Pasolini, Abel Ferrara’s murky recreation of the last few days in the life of the iconoclastic Italian writer and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was murdered in 1975, is a biopic that makes no attempt to deliver the conventions of the genre. (It’s U.S release, nearly five years after the Venice world premiere, speaks to the movie’s tricky sensibility; it’s not an easy sell for a distributor.) Traditionally, biopics about people who met violent ends often treat the demise and turn the end of a person’s life into something that’s inevitable. But there’s no way for a movie to treat Pasolini’s death obliquely or tastefully without also betraying him, so Ferrara’s depiction of his brutal murder (he was beaten unconscious and then run over with a car) is unflinching. Ferrara — best known for his dirty New York tragedies — has a habit of identifying with and then destroying his protagonists. Though Ferrara clearly idolizes Pasolini and identifies with is worldview, he avoids turning him into a self-destructive stand-in. Pasolini’s death is tragic not because he was a tragic figure, but because it represents the meaningless end something meaningful.
Aside from an early scene of Pasolini preparing for the release of his final film, Salò, Or The 120 Days of Sodom, Ferrara makes no reference to his subject’s best-known works, instead focusing on the projects he was working on at the time of his death. Pasolini is played by longtime Ferrara collaborator Willem Dafoe, who bears a striking resemblance to his subject. Dafoe is magnetic but delicate in the role, confident but no self-centered, swaggering around in a leather jacket with his sensitive eyes hidden behind his dark shades. About half of the movie is taken up with scenes from it subject’s unfinished work, including sequences from his final screenplay, Porn-Theo-Colossal. The result is occasionally wonky (Dafoe, an actual Italian citizen, speaks most of his dialogue in English, while the rest of the cast sticks mostly to Italian), but its shortcomings are guided by a decently clear sense of purpose. It’s one of the those imperfect movies that’s more admirable than many more fully realized ones. Pasolini has its flaws, but it also carries a sense of mystery, intuitiveness and bare integrity that keeps it interesting.
Memory: The Origins of Alien
Memory: The Origins of Alien, Alexandre O. Philippe’s feature-length analysis of the roots and repercussions of Ridley Scott’s horror masterpiece, seems determined to reconcile its two fundamental truths. The first being that every successful movie reveals something profound about the time when it was made. The second is that great art taps into the collective unconscious that’s as old as time itself, tracing a direct line from ancient to modern culture. At the vert least, Philippe’s entertaining but frustratingly superficial documentary confirms that Alien did both of those things, and it did them well. This scattershot ninety-minute visual essay, though is far more interested in exploring where the Xenomorph came from than it is in contextualizing why it was born in 1979. Caught somewhere between a genealogy project, an oral history, and an in-depth video essay about the iconic scene that seared Alien into our imaginations, it reaffirms the film’s basic power without probing deeply enough to achieve any power of its own.
Memory: The Origins of Alien is a film that isn’t really interested in pursuing other than a cursory appreciation of the 1979 classic. The problem is that we all already agree that Alien is a stone-cold classic. Its status is indisputable. Philippe isn’t adding anything to the conversation except maybe a few potent observations that he struggles to build upon. Is the film a behind-the-scenes making-of? Is it a piece of cinema studies? Is it just general appreciation? It wants to be all of these things and struggles ever to cohere into one piece of work. As any critic will tell you, it can be hard to find words for something that audiences feel to their bones. But criticism, when done well, can also be a creative act unto itself, capable of extending a work of art rather than simply explaining its effect. It’s a lead that Memory: The Origins of Alien needed to take in order bind itself together, but one the film doesn’t make. At times interesting, at times entertaining, Memory: The Origins of Alien is more often though a superficial but loving appreciation of a timeless horror masterpiece that lacks focus.