Saturday 30 June 2007

The Spaghetti Western: A Thematic Analysis

As an academic study adapted from Bert Fridlund's doctoral thesis, this is not a book for those seeking a viewer-friendly introduction to the Italian western. Rather, it forms a very useful counterpart and corrective to what probably still remains the dominant study of the cycle in English, Christoper Frayling's Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone.

Whereas Frayling takes a more auteur focussed approach in concentrating upon a core selection of perhaps 50 spaghettis, Fridlund points to the frequent inconsistencies in such canon constructions - films like Django Kill and The Great Silence receive greater attention than box-office would warrant while the Trinity series are correspondingly downplayed as emblematic of little more than the descent into parody, for instance - and accordingly casts his net wider to discuss some 200 titles.

Fridlund's methodology likewise differs. Whereas Frayling emphasised the aesthetic dimensions of his films and was somewhat critical of Will Wright's structuralist analysis of the American western, albeit whilst offering his own alternative formulations of characteristic Italian western narratives, such as the "The Servant of Two Masters" plot he identified in A Fistful of Dollars and Django, Fridlund effectively reverses these terms, downplaying aesthetics in favour of thematics.

Indeed, in discussing Fistful of Dollars and A Pistol for Ringo, Fridlund is quick to offer an alternative formulation to Fraylings, that of "The Infiltrator," whilst subsequently identifying Django as an exemplar of another plot constellation, that of "the deprived hero".

Some of the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches are nicely summarised by the Fistful / Pistol pairing. Whilst I have not watched Ringo and his Golden Pistol for a while - and reading Fridlund makes me want to do so again, which always a good sign - from what I recall its aesthetics were far removed from those of Fistful, more neo-classical in seeking to directly emulate American models, less baroque, askew and 'Italian' - in other words, precisely the kind of thing that Frayling analyses excel at. But on account of this and the fact that aesthetics aren't Fridlund's topic, this is not a problem per se.

What some readers may find less convincing, however, is the way Fridlund's analyses develop over the course of the book as he explores other plot constellations, including "the unstable partnerships of bounty killers," as seen in For a Few Dollars More for example, and "the social bandit" of political or politicised spaghettis like A Professional Gun and Companeros. Or, more precisely the way in which they don't.

The key thing, after all, about Will Wright's Sixguns and Society is that second term in its title, the way in which he sought to bring Levi-Strauss and Propp inspired structuralism and formalism together with Marxism to show that the shifting configurations of the heroes, villains and their relationships with society in the American western over the decades, corresponded to social changes. Thus, for example, the emergence of the "professional" plot in the 1950s and 1960s, wherein the heroes remained outside of and separate from a weak society, corresponded with the emergence of technocratic elite rule.

Fridlund doesn't attempt anything comparable here. Whether this is down to too great a barrier of cultural difference - an American investigating his own country's myths obviously has it easier here than a Swede looking for the ways in which Italian film-makers used an imaginary America as a means of addressing specifically Italian concerns - that between an enduring American genre and a short-lived Italian filone cycle, a simple lack of enthusiasm - the success rate in bringing together the theoretical paradigms of Marxism and Structuralism has arguably been rather low despite the contributions of some of the best intellectual minds - or a combination of them, is open to debate.

On the plus side, however, the very fact that the emphasis is upon description also means that there is more here for the reader who is interested in the films in themselves, with less of those over-analytic, over-reaching and credibility-straining interpretations that often mar academic books as far as the fan reader is concerned.

For those with a more theoretical bent, meanwhile, it also opens up possibilities for further investigations, whether in filling in the gaps between theory and practice - a topic, often of great significance in the political spaghetti westerns to both characters and film-makers if not necessarily their viewing audience - or indeed in demonstrating their very irreconcilability as the reason for such a gap here.

Thursday 28 June 2007

Defining remarks

I've just been re-reading a useful little introduction to the giallo by John Martin, one of my favourite writers on the subject and Italian exploitation cinemas in general.

While he goes on in the piece – published in The Dark Side, of all places – to suggest his own quasi-definition, that "The essence of the giallo resides in two factors: style and savagery,” it's the introductory remarks by a number of other luminaries that I find really thought-provoking.

