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If history runs, cinema can’t keep walking: an interview with Tinto Brass


By Amy R. Handler.

Since the erotic art-house flick Salon Kitty(1975) and, particularly, the infamous Caligula(1979), starring the renowned Sir Arthur John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole and Helen Mirren, the films of Giovanni ‘Tinto’ Brass are considered controversial by most critics and spectators. However, what many may not realize is that Brass walked away from and in fact disowned Caligula after artistic disputes with one of the film’s producers, Bob Guccione (founder and publisher of adult magazine Penthouse). Disputes concerned the final cut of the film and an implosion of pornographic sequences re-edited into the film in place of scenes by Brass. Gore Vidal, who wrote and developed the original screenplay from an un-produced mini-series by Roberto Rossellini, likewise disowned the film, teaming up with Brass in a series of lawsuits against Guccione that stalled production for three years.

Before Salon Kitty, Brass directed films in a wide variety of genres, from spaghetti western Yankeein 1966 to avant-garde. Brass’s exploration of language, imagination, religion, relationships and the pursuit of freedom permeate his extensive cinematic repertoire (28 films with another in pre-production). It is interesting to place the disturbing, avant-garde, comedy-noir The Howl/L’urlo(1970) within the context of films such as the experimental short Spatiodynamisme (1958), the drama Who Works is Lost/Chi lavora è perduto (1963), Ca ira – Il fiume della Rivolta (1964), a montage-style documentary on twentieth-century revolutions, as well as later erotic comedies such as Fallo!(2003) and Monamour(2005). Much like other film-makers, Brass initially attempts to find his voice in the creation of documentaries, historical dramas, film noirs and Italian-style westerns. Incorporating facets from all of these and experimenting extensively with montage, he is most at home with intelligent comedies that explore subtle nuances in relationships between men, women and their fantasies.

Filmed in 1968 and banned for several years, The Howl is a very powerful, universal tale about a free-spirited, young woman named Anita, about to be married to her executive  boyfriend, Berto. While exchanging vows at a toxic waste dump, Anita spies a beckoning stranger. This jester, named Coso (‘thing’, or ‘object’), entices Anita to follow him, which she does, leaving Berto at the altar. In a series of interconnected vignettes blurring the boundaries between poetry, music, live theatre and film, Anita and Coso embark on an amazing adventure, in a world of fantasy, violence, war, love and death. In the end, Anita, clad in wedding attire, drives speedily back to her fate at the altar. After she has crashed, screaming and been pronounced dead, Coso explains that she was beautiful but crazy. At the wedding ceremony that follows, Anita and Berto exchange garbled, meaningless vows, while the priest looks on, clad in a necklace with a dangling, shrunken head.

The following interview, conducted by telephone with Tinto Brass, mainly concerns The Howl, which was re-released in 2009 by Cult Epics.

Film International (FI): I am intrigued by the name, ‘Tinto’. Is this a nickname with a meaning all its own?

Tinto Brass (TB): Yes. My real name is Giovanni – John. My grandfather was an artist – a Venetian painter named Italico Brass. He gave me this nickname when I was young. It seems that I was making drawings on paper and my grandfather jokingly said, ‘We have Tintoretto at home’, after the famous Venetian painter of the Italian Renaissance, Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto. He lived in the 1500s. Anyway, the nickname remained, and was then shortened to Tinto.

FI: I notice that you are attracted to poetry – not simply that The Howl is inspired by Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘Howl’ (1956), but the poetic structure and metaphor. Are you too, a poet?

TB: Well, I think that I am indirectly a poet, though I don’t write poetry. There is definitely some poetic emulation in my films, though not everybody understands that. I am convinced that these films are not of violence and hatred, but rather films of love, are poetic.

FI: I find that your film flows like music, much like a poem. It maintains a certain rhythm and a particular musical (and psychological) fugue that coincides with your theme of memory coming in and out of existence. Can you comment on this and the shooting style that best represents this?

