Saturday 31 October 2009

Note to self

Fascist aesthetics emphasised spectacle. As such, neo-realism can be understood as inherently anti-fascist. This however, posed a problem for those filmmakers who were not interested in following neo-realism: By pursuing an alternative aesthetics, one potentially involving spectacle , how could they avoid being labelled as Fascists, especially within the politicised Italian cultural climate of the 1960s and 1970s? One answer was that Marxism, at least in its Soviet form, was not exactly aesthetically ‘correct’ either: Besides the spectacular parades and architecture, we may here consider socialist realist art, as something which was neither particularly socialist nor realist by emphasising the (future) ideal over the (present) reality. Another, that pursued by my (no less anti-fascist) filmmakers was to recognise that the spectacle/fascist, realist/anti-fascist division was an the product of particular circumstances rather than something inherent, and that placing the latter terms above the former was itself a hierarchical, totalising (or totalitarian) move.

This week's work in progress

In this section I discuss a number of the major contextual features of the Italian cinema in the post-war period, including the importance of post-synchronised or dubbed sound; the structures of production, distribution and audiences, and the importance of filone as an alternative and supplement to the more familiar Hollywood notion of genre.

There are four main points I wish to make through this. First, that some of these features are common to both the art and popular cinemas, although their consequences for each may also sometimes be rather different. Second, that those features important to the popular cinema had the consequence of encouraging some film-makers, most notably Leone, Argento and Questi, to develop what can in retrospect be identified as a postmodern cinema avant la lettre. Third, that parallels may be drawn between the importance of contextual factors in assisting the emergence of this postmodernist cinema and the modernist Italian cinema as discussed by Deleuze. Finally, that the significance of contextual factors here again the usefulness of taking a wider, or more “schizoanalytic” approach, one than goes beyond the film texts themselves.

Dubbing and sound
With the coming of sound, filmmakers across the globe were confronted with the issue of what to do to make their product accessible to those who did not speak their native language. The two main solutions that emerged were subtitling and dubbing. With subtitling a film is kept in its original language and written titles are added above the image in another language. With dubbing the audio track in the original language is replaced with a new audio track in another language. All this is, of course, straightforward. So too are the broad distinctions that can be drawn between different countries’ approaches: Since dubbing is more expensive than subtitling, countries with smaller populations and thus markets have tended to subtitle whereas their larger counterparts have favoured dubbing. Whereas France and Germany will dub usually US films, the Scandinavian countries are more likely to subtitle them. Inevitably, however, there are exceptions.

One obvious exception is the English-speaking territories of the USA and UK. Despite their respectively populations, which would indicate the use of dubbing rather than subtitling, historically a disproportionate number of foreign-language films have circulated in their original language with English subtitles. This split is one which has largely been in terms of likely audience. This is a vital point whose implications I will return to.

Another exception, more specific to this study, is the Italian cinema. From the outset, almost all Italian films used post-synchronised rather than direct sound. Whereas on the typical Hollywood film the sound would be recorded along with images, Italian films would either be shot without sound entirely or with only a rough guide track for the subsequent dubbing. In addition, all foreign films imported into Italy during the Fascist period were also required to be dubbed. A key reason for dubbing was political: By dubbing imported films into Italian, the Fascist censors ensured relatively strict control over their messages. Dialogue could be altered to convey a different meaning without the Italian audience being aware of this fact (with the possible exception of the odd intellectual who had seen the film in its original language whilst abroad). By dubbing domestic products, meanwhile, the use of standard Italian, as distinct from regional languages and dialects, could be encouraged.

One of the things which distinguished many neo-realist films from their Fascist-era counterparts was the use of non-standard Italian. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the use of Sicilian by the fishermen in Visconti’s La terra trema (1948), which necessitated the film’s being subtitled into standard Italian in order to be intelligible to mainland audiences. The point that needs to be made here, however, is that certain Fascist-era films had used dialects for sake of historical authenticity. One famous example is Alessandro Blasetti’s 1860 (193?), about the reunification of Italy and, more problematically, the drawing of parallels between Garibaldi and Mussolini.

Another thing which distinguishes many neo-realist films from their Fascist-era counterparts is the use of location shooting. Ironically, however, the ability to do so depended in large part upon the dubbing tradition that had developed during the Fascist period. At this time recording equipment was still rather bulky compared to the likes of the Nagra tape recorders associated with the later nouvelle vague, making it difficult to capture sound and image simultaneously whilst on location. Recording both whilst on a boat, as in the scenes within Blasetti’s film which portray the patriots’ journey from the Italian mainland to Sicily, would have impractical: Direct sound would have here necessitated using a water tank in the studio, as with Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) or similar.

A further point of reference and comparison here is one of Rossellini’s war-era propaganda productions The White Ship (1942), which was shot on an actual hospital ship.Intriguingly Mario Bava, who served as a camera operator on the film, has referred to its writer and supervising director Francesco De Robertiis as the father of neo-realism. If this is perhaps not a truth that is easily dealt with in conventional terms, it might be acknowledged within a more Deleuzean framework, as making us think about neo-realism afresh: Rather than being an absolute break with Fascist-era cinema, as traditionally emphasised within film histories, there are also points of continuity which have been marginalised.

Indeed, location shooting, usually combined with studio interiors, was also an important feature of the Italian popular cinema from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s: Leone’s westerns, for instance, were mostly shot in the south-eastern Spainish region of Almeria, doubling as the American south-west. Argento’s gialli characteristically defamiliarise their urban settings, as with his use of the distinctive modernist architecture of the EUR region of Rome, as also seen in Antonioni’s L’Eclisse and La notte, within Four Flies on Grey Velvet and Tenebre.
A distinction can nevertheless be made between the neo-realists’ use of dubbing and that of my directors and others working within the Italian popular cinema: For Bazin, the neo-realists’ combination of location shooting with dubbed sound could be justified in terms of leading to an overall increase in the amount of reality captured. On balance the gains made in the visuals outweighed the losses in the audio. For my filmmakers, however, dubbing is more likely to be justified in terms of leading to an overall increase in expressiveness, that when operating independently of the microphone the camera can be made to move in more complex and dramatic ways. The issue here, in terms of Bazin’s analysis, is that the neo-realists approach, by being based upon “faith in reality”, is positioned as superior to that of Leone, Argento and Questi, which is implicitly based upon “faith in the image”. Realism, that is, trumps formalism.

Bazin’s analysis can, however, be challenged. He himself acknowledged that the neo-realist combination of location shooting and dubbed sound was not the culmination of cinema itself, but only the next stage in its mimetic trajectory. Sound technologies would also inevitably develop to a point when they too could be taken on location and used to capture reality. But with the neo-realists this did not happen: Rossellini, De Sica and Visconti continued to use post-sychronised sound, even as new technologies allowed the French nouvelle vague to record sound and visuals alike whilst on location, and as Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet experimented with more complex live sound recording techniques. The same was true of the Italians’ own modernist successors, with Fellini’s films, for instance, being especially notable for the conscious unreality of their dubbing. Nor did the neo-realists and their modernist successors ever eschew using non-diegetic music, which is inherently unrealistic. Indeed, if anything, dubbing and non-diegetic music would seem to have become increasingly important to these Italian filmmakers into the 1950s and beyond.

A major reason for dubbing’s continuing importance was the increasing propensity of Italian directors to work with international stars who did not always speak Italian with the level of proficiency required to convincingly deliver dialogue in it. Here we may cite the likes of Broderick Crawford and Anthony Quinn in Fellini’s I Bidone and La Strada respectively; Farley Granger and Burt Lancaster in Visconti’s Senso and The Leopard; Ingrid Bergman in her films with paramour Rossellini, and Richard Burton in Antonioni’s The Red Desert.

Non-diegetic music, meanwhile, remained significant insofar as these filmmakers continued to develop their aesthetics. For example, while opera had always been part of Visconti’s filmmaking, as evinced by Ossessione, its importance within the likes of Senso and Rocco and his Brothers was such that they might well be described as presenting a (seemingly somewhat oxymoronic) combination of the operatic, the melodramatic and the realistic. Crucially this development was something Bazin himself acknowledged in his discussion of Senso, that it did not merely represent the end of ‘traditional’ neo-realism but also its potential renaissance.
The vital point is that these neo-realist and modernist filmmakers’ practices were echoed by their more popular counterparts. Leone’s films, for instance, also featured international casts who lacked a common language. They also feature a highly expressive use of non-diegetic music, such that they have often been described as closer to actual “horse operas” than their Hollywood counterparts, with “arias that are stared rather than sung”.

Though I will later demonstrate that “a certain realism,” to use Pasolini’s phrase, can be discerned within my filmmakers’ work, this does not make them realists in Bazin’s more traditional terms. Rather, Leone, Argento and Questi would seem to place excess faith in the image at the expense of reality. Moreover, if we accept Bazin’s critique of self-conscious 1950s “superwesterns” like George Stevens’ Shane (1952) as no longer having the confidence to be ‘merely’ westerns, then it would presumably follow that Leone’s “cinema cinema” approach would have been similarly unsatisfactory to him.

