Sunday 31 May 2009

Replies to Orcival and Coffeebaker

Since I couldn't post these as comments....

orcival said...

Sorry, I decided to write while reading cause otherwise I would forget half of it, so please excuse if I'm being fragmentic here.

First great topic for an essay. I had the idea to try to write a paper on the use of dialects in italian cinema from the 30s to the mid-60s some time ago, so your paper comes handy to think about the topic:
With regard to your remarks to the fascist language politics I think stating that "Fascist's proscriptions were not absolute" is a little too much, as from 1935 onwards the use of dialects is forbidden and e.g. the screening of Ivo Perilli's "Ragazzo" was partly forbidden due to the usage of dialect to give the characters a greater depth. In addition the usage of language in film was - again especially before the 40s - a topic of intense debate.

Maybe 1860 was an exception given its past setting and the strong position of the film in relation to the regime - e.g. with the risorgimento / Mussolini connection implied at the end? I think it was also released just on the cusp of the 1935 laws. Whatever, there are subtleties here I'll need to consider.

I'm am not sure, whether the box-office loss of LA TERRA TREMA is really a point: as the film was part of the election campaign of 1948 it probably was shown not only in places where you had to pay for entrance. Seeing that Visconti often worked with the later director of L'unità and the cultural commission of the Pci Mario Alicata, who was one of the most important Pci politicians in the south, not finishing the initially planned triology may have had to do with the beginning of clear fronts in the cold-war south. You probably know this one, but if not: here's a scene from CINEMA PARADISO with a public watching LA TERRA TREMA: (especially from 1'20'' onwards).

I've dropped this part in the second draft, and just made it about quality vs quantity.

Thank you for stressing the difference between Visconti and Rossellini. That is something that is as often overseen as it is that Neorealism is not a phenomenon of the postwar and is not a political film form in itself. (Thinking e.g. of the propaganda stuff Rossellini did)

I just got this from Brunetta, though I don't think he mentions De Robertiis and Bava's remark that he was the true founder of neo-realism.

I was surprised to see you cite Fellini for the practice of doppaggio. I think Pasolini is even more interesting for that since he states in most interviews he gave in the 70s how much he liked the artificialness of the dubbing and how much in his usage of dialect its not about autheticity (is that the word) but about a certain impression. This is interesting - as the italian popular cinema of the 60s with its westerns, gialli and even the piratemovies may on of the cinemas with the most interesting soundtracks to it. Not only with regards to music but in general. I'm not an expert in music, but I don't think that the music in "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" in the scene you described is really aleatory.

I used Fellini mainly because Chion refers to him. Pasolini does talk about that new scientific standard Italian in the 1960s, which I should maybe bring in. (Also interesting here, perhaps, is how Derek Jarman did Sebastiane in cod Latin with the characters swearing by saying Oedipus for motherfucker.) I probably should be more careful with the musical terminology. The Morricone cue was improvised, but around a framework. It has a chance element, but isn't totally free. It draws on the Cage-influenced work he was doing with the New Improvisation Group, I think.

Finally, I think it would be great if you would add some kind a closing paragraph summing up the special way in which Argento deals with sound. Up to now, I think the essay falls in two parts: one ending with the presentation of Michel Chion's theory and the second with the - very interesting and brilliantly observed - look at Argento's films.

Absolutely - I've since taken out the two voices / interlude part and tried to relate the halves and the theory a bit better in the conclusion.

This being said, I would like to congratulate: this is a nice essay, what are you writing it for? And maybe this is the right place to ask a question: do you know a good book about italian film music?

Partly for a journal article, partly for my thesis, partly just for practice / fun / expression.

I don't know any good books about Italian film music, at least in English. The Christof Spencer book I posted about a couple of weeks ago has a bit on Italian film music from 1950 to 1979 in genre films, but less on the likes of Giovanni Fusco in Antonioni.

25 May 2009 21:41:00 BST
Blogger coffeebaker said...

>What Sam had seen was an attempt by Monica's husband Alberto to shock her out of it.

Really? I'll be honest: as often as I've seen this film, I've never actually thought much about what _was_ going on at the top of those stairs, beyond the reveal of what _wasn't_ going on...

In other words, I thought that what we'd witnessed had been an abortive assault upon the husband (for whatever reason...after all, the woman is insane) that got turned back against her and resulted in the cuts.

If this were the case, it wouldn't explain why Alberto was wearing Monica's fetishised giallo killer outfit.

I probably made it more clear than it was - I've changed it to Alberto confonting Monica. But it's still ambiguous, one of those things that's maybe more a 'generator' than something to be logically worked through. I'd tend to place it like Scottie's hiring in Vertigo - a contrivance that sets things in motion, but which doesn't really make sense when you think about it

And while this probably isn't the place for it, I'll mention that the end of BIRD... has a couple of points that have always thrown me:

- the "explanation" at the end seems to raise the possibility that Monica was not responsible for all the murders...if not, which ones did she commit?

My sense would be that Alberto was responsible for the half-hearted attack on Sam and the phone call to him, whereas Monica was more likely to have made the one to the police. I don't think Alberto or the hit-man committed additional murders. But again these are things we're not supposed to think too much about.

- I've never understood the point of the plane-bound finale: it seems we're supposed to think they're not on the same plane...okay...but then Musante's movements are confusingly choreographed (obviously intentionally) at the same time we're hearing the voiceover. I've always found the sequence disorienting.

I would read this, as I think others have done, as suggesting that Giulia may have been affected by her traumatic experience and so could be a future Monica.

Monday 25 May 2009

Draft of an essay I am working on - comments requested

[A long, more academic piece I have been working on over the weekend; responses to its style, argument etc. welcome. This essay necessarily contains spoilers - don't read it if you've only just discovered Argento!]

Voice 1: The Voice in Italian Cinema, 1913-1985

Issues around the voice are of considerable importance in the history of the Italian cinema. During its first golden age, in the years immediately preceding the First World War, directors like Giovanni Pastrone with Cabiria (1913) made key contributions to cinematic vocabulary through innovations such as dollying the camera. In common with other European film industries the impact of the war was disastrous, paving the way for Hollywood to dominate screens and box-office earnings in a manner that continued, albeit intermittently interrupted, until today. European film-makers in the decade immediately following the war had one significant advantage over subsequent generations. Regardless of the spoken and written language(s) in which they worked, their films had an inherently pan-linguistic quality through being fundamentally based on visual images. While written language in Italian, German, Russian or other language was certainly present, in the form of the inter-title - sometimes representing paraphrased speech - these titles could usually be translated from one language into another without significant loss of meaning.i Even more important, film-makers were enthused by the possibilities for cinema as a universal language of images that might replace the babel of natural languages to establish a universal communications medium. With 1924's The Last Laugh, for instance, German expressionist film-maker Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau sought to tell a story entirely without recourse to words, using inter-titles on one occasion, and then in a highly ironic manner. Though Italian film-makers of the period failed to produce image-based works with comparable international impact as those of Murnau, Fritz Lang, Sergei Eisenstein or other major cinematic voices of the 1920s, the same ideals nevertheless prevailed. Inaugurating the International Institute for Cinema Education in 1928 Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini declared:

"Still in its first phase of development, cinema offers great advantages over newspapers and books: it speaks to the eyes; in doing so, it speaks a language comprehensible to all peoples of the earth. Herein lies its universal character. It offers innumerable possibilities for an educational collaboration of international breadth."ii

At almost exactly the same time cinema was at risk of losing these selfsame qualities. The success of Alan Crosland's The Jazz Singer (1927) and the dawning realisation that the spoken cinema represented the future (I refrain from using the more usual appellation of silent here inasmuch as films had long been accompanied by music) meant that new issues around language soon emerged. What sound techniques should be used? How should foreign language films be made available to Italian audiences? How far should Italian films speak official standard Italian or allow for the use of regional dialects like Friulian and languages like Sicilian and Sardinian?

Technically matters were decided in favour of post-synchronised sound. While actors might speak their lines while being filmed and/or have a guide track recorded to add post-synchronisation, the voices heard were recorded after filming had been completed. Sometimes these voices were not those of the actors themselves. Voices were thus doubled or dubbed, depending on how we wish to interpret the Italian doppiagio. Linguistically matters were decided in favour of the dubbing of imported and domestically produced films alike into standard Italian. This was obviously in accord with official Fascist doctrine. It helped make all subjects of the regime identify with the nation state and allowed greater official control over the messages communicated by foreign and indigenous films alike (Ricci, 2008: 60-65).

The major advantage that post-synchronised sound afforded Italian film-makers relative to their Hollywood counterparts was in camera mobility. The camera could still be used in the same ways as it had been during the silent era in the studio, and could be taken on location with relative ease. Alessandro Blasetti's 1860 (1933), with its boat-crossing to Sicily and exploration of the island's rugged landscapes, could not have been made with synchronised sound. The film also uses elements of dialect to add historical authenticity. This indicates that Fascist's proscriptions were not absolute. It also reminds us us of Italy's relative youth as a nation and that the Fascist Italianisation project was in many respects a continuation of pre-existing policies from the prior period of liberal government.

