Monday, 25 May 2009

Draft of an essay I am working on - comments requested

[A long, more academic piece I have been working on over the weekend; responses to its style, argument etc. welcome. This essay necessarily contains spoilers - don't read it if you've only just discovered Argento!]

Voice 1: The Voice in Italian Cinema, 1913-1985


Issues around the voice are of considerable importance in the history of the Italian cinema. During its first golden age, in the years immediately preceding the First World War, directors like Giovanni Pastrone with Cabiria (1913) made key contributions to cinematic vocabulary through innovations such as dollying the camera. In common with other European film industries the impact of the war was disastrous, paving the way for Hollywood to dominate screens and box-office earnings in a manner that continued, albeit intermittently interrupted, until today. European film-makers in the decade immediately following the war had one significant advantage over subsequent generations. Regardless of the spoken and written language(s) in which they worked, their films had an inherently pan-linguistic quality through being fundamentally based on visual images. While written language in Italian, German, Russian or other language was certainly present, in the form of the inter-title - sometimes representing paraphrased speech - these titles could usually be translated from one language into another without significant loss of meaning.i Even more important, film-makers were enthused by the possibilities for cinema as a universal language of images that might replace the babel of natural languages to establish a universal communications medium. With 1924's The Last Laugh, for instance, German expressionist film-maker Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau sought to tell a story entirely without recourse to words, using inter-titles on one occasion, and then in a highly ironic manner. Though Italian film-makers of the period failed to produce image-based works with comparable international impact as those of Murnau, Fritz Lang, Sergei Eisenstein or other major cinematic voices of the 1920s, the same ideals nevertheless prevailed. Inaugurating the International Institute for Cinema Education in 1928 Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini declared:

"Still in its first phase of development, cinema offers great advantages over newspapers and books: it speaks to the eyes; in doing so, it speaks a language comprehensible to all peoples of the earth. Herein lies its universal character. It offers innumerable possibilities for an educational collaboration of international breadth."ii

At almost exactly the same time cinema was at risk of losing these selfsame qualities. The success of Alan Crosland's The Jazz Singer (1927) and the dawning realisation that the spoken cinema represented the future (I refrain from using the more usual appellation of silent here inasmuch as films had long been accompanied by music) meant that new issues around language soon emerged. What sound techniques should be used? How should foreign language films be made available to Italian audiences? How far should Italian films speak official standard Italian or allow for the use of regional dialects like Friulian and languages like Sicilian and Sardinian?

Technically matters were decided in favour of post-synchronised sound. While actors might speak their lines while being filmed and/or have a guide track recorded to add post-synchronisation, the voices heard were recorded after filming had been completed. Sometimes these voices were not those of the actors themselves. Voices were thus doubled or dubbed, depending on how we wish to interpret the Italian doppiagio. Linguistically matters were decided in favour of the dubbing of imported and domestically produced films alike into standard Italian. This was obviously in accord with official Fascist doctrine. It helped make all subjects of the regime identify with the nation state and allowed greater official control over the messages communicated by foreign and indigenous films alike (Ricci, 2008: 60-65).

The major advantage that post-synchronised sound afforded Italian film-makers relative to their Hollywood counterparts was in camera mobility. The camera could still be used in the same ways as it had been during the silent era in the studio, and could be taken on location with relative ease. Alessandro Blasetti's 1860 (1933), with its boat-crossing to Sicily and exploration of the island's rugged landscapes, could not have been made with synchronised sound. The film also uses elements of dialect to add historical authenticity. This indicates that Fascist's proscriptions were not absolute. It also reminds us us of Italy's relative youth as a nation and that the Fascist Italianisation project was in many respects a continuation of pre-existing policies from the prior period of liberal government.

The exploration of the world outside the studio is however forever linked with the neo-realist movement of the immediate post-war years, as exemplified by the likes of Roberto Rossellini's Rome Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946), Luchino Visconti's La terra trema and Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (both 1948). These were films which found a receptive critical audience willing to ignore certain contradictions - most obviously the highly unrealistic use of non-diegetic music - and to place their non-realistic use of post-synchronised sound within a broader theoretical framework.

