Date/Time: 01/08/2005 12:00 am
Monday Night 08.01.05 — Discussion/Talk — Olga Solovieva
“The Scene of Christ, or
the Embodied Camera in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo”
1. About this Monday Night
2. About Olga Solovieva
3. The Aesthetic of Deafness in Pasolini’s Cinematic Transliteration of the Gospel According to St. Matthew.
3.2 Full text
1. About this Monday Night
What: Presentation / Discussion
Where: 16 Beaver Street, 4th floor (directions below)
When: Monday Night 08.01.05 @ 7:30 Pm
Who: Open To All
This Monday night, film scholar Olga Solovieva
will present a talk entitled “The Scene of Christ, or
the Embodied Camera in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Il
Vangelo Secondo Matteo”
2. About Olga Solovieva
Olga Solovieva is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department
of Comparative Literature at Yale University with a
dissertation in cultural studies entitled “A Discourse
Apart: the Body of Christ and the Practice of Cultural
Subversion.” She studied at the Moscow State
University and graduated from the Free University
Berlin with MA in German and Russian literatures.
Olga teaches courses and writes articles on cinema,
especially on Fassbinder, Fritz Lang, Godard,
Pasolini, and Tarantino.
Her writing on Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra
von Kant can be found at:
This summer Olga is teaching a course called “Quentin
Tarantino, Film, and Pulp Culture” at The Yale Summer
3.1 The Aesthetic of Deafness in Pasolini’s Cinematic Transliteration of the Gospel According to St. Matthew
Olga V. Solovieva
This paper will discuss Pier Paolo Pasolini’s semiotic theory and his film The Gospel According to Saint Matthew in relation to then-recent modern research on the sign language of the deaf, inaugurated by the book of the American linguist William C. Stokoe (1960) entitled Sign Language Structure: An Outline of the Visual Communication of the American Deaf. Pasolini’s cinematic translation of St. Matthew’s gospel into the cinematic language of his film (1964) operates like a ‘transliteration’ of a verbal text into a bodily sign language of the deaf with its system of gesticulations and mimicry realized in time and space.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew figured as a practical point of departure for Pasolini’s theorizing about the poetic language of cinema, whose mode of expression he saw as analogous to the expressive ‘language’ of reality itself. Sing language offers us a lucid model for such a ‘language of reality’ existing in a system of movements, natural but codified. Its notation systems are images and signs at the same time.
Pasolini’s technique of adaptation of the gospel can be understood in terms of such notations, which were attempted by means of primitive cinema and photography already by the end of the nineteenth century. Characteristically, the director concentrates on the visualization of the dialogue or monologue passages of the gospel, which can be represented as tableaux. Words pronounced in monotonous, declamatory style maintain the material deafness of the written language, but are transliterated into the hieroglyphically sculptured landscapes and pictorially transfigured in the space by arrangement of the characters in the mise-en-scène. Pasolini transcribes the natural expressivity of the profilmic in a way that recalls paper notations of the bodily language.
Narrative passages of the gospel are totally replaced by the movement of the camera and motion of the characters on the screen and are most often accompanied by a moaning, sighing, crying soundtrack. The emphasis on motion functions analogously to the syntax of sign language, which is conveyed through turns of the torso in relation to a certain point in space. Similarly, the panning movements of Pasolini’s camera often follow the bodily movements of the character: for example, the camera’s pan following Joseph’s body when he lies down to sleep.
I will attempt to show how the semiotic logic of the sign system of the deaf allows us to account for Pasolini’s synthesis of linguistic sign with cinematic image, of the notated sign’s flatness with its concrete realization by movement in three-dimensional space by means of the insertion of the concept of the body as an organic medium and carrier of the linguistically codified expressivity imitated by the camera.
3.2 The Aesthetic of Deafness in Pasolini’s Cinematic Transliteration of the Gospel According to St. Matthew
Olga V. Solovieva
At the opening of the gallery of Modern Art in Bologna in March of 1975, the Italian performance artist Fabio Mauri organized a happening in which Pasolini’s film ‚The Gospel According to St. Matthew‘ was projected onto the director‘s own body. The logic of this event drives home, and this quite literally, the essential moment of Pasolini’s aesthetics of cinema, its rootedness in a ritualized, meaningful body, the body of the camera, which figures as an extension of the body of its human operator, in a broader sense, of the film-maker himself. Fabio Mauri‘s projection returns Pasolini’s film back where it originated, in the three- dimensional space once occupied by the camera’s body-work. The German critic Karsten Witte wrote about bodily geography in Pasolini’s films, of bodies as locations and locations as bodies. He called his essay‚Körperorte,‘ fusing both words Körper ‚body‘ and Orte ‚locations‘ in one, as the body and the location fuse on Pasolini’s screen.
