Farce in Marco Ferreri’s Don’t Touch the White Woman!
by Miljenko Skoknic




i. The Belly of Paris
    Les Halles was, for many years, Paris’s large central market, located in the 1st arrondissement. Expanded by King Phillipe II August in 1183, Les Halles was popularly known as “The Stomach of Paris”; Émile Zola even published a novel in 1873 called Le Ventre de Paris, showcasing its reputation as an essential core of city life. The relevance of this site as a purveyor of food, it’s importance to the identity of a city, didn’t stop urban planning authorities commitment to progress in 1971, when Les Halles was dismantled by order of city officials, who decided to redesign the market by adding a new hub for the city's urban rail. By 1979, the construction was completed with the inauguration of the Forum Des Halles. In the name of the inexorable development and urban renewal, the belly of Paris, with all the architectural and mythic implications for its patrons, was sanitized and rebuilt as a large shopping and commercial complex, complete with art galleries and other cultural attractions.
    Between the six year span that separated the dismantling of the original Les Halles and the construction of the urban railway station/commercial center, the site was a huge semi-abandoned dust bowl; a gaping crater in the center of Paris’s legendary first arrondissement: it was “nicknamed ‘le trou des Halles’ (trou = hole), and a considerable eyesore at the foot of the historic church of Saint-Eustache.”
    It was in this displeasing urban crater that Italian filmmaker Marco Ferreri (1928-97), on the wake of his first considerable success, La Grande Bouffe (1973), decided to reunite his ensemble cast and commence filming his next feature, Don’t Touch The White Woman!, right in “le trou des Halles”. The crater, with its jagged precipices, sculpted by excavation machinery and dynamite, oddly resembled the panoramic canyons depicted in classical westerns: This double-effect proved the perfect setting for his next film. The location’s particularity –human intervention resulting as natural landscape, old vs. new—proved the locus for Ferreri to apply his particular vision of combined histories by overlapping alternate times and spaces in recent U.S and French history.
    The plot revolves around a droll and war-crazed General Custer (Marcello Mastroianni), arriving in France (?) with the mission of “pacifying” and removing the natives, in order to clear the area for the construction of railroads (which happens to be the same reason for the actual dismantling of old Les Halles). One could argue that such a comparison, as hinted in the film, lacks any consistent relation regarding the recalcitrant lessons of history. However, the bluntness of these analogies is not the end point of Ferreri’s strategy; it is rather in mixing and overlapping of the past and present, of USA and France’s recent –and not so recent– events, that the film unfolds its strategy.
    The intention of this paper is to provide a close reading of some crucial scenes of Don’t Touch The White Woman! while paying special attention to Ferreri’s use of juxtaposed history, and exposing how this maneuver brings to relief his critique of historical positivism, asserting his statement of history’s doomed repetition unto the present. Although this operation seems unduly pessimistic, it's Ferreri's strongest motive: even if this means projecting his personal tormented paranoia (Witcombe 1982, 31) on the ever-shifting fabric of historical account. The result of his retelling comes close to a farce; portraying Custer as a facetious, war-crazed soldier with nothing on his mind but the yearning for an exasperated form of martial glory, amidst highly inconceivable and ludicrous events and characters, makes Don’t Touch The White Woman! a scathing and irreverent critique of war, its spectacle, and by extension, colonialism and genocide. Another important aspect in Don’t Touch The White Woman! is the foregrounding of spectacle as the main carrier and legitimizing agent of military action, as every aspect concerned with advocating the war effort is mediated by it. This is epitomized in Ferreri’s portrayal of Buffalo Bill as an effeminate showman whose main attraction is recounting his campaign expeditions to wealthy citizens in an underground Paris theater. Such distortions encapsulate Don’t Touch The White Woman’s fundamental pillars of its satire, along with continual references to spectacle as an integral part of a war campaign’s legitimacy.
