Good Morning, Night
How to film the subject of terrorism? Should we show a villain or a hero, a conscience at work or a conscience that is absent? How many tired questions can a terrorist's life evoke? In the years leading up to Good Morning, Night we've had a number of different approaches but have they still all felt a bit fatigued? We've had The State I'm In about a terrorist couple years down the line and the impact on their daughter as the family still can't return to Germany and must remain on the run. We've also had One Day in September, a documentary that works through the events leading up to and including the kidnapping of Israeli hostages during the 1972 Munich Olympics. Then there is Lucas Belvaux's film in his Trilogy, which focuses upon a terrorist who escapes from prison and is in constant flight as Belvaux utilises the terrorist figure for an essay in suspense cinema. And should we not forget that piece of retro-chic, Baader, which rearranged events in such a way that members of the Baader/Meinhof gang died a death worthy of Bonnie and Clyde? In the years since we have had amongst others, The Baader Meinhof Complex and Carlos, both epic, glamorous accounts of terrorist actions.
But what Marco Bellocchio seems to want to do in Good Morning, Night, based on Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro's kidnapping and death at the hands of the Red Brigades, is use the terrorist subject for an exercise in aural consciousness and as a barely present conscience. In this sense it has less in common with most terrorist driven films, than with two other interesting contemporaneous aural outings, Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callarand Benoit Jacquot's Tout suite, where in each instance we have relatively callow characters whose feelings are neither expressed in the traditional sense through dialogue, nor even in the more radical sense of silence, but instead through ambient sound, through living not so much on the edge of consciousness, but on the edge of aural possibilities. Yet these are not generally live sounds, where a director uses a diegetic soundtrack which allows a character to comprehend a 'real world' that his or her denial keeps them from. It is closer to an abstract conscience, as though the filmmaker were working towards some first principle of empathy - some idea of care that is less about our relationship with the world at large, than a principle within oneself. If for example neo-realism was a movement of empathy it was a movement predicated chiefly on a scrutinizing of the 'real world' that would reveal to us a need for acting unselfishly within it. It is there in Bazin's comment in 'The Evolution of the Language of Film', where the filmmaker should "take a close look at the world, keep on doing so, and in the end it will lay bare for you all its cruelty and ugliness." It is also there in neo-realist scriptwriter Cesare Zavattini's 'Some Ideas on the Cinema', in his belief that "in short, to exercise our own poetic talents on location, we must leave our rooms and go, in body and mind, out to meet other people, to see and understand them." Zavattini says "this is a genuine moral necessity for me and, if I lose faith in it, so much the worse for me."
There is in each comment the notion of ethics lying out there in the world, and we have to view the world scrupulously to make sense of our ethical place within it. Yet is there not in Bellocchio's film, and to some degree Jacquot's and Ramsay's, this idea that our conscience doesn't lie first and foremost in the world, but in our being, in a conscience that is immanent within us? Now as a theory this may offer us a dubious premise, but if we attach some of Abraham Maslow's notions of self-actualization to the idea within Bellocchio's hypothesis of an ethical consciousness, we need go no further than its aesthetic suggestiveness. All we ask of Maslow is that his theories of human health in Toward a Psychology of Being connect to Bellocchio's idea of aural awareness. Subsequently, Bellocchio, like Ramsay, like, Jacquot, escapes, yet never undermines, the neo-realist notion of ethical arcs, but finds his own working less from the image and the world, than from sound, or more especially music, and the self. As Maslow says, "to spell out only one implication here, these propositions [propositions connected to notions of an innate drive towards the healthy being - what he calls B-values] affirm the existence of the highest values within human nature itself, to be discovered there." Maslow believes that just as there are 'good'values or motivations in our healthiest specimens, so there are the same sort of values present in "the 'good' work of art, or nature in general, or the good external world." Thus for Maslow it wouldn't be just a case of nurture impacting upon our being and shaping us according to its desires, with each individual negotiating as best one can with these elements to create being, but that being awaits its essence and utilises the outside world to find the best values, the values the self requires.
