Feb 9, 2020

Diary of a Country Priest

I honestly do not know much about the Catholic Church aside from the fact that it is now seems to be controlled by evil antichrist types that seem more interested in phantoms like climate change and the shoah and protecting serial child rapists and other castration-worthy perverts than the teachings of J.C., but I also have to assume that most modern priests are closet homosexuals, pedos, autistic, and/or sociopaths as I cannot imagine any even remotely normal man taking the cloth in our spiritually retarded age. Indeed, I might think Otto Preminger was a culture-distorting piece of shit that was largely dedicated to dismantling traditional white Christian values with his innately subversive films, but I cannot help but feel that his failed epic The Cardinal (1963)—a film inspired by the dubious life of hardcore closet-queen and Baby Doll-hater Cardinal Francis Spellman—exposed some hard truths about the lack of masculine fortitude and hypocrisy associated with the clearly spiritually and morally declining priesthood. Needless to say, I was not prepared to see a film where I came to believe a young wine-addled priest of the socially retarded sort achieves sainthood as is depicted in Diary of a Country Priest (1951) aka Journal d'un curé de champagne—a film based on the 1936 Georges Bernanos novel of the same name—but this cinematic masterpiece was directed by French master auteur Robert Bresson who is one of the few filmmakers that achieved a true sense of the spiritual in cinema, as opposed to simply depicting contrived (yet oftentimes curiously homoerotic) biblical bullshit à la half-chosenite Cecil B. DeMille, and I say that as a largely apathetic agnostic that could not be a believer if I wanted to. While oftentimes associated with the heretically Catholic moral rigor and asceticism of Jansenism, this did not exactly inform the filmmaker's singular aesthetic, or as Paul Schrader—a lapsed Dutch-American Calvinist that has modeled much of his films after Bresson's, especially Pickpocket (1959)—wrote in his groundbreaking text Transcendental Style in Film (1972), “Bresson, the artist, received no aid or comfort from Jansenism; he had to look elsewhere for his aesthetics.”  Luckily, Bresson, quite unlike far too many modern filmmakers—both good and bad—looked far beyond the cinematic realm for aesthetic influences.

 An anti-modernist that, on an inspirational level, did not give a shit about modern trends—whether they be spiritual, cinematic, or political—Bresson might seem like a right-wing anarchist of sorts to some people (myself included) and his aesthetic interests were neither vogue nor wholly traditionalism, but that is largely why he was such a pleasantly preternatural filmmaker, or as Schrader also wrote, “Bresson cannot be tied down to any one heresy; he is a heretic all his own. His techniques of portraiture come from Byzantium; his theology of predestination, free will, and grace from Jansenism; his aesthetics from Scholasticism. To each tradition he brings the virtues of the other, and to cinema he brings the virtues of all three. Perhaps this is why no religious denomination has ever embraced Bresson’s seemingly religious films; they haven’t figured out what sort of heretic he is yet.” Indeed, religion or not, Diary of a Country Priest is as heretical as films come as a flick that even makes Pasolini’s biblical flicks and sardonic (anti)Catholic satires of Luis Buñuel seem like immaturely and inelegantly rebellious pussy posturing by comparison due to Bresson’s singular devotion to the strikingly transcendent in a world plagued with the positively putrid and material. As someone that lost ‘faith’ (or whatever) as a young kid, Diary of a Country Priest at least made me feel like a believer during its 115-minute running-time and even caused me to momentarily consider that there is much more than life and the shitty people in it.  One could even say that, not unlike many of Bresson’s other films, it is a merrily morbid cinematic work that celebrates death to the point where Christianity—or at least the auteur’s splendidly curious version of it—is centered around the worship of death, which is beautifully underscored by the priest protagonist’s final dying words after asking for absolution: “What does it matter? All is grace.”  Indeed, Bresson wants the viewer to know that the body is a temporal prison and thus one should never fear death as life is the real hell.  In fact, as Bresson's pitch black yet singularly subtle understated humor reveals, life is largely a sick joke at the expense of the good and sensitive like the eponymous protagonist of the film.

Although Bresson’s previous and second feature Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945) is a highly worthwhile dark gothic (anti)romance where a scorned bourgeois bitch played by Spanish beauty María Casares dedicates her live to getting a disturbingly intricate revenge against her ex-lover simply because he falls in love with another woman from a less prestigious class, it was not until his third film Diary of a Country Priest—a cinematic work so precisely and immaculately constructed that it makes most films seem like they are layered with lard—that he created the template for the singular ‘transcendental style’ that he is best known for. Indeed, one could argue that the film created a complete paradigm shift in the art of filmmaking as it was surely an imperative influence on the filmmakers and intellectuals associated with the La Nouvelle Vague and later American New Wave masterpieces like Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) and Schrader's Hardcore (1979), yet no filmmaker—be it Michael Haneke, Carlos Reygadas, Bruno Dumont, Dietrich Brüggemann or countless other examples—has come close to capturing Bresson’s style or aesthetic rigor. In short, Bresson lives in a world of his own, which is fitting for a man that once wrote in regard to his cinematic philosophy, “The CINEMA did not start from zero. Everything to be called into question.” Undoubtedly, Diary of a Country Priest offers the first serious glimpse of the singular Bressonian cinematic world where typical movie ingredients like entertainment, star power, psychological motivation, and sexual magnetism, among other things, are scant, if not totally nonexistent, and a rare spiritual experience in celluloid form is offered to those viewers bold enough to embrace it. Undoubtedly, the film is the first good example of why Schrader was right when he wrote, “Bresson’s characters, his movies, and Bresson himself all become icons. . . . Bresson has transcended himself: he is blazed in mosaics in some moss-grown temple.” Indeed, like most of his cinematic works, it is somewhat hard to believe that a single man conceived of such a film, but of course Bresson was not your typical man or filmmaker as one of the greats in the top tier class of cinematograph masters that includes F.W. Murnau and Carl Theodor Dreyer, among few others.

While only a highly intelligent artistic genius could dream up a film like Bresson’s, it is hardly an intellectual exercise, or as the great frog critic André Bazin once wrote, “If THE DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST impresses us as a masterpiece, and this with an almost physical impact, if it moves the critic and the uncritical alike, it is primarily because of its power to stir the emotions, rather than the intelligence, at their highest level of sensitivity.” Indeed, one would do best to embrace the film like one should embrace death without fear or hesitation as it is a film that bleeds into the soul as it progresses to the point where it feels completely right and hardly dejecting when the young priest—a man that has sacrificed his mind and body for his faith—dies in the end. While the priest technically dies of stomach cancer, which is fitting since he cannot stomach life (not to mention food), one gets the sense that the true source of his death is a spiritual malady and that he is no longer fit for the ‘prison’ of his body. Indeed, there is no doubt from the very first shot of the character that the young ‘Priest of Ambricourt’ (Belgian-born Swiss actor Claude Laydu in his first and most well-known acting role)—a forlorn figure that, not coincidentally, appears framed behind a fence at the beginning of the film in a manner that underscores his status as a virtual inmate in an ‘earthly prison’—suffers greatly with mere existence and is pretty much socially retarded (read: proto-autistic), but he is also a ‘true believer’ and not in the negative pathological sense as he is willing to sacrifice what little health he has to help a small village with an oppressive atmosphere as inhabited by mostly coldhearted and petty people that immediately despise him just due to his mere presence as a character of a sort of simple untainted Dostoevskian good. In fact, even the eponymous donkey of Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) seems to be treated better than the priest as at least the animal is beloved by the kind and innocent but, quite unlike the ass of Bresson's later film, the young Catholic brother makes it quite clear to the viewer how he feels, though his internal pain always feels like a total necessary part of his journey. In fact, one could say that the young Priest’s faith is ostensibly morbidly masochistic as an anxiety-ridden prole that is incapable of praying who attempts to spiritually counsel people that would rather enjoy spit on him and write him threatening anonymous letters (which actually happens), yet there is a certain undeniable nobility and purity in his ‘passion,’ even if it arguably contributes to his seemingly unavoidable premature demise.

While it would not be sensible to describe Diary of a Country Priest as a ‘realist’ film, there is certainly an inordinate realism of spirit and essence, as if Bresson personally examined the soul of each ‘actor’ (or ‘model’ as Bresson would say) to see if they were right for the role. For example, Nicole Ladmiral, who plays a troubled young aristocratic girl that threatens suicide, committed suicide in real-life at the age of 28 by throwing herself under a subway train some years after the film was released (to make matters more morbid, Ladmiral previously provided narration for Georges Franju’s abattoir documentary Blood of the Beasts (1949) aka Le sang des bêtes). As for lead actor Claude Laydu, he was borderline brainwashed by Bresson for a year in preparation for the role and he would ultimately take an extreme method acting approach to his ‘performance’ by living with a group of young priests for many weeks, intentionally starving himself to make himself look ill, and sporting an authentic priest cassock and matching boots. As for the priest protagonist’s mentor ‘Priest of Torcy,’ he was actually portrayed by Bresson’s own doctor Adrien Borel who only agreed to do the role so long as he could use a pseudonym (he is credited as ‘Andre Guibert’ in the film). While the acting might be a tad bit more ‘melodramatic’ than Bresson’s later films where the models just act like virtual somnambulists, Laydu’s performance is arguably the most memorable of the auteur’s films aside from possibly Nadine Nortier in his subsequent Georges Bernanos adaptation Mouchette (1967) where a poor young girl chooses death over life before she even reaches full womanhood. Indeed, Laydu plays a pathetic priest but you cannot help but respect the passion behind his, well, passion.  Another ‘realist’ aspect of the film is Bresson's utilization of oftentimes grating off-screen noises (e.g. squeaking of a wagon wheel), which helps to subtly intensify the contrast between the everyday and spiritual.  Indeed, while Bresson makes great use of chiaroscuro as influenced by the paintings of Dutch Golden Age painters like Johannes Vermeer and Godfried Schalcken, the film does not utilize special effects or garish pageantry to express the spiritual like so many idiotic Hollywood films.  After all, as Bresson once wrote, “It is in its pure form that an art hits hard.”

