by Tony d’Ambra
I would rather smell the way boys smell–
Oh those schoolboys the way their legs flap under the desks in study hall
That odour rising roses and ammonia
And way their dicks droop like lilacs
Or the way they smell that forbidden acrid smell
- Patti Smith, ‘Piss Factory’, 1974
Me? Looking like a scattered student
I follow exuberant girls through the green chestnuts:
They know I’m there, and turn towards me
Laughing, eyes brimming with indiscretion.
I don’t say a word: I just stare at the flesh
Of their white necks framed by tresses:
I follow the curve of their shoulders down
Their divine backs, hidden by bodices and flimsy finery.
Soon I’m ogling their boots and socks …
Burning with fever, yearning for flesh.
They think I’m silly. They whisper to each other …
-And I feel kisses blossom on my lips …
- Arthur Rimbaud, ‘TO MUSIC: Railway square, Charleville’, 1870
I hated high school. Stupid regimentation and oppressive teachers. Corporal punishment from self-righteous frauds. Six cuts of the cane across the hand you didn’t write with. Basher would sneak up behind you in class and hit you hard on the head with the attendance book. Heinrich the crypto-fascist enforcer of discipline loved to shout and humiliate. “Attention! At ease!” We sotto voce: “Fuck you, Jack”. Prefects in blazers for black shirts.
No girls – just the odd female teacher – if she happened to be young fetishised to distraction. Under stairwells to look up skirts. They knew and slowed down. That fetid smell of grey flannel and ammonia.
The deputy-principal and principal, both Mr Brown’s and both balding old bastards – “Bing” and “Bong”. Bong never soiled his hands, while Bing had a cupboard full of canes: short ones, long ones, thin ones, thick ones. He climaxed each time he hit you – red-faced and on the edge of apoplexy – pausing on each stroke to catch his breath and force up your outstretched hand to inflict the maximum pain. Your hand throbbed for hours. I wish I had had the gumption to climb onto the roof of that hell-hole and pelt those jailers with whatever came to hand.
The French film-maker Jean Vigo (1905-34) hated his boarding school and dreamed a wild dream of schoolboy revolution. The son of a Catalan anarchist, and consumptive, he made only four films in his short life. While his last film, L’Atalante (1934), is his masterpiece, his first and third films À propos de Nice (About Nice 1930) and Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct 1933) are exhilarating forays into an artist’s discovery of cinema as personal expression, anarchic joyous experiments in which we enter the world of a magic lantern. A mosaic surprise of the potential of cinema to not only observe the concrete in new ways but to express our humanity, to wonder, to rebel, to satirise, and to laugh.
Zéro de conduite: young devils at school a 45 minute fiction talkie about boys at an elementary boarding school rebelling against the mindless discipline, is not only anarchic, but inspired comic lunacy from a fountainhead of deep love for childhood, and the joy of life lived with spontaneity and without pretence.
A new teacher points the way: he is indulgent and playful. He is awed by everything. In the playground he suddenly starts impersonating Chaplin’s tramp, then grabs a ball from the boys and runs. On an excursion into the town he leads the boys a merry chase after a young woman he fancies, and you see she is having as much fun as the audience.
In their dormitory a gang of agitators instigates a surreal pillow-fight and mock crucifixion – slowed down on the screen against the musical score played backwards. Total chaos. A lecherous teacher outed and the revolution begins: “You’re full of shit!” (Vigo’s father who died in prison in suspicious circumstances had changed his name to Miguel Almereyda - Alyamerda being an anagram of ”y’a la merde”, literal translation “there’s the shit”.)
The rebels take to the roof on a civic occasion and pelt the literally stuffed shirts from the Board of Governors on the dais below with rubbish. The stern midget principal – played by a young boy affecting a manly voice and demeanor - with a beard nearly as long as he is short scurries away for shelter.
Surrealism as fun shot at all angles and in frenetic montage, with a liberating asynchronous score of unbridled vitality. Mad strategams, irreverent language, and kids sick of eating beans throwing them at each other. Zero for conduct!
How Zero de Conduite made the Top 100:
Tony d’Ambra No. 7
Sam Juliano No. 7
Maurizio Roca No. 55