The exploration of the world outside the studio is however forever linked with the neo-realist movement of the immediate post-war years, as exemplified by the likes of Roberto Rossellini's Rome Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946), Luchino Visconti's La terra trema and Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (both 1948). These were films which found a receptive critical audience willing to ignore certain contradictions - most obviously the highly unrealistic use of non-diegetic music - and to place their non-realistic use of post-synchronised sound within a broader theoretical framework.

The key commentator here is Andre Bazin. Though Bazin valued the cinema for its realist qualities, he believed that it could never achieve perfect mimesis. Progressive technical developments, such as sound, colour, widescreen and deep focus cinematography did however have the capacity to bring cinema ever closer to this ideal in an asymptotic manner. The use of artifice was also encouraged if on balance the reality quotient of a film could be increased. If neo-realist film-makers still used post-synchronised sound, for instance, this was more than counter-weighed by the ways they used the camera to capture aspects of reality that dominant Hollywood practice did not. The neo-realists also raised voices that had been largely silenced during the fascist era, in engaging with the plights of the peasantry and proletariat and allowing non-standard dialects and even other languages to be heard. La Terra Trema indicates something of the difficulties that could be encountered here. Post-synchronised into the actual language of its Sicilian characters, the film had to be subtitled to be rendered intelligible to speakers of standard Italian. This badly impacted its box-office, forcing Visconti and his Italian Communist Party backers to abandon their plans for a Marxist trilogy. The choice, as so often, was between quantity and quality: reach a minority audience with a pure voice, or a majority with an impure one.

Neo-realism marked the first time for over 30 years that the Italian cinema was of international importance, even influencing Hollywood cinema as film-makers, like Elia Kazan with Boomerang (1947), began to move out of the studio and into the streets to shoot. Though neo-realist films certainly played to Italian diasporan audiences in the US and elsewhere, I would argue that most significant audience breakthrough was accomplished on the nascent international art-house circuit. As the name implies, art-house cinema-goers understood - and were educated to understand - cinema as an art form in its own right Two aspects of art-house discourse and practice, both related to authenticity, are particularly important. The first is that that the film-maker, as an artist or auteur, should be possessed of a recognisable and authentic voice. Thus, for example, although both Rossellini and Visconti were identifiable as neo-realists, their approaches towards it were distinct with no sense that one's voice was imitative or derivative of the other's. Whereas Rossellini's films opened themselves to contingencies, Visconti's left little to chance (Brunetta, 2003: 137). If Rossellini's practice was perhaps inherently truer to Bazin's understanding of reality, Visconti's could achieve equal reality effects through artifice. The second is that the film-maker's work should be seen in as close to its original form as possible. As such, re-dubbing the film text into another language was usually rejected in favour of sub-titling.

Although Italian cinema re-established its international prestige through the neo-realists, and their successors, such as Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Pier-Paolo Pasolini, over the course of the 1950s and 1960s and into the 1970s, it is probably fair to say that these art-house developments were of little help to Italian film-makers working in popular genres or filone during this period.iii

As international co-productions, made with actors from various different countries almost always lacking a lingua franca, filone films had to be post-synchronised both for international and Italian audiences. Since their producers sought wider popular and vernaculariv audiences internationally rather than narrower elite ones, films would almost always be post-synchronised into English, German, French or other language, not subtitled. This was fatal for their critical reputations and the extent to which they might also be taken seriously and as expressions of an artist's personal voice.

Here I have to be careful. As science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon famously proclaimed regarding his own much-maligned, marginalised form, "Ninety percent of SF [science fiction] is crud, but then, ninety percent of everything is crud."v Or, to put it another way, if 90 per cent of Italian popular films of this period circa were of little artistic value, the same might well be said of the classical Hollywood cinema often also enthusiastically taken up by critics and art-house audiences. The difference was in the reception and recognition usually accorded this top ten per cent.

Reading reviews in the Monthly Film Bulletin, an organ of the British Film Institute and thus a reflection of quasi-official attitudes, policy and discourse, the same refrain is repeated time and again. The Italian historical/mythological epic, western, horror, spy or thriller film is "badly" dubbed:

"Although banal dubbing and stiff acting are the rule rather than the exception in Italian spectacles, this one takes some beating for sheer ludicrousness."

"Sheer nonsense - and ineptly dubbed nonsense at that"

"Vilely dubbed as usual"

"The film suffers no more than usual from the haphazard dubbing process"

What is not discussed, however, is what bad dubbing really means. Rather, it is taken for granted, a common-sense assumption derived negatively from the notion that subtitling represented the correct approach to foreign voices. Given the importance of French cinema and criticism at this time, through the young critics turned film-makers whom Bazin had gathered around himself at Cahiers du Cinema, it was perhaps also the case that Italian dubbing seemed especially bad on account of not following French As Michel Chion explains in The Voice in Cinema (1999), French and Italian dubbing differed in the location to which dubbing voice was to be synchronised. French dubbing emphasised tight synchronisation of the voice with a character's lip movements, Italian dubbing looser synchronisation of the voice with the character's bodily gestures (Chion, 1999: 65). Though neither practice was inherently superior, British critics perhaps placed them in an implicit hierarchy of French better/Italian worse.

A consideration of Fellini's 1972 film Roma is instructive here. As Chion notes, Fellini's films frequently feature particularly loose dubbing (??:??). Within Roma's polyphonic piazza sequences individual voices often cannot be assigned to individual bodies within the frame, instead floating free as separate presences without a definite source. They have what Chion elsewhere identifies as acousmatic and acousmetric characteristics. Acousmatic refers to sounds that are heard without their sources being seen, acousmetric to human voices not clearly attached to bodies or mouths. Needless to say, The Monthly Film Bulletin review of a English subtitled version of Roma does not mention these disembodied voices, nor critically address the Italian dubbing of the film, nor whether the subtitling process might have resulted in a loss of meaning. The point is not that Roma particularly deserved criticism on such grounds - indeed, those responsible for the English subtitles did a fine job with an unusually challenging film - as that most critics were silent on such issues.

There must have been some films that were badly subtitled, whether through being difficult to read (e.g. white subtitles on a near-white background), ill-synchronised with the visuals, or just poor translations of the original. There were certainly occasions on which Italian actors such as Claudia Cardinale and Sophia Loren were dubbed by other performers in the Italian versions of the films in which they appeared. All this, however, went without comment. A double standard towards voice-doubling (i.e. doppiaggio = doubling = dubbing) clearly pertained.

In the remainder of this paper I will explore the consequences of this double standard film via a more detailed analysis of the work of one specific Italian film-maker, Dario Argento, from 1970 and 1982. Argento is a film-maker whose work is popular but also also exhibits certain art-house and auteur characteristics, expressing a distinctive, personal voice that cannot be reduced to a function of the Italian thriller or giallo and fantasy-horror filone.

This crossover element also makes the absence of Argento's work in Chion's discussions particularly interesting. Many of Chion's examples are drawn from films by directors with whom Argento has been compared, including Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Sergio Leone, and Brian De Palma. Likewise, if we would expect critics with an elitist bias against dubbing not to recognise Argento's work, this is not the case with Chion, who is clearly enthusiastic about popular cinema sound.

Interlude: Michel Chion's Audio-Vision and The Voice in Cinema

In Audio-Vision Chion argues that sound cinema is an essentially audio-visual form where sound provides "added value" to the image, "the expressive and informative value with which a sound enriches a given image so as to create the definite impression [...] that this information or expression 'naturally' comes from what is seen and is already contained in the image itself" (1994:5). Although sound thus appears supplementary, the specific sense of supplement invoked is a Derridean one, that if something (e.g. speech, image) were genuinely self-sufficient it would not need supplementation by something else (e.g. writing, sound).

For Chion the "naturalness" of the relationship between image and sound makes it difficult to separate out sense data. Instead, "what is rendered is a clump of sensations" where artifice is necessary to provide an experience that is true to life:

The cinema systematically exaggerates the contrast of intensity. This device of exaggerating constitutes a kind of white lie even in films that use direct sound. Sometimes a sound will be made to arise suddenly out of complete silence, at the exact moment of the window-opening or the car's passing. The point is that the sound here must tell the story of a whole rush of comoposite sensations and not just the auditory reality of the event. (1994: 112-113)

Chion demonstrates his points through the method of "audio-visual analysis" This entails watching a film sequence without sound; without image, listening to the sounds in a "reduced" manner, "the listening mode that focuses on the traits of the sound itself, independent of its cause and meaning" (1994: 29); and in combination. Together sound and image create a synthetic whole greater than the sum of their parts. If a comparison might thus be made here with Eisenstein's theories of dialectical montage, there is a significant difference. Sound and image function less as thesis and antithesis in a sequential manner, instead arising simultaneously.

