Wednesday, 14 October 2009

More Delezean analysis of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

The first issue that must be addressed is Argento’s use of the ‘whodunit’ form, particularly in relation to his frequent labelling in the wake of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and its “Animal Trilogy” successors, as “The Italian Hitchcock”. Whilst this label was arguably beneficial to Argento from a career perspective, especially initially, it is also something he has sought to play down, after becoming established in his own right. This distinguishes him from De Palma, who has always emphasised himself as heir to Hitchcock. Argento, by contrast, has claimed, like Chabrol, to be more of a Langian than a Hitchcockian. The giallo as a whole, meanwhile, arguably has more connections to film noir, through the similar origins of the terms noir and giallo to describe a particular literary form, and the wider thriller. In particular most gialli, including all of Argento’s films excepting The Stendhal Syndrome and Giallo (both of which fall outside the time-period of this thesis) are whodunits: The identity of the killer or killers is not known to the detective protagonist nor the audience until the denouement. Hitchcock, meanwhile, disliked the whodunit and its dynamic of surprise, that the killer was typically someone we never would have suspected. Instead he preferred the audience to know more than his characters, to place us in a position of suspense: We know who the killer is and that the protagonist is in danger, even if he does not yet know: “What matters is not who did the action – what Hitchcock calls with contempt the whodunit, but neither is it the action itself: it is the set of relations in which the action and the one who did it are caught.” (2005a: 204)

This dynamic of the “relation-image” or the “image of mental relations” is the essential component within Hitchcock’s cinema, the image that makes him a singular auteur positioned between the movement-image and the time-image:

In the history of the cinema Hitchcock appears as one who no longer conceives of the constitution of the film as a function of two terms – the director and the film to be made – but as a function of three: the director, the film and the public which must come into the film, or whose reactions must for an integrating part of the film (this is the explicit sense of suspense, since the spectator is the first to ‘know’ the relations. (2005a: 206)

By incorporating the audience into his films, Hitchcock led to the culmination of the movement-image:

[O]ne might say that Hitchcock accomplishes and brings to completion the whole of the cinema by pushing the movement-image to its limit. Including the spectator in the film, and the film in the mental image, Hitchcock brings the cinema to completion. (2005a: 209)

However, to Deleuze, Hitchcock himself was unable to go beyond the movement-image into the time-image:

If one of Hitchcock’s innovations was to implicate the spectator in the film, did not the characters themselves have to be capable – in a more or less obvious way – of being assimilated to spectators? But then it may be that one consequence appears inevitable: the mental image would then be less a bringing to completion of the action-image, and of the other images, than a re-examination of their nature and status, moreover, the whole movement-image which would be re-examined through the rupture of the sensory-motor links in a particular character. What Hitchcock had wanted to avoid, a crisis in the traditional image of the cinema, would nevertheless happen in his wake, and in part as a result of his innovations. (2005a: 209)

The key film-makers here are, of course, the neo-realists, in whose work Deleuze detects the first failings of the action-image. For my purposes, however, Antonioni is more important, via his anti-thrillers or anti-gialli Story of a Love Affair, L’Avventura and Blow-Up: In Story the investigation of a virtual crime in the past, leads to its becoming actual in the present. In L’Avventura the investigation of ??’s disappearance by her fiancé and friend discovers nothing. In Blow-Up the body and the photographs disappear, and thus all evidence that there was actually a murder. In each case, that is, the action-image sensory-motor schema of the movement-image, and the boundary between protagonist and audience break down completely. The character within the film is reduced to the same helplessness as their viewer observing them.

As we saw earlier, as a critic Argento was vocal in his dislike for Blow-Up. I would argue that this distaste may be related to Argento’s inherent postmodern position, of denying the implicit hierarchy of modernist art cinema over classical genre cinema, or the time-image over the movement-image. Furthermore, I would contend that The Bird with the Crystal Plumage sees him beginning to work through his postmodern response to Antonioni modernist classic. Where Antonioni presents the time-image as a fully fledged thing within the context of the art cinema, Argento here gives us the movement-image as it is caught in the process of becoming time-image within the context of filone cinema. In particular, Bird is concerned with exposing and exploring the cliché, along with the breakdown of the action-image into opsigns and sonsigns that require active interpretation, or “attentive” rather than “habitual” recognition in Deleuze’s Bergsonian framework. Crucially, however, the movement-image re-asserts itself through protagonist Sam Dalmas’s dogged determination to find out the truth behind what he saw. If Dalmas’s notion of the truth is a banal one, the truth his investigation unveils is (or was) a more shocking one: The structures of capitalism and patriarchy are destructive and negative. The division here is between the mass and the elite, or the movement-image and the time-image cinemas. One issue here is stepping back in time, in considering the film in its context, of Italy in 1970, rather than today, and in another country, forty years on. Another is that of different audiences and cinemas: What was perhaps banal for the elite, or the prima visione audience, was still shocking for the ordinary viewer, or the terza vision audience. This ‘whydunit’ aspect, of the exploration of the origins of Monica’s psychosis, also provides something of a counter to the whodunit element. Emphasising the ‘why’ as well as the ‘who’ is something that distinguishes Argento’s gialli from those of many of his filone imitators, who are often more interested in the ‘how’, in the form of the bizarre murder methods employed by their killers. Sergio Pastore’s The Crimes of the Black Cat (1972) is a prime example here, particularly since its blind investigator protagonist and titular animal are clear references to The Cat o’ Nine Tails. The film’s killer has a cat whose claws have been dipped in poison attack her victims, with the cat having been trained to respond to a particular perfume on the yellow silk shawls that the victims are sent.

Argento’s use of the whodunit and greater emphasis upon shock than suspense compared to Hitchcock might also be justified in relation to his postmodern position: Postmodernism and poststructuralism, with their challenge to binaries and hierarchies, would deny the inherent superiority of the non-whodunit over the whodunit and of suspense over shock. Instead, they might be considered as different, somewhat incommensurable language games with their own performative criteria. A whodunit or a shock must thereby be evaluated in their own terms, as good or bad examples of their type, rather than as, at best, good examples of an inferior type. Or, to cast this in a more directly Deleuzean framework, they are alternative “lines of flight,” with the whodunit and the shock also possibly “deterritorialising” the non-whodunit and suspense respectively.

One way in which The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a Hitchcockian film is its use of the theme of exchange or transference, as first identified by Eric Rohmer and Chabrol (195?) and subsequently endorsed by Deleuze (2005a: 205): Monica Ranieri exchanges the role of victim for that of victimiser. Her husband Alberto exchanges the role of murderer with his wife, attempting to cover up for her crimes by confounding the police investigation with his telephone call and then confessing to his wife’s crimes as he dies. Another is the importance of interpretation. Deleuze identifies Hitchcock’s cinema as one in which the interpretation of the image is paramount: “In Hitchcock, actions, affections, perceptions, all is interpretation, from beginning to end.” (2005a: 204). In particular, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage features a key image which is out of place, or a Hitchcockian “demark,” as will be seen in my analysis of the pivotal gallery sequence. This distinguishes it from Four Flies on Grey Velvet, a more Langian film in which the “powers of the false,” of a “Protagoras-style relativism where judgement expresses the ‘best’ point of view, that is, the relation under which appearances have the best chance of being turned around to the benefit of an individual or of a humanity of higher value” (2005b: 134) are to the fore. In combination, meanwhile, the two films further expose Argento’s becoming Langian rather than Hitchcockian, or the shift in the proportion of movement-images and time-images in his work.

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