An answer to this, both post-structuralist and post-modernist, is to reject the kind of binaries and hierarchies that underpin Bazin’s positions, whilst also foregrounding the complexities and nuances of his arguments. In addition to his defence of Senso we may here note, for instance, his recognition that realism, as he understood it, could sometimes only be achieved through artifice.
A similar approach may be taken towards the issue of dubbing or subtitling for Italian films when they are distributed in the US and the UK. The arthouse preference for subtitling over dubbing and prejudice against dubbing can be challenged on various grounds. First, the notion that subtitling, with its preservation of the Italian language track, is somehow more authentic is itself flawed: The Italian dubbing track was arguably as inauthentic – or authentic, depending on perspective – as an English track, with both being prepared in the studio and usually involving input from voice artists. Italian audiences never heard Clint Eastwood’s actual voice in the Dollars films, just as US or UK audiences never heard that of Gian-Maria Volonte. Second, subtitling entails translation not only between languages but also between spoken and written forms, with the latter needing greater concision of expression, means subtitling entails just as much, if not more, modification of the original message as dubbing. Third, in paying greater attention to the written word, the viewer of the subtitled version is, all other things being equal, paying less attention to the original visual text. Fourth, notions of authentic and inauthentic, original and derivative, and so forth, along with the implied hierarchies between each pair, are again modernist and structuralist positions that postmodernism and post-structuralism would reject. Finally, arthouse criticism of dubbing is itself an elitist position that might well be construed as little more than an attempt to retain a cultural distinction (Bordieu, 1984) over the popular audience.

Although the Cinecitta studios in Rome, developed under the auspices of the Fascist regime, offered facilities comparable to Hollywood, it is crucial to realise that the Italian film industry itself lacked a studio system comparable to that of Hollywood in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, of the majors and the mini-majors: The Italian film industry was never vertically integrated, with the same companies being responsible for film production, distribution and exhibition. Nor could they be compared to the Hollywood studios of the 1950s. Having been forced to divest themselves of their theatres, they still controlled production and/or distribution. Instead, in Italy different companies were responsible for producing, distributing and exhibiting films. Rather than film production being dominated by a small number of studios, each producing a relatively high level of output, Italian cinema was dominated by a large number of small producers, often existing on a more ad-hoc film-to-film basis.

A consequence of this was that the Italian film industry lacked stability comparable to that of Hollywood. The Hollywood studios of the 1950s and 1960s still made enough different films that the profits from some could generally be relied upon to offset the losses from others. In contrast, Italian producers needed one film to return a profit to be able to produce the next, or at best relied upon one film to help amortize another; we have already seen this practice in operation with Jolly Films’ Pistols Don’t Argue and A Fistful of Dollars.

While this instability sometimes helped filmmakers get backing for relatively risky projects, in general it encouraged a more conservative approach. We saw this earlier with Death Laid and Egg: In 1966 the giallo was an untested genre, hence the insistence of Questi and Arcalli’s backers that they first prove themselves with a more marketable spaghetti western. The irony is that after the breakthrough achieved by The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, “everybody started making gialli,” as Argento put it, precisely because they were now in at the box-office.

This tendency to seek to hop onto the bandwagon of a box-office success may be described as the filone principle. As discussed by Koven (2006: ??), summarising a number of other commentators, filone has a variety of meanings. The most important, I would argue, is that of a stream or a (river) tributary. In film terms this translates in broad terms to the way a successful film swiftly gives rise to various imitators-cum-tributes (tributaries), which may then join up with other filone further 'downstream'.

Amongst relatively pure filone A Fistful of Dollars led to such sullo stesso filone (“in the style of”) westerns as Sergio Corbucci’s Django, with its similar stranger protagonist and town under the control of rival factions, who are then played against one another by the mysterious stranger. Likewise, Argento’s Animal Trilogy spawned numerous sound-alike gialli imitations such as Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and Riccardo Freda’s The Iguana with a Tongue of Fire (both 1971). Amongst less pure filone, the gothic horror and peplum filone of the late 1950s and early 1960s merged in the likes of Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) and Freda’s The Witch’s Curse (1964). Likewise the cannibal and zombie filone of mid and late 1970s combined in Marino Girolami’s Zombie Holocaust (1980), in which both monsters were present.

Taken as a whole filone cinema offers two challenges to the more familiar Hollywood notion of genre. First, it foregrounds the kind of impurity that is generally argued to have only become evident in Hollywood genres since the 1970s. Second, the short life span of the typical filone means that notions of generic evolution, from the classical to the parodic, tend to be manifest only in attenuated or accelerated ways. Films starring Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia present a useful gauge here: Between the early 1960s and the early 1970s, the two comedians appeared in dozens of low-budget, low-brow filone films inspired by whatever was sufficiently successful at the box-office: For example, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly led to The Good, the Bad and the Stupid (Dir: ??, ??), The Cat o’ Nine Tails to Two Cats of Eight and a Half Tails in the Middle of Amsterdam (Dir: Osvaldo Civriani, 1972). Put another way, a filone cycles in general often shifted from relatively straight texts to overt pastiches or parodies within the space of a year or so.

The filone principle was not, however, confined solely to popular forms, instead applying whenever a film was successful at the box office: Last Tango in Paris inspired the Franchi-starring Ultimo tango a Zagarol (Dir: Nano Cicero, 1973) while Pasolini's Canterbury Tales inspired the likes of The Other Canterbury Tales (Dir: ??, ??) and The Sexbury Tales (Dir: ??, ??). Indeed, the “Trilogy of Life” as a whole formed the basis for the entire 'Decamerotic' filone and likely played a large part in Pasolini's subsequent “repudiation” of The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales and The Arabian Nights via his essay of the same title (1974) and Salo (1975).

Filone cycles can be thus seen as exhibiting a distinction between the original film which innovates and the followers which imitate, or the film which presents us with productive, thought-provoking images and truths and the film which does not. This is the case whether we are talking about a filone which develops out of a more popular success (A Fistful of Dollars) or a more arthouse one (The Decameron). Due of a critical tendency to view filone outwith its context and through the perspective of genre this has rarely been recognised. Rather, filone films as a whole are also seen as lacking in tradition and as being entirely derivative.

A number of points may be made in defence of the filone system. First, like genre, it was a rational response to particular industrial conditions, something which functioned 'scientifically' to lessen chance and encourage predictability. Second, it is questionable whether Hollywood genres have ever been pure themselves. Third, the notion of a developmental trajectory to genre, with one phase inevitably being succeeded by another, according to an arborescent logic, is questioned by Deleuze:

“It would be dangerous to reserve an epic genius for Ince and Ford, attributing to other more recent directors the invention of a tragic or even a romantic Western. The application of Hegel's and Lukacs' formula of the succession of these genres [i.e. the tragic and the romantic] works badly for the Western: as Mitry has shown, from the outset the Western explores all the directions – epic, tragic, romantic – with cowboys who are already nostalgic, solitary, ageing, or even born losers, or rehabilitated Indians.” (2005a: 151)

A good example here which demonstrates both generic impurity and an unusually early decadence is George Marshall's spoof western Destry Rides Again, tellingly released in the same year as the aforementioned Stagecoach, 1939. Deleuze's statement is also highly significant for my purposes more generally: It implies a rejection of Bazin's more teleological aspects, while also suggesting that Italian westerns, thrillers, horror and gangster films should not merely be dismissed out of hand as 'degenerate' forms. Even if Deleuze himself was a modernist in his film tastes, there is no reason we cannot put his concepts to more postmodernist ends. Fourth, Hollywood has itself experienced filone-like cycles of production alongside or as part of more enduring genres: Part of the history of the thriller genre, for instance, might be written in relation to the gangster cycle of the 1930-32, the G-man cycle of the mid-1930s and the (retrospectively identified) film noir cycle of the 1940s and 1950s. In turn, certain filone, most notably the giallo, have become relative staples of Italian film production, with histories that now stretch back more than 40 years. Finally, taking 'genre' as a positive term against which 'filone' is viewed negatively is an implicitly modernist, structuralist, hierarchical position that must today be rejected.

Returning to Delueze's analysis of the western as an inherently rhizomatic form, the sceptic may be tempted to ask what is then different about Italian westerns, thrillers and so on, other than their being of Italian origin. I would argue that this is precisely the point: Besides anything else, the films of Leone, Argento and Questi represent a filone “deterritorialisation” of Hollywood genre, or a distinctive “line of flight”. To give but one example, whereas Hollywood gangster films conventionally emphasised Italian-American mobsters, Leone instead foregrounded their Jewish-American counterparts in Once Upon a Time in America. While such figures had been present in some US gangster films, such as Nails Nathan in The Public Enemy (Dir: William Wellman, 1931) or Hyman Roth in The Godfaher Part II (Dir: Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) they were generally marginal figures.

