Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Just some more thesis...

The giallo's deterritorialisation of the Hollywood thriller is, however, less pronounced than the spaghtti western's deterritorialisation of the Hollywood western. The obvious explanation for this is that whereas the thriller was indigenous to most countries in one form or another, the western was more exclusively American. It it is true that the figure of the cowboy has been compared with the European knight or the Japanese samurai. There were also, for instance, French Carmargue westerns. However, the connections to the US western in each case are less obvious than those between different thriller types: A French polar, such as Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955), is more obviously comparable to a Hollywood crime film like John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950) than a samurai film is to a western; indeed, the US-born Dassin clearly had no difficulty in reworking Huston's “perfect heist” gone wrong film within a French context. As such, whereas it is relatively easy to enumerate the differences between Ford and Leone's westerns, those between the Argento's and Hitchcock's thrillers are harder to itemise. Moreover, these differences, such as Argento's use of the whodunit form, inevitably bring Argento closer to other Hollywood thriller filmmakers.

This, indeed, lies behind Argento's subsequent repudiation of The Cat o' Nine Tails as a film which is “too American” in its approach and insufficiently personal or auteurist. A similar line of argument has been taken up by Gary Needham (2002). Comparing and contrasting the film with its immediate predecessor and successor, Needham argues that it is a failure for two main reasons. First, The Cat o' Nine Tails eschews psychoanalytic trauma in favour of more mundane motivations. Its killer is the victim of blackmail, with this intersecting with a subplot around industrial espionage. Second, it lacks a central set-piece featuring a visual “punctum”. This is a concept Needham takes from Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida (1980) and which refers to a point that 'pierces' the viewer. In my view The Cat o' Nine Tails has more to offer than Needham recognises. I will argue three main points. First, it is a film which makes a challenges to the dominant psychoanalytic theories upon which Needham's reading relies. Second, by foregrounding the opsign and the sonsign, alongside with a seer figure (albeit a blind one), the film presents another hybrid of movement-image and time-image. Finally, through its representations of the protagonist and antagonist, the film presents a poetic advance upon its predecessor.

As we saw earlier, Needham astutely recognises a key difference between Argento's gialli and those of his imitators: Argento's films tend to focus equally upon male and female neuroses and psychoses. Given the corresponding questioning, queering or decentring of the male norm, against which the female is negatively defined, that this implies, it is conspicuous that Needham does not go further. He does not, for instance, address Deleuze's aforementioned critique of psychoanalytic film theory, that all it ever gives us is one image, that of the traumatic primal scene. Staying within this framework, meanwhile, another problem is evident if we consider Barthes's “punctum” in more detail. Barthes worked through his concepts around the visual image in a series of essays. In The Third Meaning (1970) he considered the notion of excess, or the third, unquantifiable, meaning in relation to a number of photographs, including stills from Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible (1944/1946). At this point Barthes did not draw a firm distinction between photographic and film images. But Camera Lucida is specifically about photography. Moreover, it is questionable whether the studium can be used intersubjectively in the way Needham's analysis suggests: Within his discussion, Barthes distinguishes between the punctum and the studium. The studium is the broader social meaning that can be read into a photograph. The punctum is the narrower, personal, non-social meaning for an individual with a specific, personal connection to the photograph. Thus, for example, Barthes describes his feelings in relation to the punctum of photographs of his mother. However, this punctum is unavailable to us directly. Instead, we see only the studium, images of a French woman of a particular background at a particular point in time. The studium is thus contestably the Benjaminian “aura” of the photograph, albeit as an aura that is inherently personal rather than collective (religious) and which is not necessarily diminished by mechanical or other reproduction. Cast in these terms, every (commercially produced) film lacks the punctum, their images instead being of a studium type; if Barthes' concept could here be extended to the film, by implication this would be to the home movie, or to a commercial film as it appears to the individuals involved in its production.

As Needham recognises, Cat o' Nine Tails lacks a central set-piece. I would argue it goes some way towards compensating for this with a widely dispersed set of scenes in which the mise-en-scene is more conciously expressive than was the case in its predecessor.

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