TB: The Howl is a film made in 1968. Even though it is not about 1968, that period is inspirational and the film is suggestive of that time. It is a metaphor about freedom. I said to my producer, Dino DeLaurentis, that we should make the movie as freely as the time, in mood and spirit. The movie should feel like change as change occurs, much like the changes taking place at that time. Yes, The Howl is certainly about memories appearing and disappearing in a certain rhythm. Also, my own memories appear in the film. For example, I worked in Paris for about five years, at the Cinémathèque Française. At that time I watched 4–5 films a day. Memories of those images appear in The Howl. Speaking of memory, I’ll tell you something very amusing. Prior to The Howl, I made Nerosubianco (1969), aka Black on White, or Attraction. It was about a white lady living in London, who is in love with a black man. I wanted to shoot and especially edit the film in a very free way, using montage. The film was rather successful at Cannes. Some producers from Paramount were quite taken with Nerosubianco and invited me to Paramount. They wanted me to direct another film and gave me a book to read. The book was very good. I told them that I appreciated their offer but I wanted to stick with my project, The Howl. Do you know what that film was? A Clockwork Orange!

FI: Oh no! Well I’m certainly glad you stuck with The Howl! Let’s talk about cinema, reality and dreams. You diminish those boundaries in The Howl. Can you comment on this philosophical manner of film-making?

TB: For me, cinema is a dream that becomes true. What I cannot do in reality I try to do in movies. My scenes are not connected by logic, but by analogy. In this way, they proceed like poetry and dreams.

FI: Can you talk about other film-makers that influenced your work?

TB: As I mentioned, I lived in Paris and worked for many years at the Cinémathèque Française. I met many directors, but the one who impressed me most of all was Jean Renoir. Renoir spoke of his father, the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. His father showed him the painting of [Lucas] van Leyden, The Healing of the Blind Man of Jericho (1531). He asked Jean what the painting meant. Jean told him that he liked the painting. His father asked why? Jean answered that he could not tell him exactly because he didn’t know the history of the painting. Pierre-Auguste became furious and told him that it’s not about context and meaning but how art is expressed and if it evokes emotion. The significance comes from the way art is made and its language. The way I make a film; my language or expression, its form is what evokes emotion. What Jean Renoir taught me that day stayed with me.

FI: Do your films begin with images in your mind and specifically, The Howl?

TB: Yes. Many start from an image in my mind. I want to find a way to fit that image to film. This was especially true in The Howl where my thoughts and images were translated to film. Everything circling the film’s premise, all scene-by-scene situations translated directly from my mind. I tried to realize the dreams and make them concrete.

FI: Can you talk about shooting locations and what attracted you to London?

TB: I wanted to feel free of all conditions in society and in the cinema industry. London in 1968 reflected that spirit. Actually, we started shooting in Rome, but we had many problems. We then moved to London where I didn’t have these constraints and could invent new cinematic ideas.

FI: The Howl seems an outcry against language as we know it. Maurice Blanchot’s Awaiting Oblivion(1962) and Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropisms(1939) address the uselessness of language. Can you comment about what you are doing with language in this film and why?

TB: Yes, Blanchot and Sarraute rebel against language. In The Howl, I wanted to create a new language, a changed language just as society and everything around us was changing. Mine was not a language constructed by anything logical, but by sound, etc. – a language by analogy.

FI: Many critics label your work impressionistic, but I find it more expressionistic. In The Howl we are locked inside the fleeting thoughts of your characters, especially those of Tina Aumont [Anita]. Are you influenced by expressionism in your work?

TB: Yes, very much so. I do use expressionism in The Howl in the way you say. But strict German expressionism is used much more in my film Salon Kitty.

FI: Tell me more about the beautifully expressive Tina Aumont. What was it like collaborating with her and what was she like?

TB: Tina Aumont was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met and a strongly focused actress who was not in the least inhibited by ideas. I was very sad about what happened to her. She gave an outstanding performance in The Howl. The movie could have changed her career and her life. But the film was censored and banned for seven years, so she did not reap the benefits she deserved. When I showed the film years later in Paris, everyone commented on Tina Aumont’s wonderful performance.

FI: Did you work with her again? I laughed when I read she married at 17, in reference to her character, Anita, who flees marriage at all costs.

