Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

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 --and they got a funny idea about money.

The "plot" follows neurotic bank teller Total (Flavio Bucci - the blind pianist in Suspiria) as he tries to escape his meager 9-5 barely-make-ends-meet job, which mainly consists of doling out cash to greedy titans of industry who drop by regularly to either drop off or pick up masses of cash, proudly boasting of their scams to avoid taxes and being oblivious to the seething rage welling up in the little guy who counts his capital. Total's rage finally picks a perfect target to be obsessed with: a rich, corrupt butcher (Ugo Tognazzi). Total begins stealing all the signifiers of this butcher's identity: one at a time he steals the butcher's hat, favorite carving knife, car, even mistress: Total eventually steals it all, launching himself on an absurdist Harpo-cum-Karl Marxist Quixote odyssey into the out-of-bounds yardage around capitalism's fixed court. We know we're in some weird zone right off when Total announces he's quittung his bank teller job by burning a lire note in his boss's office ("that's sacrilege!" the boss exclaims) then justifies his crazy crime spree by not stealing any actual cash: "I'm a Mandrakian Marxist," he announces. "I only steal what I need."

Daria Nicolodi is Anita, the butcher's mistress, who at first welcomes Total's periodic abductions as a sexually intriguing diversion, then pins hope as a possible escape from her wearisome--if comfortable-- life. But any sane prediction of how Total will take her willingness to participate is soon proven wrong, and anyway she's too smart to believe there's anywhere to run that wouldn't just be 'here' all over again.

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 - a cop on duty outside a bakery laments
he's in uniform, so can't grab any bread for himself -due to 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 did Italy allow Marxism to 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, as seen in the 'bread riots' of the 1940s - as seen in Rossellini's Rome: Open City (above). 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. 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 (as in Dickens). 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 made 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 but do have a Prime subscription, you can pretend you're stealing it by watching it '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 on Facebook, who pointed out its near-giallo greatness. 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 breathy 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-albeit-sexy as Anita, the butcher's 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 her voice's deep 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 around the eyes) it would be easy to see Proerty 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 Total the Argento who steers Daria free.

This all helps the film keep its odd mix of police corruption satire (the flow of $$ from insurance claims agent-inventory-taking cops-rich policy holders-thief selling back to insurance company, is like some giant financial food chain), 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-vs.-older-man-for-his 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) who teaches Total the trade (and Total in exchange, does nothing but taxes his mentor's weak, albeit big-as-all-outdoors queer heart with his irrational Ledger Joker-x-Harpo Marxist nonsense), and a dyke fence played in a kind of Lotte Lenya's character in Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone-style resonant post-glam fashion by Cecillia Pollizi. And there's even Diabolik in a blink-and-miss cameo (below):

Diabolik dies in a posion gas-filled car at a security expo in Property is No Longer a Theft
It's not all surreal Brechtian digressions though. A real unhappy, even if trenchant, thread in the film is the treatment of both men towards Anita, and her feeling of being a sexual object (neither offers her any kind of human compassion). It's a rather sad in a reflection of the same objectifying dread animosity towards the opposite sex we see in a lot of neorealist and nouvelle vague works of the time wherein a dash of meta-awareness tries to offset the leering (i.e. make sure her legs are crossed coquettishly and her breasts are heaving while she tallies the day's profits in the window a butcher shop display). Naming her various succulent sweet meat body parts while addressing the camera, Petri might be referencing the first part of Godard's Contempt (the scene in the beginning, 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, this was all just a bit didactic. On the the other hand, it's nice she can enjoy sex enough to get her rocks off without losing clout in her plea for gender equality. Petri does leave space for Nicolodi to--as he did for Redgrave did for Quiet Place in the Country--to quietly fill up her character's margins with traits that divulge themselves--Farber termite-style--subtly, on repeat viewing. Watching 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 (the butcher actually claims Total stole way more than he really did, to up the ante, hiding 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 'earning more expensive and useless stuff.

Neither happy nor totally miserable in the life of basically a contracted--albeit relatively well-treated--sex-worker, Nicolodi 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 still 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 an inevitably-doomed 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 on her part, beyond a fleeting feeling of shock. On the other hand, he does go down on her --which we know is a sad rarity, especially from this country, and especially from this era, especially from this era. In a way, his slapping her around, and her whining to the camera almost seem like they were thrown in last minute efforts to taint what is essentially the film's only coherent human relationship. Everyone else treats each other the way they might treat vending machines or food products, Total--for all his commie bellyaching--worst of all. This is the world of backwards men, Total, his rationalizing father, the crazy cop, the drag queen gang of fur thieves, etc.

Say what you want about Anita and the butcher - they both work. They hold a legit business in the black, and after hours they share a certain post-coital simpatico that captures the way long-term casual sexual relationships sometimes are. When she abruptly stops him from going down on her while she counts the days tallies, by announcing she's hungry and wants a steak; he agrees and gets up and there's a moment they share of simpatico alignment, a relationship without the need for little bambinos and sacred mother-in-law masses. We admire 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, wealth and convenience are the focus, and not God or family or some other phony idolatry.

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 tragic mysteries. 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 overlapped densely colored pencils sketches 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 timpani undercurrents.  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 Morricone's 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 a flood of freely available, semi-legal 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-- were 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 it was all just something they ate.

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: Antonioni, whose earlier work like Red Desert explored, in a much more abstract, intellectual way, the collapse of structuralism (in other words, even sober he and Monica 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 down from the symbolic ledge and run 'free' without having to run naked, screaming, down 5th Ave with question marks 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. Failure to do do so could lead to your death by car. Similarly, give your money away like it's a disease and 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 your own life 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 (above)--this reserving of our bulk sympathy for the drag performer shows that 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, frozen in contemplation like a monkey with a human skull sitting on a stack of books. 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 the endless nada.

One happy little family, pre-Total
You know where I'm going with this: America got around this anti-money issue with a show called Star Trek where private property no longer needs to exist. Maybe one day we'd grow into it, but only if we didn't rush things. America couldn't afford to be nihilistic about money, not at right then, having used up all our nihilism cards on our all-consuming hobby, Vietnam. But, at least the Cold War helped externalize the Red Menace well enough that we didn't have to fight it in the mirror, unlike some people - ahemItalycoguh. 

But hey - in 1973 crime in New York City was as bad as it was Rome, albeit with less motor-scooter purse snatching (ciao, Scippatori!) and more subway knife-point mugging.

Funny, but hardly surprising, that we took the opposite approach of Italy, whose pop culture tended to idolize the crooks, cheering antiheroes like Diabolik robbing the country blind while bemoaning its own impoverishment, never getting how the two were linked. Here in the USA it was the reverse, we decided to invoke our second amendment rights and make a stand, the little guy wouldn't cheer these masked crooks at all...

and that's your only warning, Diabolik, Total, whatever: 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' in, and he knows just how to deal with punks like you. See you in 1974, 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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