Nothing speaks of bringing down genre barriers like the complete disregard for convention and the reinvention of old codes. Davide Manuli (Italy, 1967) is an infant terrible per excellence whose take on the Spaghetti Western genre has reduced the style to a mere set of elementals that are built together again by the communication links of dance and electronic music, an absurdist take which also recalls a cinematic myth revisited. Thus is born La Leggenda di Kaspar Hauser, a film which infuses new life into the western mythology by breaking it apart completely. Of this, and his past oeuvre , we talk about here.
It is a game, everything is a game. When all four of them are lying on the ground, that cannot be handled naturalistically. That has got to be done artificially, balletically. Otherwise everything becomes an imitation, an imitation of reality […]. It should become clear and transparent, not dry. It is a game in order to survive.
Samuel Beckett 1,2
The absurd. If Beket (2008) wasn’t already a manifesto of sorts about the implications of a mise in scene which has complete disregard for the narrative constructions in classical cinema, then one probably should dig deeper into Davide Manuli’s obscure body of work. Mental Masturbation (1990), a Super 8 short imbued with a blessed soundtrack of trance music (an element that would be recurrent in all his latter films), was a point of start into what would be the most appreciated (and hated) element of Manuli’s cinema: The rescue of the absurdist to paint an atmosphere of freedom, in which music (in this case, electronic music) serves as the only link of meaningful communication between its characters, or between its protagonists and the settings of his films, the relation man-man and man-nature.
It is not a complete surprise that powerhouse characters such as Vincent Gallo, Silvia Calderoni and Abel Ferrara had made a conscious decision to be a part of the filmmaker (present and upcoming) work. Manuli is smart enough to be an “anarchytect”, to deconstruct instead of construct, to disembody old legends or old authors giving them and their myths a completely new significance. Is in this spirit that he has constructed his body of work, consisting in some shorts such as Oh Peggy Oh!!!…Peggy Ye Ye (1989), Mental Masturbation, Entre la chair et l’ongle…il y a la crasse (1996), Bombay and his feature films Girotondo, giro intorno al mondo (1998), the documentary Inauditi-Inuit! (2006), Beket (critics award in Locarno Film Festival), and his last rapidly-aquiring-cult-status film La Leggenda di Kaspar Hauser (2012).
The dance ritual as an identity of a group or an individual is elemental in Manuli’s films: symbolic elements of dialogue or expression of the body against what’s being imposed to them dramatically. As such, the escapist rhythms serve as rhetoric figures of the tale. Kaspar Hauser, the legend, escapes his own transcendence through a mechanism of frantically expressive moves (aptly performed by danseuse Silvia Calderoni) which expresses the sentimental learning of the lead role. If in Herzog’s version of the same film, Hauser (Bruno S.) strived to give significance to his dialogue permeating it with the essential, carefully choosing whatever important thing he perceived after his long captivity, Calderoni (and androgynous, spastic character) responds to the weight of the dramatic with mystical dancing: Hauser is no longer a boy found in an empty room, he’s an extra- terrestrial being sent from space to destroy status quo. Calderoni’s character does not strive to live up to the expectations of society; he’s an alien being, a portrait of the absurd, a messianic character.
Manuli’s films are liberating, in a way in which one understands the applications of Absurdist Theater as elements of a liberating metaphysics in his work, getting rid of stereotypes or labels like “avant-garde cinema” which has little or nothing to do with his ouvre. Pretentiousness does not apply here, as it doesn’t in films that rupture the mere basics of cinema. If there’s something cinematic about Manuli is his “almost” negation of cinema, its deconstruction. Entre la chair et l’ongle…il y a la crasse, for example, could be easily seen as the lo-fi companion of Kafka’s Process, complete with dance scene, sexual-intercourse-in-low-motion-scene and a closing which depicts the character’s spleen. Only that in here, everything is absurd, comedic, and carries no deeper meaning. It is not a flaw, but the best merit of this Super 8 short film.
“To Hold the Terrible Silence at Bay”
Freak and Jájá, the two lead characters of Manuli second feature Beket (a nod, in title and story, as it is inspired by Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (and almost a reinvention of the play) wonder around in a deserted place, waiting in a bus stop for a bus (in where Godot is supposed to be) that misses them. Their long journey in foot, (which includes a Mariachi/storyteller and none other than Adam and Eve) to seek Godot, and to seek themselves (the over abused cliché). Of course, this personal journey resembles little importance: what is central here are the merely structural conveniences of the director, which he lays upon his characters: The bus floats like a spaceship, and we’re treated to dance sequences with static shots that seem abruptly and arbitrarily set in the middle of the story.
Yet the nod to Beckett is essential for Manuli, since he’s exploring the limits of the absurd, where even the liveliest beats of the cardiogram that it’s his script bear no other consequence that the mere contemplation of the action, a gesture of eroticism in the realm of nonsense that few filmmakers dare to take in a universe of films which seek “comprehension of the human issue”, and that it’s most welcome when cinephilia needs a pleasant rest from overbearing and annoying mystical films. Finally, as existentialists claim: life is nothing but an absurd, meaningless game.
Unholster Your Weapon While You Rave
Vincent Gallo plays a key role as “The Pusher” and “The Sheriff” in La Leggenda di Kaspar Hauser, the latest Manuli feature (played in Rotterdam) and already a cult film among cinephiles everywhere. Nothing to be interested in though, if it weren’t for the key in which this “spaghetti western” is shot: A film that denies the western genre. What we get in exchange is a series of dance sequences (dance duels, dance lessons, dance rituals) between the lead characters (Gallo, Silvia Calderoni, Elisa Sednaoui) that reinforce their roles and its relationships: The Sheriff is educating Kaspar Hauser, and he does so by teaching him how do DJ and dance, the Pusher and the Sheriff (double role by Gallo) duel with each other in a “dance-off” instead of a gunfight, and the psychic canalizes her role as an Oracle through a series of suggestive, sensual dance moves. There is this “learning of the bodies” (a term that works much better in Spanish – aprendizaje de los cuerpos) that seems to be the driving force of all the film, and that gives its very particular quality. Davide himself calls this an “electro progressive crossover surreal cinematographic narrative” and he might be on something here.
Sure, there’s the desert, a sheriff, a (deserted) town, a villain, a dame in distress… This is even a low budget film (as in the works of Italian western filmmakers) but all this elements play no role in the configuration of the action. There’s barely any action to speak off, there are alien spaceships coming from an outer world, duels don’t take place (or take place in a very weird fashion), the town sheriff is also a DJ, and the plot, far from being a classic drama, is somewhat undefined, with several down-times. Nothing that would make Sergio Leone or Sergio Corbucci excited (to be more precise, it would probably make them enraged). But the reinvention of the genre into existentialist and absurdist grounds carry a little weight: the arrival of the foreigner, the big idea behind western genre, is rephrased to give place to the arrival of a messiah of outer space.
Manuli is working in a new film called “Haiku” a silent film which will be led by Abel Ferrara. If funding and time allows, we’ll be able to enjoy another chapter of this fantastic and underrated underground filmmaker sometime soon, a chapter of an eternal search for new narrative constructions on language and the recurrence of the absurd set of events of what we humans happen to call life.
1 Quoted in Asmus, W., ‘Beckett directs Godot in Theatre Quarterly, Vol V, No 19, 1975, pp. 23, 24
2 Quoted in Knowlson, J., Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), p. 607.