Sunday, March 30, 2008

PFA: THE CLASH OF '68—Prima della rivoluzione (Before the Revolution, 1964)

Bernardo Bertolucci's Before the Revolution has kickstarted the Pacific Film Archive's homage to "The Clash of '68", moderated by curator Steve Seid who—in his introductory notes—specifies: "Soon to be forty years old, May '68 is demonstrating creaky joints, age-related depression, and memory loss. Definitely memory loss. So 'The Clash of '68' is dedicated to the memory of that most remarkable month."

The series provides a fascinating and eclectic dedication, presented in conjunction with the Berkeley Art Museum's exhibition "Protest in Paris 1968: Photographs by Serge Hambourg" and supplemented before each program by "pithy montages" aptly named "Revolution Rewind", compiled by the Pacifica Radio Archives who "have captured vital audio of some of the most incendiary events of 1968, as originally heard on [the Bay Area's] KPFA 94.1 FM and elsewhere." (For starters, I smiled to myself hearing Joan Baez attest that she didn't think a woman should go to bed with a man who has a draft card; an apt entré into the evening's heady mix of sex and politics.)

As Seid synopsizes the series' opener: "It's always just 'before the revolution' if you give in to the stasis of bourgeois life. But this is also a paradoxical state for the exuberant youth, Fabrizio, of Bertolucci's paean to unhinged passion—a state of kept innocence vying with radical impulse. And Bertolucci should know, having been a mere twenty-two years old when he created this brilliant New Wave amalgam that references Stendhal, Godard, Marx, Talleyrand, Rossellini, Chekhov, and others. A young man of haut-bourgeois origin, Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) nonetheless fancies himself a bearer of progressive thinking. His is a shaky idealism, enflamed by the committed words of his Marxist mentor. Then Fabrizio begins an affair with his seductive and unsettled aunt Gina (played with torrid assurance by Adriana Asti). Neither of the conflicting poles of Bertolucci's audacious narrative—the complicated emotions of the amorous aunt, or the exhilaration of proletarian resistance—can offer Fabrizio the safety he requires. A 'nostalgia for the present' afflicts this timorous youth, while all around him, things change."

Often, after seeing a film, I have no impulse to "review" it; I merely wish to record my experience of it, and to place it within the diary of my ongoing film viewing, much as diarist Anaïs Nin did when she included entries about films in her celebrated diaries. Besides, how foolish would it be to "review" a film like Bernardo Bertolucci's sophomore feature Before the Revolution, which has long been acknowledged for its idiosyncratic, flawed genius and its prescient glimpse into Bertolucci's later mature work? My "critical responsibility" shall have to be exactly that: the ability to articulate a response.

"I'm Picking Up Good Citations"

Fresh from Dr. John Beebe's seminar on "Cinematic Expressions of the Anima" the weekend before, wherein Beebe discussed Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934), I felt a shimmer of excitement when I recognized that Bertolucci was citing L'Atalante in Before the Revolution. It felt like Vigo's film had handed me over to Bertolucci's; almost as if two elders were nurturing the experience of a minor. At 54, it's somewhat pleasant to pose the inexperienced naïf, and I am beholden to cinema for that continuing pleasure. How can one ever learn enough about this medium? Will the day ever arrive when I can claim to be the sophisticate?

I wasn't the only one who noticed this citation to Vigo. Rob Davis mentioned it to me in our discussion afterwards while walking to BART and—while doing subsequent research—I discovered it had been likewise noted by Neel Chaudhuri in his definitive Senses of Cinema essay "Clouds Pursuing Clouds" (the best write-up on this film I've read), wherein he appreciatively teases out the film's love story between Fabrizio and his aunt Gina. "Their first love-scene is as erotic as anything Bertolucci has subsequently fashioned," Chaudhuri writes, "reaching a height of sensuality even as Fabrizio and Gina lie on separate beds." He notes the "similarly remarkable scene in Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, where two lovers are able to sexually and sensually transcend their spatial separation." Years earlier, Maximilian Le Cain had already pointed out Bertolucci's direct quotation from L'Atalante in his Senses of Cinema profile for Jean Vigo and added that Bertolucci quotes L'Atalante again in Last Tango in Paris (1973).

