Sunday 29 November 2009

Fatal Frames

American video director Alex Ritt (Rick Gianasi) goes to Rome in order to shoot some promotional films for Italian singing sensation Stefania Stella (herself) only to find that a serial killer is at large in the city.

Since Alex's wife and a number of other women fell victim to a killer with a similar modus operandi back in New York, suspicion quickly falls upon Alex, forcing him to track down the killer in order to clear his name.

As far as this basic scenario goes, Fatal Frames doesn't sound too bad. Indeed, it's very much a classic giallo set-up obviously inspired by The Girl Who Knew Too Much, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Tenebre.

And, indeed, things get better when we consider that there are also plenty of iconic guest star appearance (ranging from Ciccio Ingrassia as a beggar, to Alida Valli as a blind seer, to Donald Pleasance as a detective, to Angus Scrimm as an apparent ghost, to Rossano Brazzi as a doctor) along with plenty of “violence numbers” and effective use of iconic locations like the Coliseum and the Trevi Fountain.

Unfortunately there are also many fundamental problems with the film.

At over two hours it's way too long. Most of the blame for this can be attributed to producer and star Stefania Stella, who just also happened to be the partner of writer, director and composer Al Festa. While the film isn't a complete vanity project, it's fair to say that the target audience were more interested in violence numbers than her musical ones. Nor does it help that Stella is neither the most attractive of women nor much of an actress.

Then there's the fact that Ritt and his male co-stars are from the same muscled, long-haired mould. While of benefit when it comes to the killer's identity, that the shadowy form of the killer could be any of them, it also means that one is frequently having to do a double take to tell who is who.

Then there's Festa's direction. He tries, but way too hard: Every scene is lit and filmed like a music video, stylised for its own sake. While a fair reflection of his own background and that of his protagonist, it makes for a tiring and confusing viewing experience as we're constantly having to determine whether this or that image is supposed to be subjective or objective and if the self-conscious use of technique has any significance or not at this particular moment. In terms of Koven's Pasolinian poetic / prosaic reading of the giallo, Festa has attempted to make every scene poetic, with the paradoxical result that all become prosaic.

The shame in all of this is that there's the sense of a leaner, meaner, better film struggling to escape from Fatal Frames' bloated form.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Alfredo, Alfredo

This 1972 Pietro Germi comedy, starring Dustin Hoffman and Stefania Sandrelli as Alfredo and his “awful wedded wife” is never less than entertaining but doesn’t quite match the standard of the director’s earlier Divorce Italian Style, which also starred Sandrelli.

The film’s weakness, compared to its predecessor, is that everything doesn’t quite come together. The issue is not so much the change of setting, from an aristocratic Sicilian milieu to a bourgeois northern Italian one, nor the shift from 1960 to 1970, but what these in turn mean for the narrative.

In Divorce Italian Style, the all’italiana aspect referred to the possibility of Alfredo’s predecessor, played by Marcello Mastroianni, forcing his wife into an adulterous situation so that he could then kill her in a crime of passion, receive a light prison sentence and remarry.

Here the situation is inherently less grotesque and comic, with the film opening and closes with divorce proceedings before a magistrate.

Most of Alfredo, Alfredo, however, is told in flashback, splitting neatly into three acts of 30 minutes or thereabouts. Acts one and two come across as one film, a comedy, act three another, a drama.

The first act focuses on Alfredo (Hoffman) and Mariarosa’s (Sandrelli’s) courtship and culminates in their marriage. The second sees Alfredo realise what Mariarosa is actually like and culminates in her phantom pregnancy.

They work better than the third act, in which Alfredo meets Carolina and the focus shifts to the political urgency of reforming Italy’s antiquated divorce laws.

The presence of Dustin Hoffman as Alfredo is also something of a sticking point at times: It is not that he cannot play the role, which is close enough to being an Italian variant on the nebbish – just as Mariarosa’s overbearing mamma could equally be recast in Jewish terms – more that it doesn’t allow for much use of his famous method. (“Try acting... it's much easier!” as Laurence Olivier apocryphally commented to Hoffman, after he had deprived himself of sleep in order to better convey his character’s exhaustion in Marathon Man.)

Much of the time he is reacting more than acting, while the majority of his lines are delivered in voice over rather than to the other performers. This said, use of the device is appropriate to both Alfredo’s diffident nature and the retrospective narrative: A lot of the time Alfredo is, after all, commenting upon what he should have said or done at the time but did not. Moreover the device, like its use in Divorce Italian Style – with its brilliant closing words and images – imparts an additional degree of irony to the proceedings, insofar as there are still moments when Alfredo perhaps still doesn’t get it.

Stefania Sandrelli is brilliant as ever, while the supporting cast, including Alfredo’s father and his best friend, Mariarosa’s equally controlling parents are perfect in their roles.

The humour is perhaps also cruder than in Divorce Italian Style, with Mariarosa screaming whenever she has an orgasm and loudly breaking wind as she gives birth (fans of the TV series The Young Ones may see similarities with the ‘Cash’ episode where Vyvyan becomes pregnant).

There’s also a thought-provoking moment when Alfredo is sent to see the doctor to determine whether he is infertile: Is masturbation acceptable within Catholic doctrine if it is performed to determine whether one is capable of going forth, increasing and multiplying? If one is not, then does that mean masturbation is now okay as viable seed are not being spilt? Answers on a postcard to…

Monday 23 November 2009

Italian poster for The Psychopath

The title translates as The Wax Doll

Tutti figli di mammasantissima / Sons of the Godmother / Italian Graffiti

While no one could ever mistake Sons of the Godmother for a good film, it is a prime example of the possibilities that don't exist now. For its director, writer and co-star Alfio Cantalbiano was best known as a master of arms and stuntman. After his film career ended he then established a gymnasium. In other words, he was the sort of talented jack of all trades with little place now other than doing one thing and one thing only.

Moreover, the film is one which doesn't quite fit into the post-Godfather gangster filone as might be expected. While familiar crime film faces such as Tano Cimarosa and Luciano Catenacci are present, the protagonist and set up actually have more in common with the spaghetti western “servant of two masters plot” and the general sensibility the comic western.

The place is Chicago, the time is 1929. But Capone is conspicuously absent, as the Italian and Irish gangs of the Morano brothers (Catenacci and Cimarosa) and 'The Reverend' (Cantalbiano, under his Alf Thunder name) vie for control of the bootleg liquor trade, especially whisk(e)y.

They are in a stalemate until the arrival of Salvatore Mandolea (Pino Colizzi) from Sicily in a crate.

But rather than siding with his countrymen he proves a trickster figure intent upon playing both sides against the middle, although there is a departure from spaghetti western formula here insofar as romance with Catenacci's daughter Assunta is as important as the money to Mandolea; being played by Ornella Muti, one can understand why.

The spaghetti western aspect is enhanced by the frequent mass brawls, along with the use of accelerated motion and slapstick elements in the manner of the Trinity series.

The opportunity to evaluate Cantalbiano's directorial abilities more generally is hampered when watching the film in a panned and scanned version.

The De Angelis brothers provide a typically eclectic soundtrack, although one which also works in terms of indicating to us that we are not supposed to take anything too seriously.

[Interview with Cantalbiano:]

[Pollanet page:]

Sunday 22 November 2009

Black Aria

Christophe Robin and François Gaillard have just finished Black Aria, a self produced Giallo.

More info about it here:

And teaser trailer:

Thanks to Eric for the info.

Gebissen wird nur nachts / Mezzo litro di rosso per il conte Dracula / The Vampire Happening

[Note that this review contains spoilers]

The Vampire Happening is, to all intents and purposes, a contemporary re-make / rip-off of Roman Polanski's Dance of the Vampires, with a modish late 1960s happening substituting for the vampire's annual ball.