    It remains unclear whether Ferreri's achievement manages to avoid forming part of the paradoxical status of accumulated and reified works that denounce a particular system, but yet feeds and reconstitutes it (i.e. Fight Club, David Fincher, 1999), no matter what its degree of separation is with more obvious and prescriptive variants of socially coercive spectacle. As I will contend later, Ferreri’s commitment to social change emanates from his rather elusive belief that cinema as a melting pot of social classes, as well as a collective, non-verbal “think tank” where divergent thought can converge. He has little to say about another alternative, although it seems to him that only an awakened and self-conscious form of spectacle can contribute to a societal power shift. Ferreri could certainly posit that art’s influence in this change is relatively minor; it’s more an accompanying factor than a cornerstone, compared to all the larger concomitant factors that need to be aligned for such a shift to occur.

ii. Transparencies

    A large part of Ferreri's films, particularly those made after the 70s, delve in dystopian, post-apocaliptic settings. However, Ferreri prefers to dislocate the time periods assigned to our preordained notion of reality, instead, claiming they take place “Elsewhere”. By shifting time and place, and not eschewing the possibility of the present, this hypothetical “Elsewhere” would still be in tension with reality as it is continually being subject to confirmation. Ferreri says, “we have already imperceptibly moved into an “Elsewhere” (...) That is, inside a reality that survives itself or is already obsolete.” This “imperceptible movement” that Ferreri describes could be understood as whether we can expand our suspension of disbelief to the extent of accommodating a conditional what if?, for the sake of creating a setting where Ferreri’s making strange tactics can be applied.
    These temporal shifts also apply in Don’t Touch The White Woman!, where the Paris of 1974 meets the Little Bighorn of 1876, while documents from alternate events slip into the story:  pictures of Che Guevara’s assassination in Bolivia; the Prime Minister of Congo, Patrice Lumumba, being dragged by his hair onto a police van after a bloody coup; there is even a passing reference about the Algerian colonization by the French government. Meanwhile, official photographs of President Nixon adorn General Terry’s study as well as an Indian-owned sweatshop –with white women as workforce.
    These elements are diverging, dispersed; many of them are not followed up throughout the film, as if they had nothing to do with the consistency of the plot. They are fleeting comments, split-second connections laid out for us to make; many do not amount towards the narrative, they do not add to the plot nor do they upset the linearity of Don’t Touch The White Woman. The cinematography doesn't even bother to estrange or separate the coexistence of a twentieth century college Professor amidst General Custer and Cheyenne Indians in a modern construction site. The disquieting and deadpan matter-of-factness presents us a distancing effect closer to a costumed farce rather than a period piece.
    Thus, Ferreri layers a palimpsest of related events, separated by different histories and contexts, but strung together under one setting: the Les Halles market, a relevant public space, yet torn down in the name of progress (for the construction of urban train lines and a mall). The gaping hole stands in as the latent memory of this place: its freshly seared circumference revealing at its edges streets and buildings, as if a meteor had just crashed a few seconds ago. This hole becomes, for a few weeks, a movie set. The adjacent departments buildings overlook the stage; the apartment dwellers are daily witnesses of the film’s shooting, and who are also able to testify on the construction of the film as well as on the tearing down of the Les Halles. All these elements add to the public aspect of the construction of the film: documented and archived events (e.g., Little Bighorn) are retold in the same place where a large amount of citizens would congregate: the symbolic implications are what matters at this point; the analogy to the 18th century traveling theatre group which would stage events in the city’s plazas has a strong connection to Ferreri’s “Crowleyan” (Witcombe 1982, 41) sense of ritual and symbolic catharsis.
