Produced by Alfredo Bini -- one of the biggest Italian producers of his era, notable for his seven collaborations with Pier Paolo Pasolini --“Let’s Wash Our Brains”, or “RoGoPaG” as it is more generally known (a title taken from the initials of its four directors), is one of the many anthology films that were popular in Italy during the 1960s, this one bringing together three of the great names of International cinema (Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard and Pasolini) with the less well-known outside of his native Italy, Ugo Gregoretti -- for what is a fascinating if uneven snap-shot of modern consumerist mass culture, taken from the vantage point of a Europe just on the verge of the ‘swinging’ boom era of the ‘60s.
It’s fascinating from our current view, because it recaptures a lost post-war perspective which treats the world we all now take for granted (one in which the mass media dominates almost every aspect of our everyday lives and where shopping malls, aggressive advertising and endless innovations in technology promote a mass consumerism in constant search of economic growth) as a shiny, brand new and utterly alien phenomenon: an intrusion into and alteration of the human psyche that’s to be disparaged and treated with suspicion. It’s rather quaint almost, to see here the innovations of the sharp end of 1963’s consumerist society -- such as 8mm home cine-cameras, the latest Italian motorcars & television sets and fast food restaurants – presented as though they were threatening industrial artefacts come to destroy us, devised by the capitalist hegemony specifically with the intention of infantilising our minds to keep us pliant and manageable; one would just love to send an iPad, a smartphone or a tablet back in time to 1960s Italy and watch poor Rossellini’s mind implode! Naturally, bringing such diverse and individualistic talents together under one umbrella project leads to wildly fluctuating shifts in style and tone throughout the four short films included here; yet, this odd collection still captures something of the mood of its specific era -- one of recently affordable transatlantic flights and naively forthright advertising gimmicks, etc. -- and so maintains a heavily nostalgic and durable patina of post-Bondian Euro-cool about it, despite its stated aim of traducing the illusions of ‘60s consumerism which that kind of aspirational image was originally designed to promote.
First up is Roberto Rossellini’s offbeat effort “Illibatezza” (“Virginity”). Here, the great Italian neorealist abandons many of the trappings of his more particular cinematic style for a scatty satirical attack on the illusions of contemporary Italian consumer society, which by this point had begun to reject his more austere, issues-based approach to filmmaking in favour of a frivolous and optimistic one, inspired by the rising wages of the post-war boom, which was by now looking to popular American culture for its image of the good life. The story follows a young, pretty brunette airhostess called Annemarie (played by Rosanna Schiaffino, wife of producer Alfredo Bini) who garners the unwanted attentions of an American tourist (Bruce Balaban) on a flight to Bangkok. Both are cine-enthusiasts and initially bond over their new hobby as they explore the city, with Annemarie using the recently acquired 8mm camera she’s bought to make a film diary of her time away from her boyfriend, Carlo (Carlo Zappavigna) so she can send filmed reports back to him from the various stop-offs around the world that she visits during the course of her job. The American makes an increasing nuisance of himself though, pestering the poor girl with displays of petulant drunkenness after each of his attempts to woo her with the help of tacky, self-help bromides gleaned from glossy magazine articles in Playboy magazine prove unsuccessful, the simple girl seemingly immune to such methods. Viewing the footage back home, the jealous boyfriend consults a psychiatrist friend of his about what to do. The friend diagnoses a condition in the ‘stalker’ brought about by over-exposure to the infantilising forms of modern consumer culture (he is an American after all) thus inducing a sever bout of Oedipus complex, which causes him to seek out an image of purity associated with his mother due to the unconscious’s attempt to return him to the womb (or something). The psychiatrist thus proposes that the shy Annamarie ‘whore herself up’ with tight dresses and dyed blonde hair, in order to break the spell!
This slight but preposterous tale works a vague sort of charm on the viewer out of sheer force of style; a double irony that, perhaps, since its stylistic quirks seem appended more in a spirit of disapproving ire than of aesthetic tolerance. The soundtrack ebbs and flows on a tide of disparate snippets of music, like a TV being flipped from channel to channel, and everything from cool lounge jazz to extracts from Beethoven’s symphonies join forces in a linked chain of thematic cues which segue back and forth on images which attempt to conjure Bangkok with the aid of grainy stock footage and back projection (the lack of budget considerably aiding this attempt to parody Hollywood’s web of illusory glamour, methinks!). There’s a weird tone to this which strikes up a sort delirious imitation of an out-of-kilter Hollywood screwball comedy, while all the while conveying the impression that the director disapproves of the whole thing. Certainly, the characters are all ciphers, particularly the boorish, lovesick American tourist (who is depicted as nothing but a hollowed out walking compendium of brand name consumer obsessions, who ends up trying to embrace a projection screen image of his ‘love’) but even the sympathetic heroine has a hard time holding our attention and her off-the-wall romantic ’plight’ is hardly anything to get geed up about.
