I never had a problem with genre because a genre actually is like a uniform – you put yourself into a certain uniform. But if you dress up in a police officer’s uniform, it doesn’t mean that you are an officer; it can mean something else. But this is the starting point, and the best way is to not to fit into this uniform but to make this uniform a part of yourself.
Once, I recommended the film Holy Motors to an acquintance with a degree in French and German (interestingly, the film was co-produced by the French and Germans). She asked: “Is it a horror film or…” Since the film cannot be defined in genre terms, I was silent about it and said: “Just see it”. In contemporary times, films tend to be more and more uniformed and are mostly understood in terms of genre; this is a basic and easily recognizable fact. Yet, the problem is in the uniformity of films, they are dressed up according to mass desires and to be identified, they need to come in easily recognizable uniforms.
Wong Kar-wai seems to make an important distiction between the films which are made to suit the genre and the films which take the genre as a starting point, which needs to be elaborated in an authentic way. For example, Wong Kar-wai ‘s 2046 is in broad terms a mixture between a romantic movie (dealing with a loss) and a science-fiction movie. It manages to surpass both genres seen as uniforms one needs to fit in, and create a wonderful garment without a serial number. Wong Kar-wai says that the choice of a genre (as a uniform) must not be a hindrance to the director’s creativity, quite the opposite, they must be uniforms which enable the director to achieve his specific vision. Some directors managed to exploit a quite specific genre in a great number of their works and bring it to perfection.
Dario Argento and giallo genre seems to be a good example. Argento’s Profondo Rosso possesess a unique voice and can be described as a psychological triller with Freudian overtones as well as a giallo film, and an admirable piece of art. Countless other examples can be given, and of the ones less familiar in the West, Japanese director Kōji Wakamatsu comes to mind. This director made films which loosely fall under pink exploitation genre of that era, yet its garment has a thread of purple in it, to paraphrase the stoic philosopher Epictetus.
Argento and Wakamatsu, among others, managed to make the uniform (understood as a genre) become a part of themselves. Wakamatsu created stylish exploitation films focusing on rebellion of the young people, sexual as well as social, managed to portray psychological disturbances in an uncanny, peculiar and singular way and turn the whole concept upside down. Exploitation films are widely regarded as garbage, and to create a piece of art out of garbage seems to be a form of alchemical process which can be seen in Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain.
Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sanshô dayû is based on a folk tale taking place in the Heian period; Chinese and Buddhist influence, as well as the one of the Imperial power were at their summit. Mizoguchi is one of the greatest Japanese directors who created during the period of Japanese cinema which may very well be called its summit, its classical period. The film we are about to discuss shared the Silver Lion with Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Its cinematography speaks for itself, it is transient and tranquil, its stillness lets the suffering of the characters speak through their expressions of sacrifice or desperate rebellion. The thing which is most puzzling about the film is its revolutionary content, rather peculiar for the period which is discussed. At times we feel like Marx and Engels descended in Heian Japan with shaved heads (and a beard), in Buddhist robes.
A virtuous governer is sent to exile because he wanted to help the peasants, and the last words he says to his son and daughter are: Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others. Men are created equal. Everyone is entitled to their happiness. The sentence: “Men are created equal.” is particularly puzzling. According to Buddhism, men are theoretically equal regarding their creation, assuming that karma is equally distributed among men. Since it is not the case, some do good, some do bad and inequality of men emerges. This inequality is not necesserily the one of status, but an ethical one. As we will see later, governor’s son Zushiō, when in power, understands the equality of men in a practical, revolutionary manner. The equality of men, as it is known, was introduced with Christianity (equality of souls in the eyes of God) and the practical consequeces of that teaching found their secular affirmation in liberalism and socialism.
Young Zushiō and Anju, along with their mother, want to join their father, but are captured and sold into slavery. The years they spend in slavery under the tyrannical bailiff transform them. Zushiō becomes corrupt, willing to serve the bailliff, while Anju is compassionate and follows the teachings of their father. Their appearances tell of their transformation, while Anju remained elegant and noble, Zushiō looks like a wild beast. Sansho the baillif is prone to torture, exploitation and practically every form of tyranny imaginable.