    Transparencies are the visual rudiments by which Ferreri establishes his palimpsest. Through the coexistence of all characters in the same frame, the connections enabled by this operation are continually cross-referenced. Some of which are pertinent, like the references to (post)colonialism by means of invoking President Nixon when Custer warns Sitting Bull (Alain Cuny) to never leave their appointed reserve or face the consequences. Yet it is unclear what Les Halles has to do with all this, except to provide a western-looking background, courtesy of the excavation machines and the dynamite. On a alternate level, though, the “Wild West” and the Les Halles market both provide crucial land for railroads, a recurrent symbol of progress in the 19th century (epitomized in Turner’s famous 1844 painting entitled Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway). To be sure, some connections are dead ends –nothing more than clever remarks on capitalism, like Custer's Indian scout Mitch (Ugo Tognazzi), who employs white women in his sweatshop for the confection of Indian souvenirs, while hanging an official portrait of Nixon in the premises, as described before.
    The interplay of elements are voluntarily handled with disregard for coherence or accuracy, proving Ferreri cares little for acute reconstruction of historical events, unlike Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano (1961), who painstakingly recreated the assassination of the notorious Sicilian outlaw Giuliano as a narrative scaffolding to deconstruct elaborate political cover-ups, corruption and the mafia as a mirror, reflecting Italy’s contemporary political climate in the 60s.
    Perhaps Ferreri's desire is to take this debate “Elsewhere”, onto a realm resembling a dadaist exercise, closer towards Buñuel’s satiric mixture of politics and surrealism, rather than Rosi’s direct and inquiring engagement with reality. We can find a crucial antecedent in Ferreri’s method via Karl Marx, who famously states in his essay on the The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, published in 1852, that “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”  Ferreri seems to take this statement literally, as there's hardly any space for tragedy in Don’t Touch The White Woman! Nevertheless, he manages to assemble a problematic approach when dealing with the legacy (and accumulation) of historical conflict, if only to make a bold attempt at portraying Custer's last stand as a spectacle that generates more spectacles, exposing the underpinnings involved in the aesthetic construction of patriotic fervor: a glorified narrative serving the more scary parts that constitute of country’s identity. Marx continues by saying that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
    Memory’s nightmarish attributes in reconstituting war is echoed in Goya’s rendition of the Peninsular Wars between France and Spain, particularly on the piece entitled The Third of May 1808: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid (1814), where a unnamed individual tries in vain to shield an execution squad’s bullets. The absurdity of war is also the locus of Don’t Touch The White Woman’s representation, yet it’s aware that a great deal of art commemorates the glory of battles and victories. Consequently, and following Ferreri’s denouncement of that particular form of art (examples of which appears in the film’s opening credits,) the functions of commemorative war imagery are applied against the grain in a perturbing scene when Buffalo Bill recites his life story in a Parisian club, and photo slides of U.S. soldiers killing Indians is projected onto him as he’s narrating his glorious war campaigns. As the slides are projected onto the audience, surprised attendants try to “wipe off” the images of genocide from their clothes, an effect implying them as silent collaborators. Such tactics abound in Don’t Touch The White Woman!, as Ferreri closely links spectacle and war as a visual event that’s best “appreciated” at a distance: the problem for the controllers arise when people become aware of this relationship.
    Ferreri uses Custer’s “Last Stand” not only for its symbolic implications in the larger scope of U.S. history, but also insofar as the Bighorn protagonists also promoted war as a showcase of the “theater of war”. It’s quite astonishing to learn that Buffalo Bill, who fought against Sitting Bull, later invited him to play himself in Bill’s traveling variety show The Wild West, where Sitting Bull would earn 50 dollars a week, re-enacting “famous scenes” for the enjoyment of an audience. The spectacle had come full circle, even before mass media as we know it existed.
