Tuesday, 20 October 2009

And some more thesis...

The film's position as antithesis to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is evident from its opening scene, as blind ex-reporter Franco Arno (Karl Malden) and his ward Lori (Cinzia de Carolis) pass a parked car on their way home. Inside the car a man is talking, sotto voce. With his (cliche) sensitive hearing Arno realises the discussion implies blackmail, and accordingly asks Lori to take a look while he ties his shoelace. Though Lori can make out one of the men in the car, the other is in shadow; as she looks back Argento cuts to the reverse angle while on the soundtrack a jarring chord, soon to be identified with the blackmail victim cum killer, Dr Casoni (Aldo Reggiani) is heard. Just as in its predecessor, Argento is thus consciously presenting an initial situation in which the action-image breaks down into opsigns and sonsigns. This time, however, aural rather than visual data are to the fore. Additionally, unlike Dalmas, Arno and Lori are in no position to act. As a child Lori is subject to what Deleuze, in relation to the Italian and French time-image cinemas refers to as “motor helplessness”: “The role of the child has been pointed out, notably in De Sica (and later in France with Truffaut); this is because, in the adult world, the child is affected by a certain motor helplessness, but one which makes him all the more capable of seeing and hearing.” (2005b: 3) Arno, meanwhile, is a “seer” figure, albeit a decidly ironic one on account of his blindness.

Arno's position is further signalled by the next scene, in which Casoni breaks into the Terzi Institute in order to substitute a fake, clean genetic profile for his real, incriminating one. Arno is intimated as having a kind of second sight, sixth sense or intuition that something is happening outside through the way the scene is edited. As Casoni knocks a watchman unconscious, the scene seems to be taking place simultaneously within the real world and within Arno's mind. As the sequence continues and Casoni enters the institute proper, his position does become somewhat more independent and detached. Nevertheless, it is also noticeable that Argento continues to represent him in a different manner than Monica Ranieri in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. She and her husband double were always physically present in the frame, whether as the dark-clad silhouette or metonymic gloved hands. Casoni, by contrast, is only seen as a shadowy figure when he is seen fleeing the institute from an observer's point of view. Otherwise, Argento goes to considerable lengths to absent his body from the frame. For example, when Casoni later kills Bianca Merusi (Rada Rassimov), it is almost as if the garrotte goes around her neck by itself, as if it animated by supernatural force. This, of course, is something that would not be out of place in one of Argento's later fantasy-horror films, with their 'Gothic' or 'Expressionist' animate (animistic?) worlds. For, as Deleuze says: “The non-organic life of things, a frightful life, which is oblivious to the wisdom and limits of the organism, is the first principle of Expressionism, valid for the whole of Nature, that is, for the unconscous spirit, lost in darkness, light which has become opaque, lumen opacatum. From this point of view natural substances and artificial creations, candelabras and trees, turbine and sun are no longer any different. A wall which is alive is dreadful; but utensils, furniture, houses and their roofs also lean, crowd around, lie in wait, or pounce.” (2005a: 52)

Whilst The Cat o' Nine Tails is a giallo and, as such, eschews outright fantasy, it is nevertheless more open to such possibilities compared to its predecessor. That this is so is, I would argue, most evident in the poetic way Argento depicts his protagonist and antagonist, which I will now continue to explore.

The one thing we do see of Casoni repeatedly throughout the film is the extreme close-up of one of his eyes. It is a peculiar, shocking image: As a deterritorialisation of the eye from the face, it refuses “faciality”. But, if is thereby not a conventional affection-image, it also undeniably has an intense affect, the characteristic of the affection-image. Arguably it thereby presents a fusion of the intensive and extensive and organic and inorganic poles of the affection-image, one that takes a part of the machine assembladge of the body, the eye, and presents it in an unfamilar, machinic context: What does an eye actually do? Deleuze's answer is that, by itself, an eye does not do very much. Rather, the eye only gains its conventional, biological function in conjunction with the other parts of an organic body - other eyes, ears, a brain etc. The cinematic body, that of the shots on strips of film (or latterly frames on a computer disc), is not an organic body. It is purely machinic (or electronic). Within the classical cinema of the movement-image, however, most of the assemblages made were organic, or “rational”. One image (or body part) was joined to another in a way that made sense, both at the level of these parts and of the whole. For instance, for Bazin (195?), John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) was like a wheel. Each part was perfectly in accord with the others. In the modern cinema of the time-image, by contrast, the assemblages of parts are inorganic (“crystalline”) or “irrational”. One image may be joined to another in any manner that the filmmaker sees fit; as previously discussed this was a key part of Leone's way of working. As such, whereas the logic of the movement-image is primarily arborescent, that of the time-image is primarily rhizomatic. From one movement-image we can predict the next, whereas from one time-image we cannot. (In this respect a Markovian analysis of corpuses drawn from these cinemas, of which shots or images follow which, probabilistically or stochastically, might be informationally useful.)