This is Maslow's disagreement with existentialism where, of course, existence precedes essence, but we could say he returns to an existentialist problematic through a different route. If we can claim Pascal as a precursor to existentialism in his similarity with Kierkegaard in relation to belief, in relation to a Pascalian wager that improves one's existence, then Maslow's is a wager not in the sense that we should believe in God because of what we have to lose in believing otherwise, but in the sense that by believing our being is underpinned by good values, if only we are willing immanently to seek them out, then our lives could be much happier. As Maslow admits that many of his analyses are speculative, we in turn are perfectly entitled to agree with him not empirically, but subjectively, just as we must believe Pascal and Kierkegaard before him. We arrive perhaps at what William James would call pragmatism. "Pragmatism is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses, and to count the humblest and most personal experiences. She will count mystical experiences if they have practical consequences."
It is out of this pragmatic possibility we could say Bellocchio searches for an ethical value within terroristic activity. Not at all in the sense of justifying the terrorist's action, nor especially, though, by denying justification, but by trying to search out an ethical code that goes beyond the dichotomies of good (in other words justified) terrorist actions, and bad (non-justified) terrorist actions. Instead it is as if Bellocchio wants to say what might drive us immanently towards the good, the "'good' values or motivations in our healthiest specimens" in Maslow's words, doesn't necessarily lie in dialectical externalities, but in affirmative internalisations. How, we might ask, do we believe in our goodness?
This isn't to say that throughout Good Morning, Night there are no external prompts, no sense that other people's comments and other people's values are irrelevant to the move towards the 'good', it is just that they are very much secondary. More significant is the music that plays in the film, and most especially Pink Floyd's 'Shine on You Crazy Diamond'. As the filmmaker plays the song at various intervals, it functions like an allusive conscience, as though there is something in the non-diegetic music the heroine herself cannot hear that takes the young female central character out of the world of politics and into the world of an unadulterated yet inexplicable feeling. Where on the one hand she has the words of her terrorist colleagues, and on the other, the words of the kidnapped Prime Minister Aldo Moro, and also a colleague with whom she works at a nearby library, the music (though obviously absent from her consciousness in a literal sense), plays more directly to the demands of the soul. We feel however that all the dialogue in the film can never be more than overheard, never quite heard, because the problem doesn't really reside in language but in feeling. Though Deborah Young in her article on Bellocchio in Film Comment talks of the film "following the action through the eyes of an invented character, the doubting terrorist, Chiara," we might say it's more through her ears than through her eyes that the events unfold, and it is through her ears that the film achieves its sense of optimism as it splinters in two at its conclusion. We have the real ending, that the terrorists killed Aldo Moro, but we also have the oneiric ending, if you like, where Moro walks free to a piece of classical music.
In this split denouement we have a contrast that we will call rational life on the one hand, and musical spirit on the other, as though Bellocchio wanted to bring out two types of possible empathy: the rational and the universal. The rational is an empathy based on partiality, based on the idea that we empathize with a plight, a condition. What is central to the terrorists is the abstract notion of the working class, and out of this abstraction called the working class, the terrorists will act accordingly. But the working classes are never shown, and there is this sense that the terrorists themselves are neither from working class families nor know working class people. But even if they did, they would still perhaps be defending them on the basis of rational empathy, on evidential empathy that demands we see the reasons why we're offering this feeling. However the universal empathy asks for no such reasoning process and no such evidence. Of all the terrorist figures it is Chiara who communicates least with Moro, as though her move towards empathy and conscience doesn't require the evidential and the rational but the musically universal. This isn't in the sense that Chiara has herself to listen to music, but that the film has to convey through music that burgeoning feeling, a feeling that can't be analysed, can't be understood in any conventional sense of the term. What Bellocchio sets out to achieve here is an idea expressed in Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Idea: "The deep relationship which music has to the true nature of all things also explains the fact that suitable music played to any scene, activity, event or circumstance seems to divulge the most secret meaning of that occasion, and to play the part of its most accurate and clearest commentator."
