Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Initial thoughts on La Dolce Morte

With most of the available English language work on the giallo genre, such as Adrian Luther-Smith's Blood and Black Lace and Craig Ledbetter's European Trash Cinema special issue having the function of consumer guide, Mikel J Koven's new book La Dolce Morte, subtitled Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film, marks the first - but hopefully not last - serious book-length discussion of the form.

In the preface Koven helpfully identifies three key aims for his study:

"The first, obviously, is an exploration of the giallo, albeit from a synchronic, rather than diachronic, perspective, with particular attention to some of the thematic concerns that arise from a textual study of these films. This book is categorically not a review of the films, debating whether or not they are good or bad; nor does it fall into the "cult of the auteur," helping to establish a pantheon of "rediscovered" Italian horror cinema artistes, putting Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martino, and Aldo Lado into the same revered echelons as Dario Argento and Mario Bava.

Second, this book aims to refocus the discussion of genre (particularly "subgenre") into the Italian concept of the filone. Seeing the interrelationships between films, how one influences others, how certain filmmakers take ideas and build off them, and then how those ideas are further transformed by other filmmakers, is an underdeveloped aspect in genre study. [...]

Third, this book situates the discussion of the giallo within what I call "vernacular cinema" as a replacement for the term "popular cinema". To look at films from a vernacular perspective removes the a priori assumption about what constitutes a "good" film, how a particular film is, in some way, artistic. Vernacular cinema seeks to look at subaltern cinema not for how it might (or might not) conform to the precepts of high-art/modernist cinema, but for what it does in its own right." (v)

Taken in these terms, the book is a success. Koven convincingly demonstrates that the dominant theme of the giallo film is an ambivalence towards post-war modernity and all that comes with it - La Dolce Morte as counterpoint to La Dolce Vita - while his discussions of the filone and of vernacular cinema give them a broader applicability and should inspire future research into the area, not least for providing another alternative to overly analytic psychoanalytic readings of horror-related forms.

The main difficulties I have with its thesis is really where it leaves its most prominent and influential practitioner, Argento. (And here I have to acknowledge my own biases, as someone who is writing his thesis on Argento and for whom Argento's status as auteur thereby has a significance different from Koven's project here.)

The first problem is that Argento is, I would argue, a self-conscious auteur who, rather than simply deciding high-art/modernist cinema is irrelevant in the manner of Koven's vernacular cinema, instead engages with it within the framework of a popular genre. As such I think he probably managed to connect with both prima and terza visione audiences at some points early in his career, even if the ways they engaged with his films were likely rather different.

Another issue is the duration of Argento's engagement with the giallo, with more than thirty years between The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Sleepless is perhaps difficult to accommodate within the synchronic filone framework and needs more of a diachronic genre or auteur based analysis. Certainly, as far as the period from Tenebre, Phenomena or Opera onwards is concerned, I am not sure if there was such a thing as the vernacular terza visione audience any longer, and would speculate that Argento was only able to survive as a filmmaker precisely because he had earlier managed to establish himself as a brand in his own right with the giallo as his specific domain. Put another way, I suspect that many of those Italians who went to see Opera did so because it was an Argento film or they wanted to see a giallo and Argento was by this stage pretty much the only game in town.

In the end, I'm left with the feeling that in avoiding the kind of trap that befell the likes of Christopher Frayling's Spaghetti Westerns (with its tension between auteur and genre only resolved when Frayling later made clear, via his biography of Sergio Leone, where his true interest lay), and instead drawing upon Christopher Wagstaff's work, Koven has maybe swung a bit too far in an anti-auteurist, anti-aesthetic direction. Though I would not dispute his statement that "approaching the giallo as one would other kinds of Italian cinema, such as that of Fellini or Antonioni, is not productive, as this genre was never intended for the art house," (19) fits perfectly with films like Bay of Blood or Eyeball, his alternative itself feels like something of a square peg when faced with a Deep Red or - to introduce a thoroughly modernist giallo that, unfortunately, Koven does not discuss, Death Laid an Egg.

What is unquestionably valuable, however, is that in establishing a framework for taking the giallo seriously - even if I personally might be reacting against certain aspects of this framework - Koven has given us something new to think, talk and write about.

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