In itself, the filone system was only one side of the production-distribution/exhibition-audience triangle. We must also consider the visione, the cinemas in which films played to Italian audiences, and their interactions.

The key commentator here is Christopher Wagstaff (1992), particularly since he addresses the subject of the visione, or the cinema circuits, in relation to the spaghetti western. Historically the growth of cinema in Italy followed much the same pattern as in other western countries: Initially films were screened in existing venues that catered to existing cultural forms. This was followed by the building of purpose-built movie theatres, a development which helping to legitimise cinema with the vital middle class audience. Particularly in the south, however, film screenings were never confined solely to cinemas, with town halls and other venues also being important. By the 1960s, however, it was nevertheless possible to speak of three distinct cinema circuits. These were the prima, seconda and terza visione, or the first, second and third run circuits. Wagstaff concentrates upon the prima and terza visione and says less about the seconda visione, which occupies an in-between position in most if not all respects. The prima visione, first-run, cinemas were concentrated in the big cities, disproportionately in the north of Italy. They had relatively high ticket prices and catered to an audience which was generally wealthier, better-educated and more likely to be middle class and young. This was an audience which would go to the cinema to see a particular film, which they would typically engage with in the attentive manner presumed by film studies. On each point, the prima visione can be contrasted with the terza visione, third run, cinemas. They were more likely to found in rural areas and small towns, disproportionately in the south of Italy. They had relatively low ticket prices and catered to an audience which was generally poorer, worse-educated, more likely to be working class or peasant, and older. This was an audience which would go to the cinema in general, caring less about the particular film that was playing than the opportunity to see friends and socialise. As such, they typically viewed the film in a relatively inattentive manner, more like the casual television “glance” than the intense cinematic “gaze” (Ellis, 1982).

Relating the visione to his chosen filone, Wagstaff points out that although more than 400 spaghetti westerns were released between the early 1960s and the mid-1970s, only a handful of these were released internationally. In itself this is nothing unusual: As noted earlier, only around ten to fifteen percent of Italian productions and co-productions made it to the US and/or the UK. The issue was that the 50 or so spaghetti westerns released internationally, and which were drawn upon in most studies, were not a representative sample. They were disproportionately drawn from the more respectable end of production, the films which played the prima visione as well as the terza. As such, they were often hybrid or crossover films, in which the more spectacular and affective elements aimed at the terza visione were combined with others aimed at their prima visione counterparts. Leone's Dollars films, for instance, could be enjoyed at a purely visceral level and/or intellectually for the way in which they engaged with the myths of the west.

The terza visione filone film is primarily of sociological interest: It is unlikely that anyone will ever look at the westerns of “The Italian Ed Wood” Demofilo Fidani (variously credited as Miles Deem, Dick Spitfire, Lucky Dickinson, Slim Alone and Sean O'Neal) aesthetically, other than in relation to paracinema (Sconce, 1995). In contrast, by moving between the visione, the westerns of Leone and Questi offer aesthetic and other interests; the same can be said of Argento’s gialli.
This also distinguishes these films from the likes of Last Tango in Paris, which enjoyed a degree of popular success within Italy as the most commercially successful film of 1972: The simple fact is that a film like Last Tango was made for the prima visione at home and the art cinema circuit internationally. What success it had with the terza visione audience can be attributed to a kind of “textual poaching,” (Jenkins, 1992) whereby viewers took what they wanted from the film, chiefly its sexual content.

Antonioni's films as a whole are also worth considering in this regard: Until Il grido (1957) they were not particularly successful at the Italian box-office. L'Avventura (1960) was a surprise hit in Italy and France (Nowell-Smith, ??). This might be attributed in part to the presence of the then-popular Lea Massari in what seemed to be a starring role. With L'Eclisse and La Notte, however, Antonioni seemed to turn away from the popular audience, with advertising campaigns that emphasised his auteur status and the sense that cinema was being taken to new levels as an art form (??, ??). Following The Red Desert, the third and last of Antonioni's films to feature Monica Vitti, the director then embarked upon a three-film deal with MGM, beginning with Blow-Up. Though the film was released in English, this departure from arthouse practice was justified by its London setting. Likewise, if it was an anti-giallo that eschewed conventional resolution, Blow-Up also offered moments of then-daring female nudity as incidental “attraction” for the terza visione “textual poacher”. The film undoubtedly made most of its money, however, with the prima visione in Italy and on the international arthouse circuit.

This points to the different distribution and exhibition patterns extant in the 1960s and 1970s by which film could make money: Within Italy, a film could sell a relatively small number of higher priced tickets on the prima visione over a shorter period of time, or a larger number of lower priced tickets on the terza visione over a longer period of time. For the small production company relying on one film to finance the next, appearing on the prima visione circuit as well as the terza visione was thus vital. This was all the more so since only films that played on the prima visione had the opportunity of international sales. However we can see a general division between auteur and crossover filone cinemas: When distributed internationally auteur films by Antonioni, Bertolucci, Pasolini and others typically played in art cinemas, or to the international equivalent of the prima visione audience. The films of Leone, Argento and Questi, by contrast, typically played in drive-ins, grindhouses and fleapits, or the international equivalents of the terza visione.

I would argue that by made for a wider range of audiences within Italy the crossover filone films of my filmmakers were encouraged to engage in a practice of Pasolinian “double articulation” far more than their prima visione focused counterparts. Leone, Argento and Questi, were concerned, that is, with making films featuring an excess of signs and meanings where one possible reading (e.g. the prima visione one) was not necessarily privileged over another (the terza visione one). This is, of course, something that again marks their work out as postmodern rather than modernist in orientation.

Having said this, account must also be taken of other changes in the Italian cinema over the course of the 1960s and 1970s. As noted previously, the terza visione audience often watched films in a relatively detached, TV-like manner. Taken in retrospect, this can be seen as being because they were a pre-television television audience: Whereas the peak year for cinema admissions in the US was 1946, it was 1956 in Italy, with television ownership likewise lagging ten or fifteen years behind. Until the mid-1970s there were only two state-controlled television channels in Italy, the more mainstream, Christian Democrat associated RAI 1, and the less mainstream, Socialist Party associated RAI 2. (RAI 3 was assigned to the Communist Party in 197?, although by this time Silvio Berlusconi’s illegal channels were also in operation.) The emergence of the Italian western, meanwhile, can in large part be attributed to the different circumstances pertaining in the US and in Italy in the late 1950s and early 1960s: During this period the western had moved from being a staple of Hollywood film production to becoming a major part of Hollywood television production. US audiences who wanted to see westerns could now watch them on television, through series like Rawhide, in which Dollars star Clint Eastwood first made his name. However, these same television series were either not exported to Italy or only have reached the minority who had televisions. The demand for westerns thus created a gap in the market which Italian filmmakers were happy to fill. As television ownership spread, however, the terza visione audience increasingly found their entertainment needs were being met in the home environment. Indeed, spaghetti westerns became a staple part of Italian television programming, as demonstrated by scenes in gialli like My Dear Killer and Don’t Torture a Duckling (both 1972) in which characters watch them on television; the films were directed by western veterans Duccio Tessari and Lucio Fulci respectively.

As such, the impact of television was felt disproportionately within the Italian film industry. It was the terza visione and the filone cinema which benefited most from television in the 1960s and then suffered most in the 1970s: While there was certainly an absolute decline in the size of the cinema audience and in the number of cinema screens over the course of the two decades, this decline was felt far more acutely in the terza visione than the prima. The prima visione, meanwhile, also benefited from general improvements in education and embourgeoisement, that there was a growing audience willing to take cinema as something other than mere entertainment.

Despite Deleuze’s initial claim that he will look at cinema in purely formal terms, the importance of background context is evident within Cinema 1 and Cinema 2 in places. In particular, neo-realism and the wider modernist movement-image cinema could not have emerged without the Second World War: The likes of the bombed out city were necessary for the breakdown of the sensory-motor schema of the action image and the concomitant emergence of the seer.
The situation is no less different with my postmodernist filmmakers and their combination of the movement-image and the time-image. Like their neo-realist and modernist counterparts, they too benefited from the increased camera mobility inherent in shooting without synchronized sound. But, unlike these filmmakers, their work was often ghettoized outwith Italy in the equivalent of terza visione cinemas, and not taken seriously on account of being released in an English dub rather than the ‘original’ Italian; I use quotes or brackets to again highlight the question of where the original actually is when we are dealing with co-productions intended for international release, featuring casts lacking a lingua franca. Like Rossellini’s taking to the streets of Rome in Open City because of the unavailability of studio facilities, the filone system can be seen as a rational, functional response to circumstances. In the absence of a strong studio system, Italian producers and filmmakers were largely risk-averse. They could not afford to take a chance on making innovative, original works that might not find favour with the audience. This is an area where Argento and Questi went against the grain, in different ways: In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage Argento made a new type of giallo. In Django Kill and Death Laid an Egg Questi pushed the western and the giallo (as it existed in the 1960s) to breaking point. At the same time, however, Leone, Argento and Questi’s films also have a crossover aspect that goes against the prima visione/terza visione binary. Each filmmaker sought to offer both these audiences something, whilst also presenting them with implicit challenges through this selfsame hybrid or crossover approach. For Leone and Argento taking a hybrid approach was to prove especially important over the course of the 1970s and into the 1980s, as the relative importance of the terza visione declined. This refusal of an either/or is, meanwhile, again something which marks these filmmakers out as early postmodernists.

