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Pasolini’s Mouths

brunaAlfredo Jaar’s Le ceneri di Pasolini and Cathy Lee Crane’s Pasolini’s Last Words  make extraordinary use of Pasolini’s voice. Both films feature recordings of Pasolini’s voice and of his writing read aloud by others. Each film contains shots from interviews and documentaries that show Pasolini speaking, but each also renders his words in extensive voiceover, as the fittingly disembodied speech of a ghost. Their use of voiceover stands in sharp contrast to Pasolini’s own avoidance of the technique and his instant use of shots in which the mouth appears as the organ of speech, hunger or both. Jaar and Crane’s films memorialize Pasolini, elegiacally asking whether and how it might be possible to continue his cinematic project today — a question whose difficulty can be felt in the films’ encryption of the speaking mouth in favor of the disembodied voice.

The first words in Crane’s Pasolini’s Last Words are Pasolini’s, but spoken by a woman’s voice while the image depicts a male actor standing in what appears to be contemporary Ostia. “I alone, defined by a boundary, a disproportion incredible between this little me and all the rest of the world so large, inexhaustible, even in nostalgia.” The camera comes close to the lower portion of the actor’s face. At one point just before the voice over, his mouth moves, emphasizing the disconnection between it and the words to come.

The relationship between voice and image in this shot makes it possible to ask the question of how Paoslini’s project might proceed today. Paoslini’s words lay out the structure of his unique identity and it’s belonging to the world, but spoken by Lee Delong , while we look at a third person, Bochay Drum, standing at the place where he was murdered. The words formulate Paoslini’s belonging, to himself and to the world as a limit external to both him and the world defining each at the moment at which they make contact. Can such a relationship be described in the voice of another? Can it be defined in a voice marked as belonging to another gender?

Pasolini’s Last Words presents its first words in what Pasolin called “free indirect discourse,” words associated with one speaker given in the voice of another. In Pasolini’s essays about literary and film theory, the free-indirect allows a text to articulate a virtual social conflict by, for example, including within a novel’s narrator’s third person monologue words from a lexicon historically associated with speakers of a particular class, or including shots associated with a particular social group’s way of seeing in objective sequences of a movie. The words or images marked as being from a particular repertoire fit uneasily with the others, manifesting at the level of the text the social rift between the different speakers or seers. Pasolini works free-indirect discourse, the rhetorical device instantiating language’s social character by combining different voices, into a figure of the social as produced and reproduced in and by conflict. Crane’s film uses the free indirect to emphasize the difficulty and necessity of taking up Pasolini’s project in the contemporary context.

In a later sequence of Pasolini’s Last Words introduced by a title card that reads “tending towards gesture,” Drum, in a matted shot in the foreground of the image, tries to mimic Franco Citti’s gestures in a scene form Accoattone appearing in another matted box in the background of the image. Over these shots, Delong reads Pasolini’s words about the specificity of the bodies and voices of the actors who made Accattone, marked as they were by having grown up in the 1940s and 50s when the capitalism of the Christian Democrats had not significantly differentiated its everyday life from that of Fascism. The words say that Pasolini would have been unable to reshoot Accattone in the 1970s because he “could not find a single young man who in his body was even faintly like the young men who played themselves in Accatone. … could not find a single youth able to say those lines with that voice. Not only would he not have the spirit and the mentality to say them, he would quite simply not understand them.” The youths had mutated into pale imitations of the bourgeoisie – the class that seeks to universalize itself rather than to abolish itself (as we know from Teorema). In Crane’s image, although Drum concentrates and makes an effort to imitate Citti, something is off, he fails to reproduce the gestures. Pasolini’s words describe the effects on his ability to cast a film in 1970 of the failure of the social reproduction of a class in the 1950s, while Crane’s image demonstrates the inability to reperform gestures on the possibility of such a project today. What hope of taking up Pasolini’s project of giving image to the brutalization of the body by capital? What hope of making images that crystalize a resistance to the intolerable conditions of social reproduction under capitalism when the gestures of the dominated have become impossible to imitate?

