Cultural Cohesion, p.64Clive James
It’s the sequence set in the Dem Bones Café, starting from when Astaire enters with his hat over his eyes. Charisse is perched on a bar stool with her coat done up. She sheds the coat and unfolds that marvellous figure, which would have been poetic even if she hadn’t been able to dance—although if she hadn’t been able to dance she wouldn’t have looked like that. When the film came out I saw it over and over just for those few minutes. When I found out that her real name was Tula Ellice Finklea I only loved her more.
On the Town is earlier and less lush. Freed is once again in charge, but Stanley Donen is keener than Minnelli to cut out the fashion photography and keep things moving. This quality paid off when Gene Kelly was, as here, the star. A Kelly ballet, if left unguarded, would swell to absorb the entire movie. But in 1949 they still had the clock on him.
Since he is one of three sailors on shore leave, and since each sailor has a girlfriend, Kelly gets, theoretically at least, only 162–3 per cent of the total screen-time to bare those perfect teeth and/or rise slowly on demi point with his bottom tensed. Otherwise Ann Miller bares her perfect legs and Betty Garrett lures Frank Sinatra up to her place—a rare example, for the time, of a lady taking the lead. The way Sinatra’s voice comes sidling through the ensembles tells you what tone has that loudness hasn’t.
But the producer is the real hero. Five of the six leading characters are wrecking the natural history museum with a song-and-dance routine almost as soon as the picture starts. The sixth character, Vera-Ellen, is an aloof ballerina, but luckily for us she has to earn a secret living as a sideshow dancer on Coney Island, so in the fullness of time she burns the boards with the rest of the gang, and thus obliges Kelly to stop indulging in his least endearing facial expression, shy awe. “Gosh Ivy, I mean Miss Smith, I . . .”
It didn’t matter so much if he talked like that, as long as he eventually danced. In Anchors Aweigh he is still talking half an hour into the picture and not a dancing foot has been heard, nor has Sinatra sung a note. Freed’s name is not on the credits. Once again it is the story of sailors getting liberty, but this time you want them to be deprived of it.
The Barkleys of Broadway ought to be, on paper, a better bet. Freed is in charge, Comden and Green do the script, and Fred Astaire stars with Ginger Rogers. What can go wrong? One tends to conclude that Charles Walters couldn’t direct musicals, but it can only have been the producer’s fault that when you finally finish waiting for the first number it turns out to be Oscar Levant playing “Ritual Fire Dance.” Freed had not yet made On the Town, but he was no beginner: Meet Me in St Louis was already behind him.
While Homer nods, the two stars cool their heels, no doubt remembering the blessed days of black and white. But it wasn’t colour that deprived musicals of their simplicity. It was choreography. The form became so organic that only a producer of genius could keep it under control. In the pre-war Astaire musicals the dances were created by the star himself, with the assistance of Hermes Pan. Together, they knew exactly what was right for him—the routines were balletic only in the metaphorical sense of being light as air, even when he was kicking holes in the floor. Post-war, ballet took over, with An American in Paris providing merely the most gargantuan example. Kelly was ballet-prone anyway, but even Astaire got sucked in.
It was Art with a capital A and it spelt death to the screen musical, a tradition which had previously managed to free itself from the cold hand of Busby Berkeley, whose production numbers looked like colonies of bacteria staging a political rally under a microscope. But from ballet there was no escape. Shoes which had worn taps wanted to point their toes. The new energy fell for the only temptation that could kill it—going legit. Strangely enough it was the genius who fell hardest. Arthur Freed was the new Diaghilev until he tried to be like the old one.
