Saturday, 7 November 2009

Some notes on Deep Red

Koven argues that the typical giallo set piece, with its self-conscious use of techniques, can be seen as a poetic interlude within an otherwise prosaic film. One issue with his use of Pasolini's concept is the different subjectivities that are implicated through visible and subjective camera. For Pasolini the camera consciousness of The Red Desert functioned as a reflection of Giulia's neurosis, which he felt was shared by director Antonioni himself and by the modern bourgeois audience. In the typical giallo set piece, however, Koven identifies the camera as expressing a psychotic rather than neurotic state. As such, it is less easy to see the camera as also articulating a wider shared consciousness, whether that of the director or of his audience.

While the Animal Trilogy certainly contains it share of “violence numbers” Cat o' Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet also have poetic moments and representations apart from the obvious set pieces: In both cases these are connected with characters: In Cat o' Nine Tails key images are associated with Arno, reflecting his insight, and Casoni, reflecting his desire to be invisible or disembodied. In Four Flies on Grey Velvet circular camera movements are associated with Nina, reflecting her inability to escape from her traumatic past, while many of the scenes centring around Roberto have a distinct edginess to them, as a reflection of his mounting paranoia.

Where Deep Red represents an advance on its predecessors is in its still more pervasive poetic quality. Besides the general mise en scene and use of sound, this is related to doubling, foreshadowing and images of seemingly random violence and cruelty, like those of two dogs fighting or of the little girl, Olga (Nicoletta Elmi), torturing a lizard: These images are excessive, in the sense of having no obvious narrative purpose. But are not excessive in that they contribute to the film's overall tense and fearful atmosphere. This atmosphere is one that Argento has identified as a reflection of the situation in Italy at the time, with terrorist activity from left and right alike and a rise in crime and unrest. The difference between Argento and other filone directors such as Sergio Martino and Umberto Lenzi is again a poetic one: Argento chose to comment on this wider situation indirectly via a giallo-horror hybrid, whereas they preferred to make actual crime films, known generically as polizioteschi or poliziotti, or turned towards giallo-poliziotto hybrids which were more direct. Another difference, as far as Lenzi is concerned, is political. While the politics of Martino's Suspicious Death of a Minor and Secret Action / The Police Accuse, The Secret Service Kills (both 1975) are more complex, Lenzi's films tend to endorse a relatively straightforward right-wing position with policemen acting as Dirty Harry style vigilantes when they feel it necessary. The politics of Deep Red are, by contrast, more to the left.

The key aspect here is Helga Ulmann's Jewishness. In itself this is another seemingly excessive element. Unlike Antonio Bido's Deep Red and Suspiria inspired The Cat with the Eyes of Jade (1977), in which a Jewish killer seeks revenge upon those who were responsible for betraying his mother and sister to the Nazis, nothing within the narrative relies upon Helga being Jewish. But this fact allows for the inclusion of a clear subtexts about the Holocaust and Fascism, both of which would be further explored in Suspiria. Helga is, after all, murdered by Carlo's mother (Clara Calamai) because she threatens to reveal her crime, hitherto thought safely in the past, just as her husband's body is bricked up behind a wall. Or, we might venture to say, hidden in a “secret annexe” in reference to Anne Frank. There is also an intertextual connection here, in that Calamai's most famous role, at least outside Italy, is probably as Giovanna in Ossessione – a film made, of course, during the Fascist regime; when her character speaks of once being an actress and shows Marcus the pictures of her in various films, these are taken from films Calamai appeared in in the 1930s and 1940s. As such, Argento seems to be warning his Italian audience in particular that if they were not careful Fascism could, like any other repressed element, still return. If someone like Lenzi was not actually pro-Fascist, Argento thus nevertheless seems to be implicitly arguing that there was a danger the position taken by his films could help Fascism re-emerge. This is also reflected in the unimportance of the police within Deep Red. In films like Free Hand for a Tough Cop (1977) Lenzi emphasises the restrictions placed upon the police by corrupt and self-serving politicians and endorses the strong lawman who is willing to take a stand and do what needs to be done. In Deep Red, by contrast, the police are incapable of solving the crime even without having to deal with any obstacles in their way.

