Sandokan, Nanni Balestrini’s Poetic Examination of Criminal Brutality

Nanni Balestrini’s novella Sandokan, in English translation from Melville House, tells the story of the rise of the Camorra crime syndicate in the small, poverty-stricken cities around Naples. Balestrini’s unnamed narrator occupies a fascinating insider-outsider perspective: one one hand, he, unlike many of his peers, does not join the gang, or “clan,” as its called–in fact, their behavior repulses him. On the other hand, he’s a native of the small town where Francesco Schiavone (aka Sandokan), Antonio Bardellino, and their henchman rule mercilessly, an eye-witness to the brutality and inhumanity of organized crime. The narrator is a sensitive young man who delineates clearly how the crime cartel was able to achieve such economic prosperity and power in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, detailing the various rackets the clan imposed upon the town, like stealing elections, peddling drugs, and manipulating the agribusiness that is the main source of income for average Neapolitan peasants. The narrator also explores why these small towns fall so easily into the terror of organized crime. The main reason: boredom stemming from little or nothing to do.

Balestrini’s narrator’s description of the Camorra is systematic, detailing the awful history and brutal practices of the syndicate in spare, concrete terms. His explications of the clan’s violence is not so much thrilling as  it is ugly, as the narrator always shows how “normal people” (his words) are cheated, killed, or otherwise harmed by the Camorra. The narrator’s tone is often journalistic but never clinical; he always shows what’s at stake for the “normal people,” how they are affected by these crimes. At times the narrator is wryly funny, a tone that results in large part from his observation that the townspeople, the people he grew up around, begin to normalize the violence. It becomes part of their daily lives and affects them so directly that it becomes casual, and the sensitive narrator is one of only a few not to bow to it, ignore it, or take part in it–yet the violence and crime is so overwhelming that to live with it is to live with absurdity. Balestrini employs a punctuation-free rhetorical style in Sandokan that captures the breathless energy and frustration of the narrator. While many readers might balk at the lack of commas, periods, or semi-colons, I found the technique quite liberating. It enhances the immediacy of the narrator’s voice, the rushed sense of importance to his tale. It also promotes sustained readings of the text–I read most of Sandokan in three enthralled sittings.

Sandokan has its cinematic twin in the 2008 film Gomorra, directed by Matteo Garrone. The film, like the book, illustrates the affect that crime has on a range of “normal people,” mostly occupants of a housing project outside of Naples. As in Sandokan, the ordinary citizens find that they have no choice but to choose between sides as an absurd, petty gang war ravages their already decimated landscape. Where Balestrini’s punctuation-free rhetoric allows readers closer access to his narrator’s pathos-driven story, Garrone lets his camera wander freely over the grim landscape without ever imposing any clear narrative structure. It is not until the film’s final third that the five disparate stories he tells coalesce, and even then, it remains unclear who is on whose side. What is clear is that the violence and crime is quickly stealing–and killing–another generation.

In an age where violence is sensationalized and glamorized, particularly in gangster films and TV shows (do I really need to list them?), Sandokan and Gomorra both lay bare the Darwinian cost of crime. In both narratives, the violence is mundane and inescapable, meaningless yet awful, and very, very dark. Neither narrative is didactic in the least–or even hopeful, for that matter–but their is an implicit suggestion that if only there were some alternative to the Camorra–libraries, social clubs, movie houses–there might be another prospect for the young people in this area.

I highly recommend both Sandokan and Gomorra. As an end note, I’d love to see more of Nanni Balestrini’s work come into English translation, perhaps via Antony Shugaar and Melville House, who’ve done a lovely job here.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept published a version of this review in January of 2010]

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)

RIP Ray Harryhausen

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RIP Ray Harryhausen, 1920-2013

Zazie in the Metro — Louis Malle (Full Film)

Boudou Saved from Drowning — Jean Renoir (Full Film)

See the Trailer for Slavoj Žižek’s New Film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

Poster

RIP Roger Ebert

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RIP Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

Roger Ebert had a tremendous impact on how I thought about criticism and how a review should be written, voiced, pitched. I didn’t always agree with the guy, but I loved watching his show (usually more than the films he and Siskel reviewed) and reading his reviews, and I loved following him on Twitter, where I’ll miss him most I guess.

Barfly (Full Film)

That Cold Day in the Park, Directed by Robert Altman (Full Film)

Totoro Jack O’ Lantern Stencil

Do you still need an idea for a jack o’ lantern? Are you a fan of Hayao Miyazaki films? Even the really sweet and gentle ones, like Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro? And, are you, like, totally skilled at carving pumpkins? If so, have at it with this cool stencil by Flickr user PlayWithFire:

You can see variations on Totoro jack o’ lanterns–and other cool Miyazaki-inspired pumpkins here. From that set, here’s Flickr user C. Lambert’s Totoro pumpkin–

Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (Full Film)

See Chronos, a Beautiful Abstract Documentary by Ron Fricke

The Grandmother — David Lynch (Short Film, 1970)

The Woody Allen Ten Best List

From New York Magazine, August 3, 1970. Via Matt Singer’s Twitter

List with No Name #2

  1. The first 20 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey
  2. The last 10 minutes of if . . . .
  3. The first half of Barry Lyndon but not the second half
  4. Every minute of Days of Heaven
  5. Every minute of Russian Ark
  6. The opening sequence of Ponyo
  7. The last five minutes of Aguirre, the Wrath of God
  8. The closing titles sequence of INLAND EMPIRE

RIP Andrew Sarris

RIP film critic Andrew Sarris, 1928-2012.