Yet, Dan Schneider argues: “When we are finally introduced to Sansho (Shindô Eitarô) we see he is clearly cruel and abusive – an Oriental Simon Legree, but we also see him as a servile functionary to his boss , the Minister of the Right, the real owner of the property. Sansho, after all, is just a bailiff for the big man. Yet, many critics see him as both the ultimate evil in the film and as a corrupt character.” In other words, in the context of a feudal system, “Sansho is not corrupt – he’s the embodiment of merciless capital efficiency. He is an early forerunner to the faceless ‘company man.'”
The parallel between Sansho and a proto-capitalist executive of a company which exploits its workers to their last breath is problematic, since here we are dealing with slave labor, and at best, it protrays how capitalism would work without laws and regulations whatsoever, for example if child labor weren’t prohibited by law. This was the case in the 19th century Europe: it seems that Mizoguchi shows his view on unregulated capitalism’s deficiency by portraying a proto-capitalist executive in a premodern Japanese period (Heian), films it in 1953, an era characterized by a much more regulated capitalism, and fills it with revolutionary content. Mizoguchi had socialist tendencies in his early work and we can say that his later masterpeices, like Sansho exhibit those particular tendencies.
Zushiō’s sister sacrifices herself to help him escape and to conceal his whereabouts she drowns herself in the lake, in a particularly impressive long shot. The shady nature and the composition of shots reveal masterful delicacy and contemplative stillness; in this scene this is particularly vivid. Zushiō manages to escape and goes to the Buddhist temple protected by imperial power.
He wants to appeal to the emperor’s counselor and the priest tells him: “I found that humans have little sympathy for things that don’t directly concern them. They’re ruthless. Unless those hearts can be changed, the world you dream of cannot come true. If you wish to live honestly with your conscience, keep close to the Buddha.” He speaks of the cruelty of men guided by self-interest, but luck seemed to shine on Zushiō. The emperor’s counselor acknowledges his nobility and grants him the position of a governor of a province. Zushiō decides upon a revolutionary act; he will abolish slavery in the region. Yet, the problem is that some manors are private ownerships (another allusion to capitalism) and fall under the authority of the Minister of Law. In other words, they are not under the jurisdiction of the governor.
Zushiō succeeds to liberate the slaves and they look upon him with gratitude and are beyond belief. The house of Sansho is destroyed and the flames engulf it. In the moment of quick victory and the momentary achievement of his goals, Zushiō renounces his position as a governor and travels to the island of Sado to visit his mother who was enslaved as a prostitute. Mizoguchi’s own sister had to be sold to become a geisha due to the family’s serious financial problems. This seems to have affected Mizoguchi’s view on life profoundly.
Sado, an island where Zushiō’s mother was enslaved in the film, has an important place in the Japanese historical penal archipelago. At Sado, prisoners were sent to work at mines and many died in the process. This ocurred during the making of Japanese capitalism and Mizoguchi’s choice of Sado may be a reference to that. The main problem with the film’s ending is that it is in fact a story of vengeance of the enslaved on their former master; it may be easily inferred that Zushiō in fact accomplished nothing.
Another governer would in such a case assume a different position, most likely the one which does not have a revolutionary mentality, he would reestablish slavery on the orders of the Minister of Law and we would be back to square one. Heian period, in fact, was the one which was merciful in many aspects – it is the only period in the Japanese history when death penalty didn’t exist; in the Heian period, Japan became the first abolitionist nation in the world. Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff is without a doubt a masterpiece of Japanese cinema, notwithstanding its naive idealism.
When we experience a film, we consciously prime ourselves for illusion. Putting aside will and intellect, we make way for it in our imagination. The sequence of pictures plays directly on our feelings. Music works in the same fashion; I would say that there is no art form that has so much in common with film as music. Both affect our emotions directly, not via the intellect. And film is mainly rhythm; it is inhalation and exhalation in continuous sequence.