“That's a tricky one. I guess the first thing that springs into my mind is people with big black gloves, with zippers up the sides, and big knives, to stick into people... but its more complex than that...”
– Richard Stanley, offering a definition based around visual iconography and immediately acknowledging its shortcomings.

“It defines a genre of mysteries in which the discovery of the criminal's identity is less important than discovering how the crime was done.”
– Maitland McDonagh, emphasising narrative and thematic elements but raising questions over whose discovery of how the crime was done that matters.

“You mean Argento? Bava? Those films are blood operas...”
– John McNaughton, picking out defining auteur figures and a national cultural tradition.

Chi l'ha vista morire? / Who Saw Her Die?

1968, the French Pyrenees: A young red-haired girl, Nicole, is abducted and murdered, her body left buried in the snow. The case is never solved.

Four years later, Venice: Roberta (Nicoletta Elmi) arrives to visit her sculptor father Francesco (George Lazenby) from London where she and her mother, Francesco's estranged wife, Elizabeth (Anita Strindberg) live.

Atypical and typical ways to open a giallo: the snowy wilderness and the plane landing in the Italian city, in this case the oft-used Venice

Then Roberta disappears. Frantic with worry, Francesco searches everywhere he can think of. Her body turns up floating in one of the canals. Yet, strangely, she has not been molested…

Who could kill a child - Nicoletta Elmi in yet another giallo

Black gloves, but not as we are accustomed to seeing them

Frustrated by the failures of the police, realising that his daughter's murder was by no means the first perpetrated by the killer, whoever he or she may be, and haunted by his own feelings of guilt – at the exact moment Roberta was snatched, Francesco was making love with his girlfriend Gabriella (Rosemarie Lindt) – Francesco embarks on his own investigation, soon uncovering a web of corruption, blackmail and perversion amongst the city's elite, including a number of his own contacts and associates from the fine art world...

Aldo Lado's second giallo makes for a more conventional filone outing than its predecessor through its psychologically motivated black-gloved killer; considerable use of the subjective camera; comparatively explicit murder scenes – excepting, of course, the taboo subject of child murder, where the focus is necessarily on the aftermath rather than the act – though still characterised by a more restrained approach than seen in many contemporaries, and more mundane world devoid of occult references.

A wordless sequence that speaks volumes: Francesco and Elizabeth re-united in their shared grief

As with Short Night of Glass Dolls, however, Lado again demonstrates a level of artistry and intelligence not always seen in the filone, along with a consistent interest in playing with the then-emergent conventions.

Like most gialli the killer is represented metonymically by fragments that identify them qua killer, but not as a specific individual. Unusually, however, Lado presents them as wearing a veil rather than a mask and fedora, knitted rather than black leather gloves and old-style women's boots, painting the picture of a harmless nonna dressed against the winter cold instead of a stylish, dressed to kill mostro.

This said, viewers familiar with the filone are likely to have little difficulty in identifying the killer from the suspects presented and will also probably experience something of a sense of deja vu as to the manner of their demise; to say much more would run the risk of spoiling things.

What is worth noting, however, is that on the featurette included on Anchor Bay's DVD, Lado mentions providing a get out clause by which the killer is not what they seemed to be purely as a way of appeasing the authorities – as with Short Night, there is the sense of a filmmaker who is subversive in more than one sense.

Who Saw Her Die? also has a distinctive rhythm to it, and one which is again perhaps more reminscent of the art cinema than the popular / vernacular, as characterised by a distracted audience impatiently awaiting the next set-piece; tellingly from reading a number of comments on the IMDB and elsewhere a criticism often levelled against the film is that it lacks pace.

Rather than entering the scene at the dramatically significant moment and cutting from one shot to the next on the point of action, Lado instead often present a pre-existing world and holds a shot for an extra beat or two, giving the film a certain documentary quality, as when Roberta's body drifts silently and disruptively into the midst of a busy market or we observe the father of one of the killer's previous victims at work in a glass factory or are left in Franco's studio, empty but haunted by his dead daughter.

