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The Spider’s Stratagem

Collapsed Chronologies

“To make a film it is not necessary to know anything technical at all” Bernardo Bertolucci says in The Film Director as Superstar. “It will come with time. You will learn.” This might seem a surprising statement from a director whose The Spider’s Stratagem is nothing if not formally self-conscious, but perhaps Bertolucci would say that form is not quite the same as technique; that even if they are very closely interconnected, then technique needs to come out of the form. In this adaptation of a Jorge Luis Borges story where, in the film, a young man returns to his hometown and investigates his father’s reputedly heroic death in 1936 at the hands of the Fascists, only to find he was a traitor killed by the Communists, but for political purposes was allowed to pass for a hero, Bertolucci finds a correlative to Borges’ conditional narrative approach. Where Borges says in ‘Theme of the Traitor and the Hero’: “the action takes place in an oppressed and tenacious country: Poland, Ireland, the Venetian Republic, some South America or Balkan state…” before finally setting it in Ireland in the early 19th century, how, we might ask, can Bertolucci find the equivalent sense of hypothesis as he sets his film in Italy? And why would a filmmaker wish to do so, beyond aping a writer’s style?

To answer these questions we need to return to our first idea, the notion that the technique needs to come out of the form while adding also that form should come out of a sense of inquiry. When Borges suggests such are the coincidences to other historical and literary moments, “that history should have copied history was already sufficiently astonishing; that history should copy literature was inconceivable”, we have Bertolucci adding to the complexity by of course adapting Borges, and at the same time doing so in a style that owes much to Welles: whether it be the investigation into the truth of Citizen Kane and Confidential Report, or the town as a world unto itself out of Touch of Evil. And we should not forget that Borges was a great admirer of Citizen Kane, writing on its labyrinthine quality when it was released in Buenos Aires. What Bertolucci offers is a work that seems aware of all these reverberations, without necessarily turning the film into a formal exercise in mimicry. What he manages to do – and this is why we talk about technique within form, and the form within the question – is add to the chasmic sense of a labyrinth out of which the character, Athos Magnani Jnr (Giulio Brogi), can neither explain temporally, nor escape, geographically. At the end of the film, as he waits to leave the small town of Tara (a reference to Gone with the Wind), Magnani Jnr notices the train is increasingly delayed, and observes that on the tracks weeds have gathered there – it looks like a train has not passed through the town for many years. And shortly before, as he’s tried to work through how his father was killed, he wonders whether the three men who have helped him piece together the story have told him the entire truth. How can he know without having been back there in the past himself; and yet at the same time with the tracks covered with weeds it looks as if he might be. Or is he trapped in between the two time zones– neither back in time enough to work out the truth, nor in the present enough to escape the town?

To capture this labyrinthine state of time and space surely it isn’t enough to film it as one might another, more linear story, and Bertolucci constantly finds fresh and invigorating ways in which to confound our own sense of time and space in the viewing experience. Take for example a key moment where Bertolucci breaks the 180 degree rule. Here we notice the central character on his bike coming towards two men talking to each other. As they move apart so that Magnani Jnr can pass through them, Bertolucci crosses the line so that it looks as though Magnani Jnr is going back in the direction from whence he came. Thus we see how breaking the rule deliberately disorients us in space, just as Bertolucci’s story tries to do likewise. Another example of this disorientation comes when Magnani Jnr first arrives at the house of his father’s ex-lover (Alida Valli), Draifa , the woman who wrote to Magnani Jnr and invited him back to his home town. Here we see him getting off the bike and going towards the closed shutters of the house as the camera leaves him and travels some three hundred degrees round the courtyard before showing Draifa coming out of the building, and Magnani Jnr re-entering the frame where he had obviously been waiting or knocking. Usually a filmmaker would show an establishing shot of Magnani Jnr going to the shutters, then pan left to show Draifa coming out of the house. By panning right some three hundred degrees round the courtyard, rather than sixty degrees to the left, again Bertolucci plays with our sense of perspective.

These then are a couple of examples where Bertolucci confounds our sense of space, but what about our sense of time? In one scene we see Magnani Snr looking out of the window with Draifa standing behind him, and notice he’s watching the locals and the German circus members trying to capture an escaped lion. Draifa talks as if to Magnani Jnr off camera and explains how she knew that the relationship was over. The film doesn’t cut back to Magnani Jnr, but his presence is clearly invoked, so that we have Magnani Snr on screen with Draifa, while off screen Magnani Jnr listens to Draifa. Here past and present dissolve into a past memory related, but at the same time evoked by the presence of the tamers outside the window trying to capture the lion, Magnani Snr looking out of the window, and Draifa – in between the past and the present – telling the story as she looks to Magnani Jnr off screen.