These words from one of the greatest directors seem to beautifully capture the nature of film and its relationship to other arts, namely music. Music and drama were present in unison, in a grand manner, in the music of Richard Wagner. Toward the end of his life, Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed his split with Wagner precisely for the reason because Wagner was too much of a dramatist, and not a musician. This verdict seems unjustified taking into account Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, one of the greatest musical pieces in the history of music. Nietzsche was, of course, aware of that and an ardent admirer of that piece. He refers mostly to the Nibelung and Parsifal, and this can be debated.
The important element of this relationship is the joining of music and drama into one art form. This leads us to the term which defines Wagner’s musical dramas (not operas) – Gesamtkunstwerk, which means “total artwork”. Film is precisely that; it combines all art forms into one. The problem with which Bergman deals in aforementioned words is not film’s incorporation of music into its form (Lars von Trier uses the prelude of Wagner’s Tristan in his Melancholia, which is magnificently combined with images which leave us breathless), but the way in which music is akin to film.
In Bergman’s words, music reaches directly to us, and Arthur Schopenhauer believed the same thing: music affects us directly. He says: “Music … stands quite apart from all the [other arts]… It is such a great and exceedingly fine art, its effect on man’s innermost nature is so powerful, and it is so completely and profoundly understood by him in his innermost being as an entirely universal language, whose distinctness surpasses even that of the world of perception itself.” In other words: “Music is as immediate an objectification and copy of the whole will as the world itself is”. For Schopenhauer, there is no intermediary between music and the will, music is its direct expression and articulation. We can say, together with Bergman, that film affects us so profoundly and directly, that it is akin to music as Schopenhauer understood it. While we watch a film, we lose ourselves in the the poetry of words and images.
Only the greatest directors manage to achieve this kind of sensation, and along with Bergman, Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog are among them. To Herzog music is of immense importance and we can say that the greatest directors have a strong touch for the musical erotic, as Søren Kierkegaard understands it. Sensuality is for Kierkegaard the main force behind music, and we can say behind film as well. He argues that with Christianity sensuality is posited: it negates sensuality and in the same time introduces it into history of ideas.
For Kierkegaard, Mozart’s Don Giovanni is the highest expression of the musical erotic, and in the writer’s own opinion, it has its highest expression in Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Aguirre’s pleonaxia, the desire for limitless conquest posits the erotic in its zenithal form, the posession of everything imaginable. At the same moment this driving force is self-negating, since the limitless desire to possess can result only in its cancellation. In Aguirre film as an art form achieves its own climax; the musical erotic and poetic imagery merge into a complete art form.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s tour de force follows a fascist agent of the secret police whose assignment is to assassinate his former university professor. Set mostly in 1938., it doesn’t deal with broader societal aspects of the rulling regime, it is a study of a personality, Marcello’s, who willingly serves the fascist regime. When one of the fascists interviews him, he says that most people do it for money, some because of fear, and few out of conviction. What motivates Marcello to serve the fascist cause seems to be the main question which is a driving force of the film. Beautifully shot, famous for Bertolucci’s unique use of colors, for example the use of yellow in the scene on the train when his wife tells him of her former lover, symbolizing jealousy, is one of the obvious examples of Bertolucci’s delicate use of color, a stylistic feature shared with Jean-Luc Godard.
Bertolucci claimed: “The Conformist is a story about me and Godard. When I gave professor Quadri Godard’s telephone number and his adress (in the film), I was kidding. But later I said, ‘Well perhaps it has some meaning… I am Marcello and I make fascist films and I want to kill Godard who is a revolutionary, who makes revolutionary films and who was my teacher. This seems to evoke Sigmund Freud’s analysis of primitive cultures in his Totem and Taboo and the killing of the father which results in guilt and worship of he father (Freud sees the origin of religion in Oedipus complex). In other words, Bertolucci’s killing of his cinematic father in the film seems to be the result of an obsession with Godard and The Conformist is a totem dedicated to Godard himself. It is hard to believe that Bertolucci is serious when he says that he makes fascist films, but his obsession with Godard led him to “reject” him in the most radical manner; since Godard is a Maoist, he shall call himself fascist.