Francesco's studio; note the sign on the wall

Similar directorial attention to detail is apparent in Serpieri's first visit to a suspected paedophile lawyer in some way involved with the murders. As the lawyer fingers a pendant similar to one Roberta had been given shortly before her abduction and murder, Serpieri neither seems to notice nor Lado's direction to draw attention to the gesture as one with definite significance: rather than pointing it out with a close-up or zoom in in the manner of an “obvious cinema”, he leaves it up to the spectator to notice, or not, and make a connection, or not.

Images can be deceptive

Ennio Morricone's score ranks as one of the most haunting he composed for the genre. Whereas some of his gialli scores feature three types of cue – the character leitmotif; the improvised, aleatory or otherwise technically experimental suspense cue, and the easy listening party cue – and others the first two of these, here he strips things down by providing only the first, providing a number of subtle variations on the same theme dominated by a children's choir and invariably signalling the killer's presence within or – more usually – at the periphery of the scene.

Here we can note, for instance, how the black rubber glove wearing cleaner who runs the bath – a sequence which would be the prelude to a successful or attempted drowning in most other gialli – is clearly signalled as a Hitchcockian joke by departing from the killer's fetish attire of knitted gloves, as the otherwise eerie ambient soundscape of the running water becomes less eerie precisely because of the absence of the musical leitmotif.

Simultaneously the cross-cutting in of the cue as Serpieri stalks the lawyer through the streets as the camera cuts back and forth between Serpieri's point-of-view and that of an unidentified presence following him, indicates where the real killer is at that moment.

If the monothematic nature of the score perhaps makes it a touch repetitive – a criticism that, reading some other reviews, often seems to emerge – this same repetition can also perhaps be justified as an insight into the killer's monomaniacal personality, that he or she has to kill and Serpieri's subsequent obsession, even as the latter raises the idea of an alternate score featuring an obvious Serpieri leitmotif and a kind of musical duel. (The music that plays over the wrapping up scene at the end, the killer having been unmasked and brought to justice, actually lacks the children's choir, only for it to re-emerge as the end credits roll.)

Curiously off-centre framings suggest a world out of sorts

Another nice touch is the murder of another character in a cinema, recalling the krimi Curse of the Hidden but with the difference of having the killer use a silent method – strangulation – rather than a noisy one – shooting, relying on the noise issuing from the screen to mask the fatal shot – and the screening of a mondo sexy film rather than a thriller murder mystery, to nicely tap into the situation of the viewer themself, momentarily breaching the barrier between screen and spectator and likely giving an extra frisson to the theatrical experience of the film regrettably absent on home viewing.

Alone in the dark – the assassin strikes...

Francesco arrives and realises what has happened, just as the killer exits

Whilst we can safely “play at cops and robbers” – the remarks of the representative of official authority, whose characteristic lack of effectiveness and engagement ironically signals why the protagonist's amateur, private investigation is so necessary – in a way that Serpieri cannot, we are not equally safe from those others watching the film in the dark with us or awaiting on the way back home from the cinema; the double edge of the cover provided by darkness...

The post-industrial giallo

One locale that seems to crop up with a disproprtionate frequency in 1970s gialli is the abandoned factory or warehouse, replete with treacherous pitfalls. It appears in The Fifth Cord, Crimes of the Black Cat (which also features the model agency, for a double whammy) and Who Saw Her Die and others I can't recall offhand. Is the death factory just a cool location for a stalk and slash showdown, or is there some deeper significance that can be attached to it?

Wednesday 27 June 2007

Subtitles or dubbing?

Assuming you're not Italian, how do you prefer to watch Italian films. Dubbed into your native language or in Italian with subtitles? In the original mono or stereo mix or a new, multi-channel one that better shows off your home cinema set up? Or does it vary depending on the individual film and viewing context?

Occhi di cristallo / Eyes of Crystal

This 2004 Italian-Spanish co-production starts off in bold style with a frenetic chase through winding alleys and back-streets as cops Giacomo Amaldi (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Frese (José Ángel Egido) pursue and catch an attempted rapist.

Unexpectedly Giacomo then shoots the man in the leg, explaining to his shocked partner that it's for “when he gets out of prison.”