The filmmakers freely acknowledge their inspiration through the casting of Ferdinand Mayne as the head vampire, here none other than Dracula himself, and a similar flip/cynical ending which sees vampirism able at last to move beyond its Transylvanian heartland – albeit via jet plane going to Hollywood rather than horse-drawn sledge.

Betsy Williams (AKA the Countess Von Ravenstein, AKA Pia Dagermark) in...

A film within the film, with Dance... inspired credits

This said, the film also contains echoes of other vampire films of the period, including Malenka AKA Fangs of the Living Dead, in the painting that reveals the uncanny likeness between our heroine and her undead ancestress; Lust for a Vampire, in the lesbian vampire in a girls' school motif and Jean Rollin's sexy vampire films, in general surrealistic weirdness if not obvious personal obsession.

The painting as double

The distinction on the last count is that the film was helmed by Hammer and Amicus regular Freddie Francis, a man whose films as a director are marked by what I'm tempted to call a professional detachment or indifference: He'd do what was needed, but rarely go that extra mile nor really identify with his material.

What we get are various comic and nudie-cutie type comic scenarios along with various sight gags and one-liners: A 20-something sexy school student remarks of her Dutch-lesbian teacher Miss Nielsen that “that dyke should go back to Holland”; Mayne's Dracula tells another vampire to “Call me Christopher. I'm sure he won't mind”; and a broadcast from Radio Transylvania warns that "the local blood bank is running low and requests donors report to Dr Frankenstein”...

One difference between The Vampire Happening and its model here is the sense of toleration: While Count von Krolock's homosexual son is undoubtedly a stereotype, as is Alfie Bass's Jewish inkeeper turned vampire (“Oy, you got the wrong vampire,” when the serving wench tries to scare him off with a crucifix) they are more affectionate than mocking. Here, by contrast, the camp airline steward is unnecessary while the lesbian vampire teacher is now doubly marginalised, her advances rejected by the same 20-something but now undead students.

Another of the film's targets is the Catholic church, with a monk and the abbot getting bitten; the abbot, a peeping tom in life, insisting that they maintain their old hierarchy.

That the film is of West German origin meanwhile explains why it could not follow its model here: Jewish vampire jokes have a different meaning when made by a filmmaker of Jewish origins than by Gentiles.

The sight of Betsy encourages one of the monks to see sexual symbolism everywhere he looks, with the woman-statue not out of place in the likes of Bunuel.

It's all very hit and miss and, at 102 minutes, undoubtedly has one or two characters, ideas and skits too many.

The Barbara Steele-esque confusion over the identity of Pia Degermond's 20th century US actress, Betsy Williams, and her great-great- Transylvanian ancestress Clarimdone is well played, however, while the fact that Degermond spends much of her time as Betsy not wearing much and the rest as Clarimonde wearing even less (other than a black wig) is an obvious attraction.

More impressive in itself than Bray studios?

The same might be said for Jerry Van Rooyen's very happening soundtrack (cuts from which are available on Crippled Dick's At 250 Miles Per Hour compilation), and the production design, with good use being made of an actual castle.

The Vampire Happening is available on a good but long OOP Anchor Bay DVD and a not so good Alpha one, neither unfortunately presenting it in the original German dub.

Thursday 19 November 2009


Giallo = Beauty Killer = The New York Ripper

Argento becomes Fulci?

Sunday 15 November 2009

A Fistful of Dollars

I know this is an apprentice work, which sees Leone trying out things without necessarily integrating them into a coherent whole.


God damn

He still framed like no-one else had done.

Similarly, I now wonder about the bad day for night shooting in the cemetery scene, and the apparent inability of the (dead) soldiers to hear what is going on around them: Does this signify that they are "playing at cowboys and indians," in a cinema-cinema way?

Monday 9 November 2009

Mechanical Man

I am a mechanical man
A mechanical man
And I do the best I can
Because I have my family
I am a mechanical boy
I am my mother's toy

- Charles Manson, Mechanical Man

The dummy, or Carlo?

More doubling and foreshadowing in Deep Red

When Amanda Righetti is killed, her assassin first terrorises her with a classic giallo doll, held in place by a noose around its neck:

The doll then loses its head (or the head loses its body), just as will Carlo's mother in the finale:

Notes on the cinematographer, as done by Argento rather than Bresson

My mind wanders; the camera wanders

Power in Four Flies on Grey Velvet and Once Upon a Time in the West

Nina's conception of power can be understood can be understood, in Deleuze and Guattari's terms as a negative one. This concept of power is inspired by Spinoza and Nietzsche (Colebook in Parr, 2005: 215-217). From Spinoza they take the idea of power as potential and of joy the result of fulfilling this potential: “Joy, as the realisation of power, is therefore different from the moral opposition of good and evil, an opposition that impedes power by constraining it within some already given norm.” (215). In itself, this formulation might imply that Nina's murderous activities and desire for revenge are themselves neither good nor evil. Such a reading could accord with a more relativist reading of Nietzsche, insofar as the Christian virtue of forgiveness is read as a slave morality inversion of the preceding master morality of vengeance. This would also accord with the ethics of the Italian western and the vendetta, which Argento has spoken of favourably on occasion [quote from John Martin]. However, Deleuze here emphasises an equally Nietzschean distinction between active and reactive powers: “An active power maximises its potential, pushes itself to its limit and reaffirms the life of which it is but one expression. A reactive power, by contrast, turns back on itself.” (216) Cast in these terms, we may thus distinguish between the positive power of Leone, Bertolucci and Argento's avenger, Harmonica, and the one seeks vengeance upon, Frank, in Once Upon a Time in the West, and Nina and Roberto here.

Harmonica accepts that he is merely one expression of the old west, part of “an ancient race” whose role is now to helps bring into existence a new, feminine, west in which he knows and fully accepts that he has no place. Although Frank initially attempts to use his powers negatively to establish a place for himself in this coming world as a businessman like Morton, this reactive power turns back upon itself. For eventually he positively accepts of his equal obsolescence as one of the ancient race as he and Harmonica finally face off: “The future don't matter to us. Nothing matters now – not the land, not the money, not the woman. I came here to see you. 'Cause I know that now, you'll tell me what you're after.” Regardless of the which man wins this duel, the wider outcome, the birth of the new west, is assured. Their “large form” binominal leads to a new situation. The elegiac qualities of the film depend upon its ambiguity here, as to what this new situation represents: improvement, degeneration or an admixture of both. Cast in these terms, Harmonica and to a lesser extent Frank's becomings, like that of the west itself, are of a deterritorialising, becoming-woman type.

Nina's desire for vengeance upon her father is, by contrast, entirely reactive and negative. As we have seen, she is never positioned as looking towards the future, only the past, through the circling camera work. We get no sense of what her plans for life without her father and/or Roberto are, if any. As such, it makes sense that Nina should die rather than escape when her plans fail. Nina's becoming is of a territorialising, masculine, reactive type, one that can only turns back on itself in a destructive manner.

Sunday 8 November 2009

Mondo Candido

As with the better-known Candy (1968) scripted by Terry Southern, this is an adaptation of Voltaire's Candide, although one that adheres to the source text as far as the title character's gender and the (vague) historical setting are concerned.

Nonetheless, as with filmmaker's Franco Prosperi and Gualtiero Giacopetti's earlier Farewell Uncle Tom, faithfulness to the original texts (there, the actual testimonies of pro-slavery and abolitionists commentators) is combined with numerous anachronistic elements and a decidedly formalist approach, with freewheeling camerawork, exaggerated angles, kaleidoscopic images and slow-motion amongst other devices.

We begin with Candido and his mentor Dr Pangloss as part of a Royal Court. Unfortunately Candido's relationship with princess Cunegonde leads to his exile from this paradise, separation from his mentor, and drafting into the Bulgarian army.


Equipped with muskets, cannons and exaggeratedly large triangular hats bearing the symbol of the illuminati, the Bulgarian forces march into battle for the glory of their king, against 20th century forces, equipped with tanks and automatic rifles.

