Sunday, 3 December 2006

Argento, De Palma, Hitchcock - reflections on the MFB reviews #2

With Inferno being less well received that its predecessor and poorly distributed internationally, Argento's next film, Tenebre, marked a return to the giallo and, concomitantly, a comparatively conventional narrative. Again, however, the critical reception was decidedly muted, returning once more to Argento's perceived failings in writing plausible situations and well-rounded characters:

""Cut out the boring bits and you've got a best-seller", advises urbane novelist Franciosa, provoking the immediate and easy response to Tenebre that without the boring bits you wouldn't have a film. To do reluctant justice to Argento, it must be admitted that visually the film is seldom boring; the sense of tedium comes partly from its catalogue of explicit blood-lettings in which the camera, and consequently the subjectified spectator, hunts down one covering girl after another, and partly from the daft motivation finally offered - a lurid combination of Dressed to Kill and Tennessee Williams. Not a prolific film-maker, Argento seems to save up his favourite sequences from other directors until he can string them together to justify his own massively convoluted narratives. As many potential victims as possible are assembled so that they can be messily pruned down, and Tenebre is thick with ill-explained, short-lived and oddly indistinguishable characters.

Among its pretensions (and Argento can be relied upon never to film things the simple way), Tenebre offers two major scenes of calculated artifice: the attenuated camera crawl up the side of the building in which two girls are about to be killed, and the sequence in which John Saxon, also about to be killed, sits waiting at a shopping precinct, watching the passers-by. Both sequences contrive to mingle Antonioni (The Eclipse, The Passenger) with Hitchcock (Rear Window) in accordance with Argento's declared allegiances, but they add little to his penny-dreadful participants. One is made all the more aware of the director's inability to match visual flair with anything worth watching."

Again a set of unacknowledged biases are evident. Why should the recognition of any filmmaker's abilities be "reluctant," no matter whether we are discussing Dario Argento, Sergei Eisenstein, Leni Riefenstahl? Can aesthetics be reduced, as implicltly seems to be the case here, to politics, sexual or otherwise? If questions of plausibility are an issue then where does that leave a film like Hitchcock's Vertigo - which the author of this review, Philip Strick, actually ranked as #9 on his all time top ten in the 2002 Sight and Sound poll. And where is the recognition that it could equally be De Palma who was borrowing from gialli such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Case of the Bloody Iris when crafting Dressed to Kill?

Indeed, in is worth also looking at the MFB's review of De Palma's film in this regard, where Richard Combs again uses Hitchcock as the yardstick: "When De Palma wants to fox the audience about his plot, he simply cheats as Hitchcock never would: another split screen sequence shows Dr Elliott watching a TV programme one transsexuals simultaneous with the supposedly blonde-wigged killer spying on the prostitute who has witnessed the murder (at the end it turns out that a policewoman has been got up in the killer's exact costume for purposes of surveillance.)"

What this neglects are those times when Hitchcock himself cheated and took something of a 'a do as I say, not as I do' position on the question of suspense versus shock, or at least implicitly acknowledged that there was something to them which went beyond his formulation. Psycho that provides some of the best examples here, precisely because Hitchcock does not tell us that Norman Bates is his dead Mother until the very end. Early on, when mother and son engage in conversation Mrs Bates's dialogue was provided by several female performers not than Anthony Perkins. Later, as private detective Arbogast investigates Marion Crane's disappearance, his murder is deliberately shot so as to maintain the illusion that the killer is Mrs Bates even as this selfsame construction should not but help draw the attentive viewer - i.e. critical reviewer's - attention to the fact that something is not right. As Hitchcock explained:

"I used a single shot of Arbogast coming up the stairs, and when he got to the top step, I deliberately plced the camera very high for two reasons. The first was so that I could shoot down on top of the mother, because if I'd shown her back, it might have looked as if I was deliberately concealing her face and the audience would have been leery. I used that high angle in order not to give the impression that I was trying to avoid showing her."

Somewhat predictably, however, his interviewer here, Francois Truffaut, did not ask any questions of 'the master' here, instead meekly accepting Hitchcock's explanation that concealing the murderer's identity was merely secondary - "But the main reason for raising the camera so high was to get the contrast between the long shot and the close-up of the big head as the knife came down at him."

Would that the playing field be levelled and all filmmakers be extended the same benefit of the doubt or - insofar as that is probably impossible, as a throwback to old-style romantic auteurism - at least subjected to the same kind of critical criteria, where everyone is treated with the same dis/respect.

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