Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Books on Argento

I received two books about Dario Argento’s films today: James Gracey’s Dario Argento and the new (third) edition of Maitland McDonagh’s Broken Mirrors / Broken Minds.

Gracey’s book is more of a viewer’s guide to Argento’s cinema: After a short biographical overview he goes through Argento’s film and television work in chronological order using the same formula of credits, synopsis, background, comments, style/technical, themes, music, trivia and verdict. This is followed by comprehensive lists of Argento’s non-directorial work.

The book serves it purpose. The consistent approach and cross-referencing between Argento’s films and those of other directors are welcome. There are however some obvious errors that should have been caught (Argento was 20 when he worked on Once Upon a Time in the West) and the odd bit of dubious information (was Alida Valli really married to Fritz Lang?)

McDonagh’s book originated in an expanded version of her Masters thesis. As such it’s more directly academic, though thankfully not the kind of book where references to the theoretical texts are ever allowed to overwhelm those to the films themselves. The first edition covered Argento output up to Two Evil Eyes, while the second incorporated a (notably more critical) chapter on Trauma.

This new version also includes a new 20-page introduction in which McDonagh provides a bit more background on the genesis of the original, interesting for mentioning various European and US exploitation / grindhouse directors conspicuously absent from the original, and a survey of Argento’s films from The Stendhal Syndrome onwards; the Masters of Horror TV productions are omitted.

While it is to be welcomed for those who don’t have either of the previous editions and can’t or won’t pay the high prices they often command on Ebay and Amazon, there’s little reason for existing owners to also get this new version.

The main reason for this is that the new chapter doesn’t really add a lot, with McDonagh finding little of value in Argento’s 1990s and 2000s output as a whole: “Artists change. If they don’t, they risk imitating themselves or, worse, descending into self-parody. Argento has said as much, but the films he has made since Broken Mirrors / Broken Minds can only be called problematic.” (xiii-ix)

While McDonagh admit to finding The Stendhal Syndrome “underrated”, the issue is then that a two and a half page review is hardly sufficient to do its complexities any kind of justice. The shortfall becomes all the more apparent when you consider that Two Evil Eyes warrants nine pages.

Argento’s films have always been problematic, but unfortunately McDonagh - like many former enthusiasts, it has to be said - no longer appears interested in attempting to work through his problematics.


Richard of DM said...

I had a similar problem with McDonagh's frustration with The Mother of Tears (as well as with Argento's more recent works) in the roundtable discussion in Video Watchdog magazine #147. For such a huge Argento proponent to throw in the towel seems awfully shortsighted on her part. And a two and a half page on The Stendhal Syndrome? Lame.

Richard of DM said...

I almost forgot to mention how much I enjoyed Gracey's book. It's a great read and the dude's enthusiasm goes a long way.

Johnny66 said...

McDonagh's book has it strengths, but her dismissal of gialli other than Argento's (i.e. "the only interesting thing about them are their titles") puts a serious dent in her credibility.

Frankly, I think the book is the product of an American graduate student of the 1980s, who, like most all other English speaking film buffs at the time, had almost zero access to important gialli beyond Argento and Bava. And it shows.

I was hoping a new edition of 'Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds' would warrant a rethink of the material - perhaps akin to Robin Wood's wonderfully ruthless interrogation of his earlier edition of 'Hitchcock's Films' in the later 'Hitchcock's Films (Revisited)' - but, alas, no.

K H Brown said...

Johnny, one of the interesting things about McDonagh's new introduction is that she gives some more background on how she came to write about Argento and mentions seeking a fair number of Italian directors whose work she had seen in the New York grindhouses. This includes Fulci, Lenzi and Martino.

I suspect that there was an element of downplaying these filmmakers work in order to position Argento as an auteur who transcended his genre.

Your Wood comparison is appropriate: McDonagh doesn't revise her earlier work or provide any commentary on it, but instead just adds this new chapter.

I suppose the seeds were already there with the Trauma chapter in the second edition, that it didn't do what she wanted / expected from an Argento film.

Johnny66 said...

Thanks for the reply, Keith. Hopefully this new edition will show up in a local University library so I can take a look at any new material.