Fabio Mauri makes us aware that the fusion of both happens even before its materialization on the screen. It is immanent in the very ritual of film-making, and the presence of the camera felt on the film-strip is always the presence of the human body that once was united with it. Pasolini’s personal expedition to Palestine in search of locations for his gospel-film is the best example of his impersonation of the camera, for the footage from Israel was ultimately discarded and substituted through the Southern Italian landscapes according to the principle of analogy, the analogy established through the memories of the director. It is this footage of memories of both the Palestinian ground and the Christian iconography of various epochs that merge in the osmotic formations of Pasolini’s images, the images that stay behind after being filtered through the medium of his antropomorphic camera.
Noa Steimatsky has shown that the notion of personal pilgrimage in service of corporeal mediation between the sacred ground and its re-invention on the screen was essential to Pasolini’s work on the gospel-film and imbued it with religious sensibility. Mauri’s projection stresses that the film is just a trace of such corporeal encounter between the embodied apparatus and the world and that every screening is, first and foremost, a performative repetion of this initial encounter. He also reminds us in a way that Pasolini’s obsession with the archaic extends to the archaic phase of cinema itself when the camera and the projector were still one, and the pro-filmic reality was filtered onto the screen through the apparatus in a more immediate fashion. Mauri exposes the usually forgotten medium of the filmmaker’s body as an integral part of the camera-work thus revealing the sphynx-like nature of the camera that combines a human body and a technical eye.
Pasolini-Mauri collaboration returns us to the age of the first passion plays which figured as a multi-media performances integrated into the lecture programs, precluded by the trips to historical sights and accompanied by the commentaries and slide-shows. The embededness of the cine-text of Pasolini’s ‚Gospel According to St. Matthew‘ in the ritual of performance, emphasized by Mauri, highlights in a similar fashion its character as a trace, or a notation of an extensive ritual surrounding its making. And this ritual, Pasolini’s and Mauri’s message is in this respect unambiguous, is centered on the auteur‘s embodiment of the camera.
The camera-work conceived of in bodily terms is central to Pasolini’s theorizing about the poetic language of cinema, for which his work on the gospel-film was a practical point of departure. Pasolini sees the poetic language of cinema as participating in the expressive ‚language‘ of reality itself. The poetry consists in those creative deviations which the film-maker‘s camera wrings from the natural expressivity of the pro-filmic. And the film-making is a mediation by means of the camera between the language-system of reality, as Pasolini calls the natural expressivity of pro-filmic landscapes and faces, and the imaginary of the film-maker, who shapes them through his idiosyncratic individual usage of the camera into pictorial icons. This mediation is conceived of by Pasolini in linguistic and bodily terms of a mute dialogue of gestures, movements, and visual signs.
This language of reality is thought by Pasolini as analogous to the system of the sign-language of the deaf and mute. In his essay ‚The Cinema of Poetry‘ he writes about this sign-language as follows: „This system of signs by gestures which, in practice, accomponies the system of linguistic signs as its complement, can be isolated as an autonomous system and become the object of a study. One can even suppose, by abstract hypothesis, the existence of a unique system of signs by gestures as unique instrument of communication for man (in sum: deaf and dumb Neapolitans): it is from such a hypothetical system of visual signs that language derives the foundation of its existence and the possibility of allowing the formation of a series of naturally communicative archetypes.“ Pasolini’s speculations about the sign-language as an equivalent to the language of reality is reminiscent of the characterization of the sign-language as the language of natural signs once given to it by the French priest l’abbé de l’Épée who started studying the sign-language systematically in the eighteenth century. The sign-language was, indeed, traditionally perceived as a ‚language of reality‘.
Pasolini writes: „The fact of walking alone in the street, even with our ears stopped up, constitutes a continual dialog between ourselves and an environment which expresses itself by the meditation of the images which compose it: the physiognomy of the passers-by, their gestures, their signs, their actions, their silences, their expressions, their collective reactions (people waiting at red lights , a crowd around a street-accident or around a monument); besides, traffic signs, indicators, counterclockwise rotaries are in sum objects charged with meanings and which utter a brute ‚speech‘ by their very presence.“ The objects, enumerated by Pasolini, signify by movement, as the bodies do in the process of gesticulation so that their expressivity appears as natural and codified at once. The sign-language of reality given in this description is akin to sign-language of the deaf and mute, insofar as in both cases the medium of the signification and the signifiers metonymically overlap.