The Observer, February, 26, 1984;
later included in Snakecharmers in Texas, 1988
An aspect I left out of the above mini-survey was the impulse of the director to wreck the unity of a dance number unless haunted by a producer with a firm hand. The besetting vice of Busby Berkeley’s musicals was that he was in control of them, whereas nobody was in control of him. In the long run, the power of the directors has done far more damage to the form than the balletic pretensions of the stars. Even when the director has a firm hand himself, he tends to loosen it as his prestige grows beyond challenge. An illustrative case is the gifted Australian director Baz Luhrmann. In Strictly Ballroom, the movie that made his name, the dance numbers are filmed in takes sufficiently long to show the flow. In Moulin Rouge they are pieced together a few frames at a time. In his first phase you are aware of the dancers. In the second phase you are aware of the director. No doubt Moulin Rouge was twice as hard to do, but I could bear to see it only once. Strictly Ballroom I saw twice in the week it came out. It was as good, and stays as good, as Dirty Dancing: which is actually saying quite a lot. Although we undoubtedly lost a reservoir of expertise when MGM shut down its production line, the musical isn’t yet dead as a form. It will always be there as long as an occasional movie comes out that makes you want to sing and dance. If it makes you want to be a film director, however, someone has made a mistake.
PAIN IN THE NECK
Renaissance man is a description tossed around too lightly in modern times—actors get it if they can play the guitar—but for Pier Paolo Pasolini nothing less will do. From the moment he hit Rome after the Second World War until the moment his own car hit him in 1975, Pasolini single-handedly re-embodied about half the personnel of Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. He was poet, novelist, scholar, intellectual, sexual adventurer, reforming zealot, creator of large-scale visual spectaculars—and all these things equally. To make a comparable impact, Raphael would have had to be elected Pope. To make a comparable exit, Michelangelo would have had to fall out of the Sistine Ceiling. Pasolini was a front-page event in every field he entered, including death. A boy he picked up in his Alfa Romeo sports car ran him over with it and left him helpless in the dust. Beat that, Renaissance! Not even Cola di Rienzo got trampled by his own horse.
Pasolini’s sensational demise happened at Ostia, once the port where Julius Caesar took ship and Cleopatra came ashore. The ancient location widens Pasolini’s frame of reference still further, to include the whole of Italian history. He was such a national figure that it becomes easy to lose sight of the individual. In a new biography (Pasolini Requiem) Barth David Schwartz mercifully doesn’t, but his whopping book isn’t helped by the bad practice of cramming in all the incidental research to prove that it has been done. European reviewers like to call this an American habit, but really it is a virus with no respect for borders. A more specific stricture to place on Mr. Schwartz might be that a prose style so devoid of verve is no fit instrument to evoke a hero who crackled with energy even when he was being stupid. But Mr. Schwartz, though a plodder, plods briskly enough to make his subject breathe, and some of the specialized knowledge was well worth going to get. In addition to his prodigious archival burrowings and the conducting of interviews on the scale of a door-to-door electoral canvass, Mr. Schwartz seems to have acquainted himself personally with the sexually ambiguous (though unambiguously violent) Roman low life that was Pasolini’s stamping ground, or prancing ground. The biographer is to be congratulated not least for coming out alive. The biographee, after all, got killed in there.
As for what he was doing in there, the first answer is obvious: he was cruising, although that word understates his predatory celerity. Better to say that he was pouncing. Quick off the mark and dressed to kill, he was a cheetah in dark glasses. In the borgata, the slumland of the Roman periphery, the population was mostly immigrants from the south who had come in search of prosperity and found misery. Petty theft and casual prostitution made up most of their economy. For a well-heeled and voraciously promiscuous homosexual like Pasol
He did his best to have them all. It remains astonishing, when you look at the shelf of books and rack of films signed with his name, that he found the energy to copulate even more prolifically than he created. People who knew him well were astonished, too. On location in North Africa for a film, his colleagues would retire exhausted to their tents after a long day and meet him coming out of his, all set to cruise the dunes.
But the spontaneous and seemingly everlasting abundance of sexual gratification was also the wellspring of his politics. The second and less obvious answer to the question of why he spent so much time in the lower depths was that he found them ethically preferable to the heights. He thought the truth was down there. Unlike other articulate, well-paid enemies of bourgeois society, Pasolini could actually point to an alternative. It wasn’t a pretty alternative, but that was one of the things he hated about the bourgeoisie—its concern with mere appearances.