But what is also central to this scene and many others is that the characters remain exactly the same age in the past as in the present. They re-enter their past as older selves, but Magnani Snr, who of course died and thus has no older self to represent him, remains young. Yet we might add that he also has a son who everybody insists is the father’s spitting image, so that it is not only that the father didn’t age, but that the son is now the father’s age: is the father being invoked, or is the son caught in the re-enactment of the role as the father?

Here we’ve hopefully explored the way Bertolucci plays with time and space to generate a perplexing sense of cinematic possibilities. But we should also remember that we have suggested that technique should serve form, and form serve the question. What is the question Bertolucci searches out? Central to it is the nature of a self constructed out of and working with or against history either in the broadest, Marxist sense of the term, or through an Oedipal and Freudian problematic. Now some might suggest these are problems also on the level of form, and Robin Wood has spoken of Bertolucci’s influences generally: “held together by sheer bravura rather than by logic or compatibility.” “These conflicts”, Wood adds in an essay in The Cinema Dictionary, “Bertolucci tends to assert rather than assimilate, schizophrenically flourishing irreconcilable influences as if from a desperate need to define himself by his allegiances.” Wood offers these comments as both a problem and a weakness, but what we want to do is explore them as a problematic and a strength: that Bertolucci both assimilates and offers out of this assimilation a precise logic explored especially well in The Spider’s Stratagem.

In an interview in Film Forum, Bertolucci quotes Jean Cocteau’s comment that “the cinema is death at work”, adding “when you show the face of an actor, the time can be ten seconds or three minutes – but time passes in the face”. This is a comment that sums up especially well Last Tango in Paris, and the way in which Bertolucci captures Marlon Brando’s autumnal beauty, but in The Spider’s Stratagem the problem isn’t so much death at work on the face, but maybe the opposite: time’s constant presence – not its passing but its presentness. This is in many ways the opposite of the Bazinian aspect that Bertolucci invokes when quoting Cocteau. Thus for André Bazin, in What is Cinema Vol 1?, central to cinema is “objectivity in time”, where “the film is no longer content to preserve the object enshrouded as it were in an instant…now for the first time, the image of things is likewise the image of their duration…” In The Spider’s Stratagem, though, Bertolucci wants something closer to eternal return rather than the inevitability of time’s passing. In such an approach time isn’t a linear progression but more a collapsed chronology suggesting circularity over linearity. As Magnani Jnr returns to the small Italian town time has stood still and he walks into this time and stands still himself as he is both the father at the moment of his death and the son who is now the same age as the father. But what type of eternal recurrence is this, Nietzsche’s demon asks in The Nietzsche Reader? “This life, as you live it now and have lived it, you will live again and again, times without number; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and all the unspeakably small and great in your life must return to you, and everything in the same series and sequence…”

Is this pure hell or pure affirmation? Perhaps it depends upon where one stands in relation to the eternal moment, and this is partly why Nietzsche insists that “my formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing other than it is, not in the future, not in the past, not in all eternity. Not merely to endure that which happens of necessity, still less to dissemble it – all idealism is untruthfulness in the face of necessity – but to love it.” Thus central to Nietzsche is the assertiveness in being, the sovereign right of the ego to make the eternally recurrent moment one’s own.

If in some ways The Spider’s Stratagem is the tragedy of a ridiculous man (to borrow from the title of a later Bertolucci film), it is the degree to which Magnani Jnr does not assert his being as he’s caught in the recurrent moment. The problematic we’re thus exploring is how this recurrence works in relation to the character caught in it. Is it recurrence as despair or joy? If we’re inclined to think it is the former then it lies centrally in Magnani Jnr’s relative passivity in the face both of his physical reality and his epistemological journey. In this eternal moment is he not a man force fed both food and stories? Throughout the film characters in the town insist on feeding him, and Bertolucci makes great play in one scene of Magnani Jnr being fed even as he’s not remotely hungry. As a huge plate of food sits in front of him, Magnani Jnr protests that he has already eaten, but his host is having none of it. Later in the film he follows Draifa into the house but as he reaches the threshold she tells him to sit on the veranda – peremptorily telling him that she’s busy. We should also remember that even the search for the truth about his dead father isn’t his own – it was instigated by Draifa after she asked him to return to the village.

