Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Guess What

Soundtracks for imaginary gialli:

Loving the Easy Tempo style cover, reminiscent of Piero Umilian's The Man and the City.

Kartal Yuvasi / Turkish Straw Dogs

Turkish popular cinema is a weird thing. Whereas Italian filmmakers would emulate Hollywood product with a clear eye towards international sales, their Turkish counterparts appear to only care about the domestic market. Besides the extensive appropriation of musical cues and footage that would have likely incurred legal action, the area where this is most apparent is the importance of religion within them. Sometimes this works, as with 'The Turkish Exorcist', where the source film already has a strong religious component, such that a commutation from one faith, Christianity, to another, Islam, is all that's needed. Sometimes, as with 'Turkish Star Wars' AKA the Man who Saved the World, it leads to something bizarre.

Kartal Yuvasi is basically Straw Dogs, transposed to 1970s Cyprus. Anyone who has seen Sam Peckinpah's film will immediately recognise strong similarities between the two films, along with areas of divergence.

The narrative begins with Murat, a doctor, returning to his home village after many years away, accompanied by his English bride-to-be Mary/Maryam. In Peckinpah's film, by contrast it was American scientist David Sumner who was the stranger and his English bride Amy who was returning to her old home.

The main curveball thrown, however, is that Murat is not the protagonist of the film, with that role instead being taken by his mother, a character with no counterpart in Straw Dogs.

This in turn relates to the film's specific politics, in which the cultural clash between the teetotal Turkish Muslim Cypriots (hooray!) and the drunken Greek Christian Cypriots (boo!) is to the fore. The latter, you see, have forced almost all of the former out and soon have designs upon Mary, who is presented as a likely convert to Islam.

This propagandistic aspect makes the film harder to enjoy than the likes of Turkish Star Wars, in that it's almost as techically inept but also more difficult to laugh at or off.

The final scenes of the film are the most awkward in this regard, juxtaposing the mother's defence of the house against the Greeks with library footage of the Turkish military in action.

In the end it's questionable whether the film is really Straw Dogs Turkish style or The Eternal Jew Turkish style (the village idiot character is called Moses).

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Berberian Sound Studio

This is the proverbial curate's egg of a film: Good in parts.

The story is straightforward: In the 1970s A British soundman, Gilderoy, is hired by an Italian director to work on his film, where the dialogue (we never see the images) suggests something akin to Dario Argento's horror films Suspiria or Inferno, but which the director insists is an auteur rather than a genre work.

Peter Strickland's direction and writing initially impress. He clearly knows his stuff, whether the faux solarised and rotoscoped titles (think A Bay of Blood); the close-ups of reel to reel tape recorders (think A Lizard in a Woman's Skin and Deep Red); the black leather gloved hand (think just about any giallo) that starts the projector running, or the red telephone (think Blood and Black Lace) used by a receptionist.

If you're a fan of gialli and horror all'italiana (likely for readers of this blog) you'll enjoy playing spot the possible hommage or intertext , whether Clap You're Dead, Closed Circuit, Watch Me When I Kill. If you're not a lot of the imagery and dialogue will simply go past you.

The big problem with the film (besides the absence of the J&B or Punt e mes bottle) is that that it doesn't really go anywhere. Weird shit happens to Gilderoy, much as weird shit happens to Suzy Banyon in Suspiria, but it is not developed.

The two things that rescue the film are the performance by Toby Jones, as someone far removed from the typical male lead, and the attention paid to sound design. Michel Chion would love this film, with its exposure of tricking the ear techniques.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Sound of Violence: Audio-visual combination and disjunction in six films by Dario Argento

[This is a draft of a paper; any comments or feedback would be welcome. Italics etc. are in the original, while the numbers refer to footnotes.]

Abstract: In this paper I use the theories of film sound advocated by Michel Chion (1994, 1999) and Gilles Deleuze (2005a, 2005b) to examine the use of sound made by director Dario Argento in six films made between 1970 and 1982: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat o’ Nine Tails, Deep Red, Suspiria, Inferno and Tenebrae. My central contentions are that Chion and Deleuze's theories have a clear applicability to many areas of Argento's sound practice and that this in turn demonstrates the usefulness of these theories in relation to films that Chion and Deleuze did not themselves discuss.

Sound Theories: Michel Chion and Gilles Deleuze
It is now a commonplace that silent cinema was not actually silent. Given almost continuous musical accompaniment by a pianist or organist, it is better understood as “voiceless”. What has been less acknowledged is that the arrival of sound (or “spoken”) cinema paradoxically enabled the emergence of truly silent cinema. With no need for continuous musical accompaniment there was scope for silence to be deployed as a structural device. Speech, music and noise could each be present or absent at any given instant.

Robert Spadoni (2007) illustrates some of the ways this new creative potential was realised by examining Tod Browning and James Whale’s use of sound and silence in their seminal horror adaptations Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931). In the latter case Spadoni notes, for instance, that the monster played by Boris Karloff monster makes no sound when walking. This is despite his size, lumbering movements and heavy boots. Whether we realise this absence of sound consciously or subliminally it produces an uncanny effect, one based upon the discrepancy between what we expect to hear and what we actually hear (or, in this case, do not). Such an approach was impossible in silent cinema, such as J. Searle Dawley’s 1910 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel.

In his studies Audio-Vision (1994) and The Voice in Cinema (1999) Michel Chion explores a variety of audio-visual tropes and figures. The former work is concerned primarily with audio-visual combination, especially the “added-value” with which sound supplements and enriches the visual to together also convey the other senses of touch, taste, smell and proprioception (i.e. awareness of one’s body in space). An illustration of such an audio-visual combination is how punches in films make a loud noise whereas their real-world counterparts are almost silent.