Beginning with a shot of a sign of Ambricourt—a real-life commune in the Pas-de-Calais department in northern France—the viewer arrives just as the new ‘Priest of Ambricourt’ (Claude Laydu) arrives to the area for his new parish where he soon catches the local rich Count (Jean Riveyre) being a little too intimate with his dejected daughter Chantal’s (Nicole Ladmiral) rather beauteous governess. As the rather literal title of the film indicates, the Priest oftentimes writes in his diary and as his first entry reads, “I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong in writing down daily, with absolute frankness, the simplest and most insignificant secrets of a life actually lacking any trace of mystery.”  Undoubtedly, the diary is one of the priest's few sources of solace, as if he needs it to remind himself of his very existence lest him succumb to a sort of self-dissolution.  As demonstrated by the fact that the action and drama of the film is oftentimes echoed by his words in what is ultimately a cinematically ingenious use of pleonasms, the protagonist is an honest priest—even maybe too painfully and autistically so to the point where the viewer is forced to suffer silently with him as he routinely puts himself in the most miserable of situations. When a grumpy old fart named ‘Fabregars’ (Léon Arvel) bitches about having to pay for aspects of his wife’s funeral, the Priest is left completely “distraught,” as if it is the end of the world or something, thereupon underscoring the protagonist's complete and utter incapacity to deal with everyday assholes. Aside from adults not respecting him, the Priest is also mocked by the children he teaches. For example, a young girl named Séraphita Dumonte (Martine Lemaire) pretends to be keen on the Scriptural basis of the Eucharist to get his attention, but then embarrasses him for the enjoyment of her classmates by mock-flirtatiously stating in regard to the root of her ostensible biblical prowess, “It’s because you have such beautiful eyes.” When the Priest meets his new mentor, the Priest of Torcy (Adrien Borel), the older and wiser brother instantly berates him for being a sensitive pussy by stating, “You young priests! What have you young men got in your veins these days? In my time they made men of the church, leaders of parishes, real masters!” While the Priest of Torcy is certainly somewhat of a resentful old prick, his heart is in the right place and does provide the young priest with helpful dictums like, “Keep order all day long” and “A true priest is never loved.”  In the end, the young priest proves to live and eventually die by these words as he is never loved and rarely even liked, but he does earn the respect of some of his most aggressive and cynical detractors.

Although everyone hates the priest, including little kids, that does not stop him from idealistically attempting to inspires his seemingly impenetrable haters with his own special idealistic Catholic philosophy. To the young Priest's credit, his idealism is pure and his desire to ‘save’ is as equally pure, hence his handful of notable successes. Indeed, the young Priest manages to convince the local Countess (Rachel Bérendt) to get over her deep-seated hatred of god as a result of the premature death of her young son who she practically worships (for example, instead of a rosary and religious paintings, the Countess sports a locket necklace featuring a pic of her dead son and has decorated her room with pics of said dead son). In fact, the Countess is so inspired to let go of hatred and resume her communion with god after an intense spiritual argument with the young priest, who she initially does not take seriously, that she destroys her beloved locket necklace her dead son. In fact, the Countess even writes a heartfelt thank-you letter that concludes with, “I hope I don’t hurt your pride by calling you a child. You are one, and may God keep you so always,” but she soon dies as if her hatred was the only thing keeping her alive. Despite being a sickly wimp, the viewer never doubts the intense sincerity of his words when he sternly warns the countess, “God will break you,” so there is a certain heartwarming irony in her unexpected death, which naturally disturbs her dysfunctional aristocratic family, as if her bodily demise was god's greatest gift. To make matters worse, the Countess’ daughter Chantal (Nicole Ladmiral), who hates her mother for being a pathetic cuckquean, hatefully attempts to blame the priest for her death, thereupon further tainting the protagonist’s local reputation.

While the priest fails in his attempt to get Chantal to give confession, he does somehow magically suspect a suicide letter in her pocket, which he forces her to give it to him and then subsequently burns it without even reading it. Although seemingly half-autistic, the priest was able to read terrible thoughts of suicide in the troubled teenage girl’s unsettlingly penetrating eyes and thus acted accordingly without even the slightest hesitation. In what is probably the most humorous moment of the entire film, Chantal tells the Priest, “You must be the devil” after asking for said letter as if she, as the unloved sole surviving child of bitter old blueblood, is shocked that someone could actually feel her great internal pain for the first time in her entire life. In the end, Chantal seems to believe in the Priest's power and when she asks how he was able to do the seemingly impossible by calming her hateful mother, he replies, “A lost secret. You too will find it and lose it in turn, and others will pass it on after you.” In the end, the Priest dies but his crucial influence on seemingly hopeless people like Chantal lives on.

Aside from learning from the misery of everyday life, the priest also learns a thing or two from the Priest of Torcy, but even he cannot provide the protagonist with any sort of solace when a certain Dr. Delbende (Antoine Balpêtré) assumedly commits suicide because he “lost his faith” as a result of losing patients due to dubious local rumors.  Indeed, as the priest complains in regard to the suicide, “I was in no condition to listen to his confidences just then. They were like molten lead poured on an open wound. I have never suffered so much and likely never will again, even when I die.” In fact, the suicide seems to perturb the priest more than when he finally learns that he is dying of stomach cancer, but of course Dr. Delbende committed a mortal sin which is one of the worst things a Catholic can do.  Naturally, as the victim of local rumors himself, the young priest certainly sees a kindred spirit Dr. Delbende who even expresses a sort of spiritual kinship to the protagonist before he commits self-slaughter.  In fact, the Priest even takes no offense when Dr. Delbende informs him during a medical examination that his poor health is the degenerate genetic consequence of generations of impoverished alcoholics in his family.  In that sense, it seems Dr. Delbende is a fan of the writings of Cesare Lombroso and Émile Zola.

Notably, the Priest’s only moment of reprieve is when he receives a ride on the back of motorcycle as underscored by the words in his diary, “By some premonition I can’t explain, I understood that God didn’t want me to die without knowing something of this risk. Just enough for my sacrifice to be complete when it’s time came.”  While a simple motorcycle ride where nothing particularly interesting happens, it is obviously a moment of complete bliss for the protagonist as demonstrated by the shockingly large ecstatic smile on his face.  Luckily, before he dies, the priest is able to convince an old friend, Priest Dufrety (Bernard Hubrenne), who has lost the faith and is living in sin with a woman, to hook up with the Priest of Torcy so that he can get back on track with God and the Church. In the end, Priest Dufrety sends the Priest of Torcy a brief letter revealing that the young priest was vomiting up blood before he died and then asked for absolution, but then stated with his last dying words, “What does it matter? All is grace.”

Simply put, I don’t give a fuck about Catholic fathers or the Catholic Church, but Diary of a Country Priest made me feel like a believer, especially in regard to the titular protagonist becoming a saint, at least in the spiritual sense. While later filmmakers like Carlos Reygadas and Dietrich Brüggemann have attempted similar things in regard to transcendental, their cinematic works are, at best, mostly deluded expressions of epigonism, especially when contrasted with Bresson's films. Undoubtedly, the same can be said of Paul Schrader’s most recent film First Reformed (2017), which is like a more subversive and less spiritually sound Americanized reworking of Diary of a Country Priest where the American auteur reveals more about his own spiritual sickness than any sort of innate understanding of the somewhat mysterious forces that compelled the no less mysterious French master auteur (who, despite revealing his cinematic philosophy in his classic text Notes on the Cinematograph (1975), still remains a largely enigmatic figure). Still, Schrader’s film is a worthy watch and one of the best films of 2017, yet it also demonstrates the aesthetical and metaphysical degeneration of cinema since the release of Bresson’s masterpiece, as it is clearly the expression of a spiritually lost and emasculated leftist type who no longer believes in himself, let alone the faith of his forefathers.

