June 19-25, 2003
Directors in Focus: Pier Paolo Pasolini (Fri.-Sun., June 20 -22, $5-$6, International House, 3701 Chestnut St., 215-895-6545, www.ihousephilly.org) A novelist, poet, theorist and critic, Pier Paolo Pasolini gravitated increasingly towards filmmaking as he grew older, but never abandoned his literary origins, which makes for a body of work free of normal preconceptions about the cinema’s limitations, for good and for ill. Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew (1964) breaks with the rococo tradition of Hollywood biblical epics and recounts the life of Jesus in neo-realist style, creating a bracing, unique work which was an obvious inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. But the tone of Hawks and Sparrows (1965) shifts so frequently it begins to feel like a sort of stylistic exquisite corpse, a rambunctious, off-kilter film that would have been better left as notebook scribblings.
Matthew (Fri., 8 p.m.), condemned at the time as anti-religious, seems anything but; though Pasolini was a devout Marxist and atheist, his matter-of-fact presentation of biblical miracles feels like an act of pure faith, even if it’s just an author’s fidelity to a superior literary source. Not surprisingly, Pasolini’s Jesus is a class warrior -- scenes of Jesus ministering to the poor were filmed in contemporary Italian slums -- but that hardly seems to be twisting the Bible’s message: It wasn’t Pasolini who wrote that "meek shall inherit" stuff. Pasolini’s angels don’t float off the ground or arrive in a nimbus of light; Mary is told she’s with child by a young girl in a plain white robe, one we’d hardly suspect of being supernatural if we didn’t already know the story. In fact, Matthew eschews exposition almost altogether; if you don’t know about Jesus’ temptation by Satan, you may wonder who that guy is daring Jesus to strike down the temple and build it up again. But if someone had made a cinéma vérité documentary about Jesus’ life, this is what it would look like.
Hawks (Sat., 8 p.m.) touches on biblical parable as well, in the story of two monks sent by St. Francis of Assisi to preach the good word to the titular birds. Perhaps Pasolini, who'd been condemned for mocking Biblical epics in his segment of the anthology film RoGoPaG, and condemned for playing it straight with Matthew, simply wanted to confound people, for Hawks' parable is surrounded by ever-shifting terrain, bouncing from the present to the past and back again and changing tone as often as a race car driver changes gears. Starring the fabled Italian comedian Totò and Pasolini regular Ninetto Davoli, the film's third central character is a talking raven who proclaims, "My country is ideology. I come from the capital, city of the future, on Karl Marx Street, No. 70 times 7." OK then.
1967's Oedipus Rex (Sun., 7 p.m.) was another of Pasolini's many adaptations, with stunning Moroccan scenery and a hot-tempered post-Freudian Oedipus whose lust for his mother begins practically as soon as he's out of the womb. Again, Pasolini's presentation is without ornament, with present-day bookends to underline the story's currency --with regard not to patricide and incest, but the willful ignorance of those in power. (Amos Gitai used a similar device in his first feature, Esther.) Franco Citti's Oedipus, rather than a wise man misled by hubris, is a vengeful opportunist; as a youth, he cheats at discus and when he finally makes his way to Thebes after slaughtering his father in a fit of pique, he vanquishes the sphinx not with cunning, but with pure rage. That's not to say Pasolini's version is particularly hot-blooded; in fact, its greatest drawback may be its almost clinical style, one that doesn't totally succeed in reinventing an oft-told tale.
Street Movies (Fri., June 20, 8:30 p.m., 1515 Fairmount Ave.; Sat., June 21, 8:30 p.m., 929 South St., free, www.scribe.org) Scribe Video Center's series of free outdoor screenings focuses on locally produced and themed work (much of it facilitated by Scribe) and takes the movies to the people, parking in a different Philadelphia location each Friday and Saturday for the rest of the summer. Friday night finds the Street Movies crew at Project HOME, with a program that includes Sloan Seale and Dorothea Braemer's Recovery Mural, and Christina Ortiz's Divine Lorraine, a portrait of the Broad Street flophouse. Saturday's screening, slated for the Whole Foods parking lot, includes Michael Dennis' Jazzyfatnastees documentary, Big Tea Party's Chew on This!, a satirical game show about Philadelphians' unsavory appetites, and Rayna Guy and Melissa Rowe's Universal Freedom, a history of both Freedom Theatre and Philadelphia International Records. (How they get both into a short documentary is anyone's guess.) Screenings are rain or shine, with nearby indoor alternate locations, but really, how many weekends in a row can it rain? No. Seriously. How many?
The Lawn Chair Drive-In (Wed., June 25, dusk, free, Liberty Lands Park) More free outdoor fun with the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association’s screening series, free every Wednesday at dusk through the end of August. The show hits the road (literally; the movies are shown on a screen hooked to the side of a truck) with The Exorcist, preceded, like all of this year’s movies, by a vintage short Popeye cartoon -- and unlike virtually every other outdoor screening, the Lawn Chair’s movies are on film, not video, so you can cuddle up to the projector bulb for extra warmth. The rest of the schedule: I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (July 2), Viva Las Vegas (July 9), Cinema Paradiso (July 16), Blow-Up (July 23), She Done Him Wrong (July 30), Dr. Strangelove (Aug. 6), The Iron Giant (Aug. 13), Galaxy Quest (Aug. 20) and The Wizard of Oz (Aug. 27).
Giant ($26.99 each DVD) Manny Farber's white elephant category might have been created for George Stevens' 1956 Lone Star epic. It's the kind of movie Hollywood used to pride itself on making: self-consciously "epic," grandiose, a history lesson rolled into a sweeping love story. And yes, it's full of moments of cringe-worthy obviousness, as when the firstborn son of cattle rancher Jordan "Bick" Benedict (Rock Hudson) bursts into tears when his father puts him on a horse, then plays happily with a toy stethoscope. (To no surprise at all, he grows up to be a doctor, though the fact that he also grows to be Dennis Hopper is a bit of a shock.) Though its condemnation of anti-Mexican racism is laudable, the movie's Mexican characters (most played by white actors covered with a thick coat of shoe polish) are almost embarrassingly noble; by contrast, Sidney Poitier was Sweet Sweetback.
But for all his grandiosity, Stevens excelled at small, patient details, and they're what make Giant worth watching, in addition to William Mellor's stunning vistas of a windswept Texas. (Giant has been through the same controversial de-graining process used on last year's Sunset Boulevard, and it looks a treat.) The way the camera stays inside the house, with the servants, as Bick lectures his new bride (Elizabeth Taylor) on the proper way to disregard their feelings, the creak of the screen door obliterating his words, says more, more effectively, than the trumped-up series of confrontations that close the movie. If ever there was a movie to make you doubt the Method, this is it. James Dean mumbles so badly he ought to come with subtitles; across the screen from Rock Hudson's solid elegance, he looks like he comes from another planet, one you don't really want to visit. (To be fair, though, he looks awful good in jeans.) And Elizabeth Taylor reminds you how much more she was than a pretty face.