ON THE SCREEN
, by Pier-Paolo Pasolini (1969). This is probably one of the most abstract films ever produced by Pasolini. Although in broad outline
it follows the plot laid down by centuries of oral tradition and specifically the version given in Euripides' synonymous play, the film is in many ways concerned more what it means to be a myth, and how myth becomes a vehicle for people in a given culture to understand and deal with their own life experiences.
The myth in brief: Jason was born the son of Aeson, king of Iolkos, who was driven out of power by his half-brother Pelias. He was raised unaware of this by Khiron the Centaur, who later revealed to him it was his destiny to go to Pelias and demand his throne back. Pelias would then send him on the (presumably impossible) mission to find and bring back the Golden Fleece of Kolkhis. In Kolkhis, Jason meets Medea, a sorceress and daughter of Aietes, owner of the Fleece. They fall in love, she helps him steal the Fleece, and they escape back to Iolkos in Greece where Medea contrives to kill Pelias. They then flee to Corinth, where Jason deserts Medea for the daughter of of King Creon (of Antigone
fame). Betrayed, Medea wreaks a terrible vengeance, killing Kreon, his daughter Jason's new bride, and Jason's and her own children.
In many respects, the movie glosses over a lot of these details. Pasolini's purpose is not simply to retell the myth, but to explore why the myth is structured the way it is, and why the ancients found myths so compelling. This comes up explicitly at times. Pasolini elevates the character of Khiron the Centaur from being a minor character charged with raising and educating Jason to major expository plot device, if not always actually on screen. The ancients, Khiron says, saw myths and rituals not something "other", but as profound parts of reality: "For him, the reality he experiences in the stillness of a silent sky is equal to the most profound personal experience of modern man." Khiron is thus also in some way implicitly raising and educating Pasolini's audience. The bizarre rituals, of human sacrifice and exotic chanting and smearing blood on grain in the fields, and the extended stretches of empty lands which we see in the preceding and following scenes, make no sense and are highly disorienting unless we see them in precisely this sense. They force the modern audience watching Pasolini's film to step back and look at ancient life from the perspective of the ancients, and not as we moderns might want. This kind of Verfremdungeffekt
paradoxically heightens our awareness of the action so as to put in its appropriate context.
These then set the stage for an even more abstract delving into human realities. Jason has a dual nature throughout: the ancient man, stuck in
the "sacred centaur" of antiquity and the "desecrated centaur" of modernity, though the sacredness of the former remains in the desecration of the latter. It is not altogether clear what the two centaurs stand for. Do they represent the way in which civilization has aged, acquiring new sophistication of skepticism around a youthful faith in itself? Or ar they metaphors for progressive views of the world as ages? Or do they represent something specifically personal for Pasolini, his youthful faith in sacred Catholicism and his later Communism? It's possible all are at work here, and maybe other shades of interpretation I haven't picked up on.
What is clear, though, is that Jason has advanced in the world in a way that Medea has not. She attempted to make the transition from Kolkhis (the land of mythical entities and magic and sorcery) to that of Greece, which is modern and unbelieving. When she becomes deserted by Jason, she tries to reassert her magical old ways, but this conflicts with the realities of the new world in which she lives, and she does not know how to reconcile the two. That this is for Pasolini one of the basic questions of myth then becomes explicit, for Medea says, speaking to her attendant maids: "I suppose you are right... I am a vessel for other people's experiences." That is, humanity and all humans have had to deal with conflicts of experiences, of the worlds whose realities they understood and felt comfortable with, and unknown worlds where they must now go. Medea, then, is a type for the human race.
is not his easiest film to watch, for all the reasons I have already discussed. But it is probably one of his most penetrating and most universal in ultimate appeal. This universality is made implicit by the use of Noh
theater music, whose underlying Buddhist inspiration was meant to separate one from the mundane and the particular and elevate one into the universal. This the film achieves wonderfully.