Thursday, 22 February 2007

Work in Progress / Argento dérive #1

For many years a difficulty for the Anglophone scholar in analysing the giallo film on its own terms was the comparative lack of appropriate theoretical and conceptual vocabulary for doing so. Commentators instead tended to use the framework of the American horror film, especially the so-called “slasher”, “stalker” or “stalk-and-slash” film discussed by the likes of Vera Dika's Games of Terror (1990) and Carol J. Clover's Men, Women and Chainsaws (1992). This had the effect, however, of emphasising some aspects of some gialli, such as the famous point-of-view shots from the perspective of the killer, at the expense of others. In general, the murder side of murder-mystery and the horror side of horror-thriller gained disproprortionate amounts of attention.

In the specific case of Argento this difficulty is further compounded by his move into outright horror cinema with Suspiria in 1977, whose international success led to his identification in most English-language works, including the aforementioned Clover, as a “horror” or – worse - “slasher” director.

Though a consideration of the second half of each equation – i.e. mystery and thriller – might seem the obvious answer, the same problem resurfaces in a different form, insofar as the framework then tends to become that of noir and / or Hitchcock.

Though the term “giallo” has similar origins in Italian as the French “noir”, insofar as both refer to the distinctive colours, yellow in the former and black in the latter case, in which a particular genre of Anglophone literature was published in translation, there are as many differences as similarities in other respects. The historical gap between noir literature and noir film is shorter and straight adaptations are more prevalent. The Postman Always Rings Twice (dir: Tay Garnett, 1946) unsurprisingly takes far fewer liberties with James M. Cain's heponymous source novel than Ossessione (dir: Luchino Visconti, 1942) with its operatic overtones and substitution of the Po Valley for Southern California. The Screaming Mimi (dir: Gerd Oswald, 1958) brings Fredric Brown's novel of the same name to the screen, whereas The Bird with the Crystal Plumage draws inspiration from it but then goes in an entirely different direction, as McDonagh (1991: 42-45) demonstrates.

Whereas the term “noir” connotes an obvious visual style to these films, as a kind of naturalised expressionism, that has no “giallo” counterpart. A giallo film is not literally yellow in the way that a film noir is black (i.e. dark, expressionistic), though certain filmmakers, like Luigi Cozzi in The Killer Must Kill Again (1973/75) and Flavio Mogherini in The Girl with the Yellow Pyjamas (1977), have occasionally made use of the colour and its connotations in their mise-en-scene and titles.

Approaching the giallo from the perspective of the Hitchcock thriller is equally problematic. Hitchcock, after all, was famous for expressing a disinterest in the whodunit aspect central to the murder-mystery under which most gialli can be situated and with emphasising “suspense” over “shock” in the dynamics of his films. And while innumerable gialli certainly draw inspiration from his films, they also exhibit other specific and general influences. Thus, for example, while Bava's La Ragazza che sappeva troppo / The Girl Who Saw Too Much announces its debt to Hitchcock through what Genette (1982) refers to as the “architextuality” of its title, as allusion to The Man Who Knew Too Much (dir: Hitchcock, 1934/56), a specific sequence within it can be traced more or less directly to Alfred Vohrer's Edgar Wallace krimi adaptation The Dead Eyes of London (1961) and Fritz Lang's The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933). While Lang and the krimi are in fact recurring influences throughout the giallo, Bava's later A Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1969), to use another illustrative example, appears to draw as much inspiration from Luis Buñuel's The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955) as Hitchcock's Psycho (1960).

It is fortunate, then, that in recent years, a number of English-language scholars, most notably Gary Needham in Playing with Genre: defining the Italian giallo (2004) and Mikel J. Koven in La Dolce Morte: vernacular cinema and the Italian giallo film (2006) have begun to identify the shortcomings in uncritically approaching the giallo through theories developed in relation to other genres and national cinemas and developed our understanding of what it is that is specific to the giallo genre.

