Saturday, 16 March 2013

Popular Italian Cinema: Culture and Politics in a Postwar Society

This 2012 academic essay collection has two main sections.

The first features five chapters on specific post-war cycles. These are, in order of presentation, the peplum; horror, this including the giallo; the western; comedy, more specifically the Comedy Italian Style predominant in the 1960s but not Franco and Ciccio nor the Sex Comedies and Decamerotics of the 1970s; and a group of films dealing with the Tarantela.

The second features two chapters on violence in relation to the western and treatments of rape.

Taken as a whole the volume serves to consolidate some established understandings whilst challenging or extending others in useful directions and, as such, can be recommended for readers of this blog – although you may want to wait and see if there is a paperback edition, given its somewhat prohibitive price

In her introduction editor Flavia Brizio-Skov establishes a few guiding principles taken by the four contributors to the volume.

 They are more interested in the consumption of the texts rather than their production. In other words, they are more concerned with what people (audiences) do with these films than what filmmakers intended them to do. They assume that all texts are ideological, with a text that purports not to be ideological likely being one that is implicitly conservative.

In his chapter on the peplum Frank Burke begins by looking at three early post-war examples of the form, each preceding the boom that followed Hercules (1959). He highlights their increasing conservativism, relating this to the consolidation of Christian Democrat regimes backed by the US.

Burke then looks at Leone’s The Colossus of Rhodes (1961) and foregrounds how it works as a parody, with nominal hero Dario being inept and ineffective. Burke thus suggests that the film was perhaps more successful in Leone’s terms, as an intentional parody, that Christopher Frayling would appear to indicate in his discussion of the film. For Burke the problem with The Colossus of Rhodes is that its critique of the peplum is too subtle, generally only becoming apparent on a second viewing. Burke nevertheless tacitly agrees with Frayling that The Colossus of Rhodes is an important predecessor of the Italian western, where the parody would be more obvious.

Burke then examines another ironic peplum, Cottafavi’s Hercules and the Captive Women. He emphasises how its Hercules is an indolent figure whose motivation to act against the Atlantean Aryan/Nazi-coded villains stems not through commitment to more abstract notions of morality or a wider concern for the people but rather friendship, and that the eventual destruction of Atlantis that Hercules precipitates is one that has both allusions to nuclear weapons and that is indiscriminate.

Burke’s chapter arguably also raises a question which recurs throughout the book: by what means and how adequately can the film scholar looking at the meanings audiences attached to these films be verified, given the general infancy of cultural studies at the time and the distance of several decades?

Andrea Bini’s chapter addresses the Italian horror film. He argues that it comprises of three broad periods, each spanning approximately ten years. In this he both confirms and extends the work of previous scholars (such as Maggie Günsberg) by suggesting a slightly different breakdown of the first two periods and introducing the third one. For Bini, as Günsberg, the first period spans the years 1956-66 and can be characterised as Gothic. For Bini, as Günsberg, the second period is characterised as giallo, but begins in 1967 rather than 1969/70. For both critics, however, the key film heralding the Gothic to Giallo shift (can we say epistemological break? or paradigm shift?) is Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Bini’s third period, that of excess and gore, begins in 1977 and lasts until 1986.

Bini says that the Gothic-Giallo-Gore progression sees horror move from being marginal to mainstream and back to marginal. Here he foregrounds that Suspiria and Inferno were less successful within Italy than Argento’s earlier films, alongside the increasing importance of producing films for export. This gives an interesting angle on Suspiria in particular: according to the figures in Maurizio Baroni’s Platea in piedi, Suspiria was more successful than any of the Animal Trilogy and Deep Red in terms of its absolute ranking in box-office take for the year, as 4th most successful film of 1976/77. However, this success can also be measured in relation to a decline in absolute cinema attendances and, concomitantly, the amount of Lire taken, over the 1970-77 timespan.

Bini also notes the absence of the vampire in Italian culture and how they are replaced by the powerful witch. This helps explain the commercial failure of Freda’s I Vampiri, the figure of Asa in Bava’s Black Sabbath and, indeed, the non-Italian settings of both films alongside the Wurdalak episode of Black Sabbath.

Bini further emphasises how horror was a specifically adult genre in Italy, with reference to the sex-horror films of Renato Polselli. This also explicates their often problematic position in the US marketplace, where horror tended to be seen more as something for children.

