Below, my translation of an interview with Elio Petri from 1979 He is asked three questions: are you an intellectual? are you a communist? why write a book on Elio Petri today? I've translated the answer to the second one. With two long notes below, on the problem of pieces and on what it would mean to "flank" the working class.
[The interview, in Italian, comes from: Alfredo Rossi's Elio Petri. La Nuova Italia. 67/68. Luglio Agosto 1979.]
Are you a communist?
Can I say that I am a communist? Sincerely, and at this point I don’t see how I can get by otherwise, I cannot say so, and not only because none of the communist chapelles [note: “chapels”, in French in the original] would take me as a communist, neither the old nor the new, but because, based on my old experience as a militant, to be a communist means to accept a discipline of the party, to sacrifice in some way one’s own subjectivity to the discipline of the party and to live minute by minute for the party, and I do not accept that.
I should add: my life is that of a bourgeois more or less anxious, more or less split, who as a youth was a militant [note: ha militato, “had militated” literally] in a revolutionary party, who saw the fall of revolutionary hope, who saw the degradation, with this fall, of the entire society in which he lived, and who no long succeeds in identifying himself with anyone of those forces that call themselves communist [note: his comments bear the sense also of those who try to hearken to an older notion of communism, to tag themselves onto that lineage], of which there are plenty, that are of a fratricidial nature and that continue to scuffle amongst themselves over the old theoretical problems as if they wanted to close their eyes to the new ones, unable, in any case, to generate new theory and even to recognize the dead part of the old.
If I refuse to sacrifice or to mortify my subjectivity, if I refuse any discipline, if I live like a bourgeois, what communist am I? One may say to me that there are many communists who live like me, if not worse, and who do not doubt that a communist must live differently. But what can I do if people don’t want to look it in the face and see it exactly how it is? I believe that a Marxist, or simply a progressive, who lives in a capitalist country, or even in a socialist country, is destined to live in pieces [note: see note 1 below] that “hold together” with difficulty. The conservatives are whole, because in their iron determination to conserve the world as whole as if it had no contradictions, they don’t suffer scissions, they don’t fear incoherence, and, above all, they are justified in their double, triple, or quadruple morals, which are proper to the things they want to conserve. In a conservative you won’t find even a glimmer, however faint, of a progressive instance. Meanwhile, it’s said, in a progressive there are quarreling and unwieldy pieces of reactionary ideology, not always clearly individualizable as such, that render the progressive’s inner consciousness similar to a miserable District Court or a verbose and inconclusive meeting where there are clumped together all those from the Red Brigades to the saragattiani [note: the saragattiani were the democratic-reformist group of the PSI opposed to a unified PSI-PCI front], and further, to the catholics, and futher, let it be said, sometimes to the fascists.
I am not saying that this state of schizophrenia is not preferable - for those who want to stay in their own time and live it and suffer it - to the monocultural and monospiritual whole of the conservatives.
To be progressive and to do nothing means, however, to brood over the unconscious desire to change nothing. To live as a bourgeois and to declare oneself revolutionary means to express with one’s own comportment not just a state of simple bad faith, but something more, the adhesion to the values of bourgeois society and the latent desire to render vain any research into new comportments.
The list of contradictions and “pieces” could stretch to infinity.
I wanted to say only that I cannot be defined as a communist. Not an intellectual, not a communist.
Those are two things that I wanted and could have been, indeed, even if I maintain that the two words clash with each other, that an intellectual cannot be other than a supporter of workers. [note: see note 2 below] On the other hand, and this I say not only as my own excuse, I do not even belong to that vast group of intellectuals and petty-bourgeois who since ‘44, in Italy, if not in Europe, flattered themselves with the right to represent the interests of the working class, knowing nothing of popular or working class reality, invading all the left parties and also the extraparliamentary groups, recommencing one more time the phenomenon of petty-bourgeois mimicry.
