Surgically Imprecise Notes on the
Great Carmelo Bene


Lucky people have been discovering the cinema of the Italian maestro, writer-actor-director Carmelo Bene (1937-2002), since 1968 – when he turned his prodigious creative energies, for a period of seven years, from theatre to film, beginning with Nostra signora dei turchi (Our Lady of the Turks). One can trace the trail of revelatory screenings: Paris in ’68, Cannes in ’73 (for Salomé, made the previous year) … through to Bobigny’s Magic Cinéma event in ’08 and (in my case) the Thessaloniki International Film Festival in November ’09. And one can also follow the passionate, committed writing on Bene, by Noël Simsolo in his touching book Portraits-souvenirs de cinéma (2007), or by Bene’s close friend Gilles Deleuze – not to mention Bene’s own prodigious writings and public utterances in all media. He is a legend in parts of Europe (a hundred thousand people showed up to his highly politically charged reading of Dante in Bologna in 1981), but remains almost completely unknown in the English-speaking world.


There are some DVD editions of Bene in Italy, and the film prints (although exorbitantly expensive to hire) exist. And there’s YouTube, which can give you a glimpse into the seemingly hundreds of hours of television and audio recordings of Bene (in theatre, song, poetry readings, chat show interviews, and even on MTV) gathered from the start of his career in the late ‘50s. But nothing can replace the brute majesty of the direct experience of Bene’s cinema on a huge 35mm screen, pumped through very loud speakers. Bene, or the cinema-effect.


It is no exaggeration for me to say that one big reason for me to make the trip from Melbourne to Thessaloniki in late 2009 was the opportunity to see, at last, Our Lady of the Turks and Salomé – part of a program called “Lovers are Lunatics” curated by Vassily Bourikas, an intrepid explorer of the unknown. These two films would strain any critic’s powers of verbal description: standard-issue words like operatic, camp, delirious or excessive do not even come close to capturing the full-on, multi-channel intensity of such extraordinary works.


Why is Bene this comet who constantly appears and disappears in film history? (A Fondazione L’immemoriale di Carmelo Bene in Italy exists to preserve and disseminate his legacy, but it seems to be still mired in internal and legal disputes.) The fact that most film historians do not routinely cite him at the level of Sergei Parajanov, Werner Schroeter, George Kuchar, Raśl Ruiz, Kenneth Anger, Pier Paolo Pasolini or Derek Jarman – even of Orson Welles or Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger – is a mystery, and a crime.


The comparison with Welles is apt. Like him, Bene was an actor-director and celebrity auteur, a larger-than-life figure who projected himself into the grandest and most sacred monsters created by literary and theatrical mythology. Like Welles, he was a vocal specialist, multiplying the avatars and registers of his rich, expressive voice in dazzling, post-sync soundtracks. And both masters pioneered what we call (grasping, once again, for handy labels) a baroque cinema of aesthetic overload: they juggled multiple, high-intensity channels of rapid montage, overlaid soundtracks, and a performance style centred on a frequently grotesque physicality. But where they part in is Bene’s firm adherence, for his whole life, to the tradition of shock, extremity and scandal inaugurated by Antonin Artaud.


Bene may be the only figure in 20th century art who could simultaneously project a Welles-like ego big and charismatic enough to burst the screen, all the while paradoxically embodying poststructuralist ideals of the death of the author through the constant splitting and multiplication of his celluloid-self – an entranced vessel for what Roland Barthes in 1968 called the “innumerable centres of culture”.


Indeed, with space and time, vision and sound so completely fragmented, with everything flying by at such a rapid rate, the only element that the viewer of Bene’s films can cling onto as an anchor is ultimately Bene himself: in extreme close-up, in a seeming trance, repeating in a whisper or a scream that he is hot or cold, dry or wet … or, riffing on his own name, that he is fine (bene) or super-fine (benissimo). And that’s the formula every new discoverer of this remarkable oeuvre reaches for: Bene, benissimo …


# #


To play Shakespeare you must be Shakespeare: I’m Shakespeare.

After the long intro, several minutes of Our Lady of the Turks – building facades, voice-over, tracking shots – there is a sudden image that tears up the screen: it’s Carmelo Bene, lurking in a bisected, starkly contrasted frame, and he’s popping in just to let us know: “Yes, it’s me”. Then it’s gone: the film is right off elsewhere, a new displacement has been announced. Announced by Daffy Duck, by Orson Welles, by Sacha Guitry and by Jerry Lewis all in the same astonishing, beautiful, grotesque body: CB. Declaring: you know who I am, and if you don’t, shove off. Fall in, and keep falling. Know your self ruthlessly, but get out of yourself, multiply yourself, dissolve yourself. Audiences can only love or hate the result; there is nothing in-between. Did anybody truly live the post-1968, anti-humanist philosophies (even though he disdained direct political commitment) in their art more profoundly than Bene? And he never wavered from that conviction, his Dark Star.


