An Aesthetic of the Primitive
"It seems to me that the first language of men is their action", Pier Paolo Pasolini says, before adding "in reality, we make cinema by living, that is, by existing practically, that is, by acting. All of life in the entirety of its actions is a natural, living film; in this sense it is the linguistic equivalent of oral language in its natural and biological aspect." (Heretical Empiricism) Pasolini sees that cinema has the immediacy of the oral over the written and we might wonder how this works in the context of a Greek play that would have been performed two and a half thousand years ago in an amphitheatre, but has spent much of the time since as a classic text and on a proscenium stage, accumulating not only mythological purpose but cultural resonance too. Indeed, we might wonder if culture is often the harnessing of myth, removing it from the arena of superstition and placing it into the realm of knowledge. Those most inclined to know about Oedipus, Medea, Antigone, Zeuz, Penelope, Jason, Achilles, Ulysses and Helen possess cultural knowledge; they would be disinclined to superstitious belief. Introducing Classical Mythology, Edward Tripp says, "the book is a collection of stories. It is intended not to expound the myths of Greece and Rome, but to tell them in a readable and convenient form. It is not concerned with cult..." Jasper Griffin notes that one way "in which Greek mythology is a special case is its pervasiveness...both history and philosophy emerge from mythical thought, and both poetry and the visual arts remained always attached to mythical subjects." (Oxford History of the Classical World). Pasolini wouldn't deny the validity of such claims, but adapting both Oedipus Rex (which we will focus upon) and Medea in the late sixties it was as though he wanted at the same time to shatter them. He wanted, however, to shatter not the myths; more the classical culture that had built up around them. The language of action, cinema, was the means by which to do so. Though he frames Oedipus Rex around an Oedipal tale of a baby feeling abandoned as his mother makes love with the father in the pre-war era, and ends on the blind Oedipus walking the city streets in the present, he wants in each instance to show us the traces of myth while focusing the main body of the film on the harshness of primitive culture. Rather than seeing Oedipus Rex as a cultural artefact that indicates the weight of our civilization, Pasolini focuses instead on the depth of our primal being.
There is nothing theatrical about Pasolini's film, as if to adapt the play would be too fussy, too writerly an approach for a filmmaker who may also have been a theorist, poet and novelist, but wished to see language not as the primary source of our existence, but a secondary quality to our being. Language was a means not an end, and anyone who was tried thirty-three times for various criminal offences, including holding up a gas station to contempt towards state religion, according to Ben Lawton in his introduction to Heretical Empiricism, was unlikely to side with establishment values in any form. While Carlos Fuentes notes in a brief essay on tragedy that "from Vico to Levi-Strauss myth and language are identified as one", Pasolini wishes to prise them apart, to say that myth is primal, language formal. The danger is that the latter tames the former and all the more so in written form. Pasolini speaks of two languages, seeing in one of the essays in Heretical Empiricism, as he makes a passing reference to Levi-Strauss, that "the qualitative leap between the two languages is the ideal moment of man's passage from the prehistoric phase to the historical phase..." ('From the Laboratory')
Pasolini's writings are intricate, often perceived as confused and idiosyncratic, but while we wouldn't remotely wish to deny their importance, our purpose is to use them tentatively to try and understand the significance of Oedipus Rex as a film. For Pasolini life itself is cinematic: "the intended recipient of the cinematic product is equally accustomed to visually read 'reality', that is to keep up a dialogue which the reality which surrounds him and which is used as the environment of a collectivity which can be felt even in the pure and simple manifestation of its acts, its habits." Pasolini adds, "all dreams are a series of imsigns [image signs] which have all the characteristics of the cinematic sequence: close ups, long shots etc." ('Cinema of Poetry') Cinema both resembles our reality as it reflects our habits, but it also captures our dreams as it reflects our sub-conscious. Another way of looking at this is to see that we have two realities simultaneously: the one that allows us to function and the other that allows us to reflect. The depth of that reflection will be variable: we can think about what we might have for dinner while doing the shopping, we might daydream about how wonderful it would be on a cold winter's day to be on a tropical island, or we might be night dreaming, deep in a sleep that jumbles up our thoughts and removes all rationale from