Chion also draws a distinction between “empathetic” and “anempathetic” sounds, or those aligned with or against a character, typically the protagonist. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), for instance, the shower’s continuing to function after Marion (Janet Leigh) has been stabbed to death in it has an anempathetic effect, conveying the ‘indifference’ of the machine to what has just happened.
The latter work is concerned more with audio-visual disjunctions, especially those associated with “acousmatic” listening. Acousmatic, as Chion explains, is a term which composer Pierre Schaeffer, writing in the early 20th century, drew from Ancient Greece. It refers to a sound which is heard without its source being seen; in the Ancient Greek context it related to a religious sect whose ceremonies entailed the congregation hearing the voice of their priest without seeing him, as he was concealed behind a curtain.

While acousmatic listening experiences have always existed in nature, as with song from birds in trees and chirping from crickets in the grass, the late 19th and early 20th centuries were characterised by the emergence of new acousmatic technologies, such as the telephone, gramophone and radio. While these devices sometimes initially seemed frightening and uncanny1, they were also readily explicated and made visible, or “de-acousmatised”. For instance, it could be explained scientifically how the gramophone cylinder contained a recording of speech or music, which was picked up by the player’s needle and amplified by its horn. These acousmatic technologies thus quickly became taken for granted as part of everyday life.

A major theoretical distinction which emerged in sound cinema was the distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic sounds, or those that are situated internally, within the world of the film, and those situated externally, not within this world. In some ways this distinction may be compared to that between non-acousmatic and acousmatic sounds. For example, the words or dialogue (apparently) emanating from the characters’ mouths, are internally situated and stem from a visible source. Conversely musical scores and explanatory voice-overs are situated as external.
Chion complicates these binary diegetic/non-diegetic, internal/external pairings by bringing the “out-of-frame” or “out-of-field” into consideration. These refer to the bounded nature of the film image on the screen and our concomitant awareness of other spaces above, below, left, right, or before it. They also help remind us of a pivotal distinction between how sight and hearing work. We can only see what is in front of us, but can hear all around. The out-of-frame establishes a littoral zone around the framed image, where something may be heard but not seen or is present to one sense (hearing) but absent to another (sight).

Chion’s key figure of audio-visual disjunction in relation to the out-of-frame is the acousmêtre. This is the acousmatic being (être in French) who is heard but not seen. The acousmêtre characteristically has three or four2 god-like powers, those of being potentially all-seeing, all-knowing, all-present and all-powerful. However, the acousmêtre is neither a god nor the figure who, in Chion’s psychoanalytically influenced formulation, stands even further back: the primal mother. Rather, as the acousmêtre is progressively de-acousmatised, to ultimately be revealed as a voice located in a specific physical body, their powers are lost.

An obvious example of this process of de-acousmatisation from the classical Hollywood cinema is the Wizard of Oz in Mervyn LeRoy’s 1939 film of the same name. So long as the Wizard is unseen behind the curtain and represented by the booming voice of his apparatus, he seems incredibly powerful: “You people should consider yourselves lucky that I’m granting you an audience tomorrow instead of 20 years from now.” But, as he then is revealed to be a normal man, the limits of his powers are evident: “Oh –You’re a very bad man!” “Oh, no my dear. I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad Wizard.”

Chion’s paradigmatic example of the acousmêtre is, however, a European production, namely The Testament of Dr Mabuse. Chion suggests Fritz Lang’s 1932 film presents a multiplicity of self-contradictory Mabuse figures and voices, without ever identifying any as the real, definitive one. The apparent incoherence of this facet of the film’s narrative is not a reflection of poor filmmaking but rather produces a “Mabuse effect” upon the audience paralleling that of the investigators within the film.

Another way The Testament of Dr Mabuse epitomises the acousmêtre is through the presence of the mute, or the one who is seen but not heard. Despite being an inversion of the acousmêtre, the mute is often characterised as having the same uncanny powers. These may, however, be lost if the mute can be made to speak.
A further acousmatic figure is the speaker on the telephone. Many scenes involving the telephone do identify both caller and recipient, whether by cross-cutting, split screen, or the visible party in a conversation repeating what the unseen party says.3 Accordingly Chion is here more interested in what he terms the “phone-story”, or a narrative trope that draws upon the acousmatic properties of the telephone by failing to show the caller or recipient or denying us one or both their voices.
Whereas the acousmêtre, mute and phone-story emphasise audio-visual disjunction, the final one of Chion’s figures that I wish to consider depends upon audio-visual combination. This is the “screaming point,” or that specific moment in a film where a woman screams. Chion’s key example here is Blow Out.4 Brian De Palma’s 1981 film sees soundman Jack Terry (John Travolta) realise he does not have a satisfactory scream to dub in for that of a female character in the low-budget slasher movie he is working on. Whilst recording some sound atmospheres, Jack captures a road accident in which a prominent politician dies. Listening to the tape, Jack thinks he hears the sound of a tire being shot out, suggesting foul play. His investigations bring him into contact with a prostitute, who is then murdered by the conspirators. Jack records her dying scream, using it on the film. For Chion such a “screaming point” indicates a collapse of received meanings and a temporal disruption: “[the screaming point] occupies a point in time, but has no duration within. It suspends the time of its possible duration; it’s a rip in the fabric of time.” (1999: 77).

This awareness of time leads on to the second theorist whose ideas around film sound I wish to consider, Gilles Deleuze. Whereas Chion presents various figures and tropes around film sound, Deleuze (2005a, 2005b) provides a broader theory. Deleuze argues the cinema may be divided into two main approaches, namely the “movement-image” and the “time-image”. The fundamental difference between these lies in the relationships between movement and time. In the movement-image time is subordinate with movement, only manifesting indirectly through movement. In the time-image time breaks free and manifests directly. Read in these terms the screaming point could be seen as a time-image.

The two image regimes also indicate different relationships between the visual and the aural. In the movement-image the two senses combine to present unitary images.5 These give a stimulus to action. In the time-image visual “opsigns” and aural “sonsigns” may be found. These present a “description” which does not extend into action.