The key commentator here is Andre Bazin. Though Bazin valued the cinema for its realist qualities, he believed that it could never achieve perfect mimesis. Progressive technical developments, such as sound, colour, widescreen and deep focus cinematography did however have the capacity to bring cinema ever closer to this ideal in an asymptotic manner. The use of artifice was also encouraged if on balance the reality quotient of a film could be increased. If neo-realist film-makers still used post-synchronised sound, for instance, this was more than counter-weighed by the ways they used the camera to capture aspects of reality that dominant Hollywood practice did not. The neo-realists also raised voices that had been largely silenced during the fascist era, in engaging with the plights of the peasantry and proletariat and allowing non-standard dialects and even other languages to be heard. La Terra Trema indicates something of the difficulties that could be encountered here. Post-synchronised into the actual language of its Sicilian characters, the film had to be subtitled to be rendered intelligible to speakers of standard Italian. This badly impacted its box-office, forcing Visconti and his Italian Communist Party backers to abandon their plans for a Marxist trilogy. The choice, as so often, was between quantity and quality: reach a minority audience with a pure voice, or a majority with an impure one.

Neo-realism marked the first time for over 30 years that the Italian cinema was of international importance, even influencing Hollywood cinema as film-makers, like Elia Kazan with Boomerang (1947), began to move out of the studio and into the streets to shoot. Though neo-realist films certainly played to Italian diasporan audiences in the US and elsewhere, I would argue that most significant audience breakthrough was accomplished on the nascent international art-house circuit. As the name implies, art-house cinema-goers understood - and were educated to understand - cinema as an art form in its own right Two aspects of art-house discourse and practice, both related to authenticity, are particularly important. The first is that that the film-maker, as an artist or auteur, should be possessed of a recognisable and authentic voice. Thus, for example, although both Rossellini and Visconti were identifiable as neo-realists, their approaches towards it were distinct with no sense that one's voice was imitative or derivative of the other's. Whereas Rossellini's films opened themselves to contingencies, Visconti's left little to chance (Brunetta, 2003: 137). If Rossellini's practice was perhaps inherently truer to Bazin's understanding of reality, Visconti's could achieve equal reality effects through artifice. The second is that the film-maker's work should be seen in as close to its original form as possible. As such, re-dubbing the film text into another language was usually rejected in favour of sub-titling.

Although Italian cinema re-established its international prestige through the neo-realists, and their successors, such as Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Pier-Paolo Pasolini, over the course of the 1950s and 1960s and into the 1970s, it is probably fair to say that these art-house developments were of little help to Italian film-makers working in popular genres or filone during this period.iii

As international co-productions, made with actors from various different countries almost always lacking a lingua franca, filone films had to be post-synchronised both for international and Italian audiences. Since their producers sought wider popular and vernaculariv audiences internationally rather than narrower elite ones, films would almost always be post-synchronised into English, German, French or other language, not subtitled. This was fatal for their critical reputations and the extent to which they might also be taken seriously and as expressions of an artist's personal voice.

Here I have to be careful. As science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon famously proclaimed regarding his own much-maligned, marginalised form, "Ninety percent of SF [science fiction] is crud, but then, ninety percent of everything is crud."v Or, to put it another way, if 90 per cent of Italian popular films of this period circa were of little artistic value, the same might well be said of the classical Hollywood cinema often also enthusiastically taken up by critics and art-house audiences. The difference was in the reception and recognition usually accorded this top ten per cent.

Reading reviews in the Monthly Film Bulletin, an organ of the British Film Institute and thus a reflection of quasi-official attitudes, policy and discourse, the same refrain is repeated time and again. The Italian historical/mythological epic, western, horror, spy or thriller film is "badly" dubbed:

"Although banal dubbing and stiff acting are the rule rather than the exception in Italian spectacles, this one takes some beating for sheer ludicrousness."

"Sheer nonsense - and ineptly dubbed nonsense at that"

"Vilely dubbed as usual"

"The film suffers no more than usual from the haphazard dubbing process"

What is not discussed, however, is what bad dubbing really means. Rather, it is taken for granted, a common-sense assumption derived negatively from the notion that subtitling represented the correct approach to foreign voices. Given the importance of French cinema and criticism at this time, through the young critics turned film-makers whom Bazin had gathered around himself at Cahiers du Cinema, it was perhaps also the case that Italian dubbing seemed especially bad on account of not following French practice.vi As Michel Chion explains in The Voice in Cinema (1999), French and Italian dubbing differed in the location to which dubbing voice was to be synchronised. French dubbing emphasised tight synchronisation of the voice with a character's lip movements, Italian dubbing looser synchronisation of the voice with the character's bodily gestures (Chion, 1999: 65). Though neither practice was inherently superior, British critics perhaps placed them in an implicit hierarchy of French better/Italian worse.