TB: Yes, I worked with her in Salon Kitty and actually had another film in mind for her, years later. But when I went to her home in the south of France, I learned that she had died. Tina loved to work. She was a true actress and not at all the stupid little girl she portrayed. Not only did she have a beautiful face and body but she had a great strength. She put her entire being into a role and it showed. Tina married very young and had a very difficult life, ruined by drugs and various men. It was tragic.

FI: It interests me that you ally to a woman, telling the ‘story’ from the female point of view. It feels so natural, though you are a man. Can you comment on this?

TB: Well I try to express the thoughts of the woman because I find the female point of view more interesting, evolving and newer than the male’s. Women are naturally able to express feelings. I naturally react and take on the female point of view.

FI: I notice that a documentary/newsreel intersperses with fragmented narrative in The Howl. At one point, your narrator comments that the film is a documentary and thereby, not as trying on the actors to perform. Why do you use quasi-documentary in The Howl?

TB: That was again the influence of my years at the Cinémathèque Française, where I learned a great deal about documentaries and could access much newsreel-documentary footage. In 1964, I made the film, Ca ira – Il fiume della Rivolta. The title comes from the song of the French Revolution. I montage newsreel stock footage from the Russian, Spanish and Hungarian Revolutions, the Japanese invasion of China, etc. Using this type of footage in The Howl creates a new film language and significance.

FI: Is The Howl tightly scripted, or is their much improvisation?

TB: No. There was no script. Scripts were written years later, but at the time of the shooting there was no script. DeLaurentis questioned me at the time, but I told him, if history runs, cinema can’t keep walking. I just discussed the film with my cast and crew. I told them it was about a girl about to be married, who runs off with a stranger. Is this all a dream in the mind of this girl that lasts 1.5 hours or reality? I am clear that this is not real. That is the point. In terms of the lines, either I wrote them down for the actors, fed them the lines or, occasionally, listened to their suggestions. Without a script, the set ran smoothly and without flaws. It was made just as I imagined.

FI: The Howl seems experimental in terms of occasional time travel, documentary film-making and fast edits. You also use black & white in conjunction with colour and what seems like appearances of 16mm film. Can you speak about experimentalism in The Howl?

TB: I did use 16mm film along with all different kinds of media. I often used black & white film when there was not enough light to film in colour. My primary form of experimentation was in the editing room. This was the true moment of creation. Here I gave life to my movie. You see, I am first and foremost an editor. I am fascinated by montage. With my moviola, I am a god, changing this and remaking that. Many film-makers edit strictly to cover up shooting mistakes. I don’t think that way. When I shoot, I’m already thinking about editing. I have the editing in mind and arrange the shots around the edit. I am only truly happy when editing and creating this way. That’s what went wrong in the making of Caligula. Without the final cut, I felt that the film was not mine.

FI: Why do you use techniques of live theatre in your film?

TB: I like the excitement of live action and imaginative stage productions. As a Venetian, I remain detached. I make it clear that I am making a film that is in no way reality. As Brecht taught, creation takes great distance. I also like to make jokes with the audience and this feels alive.

FI: I realize that it is taboo to discuss religion and politics, but that shouldn’t stop us. Can you speak about how religion and political power is used in the film, and your outcry against the Catholic Church?

TB: Well, I am not an anarchist, but I hate power, be it political, religious or something else. There was certainly a strong feeling against power, or what was called ‘the Establishment’, in 1968. This is precisely why my film was censored and banned.

FI: Do you still feel this way today?

TB: Yes, I am still strongly against censorship, the strong arm of religion and any power that manipulates people so they can’t think for themselves. I do feel, however, that people are, unfortunately, more adapted to the system than they were in the 1960s. This is sad. It is also why I began making erotic films. To me the word ‘erotic’ means a struggle for freedom. If you feel free, sexually, you are able to make changes in society. Social change takes place when one power is changed by another. Women are able to explore their erotic feelings easier than men. At any rate, they are more honest about these feelings. In this respect, I hope women will take charge of the world. This is our only hope.

