The problem – or rather, a problem – with Pasolini is that he does not fit any one box. A glance at any call for papers for the numerous conferences on Pasolini this year, the 40th anniversary of his death, will evidence this heterodoxy in his production: he is a poet, a critic, a journalist, a filmmaker, a theorist, a Catholic, a communist, and the list goes on. In Robert Gordon’s words, Pasolini presents an “ideal case-study of particular conjunctions of problems.”1
For a number of reasons, including the political intricacies of his works, issues of language and dialect, and lack of accessibility of some of his works of criticism and journalism, Pasolini, since 1975, has forayed onto the Anglo-American scene as primarily a filmmaker, or as filmmaker-slash-film theorist. The large part of his literary and philosophical output, while it thrived (or at least survived) in Italian and European contexts, has struggled to make the passage overseas.2 As Federico Pacchioni discusses in his 2008 article, “Pasolini in North America: A Bibliographical Essay on Scholarship between 1989 and 2007” (Studi pasoliniani 2, 2008), in the late 1970s the only studies dedicated to Pasolini’s works focused on his film adaptations of literary greats, namely Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In the 1980s scholarship shifted toward a broader approach to Pasolini’s cinema: Peter Bondanella, in Italian Cinema (New York: Continuum, 1983) explored Pasolini’s relation to neorealism, and this was followed in the late 1980s and early 1990s by seminal volumes wholly dedicated to Pasolini’s films, such as Naomi Greene’s Pier Paolo Pasolini: Cinema as Heresy (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990), Maurizio Viano’s A Certain Realism: Making Use of Pasolini’s Film Theory and Practice (University of California Press, 1993), and Patrick Rumble’s Allegories of Contamination: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996).
Now, back to the Pasolini problem: as the poet/critic/filmmaker/journalist/etc. does not fit into one box (or book, or discipline, as the case may be), there have been many ways in which parts of him have fit into different boxes (or books, or disciplines). There are volumes in which Pasolini is maybe not the main star, but rather an actor in an ensemble cast. He has often filled the role of filmmaker or filmmaker/theorist in the context of other filmmakers or filmmakers/theorists. And many of the fragments on Pasolini as filmmaker/theorist in Anglo-American scholarship in one way or another address his essay “Il cinema di poesia” (“The Cinema of Poetry”), his semiotic discussion of cinema as the “written language of reality”, contained in his collection of essays Empirismo eretico (Heretical Empiricism).3 Such approaches include David Ward’s essay “A Genial Analytic Mind: ‘Film’ and ‘Cinema’ in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Film Theory” (in Pier Paolo Pasolini: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Patrick Allen Rumble and Bart Testa); Paolo Fabbri’s essay “Free/Indirect/Discourse” in the same volume; John David Rhodes’s essay “Pasolini’s Exquisite Flowers: The ‘Cinema of Poetry’ as a Theory of Art Cinema” (in Global Art Cinema: New Theories and Histories, ed. Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover. New York: Oxford UP, 2010); Millicent Marcus’s chapter on Teorema in her book Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism Princeton: Princeton UP, 1986); and a number of chapters in Viano’s aforementioned A Certain Realism.
The legacy of Pasolini as primarily a filmmaker/theorist – and more specifically as filmmaker/theorist of his cinema of poetry – still holds today: in the last five years a significant number of Anglo-American contributions have explored different readings and applications of his “Cinema of Poetry” essay. In the past year two volumes have been released whose titles explicitly invoke Pasolini’s cinema of poetry: P. Adams Sitney’s The Cinema of Poetry (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015) and Joseph Luzzi’s A Cinema of Poetry: Aesthetics of the Italian Art Film (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2014).
