BluRay/DVD Reviews

DILLINGER IS DEAD

By • Jul 5th, 2010 •

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It looks as if DILLINGER IS DEAD, an indescribable concoction from 1969 that mixes both Marxes (Groucho & Karl) in unpredictable ways, is turning into the forgotten DVD of the year. Amid all the current hoopla Criterion and NYC’s Film Forum have geared up for BREATHLESS’ 50th anniversary (including a Film Comment cover story and a tepid infomercial TWO IN THE WAVE, which presents a pouty French actress with a mole irresolutely thumbing through yellowing copies of Cahiers du Cinema aided by a perfunctory voice-over that reveals nothing of the film’s ostensible subject), Marco Ferreri’s DILLINGER IS DEAD, a recent Criterion release from the same decade, has been almost completely ignored.

As comic Sandra Bernhard once said about Patti Smith (“She was so ahead of her time she took ten years off”), DILLINGER IS DEAD, while steeped in the Zeitgeist of the late sixties – Michelangelo Antonioni crossed with extra-strength Purple Haze – has a clarity of vision and a purity of performance that places it smack dab in the present, evoking, for instance, Marina Abramovic’s recent exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which included stationary nude performers that gallery visitors couldn’t help but touch. Not that I’m suggesting you leave greasy fingerprints all over your widescreen tv while watching DILLINGER IS DEAD. But there is a similar mix of serene contemplativeness and messy provocation that animates Marco Ferreri’s one of a kind film, transcending the limits of genre or precursors (although the mischievous persona of Alfred Hitchcock comes to mind) making DILLINGER IS DEAD up to the minute, utterly compulsive viewing.

Staring Michel Piccoli, that genial anarchist of so many Bunuel films, DILLINGER IS DEAD is a little like having a conversation with a space alien whose only knowledge of English comes from watching re-runs of THE MOD SQUAD. A paradox, to be sure, but nonetheless a very specific one. With the late 60’s being rehashed so repetitively in recent films (from ACROSS THE UNIVERSE to TAKING WOODSTOCK) it’s refreshing to watch something from that period which definitively bursts the double stranglehold of reverence and nostalgia. DILLINGER IS DEAD, which, among other things, is a comedy about the death of consumer culture by reveling in its products to excess, embodies an inspired kind of nonsense that in the end is impossible to watch complacently. Or, if you prefer, let’s say the film sets forth a comic misunderstanding that somehow manages to evoke existential dread, while giving us a seemingly happy ending much sunnier than any found in a Doris Day film.

In 1970, when DILLINGER IS DEAD premiered at the Museum of Modern Art, it seemed to those who saw the film like a bolt out of the blue, marvelous but devoid of any context or contemporary exegesis. Today, glossily presented in Criterion’s pop art jewel box design of red, orange and blue polka dots, the film seems equally marvelous, not so much a film of the past as an simple human expression, initially puzzling, and then madly inebriating.

As you can see, I’m having difficulty describing what DILLINGER IS DEAD is really about. There’s no actual narrative or believable, three-dimensional characters (this is not a criticism, but one of the film’s strengths), just a series of incidents that are also open-ended visual metaphors anchored to Piccoli’s sublime physical presence, shot in lusciously sensual color, but framed very haphazardly, like a home movie shot by a precocious three-year old. So perhaps I should construct a metaphor of my own, in the form of a story.

I remember very little about 1970, but for some reason DILLINGER IS DEAD, which I never actually saw until this DVD release, as I was out of town at a peace rally in Washington, DC during the film’s only New York screening, remains etched in my mind. Maybe it’s because my roommate Michael was so enthusiastic. “I just saw the greatest movie ever made,” he said. “Except you can’t see it.”

It was a balmy Saturday in June and we were walking past the local supermarket – Key Food, if you must know – on Avenue B and 12th Street. Elderly women with shopping carts were milling about the entrance, but the rest of the street was deserted, the sidewalk cast reddish-brown from the uniformly painted tenements caught in the glare of the noonday sun.

“What’s the title,” I asked.

“DILLINGER IS DEAD,” he said. “Except the movie has nothing to do with Dillinger.”

“So what happens?”

As I said, the sun was beating down, but with a fillip of a spring-like breeze lifting girls’ miniskirts and also rumpling my hair, not to mention putting a positive slant on the grim debris and broken down buildings around us. Michael pulled out a press release from MOMA, which had a still of Michel Piccoli holding a painted revolver with polka dots.

“Not much, “he said. “This gas mask designer played by Piccoli, he can’t sleep, so he cooks a gourmet meal. He watches home movies and tries to break the fourth wall by placing his hands against a bikini-clad girl’s breasts.”

“Just like Godard’s LES CARABINIERS.”

“Yes. Except Ferreri focuses on Piccoli’s hands, which dance in the beam of the projector gate among the shadows like in a German silent.”

“NOSFERATU.”

“NOSFERATU meets Buster Keaton. Piccoli finds an old revolver wrapped in a newspaper about Dillinger’s death. He paints the gun bright red with white polka dots.”