A consideration of Fellini's 1972 film Roma is instructive here. As Chion notes, Fellini's films frequently feature particularly loose dubbing (??:??). Within Roma's polyphonic piazza sequences individual voices often cannot be assigned to individual bodies within the frame, instead floating free as separate presences without a definite source. They have what Chion elsewhere identifies as acousmatic and acousmetric characteristics. Acousmatic refers to sounds that are heard without their sources being seen, acousmetric to human voices not clearly attached to bodies or mouths. Needless to say, The Monthly Film Bulletin review of a English subtitled version of Roma does not mention these disembodied voices, nor critically address the Italian dubbing of the film, nor whether the subtitling process might have resulted in a loss of meaning. The point is not that Roma particularly deserved criticism on such grounds - indeed, those responsible for the English subtitles did a fine job with an unusually challenging film - as that most critics were silent on such issues.

There must have been some films that were badly subtitled, whether through being difficult to read (e.g. white subtitles on a near-white background), ill-synchronised with the visuals, or just poor translations of the original. There were certainly occasions on which Italian actors such as Claudia Cardinale and Sophia Loren were dubbed by other performers in the Italian versions of the films in which they appeared. All this, however, went without comment. A double standard towards voice-doubling (i.e. doppiaggio = doubling = dubbing) clearly pertained.

In the remainder of this paper I will explore the consequences of this double standard film via a more detailed analysis of the work of one specific Italian film-maker, Dario Argento, from 1970 and 1982. Argento is a film-maker whose work is popular but also also exhibits certain art-house and auteur characteristics, expressing a distinctive, personal voice that cannot be reduced to a function of the Italian thriller or giallo and fantasy-horror filone.

This crossover element also makes the absence of Argento's work in Chion's discussions particularly interesting. Many of Chion's examples are drawn from films by directors with whom Argento has been compared, including Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Sergio Leone, and Brian De Palma. Likewise, if we would expect critics with an elitist bias against dubbing not to recognise Argento's work, this is not the case with Chion, who is clearly enthusiastic about popular cinema sound.

Interlude: Michel Chion's Audio-Vision and The Voice in Cinema

In Audio-Vision Chion argues that sound cinema is an essentially audio-visual form where sound provides "added value" to the image, "the expressive and informative value with which a sound enriches a given image so as to create the definite impression [...] that this information or expression 'naturally' comes from what is seen and is already contained in the image itself" (1994:5). Although sound thus appears supplementary, the specific sense of supplement invoked is a Derridean one, that if something (e.g. speech, image) were genuinely self-sufficient it would not need supplementation by something else (e.g. writing, sound).

For Chion the "naturalness" of the relationship between image and sound makes it difficult to separate out sense data. Instead, "what is rendered is a clump of sensations" where artifice is necessary to provide an experience that is true to life:

The cinema systematically exaggerates the contrast of intensity. This device of exaggerating constitutes a kind of white lie even in films that use direct sound. Sometimes a sound will be made to arise suddenly out of complete silence, at the exact moment of the window-opening or the car's passing. The point is that the sound here must tell the story of a whole rush of comoposite sensations and not just the auditory reality of the event. (1994: 112-113)

Chion demonstrates his points through the method of "audio-visual analysis" This entails watching a film sequence without sound; without image, listening to the sounds in a "reduced" manner, "the listening mode that focuses on the traits of the sound itself, independent of its cause and meaning" (1994: 29); and in combination. Together sound and image create a synthetic whole greater than the sum of their parts. If a comparison might thus be made here with Eisenstein's theories of dialectical montage, there is a significant difference. Sound and image function less as thesis and antithesis in a sequential manner, instead arising simultaneously.