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Thursday 22 October 2009

More work in progress...

[Four Flies on Grey Velvet]

The film's excessive approach, meanwhile, is first signalled by the elaborate proto-music video credits sequence, which cross-cuts between the band's rehearsal and Roberto's being followed around. The sequence functions as a kind of overture to some of the film's themes. For example, the fly that torments Roberto as he plays and eventually manages to squash within the halves of his hi-hat serves to indicate that Roberto is not someone who “wouldn't hurt a fly,” to paraphrase Psycho. Likewise, the overhead and slow-motion shots of drum playing, along with those from inside a guitar and from atop its neck are not just there for their own sake. In part they showcase Argento's increasing self-confidence, that he too can engage in virtuoso displays of technique if he wants to. But they also foreground the circle and the straight line, along with the theme of time itself. A drummer, Roberto is someone whose job it that of a timekeeper; he beats time. Roberto's response when asked by bandmate Mirko (Fabrizio Moroni) if his performance was bad is telling here: “You're missing your cues. You've got to follow me, that's all.”

Another important figure here is that of the cross, seen in slow-motion as Roberto crosses his drumsticks. In Argento and Cozzi's original script cruciform shapes were used as the visual fragments rather than the four flies, with Nina wearing a cross rather than a pendant containing a fly trapped in plastic. Remnants of this idea recur throughout the film, as Roberto is framed within or around cross shapes, although Nina's pendant has the thematic advantages of being circular and of conveying entrapment.

Unlike Mirko, Roberto does not miss his cues: As Mirko departs, Roberto catches sight of his stalker. The man (Calisto Calisti) is a cliché, the by 1971 familiar figure of the giallo heavy or killer. Indeed, although the man's face is visible rather than in shadow, albeit with his eyes hidden behind obscuring sunglasses, Argento has identified him as being modelled upon the killer in Blood and Black Lace. Confronted with this “sensory-motor image of the thing,” Roberto goes immediately from perception, that this is the man who has been following him for the past week, into action, in turning the tables on his stalker; a reveller's throwing confetti onto Roberto cements the two men's association, with the man having blown confetti off his sunglasses in the credits sequence.

Excess, the theatrical and the bringing together of different image sets are then conveyed as Roberto follows the man into an empty theatre, itself strewn with streamers. To enter the auditorium, Roberto passes through no less than four curtains, three a brilliant red and the fourth a rich blue. While his passage through the first two is presented from his point of view, the angle unexpectedly reverses for the third curtain, as if to signal that he has now entered onto another's scene. This other, of course, is Nina. High up in a box, she illuminates Roberto as he unwitting assumes his designated role, responding to each pre-planned situation, S, with the appropriate action, A.

The man pulls a knife and there is a scuffle. What happens is not entirely clear, other than that the man is now lying in the orchestra pit with a bloody wound to his chest and that Roberto has the knife in his hand, with the incident having been captured by the masked photographer, Nina. The point, of course, is that the photographing of the scene and Roberto's decision to take flight without checking the man, establish the truth Nina desired: Roberto, for all practical purposes, has killed a man. Nina's virtual scenario has become actualised by Roberto, determining his future actions. There are perhaps similar situations in Hitchcock, most obviously Kim Novak's virtual Judy becoming her actual Madeline in Vertigo through Scottie's (James Stewarts's) interventions. However, underlying this there is a single truth: Judy and Madeline are the same woman. As such, the closer point of comparison here is Lang. In Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), one of a number of Lang films mentioned by Deleuze (2005a: 134). In the film a writer, Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews), sets himself up as the prime suspect for a murder in order to show the problems of circumstantial evidence. Unfortunately for Garrett his friend, who was withholding the evidence that was to prove his innocence, dies in an accident, leaving Garrett sentenced to death. In Lang's film the virtual thus becomes the actual. If this perhaps does not push the time-image to its furthest, in that there at a point the circuit of the two poles chasing after one another breaks down, it is still notably developed for a Hollywood genre film of the time. Whereas Deleuze identified Hitchock's films as being about interpretation, he suggests Lang's are more perspectivist, featuring “A Protagoras-style relativism where judgement expresses the ‘best’ point of view, that is, the relation under which appearances have the best chance of being turned around to the benefit of an individual or of a humanity of higher value” (2005b: 134) Lang is thus a more Nietzschean film-maker than Hitchcock, just as the Langian Four Flies on Grey Velvet is thereby a more Nietzschean and time-image film than the more Hitchcockian and movement-image The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. This is not, however, to say that neither Hitchcock nor the movement-image are absent from Argento's third film. Rather, like its predecessors it is still a hybrid. Nina's pursuit of revenge and use of the powers of the false are juxtaposed with her reliance upon Roberto's predictable reactions and the implicit exchange of culpability and crime between him and Nina's father.

As the story develops, Nina begins her scheme to drive Roberto to the brink as a prelude to his murder. He receives the man's identity card in the mail, then finds photos apparently incriminating him planted amongst his records as they entertain guests, and is then visited for the first time by the masked figure.

The delivery of the identity card is notable for two reasons. First, because of a subtle cut. In the immediately preceding shot, Nina is outside, talking with a neighbour in the foreground as the postman (whom Roberto will later attack as his paranoia mounts) makes a delivery in the background. But when Argento cuts to the apparent reverse angle, as Roberto takes the letter, Nina is back in the house. The connection between the two shots is irrational rather than rational. Time is indeed “out of joint” in a time-image manner. Second, because of where the Tobias's live: 23 via F. Lang. Though at one level an in-joke and another example of the film's excesses, this offers further evidence of Argento's prime influence within the film. (In a similar manner, the grave marked 'Peckinpah' in Leone and Tonino Valerii's My Name in Nobody may not be just a casual reference to another filmmaker, particularly when Jack Beauregard's destruction of “the Wild Bunch” is taken into consideration. Leone, it seems, was determined to 'bury' his rival and his most famous film creation.)

Wednesday 21 October 2009

And today's work in progress...

While characterising Argento's cinema in the whole as one of excess, Maitland McDonagh (1992) argues that the concept only becomes truly relevant to his films beginning from Four Flies on Grey Velvet onwards. Although the preceding analysis of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Cat o' Nine Tails would lead me to question whether excess is truly absent from these films, I would agree with McDonagh that Four Flies on Grey Velvet is certainly more pronounced in its excesses. In particular, I will argue the following points. First, that it sees Argento's approach become still more poetic, with an increasing number of images articulating a double consciousness of character and camera. As with its predecessor, these images go beyond the violent set-pieces and centre around the protagonist and antagonist, Roberto and Nina Tobias (Michael Brandon and Mimsy Farmer). Second, that it again sees Argento pursuing his postmodernist strategy of eclectically drawing from both movement-image and time-image cinemas. This time, however, the distinction between the two types of image is more clearly gendered. The male is associated with the movement-image, the female with the time-image. Third, that through the film Argento again makes an implicit, or immanent, critique of dominant models of understanding, associated with science and masculinity in particular. Finally, that in addition to presenting increasingly familiar Argento themes and motifs, such as the irruption of a past trauma into the present; the puzzling aural or visual fragment; the acousmetre; and homosexual characters; the film also introduces some new ones, most notably theatricality.

As noted earlier, Colette Balmain considers all of Argento's gialli of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, along with the filone in general, to be a time-image cinema. Her basic method is taking each film in turn and demonstrating how it incorporates time-image concepts. If I agree with Balmain's method, I obviously disagree with her positioning of Argento as a modernist, time-image film-maker. I would agree, however, with Balmain's key point about Four Flies on Grey Velvet and the time-image, namely that it is a film in which “the powers of the false” are particularly important.

Protagonist Roberto Tobias is the drummer in a rock band. As such, he might be understood as an artist of sorts, and thus the most exalted of the four figures Deleuze considers in relation to the creative powers of the false. However, Roberto's approach to the truth within the film is again a banal one, particularly when he is contrasted with his immediate predecessor, the insightful and imaginative Franco Arno. This also marks out the distinction between Argento as the film-maker-artist and the first of his characters with whom he has been compared by commentators and critics: If Roberto is something of a critical self-portrait of the director, who at the time of the production was involved in a messy separation from his wife, this portrayal relies upon an creative capacity upon Argento's part that his character/creation singularly lacks.

