Saturday, 20 January 2007

Some thoughts on the first two sequences of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

The impact of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage's gallery sequence is such that commentators often begin their discussion of the film at this point. I would argue, however, that the general excessiveness of the film – an excess which, as we will see, takes a different form from that of the director's later films – means that the two sequences which precede it do more than just introduce the two main characters, the killer and amateur detective Sam Dalmas.

In the first sequence, which plays over the film's credits, the killer prepares for the murder of 'his' next victim, who is also seen being stalked and photographed, neatly signifying the camera as assaultive weapon. The sequence introduces Argento's characteristic emphasis on textures through the shine of the black gloves and raincoat, photographs and knives; a shine that also, by happy coincidence, further foregrounds the director's introduction of a heightened fetish element to the giallo film killer's accoutrements in relation to Freud's famous formulation of fetishism in relation to the “Glanz auf der Nase” or “shine on the nose”. Nevertheless, although agreeing with Needham's assertion that the film sees what was primarily a fashionable disguise in Blood and Black Lace transform into something more replete with fetishistic meanings here, one also feels that his analysis perhaps neglects to consider the longer history of black gloves and raincoats in films such as M, where they are not particularly fetishised, and Death Laid an Egg, where they are.

Le mani sulla citta - the black gloves as normal attire in Fritz Lang's M and within the krimi tradition

The black glove and blade fetish combination in Death Laid an Egg (1967) prefiguring The Bird with the Crystal Plumage by three years.

In other regards, however, this sequence is less successful. Whilst the unclear chronology, superimposition of the camera frame, freeze-frames and snapshots of the victim in black-and-white certainly serve to alert audiences to the fact that they are watching an explicit re-presentation of the world; to Argento's strategies; and the idea(l) of becoming alert, active participants, their diegetic meaning remains unclear. Why should the killer chose these particular victims and be compelled to document things in this manner, even going to the lengths of typing away whilst wearing the gloves.

While we could invoke a psychoanalytical rationale, such as the killer's attempting to master their original traumatic event through ritual and repetition, the remainder of the film does not really seem to support this. Though the killer's fourth victim / the film's second is photographed before her murder, the fifth / third is not. One possibility here is that the last victim is murdered by the killer's protector-accomplice, but this is not made explicit. Likewise, no reference is made to the killer's documenting their crimes in the analysts summing up of the case at the end of the film.

Photography or cinematography?

The shine of the photograph and the gloves; the killer touching the surface of the image

The fetishisation of the murder weapon

The obvious questions that then emerge is why they are there and why the sequence does not just show the killer's preparations, then the murder. (Indeed, the minimal representation of the murder here, the screen momentarily going black whilst a single scream rings out, also testifies that Argento's rarely recognised facility for restraint, most evident in his more recent films, was present from the outset.) One answer is that by foregrounding the constructedness of the image in this way Argento was better able to allude to one of his key influences, Antonioni, and specifically Blow-Up.

As such, these images seem to open themselves up to analysis in terms of the Barthesian framework of excess meaning proposed by McDonagh. They are excessive signifiers, or signifiers of excess, that only really make sense in relation to their own systems of meaning. Crucially in this case, this sense is also fundamentally external to the film itself, intertextual rather than intratextual.

This, in turn, is something that distinguishes the intermittent and less controlled excesses of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which McDonagh downplays, from the more consistent and disciplined excesses of Deep Red, as Argento's most thorough-going working through of the problematic established by Blow-Up, which she emphasises.

In Deep Red the excesses are more multi-layered and thereby better able to meet the requirements of both “readerly” / popular cinema and “writerly” / art cinema approaches, providing a combination of textual, subtextual and intertextual meanings and reference points. Thus, to give one example, the bizarre puppet with which the killer torments and distracts one of her victims functions at the readerly or more surface level to amplify the shock moment and at the writerly or deeper as something associated with – for instance – a characteristic Surrealist motif and, by extension, notions of “convulsive beauty”.

Here, however, what we seem to have is a would-be “writerly” fragment that likely comes across as too self-conscious and mannered to really work in art cinema terms and as too confusing and nonsensical in those of popular cinema. (Though, as Sobchack's deconstruction of the term confusion to emphasise the co-mingling and co-presence of the senses shows, sometimes it is not necessarily a bad thing; the point here is that we seem to have a confusion that hinders rather than helps our understanding and appreciation of the film.)