The significance of Deleuze’s theories in relation to Argento’s films lies in the way they can be seen to exhibit a possible combination of movement-images and time-images. On the one hand they are genre films, suggesting affinities with classical Hollywood movement-image cinema of the 1930s and 1940s. On the other they are Italian films, produced in a post-war context where the Italian filmmakers Deleuze discusses, such as the Neo-Realists and Antonioni, are identified as modern time-image figures.

Sound practices: Dario Argento
The credits to Dario Argento’s debut film, 1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, play out over an exterior scene of the killer stalking a victim and an interior scene of the killer arming themselves, foregrounding the contrast between open and brightly lit exterior and enclosed poorly illuminated interior. Curiously, however, Argento does not present the scenes sequentially, instead intercutting between them. As such, temporal and spatial unity become confused. Some semblance of continuity is, however, provided by the non-diegetic score, a gentle lullaby theme, which plays over both scenes and seems at odds with the clearly impending violence. Indeed, when the murder occurs, the music abruptly stops. Belying the reputation he was soon to get as a maker of excessively violent films6, Argento presents the murder via a completely black screen and a single female scream or, in Deleuze’s terms, opsign, sonsign and description. A reason for this soon becomes apparent: There was no-one who could have intervened. This contrasts with the next attack, to which protagonist Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is a witness: Walking past an open-plan art gallery, Sam glimpses a man and a woman in a struggle. The woman is clad entirely in white, the man in black and in an ensemble of hat, coat and gloves conventionally associated with the giallo7 film killer. Sam’s response to this image is predictable: He runs to the woman’s aid. While this causes the man to flee, Sam proves unable to attend to the injured woman. For as he flees the man triggers the outer and inner gallery doors, trapping Sam in the space between them. After managing to alert a passer-by Sam can do nothing but wait for the emergency services to arrive. When questioned by Inspector Morisini (Enrico Maria Salerno) Sam becomes convinced some vital detail is eluding him: “Something was wrong with that scene”. This is ultimately revealed to be that the woman, Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi), was in fact attacking the man, her husband Alberto (Umberto Raho).

The design of the gallery is such that it privileges sight at the expense of sound. While Sam sees the couple’s struggle, he does not hear any dialogue that might have accompanied it, most obviously Alberto telling his wife to “give [him] the knife”. Indeed, this is what happens when the investigators later burst in on the couple’s apartment. Crucially, however, Argento cuts away from the investigators to the Ranieris’ just before this moment, such that we hear Alberto’s demand but Sam and the others do not.

Besides presenting Sam with an opsign rather than a unitary image, Argento also draws attention to the audio-visual as the gallery scene develops by repeatedly moving the camera between the gallery’s interior, the street outside, and the littoral space between the double doors. As the camera moves between these three zones, the sound does not always follow. For example, sometimes the camera is positioned between the double doors, approximating Sam’s position, but his voice is muffled, as if we were positioned in the street.

Another important aspect of the scene is Argento’s use of the lullaby theme. This time, however, the female voice moans rather than sings melismatically. The moaning is ambiguously positioned, in that it could be read diegetically as emanating from the injured and distressed Monica. It is also ambiguous in meaning, by potentially connoting pain and/or orgasmic pleasure. This in turn may relate to the origins of Monica’s psychosis, as revealed in the denouement: Several years earlier she was attacked by a black-clad maniac. Recently she encountered a painting of this scene, which triggered her to recollect that traumatic experience. Rather than identifying with herself as victim Monica instead identified with her attacker.
As the investigation continues, two threatening telephone calls are made, to Sam and Morisini. These are analysed by forensics, with their wave-forms presented on an oscilloscope. This indicates the calls were made by different people. This fact was not evident from the sound of the voices alone, or as sonsigns. Rather, these sounds had to be visualised to show their distinctiveness: This sound makes this image, that sound makes that image.

An enigma, however, still remains: One of the calls features an unusual clicking noise, one forensics have been unable to identify despite having an exhaustive banks of sounds to compare it to. The breakthrough comes when Sam’s friend Carlo (Raf Valenti) uses his ornithological knowledge to identify the sound as the call of a rare bird species native to Siberia. The only examples of it in captivity in Italy are found in the city zoo. Going there, the investigators discover the Ranieri apartment is above the cage holding the birds. In sum, if Argento here uses Chion’s “phone story”, he does so in a complex way that draws attention to possible structural relationships between visuals and sound.

If anything, sound is even more important in the director’s second film, 1971’s The Cat o’ Nine Tails. The primary reason for this is that the investigator protagonist, Franco Arno (Karl Malden), is blind and must thereby rely more upon his other senses, along with a kind of insight. The narrative begins with Arno and his ward, Lori (Cinzea de Carolis), passing a parked car as they head home. Arno hears sotto voce remarks suggesting blackmail and asks Lori to take a surreptitious look at the men in the car while he pretends to tie his shoelace. Lori can see the driver, the blackmailer, but not the passenger, who also remains silent.

Soon afterwards, Arno hears a commotion at the Terzi Institute opposite his apartment. The next morning he learns the place was broken into. Curiously, however, nothing is missing. Knowing that his victim had substituted one document for another, the blackmailer makes a call to arrange a meeting with his victim, Dr Casoni (Aldo Reggiani). Argento’s mise-en-scène here identifies the blackmailer, Calabresi (Carlo Alighiero), but not Casoni.

When the two men meet at the station, Argento continues to obfuscate Casoni’s identity. There are point-of-view shots from Casoni’s position, but are no reverse-angle shots showing him. Instead he is represented by an extreme close-up of an eye. This suggests Casoni has affinities with the acousmêtre, albeit one who is silent. As a train approaches, Casoni advances towards Calabresi and pushes him in front of it, with fatal consequences. The moment of Calabresi’s fall is captured by photographer Righetto (Vittorio Congia).

