Il Cinema Ritrovato 2022 – The Ugly Indifferent One

3 July, 2022

“It’s Bologna, and Bologna only, to me, with its arcades arching across most of its central streets, that could host the odd collection of pale, photo-sensitive faces that converges at each year’s edition of the festival; and I have joined them for the first time.” 

Now that I’m at the festival once again, I realize that the shivers that I felt last time were immeasurable. The call was given once more under the arcades of Bologna, but many more answered it this time around, not just the people of archives, the photo-sensitives, but also those of festivals, the weightless travelers, the charming eternal tourists wearing their FIPRESCI bronzes, worldly, never divine: people of the status quo. And the random audience? I don’t know it, don’t see it, don’t believe in it: the festival still seems like an inside affair, our little big public secret.

And this year, the secret was to be cheekier, dirtier, and more chic-compromising for the eye and the calendar (50 years since…) – right now, I’m working on my schedule in a way that allows me to catch the all-new 4k restoration of Deep Throat (dir. Gerard Damiano Sr., 1972), and all around me, I hear jokes about John Waters’ assertion that Bologna is the European capital of blowjobs, as Lee Kline paraphrased it in the opening of Pink Flamingos (1972). What can I say, Waters’ persona is contested by many and admired by all, and my intuition tells me that his place is amongst us, the posts. I think it’s telling that, at one point, we tried to imbue irony with passion and ended up with post-irony, which is not at all the same. In fact, Kline also said that Waters always wished that Pink Flamingos would have had a cinema run in the European arthouse circuit, who is epitomized by festivals just like Ritrovato. Here, where all my brethren breathe in conditioned air, sleeping in hotel rooms where space-time seems to have come to a half, and discreetly outfitting themselves with their own CVs – the Sarajevo T-shirt matching the Pesaro tote, together with the Locarno glasses and a lighter from god knows where –, so here, I realize that there is no other place or time that is capable of eliciting sympathy towards a cinema made of glass and plastic with such ease, other than this one. Because all of this – too much, too flashy, too disconnected, too exaggerated – is surprisingly natural to the tourist that is excited to simply be. Or that is embarrassed to simply be, deriving his embarrassment towards agitation or political reflection; deriving the commodity of incommodity.

I’m thinking about two things in particular, one by Waters and another, the fabulous Salomè (1922) by Charles Bryant, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s eponymous play. I wouldn’t want to insist on the latter. I’ll just say that it proved to me the things that modern cinema could never ever return to, not even in its wildest dreams: a pure and simple passion for the beautiful, for the wavy bodies that rippled across silent cinema, the bulging eyes of Alla Nazimova, her all-too-perfect costumes, the terribly erotic physiques of the men surrounding Salomè, like the slave that lies squarely down at her feet, like a Greek statue in motion. Exactly 100 years ago, a poor drawing of the full moon, hand-sketched in blue, could still be the Moon during nighttime; and for the sake of a beautiful idea, it really was. Now it can only be camp, an interesting idea.

With Pink Flamingos, things are straightforward, because this is not a faraway film – on the contrary, the uproar from back then made our era what it is today, and we can recognize its turbo-capitalistic landscapes, its strident tones, its music video-like pulsations, its desperate gestures, but we no longer recognize its passion for their inherent wildness. But we do recognize Waters as a dandy intellectual of the new age, the kind of camp aristocrat that Susan Sontag described at the time as one who paraded “worldly” pleasures. All of this has changed in the half-century that divides the camp of Salomè, vested in rare and beautiful pleasures, to that of Pink Flamingos. Waters was one of those who felt that bravado can no longer be written down in the ink and style of the old subversive masters, like Baudelaire, Genet, or even Pasolini, because the enemies have always been the same – beauty, common sense, convention, prudery, the system –, but in the meantime, they’ve become illiterate. The most urgent of bravados are written in Coca-Cola and underlined by TV, a new alphabet in which manifestos, just like love letters (and Waters inhabits the space in between them), are waiting to be written. It’s just that in the case of manifestos, speaking “on everybody’s tongue”, that is, in the one that those in power find to be convenient for the sake of clarifying some agitating message or another, proved to be (apologies) boring in the framework of cinema, something like The Coca Cola Kid by Dušan Makavejev. If transgressive cinema, so Pink Flamingos, quintessentially, would have just been a game of provocation merely though its topic, Waters would still come out as the winner. Who would ever shoot a long single take of a drag queen eating dog shit for the camera, winking at it, as if losing a bet in a dignified way?

But the film also has a given form, one that is misshapen, of a primitive sort of cinema that is updated to the sensibilities of the new, postbellum pop-culture products: soap operas and scandalous reportages, TV beauty contests and survival shows, rock music and the imaginarium of B movies. After all, the story is more or less shaped like a media contest, opened and closed by imitations of TV reports: Connie and Raymond Marble (Mink Stole & David Lochary), an eccentric couple involved in all sorts of gigs, the kidnapping, and raping of random women amongst them, then selling their babies to rich lesbians, try to finish off Divine, who has recently been named as the most miserable person in the world, a title that they believe belongs to none other than themselves.

Even so, although he seized their symptomatic essence, Waters, a child of the underworld, did not let himself be intimidated by the standards of industrial productions, just inspired by them, retaining his DIY flair which dictates that it would be absurd for a zoom to become a moral question. Here, a zoom is a zoom is a zoom, just like a handheld shot originates in nothing else than the lack of a tripod. In the brand-new Cinema Europa, in the brand-new Criterion restoration, the film’s sound is still whirring; and it will forever whir. 

Through this misshapen, somewhat fixed form – because all this, meaning zooms, off-screen music, an academic style of pronunciation that never makes the actors interrupt each other, has to do with an attempt to render image as less ambiguous –, while to the same degree remaining open, incomplete, indifferent, yearning for improvisation, always giving off the impression of events happening faster than the camera may record them… through this misshapen form, Pink Flamingos remains one of the greatest films ever made and conceptualized anarchically, miles ahead of the countless stories that were told, at the time, about some smaller or bigger anarchy. At one point, Divine claims that she will give the world much, much more than it was capable of seeing until then. Fifty years have passed, and the world no longer wants to see anything at all.

Film critic and journalist. He is an editor at AARC and writes the ”Screens” features for Art Magazine. He collaborates with many publications and film festivals as a freelancer and he is strangely attached to John Ford's movies. At Films in Frame, he writes "Footnotes" - a monthly editorial published on a Thursday.