Reflections in a golden eye: extreme ocular close-ups are in abundance as we might expect in a film entitled Eyes of Crystal

While useful for establishing character – Giacomo's “issues,” we later learn, stem from the tramautic legacy of his first love herself being raped and murdered – it also proves a touch inconsequential, a breach of procedure that leads to no complaint or inquiry and has no further bearing on the various stories about to emerge...

The first involves a killer who, after indulging in a spot of taxidermy (from Psycho through Jeffrey Dahmer, have taxidermists ever had a positive representation?) unceremoniously guns down a young couple in a waste-ground with a hunting rifle, along with the peeping tom who was spying on their lovemaking. We also learn that the man has a missing pinkie.

Amaldi and Frese are assigned the case.

The second sees their older colleague Ajaccio (Simón Andreu) go into hospital for tests that prove him to be suffering from a brain tumour, already at the inoperable and soon to be at the causing hallucinations and changes in personality stage...

The third finds attractive female student Giulietta (Lucía Jiménez) being stalked and coming to Amaldi and Frese for help, with younger man soon taking a personal interest in the case.

The fourth sees an antique dealer sell a 19th century doll to a mystery buyer – i.e. our killer; obviously a man of means – who murders her and removes her arms.

The blue eyes of the broken sex doll?

Suspiciously some surgical tools have disappeared from the hospital. Meanwhile, Ajaccio awakens to find someone having written his name on his torso in a wax pencil of the sort used for marking where surgical incisions are to be made...

As Amaldi and Frese continue their investigations and the killer continues on his mad quest, all the Pieces – to cite a rather more trashy old school production that has more relevance than Eyes of Crystal's makers would probably care to admit – start to come together...

The sign of the cross

The mystery element of this neo-giallo (although it should be noted that director Eros Pugliessi seems to want to avoid the use of the G word) never quite comes off, it being all too easy for the seasoned genre veteran to work out who the killer is from the suspects and red herrings set up – the sinister doctor, the other student who always seem to be wherever Giuditta is etc. – and, perhaps more importantly, not framed as such.

Some suspect characters

Likewise, while the reason behind the killer's missing finger is ultimately explained us, in all its phallic symbolic glory, it lacks significance as far as the policemen are concerned and, as such, perhaps functions more as a kind of reverse McGuffin, more important to us than them.

The convergence of the different story threads necessarily meanwhile imparts a degree of contrivance which, whilst certainly no worse that those seen in countless classic gialli, is more problematic on account of the film-makers' aspirations. Although blame can probably be apportioned here to author Luca Di Fulvio on whose novel L'impagliatore the film is based, I would have preferred to see at least one of the sub-plots remain more isolated.

This would, I think, have helped better illustrate the theme of contingency versus destiny running through the work and concomitantly the danger of reading too much significance in to what could be a random detail, as highlighted by Amaldi and Frese's discussion of what the killer's cryptic writings, as found at the scene with another victim lacking body parts, might mean.

Amaldi and Frese debate the meaning of a potential clue in a characteristically functionally shot police station sequence; Puglielli's direction itself leaves little to chance

For, as Amaldi remarks, it's often that the meaning we impute that is the more important, as a kind of personality test. And as far as Eyes of Crystal goes, I think what is revealed therbey is a somewhat schizoid personality, that of a film which tries to have it both ways in appealing to both genre and art cinema or horror and psychological thriller type audiences and does not always successfully reconcile the contradictions that emerge thereby.

What I mean here is the kind of authenticity that an Angst, Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer or Seul Contre Tous evinces against a Silence of the Lambs or Se7en, of being willing to present extreme, all-too-real violence – in all its forms – in an unflinchingly, hopefully repellent way, and to avoid the cliché of the brilliant serial killer playing games with the authorities.

It should however, also, be noted that while Eyes of Crystal has such a killer, at least the buddy cop pairing departs from the Se7en model somewhat in making the younger Amaldi the educated, cultured type and displacing the retiree role from the older Frese onto the third party Ajaccio.

Likewise, the film-makers could undoubtedly point to the name recognition of the latter against the former group of films and argue that the plague on both your (grind and art) houses approach of Angst and company is one with a more limited appeal, just as my own preference for those works that take this approach is also an expression of a particular strategy of distinction in that “look at me, I'm harder-core and culter than thou” way.