I have the sense that Bene translated from languages that he could not speak or read. Not even remotely. When he uttered, worked, hurled or whispered a text (poetry, prose, theatre) he liberated something from it that dwelt on a level truly below, or deep within, its mere “tongue”. A chora, perhaps. A plane of intensities, of rhythms, of previously unheard sounds and configurations. A rumbling, a force.


What was he translating, intuiting, hearing? He transmitted this energy of an alien broadcast.


It was the same between Bene and the images of cinema or TV. We have the feeling of being inside images, worlds, situations and scenarios that we can never grasp. They flash – and flash back and flash forward, endlessly – but are always evanescent. They form patterns and networks at a lightning speed. Deleuze got it well: we are always in the middle of things, in the middle of everything. It’s a kind of parataxis, but not in the grinding manner of the prose of Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory: Bene repeats and repeats, but somehow everything moves, everything is always infinitesimally different (the Deleuze affinity again) …


Everything is a stream in Bene. Not a smooth, flowing stream: full of breaks, jerks, spasms, forever interrupted. Always two, six, ten things going on at once, or in alternation. But it’s still a stream, a plane of intensity. It can drive you mad, like a buzzing in – or a buzzsaw through – your head. It takes you way beyond reason, while stunning you with the precision of its craft. Simsolo testifies to how CB was at the film sound mixing desk: absolutely meticulous.


Think about this: that everything is post-synchronised in these films. Everything! All those texts, those gabbled and garbled words, those effusions and stutterings, those chortles and cries. What impossible work, just the kind of work on sound that Welles, Jacques Tati, Robert Bresson and Ruiz did – but Bene pushed further than any of them. Those vast, sampled musical play-lists or mix-tapes of his soundtracks included.


CB celebrated the “surgical imprecision of montage”. It’s imprecise (while being perfect) because every join or coincidence, every relation or correspondence, every raccord between image and sound, between gesture and scene, is off-beat, off-centre. Snatching us away from what the intrigue of the scene should be: the Dance of the Seven Veils in Salomé, for example. There is very often a serial activity powering this grand montage: those seven veils, Don Juan’s multiple women, clothes to pack or unpack from a suitcase … but no completion of the series in sight. In a Bene film, you wait during half the movie for the classic, expected, known scenes to occur (Hamlet’s skull soliloquy, whatever) – then you spend the next half wondering where it went, when you must have blinked, what you missed.


Surgically imprecise montage: that means, first and foremost, that no shot starts or ends exactly where you think it might, or should. That the action recorded, rendered, is hard to reconstitute, moment to moment, at virtually every moment: what we are seeing, what’s happening, where is this going? Naturally, there are set-pieces where CB scrambles his own work-rules: suddenly, in Our Lady of the Turks, he’s out there, a shambling wreck out in the public streets, broad daylight, rudely injecting himself in the ass – it’s almost a cinéma-vérité stunt, and you see it and take it in clearly enough, this shaggy dog gag. But generally, the strong narrative moments or punchlines – like Christ, in Salomé’s wicked Jewish joke, finding himself unable to hammer his own left hand into the Cross, since his right one is already fixed to the board – slip in and zoom out almost imperceptibly.


The grand history of cinema knows no shortage of superb, even hallucinatory montage passages – in Leos Carax, Samuel Fuller, Ulrike Ottinger – but they remain mainly that, passages, bridges (or stand-alone vignettes, as in music video). Bene knew how to keep this going for a full feature-length stretch – as, in another register, did Marcel Hanoun – each of his films was one long montage sequence. (Aptly, it is said that he learned exactly how long all his plays should be – 80 to 90 minutes – from his experience of making cinema: two hours was too long to sustain such energy, too exhausting for artist and spectator alike.)


Bene never wanted to be acclaimed, awarded, recuperated, neutralised. He never was. Of course, he knew he was a genius, and wanted to be seen, heard, regarded and recognised for that! He has his fans, his Foundation, his cult, his exegetes, his Professors, his autobiography, his archive of recordings and texts – of course, he deserves them all, and he knew that, too. But he was a genius like John Cassavetes was, like Jean-Marie Straub still is: impossible to tame or type within the bounds of any cultural institution. A completely contrary figure, like João César Monteiro (whose work CB liked), like the Pasolini of Salò (ditto), like his dearly departed drinking companion Werner Schroeter, or the Chantal Akerman of Je, tu, il, elle (1974), the Pedro Costa of Colossal Youth (2006), the Jean-Luc Godard of Film Socialism (2010) or the Philippe Garrel of L'enfant secret (1982).


