Thursday, November 22, 2007

The overpowering feeling that any second he may suddenly appear


Everywhere I go in Italy reminds me of Dario Argento.
The spookier, more run-down parts recall the empty house of Profondo Rosso. The more modernistic, faceless parts evoke Tenebrae. The streets of Florence seem inseparable from the events of The Stendhal Syndrome. Every hotel I've ever stayed in, every street and narrow alley, seem like locations in some real, or imagined, or forthcoming example of the man's work.
Argento was at one time my favourite director in the world, and nobody else has quite dislodged his supremacy as my ultimate reference point for the architecture and mood of Italy. Antonioni and Fellini are nowhere evoked for me; Dario is everywhere.
Look at this house we saw in Ravenna:
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It is next to a river so long-dried that trees grow in its bed, but over which grey stone bridges still cross at regular intervals. Overlooking this dead river was this incredible dead house: still occupied, I think, but with the balconies so overgrown with ivy they cannot possibly be used. And my instant first thought is: what a great location for a Dario Argento movie.
I'm not the fan I once was of these films. I'm older now, and suddenly I can see why viewers with no particular liking for horror as a genre find them rather silly. Argento, like his killers, does get carried away with himself. The films are hysterical, and often careless. Even some of the features that once seemed so innovative, like the murder scenes set to prog-rock, I can now just as easily do without. (Rewatching them all recently, it seemed to me that even Profondo would be better off without its main themes: the more straightforward portions of the score are far more effective. The drums and guitars run the risk of distancing the audience from the power of the film - as the atrocious synth score of Tenebrae does almost entirely.)
The films are highly formulaic, often revolving around a black-gloved killer who murders obsessively and sadistically out of some Freudian compulsion lodged in childhood memory, and a hero who sees more than they can remember, or is haunted by the possibility that they have all they need to solve the mystery, but cannot quite arrange the pieces in the correct order. The unfolding mystery is punctuated by murder scenes which are staged and presented almost as mini-movies in their own right, frequently outrageously inventive and horrific, and accompanied by pounding music. The finales often pile twist upon twist, revealing that the murderer is in fact not the murderer after all, or is long dead and his role has been taken on midway through the film by another character entirely, or that the hero and killer are one.
Though the plots are often incredibly intricate, the essence of the films is in their distinctive visual and aural style, and the seemingly compulsive, uncontrolled nature of their violence.
Argento is at his best, for me, when he injects a dash of the bizarre in an otherwise recognisable reality, which is why, though I admire them in many ways technically, I find the likes of Suspiria and Inferno less satisfying in their anything-can-happen-ness than Bird With the Crystal Plumage or Cat o'Nine Tails. The plots of these are certainly improbable, but they have a logic to them that makes their corkscrew development and brilliant surprise twists worth the effort of following.
These two would certainly be among my favourites, as - in plot terms, at least, and notwithstanding its flashy look and sound - would Tenebrae, one of his cleverest yarns.
But best of all is Profondo Rosso, perhaps the only Argento that still seems to me an almost complete masterpiece. The plot is superb, the twist audacious (it is the only film I know which, like Poe's purloined letter, leaves the face of the killer in plain view and challenges us to spot it) and the murders - though excessive - are genuinely skilled and frightening pieces of cinema. At university, my friends and I watched this film over and over again, and delighted in introducing newcomers to its pyrotechnic terrors and delights. It never disappointed; it is still the best illustration for those unfamiliar with Argento to what he can do and how he does it. Few directors, good or bad, can honestly be said to have a truly unique style, so that it is impossible to mistake their work for that of anybody else: Argento does, and here is where it achieves perfection.
There's something to be said for most of his subsequent films, but they tend to be things of parts, in which remarkable scenes or images frequently give way to the risible or banal.
But Suspiria achieves an atmsophere of nightmare (and nightmare-logic), or of modern Grimm's fairy tale, unparalleled in the supernatural horror film, thanks in part to the incredibly rich colour-saturated images, achieved by using outdated Technicolor film stock. It also features by far his most effective collaboration with the Italian rock band Goblin, and deserves praise for its casting of Joan Bennett and Alida Valli as evil witches.
In recent years he has found his muse most often in his daughter Asia, with whom he has collaborated four times between 1993's Trauma and this year's La Terza Madre. Herself a director and an often striking presence in the films of others (La Reine Margot, Marie Antoinnette), Asia is the most distinctive feature of his later work, most of which is uneven and some of which (The Card Player, The Phantom of the Opera) is poor indeed.
Argento has echoed Poe's assertion that the most poetic topic in the world is the death of a beautiful woman by frequently playing the black-gloved killer's hands in the murder scenes ("I love my killers", he offers by way of explanation), and few directors since Hitchcock have so repeatedly subjected a single erotic ideal to such relentless debasement. (His, however, tend to be brunettes: Jessica Harper, Jennifer Connelly, Chiara Caselli, two daughters and an ex-wife among them.)
The most famous image in all his work remains that of Cristina Marsillach in Opera, a row of pins taped beneath her eyelids by the film's killer, so that she is unable to close her eyes to the murder being committed in front of her. It is probably Argento's own revenge on audiences who prefer to flinch, or peer through their fingers, or look away entirely and wait for the music to stop, rather than watch the murder scenes. "Violence is Italian art", he once said, and if I now find myself gravitating increasingly toward the ranks of the flinchers and the eye-closers, I can at least still appreciate the imagination, skill and commitment to a singular vision that Argento's filmography represents.
Meanwhile, if anybody actually does live in that house by the dried-up river in Ravenna, my advice is: count the windows and count the rooms.