Jaar’s film also emphasizes Pasolini’s words while hiding his mouth, but, as it’s title suggests it does so by suggesting that today, we have the same attitude towards Pasolini that he had toward Antonio Gramsci in his poem The Ashes Of Gramsci. Like Pasolini at Gransci’s tomb, we know the scandal of contradicting ourselves, of being with Pasolini and against Pasolini, with him in our hearts and against him in our dark viscera [which is a paraphrase from “Ashes Of Gamsci.”]

Jaar develops his film’s ambivalence by including shots from a scene in La Riccota that can be seen as a critical self portrait in which Orson Welles plays a film director who reads part of Pasolini’s poem A Desperate Vitality to a journalist. In the poem, the capitalist present destroys itself and its past leaving the speaker only the force of historical memory and denuding him to the extent that he describes himself as an adult fetus born from a dead woman – figures for the impossibility of reproduction or individual development. As in the beginning of Pasolini’s Last Words, another mouth performs his words, but this time a visible, historically specifiable mouth belonging to a director famous for acting like a diva in a role requiring him to act like a diva. In La Ricotta, and so in The Ashes Of Pasolini, putting Pasolini’s words in someone else’s mouth makes their authoritarian masculine nihilism audible.

The Ashes Of Pasolini emphasizes Pasolini’s self-criticalism in the scene of footage from La Ricotta  by placing it just after  footage from a television roundtable interview in which Pasolini denounces the one directional character of television communication and the way television commodifies whatever and whomever appears on it. In the scene from La Ricotta, Welles’ character engages in one way communication with the journalist who’s article will be another example of the same and although the director tries to resist the process by keeping his answers poetic and misanthropic, he can’t avoid commodifying himself in the course of the interview.


La Ricotta contrasts the director’s poetry reciting petty-bourgeois mouth with Strattci the extra’s subproletarian mouth stuffed with eponymous cheese. In the film mouths speak or eat. The mouths in La Ricotta figure social and biological reproduction. Welles’s recitation and speech take place in public. In the case of the director’s interview with the reporter, Welle’s speech is part of the mechanism of publicity itself. Although the interview attempts to promote economic circulation by promoting the film, it also continues the discourse supporting certain modes of social relations within the sphere of cultural production. Stracci’s eating and being gorged with food by onlooking members of the crew happens in a cave, a crypt. The world of bourgeois film production can hide its surplus population. It does not acknowledge the hunger or reproduction of the subproletariate. The becoming bourgeois of the world involves encrypting the eating mouth.

Capital only acknowledges itself and labor and when the reproduction of living labor becomes less useful to capital, living capital allows it to die. In La Ricotta, the director says that it would be good publicity for the film if the reporter died of a bad heart while visiting the set and that the reporter doesn’t, in any case, exist: Capital only acknowledges the existence of labor in so far as it serves production. The producer of the film and the owner of the newspaper are the same. Though the reporter and the director are obviously petty bourgeois, from the point of view of capital they are merely labor and can only be acknowledged in so far as they serve production. Here it might be worth analyzing what exactly Pasolini means by production; he seems to conflate production, service and circulation in a way familiar to students of 1960s Italian Marxists theory.

Scholars have remarked on a paragraph of Pasolini’s theoretical writings in which he describes the movie camera as a devourer or reality and an “eye-mouth.” In an influential reassessment of Pasolini’s theoretical writings Giluiana Bruno relates the “eye-mouth … devourer of reality” to psychoanalytic ideas about film projection as structured by the oral phase and whole films as structured by an incorporative intertextuality.  Such analysis leads to very beautiful elaborations of the free indirect as an ingestion of another by the primary narrative agency, however, a reading of “Res Sunt Nomina,” the essay from which the phrase “eye-mouth” comes, suggests that what Pasolini had in mind was that in capturing an image of something, the camera also swallows its sociological reality which then becomes knowable to the audience even if it is not made explicit in the film’s narrative. The example of reality devoured by the camera in the essay is a boy named Joaquim who the cinema “reproduces … through himself,” so that he can be interpreted “as in reality,” that is,  in such a way that the audience could read his history in his physical characteristics, his gestures and his speech which combined make up “the language of the living Joaquim” through which he can be understood sociologically, his class position and the social relations in which he is enmeshed can be read if audiences know how to interpret them, just as they would need to interpret them in reality.

