Movie Tuesday: The director as public intellectual | Movie Tuesday | Chicago Reader

Movie Tuesday: The director as public intellectual 

Five masterpieces from filmmakers whose work has pushed the cultural envelope

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click to enlarge Hail Mary
  • Hail Mary

This Friday sees the belated Chicago premiere of Abel Ferrara's Pasolini (2014), a reverential consideration of the Italian poet, novelist, essayist, and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. Set during the final days of Pasolini's life in 1975, the movie opens with the artist looking at scenes of what would turn out to be his final film, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. (The Gene Siskel Film Center will revive that shocking masterpiece this week to coincide with its run of Pasolini.) Yet as Ferrara's film progresses, it becomes clear that the Bronx-born director is less interested in considering Pasolini as a filmmaker than as a public intellectual; Pasolini hinges on scenes in which the Italian author (played movingly by Willem Dafoe) elucidates his critique of the modern world to curious journalists. The movie may not offer a comprehensive view of Pasolini's life and work, but it does convey the seismic impact of his intervention into European culture.

Pasolini remains one of the few genuine public intellectuals among major auteurs. Through his writings, interviews, and public appearances, he carried over the concerns of his films to society at large. I'm doubtful as to whether we have any figures like this in contemporary cinema culture. Jean-Luc Godard is still alive at 89, but given his age his public appearances are understandably infrequent, and the scope of his influence seems narrower today than it did even two decades ago. Claire Denis, Lucrecia Martel, and Jia Zhang-ke (to name three of the most intelligent working filmmakers) certainly possess intellectual concerns, but their intellectual projects are generally limited to their films. Below are five capsule reviews from the Reader archives that consider masterpieces that feed into their directors' larger cultural interventions.

click to enlarge October
  • October

October (Ten Days That Shook the World) Sergei Eisenstein was given a free hand and a mammoth budget to re-create the October Revolution for its tenth anniversary (1927), but the results displeased the authorities—for reasons both political (Trotsky, suddenly banished from the Soviet Union, had to be hurriedly eliminated from the final cut) and aesthetic (Eisenstein's extreme formalism, here at its most abstract and theoretical). Much of the montage plays better in analytical retrospect than it does on the screen, but much of the film is genuinely stirring—when he wasn't theorizing, the man really could cut film. —Dave Kehr

click to enlarge Teorema
  • Teorema

Teorema Apart from his final feature, Salo, this is probably Pier Paolo Pasolini's most controversial film, and to my mind one of his very best, though it has the sort of audacity and extremeness that send some American audiences into gales of derisive, self-protective laughter (1968). The title is Italian for “theorem,” in this case a mythological figure: an attractive young man (Terence Stamp) who visits the home of a Milanese industrialist and proceeds to seduce every member of the household—father, mother (Silvana Mangano), daughter (Anne Wiazemsky), son, and maid (Laura Betti). Then he leaves, and everyone in the household undergoes cataclysmic changes. Pasolini wrote a parallel novel of the same title, part of it in verse, while making this film; neither work is, strictly speaking, an adaptation of the other, but each deals with the same elements, and the stark poetry of both is like a triple-distilled version of Pasolini's view of the world—a view in which Marxism, Christianity, and homosexuality are forced into mutual and scandalous confrontations. It's an “impossible” work: tragic, lyrical, outrageous, indigestible, deeply felt, and wholly sincere. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

click to enlarge Death by Hanging
  • Death by Hanging

Death by Hanging One of Nagisa Oshima's very best, this 1968 Japanese feature is concerned with the death penalty and the public understanding of a rape and murder committed by a Korean youth. The inventiveness of the staging is not merely dazzling but purposeful: a group of Japanese officials discovers, through a fantasy conceit, that the Korean prisoner refuses to die because the issues of his crime and his punishments aren't understood, and the film works through a series of imaginative restagings of the events leading up to the rape and murder. (The issue of Japanese persecution of Koreans is also very pertinent to the proceedings.) The results are Brechtian in the best sense: entertaining, instructive, gripping, mind-boggling, often humorous, and very much alive. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

click to enlarge WR: Mysteries of the Organism
  • WR: Mysteries of the Organism

WR: Mysteries of the Organism We may forget that the most radical rethinking of Marx and Freud found in European cinema of the late 60s and early 70s came from the East rather than the West. Indeed, it's hard to think of a headier mix of fiction and nonfiction, or sex and politics, than this brilliant 1971 Yugoslav feature by Dušan Makavejev, which juxtaposes a bold Serbian narrative shot in 35-millimeter with funky New York street theater and documentary shot in 16. The "WR" is controversial sexual theorist Wilhelm Reich, and the "mysteries" involve Joseph Stalin as an erotic figure in propaganda movies, Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs “killing for peace” as he runs around New York City with a phony gun, and drag queen Jackie Curtis and plaster caster Nancy Godfrey pursuing their own versions of sexual freedom. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Hail Mary Blasphemy is just about the last thing on Jean-Luc Godard's mind in this modern-day (1985) transposition of the nativity story; just as he did in First Name: Carmen, Godard has placed a mythic story in a cramped everyday setting to see if there is still any connection between the immediate and the eternal, the flesh and the spirit, the purely fortuitous and the transcendently ordered. The mysteries are respected, and even evoked with awe during a ravishing centerpiece sequence that cuts between Mary's anguished attempts to understand what is happening to her body and a magisterial series of sunsets and landscapes. The real scandal, for anyone who has followed Godard through his Marxist period, is how much genuine spiritual longing the film contains—no longer content with a materialist analysis of the state of the world, he's attempting here to film the intangible. —Dave Kehr   v

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    October (Ten Days That Shook the World), Teorema, Death by Hanging, WR: Mysteries of the Organism and Hail Mary are not showing in any theaters in the area.

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