Roberto's predictable responses to images are evident from the ease within which he falls into his wife's trap. This, I think, also helps explain one of the criticisms levelled at the film, that it really does not work terribly well as a whodunit. For example, to David Pirie:

“Full of slick visual conceits and glossy set-pieces, this is clearly Argento's most expensive and ambitious thriller yet. It's the more surprising, therefore, to find that - apart from the ingenious idea of the retinal image which gives the film its title - the script remains as flat and predictable as that of the most meagre Italian 'B' feature. The twist at the climax must be obvious, even to non-specialists in detective fiction, after about the first ten minutes, and it's the makers' apparent unawareness of this which makes much of the action so irritating, since the repeated use of subjective shots, shadows, oblique angles and other assorted devices to cover up the killer's identity slows the proceedings down to a snail's pace. […] The climax, considering how long it has been expected, is […] surprisigly effective [...] The power of the scene confirms that Argento's thriller would have worked much better if he had abandoned his painstaking attempts to disguise the obvious, and concentrated instead on heightening the atmosphere of hysteria and menace which he is clearly quite capable of sustaining.” (1973: ??)

I would argue that Pirie fails to adequately account for the differences between our position as viewer and that of Roberto himself: We may read the clues within the mise-en-scene that Roberto cannot. We may also approach the film with some familiarity with its predecessors, particularly The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and the surprise of its having a female rather than male killer. Nonetheless, it must also be re-iterated that at this point in Argento's career this trope still had a critical edge to it and has not yet degenerated into self-parody or pastiche.

Pirie perhaps also occupies a different position from that of the typical audience member, especially as he was here writing for a relatively elite audience. The Monthly Film Bulletin, in which his review appeared, at the time divided films into two categories: Those films deemed to be of especial interest to its readership and everything else. It goes without saying that European genre films were invariably placed in the latter, inferior, category. Related to this there is perhaps also here an implicit positioning of suspense above shock, or of the Hitchcockian “image of mental relations” over the alternatives employed by other directors.

What Pirie's criticisms, along with these possible responses to them, cumulatively suggest is that Four Flies on Grey Velvet pushes many of the creative tensions in Argento's cinema further than its predecessors. It short circuits the whodunit aspect that bit further. The titular fragment, this time a purely visual opsign, of the last image imprinted on the retina of one of Nina's victims, is introduced late on in the narrative. Moreover it does not appear again until the denouement, at which point Nina also explains why she has been persecuting her husband; it is vital that he know why before he dies. Roberto, it turns out, is the spitting-image of Nina's abusive father, who had wanted a son rather than a daughter and had raised her as if she were a boy. Unfortunately for Nina, her father died before she could extract her revenge. She married Roberto with the intention of accomplishing a symbolic revenge upon her father through him, beginning with his persecution and culminating in his murder.

As such, Nina can be positioned as a combination of two other figures who represent the powers of the false. These are the seeker of vengeance and the forger, both of whom we have already seen in different guises within Leone's cinema. Besides being less developed examples of the creative will to power than the artist (or indeed, the philosopher) there are other issues here: Nina's becoming, like that of Monica Ranieri in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, is more negative than positive. While she may be more of a becoming-woman figure than Monica, given her early life as a boy (if we assume her revenge is not also thereby becoming-man) she is unable to go beyond an ultimately destructive need for revenge. Her line of flight, that is, is again blocked.

Tuesday 20 October 2009

And some more thesis...

The film's position as antithesis to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is evident from its opening scene, as blind ex-reporter Franco Arno (Karl Malden) and his ward Lori (Cinzia de Carolis) pass a parked car on their way home. Inside the car a man is talking, sotto voce. With his (cliche) sensitive hearing Arno realises the discussion implies blackmail, and accordingly asks Lori to take a look while he ties his shoelace. Though Lori can make out one of the men in the car, the other is in shadow; as she looks back Argento cuts to the reverse angle while on the soundtrack a jarring chord, soon to be identified with the blackmail victim cum killer, Dr Casoni (Aldo Reggiani) is heard. Just as in its predecessor, Argento is thus consciously presenting an initial situation in which the action-image breaks down into opsigns and sonsigns. This time, however, aural rather than visual data are to the fore. Additionally, unlike Dalmas, Arno and Lori are in no position to act. As a child Lori is subject to what Deleuze, in relation to the Italian and French time-image cinemas refers to as “motor helplessness”: “The role of the child has been pointed out, notably in De Sica (and later in France with Truffaut); this is because, in the adult world, the child is affected by a certain motor helplessness, but one which makes him all the more capable of seeing and hearing.” (2005b: 3) Arno, meanwhile, is a “seer” figure, albeit a decidly ironic one on account of his blindness.

Arno's position is further signalled by the next scene, in which Casoni breaks into the Terzi Institute in order to substitute a fake, clean genetic profile for his real, incriminating one. Arno is intimated as having a kind of second sight, sixth sense or intuition that something is happening outside through the way the scene is edited. As Casoni knocks a watchman unconscious, the scene seems to be taking place simultaneously within the real world and within Arno's mind. As the sequence continues and Casoni enters the institute proper, his position does become somewhat more independent and detached. Nevertheless, it is also noticeable that Argento continues to represent him in a different manner than Monica Ranieri in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. She and her husband double were always physically present in the frame, whether as the dark-clad silhouette or metonymic gloved hands. Casoni, by contrast, is only seen as a shadowy figure when he is seen fleeing the institute from an observer's point of view. Otherwise, Argento goes to considerable lengths to absent his body from the frame. For example, when Casoni later kills Bianca Merusi (Rada Rassimov), it is almost as if the garrotte goes around her neck by itself, as if it animated by supernatural force. This, of course, is something that would not be out of place in one of Argento's later fantasy-horror films, with their 'Gothic' or 'Expressionist' animate (animistic?) worlds. For, as Deleuze says: “The non-organic life of things, a frightful life, which is oblivious to the wisdom and limits of the organism, is the first principle of Expressionism, valid for the whole of Nature, that is, for the unconscous spirit, lost in darkness, light which has become opaque, lumen opacatum. From this point of view natural substances and artificial creations, candelabras and trees, turbine and sun are no longer any different. A wall which is alive is dreadful; but utensils, furniture, houses and their roofs also lean, crowd around, lie in wait, or pounce.” (2005a: 52)

Whilst The Cat o' Nine Tails is a giallo and, as such, eschews outright fantasy, it is nevertheless more open to such possibilities compared to its predecessor. That this is so is, I would argue, most evident in the poetic way Argento depicts his protagonist and antagonist, which I will now continue to explore.

The one thing we do see of Casoni repeatedly throughout the film is the extreme close-up of one of his eyes. It is a peculiar, shocking image: As a deterritorialisation of the eye from the face, it refuses “faciality”. But, if is thereby not a conventional affection-image, it also undeniably has an intense affect, the characteristic of the affection-image. Arguably it thereby presents a fusion of the intensive and extensive and organic and inorganic poles of the affection-image, one that takes a part of the machine assembladge of the body, the eye, and presents it in an unfamilar, machinic context: What does an eye actually do? Deleuze's answer is that, by itself, an eye does not do very much. Rather, the eye only gains its conventional, biological function in conjunction with the other parts of an organic body - other eyes, ears, a brain etc. The cinematic body, that of the shots on strips of film (or latterly frames on a computer disc), is not an organic body. It is purely machinic (or electronic). Within the classical cinema of the movement-image, however, most of the assemblages made were organic, or “rational”. One image (or body part) was joined to another in a way that made sense, both at the level of these parts and of the whole. For instance, for Bazin (195?), John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) was like a wheel. Each part was perfectly in accord with the others. In the modern cinema of the time-image, by contrast, the assemblages of parts are inorganic (“crystalline”) or “irrational”. One image may be joined to another in any manner that the filmmaker sees fit; as previously discussed this was a key part of Leone's way of working. As such, whereas the logic of the movement-image is primarily arborescent, that of the time-image is primarily rhizomatic. From one movement-image we can predict the next, whereas from one time-image we cannot. (In this respect a Markovian analysis of corpuses drawn from these cinemas, of which shots or images follow which, probabilistically or stochastically, might be informationally useful.)

I have already mentioned the way Casoni's eye seems to capture the same visions as Arno witnesses on his mindscreen. In moving between these positions, the cut is “irrational,” making the rhizomatic and arbitrary aspects of editing (or montage) evident. As such, it is another time-image irruption, or instance of becoming time-image, within a primarily movement-image film.