When it comes to cinematic citation, films can be like Chinese puzzle boxes; you keep finding one film within the other. It can become an addictive mind tease. The citational texture of Before the Revolution is, indeed, seductive and challenging, not only for the "New Wave amalgam" Seid mentioned above, accomplished through the films referenced within the film itself—Howard Hawks' Red River (1948) and Godard's Une femme est une femme (1961)—but, also through multiple intertextual citations to filmic influences (Pasolini, Rosselini, Godard), literary allusions (Stendahl, Talleyrand, Chekhov), historical references (Chief Seattle), and the film's own influence on later films, not the least of which would be Bertolucci's "dream" of May 1968: The Dreamers (2003).

It's been frequently observed that Bertolucci's early films had a direct influence on Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets and Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, and—having recently watched Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train (1989)—I belatedly recognize Jarmusch's reference to Bertolucci in the scene where the Italian widow Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi) is talked into buying more magazines than she can possibly carry, much like Gina in Before the Revolution.

One further citation—a pivotal sequence in the film which determines Fabrizio's final choices—is when Fabrizio and Gina visit her friend Puck (Cecrope Barilli) by the banks of the River Po. In her Senses of Cinema profile on Bertolucci, Bilge Ebiri describes this "gorgeous" sequence as "a beautifully filmed, lushly scored ode to the environment", which "almost feels like it deserves to be its own short work." Puck's monologue impressed me for paraphrasing Chief Seattle's forlorn correspondence to the President of the United States lamenting "the end of living and the beginning of survival." Aligning a fading aristocracy's ownership of the land with a vanquished indigenous culture's non-ownership of land is a curious choice and, paraphrasing Ebiri, might warrant an essay all on its own.

"Homages and Exorcisms: Pasolini"

As for mentors, Ebiri acknowledges both Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jean-Luc Godard as Bertolucci's "twin spiritual fathers" and recognizes that many of Bertolucci's "early films work simultaneously as homages and exorcisms."

It's likely Bertolucci inherited the psychosexual dysfunction at the heart of this film from Pasolini. As Chaudhuri details, "Bertolucci worked as a production assistant on Pasolini's first feature, Accatone (1961), and the script for his own feature debut, La commare secca (The Grim Reaper), was based on a five-page treatment by Pasolini." In Before the Revolution, Pasolini's influence is first felt in the homoerotic attraction between Fabrizio and his friend Agostino (Allen Midgette) and, after Agostino's death, the incestuous relationship with his Aunt Gina. At least at this early stage homoeroticism hadn't been artfully melded with facism; that would come later with The Conformist (1970).

Sam Adams at the Philadelphia City Paper quotes Amos Vogel's description of Before the Revolution as "a shamelessly passionate, intensely personal statement of political and sexual coming of age" and "perhaps the most germinal work of the new cinema." Adams follows up and offers his own opinion: "Filmed when Bertolucci was barely in his 20s, the film set the stage for a career obsessed with the conflict between sexual and political passions and the inescapability of bourgeois birth. If its style seems to belong as much to Bertolucci's mentor Pasolini as the budding auteur himself, the feeling that a sensibility is being born as you watch is still thrilling." Though the film's style and ideological underpinnings can be easily recognized as homage, and might even be considered dated by some, Neel Chaudhuri insists the film's display of "playful exuberance" remains infectious, "and the shattered idealism that Bertolucci is able to portray is as palpable and affective as ever." That, I agree, is the film's redeeming relevance. Or as Joni Mitchell once quipped, "Disappointment is my favorite theme."

Because her family's wealth is in direct conflict with his Marxist ideology, Fabrizio breaks off his engagement to Clelia (Cristie Pariset) and seeks to convert his friend Agostino to communism. Agostino resists and ends up drowned. Whether Agostino's apparent suicide has anything to do with Fabrizio's preference for Cesare (Morando Morandini), his Marxist mentor, is left vague; but, clearly, Agostino's death unmoors Fabrizio. At his friend's funeral, the brooding Fabrizio encounters "his seductive and unsettled aunt Gina" who—as Steve Seid notes—is "played with torrid assurance by Adriana Asti." Ten years his elder, she volunteers to sit with Fabrizio in the car while he waits out Agostino's memorial, which he's refused to attend. Their incestuous dalliance might simply be seen as an affront against the norm of the nuclear family. Bilge Ebiri, however, provocatively proposes an alternate reading that "the incest taboo is a sublimation of homoerotic desire."