Thus sign language whose medium is the body moving in the three-dimensional space becomes a linguistic model for Pasolini’s body-rooted and camera-centered film-theory. It helps theorize both the choice of the pro-filmic and the individual body-work of the camera, that Pasolini calls in analogy to stylistics ‚free indirect discourse.‘ Sign-language provides a common linguistic denominator for their visual dialog, for Pasolini writes: „There is more: in man, an entire world is expressed by means of significant images – shall we therefore propose, by analogy, the term ‚im-signs‘ (image-signs). This is the world of memory and of dreams. … And all dreams – are a series of im-signs which have all the characteristics of the cinematic sequence: close-up, long shots etc.“ Thus the body of the camera externalizes by means of its movement this inner cinema that exists in the mind of the film-maker and brings it in a dialogue with the image-signs of reality. Not coincidentally, Pasolini gives an example of such silent dialogue with reality by evoking the perceptions of a deaf person walking through the city. It is through his own body-movement that he communicates with moving images that surround him. Characteristically, the im-signs of memories appear in Pasolini’s description in a cinematic format. They are delivered to the individual’s mind through certain positions and movements of his body, as if it were through the camera and its lens.
Pasolini calls this bodily-rooted visual communication, which in his view underpins cinematic language brute and instinctive. He writes: „Indeed, gestures, the surrounding reality, as much as dreams and mechanisms of memory, are of a virtually pre-human order, or at least at the limit of humanity – in any case pre-grammatical and even premorphological (dreams are unconscious phenomena, as are mnemonic mechanisms; the gesture is an altogether elementary sign etc.).“ In fact, the French anthropologist Marcel Jousse discovered in the early twentieth century that the body was used to record verbal content by some African tribes. The rhythmical gestures were ‚implanted in the muscles of the young pupils‘ by a tribal educator so that they could trigger the words, when the ritual dance begins. Pasolini‘s idea of translating Matthew’s account of the very basic myth of Western civilization, the myth of God’s incarnation in a human body, into the visual language of cinema is reflected and complemented by his recuperation of such archaic forms of transmission, based on bodily memorization and communication of verbal contents. Pasolini applies them to his cinematic techniques. In a similar way, the text of Matthew’s gospel is transliterated into the body-language, or sign-language of the camera-work, which embraces a fixed set of repeting movements and functions as a bodily trigger of the im-signs originating in the pro-filmic. Its presence also ensures the continuity in the flow of images leading from one image to the next as if through the unconscious automatism of the camera‘s procedures that Pasolini prefers over the narrative logic of continuity editing. And these procedures are already laden with meaning like those of the body of Jousse‘s savage.
More than a decade before Pasolini, Alexander Astruc insisted on the unique language-like expressivity of cinema and coined his famous metaphor of the camera-stylo, in order to emphasize the expressive capacities of the camera-work instead of the representational ones. In Pasolini’s similarly articulated call for the cinema of poetry, the camera is conceptualized as a signing body of a deaf. He entrusts the camera-movement with semiotic potential in the same degree as the reality itself is conceived of by him as semiotically codified system of communication. It is out of the complex process of interaction between the two that the poetic language of the cinema emerges.
In 1960, only four years before Pasolini speculated about the potentially linguistic nature of gestural expressivity and experimented with its exploitation in cinema, the American linguist William C. Stokoe inaugurated the systematic linguistic study of sign language and developed the first comprehensive system of its notation by showing the triple nature of a sign-unit in sign-language of the deaf and mute. The sign in the sign-language has a complex structure which indeed corresponds to Pasolini’s camera-work in the gospel-film. It consists of the tabula, the designator, and the signation. The tabula is the upper part of the body against which the movement of the hand is positioned. It can be, for example, an upper or a lower arm, a left or a right shoulder, chest or different parts of the head. The designator is a configuration of the hand. There are twenty-six such configurations which usually correspond to the letters of the alphabet. And the signation is the actual sign whose meaning depends on the particular movement of the designator in relation to the tabula. The hand can be positioned at a distance to the body, or it can touch it. It can move in circular movements or go up and down, or to the left or right. The syntax in the sign language is conveyed through turns of the torso in relation to a certain point in space as well as through facial expression.
This model, indeed, seems to be apt to describe Pasolini’s linguistics of gesticulation as a prototype of the language of reality and of camera-movement which in their colaboration signate in the image-signs the visual counterpart to the verbal content of the gospel. Characteristically, the director concentrates on the visualization of the dialogue and monologue passages of the gospel, which are represented as tableaux accompanied by the monotonous voice-over. Words pronounced in declamatory style maintain the material deafness of the written language. They appear to be transliterated into the hieroglyfically sculptured landscapes or pictorially transfigured in space by arrangement of the characters in the mise-en-scene. Narrative passages of the gospel are totally replaced by the movement of the camera and motion of the characters on the screen and are most often accompanied by a moaning, sighing, crying soundtrack.
What appears on the film strip, thus acquires a character of a notation of this mute language of the image-signs of the camera. Of course, this notation is to be understood not as a contemporary notation system of sign-language where each part of the sign is recorded through a written mark, but is rather comparable to the very early cinematic attemtps to record the sign-language through the long shots of the moving images. The specific aesthetic of such image-notations of the camera-movement that Pasolini develops in his gospel-film and raises to the level of theorerical reflection in his essay ‚Cinema of Poetry,‘ can be called the aesthtetic of deafness. I would like to demonstrate its features in the self-reflexive opening sequence of the film.