Sitney’s contribution begins by situating Pasolini’s seminal essay in its historical context: as he notes, early critics like Umberto Eco and Christian Metz dismissed Pasolini’s application of semiology to film theory, and only later, with later film critics and theorists like John David Rhodes and Giuliana Bruno, were elements of the essay salvaged, reconsidered, repurposed. “The Cinema of Poetry” is a complicated essay, Sitney writes, even a contradictory one, flavored with Crocean, Heideggerian, and Marxist thought, in dialogue with the films of Bernardo Bertolucci, Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman, Charlie Chaplin, and, implicitly, Kenji Mizoguchi. At the center of this complex knot, according to Sitney, is Pasolini’s notion of “free indirect point-of-view” – that is, the “poetic” eye/I of his cinema of poetry. In the next chapters Sitney puts a number of auteurs and their films into dialogue with Pasolini’s “free indirect point-of-view”, first with European directors Dimitri Kirsanoff, Ingmar Bergman, and Andrey Tartovsky, then with Americans Joseph Cornell, Lawrence Jordan, Stan Brakhage, Nathaniel Dorsky, and Gregory Markopoulos.
Joseph Luzzi’s volume also weaves together different auteurs and figures by means of the thread of Pasolini’s cinema of poetry, although his focus remains on Italian national identity and national cinema. His chapters, approximately chronological in their succession, propose a kind of Italian genealogy of poetic thought, from Homer, through baroque philosopher Giambattista Vico, and eventually to Pasolini and his cinema of poetry. He writes that the “‘Italian’ component of Pasolini’s definition of the cinema di poesia draws on a tradition of defining poetry in transmedial terms going back centuries and encompassing figures as diverse as Vico and Croce”.4.] While P. Adams Sitney’s cinema of poetry stitches are horizontal, covering European and American ground, Luzzi’s cinema of poetry stitches stretch vertically through time, forming a genealogical tree of Italian poetic identity.
Antonella C. Sisto, in the final two chapters of her recent publication Film Sound in Italy: Listening to the Screen (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014) applies Pasolini’s cinema di poesia to the soundscapes in Pasolini’s own film Il fiore delle mille e una notte/Arabian Nights (1974) and in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Deserto rosso/Red Desert (1964). She explores the notion of “free indirect auditory subjective” (emphasis mine) in the two films, a sonic parallel to Pasolini’s theoretical “free indirect subjective.” Pasolini’s cinema of poetry is also highlighted in another recent publication, Felicity Colman’s Film Theory: Creating a Cinematic Grammar (New York: Wallflower Press, 2014). In her first chapter, entitled “Models”, Colman explores the oppositional cinesemiotic theories of Christian Metz and Pasolini, and situates their debate over cinematic langue and/or langage within broader discourses on film theory. Silvia Carlorosi, in the second chapter of her very recent publication A Grammar of Cinepoiesis: Poetic Cameras of Italian Cinema (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2015), embraces what she terms the “oxymoron” of his “Cinema of Poetry” essay − and, more broadly, a certain “oxymoronic” quality that characterizes his entire œuvre. The chapter, “Im-Signs and Free Indirect Subjective: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Cinema of Poetry: Accattone and Mamma Roma”, hinges on this notion of oxymoron in Pasolini’s film theory (in his essay) and practice (in Accattone  and Mamma Roma ).
Pasolini’s legacy in Anglo-American scholarship today is certainly not wholly reduced to his role as filmmaker/theorist: recent or forthcoming volumes also explore his conception of the sacred (Stefania Benini’s Pasolini: The Sacred Flesh, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015); his link to the avant-garde (Ara H. Merjian, Pier Paolo Pasolini and the Politics of Art History: Heretical Aesthetics, in progress); and even his ties to environmental issues (Karen Pinkus, Fuel, forthcoming). The 2012 collection of essays The Scandal of Self-Contradiction: Pasolini’s Multistable Subjectives, edited by Luca Di Blasi, Manuele Gragnolati, and Christoph F.E. Holzhey (Vienna: Verlag Turia + Kant), complicates notions of subjectivity, tradition, and geography across a broad spectrum of Pasolini’s œuvre.
