Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Part of the Editor's Choice series.
I. After Reading Pasolini’s Selected Poetry
University of Chicago Press, 2014
That summer, that hot Roman summer afternoon, I see you sitting on the curb, waiting for the door to open, & seeing all those movies, yes, that hot Roman summer day.
Later. “Will there be a revolution?” you said, you asked. You stood by the window, in one of those workers’ apartment buildings built by Mussolini that you filmed in Mamma Roma. “Will there be a revolution?” “Yes,” I said, “we’ll do it with our cameras. We’ll surround the world with our cameras, the streets, the offices, factories, prisons—everything will be revealed, yes,” I said. You stood, you still stood by the window, looking out. A pause. Then: “Yes,” you said, “but for how many years now, for how many years have we had typewriters … But did the typewriters produce a revolution?”
& I could see your mind wrestling as you’ve wrestled all your life in your mind, in your poetry, your films, yes, the ashes of Gramsci … and the ashes of shelves of books & childhood memories, Friuli, & all the past centuries. And the ashes of Christianity, and Marxism, the candies later spat out, burned. Yes, wrestling and burning, shedding snake skins of morality, ideologies, political parties; burning,always burning, in every line of every poem—
placing yourself in the center of your times, of Italy, the dailiness of it, never really leaving it, always in the very deep of it, no personal lyricism, you left it in Friuli, now only the very thick of Real Life, agonizingly so, lost in its incomprehensibility, absurdity, inhumanity, in-escapability; an agony and a fury of a poet caught in a social system devised as a conceptual, invisible, and inescapable Torture Project, by Marquis de Sade himself, and as recorded by you, Pier Paolo Pasolini, a free man, and a poet, and recorded with the same furious truthfulness as when Dante recorded the Inferno.
& now, here is me, in the depths of Brooklyn, years later, here I am by my table covered with your poetry, films, novels, essays. Here I am myself, now, wrestling with it all, reliving your life, from Friuli to Napoli to Rome to Palestine to India to Africa to Chaucer to Marquis de Sade, and yes, your mother, always the mother & I remember my own mother singing by herself, in the morning kitchen, me still half asleep, she was always singing; yes, your mother, Friuli, she was always there, Friuli was always there …
Yes, yes, Pier Paolo, yes, I wonder what you really thought that hot Roman summer afternoon sitting there on the street curb by the Centro Sperimentale, that hot Roman summer afternoon of 1967; or when, later,you stood there, by the window, looking at the misery outside, those damned workers’ living quarters, embracing, hiding under their concrete monstrous walls, roofs, the miseries which are called Real Life. No, no, Pier Paolo, I do not need an answer to my question, skip it. It’s all there, in the pages of your books, it’s all recorded in those films, in those novels, it’s all recorded by your poet’s hand, all of it, same as Chaucer did, as you showed him/yourself doing it, writing it all down, in the final image of your film The Canterbury Tales. You did it like a clown would, you smiled, sort of. Because that moment you were back in Friuli. For only a brief time, perhaps, but in Friuli. And you were totally happy, your face.
II. A Conversation with Pasolini
In June 1967, I came to Rome with some twenty programs of New American Cinema, which were presented at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. During my stay, Gideon Bachmann, an old friend of mine who was working with Pasolini, arranged a meeting between us at Pasolini’s apartment. Following are excerpts from our conversation that day.
Pier Paolo Pasolini I think that the complete, total novelty of … let’s call it American experimental cinema, is the spirit of the New Left, which is a new political, social phenomenon. In terms of spirit, the New Left is an entirely new thing. I’m not even saying that your films necessarily belong to the New Left consciously and willingly, but that in the historical sense, they are a different expression of its spirit. Your new forms are new contents of opposition to American society.
Jonas Mekas I always ask that our traveling programs be announced as political film programs, but often the organizers of local screenings fail to do this. In fact, this demand of mine is the one that usually arouses the most discussion.
Gideon Bachmann Perhaps it would be practical, at this point, to clarify in which manner this anarchic cinema has a political function.