our mind. There are of course many other ways in which we escape from the thing to hand which is the habitual action and find ourselves musing over the wistful, anxious or hypothetical. Pasolini would suggest that cinema is not just the natural medium for such a range of possibilities, but also a coinciding of the origins. This makes cinema, like our original existence, primitive. "Whereas the instruments of poetic or philosophical communication are already extremely perfected, truly form a historically complex system which has reached its maturity, those of the visual communication which is at the basis of cinematic language are altogether brute." ('Cinema of Poetry') Part of this 'brutality' is that Pasolini sees film is without a grammar and without a given lexicon: "the cinema author has no dictionary but infinite possibilities." These are the possibilities of the world, but not only does the filmmaker have access to that world as a recorded reality, he or she also has access to it as oneiric possibility. Yet what makes Pasolini's films in the mid-to-late sixties so interesting (not only Oedipus Rex and Medea, but also The Gospel According to St Matthew) is that Pasolini creates a proper place between the language of action and the language of thought. He does so by indicating that what is at the root of thought in its various manifestations is prior action. What matters is to find in myth the past action: the deed that gave birth to the myth as primitive force rather than as classic tale. "Instead of projecting the myth on to psycho-analysis, I have re-projected psycho-analysis on the myth. This was the fundamental operation in Oedipus. Pasolini then adds "People in Italy criticized me for not making Oedipus an intellectual, because everyone in Italy imagines Oedipus as an intellectual, but I think that is a mistake because an intellectual's vocation is to seek things out; as soon as an intellectual sees something that doesn't work, by vocation he begins to look into it. Whereas Oedipus is exactly the opposite : he is the person who does not want to look into things, like all innocent people, those who live their lives as the prey of life and of their own emotions" (Pasolini on Pasolini) An intellectual Oedipus would give an identifcatory force to the cultural accumulation: that since those viewing the work would be inclined to be intellectual, surely Oedipus should be intellectual too. But Pasolini wants 'primitives', whether it happens to be an impoverished and ragged Jesus in The Gospel According to St Matthew or a raucous mother in Mamma Roma, a jealous emigre in Medea or a local tough in Accatone, Pasolini's characters are not people who think through the implications of their deeds but are usually at the mercy of them.
Whether modern day (Accatone, Mamma Roma) or Ancient (Oedipus Rex, Medea), Pasolini gives us characters ruled by passions. There is little strategic in Oedipus's rise to the top: he doesn't kill his father and sleep with his mother out of ambition but out of desire. It is as if no matter the warnings from the Oracle, Oedipus will have to act on his impulses. We could see that Tiresius warning him that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother is not really a warning at all: it is a prophecy. A warning tells us what will likely happen if we don't follow advice. A prophecy tells us what will inevitably come to pass no matter one's actions. But the complexity of Pasolini's achievement rests on the modern notion of inevitability with the Ancient idea of fate. When Audrene Eloit says "Oedipus's story is about refusing to acknowledge the existence of his unconscious and the nature of his urges", adding "but Oedipus cannot avoid his destiny." Eloit then notes that "chance (fatum) is etymologically linked to fate." ('The Palimpsest: Rewriting and the Creation of Pasolini's Cinematic Language') The Ancients would invoke fate; now we would be more inclined to call it chance. But if for example someone is born with a particular set of genes we would not say it is their fate they have a disease that will kill them later in life but earlier than most people. We would call it chance: a one in a million chance that they would have the disease. Many would use the term that it was a chance in a million; few would be inclined to say that it is the person's fate to die an early death. The former indicates bad luck and no moral imposition; the latter suggests that luck has nothing to do with it and even that morality is involved. Today, even if there is a family history of the disease we would still be more inclined to use the term bad luck rather than that the person was fated to die. Much of Pasolini's work seems to be a determination to find a place between the inevitable and the contingent, the fatalistic and the serendipitous. Speaking about the making of The Gospel According to St Matthew he said: "I recognized the desire to make The Gospel from a feeling I had. I opened the Bible by chance and began to read the first pages, the first lines of St. Matthew's Gospel, and the idea of making a film of it came to me. It's evident that this is a feeling, an impulse that is not clearly definable. Mulling over this feeling, this impulse, this irrational movement or experience, all my story began to become clear to me as well as my entire literary career." (Film Comment)
