La Grande Bouffe (aka La grande abbuffata, English: The Big Feast, The Blow-Out): an essay of several indulgent courses

la_grande_bouffe_pic
d Marco Ferreri  p Vincent Malle, Jean-Pierre Rassam  w Marco Ferreri, Rafael Azcona  s Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi, Michel Piccoli, Philippe Noiret, Andréa Ferréol  m Philippe Sarde  e Claudine Merlin, Gina Pignier  c Mario Vulpiani

original release May 17, 1973 (at Cannes Film Festival). 130 minutes color, 1.66:1. Italy/France.

First, here’s an aperitif that’s to be chugged (against normal decorum for the procedure):
A film of virtual unrivaled acceptance of an outcome, never have I seen four characters so saintly (or is it merely a shared look of placid indifference) accept chosen finality—in the early setup scenes we meet each central character; a pilot (Mastroianni), a chef (Tognazzi), a judge (Noiret), and a TV executive (or is it ‘choreographer’ as many say online?)(Piccoli) easily packing and preparing for what’s to come. When it’s realized what is coming—and this is realized quite early—what can explain these droll looks and reactions? So un-energetic as to make old paleface Buster Keaton a virtual rubber face with the facial subtly of Jim Carrey in comparison. Ah, they’re the solemn looks of chained men walking the long corridors to their executions but not before quickly stopping off to have a last meal(s). What can be a better protest against hedonism and excess than to demolish yourself to bloated oblivion in the most lavish and hedonistic way possible? The age old Buddhist maxim, delivered by an entire culture en masse, my lifestyle determines my deathstyle.

Now, a small hors d’oeuvre, something ostentatious and hopefully cooked in something useless and blatantly posh, like duck fat:
In The Exterminating Angel the mansion inhabitants can’t leave, in La Grande Bouffe they don’t want to; it’s the difference between a culture oblivious to its excesses because it feels it deserves these, and one that is rightly willing to accept its punishment for their abuse of these same privileges (a self-imposed sentence if you will). It’s the difference of a pre— and post— ‘something’ film, maybe ‘realization'(?). Either way, an understanding of opportunity and elevation (class, social, privilege, etc) is the central first step towards an authentic progressive class change. (Another difference between these two films and filmmakers is Ferreri’s unabashed Marxism, a side ‪Buñuel‬ only showed in moments.)

Both films, featuring characters locked away and estranged from civilization, echo Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, but it seems to me that the Ferreri—with his choice to have his characters willingly move into a torturous exile and having the story center around 4 central characters of affluence—is closer to de Sade’s tale. Many others have claimed all these works are operating on a probable truism described in Freud’s monumentally influential Beyond the Pleasure Principle where he explained that beyond simple pleasure seeking in the subconscious is a destructive impulse that drives a certain personality to fulfilling a death craving by excessive repetition, aggression and overindulgence. That individual desire, multiplied to the level of a societal norm and suddenly preying on conscious actions, is as dangerous a concept as one can imagine.

 

* * * * * *
The beginning of something resembling a main-course; several dishes served in countless plates, bowls, and platters whose sole intent is for this single food type otherwise skirting normal commonsense utilitarian function. Think ‘gravy boat’, ‘salad fork’, ‘escargot plate’, ‘fondue pot’, or virtually any platter used for a single ceremonial function. An escargot plate would be great, by the way, for mixing watercolors:
1973 seemed as good a year as any to offer a blistering critique of societies ever increasing debauchery towards its culture and overall hypocritical way of life (meaning the debauchery was also directed at the society itself as well). The events of May 1968 must have felt like eons past, its main cogs depressingly beginning to accept the devastating effects of its ultimate failure, while in America, the conclusion of the Vietnam War was finally offering its participants the lessons of an unnecessary and unwinnable war. Taken side by side the indication was clear; liberation thwarted for no other reason than a desire for most to maintain the little comfort they had, and those that had it in surplus were willing to send others to any corner of the globe to maintain it irregardless of cost or genuine legitimacy. It would seem natural that for many on these losing sides that a frontal assault on these very comforts had rapidly become priority number one. Suddenly it (must have) seemed the desire to have a small two seater or eat imported cuisine (damn the artistry of either) and maintain these abilities (or rather luxuries) at all costs was more applicable to a long life than standing alongside another in genuine social upheaval. Call it pacifying or atrophying but a sensibility, not a revolution, was squashed more than anything else in those years making those children of 1968 begin to (again) attempt answering the call for real shocks to the system. They wouldn’t be marching in the streets anymore, or striking, but offering full on artistic assaults on the spectacle of the everyday. A new tactic for a new day.

