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Book Review: L. Andrew Cooper’s Dario Argento

January 28, 2013

I was asked to write a review of L. Andrew Cooper’s contribution to James Naremore’s series, Contemporary Film Directors, and I was eager to receive this book and write about it, being no stranger to Argento commentary myself. In 1994, Alwin Dewaele in Antwerp, Belgium requested chapters for a book he was editing on Argento, in which each of Argento’s films would be written about by a different author. I had seen Phenomena as Creepers in my eagerness to see more of Jennifer Connelly’s work after seeing Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, and had had only one high school film course at the time, leading into my first college film course. At the time, Labyrinth was eight years old, Phenomena was ten years old, and the future Oscar winner Connelly’s career was in a bad place after having agreed to too many roles in mediocre at best films involving nudity. I was quite new to horror at the time, not having been raised on the genre or having much interest in gore.  Dewaele liked my first draught and encouraged me to view Argento’s other work (as well as Mario Bava’s and Brian De Palma’s), or at least what I could see of it at the time (which involved a trek and membership application to nearly every video store in Indianapolis, especially in tracking down Key Video [20th Century Fox]’s release of Inferno, and never finding the Argento-screenwritten Westerns Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die! or They Called Him Amen, both allegedly released on video in the U.S. at the time, according to Videolog), as I prepared a second draught.  He seemed to like my fresh, film school-newbie and horror-newbie approach, bringing in insights that no one else had considered, and introducing me to Maitland McDonagh’s Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds, the first book-length study of Argento.  All of this was conducted via postal mail with a lot of stamps, although our correspondence was written with word processing software.   I have no idea what became of that project, although the draught still exists on a hard drive that is currently in storage with the rest of my A/V equipment and media.

In approaching this book, I had seen most of the films covered in some form, with the exceptions of The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) [release long delayed in the U.S.], Sleepless (2001) [released in pan and scam (what I call pan and scan) format in the U.S.], The Card Player (2004), Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005), and Giallo (2009), although many not since that mid-nineties viewing.  My Argento collection includes the heavily truncated LP-mode VHS release of The Cat o’ Nine Tails (which I have yet to see uncut on DVD), Magnum’s VHS letterboxed edition of Suspiria, bootleg VHS of 4 Flies on Grey Velvet and Phenomena with fewer cuts from Mr. DeWaele, the Anchor Bay DVDs of PhenomenaTenebre, Opera [2-disc], and The Church (which Argento co-wrote and produced), The Phantom of the Opera, the R-rated cut of Mother of Tears (which I bought at $5.99 DVD Funhouse, erroneously assuming that it was the only available version), the R-rated cut of Trauma on VHS when Media Play went out of business, a used VHS of the Argento-written war film Commandos when Video Update went out of business (I passed on Battle of the Commandos hoping to find a copy with the original box, but never did, although I did see it in my rental run, preferring it over Commandos).  Shortly before my Jacksonville move, I purchased Deep Red on DVD from J & R Music World, erroneously believing it to have gone out of print, although I never had a chance to watch it beyond watching more than the subtitled opening that was removed from the Thorn-EMI VHS on which I originally saw it.  My VHS rentals also included the VCI The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Fox Hills Video’s Unsane (a heavily cut version of Tenebre), Magnum’s R-rated cut and pan and scam SuspiriaTerror at the Opera, Two Evil Eyes, Demons, Demons 2, The Church, and I got the Argento-written Once Upon a Time in the West from the public library, which I believe was pan and scam after the opening credits.