It is also perhaps no coincidence here that Argento has referred to Dziga Vertov as being his favourite amongst the Soviet directors. For, as Deleuze shows, Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929) is precisely a film which exploits the power of cinema's machinic, technological body (albeit one within the context of the movement-image cinema) to go beyond the human. As we shall see, the ability of cinema to present inhuman perceptions through the use of technology is something that Argento will increasingly turn to in Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Deep Red and Tenebre.

Another key aspect of the way Argento depicts Casoni is through his silence, as the killer. While the same was basically true of Monica Ranieri in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, there is a difference in the way the two figures function: When Monica makes a telephone call, we hear her (or a) voice. When Casoni does, after abducting Lori, we do not hear his voice. In combination with his relative disembodiment, I would thus argue that The Cat o' Nine Tails is more an exploration of the acousmetre and the mute than a “telephone story”. This again marks it out as a more uncanny film than its predecessor, as one in which “weird science of the most egregious kind” (Koven, 2006: ??), namely the currently discredited idea that an individual's predisposition towards violence is genetic, has a place, even if outright 'magic' does not. The thing that is particularly uncanny about Casoni is his combination of characteristics of acousmetre and mute. On the one hand, he is presented as all but invisible, only appearing as an eye. Insofar as the eye is itself arguably emblematic of the acousmetre, as something potentially all seeing, all knowing and all powerful, or godlike, this is not itself a problem. On the other hand, he is silent. This invokes the figure of the mute, whose uncanny powers depend upon not speaking. As such, Casoni is an in-between, hybrid figure, neither quite voice without body nor body without voice. This position is not necessarily one that can be related to the movement-image and time-image. One of the most complex uses of the voice in cinema identified by Chion (and glossed by Deleuze) is, after all, that of Lang's The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1932). What might be said, however, is that it is a post-modern hybridity, as something that refuses the either/or of acousmetre or mute in favour of their combination.

Insofar as neither the combination of Expressionism and Montage nor the use of the acousmetre directly position The Cat o' Nine Tails as a more Hitchcockian or Langian film (Lang's Metropolis, for instance, using montage contrasts of rich and poor, even as then-wife Thea von Harbou's script rejected revolution) it is worth considering other possible intertextual influences upon the film.

The most important of these, I would argue, is a surprising one: James Whale's 1933 adaptation of H. G Wells's 18?? novel The Invisible Man. The similarities between the two texts are manifold: Both feature mad scientists, or more specifically scientists who are drive mad by their discoveries. Both revolve around invisibility, with the unnamed scientist in Wells's text becoming invisible and Casoni here wishing to become so. Finally, both characters are first partially deacousmatised by being wounded, causing them to leave a trail of blood, then completely deacousmatised and defeated.

Beyond this, there is also the fact that around this time Argento and frequent collaborator Luigi Cozzi had mooted the idea of doing a version of the Frankenstein myth set against the backdrop of 1930s fascism; Paul Morrisey and Antonio Margheriti's 1974 Flesh for Frankenstein perhaps gives some hints of what the resulting film might have been like, featuring as it does a Frankenstein intent on creating a new Serbian “master race” through his experiments.

Unlike his counterpart in Whale's film, Casoni is not, however, truly invisible. Instead, it is only implied that he would like to be through the way he is poetically represented, as a fusion of character and camera consciousness. It is this visibility that appears to account for his muteness: Faced with the extra-sensitive Arno as nemesis, Casoni cannot afford to say anything that might lead to his identification, via the bringing together of opsign and sonsign, or body and voice emanating from it. As further proof of this, we may note the close encounter between the two men. Casoni has just murdered the photographer who inadvertently captured him pushing the blackmailing Dr Calabresi (Carlo Alighiero) in front of a train, As he approaches Arno and Lori, his sound (or leitmotif) plays. He and Arno momentarily pause. It is as if the blind man somehow had an intuition of his presence and the murder that fellow-investigator Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) is discovering at that very moment.

By the time of this scene, Argento has given us other instances of Arno's insight: When he and Lori go to visit Giordani, Argento cuts back and forth between their home and the newspaper where Giordani works, much as in the opening break-in, although far more rapid-fire. If the assemblage of shots or images here does not entail irrational cuts of a time-image type, it nevertheless makes the cutting visible rather than invisible, or presents (European) montage rather than (Hollywood) editing. If this is again not strictly speaking movement-image against time-image, that all the forms of montage Deleuze discusses fall within the former cinema, it is again hybrid in character: Hollywood cinema relied upon organic editing to a far greater than its European counterparts, where other approaches, including Soviet visible montage, predominated.

Arno's visit to Giordani, and their subsequent race (or “binominal”/“duel”) with Casoni to get to the photographs first, also relies upon his ability to perceive what others do not: Arno is the one who asks if the photograph of the falling Calabresi was cropped, revealing the pushing hand. This image, along with the scenes in which it figures, serves to further develop Argento's critique of Blow-Up. But whereas the loss of the photographic evidence was a devastating blow to Antonioni's protagonist, Argento's investigators again carry on, determined to find the truth. Compared to his predecessor Dalmas, however, Arno is less wedded to dominant models of truth. His blindness has led him towards insight, or an inner truth.

The scene at the railway station is also of importance in relation to Argento's influences and interlocutors. It is not as visually striking as its set-piece counterparts in the other parts of the Animal Trilogy though its minimal rather than excessive/maximal approach. Nevertheless it shows the ability of the director and his regular editor Franco Fraticelli to construct a concise and effective montage sequence. Eight shots in eight seconds present an impressionistic survey of the murder-as-accident. Besides featuring an average shot length equivalent to the (admittedly more elaborate and extended) shower murder in Psycho, the power of the scene comes as much from combination of the shots as what they contain informationally, or from form rather than content.

Another scene of note here is the encounter between Giordani and Anna Terzi, the adopted daughter of the institute's director and his quasi-incestuous lover. Immediately prior to their meeting, Casoni has poisoned the milk left on Giordani's doorstep. As such, it occupies a privileged position with Argento's frame, one clearly inpired by Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941) or Spellbound (1946) and which can be initially discussed in the same terms as Deleuze's analysis of the similar image in the latter film (2005a: 14). But beyond this Argento uses the scene, in which Giordani and Anna awkwardly consummate their relationship, to comment upon the poisoned nature of the inter-personal relationships between most of the film's characters: Far from showing us intimacy, or images codified as intimate in dominant cinema circa 1971, the camera remains at the same distance with the milk still in the forefront. Moreover, a cut glosses over the sexual act itself. Anna, we are invited to understand, has no real feelings for Giordani. Rather, she just wants to know where the investigation is leading. Giordani, meanwhile, is an opportunist, a man taking what he can get. The critical question is clear: What sort of society reduces relationships to such terms?

Just some more thesis...

The giallo's deterritorialisation of the Hollywood thriller is, however, less pronounced than the spaghtti western's deterritorialisation of the Hollywood western. The obvious explanation for this is that whereas the thriller was indigenous to most countries in one form or another, the western was more exclusively American. It it is true that the figure of the cowboy has been compared with the European knight or the Japanese samurai. There were also, for instance, French Carmargue westerns. However, the connections to the US western in each case are less obvious than those between different thriller types: A French polar, such as Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955), is more obviously comparable to a Hollywood crime film like John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950) than a samurai film is to a western; indeed, the US-born Dassin clearly had no difficulty in reworking Huston's “perfect heist” gone wrong film within a French context. As such, whereas it is relatively easy to enumerate the differences between Ford and Leone's westerns, those between the Argento's and Hitchcock's thrillers are harder to itemise. Moreover, these differences, such as Argento's use of the whodunit form, inevitably bring Argento closer to other Hollywood thriller filmmakers.

This, indeed, lies behind Argento's subsequent repudiation of The Cat o' Nine Tails as a film which is “too American” in its approach and insufficiently personal or auteurist. A similar line of argument has been taken up by Gary Needham (2002). Comparing and contrasting the film with its immediate predecessor and successor, Needham argues that it is a failure for two main reasons. First, The Cat o' Nine Tails eschews psychoanalytic trauma in favour of more mundane motivations. Its killer is the victim of blackmail, with this intersecting with a subplot around industrial espionage. Second, it lacks a central set-piece featuring a visual “punctum”. This is a concept Needham takes from Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida (1980) and which refers to a point that 'pierces' the viewer. In my view The Cat o' Nine Tails has more to offer than Needham recognises. I will argue three main points. First, it is a film which makes a challenges to the dominant psychoanalytic theories upon which Needham's reading relies. Second, by foregrounding the opsign and the sonsign, alongside with a seer figure (albeit a blind one), the film presents another hybrid of movement-image and time-image. Finally, through its representations of the protagonist and antagonist, the film presents a poetic advance upon its predecessor.

