Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception, for your aghast befuddlement

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Brecht and the Single Girl: PROPERTY IS NO LONGER A THEFT (1973)

If you're confused about why Italy continually undoes the soundness of the Euro, Elio Petri's PROPERTY IS NO LONGER A THEFT, a nihilistic anti-capitalist Brechtian satire from 1973, can surely clarify for you toute suite. Short answer: too many commies. They got a funny idea about money.

The plot hinges on the concept of identity theft as having the power to crash whole neural networks, as a neurotic bank teller Total (Flavio Bucci - the blind pianist in Suspiria) who becomes obsessed with stealing the signifiers of a rich, corrupt butcher's (Ugo Tognazzi) ID -his hat, knife, car, even mistress-- Total steals it all. Launching himself on an absurdist Harpo-cum-Karl Marxist freak-out, Total starts by quitting his bank teller job by daring to burn a lire note in his boss's office ("that's sacrilege!" the boss exclaims). Total justifies his crazy crime spree by not stealing any cash: "I'm a Mandrakian Marxist," he says "I only steal what I need." Daria Nicolodi is Anita, the butcher's mistress, who at first welcomes Total as a sexually intriguing diversion, then pins hope as a possible escape aid, but she's too smart to believe there's anywhere to run that wouldn't just be here. Salvo Randone plays Total's shell-shocked dad, who's in total denial of his son's proclivities (by refusing to believe his son's a thief, he's able to enjoy the caviar guilt-free).

Rome: Open City - where a cop on duty outside the store laments
he's in uniform, so can't loot any bread for himself - he  has ethics
The title is a satiric riff on old anarchist slogan, a common enough refrain in European genre movies of the late 60s, when commie ideology was snuck into movie dialogue by leftist filmmakers like Fernando di Leo and Giuliu Questi.

But why!? Why let Marx muddle their post-war reconstruction and keep them a wealth-redistribution obsessed economy nigh these 70 years? Stealing in time of necessity has long been a no-brainer to the Italians (i.e. the 'bread riots' of the 1940s - as seen in Rome: Open City for example - left ) and not feel a twinge of guilt. Italian and French pop culture long celebrates master thieves like Diabolik and crime--if done on an upward angle (rob from the richer)--was depicted as a kind financial vigilanteism (while even today if you visit to Rome people will tell you to keep your money and passport in a concealed money belt at all times). ). You might call that kind of behavior a lot of things: a kind of laissez-faire communism, for example --but it makes sense to not starve while rich people stuff themselves on sweets the other side of the shop window - the kind of thing one finds in Dickens and Griffith one doesn't find in Rome. Eventually, even the noble father in Bicycle Thief does it, after frittering away his remaining money on a meal (after passing up numerous free ones), and the wife spends the rest on a psychic to find out how long they'll be poor. Thus looting the bakery is both immoral and the highest kind of sanity for a people so locked into provincial pride and thinking due to Catholic guilt trips they can't see tomorrow for the nose on their face (i.e. the bakery won't open tomorrow or any day as they can't afford more flour due to not having any $$).

Property is No Longer a Theft is a child of that mindset, in more ways than one. It's on Blu-ray from Arrow, and looks and sounds great, but--if you don't believe in money and have a Prime subscription, you can pretend your stealing it as its streaming free. Just don't wonder if Arrow suddenly doesn't have any money for new restorations. It's your fault.

What drew me to it initially (aside from being enthralled by Petri's earlier masterpiece A Quiet Place in the Country) was a recommendation from horror film historian Tim Lucas who pointed out its near-giallo greatness, and indeed he's right - there may not be a crazed killer on the loose, but Total does threaten people with a knife; Ennio Morricone delivers one of his most surreal scores; Deep Red cinematographer Luigi Kuveller twists the frame with portentous shadows and expressionist angles (lots of doors within doors), and longtime Argento collaborator Daria Nicolodi (1) looms tall and ungainly sexy as Anita, the mistress --when she lets loose a deep throaty laugh during one of her Brechtian fourth wall addresses, you might get an instant chill as you recognize its masculine depths from so many Argento classics (it's the same laugh from Phenomena, when daring Jennifer Connelly to call her insects, or the mocking, snarling demoness at the climax of Suspiria). Since Bucci looks more than a little like Dario Argento himself (with a Dog-eared dash of a young Pacino) it would be easy to see this as a kind of deranged reflection of the Argento-Nicolodi collaborative canon (1), with the Butcher representing typical 'red telephone' Italian filmmaking at the time, and Argento like the mad genius who steers Daria free.