But what am I, then? I come from a family of workers, poor, if not impoverished. I chose instinctively to side with the workers. Circumstances brought me to make cinema. Which circumstances? The hundreds and thousands of films I watched and loved. The fact that the poor partake in boxing, pop music, or cinema. The fact that to make cinema didn’t require us to have a degree. The fact that the cinema was, in those times, popular art. I took a certain path, helped by a certain luck. I always strove to not deny myself, but I don’t know if I succeeded. In fact, I believe I didn’t. Now I live in a social strata higher than that from which I came. In this regard, I did succeed. Is this all? Perhaps yes. Perhaps there is little else to do. But perhaps no.
The notion of pieces - pezzi - is crucial for Petri. Consider the pezzi in The Working Class Goes to Heaven. The contradictions of labor, and resistance to them, are organized around “piecework” and the shift from a durational salary tied to time worked and the general output of the factory toward individual rates, with the promise and threat of, respectively, bonuses and fines for going beyond or sinking below that rate. (Ultimately, the arc of the film - in the partial victory of the strike - is a return to the assembly line and that durational salary, with a new hell of a generally set rhythm and an accompanying cacophony that drones out the capacity to talk, argue, and distract one another.) Lulu, the protagonist-antagonist, cuts large rods of metal into smaller pieces. He distracts himself by thinking of, in increasingly rapid sequence, the piece he cuts and the ass of a coworker: un pezzo, un culo, un pezzo, un culo, pezzo, culo, pezzo, culo, pezzo… He loses a piece of his finger when trying to work too fast. The list goes on. If the problem of the “fragmentation” of the working class is generally an obsession of communist thought, in that film, Petri - the disavowing thinker and disavowing communist - makes it a veritable structuring principle.
Up to a point: because despite the fragmentary montage of the film’s opening, which is itself tied to diagetic content (waking up, falling asleep, waking up), the film “holds together.” It has a stable storyline, and it progresses unidirectionally across that line and its own duration. The same actors continually play the same parts and stay in character, even if those characters, especially Lulu, are a savagely inconsistent bundle. The question, in short, is the degree to which the film’s form is adequate not only to a general problem of fragmentation but, more specifically, to the shift that constitutes its main narrative arc. That is, given that we see, at the end, that little has changed other than a missing finger and a “successful” strike, the most substantive change is that of the rhythm and organization of the factory, the form in which labor-power is employed. It’s no surprise that the film uses the same remarkable Morricone score throughout, including at the end when we have shifted to a different model of labor, because it remains ultimately as unable as the dueling political factions to address the real question at hand, the form taken by the production of commodities, the structuring of time, the reproduction of social relations, and, perhaps most importantly, what falls entirely outside that optic: that which cannot be easily figured under the sign of labor hours, especially the “women’s work” of raising kids, soothing one’s near-psychotic partner after a day in which both parties have worked, and the maintenance of commodities already bought and owned. What will be of ultimate interest is not a pointing out of the fact that the film does not address these things, in part because it actually does.
Rather, the question is: why does the address not interfere with the general structure and local forms of the film, and what happens “in place” of that interference? For the moment, let us note only that the answer may be the same to both: repetition happens, that’s why.
the word translated as “supporter” is fiancheggiatore, which implies a “flanking,” as if intellectuals can only - or should at best be - a flank of the main forces composed of the working class. This particular military dimension is crucial, as it differentiates this position from other common “military” conceptions of the intelligentsia: as an avant-garde paving the way, as generals dictating tactics in accordance with a long-term strategy, or as “secret agents,” either in the sense of those who infiltrate the bourgeoisie and spread dissent or those who “pass” for workers and spread their ideas from the camouflaged position of being “just another rank and file laborer.” What Petri advocates is something closer to covering fire and, perhaps fittingly for his description of those who are fractured by the contradictions of leftist thought, those who absorb some of the blows and may come apart in the process. In this case, they would be the troops who bear the brunt of that special ammunition known as ideology, who try to turn it back on the enemy.