    The question arises whether Ferreri’s operations in Don’t Touch The White Woman! activates a conscious effort to break from the anesthetic commodification of the ever-reconstituted spectacle that all films face when dealing with matters of history, war and its victims. It’s not an exaggeration to presume that Ferreri’s overall operations in Don’t Touch the White Woman! don’t put up too much resistance in becoming a reconstituted spectacle, in the sense that this film-product exists thanks to the distribution machinery of the cultural industry. As far as I know, he even produced films himself (Glauber Rocha’s Lion with Seven Heads and Godard’s Vent D’Est), and worked in advertising as well as television. Yet Ferreri, for all his bitter misanthropy, is deep down a nostalgic artist, yearning for the congregation of strangers in a darkened theater, hoping that a collective rouse would be facilitated by the movies. As Lawrence Van Gelder noted in Ferreri’s New York Times obituary on May 10 1997, [Ferreri said:] “the cinema has always been a place open to everyone, (...) When the cinema arrived, for a few cents, people who were rich or poor finally found themselves laughing and crying together”. In his last film, a documentary called Nitrate Base (1997), he argues that the disappearance of the grand theaters of yesteryear was a bad omen for the movies. He believed that there was only one way cinema could supersede society’s collective sclerosis: by reinstalling the tradition of big crowds and big screens. He predicts that a sense of community could emerge, even if it’s in conflict over the treatment of a particular subject matter (as it’s the case of nearly all of Ferreri’s output). Debord, a great detective –and the fiercest inquisitor– of mass entertainment, also sought to exert its zero degree: the total dismantling of spectacle as a coercive force that pins down the societal pulses of change, by trapping it in its latest model of subsistence: late capitalism. However, these two misanthropic artists (Debord and Ferreri) manage to find glimmers of hope amidst what they consider the inexorable and decadent downfall of modern society, obsessed with fame and consumed by the media, while providing the subtle lethargy of spectacle for your entertainment.
    As of today, however, the aesthetics of destruction as creation has settled into a prescriptive practice, and relying exclusively on the prophetic myth of the artist as liberator. For the artist as the bearer of the righteous will has been, from the outset, a particular ideology as well as a discourse. The aesthetization of politics, as Martin Jay notes, “was eagerly seized [by scholars] (...) as a valuable explanation for the seductive fascination of fascism.” He adds, “Nazism was explained as the fact that German consciousness treated its own reality –developed and realized its history– as though it were a work of art. It was culture committed to its aesthetic imagination.” This, of course, is not to imply that Debord or Ferreri contain latent proto-fascist tendencies –their work is an aggressive critique of such inclinations. But if we would to install a prescriptive program of aesthetic deconstruction, that deals hand-in-hand with its political equivalencies, the result could easily lead to a paralysis of action. The collective uprising that art can partially incite in the spectator’s potential activism, ends up instead deconstructing on top of ruins. By means of these tautological applications, this abstract collective called an audience, awaits a prescribed form of revolution which will most likely emerge from disgust and exhaustion, rather than from a broader, non-hyperbolic collective and political awakening. In other words, a politically and aesthetically aligned “emancipatory program” overstates the obvious until society and its members hit rock bottom; only then does this program’s spokesmen rejoice in an I-hate-to-say-I-told-you-so self-proclaiming rhetoric. It foments destruction (or deconstruction) when all grand narratives are already fissured and disembodied, and have found more secretive and embedded ways of control. Such are the backfires the expressions of extended paranoia; faintly suggesting that all is lost, an abstract death wish cloaks the dark, frayed morals in Ferreri’s fascinating body of work. Be that as it may, though, we cannot dismiss these obscured, dadaist, and demanding films without dismissing something about our attraction to its downwards excesses.
    In spite of this, however, Don’t Touch The White Woman! is still a remarkable staging of war as spectacle, a non-compromising inventory of modernist gestures that emerge like a battleship suspended in the depths of collective memory. It’s as if it resurfaced again, but now in fragments, leaving the reconstruction of its past struggles to our personal perception of ethic conviction. If anything, Ferreri’s disenchantment causes his mandate-like contributions to make the individual “mad as hell” and not take it anymore. His exasperation is the measure of his contribution.




Books Cited:
Jay, Martin. “The “Aesthetic Ideology” as Ideology: Or What Does It Mean to Aestheticize Politics?” In Force Fields. New York: Routledge, 1993, 71-83.

Witcombe, R.T. The New Italian Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Web Sites Cited :
Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marxists.org, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm (Accessed December 18, 2006).

Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, “Les Halles”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Halles (Accessed December 18, 2006).