In back to back months of 1973 (May and June) audiences saw two very different releases though not dissimilar in confrontational execution style. The later (June) was the first-edition publication of J.G. Ballard’s seminal Crash. Crash, later made into a feature film by David Cronenberg, is the story of several people completely removed from society emotionally while simultaneously deeply engrained in the creation and continued upkeep of this very societies restricting pop-culture mantras. The resulting eventual release comes in the form of a violent automobile accident that spurs the central characters to seek these releases again and again in this manner while also blurring the line towards eroticism. Soon a sexual intercourse and car collision fetish is born and furthered with the addition of celebrity culture worship. Ballard offered this scathing work in what he saw as the increased technological fetishizing of the day, a deep rooted disdain of a culture so reliant on these pieces that so often maim, scare, or kill their users (with no great effort ever being made to lessen their horrific power). Ballard summed up the book as, “I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror”, a statement that could certainly be attributed to the other 1973 work, Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe. Granted the vomiting would be the result of extreme overindulgence at the dinner table but, jokes aside, the comparison fits perfectly.

Ferreri is also looking over the state of affairs with increased disgust. Where Ballard saw scars, severed limbs and twisted chassis, Ferreri ruminates over ever expanding waist lines (as waste lines, but more on homonyms later); where Ballard sees the unfortunate elevation of cheap celebrity glamour shot and clean lined roadster as ‘high art’, Ferreri sees a culture without even the time for that, what with it being so hellbent on turning all art to erotic or tactile indulgence to slovenly consume. Both artists (Ballard and Ferreri) meet back at the middle, or rather at the bottom, seeing art being groped, fucked (or used in fucking), or derided as one would a stripper in a go-go club (Le Grande Bouffe has a fantastic early scene where the main characters eat before bed as they look at snap shots of famous art nudes mixed amongst snapshots they’ve taken of women they’ve slept with). Art, and in reality the point is anything held to an elevated status it actually deserves (so please don’t read sanctimonious virtues like, say, religious piety), no longer holds any meaning in a culture such as this because at its core it respects nothing. Most of all, it ceases to respect the self, and those around it, making its destruction or violent aggressive annihilation the obvious, and probably necessary outcome. (It’s why when Ferreri made a sci-fi film where all the inhabitants of the earth are wiped out but one couple they spend much of the films running time debating, to openly arguing, if they should begin to repopulate the species, an act most would see as a task needed to be done without question.) Ferreri’s great turn is the saintliness he gives the characters I spoke of earlier; sure these are men to loathe, but they’re surely archetypes who at the very least see their responsibility and make sure it’s done properly and with a bit of panache.

Adolf Hitler, the joke goes, wasn’t such a bad guy. After all, he did kill Hitler.

 

* * * * * *
Thus diminishing erotic and intensifying sexual energy, the technological reality limits the scope of sublimation. It also reduces the need for sublimation. In the mental apparatus, the tension between that which is desired and that which is permitted seems considerably lowered, and the Reality Principal no longer seems to require a sweeping and painful transformation of instinctual needs. The individual must adapt himself to a world which does not seem to demand the denial of his innermost needs—a world which is not essentially hostile.

The organism is thus being preconditioned for the spontaneous acceptance of what is offered. Inasmuch as the greater liberty involves a contraction rather than extension and development of instinctual needs, it works for rather than against the status quo of general repression—one might speak of “institutionalized desublimation.” The latter appears to be a vital factor in the making of the authoritarian personality of our time. [73-74]

….

This socialization (greater degree of sexual freedom in advanced industrial civilization) is not contradictory but complementary to the de-erotization of the environment. Sex is integrated in to work and public relations and is this made more susceptible to (controlled) satisfaction. Technical progress and more comfortable living permit the systematic inclusion of libidinal components into the realm of commodity production and exchange. But no matter how controlled the mobilization of instinctual energy may be (it sometimes amounts to a scientific management of libido), no matter how much it may serve as a prop for the status quo—it is also gratifying to the managed individuals, just as racing the outboard motor, pushing the power lawn mower, and speeding the automobile are fun. [75]

….

Has it attained a degree of normalization where the individuals are getting used to the risk of their own dissolution and disintegration in the course of normal national preparedness? Or is this acquiescence entirely due to their impotence to do much about it? In any case, the risk of avoidable, man-made destruction has become normal equipment in the mental as well as material household of the people, so that it can no longer serve to indict or refute the established social system. Moreover, as part of their daily household, it may even tie them to this system. The economic and political connection between the absolute enemy and the high standard of living (and the desired level of employment!) is transparent enough, but also rational enough to be accepted. [78-79]

-Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man. First published in 1964, page numbers indicated are in reference to Beacon Press 1991 edition.

