Bright Lights Film Journal

“Narrative is dead. We’re mourning it.” Intertextuality and Authorship in Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini (2014)

Rather than trying to frame the narrative as a means of truly understanding the mind of its subject, the film emphasizes that the central figure himself controls access to his inner feelings, and any attempt by an outside party to represent that psychology will inevitably be unsuccessful, gleaned from second-hand information.

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Abel Ferrara’s protagonists are creatures of contradiction. In Welcome to New York, a financial titan who is considering running for the French presidency is undone by his insatiable sexual appetite. In Bad Lieutenant, a New York City cop who raises his sons in the Catholic faith spends his free time indulging in benders of drugs, hookers, and casual misuses of power. In Dangerous Game, a successful film director and family man uses his set as a means to exorcise his deeply rooted anger, regularly subjecting his actors and crew to intense emotional abuse. In outline, these binary oppositions may seem overly simplistic, though it’d be a mistake to think that these characters can be described solely in terms of a Jekyll/Hyde divide. As the film scholar Brad Stevens argues, “Ferrara’s interest in states of transition inspiring him to portray individuals who, rather than holding onto a fixed position or moving from one fixed position to another, are many things simultaneously.” Stevens writes of Dangerous Game’s Eddie that “there will be no “rosebud” to even tentatively sum up Eddie, no hope of ironing out his contradictions, of reconciling his various personalities.” I’d argue that the same could be said of most of Ferrara’s central characters.

In light of Ferrara’s interest in the unstable, constantly shifting nature of identity, it’s understandable that he has expressed a persistent fascination with artists who devote themselves to their art that they struggle to separate themselves from it. In Mary, an actress hired to portray Mary Magdalene abruptly travels to Jerusalem in an obsessive quest to find out everything she can about the woman behind the legend, unsatisfied with the idea of delivering a sub-par performance. In Go Go Tales, strip club owner Ray Ruby has so internalized the rhetoric of his showman antics that they slip into his private life, making it difficult to distinguish Ray Ruby the man from Ray Ruby the performer. Fittingly, Ferrara himself has constructed a mumbling hood rat persona that’s hard to reconcile with the rigorous intellectualism of his filmography. Though the director has proven himself able to straddle the line between the arthouse and the grindhouse with more sophistication than perhaps any living filmmaker, in public appearances he’s disconcertingly self-effacing. In interviews, he tends to downplay his evident intelligence and formal mastery in favour of stressing the centrality of collaboration, snap decisions, and happy accidents to his creative process. He’s more eager to crack dumb jokes than discuss his high-brow influences. Think of Ferrara’s infamous appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien to promote Bad Lieutenant, in which he repeatedly deflected serious questions in favour of telling bizarre (and probably made up) behind-the-scenes anecdotes, such as Madonna pleading with him to beat up Harvey Keitel to prove that he’s a real director, and Keitel insisting that they organize the shoot so that the nude scenes are filmed first, before gradually working up to the fully dressed scenes. Here, as per usual, the filmmaker comes across as thoroughly appealing and completely disingenuous.

To borrow a quote from Proust, Ferrara’s body of work revolves around the notion that “even in the most insignificant details of our daily life, none of us can be said to constitute a material whole, which is identical for everyone, and need only be turned up like a page in an account-book or the record of a will; our social personality is a creation of the thoughts of other people.” By so persistently refusing to draw a distinction between “true” and falsified, performative identities, Ferrara causes us to question to what extent the notion of a single and unified self is valid in the first place, and how the multitude of personas that constitutes an individual’s social identity can be packaged into the circumscribed structure of a conventional narrative. With this in mind, Pasolini is a fascinating addition to the director’s oeuvre, in that it is his only feature that arguably belongs to the genre of the biopic (Welcome to New York may be a thinly fictionalized reimagining of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, but it uses the basic facts as raw material to create a parable-like social critique; unlike Pasolini, nobody could accuse Welcome to New York of aiming for verisimilitude). Set in Rome in the mid-1970s, Pasolini roughly charts the final 24 hours (with a few snatches of the days before and after) of the titular filmmaker’s life as he conducts his cryptic final interview, pitches his next project to actors, works on the post-production of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, and cruises the red-light district. Interspersed within this central narrative are re-created snippets from two of Pasolini’s unfinished works: the script Porno-Teo-Kolossal and the novel Petrolio.

