Fluxury by Sergio Benvenuto

Falling in Love with the Clouds. Notes on Pier Paolo Pasolini Mar/21/2022


Sergio Benvenuto


... Grace returns; and in such a manner that it simultaneously appears most 

purely in that form of the human body that has either absolutely none or infinite 

consciousness; that is to say, either in the form of a manikin, or a god.

                       Heinrich Von Kleist

                 Aufsatz über das Marionettentheater (On the Marionette Theatre)


“That was the virgin time

When clouds aren't numbers or signs

But beautiful sisters one watches travel…!”

Eugenio Montale, End of Childhood



          In 1967 Pasolini made a short film, What are Clouds?

          The opening credits appear over the images of old fading movie posters that evoke masterpieces by Velázquez, such as Las Meninas.-Set in a Sicilian village of the 1950s or 1960s, this is the tale of two Sicilian marionettes, pupi [Ninetto Davoli as the puppet Othello and Totò as Iago, his face painted green (envy)[1]]  They are taken to the Sicilian Puppet Theatre by a trash collector, played by singer Domenico Modugno who, like the Fate Clotho, makes them "come to life.".

          We see the puppets perform—in a dramatic and at times naïve Southern Italian style (sceneggiata)--the crucial scenes from Shakespeare's Othello in an unadorned hall and before an unsophisticated audience.  The puppets however benefit from--or better suffer for--the faculty of self-reflection: they are the characters they play but at the same time also comment on them between themselves.

          Behind the scenes, Othello tells Iago-Totò: "I could never have imagined that you were so mean! You seemed like such a nice person!"  Iago suggests he should then not trust appearances.  "For example--Othello asks himself--why do I have to kill Desdemona?"

          The puppeteer, a distinguished elegant gentleman who is detachedly pulling the strings, intervenes: "Perhaps you desire to kill Desdemona".  "And why do I desire to kill Desdemona?" Othello insists.  "Perhaps because Desdemona desires to be killed by you."  The Puppeteer has obviously read Freud and Lacan ("man's desire is the desire of the Other"), while the puppets-characters use the simple language of the Lumpenproletariat.

          How do we know–Othello presses on–what we really desire and are?  Are we what others think of us, or what we feel inside, or what that fellow, the puppeteer, wants us to desire and be?

          In the meantime, Othello's drama unfolds.  When he is about to strangle his wife, there's an insurrection among the audience: Desdemona is torn away from the clutches of Othello and Iago by popular demand.


          Change of scene.  Othello and Iago have been tossed lifeless into a garbage bin.  The trash collector Modugno comes along, now in the role of the Fate Atropos: he grabs the two puppets and throws them into the back of his truck.  As befits a trucker, he has a picture of a naked woman in his cab: Velázquez’s Venus at her Mirror..  As he drives, Modugno sings a song about a “sweet delicate weed” (taken from Othello itself[2]), which speaks of an all-consuming love, of death, in an almost metaphysical way.  The truck finally comes to a stop at a pit on the outskirts of town at twilight, where Modugno hurls the two puppets into the garbage dump.  It is an ending that echoes Luis Buñuel's Los olvidados: in this film too, the corpses of the protagonists were dumped into the trash piles of Mexico City.

          Iago and Othello end up on their backs gazing towards the sky, which they are seeing for the first time.  Admiring the calm motionless clouds, Othello asks:  "What are they?” "The clouds," Iago replies. "They're so beautiful! What are they for?" Othello asks again.  "I don't know," Iago admits.  "Ah, heartrending marvelous beauty of creation!" Totò exclaims.  And so ends the film.


                                                              *      *      *


          What Are Clouds? moved me, but it didn't “jab” just me:  from time to time I meet someone who tells me they prefer it to any of Pasolini's other films.  Why does this particular “short” have such a peculiar power to unsettle us?