What Bertolucci explores extremely well here is the limitations of identity in all its manifestations. If Wood insists that Bertolucci needs to define himself by his allegiances; we could just as readily say that Bertolucci’s brilliance lies in how he works through this notion of influence. If for example we accept that one of the ideas that interests Bertolucci is circularity over linearity, then this isn’t only the case in a number of his films and perhaps his most accomplished ones (like The Spider’s Stratagem and The Conformist), but it is also true of how he utilises his forebears. Do they suggest the vocabulary of freedom or the anxiety of influence? In a linear world of creativity anxiety, influence would be foremost, for the filmmaker cannot help but come after his predecessors. It is an idea strongly expressed by David Bordwell in Figures Traced in Light. Talking of the cinema of the long take, Bordwell says “what could a young filmmaker [after Antonioni] add to a distinguished tradition that seemed to have already reached its peak?” But what if we see creativity not as linear but as circular, not as the problem of novelty but the problematic of expressivity? The filmmaker thus comes along not feeling that he’s working in an exhausted field full of predecessors, but a fertile field full of possibilities.

More than most filmmakers Bertolucci works in his earlier films with this as a problematic. He seems simultaneously a product of influence and at the same time someone searching out his own expression. Few filmmakers have worked more insistently with this freedom/influence bind. That he acknowledges it as a potential problem is evident in many of his comments. In an interview in The Film Director as Superstar he admits “like most sons of gifted fathers [Bertolucci’s the son of a poet and film critic], I imitated my father up to a certain age. I wrote poetry to consciously imitate my father. And maybe I stopped writing poetry to consciously stop imitating him.” He also admits, albeit ironically, that The Conformist is partly about his relationship with Godard. It is a “story about me and Godard…” he is quoted as saying in Movies of the Seventies. “I’m Marcello and I make fascist movies and I want to kill Godard who’s a revolutionary…makes revolutionary movies and is my teacher.” He also confessed that for The Conformist, “the point of departure is cinema, and the cinema I like is Sternberg, Ophuls and Welles – all master stylists.”

Yet at the same time we are saying this is not quite the same thing as anxious influence, and perhaps central to this eschewal is Bertolucci’s own feeling that he can accept or reject anyone from his father to Godard: that this influence isn’t a given it is a choice. If the influence becomes too strong, or the anxiety too great, then rejection is necessary.

But how does this link up to what we’ve been saying about The Spider’s Stratagem, and also Nietzsche’s notion of eternal return? It brings us back to the joy or despair of recurrence, and the degree of freedom one may feel one has in being placed in the flux of life. Just as Bordwell proposes that there is unavoidable linear influence, Bertolucci proposes influences can be accepted or rejected. Yet of course for the character of Magnani Jnr the eternal recurrence leads not to joy and affirmation, but despair and confusion. When Magnani Jnr returns to the small town he does so less with a spirit of enquiry than with the anxiety of influences all around him. Whether it is Draifa insisting he finds out who murdered his father, everyone telling him he is physically his father’s double, or Magnani Jnr scratching away at his father’s name on a plaque, this is a man in many ways trapped long before Bertolucci’s ending.

This is the Freudian side generally absent from Borges’s short story. After all, the tale concerns not a father and son, but a great-grandfather, Kilpatrick, and his great grandson, Ryan, far enough removed in time to escape the force of an Oedipal complex. It is as though Borges is interested first and foremost in the influence of time and the generation of myth, while Bertolucci is interested more in the relative absence of time and the pressure of familial expectation. Borges invokes the circle and says, “other facets of the enigma disturb Ryan. They are of a cyclic nature: they seem to repeat or combine events of remote regions, of remote ages.” The writer goes on to mention the similarities between a note Caesar never read as he went to meet his maker, and also of words spoken by a beggar Fitzpatrick met the day he was to die, that are “prefigured in Shakespeare”. These references to the bard appear in the film, but missing are numerous others that Borges invokes in his three and a half page story: Condorcet, Hegel, Spengler and Vico. There is a reversal here: where Borges is concerned with the cyclical nature of history and secondly the significance of family, for Bertolucci it would seem the other way round.

Hence Bertolucci seems in the film not to be a mythic artist but an Oedipal director. This is contradictory of course if we accept that Oedipus is itself a myth, but not if we see it as symbolically familial rather than historically cyclical. Bertolucci’s interest in family over history, means he takes Borges’ historically much broader tale and winnows it down to Italy and to a father and a son. This is the family as an eternal recurrence of parents and siblings, where the child cannot escape from under the parental influence and repeats the moves and gestures of the father until at the end of the film he seems to have become trapped within that story, in the town of Tara. This is a time without number many would want to avoid, but is it not a metaphor for many a life where the son is merely a shadow of the father as he continues the behaviour, the gestures and often the profession of his forbearer: where one is very much a Magnani Jnr rather than existentially one’s own man?

