Saturday, 14 July 2007

Do You like Hitchcock

Whereas De Palma has long embraced Hitchcock, indicating that it would be an error for the film-maker not acknowledge and use his masterful visual language, Argento has long had a more hesitant relationship here. He recognises the value of cultivating the Argento brand name a la Hitchcock and of being seen as Hitchcock's Italian equivalent / successor, but doesn't want to be reduced to just being this. Accordingly in his actual film-making practices he works in a dialectical way with Hitchcock and some of his other key reference points and influences, most notably Lang and Antonioni. Ironically, however, this is not that different from what Hitchcock was himself doing early (1920s) and late (the 1960s) on in his career with these selfsame figures.

Argento also exhibits something of a tendency to alternate between more personal and experimental projects that fail to find favour at the time (i.e. Phenomena, Trauma, The Stendhal Syndrome, perhaps Inferno) and audience pleasers that give the audience more of what it expects (i.e. Opera, Sleepless, perhaps Tenebrae to a certain extent ). Again this is reminiscent of the way Hitchcock would often “run for cover” to a safer project after a more risk-taking one that failed to find favour (e.g. North by Northwest following Vertigo and The Wrong Man.)

In titling a (TV) film Do You Like Hitchcock? but then proceeding to equally reference others, was Argento basically owning up to the way that things are, that a TV series sold on the basis of the Hitchcock name has a viability amongst the general audience which one sold under the banner of Lang would not? Is the role of the film-maker as artist to give his audience what he believes they need and not that which they believe they want, leaving that for the film-maker as entertainer? But where does that balance lie, both in general and from film to film?


Anonymous said...

I always felt Fulci summed it up best when he said: "I think Dario (Argento) is a great artisan who considers himself an artist, as opposed to Hitchcock who was an artist who considered himself an artisan. This is the flaw which will make Argento go on repeating the same things. He's very good on the public relations side, creating a rapport with young people and putting music into his films that not even the Americans use."

K H Brown said...

I can see some of where Fulci was coming from here, but also wonder if it's a somewhat one-sided picture of Hitchcock he paints. After all, right from the start, Hitchcock was looking at art cinema for inspiration, giving his work an aspirational quality and intellectual edge that - retrospectively at least- distinguished it from much of the popular cinema of the time. He was also good on the public relations side, as per his analysis that the people the film-maker needed to win over were not the public per se but the critics, since they were the ones who influenced the public in which films to see.

Maybe a way to square this is to suggest that Hitchcock only became recognised as an artist rather than artisan late in his career and that, perhaps not coincidentally, it was around this time that the quality of his work often seemed to suffer as it became more mannered and self-conscious. In Argento's case, emerging in the wake of the rise of the auteur, the need to present oneself as some kind of artist was more pronounced and so became a limitation relatively early on in his career.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you about Hitchcock, but I think Fulci was mainly speaking about Argento and just used Hitchcock to illustrate his point.
I'm not so sure about your thoughts on Argento though - are you saying that Argento choose to present himself as an artist purely (or mostly) for commercial / career reasons ?
I also don't think that the rise of the auteur was that important (or seemed that important at the time) in Italy. France, Germany and to a lesser degree the UK all placed great importance on the auteurs, but their cinema industries were already declining, whereas the Italians still considered themselves to be a major force in international popular cinema (even nowadyas most Italians consider Coppola to be the greatest Italian director ever, whereas Pasolini, Bertolucci etc. are respected, but almost alwqays placed a rung below people like Hitchcock, Lang..)
None of this has anything to do with the point Fulci is trying to make here though - Fulci simply means that while Hitchcock was a true artist (irregardless of his critical standing and own claims to simply borrow from Art cinema and the greats before him), capable of using other's techniques, ideas, and themes and making them his own, Argento never managed to transcend his influences, nor is he capable of turning them into something more than their total sum.
Hence, I don't think "Do you like Hitchcock" is anything more than it pretends to be - Argento is simply working through his check-list of influences, but the "equal referencing" of other directors apart from Hitchcock etc. is just that and certainly no comment on audience expectations, the viability of Hitchcock's name compared to Lang or other directors. Argento's movies might have subtexts, but certainly not consciously so, with the few instances where Argento tried to become an artist (Phantom of the Opera, 5 days of Milan) being almsot exclusively abysmal failures.

K H Brown said...

Thanks for the responses - it's very useful to hear about how the terms of the debate vary from country to country.

I guess I am saying that presenting himself as an artist is important, but perhaps less in box-office terms than in being taken more seriously than he otherwise would have been. I suppose there is then also a commercial element, as it helped distinguish an Argento giallo from other directors' and perhaps could have also given them a wider appeal beyond the vernacular / popular audience of the terza visione.

Your point about the industrial context is interesting: As I understand it, the rise of auteurism elsewhere in Europe was often partly to do with boosting the status and value of the national cinema internationally, whereas in Italy its relative commercial strength and a more pragmatic approach would mean that this did not seem so important.

What you say makes the Italian situation sound like the reverse of that pertaining elsewhere - the most important directors are the ones who are commercially successful. Or, at least, there's an honesty in the more widespread admitting to this less evident elsewhere in Europe.

In the English and American books I've been reading recently the context is almost exactly the opposite, as they have plenty to say about Bertolucci and Pasolini circa 1970 but little about Barboni.