Oedipus Rex, an ancient play and a modern psychoanalytic theory, can bring together the complex relationship we have with chance and fate over many centuries. As Naomi Morgenstern says in the University of Toronto Quarterly: "Being in love with the one parent and hating the other are among the essential constituents of the stock of psychical impulses... This discovery is confirmed by a legend that has come down to us from classical antiquity: a legend whose profound and universal power to move can only be understood if the hypothesis I have put forward in regard to the psychology of children has an equally universal validity. What I have in mind is the legend of King Oedipus and Sophocles' drama which bears his name.... [Oedipus's] destiny moves us only because it might have been ours." ('The Oedipus Complex Made Simple'). What we can see is that there are three things here: the play, the myth and the complex. One can adapt the play without reference to the others, but Pasolini makes clear that all three interest him and perhaps the play least of all. "I wanted to make the film freely. When I made it I had two objectives: first, to make a kind of completely metaphoric - and therefore mythicized - autobiography; and second to confront both the problem of psycho-analysis and the problem of the myth. But instead of projecting the myth on to psycho-analysis, I have re-projected psycho-analysis on the myth. This was the fundamental operation in Oedipus. But I kept very free, I followed up all my aspirations and impulses. I didn't deny myself a single one." (Pasolini on Pasolini)
There is the idea that to respect the play was the least of Pasolini's concerns, which is partly why we have talked about mythological purpose over cultural resonance. Whether speaking about The Gospel According to St Matthew or Oedipus Rex, what is clear is the importance of impulse, as if impulse is the action that comes from a much deeper source than reason, calculation, intention and so on. It is the aspect that Pasolini allows to run through Oedipus Rex, the force that impels characters forward and none more so than Oedipus himself. In the moments just after the Oracle has told Oedipus of his fate, Pasolini shows him wandering as if in a daze, the music harsh and inexorable, the camera hand-held and close up as first it moves in on actor Franco Citti's face, and then cuts to a counter shot of the various village people in front of him. The camera cuts back to Oedipus as he passes through them while he puts his hand over his eyes. The next shot we see him in the desert, the city in the distance behind before the shot after shows him back amongst the villagers, passing once again through them. It is as if the style is as primitive as the feeling, with Pasolini oddly cutting from Citti passing through the crowds, to having exited the town, back to passing through the crowds again. But Pasolini is a properly disjunctive filmmaker impulsively. Whether it is using a hand-held camera in a historical epic (which would usually invoke a more formal camera style (as though the hand-held is too modern), It is as if Pasolini wants to make films to comprehend what reality is in its deepest manifestation: the camera not only never lies; it possesses an anthropological truth as well. The purpose isn't to utilise to tell a story well; but to find in the story the mythological impulses that govern us all. Most of these impulses will have been trained out of us, and partly by the sort of culture that Oedipus Rex can be seen to represent and the Freudian myth explores. After all, people don't generally kill their father and sleep with their mothers; sublimation takes care of that. But what would a film look like that manages to go beneath that sublimation and also beneath and beyond the cathartic necessities of Sophocles' play? If Freud insisted that "the child's ego turns away from the Oedipus complex...the authority of the father or the parents is introjected into the ego, and there it forms the nucleus of the super-ego, which takes over the severity of the father and perpetuates his prohibition against incest, and so secures the ego from the return of the libidinal object-cathexis", Pasolini wonders what a cinema might look like that does not assume sublimation, or for that matter catharsis - that will not in Aristotelian terms allow the audience to experience the tragedy and be purged by the viewing of it. Just as in The Gospel According to St Matthew Pasolini doesn't want us to believe in Christ as a metaphysical property; neither does he want us to accept the Freudian necessity of sublimation. These are not at all knowing works: the point isn't to see the biblical stories and the Oedipus story as myths, but as archeologically buried realities. The best way perhaps to access these distant realities is by an impulsive approach to cinema.