In The Voice in Cinema, Chion concentrates on the cinematic voice and those figures and narratives that have developed around it. The key figures here are the acousmêtre and the mute. The acousmêtre, the voice that is heard without its source being seen, is a figure with an inherently uncanny quality. This is demonstrated by such films as Mervyn Leroy's The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Lang's The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1932). Lacking an body, the acousmêtre has potentially godlike capabilitie, "the ability to be everywhere, to see all; to know all, and to have complete power. In other words, ubiquity, panopticism, omniscience and omnipotence." (1999: 24). Narratives featuring an acousmêtre thus typically revolve around the need to bring it down to a more human level, through affixing the voice to a source:

"As long as the face and mouth have not been completely revealed, and as long as the spectator's eye has not 'verified' the co-incidence of the voice with the mouth (a verification which needs only to be approximate), de-acoustimisation is incomplete, and the voice retains its aura of invulnerability and magical power" (1994: 28)

Thus in looking behind the curtain despite "The great and mighty Oz"'s injunctions, Dorothy discovers that Oz is merely an ordinary man, "really a very good man, just a poor wizard"; Inspector Lohmann in The Testament of Dr Mabuse has a more difficult task on account of the multiplicity of Mabuse acousmêtres he faces. As a body without a voice, the mute functions as a kind of inverse acousmêtre. He or she again has uncanny qualities, whilst the narrative often hinges on determining whether the mute can be made to speak or otherwise vocalise.

A key trope is the idea of the "phone story". Separating the voice from the body producing it, the telephone is an acousmatic technology. If we typically do not see it as possessing uncanny qualities, this is because we have become accustomed to it along, alongside other technologies such as the radio and the record player. Nonetheless, this can easily change:

"The acousmatic phone caller, the threatening and perverse stranger (who in film narratives, and doubtless also in reality, is most often a man), can adopt the powers of the acousmêtre, telling you he can see everything, knows everything and is omnipotent. Inasmuch as you can't locate him, you can't figure out whether he's bluffing." (1999: 64)

A second key narrative trope around the voice, one less related to the acousmatic, is the "screaming point" This refers to a moment a film has been building towards where a female scream erupts to signal the utter breakdown of meaning:

"[L]et us define the screaming point in a cinematic narrative as something that generally gushes forth from the mouth of a woman, which by the way does not have to be heard, but which above all must fall at an appointed spot, explode at a precise moment, at the crossroads of converging plot lines, at the end of an often convoluted trajectory, but calculated to give this point a maximum impact. [...]

I use the expression screaming point to emphasise that it's not so much the sound quality of the scream that's important, but its placement. And this place could be occupied by nothing, a blank, an absence. The screaming point is a point of the unthinkable inside the thought, of unrepresentability inside representation. It 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: 76-77)

A key example for Chion here, one that may again be usefully compared to aspects of Argento's work, is De Palma's Blow Out (1980)

Voice 2: The Cinema of Dario Argento, 1970-1982

The voice is important to Argento's debut film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) in various ways. The critic turned screenwriter found himself directing the film from his own script after concluding that none of the established directors initially associated with the project were likely to do it justice. It is a film which inherently engages with issues around authorship and authorial voice, presenting a number of key themes and motifs that would recur throughout Argento's subsequent work. For reasons of space, I will here concentrate upon those aspects of the film and its successors pertaining to the voice.

The centrepiece sequence of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage occurs early on and neatly introduces the importance of the voice and the audio-visual. Whilst walking home one evening Sam Dalmas, an American author resident in Rome, witnesses a struggle between a man and a woman in the open-plan glass fronted gallery opposite, and goes to assist. Trapped between the gallery's double doors by the fleeing man, Sam can only wait helplessly until help for the injured woman arrives. Questioned by the Inspector Morisini, Sam becomes convinced that some vital detail of the scene eluded him and begins his own investigation. The attacker, who had already struck three times before, continues their campaign of terror and makes threatening telephone calls to Sam and the police. Eventually Sam realises his mistake: it was the woman in the gallery, Monica Ranieri, who was wielding the knife. The victim of a similar attack in her youth, Monica's latent insanity had been triggered by a painting of the traumatic scene, but rather than identifying with herself as victim she instead adopted the attacker's persona and role. What Sam had seen was an attempt by Monica's husband Alberto to shock her out of it.

If we analyse the gallery sequence in audio-visual terms, the thing that becomes most apparent is the way Argento plays with sound. While the gallery space is designed to accentuate the visual, it accomplishes this at the expense of downplaying the aural. Most obviously, we do not hear the voices of Alberto and Monica, voices that can well be imagined to have presented vital information as to what was really going on (e.g. "Monica, put down the knife! You're insane!"). The instant when Sam is distracted by the sudden appearance of a car is a textbook example of exaggerated audio to make an effect, its engine and horn not audible until it nearly runs him down. As Sam becomes trapped between the double doors, Argento shifts his camera and our point of view between Sam, Monica and the street outside. He also plays with the levels of Sam's attempts to attract the attention of passers-by and Monica's distressed cries. The volume of their voices does not always according with the camera's position, however, thereby further reminding us that the co-incidence of sound and image in film is a convention. The Ennio Morricone cue that plays over this part of the sequence is also noteworthy. An atonal, abstract and aleatory piece of music, [??], makes prominent use of a female voice moaning in what could be taken as pleasure, pain or both. Besides this polyvalence, it is at times unclear whether the voice is diegetic, representative of Monica, or non-diegetic. If we cannot definitively position this voice, this ambiguity serves to position the film closer to the as art cinema in throwing into question conventionally fixed, taken for granted meanings.vii

Besides establishing The Bird with the Crystal Plumage as something of a "phone story," the threatening calls made to Sam and the police are audio-visually significant. Visualisation of their sound patterns on an oscilloscope by the police forensics men reveals that they were made by two callers. Their signatures, the literal "grain of the voice" - to invoke Roland Barthes' term from The Pleasures of the Text (1973) - are different. If this treatment might be read as subordinating the aural to the visual, in accord with theories of the time that privileged the visual as the source of truth within cinema, the way Argento presents the call to the police is worth noting by way of counterpoint. The caller is prompted by seeing Morisini on television in a shop window and goes into a phone booth. They are identifiable to the viewer via their iconic black leather gloves, but not to the others who were watching the television. These others could however see the caller's face, which we cannot. But we can also hear the caller's voice, which they cannot. The separation of audio and visual elements renders the scene less meaningful. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty remarks:

"[H]uman acts lose all their meaning when detached from their context and broken down into their component parts (like the gestures of the man I can see but do not hear through the window of the telephone booth), one concludes that all conduct is senseless." ((1964: 39)viii

Like their predecessor, the second and third films in Argento's retrospectively identified "Animal Trilogy," of giallo thrillers, Cat o' Nine Tails (1970) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) make important use of the voice.

Cat o' Nine Tails is distinctive in featuring a killer, Casoni, who combines aspects of acousmetre and mute together. Represented until the denouement by an extreme close-up of a single eye, and as such lacking a bodyix, his voice is never heard. This representation can be related to the nature of the film's investigator Arno who, as a blind man, is a body with a voice but no eyes. It also reflects Casoni's identity as a young research scientist who had first killed to defend himself from a blackmailer who had threatened to reveal the fact that he suffers from a rare genetic abnormality; a revelation that would end his career. Casoni thus had good reason to desire to establish himself as a pure mind or cogito and, in this imaginary, ideal state, avoid raising the voice that could have helped bring him back down to earth were it to be heard by Arno.

As a further measure of the film's skilful combination of form and content, it is significant in the last regard that Casoni dies by falling down a lift shaft from a great height. Again, Merleau-Ponty's remarks provide useful insights, in recognising the limitations of the scientific world-view:

"Philosophy is not science, because science believes it can soar over its object and holds the correlation of knowledge with being as established, whereas philosophy is the set of questions wherein he who questions is himself implicated by the question." (1968: 27)

If Cat o' Nine Tails presents a man who would like to install himself in a god-like position, Four Flies on Grey Velvet presents a woman, Nina Tobias, who is the victim of just such a man, namely her father. In the film's ambiguous flashback sequences, in which Argento's camera performs disorienting rapid 360 degree pans around a padded cell, a disembodied voice repeatedly berates the unidentified Nina: "I wanted a son, not a weakling like you!" "You'll end up in an asylum, an asylum like your mother!" Seeking symbolic revenge on her father, who had died in the interim, Nina marries a young musician, Roberto, who is his spitting image, and begins to persecute him. As Roberto tries to make sense of what is going on around him, the family maid discovers Nina's culpability, and attempts to blackmail her. Here Argento tracks from the maid's end of the telephone call, following her voice through the cables and circuits of the telephone system to its eventual destination in Nina's secret apartment hideout.

Though otherwise the summation of Argento's cinema to that point in his career, Profondo Rosso (1975) is distinguished from its predecessors by a relative lack of voice-based figures and narrative elements. Argento does, however, pay attention to sound more generally as an important aspect of the film's hyper-realist aesthetic, in having each each murder scene play to Goblin's intense, progressive rock score, or by announcing the killer's presence diegetically through a nursery rhyme leitmotif.