“How decorative.”

“Very. Then he wakes up the maid played by Annie Girardot, asks her to strip, pours honey on her naked back and licks it off.”

“So does he kill everybody at the end?”

“No. He makes a chocolate mousse.”

Suddenly, two guys jumped me with knives and started going through my pockets. It all happened so fast my roommate didn’t even notice but kept on walking ahead. The street looked the same, the sunlight was the same, but now everything had changed. One mugger took my wallet and the other Chairman’s Mao’s little red book which an ex-girlfriend had given me as a parting gift and I kept in my back pocket as a keepsake.

The mugger showed his buddy the little red book and gave me the power salute. “Hey,” he said. “This dude’s cool.” He gave me back the little red book.

“All power to the people,” the other mugger said. Then he gave me back my wallet.

That most definitely would not happen today. Because of this, I wanted to sketch a portrait of my life when DILLINGER IS DEAD was first screened, to explain why the idea of Ferreri’s film still resonates for me to the extent that I rushed out and bought the DVD. Of course, you’re going to need a little more motivation than that, since you didn’t get your wallet back when you were mugged for the first time, did you?.

For a brief moment in the Summer of 1970, it seemed as if the world had changed, that the patterns of exploitation and alienation between people had broken inexorably, and that we could actually speak to each other as human beings, unfettered by economic or political barriers. I think that for Marco Ferreri, in post-May ’68 Europe, there was the same feeling of giddy liberation, and this sense of hope animates every frame of DILLINGER IS DEAD. When Marco Ferreri, in an interview included in the booklet speaks of “essential images,” I believe he is referring to a cinema that embodies this feeling of freedom. Each image of DILLINGER IS DEAD could go off into a completely different direction. Watching the film, there is this sense of being in the moment, where framing and camera movement become liberated from plot and theme, so that the theme of liberation itself – in all its paradoxical and provocative possibilities – stares us straight in the face.

Because DILLINGER IS DEAD is presented by Criterion, there’s a great deal of context on the disc itself, especially the cherubic, paradoxical presence of director Marco Ferreri. Ferreri’s essential role as a provocateur, not to mention that of a walking contradiction, can be observed in action in an interview in the accompanying booklet, where, in a conversation with two left-wing critics who are praising DILLINGER IS DEAD, he criticizes the very act of talking about films as “elitist.” This sense of provocation can also be seen in a segment of a roundtable discussion from French TV, where, with a twinkle in his eye, Ferreri states that cinema is dead, then, after the filmmakers around him try to shout him down, he eulogizes the death of cinema as epitomized in the lost sense of community once found in a movie theatre, especially in New York, where immigrants went to learn the language and the mysterious ways of their new country. “Our films,” he says, “shown on video, will continue to be made, but not cinema.”

Adriano Apra, on another extra feature (in spite of Ferreri’s opinions on this subject) spends twenty minutes discussing the many films that are parodied in DILLINGER IS DEAD. Although Mr. Apra spends a great deal of time looking for connections to other 60’s films, for me, DILLINGER IS DEAD is simply unique. In fact, the appropriation of imagery from Antonioni, Fellini and Rossellini makes Marco Ferreri’s film seem even more original. This may be due to the feelings of estrangement caused by the appearance of familiar imagery recast in a completely different light, the way Times Square might look as seen from the perspective of a passenger on the space shuttle, instantly nostalgic yet strangely detached; or to take a more down-to-earth example, listening to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” while taking the escalator after shopping in the Time-Warner Building’s concourse.

Although Anita Pallenberg (Rolling Stone Brian Jones’ lover at the time of his death) as Piccoli’s mostly slumbering wife brings to mind another paradoxically cool yet provocatively unclassifiable 60’s film in which she also appears, Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg’s PERFORMANCE, the work DILLINGER IS DEAD most reminds me of, both in terms of its originality as well as the exploration of the inner recesses of the mind in an increasingly inhospitable world, is CRASH, not the feel-good Oscar winner but David Cronenberg’s 1996 adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel. Many years ago, I met Mr. Ballard at a book signing here in Manhattan. Afterwards, we went to Ray’s Pizza for coffee, and he told me that the French edition of Crash was a highly moral, life-affirming act. Soon after that, Mr. Ballard received a letter from the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard stating that Crash was, on the contrary, a pathological act of anger and violence against humanity. “And you know,” Mr. Ballard said, winking at me. “He was absolutely right.”

Whether a highly moral, life-affirming act or the expression of a pathological anger against humanity, Marco Ferreri’s DILLINGER IS DEAD is simply wonderful, not to mention unmissable, especially if you haven’t yet experienced this deliriously seductive carnival-like creation, with its candy colored cinematography inviting a viewer to partake lavishly of the film’s meditation on the human condition in the form of a comedy. In addition to the utterly sublime transfer, Criterion also presents memorable archival interviews with Michel Piccoli and Marco Ferreri that you’ll probably want to own if you have any regard at all for these unique individuals. For me, DILLINGER IS DEAD is my favorite Criterion disc so far this year.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED (****½)

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