In more genre based terms it also, perhaps, something of the authenticity that a The Bird with the Crystal Plumage exhibits against a Sleepless, that difference between the film-maker compelled to get what he wants to say out there, without really knowing if there was the audience waiting to be constructed, and the one making a calculated pitch towards a more or less known, pre-existing audience. (Sleepless is neither a bad film nor a bad Argento film specifically, more just another one on both counts.)

Again, however, this is not surprising from the point of view of a young director mindful of developing a long-term career, just a way beset by compromises and arguably less likely to lead to future masterpieces.

It's at this point that, despite all the above reservations and criticisms, I should emphasise that I thoroughly enjoyed Eyes of Crystal, found it an accomplished work and firmly believe that Puglielli is a talent who absolutely deserves the opportunity to make more films of whatever type he – and hopefully not so much the marketplace – desires.

His direction is confident. Indeed, if anything its perhaps even over-confident, insofar as there are times – the use of a Jacob's Ladder style shaky head effect in the flashbacks, for instance – where a technique seemed to be there more because it was available than for what it contributed to the meaning of the scene, with that sense of form determining or over-riding content.

Elsewhere, however – note the way the cross-shape of the wire frame for one of the killer's stuffed animals near subliminally introduces a visual motif that links him in with Ajaccio's enigmatic flashbacks, for instance, or the ironic juxtaposition of Giacomo and Guidetta's first and abortive date with a supporting character's fatal encounter with the killer – he nails it.

The technical credits are good, with attractive compositions and cinematography and a surprisingly bold score centred around a madrigal type piece, whilst the performances – filone fans will note the presence of Simon Andreu, a frequent face in Luciano Ercoli's contributions to the genre in the 1970s – are of a higher standard than many would expect from a giallo.

The Frightened Woman...

... and with good reason

One factor that would appear to contribute here is the use of Italian rather than English dubbing. I wondered if the film had originally been slated to be dubbed, insofar as all of the books Giacomo reads whilst researching the occult and the textual inserts are (somewhat incongruously it has to be said) in English. It would certainly be interesting to have seen the film dubbed to ascertain if and how that affects the experience; one assumes for the worse.

A final thought, meanwhile, is that whilst the use of Sofia as a backdrop does not particularly hamper the film, I could not help wondering what a more concretely defined location might have brought to the film; Turin springs to mind as an ideal location on account of the occult theme. Or perhaps that would have been to invite the Argento comparisons (“When I write a film now I always visualise Turin”) Puglielli otherwise seems to want to maintain some distance from – at least for now.

Italian Horror Film Directors

“The Italian horror film has had its heyday. It has passed… [T]he purpose of this book is to recount the origins of the genre, celebrate ten specific auteurs who have contributed enormously, mention the many who have made noteworthy films in this genre, and also discuss the seminal influential genres associated with the Italian horror film. Hopefully you will enjoy reading about the obscure films, as well as reading about those that you may already be familiar with.”

Thus states Louis Paul in the second paragraph of the introductory essay that opens Italian Horror Film Directors by way of providing criteria for evaluating the work; criteria by which, unfortunately, the book only emerges as a qualified success at best.

The essay itself, which follows lively forewords by Jess Franco – once again confirming his lifelong passion for the B-cinema – and Lucio Fulci's daughter Antonella, is one of the better sections.

Beginning his survey in the silent era with the influential Theatre du Grand Guignol and its Italian offshoot, Paul charts the development of Italian horror through the seminal films of Freda, Bava, Argento and company with the appropriate name-checking of I Vampiri, Black Sunday, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and so on, whilst also identifying less-well known and downright obscure films awaiting rediscovery.

Although Paul's knowledge of the form thus comes through, some of his remarks also raise questions as to his broader awareness of the Italian cinema and ability to more fully contextualise these films and film-makers.

He suggests that I Vampiri is marred by "an infatuation with the concerns of the cinema of neo-realism," an evaluation that would surely surprise Riccardo Freda with his explicit opposition to that movement and remarks that "I am not in the least interested in banal humanity, everyday humanity" (cited in Pierre Lephoron's The Italian Cinema, p. 179).