Argento's next film, Suspiria (1977) is characterised by a shift into an even more intense, anti-realistic aesthetic and outright fantastical subject matter. It is also Argento's first film to feature a female protagonist, Suzy Banner. Significantly, however, she is also positioned very much as a child within the narrative, which sees her travels from the US to Germany to continue her ballet studies at the famous Tanzakademie.x Having arrived, Suzy discovers that the school is home to a coven of witches, led by the sinister Black Queen, Helena Markos. She represents the return of the acousmetre, in a monstrous feminine and more overtly uncanny/fantastical Mabuse type-form. Suzy and fellow student Sarah first encounter Helena on the opposite side of an Oz-like curtain, with Sarah recognising the ancient witch through the distinctive quality of her breathing, a "grain of the voice" that can be attributed to her other identity as Mater Suspiriorum or The Mother of Sighs. Eventually, Suzy manages to locate Helena and, striking at the witch's position after she turns invisible, manages to deacousmatise and kill her at the same time. This in turn causes the other members of Helena's coven, who had previously been cursing Suzy ("Helena: give me power! Away with trouble! Sickness! Death!") to die as the academy erupts into flames; another of those who dies is mute handyman cum assassin Pavlos.xi Suspiria's soundtrack, again by Goblin, also makes notable use of the voice, with the band's keyboard player and vocalist Claudio Simonetti uttering half-subliminal whispers ("There are three witches," "Sickness and perversity") over the circular compositions in a mantra-like manner.

Inferno (1980) continued to elaborate the mythology of the Three Mothers, explicitly linking it with Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater (18??), and to explore characters and states beyond those of the "Animal Trilogy". Once again the student protagonist, Marc Elliot, is placed in a child-like position as he attempts to make sense of the mysterious events centring around his sister's disappearance from her New York apartment. It eventually emerges that the building is home to the Mother of Darkness, Mater Tenebrarum. Like her sister in Suspiria she too must be situated within a specific body, which eventually turns out to be that of a friendly-seeming nurse. This nurse, meanwhile, tends to an old, mute man, who it transpires is the architect Varelli, the designer of the apartment block, the Tanzakademie and a third building in Rome for the Mothers, and the author of a volume on them which Marc's sister Rose had been reading prior to her murder. His own lair is hidden with his mistress in the apartment block, from where they secretly observe the other inhabitants and scheme against those who might discover their "filthy secrets". Again, the deacousmatisation of the mother, as she is located within her a body - albeit perhaps one that represents only a temporary home, akin to Lang's possessive Mabuse-spirit - leads to her ambiguous defeat, as Marc escapes the blazing building.

With its allusion to the Mother of Darkness and Rome setting, Tenebre (1982) sounded like a conclusion to Argento's second trilogy. In fact, however, it represented a return, after the two fantasy-horror films preceding it, to more realistic territory, albeit with the same hyper-realist aesthetic. It also represented a return to an adult male protagonist, in the form of giallo author Peter Neale. Travelling to Rome to promote his latest thriller, Neale finds himself threatened by a serial killer who is taking inspiration from his work. Answering critics who call his work sexist and discussing the distinctions between reality and fiction with Inspector Giermani, Neale functions as Argento's own voice within the diegesis to ironically highlight Barthesian distinctions between author and text, that their respective voices should not be conflated.

The denouement sees Neale revealed as an insane killer, who had killed the original maniac, a conservative television presenter, and embarked upon his own campaign of murder. What is significant about this revelation is that it provides for the first "screaming point" in Argento's career, as Neale's girlfriend Anne, responds to the carnage and horror around confronting her by screaming uncontrollably. As an ending, this "screaming point" is less jury-rigged and arbitrary than its counterpart in De Palma's Blow Out. The film and Argento's entire career to 1982 had been building towards this moment. His first four gialli had concentrated on masculine protagonists' experiences and understandings of the world. The two fantasy films that succeeded them had explored different possibilities through child-like figures. Now, with their respective limitations apparent and meaning concomitantly collapsing, the feminine voice was about to be raised.

This essay is dedicated to Oreste Lionello, the Italian dubbing-voice of Woody Allen, and the Godard-like professor in Four Flies on Grey Velvet.

Sunday 24 May 2009

The XYY Man

Interesting in relation to Cat o' Nine Tails; I had never realised there was a 1970s TV series from which Bulman, a programme I remember from the 1980s, came from.

Oreste Lionello obituary


I didn't realise he had died; he appeared in Four Flies on Grey Velvet as the Professor and The Case of the Bloody Iris as Arthur, the camp photographer.

Friday 22 May 2009

Sensitivita / Kyra - La signora del lago / The House by the Edge of the Lake / etc.

Sensitivita is one of those films that is inherently intriguing on account of the likelihood of a clash between the director and his material, namely Enzo G Castellari approachinging horror-thriller material with a female protagonist and considerable sexual elements.

For Castellari is an undisputed master of no-nonsense action cinema, with his westerns, like Keoma, and crime and war films, such as The Grand Racket and The Inglorious Bastards, ranking amongst the best in their respective filone.

But he's also someone who was quick to dismiss his giallo entry Cold Eyes of Fear as an awkward piece of post-Bird with the Crystal Plumage trend following - an evaluation that perhaps sells the idiosyncratic film short - and who subsequently declined the offer of directing Zombie on the grounds that he didn't feel horror to be his forte.

Beyond this, there's the fact that even within Castellari's preferred genres his previous work had been marked by something of an awkwardness - admittedly one common to many action filmmakers - in handling more intimate material, especially in relation to male-female relationships and the sexually explicit.

The main thing to emerge from Sensitivita is that Castellari could direct a surrealistic cum absurdist nightmare to rival Argento's Inferno and Fulci's The Beyond, but with one very important caveat: It's not clear how far he had any intention to do so, nor of the extent to which there is an underlying poetic logic or symbolism to the images and events depicted.

Let's try to summarise:

As a young girl Lilian watches her mother be pulled into the lake by a hand. As a young woman she returns, on motorcycle, to the area. Riding to the lake, Lilian almost runs over a a blind girl who assembles dolls from mismatched parts. The girl gives Lilian a doll without a head - its head, rolling out onto the road, nearly precipitated their collision. At the abandoned house by the lake, Lilian is pursued by a axe-wielding figure, but escapes. She has a series of encounters, both discursive and sexual, with some of the locals, usually apparently being observed by a mysterious young woman, Lilith. After one sexual encounter - these often being accompanied by Lilith's masturbating - Lilian goes into a death-like state, whilst after another her partner dies in an accident, leading to a police investigation that goes nowhere. Everywhere the same symbol, )o(, keeps cropping up...

If it's probably the case that I missed something through watching the film in Italian I don't think English subtitling or dubbing would make things terribly much clearer. Rather, it's a film where things just happen, without definite rhyme nor reason.

But if we cannot make definite conclusions, we can begin to make interconnections, noting the way the film's images have their antecedents and descendants, that "generator" function identified by Tohill and Tombs in Immoral Tales as a key component of the European fantastique cinema of the period.

Thus, for example, Lilian and Lilith are clearly connected in both name and function, being figures of feminine power and monstrosity of the the type connoted by the monster of Jewish myth to whom the latter's name first applied.

From then we can emphasise dualistic and doppelganger ideas, that the two figures and the forces of light and dark they represent, must either combine or destroy one another, and note the particular affinities with the likes of Franco's Doriana Gray / Die Marquise von Sade, via the psychic link between the two women, there more obviously halves of the same whole as twin sisters played by the inevitable, inimitable Lina Romay; Bazzoni's The Lady in the Lake, via Sensitivita's alternate Italian title and their shared gloomy, old, small town settings; and Pensione Paura, via the shared presence of the beautiful, talented and risk-taking Leonora Fani in the lead role.

Castellari, who amusingly and tellingly cameos as the detective leading the investigation nowhere, uses about every technique in the book at some point, be it slow-motion, split-screen, shock zooms, colour filters, rapid shock edits and montages - the latter particularly to convey the significance of the )o( symbol in case we miss it - and dramatic compositions.

If the filters suggest a certain sub-Suspiria derivativeness, the use of three way split screen to showcase an exploding car is pure Castellari.

In the end, what you think of Sensitivita perhaps depends on what you think of its incoherence and the effortless way in which Castellari achieves that Euro-fantastique / Eurotrash sensibility.

I couldn't say for sure what I felt afterwards, other that that it was definitely an experience.

Wednesday 20 May 2009

10,000 Ways to Die

This new-old book from Alex Cox has an interesting history. Cox originally wrote a manuscript about the Italian, or Spaghetti, western in the 1970s as a graduate student and aspiring filmmaker. Unfortunately for him, at least at the time, the project fell through and the manuscript was never published – although he more recently made it available, as typewritten pages converted to a PDF, to download from his website.

Though Cox has since made several changes to the text, downplaying semiotic and other fashionable theories of the time in favour of a more personal approach based on his own experiences as a director, one constant remains: 10,000 Ways to Die is an excellent and insightful discussion of its subject that deserves a place on any genre fan’s bookshelf.