The result is a predictable massacre, with the Bulgarian troops – now replaced by cardboard cut outs – being mown down in their tens of thousands, until the painter appointed to document the battle resorts to covering his canvas with red paint.

Candido, one of the few survivors of the massacre, then meets up with Pangloss, following an encounter with a brutish and decidedly ignoble savage, played by Sal Boris./Baccaro It seems that the kingdom was attacked by demons (later in flashback these will be revealed as knights on motorcycles, a la Knightriders) who killed the king and queen and raped Cunegonde no less than 126 times. Pangloss himself was saved on account of his syphilis, one of the various benefits that had necessitated the discovery of the Americas in this “best of all possible worlds”. Without the Americas, after all, we would not have potatoes, tomatoes or turnips either...

Some naught nuns

They soon encounter the inquisition, an element which strengthens what is by now a strong sense that the filmmakers have here made something akin to an Italian version of Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail or Jabberwocky, perhaps not as funny but arguably more grotesque.

The inquisitor disapproves of Pangloss's discussion of freedom and necessity, that it is necessary we be free, and orders them taken before the inquisition, which features some seriously funky grooves and nuns naked but for their hoods and figleafs.

Some Klansman like inquisitors who would not have been out of place in Farewell Uncle Tom

Candido acquires a freed slave called Cacambo and meets Cunegonde once more, while Pangloss is sentenced to death for his heresies. It emerges that Cunegonde has many lovers, including the inquisitor, whom Candido attempts to rescue her from.

Then Cundegonde is then taken to the new world, leading Candido and Cacambo to follow her; also on board their ship are Columbus, Vespucci, Davy Crockett, Marilyn Monroe, Al Capone, Neil Armstrong and Henry Kissinger.

They arrive in present day New York, where Pangloss is in charge of a TV crew. As Columbus is used to advertise coca cola, Candide learns that Cunegonde has gone to fight with the IRA in Northern Ireland, only to then find that she has left there for Israel, where (female) Israeli soldiers and unspecified Arabs gun one another down much like their counterparts in the Bulgarian army episode 200 years earlier; fans of the filmmakers work, will of course here recall that Israeli women soldiers had been featured in one of the segments of their earlier Women of the World.

The multiple images neatly reflect the multiplication of lovers and of possible best worlds

Given this kind of intertextuality, we might the following: If Mondo Cane presents a proposition, that this might be a Dog's World, then Mondo Candido presents more of a fact, that this is Candido's world and also ours.

Where Prosperi and Gualtiero's approach coincides with their source material is in their decidedly anti-Panglossian position, that this is quite emphatically not the best of all possible worlds. Moreover, between the Voltaire was writing and the time they were filming, things seem to have improved hardly any. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, to quote Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr...

Riz Ortolani's score is a pleasure, especially the cuts featuring positively orgasmic female vocalism. Christopher Brown, Michelle Miller and Jacques Herlin acquit themselves nicely as the three leads, with Miller at times reminding one of Edwige Fenech in her looks and mannerisms.

The production clearly had a decent budget, although one wonders how many places the film was denied distribution in on account of its excesses, unpleasantries and political aspects, and of how many viewers were simply weirded out.

Saturday 7 November 2009

Today's Deep Red Notes #2

The interrelated themes of doubling and foreshadowing in the film have been independently identified and discussed by Tim Lucas (200?) and Aaron Smuts (2002). Insofar as Smuts's is the more extended and academic commentary it is the one I will focus upon here. To Smuts, Deep Red employs what he terms “principles of association” and “association provocation” between images, with these being concepts he draws from David Hume. There are two main ways in which Deep Red does this: By “encouraging viewers to pair disparate elements” and by “using pairings established within the film and in normal everyday experience to provoke and heighten the viewers' response.”.

These associations begin with the enigmatic vignette which interrupts the credits. In this one shadowy figure stabs another, then a knife is dropped at the feet of a child. This image, which has no direct bearing upon Marcus's investigation, exists solely in the past and minds of Carlo – the child – and his mother. However, the nursery rhyme which plays over is reprised prior to Helga's murder and elsewhere, establishes associations for the viewer, as does the image of the scene drawn by Carlo as a child when Marcus finds it on the wall of the House of the Screaming Child. (After the house burns down Marcus discovers that Olga has copied this image – or, rather, the other original that is in the Leonardo Da Vinci School archives. (Again, issues around the original and the copy are not significant in meaning or auratic effect here, to once more suggest Argento's postmodernism.)

Other associations are more subtle. For instance, the close-up of water spilling from Helga's mouth as she senses a malevolent presence in the theatre is reprised in the spittle and foam coming from Carlo's mother's mouth as she is decapitated in the climax. Likewise, the attention paid to the image of a road maintenance truck makes no obvious sense until we can relate it to the similar truck which accidentally catches Carlo and drags him to his death. As viewers we might also notice the discrepancy between the image of the House of the Screaming Child Marcus takes from Amanda's book and the House, that there is a bricked up window, before Marcus does. If so, then we might also retrospective realise an association with the image of Carlo's mother in the hallway of Helga's apartment.

Elsewhere it is the dialogue that creates associations. For example, Marcus tells Gianna that his analyst might suggest his choice of occupation is psychoanalytically (over-)determined: When playing the piano he is “really bashing [his] father's teeth in”. Later, Giordani has his teeth bashed in.

In each of these cases, it might be argued that we have the completion of a circuit between two images. The difference from Deleuze would perhaps be that both images are actual, rather than one initially appearing as virtual and the other actual, before they then become indiscernible.

Giordani's fate exemplified the other aspect of Deep Red's associational strategies, that of basing the most of the violence inflicted upon its characters on the intensification of routine rather than exceptional experiences. As Argento notes in an interview featured on the Anchor Bay DVD of the film, few of us know what it feels like to be shot. However, we all know what it is like to be cut with a piece of broken glass, be scalded by too hot water or bump our teeth on a glass. When we see Helga's throat sliced to ribbons by the plate glass window; Amanda Righetti having her head forced into a bath full of boiling water, or Giordani's teeth being bashed in, we thus have a more visceral response. Rather than being just a conceptual shock, that it cannot feel good to be shot, it is an experiential grounded one as well, something that is felt in our bodies. The “cinema of the mind” and the “cinema of the body” are brought closer together, their differences downplayed by situations that are a combination of “everyday banality” (a little cut, a too hot bath) and “extremes” (crashing through a window, being immersed in boiling water).

Another way in which Deep Red is a more complex film than its predecessors is in its narrative structure. As McDonagh (1992) has noted, the film's opening scenes present us with a disorienting series of disconnected fragments: the vignette that interrupts the credits, jazz musicians at a conservatory and a parapsychology conference. What is lacking is the clear introduction of protagonist and narrative, with these only emerging once Helga has been murdered and Marcus has been identified as the eye-witness to the crime. Such an approach was likely to frustrate the terza visione viewer, especially as he might well still be settling into his seat or not even in the auditorium for the vignette and thus be miss out on it.

If this fragmentation is more indicative of the international art cinema, or the modernist time-image, this is again countered by more popular, vernacular or movement-image elements elsewhere. One of the most notable of these, in its excesses, is the screwball comedy and commedia dell'arte styled exchanges between Marcus and Gianna. Equally, however, the more substantive content of these scenes, with their positive commentary on the emergence of Italian feminism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was probably somewhat alien to the typically traditionally-minded terza visione male.