Despite the image at the beginning of “Res Stunt Nomina, ” mouths appear more prominently in Pasolini’s films than in his theoretical writings. Last time I was able to teach a class on his films, the first thing anyone,  an MA candidate named Jordan Bernsmier, remarked on was the numerous close ups of bad teeth in Accattone (1961), close ups that function in part of make the sociological reality of subproletariat legible.

Pasolini’s cinema begins with the hungering mouths of Accattone and ends with the wounded, vomiting mouths of Salo. In his first two films, the shots that emphasize mouths are strongly associated  with a particular class: the subproletariat. Pasolini’s shots of mouths start by asking the question of social-biological reproduction among those whom capital considers surplus population — the unemployed, the subproletariat — and end by figuring the impossibility of social reproduction as such under fully developed capitalism. If we understand the camera as “eye-mouth” concretely, we might draw the enunciative assemblage of the scene from La Ricotta in which Orson Welles reads Pasolini’s poem as one of HR Giger’s alien monsters with 3 mouths emerging one from inside the other. These boccas in a mouth-en-abyme depict the structure of Pasolini’s conception of free indirect discourse, in which one materially and historically located mouth speaks through another. That image allows us to see how the “free indirect” names the social antagonism outside the individual that structures the individual’s discourse.

In the early films, Accattone and Mamma Roma, mouths either speak or hunger. Either way mouths do the work of social reproduction. If the mouth speaks, its language falls between the poles of giving instructions in the imperative and reciting poetry of singing.  When mouths hunger or eat, they are attempting to reproduce a social body. Accattone begins with a scene of Franco Citti devouring a meal before diving into the Tiber on a bet. The film immediately links Accatone’s eating, reproducing himself, to possible injury and death, to its own failure. The first scene in Momma Roma depicts a rural peasant wedding that still offered the opportunity to eat and sing together. At the wedding, the bride and groom and Mamma Roma, who used to prostitute herself for the groom, sing short songs about flowers in order to insult each other allegorically. Singing mediates the social conflict at the wedding. In Rome, these aspects of social reproduction are privatized, industrialized or atomized — singing happens on records, characters eat furtively and unmediated social conflict expresses itself in Mamma Roma’s son Etore’s boy gang’s criminality.

Pasolini’s first two films depict mouths of the unemployed, displaced subproletariate who capital can only see as a surplus population that cannot be directly exploited because they do not labor. Although capital needs the sub- proletariat as a reserve labor army keeping wages down, capital does not provide for the social reproduction of the sub- proletariat. Workers, the employed, received wages in exchange for their labor. They receive just enough wages to restore their labor power each night for the next day of work. In this sense the existence and reproduction on the class is provided for and reflected in capital. The unemployed, the subproletariat don’t get a wage. The sub-proletariate does not see its existence reflected in capital. In fact, despite capital’s need for a reserve labor army, the subproletariat is a class under constant erasure from the city-scape, constantly being thrown further and further away from the center as the periphery of Rome continuously expands.

Italy’s post war surplus population came largely from the rural south in the post war years of the hyper-development of Italian industry and the process of proletarianization necessary to it by which peasants were driven off the land and deprived of their former means of social reproduction so that they would be forced to seek work in cities. Industrialization in the cities meant the modernization of agriculture, which meant less rural labor was required. The economic miracle, when Marshal Plan money installed assembly lines in Italian cities, 17,000,000, or a third of Italy’s population, changed regions.  Proletartianization’s massive migrations created the subproletariate by depriving them of the means to their own reproduction. Like every surplus population, Italy’s was created as a crisis of social reproduction.

Unable to find employment, and stripped of their rural means of sustenance, sub-proletarians supported themselves by participating in the informal economy. Some, such as Anna Magnani in Momma Roma aspire to join the lower edge of the petty bourgeoisie by owning a produce stall in an open-air market. Others resisted being constituted as possible workers by working in the informal economy and engaging in criminality. Pasolini’s interest in the subproletariate stands out in the context of 1960s and 70s Italy which had a very active and famous worker’s movement which sought to increase wages and change the conditions of work, but the director focused on a class incapable of becoming the subject of history or even of becoming freely conscious of itself as a class.