In The Voice in Cinema, Chion concentrates on the cinematic voice and those figures and narratives that have developed around it. The key figures here are the acousmêtre and the mute. The acousmêtre, the voice that is heard without its source being seen, is a figure with an inherently uncanny quality. This is demonstrated by such films as Mervyn Leroy's The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Lang's The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1932). Lacking an body, the acousmêtre has potentially godlike capabilitie, "the ability to be everywhere, to see all; to know all, and to have complete power. In other words, ubiquity, panopticism, omniscience and omnipotence." (1999: 24). Narratives featuring an acousmêtre thus typically revolve around the need to bring it down to a more human level, through affixing the voice to a source:

"As long as the face and mouth have not been completely revealed, and as long as the spectator's eye has not 'verified' the co-incidence of the voice with the mouth (a verification which needs only to be approximate), de-acoustimisation is incomplete, and the voice retains its aura of invulnerability and magical power" (1994: 28)

Thus in looking behind the curtain despite "The great and mighty Oz"'s injunctions, Dorothy discovers that Oz is merely an ordinary man, "really a very good man, just a poor wizard"; Inspector Lohmann in The Testament of Dr Mabuse has a more difficult task on account of the multiplicity of Mabuse acousmêtres he faces. As a body without a voice, the mute functions as a kind of inverse acousmêtre. He or she again has uncanny qualities, whilst the narrative often hinges on determining whether the mute can be made to speak or otherwise vocalise.

A key trope is the idea of the "phone story". Separating the voice from the body producing it, the telephone is an acousmatic technology. If we typically do not see it as possessing uncanny qualities, this is because we have become accustomed to it along, alongside other technologies such as the radio and the record player. Nonetheless, this can easily change:

"The acousmatic phone caller, the threatening and perverse stranger (who in film narratives, and doubtless also in reality, is most often a man), can adopt the powers of the acousmêtre, telling you he can see everything, knows everything and is omnipotent. Inasmuch as you can't locate him, you can't figure out whether he's bluffing." (1999: 64)

A second key narrative trope around the voice, one less related to the acousmatic, is the "screaming point" This refers to a moment a film has been building towards where a female scream erupts to signal the utter breakdown of meaning:

"[L]et us define the screaming point in a cinematic narrative as something that generally gushes forth from the mouth of a woman, which by the way does not have to be heard, but which above all must fall at an appointed spot, explode at a precise moment, at the crossroads of converging plot lines, at the end of an often convoluted trajectory, but calculated to give this point a maximum impact. [...]

I use the expression screaming point to emphasise that it's not so much the sound quality of the scream that's important, but its placement. And this place could be occupied by nothing, a blank, an absence. The screaming point is a point of the unthinkable inside the thought, of unrepresentability inside representation. It occupies a point in time, but has no duration within. It suspends the time of its possible duration; it's a rip in the fabric of time" (1999: 76-77)

A key example for Chion here, one that may again be usefully compared to aspects of Argento's work, is De Palma's Blow Out (1980)

Voice 2: The Cinema of Dario Argento, 1970-1982

The voice is important to Argento's debut film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) in various ways. The critic turned screenwriter found himself directing the film from his own script after concluding that none of the established directors initially associated with the project were likely to do it justice. It is a film which inherently engages with issues around authorship and authorial voice, presenting a number of key themes and motifs that would recur throughout Argento's subsequent work. For reasons of space, I will here concentrate upon those aspects of the film and its successors pertaining to the voice.

The centrepiece sequence of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage occurs early on and neatly introduces the importance of the voice and the audio-visual. Whilst walking home one evening Sam Dalmas, an American author resident in Rome, witnesses a struggle between a man and a woman in the open-plan glass fronted gallery opposite, and goes to assist. Trapped between the gallery's double doors by the fleeing man, Sam can only wait helplessly until help for the injured woman arrives. Questioned by the Inspector Morisini, Sam becomes convinced that some vital detail of the scene eluded him and begins his own investigation. The attacker, who had already struck three times before, continues their campaign of terror and makes threatening telephone calls to Sam and the police. Eventually Sam realises his mistake: it was the woman in the gallery, Monica Ranieri, who was wielding the knife. The victim of a similar attack in her youth, Monica's latent insanity had been triggered by a painting of the traumatic scene, but rather than identifying with herself as victim she instead adopted the attacker's persona and role. What Sam had seen was an attempt by Monica's husband Alberto to shock her out of it.

