UNIONDOCS | JANUARY 13, 2013
In what would have been his 90th year, the Italian poet, filmmaker, linguist, polemicist, and journalist Pier Paolo Pasolini has been honored with a number of events in New York City. Following a complete retrospective of his films at the Museum of Modern Art and a new home-video release of his Trilogy of Life (1971 – 74) from the Criterion Collection, Brooklyn’s UnionDocs presented a program of discussions about this divisive figure, as well as two recent non-fiction works about his life and brutal, mysterious death in 1975. Along with Alfredo Jaar’s 2009 film The Ashes of Pasolini, filmmaker Cathy Lee Crane screened her new film, Pasolini’s Last Words, an experimental biography that combines archival material, text from the director’s last writings, and reenactments from his earlier films and his unfinished novel, Petrolio. We sat down with Crane to talk about her new film, along with Pasolini’s life, work, and passionate critiques of Italy, capitalism, the cinema, and himself.
Brooklyn Rail: How did you first encounter Pasolini, or at least first seriously think about working with his films and his writing?
Cathy Lee Crane: The very first encounter I had with Pasolini was a documentary I saw at the 2002 San Francisco International Film Festival in which he was interviewed saying he was working on a novel called Petrolio. I was immediately curious. Why was this Italian filmmaker writing a novel about oil in the early ’70s? So I ordered the English translation, I started reading it, and I thought, wow, this is crazy. Among other things, in the center of the book there are 40 pages that describe a series of blowjobs in incredible detail. It’s audacious. In a gay gang rape in the grasses in the periphery of Rome, the protagonist Carlo submits himself to these young men—well, his sexually excessive side submits himself to them. Carlo is split: an executive in the oil industry by day and a prowler of homosexual, excessive desire by night. As I was reading this fragmentary, unfinished novel, I started to think of a film adaptation but it immediately became an overwhelmingly impossible prospect.
Rail: But in Pasolini’s Last Words you do adapt part of it.
Crane: Yes, the last third of my film is essentially an adaptation of certain chapters from Petrolio. In fact, my whole film could be conceived of as an adaptation of the novel if you look at how he describes the compendium of elements that would make up a finished Petrolio. In a project note he wrote:
To fill in the vast lacunae of the book, and for the readers information, an enormous quantity of historical documents that have some bearing on the events of the book will be used. Certain narrative pieces we cannot be certain whether they are real events, dreams, or conjectures made by one of the characters.
It’s like an early transmedia idea. He’s talking about including other modes and genres that interact with the fiction. Those threads of the historical make their way through any fiction really. And then there is a chapter in the final manuscript titled “Flashes on ENI” which in the manuscript is blank. There is speculation that there were in fact 45 pages indicting the national oil industry and that these pages (which have never been found) were inflammatory enough to have lead someone with interests in that business sector to see to it that these words would not see the light of day. No one knows why Pasolini was actually murdered. The case is still open.
Rail: Do you have your own theory about the murder?
Crane: Listen, I think that he pushed a lot of people, and it would not surprise me at all if they wanted to have him silenced. He was critical of the Christian Democrats, who held a long reign after the fall of Mussolini. Though it’s important to think of the differences between Fascism with a capital “F” and fascism with a little “f,” Pasolini insisted that consumer capitalism achieved what Fascism did not, the homogenization of man. In fact, there’s one archival excerpt in both my film and Alfredo’s film, where he says, “It’s happened so fast we didn’t even notice. And though we are beginning to wake up from this nightmare, we realize there’s nothing we can do.”
Rail: Certainly what he was saying at the time, with respect to consumer capitalism and the death of regional language and culture, has a lot of resonance today.
Crane: There is no question that he was prescient, and that everything he was able to observe and write about is alive and well in the present day. My ongoing engagement with his writing was spurred on by his Marxist critique of lived capitalism. It is so great to read someone who is precise about what’s happening.
Rail: How did you come by Alfredo’s film?
Crane: I was obsessed with Pasolini, and I wanted to know who else was making films about him. Alfredo’s piece is great because it lays the historical ground very plainly. I think it’s an ideal preamble to my film, because you are not trying as hard to understand the ballast of Pasolini’s political concerns in 1975. I became very interested in domestic terrorism in Italy during the 1970s. I was making my film from 2006 – 2012, and I was curious about what the hell the “War on Terror” meant, what are the precedents for domestic terrorism, or terrorism more generally and how might it be understood. I dove into researching the 1970s from this tack and discovered that the strategy of tension which was revealed nearly two decades after Pasolini’s murder was something Pasolini certainly could have known about. Petrolio is littered with things about the bombing of the Turin station, how the communists are going to be blamed for it, et cetera. If you want to get into a conspiracy theory [laughs], the function of the C.I.A. in post-war Europe through the Truman doctrine or the Marshall Plan prioritized the elimination (by any means necessary) of communism, which was on the rise in Italy in the early 1970s. Pasolini dies; historical compromise.