Neither Accattone nor Momma Roma feature a moment in which a group of sub-proletarians attain class-consciousness, as one might expect in a classical Marxist fiction. In his first two films, Pasolini’s characters only become aware of belonging to a group, only function as a community when a collective identity is forced on them by a tragedy such as Etore’s death at the end of Mamma Roma. The sub proletarians in Pasolini’s films often reject what would make it possible for them to become productive laborers. In that refusal, the gendered division of unproducitive labor in the informal economy is exactly what makes it impossible for Pasolini’s sub- proletariat to articulate itself as a class, to become conscious of itself as a class.  The refusal of productive labor by Pasolini’s subproletarian men requires the domination of woman and specifically requires subproletarian women to work as prostitutes. When the men refuse work in the productive economy, the women pay for it and this destroys the ability of subproletarian men and women to see themselves as a part of the same group, with the same objective interests.

Pasolini’s work with the subproletariate resonates today because changes in production have turned the working class into a surplus population through the normalization of precarious labor. Repeated crises of over production, super-competition among producers, and the tendency of the rate of profit to decline have meant that surplus value can only be extracted from labor at a very low rate and as a result, workers cannot legitimately demand increased wages because such a demand cannot be met without ruining their employers. As Theory Communist  and other writing collectives in the contemporary communization current have pointed out, the reproduction of the proletariat is no longer assured by capital, thus the proletariat can no longer constitute it’s identity in relation to capital, because it’s relationship to capital has become contingent.  The most significant worker actions today consist in destroying rather than seizing the means of production. In France, employees of companies facing lay offs with reduced pensions due to plant closures burn the factories they used to work for to demand an increase in severance. Workers in Dakah burn down the garment factories that employ them, destroying the means by which they are exploited rather than improving conditions there. Workers in China riot against the police forces regulating factory compounds in which they live and work, or at Foxconn, solve the problem of their social reproduction through an epidemic of becoming suicides. Each of these actions produces, in the groups that take them, rifts, often gender rifts. Today’s proletariat is situated within capitalism in the way the subporeletariate was and so Jaar and Crane’s movies see continuing his project as a contemporary necessity, though one made impossible by the anthropological mutations imposed by capital so keenly enacted in Crane’s film.

A single image with two mouths from Momma Roma crystalizes the impasse of Pasolini’s attempts to figure social reproduction. The shot of Bruna holding her baby on her lap and feeding him an apple from her own mouth, caught between kissing and eating, like a bird. Bruna’s abused body does not leave the periphery. She has never been anything but abandoned to the non-reproduction of the subproletariat. In this image mouths connect 2 people whereas  usually tears people apart. The image of Bruna feeding her baby directly from her mouth itself depicts a rift in relation to the rest of the film. Bruna is not a member of the group of market workers, she does not try to join the lower edge of the petty bourgeoisie, and she is not a member of the pack of boys into which Etore is attempting to integrate himself. In this shot, her non-belonging is defined by the fact that she is a mother.

The shot of Bruna feeding her baby from her mouth gives bodies to the key revolutionary question of our time, even if Pasolni had no answer for it: the question asked by the presence of women caught between social-biological reproduction and social antagonism. Bruna sympathizes with the gang of criminal boys despite their sexual abuse, she hungers to destroy the society that only offers her the possibility of an intolerable life, and yet she must provide certain material conditions for her child, under any conditions. That problem recently articulated itself as a marked tension at various Occupy Wall Street encampments in what Jaleh Mansoor has identified conflict in objective interests between insurrectionary queerness and materialist feminism. Similar terms might be used to describe the narrative ideological tensions driving Mamma Roma’s narrative.

In contemporary attempts to continue Pasolini’s project, or to think about it, the mouth becomes more or less exclusively the organ of speech and often speech becomes disembodied, in the form of the voiceover. Crane and Jaar must leave the hungering mouth encrypted, invisible behind the image of the speaking mouth. Continuing Pasolini’s  project is necessary but impossible because in that experiences class belonging as an external limit and when any legitimate action against capital produces rifts among those who take it, no image can figure the generalized failure of social reproduction under capital.

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