 Speaking of Schrader, he provided an important insight into Bresson’s true power as a filmmaker in Transcendental Style in Film by contrasting him with Carl Th. Dreyer—one of the few filmmakers on the same level as the French master auteur—and ultimately argues in a manner that makes sense of the titular priest’s death in Diary of a Country Priest that, “Bresson, on the other hand, is the artist of the resurrection, the artist of stasis. The cross for Bresson is a means to a resurrected end, and he is careful not to confuse the cross and the resurrection. Like Dreyer, Bresson uses suffering through the prison metaphor (the ‘symbol of the Cross’), but unlike Dreyer, Bresson transforms the prison into a symbol of resurrection. In this manner Bresson is like the Byzantine Christian who, as theologian Henri Daniel-Rops writes, ‘preferred the theology of Glory to the theology of the Cross.’ Suffering for Bresson is never more than a stepping-stone to stasis.” Indeed, the young priest might be barfing up blood in the end, but his premature death, which is not even actually depicted in the film, is among the most joyous, if not the most joyous, in cinema history. Additionally, only in underrated French auteur Maurice Pialat’s sort of neo-Bressonian masterpiece Under the Sun of Satan (1987) aka Sous le soleil de Satan—the third and final of three masterpiece films based on a novel by Georges Bernanos (of course, Bresson directed the other two)—comes as close to Bresson’s film in terms of successfully depicting a particularly perturbed priest’s passion towards sainthood, albeit in a somewhat more fucked fashion.

Notably, in a top ten list of his favorite films, Russian master auteur Andrei Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev, Solaris) actually ranked Diary of a Country Priest as his #1 favorite film of all-time. While I personally rank Tarkovsky as one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time, I would be lying if I did not admit that I consider Bresson to be the superior auteur and Diary of a Country Priest to be superior to anything that the Russian director ever directed, even if it does not quite compete with the atmospheric aesthetic allure of films like Stalker (1979) and The Mirror (1975). After all, whereas Tarkvosky brings us religious imagery and great pangs of spiritual doubt, Bresson even provides cynical agnostics like myself a sort of cinematic spiritual experience that feels both timeless and perennial as a film that, somewhat inexplicably, feels like it could have been created before the birth of film. As to what separates Tarkvosky from Bresson and other master practitioners of transcendental style like Ozu and Dreyer, Schrader provided a worthy answer when he argued, “To my mind, Andrei Tarkovsky was not interested in the transcendental style per se. He had religious themes, obsessions, and characters. He was austere. He employed distancing devices. But his intent was different. A transcendental guide or guru or film director self-effacingly seeks to escort the respondent to another level of consciousness, a Wholly Other World. The transcendental film director is a ‘spirit guide.’ Tarkovsky was more interested in passing through the portal himself than he was in escorting his viewer.”

Indeed, Tarkovsky's The Mirror is one of my favorite films of all-time, but it seems like an experimental exercise in masturbatory nostalgia when compared to Bresson’s great ‘(anti)coming-of-age’ flicks like Au hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967). Arguably more importantly, at least to me, Bresson is one of the few filmmakers that, despite the oftentimes deathly dark subject matter of his films, gives me hope as he proved that great timeless and spiritual art could still be produced in the post-Spenglerian age. Indeed, as Richard Roud argued in his excellent text Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (1980) in regard to Bresson’s penultimate masterpiece The Devil Probably, “Even though Bresson has painted a dark picture of wasted youth and beauty (Truffaut called it Bresson’s most ‘voluptuous film’), one came out of the film with a sense of exaltation. When a civilization can produce a work of art as perfectly achieved as this, it is hard to believe that there is not hope for it.” Indeed, take that Spengler.

One of the reasons I found Christianity to be so revoltingly impotent as a child is due to the obsession with prayer and the sort of mindless docility and acceptance of misery it inspires, so I could not help but feel quite strongly when the young priest declares, “Never had I felt so violently the revolt of the body against prayer.” Instead of praying like a pussy, the priest takes action in, somewhat ironically, an arguably Nietzschean sense and puts both his body and mind on the line while just getting by on cheap wine and stale bread to the point where it results in self-obliteration and he finally escapes from the prison of his body. Indeed, even after getting his terminal cancer diagnosis, the priest does not stop in his seemingly completely genuine acts of Catholic idealism to the point where he gets another priest, who has sinned with a woman and now styles himself as an enterprising intellectual, to replace him in the end. In that sense, the priest is a highly inspirational character like a fanatical artist not unlike Bresson himself. In fact, I could not help but think of Rainer Werner Fassbinder of all people and how the singular workaholic auteur was even working on a Rosa Luxemburg biopic script entitled Rosa L when he overdosed on cocaine and barbiturates. Diary of a Country Priest is not just the passion of a young priest, but also the passion of Bresson who revolutionized cinema in a way that the likes of contemporary pseudo-Bressonian art fags like Bruno Dumont and Gus Van Sant can only dream of.

Undoubtedly, film critic André Bazin probably paid the greatest tribute to the film when he argued at the end of his Cahiers du Cinéma essay on it, “It is hardly enough to say of this work, once removed, that it is in essence faithful to the original because, to being with, it is the novel. But most of all the resulting work is not, certainly, better (that kind of judgment is meaningless . . .) but ‘more’ than the book. The aesthetic pleasure we derive from Bresson’s film, while the acknowledgement for it goes, essentially, to the genius of Bernanos, includes all that novel has to offer plus, in addition, its refraction in the cinema.”  In short, Bresson accomplished what very few filmmakers do by totally transcending his source material and ultimately demonstrating the true potential of cinema as an artistic medium.  In fact, Bresson proved with his rather idiosyncratic Jansenist Weltanschauung and assumed Byzantium and Gothic influences in his adaptation of a ‘modern’ novel that, despite most movies being mindless trash that is meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator, cinema is the fullest and most advanced art form with the most potential for both aesthetic and thematic evolution.  Indeed, while Schrader made a great point when he argued, “Motion pictures were not born in religious practice, but instead are the totally profane offspring of capitalism and technology.  If a religious artist in cinema attempts to go back to his origins, he will find only entrepreneurs and technocrats.  When the Holy tries to enter into the cinema, the intrinsically profane art, there are bound to be some unusual consequences,” he was ultimately underscoring Bresson's singular genius as an artist that brought transcendence to a commercial medium and with Diary of a Country Priest, which somewhat ironically was a commercial success, he created one of the greatest pieces of art of the twentieth-century and one of the rare films that deserves to be revered to the same degree as great Gothic architecture, Byzantine icons, and other great artistic pieces associated with the Occident.

While Nietzsche was probably mostly right when he wrote, “The Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad, has made the world ugly and bad,” Bresson's films would have probably at least make him reconsider.  After all, as Roud soundly recognized, “By the end of the film, even the non-believer is forced to acknowledge that the little country priest is a saint—whatever that word may mean.  His final liberation comes not only from his acceptance of his approaching and painful death, but from the knowledge that his conflicts have not really been with the Countess, or Chantal, or Seraphita, but with himself.  And these conflicts are resolved: tout est grâce.”  Of course, Nietzsche also might a good point when he argued, “What do savage tribes at present accept first of all from Europeans?  Brandy and Christianity, the European narcotics.—And by what means are they fastest ruined?—By the European narcotics,” but somehow I doubt these savages could embrace the truly Christian Diary of a Country Priest even if they wanted to.  After all, the film is the opposite of a narcotic and Europeans, not unlike Bresson, do Christianity best when coming from an ascetic angle as opposed to a pussy proto-humanist prayer version.

-Ty E

Jan 25, 2020

The Man with the Golden Arm

Nobody, including junkies, wants to watch most films about junkies, unless you have exceedingly excremental taste and can somehow trick yourself into believing there is any sort of truth in regard to the dope fiend lifestyle in senseless swill like Askhenazi pseudo-arthouse poser Darren Aronofsky’s pleb-tier clinical con-job Requiem for a Dream (2000) where the soulless smackhead lifestyle is romanticized in a rather retarded MTV-esque fashon full of debasing hip hop montage masturbation and pathetic plastic histrionics, among other aesthetically bankrupt would-be-artsy-fartsy asininities. Aside from being an absolutely aesthetically atrocious film that test the bounds of feckless art faggotry and too-cool-for-school cultural retardation, the film was clearly directed by someone that has no direct experience with heroin or junkies but of course an authentic portrayal of such human debasement would have never been such a big hit with packs of mindlessly rebellious teenagers and sapless liberal academics. While attempting to do their own best Harmony Korine/Larry Clark impersonation, the Safdie brothers utilized their typical cheap gimmick of poorly disguising autistic trash as provocative art for Heaven Knows What (2014) where they utilized real junkies yet managed to say absolutely nothing new or interesting about the junky experience. While I do appreciate films like Barbet Schroeder’s More (1969), Paul Morrissey’s Trash (1970), Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park (1971), and Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (1981) to varying degrees, none of these films also seem to provide the full junky experience, especially in terms of the vicious circle that comes with full-blown junkydom.  Thankfully, blue-eyed goombah god Frank Sinatra was able to provide the world with a fuller look at the perturbing perils of heroin hell.

