Saturday, June 11, 2011

Reset button

Regular readers may recall last week I quoted from a book about Jacques Rivette, evoking films that place too much emphasis on the world rather than on the idea, and end up “presenting a flat and unquestioning copy of the world that demonstrates no more understanding of it that does a cow fascinated by the trains flashing past its field.” What a coincidence then that the next new film I went to see, Le quattro volte, spends much time on depicting goats (even better than cows!) in fascinated observation. No trains though, and certainly nothing flashing past. Le quattro volte might in fact exist in a parallel universe where the concept of flashing (and all its synonyms) has been eradicated.

Le quattro volte

The film’s title translates most closely as “the four times,” but also carries a sense of “the four phases.” It’s set in a tiny village in Southern Italy, and initially follows an old goatherd on his unchanging daily ritual. When he dies, the focus becomes a newly-born kid goat, then later a tree under which it dies, then the charcoal into which the tree is burned. Writing in Sight and Sound, Jonathan Romney called it “a film at once severe, poetic, beautiful, comic, philosophical, hugely complex and sublimely simple. It also contains the single finest extended sight gag I have seen since the heyday of Jacques Tati, and makes the best ever cinematic use of goats.”

That same article quotes director Michelangelo Frammartino as follows: “The film is based on the ideas of animism and reincarnation...(the sixth century BC philosopher) Pythagoras supposedly said that each of us holds within us four successive lives, each one enmeshed in the others. Man is made of mineral, because he has a skeleton; he’s a plant, because he has blood flowing through his veins like sap; he’s an animal, because he has mobility; and he’s also a rational being. So in order to fully understand himself, man has to understand himself four times.” You’ll detect from this that the film resolutely refuses the narrative and cinematic conventions that place man at the centre of things. It has no identifiable dialogue – it requires no subtitles – and the goatherd is the only character who receives a close-up. The star of that extended sight gag is a dog, reacting to his master’s absence and to an Easter passion parade by barking at everyone in sight, and then engineering a way to free the goats from their pen. As well as being, indeed, very deadpan funny and logistically impressive, the scene (done in a single 10-minute take) extends that theme of interconnection and intertwining ritual, and depending what you think of dogs, injects a further complexity into that distinction between the animal and the rational being.

Dust in the wind

Le quattro volte is indeed a sublime viewing experience; by its very existence, it speaks to the spiritual paucity of hyped-up mainstream cinema. On the weekend we saw it, we had guests, and if I were a better host, I would have gone with them instead to their preferred choice of X-Men: First Class. By all accounts that’s a good film too, but I understand less and less the appeal of these convoluted mythologies which trip over each other for multiplex space, especially since the cultural space assigned to them seems to be financed in large part by trashing the value of reflection and self-examination (unless it’s the feel-good Oprah brand). How did we ever lose control of things to the extent that trees and goats constitute a rarer and more surprising subject for cinema than, you know, planets blowing up.

I suppose one answer might be that fantasy and invention are to be celebrated, because they evidence a productive restlessness with limitations; if the world was built on the implied value system of Frammartino’s film, we’d barely have advanced out of the caves. I do wonder whether Le quattro volte doesn’t limit its impact a little by so thoroughly ignoring, if not denying, virtually everything about the modern world; it’s set in a place where you feel you could pick out a mere speck of dust in the wind and follow it for hours until it comes to rest. From the limited evidence presented to us, the villagers invest their lives largely into religious or cultural rituals, and into forms of work that haven’t changed in centuries: the process it depicts for making charcoal, while perhaps objectively somewhat inefficient (in the same way that herding goats is so much less efficient than factory farming), resembles creating an art installation, all the more stunning for how closely its destruction follows upon completion. In such a place, even a skeptical materialist might believe in a formative connective tissue that still endures, and that the old goatherd’s soul could actually transmigrate into the newly-born goat (the film leaves it open though whether you interpret it that way, rather than as a broader evocation of interconnection between carbon-based forms). If you tried to set such a project in downtown Toronto, it would likely seem nuts. In that sense, Frammartino isn’t (yet anyway) the equal of Robert Bresson, who may have made the best ever cinematic use of a donkey in Au hasard Balthazar, but without looking away from what the world had become.

Political film

According to Sight and Sound again, the director says he considers Le quattro volte a “political film, because it gives viewers choices” – he contrasts this with a dominant Italian culture of “controlling images that were very seductive and very brutal – that prevented you from having any say in the whole equation.” One can see what he means, but again, there’s some irony that such a political project would have to set itself so far away from the big machine it’s reacting against. Unless, that is, we regard the film as a kind of manifesto, a statement that things have become so convoluted and unmanageable and perverse that we require a comprehensive reset button, stripping away all those imposed rhythms and acquired notions of value and necessity, rediscovering the most elemental formative truths. The final image, which calls to mind the white smoke announcing a new Pope, might be read as announcing the birth of a new spiritual order (while perhaps hinting it won’t remain that pure forever).

But as Romney says, much of the film’s intent is comic, embodied in particular by the bravura scene with the dog, but also in the broader sense that, beyond a certain degree of abstraction, it’s almost impossible to know where profundity ends and a cosmic joke begins. After all, mankind might all just be something God threw out to amuse himself after working on bigger and better things. Ultimately, it’s inevitably ambiguous whether Le quattro volte exhibits a superior grasp of underlying truths, but at the very least, it is in no way flat and unquestioning.

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