In the case of Pasolini’s gospel, the images are still pregnant with the history of their physical making in three-dimensional space of the embodied camera and its sign-language. The movement is often inscribed here in the prolonged static shots reminiscent of the one-shot movies of the early cinema, which similarly contained the movement, the movement of the pro-filmic. (Mary moving towards the camera.) The movements of Pasolini’s camera often closely follow the characters and reenact their bodily movements. (Joseph walking and falling asleep.) Sometimes, the camera-movement is recorded as an actor on its own. (Jubilation of the camera swinging upwards after the angel’s message.)
The rhythmical organization of this opening sequence through the repetition of shots, settings, and camera-movements, such as the close-up of the faces, or the shot of the entrance of the house, of the inner yard of the house, and of the road in the arid landscape etc., the elegic tracking shot contemplating mountains, the emphatically elated high-angle shot of Mary’s house after the angel’s message, the jerking movements of Joseph‘s rapid steps over the stony dirt road represent the poetic usage of the language of reality, which Pasolini conceptualized as the sign-language of gestures. And indeed, Pasolini’s cinema of poetry appears to be congenial to the sign-language poetry studied in the American context by Clayton Valli.
Valli „has defined such techniques as ‚lines’ and ‚rhymes‘ in Sign poetry, which are applicable to Pasolini’s camera-work. Valli explains how a sign language poet creates signed ‚lines‘ through visual rhyme patterns. A signed rhyme is made through a repetition of particular handshapes, movement paths, sign locations, or nonmanual markers such as facial expressions or body postures. For example, in his poem, ‚Snowflake,‘ Valli employs visual rhyme by repeating the same ‚five‘ handshape (palm open, all fingers extended) to sign TREE, then to draw the outline of the leaves on the tree, and then to show the leaves falling to the ground.“ (Dirksen L. Bauman, 322)
„As a visual performance art, Sign poetry bears more similarity to painting, dance, drama, film, and video than to poetry and fiction. A ‚line‘ in Sign poetry, for example, is more accurately modelled after the concept of the ‚line‘ in painting or a choreographed ‚phrase‘ in dance. Instead of moving from left to right, the Sign poet draws lines through space in all directions.“ This signed poetry calls to mind Pasolini’s filming of Christ’s preaching when we have a long sequence of close-ups rhythmically zooming on Christ’s face again and again, showing it in different aspects and in different lighting. The camera’s zoom punctuates the spoken text. The stop of the zoom marks the period. The specialists speak today of the cinematic nature of sign language, as Pasolini spoke about the gestural nature of the language of cinema. In both cases, we deal with the same phenomenon of codified expressivity of movement in space.
The aesthetic of deafness that Pasolini has developed in the gospel-film helps preserve in the visual realm of cinema the written character of the book, the poetry of its language that transmits to us the Christian myth. In one of his interviews, Pasolini famously claims that Italians don’t read the gospels and, for this reason, his film is supposed to provide a cinematic substitution for a failed reading experience and cinematically disseminate the gospel. If the voice is associated in Western cultural tradition with presence, and writing – with absence, the written character of Pasolini’s cinematic gospel foregrounds the simulated character of likenesses on the screen, the distant archaic past that is accessible only through the arbitrary creations of the cultural signifiers and their symbolically abstract expressivity that is to be derived and differentiated from photographic realism. It is the written account of the gospel that the camera-body poetically reenacts in its sign-language and whose traces are left on the film-strip bearing witness to Pasolini’s cinema of poetry, which starts before and extends beyond the screen.
The idea of the cinema of poetry is as old as cinema itself. The recent research by Christophe Wall-Romana has shown that Mallarmé’s late project Le Livre of 1893 was inspired by the very first screenings by Lumière brothers and conceived as a multi-faceted performance combining cinematographic projections with dance and pantomime. Mallarmé wanted his poetry to become cinema, to be reenacted by the light-rhythms of cinematic projection emphasizing the materiality of the linguistic medium; the organization of poetic language by rhythm rather than by syntactical logic. He articulates his intentions programmatically:
Undoing idea as book
Its operating mechanism there
the Idea in it is visible there it is clear
glow within titles transparence
Pasolini sets for himself a similar goal, when he wants his cinema to speak the language of poetry. Both poets base their projects on the poetic expressivity of the camera, which at Mallarmé’s time was still one with the projector. Integrated into a larger performative context, the camera becomes in both cases the operating mechanism of poetry that makes poetry visible in the transparent glow of the screen. Its operations were revealed by Fabio Mauri and Pasolini as vulnerably human.