 Needless to say, I never expected that a film from the mid-1950s starring alpha-wop performer Sinatra and directed by subversive Austro-American semite Otto Preminger (Bonjour Tristesse, Anatomy of a Murder) would provide in what is my best estimation the full junky experience, at least in a sort of soundly seedy post-noir sense where the most glaring trash on the streets is the people. Indeed, The Man with the Golden Arm (1956)—a film that could not be more immaculately and unforgettably titled—is far from a fun flick as a sort of cinematic equivalent to stale dog shit and old vomit boiling on a hot city sidewalk. In short, the film does what Preminger does best in terms of its hardly covert cynicism, misanthropy, and overall unflattering depiction of humanity; or, in this sad soulless case, subhumanity. In my admittedly counter-kosher yet reasonably artistically fair opinion, Preminger—an Austrian Jew that was oftentimes described as an ‘Nazi’ by collaborators due to his cold and sadistic authoritarian character (not to mention his strange fetish for playing Nazi characters, most famously in fellow chosenite Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 (1953))—was no real artist and he never directed a true cinematic masterpiece despite coming pretty damn close with his classic film noir Laura (1944), but his strong and subversive character secured his place in cinema history as a somewhat memorable auteur that, for better or worse, helped to destroy the censors. As Andrew Sarris once stated of the filmmaker, “His enemies have never forgiven him for being a director with the personality of a producer […] Preminger’s legend is that of the cosmic cost accountant, a ruthless creature who will mangle the muse for the sake of a shooting schedule.” More than an accountant, Preminger—the son of a once-powerful Austrian public prosecutor who earned a ‘Doctor of Law’ at the recommendation of his father—demonstrated the antichristial spirit of a tyrannical Talmudic lawyer that prides himself on the malefic maneuvering and manipulation of the legal system, which is actually something he both personally attempted and depicted with his films, including The Man with the Golden Arm.

While Preminger apparently originally had little interest in directing a film about a dreary dope fiend, he was quite keen on destroying the Hollywood Production Code, which states in the ‘Crimes Against The Law’ section of film censor Joseph I. Breen's document: “The illegal drug traffic, and drug addiction, must never be presented.” While Jewish leftist actor John Garfield intended to play the lead in a projected cinematic adaptation of kosher quasi-commie Nelson Algren’s 1949 source novel of the same name, the outlaw film noir star died prematurely in 1952 long before Preminger became interested in the project (in fact, Preminger bought the rights for the project from Garfield's estate).  In the end, it was ultimately Algren's great misfortune that Preminger ever got interested in the project. Although the filmmaker originally had enough respect for the novelist to have him brought out from his home in Gary, Indiana to Hollywood to write the film’s screenplay, he apparently did not respect him or his screenwriting abilities too much as he soon replaced him with Walter Newman (Ace in the Hole, Cat Ballou) in an artistically disastrous scenario that haunted the writer for the rest of his life, or as hapa film historian Chris Fujiwara explained in his biography The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger (2008), “For Algren, Preminger would become an obsession, a symbol of the crass arrogance of power, an enemy with whom he would grapple again and again in his writing and his reminiscences.” A man that was ruthlessly criticized by none other than his kosher-con racial kinsman Norman Podhoretz for glorifying ghetto trash at the expense of polite society, Algren had what might be described as the quintessential ‘Barton Fink Mindset,’ which is really underscored in a critique of Preminger where he states, “…the life of the common man has never filtered into Otto’s brains and emotions; or into his talent such as he has. The book dealt with life at the bottom. Otto has never, not for so much as a single day, had any experience except that of life at the top.” Unfortunately, the trouble with Algren's critique is that, despite being a Hollywood film featuring the novelty of a famous garlic-breathed singer-cum-star, Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm does an inordinately good job portraying the purgatorial (non)existence of poor dope-shooting and scam-running proles to the point where one feels like taking a shower after watching the film lest you succumb to an unnerving feeling of festering filth.

In his highly worthwhile text Opium, journal d'une désintoxication (1930) aka Opium: The Diary of His Cure—a delightful diary of self-deluding yet insightful spiritual degeneration that makes alpha-Beat William S. Burroughs’ books on dope seem all-too-soulless by comparison—French poet and cinemagician Jean Cocteau states, “The half-sleep of opium makes us pass down corridors and cross halls and push open doors and lose ourselves in a world where people startled out of their sleep are horribly afraid of us.” Undoubtedly, Cocteau’s words are a great way to describe the inordinately haunting and oftentimes debasing experience of watching The Man with the Golden Arm, which is set in a piss poor polack ghetto of the North Side of Chicago where people seem to thrive on nothing more than fear, paranoia, and a special sort of social parasitism where even the feral version of ‘man’s best friend’ is a commodity and suavely sociopathic dope dealers aggressively prey on (ex)addicts in the gleeful hope that they get rehooked. Indeed, as Burroughs once wrote, “The junk merchant doesn’t sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.” As soon as the film’s protagonist Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) is released from a federal Narcotic Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, he makes the mistake of heading back to his crud-crusted Chicago hellhole where his sinisterly slimy dealer Louie (Darren McGavin)—a virtual pimp of human souls that prides himself on underhandedly exploiting human weakness for maximum personal benefit—immediately begins offering him ‘free’ heroin (notably, the name of the drug is never mentioned). Unfortunately for street parasite Louie, at least initially, Frankie has big plans and wants to leave behind his previous criminal career as the ‘dealer’ in illegal card games to become the drummer of a big band. Of course, as Burroughs also wrote, “A junkie spends half his life waiting,” and while waiting Frankie cannot ignore the, “thirty-five-pound monkey on his back.”

Notably, in his book Romancing Opiates: Pharmacological Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy (2008), English mischling psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple completely demystifies the deluded view of drugs, especially opiates and heroin, as a source of profound artistic inspiration and creativity and instead presents them as a patently pathetic tool of the self-destructively nihilistic and, in turn, oftentimes criminal. In short, it is rare for happy people to become heroin addicts and it is only natural that someone suffering from a spiritual void would try to fill said void with what Burroughs lovingly described as ‘Cocteau’s kick.’  Undoubtedly, such is the case of Frankie Machine who has somewhat tangible dreams but is living a virtual nightmare as the figurative emotional-punching-bag of a deranged wife named Zosh (Eleanor Parker) and the pawn of local small-time criminals. While Frankie deeply loves his ex-flame Molly (Kim Novak), he felt so guilty about (supposedly) crippling Zosh while drunk driving that he pathetically agreed to marry the crazy cunt while she was still in the hospital. In fact, Molly, who works as a server at a strip club, is the perfect dream girl as she encourages Frankie to pursue his dream of being a professional drummer while resentful wench Zosh berates him for even considering doing something that might better him and, in turn, give him a reason to leave her and move on with his life. Frankie also has a goofy best friend named ‘Sparrow’ (Arnold Stang) that runs a silly scam that involves peddling homeless street dogs to unsuspecting customers. While Sparrow is a good friend, he is also a bizarrely nebbish low-life and is involved with the same scumbags that plague Frankie’s life. In short, Molly is the only true bright light in Frankie’s increasingly darkening abyss of a life. Needless to say, anyone that has to deal with an insufferable bitch like Zosh would love to escape to the ecstatic warmth of a heroin high, so it is not long before dealer Louie finally convinces Frankie to embrace the narcotic void. As Louie gleefully states before Frankie shoots his first dope since his prison stint, “Monkey’s never dead, dealer. They monkey never dies. When you kick him off……he just hides in a corner waiting his turn.”

As one can expect from any serious self-destructive addict, the abject misery of Frankie’s personal life parallels the extent of his drug abuse, though the former oftentimes fuels the latter and vice versa; or, in short, the vicious circle that is dope fiend purgatory. Although Frankie knows what he must do due to lessons from a certain Dr. Lennox (who he proudly states of, “He was real good to me”) as demonstrated by remarks like, “See, part of the cure is to keep yourself busy doing things you enjoy. Like for instance, I wanted to learn to drum and music,” the totally callous and craven parasites of his subprole life keep scamming him into their sociopathic schemes. Indeed, aside from the fact that his wife Zosh is keeping him a virtual slave by pretending to be a wheelchair-bound cripple when she is actually perfectly capable of walking, Frankie’s old boss Schwiefka (Robert Strauss)—a man that unequivocally proves that sometimes it is perfectly fine to judge a book by its cover—wants to make him his virtual slave again for his illegal card games and dope dealer Louie largely makes that happen with his highly addictive street smack. While Frankie does manage to make it into the musicians union, he botches his big band tryout due to suffering from drug withdrawal. To make matters worse, Frankie gets caught cheating during a long poker marathon that brings disgrace to his bastard of a boss Schwiefka. When Frankie beats him during an unsuccessful attempt to rob his drug stash, Louie naturally goes looking for him and is in quite surprise when he accidentally discovers that Zosh can actually walk. Afraid that Frankie will surely leave her if he discovers her big lie, Zosh actually kills Louie by pushing him over the railing of her apartment stairwell where he falls a couple floors to his miserable death (admittedly, this is a fairly awesome and completely unexpected murder scene). Naturally, Frankie is immediately suspected of the killing due to being one of Louie's virtual dope slaves, but luckily he is hiding out at his great love Molly’s apartment while he withdrawals from dope.  Needless to say, Frankie certainly does not have luck on his side but he does have love in the form of gorgeous ghetto Fräulein Molly who demonstrates through sheer action that she is the only true good element in the protagonist's life (after all, even Frankie's best bud Sparrow is, at best, a sleazy street scavenger that regularly lounges around low-lifes).