Comparisons with other filmmakers gialli and the Decamerotic filone are useful here. Marcus and Gianna's relationship lacks any displays of physical intimacy or nudity from Nicolodi. As Nicolodi had been naked through much of Carmelo Bene's experimental adaptation of Salome (1972) and in some of her stage roles, it seems safe to say that this was not down to prudishness on her part. Rather, in combination with the sex scene in The Cat o' Nine Tails between Giordani and Anna Terzi, and the bath scene in Four Flies on Grey Velvet between Roberto and Daria, it appears that Argento was basically uncomfortable with displays of nudity and intimacy and sublimated them, with conscious awkwardness, into violent set pieces: The only bare breasts we see in Deep Red are those of Helga, after her clothes have been ripped falling through the window.

Though this approach, Argento was refusing to give terza visione viewers what they would have found in many of his imitators' gialli. The obvious examples here would be just about any film starring either Edwige Fenech, such as Andrea Bianchi's self-explanatory Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975). If the giallo is essentially a kind of exploitation cinema, as Koven contends, not all gialli are equally exploitative, or exploitative in the same ways. (Some gialli, like Massimo Dallamano's What Have You Done to Solange (1972), present a curious combination of female nudity for the male gaze but incorporate this same gaze into their diegesis in a somewhat self-critical manner.)

The Decamerotic, meanwhile, often presented women getting the better of men in the battle of the sexes, but rarely before they had shed their clothes for the delectation of the male viewer. Moreover their medieval settings meant that were engaged with gender politics at a historical remove, while their straightforwardly comedic nature made them inherently less challenging. The Fenech vehicle Ubalda, All Naked and Warm (Dir: Mariano Laurenti, 1972) is an obvious case in point.

Smuts, Aaron. 'The principles of association' vol2 no. 11. 2002.

Today's Deep Red notes #1

These images also suggest transference from Helga to Marcus: She has seen the face of the killer, just as he will do. In typical Argento fashion, however, Marcus does not realise what he has seen, though he is immediately aware that there is something missing or different about Helga’s apartment as he revisits it with the police.

Another element which adds credence to this interpretation is the introduction of reporter Gianna Brezzi (Dario Nicolodi) as the scene progresses. Identifying Marcus as the eye-witness, the one who saw everything, she photographs him. This image, besides showing a reversal of the gaze, is also the thing which, when reproduced in the newspaper, allows Carlo’s mother to know who now threatens her secrets, that Marcus is now confirmed as Helga’s double. (Given the film’s excesses, however, it is also possible that she may know via her son, especially if he was indeed a lookout.)

Deep Red can also be considered a poetic film in the manner proposed by Edgar Allan Poe, a strong influence upon Argento and his co-screenwriter Bernardino Zapponi, who had earlier worked with Fellini on his free adapation of Poe in Spirits of the Dead (196?). The key text here is Poe’s essay The Philosophy of Composition (1846), in which he analyses his earlier poem The Raven (1845). In this essay Poe argues that texts should have what he terms “unity of effect”. The emotional response or affect that the author desires to produce in his reader ought to dictate his aesthetic decisions. In Deep Red, as we have seen, everything is orchestrated to produce feelings of unease and dread in characters and audience alike.

The theme of doubling is most obviously seen in the characters of Marcus and Carlo. When we first see them together, they are dressed in similar but contrasting outfits: Carlo wears a dark suit and a light shirt, Marcus a light suit and a dark shirt. As Carlo and Marcus discuss Helga’s murder, they are then positioned identically to the extreme right and left of the frame, which is dominated by the statue in its centre, as if mirror images. Another image sees Marcus holding up his hand, while Carlo has his back to the camera, with the composition such that they again look like near reflections of one another. Later, the two men perform a duet on the piano. Yet there are also crucial differences between the two men: Marcus may have a sensitive, “artistic temperament” and suffer from claustrophobia, but he is not the drunken, self-destructive mess that Carlo is. Marcus is straight, Carlo gay. And, in relation to the film’s politics, Marcus is pointedly described by his friend as “the bourgeois of the piano” who plays for art, whereas he self-identifies as the “proletarian,” playing for survival. The extent to which this is true is questionable, with Carlo’s mother seemingly wealthy and respectable enough, but it again contributes to the fact that the film is more than a regular giallo.

Another important other aspect of Deep Red’s doubling relates to this. This is its double or hybrid nature as a giallo and as a fantasy-horror film. As we saw, the Animal Trilogy basically presented a rational, non-supernatural worldview. Though the films were critical of the way science was used, none really presented any radically different alternatives. In Deep Red, by contrast, certain images hint at the co-existence of natural and supernatural worlds. This is seen at the parapsychology conference, where a number of images suggest something beyond Helga’s assertion her powers have nothing to do with the occult or magic. There are the false point-of-view shots from high up in the auditorium, which are never resolved to be incorporated into the set, by showing someone there. Then there is the shot from behind Helga, Bardi and Giordani, which cannot be from any human character’s position, as they would be obvious from the reverse angle. Then we have the assaultive camera movement which sweeps over Helga as she senses a murderous presence amongst her audience, who will kill again. Finally, as they leave the theatre and Helga announces that she knows the killer’s identity and senses something, the point-of-view camera is positioned where Carlo’s mother would be visible to the others.
Another of Deep Red’s major differences from its predecessors is the way Argento uses music. Goblin’s progressive rock styled score is considerably more intense than those provided by Morricone. As it plays in murders of Helga, Giordani and Amanda Righetti, it is also decidedly anamepathetic towards them. Indeed, if this cue empathises with anyone it seems more Carlo’s mother than her victims, with percussive stabs corresponding to some of the blows she inflicts upon them in manner perhaps derived ultimately from the stabbing strings of Psycho’s shower scene cue. Tellingly the cue usually preceding these murder set pieces is the children’s song first heard in the fragment that interrupts the credits and Goblin’s theme music, which has become part of the scene that Carlo’s mother must replicate to perform the murders. As such, it seems that one diegetic cue is replaced by another, non-diegetic one. There is not one “leitmotif of the crime,” as Bardi remarks, but two.

Given the complexity of its central images, Deep Red presents a different kind of situation to the Bird with the Crystal Plumage: There the triggering image, of the struggle in the gallery, was sufficiently clear for Sam Dalmas to make an immediate sensory-motor response. It was only when he became trapped that we began to become aware of the action-image breaking down into component opsigns and sonsigns. While the initial image of Helga crashing through the window performs a similar triggering function for Marcus, nothing stops him from reaching Helga, even although he is unable to prevent her death. But in blindly passing by the composite image of the framed and mirrored Carlo’s mother, he is confronted with something that he cannot respond to. There is too much to this image in its formalist, realist and psychoanalytic facets, each in turn contained in the Deleuzean frame as opsigns. Here it is important to also remember that Marcus has not yet seen the full extent of the damage inflicted upon Helga. As such, it seems that he is shocked by an image that is excessive, but not simply in conventionally violent erms:

“A purely optical and sound situation does not extend into action, any more than it is induced by an action. It makes us grasp, it is supposed to make us grasp, something untolerable and unbearable. Not a brutality as nervous aggression, an exaggerated violence that can always be extracted from the sensory-motor relations of the action-image. Nor is it a matter of scenes of terror, although there are sometimes corpses and blood. It is a matter of something too powerful, or too unjust, but sometimes also too beautiful.” (2005b: 17)

Some notes on Deep Red

Koven argues that the typical giallo set piece, with its self-conscious use of techniques, can be seen as a poetic interlude within an otherwise prosaic film. One issue with his use of Pasolini's concept is the different subjectivities that are implicated through visible and subjective camera. For Pasolini the camera consciousness of The Red Desert functioned as a reflection of Giulia's neurosis, which he felt was shared by director Antonioni himself and by the modern bourgeois audience. In the typical giallo set piece, however, Koven identifies the camera as expressing a psychotic rather than neurotic state. As such, it is less easy to see the camera as also articulating a wider shared consciousness, whether that of the director or of his audience.