This all helps keep its odd mix of police corruption satire (the insurance-cops-rich-thief ring or wealth transference) from getting too mired in either didactic dissertation (In standard Brechtian practice, characters break the narrative flow to speak directly to the camera / audience) or Polanski-style young man-older-man-woman triangle power trip. Weird characters pop up to keep you guessing: the droop-eyed chief of detective (Orazio Orlando) who seems like he's either fishing for a bribe or trying to trap the butcher into a confession with a sense of conspiratorial camaraderie ("If you're not afraid of having it stolen," he notes, during the insurance tally, "you can't enjoy your wealth"); a cross-dressing master thief Albertone (Mario Scaccia) teaches Total the trade (and Total only taxes his weak, albeit big-as-all-outdoors queer heart with his irrational Ledger Joker-x-Harpo Marxist nonsense) and there's a dyke-ish fence played in a kind Lotte Lenya's Contessa Magda in Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone-style resonant post-glam played by Cecillia Pollizi.

Not to mention Diabolik in a blink-and-miss cameo:

Diabolik dies in a posion gas-filled car at a security expo in Property is No Longer a Theft
A real unhappy even if trenchant thread in the film is the dissatisfaction of Anita, and her feeling of being a sexual object. It's a rather sad in a reflection of the same animosity towards sex we see in a lot of neorealist and nouvelle vague works of the time, notably Godard and Antonioni (i.e. make sure her legs are crossed just so and her breasts heaving while she makes her plea to be treated as something other than a butcher shop display). When Anita starts naming her various parts while addressing the camera, Petri might be referencing the first part of Godard's Contempt (the scene --added on by producer Levine's insistence that the film include some Bardot nudity), or --the theme that clouded the mind of Nero's artist in A Quiet Place in the Country, one of the classic devil's bargains of European film in the 50s-70s, the relationship of the sex-hungry producer to the idealistic auteur.

By 1973, though, it's a bit didactic to go into such well-churned territory, but this darkened zone--where a girl can feel objectified but still enjoy the sex and get enough of her rocks off--does leave space for Nicolodi to--as Nero and Redgrave did for Quiet Place in the Country--quietly fill up her character with traits and moments that divulge themselves--Farber termite-style--subtly, on repeat viewing. Watcg her face for example after the butcher instructs her to cry over the 'stolen' items from Total's first robbery, when Pierelli is there helping calculate the total for the insurance (he actually stole way more than Total did, and hid the booty in a suitcase in the basement). Facing close to the camera in close-up we see her crying increase and decrease based on Pirelli's proximity; when it starts to grate on the butcher's nerves, she stops abruptly and cuts into a vague smile, barely able to reign in her delight at the thought of getting more expensive and useless stuff.

We know in the asides she's neither happy nor totally miserable in the life of basically a contracted--albeit relatively well-treated--sex-worker: she doesn't have to play second fiddle to some harridan wife - the pair live together without any tinge of Catholic guilt, with a housekeeper; she has a nice job as the cashier at the butcher shop, showing he trusts her, and he buys her expensive things like nice, presumably real, pearls. She can put up with his macho abuse, aware that, in her own words to the audience, if she wasn't here she'd be somewhere else. She doesn't consider the rest of us, addressed directly, there in some imagined air-conditioned little Italian cinema, to be any less trapped. At least she's free to enjoy her trap as best she can, rather than just banging her head against the bars in a futile attempt to impress some far-away feminist studies professor.