Now this obviously isn't the case for all pieces of music used in film, and Bellocchio utilises it in a way rare enough or us to put his film into the small category where we also place, in an equally contemporary way, Morvern Callar and Tout suite. But it is also more classically present in Pasolini's work, especially Accatone and Mamma Roma, and also in Visconti, in Rocco and his Brothers and Death in Venice. As Sam Rohdie says in his short book on Rocco and his Brothers, "Not only does this musical movement create a mood prior to the narrative, it also establishes itself as a narrative, dramatic content used to underscore action melodically and used too to undercut and counterpoint action, a dramatic element in its own right and a commentative one, like the dcor in the film or its lighting."
With Belloccchio though it is a psychological rather than a dramatic element - the music brings forth a consciousness curiously before the event, and in this sense shares similarities with most especially Pasolini's use of Bach in Accatone. This isn't music to which the central character listens, but it is music that his soul should hear: music that captures his essence even if the character himself is very much alienated from that sense of essence. It is more or less the essence Maslow talks about when arguing against existentialism and for the pursuit of the good. Pasolini doesn't want a narrative arc towards goodness, but wants music to suggest a goodness, or let us call it a 'quality', present in Being but not necessarily readily identifiable or achievable.
Generally the use of music in film is separated off into two very well-established categories. The diegetic and the non-diegetic. The diegetic is the music within the narrative itself, and the non-diegetic the music outside the narrative, superimposed upon it. Usually the former would be music the characters would be listening to, for example in Tom Cruise films Risky Business, where we see him dancing to a pop song, and in The Color of Money, where he plays pool to Warren Zevon's 'Werewolves of London'. In such instances the music is very much at one with the character's consciousness, by virtue of it being the very music he is listening to at the given moment. Frequently, though, non-diegetic music functions similarly. It captures for example the nervous excitation or the triumphal feelings of will present in the central character. Here Rocky films come to mind, and Sylvester Stallone running around Philadelphia to the famous Oscar winning song, or the conclusion to An Officer and a Gentleman, with Debra Winger getting together with Richard Gere to 'Up Where We Belong'. However do we perhaps need another category to cover films where the music is no longer within a character's general self - even if removed from the narrative space though present just beyond it as in Rocky and An Officer and a Gentleman - but where it hovers on the edge of consciousness, even conscience, reflecting a sort of subjunctive, possible self close to Maslow's notion of B-values? Thus the music isn't diegetic, nor is it non-diegetically reflective of a character's mental state, but it creates an interstitial aural accompaniment to a possible being beyond the character's reach. This is a state beyond the character's reach because of the living predicament versus the ontological ideal, an ideal Maslow may talk about but whose possibility is difficult to attain. So what Pasolini offers in Accatone, and to some degree Bellocchio offers here, is the impossibility of B-values to be found in the environment, and thus consequently impossible to find for the character, but that is nevertheless alluded to by the filmmaker. If Good Morning, Night ends with a dual ending - the reality and the fantasy - then it is Bellocchio's way of alluding to the possible human values present in Chiara but impossible because of the nature of the predicament. Just as Pasolini wanted to shows us the titular character in Accatone caught in a cycle of poverty and deprivation, so Bellocchio here wants to suggest a character whose heart is potentially in the right place but whose social self isn't.
Chiara's social self is caught both politically and spatially. Politically she is of the left, and has obviously invested time and energy in the cause, and spatially she lives in the flat with the other terrorists, all looking after and keeping an eye on Moro. Of course she goes off to work in the library during the day, and even finds herself witness to alternative points of view through her sensitive work colleague who looks like he's developed a crush on her, but has she not predicated her sense of self on being at one with a political cause?