He hated everything else about the bourgeoisie as well, but in that respect he holds little interest except as an especially flagrant example of the modern middle-class intellectual blindly favouring, against common reason and all the historical evidence, a totalitarian substitute for the society that produced him. Valued by the PCI, the Communist Party of Italy, for the publicity he brought it, Pasolini was allowed more latitude than any other mouthpiece. He often spoke against Party doctrines, and used the space given him by the Party’s own newspapers to do so. But he was reliable, not to say predictable, in his denunciation of capitalism, neo-capitalism, consumerism, the bourgeoisie, bourgeois consumerism, bourgeois democracy, neo-capitalist democracy, consumerist democracy and, for that matter, democracy itself, which he thought, or said he thought, could never achieve anything more than “false tolerance” so long as it was infected by bourgeois consciousness.
It hardly needs saying that Pasolini had bourgeois origins himself: you don’t get that kind of stridency except from someone in a false position. Raised under Fascism in a small town in Friuli—a province in the north-east of the country, where it bends towards Trieste—young Pier Paolo, a natural student, picked up the firm grounding in the etymology of the Friulian dialect which underpinned his lifetime achievement as a scholar and master of the Italian language. But he picked up no grounding at all in the life of the proletariat. He never did a day’s manual labour then or later.
This is a standard pattern for revolutionary intellectuals and can’t usefully be called hypocrisy, since if there is such a thing as a proletarian consciousness then it is hard to see how any proletarian could escape from it without the help of the revolutionary intellectual—although just how the revolutionary intellectual manages to escape from bourgeois consciousness is a problem that better minds than Pasolini have never been able to solve without sleight of hand. On this point Pasolini never pretended to be analytical, or even consistent. He was content to be merely rhetorical, in a well-established Italian tradition by which political argument is conducted like grand opera, with the tenor, encouraged by the applause or even by the mere absence of abuse, advancing to the footlights to sing his aria all over again, da capo and con amore.
Another aria Pasolini kept reprising was a bit harder to forgive. Mr. Schwartz could have done more to disabuse the unwary reader of the notion that Pasolini might have had something when he not only awarded himself credentials in the wartime resistance but claimed the resistance as the alma mater of the post-war revolutionary struggle. Pasolini’s resistance activities were confined mainly to writing obscure scholarly articles that the censors would have had to go out of their way even to find, let alone interpret. Again, there is no dishonour in this: people were shot for less. As in France, there was an understandable tendency in Italy after the war for people who had been helpless civilians during it to award themselves battle honours retroactively. Pasolini was just another schoolboy raised under the Fascist system who had the dubious luck to become a questioning adolescent at the precise moment when Fascism fell apart, and was thus able to convince himself that he had seen through it.
A more serious piece of mental legerdemain—and one that Mr. Schwartz doesn’t do half enough to point out—was Pasolini’s lifelong pretence that the resistance was the prototype of the future Communist state, and for that very reason had been throttled by the ruthless forces of capitalism, bourgeois democracy, etc. Again as in France, most of the first and many of the bravest resistance fighters in Italy were indeed Communists. But the resistance movement soon became too broadly based to be called revolutionary; a better parallel is with Yugoslavia, Poland or those other East European countries where not even opposition to the Nazis could unite the partisan movement, whose Communists regarded its bourgeois democrats as the real enemy, to be wiped out when the opportunity arose. This actually happened to Pasolini’s brother, an active partisan who was liquidated by a Communist kangaroo court busily anticipating the post- war socialist order. In most respects ready to concede that Pasolini was so cold a fish that even his passions were impersonal, Mr. Schwartz seems not to have fully grasped that Pasolini was callous about his brother, too, claiming his death as a sacrifice in an historic struggle that, since it existed only in the minds of intellectuals, was never truly historic but always, and only, literary.
