Monday, 31 March 2014

Bookshelf: Dario Argento by L. Andrew Cooper

An entry in the James Naremore-edited Contemporary Film Directors series, L. Andrew Cooper's book on giallo king Dario Argento was released in October 2012, but until recently I was unaware of it. I picked it up earlier this month, taking advantage of the (at the time) incredibly low price of the Kindle version on -- a mere £1.85. It's now back up to a rather steeper £11.15, but even at that price there's still a lot to recommend in it, even for those who've already read the established Argento tomes like Maitland McDonagh's Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds and Chris Gallant's Art of Darkness.

An Assistant Professor in Film and Digital Media at the University of Louisville, Cooper understandably adopts the approach of an academic rather than a fan, meaning that his book has more in common with the two titles mentioned above than, say, Alan Jones's various writings. That in itself is no bad thing, particularly given that Cooper uses this approach to shed new light on Argento's filmography, offering up a variety of new theories that in some respects directly contradict prevailing interpretations of these films. Rather than being divided into chapters, the book takes the form of a single essay, Doing Violence on Film, which jumps back and forth through Argento's filmography in a manner which initially seems somewhat scattershot, but in fact allows Cooper to develop a coherent argument in a way that would have been less easy had he gone for the traditional chronological approach.

Beginning with a chapter on OPERA (1987) and THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (1996), Cooper argues that these films work primarily as a response to critics who have attacked Argento and his work, casting them as sadistic voyeurs themselves who force the films and their fans to conform to their own warped viewpoint. He then jumps back to the beginning of Argento's directorial career, examining the "Animal Trilogy" of THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970), THE CAT O'NINE TAILS (1971) and FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971), arguing against the prevailing notion that these films (and the giallo in general) are steeped in Freudian psychoanalysis and instead suggesting that, far from embracing this largely discredited theory, the films in fact expressly REJECT it. I found this section to be the most interesting part of the book, offering as it does a genuinely fresh reading of the films that challenges received wisdom on them.

From the Animal Trilogy, Cooper continues down the giallo path with analyses of DEEP RED (1975) and TENEBRAE (1982), before doubling back to examine the "Three Mothers" trilogy of SUSPIRIA (1977), INFERNO (1980) and MOTHER OF TEARS (2007) and the giallo/horror hybrid PHENOMENA (1985) as anti-narrative films which privilege aesthetics above all else -- the prevailing view among many of Argento's work as a whole. Except, Cooper suggests, such an assumption would be incorrect, going on to argue that Argento's post-OPERA output has been characterised by an increasing emphasis on logic and narrative at the expense of the visual thrills that once defined his films. I must admit I found this part of the essay less convincing: while it's true that, since the mid-90s onwards, Argento's films have become less visually spellbinding, I'm not convinced that this has been accompanied by any great increase in narrative coherence. Indeed, I'd argue that the only post-OPERA film that is LESS opaque than his 70s output is SLEEPLESS (2001), which no doubt benefited from the input of acclaimed giallo novelist Carlo Lucarelli.

I was also disappointed by the failure to provide any analysis of Argento's non-giallo output post-INFERNO (which the exception of MOTHER OF TEARS), passed over without any explanation other than a statement that the remit of the remainder of the essay is the "tensions" that exist between his earlier and more recent gialli. This is regrettable since, while I don't regard THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1998) or his two MASTERS OF HORROR episodes highly at all, I would have welcomed a reading that subjected them to the same incisive analysis found elsewhere in the essay. More broadly, I also wonder at what sort of audience the book is targeted. Those already familiar with Argento could probably do without the extended narrative description, which is redundant if you already know the films, while those who don't know the films will probably want to avoid the book altogether on account of spoilers (all of the killers are identified, destroying the whodunit element that is so crucial to the enjoyment of most of these films).

The essay is bookended by translations of a couple of brief interviews with Argento originally conducted in French; I'm not sure why these were included other than to pad out the book's length.

Overall I found this an enjoyable read which at times challenged my own long-held opinions about these films, even if I wasn't convinced by every idea floated. There are some notable oversights, namely Argento's later horror output and the atypical political comedy LE CINQUE GIORNATE (1973), but it's an admirable attempt to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy relating to Argento's cinema.

Musical musings: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The main title track to Alberto Iglesias's score to TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, Tomas Alfredson's superlative 2011 adaptation of the John le Carré novel.

While I love this film (and the novel, and the Alec Guinness miniseries) for its twisty plotting and complex characterisation, not to mention the superb performances by its talented cast, it's the atmosphere that keeps sucking me back in. Literally every frame seeps with weary cynicism and the sense that the glory days of the characters and the world they inhabit are long gone, and Iglesias's languid score plays a huge part in conveying this to the viewer. If I had to choose an adjective to describe it, it would be "autumnal".

If and when Alfredson's SMILEY'S PEOPLE adaptation finally gets off the ground, I sincerely hope he brings back Iglesias to do the score.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Happy Three Mothers Day

A few frames of Jessica Harper (she of the huge eyes and wonderfully expressive eyebrows) in one of my absolute favourite films of all time, Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA (1977). The entire film is a visual treat, but something about this scene in particular always makes my heart beat just a little bit faster.

EDITED TO ADD: It just occurred to me that there's something very appropriate (if ever so slightly perverse) about posting pictures from the first instalment of the Three Mothers trilogy on Mother's Day. I've retitled the post accordingly.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Hello, world!

So I figured it was about time I started one of these things.

Strictly speaking, I do have another blog, Land of Whimsy, and when I originally started it, I envisaged it as something of a catch-all, a repository for anything and everything that took my fancy. Over the years, however, it morphed into something more specifically focused on reviews and opinions on films, DVDs and, more recent, Blu-ray Discs. The latter, in particular, brought quite a lot of traffic my way, particularly in the early days of the format... Which is all well and good, though it did mean that the site became more and more about providing a service as opposed to being what it originally started out as, i.e. a personal blog.

Which is where My Blog Thingummy (working title -- it might change at some point) comes in. The aim is for it to serve as something of a release for me, letting me talk about anything and everything without fear of censure. So you'll probably find that it comes to include personal musings, the odd film, TV or book review, pictures, links to worthwhile causes, and -- if you're very lucky -- a spot of politics. I don't imagine everyone will agree with everything I have to say, but hopefully we can all agree to disagree and get along nicely. That's if anyone ends up reading these ramblings of mine, which at present is still decidedly uncertain.

Anyhoo, I'll not say much about myself at the moment, since I'm guessing you'll get to know me a bit better through the content of my posts. I'm Michael, I'm 30 (as of writing), I live in Glasgow, and most of my spare time revolves around watching movies, reading, computer games, and writing of one variety or another. I'm an unproduced (as yet) screenwriter, with a bunch of projects in the can, in development or otherwise in the pipeline. I also recently finished a PhD on the Italian giallo films of the 1970s, examining their representations of gender as reflections of then-current sociocultural anxieties. My politics are very much to the left of centre, though I'd hesitate to label myself expressly as a socialist, liberal, social democrat or any other formal political designation. (You can see my Political Compass results here, if you're interested. Intriguingly, I've drifted quite a lot further to the left than when I last took the test a number of years ago... which I guess puts paid to the notion that everyone becomes more conservative as they grow older.)

That's about it for now. We'll see how far this blogging experiment goes and how long it lasts. I'm not going to promise to update every day, but I'll try to keep things fresh as much as is reasonably possible. Talk soon!