The death is presumed an accident. However, when Arno learns of it from Lori as she reads him the newspaper, he immediately has the insight of determining whether the photograph might have been cropped.8 It was, with the uncropped version revealing a hand pushing Calabresi. Put another way, something previously out-of-frame is now incorporated into it; Casoni’s de-acousmatisation has begun.
Subsequent scenes, in which Casoni murders Righetto and Calabresi’s co-conspirator, Bianca Merusi (Rada Rassimov), again foreground the acousmêtre. Casoni is again represented by an eye, with his victims appearing to be garrotted and slashed by the weapons themselves. That this was intentional on Argento’s part is evident by comparing these murder scenes to their counterparts in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red, where the hands of their murderers wielding their weapons are visible.

Potentially distinct opsigns and sonsigns are brought together as the investigation continues. For example, when Arno and Lori go to visit Bianca, she plays with her necklace. After Bianca’s murder, Arno asks Lori the origin of the sound he heard. Argento then presents a curious shot of Bianca. On the one hand it is associated with Arno, in that he realises the locket Bianca was wearing contains a clue as to the killer’s identity. On the other it cannot be an accurate representation of what Arno sees in his head, since he has no knowledge of Bianca’s appearance or attire.
Casoni’s de-acousmatisation continues after he is stabbed by Arno with his sword cane whilst he and journalist Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) search for the locket in the Merusi family tomb. Arno’s sense of touch tells him that he “got him [Casoni] good”.9 Casoni’s wound means he now leaves a trail of blood, one which leads to the Terzi Institute.

The denouement sees Arno and Casoni confront one another again. Driven to the edge of madness by Casoni’s assertion that he has killed Lori, Arno unwittingly pushes Casoni through a cupola and down a lift shaft, with predictably fatal consequences.10

Casoni’s becoming visible and identifiable through a trail of blood may be compared with another of Chion’s key examples of the acousmêtre, namely The Invisible Man of James Whale’s 1933 film adaptation of H. G Wells’s novel. Like Wells’s Griffin, Casoni may be viewed as a scientific over-reacher. He is the “baby” of the institute’s research team and is described as “brilliant”. Yet whereas Griffin’s madness may be a consequence of the drug that makes him invisible11, Casoni’s madness stems from the career-threatening revelation he has a rare genetic condition that predisposes him to violence. While it is unclear if Casoni is affected more by this condition or his beliefs around it (McDonagh, XX:XX) it again seems to have influenced Argento’s representations of him: In terms of the traditional Cartesian dualism of mind and body, Casoni may be seen as one who would like not to have a body and instead exist in the god-like or acousmêtre position of observing without being observed.
The final audio-visual disjunction in the film occurs after the de-acousmatised Casoni has died, as Lori’s voice calls out to Arno. For Argento does not provide a corresponding opsign to indicate Lori has indeed survived.12 Instead we are left unsure whether the voice exists in actuality or only within Arno’s head.
Deep Red continues its predecessors’ structural experiments with sound and vision. This begins with the enigmatic scene interrupting the credits: A nursery-rhyme plays, its gentleness contrasting with the propulsive score that plays over the rest of the credits. The visuals show one shadowy figure stabbing another, then a knife falling at the feet of an unidentified child.

Following this Argento presents a series of fragments whose relationships to one another only become apparent in retrospect: First jazz pianist Marc Daly (David Hemmings13) admonishes his students for their overly precise approach, this drawing attention to an otherwise unmotivated camera movement, one not identifiable with anyone visible within the scene. Then at a parapsychology conference psychic Helga Ullmann (Macha Méril) senses a murderer in her audience and warns they will kill again. Later, as Helga and her associates Professor Giordani (Glauco Mauri) and Bardi (Piero Mazzinghi) are leaving the theatre, Helga indicates she knows the killer’s identity. The trio are observed from the side. Curiously, however, they seem unawares of this, even though the position of the observer means that they should in turn be visible.

Having returned to her apartment, Helga prepares to write about her experiences. The nursery rhyme theme that played over the fragment in the credits is heard. As the killer bursts into the apartment and strikes Helga with a hatchet, a kinetic non-diegetic theme takes its place; if this theme has empathetic qualities they seem more for the killer than their victim.

Unexpectedly Argento then cuts away to a plaza as Marc notices his friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia), who is drunk. The temporal and spatial relationships between the scenes become apparent a few minutes later as a scream is heard and Helga’s body crashes through a window: The plaza and the apartment are contiguous, while the build up to the attack and the conversation between Marc and Carlo occurred more or less simultaneously. The out-of-field is thus brought into play. The tight framing isolating Marc and Carlo may mean the killer snuck past them, unseen. The final revelation the killer is Carlo’s mother, Martha (Clara Calamai) also encourages a retrospective re-reading of the scene, that Carlo may be acting as look out for her.14 Spurred into action, Marc races to Helga’s aid, but is too late. He inadvertently walks past Martha, glimpsing her face reflected into a painting for a split-second.
Much like Sam, Marc realises he has missed some vital detail and becomes obsessed with solving the mystery. This leads to his being threatened by Martha, from the opposite side of the door to his study. The lullaby theme plays, but is now diegetically situated as coming from Martha’s tape recorder. This encourages a recontextualisation of the earlier manifestations of the theme as diegetic rather than non-diegetic.

Marc is working on a composition at this time, with Argento again highlighting the audio-visual through extreme close-ups of Marc’s hands playing the keys, the effects of this on the mechanism of the piano’s wires and hammers, and the notes being written on the stave. Like the visualisations of the callers’ voices on the oscilloscope, we are again presented with opsigns and a sonsigns combining to create unitary images: This sound corresponds to this note.