The word which is pronounced most frequently in the first part of the film is normalità, normalcy, Marcello strives for the complete normalization of his life. For Marcello, to be a normal man means to be a “true fascist”. He is engaged to a petty bourgeois woman, who is, in his words, good only for bed and kitchen, becomes an active member of the rulling party. Freudian interpretation of Marcello’s personality seems to be the most obvious approach, but considering the historical moment and Marcello’s commitment to fascism, a more interesting interpretative approach is to apply Theodor Adorno’s concept of “authoritarian personality” to Marcello.
Adorno designated nine traits of the authoritarian personality, and we will see that Marcello fits in with most of them, yet not all. The first is conventionalism, rigid adherence to conventional middle-class rules, which is present in Marcello’s personality, evident in the fact that he married a middle class woman who is “mediocre”, in his own words, in his acceptance to go to the confesssion although he is not religious etc.. The second is authoritarian submission, an uncritical attitude toward authority, which is evidently Marcello’s trait. He obeys the commands, even if they involve murder. The third is authoritarian aggression, for example an attitude: “Homosexuals are hardly better than criminals and ought to be severely punished.” This is vividly present in the words of Mangianello, Marcello’s accomplice: “Cowards, homosexuals, Jews – they’re all the same thing. If it were up to me, I’d stand them all against a wall!”
Anti-intraception is a trait which characterizes those who are antagonistic toward the subjective and imaginative, and in this respect Marcello is not authoritarian since he is educated in liberal arts, loves poetry and is well-versed in Latin; shows affinity to it. It seems that Marcello is not completely authoritarian and this may be the reason why his professor, when they meet, hopes that he will renounce fascism. Superstition and stereotypy is a trait which seems to fit Marcello’s personality due to his acceptance of fascist values. He says that “mumps, scarlet fever and German maesles” are “moral maladies”. All this shows that Bertolucci presents a highly complex character who is not like Mangianello, a fascist to the bone, but someone who will obey authority and strive to normalization, most likely due to his family background.
Power and toughness and the “preoccupation with dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimension” is shown in Marcello’s character when he “wins” his former professor’s wife over, he does it by force. Destructiveness and cynicism, a view that war is a natural state of humanity is present in the fascist vocabulary which Marcello accepted, so it is safe to conclude that as a fascist, he shares this trait. Projectivity, “the projection outward of unconscious emotional impulses”, is particularly vivid at the end of the film, after the breakdown of the fascist regime, and the breakdown of Marcello’s psyche. He belives he murdered a young homosexual, with whom he had an encounter in his early youth. At the end of the film, after the collapse, he hears him speak of “Madame Butterfly”, the same words he heard him speaking earlier. He attacks him verbally and asks him where he was on the dates when the abuse and the violence ocurred and on the day when he murdered his professor in 1938. The two traumatic experiences are associated through the mechanism of transference.
Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in his seminars speaks: “Transference is the enactment of the reality of the unconscious”. He projects the murder he committed on the homosexual who assaulted him and whom he tried to murder at young age. The whole scene has the quality of a dream and the ancient architecture amplifies the feeling of the unreal. The final trait Adorno emphasizes is the preoccupation with sex, which is shown when Marcello orders Manginaello to beat his mother’s lover; he seems to be disgusted with her lifestyle. The fact which makes Adorno’s F scale so valuable is its scope of application in the contemporary times. Its application to a fictional character can hopefully sharpen our senses to the signs of the rise of authoritarianism in our own surroundings. We can conclude that Marcello shows predisposition to the authoritarian mode of thinking and his obsession with normalcy and conformism made him an easy target for the fascist regime.
In all these years do you know what remains stamped on my memory? Your voice. ‘Imagine a large subterranean place, like a cavern. Inside are men who’ve lived there since childhood. All in chains and forced to look at the back of the cave. Behind them, in the distance, shines the light of a fire. Between the fire and the prisoners, imagine a low wall like the tiny stage of a puppet theatre.’ It was November 1928… Now try to imagine men walking past that low wall carrying statues of wood and of stone. The statues are higher than the wall… They see only the shadow fire projects on the cavern wall.
Shadows, the reflexions of things… as you experience in Italy today.
If those prisoners were free to speak might they not call their visions reality?