If we analyse the gallery sequence in audio-visual terms, the thing that becomes most apparent is the way Argento plays with sound. While the gallery space is designed to accentuate the visual, it accomplishes this at the expense of downplaying the aural. Most obviously, we do not hear the voices of Alberto and Monica, voices that can well be imagined to have presented vital information as to what was really going on (e.g. "Monica, put down the knife! You're insane!"). The instant when Sam is distracted by the sudden appearance of a car is a textbook example of exaggerated audio to make an effect, its engine and horn not audible until it nearly runs him down. As Sam becomes trapped between the double doors, Argento shifts his camera and our point of view between Sam, Monica and the street outside. He also plays with the levels of Sam's attempts to attract the attention of passers-by and Monica's distressed cries. The volume of their voices does not always according with the camera's position, however, thereby further reminding us that the co-incidence of sound and image in film is a convention. The Ennio Morricone cue that plays over this part of the sequence is also noteworthy. An atonal, abstract and aleatory piece of music, [??], makes prominent use of a female voice moaning in what could be taken as pleasure, pain or both. Besides this polyvalence, it is at times unclear whether the voice is diegetic, representative of Monica, or non-diegetic. If we cannot definitively position this voice, this ambiguity serves to position the film closer to the as art cinema in throwing into question conventionally fixed, taken for granted meanings.vii

Besides establishing The Bird with the Crystal Plumage as something of a "phone story," the threatening calls made to Sam and the police are audio-visually significant. Visualisation of their sound patterns on an oscilloscope by the police forensics men reveals that they were made by two callers. Their signatures, the literal "grain of the voice" - to invoke Roland Barthes' term from The Pleasures of the Text (1973) - are different. If this treatment might be read as subordinating the aural to the visual, in accord with theories of the time that privileged the visual as the source of truth within cinema, the way Argento presents the call to the police is worth noting by way of counterpoint. The caller is prompted by seeing Morisini on television in a shop window and goes into a phone booth. They are identifiable to the viewer via their iconic black leather gloves, but not to the others who were watching the television. These others could however see the caller's face, which we cannot. But we can also hear the caller's voice, which they cannot. The separation of audio and visual elements renders the scene less meaningful. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty remarks:

"[H]uman acts lose all their meaning when detached from their context and broken down into their component parts (like the gestures of the man I can see but do not hear through the window of the telephone booth), one concludes that all conduct is senseless." ((1964: 39)viii

Like their predecessor, the second and third films in Argento's retrospectively identified "Animal Trilogy," of giallo thrillers, Cat o' Nine Tails (1970) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) make important use of the voice.

Cat o' Nine Tails is distinctive in featuring a killer, Casoni, who combines aspects of acousmetre and mute together. Represented until the denouement by an extreme close-up of a single eye, and as such lacking a bodyix, his voice is never heard. This representation can be related to the nature of the film's investigator Arno who, as a blind man, is a body with a voice but no eyes. It also reflects Casoni's identity as a young research scientist who had first killed to defend himself from a blackmailer who had threatened to reveal the fact that he suffers from a rare genetic abnormality; a revelation that would end his career. Casoni thus had good reason to desire to establish himself as a pure mind or cogito and, in this imaginary, ideal state, avoid raising the voice that could have helped bring him back down to earth were it to be heard by Arno.

As a further measure of the film's skilful combination of form and content, it is significant in the last regard that Casoni dies by falling down a lift shaft from a great height. Again, Merleau-Ponty's remarks provide useful insights, in recognising the limitations of the scientific world-view:

"Philosophy is not science, because science believes it can soar over its object and holds the correlation of knowledge with being as established, whereas philosophy is the set of questions wherein he who questions is himself implicated by the question." (1968: 27)

If Cat o' Nine Tails presents a man who would like to install himself in a god-like position, Four Flies on Grey Velvet presents a woman, Nina Tobias, who is the victim of just such a man, namely her father. In the film's ambiguous flashback sequences, in which Argento's camera performs disorienting rapid 360 degree pans around a padded cell, a disembodied voice repeatedly berates the unidentified Nina: "I wanted a son, not a weakling like you!" "You'll end up in an asylum, an asylum like your mother!" Seeking symbolic revenge on her father, who had died in the interim, Nina marries a young musician, Roberto, who is his spitting image, and begins to persecute him. As Roberto tries to make sense of what is going on around him, the family maid discovers Nina's culpability, and attempts to blackmail her. Here Argento tracks from the maid's end of the telephone call, following her voice through the cables and circuits of the telephone system to its eventual destination in Nina's secret apartment hideout.

