To play Shakespeare you must be Shakespeare: I’m Shakespeare.
After the long intro (ten minutes?) of Our Lady of the Turks (1968) – building facades, voice-over, tracking shots – there is a sudden shot that tears up the screen: it’s Carmelo Bene, lurking in a diagonally bisected, starkly contrasted frame, and he’s popping in just to say something like: “It’s me again”. Then it’s gone: the film is right off elsewhere, a new displacement has been announced. Announced by Daffy Duck, by Orson Welles, by Sacha Guitry and by Jerry Lewis all in the same astonishing, beautiful, grotesque body: CB’s body. Declaring: you know who I am, and if you don’t, shove off. Fall in, and keep falling. Know your self ruthlessly, but get out of yourself, multiply yourself, dissolve yourself. Audiences can only love or hate the result; there is nothing in-between. Did anybody truly live the post-1968, anti-humanist philosophies (even though he disdained direct political commitment) in their art more profoundly than Bene? And he never wavered from that conviction, his Dark Star.
I have the sense that Carmelo Bene translated from languages that he could not speak or read. Not even remotely. When he uttered, worked, hurled or whispered a text (poetry, prose, theatre) he liberated something from it which dwelt on a level truly below, or deep within its mere ‘tongue’. A chora, perhaps. A plane of intensities, of rhythms, of previously unheard sounds and configurations. A rumbling, a force.
What was he translating, intuiting, hearing? He transmitted this energy of an alien broadcast.
It was the same between Bene and the images of cinema or TV. We have the feeling of being inside images, worlds, situations and scenarios that we can never grasp. They flash – and flash back, endlessly – but are always evanescent. They form patterns and networks at a lightning speed. Deleuze got it well: we are always in the middle of things, in the middle of everything.
Everything is a stream in Bene. Not a smooth, flowing stream: full of breaks, jerks, spasms, and forever interrupted. Always two, six, ten things going on at once, or in alternation. But it’s still a stream, a plane of intensity. It can drive you mad, like a buzzing or a buzzsaw in your head. It takes you way beyond reason, while stunning you with the precision of its craft. Noël Simsolo testifies to how CB was at the film sound mixing desk: absolutely meticulous.
Think about this: that everything is post synchronised in these films. Everything! All those texts, those gabbled and garbled words, those effusions and stutterings, those chortles and cries. What impossible work, just the kind of work on sound that Welles, Tati, Bresson and Ruiz did, but Bene pushed further. Those vast sampled musical play-lists or mix-tapes included.
CB celebrated the “surgical imprecision of montage”. It’s imprecise (while being perfect) because every join or coincidence, every relation or correspondence, every raccord between image and sound, between gesture and scene, is off-beat, off-centre. Snatching us away from what the intrigue of the scene should be: the Dance of the Seven Veils in Salomé (1972), for example. In a Bene film, you wait during half the movie for the classic, expected, known scenes to occur (Hamlet’s skull soliloquy, whatever), then you spend the next half wondering where it went, what you missed.
Surgically imprecise montage: that means, first and foremost, that no shot starts or ends exactly where you think it might, or should. That the action which is recorded, rendered, is hard to reconstitute, moment to moment, at virtually every moment: what we are seeing, what’s happening, where is this going? Naturally, there are set-pieces where CB scrambles his own work-rules: suddenly, in Our Lady of the Turks, he’s out there, a shambling wreck out in the public streets, broad daylight, almost a cinéma-vérité stunt, and you see it and take it in clearly enough, this shaggy dog joke. But generally, the strong narrative moments or punchlines – like Christ, in Salomé’s wicked Jewish joke, finding himself unable to hammer his own left hand into the Cross, since his right one is already fixed to the board – slip in and zoom out almost imperceptibly. The grand history of cinema knows no shortage of superb, even hallucinatory montage passages – in Carax, Fuller, Ottinger – but they remain just that, passages, bridges; while Bene knew how to keep this going for a full feature-length stretch. (Aptly, it is said he learnt exactly how long all his plays should be – 80 to 90 minutes – from his experience of making cinema: two hours was too long to sustain such energy, too exhausting for artist and spectator alike.) Each of his films was one long montage sequence.
Bene never wanted to be acclaimed, awarded, recuperated, neutralised. He never was. Of course, he knew he was a genius, and wanted to seen, heard, regarded and recognised for that! He has his fans, his Foundation, his cult, his exegetes, his Professors, his autobiography, his archive of recordings and texts – of course, he deserves them all, and he knew that too. But he was a genius like John Cassavetes was, like Jean-Marie Straub still is: impossible to tame or type within the bounds of any cultural institution. A completely contrary figure, like João César Monteiro (whose work CB liked), like the Pasolini of Salò (ditto), like his dear departed drinking companion Werner Schröter, like the Straub-Huillet of Sicilia! or the Akerman of Je tu il elle or the Pedro Costa of Colossal Youth or the Garrel of L’enfant secret.
