Art-house Avengers Assemble! RoGoPaG (1963) – Blu-ray review
Social satire, 1960s-style – and it’s obvious that the only way to avoid making trite, unsubtle comedy is to avoid the brief entirely.
RoGoPaG: Let’s Wash Our Brains
(Roberto Rossellini / Jean-Luc Godard / Pier Paolo Pasolini / Ugo Gregoretti, 1963)
The 1960s were a time of unprecedented change, with a variety of mod cons on hand to sweep away the cobwebs of the past: international travel, TV advertising, pharmaceuticals and the Damocles Sword of nuclear Armageddon. Oh, and there was also art-house cinema, as a generation of directors attempted to show this exciting, turbulent time by reinventing the language of filmmaking.
So it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that astute Italian producer Alfredo Bini would attempt to cash-in by uniting three up-and-coming directors with one established veteran, in order to make a definitive compendium of the modern age, a chin-stroking meditation on how awful things are. And it’s definitely no surprise that the result, subtitled ‘Let’s Wash Our Brains’ is rooted to the early 1960s, and looks pretty weird today. It’s a loose-limbed satire, flailing at its targets with one eye on the highbrow sensibilities of European audiences, like a hipster edition of Mock The Week. It goes with the territory in portmanteau movies that the results are patchy, but here each individual entry’s promise succumbs to a fundamental gap between art and comedy.
The first falls the furthest, because Roberto Rossellini, the father figure of Italian neo-realism, really shouldn’t be doing sex comedies. And yet his short, Virginity, charts a horny businessman who attempts to capitalise on the brave new world of hot air hostesses when both find themselves in the same Tokyo hotel. It’s Lost In Translation filtered through Carry On, with an aggressive would-be seduction soundtracked by the jaunty jazz score that haunts the whole of RoGoPaG. Frankly, easy listening and attempted rape don’t go. Rossellini’s redeeming feature is his plot device of the hostess filming everyone she meets, which adds a layer of meta-narrative that the director uses to stage a deft sting in the tail.
Onto the second film and Jean-Luc Godard, white-hot only three years after Breathless (and with Le Mepris, Pierrot Le Fou and the rest still to come) dashes off The New World with the cocksure arrogance of someone who knows he can afford to fuck about. His film (the shortest segment of RoGoPaG) is a doodle, close to self-parody, about a relationship collapsing because of (or in spite of) a nuclear explosion above Paris. As in his later Alphaville, Godard doesn’t really care about sci-fi, so the post-apocalypse looks pretty much like Paris, 1962, albeit with the Eiffel Tower half-hidden in fog and a surreal running gag about people taking too many pills. Those moments are inspired; the rest is a jumble of jump cut footage of a beautiful woman glowering at her man, who in turns offers morose, gnomic pronouncements via voiceover. This has bugger all to do with the ‘theme’ of the film, and everything to do with what the director was into at the time.
That goes double for Pier Paolo Pasolini, who picks up on the hints offered by his fellow directors to make a film about filmmaking. La Ricotta charts the making of a film of the Passion of Christ – not only would this be the subject of Pasolini’s next film, The Gospel According To Matthew, but the on-screen director (played by Orson Welles) is a self-declared Marxist seen quoting extracts from Pasolini’s own novel/film Mamma Rosa. While filming (in colour) is hindered by nose-picking actors and incorrect music cues, in monochrome reality a wideboy extra is attempting to eat before he’s nailed to the cross alongside the on-screen Jesus. A lot of this is very funny stuff, captured in a blasphemous, carnival-esque style, but Pasolini is more in love with his speeded-up footage than in exploring any coherent theme. He might justifiably argue that religion is the ultimate in brain-washing – and sneakily suggest that movies represent a new means of propaganda – but the result sits oddly with the rest.
It’s left to Ugo Gregoretti, seemingly determined to deliver the definitive study of 1960s consumerism, to get things back on track – and that is his downfall. Chances are, you haven’t heard of Gregoretti (compared to Ro, Go and Pa, G is a virtual unknown) and perhaps his lack of fame is a by-product of his decision to take Alfredo Bini’s brief at face value. Where his peers preferred a more experimental, allusive style, Gregoretti’s message is obvious from the start, and that’s not really what the film’s audience wanted, then or now. The result, Free Range Chicken, is a historical curio – imagine Mad Men redone from the consumer’s viewpoint – but Gregoretti lets the agonising bluntness of his satire get in the way of genuine laughs. The film intercuts Ugo Tognazzi’s family man, a sucker who buys extravagant purchases and then moans when he doesn’t have enough money, with arty segues to a robotically-voiced adman giving a lecture on how capitalism exploits the consumer’s ego. It’s clunky and unsubtle, if occasionally very funny, as Tognazzi realises the hollowness of his lifestyle during an Epiphany on a windswept hill. It’s a fitting end to RoGoPaG as a whole – it promises the world, but its incidental pleasures are no substitute for more spiritual nourishment.