It could be that Mr. Schwartz, for all he undoubtedly knows about Italy now, doesn’t know quite enough about what it was like then. He is especially shaky in the crucial area of Italy’s messy emergence from the war. A reference to German “Junker 25 transports” might just be a misprint for what they ought to be, Junkers 52 transports, but his apparent belief that a German bomber could be called a Macchi—famously an Italian aircraft company—undermines confidence in his knowledge of the period, especially since he is making such a parade of specific references in order to evoke it: “On April 6 [of 1944] Klaus Barbie’s Gestapo in Lyons arrested fifty-one Jews . . .” etc. If this is meant to be an ironic comment on the terrible bedfellows Mussolini had acquired when he agreed to set up the Republic of Salò under German tutelage, it scarcely seems adequate. Why is there nothing about the Nazi assault on the Jews of Italy? It would not only have been more pertinent to the subject; it would have created a more realistic context against which Pasolini’s later vapourings about the revolutionary resistance could have been judged. That the Nazi attempt to render Italy judenrein was a comparative failure was due at least partly to the historic reluctance of the Italian people to follow fanatics of any stamp further than the parade ground. There were plenty of bourgeois elements, including the rank and file of the Church, who risked their lives to save Jews. Mr. Schwartz might have made more of this, especially since Pasolini himself made so little.
. . .
Pasolini’s theatrical fantasies about a formative period of his own and his country’s history were not casual. Like Sartre’s quietly misleading suggestions that he had been a Resistance fighter in the thick of the action, they were fundamental to a political career of posturing histrionics. Pasolini never went as far as Sartre, although Mr. Schwartz is kind to believe his claims of having escaped from the Germans in a hail of bullets. Pasolini’s story was that when the regiment into which he had been drafted was ordered by the Germans to surrender its arms he and a friend threw their rifles into a ditch “and then, in a burst of machine-gun fire, dove in after them.” The story continued, “We waited for the regiment to march off, and then made our escape. It was completely an instinctive and involuntary beginning to my resistance.” Thus Pasolini, quoted by the English journalist Oswald Stack in 1970, and reprinted by Mr. Schwartz without comment.
Well, it might have happened: German machine gunners missed, occasionally. A more plausible version is that Pasolini, like many others, managed to desert unnoticed in the confusion. Sartre let people believe that he had escaped from prison camp. In fact he had been allowed to go home. The heroism came later, in the telling of the tale. So it
Pasolini respected facts. He just didn’t respect their context. You couldn’t take his word about the meaning of things. But in his early days in Rome he was unbeatable at pointing out things that other people—bourgeois people—preferred to ignore. For a while, he had the only game in town. Propelled by the post-war economic recovery, Roman high life regained all its old extravagance. Out at its edge, in the periferia, Roman low life grew ever more malodorous, and for the same reason: the wealth that fuelled the party had drawn the poor people to the glowing window. Pasolini’s mission was to remind the high life that the low life existed, to tell the dolce vita about the malavita.
He did it first as a novelist. His 1959 novel Una Vita Violenta has just been republished, by Pantheon, as A Violent Life, in the 1968 translation by William Weaver, of whom it should be said that the international reputation of modern Italian literature wouldn’t be the same without him. Like Max Hayward with Russian, Weaver has been vital to the job of transmitting the cultural force of an off-trail language into the world’s consciousness. (It remains a terrible pity that Weaver didn’t find time to translate all of Primo Levi’s books instead of only a couple of them.) But not even Weaver could translate the full impact of Una Vita Violenta, because the book depends on the shock effect of being written ugly in a beautiful language. Through Weaver’s translation is rendered in the most faithful squalid English, it is not more horrifying than Last Exist to Brooklyn, whereas it ought to turn the mind’s stomach like the invective of the damned in Dante’s Hell. Pasolini went searching for boys among the rubbish dumps and came back with picture of how they lived. His Roman borgata was like a Rio favela without the flowers. In Black Orpheus, Marcel Camus’s film about Rio, which was a worldwide art-house hit at about the same time, unquenchable poetry steams out of the garbage to meet the rising sun. In Pasolini’s novel there is just the garbage, and human begins are part of it. When a flood comes, one of the characters finds it within himself to punctuate a career of theft by acting selflessly. But that is the only note of hope. The book was designed as a kick in the teeth for Pasolini’s hated bourgeois enemy. It worked. His reputation as a teller of the awkward truth was rapidly established, and not only among the radical intelligentsia. After all, the awkward truth was true. You didn’t have to be a Marxist to spot it.
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