Monday, February 8, 2016

I don't protest, I love

It was an especially grotesque pronouncement against the basic right to protest that greased the chute. Before I knew it, I was neck-deep inside YouTube looking for clips from the old musicarelli, and one in particular, starring the young Caterina Caselli.

The film was entitled Io non protesto, io amo (‘I don’t protest, I love’), and is to post-1968 Italian cinema as Hello, Dolly is to the great season of American cinema of the late 60s and 1970s. That is to say: an entertaining aberration, a work you would struggle to place in the same century, let lone the same decade, so quickly it was overtaken by events within the film industry and the taste of audiences.

The connection with the police state enthusiasts who equate blocking traffic to an act of war may seem tenuous, but sometimes I like to engage in this kind of mental exercise. Take meat-packing company AFFCO, which over the weekend threatened their employees with a notice of illegal strike should they choose to observe a statutory holiday that is guaranteed to them by the law. How are we to process this kind of attack not just on specific workers’ rights, but on the very idea that workers should have any rights at all? Where does this mindset come from, how long ago was it common? What kind of art and entertainment it produced, when it was closer to mainstream thinking?

Italy in the 1960s was a country waking up from an economy boom, which had just experienced – albeit unequally, in painful fits – its first taste of consumerist prosperity. In the eve of a long decade of protests that exposed the hidden fissures in that society, the musicarelli – a play between the word ‘musical’ and the name of the enormously popular prime-time television show devoted to screening ads – seem almost charmingly oblivious to what is to come. Their Italy is a country in which young people demand the right to listen to new musical genres and to their favourite bands, but the demand isn’t truly cultural, much less political. Like in the films starring Shirley Temple in Depression-era America, these kids want to be allowed to dance but in no way rebel. As if society could accommodate dancing – that is to say, freedom – without changing in some deeper way.

Originally modelled on the films of Elvis Presley or Bill Haley, the musicarelli were pop star vehicles whose objectives sometimes included launching actual musical hits. Unsurprisingly, or perhaps mercifully, YouTube stores them in the form of musical numbers, without the surrounding filler. Or, if you’re lucky, you might find the original trailer.

I was lucky. Here’s the original trailer.

Play the video directly in YouTube. I don’t embed, I love.

In I Don’t Protest, I Love (1967), Caterina Caselli is a singing school teacher who sometimes uses singing to teach. A crusty local aristocrat (character actor Livio Lorenzon, whom you may remember from such spaghetti westerns as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) initially attempts to stamp down on the devilish practice, but then decides to try and exploit her talents by offering to launch her commercial career. However, her young fiancé (Terence Hill, of international Bud Spencer and Terence Hill fame, except at this stage he still went by the name of Mario Girotti), loves her so much he wants to stop her being a singer and she, uttering the epic words of the film’s title, announces she will choose… I don’t know, housewifery over having a career I suppose. What the ‘and they lived happily ever after’ part might look like is left implicit as far as I recall.

Even more extravagantly and abruptly outdated than this patriarchy-friendly resolution is the musical number ‘Biciclette bianche’ (‘White bicycles’), the warped mock-protest song excerpted in the trailer whose opening stanza goes as follows:
One morning you’ll wake up
In a white world, a white worldAnd you’ll find yourself in a white world
In a white world, a white worldA bright dawn will spread through the sky, woah, woah, woah
Above the your city filled with smog,
Above all cities.
Play the video

This isn’t a supremacist anthem: the film is far too naïve for that sort of thing and besides racial conflict was effectively absent from the collective national consciousness at the time. The song is really an appeal to conformity, or perhaps to hoping for an improvement in the general conditions, phrased so as to avoid any association with real, existing protest slogans or colours. Reminiscent as the song is of Coca-Cola’s famous I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing – which was to be filmed near Rome four years later, and may owe a debt to the genre – the musicarelli themselves were knocked over by the change in the socio-political wind and ceased production virtually from one day to the next. At the same time, and not casually, it became harder for musicians to avoid taking a political side – not to mention how if they tried not to, it was perceived as taking the wrong one. Either way, songs like White Bicycles became a whole lot more difficult to sing and to sell. Which is no bad thing.

I have no overarching moral to offer: much as these films are interesting social documents, sometimes my chasing such historical detritus is a way to avoid dealing with the depressing present. But I also wanted to highlight that idea, that ‘protest’ is the opposite of ‘love’ – a point the media establishment tries to foist on us every year around Waitangi Day – and how wrong it is. Unless you live in a white world, that is.

If you head over to Overland, I’m covering another Italian film this week – the late Ettore Scola’s masterful A Special Day.


Unknown said...

This is awesome.

Dale said...

How odd.

The White Bicycle campaign started in Amsterdam in 1965 and is still going there as elsewhere (versions of it in 50 countries). Could this have been the inspiration for the song?

I remember the white car scheme from when I worked in Amsterdam in the early 1970s. Some day soon they will find they have to revive it, literally reinventing the wheel.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Fascinating. Now I wonder if there's a connection to that.