PPP That seems very obvious to me. It’s the same as the reason why the director of the Pesaro Festival didn’t want to stress the political aspect of your films. He is, of course, a Socialist, and thus a traditional Marxist by formation and education—by morality. Thus, for him, Jonas, your films are not political because they come from the midst of the middle class, and therefore they do not reflect the Marxist experience. It’s difficult for him to accept that they are political, if they aren’t Marxist.
JM I guess ours is a Marxism that has gone through Freud, Wilhelm Reich, the Beats, and LSD …
PPP Sure, but besides that, American knowledge of Marxism is learned, not a lived experience. There has never been a revolution in America that could be called Marxist, and thus Americans have no direct experience of it. For Europeans, Marxism is a living experience. So I consider your fight a political fight outside of the Marxist fight, outside of the Marxist scheme. Therefore I love your new cinema, and do not love the Italian one. I do not like the new Italian cinema, because it is qualunquista. Much avant-garde Italian literature, by the way, is also qualunquista.
GB That word, of course, cannot be translated. I’ll have to give an approximate explanation. The Fronte dell’Uomo Qualunque (The Common Man’s Front) was a political party in Italy shortly after World War II that pretended to be sort of everyman’s party, but in effect hid neo-Fascist tendencies. Today, qualunquista has become an adjective in the Italian political dictionary that could be vaguely identified with our use of reactionary, but it also signifies the refusal of social responsibility and has totalitarian leanings, a sort of Hell’s Angels attitude. It’s very hard to explain; anyway, it’s a dirty word in progressive circles. If you recall the list of accusations that Orson Welles, in Pasolini’s La Ricotta, throws at the idiot journalist who has come to ask him for an interview, it includes qualunquista—
PPP —and razzista (racist).
JM European political movements are always very conscious, based on the experiences you described, but in America we have very little political experience. Artistic movements—and even political ones like strikes and student movements—did not start as conscious political movements, but as personal reactions, and only later gained a larger political leaning and consciousness. Now they are approaching, sort of, Marxist thinking, in a sense, but they started as personal reactions first, as a not wanting to stand the situation as it was. We say, “We don’t know what’s ahead of us, but we don’t want to be where we are.” That may be the major difference between American and European younger generations, with the latter always wanting to have, at the beginning, a political purpose and an aim before they act. The question that always meets us in Europe is: “What is your aim?” We say, “Our aim is to get out from where we are.” That’s why they often call us anarchists.
PPP In Europe, too, however, there are similar experiences. The Bohème poets of the nineteenth century, for example, and the, let’s call them Rimbaudians, they’ve lived this experience.
JM And the Dutch provos now … We know that in America today there are seven million cameras in people’s homes, seven million 8mm and 16mm cameras. We will take cinema away from the industry and give it to the people in their homes. That is the whole meaning of what’s called Underground Cinema. By taking cinema away from the industry and by exaggerating, by saying that EVERYONE can make films, we are freeing those seven million cameras. Any child who grows up in a home and sees that camera—he could already dosomething else with it other than take tourist movies. He could do something with it. I think that eventually these seven million cameras can become a political force in this way: all aspects of reality will be covered. Eventually the camera will go into the prisons, into the banks, into the army, and help us to see where we are, so that we can go out of here and go somewhere else. We want to give these seven million cameras a voice.
PPP I’ve got my doubts … how many typewriters are there in America? I don’t mean to ridicule your hope, on the contrary. But I’m trying to find out why you find the cinema a better road to liberation than literature?
JM Because with a typewriter you write your own fantasies, you reflect your own distortions, your own dreams. Good; you write poetry. But the camera shows reality, bits of reality, faces and situations. Because this is not Hollywood or Cinecittà filmmaking, which are staged. But these seven million cameras will be used to film reality “as it is.” Nothing can be hidden behind a face that you actually see.
PPP I can see exactly where your problem lies. Up to this point, the American revolt has been a stupendous thing, the thing I admire most in the world today. But in essence it has always remained basically irrational, having always found its motive inside of America itself, in the authentic part of America, which is democracy; that is the truest example of pure democracy. At this point, of course, what is necessary is guidance, but this guidance can only be an ideology. America isn’t awaiting guidance, it’s awaiting an ideology.