Anybody walking into Pasolini hoping to gain a comprehensive overview of the subject’s life and work is likely to be disappointed (some critics have even gone as far as to suggest the film may be incomprehensible to those who don’t already have a healthy knowledge of Pasolini’s late career). The film is reluctant to explicate elaborate backstory, leaving the viewer to pick up on context through small details and asides; in addition, the mosaic nature of the storytelling is a far cry from the beat-by-beat linearity of conventional biopics. Whereas conventional biopics tend to bypass the small details of artistic creation, leaping from initial idea to finished product, as if the artist perfectly visualized his work in his head, Ferrara opts for an understated approach, underlining the everyday, mundane work that goes into creating a titanic masterpiece such as Salò. The subject matter would seem to invite sensationalistic melodrama, but Ferrara’s technique is subdued throughout: honing in on the tranquil home environment in which Pasolini plotted much of his sordid and controversial fiction, Ferrara devotes much of the running time to observing the minutiae of the creative process: small revisions, calls to collaborators, reschedules, and slight recuts. Pasolini’s murder was a horrifically aggressive act that remains unsolved to this day. Theories range from the elaborate (the popular conspiracy that Pasolini was assassinated by the government as a means of silencing his anti-fascist sentiments) to the relatively mundane (Pasolini was interrupted while soliciting a prostitute by a homophobic gang, who proceeded to beat him to death). Pasolini’s tragic end often results in accounts of his life being tainted by a moralistic streak, portraying Pasolini’s demise as an inevitable result of his sordid private life, or else he’s treated as a symbolic martyr who died for his right to speak out against the system.

Ferrara, thankfully, avoids both simplistic narrative approaches. That Pasolini seems so unconcerned with visceral shocks is certainly a departure for Ferrara. For much of his career he has been a master of depicting deeply troubled characters indulging in their vices to the extent of self-destruction. As Tag Gallagher writes, “Life is hell in Ferrara, torture without escape, without a moment’s release,” leading his characters to “a point where pleasure can be achieved only in intense pain, where neither satisfaction nor even release is anymore attainable.” Ferrara tends to look upon his self-destructive anti-heroes with a mixture of contempt and pity, so it’s a surprise how completely Pasolini fits this usual model while the subject is treated with reverence and tranquillity. A broad description may make Pasolini sound like a companion piece to Dangerous Game, another temporally compressed story of a filmmaker struggling to juggle his placid domestic life with his seedy, private one, and an investigation of how each is vital to informing his creative process. Yet the tenor of Pasolini is markedly more tranquil and reverential. Scenes of hedonism are portrayed in a subdued, matter-of-fact style, as opposed to the hellish hysteria of the earlier film. Likewise, Willem Defoe’s central performance here is a triumph of restraint, while Keitel’s in Dangerous Game revels in operatic exaggeration. And the latter’s grim, cold colour palette has been replaced with a far warmer, muted one, bathed in amber and burgundy. Several of Ferrara’s most confounding films similarly stray from the angelic martyr/sordid outcast template represented in standard portrayals of Pasolini. Go Go Tales and 4:44 are remarkable for their sustained registers of subdued tranquillity and the relatively well-adjusted psyches of its protagonists. While their protagonists are under societal pressures that threaten to transform them into hollow objects, they ultimately retain their essential goodness and humanity. As in Welcome to New York, slow dissolves and pans frequently frame the action, underlining this inchoate sense of pervasive enclosure. Unlike Welcome to New York, however, there are moments of tranquillity. At a climactic point in Porno-Teo-Kolassal, Nunzio and Epifanio (played by Pasolini regular Ninetto Davoli, alongside a character originally written for him), after following a star believed to mark the birth of the messiah, they follow it to the city of Sodom, which has been divided between “lesbians and gays,” where they witness an annual mating ritual the villagers engage in as a means of populating the race. The staging of the orgy is an extraordinary moment in the film. it’s shot in the style of a Renaissance fresco, and in this context it highlights the grotesquely mechanical, impersonal nature of the sex scenes in Pasolini’s novel, where sex was portrayed as economic exchange, and in Welcome to New York, where bodies are material commodities to be fucked and discarded.