So central here is the question of how somebody would generate higher values whilst at the same time living the lower ones, and how Bellocchio would film this problem not simply as an issue of bad faith - with an ego ideal on the one hand, but the shoulder-shrugging acceptance of lowly reality on the other - but as a "dilemma of speeds". What we mean is that the bad faith possesses much more momentum than the good faith, that the life we generally live constantly overflows the life we may wish to have. For example we may have all sorts of resolutions in our mind, but then we get a telephone call from a friend and the resolutions are suddenly weakened by the presence of a world beyond our own interior consciousness. How does a film register the momentum of reality as opposed to the slow-motion of immanent thinking, and especially when that immanent thinking may have nothing to do with a character's conscious effort? This is where the aural level can prove useful: it can suggest a character's thought without necessarily revealing it, without even turning a character's conscience into a narrative arc, but instead into a burgeoning possibility. It can make the arc, allusive, elliptical - possible but not quite actual.
We can perhaps explain this is in more detail if we compare and contrast Bellocchio's 1997 adaptation of Kleist's The Prince of Homburg with Good Morning, Night. In the earlier film we have the young prince of the title impetuously disobeying orders by ordering the cavalry to charge without the say so of his superiors. Even though the charge proves a resounding success, nevertheless the prince is sentenced to death for his insubordination. It transpires, however, that the prince hasn't only been sentenced to death because of his wilful disregard for convention, but also because he and a young princess have fallen madly in love with each other. But the princess is to be married to the King of Sweden in a peace offering, and that she's suddenly fallen in love with the prince would ruin this attempt at peace.
Now as the prince, who's been briefly released from his cell to argue for his case, talks to the princess, he realises that this is probably the chief reason why he will be executed the next morning. Up to and including this point the prince has shown himself to be full of fear over his impending death, and has sought forgiveness, believing that he has a brilliant future ahead of him. At this stage, though, the young princess goes to her uncle who's responsible for the prince's execution, and pleads with him to save the prince from execution. She explains that she will happily forego a future with the prince if he will at least be given back his life. She adds that the prince feels he has been unfairly treated, and her uncle decides that he will let the young man live if the prince explains why he believes he's been treated badly.
The princess is ecstatic and goes to see the prince who, realising how decent her uncle is being, how honourable the uncle's commitment to truth is, cannot go ahead and write the letter asking to be free. Thus the prince insists he must die, and says he has no problem with accepting his demise but on one condition: that the country does not cowardly marry off the princess to the King of Sweden. The prince has his wish, but the next morning, as he's led off, blindfolded, to be shot, the blindfold is removed and there is much jovial laughter: he shall not be executed, he shall marry the princess, and they will continue fighting if necessary the Swedish army.
What Bellocchio wants to illustrate here is the classical consciousness at work, where every step of burgeoning emotion is matched by rational decision making. Thus the prince realises his impetuous ways are problematic to the country, both in relation to love and in relation to war, and only reaches maturity at the end of the film as he moves from impetuous and selfish, to reasoning and selfless. His realization that he must think through his existence, coincides with awareness that he must look at all the variables of a situation. This works perfectly well for the sort of evolving consciousness that allows dilemmas of speed to work themselves through narratively and linguistically: where narrative arcs and character self-exposition coincide. But if the exterior pace of 'reality', and the interior slow-motion of thought, can't be matched, how does a filmmaker solve the problem, or rather reveal the difficulty of the thought finding its place in external reality? This is where music that is neither diegetic, nor triumphally non-diegetic, can help. It suggests what is within the character's being but cannot be readily articulated as language, as reasoned dialogue, because it is still an inadequate idea in the body rather than an adequate idea in the mind, or that it is an adequate idea in the mind, but still struggling for recognition in the world because there is no discourse readily available for its reception.