The chamelonic sexual personae of Daria: with long black hair as passive mistress (PROPERTY 1973); as can-do, sexually assertive reporter (DEEP RED 1975)
Bearing the meta-textuality still further, we find the butcher and Anita going to the adult movie show where he threatens to "send her back to work at the bar" if she doesn't obediently go down on him. He also hits her when frustrated, which doesn't seem to foster any resentment beyond a fleeting feeling of shock. On the other hand, he does go down on her --which we know is a rarity for macho Italian shitheads -pozzo nero de bambini. It's something one very rarely sees in any movie. Taken in whole, his slapping around and her whining to the camera almost seem like last minute efforts to taint what is essentially the only coherent romantic relationship we see in the film. Everyone else is stunted - the world of backwards men, Total and his father, the crazy cop, the drag queen gang of fur thieves, etc. Say what you want about Anita and the butcher - they work. They're flawed, but they're functional,  in one scene, while she counts out the day's receipts in a drowsy, enraptured voice, and the pair seem to share a certain post-coital simpatico that captures the way long-term casual sexual relationships sometimes are. When she abruptly stops the action by announcing she's hungry and wants a steak; he agrees and gets up and there's a moment they share of simpatico alignment, the way the trappings of love and family are avoided in favor of a long term desire entrainment, the languid way two lovers disengage and prepare to go get something to eat, not really looking at each other but totally aligned. free of all other worries, since pleasure and convenience are the focus, and not a

When you see these names in the credits, pounce! 
It may not add up to much, but what really makes this a keeper--and this is so true of so many otherwise merely mediocre Italian films--is the touch of gold that is an Ennio Morricone score. Why more composers don't endeavor to follow his lead--the use of antithetical counterpoint and surreal minimalism--is one of cinema's great tragedies. Most composers try to show off all the stuff they learned in music school with a lot of mickey mousing orchestral pomp when one jew's harp and a lady whispering urgently but incoherently over discordant guitar stings would work so much better. Has Ennio ever done a bad score? Certainly this is one of his weirdest and most memorable (and it's on Spotify!) especially during the strange opening credits, which play over an overlapped densely brilliant colored pencils sketch of all the principle players on paper that resembles marble (but with lire notes for veins) while heavy breathing repetitions of "I.... have" ("avere! av-ere!") pulse over whooshing rumbles of timpani ocean undercurrent.  Elsewhere little two-note jabs highlight ominous electric bass lines, stabby little mountain king strings and cycling piano riffs foreshadow similar pulsing passages in the Oscar-winning Morricone score for Tarantino's recent Oscar-winning Hateful Eight! (Hey, we all steal from ourselves - and it suits the subject matter)

Ultimately, the main problem with Theft is a not uncommon one for anti-establishment movies of the period, which get so busy critiquing the current system, and rebelling against it, that they run out of room to find an alternative meaning. Do communist intellectuals seriously think they'll ever weed the Stalin reality out of their Trotskyist idealism by attacking capitalism's status quo?

Sellers takes aim at bourgeois values - The Magic Christian (1969)

An example of this same problem can be found in 1969's The Magic Christian (above)--a satire of consumer culture not unlike Property-- which finds bored millionaire Peter Sellers and his nephew Ringo learning about the world through staging of some very elaborate (and presumably overpriced) 'freak outs' of standard bowler-and-brolly London-suburb train commuters. You can all but trace the thought lines of these little gags back to a time when access to free high-quality LSD woke artists up to the handrails and structure of society, so the sudden awareness of the absurdity of money and other social mores as aesthetic things in and of themselves are made absurd. When you're tripping the whole idea of money starts to become too abstract to handle: it's no longer 'invisible' as a symbol for goods and services but a pocketful of green portraits of old men in weird wigs. These strange knotty faces seem to be smiling and winking at you, struggling to move; en verso, the eye in the pyramid follows you around the room, pulling you in towards it like a tractor beam. The fact that 'normal' people don't notice these things is even funnier. "Living is easy with eyes closed" - so the tripper becomes interested in opening people's eyes to the world's absurdity, even if only for a few flash moments, like one of Jerry Garcia's onstage backflips: pranksters like Ken Kesey and his magic bus pulling over on some random small town main street to run amok for five minutes, then disappear - leaving the sleepy town to wonder if they were just a mass hallucination.