As we saw earlier, Needham astutely recognises a key difference between Argento's gialli and those of his imitators: Argento's films tend to focus equally upon male and female neuroses and psychoses. Given the corresponding questioning, queering or decentring of the male norm, against which the female is negatively defined, that this implies, it is conspicuous that Needham does not go further. He does not, for instance, address Deleuze's aforementioned critique of psychoanalytic film theory, that all it ever gives us is one image, that of the traumatic primal scene. Staying within this framework, meanwhile, another problem is evident if we consider Barthes's “punctum” in more detail. Barthes worked through his concepts around the visual image in a series of essays. In The Third Meaning (1970) he considered the notion of excess, or the third, unquantifiable, meaning in relation to a number of photographs, including stills from Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible (1944/1946). At this point Barthes did not draw a firm distinction between photographic and film images. But Camera Lucida is specifically about photography. Moreover, it is questionable whether the studium can be used intersubjectively in the way Needham's analysis suggests: Within his discussion, Barthes distinguishes between the punctum and the studium. The studium is the broader social meaning that can be read into a photograph. The punctum is the narrower, personal, non-social meaning for an individual with a specific, personal connection to the photograph. Thus, for example, Barthes describes his feelings in relation to the punctum of photographs of his mother. However, this punctum is unavailable to us directly. Instead, we see only the studium, images of a French woman of a particular background at a particular point in time. The studium is thus contestably the Benjaminian “aura” of the photograph, albeit as an aura that is inherently personal rather than collective (religious) and which is not necessarily diminished by mechanical or other reproduction. Cast in these terms, every (commercially produced) film lacks the punctum, their images instead being of a studium type; if Barthes' concept could here be extended to the film, by implication this would be to the home movie, or to a commercial film as it appears to the individuals involved in its production.

As Needham recognises, Cat o' Nine Tails lacks a central set-piece. I would argue it goes some way towards compensating for this with a widely dispersed set of scenes in which the mise-en-scene is more conciously expressive than was the case in its predecessor.

Monday 19 October 2009

Sartana - The Complete Saga

Another budget spaghetti box set, and another release which, from initial impressions, will appeal more if you have a tolerance for bad transfers.

Ten films across three discs, with all that implies for image quality - or lack thereof - and Django vs Sartana, for one, actually showing the imprinted logo of the TV station it has been sourced from, 7 Gold.

It's debatable whether these ten films represent the "Complete Saga" because of retitlings and cash-ins - the 'official' Sartana, Gianni Garko, as seen on the cover, isn't in all the films.

Wednesday 14 October 2009

Spaghetti Western Collection

This arrived today. 20 films for £6 or so, including postage. It's the sort of price that you can't go wrong with, unless you care about the quality of the presentations. (Oddly it has a different cover, though still with Van Cleef.)

So far I've only watched two of the films contained within, neither of which I had seen before: Gunfight at Red Sands and Apache Blood. Both are very much AVI from video quality transfers, which is to be expected given that there are four films to a disc: Acceptable on a small laptop screen, or on a larger screen from a distance, but far from showcasing the format or more expensive equipment.

The two films provide an intriguing contrast, Gunfight coming before the boom, in 1963, and Apache Blood after it, in 1975.

Gunfight stars Richard Harrison as the avenging hero and Giacomo Rossi-Stuart as the sheriff/villain, with other prominent contributors including Morricone and, perhaps, Nicolai as Dan Savio and Lee Nichols, along with Massimo Dalamano, as Max Dalmas. The negative portrayal of the sheriff, along with the Mexican frontier setting, mark it out as a spaghetti, but otherwise its relatively conventional.

Apache Blood stars Ray Danton as the Apache seeking vengeance upon the cavalry. If it's unusual as a spaghetti by focusing on the Native American rather than the Mexican, it's also more conventional for a 1975 western through its more complex portrayal of the relationships between the redskin and the white man, as one which is not simply good and bad, or vice-versa.

The films:

1. Apache Blood
2. Between God, the Devil and a Winchester
3. Beyond the Law
4. China 9, Liberty 37
5. Death Rides a Horse
6. Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe, The
7. Find a Place to Die
8. Fistful of Lead
9. God's Gun
10. Grand Duel, The
11. Gunfight at Red Sands
12. It Can Be Done Amigo
13. Johnny Yuma
14. Man from Nowhere
15. Minnesota Clay
16. Sundance and the Kid
17. This Man Can't Die
18. Trinity and Sartana
19. Twice a Judas
20. White Comanche

More Delezean analysis of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

The first issue that must be addressed is Argento’s use of the ‘whodunit’ form, particularly in relation to his frequent labelling in the wake of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and its “Animal Trilogy” successors, as “The Italian Hitchcock”. Whilst this label was arguably beneficial to Argento from a career perspective, especially initially, it is also something he has sought to play down, after becoming established in his own right. This distinguishes him from De Palma, who has always emphasised himself as heir to Hitchcock. Argento, by contrast, has claimed, like Chabrol, to be more of a Langian than a Hitchcockian. The giallo as a whole, meanwhile, arguably has more connections to film noir, through the similar origins of the terms noir and giallo to describe a particular literary form, and the wider thriller. In particular most gialli, including all of Argento’s films excepting The Stendhal Syndrome and Giallo (both of which fall outside the time-period of this thesis) are whodunits: The identity of the killer or killers is not known to the detective protagonist nor the audience until the denouement. Hitchcock, meanwhile, disliked the whodunit and its dynamic of surprise, that the killer was typically someone we never would have suspected. Instead he preferred the audience to know more than his characters, to place us in a position of suspense: We know who the killer is and that the protagonist is in danger, even if he does not yet know: “What matters is not who did the action – what Hitchcock calls with contempt the whodunit, but neither is it the action itself: it is the set of relations in which the action and the one who did it are caught.” (2005a: 204)

This dynamic of the “relation-image” or the “image of mental relations” is the essential component within Hitchcock’s cinema, the image that makes him a singular auteur positioned between the movement-image and the time-image:

In the history of the cinema Hitchcock appears as one who no longer conceives of the constitution of the film as a function of two terms – the director and the film to be made – but as a function of three: the director, the film and the public which must come into the film, or whose reactions must for an integrating part of the film (this is the explicit sense of suspense, since the spectator is the first to ‘know’ the relations. (2005a: 206)

By incorporating the audience into his films, Hitchcock led to the culmination of the movement-image:

[O]ne might say that Hitchcock accomplishes and brings to completion the whole of the cinema by pushing the movement-image to its limit. Including the spectator in the film, and the film in the mental image, Hitchcock brings the cinema to completion. (2005a: 209)

However, to Deleuze, Hitchcock himself was unable to go beyond the movement-image into the time-image:

If one of Hitchcock’s innovations was to implicate the spectator in the film, did not the characters themselves have to be capable – in a more or less obvious way – of being assimilated to spectators? But then it may be that one consequence appears inevitable: the mental image would then be less a bringing to completion of the action-image, and of the other images, than a re-examination of their nature and status, moreover, the whole movement-image which would be re-examined through the rupture of the sensory-motor links in a particular character. What Hitchcock had wanted to avoid, a crisis in the traditional image of the cinema, would nevertheless happen in his wake, and in part as a result of his innovations. (2005a: 209)

The key film-makers here are, of course, the neo-realists, in whose work Deleuze detects the first failings of the action-image. For my purposes, however, Antonioni is more important, via his anti-thrillers or anti-gialli Story of a Love Affair, L’Avventura and Blow-Up: In Story the investigation of a virtual crime in the past, leads to its becoming actual in the present. In L’Avventura the investigation of ??’s disappearance by her fiancé and friend discovers nothing. In Blow-Up the body and the photographs disappear, and thus all evidence that there was actually a murder. In each case, that is, the action-image sensory-motor schema of the movement-image, and the boundary between protagonist and audience break down completely. The character within the film is reduced to the same helplessness as their viewer observing them.

As we saw earlier, as a critic Argento was vocal in his dislike for Blow-Up. I would argue that this distaste may be related to Argento’s inherent postmodern position, of denying the implicit hierarchy of modernist art cinema over classical genre cinema, or the time-image over the movement-image. Furthermore, I would contend that The Bird with the Crystal Plumage sees him beginning to work through his postmodern response to Antonioni modernist classic. Where Antonioni presents the time-image as a fully fledged thing within the context of the art cinema, Argento here gives us the movement-image as it is caught in the process of becoming time-image within the context of filone cinema. In particular, Bird is concerned with exposing and exploring the cliché, along with the breakdown of the action-image into opsigns and sonsigns that require active interpretation, or “attentive” rather than “habitual” recognition in Deleuze’s Bergsonian framework. Crucially, however, the movement-image re-asserts itself through protagonist Sam Dalmas’s dogged determination to find out the truth behind what he saw. If Dalmas’s notion of the truth is a banal one, the truth his investigation unveils is (or was) a more shocking one: The structures of capitalism and patriarchy are destructive and negative. The division here is between the mass and the elite, or the movement-image and the time-image cinemas. One issue here is stepping back in time, in considering the film in its context, of Italy in 1970, rather than today, and in another country, forty years on. Another is that of different audiences and cinemas: What was perhaps banal for the elite, or the prima visione audience, was still shocking for the ordinary viewer, or the terza vision audience. This ‘whydunit’ aspect, of the exploration of the origins of Monica’s psychosis, also provides something of a counter to the whodunit element. Emphasising the ‘why’ as well as the ‘who’ is something that distinguishes Argento’s gialli from those of many of his filone imitators, who are often more interested in the ‘how’, in the form of the bizarre murder methods employed by their killers. Sergio Pastore’s The Crimes of the Black Cat (1972) is a prime example here, particularly since its blind investigator protagonist and titular animal are clear references to The Cat o’ Nine Tails. The film’s killer has a cat whose claws have been dipped in poison attack her victims, with the cat having been trained to respond to a particular perfume on the yellow silk shawls that the victims are sent.