Next, Jean-Luc Godard delivers one of his inscrutable transmissions from the Parisian cool side.
“Il nuovo mondo” (“The New World”) is something of a sketch for “Alphaville” which, like that 1965 film, mimics the form of a dystopian science fiction tale (it was apparently inspired by a reading of Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend”) while its visuals remain resolutely those of a contemporary 1960s Paris. Here, an unnamed protagonist (Jean-Marc Bory) finds the world somehow indefinably changed after the exploding of an atomic bomb twelve thousand kilometres above Paris leaves him unable to understand those around him. Everything looks exactly the same, yet logical coherence seems to have been expunged from human communications and Bory is for some reason the only human being unaffected – the exact opposite of the set-up in “Alphaville” then, where poetic language was banned in the name of science by a futuristic totalitarian regime. Both scenarios encourage the same result though: love and therefore the existence of humanity is threatened by the sloughing off of reason from the emotions, even though the world appears, to the superficial gaze, to be carrying on much as before.
The film intersperses naturalistic shots of iconic Parisian street scenes that look quite benign apart from the extras who keep stopping to gulp down handfuls of pills, this being one of the few physical indications of ‘the change’. Bory’s inability to communicate with his gorgeous girlfriend Alexandra (Alexandra Stewart) soon becomes the focal point of the short narrative, but this feels very much like Godard by-numbers, or the kind of thing one might come up with if one were to consciously attempt a parody of Godard’s cinema in the 1960s: diegetic sound drops in and out in the middle of scenes to indicate a shift in tonal perspective when voice-over narration is replaced by dialogue (suggesting we have shifted from an account of a past event to the lived experience of it) and music cues are abruptly arrested suddenly, for no apparent reason other than to make us aware of the fact; similar imagery is repeated and scenes restaged, and the camera likes to gaze at the inscrutable visage of lead actress Alexandra Stewart as she stands smoking at a window with a Parisian street scene as a backdrop behind her. The dialogue pitches conversations that go round in circles, filled with impenetrable non sequiturs: once again here, the oh-so-cool stylisation of it all is far more compelling than the actual content. The only obvious or discernible reference to the theme of the movie that I could fathom makes also for one of the funniest moments in the film: when Alexandra undresses in the bathroom of the couple’s starkly modern apartment and is revealed to have a knife tucked into her knickers, recreating in a small-scale domestic form, an image from the-then recently released James Bond film “Dr No”, since Stewart in profile bears a strong resemblance to Ursula Andress!
The third short film is perhaps the only one which adds something artistically significant to its maker’s filmography. “La ricotta” (Curd Cheese) is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s skewering of the film industry’s pomposity and hypocrisy, with Orson Welles (who filmed his scenes during a four day block) as a revered and remote film director making a biblical epic about the crucifixion of Christ on a patch of wasteland on the urban outskirts of an Italian city. The film focuses on the plight of a starving vagrant called Stracci (Mario Cipriani) who manages to gain employment in Welles’s film as one of the other two criminals who were crucified at the same time as Jesus. This is a sublimely comic skewering of every sacred cow imaginable and it was bound to get the Italian authorities hot and bothered at the time, but now just seems spot on (the film was duly sequestered and Pasolini issued a four month suspended jail sentence).
Welles’ film is shown to be hilariously portentous and floridly over-adorned as it seeks to recreate in minutest detail some of the most famous biblical tableaux depicting Christ’s deposition from the cross, which have been appropriated for the film from the Florentine mannerist painters Rosso Fiorentino and Pontormo. Unlike the surrounding black and white material, these scenes burst onto the screen in full Eastman Color, but their vivid splendour is persistently undermined by the wrong musical accompaniment being played in on the soundtrack by Welles’ inefficient technicians (thus, for example, undermining these solemnly choreographed scenes with ‘groovy’ dance backings) or else the extras are unable to hold their positions and start picking their noses or pulling inappropriate expressions. Welles himself underplays his particular role, fully aware that the part is taking the mick out of his own image but perhaps willing to play along because Pasolini proves himself also happy to satirise himself by having Welles read aloud from one of the Italian director’s own volumes of published poetry in order to bamboozle a persistent on-set journalist. Mostly the film exposes, with a mordantly black sense of wit, the stark difference between the wasteful opulence of such gaudy and expensive filmed productions and the poverty of the extras working on them such as Stracci, who has to wait till last in the production crew queue before being fed at lunch time, and then has his lunch eaten by the pet Pekinese of the film’s biggest female star (played by Laura Betti) .