As Dennis Bingham writes in his book Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre, the biopic has been criticized, since its conception, for its dependence on “alteration, compression, invention, and metaphor.” If the aim of the traditional biopic is to locate the true inner life behind the artist’s public person, a process must be undertaken that “combines much that is from, or of, actuality, with some that is invented and ‘changed around’ for dramatic purposes.” The term “biopic” was itself coined by critics as a pejorative during the Classical Hollywood period, when there was an overload of entries from major studios such as MGM and Warner Bros., typically tracking the subject as a straightforwardly sympathetic individual on a trajectory from obscurity to success. At the time, the term was typically employed as a shorthand for tediousness, oversimplification, and mawkishness, and it still tends to carry the same associations today. This image isn’t helped by the overwhelming prevalence of middle-brow biopics during awards season, of which Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech is a textbook example: dry, stuffy, formulaic, flattening the complex reality of a particular subject in the name of producing an easy-to-digest slice of light, escapist entertainment. Naturally, viewers can be dismayed when they recognize over-played clichés within films that claim to be documents of reality.

As David Bordwell argues, the biopic was revived from the New Hollywood period onwards. Increasingly, idiosyncratic filmmakers sought to subvert the genre by foregrounding the artifice of their images rather than attempting to efface them. Rather than trying to frame the narrative as a means of truly understanding the mind of its subject, the film emphasizes that the central figure himself controls access to his inner feelings, and any attempt by an outside party to represent that psychology will inevitably be unsuccessful, gleaned from second-hand information. Often, this philosophy will be combined with a desire to shift the emphasis from non-controversially great figures of mainstream success to marginalized and countercultural figures, such as Edward D. Wood (Tim Burton’s Ed Wood), Harvey Pekar (Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Bergman’s American Splendor), and Andy Kaufman (Miloš Forman’s Man on the Moon). These three films all adopt a parodic register, which is appropriate for figures who either publicly disdained mainstream fame and success (Pekar and Kaufman) or who went down in history as a objects of mockery and infamy (Wood). At the end of American Splendour, Pekar still doesn’t even make enough money from his comic books to quit his daytime job as a file clerk. The finale of Ed Wood is a direct subversion of an iconic biopic ending: The central artist – having overcome enormous external and internal obstacles that conspired to make him quit, having alienated himself from many of his loved ones – proves himself to have been correct all along in his assurance of his own genius, by releasing a piece of work that will go down in history as culture-changing. In Ed Wood, this moment coincides with the unveiling of Plan 9 from Outer Space, considered by many the worst film ever made. As the titles appear during the movie’s premiere, we see Wood proudly proclaiming – with delicious poetic irony – “This is it. This is the one I’ll be remembered for.”

Pasolini problematizes the notion that biographic truth can be located through a straightforward linear narrative. Ferrara instead employs a mosaic approach, incorporating direct transcriptions of Pasolini’s words, re-creations of his writings, and imagined scenes based on accounts of events from his personal life to create a riff on his subject. I’d add to Bingham’s point that there is another brand of biopic that tends to be heavily criticised: the “auteur biopic,” in which a real life is filtered through the recognisable stylistic, thematic, and narrative preoccupations of an iconic filmmaker. In this film, Pasolini is essentially transformed into an archetypal Ferrara protagonist. Like a typical Ferrara character, he’s a mesh of contradictions. Pasolini is a Marxist intellectual who sees himself as superior to the populace, but is also happy to hang out with lower-class teenagers. He is very dignified and refined, but his work is especially irreverent. He’s a meek yet dignified creature, at one point snapping at his personal assistant Graziella for lightly mocking the poet Sandro Penna, who Pasolini adores. He warns others of the upcoming cultural apocalypse, but is pleased at the prospect of the current system being destroyed. Like Ferrara’s other male protagonists, the men in Pasolini struggle to articulate the social forces that threaten to enclose and suffocate them. As Pasolini sits at his typewriter, Ferrara cuts to re-imagined scenes from his unfinished works, superimposing Pasolini’s face atop the action as if to visually express Pasolini’s theory that “mine is not a tale but a metaphor. The meaning of this metaphor is the relationship between an artist and what he creates and shapes.” As Pasolini continues, Ferrara uses superimposition to pile on layer upon layer of interconnected narrative strands: Pasolini writing, the page itself being written on, the characters within the story, and the story-within-the-story the characters are relating. As Pasolini narrates, “the continuity between me and them, and back between them and me breaks: I’m a shape whose knowledge is illusion.” It’s a moment that explicitly ties Pasolini’s unusual philosophy of characterization to Ferrara’s: Pasolini the man is inseparable from his work, the characters he pours his viewpoints into, and the audience who ultimately internalize these ideas.