BUT all that stuff had a bad ending in the States - it spun out of control too fast - too many idiots taking too much too often, then clogging up the ER the minute they think they're dying (i.e. the 'only fools rush in' preliminary bad trip bardos); the logistics of the endless stream of runaway kids turning Golden Gate Park into a giant toilet. It was a revolution with nowhere to go.

Take that, my little corrupt Italian capitalist system!

But in Europe, there was a movement of intellectuals ready to absorb the psychedelic culture shocks with deadpan bemusement of the time: Antonioni, whose earlier work like Red Desert explored, in a much more abstract, intellectual way, the collapse of structuralism (in other words, even sober they were hip to the abstract aesthetic absurdity of bank notes) connected with the turned-on generation in such a way as to help form it (via Blow-up), leading to the idea that by keeping your behavior totally random and embracing a kind of abstract chaos magic approach to life you can shimmy loose from the symbolic structure of society and become 'free' without having to run naked, screaming, down fifth avenue with Ginsberg poetry written all over your body in Day-Glo paint.

Even so, some symbols - like 'stop' signs are better left heeded for their symbolic message rather than regarded purely as red octagons posing abstract contrast with the muddy crossroad behind them. you can topple the entire financial system if you're not careful; you can drift so far off the grid you can't get back. It's fine if you want to live your life that way, but you screw with the welfare of criminals and at your own risk, and you better take that risk seriously. Vanessa Redgrave isn't playing around.

(see also: Through a Dark Symbol).

Pull the string!
That's the core of what's missing in Petri's Theft - which shows the all-importance of having a good star at the center of a work like this: the closest thing we have to a person to root for is either Albertone, the beloved cross-dressing leader of a queer gang of jewel robbers who-- their identity as maligned subculture perhaps leading them towards a group loyalty--are truly grieved by his passing. (though he only shows up in the last third). This being a time when queerness was portrayed in giallos as a sign of freaky transgression - the conflicted self, expressed literally in a common enough drag sight back in the day--the half-man/half-woman literal split (below)--this reserving of our bulk sympathy for the drag performer shows that beyond its gawker habit, Petri's film has a genuine heart and respect for humanity and artistic perception. If you can admit your confusion, you earn a pass.

But the price of true post-structuralist realization--of stepping free of the bullshit-- is complete paralysis. Hemmings with the ghost tennis ball in his hand like a punter. Without real money, and real balls - the void stretches past even new life and new civilizations - it boldly goes where no man has gone before... but leaves you standing there, just a focal point for nada.

One happy little family, pre-Total
You know where I'm going with this: America got around this issue with a show called Star Trek where private property and money didn't exist and a perfect utopia was formed - albeit in the future. America couldn't afford to be nihilistic about money for now. Things were bad enough now to worry about anything beyond the next paycheck: we had used up all our nihilism cards on our all-consuming hobby, Vietnam. But the Cold War helped externalize the red menace so we didn't have to fight it in the mirror, unlike some people. ahem.

We also had our own problems: especially in early 70s. New York City was almost as bad as Rome - maybe worse (less pick-pocketing, more murders). Funny, but hardly surprising, that we took the opposite approach of Italy, who tended to idolize the crooks. For us, it was the reverse, we decided to invoke our second amendment rights and make a stand. So... Diabolik, Total, whatever your dumb names are, you and your commie prevert friends may run riot in Italy, but if you try to pull any of that shit in NYC, well, we gotta guy comin' knows just how to deal with punks like you.

See you soon, pally!
(Charles Bronson Death Wish - 1974)

1. See 'Woman is the Father of Horror' - which I argue that a lot of the success of the great horror auteurs comes from their female writing/producing partners - i.e. Debra Hill, Daria Nicolodi, Gale Ann Hurd.

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