FI: The use of ‘break, broke, broken’ in the film, obviously concerning revolution and deconstruction of the existing social structure, seems almost like a mantra. Can you comment on this?

TB: Well this began as a joke by my producer. He didn’t like my principal actor, Luigi Proietti. DeLaurentis said, ‘To be an actor, you should at least know English!’ And so I emphasized how English is learned, by conjugating verbs.

FI: The Howl is comprised of a series of vignettes that join to create a strong yet subtle narrative. Philosophically, do you believe all people in the world are connected?

TB: I feel that people were more connected to each other in the 1960s than they are today. There was more enthusiasm and a certain faith in possibilities. I hope, someday, this connection and faith returns. I’ll tell you another funny story. In 1970, The Howl was selected by the Berlin Film Festival. This was after it was banned in Italy. But no awards were given that year because there was a demonstration, just like in my film. This was the year that German film-maker, Michael Verhoeven’s anti-American film, O.K., was withdrawn from the festival. The jury president, George Stevens, threatened to resign, the jury resigned and other contenders withdrew their films in support of Verhoeven.

FI: Wow! That’s crazy! The festival was stopped?

TB: The festival was stopped.

FI: Do you believe we create our world, and that anything and everything is possible if we so dream them?

TB: Yes, I believe this. I still believe this. It’s what keeps me alive. Unfortunately, most people do not believe in possibilities. They are ruled by the laws of democracy and motivated by the media, especially the medium of television. Television governs that all people should think and react in the same way. They should dream the same dreams.

FI: I notice that the man Anita runs off with carries a magical utility box, supplying endless changes of costumes and make-up. Can you speak about the actor’s purpose and mask in the film?

TB: Yes, this is Proietti’s character, Coso. The box is, of course, a joke. From this box you can take out all your dreams and free your imagination. Possibilities are endless. When Coso is wounded he takes out a bottle of blood and applies it to his wounds. When he attends a party, he paints on a tie.

FI: Do you consider yourself a tough director like Fritz Lang, or more of a collaborator?

TB: I consider myself a good director because I know what I want. I am an auteur. I do what I feel like doing. If something inspires me, I do it. I am a straight director and speak directly. I seek what I need and make it happen. I am never insulting to the actors or crew, but I am not afraid to tell them what I want. For the most part, our collaborations are great. But every so often, friendships will stop.

FI: The Howl often feels like Godard’s Week End [1967] and other of his films. For example when you launch into song and dance, with your Tina Aumont to his Anna Karina. Yet you veer from Godard into a more fun and hopeful place. Do you feel that the world is a happy place in spite of its entrapments and painful, meaningless words?

TB: Well I knew Godard, of course. But I am a Venetian and I have that detachment that I spoke about before. I am not fanatic about my statements and can laugh. Naturally, I believe deeply in what I do, but if others don’t understand or like what I’m doing, I am never offended.

FI: In the end, Anita runs towards marriage in the name of love? Has she then discounted her dream of freedom?

TB: Yes, but in the end, she dies and her wedding and the world become a joke that is interpretive. Her dream of freedom dies with her.

FI: Is freedom all it is cracked up to be, or simply another prison of our own making?

TB: I don’t believe we can ever actually acquire our dream of freedom, but we must never give up the pursuit. True freedom is the pursuit, something we must continuously seek.

Amy R. Handler is a Boston-based film-maker, film scholar, writer and critic.

This interview was first published in Film International 44, vol. 8, no. 2, 2010.


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3 Comments for “If history runs, cinema can’t keep walking: an interview with Tinto Brass”

  1. Thanks for publishing such an interesting interview. “The Howl” is one of the best films ever made. The interviewer is correct in saying that way too many people think of Brass only in terms of “Caligula,” and others like it, and never investigate how important Brass’ early work is to film history and global culture.
    Well done!

  2. This is a great article and a fantastic film. Cool pics, too!

  3. I just discovered this magazine and read your amazing interview with this true legend of film. I feel like I’m in the same room with Tinto Brass. I really appreciate articles like this and look forward to reading more of their kind.

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