I think my first-ever exposure to Argento’s work was seeing fairly large black and white ads for Unsane and Creepers in The Indianapolis News around 1985.  I remember my brother and I making fun of the ungrammatical title of Unsane, which gets a red underline from WordPress even though it’s become the name of a band, and which Cooper says is “not a bad title” (70), and when looking for Jennifer Connelly’s appearances, I remembered the gruesome and misleading image of half of Jennifer’s face torn to shreds by anatomically-incorrect insects.  (Jennifer Corvino, her character in the film, suffers little more physically than bumps, bruises, and minor cuts, but it surely must have an an impact on her adult life, leading to ultimately false Internet rumors that Connelly and Argento remained friends and were planning a sequel (noted by Cooper on page 127), having her play the title role in Mother of Tears, or having a fully-grown Jennifer Corvino (and possibly even the return of Jessica Harper’s Suzy Banyon of Suspiria, a film of which Harper–though not a horror fan–has become a strong proponent in recent years) as the hero of that film.)  As an aside, I personally think that, particularly if Connelly were interested in reprising the role, it could make for a fascinating dramatic television series.

I give you this possibly tedious introduction to show that many versions of Argento’s film’s exist, and Cooper’s bibliography on writings about Argento is quite enormous, particularly in terms of scholarly material, compared to what it was at the time I did my work, shoing that a lot has been done with Argento since I largely abandoned his work as a topic.  I did not write any graduate school papers about his work, and I do not believe I write any undergraduate papers, either.  Perhaps if I hadn’t drifted off to write about Carla Rueckert, Curtis Harrington, Gian-Carlo Menotti, Chris Löfvén and other excessively obscure filmmakers, I might have had a career.  Or perhaps it was that the essay that got me into graduate school, “All Work and No Play Make Jack a Dull Boy:  The Surreal and The Shining” involved Freud’s “The Uncanny,” which Kubrick used in the preparation of the film, when I have not, and have never been, a Freudian.  I have never understood why Freud is so popular in the humanities, when modern psychology dismisses Freud’s theories, being as they are drawn from case studies, which in modern science are valued for their specificity, but to generalize from them is in violation of the scientific method.

The presentation of the book as an introduction to the director in Naremore’s series has positive and negative consequences.  It suggests that the work may largely be a secondary source or overview, or that the work may be a more preferable introduction than McDonagh’s.  In reality, Cooper’s approach to Argento is quite a bit different from McDonagh’s, and his new apprach needs to be read not simply as an introduction, but as a remarkable work of analysis in its own right.  The book is broken into two sections, a lengthy essay, which might have been a better title for the book, “Doing Violence on Film,” and a section containing two originally French interviews with the director (one by Élie Castiel, and the other by Stephane Derderian), which take up only pages 149-154 of the book.  Unbroken into chapters, the essay has three sections, one on how Argento’s film texts themselves respond to criticism, focusing on Opera and The Stendhal Syndrome, a second on how Argento’s first five gialli [a type of mystery named for the yellow covers with which the novels typically appeared when the genre started–even the telvision series Murder, She Wrote, dealing as it does with amateur sleuthing, is considered part of the genre, in spite of one insipid writer I encountered attempting to translate the word as “gross”] resist conventional interpretation, in particular, psychoanalytic film criticism and its feminist approach introduced by Laura Mulvey in her influential essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which was a starting point for McDonagh, a section on how Argento’s supernatural horror films work against narrative, and a final one on how Argento’s later works, including a revisit with The Stendhal Syndrome, work against conventions.