Zosh is such a pathetically evil monster that she actually dares to confess to Molly in regard to her long-term plans for her husband, “He put me in this chair. And as long as I sit here, he’ll never leave me. He knows he belongs to me. I wouldn’t wanna live if he left me. And I’d rather see him dead too than have him go to you.” While Molly has come by to convince her to help in regard to his drug problems and being suspected of murder, Zosh—a woman so deranged that she regularly happily glances at a misspelled ‘romantic’ scrapbook chronicling her crippling and subsequent marriage to the protagonist—is only interested in keeping Frankie for herself and she will go to any low to keep him on her gutter grade femme fatale leash. In the end, Frankie, who has decided to leave town, finally discovers Zosh’s handicap ruse and so does the local cop Captain Bednar (Emile Meyer) who immediately realizes that she is actually Louie’s killer. With nothing left to lose aside from her miserable life, which is worth less than nil, Zosh impulsively decides to throwaway said miserable life by jumping off the balcony of her apartment building right in front of Frankie in what feels like a moment of karmic kismet where a murderess dispatches herself the same exact way that she killed her victim. In the end in what is ultimately a fittingly uncomfortable yet largely deserved ‘happy ending,’ Frankie and Molly leave town while perennial ghetto-dweller Sparrow predictably stays behind. Not surprisingly, Nelson Algren’s source novel ends on a more negative and decidedly anti-Hollywood note with Frankie pulling a Rozz Williams and killing himself on April Fools’ Day after being forced to abandon Molly while hiding from the cops. Needless to say, it always feels like a sick joke when ‘love conquers all’ in a Preminger picture.

In my opinion, Preminger might be an authentic auteur but he is also an obviously overrated auteur that never managed to direct a true masterpiece. Indeed, while Andrew Sarris was right when he wrote, “LAURA is Preminger’s CITIZEN KANE, at least in the sense that Otto’s detractors, like Orson’s, have never permitted him to live it down,” I do not think I would ever describe Laura as an unmitigated masterpiece yet, at the same time, none of Preminger’s subsequent output comes even close to it aside from The Man with the Golden Arm. While I have not seen all the director’s films (which would undoubtedly be an unrewarding and redundant task), I have seen most of the notable ones and they are largely too long, insufferably (socio)politically motivated, rambling, and plagued with a sort of obscenely obnoxious arrogance that the director was well known for. When Preminger attempted to make a virtual Zionist The Gone with the Wind via Exodus (1960), he only achieved bombastic banality and a sort of gratingly disingenuous humanism where he tries in vain to care about the plight of Palestinians in between glorifying Herzlian heroics. While the auteur was certainly successful in demonstrating his fetish for law and the manipulation of said law with his classic flick Anatomy of a Murder (1959), no courtroom drama deserves to be at the preposterous length of 160 minutes. With his (anti)Catholic epic The Cardinal (1963)—a film where the auteur gleefully associates both Catholicism and his seemingly much despised Austro-Kraut homeland with the social nastiness of National Socialism—Preminger was unable to hide his hatred for the Catholic Church and lead Tom Tryon (who was apparently at least partly inspired to quit acting due to his experiences with Preminger).  As for his Panavision Pearl Harbor epic In Harm's Way (1965), Preminger produced a particularly plodding piece of all-star stagnation where John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, and Henry Fonda seem like they are pretending to star in a John Ford flick and failing miserably at it.  While Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) is a particularly potent preternatural psychological-thriller that, in many ways, defies classification, Preminger, who was ironically not really fond of the film, would never again direct a truly worthwhile movie. When he was not shitting on the American South with unintentionally grotesque tabloid-like trash like Hurry Sundown (1967), Preminger was paying insincere backhanded tribute to the hippies due to their mindless subversion of traditional white Christian American society with insufferably kitschy, pseudo-psychedelic twaddle like Skidoo (1968), which is notable for featuring a virtual graveyard of washed-up actors, including Jackie Gleason, Frankie Avalon, Cesar Romero, and Groucho Marx.  As for Such Good Friends (1971) ghostwritten by Elaine May under the pseudonym ‘Esther Dale,’ Preminger made a valiant attempt at being a poor man's Woody Allen in an unintentionally absurd kosher sex-comedy that is about as hot as Whoopi Goldberg's nappy naughty bits.

Of course, one of the things that makes The Man with the Golden Arm so surprisingly enthralling aside from Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak’s performances is that, with the exception of the iconic title sequence by Saul Bass, it is not particularly Premingerian in the emotional sense and it actually feels sincerely sympathetic (as opposed to arrogantly cynical) in its depiction of human degradation and desperation. Aside from source Nelson Algren’s novel, the film probably owes its sense of humanistic authenticity to Sinatra who, unlike a lot of people that worked with Preminger, was unwillingly to take shit from the dictatorial director, which he was able to get away with due to his fame and popularity (notably, Marlon Brando, who snatched the lead role in On the Waterfront (1954) from Sinatra, was also interested in the role).  In fact, Preminger was so impressed with Sinatra that he wanted to use him in an adaptation of Mario Puzo's The Godfather, or as the auteur-cum-producer wrote, “Many years later Paramount asked me to direct THE GODFATHER.  I thought Sinatra would be wonderful in the lead and sent him the book.  I even offered to eliminate the character of the winger, who some people thought was patterned after Sinatra.  Nevertheless he said, ‘Ludvig, I pass on this.’”  Luckily, Francis Ford Coppola would ultimately direct the film as Preminger has never directed a film as nearly as aesthetically potent and truly epic as The Godfather (1972) despite his tackling of various films with long-running times.

As Chris Fujiwara noted in regard to the film, “Like THE MOON IS BLUE, SAINT JOAN, and, especially, PORGY AND BESS, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM is in this sense an exception to the main movement of Preminger’s work after his departure from Fox and before SKIDOO: an abstract, hermetic film rather than one that involves itself with a reality that exists outside, and for other purposes than, the filmic project. The sets render Algren’s skid row as an isolated and self-contained world, accentuating both its hopelessness and its lack of historicity. This world has no past and no future; it is read for the bulldozers. The stylization of some of the performances—Robert Strauss’s and Arnold Stang’s, notably—suits this desperate and artificial quality perfectly.” Of course, this ‘artificiality’ that Fujiwara speaks of only underscores the protagonist’s increasing junky jadedness, dirtbag delirium, and lingering lovesickness, as if the character has been condemned to a completely colorless heroin habitué hell.  Indeed, the best compliment I can pay the film is that it is like the Fritz Lang's M (1931) of junky films as a boldly fucked flick that somehow manages to utilize studio artifice to underscore the metaphysical malaise of the urban underworld to the point where the viewer feels that they have actually spent a couple hours in heroin addict Hades.

If The Man with the Golden Arm is the junky cinematic jam par excellence where the viewer has the singular luxury of experiencing the spiritually necrotic nadir of narcotic nihilism, Jean Cocteau’s surrealist directorial debut Le sang d'un poète (1930) aka The Blood of a Poet—a film that the poet turned filmmaker alludes to in his opium diary when he states, “My next work will be a film”—is its European arthouse celluloid counterpoint as an oneiric Orphic odyssey as inspired by the auteur’s own apparently life-changing experiences with opium. In short, Cocteau’s film is arguably an example of the ‘positive’ effects of opium. Notably, Cocteau would argue in his drug diary, “Opium, which changes our speeds, procures for us a very clear awareness of worlds which are superimposed on each other, which interpenetrate each other, but do not even suspect each other’s existence.” While I can somewhat respect Cocteau’s somewhat naively romantic view of a drug that debased his soul and his words certainly make for a good description of the otherworldly experiences of the eponymous poet protagonist played by Enrique Riveros, The Man with the Golden Arm is unequivocally more in tune with the hauntingly hideous moral, emotional, physical, and spiritual lows associated with heroin addiction. In fact, I would warn the more impressionable art fags out there to stay steer clear of Cocteau’s Opium: The Diary of His Cure lest they catch a nasty addiction that won’t inspire much art but probably tons of all-consuming misery and quite possibly even death. After all, for every Bukowski and Burroughs, who were both miserable men, there are probably millions of degenerate drunks and junkies with failed artistic intentions and The Man with the Golden Arm does a rather respectful job depicting the perils of such a disgusting dead-end life.

As for a vaguely similar real-life parallel to the character of protagonist Frankie Machine in terms of a junky jazz musician that lives to lose, American jazz trumpeter Chet Baker is a good example and, in that sense, queer fashion photographer Bruce Weber’s documentary Let's Get Lost (1988) certainly makes for a great double feature with Preminger’s flick.  Needless to say, superficially romantic pop cinema like The Basketball Diaries (1995) is nothing short of a frivolous emotional con job if you are really looking to get down with dope fiends.  While by no means a bad movie, Danny Boyle's Trainspotting (1996)—a film that seems more aesthetically inspired by psychedelic drugs than the opium oriented sort—has probably inspired more people to shoot junk than steer clear of it.  As for junky films directed by actual junkies, Richard Kern (Submit to Me, Fingered) of the so-called Cinema of Transgression movement is probably the most notable example and naturally his films are totally morally retarded.  Needless to say, most junky cinema is junk.

