In this magnificently inscrutable late-sixties masterpiece, Marco Ferreri, one of European cinema’s most idiosyncratic auteurs, takes us through the looking glass to one seemingly routine night in the life of an Italian gas mask designer, played by Michel Piccoli.
Excerpts from “Apocalypse Now” essay by Michael Joshua Rowin and April 1969 issue of Ombre rosse magazine
Where Marco Ferreri’s earlier films contained straightforward, if transgressive, allegories about characters with clearly defined goals, in a world recognizable according to the standards of cinematic realism. Dillinger Is Dead throws narrative, psychological, and symbolic common sense out the window. Dillinger‘s trajectory may seem simple – a gas mask designer played Michel Piccoli (Glauco, although his name appears only in the script) returns home after work, cooks himself dinner, discovers a gun he believes belongs to Dillinger, seduces the maid, and shoots his wife in the head – but the refusal of clear-cut logic, its contradictory symbols, and its moral ambiguity open it to endless interpretation. (Even this new approach would not be radical enough for Ferreri, however: in the late sixties and early seventies, he helped produce hard-core leftist films by Glauber Rocha, and Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Dziga Vertov Group, and, forever dissatisfied with the ability of cinema to make a social impact, he would later lament that Dillinger was too easily recuperated by the mainstream.)
April 1969, Ombre rosse
Interview by Goffredo Fofi and Ruggero Savinio
Critics have praised Dillinger Is Dead for its rigor and coherence, for the fact that there is no lapses in it.
It was easier to achieve that in the case of Dillinger than in my other films. But I should say that this sort of praise strikes me as ambiguous at best. The film owes its unity to the subject matter itself and to a set of technical choices: there is very little dialogue, for example, and that absence makes the sounds essential. Things like that.
Most of the objects and machines the protagonist avails himself of have a clear meaning. Still, we would like you to tell us something about his screening of the home movie of the hands. Could you talk about that, and also say something about the specific function of the TV clips, the underground film, and the cameo appearance of Italian film historian Adriano Apra?
The hands? It is a fetish of mine. It is also, and more to the point, an important aspect in the characterization of the protagonist: his hands, you will notice, are always busy, always manipulating something, doing things. This busyness is the exaggeration of an obsessive tic. The home movies gives this tic the chance to lead a life of its own, independent of the life of the main character. As for the TV clips, the basic ideas was to show the uselessness of language, of words that try to frame ideas by circling around them without ever getting to the heart of the matter. This is another exaggerated tic. The aim is to point up the vacuity of so much spoken language.
Do you believe that it is possible, working within a system, to make films that pull the rug out from under it and throw it into crisis?
Cinematographic channels are capable of absorbing everything. The operations required to throw the system into crisis are external to films themselves. In other words, it is not a matter of making a certain type of cinema as opposed to some other type. It would be good to break up certain organizations, form new groups…The value of the work ends up depending on factors that are extrinsic to the film, instead of intrinsic to it. The channels are the usual, age-old ones, and we are always working on unsteady ground. Cinema as an antialienation weapon – there you have a theme that has not yet received serious consideration. Dillinger might be useful to twenty people…But I make a film that will be seen and appreciated by the thousand people I probably hate the most. I mean all those characters who make up the so-called cultural world: people who haunt art galleries and art-house cinemas. A clan of the most hateful people around, or who I, at any rate, find least congenial…That’s why I want my next film to resemble my older ones. I want it to be much more provocative. I want to make a film in truly bad taste! I am not sure this is the right way to go; probably even this won’t have the desired effect. Some days ago, I saw a Cuban film called Las aventuras de Juan Quin Quin [by Julio Garcia Espinosa], and I think there is a lot we can learn from it. The film is a lesson to the public, and what is interesting is that the tone in which this message is delivered is just right: the language is such that it satisfies the public, who can relate to it, and the director as well, who can remain interested in it. The film manages to demythologize a Western hero by showing how to steal rifles and things like that. It does so in the best way: getting the public to think while being entertained.