Behind the book’s nondescript title is an essay that should be required reading for the city official in Southington, Connecticut, who thinks offering to buy back violent video games for a burning is a worthy response, rather than a bad parody, to the gun buybacks that sprang up in the wake of the Newtown school shooting.  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSE2ZvpKbcM) Cooper posits that criticism is, rather than about embracing innovation (which may have hurt my own success as a film critic), but about reaffirmation of the status quo, beating down artistic responses that transgress from the mainstream.  The book I read immediately prior to this was Jack Mathews’s The Battle of Brazil, in which the studio tried to destroy an art picture (one that I have as my stock answer for all-time favorite film, even though it’s hard, as a film student, to have just one) after it was greenlighted and shot, which certainly seems to reinforce this perception.  While many critics, including Roger Ebert when he does what he calls “propaganda voting” for a film like Errol Morris’s The Gates of Heaven, will overrecommend a film compared to their true feeling on it, this is exactly how the New York Film Critics Association handled the Los Angeles Film Critics Assocation’s granting of its highest awards in 1985 to Brazil, vs. New York for Prizzi’s Honor and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the self-important prestige picture, Out of Africa–trying to prop up an unusual and remarkable film that criticizes the status quo and had little chance of becoming a hit beyond the level expected for art house films.  Cooper demonstrates how Argento presents stand-ins for critics, not only in the first but also the second section, who belittle the attitude that violent media creates violence, directly comparing critics to murderers, and often pointing out the insipidness of their views, such as those of Christiano Berti in Tenebre (64), who is ultimately revealed as the straight razor-wielding murder of those he deems “perverts,”–namely prostitutes and gays (both male and female).  What comes up repeatedly in the book is how the films incorporate Freudian theories, but subvert them in every example.  His introduction to the Animal trilogy directly compares them to Dr. Richman’s speech at the finale of Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho.

Although it has been noted in previous scholarship, it is perhaps Cooper’s identification as a gay man (x) that helps him to fully flesh out a constant thread in Argento’s work related to gay people, with whom Argento sympathizes but does not always understand,  From his earliest film as director, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento lampoons a police detective who groups gays and transvestites with “the perverts” in a lineup in attempt to identify the film’s killer, who turns out to be a male-identifying but heterosexual woman.  The Cat o’ Nine Tails significantly involves a gay club, although my memory (always untrustworthy in the films of Argento, as Cooper repeatedly points out–although Argento was immediately dubbed “the Italian Hitchcock,” when Hitchcock experimented in this vein with Stage Fright, he was heavily criticized, although my personal opinion is that Hitchcock flings the audience into the false exposition too quickly, as in the second shot after the credits, for it to be effectively suspect) causes me to  suspect much of this material was sliced out of the VHS version I saw, which includes numerous jump cuts in which a scene has been incompetently cut away from about a second after it has been allowed to be shown starting.  Four Flies on Grey Velvet includes an incompetent but sympathetic gay police detective who has never solved a case and who (stereotypically, cooper notes) assumes that all straight men, including main character Roberto, have at least a little gay experience.  In Deep Red, Marcus Daly’s friend and bandmate, Carlo, is gay (in fact, he dismissively refers to himself as a “faggot,” although McDonagh points out that the Italian dialogue actually translates as “strange sexual tastes”), but the suspicion that he is a psychopathic killer is subverted when we learn that he hasn’t killed anyone, and when we learn who did, there is no satisfactory Freudian explanation such as pathologized complexes relating to homosexuality.  The homosexuality sympathy thread, while mostly untouched in the section on supernatural horror,  is further devloped in the discussion of Mother of Tears, which depicts numerous horrible mothers.  Of the few good mothers it depicts, one is in a lesbian relationship.  Cooper also points out  that Peter Neal in Tenebre disagrees with critic Christiano Berti that writing about a killer of “perverts” means that the author thinks that the gay characters he has killed are perverted.  Peter describes the gay character as “perfectly happy” in rebuttal.  When Peter becomes a killer, he has rational, noir revenge motives that Cooper carefully contrasts with Berti’s, who kills “perverts” with a razor like the character in Neal’s novel.  I, in fact, misunderstood the film when I was younger.  The film has two killers, and I had erroneously interpreted Berti, whom Neal kills with an axe, as a red herring, assuming Neal to have done all the killings.  As Cooper also points out, critics have had a hard time with Argento’s films, particularly after Argento took out the Psycho-style ending explanations he had presented (Cooper notes, rather dismissively) in films such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, beginning with Deep Red, finding the films not fully comprehensible, or what Argento considers dreamlike, in the manner of how dreams are actually experienced rather than how dreams are perceived in psychoanalysis as interpretable chunks of wish fulfillment (62).