There are some minor errors. Herschell Gordon Lewis’s first two names are reversed when he is invoked in relation to the late Spanish horror-western Cut Throats Nine, for instance. Edda Dell’Orso is erroneously referred to as the vocalist on The Big Gundown, rather than Christy, an odd mistake in terms of their dissimilar styles but excusable via Cox’s admission not to have a much musical sensitivity.

These errors are, however, countered by all manner of details and insights. Three things particularly impress.

First, Cox’s use of triangulation, with different sources being played against one another, much like the factions in A Fistful of Dollars, to see where they support and contradict one another; in this regard Cox concludes Leone’s first western was essentially a rip-off of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, with the Italian’s claim to have drawn inspiration from Goldoni’s play Harlequin Servant of Two Masters being little more than a post-facto attempts to avoid paying royalties to his Japanese counterpart.

Second, that Cox, as an independent film-maker and self-identified anarchist, isn’t afraid to challenge received – and thus safe and boring – critical opinions. He considers the shorter version of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly superior to its longer counterparts and is largely dismissive of Clint Eastwood’s work as a director, for instance.

The most important aspect of this revisionist approach – one with an elective affinity for the spaghetti western, as revision of its own Hollywood counterpart – is however the promotion of Corbucci, via Django and The Great Silence, as a western filmmaker on a par with Leone.

Here, and in his discussions of a number of other films and filmmakers, Cox beautifully brings out the distinctions between ‘American’ and ‘Italian’ elements. Those favouring the former market tended towards a more conservative and conventional approach, those the latter greater experimentation, subversion and surrealism. As a filmmaker, Cox proves particularly sharp on issues around mise-en-scene, aspect ratios and so on, that Django’s 1.66:1 ratio – for instance – is apposite given its particular milieu against A Fistful of Dollars’ more usual 2.35:1. A split between televisual and cinematic aesthetics recurs within Cox’s discussions of framing and composition, some films tending towards familiar Hollywood-style centring of the ‘important’ things against others’ more off-centre – or decentred – approach.

Third, Cox’s selection of films, both broader than other key English-language texts, such as Frayling’s Leone-centred Spaghetti Westerns and Hughes’s Once Upon a Time in the Italian West, but not so broad as to ever become a set of lists. The important films, whether ‘good,’ ‘bad’ (Cox has a particular distaste for Tony Anthony’s Stranger series) or just plain ‘different’ (Little Rita of the West, The Price of Power, Closed Circuit) are amongst the fifty discussed in detail, while three or more times as many are mentioned in passing.

Nove ospiti per un delitto / Nine Guests for a Crime

Unlike many more enigmatically titled entries - Argento's Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Fulci's A Lizard in a Woman's Skin etc. - 1977 giallo from Ferdinando Baldi is one whose title tells you almost everything you need to know.

There are indeed nine guests for a crime.

The nine guests are members of a wealthy bourgeois family - the patriarch, his wife, their children and their respective partners - who go for a vacation at the patriarch's villa on an otherwise uninhabited island.

The crime aspect is more ambiguous, on account of the narrative being structured around an opening murder, shot through a gauze to connote its past / flashback status, followed by a subsequent And Then There Were None / Ten Little Indians / Ten Little Niggers scenario as the members of the family begin to be suspiciously killed off one-by-one.

The first thing that hurts the film as far as the mystery aspect is concerned is that the link between the past and present murders is not really made clear until comparatively late on. We see the victim being caught in flagrante with a woman, but not who she is, what happens to her, nor who guns the man down.

The second is that the identity of the avenger and the guilty parties amongst the group, in relation to this initial crime, are rather obvious to anyone who has seen the likes of Lupo's The Weekend Murders and Bava's Five Dolls for an August Moon and Bay of Blood.

Much like Dolls, the film sees a character apparently die and disappear, albeit without the immediate suggestion of foul play. Much like Bay of Blood - and D'Amato's Anthropophagous the Beast a psychically sensitive character foretells doom as she reads the tarot.

Unfortunately the opportunity for these same premonitions to create a more supernatural horror atmosphere is bungled. While we see the dead man trying to claw his way out of a sandy grave and the subsequent appearances of a zombie-like figure - curiously reminiscent of D'Amato's Erotic Nights of the Living Dead - the idea of an killer from beyond the grave cannot be sustained.

Whereas other gothic gialli like Crispino's The Etruscan Kills Again and Miraglia's The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times are careful to maintain a degree of uncertainty as to the nature of their monsters / murderers until the denouement, here the dead man and the zombie are interrupted by a more traditional wet-suited, black-gloved killer - albeit one who uses a pistol in disposing of two unfortunate sailors / employees.

Set pieces like this are reasonably well handed by Baldi, with the requisite hand held camera, racking of focus and zooms. Elsewhere there is plenty of gratuitous female nudity and J&B drinking. But if all the check-boxes are thereby ticked, what's largely lacking is the sense doing much beyond going through the motions, in taking an approach that is more personal or attuned to the specifics of the film, whether in a supportive or subversive manner.

The exception is Baldi's enthusiasm for shooting through grids and bars within the villa, useful both for conveying the entrapped nature of the characters and suggesting a visual connection to the opening scene insofar as it is filmed through gauze. These techniques also, however, again indicate a certain hesitancy in that, although none of the characters really being particularly pleasant or there to obviously identify with as investigator, the film-makers weren't willing to push things that bit more and play up their unpleasantness so that we wanted to see them really suffer, as with many of those in Bava's Greed Trilogy.

One thing the film definitely has going for it is a quality male cast, with Arthur Kennedy playing the patriarch and Massimo Foschi - particularly impressive - Venantino Venantini and John Richardson the sons and lovers.

Monday 18 May 2009

Giallo score thoughts

On the basis that "many eyes make all bugs shallow," here are my thoughts on Chris's Giallo Score project, for you to comment on / add to / critique.


Possible criteria and scores, and comments on and modifications to existing scores:


Spanish director - 7 points
Many gialli were Italian-Spanish co-productions; some also saw the Spanish side of the production predominate. This would, I think, allow for films such as the Paul Naschy vehicles A Dragonfly for Each Corpse, The Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll and Seven Murders for Scotland Yard to be recognised as closer to the giallo than otherwise comparable Anglophone productions such as Don't Look Now and Dressed to Kill.

Black gloves - 10 points
Reduce this, in conjunction with:

Distinctive costume - 10 points
The killer wears at least two out of three of a (dark) raincoat and fedora, and a (light or dark) mask.

Golden age (1970-1975) - 5 points
A slight change in the year span, to end with Profondo Rosso

Silver age(s) (1963-1969 or 1977-1982)
The film was released in either of these periods, the former beginning with The Girl Who Knew Too Much and the latter ending with Tenebre and The New York Ripper.

Accidental / purposeful death
Where would Cat o' Nine Tails fit here? Is it a one, a ten, or an eleven? Or Profondo rosso? How far is self-defence causing death purposeful?


Urban location - 3 points
The giallo is essentially an urban genre. Adding this would, I think, allow for further distinctions between Italian urban (8 points); non-Italian urban (Seven Yellow Silk Shawls, 3 points); Italian rural (Don't Torture a Duckling, House with the Windows that Laughed; 5 points) and non-Italian, rural (the odd slasher-ised 80s entry like Deodato's Body Count; 0 points) to be drawn.

Contemporary setting - 3 points
Some Italian horror films set in the past, such as Freda's Hichcock diptych and Margheriti's Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye, could be considered gialli as they avoid the supernatural. This might allow the contemporary counterparts such as The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times to be recognised more.

Nude scene
Tits, tits and ass, full frontal as 1, 2, 3 points? 1 point for a sex scene?

Morricone / Nicolai - 2 points
What happens if a film is scored by Morricone and conducted and/or arranged by Nicolai? Might this be worth four points?
One point for each of Stelvio Cipriani, Goblin, Gianni Ferrio and/or Piero Umiliani?


Animal or Death in the title - 1 point
Also one point for a number - Six Women for the Killer, Nine Guests for a Crime, Cat o' Nine Tails etc.

More than one killer or accomplice - 1 point
Perhaps a bonus points for three plus killers and accomplices, as in the 1972 Delirium and A Bay of Blood.

The Fall - 1 point
At some point someone dies by falling from a considerable height.

J&B - 1 point
J&B whisky is displayed prominently

Punt e mes - 1 point
Punt e mes is displayed prominently

The priest or fake priest - 1 point
There is a priest and/or fake priest, who may be a red herring or a killer

Dolls or dummies - 1 point
At some point dolls or dummies are prominently featured

Glamour and models - 1 point
One of the characters is a model and / or a studio or fashion house is featured

Gay / Lesbian characters - 1 point
There is at least one character who is gay or lesbian.

West German co-production - 1 point
For Argento's giallo-krimis and others circa 1970-72


Style bonus
Increase from 10 to 15 or 20 points, to allow for more recognition of those films that may not check all the boxes, but are nevertheless definitive, such as Profondo rosso.