Whether staged ideological protest or sublimated homoerotic desire, their affair is problematic from the get-go. Gina suffers from constant delusions of reference, which prove exasperating—"every war, storm and fire is her fault" (Chaudhuri)—and Fabrizio is wracked by guilt and doubt. Ebiri characterizes it as "political doubt": "Fabrizio abandons one type of patriarchy (his conservative family) for another (the ideological demands of Marxism). As in most of the director's films, this dichotomy is accompanied by sexual tension."

"Homages and Exorcisms: Godard"

Though Fabrizio wanted to fill Gina with vitality, he provides anguish instead, confirming Anaïs Nin's assertion that "anxiety destroys love." But the road to that destruction is paved with Bertolucci's French influences, primarily Godard, Truffaut and Resnais. As Henry K. Miller puts it at Film In Context, the film becomes "as nouvelle as they come", riddled with "Godardian aphorisms—'style is a moral fact' being one of the most pleasing." Where "R&R" might mean rest and relaxation to the American middle class, for Bertolucci it meant romance and revolution.

Watching Gina and Fabrizio fall in love on the streets of Parma, accompanied by Gato Barbieri's pop confections, recalls Violet le Duc's novel Mad In Pursuit. Chaudhuri lifts his essay's title from Gina's allegory: "clouds pursue clouds."; "She pursues him pursuing her." Watching their affair, he writes, "is like looking upon parallel rail-tracks from the window of a moving train—they come together, collide, move apart, and all at a speed that makes the spectacle hypnotic and their inevitable separation so abrupt." So much cityscape meandering and kinetic intercutting makes one a bit dizzy, as infatuation is wont to do. Bertolucci's camera somatizes desire. Frequent out-of-focus shots perhaps convey "the nebulous state of mind of its main character," Spiros Gangas suggests at the Edinburgh U Film Society. Keith Breese writes that Before the Revolution "charg[es] indoctrination with corruption and utilize[s] propaganda as style." It's evident, Chaudhuri observes, "that Bertolucci is intent on extending his medium to its fullest potential. Through the course of the film he seems to attempt almost everything that is possible within his means. He uses his lenses generously, persistently zooming in and out, and shifting focus. His camera pans, tracks, jerks, swivels, dollies here and there, scurries behind people, hovers over the River Po, and occasionally rests on the quiet of a tripod. His editing pattern is rarely seamless, audaciously playing with direction, angles and continuity, and often making one frame jump into the next. He uses light and exposure to great effect, contrasting the delicate expressionistic interplay between shadow and luminance in the more intimate scenes with the near-bleached overtones of some of the outdoor shots. The soundtrack is overlaid with dialogue and frequent voiceover, diegetic music, sporadic bursts of film score, and a careful use of silence. Amidst all of this there occur two striking moments of ellipsis—the first is an iris-in that encircles Fabrizio with a rose in his mouth, and the second an almost surreal insertion of color frames as Gina observes Fabrizio through a camera obscura."

In his grand overview of the cine-revolution of May 1968 for New Yorker Magazine, Louis Menand writes: "Apart from Pasolini, who cited the movie in a famous essay, 'The Cinema of Poetry,' in 1965, the Italians hated Before the Revolution. The French adored it. The movie was screened during the Critics' Week at Cannes in 1964, where it won prizes and was identified by French critics as 'an homage to the school of the Cahiers,' which it certainly was. Bertolucci had been a regular reader of the Cahiers almost since he was a child—he was introduced to the magazine by his father, who wrote movie reviews as well as poetry—and he was an acolyte of Godard, whose stylistic fingerprints are all over the movie. Bertolucci became the New Wave's adopted Italian. He went to Paris and met Godard, Langlois, Agnès Varda. Though no one could see his movie, because it lacked a distributor, it became a critical touchstone at the Cahiers. …For his part, Bertolucci used to say that he preferred to give interviews in French, on the ground that French is the true language of cinema. Langlois himself was responsible for the French release of Before the Revolution, which finally happened in 1968. The Cahiers critics all awarded it four stars, their highest rating—'chef d'oeuvre.' By 1968, student radicals were citing it as explanation and inspiration, and the phrase 'before the revolution' appeared in accounts of the events of May in the French press."