          In La chambre claire, Roland Barthes[3] distinguished between two fundamental subjective reactions to works of photography, but I think the distinction can apply, with some adjustments, to any type of figurative art.  There is studium: an attentive, genteel, cultivated, intelligent interest in the image, but devoid of any intense emotion. It is the type of response we give to a "professionally" done, as we say today, work of art: serious, well-pondered, impeccable.  Then there's punctum: a sting, a pinprick, a wound or cut—the detail that ”pierces”, that disturbs .  It is not the effect provoked by violent or provocative images, where the effect is "a certain shock (...) but no disturbance; the photograph can ”shout”, not wound", Barthes writes. The effect is instead provoked by a detail that interrupts the scholarly reading.  Studium makes us say of a work, "it's interesting," punctum makes us say, "I love it".

          Punctum is always a private idiosyncratic response.  A mediocre film, unworthy of great critical analysis, may move you or me to tears for one scene only. How many films have become famous archetypes of cinema because of a single sequence or a two-minute scene?  What's more, according to Barthes, punctum is usually a detail the photographer did not contemplate. Take an example from the cinema: in The Decameron[4], Pasolini shows us several characters with missing, broken or rotten teeth, to the point of convincing us of a sort of equivalence: Bad Teeth = Middle Ages.  These crooked teeth strike us, but they don't "sting" us.  On the other hand, take the scene, in the same movie, where we are introduced to a girl who has devised a stratagem to receive her lover in her parents' house, and sometimes she squeezes her eyes in a sort of twitch.  Herein, I think, lies the punctum.  This squint mitigates, through an oblique connotation of naivety and ambivalent shyness, her ardent and cunning desire: it holds the right tension between pure chance and meaning.

          However, there aren't many of these puncta in What are Clouds?. It is not until it suddenly ends with Totò's last remark that some spectators feel that the film as a whole has touched their hearts.


                                                               *      *      *


          Let's begin by "studying" What are Clouds? –that is, by looking at why it's an "interesting" film.

          It is of course meant as an allegory: like puppets, human beings are either controlled by passions (particularly erotic, jealous and envious ones)–or, like Desdemona,  they fall victim to the passions of others.  This is a very old idea.  This short was made in the 1960s when there was much debate on the pros and cons of "Humanism" (armed with quotes from Heidegger, Althusser and Foucault).  This film is a discourse on Man: human beings are like Puppets who Think and Suffer.

          Now, Pasolini’s cinema as a whole does not care much for Man in terms of traditional humanism: for Man as person, res cogitans, Self, spirit, rational dignity.  His heroes usually have the coarse manners of the lowest rungs of the social or moral ladder—b ut also something of beyond humanity, of the angelic.  In Pasolini, the highest and lowest styles, a crude sub-realism and the most sublime symbology, always overlap.  Hence his choice to make The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), where whores and mystics, paupers and prophets also merge.  The famous sex scenes in Pasolini have nothing of the glossy decent eroticism of Playboy magazine, with which today's cinema is saturated; his pornographic nudes do not conceal cellulite, stretch marks, dirty feet or farting.  And these naked bodies do not copulate ”decently” according to the rules of erotic good taste: they screw like animals because they are angels.  Pasolini is concerned with the animal and the angel, not with Man.  

          This is why Pasolini's tone is never average, never mild; it is always over the top or underneath, but never between the lines.  This is what I would call Pasolini’s Dyonisiac style (“Dionysiac” in Nietzsche’s sense, as opposed to Apollinian). It avoids bourgeois understatement, those discreet tones that avoid both plebeian vulgarity and mystical enthusiasm.  In this film too, coarse puppets and Shakespearian heroes, truck drivers and Velázquez, the stench of cattle sheds and the incense from cathedrals all intermingle.

          Pigsty (Porcile, 1969) we see the parallel lives of two heroes.  One is a cannibal, who treats human beings as meat to feed on.  The other, erotically attracted to pigs, allows them to devour him, thus being treated by animals as meat on which to feed.  In his cinema, Pasolini often depicts human beings used as pieces of flesh to be eaten or used sexually.  His is not an academic dialectical materialism, but a touching vulgar materialism transubstantiated by mysticism.  This recalls some English styles of painting with an attention to flesh, such as Francis Bacon, or Lucian Freud, but also painters like de Ribera in the 18th Century in Naples.  In other words, in Pasolini, the truth about men lies in vegetative life, because only there is it possible to discover the divine.  His hero in Curd Cheese (1963), whose only concern is to grab some food to fill his belly, dies of indigestion on a cinematic cross, like Christ.