The diegetic nature of the lullaby theme is further apparent in the next scene, as Marc buys a copy of a record, ‘Songs for Little Children’, and plays it to Giordani and Bardi. Bardi speculates the theme may be “the leitmotif of the crime,” as one the killer fetishistically plays as prelude to murder, and that the modern legend of “The House of the Screaming Child” may also be of relevance to the case.

Music that is aligned with the antagonists rather than the protagonist is also evident in Argento’s first fantasy-horror film, 1977’s Suspiria. What is also notable is how the music is sometimes in advance of the visuals: When protagonist Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) exits the airport into a storm and tries to flag down a cab, the whispered lyrics mention the name of the eventual antagonist, Helena Markos, that “she is witch, witch, witch” and indicates the teachers at the dance academy Suzy has come to study at are “of a different race”. The secondary or supplemental quality of the soundtrack as supporting the images is thereby challenged.15

Suspiria also again sees Argento use an aural rather than a visual clue. As Suzy arrives at the academy another student, Pat (Eva Axén), flees from it. Amidst the thunder and lightning, Suzy only hears fragments of what Pat is saying: “hidden irises... turn the blue one”; the reference to irises also relates to how the pupils at the academy are often observed without their awareness by otherwise unseen, silent figures. Argento then switches attention to Pat, as she and fellow student Sonia (Susanna Javicoli) are murdered by one of Markos’s agents.

Strange occurrences at the academy continue as maggots rain down from the attic level. Consequently the students and teachers take up temporary accommodation in one of the dance halls. Suzy’s new friend Sara (Stefania Cassini) identifies that Helena is on the other side of the curtain by her distinctive wheezing. Though neither young woman dares to look behind them, the camera is placed to let us see Helena’s silhouetted form behind them.

The next day blind pianist Daniel (Flavio Bucci) has an argument with one of the teachers, Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), and storms out after suggesting he is aware of the witches: “I’m blind, not dumb.” Later, Daniel is killed when his guide dog, whose earlier behaviour suggested a hostility towards the witches, unexpectedly turns on him and tears his throat open.

As Suzy and Sara continue to investigate, Suzy realises the teachers do not leave the academy at night as claimed. Their footsteps instead go away from the exit before suddenly becoming inaudible. Unfortunately Suzy then succumbs to the drugged food she has been prescribed by Professor Verdegast (Renato Scarpa), leaving Sara to explore alone. She is stalked and killed by one of Helena’s agents, the effectively mute Pavlos (Guiseppe Transocchi). Although Pavlos is said to “speak only Romanian” by Miss Tanner he is never heard talking, even though the ogre-like kitchen staff are also identified as Romanian.

Suzy’s own explorations are more successful. She realises the teachers’ footsteps lead to their office and that they abruptly end because its floor is carpeted. Inside, Suzy notices three stylised iris flowers on the wall, one of which is blue.16 Turning it reveals a passage leading to Helena’s chamber. Initially Helena is visible behind the curtain surrounding her bed. Then, as Helena sends Sara’s corpse to attack Suzy, she vanishes. Suzy picks out a long needle from a statue of a bird and stabs at where Helena was, causing the withered crone to become visible and to die. This also causes the demise of Helena’s minions, including Miss Tanner and Pavlos.

The commercial success of Suspiria led Argento to rework it into the first part of a trilogy concerning the Mothers of Sighs, Darkness and Tears.17 With Suspiria having dealt with the Mother of Sighs, 1980’s Inferno introduced the Mothers of Darkness and Tears. The film presents two curiously mute characters, a wheelchair bound old man and a beautiful student hinted to be the Mother of Tears. Eventually the man is revealed to be the architect of the Mothers’ dwellings, as described in the opening voice-off:

I don't know what price I shall have to pay for breaking what we alchemists call Silentium. The life experience of our colleague should teach us not to upset laymen by imposing our knowledge upon them. I, Varelli, an architect living in London, met the Three Mothers and designed and built for them three dwelling places.

Inferno also sees Argento again experiment with diegetic and non-diegetic sound. One example of this is his use of Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ from the opera Nabucco (1842) which is heard three times. The first time it is positioned as diegetic, being played on a record by the lecturer in the Rome conservatory where Mark Eliot (Leigh McCloskey) and Sara (Eleonora Giorgio) are students. The second time it is positioned as non-diegetic as Sara (Eleonora Giorgio) takes a taxi to alibrary. This version, adapted by the composer of the film’s score, Keith Emerson, is played at double tempo, in 5/4 rather than 4/4 time, and with different orchestration. Having read about the Three Mothers and escaped from a mysterious clawed figure, Sara heads home. Unnerved, she persuades sports journalist Carlo (Gabriele Lavia) to stay with her until Mark arrives. Sara puts on a record of Nabucco, remarking “you’ve probably heard this before”. A storm causes the electricity to the flat to rapidly switch on and off. As a result the lighting and sound repeatedly cut in and out. There is an element of Chion’s notion of trompe l’oreille or “deceiving the ear” here18, in that the pitch of the music should rise and fall as the record player slows down and speeds up. Put another way, whereas the visuals are binary, either on or off, the sound is analogue, continually varying.

As Carlo goes to check the fuse, the frightened Sara tells him to keep talking. He does, but then falls silent. Sara goes to investigate and finds Carlo with a knife through his neck. He falls on top of her and both are then stabbed to death by an unidentified attacker. Soon afterwards Mark arrives. Inexplicably Sara’s body falls through a curtain as he enters. Mark then phones his sister Rose (Irene Miracle) in New York, but their call is also cut off.

Returning to New York, Mark finds Rose has disappeared. He makes the acquaintance of Rose’s friend, the Countess Elise (Daria Nicolodi), who tells him about Rose’s interest in the Three Mothers. As they talk, a laugh is heard on the soundtrack and by Mark, but not Elise. Insofar as she has no reason to lie we are left unsure where to place the sound. Argento does however then supply visuals suggestive of the acousmêtre, via an otherwise unmotivated shot following a stylised duct running up the wall.