See also: Travel Channel’s Man v. Food, Internet sensation Epic Meal Time. See also: Gluttony as ad-revenue generating entertainment, making stars of its participants.

 

* * * * * *
In a film where dirty pillow talk is uttered as “Your mouth smells like borscht” after a loving smooch (complete with embrace) that becomes itself a near perfect poetic homonym to the just as apt, “Your mouth smells like bull shit”, where can one begin to discuss the sexual dynamics at the heart of the film? Initially it’s quite easy (much like the earlier compared Ballard book Crash is), it was obvious to me from the early stages of this extravagant weekend that prostitutes would feature in the smorgasbord (paying for boatloads of sex is the easiest way to show indulgence in this act), but even here Ferreri has another trick up his sleeve. He introduces a bookish marm school teacher (Andréa Ferréol, who plays the necessary slobbish eroticism to the hilt) into the mix, almost off the cuff, who—and this was one of my most immediate reactions in my most recent viewing— is turned into a sexual object, easily swapped amongst the boys like a regular ol’ whore, in less than a day in the films shown few days. The immediacy and speed at which this happens is a devastatingly accurate and crushing point: here is a society that takes the pure, the innocent, and the otherwise ‘normal’ and turns them into monsters with a desire that resembles a bottomless landfill that no amount of garbage can fill. That, or she isn’t pure, or innocent, or otherwise ‘normal’ and Ferreri’s point is even more dubious towards our culture; no one is as they appear and everyone is in on the take. Some just don’t run with the right circles, but once they do, a remarkably short amount of time is needed for them to be brought up to speed.

Obviously in a world such as this everything (non-objects) would become thoroughly objectified, and in turn the actual objects would have no real value or loss the specific function of it as an object. Crash considers this point too, with everything become a fetish of a fetish (often when no fetish is inherently there), and La Grande Bouffe works in much the same way. I’d further connect the Ferreri and the Ballard with the numerous ‘car-as-sexual-portal-or-conduit’ threads that run through both. Crash is largely about this, while La Grande Bouffe it is such another in a long line of points to consider. The pilot character (Mastroianni), sporting a profession mirroring a love of the technology of transportation, learns of the existence of an old, very rare Bugatti racer in the garage on the grounds (of course the Italian in the cast would be given a love of a Bugatti). His love and appreciation of the classic automobile seems genuine, (and he’s often heard lamenting that its creator Ettore Bugatti was a ‘real artist’, and his eventual toil to get it up and running one last time exhibits this. But it’s ultimately down to how genuine love or appreciation is shown in a culture devolved to this point. His love of the automobile becomes initially a dissection of its moving, utilitarian parts (such as the manifold) that are then used as a dildo in one early sexual escapade. Soon the orgy that has been happening inside the mansion (both eating and fucking) is now happening on the car’s chassis, on its back fenders, and finally inside its twin bucket seat. Something that is genuinely appreciated and respected in the highest matter must be shown this respect by pulling it down amongst the trash and squalor, never can it remain above, teaching and worthy of awe. If it remained on this perch it might still have value as a symbol of just how deficient everything else is in neglect alongside it (horrid culture, above all else, doesn’t want to scrutinize itself and realistically ponder change). Ferreri has a classicists sense of beauty (god bless), while Ballard, also correctly, sees the visual beauty and adornment of an automobile as somewhat irrelevant when ultimately the safety of traveling inside it—its chief function—is so arbitrary to its creation.

 

* * * * * *
Deciphering the most vile exchanges in this very funny film then become rather indiscernible to virtually irrelevant (though once decided could produce a means to exploring excess and its possible remedies). Everything is stacked atop itself like endless pancakes at your local iHop, producing layers upon layers of barbarism. I recall Moodysson’s heartbreaking extreme film from 2004, A Hole In My Heart often as I conjure up my thoughts on La Grande Bouffe. They are films that work in virtually opposite ways, Ferreri, as I’ve already said, works in satires and politics, while Moodysson works within a world of expressive emotive yearnings. A Hole in My Heart is unlike anything he’s done, the polar extreme of rawness his other films only meandered in for moments, or used as minimal atmosphere (by this I mean there is a certain rawness and depression to Lilya 4-ever, no doubt, but it never approaches the visual depravity and bleak bluntness of A Hole In My Heart). But every time I watch A Hole In My Heart, and surprisingly I’ve done it three times, amidst all the games of sexual dominance and utter personal destruction, it’s one small scene about half way through that painfully turns my head most. It’s the scene where the films core ensemble attempt to have dinner which quickly turns to holding each other down, shoving food into each others mouths (and other assorted orifices) eventually drawing the Tess character (played fearlessly by Sanna Bråding) to near blackout for lack of oxygen. It’s this violent impulse amidst a skewed normal sense of intake that characters put to themselves and those around them when a society becomes this detached from its real wishes and fulfillment. Ferreri at times is making a gleefully sardonic film, but he (and Moodysson definitely intends this) is at least as repulsed by what is on screen as any moral brigade challenger. Both artists are repulsed enough to offer urgent, modern films.