This is not to say Bertolucci isn’t interested in politics, but that he is interested in politics through the familial – this is Freudian-Marxism with the emphasis on Freud: Chris Wagstaff even mentions that at the time of the film’s making, the Marxist Bertolucci entered psychoanalysis “…in February 1970; the film was shot in July and August”. (Sight and Sound) Now we might add though that it wasn’t simply the family aspect that interested Bertolucci, no matter the conflicts we’ve talked of in relation to his father Attilio Bertolucci, and Godard, but also the cyclical element of Freud over the more linear aspect of Marx. Marx says “the same men who establish their social relations in conformity with their material productivity, produce also principles, ideas and categories, in conformity with their social relations,” and adds, “thus these ideas, these categories, are as little eternal as the relations they express. They are historical and transitory products” (Essential Writings). Here he is offering linearity: the possibility of progress.

But Bertolucci seems to have been a Marxist suspicious of progress, or rather suspicious in relation to how the bourgeois youth lives with its possibility. When asked about the title of Before the Revolution, Bertolucci says it of course comes from Talleyrand, quoted at the beginning of the film: “Who has not known the life before the revolution doesn’t know the sweetness of living.” When asked if this is autobiographical, Bertolucci admits: “More than just being autobiographical, it was a way to exorcise my own fears. Because to be like that character is almost a destiny for all bourgeois young Europeans”. Here Bertolucci captures the Freudian/Marxist problematic. On the one hand bourgeois youth demands change; on the other desires the good life. It is less Marxist progression than the double bind and potential bad faith of the good life enjoying the fruits of others’ labour, with the good conscience of the better life to come. The youth benefits from the bourgeois familial structure and awaits its collapse under Marxism: it is a theme Bertolucci doesn’t of course only explore in Before the Revolution, but also in epic form in 1900: where he shows both the bourgeois and the peasant through the first half of the century.

The Spider’s Stratagem could have played out the political problem without becoming overly concerned with the Freudian: Magnani Jnr (or perhaps someone further removed) could have come to Tara and investigated the case and realized that Magnani Snr had betrayed the Communist cause and had to die as a consequence. But instead of killing him as a traitor, they kill him as a hero: better to give the impression that he has died at the hands of Fascists, and that he dies a martyr’s death, than as a coward who let the cause down. Will the people not denounce Fascism if they believe the Fascists have cold-bloodedly killed a much loved and respected Communist? This would still have made for a textured work; but it would have been closer to the linearity we see in a film like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, where the truth is sacrificed to the legend so that society can progress.

But, as we’ve proposed, Bertolucci is here a cyclical filmmaker: he is more interested in the paradoxical bind than the linear progression. Magnani Jnr may return to enquire into his father’s life, but he ends up trapped in a spider’s web of possible half truths in a town that time seems to have forgotten. It is as though the film is not only exploring the nature of a political event, but also the significance of a psychological one. Can Magnani Jnr escape from the father’s influence? The answer is surely not if the process by which he makes sense of his father’s past is to slot right into it geographically, and to muse over it endlessly in his mind. At the end of the film there are a gaggle of possibilities in his head as if it makes sense that he couldn’t leave Tara – what is left of him to take away from the small town? It is one thing to investigate one’s father’s past; it is quite another to forego oneself in the process of looking into it. If at the film’s conclusion Magnani Jnr cannot leave, it is not least because there is little Magnani Jnr left to escape with. This is Bertolucci’s ruthless Oedipal twist. As Magnani Jnr gets manipulated by the locals, curiously seduced by Draifa, and so overfed by the people he visits that at one stage Draifa loosens the belt on his trousers, so we witness a man without qualities, who can by the end of the film become nothing other than his father’s shadow. As he prepares to go to the station, Magnani Jnr says there is a phrase that goes “A man is made of all men. He is equal to all and all are equal to him.” But is this a Marxist all men are created equal, or a Freudian moment of anxiety as Magnani Jnr realizes that he certainly isn’t his own person? As he offers the above statement it is disclosed not with the forcefulness of a Socialist oneness of man, but the hesitancy of the dissolving self.

This seems to be Bertolucci’s problematic: to wrestle from existence a self one can call one’s own, without negating the possibility of being with others. It is at the same time to see being not as linear but cyclical, and to see one’s influences not as looming forebears but creative possibilities readily accessible. If Nietzsche offers us eternal joy or eternal pain within an eternal recurrence, then much depends on how we enter the vortex. If Magnani Jnr had entered Tara on his own terms, stayed with who he liked, and talked to whomsoever he wished to speak to in finding out more about his father, then maybe at the end of the film he wouldn’t have been left waiting for a train without any hope of its arrival, wouldn’t be wondering where his father’s identity ends and his begins, and would have arrived at a provisional explanation of his father’s death that would have satisfied his curiosity without destroying his sense of certitude. Perhaps.


©Tony McKibbin