Thursday, August 26, 2010

DILLINGER IS DEAD (1969) - a safe, modern society has no room for gunslingers


here is the awesome pop art trailer for Dillinger e Morto, as the Eyetalians call it


Michel Piccoli is enjoying another productive and fulfilling day at the gas mask factory, helping to design a useful product that allows hard working people a way to filter out harmful external particles. After all, if you cut into the health of a worker, you cut into his productivity. Unfortunately, a fellow co-worker breaks up this chain of focus by reading an essay he wrote aloud to Mr. Piccoli, who is barely listening to all of this. This essay asserts that the gas mask testing chamber is a metaphor for the modern man. That is, man must wear a mask to survive in this chamber, while making him subservient to this hi-tech piece of equipment, just to be able to survive in this very chamber mankind has managed to create. In the process, he loses his identity (he’s just another guy in a mask, after all), and also loses his position within the physical world (being that he is stuck in a chamber). I guess the gas mask represents the role one finds within a modern industrial society (career, family), and the chamber represents the industrial living quarters (home, office), and the “disease” is both raw humanity and the chaos of the universe, that which conflicts with this industrial structure (like the uncertainty of life and the world around us, or an imagination unfettered). The gas mask keeps man well enough alive and seemingly healthy, just as modern society aims to provide for basic functions and desires, including entertainment, to sustain man. Well, that’s my interpretation anyway, but, then again, what in the hell do I know about anything.


The director, Marco Ferreri, is one of the unsung masters of Italian cinema. If forced to sum him up in a single line, I would probably call him the Italian Luis Bunuel, that is, a sly, rule breaking satirist. However, Dillinger is Dead is of a different mode from most of his work, and, in surface terms, it resembles what might happen if Godard made a film parodying Michelangelo Antonioni. The opening speech is eerily similar to something you might find in a Godard film post 1966, but hardly something that would interest Michel. Instead, he is a strong male of the industrial age, and not one to concern himself with intellectual babble. He grows restless listening, pointing to his watch, as he wants to get on with his night. However, this speech sets off something within his mind, allowing doubt about the structure of his life to creep into his subconscious.


Well, Michel drives home, where his hot trophy wife (Anita Pallenberg) is lounging in bed. She is so stricken with middle class ennui, it seems, that she can’t so much as get out of bed at any point during the entire film. The extent of her wonder of the world is confined to the vague amusement she feels staring at the goldfish jar next to her bed. She is not quite curious enough, however, to notice that the jar could be another in-frame metaphor, like the gas chamber. What is a goldfish but a little man forced to live in a bowl, with the necessary nutrients for survival periodically sprinkled in from above? He exists mostly to exist, and sustain this industrialized aquatic system. Maybe that wasn’t the best linking of metaphors, but I think you get the idea.


Hungry, he sits down at the dinner table, finding a meal left out for him. This particular food bores him, so he browses a cookbook, hoping to find something to appease his desires. He turns on the T.V., where a “reporter” is interviewing some pretty young girls of the day. “Do you wear lipstick?” is the first question asked. Here is a piece of vapid entertainment that is perfect background noise while one decides on what to eat for dinner. Still, I am reminded of the speech from earlier, which referenced something about how part of modern man’s sustenance consists of entertainment of the safe and non-disruptive sort.


Well, as a man’s man, Michel throws on an apron and whips out a nice slab of beef, ruminating on how he should prepare this piece of dead flesh. This quest for garnish leads him into a closet, where he finds, not some mythical steak sauce, but, quite curiously, a gun wrapped in an old newspaper. The paper seems to be a special edition dedicated to John Dillinger’s recent (at the time) death. We see some newsreel footage of Dillinger’s final days, a recap of the media’s treatment of a gangster that captured the imagination of the common man. Here is a mythical figure, unbound by the formal rigors of modernization. He also died in his early thirties, but hey, at least he went out with some individual style.


Well, Michel continues to prepare the meal, but simultaneously starts work on a most unexpected project, preparing the gun itself, this most masculine of symbols, for what we know not. He takes it apart and cleans it in oil, and searches the bedroom for a file. His wife asks him to come to bed, but he is enthralled by his new project. She asks for sleeping pills, a glass of water, and a hot water bottle, after earlier complaining about a headache. Michel obliges, and she appears to be content staying in bed, as long as her desires are satisfied, and any potential “illness” is filtered out. She even takes her nightie off and wraps it up with the water bottle, and sticks the whole thing under the cover, as if she is about to become intimate with it. I guess this crude substitute for a man will have to do, being that her husband is too busy wandering off on some “quest”.


Michel happens upon the maid as she is performing a sexy dance while wearing a mesh body suit. One would think that, if Michel was indeed bored with his wife, refusing to join her in bed, this is just the sort of exciting female encounter to spark him out of this boredom. However, he completely ignores her, enthralled as he is by his new gun, and the splendid meal that HE created. He enjoys some sports programming while he eats, but changes the channel, and happens upon a program where a film critic is discussing a Godardian short film where a long take of a woman’s face is later destroyed through technique. Meanwhile, Ferreri’s camera focuses on the maid, as she keeps repeating the phrase “it was fate” to whomever is listening on the other end. She seems to still be slyly seducing Michel, but he remains distracted by the television. Fate is boring him these days, it would seem.