 

* * * * * *
Dessert, which you’d see as (the numerous) death(s) in this films story. Hopefully it’s something as least as garish and pointless as a multi-tiered wedding cake. Imagine implementing structural engineering to build a measly confection.

Has a famous, respected actor ever had a more nauseatingly self-effacing death than Michel Piccoli here? We get to look upon his soiled slacks, in all their glory (from behind of course) as he keels over like a proud patriarch and wheezes out. Cause of death: shitting. Oh, and the shit looks frighteningly similar to those baked beans that get hawked on television by a talking dog threatening to sell the family secret recipe (as if anyone would really be in the market to buy that shit). I’d like to double dog dare that dog to sell that secret, so he can get a refresher in how quickly he’d go from star commercial talent to just another pooch with sad eyes hoping to get adopted in three days so he doesn’t get gassed. That’d be the lesson, you screw with the hand that feeds you in this culture, and you get the biggest rug imaginable pulled from right under your furry ass.

Another apt metaphor; the hand that feeds you. Itself an implied power structure; someone above feeding those below, and the saying has a built in submissive quality. You’re supposed to never question those that provide you sustenance and life, no matter how unhealthy or destructive those meals, and lodgings are. Never feed yourself, and always feast hand to mouth without a care for yourself beyond today. Here I suppose, could be Ferreri’s epilogue: four men, who became the ‘hands that feed’, then, simultaneously, bit down hard.

8. ‘The Note’ (Season 3, episode 18)

The_Note copy

Ya know, why don’t you open these pants, it’s gonna be a lot easier that way.

Deep within the recesses of core Seinfeld ideology is a smartly ironic and complex take on perhaps the 1990’s chief culture war topic, homosexuality. Several episodes deal with it roundabout, while several deal with it explicitly, specifically the landmark season four offering ‘The Outing’. While that episode generally gets the lions share of commentary when Seinfeldian politics on the matter are discussed, I’d argue that the earlier ‘The Note’ is the more telling, insidious episode in terms of LGBT themed subversion. Plus, with its central focus on the series’ main quasi-homosexual personality George Costanza, its jokes come quicker and land much more often (for comparison sake, it’s telling how I rank each episode, ‘The Note’ is here at number nine and ‘The Outing’ didn’t even land in my top 75 [I assume it’d land somewhere in the 80’s if I took the ranking that far]).

‘The Note’ begins after a rather ho-hum start about misinterpreted small talk between Jerry and his masseuse on the topic of a recent kidnapping, really only existing to provide a plot development near the episodes close (as well as fruit for Jerry’s activities during the episode). The second scene, where George and Elaine first sit in a physical therapists waiting room then move to the adjacent massage rooms, is where the episodes main comedic thrust begins. It’s found that George is set to be massaged by a male, and a rather lithe, blond one at that (the introduction scene is wonderful; George is shot head on while seated, while Raymond the masseuse is standing slightly akimbo with his crouch pointed to George’s face in the composition) and since he’s put that his hamstring as “a little tender” as the reason he’s there, Raymond asks him to take his pants off (“it’ll be easier that way”) thus fully erupting the humor of George’s situation. Couple that with when recounting the perfectly un-ribald scenario later to Jerry, he claims he “thinks it moved” (his penis starting to become erect obvious) due to being touched by a man, George’s fragile ego is all the more thrashed. Continue reading

9. ‘The Gymnast’ (Season 6, episode 92)

romania

You may tell jokes, Mr. Jerry Seinfeld, but you are no Comedian.

