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James Quandt on Pier Paolo Pasolini: ThePoet of Contamination

Published by Rachael Bulcao

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TIFF Cinemateque takes a walk on the wild side with it series Pier Paolo Pasolini: ThePoet of Contamination. Pasolini’s films to be shown within the retrospective include Accattone, Mamma Roma, Medea, The Gospel According to Matthew, Love Meetings, and 120 Days of Sodom. They are not for the faint hearted. Anything and everything goes, interpreted within Pasolini’s characteristic view that life is as gritty, dark and threatening as it is beautiful. His films are revolutionary, like the man himself, says TIFF programmer James Quandt.

James Quandt – He was one of the most controversial figures in the history of cinema. I would count only Rainer Werner Fassbinder as equally controversial. To me they are both cultural heroes partly because they’re passionate rejection of the society the country and the state was so utter. They used their art to launch their devastating critique of everything through thought was false and distorted around them. They were both homosexual, and it made them pariahs in their retrospective societies. And both of course had early deaths. Both died partly because of their roles of outsiders. There was a whole industry of Pasolini’s death books and documentaries debating the true story. Officially he tried to pick up a young hustler; he had a taste for proletarian young males, and was beaten to death on the beach outside of Rome. But many people believe that his death as actually orchestrated by elites who just couldn’t stand any more of his voice of criticism in their midst. These are pretty convincing documentaries. When you look at the police records of the murder there are so many contradictory statements.

Anne Brodie – You featured Pasolini in the first Cinemateque series twenty years ago. Why return to him?

JQ – The thing I always find when I return to his work and Fassbinder’s, is that their notoriety overshadows basic facts. What matters most, is them as artists. As much as they hated their worlds, Fassbinder expressed an appreciation of the films of Douglas Sirk. They loved people in their specific industry. Early films like Accattone and Mamma Roma, starring Anna Magnani, and Pasolini was a freak about her, you can see the tenderness with which he treats people. These people were a lower class, not largely considered valid subjects for art. Neo realism changed that somewhat but Pasolini took it that much further. He spoke from knowledge. Rossellini came from privileged background so did Pasolini but he rejected his class. He spent a lot of time among the proletariat. One of the most amazing films in this series was Love Meetings. In the early sixties, he went on the road with a portable camera and mic and talked to people in the church, to peasant woman about sex, people on the streets, it was largely a forbidden subject, at the time it was not done, with the immense control the church exercised over society. It was a dark and forbidden subject. It’s an amazing film, and shows his empathy and sympathy. It’s exhilarating but crushingly sad because you see society in thrall to a lot of what we would consider now destructive ideas about sexuality. His courage and bravery were astonishing.

AB – Pasolini’s attitude to violence is pretty matter of fact. It is as natural as making love or cooking. For instance, Medea murders her brother with a scythe, dispassionately, while others simply watch or pretend to ignore. It’s horrifying and there is zero morality imposed on it.

JQ – The hallmark of his work is his treatment of violence. One of his novels – he was poet, essayist and filmmaker – the novel that made him was A Violent Life. That is a very important feature of his cinema, not the kind we encounter in contemporary films. This is everyday street violence; the warp and woof of certain kind of life culminates in his most infamous work Salo, 120 Days in Sodom, one of the grimmest, most unbearable films to watch. And a lot of people have interpreted it as self obituary, that he was writing an epitaph, I don’t buy it. It does stand as one of the most powerful statements on humanity in cinema. I forced myself to watch it. Even his story of Jesus is different from everybody else’, beautiful but harsh.

AB – What is thought of Pasolini nowadays?

JQ – He was an iconoclast and revolutionary. What I hope the retrospective reveals is this other quality this tenderness as an example of the stands he took to maintain his principals. In the late sixties when Europe was erupting in politics, transformations were happening. When it happened in Rome, he wrote an infamous statement that his sympathies were on the side of the police. It runs against everything you’d think about him, the youth and the society they’re attacking. The students were the bourgeoisie, from the privileged class; the policemen were from the lower classes. The proletariat managed to climb up in the world, by becoming things like policemen. His politics and class affiliation is the working class.

AB – Is there any filmmaker today who compares to him?

JQ – The sad fact is no. It shows that something has gone out of our culture in general; I can’t think of many filmmakers who put their career and life on the line frankly with their art, I can’t think of anyone, maybe Japan’s Nagisa Oshima. Pasolini was incredibly courageous.

Checkwww.cinematequeontario.ca for more information on the series which begins July 8 in Toronto.

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