While the Animal Trilogy certainly contains it share of “violence numbers” Cat o' Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet also have poetic moments and representations apart from the obvious set pieces: In both cases these are connected with characters: In Cat o' Nine Tails key images are associated with Arno, reflecting his insight, and Casoni, reflecting his desire to be invisible or disembodied. In Four Flies on Grey Velvet circular camera movements are associated with Nina, reflecting her inability to escape from her traumatic past, while many of the scenes centring around Roberto have a distinct edginess to them, as a reflection of his mounting paranoia.

Where Deep Red represents an advance on its predecessors is in its still more pervasive poetic quality. Besides the general mise en scene and use of sound, this is related to doubling, foreshadowing and images of seemingly random violence and cruelty, like those of two dogs fighting or of the little girl, Olga (Nicoletta Elmi), torturing a lizard: These images are excessive, in the sense of having no obvious narrative purpose. But are not excessive in that they contribute to the film's overall tense and fearful atmosphere. This atmosphere is one that Argento has identified as a reflection of the situation in Italy at the time, with terrorist activity from left and right alike and a rise in crime and unrest. The difference between Argento and other filone directors such as Sergio Martino and Umberto Lenzi is again a poetic one: Argento chose to comment on this wider situation indirectly via a giallo-horror hybrid, whereas they preferred to make actual crime films, known generically as polizioteschi or poliziotti, or turned towards giallo-poliziotto hybrids which were more direct. Another difference, as far as Lenzi is concerned, is political. While the politics of Martino's Suspicious Death of a Minor and Secret Action / The Police Accuse, The Secret Service Kills (both 1975) are more complex, Lenzi's films tend to endorse a relatively straightforward right-wing position with policemen acting as Dirty Harry style vigilantes when they feel it necessary. The politics of Deep Red are, by contrast, more to the left.

The key aspect here is Helga Ulmann's Jewishness. In itself this is another seemingly excessive element. Unlike Antonio Bido's Deep Red and Suspiria inspired The Cat with the Eyes of Jade (1977), in which a Jewish killer seeks revenge upon those who were responsible for betraying his mother and sister to the Nazis, nothing within the narrative relies upon Helga being Jewish. But this fact allows for the inclusion of a clear subtexts about the Holocaust and Fascism, both of which would be further explored in Suspiria. Helga is, after all, murdered by Carlo's mother (Clara Calamai) because she threatens to reveal her crime, hitherto thought safely in the past, just as her husband's body is bricked up behind a wall. Or, we might venture to say, hidden in a “secret annexe” in reference to Anne Frank. There is also an intertextual connection here, in that Calamai's most famous role, at least outside Italy, is probably as Giovanna in Ossessione – a film made, of course, during the Fascist regime; when her character speaks of once being an actress and shows Marcus the pictures of her in various films, these are taken from films Calamai appeared in in the 1930s and 1940s. As such, Argento seems to be warning his Italian audience in particular that if they were not careful Fascism could, like any other repressed element, still return. If someone like Lenzi was not actually pro-Fascist, Argento thus nevertheless seems to be implicitly arguing that there was a danger the position taken by his films could help Fascism re-emerge. This is also reflected in the unimportance of the police within Deep Red. In films like Free Hand for a Tough Cop (1977) Lenzi emphasises the restrictions placed upon the police by corrupt and self-serving politicians and endorses the strong lawman who is willing to take a stand and do what needs to be done. In Deep Red, by contrast, the police are incapable of solving the crime even without having to deal with any obstacles in their way.

Argento's interest in Judaism around this time can be related to the influence of two collaborators. Production designer Guiseppe Bassan, who had first worked with Argento on Five Days of Milan and would also work on Suspiria (in which Hewbrew is among the various scripts seen on the walls of the witches' lair) and Tenebre was Jewish. Perhaps more importantly actress, muse and partner Daria Nicolodi has identified herself as being brought up in both Roman Catholic and Jewish faiths and as being especially close to her Jewish grandmother, whose experiences Nicolodi has said part-inspired Suspiria.

Another difference between Argento's gialli and those of most of his imitators is that they hold up better to repeat viewings. As Koven says, the majority of gialli have little to offer once we know whodunit. In contrast, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage can be watched again to see how Argento misdirects us at the crucial moment in the gallery scene. Deep Red is similar, but a richer and more confident text. In the first 'proper' scene, of Marcus at work with his students at the conservatory we are told, in overt reference to their jazz playing but also doubling as a remark on the film's own mise-en-scene, that it is “too formal, too precise” and needs to be “more trashy”. Immediately, that is, we are being told to question what we see and hear, along with the usual hierarchy by which the formal, precise work is valued over the trashy one. These are, of course, postmodern traits: Words are used “under erasure,” with the awareness that our writing and speech cannot communicate only what we want them to, while the art/trash binary opposition is decentred.

The single image which Argento's auto-critique most clearly alludes to is the film's central one, that of Carlo's mother's face amongst the faces in a painting, caught in the mirror opposite. But if this composite image is a central one in narrative terms it occupies a marginal position within the frame(s) in which it appears. It is positioned in the bottom-left hand corner, where the first-time viewer is unlikely to notice it. Yet the fact that it is there, to be noticed upon a repeat viewing, is crucial in relation to its Bird with the Crystal Plumage counterpart. There the misdirection prevents us from seeing what Sam Dalmas does, such that we have no way of solving the mystery for ourselves. Here the misdirection lets us recognise what Marcus does not at this point, but with Argento relying upon the position and brevity of this image, along with its complexity, to prevent us from so doing. The complexity of this image stems from what it depicts: Carlo's mother's face is the realistic component, something that is presented to us 'as is' without human intervention or intentionality coming into play. The painting in which she is framed is, however, Expressionistic in style, with the other faces resembling Munch's The Scream. As such, it is a formalist component, something in which human subjectivity and expressivity are paramount. This gestalt image is then seen via a mirror, as something which both doubles or copies the original image, but which also distorts it by reversing left and right. As such, it is a psychoanalytic component, something in which we misrecognise ourselves and which can be put to ideological ends. Finally, the value of Deleuze's notion of the frame as the boundary of an information system comes into play in relation to the “pedagogy” of this image. It is simply too complex a set of data to take in at once, especially when combined with everything else in the frame at the same time, or the other images. Like Marcus, we are thus presented with a Hitchcockian “demark”, something which is out of place in the image but which we are unlikely to ourselves be able to place.

In this regard, the preceding scenes, in which Helga is attacked and in which Marcus responds are also significant. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, Argento disrupts the otherwise linear chronology of the film with a moment of simultaneity in which time is made visible: Rather than joining Marcus at the moment when he becomes aware of the attack on Helga, the action within the plaza outside takes place at the same time. We jump back in time a few minutes, even though we may not notice this until Helga crashes through the window. It is possible that Carlo is present as a lookout for his mother – albeit one compromised by his drunkenness – and that she actually passes by her son and Marcus when they talking, out of frame. However, as Deleuze emphasises, out of frame does not mean out of mind: The images within the frame connect with the larger circuit, the infinite set of images from which they are drawn. The second reason is the way in which Helga and Marcus are connected together. Argento uses a sudden and extreme zoom out from the window of Helga's apartment to Marcus and Carlo in the square, soon followed by a cut to a close-up of Helga from Marcus's implied point of view. The zoom is not a device which Argento particularly uses, especially when compared to other filone directors including Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci. Both these directors would often use the zoom as alternative to conventional cutting or decoupage, zooming in or out on a character or detail within the scene. As such, whenever Argento uses the zoom, we may assume there is a specific reasoning behind it. The close-up of Helga, meanwhile, is too close to be an actual reflection of what Marcus sees, and thereby further reminds us of the distinctive abilities of the camera compared to the human eye as it also establishes a connection between the two characters.

Friday 6 November 2009

And another random thought

Imagine, if you will, an Argento film with Chris Doyle as cinematographer. A marriage made in heaven, or in hell?