Still, Pasolini’s image as filmmaker and theorist of a cinema of poetry seems today to dominate English-language discourses on his work – whether we explore a cinema of poetry, the cinema of poetry, or other configurations and applications of his complex and perhaps oxymoronic “imsigns” and “free indirect subjectivity”. Such an interest in Pasolini’s cinema of poetry, from its early days in Anglo-American scholarship in the 1980s to what seems to be a recent flood of works that draw heavily from the theory, raises the question of how broadly such a theory can be applied: can Pasolini’s notion of a cinema of poetry discursively stitch together temporally and geographically disparate works? Is it strong enough to weave through the fabrics of film theory and film practice? How much − and how much longer − can we make use of this thread before it frays, weakens, or breaks? Undoubtedly, if we want to continue our use of this cinema of poetry thread we will need to continue to reinforce it with other threads. We will need to continue to explore Pasolini’s other boxes, other angles, other selves, and continue to grapple with his multistable, multivalent, and multiform “conjunctions of problems”.
Stefania Benini, Pasolini: The Sacred Flesh (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015).
Peter Bondanella, Italian Cinema (New York: Continuum, 1983).
Silvia Carlorosi, A Grammar of Cinepoiesis: Poetic Cameras of Italian Cinema (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2015).
Felicity Colman, Film Theory: Creating a Cinematic Grammar (New York: Wallflower Press, 2014).
Luca Di Blasi, Manuele Gragnolati, and Christoph F.E. Holzhey (eds.), The Scandal of Self-Contradiction: Pasolini’s Multistable Subjectives (Vienna: Verlag Turia + Kant, 2012).
Robert Gordon, Pasolini: Forms of Subjectivity (London: Oxford UP, 1996).
Naomi Greene, Pier Paolo Pasolini: Cinema as Heresy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1990).
Joseph Luzzi, A Cinema of Poetry: Aesthetics of the Italian Art Film (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 2014).
Millicent Marcus, Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1986).
Ara H. Merjian, Pier Paolo Pasolini and the Politics of Art History: Heretical Aesthetics (in progress).
Federico Pacchioni, “Pasolini in North America: A Bibliographical Essay on Scholarship between 1989 and 2007”, Studi pasoliniani 2 (2008).
Pier Paolo Pasolini, Heretical Empiricism, trans. Ben Lawton and Louise Barnett (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988).
Karen Pinkus, Fuel (forthcoming).
John David Rhodes, “Pasolini’s Exquisite Flowers: The ‘Cinema of Poetry’ as a Theory of Art Cinema”, in Global Art Cinema: New Theories and Histories, ed. Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover (New York: Oxford UP, 2010).
Patrick Rumble, Allegories of Contamination: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996).
Patrick Allen Rumble and Bart Testa (eds.), Pier Paolo Pasolini: Contemporary Perspectives (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994).
Antonella C. Sisto, Film Sound in Italy: Listening to the Screen (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014).
P. Adams Sitney, The Cinema of Poetry (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015).
William Van Watson, Pier Paolo Pasolini and the Theatre of the Word (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989).
Maurizio Viano, Certain Realism: Making Use of Pasolini’s Film Theory and Practice (University of California Press, 1993).
David Ward, A Poetics of Resistance: Narrative and the Writings of Pier Paolo Pasolini (Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1995).
- Robert Gordon, Pasolini: Forms of Subjectivity (London: Oxford UP, 1996), p. 182. ↩
- There have been, of course, notable exceptions. William Van Watson’s Pier Paolo Pasolini and the Theatre of the Word (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989) explored Pasolini’s theatrical contributions, and David Ward’s volume A Poetics of Resistance: Narrative and the Writings of Pier Paolo Pasolini (Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1995) was a crucial contribution to Anglo-American studies of Pasolini’s written works. ↩
- The book of essays was translated into English by Ben Lawton and Louise Barnett in 1988 (Bloomington, Indiana UP). ↩
- Joseph Luzzi, A Cinema of Poetry: Aesthetics of the Italian Art Film (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2014), pp. 12-13. This book was reviewed for Senses of Cinema by this dossier’s co-editor, Luca Peretti [http://sensesofcinema.com/2015/book-reviews/a-cinema-of-poetry-joseph-luzzi/ ↩