Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Lettera aperta a un giornale della sera / Open Letter to the Evening News

[Another somewhat different film, that avoids narrow definitions of filone, but which is again well worth looking at]

In the wake of the Cahiers du Cinema editorial collective's categorisation of films as complicit or against the system in form and / or content and Jean Luc-Godard's comparable theory and practice of making political films politically, the cinema scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s - i.e. read post May 1968 - was a complex and conflicted one for the committed film-maker.

According to these hegemonic theories he or she was supposed to make films which were radical in both their form and content. The problem with radical content without radical form, for these theorists, was that it could easily be recuperated by the system. The problem with radical content combined with radical form, as shown by much practice, was that it tended to lead to the alienation of all but the already converted, or those who understood the new semiotic-structuralist codes by which the text was to be engaged with and its meanings determined.

These pro and con debates were behind the famous split between Bernardo Bertolucci and Godard around this time, with The Conformist representing either an attempt to reach the mainstream audience who had rejected the Godardian Partner or an admission of defeat, of becoming part of the system as one would ideally like to destroy.

Whereas both directors like were able to re-emerge, whether through their subsequent work - the convenient (s)exploitation of Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, made for maximum scandal and pseudo-intellectual accessibility- or their earlier work - the apotheosis of Godard's A bout de souffle, despite his own retrospective repudiations - many of their counterparts were effectively caught between Scylla and Charybdis, lacking the ability to either find or maintain pre-existing critical support.

This wouldn't have been an issue if, in line with the emergent anti-auteurist, post death of the author (Barthes) / author function (Foucault) ideas proposed by the post-structuralist avant-garde, the author had been disregarded.

But, let's face it, it was a case of suicide pact, you first, where no-one would have bothered with any of Godard's Dziga-Vertov Group films had they not had his name connected with them and had they chosen - in line with his equally intriguing uses of creative montage and challenges to conventional notions of good cinema - the name of the Ed Wood Group instead.

I mention all this by way of preamble - or ramble - because it's impossible to understand writer-director - i.e. total auteur - Francesco Masselli's An Open Letter to the Evening News and its fate without considering such issues.

The content is relatively simple, radical but also self-critical:

A group of Marxist intellectuals, including a writer, a publisher, a film-maker and several professors and professionals, unhappy with both their own lack of "organic" relation to those they would lead to class consciousness and thereby help liberate, a la Gramsci, and the official position of the Italian Communist Party, decide to write an open letter to the party-sponsored Rome newspaper Paese Sera announcing their intention to go to fight, and if need by die, in / for Vietnam.

It is pure gesture politics, not to be taken at face level. Similar volunteer delegations to Vietnam from the USSR and China have been refused - for one thing they lack any organic connection to the Vietnamese people and thus appear agents of imperialism / colonialism - with there also being no reason to believe than anyone at Paese Sera or within the party will (mis)read the open letter as anything other than the gesture it is encoded to be decoded as.

Unfortunately for those involved a rival paper unexpectedly gets hold of the letter and publishes it first, leading to an escalation of commitment that seems likely - especially with the support of more prominent intellectuals, including Sartre; the PCI itself; and a change of policy from the North Vietnamese authorities - to actually take the men to Vietnam and their likely deaths....

Formally, the film is also radical, albeit with a quasi-documentary approach that is perhaps more easily understood than a more diverse admixture of styles. Everything is shot with an at times shaky hand-held camera, with frequent zooms and out-of-focus shots, and a natural-looking - though in fact highly pre-meditated - use of light which sees many images either too light or too dark. Scenes tend to begin in media res, without establishing shots, and sometimes continue after any dramatic point has been made. These dramatic points are themselves often difficult to determine, with the exchanges between the characters seemingly more improvised than scripted. Finally, an intimate knowledge of the social, political, historical and cultural landscape of the times and the PCI 's involvement in each is assumed. (Put crudely, the PCI, like their Christian Democrat rivals, functioned to provide a total way of life, from cradle to grave, for their followers, with interventions in all spheres.)

In other words, it's demanding, refusing to easily yield anything to the viewer - especially the outsider at a distance of nearly 40 years.

Yet, this is also what makes it so ripe for rediscovery and so damned interesting.

Two aspects in particular come to mind.

First, the apparent conflation of performers and characters, that Renato Romano is apparently playing someone called Renato Romano and Daniele Dublino someone called Daniele Dublino: Is this neo-realist, in having presumably left-wing intellectual artistic types playing left-wing intellectual artistic types; a Brechtian strategy where the actors are supposed to speak their lines as if in quotes to indicate the discrepancy between role and performer; some combination of both; or something else entirely. (Why should one theatrical practice be taken as universal, outwith the place, time and general context of its origins?)

Second, with far less apparent self-consciousness on the part of Maselli, the role played by women within the narrative. A few domestic and other exchanges excepted, the female characters are very much in supporting roles: though helping draft the letter and providing commentary on it and the men's actions throughout, none are actually themselves committed to the revolutionary gesture as co-authors or signatories.

It is here that, I would argue, the film reveals its position on the very cusp of the 1970s, as a text torn between older (i.e. class, colonialist /imperialist) and newer (i.e. feminist, gay) struggles for freedom and equality.

There's a Italian feminist slogan about - I'm paraphrasing, but I wish I could remember / find the original - comrades in the square, fascists in the home, that seems apposite here...

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