But, much like Vittorio Storaro, I tend to wonder about Doyle and whether he becomes the auteur of the films on which he collaborates: Luigi Bazzoni's The Fifth Cord and Footprints have that too beautiful, too composed aspect, whereas The Bird with the Crystal Plumage still has that imperfection.

Yet more random thoughts

Suspiria and Inferno are like Welles/Wyler and neo-realism as far as colour goes:

The US directors did long takes and deep focus in the studio, while their Italian counterparts did shooting on location. But there was an either/or at this time: use deep focus in the studio, or go on location.

Likewise. Suspiria did things with colour using obsolescent technology that could not be repeated, while Inferno used then-new technology to similar ends.

But Suspiria's look is different from Inferno's Each has its plusses and minuses: Suspiria is more intense, with saturation of one colour, while Inferno is more nuanced, with slabs of this colour and that.

Argento colour

From Four Flies on Grey Velvet through to Suspiria there is a progressive shift in colour. In Four Flies colour is still something which tends to inhere in objects, things or images: This curtain is red; the lining of this (fetishistic) box containing a syringe is red; this liquid drawn up into the syringe is blue. In Deep Red colours begin to become independent: While the reds of the opera house still inhere in objects, the blues and oranges of the burning house of the screaming child, as they play on Gianna’s form, are independent. Finally, in Suspiria colours break free. They are in themselves, no longer subordinate to objects. One moment a scene is bathed in red, another blue or green, without commentary from those diegetically engulfed. Colour here, and in Inferno, is pure intensity.

(cf. The impulse image in Bava, in Sam Ishii-Gonzales's Deleuzean reading

Suspiria question

When Mater Suspiriorum sits down on the bed behind the curtain in Suspiria, is she shot in reverse motion? There seems something unnatural about her movements to me.

Thursday 5 November 2009

Random thoughts

Is it better to watch a film in a language we do not totally understand, without subtitles? As this draws us back to the silent, pre-linguistic (babelistic) way of viewing when, ideally, a story could (should) be told wordlessly through images (and maybe music) alone? Is the spawn of The Last Laugh, Once Upon a Time in the West and Suspiria?


The shot of the knife plunging into Giordani in Deep Red is like than into Daria in Four Flies, but does not 'mirror' his anguish.


Mirrors are also implicated in Giordani's re-cognition of Amanda's murderer in the mirror: first he sees this in the bathroom mirror, the steam, which then prompts him to look at what she (her body) was pointing at.

"A mirror is a negative space
With a frame and a place for your face
It reveals what the rest of us see
It conceals what you'd like it to be"
- Blue Oyster Cult, Mirrors

More on another image from Deep Red

Doubling is also an aspect of Deep Red’s soundtrack. Argento originally commissioned jazz composer Giorgio Gaslini, who had done the scores for Five Days of Milan (including a Kubrick/Carlos styled rendition of The Thieving Magpie on synthesiser) and Door into Darkness. In the event, however, Argento encouraged Goblin to reinterpret Gaslini’s work, with the result being a soundtrack which was more Goblin/Argento than Gaslini.

The dominant features of the soundtrack are its intensity and its indifference, or its anempathetic quality, particularly when compared to Morricone’s soundtracks for the Animal trilogy: The musical cues, whether the one which plays over the credits, or over Helga’s murder, or to Marc’s visits to the haunted house, do not reflect these characters’ consciousness, nor any consciousness we are invited to share. Rather, they are intense and exciting, in a distanced way: Aesthetised murder, be it of a man or a woman – gender is irrelevant in pure figural terms – is exciting, even if we may feel revulsion towards its real world, unaestheticised, counterpart. Murder as one of the fine arts is one thing, banal unartistic, real murder another.

[As I paste this, there is the image of Marc and Carlo doing a piano duet, sometimes doubling one another, sometimes departing;..]

Some thoughts on two or three images from Deep Red

As Marcus’s gaze meets Helga, Argento does something unusual within his work: He uses the zoom lens, rather than the sequence of two or three jump cuts. Through this he draws us from Marcus to Helga in an instant, without any interruption.

Argento’s general avoidance of the zoom lens is something which distinguishes him from Bava, Fulci and many other Italian directors working within the giallo and horror filone. For them the zoom was a staple part of their repertoire: It was a device which still had meaning, beyond signifying the laziness and ineptitude assumed by more traditionally inclined critics, but one which was nevertheless equally predictable: It was an impulse image, a shock.

For Argento it is also a shock, but through its rarity or singularity a shock to thought: What does this image, from this filmmaker, mean in this context? The answer, I would argue is that it makes a connection, and a transference, from Helga to Marcus. Helga had earlier indicated at the parapsychology conference that she could only see things at the instance they happened, but not what was to happen. As such, she could not predict her murder. But what she may have done here, at the moment of death, was project the killer’s identity to Marcus via her gaze. Marcus, however, is likewise thereby unable to see things until the moment they have happened: As he races into Helga’s apartment, he cannot recognise what he sees as a movement-image, a sensory-motor schema that provides a guide to action, as it is before him (or to his side).

This is also perhaps due to the sheer complexity of this image. Besides its marginalisation with the frame, that it is a central piece of data in a peripheral position, it neatly combines the three pre-Deleuzean conceptions of the frame. As a realist image it is a window on the world: Here is Martha’s face. As a formalist image it is a frame on the world: Here is Martha, seemingly as part of a painting. As a psychoanalytic image it presents a distorting mirror: Martha, reflected in the mirror, appears as part of the painting.

But, as we saw earlier, Deleuze’s notion of the frame (or the frame within the frame?) as encompassing a set of data potentially incorporates and thus supercedes each of these previous images. It presents the frame, or the frame within the frame, as containing a data set to be read.

Yet, this notion also indicates one of the problems here: an information system, of a computer type, and human perception do not accord. This is at least implicit in Deleuze’s discussions of conventional organic human or animal perception, as attending to those things which are habitually of the most important, and of those things through habitual patterns. But it is questionable if machine perception works in the same way. Rather than arriving in a massively parallel fashion, computer data arrives in series. An image is not perceived all at once, with the point(s) of interest then being focused upon. For humans, however, visual images are still processed in a linear fashion, starting at the top left and continuing along and down to the bottom right. (While there are bidirectional code libraries for text display, to reflect the habituated reading patterns of Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and other written languages, these are not yet reflected in conventional image processing libraries. In addition computer display co-ordinates are not Cartesian: an X, Y graph of pixel coordinates is different from an X,Y graph of Cartesian coordinates.)

As such, whereas we might happen – especially on a repeat viewing – to acknowledge the figure or information in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen, a Deleuzean, more linear reading of this data, line by line, would perhaps fall short.

Alternatively, this again points to the difference between using these ideas metaphorically, as philosophical concepts, and literally, as scientific functions...

Giallo themed T-shirts

Perfect complements to a Lovelock and Load wardrobe ;-)

I might have to order me a couple...

Il lungo, il corto, il gatto

This is another of the Franco and Ciccio vehicles directed by Lucio Fulci in the mid 1960s.

The two comedians play il lungo/the long (Ciccio) and il corto/the short (Franco), in reference to their heights, their character names and their own otherwise interchangeable as usual. They are the long suffering-servants to a countess, who is devoted to il gatto/the cat, Archibaldo, in the way that only rich old ladies in movies can be.

An image from the cartoon credits

The thing that keeps the two idiots there, with Ciccio the smarter, again as always, is the promise of a pay-off when the countess snuffs it.

This soon happens, as she discovers that her purportedly faithful Archibaldo has not been as faithful as she had believed – he is a tom cat, after all, and will do what tom cats do, namely fathering kittens.

Franco duly engages in a spaghetti western style showdown with Archibaldo, cued with appropriate music and with Ciccio serving as referee. The outcomes is predictable, as Franco boots the cat out of the house. We need not be overly concerned for the animal's welfare, however, given the comedy context - you are not about to see a beloved comedian actually kick a real life cat - and the necessity for a dramatic complication that will prevent our two heroes from enjoying their just reward (or desserts) just yet.