In these lines Marcello elaborates Plato’s famous allegory of the cave. They apply it to the condition in fascist Italy. After the scene, Marcello’s shadow on the wall is seen, and then it disappears; Bertolluci toys with the idea that since the shadow is gone, Marcello now sees reality as it is. Of course, it is an illusion. Mussolini’s subjects saw the shadows of reality as they were presented by fascist ideology. It dominates all aspects of life and doesn’t leave a place for authenticity, there is only conformity. This scene is particularly nuanced since Marcello tries to win the sympathy of his former professor, but at the same time, he presents himself openly as a fascist – he raises his hand in a fascist salute while explaining the argument.
Professor Quadri doubts Marcello’s allegiance to the cause, since he does not show anti-intraception which is common for a fascist, but shows capability for philosophical insight, a moral one. This relationship is all the more interesting since professor Quadri, a man who prides himself for living in a place where freedom of thought and action is possible [in France], is ready to show trust to the self-proclaimed fascist on the account of his excellence in liberal arts. This precipitates his downfall. When Marcello drives with Mangianello to assassinate professor Quadri, he tells him: “I’ve just had a fantastic dream… I was in Switzerland. And you were taking me for an operation in a hospital because I was blind… And professor Quadri did the operation. The operation was a success and I was leaving soon with the wife and the professor. And she loved me.”
This dream is a direct reference to the discussion about Plato’s allegory of the cave. Marcello dreamed that he was blind and professor Quadri did an operation on him and he could see again. He is no longer a slave to the fascist lies and blindness. They are in Switzerland, a safe, democratic and later neutral country, with a possibility for a better life. Professor Quadri is a father figure who has the capability to lead him to the path of rightousness, yet he assassinates him. In Bertolucci’s own words, the film is a reversed catharsis, in the place of a liberation, there is continued enslavenment and in the end, collapse of the life as he knows it. It is a tragedy without the hand of fate, unless it is his unconscious which led him to forsake his individuality and be a slave to the murderous regime.
Vera Dika, Recycled Culture in Contemporary Art and Film: The Uses of Nostalgia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003
Duckitt, J., 2015. Authoritarian Personality. In: James D. Wright (editor-in-chief), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Vol 2 Oxford: Elsevier. pp. 255–261
The bad education I received at school was rectified when I went to the cinema. My religion became the cinema. Of course one could create one’s own belief system, and anything that helps or supports you in life can be seen as covering the function of religion. In that sense you could consider cinema my religion, because it is one of my major stimuli that I have for living. Cinema has that aspect of devotion to saints and idolatry as well. In that sense it is entirely religious.
Almodóvar’s thoughts on cinema and religion are presented as an autobiographical account which can be vividly discerned in his 2004 film Bad Education. In this movie, two boys, who are homosexuals, as Almodóvar himself, go to the cinema and enjoy a place which is separated from the corrupt world of a religious school in Franco-era Spain. They see, as the director himself, cinema as a place of refuge, a sanctuary where they can experience emotions authentically, far beyond the grasp of a disciplinary institution, governed by priests. It is ironic that a place which is of secular nature is called a sanctuary of a kind, while the actual religious institution is associated with oppression and corruption. Churches, of course, can also be seen as sanctuaries, places of quiescent contemplation, separated from the corrupt world of modernity.
The other religious aspect of cinema which Almodóvar emphasizes is its power of healing, its therapeutic power. Cinema can be a support through the mechanism of identification with the protagonist, through acknowledgment of sufferings of the other: it can reduce our obsession with ourselves (and our own suffering), a phenomenon which the essayist Emile Cioran sees as particularly common in modern times. Jacques Lacan questioned the Aristotelian notion of catharsis, the purgation of emotions through drama, since the chorus in Greek tragedies does all the weeping and we watch the play rather disinterestedly.
An analogy can be drawn between watching a film at the theatre and hearing the collective weeping during a particularly emotional scene. Someone, in fact, the collective, does the weeping for us. Nevertheless, the notion of catharsis cannot be fully dismissed, since the pity we feel for the characters is indeed purfifying (watching Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark for example). Watching a film in the theatre can be seen akin to a religious experience since it is a congregation which appears in that very theatre and drama is collectively experienced. Instead of chanting and praying, there is laughter and tears.