This leads into the discussion of the supernatural horror films and how they complete embrace visual spectacle and largely forego narrative, until the third film of the trilogy, Mother of Tears, which features all of the exposition necessary to understand the previously dreamlike Suspiria and Inferno as fully narrative films, if silly and unbelievable ones.  I think Inferno is my favorite of all of Argento’s films, and it also made me an Emerson, Lake & Palmer fan, as its often obtrusive music was composed by Keith Emerson.  Inferno is the Argento film that most strongly eschews narrative.  I was present when Peter Greenaway gave his talk at Butler University in Indianapolis (someone in Chicago sent me a copy of the video of that presentation–you can see the back of my head near the end, and hear me laugh a few times), and he went into length about the importance of film dropping the device of narrative in order to show its full power.  To date, I don’t think any of Greenaway’s films, at least starting from The Draughtman’s Contract, have eschewed narrative more than Inferno.  In Mother of Tears, however, we are informed that the reason Suzy Banyon, who is mentioned by name, in a trilogy hitherto connected only thematically, was able to kill Helena Marcos because she was already weakened by a powerful good witch who is the mother of the film’s central character (as well as the actor’s real-life mother).

His discussion of the supernatural films dismisses Janet Staiger’s theories on low culture aesthetic and the early negative reviews of Suspiria, invoking instead other essays on art by uncredited source author Thomas de Quincey (I believe that I am partially responsible for De Quincey’s screenwriting credit on a late VHS edition of the film.  I submitted his credit to the Internet Movie Database, andf there was less clarity about such things on that site at the time.) as well as the 19th century “art for art’s sake” movement defended by Edgar Allan Poe (a major influence on Argento), Oscar Wilde, and Walter Pater.  He suggests that Argento’s supernatural films exemplify Pater’s ideas twisted through the nihilism of those of de Quincey(93).  For Inferno, Cooper emphasizes this film’s lack of a narrative center.  Structually, it treats siblings Rose and Mark Eliot similarly to Hitchcock in Psycho, yet neither ultimately is really a protagonist (106-107).  He notes that haunted house films normally make the house a character in his film, but that Inferno puts the setting and its improbable, if not impossible, architectural structure, above the characters or the story.

I did detect some errors in the section on Phenomena, the film that I have most closely studied.  One is an erroneous credit to Goblin for Bill Wyman and Terry Taylor’s “Valley,” which can silently be corrected if the book is reprinted.  The other can be as well, but it does hurt Cooper’s credibility when he repeatedly refers to a chimpanzee as a “monkey” (125). He also seems to have forgotten that there is a definite build to Inga’s “surprise” attack on Frau Bruckner:  in an earlier scene after the death of her master, Dr. John McGregor, she accidentally cuts herself on a straight razor that she finds in a garbage can, and then takes it with her.  Many viewers will hardly have forgotten this fairly late scene by the time Inga finally saves Jennifer, and indeed, it was Inga who initially rescued Jennifer from would-be rapists and introduced her to Dr. McGregor.

The essay’s biggest weakness is its third section, “Against Convention,” which feels more like a wind-down exercise.  Cooper here does not have nearly as much to say, and discussing these films comes across as obligatory.  The page counts are really indicative of this.  For Trauma, we get nearly four pages; Sleepless, two; The Card Player, three; Do You Like Hitchcock?, two; and Giallo, a little over four.  Compare that with almost nineteen pages for Suspiria, almost thirteen for Inferno, twelve for The Mother of Tears, almost eleven for Tenebre, eleven for The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, ten for Deep Red, nine for Opera, eight for Four Flies on Grey Velvet, eight for The Stendahl Syndrome,  for Phenomena, and six for The Cat o’ Nine Tails.  While length is certainly not the greatest measuring factor in a substantive essay, Cooper’s discussion of  Psycho  takes up three pages, more space than is devoted to some of Argento’s films in their entirety.  This section, which includes less than a page on The Stendahl Syndrome that makes one wonder why it warranted a section.  Films that Cooper chose not to cover (the television miniseries The Door Into Darkness,  The Five Days, Two Evil Eyes,  The Phantom of the OperaJeniferPelts, and the forthcoming Dracula 3D) still rate occasional mentions, and they get summaries and a bit of commentary in the filmography at the end of the book, and the few paragraphs he devotes to “The Stendahl Syndrome (Revisited)” seem hardly worth a heading.