This comes in the form of the reading of the Countess's will, which promises Franco and Ciccio some money, but only on the condition that they continue to take care of Archibaldo. (Most of the estate goes to the cat protection charity.)

No problem, they think: one cat is surely as good as another. Unfortunately the Countess had Archibaldo photographed and fingerprinted, making for one of the film's more inspired gags.

Franco and Ciccio thus begin a desperate search for Archibaldo, il gatto. At this point the film veers into Eurospy territory as they become mixed up in the attempts of Interpol and the Secret Service to apprehend a master-criminal (Ivano Staccioli) also known as The Cat...

This is one of those films that defies criticism. As a Franco and Ciccio vehicle it's no better or worse than the four or five other examples of their mainstream work I've seen: Funny in places, but something that's never likely to be respectable in the manner of a Toto or Tati. Fulci, meanwhile, does what he's there to do, namely letting the two comedians do their stuff. What's perhaps lacking, excepting the slides of Archibaldo as an image that would recur in his gialli a few years later, is the sense of a developing personality and style.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Tentacoli / Tentacles

Yes, this is a rip-off of Jaws, with a giant octopus in place of a great white.

But isn't Jaws itself a rip-off of Moby Dick, with the shark being less a natural creature than a supernatural one embodying our collective fears about nature, the return of the repressed and all that?

Wasn't making rip-offs what the filone cinema was all about anyway?

Now you see him...

Now you don't

Another early victim is the one-legged old salt/Ahab/Quint type

And doesn't Tentacles also work its own variations upon its model, one of which – the monster's going after the kids as they sail – actually seems to have been taken up by Jaws II, an film which, along with III and IV, exemplifies Hollywood's own less than perfect record when it comes to opportunistic cash-ins?

Now you see it...

Now you don't

Likewise, doesn't the fact that the octopus can grab victims from above the surface and sucks their flesh and marrow away add its own frissons; It's not so much “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water... “ as “It's not safe to even go near the water”

Another variation is the splitting of the evil businessman / politician type into two. On the one hand we have the President of Trojan Construction, played by Henry Fonda. On the other we have his underling. While Fonda defends his company he's horrified to learn of his underling's corners-cutting on a tunnel – the one that's led to all the trouble.

Other US actors collecting their paychecks are Shelley Winters and John Huston, who in his other career had actually directed a version of Moby Dick.

They're cast opposite a number of familiar Italian faces and names, including Franco Diogene and Sherry Buchanan, while Stelvio Cipriani contributes the score. Whether out of economy, laziness or environmental concern, some of his cues seem recycled from What Have You Done to Your Daughters.

Sherry, in uncharacteristically exploitation-avoiding image

Franco, the comedy fat man as per usual

While Ovidio G Assonitis / Oliver Hellman is clearly no Steven Spielberg, he does a decent enough job. There is plenty of underwater action and some nice colour work, with yellow and blue contrasts often being used, the budget obviously being large enough to allow for a reasonably broad canvas.

A world without red

A real octopus

Inevitably the scenes with the octopus are variable: Sometimes you can tell it's a tank with a regular sized octopus and models, while the image of the octopus's head half out of the water as it races towards its next victims is pretty cheesy. But, to be honest, the special effects in Jaws really don't look all that special nowadays either.

So it's a rip-off, but so what?

Whether the same can be said for the producer-director's Piranha II, as a sequel to a knock-off, is another matter...

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Yet more notes to self

There are a multitude of ways in which we can study film: Aesthetically, technologically, culturally, economically and so forth. The value of any given film for the discipline of film studies could be seen as lying in the extent to which it will support different interpretive perspectives. A film which can be looked at both for its aesthetics and for its wider significance is arguably thereby more valuable, than one which offers little or nothing in aesthetic or formal terms. On this basis, Italian neo-realist and modernist films are undoubtedly more important than most other films released in Italy from the mid 1940s through to early 1980s. However, there were also aesthetics other than neo-realism and modernism, such as the post-modernist aesthetic I will argue was explored by my three figures, Sergio Leone, Dario Argento and Giulio Questi. Similarly not everything made by the neo-realist and modernist auteurs made was of equal significance, other than from an auteurist perspective. Vittorio de Sica's late films, such as Sunflowers and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, are a case in point. While conventional, well-made films, they have little to offer aesthetically for this selfsame reason. Indeed, the most interesting other aspect of Sunflowers is an awkward one: The fundamental unreality of its treatment of Italan prisoners in the USSR and general portrait of the Soviet regime in the Stalinist and immediate post-Stalinist period, such that it might be read as an ageing humanist filmmaker's being taken advantage of by the then-regime in the USSR.

Also of issue here is the quality-quantity relationship. Is it better to have a film that is 'correct' in both its form and content, as famously espoused by the Cahiers du cinema editorial collective in the heavily politicised post-1968 context – one in which both Leone and Argento operated, albeit in its Italian rather than French form? Is it better to make compromises on one of these axes in order to be more accessible? Or is it better to be excessive, in the manner of the collective's Category E. By this the works of favoured auteurs were often rescued through recourse to (these) readers interpretations, in the manner of Barthes' notion of the Death of the Author. What was perhaps lacking, however, was the absolute freedom of those readers whose interpretation differed from that of the Cahiers theorist, that freedom of thinking differently, of seeking other (no less readerly) “Pleasures of the text”. From a postmodern perspective a right-wing reading of Ford's Young Mr Lincoln (1940) is not necessarily more or less valid than a left-wing one, nominally against the grain. Or, we may be able to deconstruct the deconstructive text that wrongly attempts to exempt itself from deconstruction, or the text that goes with the grain of the against the grain text. Put another way, we should consign ourselves to permanent opposition, of always refusing the doxa, perhaps more particularly when the former paradoxa has become the doxa.

All this is compounded by the national-international aspect: The more an Italian, French or German film talks to its specific national audience, arguably the less it says to a wider international one. Or, by addressing itself to a particular international audience, particularly that of an intellectual revolutionary elite arguably with a tendency towards abstract theory over specific contextual details, it has less to say to a broader national audience more characterised by the opposite tendencies.

In all this I am challenging modernist positions in favour of postmodernist ones: Form should not necessarily be privileged above content; quality over quantity; the elite over the mass, the general (international) over the specific (Italian). Rather each term needs to be put into “free play” or association with the others, the relative gains and losses recognised. For instance, if the Leone film was not as pure as the Antonioni, it reached many more people; as I write this with my word processor, Leone is recognised as a word, like Hitchcock, whereas Antonioni is not. I would, however, argue that in productive terms, in encouraging us to think about phenomena in a fresh way the popular-postmodernist text has now more to offer than the elite-modernist one.

Lo chiamavano Tresette... giocava sempre col morto / In the West There Was a Man Named Invincible / Man Called Invincible / Tricky Dicky

Recently I revisited a couple of Giuliano Carnimeo / Anthony Ascott's Sartana films as part of the box set. These proved to be an ideal grounding for watching this 1973 comedy spaghetti from the director, which stars George Hilton, Cris Huerta and Evelyn Stewart.

The plot, which involves the secret transportation of a shipment of gold – one that everyone and their dog seems to know about, indicating that things are not entirely on the level – is as complicated as any of the official Sartana entries.

Technological gimmicks are similarly prevalent, most notably in Tresette/Tricky Dicky's (Hilton's) music boxes, which variously also function as Gatling guns and explosively in a proto “candygram for Mongo” fashion.

The general tone of the film, however, is more akin to the Trinity series, with plenty of cartoon and slapstick humour, including an actual pie-fight and a gag in which the heroes escape from (the sheriff's own) jail by painting out the bars of their cell to make it look like they have escaped; nor does anyone ever gets killed by one of the music boxes, only humiliated.