From the late 1950s to his death in 2002, Bene remained steadfastly faithful to his hard, unpassable creed. He said and practiced it a thousand different ways: create, unleash some energy, create the most bizarre and sometimes spectacular happenings and dispositifs, but communicate nothing. Never have anything to say. Refuse the position of clear, declarative, message-filled speech. Signify nothing, but keep the signifiers in circulation (Jacques Rivette’s motto of the mid ‘70s). Scarcely have a theme, or a subject, beyond what the canonical texts give us as a merest pretext for frantic, microscopic elaboration: indecisive Hamlet, bloody Macbeth, obsessive Don Juan, the crucified Christ …
There was a Lacanian edge to this, particular in everything to do with the couple, intersubjectivity, communion and community: if there‘s no communication, there’s no fusion, and hardly even the possibility of dialogue – monologues stream, overlapping and clashing in every direction in CB, but zones of nutty action remain resolutely separate and spaced-out, like in Warhol’s Clockwork Orange adaptation (?) in Vinyl or the revenge-finale of Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore. But where those fuck-you experimenters deployed a static wide-shot/long-take aesthetic taken to painful extremes, Bene atomised, pulverised, and gave himself the arduous task of orchestrating all these fragments in extraordinarily complex montage-streams. At this level of elaboration and achievement, it’s unique.
We scurry after these figures, characters, themes and meanings in Bene. More like fixation-points, samples stuck in a repetitive groove, than characters. They are unravelling before us, caught in strange and interminable states: babbling, gesticulating, swallowing, murmuring. No one could run words into sounds and sounds into words like CB. Even his delivery of popular song got him through every imaginable register: it exploded through his nose, his mouth, his throat, soaring off and breaking up in all directions. Like Welles, he was a prophet of the digital age in his belief in the power of the microphone, of amplifications and sonic treatments – the sound system was his vocal prosthesis. Film perhaps got him to this quicker than he would have otherwise in theatre, no matter how radical his experiments there. Voices and bodies become more technologised, more fundamentally cinematic for him after that, no matter the medium.
Right now – he could not have guessed or intuited it, for a change – Bene’s audiovisual prodigiousness exists mainly, unstoppably, on YouTube. There must be hundreds of hours of CB, in every medium, there: sound, vision, TV talk and variety shows. Surgical imprecision of montage, amazingly, fits this new channel of delirious and chaotic non-communication very well indeed. Lumpy fragments – no one can start and end a Bene extract cleanly or successfully – fly by in brief bursts of intensity, like the opening of his TV Amleto (1974): what a wild chain of tics, grimaces, enunciations, totally against the dominant line of the verse of the scene – but it’s truly medium-specific TV montage (rigorously off-kilter vision-switching between different simultaneous camera positions), no longer cinema, the cinema of Vertov (Bene’s filmic god) in any strict sense. But why retain anything in its strict sense? And why keep it simple when you can make it complicated (Ruiz, a Bene fan, asked)? The spaces for all these odd actions in CB are unsettling, never settled: the hint of a train station luggage department, an unmade bedroom, a palatial orgy/swim room without walls, indeterminate room corners or zones made of curtains, and veils …
We know that, as Bene’s theatrical art evolved, it dug in and devolved: from the early Keatonesque stunts and acrobatics, right down to the stasis of his body seated in a chair on stage, and the amplified reading of a text. More than ever, at that moment, the rumbling of a text uncorked from its subterranean source in language, and from “the innumerable sources of culture” as Barthes said. Paradoxically, cinema did not serve to liberate Bene’s scenography: it hastened this process of radical shut-in. Of concentration, like Garrel’s La Concentration. Bene’s works for television are truly not for television or even with television, they are literally in television, crammed right into the set and its small, constrictive, domestic frame, never nicely or easily (CB’s head could never be contained there), but concentrated in that increasingly immobile point. A point which has shrunk even further in the age of the computer.
That’s a problem for the appreciation of Tarkovsky or Mizoguchi, but not really for Bene. Although seeing Our Lady of the Turks and Salomé on a big, loud screen (as I did in Thessaloniki at the end of 2009) is an indispensable experience of spectacle – putting him on par, or rather way beyond that, with Jarman, Anger and other top-flight bargain-basement Baroques – Bene’s montage and mise en scène alike take the shrinkage to the YouTube web-page. Take it and like it. Because, in this newer technological language he never knew, or knew he would speak, something translates anew: the rumbling starts, the walls of the frame shake, and the CB transmission begins anew …
© Adrian Martin