Where to End with Pasolini
With apologies to the venerable “Where to begin with” tradition of cultural cheat sheet, closing out a century since the birth of Pier Paolo Pasolini seems to warrant some other kind of commemoration. There may be no consensus on what it means to invoke his name in late 2022, but we do at least have a wary sense of contemporary relevance, and foreboding. This ecstatic and depraved horror show he clearly saw coming: How and when will it end?
Pasolini endures through his posthumous resistance to the mummification of film studies. For one thing, Filmmaker is simply a late-phase instance of his calling as a poet in search of truly transgressive language, and ultimately one more of the identity pigeonholes he invariably exploded — including also Catholic, Marxist, Homosexual, Intellectual, even Prophet. For another, as we’ve seen in this year’s retrospectives around the world and in the fine new Fireflies Press book Writing on Burning Paper, which collects tributes from fellow practitioners under Pasolini’s spell, the work itself remains wide open.
“I’ve never wanted to make a conclusive statement,” he once said. I’ve always posed various problems and left them open to consideration.” His whole creative life was one such problem, not least for how it ended: violently, at age 53 in 1975, just before his ruthless motion-picture portrait of wartime Italian fascist libertines was to have its world premiere. Google lets us know people lately have been asking, “Who killed Pasolini and why?” and “Is Salò a masterpiece?” It must be to the artist’s credit that even now, Abel Ferrara’s 2014 biopic notwithstanding, neither question seems satisfactorily answered. Search results may include the not kind but not wrong assessment from fellow Italian film titan Michelangelo Antonioni that Pasolini became “a victim of his own characters,” those being most typically sub-proletariat low-lifes, or even David Thomson’s biographical dictum that “finally, he was a dramatic corpse, as if that was the ultimate way of declaring his truth.” And you might say Pasolini needed death, which he equated to “no longer being understood,” to fully liberate him, but where does that leave the rest of us?
This year it left some of us in San Francisco’s future-uncertain Castro Theatre, where we found him briefly resurrected, wedged into the calendar between a de rigueur screening of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and the opening of Kevin Smith’s Clerks III. What would old Pier Paolo make of that? Or, what would he make of John Waters having called Salò a film Waters wished he himself had made, explaining: “I can get along in high society and I can get along in prison. I just can’t get along in a shopping mall. And I think that movie is a little bit about that feeling.”
In one of the earlier blasphemies, Pasolini’s 1963 short La Ricotta, Orson Welles plays a movie director filming the Crucifixion. “I am a force from the Past,” he tells a lurking reporter, reading aloud from Pasolini’s own poem, before brusquely letting it be known that his film’s producer also owns the newspaper for which the reporter works. How eerily or wearily that moment calls ahead to the maestro’s own last great pull quote, given on the day before he died: “I consider consumerism to be a worse form of fascism than the classic variety.”
And what’s the endgame for that corrupting force, the crassly materialist media conglomeration which destroyed Pasolini’s faith in holy poverty, which paved a scorched-earth cultural path to Berlusconi and Trump and beyond, which has left literature and cinema atomized into trash-talk microblogging and pocket-sized movies on the internet? It’s as if he didn’t live to see it all because he didn’t need to. It’s also a wonder that the films especially, with their enduring symbiosis (or codependency) of sacred and profane, their legions of candid faces looking blankly back at us, still have the nerve, and the power, to resist.