Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Art House in the Middle of the Street #16: Fists in the Pocket

There's no grand philosophical project behind Charge Shot!!!'s new feature. Jordasch's mom got him Janus Films' absolutely untouchable Essential Art House box set, and he's going to watch the whole thing. It's a behemoth set, collecting 50 films released since 1956 by one of the first distributors to bring honest-to-goodness world cinema to U.S. shores. The films contained in the collection serve as a crash course in world cinema, encompassing everything from major works of the French New Wave and the Italian Neorealist period to films from lesser-known corners of the filmmaking world, including Brazil and Poland. The collection is 50 discs, weighs 16 pounds, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses. Hit it.

Fists in the Pocket (1965; dir. Marco Bellocchio)

Why It's Important: A bit tougher to tell with this one. It's easy to point at films like The Bicycle Thieves or Vertigo and explain the cataclysmic impact they had on the history of film. But with the lesser-known films in Janus' box set - and Fists in the Pocket is assuredly one of them - it's a tougher game. The film's Wikipedia entry tells us that author Rex Pickett (Sideways) cites it as a big influence, though similarities between Alexander Payne's 2004 version of Pickett's novel are tough to spot. Rovi hails it as one of the last great classics of the Italian neo-realist period, but the film's bracingly experimental editing and grim absurdity are a far cry from the level-headed reality of a film like The Bicycle Thieves. But other than that, the film is little-known outside of a small circle of dedicated film buffs and the filmmakers it influenced so heavily (Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci). But they sure seem to love it.

Why it deserves to be called a "classic": It's hard to begrudge Fists in the Pocket its good reputation. The film, despite its relative anonymity, still packs quite a punch (no pun intended). It follows a family who could be described charitably as "dysfunctional": the twisted, perverse Alessandro (Lou Castel), his mentally handicapped brother Leone (Pierluigi Troglio), their sister Giulia (Paola Pitagora), older brother and patriarch Augusto (Marino Masé), and their ailing, blind mother (Liliana Gerace). The craven, selfish Augusto lords his relative normalcy over his brothers - both of whom are epileptics - and his sister, whose incestuous desires sling-shot between Augusto and Alessandro (known alternately as Ale or Sandro).

The tortured inventiveness of the characters wouldn't be enough to make the film a classic, however. It's Bellocchio's hallucinatory, nightmarish style that holds the thing together like satanic glue. Bellocchio follows Ale's unholy quest to rid his brother Augusto of the burden of their fucked-up family - by killing them, naturally - by alternating between traditionally edited sequences and scenes where the rules of continuity have been thrown to the wind. In the latter, Bellocchio hops over the 180 degree line like a meth-addled rabbit, giving viewers little idea of where anything is at any given point. He's also a fan of beginning scenes without an establishing shot, so that any close-up will take us to a point we had no idea existed. For example, two characters may sit at a table having a conversation. Halfway through the scene, Bellocchio would cut to a third character on the other side of the table who we didn't know was there. Disorienting, to be sure.

Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless is famous for flipping the bird at traditional continuity rules, but that film was what you'd call "consistently inconsistent." This one is peppered with sequences that follow the rules to a T, recalling nothing if not a fever dream, where the viewer is tossed back and forth between reality and nightmare. It's a stirring effect.

Why it might not be a classic: It's unclear, however, if all this experimentation has a point. Yes, each of Bellocchio's choices seems deliberate: he clearly knew where the camera was supposed to go, even if he didn't put it there. But were his choices purposeful? Godard was playing with noir conventions, creating a film that was mysterious in its form rather than its plot. Bellocchio could be echoing the family's schizophrenic transitions between harmony and discord with his editing, or he could just be fucking around. Either way, the results are stunning to watch, self-assured and memorable like a bad dream. But there might be a reason other than "poor promotion" that this film didn't make the greatest-of-all-time lists.

Unfortunately the plan for an Ale Muppet never surfaced.
Why you might not "get" it: I'd say that if you think you get this film, you didn't get it. In addition to the aforementioned intentionally confusing shot construction ("I thought that person was over there!"), there's often little connection between one scene and the next. Ale's trying to kill his whole family in one scene, and in the next he's horsing around with his sister like he didn't just try to murder her. It'll definitely take a few more viewing for me to sort this mother out. Whoops, matricide joke.

What's next: Naturally, the films of Marco Bellocchio. And it turns out dude is incredibly prolific: he's made a movie at least once every three years since he released Fists in 1965 - it was his first movie! Ironically for a director who's been around for so long, Bellocchio actually seems to have drawn the most praise - aside from Fists - late in his career. 2003's Good Morning, Night follows a Marxist-Leninst terrorist group as it kidnaps the Italian prime minister. 2009's Vincere is about Benito Mussolini's first wife and supposedly gave Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon a run for its money at Cannes in 2009.

After that, it'd probably behoove me to check out the films of Bernardo Bertolucci and Pier Paolo Pasolini, both of whom cite Bellocchio as an important influence. I've actually seen - and adored - Bertolucci's The Conformist. The plot, about an Italian bureaucrat assigned to kill his former professor, didn't make as much of an impression on me as the sumptuous visuals. Call it cinematographer's porn.

And Pasolini has for some time loomed large in my mind as the director of 1975's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade novel. The film depicts a group of fascist libertines who kidnap a group of teenagers and systematically torture and rape them. I still haven't worked up the stomach to watch it.

The line you'd hum if you could hum movie lines: “Be a good boy and keep your voice down, or the devil will come and get you.”

Next Week - Jacques Tati's M. Hulot's Holiday

Photos via italiangerry's Flickr account and The Librarian Movies