Argento's interest in Judaism around this time can be related to the influence of two collaborators. Production designer Guiseppe Bassan, who had first worked with Argento on Five Days of Milan and would also work on Suspiria (in which Hewbrew is among the various scripts seen on the walls of the witches' lair) and Tenebre was Jewish. Perhaps more importantly actress, muse and partner Daria Nicolodi has identified herself as being brought up in both Roman Catholic and Jewish faiths and as being especially close to her Jewish grandmother, whose experiences Nicolodi has said part-inspired Suspiria.

Another difference between Argento's gialli and those of most of his imitators is that they hold up better to repeat viewings. As Koven says, the majority of gialli have little to offer once we know whodunit. In contrast, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage can be watched again to see how Argento misdirects us at the crucial moment in the gallery scene. Deep Red is similar, but a richer and more confident text. In the first 'proper' scene, of Marcus at work with his students at the conservatory we are told, in overt reference to their jazz playing but also doubling as a remark on the film's own mise-en-scene, that it is “too formal, too precise” and needs to be “more trashy”. Immediately, that is, we are being told to question what we see and hear, along with the usual hierarchy by which the formal, precise work is valued over the trashy one. These are, of course, postmodern traits: Words are used “under erasure,” with the awareness that our writing and speech cannot communicate only what we want them to, while the art/trash binary opposition is decentred.

The single image which Argento's auto-critique most clearly alludes to is the film's central one, that of Carlo's mother's face amongst the faces in a painting, caught in the mirror opposite. But if this composite image is a central one in narrative terms it occupies a marginal position within the frame(s) in which it appears. It is positioned in the bottom-left hand corner, where the first-time viewer is unlikely to notice it. Yet the fact that it is there, to be noticed upon a repeat viewing, is crucial in relation to its Bird with the Crystal Plumage counterpart. There the misdirection prevents us from seeing what Sam Dalmas does, such that we have no way of solving the mystery for ourselves. Here the misdirection lets us recognise what Marcus does not at this point, but with Argento relying upon the position and brevity of this image, along with its complexity, to prevent us from so doing. The complexity of this image stems from what it depicts: Carlo's mother's face is the realistic component, something that is presented to us 'as is' without human intervention or intentionality coming into play. The painting in which she is framed is, however, Expressionistic in style, with the other faces resembling Munch's The Scream. As such, it is a formalist component, something in which human subjectivity and expressivity are paramount. This gestalt image is then seen via a mirror, as something which both doubles or copies the original image, but which also distorts it by reversing left and right. As such, it is a psychoanalytic component, something in which we misrecognise ourselves and which can be put to ideological ends. Finally, the value of Deleuze's notion of the frame as the boundary of an information system comes into play in relation to the “pedagogy” of this image. It is simply too complex a set of data to take in at once, especially when combined with everything else in the frame at the same time, or the other images. Like Marcus, we are thus presented with a Hitchcockian “demark”, something which is out of place in the image but which we are unlikely to ourselves be able to place.

In this regard, the preceding scenes, in which Helga is attacked and in which Marcus responds are also significant. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, Argento disrupts the otherwise linear chronology of the film with a moment of simultaneity in which time is made visible: Rather than joining Marcus at the moment when he becomes aware of the attack on Helga, the action within the plaza outside takes place at the same time. We jump back in time a few minutes, even though we may not notice this until Helga crashes through the window. It is possible that Carlo is present as a lookout for his mother – albeit one compromised by his drunkenness – and that she actually passes by her son and Marcus when they talking, out of frame. However, as Deleuze emphasises, out of frame does not mean out of mind: The images within the frame connect with the larger circuit, the infinite set of images from which they are drawn. The second reason is the way in which Helga and Marcus are connected together. Argento uses a sudden and extreme zoom out from the window of Helga's apartment to Marcus and Carlo in the square, soon followed by a cut to a close-up of Helga from Marcus's implied point of view. The zoom is not a device which Argento particularly uses, especially when compared to other filone directors including Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci. Both these directors would often use the zoom as alternative to conventional cutting or decoupage, zooming in or out on a character or detail within the scene. As such, whenever Argento uses the zoom, we may assume there is a specific reasoning behind it. The close-up of Helga, meanwhile, is too close to be an actual reflection of what Marcus sees, and thereby further reminds us of the distinctive abilities of the camera compared to the human eye as it also establishes a connection between the two characters.

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