Michel's “normal” evening, first interrupted by the speech at work, is being further intruded upon. First, there was finding the gun, and now here is a television program that seems to be commenting on the very scene that is taking place within in his “real” life. During this scene with the maid, we notice a pop art painting on the wall of the dining room. It shows several faceless human drones, with the word “futurism” ribboned across. I’m sure it was originally selected for the room because it stylishly filled up the wall, but now, in light of the current events, it appears to be ironically commenting on the situation. The painting attempts to provide an abstract distance with which to view the impending facelessness of this mechanized society, but Michel still lacks the self-awareness to logically apply these potential lessons that surround him to his own life. He proceeds as a child that has been thrown off his middle class track and onto to a different track, but not as a child that is shaken off course, and thereby able to analyze the structure to which he was previously bound.


Michel plays some home movies of him and his wife on vacation while he polishes the various pieces of the gun. He is shown in attendance at a bull fight, and Michel warps the footage, standing in front of it and participating within the image itself, breaking out of his normally passive viewing. Ironically, the film playing shows a scene from his own life, starring himself, and he proceeds to “destroy” it, in a sense. There is also footage of an exotic woman making erotically charged tongue gestures to the camera. Michel playfully reciprocates her, but quickly turns off the film when his wife pops back on screen. He pulls out a white divider on which to project this argument with his wife, which turns into an extended sequence of him doing an interpretive dance with his hands.



This home movie, showing a rote tourist trip descending into another constricting argument with the wife, becomes a wellspring of creativity. Inspired by these flexible images, he finishes reconstructing the gun, using his new toy to create a shadow play on the screen. He ends this performance by pretending to shoot himself in the head. Now in his studio, he paints the gun red, hangs it up, and adds little white dots. We notice a Time Magazine cover hanging above, showing a pop art painting of someone holding a gun. Surprisingly, Michel, a gas mask man, went completely off the scripted page one night in his life, and ended up creating a piece of pop art.



His wife is dead asleep, but he playfully tries to seduce her with a toy snake. As he has been seemingly demasculinzed, this is the best penis substitute he could come up with in a pinch. This existential crisis has derailed his role as a strong modern male. However, she refuses to wake up, so he gets into bed with the maid, armed with his new gun. He pours honey on her, still in chef mode, but armed with only a pistol lacking bullets, it ends there.


So, he heads back to his studio, putting a safety on the muzzle, pointing it at a gas mask schematic, as if destroying his professional identity. He finds a bag of bullets and lays them out on a dinner plate, loading the gun and pulling the safety off. His temporary impotentcy now cured, he heads back into the bedroom and pretends to shoot himself in the head while looking in the mirror. After awhile, he turns the music up and places two pillows over Anita’s head and shoots her twice. I guess that’s one way to end a boring, suffocating marriage.



It's already early the next morning, and he dresses as if he's headed to work. Murdering his wife also conveniently forced him to skip town, leaving his career behind in the process. However, he is still stuck in his early morning routine, starting his day off like any other. He drives to some seaside ruins and goes for a swim, wearing a towel and an exotic necklace. He approaches a ship, where a funeral for the cook is taking place, his body ceremoniously dumped into the ocean. Well, opportunity knocks, it appears. Luckily, the owner of the ship is a hot young chick in a bikini, and she agrees to hire Michel as the new chef. They sail off for Tahiti, but, ominously, everything turns red, and the film stock becomes printed in negative, as if this ship to paradise is really headed for annihilation.




The movie strikes me as a parody of sorts of Antonioni. The central “plot”, if you can call it that, concerns a man stuck in his ways, whose imagination is “set free” when he takes on an unexpected project and becomes obsessed (the gun), and this allows him to separate himself from the prison of his own life. This is very reminiscent of Blow-Up, where an artist’s life of moral aimlessness is interrupted when he thinks that he accidently photographed a murder. He becomes enthralled within his craft in order to attempt to solve this mystery. The environments for the two films are different, though. Michel lives in a standard upper middle class bourgeois environment, while David Hemmings (Blow-Up) lives the life of a popular photographer, a spoiled egomaniac. Hemmings' fate is left up in the air, quite literally, as he vanishes during the film's climax. However, Michel Piccoli in Dillinger is Dead only escapes one prison to sail sea to another, so to speak.

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The husband and wife relationship, on the other hand, somewhat reminds me of the one in L’Avventura. In that film, Sandro is a failed architect, a male emasculated from his identity, while Claudia is the aimless existential drifter. Dillinger is Dead presents a slyly ridiculous version of this, where self doubt creeps into Michel, and he becomes an aimless child, no longer a strong male with a clearly defined societal role. On the other hand, Anita’s crisis is that of complete apathy, as passive as one can possibly be, never doing much of anything during the entire film, nor showing the desire to.


Michel curiously shoots his wife without a care in the world, and this is followed by an ending where his ideal fantasy is fulfilled. He murders his wife to finally be able to escape this modernized chamber he has created for himself, only to escape to a na├»ve fantasy. He found he had some sort of passion for cooking, and doubled this with a totally banal view of paradise, the kind you might find in a vacation commercial. Even if his current life was on the wrong path, that doesn’t mean that the opposite path is the one to take. His entire struggle is completely self centered, so much so that he cannot even conjure up enough empathy to care having just shot his wife. Little does he realize that this paradise is but a postcard fantasy foisted upon him outside forces, and not from any inner desire to explore his true passions in life. After all, he never really cultivated or explored any passions. He may have cooked a steak and cleaned a gun for the first time in his life, but a revolution of the mind is not something that can be easily achieved overnight.

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