Sarris wrote film criticism—meaningful, real writing, not just film “reviews”—for half a century, publishing several books, and writing regularly for first The Village Voice and then The New York Observer. Sarris was one of the earliest proponents in the US of the auteur theory of film (he’s credited with coining the word in his essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962“), first put forward by Truffaut and other persons active in the French New Wave. In 1971, Sarris got into a good ole fashioned fight with fellow film critic Pauline Kael over the auteur issue when he responded to her Citizen Kane essay “Raising Kane,” contending that, yes, the film was guided by the unique vision of Orson Welles (even if others helped). His response essay is still worth reading.

In his 1968 book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, Sarris famously named a “pantheon” of 14 top-tier directors: here’s that list:

Charlie Chaplin

Robert Flaherty

John Ford

D.W. Griffith

Howard Hawks

Alfred Hitchcock

Buster Keaton

Fritz Lang

Ernst Lubitsch

F.W. Murnau

Max Ophuls

Jean Renoir

Joseph Von Sternberg

Orson Welles

Sarris later added Billy Wilder to this pantheon.

If you like lists, check out this archive of Sarris’s favorite films by year—from 1958 to 2006.

Like any great critic, whether or not one ultimately agreed with Sarris was beside the point—his scholarship and criticism was insightful and enlightening the kind of writing that frankly makes for better film audiences.

For a more detailed obit, check out Scott Tobias’s piece at AV Club.

David Foster Wallace on David Lynch’s Dune

1984’s Dune is unquestionably the worst movie of Lynch’s career, and it’s pretty darn bad. In some ways it seems that Lynch was miscast as its director: Eraserhead had been one of those sell-your-own-plasma-to-buy-the-film-stock masterpieces, with a tiny and largely unpaid cast and crew. Dune, on the other hand, had one of the biggest budgets in Hollywood history, and its production staff was the size of a small Caribbean nation, and the movie involved lavish and cutting-edge special effects (half the fourteen-month shooting schedule was given over to miniatures and stop-action). Plus Herbert’s novel itself is incredibly long and complex, and so besides all the headaches of a major commercial production financed by men in Ray-Bans Lynch also had trouble making cinematic sense of the plot, which even in the novel is convoluted to the point of pain. In short, Dune’s direction called for a combination technician and administrator, and Lynch, though as good a technician as anyone in film, is more like the type of bright child you sometimes see who’s ingenious at structuring fantasies and gets totally immersed in them but will let other kids take part in them only if he retains complete imaginative control over the game and its rules and appurtenances—in short very definitely not an administrator.

Watching Dune again on video you can see that some of its defects are clearly Lynch’s responsibility, e.g. casting the nerdy and potato-faced Kyle MacLachlan as an epic hero and the Police’s resoundingly unthespian Sting as a psycho villain, or—worse—trying to provide plot exposition by having characters’ thoughts audibilized (w/ that slight thinking-out-loud reverb) on the soundtrack while the camera zooms in on the character making a thinking-face, a cheesy old device that Saturday Night Live had already been parodying for years when Dune came out. The overall result is a movie that’s funny while it’s trying to be deadly serious, which is as good a definition of a flop as there is, and Dune was indeed a huge, pretentious, incoherent flop. But a good part of the incoherence is the responsibility of De Laurentiis’s producers, who cut thousands of feet of film out of Lynch’s final print right before the movie’s release, apparently already smelling disaster and wanting to get the movie down to more like a normal theatrical running-time. Even on video, it’s not hard to see where a lot of these cuts were made; the movie looks gutted, unintentionally surreal.

In a strange way, though, Dune actually ended up being Lynch’s “big break” as a filmmaker. The version of Dune that finally appeared in the theaters was by all reliable reports heartbreaking for him, the kind of debacle that in myths about Innocent, Idealistic Artists In The Maw Of The Hollywood Process signals the violent end of the artist’s Innocence—seduced, overwhelmed, fucked over, left to take the public heat and the mogul’s wrath. The experience could easily have turned Lynch into an embittered hack (though probably a rich hack), doing f/x-intensive gorefests for commercial studios. Or it could have sent him scurrying to the safety of academe, making obscure plotless l6mm.’s for the pipe-and-beret crowd. The experience did neither. Lynch both hung in and, on some level, gave up. Dune convinced him of something that all the really interesting independent filmmakers—Campion, the Coens, Jarmusch, Jaglom—seem to steer by. “The experience taught me a valuable lesson,” he told an interviewer years later. “I learned I would rather not make a film than make one where I don’t have final cut.”

—From “David Lynch Keeps His Head” by David Foster Wallace; collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.