                                                               *      *      *


Animals are the Jews of idealists, who are thus just virtual fascists. Fascism begins when you insult an animal, including the animal in man. Authentic idealism {echter Idealismus) consists in insulting the animal in man, or in treating a man like an animal[5].


          The ability of the puppets in What Are Clouds? to see themselves from the outside, to criticize themselves, by no means saves them from the tragic conclusion.

In The Hawks and the Sparrows (1966), we again find Totò and Ninetto, this time as two commoners who roam the boundless urban outskirts without a destination, taking as their travel companion a talking crow who represents the logorrheic left-wing intellectual, the conscience that speaks the truth, that interprets critically, but “doesn't live life”.  The two vagrants end up devouring this much too cultivated and verbose bird.  Pasolini is obviously demonstrating a self-irony through that crow, and the intellectual who interprets the world from the outside cannot escape tragedy.  Pasolini himself would be sacrificed in a Roman suburb in November 1975, killed, indeed, like a beast.  But those who reflect too much are justly sacrificed, because their gaze institutes Man, but man’s truth is not human but beastly and divine.

          In What Are Clouds?, the allusions to Velázquez–and to Las Meninas in particular—refer to this drama of reflective ability. Foucault's The Order of Things (much discussed at the time) opens with a comment to Las Meninas, with Luca Giordano exclaiming that it was “the theology of painting.”  According to Foucault, in that painting the world appears as an object of representation for a “sovereign“ subject who looks at, and thus evades, the scene of the world offered to him.  In citing this painting, Pasolini indicates to us the distance of the critical gaze that, by reducing things to very objects, sacrifices the animality and divinity of human beings, objectivizing them as representatives of Man.

          In fact, the fond objects offered to the gaze of sovereign-eyes in Velázquez's painting are represented with no feeling: the Infanta of Spain, her maids of honor, the dog, the dwarfs, appear petrified, almost like puppets.  In other words, Velázquez betrays the secret cruelty of humanistic representation, which reduces the world to an object in favor of an interpreting gaze-subject, freezing it within the ruthless visual status of objectivity.  Pasolini's Puppets, like Velázquez's Infanta, are victims of the sovereign Will, effects of “bourgeois humanism”.

          In the film Salò-Sade[6], the fascist libertines decide to kill their prisoners after the most horrific tortures.  But we see the torturing from afar: one by one, each of the sadists watches the scene through theatrical binoculars from a window looking on to the courtyard.  In the end, one of them has the idea of turning the binoculars around and watching (and we with him) that atrocious theatre from a great distance.  The binoculars, like the crow in The Hawks and the Sparrows and the puppeteer in our film, allegorizes the objectivizing Gaze.  In other words, humanistic representation is revealed to be a sadistic theatre.  In Velázquez, the critical gaze of the sovereigns still appears to seize fond objects, but by now objective extraneousness coincides with the most inhumane oppression and violence.  Humanism, which turns souls and human bodies into a dignified spectacle, reveals itself in the fierce Sadean fascist paradigm, because it has renounced pity for matter and the flesh—for the beast and puppet in every man.


                                                               *      *      *


          Pasolini uses the tragedy of Othello as a metaphor of human existence because it is a drama of sexual passion and because it is, in its own way, a hermeneutic tragedy.  In fact, Iago weaves an interpretative web playing with handkerchiefs and innuendo.

          Erotic and jealous passions certainly lead to a distorted interpretation of the real.  So, how can one interpret these passions that make for such bad interpretations?  If jealousy is an interpretant passion, how should we interpret this interpretant passion?  This is the question that, as we have seen, Othello-Davoli explicitly poses.