To conclude, cinema does not only have its saints, the directors who belong to the pantheon of cinema, e.g. Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick and so on, but also has its angels; at the end of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire we can see his dedication to the angels of cinema, Andrei [Tarkovsky], François [Truffaut] and Yasujirō [Ozu].
We question a country’s self-mythology. Perfect town and perfect family are – like Westerners – part of America’s mythology, involving notions of past innocence and naïveté. But is it possible for innocence to exist while something heinous transpires elsewhere?
In David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence something heinous transpires underneath the presentation of mythological innocence. The film starts with two gangsters who are on a venture across America; we see two bodies in a pool of blood in a convenience store and a child is being murderered. The scene is abruptly cut to the one showing a girl screaming in her bed, because of the monsters in the closet. Her father, Tom Stall, says to her that there are no such things as monsters. And yet, we have just witnessed the scene with monsters which are not imagined but live among ordinary citizens.
The other important motif is the monsters in the closet. They are concelead, hiding, waiting to come out, perhaps not wanting to. Tom Stall is a family man, living in a nice town, with nice people, as the sheriff says later in the film. He runs a small business, a diner, has a beautiful wife and two children. William S. Borroughs once wrote: “America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil. Before the settlers, before the Indians… the evil was there… waiting.” There is a myth of an idyllic family life in America, but there is also evil, waiting to come to the surface.
The other important motif appears when Tom’s colleague at the diner says that he had a girlfriend who thought he was a “murderer” and stabbed him with a fork. Later, he married her. This detail foreshadows the doubt in one’s partner, in this case irrational, and the possibility that beneath the appereance there is something sinister, murderous. Two men come into the diner, trying to rob it and Tom kills both of them with the efficiency of a skilled murderer. The news present him as an American hero, since, as we know it, the Americans love heroes. Tom’s son Jack is bullied at school, and before the killlings, he says that the threat of violence directed toward him is “cruel and pointless.”
When the bully says that his father is “a tough guy” and starts harassing him, Jack beats the bully. Violence which his father commits, although in self-defense, provokes an ethical shift in his son and he reacts with violence. When his father says that in their family they do not beat people up, Jack responds: “No we shoot them!”. The film is called A History of Violence, and the title suggests that the film presents one history of violence among many, but it also presents that violence in itself has its own history, which starts with mankind itself and it evolves from one generation to the other, it is a neverending circle which begins with the sins of the father.
Soon, two men come into the diner, one with a severely damaged eye, calling Tom “Joey Cusack” and that he comes from Philadelphia. Tom denies it, and when he sees the black car in which the man was driving, he becomes paranoid and runs toward his house, for fear that his family will be assaulted. No one came to the house and Tom says that he fears that he is losing his mind. With the attitude of a trained killer, he says to his son that if someone comes, they will deal with it. The man with the damaged eye encounters Tom’s wife Edie in the shopping mall and says to her that her husband is Joey Cusack and that he damaged his eye with a barbed wire.
This happens precisely in the middle of the film, and in this moment, Edie starts to seriously doubt her husband’s identity. This anticipates the revelation that her husband is indeed Joey, wich happens when her husband, with the skills of a killer literally breaks the face of a man who tried to take him with them. As Tom/Joey’s personality is split into two, so is the film. When Carl Fogarty, the man with the damaged eye, tells Joey to drop down the gun, he complies and symbolically assumes his abandoned role as Joey Cusack. Fogarty is murdered at the hands of his son. The sins and the violence of the father are now a part of his son as well.
I saw Joey. I saw you turn into Joey right before my eyes. I saw a killer… the one Fogarty warned me about. You did kill men back in Philly, didn’t you? Did you do it for money, or did you do it because you enjoyed it?
Joey did, both. I didn’t… Tom Stall didn’t.