Add together these two problems - the inarticulate because articulacy is too deeply rooted in the body, and the difficulty of registering the thought once it is in the mind because of the absence of such a societal discourse - and one may be able to see why a certain type of music can prove astonishingly useful for expressing immanent states. If only we could live not our social speed, but live at our own immanent pace, our being would have not only the possibilities open to us - open in the conventional, democratic sense of the term that we can be what we choose to be socially - but also those that are usually closed to us, that would allow us to live at a completely different emotional pace. If music is often seen as so important to our interior life, one reason why this is so is because it functions as self-amplification without reason. It can make us feel states that we have yet to reason out.
Thus we may see Chiara's problem as one that combines the politically unthought through with the emotionally burgeoning. Now what is perhaps interesting here is the way that Bellocchio is, if you like doing psychoanalysis by other means. If it is true that Bellocchio was strongly influenced by psychoanalytic thinking in a number of his films from the mid-eighties - to the point that his long-term psychoanalyst, Massimo Fagioli contributed to his scripts and some on-set decisions - then how has he absorbed aspects of Fagioli without obvious influence? For Deborah Young, Fagiloi's presence created problems in Bellocchio's work, believing, during a certain period in his career, "one senses that the director is dealing with very personal issues, probably those from his psychoanalysis with Fagioli, but has not worked them through to an artistic conclusion." Whether we agree with Young's chastisements or not, we can see how Bellocchio works the psychoanalytic through the aesthetic in more recent films like The Prince of Homburg and Good Morning, Night.
In the former film he does so by working through a character's move towards what Jacques Lacan would call the symbolic order. Here we have an arrogant young man focused on his own wonderful existence and fresh and flushed after falling in love with a princess, who then impetuously starts a battle without orders from his superiors. The character then goes through a series of realisations that lead him to see that his actions need to be connected to wider social demands. Obviously Kleist's original text is more than a pre-cursor to psychoanalysis, but the problems it raises can coincide with psychoanalytic thinking without being subsumed by it. Is this Young's problem with Fagioli's influence on Bellocchio: that there is an aesthetic subjugation taking place that simultaneously confuses and simplifies the work? Confuses it in the sense that without psychoanalytic interpretation its meaning remains beyond one's reach, and simplifying because if psychoanalysis is within one's reach its meaning becomes too readily clear?
But in films likeThe Prince of Homburg, Good Morning Night and also the film that preceded Good Morning, Night, My Mother's Smile, Bellocchio takes Oedipal complexes and familial problems out of the realm of psychoanalysis, and into the realm of an ethical variability. What we mean by ethical variability is the way in which a human negotiates their personal desires with impersonal, or non-personal attributes. So in The Prince of Homburg the prince manages to make the real world match his private world. Initially he does so erroneously, by disobeying orders and taking his first flush of youth into battle, but later does so successfully when he accepts the Elector's decent gesture and matches it with his own: they both make the compromises necessary for each person's perspective to be available to the other. So if the Prince had an Oedipal problem with authority, the Elector, willing to relinquish a degree of authority for compromise, finds that the Prince relinquishes in turn a degree of his rebelliousness.
In My Mother's Smile the problem resides in central character Sergio Castellitto's unwillingness to accept his mother's canonisation: she's deemed worthy of sainthood because she insistently stopped her mentally disabled son from blaspheming and was subsequently killed by the young man. Castellitto thinks her sanctification absurd, though the rest of the family support the idea for various reasons, usually involving self-interest. But we find that though Castellitto is the least religious member of the family, during the course of the film it is Castellitto who has the closest to a spiritual experience. He falls in love with someone who claims to be his son's teacher - but is she? As he falls for this curious, fleeting presence, we see, in the degree to which faith is activated within him, that his problem with his mother's canonisation has less to do with the notion of faith and more to do with the prosaic: his dislike of his mother, and his problems with a Catholic family he believes are motivated by the down to earth; by the financial gains available to a family of the canonised. Castellitto may initially believe, from his more or less atheistic position, his problem is with the notion of God , but we're aware finally that his problem lies elsewhere: that if it isn't quite Oedipal, it's at least familial.