Later, Mark makes his way by a hidden passage to the hidden interior of the apartment block, where he encounters the old man and his nurse. Using an electronic apparatus, the man identifies himself as Varelli. The nurse, meanwhile, is revealed to be the Mother of Darkness, or Death itself, as she crashes through a mirror. This calls to mind Chion’s notion that the ultimate figure of the acousmêtre is the primal mother, particularly in light of the Mother of Darkness’s assumed role/occupation as a nurse/carer. It also, however, perhaps invokes death as a further acousmêtre, one invisible, inevitable and all powerful.

Like Inferno, 1982’s Tenebrae begins with a voice-off reading a passage from a book, the visuals showing an extreme close-up of the words being spoken:

The impulse had become irresistible. There was only one answer to the fury that tortured him. And so he committed his first act of murder. He had broken the most deep-rooted taboo, and found not guilt, not anxiety or fear, but freedom. Any humiliation which stood in his way could be swept aside by the simple act of annihilation: Murder.

While the title suggests the film presented the conclusion to the Three Mothers trilogy, the film instead marked Argento’s return to the giallo thriller. The narrative sees giallo author Peter Neale (Anthony Franciosa) travel from New York to Rome19 in order to promote his latest thriller, Tenebre20. Arriving in Rome, Peter is informed there is a killer at large who appears to be using his novel as an inspiration. Soon thereafter Peter is also threatened. This spurs him to investigate the killings.
The murderer’s next victims are a lesbian couple, one of whom was a former student of Peter’s. Prior to their murders Argento presents a bravura scene in which a Louma-crane camera climbs up and over the building they live in. His use of music is again unusual. As the camera begins its peregrinations the music starts, apparently being non-diegetic. Then, part of the way through the scene, Argento cuts to one of the women, Tilda (Mirella D’Angelo), who yells for her partner to “turn it [the music] down”, thus recontextualising the music as diegetic when this request is complied with. Then, however, as Argento cuts back to the Louma-crane camera the volume of the music rises. Curiously Tilda does not comment on this by remarking “I thought I told you to turn it down” or suchlike. As such, the music again appears to have become non-diegetic.

Peter comes to suspect television presenter Christiano Berti (John Steiner) is responsible for the murders and, accompanied by personal assistant Gianni (Christian Borromeo), sneaks into Berti’s garden. Gianni sees someone split Berti’s skull with an axe, while Peter is knocked unconscious by the fleeing killer. After Berti’s murder, the killings continue, perplexing the investigators. At the denouement it is revealed Peter killed Berti and embarked upon his own campaign of revenge murders. Having killed his ex-wife, her lover and Gianni (who had realised something about the scene of Berti’s murder was ‘wrong’ much like Sam and Marc) Peter turns his attentions to his secretary, Anne (Daria Nicolodi). As Peter rushes at Anne, axe in hand, a precariously balanced jagged metal statue falls and impales him. Anne screams uncontrollably as the credits roll. Unlike the earlier screams of the killers’ victims in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red, this can be identified as an instance of Chion’s “screaming point” due to its position at the end of narrative and its deeper resonances: Up until this point Argento’s films had always made the distinction between the protagonist and the antagonist clear. While 1972’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet had presented a protagonist who believed he was guilty of accidental murder, we knew otherwise. Here, by contrast, both spectator and Anne are deceived. Anne realises she never really knew Neale, while we realise we have been identifying with a psychotic killer. The ‘rules of the game’ that pertained in Argento’s earlier films are broken, confronting us with an even more random, chaotic and meaningless universe.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Killer Joe

Small-time drug dealer and user Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is in trouble. He’s owe $6,000 to the local crime boss and his dim-witted trailer trash father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) can’t even give him even $1,000 to buy a little more time.

Fortunately Chris has been told of a route out of this situation. His alcoholic mother, whom Ansel is divorced from, has a $50,000 insurance policy made out to his sister Dottie (Juno Temple) while hit-man Joe (Matthew McConaughey) only charges $20,000 for a job.

Complications then arise, beginning with the fact Joe’s fee is $25,000 and he demands payment up front. Chris manages to convince Joe to take Dottie as a “retainer” in lieu of the money, which he will pay once the insurance money has come through.

Part Double Indemnity, part Fargo in Texas (both films use Lee Hazelwood’s These Boots were made for Walking on their soundtracks), part pitch black noir in the Jim Thompson style (The Grifters, This World then the Fireworks, The Getaway etc.) this is the kind of film that it’s easier to admire than enjoy.

It’s admirable because director William Friedkin pulls few punches and delivers a film which received the kiss of death NC-17 certificate in the US and that features  brave performances from Gershon, McConaughey and Temple.

It’s difficult to enjoy for a couple of reasons. First, there is not a sympathetic character comparable to Frances McDormand’s pregnant cop Marge Gunderson to provide a point of identification. Second, because the line between black comedy and unpleasantness is progressively crossed to an extent that may turn off some viewers.

Most notably there is a scene where one character, who has been savagely beaten, is forced to fellate a chicken leg another holds at their groin as if a penis.

Those who have seen Last House on Dead End Street might wonder if there is a nod to its deer hoof fellatio scene here, and can thereby reassure themselves that they’ve seen worse/better in terms of fucked-upness. More mainstream viewers may wish to proceed with caution.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The meaning of Snuff?

I received a call for papers for a conference on the Snuff film, which I’m thinking of sending in a proposal for, around snuff aesthetics in Argento's The Card Player.

How do you think Snuff is defined, or what meaning do you attach to the term?

My own understanding would be something like the deliberate killing of another person on camera for personal gratification and/or profit. But I don’t know where that places, say, jihadist execution footage in that it is politically motivated.


A couple of Death Laid an Egg posters

Two US one-sheets for Giulio Questi and Franco Arcalli's Death Laid an Egg, one under the original title and the other as Plucked.