For Bini the reason why The Bird with the Crystal Plumage achieved the breakthrough that previous gialli had not seems to have been partially down to making the right film at the right time. Whilst denying that Argento’s films are explicitly political, he suggests that the director managed to tap into the fears and uncertainties that emerged in the Years of Lead, generally taken as beginning in 1969.

Bini, finally, puts forward that Argento’s films along with the genres or cycles as a whole express and ambivalence toward the feminine. This can be seen as being in accord with Mikel Koven’s reading of the giallo as a form which is ambivalent towards modernity more generally.

In her chapter on the Western Brizio-Skov posits that a fundamental difference between the Hollywood Western and the Italian Western is the remove at which they operate: US Westerns dealt with the myth of the West. They were Westerns about the West. Italian Westerns dealt with the myth of the myth of the West. They were Westerns about the Western. One expression of this distinction is that the US Western, as epitomised by Shane, has a hero, whereas the Italian Western, as epitomised by A Fistful of Dollars, has an anti-hero.

Brizio-Skov contents that in social terms the likes Clint Eastwood’s Joe/The Man with No Name worked for those Italians who were winners and losers in the new economic system of individualism. Those who were winners could see themselves reflected on screen, those who were losers could enjoy a wish fulfilment of what they would like to be on screen.

Individualism also manifested in the way in which the Italian Western anti-hero would destroy a corrupt system, but decline to stay around or settle down to construct a better one in its place.

Above all, in Brizio-Skov’s analysis, the Italian Western was a sub-genre marked by contradictions in how it could be read, this leading to its being criticised by the left and the right on the one hand, and being enormously successful with audiences on the other.

Finally, Brizio-Skov suggests that the Leone Western ushered in the post-Western, as inaugurated and exemplified by Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.

In this regard, a crucial distinction between the Western Italian Style and Comedy Italian Style was that the former could readily be exported internationally, whereas the latter was too close to home to be successfully exported widely.

In his chapter on Comedy Italian Style, Bini suggests that three distinct periods of films could be identified, thus repeating the magic number as already seen in Italian horror and in the Western (US-Italy-US). In general the success of a film depended upon how well Italian audiences were able to see and recognise themselves as the subjects of the comedy whilst not feeling insulted or threatened. Unsurprisingly the boundaries here shifted considerably between the late 1950s and mid 1970s.

Though Comedy Italian Style is perhaps less interesting to readers of this blog, it is worth remembering that Leone employed writers Age and Scarpelli for The Good, The Bad and the Ugly on the basis of their work within the form. That is to say, the connections are there if one seeks them out.

This also applies to Flavia Laviosa’s examination of films featuring the tarantela, which emerges as a more specialised topic with several films about the phenomenon being documentaries and/or not exported. She does, however, mention tarantism in Flavia the Heretic Nun, whilst references to appearances of spiders in other European and North American horror films might lead back to the likes of Canevara’s The Black Belly of the Tarantula or Fulci’s The Beyond.

The second section of the book begins with Brizio-Skov’s chapter on violence in relation to the three periods of the Western established in her earlier discussion: classical-, Italian-, and Post-Western. The last of these, inaugurated by The Wild Bunch, continues through various 1970s Westerns before reaching its high point in Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Drawing on Murray Slotkin in particular, Brizio-Skov suggests that the classical Hollywood Western presents a situation of regeneration through violence, accompanied by a clear-cut positioning of the good and the bad and their respective relations to the community. The Italian Western sees an initial breakdown of these frameworks. The post-Western then presents spirals of violence, where one excessive retaliation spawns another excessive retaliation. Tantalisingly the author then raises the issue of where in contemporary cinema a regenerative violence might still be found and mentions the cop film. Accordingly one is left wanting more, in the form of a discussion of the 1970s cop and gangster film cycle in Italy.

The second chapter in this section, and the last in the book – there is no conclusion – is by Lavioso and addresses how rape has been dealt within in Italian cinema. Lavioso foregrounds a discursive change from texts which discuss rape in the context of sex to texts which discuss rape in the context of (abuse of) power. One issue here, perhaps, is that the popular status of some of the texts/films discussed is less clear; though my own understanding of Damiani’s The Most Beautiful Wife was certainly enhanced by learning about its real-life background and inspiration. Likewise, I wondered whether another case mentioned had any relationship to Di Leo’s To Be Twenty – especially given that Di Leo’s films often have a realist/sociological bent – whilst the deployment of Trauma Theory might suggest a new way of looking at Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome.

All in all, a very fecund collection where even the least obviously relevant chapter – the tarantela – suggests new lines of inquiry.

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