Thursday, 3 December 2009

LE PAROLE (THE WORDS, aka TALEBAIT) (Mario Monicelli, 1973)

Mario Monicelli and Italo Calvino appear on-screen. Calvino stands over a typewriter. Monicelli reads what he types: 'When you get your tenses wrong, tectonic plates swallow houses somewhere warm. When your sentence srtucture is unsound, skyscrapers topple in another city. Words are everything.' What follows is a succession of short films, all written by Calvino, and directed by Monicelli.

Stories, of course, are not invented. They have to be caught. Some move slowly, like trees, and can be cut and stripped easily. Others, by which we mean the better, rarer ones, have a quicksilver movement that means they must be tricked. The Story Hunters of Italo Calvino's fable are not wilderness wanderers with spears, but lateral-thinking architects. Distant diggers obey subsequent clauses, and despite trundling through the tenses, from future perfect back to shrunken present, and manage to lay solid enough foundations. The machines pivot, laying scaffold to support word brick lines. These sentences can act as mazes, forcing stories down dead end alleys and into convenient corners. This results, hopefully, in capture. The words are abstract traps. For the Story Hunter, they can be everything, the poison that drugs the tale, the wall that prevents convenient getaway, but also (and this is crucial), they can serve to delay the hunter, for it is possible that he too may be rendered woozy and confused by the structures, and drunk on their horny potentials, be rendered babbling into ever diminishing tunnels of chatter, where letters, symbols, and punctuation haunt his direction (parentheses, often a clarifying pair of friends, only adding to the disruption by building roadblocks where doors should be (and building doorways inside smaller doorways, ever onwards) and offering little defence when truly required (when the tale shakes its fur and sidesteps at top speed, once, twice, a pirouette, a hop, all punctuation trips; in panic, over itself, over each other), and so the tale, so ripe for grasping and pinning while still alive into the display case (for sombre repeats, ad infinitum) one moment, is gone from view the next, tracks disappearing in the high winds/ heavy snowfall/ persistent drizzle.

'I shall be attaching myself to you like starfish for the rest of the night'. A writer (Vittorio Gassman) attempts to write down every detail of a woman (Gigi Proietti). She moves, and his notes are blurred.

New York, 1899. When The Professor (Donald Sutherland) designs a machine that writes plots for stories, he is inundated with visits from budding novelists high in descriptive talent but lacking the requisite organizational story-telling abilities to wow. At first the existence of the machine suggests the unimaginative rut that Man has run into by offering wondrous and complex storylines that are used by the writers to garnish the theatre and novels of the time. The Professor tours America with the machine, accompanied by his money-seeking agent (Warren Oates) and his daughter (Lily Dragoon), sprinkling inventive narratives on writers everywhere at $10 a pop. But soon there are problems: A protest group, known as the Pro-Imaginatives, follow the tour and as attention for the Professor's invention grows, so does their opposition. They believe that 'man should stand or fall by his own ideas, and that using a machine to create thoughts is blasphemous and false'.

The Professor counters this by drugging his audience, but finds himself confused about the next course of action. Conveniently (plotwise), the machine explodes, sprinkling its magic all over the world. Inspiration now floats in pockets, invisible clouds, waiting to be walked through by unaware individuals. Our only awareness of our contact with these fields is when thoughts attach themselves in sudden fashion in unlinked contexts: When shopping in a supermarket or walking to work, for example, and we suddenly think of a long-dead grandparent, or a childhood song, or a jarring, phrase, name or joke which we find we must repeat over and over, prayerlike, investigating the mystery of words. The movie suggests that the machine is behind early cinema releases like the Melieres' Trip To The Moon; that without it, Edison would have lacked the imagination to conceive of cinema.

The quatrain is a poetry train. Tight rhymes and iambic pentameter keep the wheels on the tracks, on the tracks, on the tracks, on the tracks. When somebody aboard writes free-form, the train comes off the rails. But is this a problem? Perhaps with lines fizzing in new, broken directions, the train may spin into unchartered territories? Klaus Nomi stars as a flamboyantly hopeless poet whose dizzy lines might lead the train to other planets, and they might not.

A poor farmer (Ugo Tognazzi) is confounded by a sudden frost which kills his crop of letters. Without letters, his village cannot talk. Twenty mute minutes ensue.

Back in the woods, the trap is set. The Story Hunters wait. But in the night, hope gives way to despair, as they remember how many beautiful sentences they need. As they wait, we hear a distant noise on the wind. As it grows louder, the Story Hunters look confused. But we recognise the voice: It is The Professor from 'The Plot Machine', repeating over and over, 'Even with my machine, I don't know how to end this story... even with my machine, I don't know how to end this story... even with my machine...'

Le Parole Directed by Mario Monicelli Produced by Mario Cecchi Gori Written by Italo Calvino Starring Vittorio Gassman Gigi Proietti Donald Sutherland Warren Oates Klaus Nomi Italo Calvino Mario Monicelli Adolfo Celi Ugo Tognazzi Claude Dauphin Titanus Film 99 mins Release Date Ita: June 1973, UK/US: Nov 1973 Tagline:'Grandpa, Where Do Stories Come From?'

1 comment:

  1. This quote captures something of the evasive power of words I'm trying to invoke here and everywhere:

    'We need a miracle, Doony...and the only genies I've ever met were in stories, not
    in Moorman's rings and Jew's Lamps. It's in words that the magic is- Abracadabra,
    Open Sesame, and the rest- but the magic words in one story aren't magical in the
    next. The real magic is to understand which words work, and when, and for what.
    The trick is to learn the trick.' John Barth, Chimera