Discussing the apparent anachronism of Freda's Maciste All'Inferno with its 17th century setting (p. 17), Paul meanwhile seems unaware of the existence of Guido Brigone's 1925 film film of the same name and the precedent it established in placing the mythical strongman in 19th Century Italy.

Turning to the the directors profiled in detail we find a list largely comprising of the usual suspects – Dario Argento, Lamberto and Mario Bava, Ruggero Deodato, Lucio Fulci, Umberto Lenzi, Antonio Margheriti, Aristide Massaccesi and Michele Soavi – with the notable exception of the absence of Riccardo Freda and the surprise inclusion of Bruno Mattei. (Freda is later controversially evaluated as “a problematic figure in the history of Italian horror films [...] his earliest works in the field [...] considered by many Italian horror cinemaphiles as prime examples of the finest directorial achievements in the genre, are, in fact, pedestian and rigid exercises in filmmaking.”)

Things get off to a bad start as, on the first page of the Argento profile Paul states that his daughters Fiore and Asia Argento were the products of their father's marriage “ a woman named Marisa," which must come as something of a surprise to Dario, Asia and her mother Daria Nicolodi!

While I did not spot any errors quite as glaring as this elsewhere, with Argento admittedly being the film-maker whose life and work I am most familiar with, it is the kind of thing that hardly inspires confidence, making you wonder what to make of the rest of the facts presented – are they facts or factoids? – especially in relation to those film-makers who are less familiar.

Paul's evaluations of the film-makers respective oeuvres follow a fairly conservative line for the most part: The Beyond is "as close as Fulci has come to a masterpiece of horror" whilst The New York Ripper is "a disappointing and gruesome work [that] reveals little imagination," for example.

Predictably the two directors who come off worst are Deodato and Lenzi on account of their association with the cannibal film.

Paul does offer a surprise in Lenzi's case through a positive evaluation of Nightmare City – “a highlight of Lenzi's horror filmography” – but then goes on to relegate the director's crime films, outwith his purview despite the marketing of Almost Human in the US as a horror film, to a single four line paragraph. This results in the overall verdict of someone who “never consistently excelled at any one genre” rather than – as I would argue – a solid action and gialli film-maker who has unfortunately become typed as the guy who made Cannibal Ferox.

The last two sections of the book, profiles of 39 other directors and a filmography of significant films by other filmmakers not otherwise mentioned, are an improvement.

While some of the filmmakers under discussion, such as Sergio Martino and Aldo Lado will be be well known to genre aficionados, fewer are likely to have heard about the likes of Gianfranco Giagni or Mario Colucci.

The same can be said of the genre filmography through the inclusion of not only Frankenstein's Daughter but also No Thanks, The Coffee Makes Me Nervous. Again, however, there are some curious choices – if Django is included on account of its grotesque and horrific elements where is Django the Bastard?

Overall, there is about enough in Italian Horror Directors for it to be a worthwhile volume to have on one's cult film bookshelf. But therein lies the rub: it is not an indispensable volume that the reader will keep close to hand and, given the price of the volume and the growing competition in the marketplace, that is likely insufficient.

Door into Darkness subtitles

A while back I got the Greek release of Argento's Door into Darkness TV series, which is without English subtitles. I remember vaguely seeing a torrent of the series, or at least the Argento-directed episodes and programme introductions with a subtitle file, but couldn't figure out how to download just the subtitled. So, does anyone have any English subtitle files for the series I could get a copy of or else know where one can be found online?


Monday 25 June 2007

The dubbed voice

In Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen the French composer and film theorist Michel Chion's discusses some of the differences between French and Italian dubbing cultures. He suggests that Italian dubbing is not of a low standard, as is often assumed, but rather operates according to a different standard or set of principles from the French. It is “looser,” being more concerned with synchronising the voice with the entire performance gesture, to the body as much as the mouth, presumably in line with the commedia dell'arte and opera traditions.

It's a useful insight and makes me wonder how far the criticism of the dubbing in Italian filone product within the UK in particular is down to the greater importance / awareness of French than Italian language film theory and practice within British film culture, that the voices which have been raised here are more likely to be speaking French or at least with a metaphorical French accent.