Though otherwise the summation of Argento's cinema to that point in his career, Profondo Rosso (1975) is distinguished from its predecessors by a relative lack of voice-based figures and narrative elements. Argento does, however, pay attention to sound more generally as an important aspect of the film's hyper-realist aesthetic, in having each each murder scene play to Goblin's intense, progressive rock score, or by announcing the killer's presence diegetically through a nursery rhyme leitmotif.

Argento's next film, Suspiria (1977) is characterised by a shift into an even more intense, anti-realistic aesthetic and outright fantastical subject matter. It is also Argento's first film to feature a female protagonist, Suzy Banner. Significantly, however, she is also positioned very much as a child within the narrative, which sees her travels from the US to Germany to continue her ballet studies at the famous Tanzakademie.x Having arrived, Suzy discovers that the school is home to a coven of witches, led by the sinister Black Queen, Helena Markos. She represents the return of the acousmetre, in a monstrous feminine and more overtly uncanny/fantastical Mabuse type-form. Suzy and fellow student Sarah first encounter Helena on the opposite side of an Oz-like curtain, with Sarah recognising the ancient witch through the distinctive quality of her breathing, a "grain of the voice" that can be attributed to her other identity as Mater Suspiriorum or The Mother of Sighs. Eventually, Suzy manages to locate Helena and, striking at the witch's position after she turns invisible, manages to deacousmatise and kill her at the same time. This in turn causes the other members of Helena's coven, who had previously been cursing Suzy ("Helena: give me power! Away with trouble! Sickness! Death!") to die as the academy erupts into flames; another of those who dies is mute handyman cum assassin Pavlos.xi Suspiria's soundtrack, again by Goblin, also makes notable use of the voice, with the band's keyboard player and vocalist Claudio Simonetti uttering half-subliminal whispers ("There are three witches," "Sickness and perversity") over the circular compositions in a mantra-like manner.

Inferno (1980) continued to elaborate the mythology of the Three Mothers, explicitly linking it with Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater (18??), and to explore characters and states beyond those of the "Animal Trilogy". Once again the student protagonist, Marc Elliot, is placed in a child-like position as he attempts to make sense of the mysterious events centring around his sister's disappearance from her New York apartment. It eventually emerges that the building is home to the Mother of Darkness, Mater Tenebrarum. Like her sister in Suspiria she too must be situated within a specific body, which eventually turns out to be that of a friendly-seeming nurse. This nurse, meanwhile, tends to an old, mute man, who it transpires is the architect Varelli, the designer of the apartment block, the Tanzakademie and a third building in Rome for the Mothers, and the author of a volume on them which Marc's sister Rose had been reading prior to her murder. His own lair is hidden with his mistress in the apartment block, from where they secretly observe the other inhabitants and scheme against those who might discover their "filthy secrets". Again, the deacousmatisation of the mother, as she is located within her a body - albeit perhaps one that represents only a temporary home, akin to Lang's possessive Mabuse-spirit - leads to her ambiguous defeat, as Marc escapes the blazing building.

With its allusion to the Mother of Darkness and Rome setting, Tenebre (1982) sounded like a conclusion to Argento's second trilogy. In fact, however, it represented a return, after the two fantasy-horror films preceding it, to more realistic territory, albeit with the same hyper-realist aesthetic. It also represented a return to an adult male protagonist, in the form of giallo author Peter Neale. Travelling to Rome to promote his latest thriller, Neale finds himself threatened by a serial killer who is taking inspiration from his work. Answering critics who call his work sexist and discussing the distinctions between reality and fiction with Inspector Giermani, Neale functions as Argento's own voice within the diegesis to ironically highlight Barthesian distinctions between author and text, that their respective voices should not be conflated.