Pasolini often employs outright absurdist humour, even going as far as to under-crank the camera in order to portray Stracci’s efforts to find food as though they were comic vignettes from a silent Charlie Chaplin comedy. This reaches its apex when the ravenous Stracci’s hunger becomes a source of amusement and entertainment for the rest of the crew as they watch him willingly set aside all dignity to gorge himself on scraps and left-overs (which we see him devouring in speeded up filmed inserts) in a grotto where he’s been storing supplies to feast on at a later date. The point being made is obvious enough, but the absurd comic humour it displays, the magnificent cinematography of Tonino Delli Colli and the constantly inventive imagery combine to make this an engrossing experience which stands somewhat apart from its three companions in terms of its artistic exuberance.
Lastly, Ugo Gregoretti (an unknown name to most of us, but quite famous in Italy at the time this film was released for his genre-bending work in Italian TV documentaries) supplies “Il pollo ruspante” (“Free Range Chicken”) an initially amusing surrealist satire, which takes a Buñuelian hatchet to modern Italian consumerism and it’s anxiety-inducing manipulations, as the director alternates scenes depicting a sinister lecture on how one can influence consumers using subliminal messages in advertising (which is being given by a voiceless professor who must use the emotionless electronic tones provided by an electro voice-box in order to communicate with his audience of aristocrats and industry heads), with the everyday trials and tribulations endured by a typical Italian bourgeois family as they attempt to navigate a path through the labyrinth of memetic signs and signifiers being thrust upon them by the modern media.
The family, led by the furrow-browed father (Ugo Tognazzi) -- who is shown at the start signing off checks in order to be able to afford a new TV, only for the first thing to appear on the screen when he gets home it to be a puppet mouse character his children adore, which is being used in an advertisement to encourage them to ask for an even bigger TV – unwittingly provide illustration for each of the points being made in the professor’s lecture: when the family drive off to keep an appointment to look at some real estate, they spend the whole journey noting and coveting the newer more expensive models of car they see elsewhere on the Autostrada; in a motorway café they’re manipulated into buying all sorts of ephemera they don’t need, and herded into cramped cubicles where they only have a limited number of set options to choose from on the menu, regardless of what they actually want to eat. When the father’s young son asks his dad to explain the difference between a free range chicken and a battery chicken, the point which has been made up till then obliquely throughout, is rammed home forcefully when a high angle shot of the restaurant and its customers shimmers and dissolves into an image which displays the same restaurant cubicles, but now occupied by clucking hens!
This would actually have been quite an amusing little vignette with some nice performances from the cast who play the young family (Tognazzi’s real-life son plays his character’s offspring as well), if it had not been for the fact that it drags on for about fifteen minutes longer than it should have during a central section where the family travel to rural Southern Italy in order to check out a plot of land that they’re considering buying. But that’s quite indicative of this film as a whole: there are lots of enjoyable things individually about each of the stories here, but the film doesn’t quite convince as a unity, with only Pasolini’s effort really feeling like it’s taking an original approach to its material. This is the eternal problem faced by the anthology film of course: few of them, by their very nature, ever present a fully realised vision. Here, Godard’s contribution in particular feels slightly out of place, although in its own right it’s an effective enough little short, dreamt up in typical Godardian nouvelle vague style.
This dual disc edition from the Master of Cinema range presents a handsome HD transfer which shouldn’t disappoint too many people, presenting for the most part a lovely high contrast black and white image with plenty of detail and true filmic texture. The brief colour scenes in Pasolini’s segment stand out as even more lush and vivid for being juxtaposed with such a finely graded monochrome image elsewhere. The audio is in Italian, featuring a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track which sounds fine for its age; and there are, of course, removable English language subtitles accompanying the release. The only disc extra is a theatrical trailer, but the release (which includes a DVD copy of the film) comes with a 56-page booklet featuring an essay on each director’s contribution, plus extracts from a book by Franca Faldini & Goffredo Fofi (as well as other magazine interviews) on the making of the film, which includes contributions from producer Alfredo Bini, directors Pasolini & Gregoretti and actress Laura Betti.
“Let’s Wash Our Brains: RoGoPaG” is an enjoyably nostalgic Franco-Italian reminder of stylish retro‘60s European filmmaking and although its anthology format does not allow for a representative selection of the very best that its prestigious contributors have to offer, as a whole it does at least capture a certain mood with each of the four selections on display, and will certainly hold the attention of anyone interested in this area of cinema. The vivid HD presentation undoubtedly also helps to enforce the overall atmosphere of stylish sixties European modernity and voguish experimentation which pervades this interesting though flawed project.