On “The Cinema of Poetry” of Pasolini

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s films are a type of nonfictional fiction expressing a truth marked by the use of cinematic language as a citation of itself and other forms of language. Pasolini describes the cinema as the “written language of reality”; cinema, he says, “writes reality with reality.” (Rohdie 6)

In Pasolini’s critical work “The Cinema of Poetry” (from Pasolini’s Heretical Empiricism, 1988) he addresses semiotics, not in order to identify cinematic process as a language to be dissected and categorized within a traditional linguistic vernacular, but to define cinematic language as a unique and endlessly renewing process of poetic expression.  This expression does not rely on a vocabulary pigeonholed in a dictionary but in the actual everyday chaos that makes up the world of our experiences.

Semiotics is a “system of linguistic signs” which has a vast established dictionary of signifiers. This does not exclude the possibility of the existence of other systems of signs like a system of gestural signs (found in different dialects), or visual (Image) signs.  When we are talking of cinematic language we are speaking predominantly of a visual system of signs, but most importantly, we are also speaking of a system of temporal signs or ones that are more specifically rhythmical. Time or duration can have an influence in the meaning of an image sign, just as a facial expression can influence the meaning of a word.

Pasolini refers to im-signs (image signs) and lin-signs (language signs) in his critical work as the words and images that make-up the dictionaries from which writers and filmmakers choose their tools. The writer has a lexically incomplete but comprehensive dictionary of lin-signs of the appropriate language. The signs are contained in the dictionary for the writer to use. The work of the writer consists of taking words from this dictionary and, by the expressive use of the word, increase or sometimes alter its meaning (Pasolini 1988, 167). His act is in re-contextualizing the meaning of the sign.

The filmmaker has a much more involved task to accomplish. There is no dictionary of images; his dictionary is as infinite as the world of experiences, dreams, and memories. The function of the writer is one of aesthetic device; the function of the filmmaker is both linguistic and aesthetic. In A cinema of Poetry Pasolini best describes this duality as follows;

“The filmmaker does not have a dictionary; he has infinite possibilities. He does not take his signs (im-signs) from a shrine, a protective sheath, or from some baggage, but from chaos, where they are nothing more than possibilities or shadows of a mechanical, oneiric communication. The activity of the cinematographic author, thus toponymically described, is not single, but double. As a matter of fact, he must (I) take the im-sign from the meaningless jumble of possible expressions (chaos), make its individual existence possible, and conceive of it as placed in a dictionary of meaningful im-signs (gestures, environment, dream, memory); (II) fulfill the writer’s function, that is, add to such a purely morphological sign its individual expressive quality” (Pasolini 1988, 169).

A convention of film language has been established in the last ninety years. Pasolini sees this convention as odd because it is stylistic before it is grammatical. As he goes on to mention in The Cinema of Poetry, an image of a train wheel spinning engulfed in a puff of steam is not a “syntagma” but a “stylema”. Every time a filmmaker makes a film he first uses a stylistic sign and turns it into a grammatical sign. This stylema the filmmaker uses to “write” is taken from the chaos of reality. This is what Pasolini meant when he said, “cinema writes reality with reality.” (Pasolini, 1988, 170)