One of the most fascinating elements of Pasolini are the many parallels Ferrara draws between himself and his subject: both combine intense research with formal poeticism; both are controversial figures underappreciated in their own nations; both are interested in illustrating the destructive corruption of late capitalism via an intense focus on physical, often grotesque, iconographic bodily imagery; both are deeply interested in the prospects of redemption and euphoria in equal measure; both are drawn to the lower rungs of society, particularly the outskirts of large cities; both demonstrate an equal interest in philosophical theory and instinctual, visceral immediacy. “To scandalise is a right; to be scandalised is a pleasure” is one of the first lines uttered by Pasolini in the film, and, though it’s a direct quote, it could easily be viewed as something of a mantra for Ferrara. In a restaging of Pasolini’s final interview with Furio Colombo, the filmmaker stresses his resistance to consumer culture, arguing that it systematically dehumanizes people to the extent that they’re raised to believe that their primary function in life is “having, owning and destroying.” It’s surely no coincidence that this recalls Christopher Walken’s dialogue in New Rose’s Hotel, which itself paints a vision of a dystopian consumer capitalist society in which all kinds of human exchange have become commoditized and the government serves the same function as a vast corporation. By foregrounding the similarities between his philosophy and Pasolini’s, Ferrara stresses the similarities between contemporary New York and ’70s Rome, implicitly arguing the extent to which Pasolini’s prophecies have come true; a technique that calls to mind Pasolini’s decision to recontextualize Salò to contemporary Italy to highlight the similarities between the fascist social model De Sade was targeting and the consumerist structures of ’70s Europe.

Furthermore, Ferrara draws implicit parallels between the content of Petrolio, Pasolini’s own life, and Ferrara’s favoured subject matter. In a letter written by Pasolini to his agent, Pasolini notes that though he shares many similarities with the protagonist Carlo of his novel Petrolio, the character is “repugnant” to him. This early statement immediately shows the importance of focalization to the film. Petrolio is about the death of a paranoid, ultra-wealthy politician. A popular conspiracy surrounding Pasolini’s death is that he was assassinated by conservative conspirators, with help from the Sicilian Mafia. Carlo is a member of the Christian Democrat party, though he’s also an executive at an oil company owned by the state. He drinks at lavish parties with political and financial titans, yet also takes trips to pay proletariat teenagers for sexual favours. Both lead bifurcated lives. Carlo is a figure of considerable political and financial power while indulging in his private life his huge sexual appetite through acquiring younger men on the lower end of the financial spectrum for sexual favours. Pasolini will, too, be driven to his doom by sexual desire. In a re-creation of a scene from the novel, a character begins narrating his own story, and the on-screen visualization usurps Pasolini’s tale while imposing some of Pasolini’s voice-over onto the characters. So, is the protagonist Pasolini himself, a Pasolini character, a Ferrara character, or a Ferrara stand-in? The answer is simultaneously all and none, and the film reveals its richness when the viewer acknowledges that the character can be all these things at once, and that the potential meanings interact with each other to deepen the viewing experience. At its core, Pasolini is a film that pays tribute to the filmmaker by adopting his core philosophies.

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Note: All images are screenshots from the film.