In Good Morning, Night Chiara may believe the problem is political, but as the film continues, and as we see her moving towards a developing consciousness, we notice that the political is masked by the familial. The gang leader says at one stage quite near the end, he took more than enough crap from his father, and he isn't going to take any more as though Moro functions as a surrogate. In this sense Good Morning, Night takes off from a number of Italian terrorist films from the beginning of the eighties - films like Three Brothers, Blow to the Heart and also Bertolucci's The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man - where the political and the familial conjoin: as though Bellocchio wanted in some ways to return to his cinematic origins, to the problems of family raised in his debut feature, Fist in the Pocket - but to attach them to the terroristic problems that were rooted, many Italian filmmakers clearly believed, in the family. But for Chiara the family clearly isn't problematic: we see that her family is traditionally left-wing and happy, and we see that Chiara's political radicalism appears more connected to unrealistic and fantastic ideas than any realistic context. But it is here that the aural comes in; as it suggests to Chiara the values not of her family, nor of the terrorists, first and foremost, but alludes to the sort of values Maslow insists are present within us. In The Prince of Homburg these values are rationalized and the psychoanalytic structure finds dramatically logical form. But in both My Mother's Smile and Good Morning, Night, Bellocchio wants to retain a degree of the irrational, of the not fully explicable. In My Mother's Smile this comes through a non-believer's realization that if he doesn't believe in the irrationalities of spiritual belief, then he does seem to believe in the inexplicability of love - and isn't it often said that both religious faith and love function similarly: almost as acts of conversion? And if love and religious faith are closely affiliated in My Mother's Smile, is the notion of faith in Good Morning, Night almost religious, religious in the sense of its inexplicability? We never really know why Chiara is involved in this political organization, as it functions a bit like a religious cult with mantras that turn the working class and the possible proletarian future into an act of faith not dissimilar to that proposed by believers when they talk of good people and the future in heaven.
Now Bellocchio doesn't so much mock the terrorists' beliefs, but he does want to show they are beliefs, that they're not especially motivated, finally, by reason, and that within this lack of reason Chiara must find her meaning elsewhere, or not so much find it as feel it coursing through her. What courses through her is music, and its possibilities, but they are possibilities, like Pasolini's use of Bach in Accatone, that are somehow beyond her reach. In this sense, and in this instance, we feel Bellocchio is interested less in psychoanalysis as an achieved state of reason, but psychoanalysis as an immanent state of unreason, so that music plays like a fundament of being, an emotional possibility but that Chiara's being is caught in a cold, political state that demands pseudo-political rationalisations over empathic possibilities.
Thus by combining his interest in psychoanalytic problematics with music that suggests the pre-rational, Bellocchio works through feeling states without any obligation to turn them into psychoanalytically reasoned states. This gives the terrorist film a freshness by making both the terrorist thought and the familial tension secondary to a more fundamental feeling that can't be rationalized through the terroristic and the familial. To rationalise either would suggest a second principle as opposed to a first principle. But one of the central tenets of Maslow's notion of B-values is the degree to which they function first principally. When he says those possessed of B-values "for these and other reasons may be called autonomous. Ie. Ruled by laws of their own character rather than by the rules of society (insofar as they are different)," it is that they can move beyond the limitations of their social constraints. If we believe characters like Chiara here, the central character in Tout suite, and the titular character in Morvern Callar, cannot move beyond these constraints, nevertheless the directors want to suggest it is possible maybe at a later stage, at another moment. Hence Bellocchio's film is in some way an inverted terrorist film - eschewing family expectations and political demands for a feeling state that moves beyond both. Sure Chiara hasn't achieved that state herself, psycho-logically, yet the film's optimism, its use of Pink Floyd, as well as Schubert and Verdi, suggest the values are potentially within her.
© Tony McKibbin