Rail: I’m interested in the way that he conceives the role of mass media in this process, and how that contributes to his own ideas about presenting bodies on camera. Especially with the Trilogy of Life and then Salò  right after: there’s this incredible amplification of the body in his work, and then a complete reversal, shocking and incredibly pessimistic, and I wonder what you think about it, even just in terms of your own work as a filmmaker and your work with actors and bodies.
Crane: I think he wants what he wants but he felt obligated to remain critical. In true Catholic fashion, he came up against the social taboos around experiencing the full pleasure of his desire. His film Comizi d’Amore (1964) interrogates the changing landscape of Italian mores on sex. In Pasolini’s films, he pursues those beings and those bodies that he desires. His camera is the pursuit and the caress of these bodies for sure. I think he found himself or felt himself to be complicit in a problematic of media that objectifies, assimilates, and consumes these bodies. Six months before his murder he wrote that he could never remake Accattone (1961) because the bodies of the men are completely different. He was losing his object of desire; he became desperate. I think of it in a very personal way that he experienced the homogenizing force of capitalism directly. As the sub-proletariat began to take on the postures and the attitudes of the middle class Pasolini experienced the disappearance of his object of desire in Europe so he traveled to the Third World.
Rail: That’s especially interesting given those films he made outside of Italy—in India and Palestine and Africa—for which he’s been taken to task for a touristic, essentializing gaze. But it makes sense to me, given his understanding of cinema as a language of reality, that he would be able to exonerate himself from that charge of objectification.
Crane: And the only way he can do that is by making Salò because it really does not let up. Everything is called into question: homosexual desire, heterosexual desire, institutional marriage, the relationship between the church and banks, class. Everything is there. In Salò, the villa is the factory that is turning us into things. It is in the heart of the manufacturing of dehumanization. He wants to go right into it. When I watch that film I am reminded of Night and Fog: the voiceover to that film remains to me one of the most important articulations of how it is possible for fascism and genocide to exist. It exists because we no longer see others as human; as changing, vibrant, diverse beings. For that reason, Pasolini doesn’t want anything in his film to be assimilable, digestible. He’s a highly dialectic thinker and just when he does one thing like the Trilogy of Life, he’s going to follow that with the exact opposite in order to confront himself. He is living out his own self-contradiction. He occupied a place as a public intellectual that I think is rarely seen in our present day. He was conscious of his own complicity in the problems he was critiquing. This is how I understand his move from the Trilogy to Salò. He’s not off the hook—ever—which, you know, has got to be a really stressful way to live.
Rail: How do the reenactments function in your film, in regard to Pasolini’s comment that it would have been impossible for him to remake Accatone in the mid-1970s.
Crane: Well, he’s both right and wrong, because, on the one hand, his critique of how it is that we are becoming homogenized is that through mass media we learn how to stand, how to take a posture. We are in fact learning how to all be the same so there are maybe 12 postures that represent cool. There are five gestures that say fuck off. You have to remember that this is Italy; there is a lot of language that’s in the hands, in the face. I mean there’s a whole lexicon of meanings associated with gesture in Italy. So, on the one hand, if this is in operation—it stands to reason that we could in fact replicate Accattone. But he’s also right: our bodies are different, and so there is no way one could be Franco Citti. There is no way Franco Citti is going to show up in a 23-year-old American boy’s body—no way. So Pasolini’s right; those bodies don’t exist any more. But in my film, this impossible attempt to recover the gestures of those bodies becomes a kind of incantation. The actors followed the movements, the gestures, the face. They studied it looking at the screen, and then they would turn away to face my camera. Because the material was on a loop there was also looping audio, a kind of Pavlovian track from which to take a cue with one’s back to the screen. Then you start to see these uncanny and bizarre approximations. It’s extraordinary and strange because, well, it’s not reenactment. I think rehearsing is a better word, because it’s about re-hearing. It’s like listening to something from the past.
You know, I came of age during the AIDS crisis, and I feel an obligation as an artist to be reminded of who is no longer with us. That there are palpable repercussions of this loss. Fortunately, thought has its way of continuing. This is also true for the film image. It stops; it cuts; when we get shot B, shot A still creeps in through our mind, and there’s always a super-imposition. I think even after a film is over, there’s an after-image or an echo that exists, and this is true in life: a spirit or a residue, a trace. Someone as forceful a thinker as Pasolini is consequently very much alive. Sure his body dies, but he’s still so vibrant through his writing and his films. You could say my film is an act of resurrection.
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