What has rarely been recognised, however, is thus the importance of certain key sequences in The Bird's much-maligned follow-up, The Cat o' Nine Tails in offering a more successful initial interrogation of Blow-Up's (rhetoric of the) image. Part of the reason for this, one suspects, is that this is also achieved at the cost of being integrated more into film itself, with a concomitant diminution of the apparent scope for the critic to interpret. Put another way, Cat o' Nine Tails is a more classical and readerly film than The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (or, for that matter, the little-seen Four Flies on Grey Velvet).

In Cat o' Nine Tails it is actually a Blow-Up style professional photographer who captures the vital detail that reveals an apparent accident to be a deliberate act of murder. Waiting at the train station to record the arrival of a starlet – a sequence that itself perhaps allowing for a reference to Antonioni's L'Avventura and La Notte alongside the paparazzi of Fellini's La Dolce vita – the photographer happens to catch the hand of the assassin pushing the would-be blackmailer in front of the oncoming train.

The moment of death is captured by the photographer

But after a brief look at the body he remembers why they are there: “Hey, we've forgotten about the starlet – come on.”

Though the death continues to affect him: “That's right – smile, smile. A man is dead!”

Reflecting his inability to truly see – i.e. to see within the framework of the filmmakers' emerging sense logic – he does not, however, notice this until prompted to interrogate the photograph more closely by one of the film's protagonists. It is Arno, the blind ex-newspaperman, the one who sees, who is a seer, that asks the pertinent question of whether the reproduction of the blackmailer's fall (itself another recurring theme in Argento's cinema, as Thoret emphasises) reproduced in the newspaper was perhaps “cropped,” emphasising / framing it at the expense of excluding / deframing the remainder.

The photograph as it appears in the newspaper

And the detail that, working within the framework of an unfortunate accident, no-one sees

The second sequence in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is less excessive – though not totally lacking in this regard – but also more successful. Following the cut to a black screen and scream, the first thing we see is an announcement of the mysterious murder of a young woman, the third in a month. As the camera moves out, we then get more of the detail, that this is an advertising hoarding for Paesa Sera (the newspaper on which Argento himself worked) and that the other headline is a train crash in England, with many dead. Neither event, however, particularly concerns Professor Carlo Dover as he buys a newspaper from the kiosk and scans though its pages – “ah, the same old rubbish” – nor his friend Sam Dalmas – “come on Carlo, or we'll be late.” This indifference will of course prove deeply ironic in the light of the events about to unfold.

From the specific to the general; note the gialli paperbacks on the edicola

The way the scene is constructed, opening on a detail and then moving out to give the wider context, rather than using the more classical approach of providing an establishing shot, then breaking the scene up into smaller details once spatial relationships have been identified, soon emerges as one of the characteristic features of the film. This also, of course, gives it a distinctly modernist edge that distinguishes it from the likes of Bava's The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace, if not Questi's lesser-known, more experimental Death Laid an Egg.

As the two men walk along, we learn that Sam is an American ex-patriot writer, who came to Italy in search of inspiration. It has not emerged, however, and he has instead found himself writing a manual on the preservation of rare birds for as a work for hire. Besides introducing the common giallo theme of the foreigner or outsider and representing the first in a long line of Argento's creative figures, Sam's existential situation, his desire to be doing something authentic and meaningful, seems to parallel that of Argento himself at this point in his career. While quickly establishing himself as an in-demand screenwriter and script doctor after Once Upon a Time in the West, Argento had also rapidly become frustrated at the way his work was often treated by directors, his ideas failing to emerge onto the screen in the manner as he had hoped. Indeed, in large part it was his sense that the directors proposed to helm The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, such as Terence Young and Duccio Tessari, would be unable to appreciate its novelties – more, to repeat, in form than content – that led to his decision to direct the film himself. Perhaps surprisingly, however, he has indicated that he did so without any real thoughts of pursuing a career as a director rather than writer.

Portrait of the artist as a young man

Carlo: “Don't you want a copy?” (of the book)
Sam: “Who needs it – I have this!” (the cheque)

What also seems curious here is co-producer Goffredo Lombardo's sense that he had made a mistake in agreeing to part-finance the film with Salvatore and Dario Argento's own company, SeDA Spettacoli. For while one could understand the film's rushes not “making sense” in classical cinema terms by virtue of the more modernist approach Argento was taking, the extensive storyboarding he has indicated he undertook in developing the film might suggest that Lombardo ought to have known what the new director was aiming for.

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