What is the audience you make films for?
What audience? Well, that is a question one cannot afford to ignore, and one that comes up with increasing urgency in our day and age: step by step, we move forward…A film is useful if it serves some political purpose. Dillinger Is Dead is no use at all, since all it does is please the cultural ghetto. And who cares about that? Even provocation is no use anymore, for it, too, is immediately digested, along with everything else What is missing today, I think, is the impulse to render the audience, and the public in general, active. But how are we to do that? Maybe things were better-actually, things were better-at the very start, during the time of Méliès, the time of the fair booths, when, by means of the fair booths, thousands of new ideas reached the masses. We have to think seriously about the people who go to the movies, and about their money. If only it were possible to go back to the fair booth! Think about the worker who leaves his or her job dead tired at the end of the day: Why should we make him or her work yet another two hours? To please ourselves? Do we want to give this audience – we who are always working within the system, by the way – films that succeed only in pushing them aside, since it is never clear to them what the films are saying, what sense they make, and what use can they have? If this is what we are doing, then we are also robbing the workers in our turn. Obviously, it is a matter of language. Let’s take you as an example. You guys represent the politicized film buffs of Ombre rosse, a publication that is supposed to be offering the public something new. Why, then, don’t you stop using the aristocratic and technical vocabulary that tends to grace the pages of this publication and takes as you model Don Milani’s best-selling Letter to a Teacher instead?
Do you believe in the utility of an art-house circuit that would serve as a kind of countercircuit?
To do what? To screen what? In the case of Dillinger, of course, I asked the distributors to release it as quickly as possible after the premieres, in small theaters – the ones that already work a bit like a pre-art-house network. But it doesn’t matter so much. On the contrary, what exactly would be shown in this countercircuit? Films meant to educate the public in the same old paternalistic way? People are conditioned to see certain things. But maybe we ourselves are wrong. A countercircuit that includes Ponzi, Orsini, Amico, the Taviani brothers, Pasolini, Bertolucci, myself…what sort of unity would that be? What sense would that make? This countercicuit you mention is, after all, only another fruit of the same system. Soon enough, this countercircuit will become very fashionable; theater owners will notice that it is a profitable business and they’ll jump on it. This has already happened in Paris…Auteur cinema, they call it. And this auteur cinema is, precisely, an overly personal cinema. Take Orsini’s The Damned of the Earth: it is a political film, yes, but it is too difficult, too personal; the original Frantz Fanon text is quite complicated already, so try to figure out what the film will look like (I confess I haven’t seen it yet). A countercircuit certainly promotes a change of scene, and it does hold out the possibility of seeing something decent. But let’s not fool ourselves. This countercircuit is entirely integrated with the main one. There is nothing to do about that. Maybe we should do what Rossellini did in turning to television, since Rossellini, I hate to say it, is the only one who seems really to have understood a few things. The Taking of Power of Louis XIV is an important film, as important as Rossellini’s opinion on didactic cinema.
Why, then, do you keep making films “within the system”?
Right, why continue? We need to find formulas that are more popular. Are we right to provoke? Is that really called for? My ideas here are a bit confused, I am sure, but not so confused that I fail to notice that the cinema we make is useless. In situations such as ours, every form of discourse becomes personal. As such, these forms of discourse are completely ineffective, for honest and dishonest people alike. I am totally useless, and so are you. Not least because we’re missing a common political discourse to which we can refer…As for students, they cannot, with all their defects, be all that useful. This does not mean that a director should not try to break through his or her isolation and establish a common discourse. And I don’t mean by that the specialized discourse offered by morons like those aficionados of the Cinémathèque Française. That stuff is ridiculous, and incoherent to boot. Take their former passion for Hollywood films – why do they forsake it now? They are always moving to the “new” thing, but they fail to see that their discourse is always behind the times.