At the heart of ‘The Gymnast’ is a rather complex articulation on the ambiguity of images and coded meanings. Whether they are embedded in our society in the form of pure image as pictorial symbol (the sight of Hitler via his dress and mustache, but without any historical meaning) or as an evolving signifier of (often unmet or unnecessary to even attempt to meet) expectations, the episode constructs several divergent plot lines nonetheless working conceptually as one seamless whole. This ‘whole’ becomes the form of a series of punchlines at the episodes many closes, each one articulating essentially the same thing; that what we see, receive or expect, is the exact opposite of what we’ve been told is reality (both from inside and outside the cultural megaphone [i.e. the television set or a close friend]); the placid Mr. Pitt channels Hitler in business mergers (highly charged image removed from its murderous, xenophobic reality), sexual urban legend is balderdash (or at least leaves one perpetually unfulfilled), a seen reality isn’t the constructed one (the difference between the plot of a filmed novel and the same written one), and someone who contemplates deeply is bound to have life be a series of egg-on-your-face misadventures.
Continue reading

10. ‘The Wig Master’ (Season 7, episode 129)

feld6_b+W

This friend of Susan’s is staying with us for two weeks… Now am I wrong or is that excessive?
Well Bob Sacamano he stayed with me once for a year and a half.

‘The Wig Master’ was, at one time and for a very long time, my all time favorite Seinfeld episode. It’s a point I thought important to make as we enter the Top 10; we’re in pretty rarefied air in terms of quality with nine episodes now placing over it. But then again, we’ve probably been there for some time now…

‘The Wig Master’ is an exemplary example of the wonderful precision Seinfeld so often operated on. It’s a bit different however in how tightly connected everything is at every turn, unlike most Seinfelds that careen in wildly different tangents only to somehow collide at the close. One can think of an episode we just discussed like, say ‘The Marine Biologist’ for a more consistent Seinfeld approach to this plot construction. That episode ties up neatly in the final scene with George telling the story of a whale he’s saved who had become beached due to Kramer’s hitting of golf balls into the ocean (one has humorously found its way into blocking the whale’s blowhole), all the while being in the predicament because he’s had to go with a lie that Jerry started (telling a woman that George is employed as a marine biologist). It’s a remarkably funny story, and presents itself as the punchline to the entire episode; when George produces the golf ball in his hand we laugh because we’ve somehow come all the way around to everything being tied together after existing for the entire running time working in eccentrically separate worlds. That is the modus operandi for most Seinfeld episodes that work in this manner. ‘The Wig Master’ alters this sensibility by offering its various plots as happening very closely related to one another. For this reason it feels incredibly precise, and a very fresh take on the working Seinfeld template.
Continue reading

11. ‘The Ticket’ (Season 4, episode 44)

tumblr_m9692aKdgD1qdy21r

I’m sorry. I can’t live knowing Ted Danson makes that much more than me. Who is he?

Continuing on the heels of ‘The Pitch’, ‘The Ticket’ further explores the growing sitcom writing partnership between George and Jerry who have entered negotiations to create a fictional sitcom for NBC. Taken all together and totaling a half-dozen episodes or so spread intermittently in Season 4, the subplot remains the only time Seinfeld ever attempted maintaining a plot line longer than two episodes (all the previous, and later examples are instances where the episode is the standard two part featurette). I’ve always remarked that you could pull all the affected episodes and string them together and have the makings of a quite remarkable comedic feature film. It would be self-contained within the meta-universe thread of George and Jerry working on a sitcom for NBC while also carrying out several divergent (but sometimes one episode) plots involving Kramer and Elaine (those two also see their stories overlap a bit within the world of Crazy Joe Devola). It’d be a strange modernist take on cinema in and of itself, what with its ending being neither revelatory nor anything resembling a conclusion to a rousing climax. No, instead it just sort of dumps itself into a small apartment kitchen via a phone call that the pilot will not be picked up that sends the group into an even more mundane setting, a crowded Monk’s Diner. Continue reading

12. ‘The Marine Biologist’ (Season 5, episode 78)

The-Marine-Biologist-Seinfeld

Yeah, Yeah, the sneakers. The Americans and their sneakers. Always running from something. Well, sit, stop running, two minutes and I’ll give you the latest manuscript.

In the post-Seinfeld landscape I think the easiest way to see the shows massive influence is to just look at what we have in terms of scripted television comedy (or, equally important to note, would be how much scripted comedy we don’t have; I’ve always thought the huge shadow of Seinfeld led to the cynicism of the reality TV boom. It was akin to studio heads saying, “well, we can’t top that so why even try?”). Now, the vast majority of shows resort to aloofness and irreverence, a full embracing of nonsensical situations and characters. As if whole shows are now filled with nothing but Kramers, forever forgetting that what made Kramer so brilliant was how glaringly he stuck out, akin to a weed amidst the crack in a cement lot. From afar it’d look almost usable, only closer would the delicate, manic intricacies bare themselves. Suddenly Seinfeld created a little bit of wackiness, which to an eye unable to grasp nuance would appear near overloaded with it. But no, Seinfeld was a show wringing so much surrealism from such heightened normalcy that it itself appears in need of reevaluation after its influence is mulled over almost 20 years on.

Continue reading