Indeed, almost the very first point to be made by both is that the very term genre is problematic in the context of the giallo, with both agreeing that the more specifically Italian term “filone” is a more appropriate designation on a number of counts. As Needham explains:

“[F]ilone [...] is often used to refer to both genres and cycles as well as to currents and trends. This points to the limitations of genre theory built primarily on American film genres, but also to the need for redefinition concerning how other popular film-producing nations understand and relate to their products.”

Koven, meanwhile, draws out the various meanings of the term in both specific contexts – including isolated references to its use in film studies – and everyday speech:

“Although in Italian, the word genere does literally mean “genre,” within the context we are currently discussing genre [i.e. subgenre], the Italian filone may be more appropriate. In literary studies, the giallo, like crime or detective fiction as genre, would be considered genere. Filone, on the other hand, would tend to be used primarily in a more scientific context, like geology (where filone would refer to a vein of mineral in a rock) or geography (as in the main current in a river). However, rather than the more traditional literary approach, filone here tends to be used more idiomatically, as in the phrase “sullo stesso filone” (“in the tradition of”) or “seguire il filone”) (“to follow the tradition of”). Even the geological use of filone has an English equivalent: to be “in the vein of”. Wagstaff defines filone as “formula,” which in reference to cinema is often “dismissed as sottoprodotto (a debased, ersatz product)” (1992: 248). Paul Hoffmann [...] defined filone [...] as “streamlet”, as in a small stream off a main river [...] Putting all these together, if we think of a larger generic pattern as a river, in this context the giallo as genre, several smaller “streamlets” branch off from that genre-river, occasionally reconnecting to the main flow farther “downstream”. Perhaps, in some cases, what we think of a film genre, like the giallo, may be a cluster of concurrent streamlets, veins or traditions – filone.”

While a precise definition thus remains elusive this is precisely the point: the liquid quality of the filone makes it difficult to grasp, without solidifying / reifying it into some once-and-for-all essence, as can all too readily happen with genre if we are not careful (i.e. “the western film is...”) Rather, we are perhaps better proceeding with a “for all practical purposes” understanding of the giallo as filone, that the giallo is (like) this until the inevitable counterfactual surfaces, and forces us to reconsider those assumptions that we had hitertho bracketed off.

Do the fantastical elements of Phenomena, for instance, make it a horror film rather than a giallo? Or does its realism, in seeking after a rational/scientific explanation for events, mean that it is still enough of a giallo? Or – the most intruiging option – that we do not have to make an either / or choice between the two, but can instead ask what it means when we view it now as giallo; now as horror; now as some hybrid of the two, or indeed, introduce some third or further term. Thus, with reference to Phenonomena and other borderline gialli in a similar vein, such as Bava's Kill Baby Kill (1966), we can bring in the fantastical, as with the Kim Newman's notion of the “giallo-fantastico” as cited by Koven (2006: 9-10).

Or, as I would argue, that the combination of giallo, horror and supernatural / fantastical elements in Phenomena is yet another instance of Argento's characterist excess, bringing the question of authorship back into the equation while simultaneously also reminding us that no one frame of reference – genre, filone, auteur or whatever – can ever hope to encompass the totality (or gestalt) of its existence. Rather, each set of concepts foregrounds one aspect, as figure, by simultaneously putting others into the background. What we can aspire to do, however, is move between different positions and perspectives and try to understand how they might interconnect and intersect. In this regard, we might suggest that our ideal experience of the Argento film is being something like a viewing of Salvador Dali's painting The Slave Market with Disappearing Bust of Voltaire (1940), as our eyes see now two nuns, now the contours of face.

Indeed, I would argue that much of the the value of Argento's films, beyond entertainment and their sheer technical ability, is that at their best they not only explores what is possible within cinema but also reconnects us with our everyday lives outside the cinema afresh, having awoken us to other ways of perceiving / experiencing the world.

[To be continued]

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