Managed to get the Plucked one on Ebay; now want the other one to go alongside it and the Italian locandina

Thursday, 14 June 2012

A little campaigning...

This week Third Window Films, who specialise in bringing Asian cinema to UK audiences, announced that they were no longer going to distribute films theatrically:

The first reason Third Window gives for this decision is the cost of having a film BBFC certificated for both cinema and home video.

This is something which disproportionately affects independent filmmakers and distributors, since they are paying the same as the majors for certification, this despite the obvious fact that their product is never going to sell in comparable quantities.

There's now an online petition urging the BBFC to reduce their costs:

Whether or not this will make any difference is another matter, but the mandatory requirement to have films certificated by a single agency seems like the kind of restrictive business practice that a supposedly pro-business government should be acting against.

Unless  they're really only concerned with helping big business...

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

5 Donne per l'assassino / Five Women for the Killer

As Giorgio Pisani’s (Francis Matthews’) flight arrives – i.e. a classic giallo opening – he is called to the phone – i.e. a key giallo technology – over the intercom. It is his wife, and she is about to give birth.

Pisani contacts family friend Dr Lydia Frantzi (Pascale Rivault) and hurries to his home, finding his newborn son – and his wife dead; Lydia could not save her.

Later, at the hospital, Pisani finds his medical record left on a desk, as if for him to read. Doing so, he learns that he is infertile (apparently a hereditary condition, whose logic thereby makes one wonder.)

Over the next few days two women, whose only points in common are that they are both pregnant and have encountered Pisani, one fleetingly and the other on multiple occasions, are murdered. The method (graphically shown) is the same in both instances: A blade from the pubic region, upwards.

Pisani is brought in for questioning by a police inspector (Howard Ross/Renato Rossini), but released since there is nothing concrete against him.

It’s about this point that Stelvio Massi’s 1974 giallo begins to lose its way. The basic problem is that up until this point we’ve been following Pisani. Now, however, he becomes a suspect while the focus of the narrative shifts to other characters and the police investigation. (That some of the murders show the killer wearing the same distinctive driving gloves as Pisani helps reinforce the suspicion.)

We’re thus given no clear point of identification, in the manner that a Hitchcockian double-pursuit narrative, with Pisani seeking to identify the killer in order to demonstrate his own innocence to the authorities, would have provided.

This tends also to bring out the weaknesses in Massi’s direction. It is not that it lacks style, with there being plenty of hand-held camera work, shock zooms, rack focus, and compositions foregrounding objects before the characters or mirrors. Likewise, in contrast with Mikel Koven’s prosaic narrative/poetic set piece division of scenes, there are potentially poetic touches in even the more routine scenes – the kind of thing that arguably elevates Argento’s work above the generic norm.

This, however, is where the problem arises. For, unlike Argento, there is little sense that Massi’s stylistic devices are employed with any consistent or coherent logic, such that form informs content. The zooms, for instance, sometimes work to heighten dramatic impact, but sometimes just appear to have been used for economy/convenience. As such, they also lack the self-consciously excessive quality that their counterparts in, say, the opening moments of Bava’s Five Dolls for an August Moon have.

This also applies to Giorgio Gaslini’s jazzy score. It’s certainly good and would warrant an extended version CD re-release (it was available via a 1996 Japanese disc, running barely 30 minutes). Unfortunately sometimes it isn’t clear how it fits into the film and its images.

There are, however, some moments when all comes together. One example is the funeral of Giorgio’s wife, where Massi nicely introduces several of the suspects and red herrings. Another is the scene in which one of the titular five women senses she is being stalked and nervously goes to her door and looks through its fish-eye lens, only to find her eccentric but entirely harmless neighbour there. Suspense is thereby built up and deflated, only for shock to then be privileged as, after said neighbour has left, she is suddenly attacked by the killer.

Another point of interest for giallo fans is seeing Ross cast against type as the detective/investigator rather than a perpetrator or suspect, as with the aforementioned Bava film and Fulci’s The New York Ripper.

Hammer enthusiasts, meanwhile, may find it intriguing to see Francis Matthews of Dracula Prince of Darkness and Rasputin the Mad Monk in a contemporary setting.

Future porn queen/MP Ilona Staller has a brief role as a sexually liberated foreigner whose pregnancy precipitates her demise.

Not bad, just not as good as it could have been with a bit more care and attention.

Again thanks must go out to the community for bringing us this composite Italian/German sourced version, in widescreen and with English fansubs. It certainly beats the panned and scanned, Italian-language, VHS-sourced version of the film I viewed a few years back.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Cool blog

If you like us, you'll probably like them:

Weird British actors

Donald Sumpter is becoming one of those weird British actors of the 60s and 70s who I'm looking out for. It started with Night After Night After Night, then continued with The Black Panther. And now here he is in Groupie Girl:

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The new blogspot post tool

Is very annoying and keeps messing up the formatting whether I use Compose or HTML mode.

Sfida al diavolo / Challenge the Devil / Katarsis

One of the things about watching lots of Italian genre films from the late 50s through 80s is that you get used to certain names cropping up, like wig makers Rocchetti and Carboni or CSC graduate Carla Mancini.

This, by contrast, is one of those films where most of the names in the credits don’t mean much – including director Guiseppe Veggezzi / Joseph Vegh whose sole IMDB credit this is.

The two important names in the cast are Christopher Lee and Giorgio Ardisson, the former spelled as Cristopher in the credits and the latter’s forename Anglicised to George.

The film opens at an airport and looks like it’s going to be a crime thriller as two hitmen prepare to go into action against Carlo, for his refusal to hand over some documents.

Although wounded, Carlo escapes – it isn’t completely clear how – to a monastery where he asks to see one of the order, Pejo, an old friend. Carlo explains he hasn’t got the documents because Alma took them.