David Cronenberg once said: “When we talk about violence, we’re talking about the destruction of the human body, and I don’t lose sight of that. In general, my filmmaking is fairly body-oriented, because what you are photographing is people, bodies.” In this scene, when Tom/Joey says that Joey did the killings and Tom Stall didn’t, he is filmed in a close-up and the only part of the body we can see is dressed in a patient’s gown. In other words, the character which the camera films is disembodied. In his book The Divided Self R.D. Laing writes that “in the schizoid condition… there is a persistent scission between the self and the body. What the individual regards as his true self is experienced as more or less disembodied, and bodily experience and actions are in turn felt to be the part of the false-self system.”
If Cronenberg’s films are primarily body-oriented and in the central part of the film Viggo Mortensen’s character’s body is not shown or is clothed in a gown, we can say that in this manner Cronenberg portrays a schizoid personality, which is characterized by a split between the identities. Edie asks if Joey is dead and Tom/Joey replies: “I thought he was. I thought I killed Joey Cusack. I went out to the desert, and I killed him… I spent 3 years trying to become Tom Stall.” Edie asks him if he is a “multiple personality schizoid” and is it “like flipping a switch back and forth for him.” It seems that there is certainly a schizm in Tom/Joey’s personality, but that there is also an approaching awareness regarding his identity.
This schizm is not permanent, and the reappropriation of the former identity takes place soon enough. When they come home, sheriff asks them if Tom is in fact Joey and Edie starts crying, denying it. The officer leaves their home and she says to him “Fuck you Joey”. Now, he assumes his former identity and his body is filmed as they have sex, which starts with violence on both sides. Cronenberg films Joey’s body during a sex act, we can now be certain that Tom Stall is no more and he is again Joey. He seems to be fully aware of his body, and camera is not afraid to show it.
His brother Richie calls him, who ranks high in the mob hierarchy back in Philadelphia, and a clash between two brothers commences when Joey comes to Richie’s mansion. This is an “Adam and Cain” encounter and both brothers are Adams, and Cains as well. Richie tries to kill Joey and in the end, Joey manages to murder him. He washes his hands in the water, as if purifying himself, and comes home to his family, now as another man. In a memorable scene, his daughter takes the plates and puts them on the table for him, and his son hands him the food. American dream is shattered for them, in a most violent manner, and they reluctantly decide to live on.
R.D. Laing, The Divided Self: An Existential Study In Sanity and Madness, Penguin Books, New York, 1990
To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
We might add that this applies to the filmmakers like Paolo Sorrentino as well. Sorretino portrays the holiness of days passing and the divine in men with particular visual and stylistic eloquence in his La giovinezza (Youth). Sorrentino can be rightfully called Fellini’s heir, just like Kore-eda in Japan can be called Ozu’s heir. Being a “cinematic heir” does not mean that the following director is an emulator. It can be stated that the director manages to use central themes and cinematic style of his predecessor in an authentic manner, and develop them even further. Perhaps he never accomplishes the grandeur of his predecessor, yet he manages to evolve and adapt to the radically new environment and create admirable pieces of art.
For Fellini, life is akin to circus, it is a feast for the senses, and Sorrentino seems to take this basic assumption and develop it in a manner which is distinctly his own. For example, Fellini’s stance about Catholicism is less ambivalent than Sorrentino’s is. The celebration of the carnal and divine merge into one in Sorrentino’s La giovinezza. The Buddhist monk and Miss Universe are both an integral part of the same cosmos which celebrates life and its gracefulness.
At the beginning we see the composer Fred Ballinger (Michel Caine) browsing the magazine and pausing at the image of Miss Universe. She appears three times later in the film, symbolizing the eroticism and the voluptuousness of youth. She represents carnal Aphrodite for the aged composer and filmmaker Mick (Harvey Keitel). The Queen’s emissary comes to the hotel in the Alps in Switzerland where they reside, and asks Fred to conduct his Simple Songs for Prince Phillip’s birthday.
Fred says that he finds monarchy endearing “because it’s so vulnerable. You eliminate one person and all of a sudden… The whole world changes. Like in a marriage”. He dreams that he is surrounded with wondrous buildings with arches on the first floor (presumably of a hotel) which give light to the water around him; it is night and it imbues the water with blackness. A narrow path is in the middle of the water, functioning as a bridge. As Fred walks across it, Miss Universe crosses paths with him and her breast touches his body as he moves by. The black water, similar to a melancholic lake, rises and he is drowned; he wakes up with a gasp.