The denouement sees Neale revealed as an insane killer, who had killed the original maniac, a conservative television presenter, and embarked upon his own campaign of murder. What is significant about this revelation is that it provides for the first "screaming point" in Argento's career, as Neale's girlfriend Anne, responds to the carnage and horror around confronting her by screaming uncontrollably. As an ending, this "screaming point" is less jury-rigged and arbitrary than its counterpart in De Palma's Blow Out. The film and Argento's entire career to 1982 had been building towards this moment. His first four gialli had concentrated on masculine protagonists' experiences and understandings of the world. The two fantasy films that succeeded them had explored different possibilities through child-like figures. Now, with their respective limitations apparent and meaning concomitantly collapsing, the feminine voice was about to be raised.

This essay is dedicated to Oreste Lionello, the Italian dubbing-voice of Woody Allen, and the Godard-like professor in Four Flies on Grey Velvet.

8 comments:

orcival said...

Sorry, I decided to write while reading cause otherwise I would forget half of it, so please excuse if I'm being fragmentic here.

First great topic for an essay. I had the idea to try to write a paper on the use of dialects in italian cinema from the 30s to the mid-60s some time ago, so your paper comes handy to think about the topic:
With regard to your remarks to the fascist language politics I think stating that "Fascist's proscriptions were not absolute" is a little too much, as from 1935 onwards the use of dialects is forbidden and e.g. the screening of Ivo Perilli's "Ragazzo" was partly forbidden due to the usage of dialect to give the characters a greater depth. In addition the usage of language in film was - again especially before the 40s - a topic of intense debate.

I'm am not sure, whether the box-office loss of LA TERRA TREMA is really a point: as the film was part of the election campaign of 1948 it probably was shown not only in places where you had to pay for entrance. Seeing that Visconti often worked with the later director of L'unità and the cultural commission of the Pci Mario Alicata, who was one of the most important Pci politicians in the south, not finishing the initially planned triology may have had to do with the beginning of clear fronts in the cold-war south. You probably know this one, but if not: here's a scene from CINEMA PARADISO with a public watching LA TERRA TREMA: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1CZ5UIJ608 (especially from 1'20'' onwards).

Thank you for stressing the difference between Visconti and Rossellini. That is something that is as often overseen as it is that Neorealism is not a phenomenon of the postwar and is not a political film form in itself. (Thinking e.g. of the propaganda stuff Rossellini did)

I was surprised to see you cite Fellini for the practice of doppaggio. I think Pasolini is even more interesting for that since he states in most interviews he gave in the 70s how much he liked the artificialness of the dubbing and how much in his usage of dialect its not about autheticity (is that the word) but about a certain impression. This is interesting - as the italian popular cinema of the 60s with its westerns, gialli and even the piratemovies may on of the cinemas with the most interesting soundtracks to it. Not only with regards to music but in general. I'm not an expert in music, but I don't think that the music in "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" in the scene you described is really aleatory.

Finally, I think it would be great if you would add some kind a closing paragraph summing up the special way in which Argento deals with sound. Up to now, I think the essay falls in two parts: one ending with the presentation of Michel Chion's theory and the second with the - very interesting and brilliantly observed - look at Argento's films.

This being said, I would like to congratulate: this is a nice essay, what are you writing it for? And maybe this is the right place to ask a question: do you know a good book about italian film music?

coffeebaker said...

>What Sam had seen was an attempt by Monica's husband Alberto to shock her out of it.

Really? I'll be honest: as often as I've seen this film, I've never actually thought much about what _was_ going on at the top of those stairs, beyond the reveal of what _wasn't_ going on...

In other words, I thought that what we'd witnessed had been an abortive assault upon the husband (for whatever reason...after all, the woman is insane) that got turned back against her and resulted in the cuts.

And while this probably isn't the place for it, I'll mention that the end of BIRD... has a couple of points that have always thrown me:

- the "explanation" at the end seems to raise the possibility that Monica was not responsible for all the murders...if not, which ones did she commit?

- I've never understood the point of the plane-bound finale: it seems we're supposed to think they're not on the same plane...okay...but then Musante's movements are confusingly choreographed (obviously intentionally) at the same time we're hearing the voiceover. I've always found the sequence disorienting.

Adam said...

I thought her name was Suzy Banyon, not Suzy Banner?

Either way you always write intriguing things and I keep coming back to the site as I discover more and more giallo films. Have you ever done a count of how many you've seen?