It also raises questions, I think, of what is happening to Italian horror and gialli now with subtitled DVD releases, in that we then have the combination of a “low” cultural form – i.e. things which are read as horror films – in a “high” culture package – i.e. in a foreign language, with subtitles. How far does the growing respectability of these films, such as it is, with official / institutional film culture parallel this? Which films and film-makers with the filone “win” and “lose” through such processes? How are our appreciations and understandings of them altered? Is there such a thing as an authentic, original language text in the case of a multi-lingual co-production also made with foreign sales in mind anyway? Too many questions, too few answers?

Lovecraft and Italian horror

Re-reading the interviews in Loris Curci's Shock Masters of the Cinema, something John Carpenter says regarding his then-current In the Mouth of Madness got me thinking:

“I've been wanting to do a Lovecraft story for many years – but you can't do them, they don't work... Lovecraft is just to be read, that's where he's beautiful, that's his language; you can't show the “indescribable horror that drives you crazy” because it won't, it will never drive you crazy.”

Or, Lovecraft – like Poe – is about the generation of particular sensations through the use of words and as such they cannot really be adapted for the cinema but only transposed and translated? Why Bava and Argento were right to never make straight adaptations of Lovecraft but instead draw inspiration from and allude to him? The difference between Lovecraft's “cosmic horror” and the attempted codification and systematisation into “the Cthulhu Mythos” by August Derleth as something that “makes sense,” idiosyncratic use of elementalism (e.g. Cthulhu despite being a water power is trapped beneath the ocean) notwithstanding? The equivalent mythos of the Three Mothers (their alchemy) and their intertexts of Fulci and Cozzi?

Sunday 24 June 2007

Solamente nero / The Bloodstained Shadow

Young mathematician Stefano D'Archangelo (Lino Capolicchio) returns to the Venetian island of Murano to recuperate from a nervous illness. After chatting with young artist/designer Sandra Sellani (Stefani Casini – Suspiria) on the train, he is met off the ferry by his older brother Paolo (Craig Hill), now the island's priest.

Who saw her die and who caused her demise - the girl in the flashbacks


Paolo; perhaps the shot / reverse shot construction of the sequence in the restaurant retrospectively conveys the distance between the brothers?

The brothers go for a meal and to catch up on what has been happening, with Paolo voicing his frustration at his inability to do anything about Murano's degenerates and deviants – an atheistic gay aristocrat with paedophile tendencies; a doctor whom he suspects to have murdered his wife and who refuses to use his wealth and influence to help the poor and disadvantaged; and a midwife rumoured to have a crazy son and to performs illegal abortions – all of whom also participate in seances conducted by a medium.

Solamente Nero is a term that also applies to many of the film's visuals

During the night Paolo is awoken by a noise. Going to the window, he sees two figures struggling in the street. Stefano arrives and the brothers go to investigate, but find nothing amidst the darkness and torrential rain.

Paolo finds a note warning him of the consequences of delving further into the matter: “If one speaks of murder, yours will be talked about.” He and Stefano debate what to do, only for their discussion to be rendered irrelevant when the medium's body is found strangled elsewhere on the island, the mode of her death recalling a still-unsolved child murder from their youth and triggering one of Stefano's nervous attacks.

When Paolo narrowly avoids being crushed by a falling stone crucifix – the symbolism of the scene is obvious, if effectively staged – it becomes clear the killer intends to make good on his threat. Yet, in that he is also targetting the same corrupting influences Paolo had earlier railed against, continuing with the Count, the killer also confusingly appears have some common ground with the priest himself.

Had not Paolo earlier remarked that the count was “a most despicable individual... without morals,” and that “it might be better if he disappeared from the face of the earth.”?

Meanwhile, courting Sandra and visiting her mother's house in Venice, Stefano happens upon a painting that triggers another one of his attacks...

Two brothers who cannot face one another nor the truth?

This 1978 giallo from Antonio Bido starts off promisingly with two impressively mounted murder set pieces – an impressionistic slow-motion flashback whose meaning is gradually determined as the investigation develops and a classic expressionistic dark and stormy night – but thereafter seems to lose its way somewhat.