All along, Bene remained steadfastly faithful to his hard, unpassable creed. He said and practiced it a thousand, different ways: create, unleash some energy, create the most bizarre and sometimes spectacular happenings and dispositifs, but communicate nothing. Never have anything to say. Refuse the position of clear, declarative, message-filled speech. Signify nothing, but keep the signifiers in circulation (also Jacques Rivette’s motto of the mid 1970s). Scarcely have a theme, or a subject, beyond what the canonical texts give us as a merest pretext for frantic, microscopic elaboration: indecisive Hamlet, bloody Macbeth, obsessive Don Juan, the crucified Christ …


There was a Lacanian edge to this, particularly in everything to do with the couple, intersubjectivity, communion and community: if there‘s no communication, there’s no fusion, and hardly even the possibility of dialogue – monologues stream, overlapping and clashing in every direction in CB, but zones of nutty action remain resolutely separate and spaced-out, like in Warhol’s Clockwork Orange adaptation in Vinyl (1965), or the revenge-finale of Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore (1971). But where those fuck-you experimenters deployed a static wide-shot/long-take aesthetic taken to painful extremes, Bene atomised, pulverised, and gave himself the arduous task of orchestrating all these fragments in extraordinarily complex montage-streams. At this level of elaboration and achievement, it’s unique.


We scurry after these figures, characters, themes and meanings in Bene. More like fixation-points, samples stuck in a repetitive groove, than characters. They are unravelling before us, caught in strange and interminable states: babbling, gesticulating, swallowing, murmuring. No one could run words into sounds and sounds into words like CB. Even his delivery of popular song shot him through every imaginable register: it exploded through his nose, his mouth, his throat, soaring off and breaking up in all directions. Like Welles, he was a prophet of the digital age in his belief in the power of the microphone, of amplifications and sonic treatments – the sound system was his vocal prosthesis. Film perhaps got him to this quicker than he would have otherwise in theatre, no matter how radical his experiments there. Voices and bodies become more technologised, more fundamentally cinematic for him after that, no matter the medium.


Right now – he could not have guessed or intuited it, for a change – Bene’s audiovisual prodigiousness exists mainly, unstoppably, on YouTube. There must be hundreds of hours of CB, in every medium, there: sound, vision, TV talk and variety shows. His various theatrical and cinematic works are reworked and get a new life there; and there are crucial, visionary “recitation” pieces made solely for the TV medium. Surgical imprecision of montage, amazingly, fits this new channel of delirious and chaotic non-communication very well indeed. Lumpy fragments – no one can start and end a Bene extract cleanly or successfully – fly by in brief bursts of intensity, like the opening of his TV Amleto (1974): what a wild chain of tics, grimaces, enunciations, totally against the dominant line of the verse of the scene – but it’s truly medium-specific TV montage (rigorously off-kilter vision-switching between different simultaneous camera positions), no longer cinema, the cinema of Vertov (Bene’s filmic god) in any strict sense. But why retain anything in its strict sense? And why keep it simple when you can make it complicated (Ruiz asked that)? The spaces for all these odd actions in CB are unsettling, never settled: the hint of a train station luggage department, an unmade bedroom, a palatial orgy/swim room without walls, indeterminate room corners or zones made of curtains, and veils (the amazing no-budget Don Giovanni of 1970 was shot in his own, darkened apartment) …


We know that, as Bene’s theatrical art evolved, it dug in and devolved: from the early Keatonesque stunts and acrobatics, right down to the stasis of his large body seated in a chair on stage, and the amplified reading of a text. More than ever, at that moment, the rumbling of a text uncorked from its subterranean source in language, and from those innumerable sources of culture. As I’ve mentioned, cinema did not serve to liberate Bene’s scenography: it hastened this process of radical shut-in. Of concentration, like Garrel’s La Concentration (1968). Bene’s works for television are truly not for television or even with television, they are literally in television, crammed right into the set and its small, constrictive, domestic frame, never nicely or easily (CB’s head could never be contained there), but concentrated in that increasingly immobile point. A point that has shrunk even further in the age of the computer.


That’s a problem for the appreciation of Andrei Tarkovsky or Kenji Mizoguchi, but not really for Bene. Although seeing Our Lady of the Turks and Salomé on a big, loud screen is an indispensable experience of spectacle – putting him on par (or beyond) with Jarman, Anger and other top-flight Bargain Basement Baroques – Bene’s montage and mise en scène alike take the shrinkage to the YouTube web-page. Take it and like it. Because, in this newer technological language he never knew, or imagined he would ever speak, something translates anew: the rumbling starts, the walls of the frame shake, and the CB transmission begins again …


# #


Exiting from one of the Bene screenings in Thessaloniki, a local woman in the audience, a complete stranger to me who had clearly been as profoundly affected as I, grabbed my arm and testified: “I have been attending this festival for 35 years, but these films are for me the Apocalypse!” And she meant that as the highest praise – as if she could gladly die now that she had seen them. How many filmmakers can inspire such an epiphany of the Happy End?


© Adrian Martin November-December 2009 / December 2010

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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