The major part of the film takes place in the Swiss Alps, in a resort similar to the one from Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain. Mann’s novel takes place in a tuberculosis sanatorium where the cultural elite comes to in the hope of recovery. Death plays a prominent part in Mann’s novel, it is concerned with time, the nature of its passing, the narration of time itself. In The Magic Mountain, young Hans Castorp is influenced by Settembrini, who advocates democratic republicanism and Naphta who is a romantic, conservative revolutionary. Sorrentino’s La giovinezza deals less with illness, and more with the joy of life and sensuality of youth. If it deals with time, it is concerned with the shifting of perspectives of the young and of the old, the time which has already passed, with the solidness of time.
The old are confronted with the irrefutable fact that the time has passed: “It’s too late”, Fred says a few times. Sorrentino is less concerned with the passing of time in the Alps; they are a place where the time which has passed is contemplated. The film is mostly apolitical, save for the fact that the overweight Diego Maradona has a huge tatoo of Karl Marx on his back. It seems that Sorrentino jokes about the Marxists in the film, just like he does in his La grande bellezza when he puts the words communismo puro in the mouth of a middle class woman. On the other hand, we can see that in La giovinezza the residents of the resort are an elite, actors, composers, filmmakers, the rich, and Karl Marx’s tatoo seems to be a form of self-irony on the part of Sorrentino.
In a distinctively Bergmanesque scene on the massage table, Fred’s daughter Lena, while her father is next to her, tells about her and her mother’s suffering regarding Fred’s behaviour throughout life. The camera is fixed on her face in a close-up and the scene strongly resembles the scenes from Bergman’s films, Autumn Sonata for example, in which a character shares his or her suffering with a family member. Her face is calm, without expression, yet her pain can be discerned throughout the shot. Fred cared only about music, and showed little affection toward his daughter, and had “a stream of women”, hurting her mother in the process. We find out that Fred’s wife was in Venice, paralyzed, and Fred hadn’t visited her for years.
He says to her later: “Music is all I understand. Do you know why? Because you do not need words, only experience to understand it. It just is.” Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote: “The inexpressible depth of all music, by virtue of which it floats past us as a paradise quite familiar and yet eternally remote, and is so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain.” When compared to Schopenhuer’s understanding of music, we can understand Fred’s relationship with music, which “just is” and is remote from the pains of reality. The music in the film gives the scenes a drop of the divine celebrating life’s youthful passion.
[Mick asks the Girl screenwriter if she sees the mountain across them. She replies affirmatively and says that it looks “really close”]
This is what you see when you are young. Everything seems really close. And that’s the future. And now. And that’s what you see when you’re old. Everything seems really far away. That’s the past.
In showing his screenwriter the mountain and telling how it looks really close, and comparing it to the young age, Mick points to the change in optics when you are older, when everything seems far away. This change of view is symbolically enhanced through a spyglass. La giovenezza is not only a film about youth and old age, it is also a film about time, although not in the same way The Magic Mountain is a novel about time. This change in optics is conditioned by the passing of time, when the past seems to be far away. It is also a change in perception; the film’s title La giovenezza points to the fact that Mick and Fred are constantly trying to perceive youth, their own youth in the past. They are surrounded with young men and women; Mick has young screenwriters working for him and Fred befriends the actor Jimmy, played by Paul Dano, who was possibly casted, among other reasons, because he looks younger than his age.
The interesting thing is that the passing of time is associated with seeing. It is not the question about “feeling” young or old, it is the question of perceiving through the eye, the distance of the past and the closeness of the future (when one is young). This change of perspective is also qualitative; not only does one see less when he is older, but the view is also distorted, when the close objects are shown through a spyglass. Nevertheless, the closeness of things in youth is also an illusion, since the mountain is only perceived to be close, but in reality it is not. In La giovenezza, youth is celebrated precisely for that reason, because it can easily come to terms with illusion, while contemplation of the past is left to the older generation. In the final scene, the music brings the two worlds together, with an aesthetic tour de force.