The chief culprit here is the romantic subplot between Stefano and Sandra, which seems somewhat shoehorned in at times, never more than in an awkwardly handled love scene which neither performers Lino Capolocchio and Stefania Casini – both of whom are otherwise pretty good in their respective roles – nor Bido seem very comfortable with. (Admittedly the same could be said, for instance, of the comparable scene in The Cat o' Nine Tails, but there one gets the impression that a sense of unease – even disgust – is more deliberate than accidental thematically.)

In a similar vein whilst the evocation of life in a small town provides for a change of pace and the Venetian locations impart their usual picturesque qualities – mist shrouded canals, winding passageways etc. – those with a liking for more kitschy and trashy fare may feel a bit short-changed since while Bido's visuals style is certainly dynamic, his use of handheld-camera, zooms, canted angles, extreme close-ups and jarring cuts – i.e. all the standard tropes of the giallo – is judicious rather than grandstanding for the most part, and his colour palette, lighting and design largely subdued.

Sandra is stalked through the alleys of Venice before Stefano makes his appearance, looking like he's wearing Dracula's cape here

Two set-pieces perhaps best encapsulate Solamente Nero / The Bloodstained Shadow's qualities.

The first is the aforementioned debate between the brothers. Bido frames their exchange in a mirror, such that they appear to be facing opposite directions. In many gialli – The Case of the Bloody Iris is a particularly good counterpoint here – this would likely be a throwaway piece of visual trickery for its own sake. Here, however, it becomes invested with meaning, suggesting the distance between the brothers and their paths through life – a classic set of binary oppositions, between science and religion, reason and faith, staying and leaving Murano, sexual relationships and celibacy etc. – along with the fact that we do not have a full picture of either man.

The art of darkness

The child in the primal scene

The problem, speaking here from the perspective of the more mainstream giallo, is that this then weakens our point of identification. We do not have one character we know to be innocent of the crimes to function our surrogate as detective committed to unveiling the truth. If we comparing Stefano to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage's Sam Dalmas and Deep Red's Marc Daly, the key difference is that when he recalls his moment of trauma he does not know his place within the scene, whether he was an innocent witness or the perpetrator. (It's perhaps not too much of a spoiler to indicate those aware of the rules of the game as far as red herrings and suspects go will be able to work out the identity of the killer without too much difficulty.)

The awkward love scene

It is also such differences that help Bido's film find its own identity rather than simply coming across as ersatz Argento – and a comparison with Tenebrae might be interesting here – as also seen in the way that the medium is here presented as a Trauma-style fake than the genuine article as with Deep Red, or in Stefano's Stendhal Syndrome-esque interludes when confronted by the enigmatic painting.

The second is a long wordless passage where the handheld I-camera stalks Sandra through the sidestreets and canals of Venice. The sequence goes on for what seems like an eternity and is undoubtedly effective in terms of suspense and shock dynamics, with a textbook Lewtonian “bus” moment as Sandra is startled by a drunken accordion player who jumps out at her for no particular reason, but seems ultimately a touch gratuitous when the figure who finally emerges is Stefano.

Broken dolls...

... ocular close ups...

... black gloved hands removing a vital visual fragment

Again, however, given the aforementioned questions as to his role – further enhanced here by the way Bido has the character dressed and framed – or the possibility that our perspective has imperceptibly shifted from one stalker to another, with Stefano's presence possibly scaring an actual would-be attacker away, other interpretations are certainly possible.

As with The Cat with the Eyes of Jade / Watch Me When I Kill, Bido employs a very Goblin-esque score along with the occasional diegetically located classical interlude. Here however, the music was actually performed by the group, although for contractual reasons it is Stelvio Cipriani's name that appears on the credits.

Indeed, it's perhaps Goblin's score that encapsulates the ambiguous position of The Bloodstained Shadow in relation to the art and filone cinemas, insufficiently respectable and concerned with exhibiting the approved taste for the former – or, possibly, perhaps trying too hard for crossover appeal to it, in the manner of the prog-rock concept album – yet a touch too idiosyncratic and non-formulaic for the latter.

Once again “their” respective losses prove “our” gains in terms of the pleasures of interpreting – that is both reading and re-writing – the giallo text, above all in trying to tease out all those contradictions and our own responses to them, in my case as (self-)conscious (self-)marginal(ising) would-be intellectual...