I have already mentioned the way Casoni's eye seems to capture the same visions as Arno witnesses on his mindscreen. In moving between these positions, the cut is “irrational,” making the rhizomatic and arbitrary aspects of editing (or montage) evident. As such, it is another time-image irruption, or instance of becoming time-image, within a primarily movement-image film.

It is also perhaps no coincidence here that Argento has referred to Dziga Vertov as being his favourite amongst the Soviet directors. For, as Deleuze shows, Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929) is precisely a film which exploits the power of cinema's machinic, technological body (albeit one within the context of the movement-image cinema) to go beyond the human. As we shall see, the ability of cinema to present inhuman perceptions through the use of technology is something that Argento will increasingly turn to in Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Deep Red and Tenebre.

Another key aspect of the way Argento depicts Casoni is through his silence, as the killer. While the same was basically true of Monica Ranieri in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, there is a difference in the way the two figures function: When Monica makes a telephone call, we hear her (or a) voice. When Casoni does, after abducting Lori, we do not hear his voice. In combination with his relative disembodiment, I would thus argue that The Cat o' Nine Tails is more an exploration of the acousmetre and the mute than a “telephone story”. This again marks it out as a more uncanny film than its predecessor, as one in which “weird science of the most egregious kind” (Koven, 2006: ??), namely the currently discredited idea that an individual's predisposition towards violence is genetic, has a place, even if outright 'magic' does not. The thing that is particularly uncanny about Casoni is his combination of characteristics of acousmetre and mute. On the one hand, he is presented as all but invisible, only appearing as an eye. Insofar as the eye is itself arguably emblematic of the acousmetre, as something potentially all seeing, all knowing and all powerful, or godlike, this is not itself a problem. On the other hand, he is silent. This invokes the figure of the mute, whose uncanny powers depend upon not speaking. As such, Casoni is an in-between, hybrid figure, neither quite voice without body nor body without voice. This position is not necessarily one that can be related to the movement-image and time-image. One of the most complex uses of the voice in cinema identified by Chion (and glossed by Deleuze) is, after all, that of Lang's The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1932). What might be said, however, is that it is a post-modern hybridity, as something that refuses the either/or of acousmetre or mute in favour of their combination.

Insofar as neither the combination of Expressionism and Montage nor the use of the acousmetre directly position The Cat o' Nine Tails as a more Hitchcockian or Langian film (Lang's Metropolis, for instance, using montage contrasts of rich and poor, even as then-wife Thea von Harbou's script rejected revolution) it is worth considering other possible intertextual influences upon the film.

The most important of these, I would argue, is a surprising one: James Whale's 1933 adaptation of H. G Wells's 18?? novel The Invisible Man. The similarities between the two texts are manifold: Both feature mad scientists, or more specifically scientists who are drive mad by their discoveries. Both revolve around invisibility, with the unnamed scientist in Wells's text becoming invisible and Casoni here wishing to become so. Finally, both characters are first partially deacousmatised by being wounded, causing them to leave a trail of blood, then completely deacousmatised and defeated.

Beyond this, there is also the fact that around this time Argento and frequent collaborator Luigi Cozzi had mooted the idea of doing a version of the Frankenstein myth set against the backdrop of 1930s fascism; Paul Morrisey and Antonio Margheriti's 1974 Flesh for Frankenstein perhaps gives some hints of what the resulting film might have been like, featuring as it does a Frankenstein intent on creating a new Serbian “master race” through his experiments.