If an ideology can be born, you will have a civil war. And if you have a civil war, the world will be safe, for maybe 300 years. If all this can crystallize somehow—because that’s how man is made—into an ideology, it will give people the force to make a civil war. It may be true that an ideology isn’t the only thing that can unite people and facilitate their liberty; there is also religion. Maybe what you are creating in the USA is a mystical religious movement? Maybe even such a movement can bring about a civil war.
JM Those civil wars are the bloodiest …
PPP In any case, it is eminently clear that if this civil war doesn’t happen, America will assume the heredity of Germany, becoming the country of Nazism carried to its extreme.
GB Is there anything positive about the Italian situation that would interest the USA?
PPP No. I am saying it to you in a very simple manner: no. I have just returned from Morocco, where I shot my latest film, and upon returning I was tempted to drop everything, drop the films, drop my previous life, and return to live in Morocco. And not because I love Morocco, but because my arrival in Italy was so terrible, so shocking, it was unbearable. There is no sign of hope, no light, nothing. It was like arriving in a madhouse of real mad people; that is, calm madmen. I have passed ten days of terror; it was as if I couldn’t live in Italy any more. For those ten days I considered leaving Italy. And the worst thing is that the Italians don’t notice anything. And after what you tell me about New York, maybe I’ll give up everything and go live in a desert in Morocco, where the problems are simple, known, pre-industrial: laziness, underdevelopment, retardation, poverty—things we have learned to cope with.
III. From My Diaries, November 26, 1959
When I woke up, in the morning, we were passing the endless plains running from Lake Erie, to the North. Snow patches, and scattered trees, now frozen, stood out in the huge, peaceful vastness stretching to all sides. And as I looked at this landscape, it had such a strong personality, style, that it was difficult not to respond to it, not to get lost in it. It overcame me, its cold, wintry purity and truth. A deep peace and serenity came from it, and it was purifying; it forced me to abandon all pretense, all officialdom, and be just myself—just as this landscape was its bare self, its bare itself, in this early winter morning, with its bare cold trees, and snow sheets and frozen water patches.
A man just walked in, at a small station. “Snow is ahead of us,” he said. And it seemed to me as if he meant: Oh, snow is more pure than we; the snow is still more itself than we are; the snow is ahead of us in its it-ness, in its pure whiteness, its cold, crystal destiny, on the wintry plains of the Great Lakes—the snow always is what it is, it always fulfills its destiny uncompromisingly with such a peace that I look out through the window of the rushing train and I want to shout, as I used to do in my childhood: OH, SNOW, SNOW, SNOW! And be again with it, be again!
Detroit. We stopped in Detroit. A stream of cold air oozed in. Some people got up to leave. What an image, suddenly! What an ugly collection; what an ugly crowd of spitting, crouching, cursing grumbling men and women. They all seemed to be grim and angry, for some dark reason. Angry to come back to their city? Or angry just to come to it? So that suddenly, without even seeing the city, without even looking at it, I had before my eyes its soul, in its ugly nakedness. The soul of Detroit. These grim people, men and women, even this invalid on crutches, spitting on the floor, as if the broken leg would permit him now a revenge on the living whose legs aren’t broken—and this woman pulling her little child, a girl of four, crying—and all the men and women in those tasteless hats and grim faces and dirty suitcases. They were the soul of Detroit; a Detroit that I never want to see. It stood now before my eyes, like a disease, and I, unconsciously, pulled myself closer into my seat, into my corner, making myself smaller and smaller, retreating, trying to make myself invisible, drawing a circle around myself to protect myself from this image and the vapors it exuded. I could feel its presence around me, and I remained in my position of invisibility and retreat for a long, long time, until the train moved out, through the black piles of car scrap and thistles, and patched-up ugly workers’ houses and soot, black even under the snow—until the first landscape appeared again.
Jonas Mekas, born in Lithuania in 1922 and based in NYC since 1949, is a leading avant-garde filmmaker, artist, and poet. He founded Film-Makers’ Cooperative in 1962 and what eventually became Anthology Film Archives in 1964. A German translation of the conversation between Mekas and Pasolini originally appeared in FILM in 1967.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.