We then cut to a nightclub and are presented with a succession of song and dance numbers. Their relationship to the previous scenes only becomes evident when Pejo goes to visit Alma, a dancer at the club, backstage. Alma is reluctant to give up the documents – at least not for a considerable sum of money.

Pejo then recounts the story of how he became a monk – we’re now 20 minutes into the 75 minute film – and we segue into an extended flashback.

He and the rest of the gang – including the particularly out of control Ugo, played by Ardisson – were out looking for kicks, entailing forcing other cars off the road and then beating the occupant of one such vehicle after he has crashed.

Continuing on, the gang leave the road and, as night falls, end up at an old and apparently uninhabited castle. They decide to break in and explore the place, soon finding a banquet table laid out with food and drink which, needless to say, they gorge themselves on, before having a remarkably chaste “orgy” entailing dancing around and playing bongos for several minutes.

At this point Lee makes his appearance as the old man of the house and talks about his dead beloved and sold his soul to the Devil in order to bring her back. He hears her voice, but can never find her, and thus offers the gang all the riches in the castle if they can find her for him. After they have gone, the clock chimes midnight and the man is either replaced by or transforms into the Devil himself.

Round about this point the gang, who have gone in search of the treasure, start to feel a little less brave, and we get some reasonably decent Gothic/Fantastique atmospheres along with the woman making her appearance, leading the gang onto a seemingly endless spiral staircase ending in a crystal/mirror image filled room, traps each of them such that they can see the others but not reach or touch them.

The existential dread of the scene is effectively conveyed, recalling the likes of Sam Dalmas’s entrapment in the gallery sequence of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage; the infinite plane that Liza and John find themselves in at the end of The Beyond; Eswai’s pursuit of himself in Kill Baby Kill and – perhaps ultimately most revealing – the doubled characters in Nude for Satan.

Having been trapped for a while and now on their last legs, the gang follow one of the spiders inhabiting the place to find an equally long descending staircase that in turn leads onto a long passage. They have only just entered it, however, when they fall into a pit and encounter the Devil and/or the old man again. Suitably chastened and transformed by their experiences, they flee the castle.

At this point we cut back to the framing narrative as Pejo provides the moral of the story before, back in the past, the lady of the castle appears to them once more, coming out of a clock in a somewhat Rollin-esque manner.

At this point we cut back to the framing narrative as Pejo provides the moral of the story before, back in the past, the lady of the castle appears to them once more, coming out of a clock in a somewhat Rollin-esque manner. They take her out of the castle, into the light, and give her a proper burial. Significantly here we’re given a semi-subjective shot from inside the grave, looking up to the heavens.

As the contrite gang members pass the man they had earlier beaten, they tend to his injuries. “Strangely, his face resembled the old man from the castle.”

Alma, reduced to tears by Pejo’s tale, gives him the documents; that her name means soul hardly seems coincidental insofar as she too has been saved.

While this can in no way be considered a good film, it is certainly an interesting one for its combination of the inept and the poetic, or that “sublime” which Ado Kyrou famously identified as a reason for watching bad films.

Thanks must again go out to the badfilm community for recording this obscurity off Italian TV;  converting it to an AVI and torrent, and providing fansubs.

L'assassino... è al telefono / The Killer is on the Phone

Whilst preparing for  the murder of his current target hitman Ranko Dragovic (Telly Savalas) has a chance encounter with Eleanor (Anne Heywood), the wife of one of Dragovic's previous victims from five years earlier. She had been suffering from amnesia about this traumatic event, but now begins to recall details of it, thus making herself a threat to the killer.

I'd previously seen this 1972 giallo by Alberto De Martino from an old VHS source, and dubbed into English, so it was a welcome opportunity to see it again for the first time in a clean, widescreen, Italian dub with English fansubs.

Savalas is a suitably menacing, near-silent presence, recalling his role in Bava's Lisa and the Devil, while Heywood passes muster in the Frightened Woman role more usually assigned to an Edwige Fenech, Florinda Bolkan, Carroll Baker or Dagmar Lassander.

The theme of the unreliability of memory is, of course, a staple of the filone -- one thinks of The Girl Who Knew too Much, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Lizard in a Woman's Skin before this, and of Footprints on the Moon and The Man Without Memory a couple of years afterwards.

While not reaching the heights of these points of comparison, The Killer on the Phone is nevertheless a solidly put together production, benefiting in particular from a lush Stelvio Cipriani score and attractive cinematography from Aristide Massaccessi.

De Martino tries to inject a bit of style into proceedings, but his contributions are more hit and miss. The slow-motion lyrical flashback scenes as Eleanor recovers her previously repressed memories whilst under the influence of a truth drug are a bit over the top in that post Elvira Madigan way. The director is on surer footing when it comes to such staples of the form as the fetishisation of weaponry and black gloves; the close-ups of eyes; the shock zooms and, yes, plenty of product placement for Justerini & Brooks.

The use of the theatrical milieu is also worth noting, Eleanor being an actress by profession. This allows for some confusion over reality versus role-play, as the boundaries between her dramatic work and her traumatic psychodrama become blurred; despite currently being in preparation for a production of Lady Godiva she recites Lady MacBeth's famous murder speech, potentially hinting that she's not as innocent in the affair as appears on the surface.

The theatre space provides the location for an effective finale that sees 'the curtain descend, everything end' or 'bring the house down' in an almost literal way for at least one of the dramatis personae; to say more would spoil things.

Friday, 1 June 2012

The release of the Alien prequel Prometheus got me thinking about Mario Bava, and how the endings of both Planet of the Vampires and Rabid Dogs are predicated on shock/surprise.

I think Rabid Dogs works better, because it's set in this world and the actions of Riccardo Cucciolla's character are consistent throughout, so that watching it a second time you see new resonances in the performance and the direction. In Planet of the Vampires, by contrast, the these are humans - oh no, they're not, despite their names - moment only works the first time.