          The puppeteer's answer mocks canonical psychoanalytical interpretations.  What could an average psychoanalyst say to an Othello-patient?  Someone who kills Desdemona not because she is cheating on him, but because he has always wished to kill her.  Perhaps because Desdemona is white, beautiful, and of an important family, while Othello is black, of humble origins, and too close to the Caliban of The Tempest.  Othello thinks he is jealous, but instead he is envious, just like Iago.  And if Iago were to have been psychoanalyzed, he would have probably revealed a homosexual jealousy towards Othello, who loves Desdemona and not him: Iago is like Othello!  Iago is the interpretation of Othello and Othello is the interpretation of Iago.  And Othello, this Iago who doesn't recognize himself as such, here assails Totò with questions about his desire—an Othello more neurotic than jealous.  When he plies him with the question, “Why do I wish to kill Desdemona?", the puppeteer-psychoanalyst replies, “perhaps because Desdemona wishes to be killed by you.”  For Freudians it is always and only a question of desire.  “Othello's desire is Desdemona's; Desdemona's desire is Othello's.”  There is no radical opposition between victim and executioner here: the executioner dreams of being the victim and the victim is eager to please the executioner, she is pleased with him. Another famous Italian film, Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974) with Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling, would illustrate this very chiasmus.

          The Puppeteer talks, I would say, like a classical institutional psychoanalyst, because he maneuvers, directs, manipulates—he is a director of souls.  He appears above the puppet theatre, that is, above passions and life, he is cold and neutral like the sadistic fascist officials in Salò-Sade.  Interpretant discourse is the discourse of the Manipulator: interpreting desire satisfies the desire for command over the other's desire.  Interpretative syntax is always the desiring violence, and not Gelassenheit, contemplative abandon.  And Iago, the manipulator of interpretations, is in turn manipulated by the Puppeteer, that is, by his own envious passions.  But, to a certain extent, the puppeteer is a puppet himself.  He, too, will be sacrificed.


          Nevertheless, in the end, the two puppets end up outdoors.  Until then, their lives had been nothing but indoor representations and dreams.  Even their passions had been only artifices of interpretation, the work of the puppeteer.  Instead, nature is not interpretation, it restitutes things as they are.

          “What are they for?”, Othello asks, admiring the clouds.  In our social life things always serve a purpose; they are always interpreted as instruments.  Things are pragma, the Ancient Greeks said, tools.  But the clouds serve no purpose: they are simply there.  They are not signs: there is nothing to interpret.  In our age of philosophical and practical pragmatism, we find it difficult to think of pure things with no logos, of a universe with no communication.  For us, everything is Communication!  The clouds no longer count for anything.  They are blemishes in the pragmatist order, noise in the melody of signals.

          The puppets, thrown out from the theatre when no longer of any use, finally discover things.  And it is at this point that a sharp compassion invades certain spectators—we  are stung.

          I don't mean to say that Pasolini’s film is a tear-jerker.  It is not that éleos(pity) or even phóbos (anxiety) that, according to Aristotle (in the Poetics), we feel  towards the tragic hero.  Nor is it the compassion that an edifying work of art skillfully infuses to extract virtuous cathartic tears from us.  Instead, this pity is the core of the punctum according to Barthes: “a more powerful surge than a lover's sentiment... Pity.”  For example, the girl’s twitch in the Decameron pricks us because she moves us to pity: that unstudied squinting of the eyes makes us shift from complicity with her erotic shrewdness towards some sort of tenderness.

     In the case of punctum, Barthes talks of a mad and ultimately morbid pity. And thus non-cathartic, since according to Aristotle, catharsis was the cure, not the disease.  Barthes evokes the madness of Nietzsche: “I collected in a last thought the images which had 'pricked' me... taking into my arms what is dead, what is going to die, as Nietzsche did when... on January 3, 1889, he threw himself in tears on the neck of a beaten horse: gone mad for Pity's sake”[7]. Note that Barthes insists on the exact date, “January 3, 1889.”, on one particular place (Turin), and on one particular fact: the madness of Nietzsche was an event situated in the real.  And it is important that the object of this psychotic pity was not a human being, but a coachman's horse.