Notably, Andrew Sarris summed up Preminger’s artistically curious cinematic career as follows, “We are left with a director who has made at least four masterpieces of ambiguity and objectivity—LAURA, BONJOUR TRISTESSE, ADVISE AND CONSENT, and BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING, a director who sees all problems and issues as a single-take two-shot, the stylistic expression of the eternal conflict, not between right and wrong, but between the right-wrong on one side and the right-wrong on the other, a representation of the right-wrong in all of us as our share of the human condition. In the middle of the conflict stands Otto Preminger, right-wrong, good-bad, and probably sincere-cynical.” Indeed, aside from the occasional neo-Sirkian melodrama à la Fassbinder’s The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), not many films quite achieve the “sincere-cynical” of The Man with the Golden Arm where a marriage is depicted as something as spiritually deadly as narcotic addiction. And, undoubtedly, arguably more than any of Preminger’s other films, his junky flick depicts, for better or worse, the signature penetrating Premingerian moral ambiguity (or lack of morality) that Sarris relatively soundly describes.  In short, The Man with the Golden Arm is no pussy film, but a penetrating piece of understated pathos where one gets to the dead heart of addiction in a fashion that does not coddle the viewer or give them wild romantic ideas about addiction.

As someone that has personally known various junkies, including of the dead, undead, and almost-dead variety, The Man with the Golden Arm proved to be at least strong enough to make me (almost) consider taking a nice warm shower lest bask in the metaphysical grudge and grime, but I must confess that the film does not address the philosophical aspect of junkydom. Indeed, as Cocteau once wrote, “The purity of a revolution can last a fortnight. That is why a poet, the revolutionary of the soul, limits himself to the about-turns of the mind. Every fortnight I change my programme. For me opium is a revolt. Addiction a revolt. The cure a revolt. I do not talk of my works. Each one guillotines the other. My only aim is to spare myself Napoleon.” Of course, one also argue that the opioid epidemic plaguing white mainstream America is also a (largely unconscious and supremely misguided) collective nihilistic revolt against Hebraic Hollywood and all it stands for as Tinseltown is merely the propaganda arm for the globalized crypto-kosher post-white multicultural America. And, of course, it was Preminger, who literally utilized The Man with the Golden Arm as one of his various cinematic weapons to crush mainstream white Christian morality, who helped to pave the way to this Hollywoodland hell. In that sense, I somehow feel much better about recommending Victor Sjöström’s silent dipsomaniac delight The Phantom Carriage (1921)—an aesthetically pioneering film that takes both a literal and figurative approach to depicting the haunting horrors of alcoholism—instead of Preminger’s lumpenprole dope fiend flick when it comes to films depicting the purgatorial perils of addiction.  Indeed, if non-junky Preminger's greatest contribution to the art of cinema was a junky flick featuring a popular wop crooner that was at least partly motivated by quasi-legal reasons, one comes to a rather dubious conclusion about his value and legacy as an artist.  In that sense, Preminger was probably on a similar moral plane as a junky, albeit with the spirit of a Wall Street cokehead type.  Of course, I say that as someone that considers transcendental European arthouse films like Robert Bresson's The Devil, Probably (1977) and Adriaan Ditvoorst's White Madness (1984) to be the absolute apotheosis of junky cinema, but such hermetic flicks were not made for the same American prole audience that The Man with the Golden Arm was meant to appeal to.  After all, even when it comes to junkies, not all people are equal.

-Ty E

Jan 10, 2020

The Skin (1981)

Aside from her fundamentally flawed SS sadomasochistic danse-macabre Il portiere di notte (1974) aka The Night Porter and to a lesser extent her dystopian sci-fi flick I cannibali (1970) aka The Year of the Cannibals and Nietzsche horn-dog hagiography Al di là del bene e del male (1977) aka Beyond Good and Evil, Italian auteuress Liliana Cavani—a filmmaker that is always more interesting when she is more intemperate artsploitation than plodding arthouse—has never been a filmmaker I seriously respected yet she certainly won me over with a recent viewing of her exceedingly eccentrically epic Curzio Malaparte adaptation La pelle (1981) aka The Skin.  Curiously feeling oftentimes more Fellini-esque than Fellini in terms of combining the post-neorealist humanism of something like I Vitelloni (1953) with the surrealist situational travelogue-like approach of Roma (1972) and a sort of primordial dago decadence à la Fellini Satyricon (1969), not to mention a weird inexplicable monster fish scene that recalls La Dolce Vita (1960), the film is, in my obscenely obnoxious opinion, Cavani’s greatest contribution to the art of cinema in terms of apocalyptic intrigue and downright sheer sleazy entertainment. Indeed, quite unlike the filmmaker’s other films which, not unlike those of cosmopolitan commie Bertolucci, are completely deracinated and rarely guido-esque in a flagrantly gommbah fashion like the films of Pietro Germi and Ettore Scola, this wayward WWII epic—a delightfully degrading tribute to human debasement and desperation—is shamelessly and insanely Italian in its essence to the point of bordering on full-blown whacked-out wopsloitation à la Scola's Ugly, Dirty and Bad (1976) aka Brutti, sporchi e cattivi. In fact, the film is the ultimate ‘antifascist’ flick in terms of completely contradicting the Mussolinian ideal and portraying the Italian people, or at least the Neapolitan people, as a superlatively shameless people without pride or scruples.

 Indeed, in the film, mothers literally sell their little boy’s buttholes to pedo-prone Moroccan Muslim invaders and fucked fathers hold group shows where American soldiers get to take turns fingering a rare teenage virginal vagina. Likewise, Sicilian slags—a less than gorgeous group that invades Naples and causes the drastic depreciation of dago pussy for everyone—are so desperate for the dollars of darkie GIs, who are quite stereotypically only interested in fucking blonde white women, that they wear blonde wigs on their overly punished sub-prole pussies. Of course, desperate times call for desperate measures, but somehow I seriously doubt that the all-the-more-demolished krauts had reached such ungodly extremes of virtually transcendental whoredom, even if the kraut capitulation resulted in the unwanted births of various Günther Kaufmann bastard types. In short, The Skin—a sometimes vertiginously vulgar film full of venal vulgarians that manages to find a certain assuredly aberrant joy in the collective degeneration of a sub-piss-poor peoples—exemplifies the sort of scathing cynicism, shameless honesty (paradoxically combined with grandiose dishonesty), and ‘unflattering humanism’ that guidos do best. Forget Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948), Cavani’s odious odyssey of obscenity dares to plunge the viewer into the true dark disgusting depths of despair and destitution that plagued the defeated peoples of the Axis Powers in a manner that no Teutonic filmmaker has ever dared to touch despite the New German Cinema obsession with WWII and its virtually post-apocalyptic aftermath.  Still, Cavani’s underrated flick makes for a great double feature with Rainer Werner Fassbinder's classic The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979).

 While The Skins is uniquely unflattering in its depiction of Italians, it is strangely ‘pro-American’ in a sort of cynical backhanded Italian sense where the dumb uncultivated yank is ridiculed for his naiveté. Indeed, as Cavani stated in the featurette At the Frontier of the Apocalypse in regard to the source writer’s view of dumb yanks, “Malaparte sees the Americans in THE SKINS as a young and naïve people, which is somewhat true, and he’s very attached to them. He has a love for them. There’s a love for this quality, as if they were still clean, somehow untouched by sin, by the sin of war, the sin of butchery, by these things. He sees them in a positive way, as a person who has a positive view of the world would. And this comes out. He sees them as naïve because a city like Naples is the complete opposite of the American mentality. It can’t get any more different.” As to the right sort of symbol of strong puritanical American naïveté, Cavani felt that Burt Lancaster—a cultivated American that already contributed greatly to guido cinema via masterful Luchino Visconti flicks like The Leopard (1963) and Conversation Piece (1974)—was the right mensch for the job, or as she explained, “…I needed an American that didn’t seem malicious at all. That really represented the idea of the American liberator. In that sense, ariose, with traits of goodness. Rough, but rough like a father.” Of course, as the same singularly stoical actor that portrayed the strangely paternal and harshly heroic GI lead Major Abraham Falconer of Sydney Pollack’s underrated WWII flick Castle Keep (1969)—another apocalyptic Europa-in-ruins epic of eccentricity that combines tragicomedic realism and surrealism—Lancaster was the perfect man for the job, but great Latin lover Marcello Mastroianni shines no less as the lead.  Speaking of Pollack’s flick, Mike Nichols' similarly overlooked dark war dramedy Catch-22 (1970) seems like an obvious influence on The Skin, especially in terms of its playfully preternatural depiction of American GIs and unhinged depictions of guidette whores, among other things.