Influence bonus
Increase from 5 to 10 points, to help ensure Blood and Black Lace score higher than the late-60s Lenzi films, even if Bava's influence was perhaps indirect, filtered through Argento.

Sunday 17 May 2009

Patrick viva ancora / Patrick Lives Again

Let’s get this out of the way first: I like Patrick Lives Again.

Yes, it’s ultra-trashy and ultra-sleazy.

Yes, it has no real drama or suspense, with a cast of uniformly unpleasant and bitchy characters / victims whom you just want to die, preferably slowly and painfully.

But, it’s also so single minded in delivering the exploitation goods, in terms of gory death scenes, copious nudity and a close-to-hardcore masturbation sequence, that I can’t but warm to it, whatever criticisms may be levelled from a more conventional perspective.

As an in-name and theme only sequel to the Australian Patrick, about a man in a coma who has telekinetic powers, which he uses against those he dislikes – primarily his rivals for a nurse’s love – it’s a prime example of filone production.

For, with the original Patrick hardly setting international box office records, one can only assume that in Italy the film – bolstered by a Goblin soundtrack, in place of the non-Queen Brian May original – did well enough to warrant the unofficial sequel / remake treatment, or that the cost of the film was such that pre-sales, based on its exploitative content and name, were sufficient to cover the initial financial outlay and make Patrick viva ancora all but inevitable.

As it is, the outlay seems somewhat minimal, with one location, the same country house seen in producer Gabriele Crisanti’s Zombie: Nights of Terror; a relatively small, mostly no-name cast, with the ever-enthusiastic Mariangela Giordano probably coming free / cheap on account of being Crisanti’s lover, while Gianni Dei, also seen in the producer's sleaze giallo Giallo a Venezia, as Patrick has exactly one line of dialogue before being confined to a comatose state; and a low effects budget that shows.

The last aspect is also what stops the film, along with like many Italian horror films of the period, from being hard to take. Though one victim is speared through the vagina by a poker which exits out her mouth and another is boiled alive in a swimming pool, the unconvincing nature of the respective aftermaths, with all too obviously plastic heads and bodies, allows for further viewer distance; Cannibal Holocaust it is not.

The charge of unconvincing effects could, admittedly, be levelled at Argento’s Inferno, as another obvious intertext through the presence of Sacha Pitoeff as Patrick’s father, Dr Hershell – one assumes the allegedly alcoholic actor, best known for his work in Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad, needed the money – the glass guillotining death of another victim, and a neo-expressionist use of colour.

But Argento’s film creates a world of its own in a way that Patrick Lives Again does not, the sickly purple and green of the laboratory in which Patrick and three other patients are held included, precisely because it is such a one-off.

In Inferno every camera movement, every detail, means something.

Here, by contrast, nothing really means anything, except for the gore and nudity it affords.

But, if it’s thereby meaningless it’s also so, so entertaining if you're in the right mood...

Argento on Leone


Saturday 16 May 2009

Film and Television Scores, 1950-1979

Drawing upon his extensive knowledge of the form, as expressed through the long-running website, Kristopher Spencer here presents a useful field guide to Silver Age film and television soundtracks produced between 1950 and 1979.

If there's a thesis here it's a subtle and understated one: that the Silver Age soundtrack, in all its diverse manifestations, was different but equal to its Golden Age predecessors.

It is also, crucially, a thesis that is proven, as diversity emerges as key to the accomplishments of innumerable Silver Age composers, from John Barry to Elmer Bernstein to Ennio Morricone.

These were men comfortable working in a variety of idioms, unafraid to eschew the safe middle-brow pseudo-Wagnerian Romanticism of the Golden Age for high-brow modernist experiments or low-brow pop, rock and easy listening idioms, often as not combined with classical and jazz influences from Bartok, Stravinsky or Miles Davis, along with just about anyone and anything else you might care to mention.

The book is comprised of theme-based chapters looking variously at: "crime jazz and felonious funk," or crime films and TV series, including blaxploitation; "spy symphonies" or James Bond and his contemporaries; "sexploitation serenade"; "staccato six guns," or the Eurowestern and its influence on its Hollywood counterpart; "sci-fidelity and the superhero spectrum"; "a fearful earful," or horror, including the giallo; and "rocking revolution," on the general phenomenon of the pop/rock score.

While there are inevitably overlaps on account of the inter-relationships between some of these genres and their composers - Bernard Herrmann scored the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, various Hitchcock and De Palma thrillers, and the heroic adventure Jason and the Argonauts for example - this overall structure works.

The start and end-points are logical ones, insofar as crime jazz saw Hollywood composers begin to get away from 19th century classical orchestral scores in favour of (almost) up to the minute jazz combos, whilst the emergence of the song-based score culled from the work of a variety of different artists has in time led to the rise of today's "music from and inspired by"CD's.

The latter aspect is one that Spencer is understandably ambivalent about, with a common criticism of such scores that they are lacklustre compared to the artists' own albums or music composed specifically for a film. But he also recognises that influences run the other way as well, as with the use of samples culled from obscure 60s and 70s library or soundtrack records, "imaginary soundtracks" and the likes of David Holmes' work on the Oceans Eleven series today - developments without which, it could be argued, interest in Silver Age soundtracks would be considerably less.

While my own knowledge of the individual genres under discussion varies - as would, I imagine, that of most readers - the best way to describe each chapter or section is as a comprehensive overview.

Those with a particular interest in a given composer and/or genre will likely find all the main bases covered, along with the possibility of learning about something they perhaps hadn't heard of before, as with the score that transcends the now forgotten film for which it was made for, but are also likely to see certain unavoidable gaps.

In the horror chapter, for instance, Spencer provides good overviews of Hammer and giallo scores, but omits to mention such personal favourites as Benjamin Frankel's score for Curse of the Werewolf, David Glass's for To the Devil a Daughter - both of which are about as 'difficult' and modernist as you are likely to find - and Bruno Nicolai's truly beautiful, neo-classical, mono-thematic scores for Jess Franco's Count Dracula and Sergio Martino's Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key.

Similarly, whilst acknowledging the importance of Goblin's work for Argento on Deep Red and Suspiria - along with the influence of The Exorcist's Tubular Bells on these - and in turn noting the group's involvement with Stelvio Cipriani's on Solamente Nero and Ring of Darkness, Spencer does not mention Libra's score for Mario Bava's Shock nor the Goblin-esque sounds of Trans-Europ-Express's work on The Cat with the Eyes of Jade.

Nevertheless, such omissions are understandable when we consider the sheer number of films and scores that would have to then be taken into consideration via a complete genre or composer based approach, along with the issues of availability and access that come into play - many Nicolai scores, for example, only exist in very limited private vinyl pressings through his own Edipan label, whilst library music was never intended for the record buying public as a whole.

If other absences could be noted - where are Bollywood and Japanese action / crime scores in the first chapter? Or the arthouse work of Giovanni Fusco, Georges Delerue and company? - they are thus understandable and excusable.

In time there will hopefully be discussions of these, along with individual studies of the work of particular composers and the idioms use for particular genres of those Spencer addresses here.

Until then - and we may be waiting a very long time, or find ourselves wading through unpublished theses, obscure journal articles and the like - Film and Television Scores, 1950-1979 will adequately suffice.

Monday 11 May 2009

Hanno cambiato faccia / They Have Changed Faces

Milan, the late 1960s / early 1970s present:

Alberto Viale is surprised when his superior cancels his meetings for the day and summons him to his office, several floors above in the 20+ storey monument to capital where he works.

He is still more surprised when his superior indicates that he is only passing on a message from the top floor.

Yet the top floor is itself just the messenger, for Alberto is being summoned to see none other than the boss of the not quite faceless corporation - his portrait is on the wall - namely Giovanni Nosferatu, at his country estate outside la citta.

At this point alarm bells likely begin ringing in the viewer's mind, if not Alberto's: we understand Alberto is Jonathan Harker / Hutter and that Nosferatu is Dracula.

Though a sense of divergence continues as Alberto heads out to the mist-shrouded estate through winding roads, villages seemingly untouched by time and a petrol pump attendant who flees at mention of Nosferatu's villa as if we were in Borgo Pass and the destination Castle Dracula, these same details and the way in which they go unmentioned also helps make clear that we are supposed to understand things this way.

The same can be said of hitch-hiker Laura, whom Alberto picks up and who likewise sees little out of the ordinary, or at least their modern, urban, bourgeois notion of normality - admittedly one that she critiques in her own hippyish, counter-cultural way.

Vampires don't exist today, do they?

Or, as the title indicates, they do.

They have just changed faces, becoming capitalists.

This, crucially, is a change of face somewhat prefigured in Marx. After all, he remarked that "Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks."

Or the feudal master becomes the capitalist master...

Were this Godard, Marx's statement would likely have appeared on an intertitle to Hammer [sic] the point home.

Farina, however, instead continues to update his intertexts as Alberto / Harker arrives at one of those Italian palazzi, already so familiar as Gothic/modern Gothic sites through the work of Bava, Freda, Margheriti and company, and which here looks uncannily like Down Place all'italiana.

