's going on in La Jetée...

What is the meaning of that brief little flash of text at the beginning when the word recherche is replaced with trouvaille for just a split second in the opening credit that reads "Avec la participation du Service la Recherche de la R.T.F."? I watched all the supplemental material on the disc but no explanation was provided.

Was this the first example of the "photo-roman" (a montage of still photos spliced together to construct a narrative) on film, or was Marker imitating some other innovative forerunner who adapted the print media's early 60s experiments with
fumetti, a technique that never really caught on in cinema. (I'm struck by the thought that the proportion of still images to motion photography in La Jetée is approximately inverse to that same proportion of moving to still images in my previous review here, of Jules and Jim, which runs about 3.5 times as long...)

One of the cast members (I have no idea what role he plays) is named Philbert von Lifchitz, a name so incredible that I cannot help but mention it here. (Ligia Borowcyk also deserves honorable mention, and Bill "William" Klein also makes an appearance here, notable because he went on to direct some pretty wild and visually stupendous films which you can see in the Eclipse Series set dedicated to his work.)

"the fall of a body... shrieking people... only later did he realize he had seen a man dying... (electronic humming over black leader)... And soon afterwards, Paris was blown up." That's quite a magnificent transition! The insertion of old post-WWII footage to evoke impressions of a future destruction awaiting the fabled City of Lights is quite effective, especially considering that the majority of adult viewers in 1962 probably had some visual recollection of that damage and were currently living under the shadow of thermonuclear holocaust initiated by either the USA or USSR.

Marker really exploits that guy with the vacant, thousand-mile stare for all it's worth.

The optical gear worn by citizens of the future is amusing and ingenious, in a steam-punk kind of way.

I'm a bit perplexed by (though willing to go along with) the notion that some kind of drug-induced trance or hypnosis can realistically be considered a reliable conduit for time-travel. The brevity of the film allows Marker to bypass any question about what happens to the body of The Man (as he's listed in the credits) when he goes backward in time (or forward, for that matter.) Does the body just lay there in its hammock? At best, I see their experiment as some form of astral projection, so that whatever impressions or relationships he perceives must be purely mental, not physical. And yet, we're led to assume that when he goes back and forth in time, he's really being transported to the past or the future, as the case may be.

What kind of drugs did Marker have access to in 1962 to inspire this speculative dystopian fantasy anyway?

And where does the internet fit into this scenario?!?

The accelerated heart rhythms certainly contribute to a collective dread and anxiety experienced by the audience.

Children, birds, cats and graves. The face of happiness. Headless torsos, obsession-worthy images from humanity's disappearing past. A face without a nose... a nose without a face. Sinister whispers.

The Vertigo homage, a fixed, static profile of The Woman, placed at the exact center of the film. A clue that I was tipped off to while watching one of the supplemental features on the DVD and Blu-ray. Check it out for yourself if you haven't already; I think it's a much more persuasive explanation of Marker's intentions than any written review I've seen online.

Even though the filler images don't stick in the memory as much as the more crucial scenes accompanied by pointed voice-over narration, they are just as essential in creating the atmosphere of ordinariness necessary to create the overlay of plausibility that ultimately allows La Jetée to work.

The Man's intent staring at The Woman while she sleeps - a mix of adoration, lust, curiosity and revulsion as he contemplates her simultaneous warmth and aliveness even as he understands that in the world he truly inhabits, she is already dead and ultimately unattainable. And yet, here she is... within reach, responsive, touchable.

Their relationship turns out to be a simple commodity, manufactured and owned by the scientist/torturers who exert final control over The Man's destiny. Even in the afterglow of the exquisite blink, The Man is swiftly torn away, back under the steely impassive gaze of his master, only to be thrust back into another phase of the experiment, finding himself reunited with Her and surrounded by specimens of poor dumb brute animals, soon to be extinct in the radioactive future but in this illusion of the past, just inertly domesticated and preserved for our curious amusement.

Again, that glowering condescending face... Now, on to the future.

A prophecy soon to be fulfilled: the album cover of With/Meet The Beatles, revealed nearly two years ahead of its time:

I'm at least somewhat heartened by the notion that "the men of the future" could be persuaded to hand over a superior power-supply, powerful enough to supply the industrial needs of the past, to this "slag of another time," without invoking their intellectual property rights or trying to negotiate payment of future royalties in exchange for their precious knowledge. Clearly The Man had landed in a more enlightened and altruistic era than the one we currently inhabit.

On the other hand, sinus congestion must be a serious plague awaiting humanity hundreds of years or more from now. How else to explain the fancy apparatus they wear across the bridge of their nose? I don't think that fashion has anything to do with it.

That sad, pitiful moment when The Man realizes he had just been a tool in their hands (apply that metaphor as insidiously or masturbatorily as you care to), taking their bait and running with it despite never having any chance whatsoever at breaking the line once and for all that allows them to reel him back in whenever they please.

So The Man, deep in his limbos, gets another visitation from the Men of the Future who request that he join them in their pacified future. Ever the non-conformist, the free-thinking individual, a rebel who does his own thing, he refuses their offer and makes his own choice... a pre-destined option, as it turns out, exactly the thing that they knew he would do if asked to make a decision, one that leads to his own inevitable doom and destruction.

The Man's left wrist is wrapped in a bandage... what's up with that? Is there a meaning or purpose to it? What about his T-shirt, bearing the words "El Santo" and some kind of comic book image (a saint? a superhero? a Mexican wrestler?) A significant detail, or just some obscurantist bunny trail that Marker tossed in on a lark? I doubt we'll ever know for sure, so just make of it what you will. But the wrapped wrist and the gloved left hand are prominently displayed in the culminating death scene, when The Woman's "ghost" of a friend becomes a ghost for real, and La Jetée draws to its taut, sudden climax.

Death on the pier.