Hilton and Huerta likewise form a kind of Hill and Spencer pairing, of brains and brawn respectively – Huerta's Bambi (Bambino?) having been appointed sheriff in MacPherson/MacPiedish's (sic) town, Apple Pie City, because he appears a born loser (read honest) whose career so far has been a series of moves to less and less prestigious posts, beginning with Kansas City. (This also provides a clue: those in power in that notoriously corrupt place didn't want him around, given the tendency of Dicky to follow in his wake.)

One thus gets the impression that Carnimeo and his collaborators took a Sartana script, renamed their protagonist and chose to play up the comedy aspect. This is perhaps best epitomised by the black clad gunfighter Twinkletoes who doggedly follows Dicky around challenging him duel after duel, without ever winning nor being taken out in the more serious “playing for keeps” manner Sartana would have employed when necessary.

Stylistically the film is very much like most other Carnimeo films I have seen: He is not afraid to try out just about any technique you can think of – crash zooms, whip pans, accelerated motion etc. – but does so in a way that makes even a Sergio Corbucci appear disciplined by comparison.

Examples of the comic-book visuals

Needless to say it doesn't all work – the likes of the Bent Gang and the Closet Cousins are somewhat lazy gags, with the double-entendres and one-liners equally hit and miss (“I find her a bit dykey, Dicky” another example of going for easy targets) – but enough of it does for the film to be worth a look if you are in the right mood, with Hilton's easy charm and the fact that everyone involved was clearly having fun themselves definite plus points.

Finally, it was a strange coincidence that on the IMDB today the quote of the day came from Frost/Nixon. Richard: “That's our tragedy, you and I Mr. Frost. No matter how high we get, they still look down at us.”

[See also: and]

Some notes on box-office

Neo-realist films had mixed fortunes at the Italian box-office. Rome Open City was the most successful film of 1945, with takings of 25,476,250,000 lire in 1998 terms. However its uncompromising follow-up, Paisan ranked only seventh in 1946. This was behind Alberto Lattauda's more populist Il Bandito, in third place with takings of 37,501,040,000 lire, but ahead of Scuiscia in 22nd place. The most successful film of 1947 was Riccardo Freda's adaptation of Les Miserables; Freda had also directed the second most popular film of 1946, The Black Eagle. 1948 presents a similarly mixed picture: If Bicycle Thieves was 5th most successful, with takings of 32,160,240,00, Germany Year Zero and La terra trema were only 34th and 38th respectively. No significant neo-realist films were released in 1949, although Pietro Germi's In the Name of the Law and Giuseppe De Santis's Bitter Rice, both featuring neo-realist elements alongside more conventional genre aspects, ranked 6th and 7th respectively. Tellingly, however, both were behind the Toto vehicle Toto cerca casa, in 3rd.;; the previous year the comedian's Toto al giro d'italia was in fourth place at the box-office. Even at the height of neo-realism, Italian audiences were clearly selective in the neo-realist films they saw and frequently preferred more traditional fare. This was again evident in 1950, where Marcel L'Herbier and Paola Moffa's version of the oft-filmed Last Days of Pompeii was the highest grossing film of the year, with receipts of 89,082,084,000, whereas Rossellini's Stromboli ranked only 17th; Antonioni's debut feature, Story of a Love Affair, ranked 46th. In 1952, meanwhile, Europa '51 ranked 55th, Umberto D 98th. Finally, in 1957, by which time neo-realism was over, the relative success of Nights of Cabiria, in 12th place, must be considered alongside the 46th and 72nd places achieved by White Nights and Il grido respectively.

Relating figures like these back to most studies of Italian cinema a discrepancy is evident. A minority of neo-realist and modernist films have received a disproportionate amount of critical attention compared to their actual success with Italian audiences. Although many films that were more commercially successful may be dismissed as aesthetically uninteresting, it seems wrong to reject them in toto. It is true that neo-realist and modernist films were more likely to be amongst the ten to fifteen percent of Italian productions that received international distribution. However, so were many filone films.

[All figures come from Maurizio Baroni's Platea in piedi, 1945-58]

Sunday 1 November 2009

More notes to self

Deep Red/Profondo Rosso

Argento's first three films were distributed internationally in versions identical to the Italian one but for the dubbing track, with only a short period between the domestic and foreign releases. In contrast Profondo Rosso was not distributed internationally at the time of its Italian release and was eventually issued in a shorter version. This international edit, as Deep Red, was approximately 30 minutes shorter than the Italian version, which ran just over two hours, omitting some scenes (mostly those dealing with the relationship between the male and female investigators) and rearranging others. The original version, which I will here identify as Profondo rosso, has since been released. As it is more representative of Argento's vision, making clearer his excessive, poetic and crossover popular/vernacular and arthouse apects, or the prima visone as well as the terza visione aspects, is the one I will address here.

I have addressed a number of other commentators on Argento's cinema in relation to the Animal Trilogy, including Gary Needham, Mikel Koven and Maitland McDonagh. Until now, however, I have not mentioned the work of Colette Balmain, who is perhaps the most important figure for my purposes. This is because, unlike Needham and McDonagh, who emphasise psychoanalytic approaches, Balmain takes a Deleuzean approach. As such, it is obviously necessary to distinguish my Deleuzean reading of Argento from hers. The first difference is without our respective bodies of Argento texts. Whereas Balmain takes a filone based approach, by focusing on Argento's gialli over the quarter century or so from 1970's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage through to 1996's The Stendhal Syndrome. In contrast, I examine a shorter time period and look at Argento's gialli and fantasy-horror films. I would argue that this shift is justified on two grounds. First, because the period from 1970 to 1982 is widely accepted to be Argento's most productive and original one. Second, because I feel it is impossible to really distinguish between his gialli and his fantasy horror films in the way Balmain does. Balmain distinguishes between Argento's gialli through to Tenebre and from Phenomena onwards. While Phenomena contains supernatural aspects that she arguably does not fully address, this general division is one I would agree with. I would also agree with her as to the substance of this division. The films through to Tenebre are more concerned with making a critique of masculine ways of being, while those from Phenomena on explore alternative feminine becomings. What Balmain fails to really look at, however, is the way in which Suspiria and Inferno were vital to this shift in perspective through their emphasis upon young adult protagonists reduced to desexualised, child-like positions. The second difference is in our use of Deleuzean concepts. For Balmain Argento's films are examples of a time-image cinema, as is the giallo as a whole. I consider this to be both too easy an approach to take and inherently contradictory. It is too easy in that it basically entails following Deleuze but not challenging him: It is one thing to make the case for a post-war filmmaker's greatness as a time-image figure, using the concepts that Deleuze provides, another to argue for them as a movement-image figure or something else. Deleuze certainly tells us that he is addressing “masterpieces” of the movement-image and of the time-image, such that no hierarchy can apply. But he also identifies Bergson's discovery of the time-image as “more profound” than that of the movement-image, suggesting a hierarchy. Within Cinema 2 he is also notably reticent about the achievements of Scorsese, Altman, Coppola and other figure of the American cinema of the 1970s, the implication apparently being that they are not time-image or modernist enough. It is contradictory in that by reading the giallo as a time-image cinema in general Balmain denies the specificity of Argento's films and his qualities as an auteur. Being time-image becomes a condition of the genre or the filone rather than of the director. This said, Balmain's sample of non-Argento gialli is extremely limited, comprising three titles: Visconti's Ossessione and Bava's The Girl Who Saw Too Much and Blood and Black Lace. It is questionable if Visconti's film can really be read as a giallo. Most commentators would probably regard it as prototypical neo-realist work in the first instance, whilst it also lacks the whodunit element found in Bava's films and those of Argento. The whodunit form raises another contradiction. While concentrating upon Argento's thrillers Balmain actually views them largely in relation to the horror film, even as she downplays those texts which are more obviously of this type, Suspiria and Inferno.