Rather than baying wolves, Alberto is confronted by menacing white mini cars, while the Bride of Dracula is represented by Nosferatu's secretary, Corrina, played by Geraldine Hooper. Later to have an equally face-changing role as Massimo, Carlo's lover in Deep Red - i.e. a woman playing a gay man - she here looks eerily like the masked version of Edith Scob in Eyes Without a Face.

Not surprisingly, her entrances have an uncanny quality, as do the way in which advertising slogans are triggered by Alberto's sitting on particular seat or taking a shower. He and we can, of course, easily assimilate these examples of advanced technology as magic without a second thought.

Around about this point Nosferatu himself, played by Adolfo Celi, makes his entrance, as non-threatening as Christopher Lee's in Dracula but, as such, all the more unsettling for it.

Nosferatu offers Alberto the opportunity to become one the elite, the board of directors, the masters of this world...

The more he comes to know what we already do, the more Alberto resists.

Or does he - after, all what would you do if given the choice of entering the real Society...


"Today, terror is called technology"

This quote, from Herbert Marcuse, concludes They Have Changed Faces, being superimposed over the final freeze frame image.

Though apparently intended as a pessimistic closing statement, in line with the image and the resolution it suggests - a resolution I won't reveal, although anyone familiar with the resolution of Lang's Metropolis may recognise another German Expressionionist intertext here - it's also a quote which, forty years on, suggests hope.

Specifically, It's that we can see Farina's obscure satire by downloading it and, even if we speak English rather than Italian, understand it thanks to a fan-subtitler, and then comment on it in our blog, hopefully encouraging others out there to seek the film out and think about what it means.

If to Marcuse technology was terroristic - the internet which makes all this possible can be traced back to the DARPA net and thus the the military industry complex - we can also invoke the likes of McLuhan, where every media both gives and takes (the wheel may be an extension of the foot, according to the Futurists, but it also means that that foot is repurposed, adding potentialities in one way whilst subtracting them in another) and Ivan Illich, whose Deschooling Society in retrospect proposes something very like the internet and its virtual communities, against him...

Moreover, what really impresses here, in McLuhanistic terms, is that the medium and the message, or form and content, combine.

If the connections between Celi's Nosferatu and Largo and Christopher Lee's Dracula / D D Denham and Scaramanga are (co-)incidental - though a line of descent may be traced from Mabuse through Spione through North by Northwest to Bond and back - Farrina's direction, the production design, editing, scoring and performances and their inter-relationships are most definitely not.

Two particular stand outs are the discovery of a body in the woods, presented in the manner of Blow-Up without the photographic evidence, and the Todo Modo-style bunker / boardroom meeting of the vampire-capitalist and his minions, who include a cardinal, a representative of the censors board (i.e. Marcusean sublimation) and a Godardian radical film-maker turned advertiser.

By way of more overt allusions this film-maker presents three alternate versions of a LSD advertisement, two - those rejected by Nosferatu - modelled on Godard and Fellini and the third - the one accepted - modelled on de Sade

Everything - and here we can also invoke Godard's own Alphaville, with its parallel figure of Werner von Braun / Nosferatu, and mockery of science fiction - seems recuperable by the system.

Or at least, was then?

Dov'è la libertà...? / Where is Freedom?

[Note that this review may contain spoilers]

Starring the inimitable Toto, this 1952 comedy from Roberto Rossellini immediately engages the viewer through its opening reversal. For Toto’s character, Salvatore Lojacono, is on trial for breaking into prison and is doing his best to ensure he gets sent back there.

Via extended flashbacks punctuated by courtroom scenes set in the present, we learn that Lojacono, a barber, was sentenced to a 30 year sentence for a crime of passion, killing his best friend after discovering that the man had made advances on his wife, now dead, and he has found life on the outside intolerable.

Leaving the prison on parole after 22 years incarceration full of optimism, he first finds the street where his shop used to be is no more; his wife Aida has died while he was in prison.

Following a woman to a dance hall – it is hinted that Lojacono’s desires are of a sexual nature, though the circumspection with which the matter is both discussed in court and represented makes it difficult to tell – Lojacono next becomes involved with a group of dancers who making a bid at the dance marathon record, whom he winds up bankrolling after their manager / impresario admits to being broke. Rather than paying the bills the manager then disappears, rendering the record attempt and Lojacono’s generosity void as they are expelled from the dance hall.

It continues like this as Lojacono meets fellow ex-cons, each of whom proves more interested in continuing their old swindles and schemes than seeking an honest living.

Next, Lojacono happens upon his brothers-in-law who, with their family, turn out to have a fortune in large part based upon selling out a Jewish family to the Nazis during the war.

Even worse, in personal if not social terms, it is revealed that his own crime of passion and honour may have been for naught in that “we’re fighting for this woman’s honour, which is more than she ever did” sort of way.

With its pervasive sense of despair and less obviously focused socio-political critique, Where is Freedom? seems an odd film for Rossellini to have made, but on reflection perhaps becomes understandable when contextualised.

The sense of hope and renewal expressed by his neo-realist films of the immediate post war period, that the struggle against Nazism and Fascism had been for something positive, in leading to a new understanding of the world, had, after all, failed to materialise.

The post-war re-alignment saw the hopes of Catholic-Communist co-operation fostered by the resistance dashed, with the post-war realignment resulting in the latter’s de-facto official exclusion from government and re-definition as an enemy within who would sell the country out to the Soviets.

As such, it is perhaps not so much that the film lacks focus, in the way that Rossellini’s earlier anti-fascist entries did, but that its focus has shifted to the new order’s hypocrisies and those of the people themselves. In the case of the former, it was the way the Christian Democrats (DC) denounced the purported godless materialism of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) on the one hand whilst encouraging the development of a materialistic consumer society on the other. In the case of the latter, it was the unwillingness of the individual – or rather, as emphasised here, “amoral family” – as social and economic actor to engage in the kind of collective action that would have led to the better, more utilitarian outcome for all, as the prisoner’s dilemma and the logic of betrayal rather than co-operation it encouraged led to a worse outcome for most and the worst outcome of all for those, like Lojacono, who played the game by the wrong rules and were taken for suckers.

What this cynical view of human nature – or, bad faith in presuming that there is such a thing as human nature, and, if so, that it was one better understood by the DC than the PCI – also does is position the film an largely unacknowledged link between Bunuel’s 1951 Los Olvidados, with its savage, nihilistic denial of Rossellini’s earlier neo-realist optimism and Ettore Scola’s 1976 Brutti, sporchi e cattivi, with its reworking of neo-realism as grotesque pitch-black comedy.

Sunday 10 May 2009

Sexy magico

Co-directed by Luigi Scattini and Mino Loy, both experts in the form, this is a well-made example of the early 1960s mondo that largely lacks sensationalism, shocks and supercilious cynicism.

The basic format is straightforward, with studio or nightclub set strip and dance routines alternating with documentary footage, primarily from Africa. The former sequences are largely self-explanatory and allowed to pass without comment; the latter usually accompanied by a purportedly informative voice-over / off.

The main points of note in the documentary material are some tribesmen cutting a calf’s throat and drinking its blood and another group performing female genital mutilation. Neither practice is shown in particularly graphic detail, especially compared to 1970s examples of the form, but presumably both, along with the obligatory shots of bare-breasted African women had the intended effect on audiences back in the day.

Much the same can probably be said for the nightclub routines, insofar as these feature some exposed European breasts with little or no pseudo-anthropological pretence.

The use – presumably unlicensed – of the James Bond theme in the closing routine, where the dancer is also often shown in silhouette, indirectly testifies to Dr No’s impact on the cultural consciousness of the time, to provide a point of comparison with the credits sequence and scoring of A Fistful of Dollars the following year.

Predictably the film’s politics, such as they are, are confused, with discussion of apartheid in South Africa countered by a great white hunter / Tarzan styled nightclub sequence.

What has to be remembered, however, is that a Jean Rouch was not exactly the model for the film which, taken in its own terms, presumably met its vernacular audience’s needs.

Saturday 9 May 2009

For how many dollars more?

Anyone with a spare $3,000?

Duck You Sucker - observations on an observation

I'm re-reading Christoper Frayling's Sergio Leone: Once Upon a Time in Italy, where a comment on Duck You Sucker! caught my attention. He notes that, while not a commercial success, it was critically well received in France and Italy, with commentators noting that the characters 'grow' during the course of the story.

How far is this because of the film was the first of Leone's to be 'historical' rather than 'mythical'?

The identities of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and of Frank, Harmonica and Cheyenne are unchanging mythic archetypes; Juan and Sean (Johnny) historically situated figures.

Once Upon a Time [in] the West against Leone's avoidance of Once Upon a Time the Revolution and A Fistful of Dynamite, as imposed in France and the US respectively.

What does it mean to position 'the revolution' with 'once upon a time'? That it too belongs to the realm of myth? Presumably in some respects it does, but don't then individual revolutions occur in specific historical circumstances?