K H Brown said...

Her name is Banner or Banyon depending on the version - which is perhaps itself something I should mention!

Whiggles said...

"Her name is Banner or Banyon depending on the version - which is perhaps itself something I should mention!"

Or Benner, on Bannion. :D

I found this to be a most interesting and intelligently presented piece. Interestingly enough, I suspect there is some degree of overlap between your research and my own, in that I recently completed a chapter of my PhD thesis which deals specifically with issues of power and powerlessness affecting male protagonists in gialli. One example I used to illustrate my points was the gallery incident in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, arguing that the curious use of sound played a significant role in conveying an atmosphere of powerlessness, instability, disconnectedness and ambivalence. (This latter point is particularly emphasised by Monica's cries, which lie somewhere between wails of pain and orgasmic moans.)

I don't have a great deal to say regarding the first section, the largely historical overview of the Italian film industry's relationship with post-synchronisation. This is mainly because my knowledge of this aspect of the history of Italian cinema is sketchy to say the least, so from a shamelessly selfish perspective I found this section incredibly useful for increasing my own understanding of the situation.

K H Brown said...

Hi Michael

Is your topic the giallo in general? My topic has mutated a bit since I started, so I'm now looking at the emergence of a post-modern cinema in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s with reference to the films of Questi, Leone and Argento. My basic approach is to use Deleuze's Cinema 1 and 2, which argue for the dominance of the movement-image in the classical Holywood genre cinema circa 1915-1945 and then the emergence of the time-image in the modernist European auteur / art cinema from 1945 to 1980.

What I want to say is that, with this modernist cinema beginning in Italy with neo-realism immediately after WWII, a post-modern or post- time-image cinema that freely hybridised the two pre-existing image regimes emerged. One of the ways in which this hybridisation can be seen is the classical goal-driven masterful protagonists of Leone's Dollars films and Once Upon a Time in the West against GBU and Once's modernist treatment of time, compared to Argento's more classical narratives and more modernist “seer” type protagonists. Then by Once Upon a Time in America Leone has an action genre protagonist who hardly ever acts.

This stuff on the voice is supplementary in relation to Argento, as I feel Deleuze is weak on cinema sound.

Happy to discuss this kind of stuff in more detail if you want...

Cheers

Keith

Whiggles said...

Hi Keith,

Yes, my PhD is specific to the giallo as a whole, although I've tried to restrict myself to it's strongest period of activity and popularity (circa 1970 to 1973) for two reasons. First, because the further you get from the "classic" giallo period, the more hybridised these films become and the more you end up getting bogged down with semantics. (Is Tenebrae really a giallo, etc. Second, because part of my justification for the project, if you like, is to consider the social context in which these films were produced as a means of explaining their representations of gender. I'm arguing that, in the early 1970s, you have a period of considerable turmoil throughout Italy, Europe and arguably the western world as a whole, with significant social and political reforms and considerable advances made by, among others, the various women's liberation movements. I'm ultimately arguing that these films are about power and a fear of powerlessness, largely from a male perspective, and that in their execution they either confront this fear (as tends to be the case with gialli featuring a male lead) or seek to reinstate patriarchal order (in gialli with a female lead). Limiting the films I look at to such a narrow period allows me to draw on specific examples and not have to worry about becoming an expert in several decades' worth of European history.

My thesis is largely structured around four character "archetypes" (the male lead, the female lead, children, "deviants"/"others") and uses a handful of case studies for each - the male chapter, for instance, uses The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Short Night of the Glass Dolls, One on Top of the Other and The Fifth Cord. As far as my underlying theory goes, I've become quite drawn to Foucault's writings on power of late, and these have served me pretty well for the male chapter, although I'm currently trying to ascertain how fruitful/feasible is will be to apply his theories to the thesis as a whole. I spent quite a bit of time faffing around in my first year of research (I'm currently in my second year of part-time study), going down a number of avenues that ultimately turned out to be dead ends - briefly looking at writing on film noir, for example - so quite often it feels to me like I'm playing catch-up as far as the underlying theory is concerned.

I'd be happy to discuss this stuff with you - maybe via email?

Take care,

Michael

K H Brown said...

Michael - I'll be in touch ;-)

Cheers

Keith