The essential point of the third section seems to be that Argento is an artist willing to reinvent himself in ways that do not necessarily appeal to those who have a set notion of what an “Argento film” is as much as his detractors do.  Perhaps this would read better if the book were presented as a stand-alone essay than as part of a series of director introductions, but it just does not seem to carry the same level of insight and enthusiasm as do the first two parts of the book.  A common argument is that the later Argento films are weaker and less worthy of discussion (and in my case, I have not seen any of the films discussed in the final section other than Trauma (which I thought seemed better and more visually characteristic of Argento upon second viewing, although accidentally fully decapitating a baby with a scalpel seems even less plausible than most of Argento’s motive explanations, although I’ve never held a baby younger than a few months old and might think differently if I did), which could indicate annoyance at spoilers in discussions that lack the depth of those of the earlier films.  Conversely, the twelve pages in which Cooper more or less defends The Mother of Tears, even while admitting its silliness repeatedly, betrays this reading as less accurate.  Perhaps his idea of this film as a howler made it easier to write about than films that he sees as only moderately good. (My response to the cut version was that it was decent, but too visually normal and explained the enigmas of the trilogy in a less satisfactory way than my imagination could devise.)

The interview section is brief, but the two interviews Cooper includes (I assume that he translated them from the French himself, as no translator is credited).  Perhaps the most important aspect of their inclusion is contextualizing a few of the threads in the book.  One that Argento is often incorrectly portrayed as a misogynist based on an oft-quoted line about preferring to see (on film) a beautiful woman die over an ugly woman or a man.  He points out that men are killed in his films just as often, and that women are often the ones who solve the crimes.  When I suggested a secondary possibility for a seminar paper for my graduate cinema and gender course (ultimately about Curtis Harrington’s What’s the Matter with Helen?), it was looking at the portrayal of women in Argento’s films, which the professor seemed to think would be about misogyny, but, had I written it, it would focus more on the films’ female heroes (Suzy Banyon, Jennifer Corvino, Betty, Aura Petrescu, Anna Manni, Sarah Mandy), and villains (Monica Ranieri, Nina Tobias, Marta, Miss Tanner, Madame Blanc, Helena Marcos/Mater Suspriorum, Mater Tenebrarum, Frau Bruckner, Adriana Petrescu, Mater Lachrymarum)) than on the secondary victims.  (Cooper’s section has a rather amusing discussion on how Argento goes over the top with misogyny in The Mother of Tears as if to make fun of such critics).  The second interview has Argento discussing his portrayal of homosexuals (French does not use the word “gai,” to mean “homosexual,” which my first year French teacher stated repeatedly when students in class went around saying, “Ziggy est très très gai” after being incessantly exposed to Fabienne Thibeault’s song in class, hence it was not translated such), which he includes in his films because they are a part of everyday life, including many of his co-workers and friends.

Overall, in spite of a weak finale, the book’s strong beginning and midsection lead me to recommend this book to those new to Argento, those familiar with Argento, and those concerned about portrayals of violence in the media (such as everyone employed in positions of power by the city or school system of Southington, Connecticut), although such people would probably be appalled by the book’s cover, depicting a well-known still from The Stendahl Syndrome (Asia Argento’s face bloodied, a razor blade embedded in hand) on an otherwise white cover.  When my copy arrived in the mail, it looked pristine, but, in spite of transporting it in the rigid envelope in which it was sent to keep it close to mint condition,  it eventually acquired a small black speck that I was unable to remove.  Something about Argento’s uses of primary color in his earlier works makes me think that this might be subtly relevant.

L. Andrew Cooper.  Dario Argento. Contemporary Film Directors, ed. James Naremore.  Urbana:  University of Illinois Press, 2012.

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