Unlike his counterpart in Whale's film, Casoni is not, however, truly invisible. Instead, it is only implied that he would like to be through the way he is poetically represented, as a fusion of character and camera consciousness. It is this visibility that appears to account for his muteness: Faced with the extra-sensitive Arno as nemesis, Casoni cannot afford to say anything that might lead to his identification, via the bringing together of opsign and sonsign, or body and voice emanating from it. As further proof of this, we may note the close encounter between the two men. Casoni has just murdered the photographer who inadvertently captured him pushing the blackmailing Dr Calabresi (Carlo Alighiero) in front of a train, As he approaches Arno and Lori, his sound (or leitmotif) plays. He and Arno momentarily pause. It is as if the blind man somehow had an intuition of his presence and the murder that fellow-investigator Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) is discovering at that very moment.

By the time of this scene, Argento has given us other instances of Arno's insight: When he and Lori go to visit Giordani, Argento cuts back and forth between their home and the newspaper where Giordani works, much as in the opening break-in, although far more rapid-fire. If the assemblage of shots or images here does not entail irrational cuts of a time-image type, it nevertheless makes the cutting visible rather than invisible, or presents (European) montage rather than (Hollywood) editing. If this is again not strictly speaking movement-image against time-image, that all the forms of montage Deleuze discusses fall within the former cinema, it is again hybrid in character: Hollywood cinema relied upon organic editing to a far greater than its European counterparts, where other approaches, including Soviet visible montage, predominated.

Arno's visit to Giordani, and their subsequent race (or “binominal”/“duel”) with Casoni to get to the photographs first, also relies upon his ability to perceive what others do not: Arno is the one who asks if the photograph of the falling Calabresi was cropped, revealing the pushing hand. This image, along with the scenes in which it figures, serves to further develop Argento's critique of Blow-Up. But whereas the loss of the photographic evidence was a devastating blow to Antonioni's protagonist, Argento's investigators again carry on, determined to find the truth. Compared to his predecessor Dalmas, however, Arno is less wedded to dominant models of truth. His blindness has led him towards insight, or an inner truth.

The scene at the railway station is also of importance in relation to Argento's influences and interlocutors. It is not as visually striking as its set-piece counterparts in the other parts of the Animal Trilogy though its minimal rather than excessive/maximal approach. Nevertheless it shows the ability of the director and his regular editor Franco Fraticelli to construct a concise and effective montage sequence. Eight shots in eight seconds present an impressionistic survey of the murder-as-accident. Besides featuring an average shot length equivalent to the (admittedly more elaborate and extended) shower murder in Psycho, the power of the scene comes as much from combination of the shots as what they contain informationally, or from form rather than content.

Another scene of note here is the encounter between Giordani and Anna Terzi, the adopted daughter of the institute's director and his quasi-incestuous lover. Immediately prior to their meeting, Casoni has poisoned the milk left on Giordani's doorstep. As such, it occupies a privileged position with Argento's frame, one clearly inpired by Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941) or Spellbound (1946) and which can be initially discussed in the same terms as Deleuze's analysis of the similar image in the latter film (2005a: 14). But beyond this Argento uses the scene, in which Giordani and Anna awkwardly consummate their relationship, to comment upon the poisoned nature of the inter-personal relationships between most of the film's characters: Far from showing us intimacy, or images codified as intimate in dominant cinema circa 1971, the camera remains at the same distance with the milk still in the forefront. Moreover, a cut glosses over the sexual act itself. Anna, we are invited to understand, has no real feelings for Giordani. Rather, she just wants to know where the investigation is leading. Giordani, meanwhile, is an opportunist, a man taking what he can get. The critical question is clear: What sort of society reduces relationships to such terms?

1 comment:

Elliot James said...

Argento has never shown couples in an erotically charged sex scene. He has no interest. Murder, not intercourse, is his thing. That's why Franciscus and Spaak have a sterile-looking coupling on the couch. On second thought, I take that back. Franciscus does bring some intensity to the scene in his facial expressions.