 As The Skin fleetingly makes reference to as if to absolve the writer of guilt, Curzio Malaparte—a half-German by birth that was born Curt Erich Suckert but a 100% Italian in terms of effortless charm and unscrupulous spirit—was originally a card-carrying fascist to the point where he was a vocal intellectual supporter of the rise of the National Fascist Party and Benito Mussolini, but he was too uncompromisingly individualist to properly play the game and opportunism eventually led him to switching sides to communism and Catholicism after WWII (though one would not realize that by watching the film).  In Cavani’s fucked flick, Malaparte comes off seemingly like a sort of spiritually decadent aristocrat of spirit that is easily able to adapt to the most ungodly and atrocious of circumstances, including being elegantly passive-aggressively hospitable to an uncultivated conquering army made up of largely blond-haired and blue-eyed soldiers that are quite generous when it comes to terms like “wop” and “greaseball.” For example, although ostensibly working from a pro-fascist perspective while a war correspondent on the Eastern Front during the Second World War, Malaparte’s oftentimes uncensored articles acted as the genesis for his unclassifiable magnum opus Kaputt (1944) that is more of a razor sharp amoral literary masterpiece of despair and destruction than a tribute to any sort of fascist ferocity or Mussolinian martial prowess. While Kaputt managed to achieve official Catholic Index librorum prohibitorum (‘List of Prohibited Books’) status and the author was once a hardcore atheist that later supported the atheistic commies, he was even trying to scam god at the end of his life by getting close to the Catholic Church. As to his contributions to cinema aside from being the debauched brain behind The Skin, Malaparte made one attempt at directing with the largely forgotten Il Cristo proibito (1951) aka The Forbidden Christ. Additionally, the writer's legendary house ‘Casa Malaparte,’ which he once proudly showed-off to legendary German general Erwin Rommel, appears in Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris (1963) aka Contempt.

In The Skin, one certainly gets the sense that Malaparte—a man with a pseudonymous surname that means “evil/wrong side” (and is also a play on Napoleon’s family name ‘Bonaparte’ which in Italian means ‘good side’)—is the ultimate cultivated conman as a effortless charmer that knows how to tell a person to eat shit without even causing the slightest bit of offense yet you cannot help but love him, so naturally Mastroianni is the perfect man for the role. After all, not unlike Malaparte, Mastroianni was a sort of unofficial ambassador for the Italian people and Italian culture, which is exactly the thankless job that Mastroianni-as-Malaparte performs in The Skin—a film that probably deserves the distinguished honor of being the mostly uniquely unflattering tribute to Italy in all of cinema history.  Indeed, if you thought Spike Lee did a spectacular job of goombah-bashing in films like Do the Right Thing (1989) and Summer of Sam (1999), you have not been bombarded with rotten garlic that Cavani's film reeks of. Speaking of Lee, his hopelessly Hollywood-esque WWII flick Miracle at St. Anna (2008) penned by Judaic mulatto James McBride turns the Italian campaign into a negro fantasy with cardboard characters that includes a preposterous love triangle between an Italian partisan chick and two black GIs instead offering a honest look at the horrors and whores of war like Cavani's flick.

 In Teutonic dandy auteur Werner Schroeter’s brutally beauteous The Reign of Naples (1978) aka Nel regno di Napoli—a sort of Pasolinian neo-neorealist epic where communism and Catholicism battle for the soul of Italy while the people wallow in impoverished misery—a woman sells her daughter’s virginity to a negro sailor for a bag of sugar in what ultimately seems like a completely unbelievable scenario. Admittedly, I found this scene, which is apparently historically accurate, to be fairly disturbing despite Schroeter’s laconic approach to the material, yet it is nothing compared to the sheer and utter human depravity and abject desperation of the fittingly titled The Skin where human flesh of the most intimate sort is much cheaper than beef and pork. Indeed, as Malaparte (Mastroianni) somberly states, “We lost the war. Women and children lost if more than anyone else.” The year is 1944 and, aside from 112 German POWs that are being ‘fed’ by a scheming Camorra mobster named Eduardo Marzullo (Carlo Giuffrè), there are no more fascists or Nazis in Naples, or so do members of the United States Fifth Army learn as they arrive in town with the expectation of doing some serious fighting and instead find a virtual city-sized whorehouse. Led by the largely benevolent yet no-bullshit General Mark Cork (Burt Lancaster)—a man that hates his own elites and finds it easy to like a deceptively affable chap like Malaparte—the army and various other foreign soldiers certainly treat the city as one big giant bordello as the locals aggressively attempt to sell gash for cash lest they starve.

Aside from being hired by General Cork to broker a deal for the 112 German POWs who are being intentionally overfed by mob boss Marzullo with the intent of scamming more money out of the Americans, Malaparte is also assigned to act as the chaperon and sort of cultural tour guide of a bitchy blueblood female aviator named Deborah Wyatt (Alexandra King) who also happens to be the wife of a U.S. senator and is thus absurdly made an honorary Airforce officer. A supposed ‘Queen of the Sky’ that flies into Naples as part of a nonsensical publicity stunt that, much to General Cork's chagrin, is backed by both Eisenhower and FDR, Mrs. Wyatt—a superficially cultured dame whose beauty is only transcended by her hubris—is an uptight cunt that immediately demonstrates a sense of racial superiority over the lowly swarthy guido people that she has ostensibly come to pay tribute to. Of course, being a man of subtle almost-Svengali-like seduction talents that oftentimes relies on projecting a deceptive image of adoring obsequiousness, Malaparte effortlessly gets his revenge on Mrs. Wyatt when she least suspects it by forcing her to virtually bathe in her own sanctimonious hypocrisy. Indeed, Malaparte brings Wyatt to a virtual white slave market where Italian mothers pimp their prepubescent sons to Moroccan soldiers and the upperclass lady naturally completely loses it when she witnesses an Islamic pervert examining the anuses of these poor forsaken boys, thus resulting in her losing a not-all-that-small segment of her hair after the swarthy sexual savage takes a swing at her with a dagger (notably, said sand savage then proceeds to showoff his ‘white woman hair trophy’ to his equally thrilled savage comrades). Needless to say, the voyage to Italy does not end well for Mrs. Wyatt as she crashes her plane after Mount Vesuvius erupts and is subsequently the victim of a gang-rape scenario by her own American GIs in an unsettling scenario where the flying diva is brought down to the same level of abject degradation as the Neapolitan people that she previously looked down on in a scenario that would probably provide catharsis to certain guido viewers. 

 Aside from General Cork, Malaparte also befriends a young naïve but well-meaning GI named Jimmy Wren (Ken Marshall) who does not think twice about partaking in as much as guidette pussy as he can possibly penetrate, or so one would assume from all his bragging.  In fact, when a Judaic comrade named Goldberg complains, “Are you crazy? Every nigger this side of the Atlantic has been in them wop broads. You forget them movies about what happens to your pecker if you get the clap?,” Jimmy boy simply mocks his fellow GI for sticking to pathetically masturbating to porno magazines despite having unlimited vaginal opportunities in Naples. Despite partaking in prostitutes and even obtaining an Italian girlfriend (Rosaria Della Femmina), Jimmy eventually unexpectedly falls in love with a young Italian peasant girl named Maria Concetta (Liliana Tari) after encountering her selflessly comforting a dying GI whose guts and intestines are literally hanging outside his stomach. Needless to say, Jimmy suffers a mental breakdown of sorts upon discovering that his beloved Maria Concetta is part of a sick sideshow attraction as the supposed ‘only remaining virgin in Naples’ where he father charges GIs to finger her hymen-intact honeypot. In fact, Jimmy is so disturbed by this quasi-incestuous scenario that he angrily uses his fingers to break Maria’s hymen and then proceeds to wipe the fresh blood on her father-cum-pimp’s face in disgrace. Luckily, Jimmy finally gets over it and decides to bring Maria Concetta home as a war bride, or so he tells a less than enthused Malaparte who is probably not proud about being the member of a defeated nation where all the hot young girls are desperate to leave. Of course, despite the degradation that she suffers at the hands (or, in this case, fingers) of horny GIs, Maria Concetta is one of the lucky ones because, as Malaparte explains to Jimmy in regard to the prostitution situation in Naples, “Well, you know, the price of human flesh is below that for beef or pork. A week ago, you could get a 20 year old girl for 10 dollars. Now she’d be worth no more than four … bones and all. The Sicilian girls flooded the market. They’re older, so they cost less.”  Needless to say, the Sicilian streetwalkers are depicted as the most grotesque and ill-shapen of pussy-peddlers.

