We open with the titles unfolding over a somewhat indistinct image of a gun, aggressively pointing at us. The gun proves to be that of Guiliano Gemma on a poster for the western Day of Anger and its location that of a provincial cinema about to open for the day.
The audience gradually filters in, a variegated assortment of everyday types, and the film begins; genre buffs may care to note, however, that the clips we see are from A Sky Full of Stars.
Just prior to the climactic showdown a middle-aged man comes in and sits down near the front, next to a couple and obscuring the view of the man behind him who, after trying to adjust his position, moves to another seat.
A shot rings out and the middle-aged man falls dead...
The doors are locked and the police called in to investigate. They have suspects and opportunity amongst the audience, but no weapon nor motive. A reconstruction of the scene thus seems the way forward, with one of the cinema staff sitting in for the dead man. Incredibly, he too is shot dead.
Yet this is not as incredible as the resolution to the mystery which will ultimately transpire as a sociologist, in attendance to study the audience rather than the film, begins to make the leaps of logic required to solve the mystery...
[Spoiler allusions follow]
Posters for Profondo rosso, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Perfume of the Lady in Black are nice, telling, touches
Before Demons and The Purple Rose of Cairo (both 1985) there was Circuito chiuso.
But before Circuito chiuso there were L' Arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat (1896) and The Great Train Robbery (1902).
In the Lumiere brothers' actualite a train arrived at a station. Not being aware of the difference between real and reel life, members of the film's audience apparently panicked as the train advanced upon them.
By the time of Edwin S Porter's proto-western, meanwhile, it was possible for the filmmaker to include an image of one of the robbers pointing his gun directly at the audience, an act of aggression that, like the rest of the narrative, assumed an element of cine-literacy on the part of the spectator. He or she had to read the film image as such, and neither recoil nor – in the case of any actual cowboys in the audience – return fire. (Goodfellas' closing image, of Tommy's return from the dead, is a nod to Porter's film.)
Giuliano Gemma in the film within the film
We tend, that is, to forget that film images and our ability to read them are cultural rather than natural phenomena. This is the point made by political critics of mainstream cinema, though too often they denied it as having any transformative or consciousness-raising potential.
Yet this is what Circuito chiuso does. It is, in its own way, an extremely subversive film for a Italian thriller made from 1978, in presenting cinema and the fantasies it encourages as dangerous.
We have to remember that the 1970s saw the large scale domestication of Italian social life, with television replacing cinema as the predominant visual medium. While this process echoed that which had already occurred in the US and UK in previous decades (a large part of the reason behind the spaghetti western boom of the 1960s was, after all the decline in western film production as Hollywood turned its attentions to the small screen) it was also encouraged by the endemic terrorism and street crime of the anni di piombi. Put simply, going out to the cinema came to be perceived as an inherently risky activity.
Returning the gaze; who is the character actor on the far left of the first picture?
Maybe you felt safer once in the reassuring darkness of the auditorium and / or when watching a poliziotto that affirmed, however ambiguously, that justice could still be done and that one man could still triumph, even if only mythically and symbolically, over the system.
But what if the auditorium becomes a site for murder? (This is a theme also seen, in a even more threatening realist guise in the excellent giallo-politico / poliziotto Io ho paura, where a porno theatre is chosen as a site for assassination, all the better to impugn the reputation of the intended victim.) What if the film ceases to offer comfort but instead threatens by exposing the dangers inherent in our emotional and libidinal investments in the image?
Nor, moreover, is it simply a question of opposing cinema to other media here: as the authorities bring in televisions for this captive audience to watch as they are kept in the theatre overnight, the TV news only fanning the flames by showing student demonstrators clashing with the police.
A Baudrillardian horror film?
It's the ubique media daemon, where there is no escape from the circuit of cameras and images, recording, representing and reflexively constructing an arguably increasingly virtual unreality.
And, ultimately, it's the nightmare that all our ontologies and epistemologies are no defence against the absurdity and chaos of the universe...