Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Suspiria (1977)
Profondo Rosso ('Deep Red', 1975)
Tenebrae (1982)

There’s probably little new to add to the vast reams of commentary on Argento’s work – but here am I, here you are - or, to put it another way, Dario where all men have gone before... I must admit, to my chagrin, that I’ve started watching Dario Argento films a number of times on DVD and turned them off. But I thought that a big screen festival might present the perfect setting to challenge my déclassé tendencies (not that all culturally acclaimed works are deserving of their status – Radiohead, Animal Collective, oh and Stephen Sondheim, I’m looking at you). And it was. The two great strengths of Argento’s classic films – visual and sonic aesthetics – mean that they demand to be appreciated in an immersive environment to have their full impact – while the faults of the less realized aspects of his work, plot and character, fade into the background.

In balancing these elements, Tenebrae was the most impressive of this trilogy (having already mis-spent some time with it, I gave the unfortunate Phenomena/Creepers a miss, despite the involvement of the divine Jennifer Connelly), inasmuch as the dialogue achieves a depth of B-grade camp which contributes to the perfervid atmosphere – my favourite line being that delivered by the conflicted femme fatale: ‘I feel so … sleazy.’ While the decadent fin-de-siecle atmosphere of Suspiria (the first in Argento’s ‘Three Mother Trilogy’) is beautifully achieved, it savoured just a little too much of the flocked wallpaper and overstuffed furniture so redolent of less iconic ‘70s B movies – whereas the modernist chic of Tenebrae, combined with Goblin’s synth soundtrack which, for my taste at least (I am a diehard fan of the synthesizers of the 80s), hit the spot just a little more closely than the admitted masterpiece produced by Goblin for Suspiria, and worked more perfectly with the overall aesthetic. Indeed, Argento himself intended the film as a ‘step into the world of tomorrow,’ set in a futuristic city a few years in the future, and while this isn’t clear from the film itself, the mood that this intention has created is clearly apparent.

Suspiria is renowned for its set pieces, which are indeed the strongest of this trilogy, but Deep Red, a strange mix of horror and comedy (but not quite a horror-comedy) which is otherwise the weakest of the three (though dealing with some interesting social issues – the artist through a Marxist lens, and homosexuality, even if the plot workings related to the aforementioned ultimately plays to homophobic stereotypes) also has some deeply memorable, and deeply creepy, tableaux: while the evil puppet is a masterful moment, for me it is perhaps the ‘eye in the wardrobe’ which is the most memorable and arresting scene in a film very much concerned with the gaze, the close-up as an inquisitorial device, one which transforms the everyday into the sinister and mysterious. Indeed, the relationship between the gaze (directed at the fictional text), and the film itself as an object, is one which is made manifest in both Tenebrae, where the murders follow those described by a thriller writer, and in Deep Red’s obsession with the ocular. A flaw in the latter is the language, however, which jumps from English to Italian (and even German) from sentence to sentence - at least in the print I watched - a device which never quite gels.

Of course, we should perhaps consider Deep Red and Tenebrae separately, as examples of gialli as opposed to Suspiria’s horror supernaturalism, but this distinction is somewhat nebulous given the supernaturalism which sets the plot of Tenebrae in motion, and the horrific deaths which are central to all three. Argento, as has often been noted, knew how to give his audience grue without making this the defining characteristic of his work – but, although the majority of victims are female, to my mind charges of misogyny are unjustified, except in the context of the comparison between the gender politics of the times and our own, as well as the masculinist themes of the hard-boiled detective, as embodied in the unsuccessfully comedic ‘sex war’ between Deep Red’s protagonists.

Apart from the audio qualities of Argento’s films – which includes not only Goblin’s soundtrack work but also, in particular, the precise employment of cuts between diegetic and exegetic sound – the colour is perhaps the most impressive achievement, drenching the works in lurid and glistening sheens which are not only deeply beautiful, but which are a highly effective tool, in creating the film as a self-contained world, another facet which tends to detract from their flaws (apparently this is a result of the use of imbibition Technicolor, if that means anything to you, gentle reader – to me it conjures only visions of overindulging film technicians).

While we may have Argento to thank for the unfortunate rise of the slasher flick, the present works, for all their flaws, are not only hugely influential and enjoyable – to return to my original point, they remain paradigmatic embodiments of the cinematic (in all senses) in film, a timely reminder in an age in which, as far as the cult film is concerned, we have traded the embodied experience represented by the arthouse cinema for the widespread choice and availability offered by DVD and the internet – a process with elements of the democratization of taste which I certainly wouldn’t want to sniff at, but nonetheless in some ways a pyrrhic triumph of the market.

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