"Avant la Révolution"

Of course the phrase "before the revolution" comes from a remark made by the influential 18th century French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, recorded by François Guizot in his Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire de mon temps (1858): "Celui qui n'a pas vécu au dix-huitième siècle avant la Révolution ne connaît pas la douceur de vivre." Translated: "Those who haven't lived in the eighteenth century before the Revolution will never be able to know the sweetness of life." Menard asserts that Bertolucci meant the title ironically. Life "before the revolution" is agony and Bertolucci has his protagonist mutter, despairingly, "It's always 'before the revolution' if you're like me."

"[Fabrizio] is merely a pretender to the cause," Chaudhuri explains further. "He brandishes a bookish rhetoric but this is only to sound convincing. Towards the end he chokes while chanting a Marxist slogan. This is the realization that he will never be the 'new kind of man' that he believes in—one that is 'wise enough to educate his parents'. So there is some irony in Bertolucci's appropriation of Talleyrand's remark. For Fabrizio there is little 'sweetness' in this time 'before the revolution'; it is filled instead with agony and despair."

Before the Revolution works as "an exorcism of a different sort" (Elibi), which Bertolucci himself defines: "I needed to exorcise certain fears. I was a Marxist with all the love, all the passion, and all the despair of a bourgeois who chooses Marxism. Naturally in every bourgeois Marxist, who is consciously Marxist, I should say, there is always the fear of being sucked back into the milieu he came out of, because he's born into it and the roots are so deep that a young bourgeois finds it very hard to be a Marxist."

(For an interesting aside on how the Talleyrand quote has been applied to the blogging "revolution", see Jonathon Delacour's weary lament at The Heart of Things, which is notable for the historical context it provides for the Talleyrand quote.)

"Nostalgia for the Present"

Steve Seid diagnoses Fabrizio's "nostalgia for the present" as an affliction. Maximilian Le Cain, in his Senses of Cinema review of The Dreamers, characterizes that affliction as an "intensity of the moment linked to its fading, nostalgia without retrospection." Chaudhuri proposes that "[i]f there is a single subject in the film, it is the existence and future of the individual within an ephemeral moment, and the future of that moment itself within a larger historical process." Further, he uses their attitudes towards time to depict the fundamental difference between Gina and Fabrizio. Where she "questions the significance of time and the idea that the world has order that can be manipulated"; his relationship with the present "is more nostalgic because with every passing moment his future becomes his past."

Cross-published on Twitch.


girish said...

Michael, what a great, valuable post you've pulled together here. The Clash of '68 sounds like a great little series.

I have unwatched VHS dubs of both Before the Revolution and Alain Tanner's Jonah. If this series doesn't show up anywhere near me soon (which is very likely), I'll be pulling those tapes out of the closet.

Watkins' La Commune is on my shortshortlist of favorite films of this decade: a powerful little (okay, not little) cannonball of a film.

Michael Guillen said...

Girish, thanks so much for stopping by to comment; it's much appreciated.

Brian Darr, Rob Davis and I caught Jonah just the other night and all three of us enjoyed it. I hope to squeeze in a write-up on it this week, after transcribing a couple of interviews that need to go up in timely fashion.

Thanks for the reference to La Commune; I'll check to see if I can rent it through Greencine. The film that I think would have been such a marvelous addition would be George Romero's Night of the Living Dead.

Anonymous said...

Michael, I can loan you a DVD of La Commune if GreenCine hasn't already dispatched one. (It would take two slots in your queue.) I presume you'll be at the Marker on Wednesday?

Michael Guillen said...

That'd be great, Rob; we can swap. I'll bring the war doc I was telling you about.

Anonymous said...

BTW, just a minor clarification, since you mentioned my name. :-) I seldom claim that a filmmaker is citing some other film, unless it's really obvious, but I very often make note of other films that a given film reminds me of, which is what I mentioned on the way to Bart (i.e. the scene in Before the Revolution reminds me of L'Atalante). In fact this free-association sometimes seems to be my first and immediate response to a film, a way of getting my bearings or perhaps laying down markers that help set the film in memory.

I don't even care much whether Bertolucci was deliberately referring to L'Atalante; I just care that his film mingled with another in my head. The fresh images of a film (or text in a book, or ...) trigger new ideas that naturally merge with whatever is already in my head and can't be expunged. If the filmmaker and I happen to think of the same thing -- or if two viewers happen to think the same thing at the same moment in the film -- then it's just evidence of their commonality.

Which is cool.

Michael Guillen said...

A minor clarification, but an important one. Thanks for speaking up.