Pasolini was clear that this is how he used film. "I may have invented a given style - in fact my films are recognizable for a particular style - but style does not always imply technical inventions. Godard is full of technical inventions." (Film Comment) There is much that is intuitive in Godard but very little that is impulsive in the way we are couching it. In this sense Godard is a great contrarian; he instinctively knows where the camera would usually be put and puts it somewhere else; knows how music would usually be used and uses it differently, knows how a cut would generally be done and finds another way. He creates almost infinite possibilities for film; Pasolini seems mainly to create possibilities for himself. Like Cassavetes, he undeniably has a style, but unlike, say, Scorsese he doesn't innovate within it. That is not the point. What would seem to be the point is using cinema as a tool for understanding our deepest realities, hence the director's interest in a written language of reality that has little to do with realism and yet at the same time sees the importance of locale. He is very far away from Fellini who often found the Rome studio Cinecitta a useful locale for his creativity. Pasolini's mid-to-late sixties work, searched out locations throughout southern Italy, in Morocco and Turkey with Pasolini hoping to find in the faces and the places a primitive approach to reality that western living had eschewed. Speaking of his work with non-professional actors he would say "in reality, my method consists simply of being sincere, honest, penetrating, precise in choosing men whose psychological essence is real and genuine." (Film Comment) Obviously, in Oedipus Rex, he uses professional actors and Western faces along with non-professionals - none more so than Silvano Mangano in the twin roles of the mother in the prologue and the mother in the Ancient section, who despite an impoverished upbringing nevertheless trained as a dancer, and worked as a model. Franco Citti has a face that suggests a hard life or least one hardened by the sun, but he was a friend of Pasolini's and the brother of the director Sergio Citti. Yet Pasolini rarely uses an actor for their star appeal - even Terence Stamp in Theorem fits into Pasolini's world; the director does not film him in a manner that suggests he has entered Stamp's. Ditto Maria Callas in Theorem. He does not film a star as a star, but as another curiosity, a figure to be understood In their primal aspect over their contemporary aura. A star, after all, can be seen as little more than an image, as Daniel Boorstin argues, according Richard Dyer in Stars, saying "they appear to be meaningful but are in fact empty of meaning, Thus a star is well known for her or his well-knownness, and not for any talent or specific quality. They are an example of the 'celebrity', marketed on the strength of trivial differences of appearance." Unlike most other Italian directors of the era like Antonioni, Fellini and Bertolucci, Pasolini had little interest in working with or producing stars. He was more keen to make everybody and everything fundamental and elemental, a force of nature in nature. This would be part of his style, to 'reduce' a being to their biological and mythological base rather than elevating them to a contemporaneous abstraction. They do not "owe their existence to the machinery of their production." (Stars)
What else is vital to Pasolini's style? His shot choices are often both predictable and yet unusual, suggesting a need to allow the story to develop without indicating that the story is the thing. In the scene where Oedipus tells his adopted parents that he wants to go to Delphi after waking from a horrible and horribly vivid dream, we witness a fairly straightforward discussion as he tells them he wants to go as soon as possible and wishes to go alone. But the establishing shots are a little disconcerting and the closes ups abrupt and very frontal. When for example Oedipus talks about his dream, Pasolini films Citti in close up and he darts his eyes from left to right as he speaks to his mother and his father. But when the film cuts from Citti to his mother (Alida Valli) she is much further away than the close up on Citti would imply. Though the scene opens with the father's feet getting washed, we might not know that his father is in the same space as Oedipus invokes his mother's name but not initially his father's. It would have made more dramatic conventional sense for the mother to have been sitting there, or for Oedipus to have first invoked the father. We say this with no criticism of Pasolini, and few watching the scene will have any problem following the throughline as they might in a Godard or a Resnais film. There is little sense that Pasolini's is playing with the viewer, which is consistent with his claim that he doesn't innovate. But it does indicate a style. A conventional director would have filmed this scene more 'clearly', an innovative director would have filmed it more 'radically'. Pasolini's style exists between these two places partly because the form he adopts is secondary to the questions that he asks. Finally, this may be true of all great directors, but with Pasolini it can seem close to an aesthetic indifference, as if what interests him is the reality that he films and the primal depths he seeks, the form simply (but at the same time complexly) the means to achieve this. As Oedipus tells the parents he will leave for Delphi the next morning, the film cuts to an Ancient city and we might assume this is where he has arrived. But no, the film shows a bird, then a couple of shots of it flying through the air before a long shot of animals in a desert landscape and the old man who had carried Oedipus away from his original village guarding them. We then get a shot of the old man in close up looking directly at the camera. The film then cuts back to Oedipus still at home, about to leave. It is the next morning; he is no longer dressed in the blood red of the previous day; he leaves clothed in a white garment carrying a broad hat. We could say that Pasolini wrong-foots us here as he cuts from Oedipus telling his parents he is leaving for the city we might expect him to have arrived at. This would be the conventional grammar of cinema that no one more than Godard countered and innovated within. But if we believe this isn't Pasolini's intention it rests on something in the image - as though each shot in Pasolini is a world unto and of itself. Thus when a director cuts from one incident to the next, from one scene to another, how can he be sure that he can contain within his shots the unit of meaning he wishes to deliver? Will the meaning always be too extensive for the specific purpose? Pasolini addresses some of these questions in 'The written Language of Reality: "it is not true that the smallest unit in cinema is the image, when by image we mean that "view" which is the shot, or, in other words, what one sees looking through the lens...Instead: the various real objects that compose a shot are the smallest unit of film language." Pasolini's style reflects that fact - the idea that the filmmaker never contains the shot, partly because the shot is not the film's smallest unit.