What is the wider context to the Mao quote which opens the film, other than a reference to 'one class violently overthrowing another' or similar, omitted by Leone? Was Mao making an abstract statement or one about revolution in China?

Friday 8 May 2009

Giallo Score Project - the PDF

I have uploaded the Giallo Score project PDF to here:

It didn't seem viable to copy and paste the content into the blog directly because of the formatting in it.

Let Chris and I know what you think ;-)

Thursday 7 May 2009

Porcile / Pigsty

As part of Pasolini’s mythical cycle alongside Theorem, Medea and Oedipus Rex, this is not one of his easier films; for that the earlier neo-realist styled works and the later Decamerotic-inspiring Trilogy of Life are recommended.

What Pigsty is, however, is provocative, thought provoking viewing.

Its most jarring aspect, besides Pasolini’s characteristic modern-primitive style approach to filmmaking and exploration of normally taboo material – including why such material is considered taboo – is that there are two distinct narratives.

In one, set in the civilised 1960s present, Julian (Jean Pierre Leaud), the son of an German industrialist and Nazi war criminal discusses politics with a young woman, Ida (Anne Wiazemsky) and rebels against his family and upbringing by the unusual strategy of falling into an apparently self-induced catalepsy.

In the other, set in a vague, pre or early modern past, an unnamed cannibal (Pierre Clementi) and his associates (including Franco Citti) roam a volcanic wasteland where they are hunted down and eventually captured and executed.

While this structure is somewhat reminiscent of Oedipus Rex, where the story begins with Oedipus’s birth in a Fascist Italy like Thebes before then shifting to a more obviously ‘mythical’ / ‘primitive’ landscape after he is taken from the Kingdom, there is no equivalent continuity between the two places and times. One seems historical, grounded, the other mythical, abstracted.

Eventually – possible spoiler warning, though one suspects you don’t really watch a film like this in expectation of a conventional resolution – the two narratives and their respective chronotopes intersect through the shared presence of Ninetto Davoli.

The iconic actor appears as one of the executioners and as a contemporary peasant labourer who confronts Julian’s father and his associates (including Ugo Tognazzi and Marco Ferreri).

The implication, when combined with Clementi’s cannibal’s one line of dialogue, the repeated “I killed my father, I ate human flesh, and I quiver with joy,” is perhaps that the cannibal narrative represents Julian’s unconscious – or half-conscious – desires in their non-sublimated forms.

While demanding the viewer’s active involvement, the film also features some more straightforward grotesquery like the ex-Nazis – Julian’s father being a bloated Hitler clone – and some reasonably amusing wordplay around their names, with one being called Herdhitze.

And then, of course, there is also the fact that it is an arthouse cannibal movie by Pasolini with a cast of arthouse favourites and, as such, like Fascist-sploitation Salo, especially useful to have in one’s store of “nobrow” reference points when someone challenges you for watching a Cannibal Holocaust or SS Experiment Camp.

Due gattoni a nove code... e mezza ad Amsterdam

In its own way this 1972 Franco and Ciccio vehicle is an important film. For regardless of what you think of its merits as a film it indicates a major difference between the 1960s and 1970s gialli epitomised by Bava and Argento respectively.

This is that the latter was sufficiently popular at the box-office to inspire the two comedians to consider it worth spoofing in the same way as the spaghetti western, with the likes of For a Fist in the Eye and The Two Sergeants of General Custer.

If Custer was intriguingly also known by the Bava-esque alternate title Two Idiots at Fort Alamo in Spain, the difference is further indicated by the presence of Luciano Pigozzi / Alan Collins, the designer Cesare in Blood and Black Lace, as a hit-man in Due gattoni a nove code... e mezza ad Amsterdam.

Yet, despite this Animal Trilogy referencing title, the giallo that the film most resembles is another by director Osvaldo Civriani, namely the same year’s The Devil Has Seven Faces. Both films are set in the Netherlands, have plots involving stolen jewels and a showdown in a windmill, although the convoluted plot of Argento’s film seems alluded to in the final summing up that leaves our two amateur investigators no wiser than before.

Other giallo elements that feature include the photographic clue, with the two men, aspiring paparazzi, happening to thereby also witness a murder; a warehouse replete with dummies; prominent uses of the colour yellow, such as Franco’s jumper, and the two men’s return home by jumbo jet at the end.

It could also be said, however, Franco and Ciccio really represented a filone in their own right. In this regard everything we’d expect is there, with that distinctive mix of comedy styles that you either get or don’t and, if so, then either acknowledge that this is because you are not the intended audience for it, or take an snobbish, elitist position towards another’s cultural practices as having no value.

Wednesday 6 May 2009

La strega in amore / The Witch / The Witch in Love

Not to be confused with the following year's anthology film The Witches, Damiano Damiani's The Witch AKA The Witch in Love (1966) is a film which, like much of his output, seems to fall awkwardly between the vernacular and arthouse camps.

In relation to the former, it comes across as his version - albeit via Panamanian author Carlos Fuentes's novel Aura - of the strand of Italian Gothic characterised by Bava, Margheriti and company with their characteristic theme of the dualistic female monster, often as not incarnated by Barbara Steele.

In relation to the latter, it's a slower-paced and more self-conscious about being art as well as entertainment, with a contemporary rather than period setting - albeit with almost all the action taking place in an enclosed, palazzo whose glory years are clearly behind it.

While the Ur-text of the Italian Gothic, I Vampiri, also mixed modern and classical Gothic, the two films quickly establish different approaches to their respective monsters and her relationship to their male protagonists.

Freda's film presents a Countess Bathory type figure who is never seen at the same time and place as her niece, because they are one and the same, and who is fixated on the son of her former love.

Here, in contrast, we have two women, Consuela and her daughter Aura, who are almost immediately presented together - albeit with certain uncanny traits, like a shared tendency to appear and disappear almost as if by magic and to make the same characteristic movements and gestures - whose target, whilst carefully chosen, has no evident prior connection to them to speak of.

Sergio (Richard Johnson) purchases a newspaper and finds within it a job advertisement that seems to have been written with him specifically in mind. Arriving at the address he encounters an old woman, Consuela (Sarah Ferrati), whom he suspects is the one who has kept on crossing his path in the last month. The job, she explains, is cataloguing her late husband's books - a task which, whether intentionally or not, recalls Hammer's Dracula and Jonathan Harker's subterfuge there, just as Consuela's appearances prefigure those of the heavy in Four Flies on Grey Velvet.

Somewhat disturbed by these coincidences and the old woman's eagerness to have him take the job, despite his not being a librarian, Sergio attempts to leave.

Two things stop him. First, Consuela, seems to suffer a seizure, possibly drug-induced. Second, her beautiful young daughter Aura (Rosanna Schiffiano) appears.

Remaining in the house, Sergio learns some of its other secrets, including that Consuela's husband's remains are there in a glass case, and the unwelcome presence of the previous incumbent of the librarian's post, Fabrizio (Gian Maria Volonte)...

Well performed by the four leads, on screen in one or other combination for the entirety of the one hour fifty minutes running time, reasonably well directed by Damiani and nicely shot and designed, with some good use being made of the interiors and the compositional opportunities they present, the biggest issue that many are likely to have with The Witch in Love is its aforementioned in-between nature.

By virtue of being dubbed into English for the international market and not bearing the names of any more respected auteurs, as with The Witches and Spirits of the Dead, the film would seem to have been condemned to be seen primarily by a genre audience.

As one commentator notes on the IMDB, there's also a strange affinity between the film and Joseph Losey's The Servant, perhaps suggesting that the film could even have worked without overt supernatural overtones or resolution, with this in turn perhaps indicating why Fuentes was unhappy with Damiani's adaptation and felt Bunuel would have done a better job of it, when we think of the likes of The Exterminating Angel, Belle de jour or That Obscure Object of Desire and their surrealistic confusion of dreams and reality to the point of indiscernibility.

Yet, on account of its slow pace, preference for atmosphere over shocks and the absence of any popular author's name or a star presence that Barbara Steele would have brought to the role of Aura - especially considering her appearances in The Long Hair of Death, Nightmare Castle and The She-Beast around the same time, images from of which are reprised here - it perhaps didn't have particularly obvious attractions for them either.

While Johnson had appeared in Robert Wise's The Haunting in a somewhat similar role, that was Hollywood style cautiously 'respectable' horror. Likewise, while Volonte had appeared in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More by this time and would soon appear in Damiani's own A Bullet for the General and Sergio Sollima's Face to Face, it's probably true to say that he was more enthusiastic about and recognised for his work in more serious political roles than in the latter two 'political' spaghetti westerns, never mind their 'apolitical' Leone counterparts.

But, if I didn't find The Witch in Love to be as effective or enjoyable as Kill Baby Kill or Castle of Blood, it also has to be said that these, particularly the former, do set the bar high and that the presentation of the film in the version I watched, panned and scanned with a somewhat greyish murkiness and with a muffled dub, was hardly the most conducive to proper evaluation.