Oedipus Rex

By Whitehead, Peter | Framework, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Oedipus Rex


Whitehead, Peter, Framework


Oedipus Rex

Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Produced by Alfredo Bini. Screenplay by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Director of Photography, Giuseppe Ruzzolini. Editor, Nino Baragli. An Arco production, distributed by Ea gle. Italian. En glish subtitles. Original title, Edipo Re. Technicolor. Cert X. 104 mins. (approx.)

Oedipus, FRANCO CITTI; Jocasta, SILVANA MANGANO; with ALIDA VALLI, JULIAN BECK and CARMELO BENE.

The Greeks had quite a few good ideas about fate, which went a long way to explain the consequences of sin, if not giving too much comfort to those who seemed not to be able to resist life's temptations; but they did little to explain the causes of sin; why things so inevitably happen, so inevitably seem to get worse. Who is there to blame? We can blame God, or Gods, for quite a lot, and we do, but at what point do we become responsible? A. N. Whitehead said that the idea of fate in Greek tragedy had, in the nineteenth- century, become a faith in the order of nature. If nature was so ordered, and as men are constructed of the same matter, then they too, given time, could become as ordered and organised, and would predict and predetermine events as the theories of Determinism at the time suggested.5 But then came Einstein, converting the Universe into one in which each man was his own Dr Caligari; then came Heisenberg with Uncertainty as the only certainty; then Freud with his taboos and myths of the unconscious, suggesting we might blame it on childhood, so he could analyse us out of responsibility for our actions . . . there followed a couple of little world wars and genocide here and there . . . And then! Existentialism. Man is what he does.

Well. In that case Oedipus was a guy on a road who met this pompous ass wearing a high hat, who he killed, and who then met this gorgeous woman, something of a Mother fi gure, with whom . . . being a Romantic because of an absentee father . . . he rather enjoyed being engulfed and protected; especially as he got an Empire thrown in as compensation.

But he had a problem. Bad dreams. He had had them for a long time, suggesting a complex. He needed analysis. He went along for analysis to a sphinx (making a fortune), who saw him as a real Mother's little boy and laughed herself silly saying he'd kill his father and sleep with his Mother. And so the dream continued. Until fi nally . . . well . . . it all came true . . . as it does in the movies.

There are only two reasons for taking a myth and re- working it. Either because a variation on it will communicate a new depth of understanding about that par tic u lar myth . . . or simply because myths are "true." They tend to be true in a way that we still do not understand. They work! But Pasolini seems to have done neither with [Oedipus Rex]- except to take the story and set it in Arabia and drag his hero through a series of parodies of Japa nese samurai movies. This is Accattone telling a camp joke to the blokes back at the ghetto, about how the other half lives . . . 6

It is not enough to re- work a few lines . . . "What one seeks to know, exists" . . . "one must remain silent about sin" . . . "it was willed, not imposed by fate" . . .

Pasolini missed a chance that could have led to a whole new interpretation of the myth. Sophocles never explains why poor old Laius had to get killed by his son; it was not merely for being jealous of his arrival and taking his place in his wife's affections. What had he done? We know what Oedipus did. Oedipus was destroyed because he could not accept the horror of having killed his father, etcetera . . . (I think if Pasolini wanted to really bring the myth up to date, he ought to have set it in Puerto Rico and have Oedipus proud as hell that he bumped his impotent father off, and tickled pink that this female he just can't for the love of him stop . …

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