It is this idiosyncratically realistic approach to the image that can make Pasolini's style seem off-hand, ad-hoc and even amateurish. He more or less admits to this in the Film Comment interview quoted above, and the comparisons he makes between himself and Godard. But his theoretical interest in realism is quite distinct from Andre Bazin's and distinct again, from Walter Benjamin's; neverheless, like Bazin and Benjamin, he is interested in the depth charge of the image: the sense that it gives off far more than it can contain. When Pasolini argues with semioticians like Christian Metz about what the smallest unit of film happens to be - whether or not film has the equivalent of a phoneme - he wants to make clear that film has no equivalent smallest unit, and thus, perhaps no filmmaker has the equivalent control of the writer. Benjamin draws out the difference between painting and filmmaking saying thus: "That of the painter is a total one, that of the cameraman consists of multiple fragments which are assembled under a new law. Thus, for contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art. " ('The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction') Bazin reckons "neorealism is more an ontological position than as aesthetic one." (What is Cinema?, Vol II) There is more to film than technology, but there is also more to film because of technology. It can see into the world because it can see the world. We don't want to be nave here, but next to Metz, Eco and other semiotically inclined writers who play up the language of film, the codes and conventions of cinema, Pasolini, Bazin and Benjamin can seem nave.
Yet this seems to us a very subtle form of naivety over a narrow notion of sophistication. A narrow form indicates that of course what we see when we watch a film isn't reality: actors will have been placed in certain positions, locations altered even if utilised, and the camera's distance or closeness will be making us react in particular ways. However, a subtle form of naivety might still insist on believing the reality in front of one's eyes, and not as a narrative suspension of disbelief, but as a ready acceptance that believes in the image in front of us. We don't believe in an animated image the way we believe that we see the Trevi fountain in La dolce vita. Even if we were to find out that the scene was recreated in a studio we would be forced to disbelieve what we had believed. Our first inclination would be to believe unless otherwise asked to disbelieve (as often happens in later Fellini films that so obviously use sets, like And the Ship Sails On). We don't believe the story of Oedipus here; we suspend our disbelief first. But the landscapes Pasolini uses and the faces he shows us, we are inclined to believe in - they don't require disbelief to generate belief. The sophisticated position might be to say that we don't believe in anything we see, but surely we recognize a quite different perceptual process in the diegesis of a fiction film and what takes place on the recording plane of that story. Central to Pasolini's style, vital to his interest in the mythological over the classical, resides here. It is almost as though the story of Oedipus, or Medea, or Jesus, takes place on top of a documentary about the given location. As Pasolini himself says, speaking of The Gospel According to St Matthew, he had no desire "to reconstruct settings that were not philosophically exact - reconstructed on a sound stage by scene designers and technicians - and furthermore not wanting to reconstruct the ancient Jews - I was obliged to find everything - the characters and the ambience - in reality."
