Friday, 18 November 2016

RoGoPaG (1963): Love, Death and Consumerism

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2012)

The anthology film RoGoPaG, or to give its full title, Let’s Wash our Brains: RoGoPaG, came out over half a century ago, in 1963 (some more or less relevant markers: this was six years after the publication of Vance Packard’s expose of the dark arts of consumerist manipulation, The Hidden Persuaders, the year after the first Bond film, Dr. No, a few months after the Cuban missile crisis and the week after The Beatles recorded Please Please Me); it is therefore at times quite startling that its four films – from Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Ugo Gregoretti, hence the title – through examining the anxieties of their own age should make such a prescient diagnosis of the strains and fractures of our own.

Exploring questions of freedom of thought and action and also the possibilities left for love in the atom age (both atomic and atomised that is), the films in their various ways depict a world whose pressures and professions make distance between people – both emotional and physical – more natural than intimacy. The resultant space, defined by insecurity and need, can be filled with consumer goods and filmed. There is plenty of humour here, but as you might expect from a film whose introduction talks of ‘four stories by four authors who limit themselves to recounting the joyous beginning of the end of the world,’ it’s wry, melancholy, sacrilegious and caustic by turns.

In Illibatezza (Virginity/Purity), Rossellini’s treatise on love, lechery, loneliness and cine-cameras, Alitalia air hostess Annamaria provides the maternal bosom that captures the obsessive and unwanted attention of a lonely middle-aged American – Joe – in Bangkok. She fills the space of separation from her fiancé that her work requires by indefatigable filming of her surroundings, from hotel rooms to temples and markets, sending him the films and telling him everything of her encounters – including those with Joe, who has also filmed her to rather different ends. At least her actions enable her fiancé, and his psychologist friend, to provide some remote counselling for her predicament and how to rid herself of the bothersome pesterer. As instructed, she sheds her chaste image for a more provocative one and, as predicted, provokes the disgust and insults of Joe, thereby getting him out of her hair, but probably – given the reactions of her colleagues to her new svelte blonde image – brings a whole lot more unwelcome attention her way. It’s a solution of sorts but no-one ends up particularly happy – neither Annamaria, uncomfortable in her new skin, nor her fiancé for prompting her to lose the reserve, purity and honesty that attracted him, and least of all Joe who is left trying to hug the wall of his hotel room on which he has projected the image of an air hostess he once encountered on a flight to Bangkok.

We are also left with the slightly unpleasant feeling that in amongst all the artificiality on show in the film – air hostess expressions, stilted poses and fake smiles filmed by a colleague in a hotel room, back-projected tourist scenes, the photographs of temples which sees our main characters cine-filming photographs – the most authentic emotions on display here are also the most unpleasant, namely those demonstrated by the attempted maulings of a self-pitying drunk, trying to crash the barriers of artifice in – as the film has it – ’the sad search for a protective womb’.

The second film in the anthology, Godard’s Il Nuovo Mondo (The New World) describes ‘the absurd and unpredictable consequences of an atomic future that may have already begun’. There is a nuclear burst in the skies above Paris (or so we are told by the newspapers who announce the ‘super-explosion atomique’). Barring the sight of people nervously throwing pills down their throats in the street and women donning an Ursula Andress style dagger in their trunks, nothing much seems to have changed – which makes the fact that the customary bonds between a couple have entirely broken all the more disconcerting.

It’s a typically offhand, take-it-or-leave-it, slice and splice Godard that is nevertheless based around an important core of truth, announced in the film’s preface, which reads, ‘it will be the small, slight changes that inevitably destroy us’. It captures something of the loss of freedom that comes with the illusion of its triumph – a change reflected in the film’s vocabulary in which Alessandra’s conversational use of ‘evidently’ is replaced by ‘absolutely’. Morality in the film has mutated into a world of ‘ex-love’ and spontaneous meaningless gestures of empty affection which Godard films, flirting, as always, with the continual bewitching lure and predictable deceit of beauty.

In Pasolini’s La Ricotta (for which the director was handed a four-month suspended prison sentence for ‘publicly undermining the religion of the state’), a man – mocked and less well-fed than an actress’s pampered dog – until he gorges himself on the food he’s been trying to eat all day – dies on a cross in a farcical restaging of the crucifixion and deposition, the latter reconstructed from 16th century altar pieces by Fiorentino and Pontormo. As this excess of candy-coloured biblical ‘good taste’ (as Pasolini described it) is jostled by extras twisting away the wait for their call and saints heading off to the bushes with unsaintly purposes in mind, Pasolini’s Stracci – ‘a symbolic hero of the Third World,’ as he describes him – finds a way, the only way perhaps, of cutting through the empty chatter of grinning dignitaries who have arrived to amuse themselves by seeing some real-life filming action. ‘He had to die to remind us he was alive,’ says Orson Welles’ director, making a film in a world in which symbolism is more important than succour – and the filming of such symbols is more important than either.

At least there is plenty of stuff to buy in this disorienting new world of uncertain morality and unmoored desires. Ugo Gregoretti’s Il Pollo Ruspante (Free Range Chicken) is a biting satire on consumption and acquisition which starts off in a symposium on “Development of consumption and increase in production: New perspectives offered by knowledge of the secret ‘I’ of the consumer”, overseen by one Professor Pizzorno, a marketing guru whose temporary affliction to the vocal cords and consequent use of an electrolarynx marks him out as a predecessor to Godard’s sinister supercomputer Alpha 60 in Alphaville. “The average consumer is an incalculable reserve who allows production to maintain the levels already met, and greatly surpass them, provided that he is constantly controlled, monitored, spied on, prompted, pushed…,” he says, as the couple whose story is told in parallel are churned around in an ad-man’s paradise of cynical consumerist manipulation in which their children spout advertising slogans, their car isn’t is big as it should be and the first thing their new HP TV shows is a Topo Gigio cartoon telling them that their model is already outmoded. And the plot of building land they are gracelessly shown – a hill marketed, improbably, as ‘the Switzerland of Lombardy’ – isn’t as big as it really should be either. Size matters. If only the Professor could know just how effectively and rigorously his vision of “systematic dissatisfaction” has since come to pass, his gladhanding croak at the film’s end would be more exultant than it already is. It’s all a very recognisable world indeed.

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