          In the same essay, before mentioning Nietzsche, the very same Barthes had evoked the mechanical doll, the perfect imitation of a girl, from the movie Fellini's Casanova (1976).  For him, that doll was the punctum, and he promptly fell in love with it—h e fell in love with something too real.  Here we are very close to our pair of puppets, representatives of humanity insofar as they are excluded from it.

          Significantly, Barthes nearly always cites inanimate objects as examples of “biting“ details in photographs: the straps on a black woman’s glossy shoes; the starched collar on a retarded child; the sheet a Nicaraguan woman carries to cover the body of a dead guerrilla fighter, and so on.  Not only sexuality, but tenderness too has its fetishisms: art exploits the fetishistic perversion of our instinctive reserve of compassion.

          When I was about five, I saw a film where at one point the bicycle the hero is riding crashes against a wall.  I felt a heart-piercing pity for the poor smashed bicycle and came out of the movie theatre crying.  My parents laughed at my inappropriate childish reaction.  A bit like Nietzsche, that impertinent pity put me outside myself.  In our always a bit “perturbed” childhoods,  we experience bizarre pangs that only those with a refined sensibility like Barthes can take seriously.  It was clear to me as a child that no one cared about that bicycle; besides, like Fellini's mechanical doll, was it not an inanimate object?  Precisely because that scene wasn't aimed at moving me to pity, the crashed object “pricked” me.

          Pasolini also imposes something quite outrageous on us: moving us to pity for two pieces of wood thrown onto a rubbish dump.

          One might say, however, that Pasolini intended to move us, while punctum is a detail that eludes the author's control.  It is true, this short film moved me just as Barthes’ book on photography had--because both make us confess the punctum, and remind us that even in art, something real troubles us.  And that every work of art includes a sort of ethics, albeit in a most primitive form.

          Behind the cultivated parable, full of philosophical and historical allusions, in this film Pasolini reminds us of an ethics that hurts, that does not rest on a wisely distributed compassion towards our fellow men, but on a pity for the real—on an obtuse respect for what exists.

          But this strange mad pity for things betrays the foundation underlying any ethics.  Our post-Kantian ethics has been reduced to a contractual acknowledgement of the rights of our fellow creatures, to a neutral application to the Human Being of universal anonymous precepts.  We have lost the naive matrix of concrete goodness: pity for existence and the flesh.  Yet, when we truly love, we don't love a set of qualities, what a person represents: the being we love only represents herself or himself, in her or his nonsensical uniqueness.  The loved one is a punctum in the coherent judicious fabric of moral discourse; but without this stain there would be no discourse, and no hope of being “decent,” even if not absolutely good.  My childish pity for that bicycle also means that what is dear to us in human beings too is their being-there.

          Pasolini's interpretation of Othello and Iago's story therefore touches us with its grace. It makes us finally see things, even if only for a moment, with the freshness and the sense of wonder they deserve, beyond the tunnel of interpretations.  The heart-rending marvelous beauty of beings.





[1] Pasolini often paired young Ninetto Davoli and the elderly Totò (Antonio de Curtis), probably Italy’s most famous comedian. The most notable example is the film The Hawks and the Sparrows, which we shall discuss further down.

[2] O thou weed,

Who art so lovely fair and smell’st so sweet

That the sense aches at thee, would thou hadst ne’er been born!

(Act IV, Scene II)


[3] Camera Lucida. Reflexions on Photography, R. Howard trans., http://monoskop.org/images/c/c5/Barthes_Roland_Camera_Lucida_Reflections_on_Photography.pdf

[4] This 1971 film adapts tales from the Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (published around 1353), the narrative classic of Medieval Italian literature.


[5] J. Derrida, “Fichus”, in Paper Machine, R. Bowlby trans. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 181.


[6] Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Salò-Sade for short), 1975, reworks the novel The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade, setting it in the Fascist Salò Republic of 1943-5.

[7] R. Barthes, cit., p. 117.

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