 As an ex-fascist turned reluctant pro-American that seems to simply opportunistically support whoever is winning, Malaparte may not seem like a serious man of principle but as he proudly proclaims to Miss Wyatt and some dinner guests, “The real Italian flag does not show three colors but the male organ. Morality, Honor, Family, the cult of religion are all there, between the legs.” In short, Malaparte is a covert pagan of sorts that has experienced what happens when civilization is stripped away and untamed libido reigns. Indeed, more than anywhere else, defeated nations reveal that sex sells and that everyone is willing to sell it if they are desperate enough, especially when conquering armies can simply pillage pussy for free as some of the GIs attempt to do in the film. Somewhat subversively, the film also dares to depict the racial character of sex and how certain groups are more hopelessly depraved than others. Indeed, whereas various Muslims are depicted as boy-buggering barbarians and “sodomite who likes sunflowers,” negroes are depicted as sort of anti-alchemists that love defiling golden hair. In fact, civil rights saint Emmett Till’s father Louis Till was executed by the U.S. Army on July 2, 1945 after taking part in the murder of an Italian woman and the rape of two others while surviving in the Italian Campaign as an American soldier (notably, great modernist poet and fascist propagandist Ezra Pound, who was imprisoned alongside the colored lust killer, mentions Till in lines 171-173 of Canto 74 of his Pisan Cantos). Of course, in general, the American GIs, especially of the Anglo-Saxon sort, come out looking as the least sexually debauched. Needless to say, aside from the love affair between Jimmy Wren and Maria Concetta, all the sexual behavior depicted in The Skin is simply grotesque and that this completely loveless lust exposes human-beings as being nothing more than bestial animals, albeit worse as at least (some) humans have a conscience and thus should know better. In that sense, war and it its aftermath is where man is at his most unflatteringly atavistic, or so one discovers while watching The Skin

 Naturally, The Skin would not be the artsploitation war film par excellence if it did not conclude in a highly sensational apocalyptic fashion where a Boston Brahmin-like bitch crashes her plane and faces a world of pain in the form of rape-happy GIs and is forced to learn a little humility for once in her luxurious life. Undoubtedly, Mrs. Wyatt’s nightmarish night in Naples almost seems like the auteuress’ revenge as the American aristocrat is previously depicted going on a hateful anti-Italian rant and spitting the following acidic vile at protagonist Malaparte, “I hate your attitude, you Latin snob! Know-it-all! All of you! Backwards! Scummy! Oily! Hairy, dark, greasy gigolos! Wop! Wop! And you’re laughing at me? You can stick your flag right between your legs, up your ass!” Rather regrettably, Malaparte does largely prove to be a know-it-all as far as his patently pessimistic perspective is concerned and the film even concludes with the hapless hero becoming hopelessly dejected after witnessing a happy Italian peasant man celebrating the American occupation being completely crushed by an American tank in an allegorical scene that more or less sums up the cultural effect of the American occupation on Italy. Needless to say, it is no coincidence that the film concludes with the arrival of the U.S. Fifth Army in Rome through the rather paradisiacal Appian Way. As Malaparte somberly states to his young American ‘friend’ after witnessing the crushing of a fellow goombah by an American tank, “You can go, Jimmy. You are the winners.” 

 In terms of its absolutely scathing and sardonic sentiments that are in stark contrast to the heavyhearted humanism of classic Italian films like Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D. (1952) and Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945), The Skin is like the anti-neorealist film par excellence and a tastefully tasteless tribute to maestro Malaparte's almost otherworldly cynicism in relation to the American so-called liberation of Italy. Indeed, as Peter Bondanella noted in his classic text Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present (1983), “Cavani investigates a moment of Italian history already familiar from many well-known neorealist films; however, she captures it from an entirely different perspective. In place of the nobler values of sacrifice and courage neorealist films celebrate, Cavani forces us to reconsider the dramatic story of occupied Naples as the relationship between the victor and vanquished. The director implicitly protests the cultural hegemony of America over Italy that began during the last year of the war. Malaparte’s grotesque realism survives from the novel […] The romanticism associated with the war by those who fought on the winning side, or who participated in the Resistance, is removed from Cavani’s story, and what remains is a tale of survival, of saving one’s skin in the midst of hardship, starvation, depravity, and uncertainty […] Cavani reminds us, human history is made at the expense of human sacrifice, literally from our hides.” As American half-wop Abel Ferrara’s rather depressing documentary Napoli, Napoli, Napoli (2009) reveals, it seems that Naples has yet to completely recover from the Second World War, but then again this is a historically degenerate place that, as depicted in The Skin, there is, among other things, an old ‘womb envy’ tradition of ‘gay birth’ where a gay guido pretends to go into labor and give birth to a sort of mock baby boy with a large cock after nine months of ‘gay marriage.’ Of course, this absurd ‘gay birth’ celebration is organically Neapolitan and should stay that way as it would be a shame if it replaced by American trash like Queer Eye and Drag Queen Story Hour in terms of representing gay goombah identity. 

 Despite being assuredly antifascist, The Skin does follow in a certain distinctly Italian tradition as exemplified by the proto-fascist aesthetic perversity of Malaparte and his contemporary Gabriele D’Annunzio who, on top of writing decadent Nietzschean literary, was the first ‘Duce’ and a great national war hero that Benito Mussolini stole most of his best ideas from. Of course, Cavani’s most (in)famous film The Night Porter is even more of a reflection of this sort of perverse fascist aestheticism, but I digress. In my opinion, what The Skin ultimately demonstrates is that Cavani is, at best, a sort of inordinately cultivated exploitation auteur that, due to her gender and propensity towards controversial subject matter, scammed her way into the arthouse, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, even in a film like Francesco (1989)—the second film of the director’s career-spanning St. Francis of Assisi trilogy—where Cavani attempts what Paul Schrader has described as ‘transcendental style,’ the almost absurdly amoral female filmmaker cannot help but include a scene where a completely unclad Mickey Rourke, who curiously portrays the titular lead, literally fucks snow. As for anyone that knows anything about Nietzsche or his philosophical weltanschauung, Beyond Good and Evil manages to make John Huston’s obscure cinematic disaster Freud: The Secret Passion (1962) seem like a respectable biopic by comparison. As for her Jun'ichirō Tanizaki adaptation The Berlin Affair (1985)—a film depicting a bizarre love triangle between a Nazi diplomat, his wife, and the daughter of a Japanese ambassador—it is about as erotic and aesthetically potent as a mid-1990s Showtime softcore flick, but I digress. 

Undoubtedly, there is no sharper contrast to the films of Cavani and novels of Malaparte than the writings of Italian ‘super fascist’ Julius Evola who denounced the stereotypical dirty debauched dago types that The Skin so unforgettably depicts. Indeed, in a chapter entitled ‘Latin Character—Roman World—Mediterranean Soul’ featured in his book Gli uomini e le rovine (1953) aka Men Among the Ruins: Post-War Reflections of a Radical Traditionalist, Evola makes a dichotomous comparison between two very different Italian types. Indeed, whereas the ‘Roman’ type is stoic, noble, disciplined, loyal, hierarchal, and orderly, the ‘Mediterranean’ type is histrionic, amoral, undisciplined, disloyal, resentful, disorderly, and proudly sexually ill-restrained. Needless to say, Evola believes that the Mediterranean type has come to define the Italian people, or as the magical baron once wrote, “The qualities of the ‘Roman’ type represent the positive limit of dispositions hidden in the best parts of our people, just as the qualities characterized as ‘Mediterranean’ correspond to the negative limit and the less noble part of it; these limits are also found as components in other peoples, especially in the ‘Latin’ group. However, we must realize that too many times behaviors resembling the ‘Mediterranean’ type have been identified, especially abroad, as typically Italian, and that the ‘Mediterranean’ component appears to have prevailed overall in Italian life following World War II.” Of course, The Skin and most of Cavani’s other films confirm Evola’s unflattering thesis. 

 When reading Evola’s remarks on Nietzsche, it almost seems absurdly ironic that Cavani—a woman that, not unlike fellow Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti, certainly had a German obsession of sorts—would even dare to direct a biopic about the Teutonic philosopher yet, at the same time, some of his ideas also strangely support the Cavanian style of filmmaking and a sort of ‘Italian’ romanticism in general. Indeed, as Evola wrote, “Nietzsche himself warned against every morality that tends to dry up every impetuous current of the human soul instead of channeling it. The capability of control, equilibrium, continuity in feeling and in willing must not lead to a withering and mechanization of one’s being, as seems to be the case with some negative traits of the central-European and Anglo-Saxon. What matters is not to suppress passion and to give to the soul a beautiful, regulated, and homogenous, though flat form; but rather to organize one’s being in an integral way around the capability of recognizing, discriminating, and adequately utilizing the impulses and the lights that emerge from one’s deep recesses. It cannot be denied that passion is predominant in many Mediterranean Italian types, but this disposition does not amount to a defect, but rather to an enrichment, provided it finds its correlative in a firmly organized life.” Of course, it can be argued that, in terms of the artistic life she has lived, Cavani somewhat ironically achieved this lofty Evolian ideal. Additionally, The Skin undoubtedly proves that Evola, Malaparte, and Cavani share similar sentiments in regard to the racial differences between Italians and Anglo-Saxons. It is certainly hard for me to imagine some uptight WASP stating in regard to his daughter’s virginal vagina “It doesn’t bite” while exposing during some superlatively sleazy sexual sideshow attraction, but such is Cavani’s singularly sick cinematic realm of depraved dago sexual abandon and sodomic desperation. 

-Ty E