Pasolini believed "the rule that dominated the making of the film was the rule of analogy. That is, I found settings that were not reconstructions but were analogous to Ancient Palestinians." Filming in Morroco was not an opportunity to film contemporary Moroccan life, but to find in modern Morroco aspects that were still pertinent to an Ancient culture. (Film Comment) While we can agree with Nikola Petkovic that Pasolini has no interest in Morocco except as a place that can serve his particular interests, we are inclined to disagree concerning what those interests happen to be. Petkovic sees Pasolini as a filmmaker working well within the European bourgeois notion of culture, "the exemplars of this image in France were Jean-Paul Sartre or Michel Foucault; in German Gunter Grass; in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel; and in Italy, Pier Paolo Pasolini." ('Re-writing the Myth, Rereading the Life') It is out of this culture that Pasolini has shaped a self-conscious, even post-modern take on the play, according to Petkovic, and a decidedly autobiographical one at that, as Petkovic emphasises the director's own love for his mother and his cooler relationship with his father. He also sees that instead of confirming myth Pasolini seeks to undermine it, in a "postmodern gesture of the modern European intellectual, questioning the authority of any fixed point of view." with Pasolini dismissing grand narratives. Our take is to see Pasolini less as the key post-war intellectual that he undeniably was, but more as someone fascinated by the primitive instinct, a figure who could feel the pull of the past as a void of being into which we fall as readily as a historical culture of which we happen to be a part. Early in the film, in the prologue set during the Fascist era (an era that coincided with Pasolini's birth in 1922), the father looks at the son and an intertitle says, "you're here to take my place in the world, send me back into the void and rob me of all I have. The film may play out in its main section the complex that is the unconscious problem that Freud articulated and that has entered 20th century culture, but it is even more, we feel, the void that Pasolini finds himself drawn to - the void that suggests not a culture accumulating but a base force that cannot be denied. We might wish to see the Oedipus Complex as a regulating cultural power that can help us understand ourselves as well-appointed members of the bourgeoisie. Of course, we don't really kill our fathers, just as we don't really believe the biblical stories as if they actually happened. But Pasolini would seem to want us to believe as readily as suspend disbelief, in a variation of our comments on believing the locations and suspending our disbelief over the diegesis. Can the locations absorb the story so completely that we no longer have the classic play of Oedipus but the mythical dimension that allows us to see an aspect which suggests not our cultural accumulation but the roots of ourselves? Though Pasolini would talk of the innovation of Godard in the Film Comment interview, though he would talk in the very important essay 'A Cinema of Poetry' about how the cinema of Antonioni, Bertolucci, Godard and others was developing a new level of ambition, what also and always interested Pasolini about the cinema was its primal nature. Speaking for example of Bantu, Pasolini would say "the example of primitive language approximates what we have to say about film: that primitive language in fact also has structures immensely different from ours, belonging, let us suppose, to the world of "untamed thought". (Heretical Empiricism) Perhaps part of this primitivism lies in the paradoxical nature of film as a recording device. We have modern technology allowing for primal perception, and this is partly why we suspend disbelief in the story but believe in the images that we see. It is a point Petkovic makes when he talks of the film's conclusion with Oedipus now, in the present age, begging outside a Bologna cathedral before venturing into what we would assume is the nearby working-class district: Petkovic notes that the working class district isn't in Bologna at all but is actually Milan. We have to be told that the film is filming two different cities; unless we know the cities ourselves we are inclined to believe that they are one and the same. It is a variation of the camera never lies: we generally assume its truth unless otherwise stated. When we suspend disbelief we know that we are in a world of make-believe; film creates an ambivalent relationship with that suspension.
We don't want to simplify this assumption, one that has always been tempered by anything from back projection to special effects, and that is complicated much more now by digital imagery, but what Pasolini wants is less a suspension of disbelief than a primitive acceptance of belief, and why locations matter so much in his work. When Pasolini offers us a series of shots halfway through the film of various characters lying dead from the plague we are unlikely to assume that they are really dying, but we might believe a little more in that death diegetically if we accept that plausibility of the location in which they meet their demise. This is filmically the first world meeting the third world, the film a product of the West; the setting the geography of the South. The misery of the lives in the story, met by the misery of the lives that go beyond the story as we know many people will be dying similar deaths in parts of the world like this. It is part of Pasolini's cinema of analogy, a cinema that wishes to take us into the past not to indulge our evolved sensibility with an adaptation of a classic play, but to make us face primal realities that are still taking places behind our backs as Pasolini places them in front of our eyes.
© Tony McKibbin