Argento’s use of the whodunit and greater emphasis upon shock than suspense compared to Hitchcock might also be justified in relation to his postmodern position: Postmodernism and poststructuralism, with their challenge to binaries and hierarchies, would deny the inherent superiority of the non-whodunit over the whodunit and of suspense over shock. Instead, they might be considered as different, somewhat incommensurable language games with their own performative criteria. A whodunit or a shock must thereby be evaluated in their own terms, as good or bad examples of their type, rather than as, at best, good examples of an inferior type. Or, to cast this in a more directly Deleuzean framework, they are alternative “lines of flight,” with the whodunit and the shock also possibly “deterritorialising” the non-whodunit and suspense respectively.

One way in which The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a Hitchcockian film is its use of the theme of exchange or transference, as first identified by Eric Rohmer and Chabrol (195?) and subsequently endorsed by Deleuze (2005a: 205): Monica Ranieri exchanges the role of victim for that of victimiser. Her husband Alberto exchanges the role of murderer with his wife, attempting to cover up for her crimes by confounding the police investigation with his telephone call and then confessing to his wife’s crimes as he dies. Another is the importance of interpretation. Deleuze identifies Hitchcock’s cinema as one in which the interpretation of the image is paramount: “In Hitchcock, actions, affections, perceptions, all is interpretation, from beginning to end.” (2005a: 204). In particular, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage features a key image which is out of place, or a Hitchcockian “demark,” as will be seen in my analysis of the pivotal gallery sequence. This distinguishes it from Four Flies on Grey Velvet, a more Langian film in which the “powers of the false,” of a “Protagoras-style relativism where judgement expresses the ‘best’ point of view, that is, the relation under which appearances have the best chance of being turned around to the benefit of an individual or of a humanity of higher value” (2005b: 134) are to the fore. In combination, meanwhile, the two films further expose Argento’s becoming Langian rather than Hitchcockian, or the shift in the proportion of movement-images and time-images in his work.

Monday 12 October 2009

Forbidden Photos of a Woman Above Suspicion poster

2019 - Dopo la caduta di New York / 2019: After the Fall of New York

In the early 80s films about dystopian near futures like Mad Max 2 and Escape from New York were big box-office. It was no surprise, then, when Italian film-makers quickly moved to rip them off to the best of their abilities and budgets. 2019: After the Fall of New York is Sergio Martino’s contribution to this cycle, in conjunction with his producer brother Luciano and frequent screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi. (Sergio Martino uses his Martin Dolman alias, Gastaldi his Julian Berry one.)

Planet of the Apes? Escape from New York?

The film’s influences are evident from the first two scenes. Scene one gives the back-story, that a nuclear war between the Eurac Alliance (of Europe and Asia) and Pan American Confederation has left the earth devastated and women infertile, with no children having been born for 15 years. The ruins of New York are under Eurac control, with soldiers and mercenaries hunting down survivors who refuse to submit for “voluntary” medical experiments. Scene two introduces our hero, Parsifal – a name with appropriately mythic connotations – as he engages in some Mad Max style car wars in order to win some prize or other.

The Eurac leader's Picasso pastiche; only thing is he identifies with the bombers rather than the bombees

Following this, the story proper gets started as Parsifal is taken to the Alaskan base of the Confederation. A fertile woman, upon whom the fate of the human race depends, is somewhere in New York. It is up to Parsifal to find her and bring her out of the city. He is to be assisted by Bronx and Ratchet. Bronx knows New York like the back of his hand – presumably not the one that has been replaced with metal pincers – whilst Ratchet, who sports the eye-patch that is about the only aspect of Snake Plissken’s look not in evidence on Parsifal himself, is immensely strong and deadly with his bolas.

Snake, er Parsifal, and one of those early 80s blue laser beams

Good comic-book / pulp fun, 2019’s main strengths are a fast pace once the story is underway and a superabundance of action, combined with the fact that everyone involved seems on the same wavelength as far as the ridiculous and cliché are concerned: At one point a Eurac commander actually remarks to a prisoner that “We have ways of making you talk,” while George Eastman is memorably typecast as a simian mutant called “Big Ape”.

Its main weaknesses are some obvious model work and the state of many of the locations used, not so much post-apocalyptic, as with the models and mattes, as post-industrial. Arguably, however, this could also be read as in accord with the general design of the film, as with the Eurac soldiers being equipped with Wookie-type bow-laser combinations and riding white horses that contrast with their own black vaguely kendo or samurai type armour. That blue laser beam effect gets a look in, as do some blinkenlights devices and general purpose oscilloscopes; here one wonders how you test a woman’s fertility with an oscilloscope?

The Eurac troops are about as effective as Stormtroopers

Oliver Onions provide a moody Goblin-esque score, with their title theme also giving Martino the opportunity for a nice sight gag, as a mournful trumpet plays over the image of a ruined Manhattan skyline, before the trumpeter is revealed to be just off to our side. Elsewhere we also get some gratuitous gore, with a Eurac leader being enucleated and the odd gut-spilling in the fight scenes and, more awkwardly, some rats apparently being impaled for real.

While perhaps one of Martino’s less substantial efforts, 2019: After the Fall of New York is fast, funny and passably stylish.

[The film is screening this Friday as part of the Edinburgh Film Guild's Apocalypse and Beyond screening - more information here:]

Saturday 10 October 2009

Deluezean analysis of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage's opening sequence

Dario Argento's eclectic and excessive approach to the image is evident from the opening scene of his debut film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. The information conveyed by the scene and its successor are straightforward: Rome is in the grip of what we would now term a serial killer. The images themselves, however, are anything but, as Argento jumbles chronology, juxtaposes moving and static images and colour and black and white (both via the technology of optical printing, a recurring element within the film) and plays with the frame. The most straightforward images are those of the (presumed male) killer and his weapons: These are affection-images, close-ups of objects, of knives in their red/velvet lined box and of the killer's black/leather encased hands, especially when caressing the photographic image. But even here there is an added complexity, in that Argento is playing upon cliché. The functional, fashionable garb of Bava's Blood and Black Lace is here fetishised (Needham: ??:??), as a “vurt” or bad object/fetish. We are also encouraged to read the killer as male. Faciality is key here: Though Argento does not present this figure, or her (male) gallery counterpart, as explicitly masked, as in Bava, the implications are equally clear. Man is the aggressor, woman the victim. The “cliché,” a key element of the film, is thereby foregrounded, to be subsequently explored, emphasised and deconstructed. The more complex images are those which present the victim-to-be. A more conventional, less imaginative approach would have been to show her being photographed by the killer and then the killer preparing to strike. Argento's use of moving and static images, along with moving images caught in the act of becoming static, and of colour and monochrome, complexifies this. In particular it is neither movement-image nor time-image. On the one hand these images suggest an action-image relationship, that the killer will act, or has to/should be stopped. On the other hand they imply the breakdown of the action-image and the sensory-motor relationship underpinning it: What has already happened, is in the past? What is still to come?

The final image in this scene, that of a black screen and a scream, is equally significant. It is an image which shows up one of Deleuze's weaknesses, namely his emphasis upon the visual image (thing) at the expense of other images (things). Deleuze presents this image, that of a black screen, as an “empty” set. But, in conjunction with the scream, it is emphatically not. Rather, it is a set which conveys death; indeed, were the sound to be absent, this image in conjunction with its successor (starting with a newspaper hoarding reading the third death of a woman in a month) would still say the same thing, for the viewer (particularly Italian) who can read the image. This is a frequent aspect of Leone, Argento and Questi's images. The sound image, which is unbounded, does not overlap or accord with the visual image, which us bounded by the frame. All three directors thereby go beyond the movement-image, where the frame/set incorporates sound and image, with the former a duplicate and supplement to the latter, towards the time-image, with its separate, non-commensurable opsigns and sonsigns.