Archive for December 22, 2007

Gialli on a Plate

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2007 by dcairns

Malice in Wonderland -- Suspiria 

A few minutes into AUTOPSY (MACCHIE SOLARI), Armando Crispino’s splatteristic 1975 thriller about an outbreak of suicide/murder in the deadly heat of the Roman summer (a time when, Orson Welles observes in F FOR FAKE, an invading nation could conquer the city with a telephone call), my partner Fiona said she felt stoned.

All Mimsy were the borogroves.

 She had said the same thing during Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA (title courtesy of DeQuincey), and it wasn’t during the scenes of demented Technicolor mayhem or weirdly over-prolonged, non-specific “suspense”. It was during the dialogue scenes. The plotty stuff where the director sits back, kicks off his shoes and takes a siesta while the actors endeavour to wade through “exposition” of the nonsensical “non-Cartesian” storyline, or indulge in “characterisation” based around semi-suppressed Freudian childhood traumas, or just wonder, flatly, what the hell is going on.

(Jessica Harper in Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA)

It’s to do with the script, the acting, the often-poor synchronisation, and the dubbing itself. I wonder if this is just how Italians think films are supposed to be, since subtitling is virtually unknown in Italy and all foreign films are re-voiced. But I’ve always understood that the Italians are better at dubbing, so when they watch our films they shouldn’t have this weird, disconnected quality. The voices are always up-close and lacking in atmospheric qualities like reverberation, unless these have been artificially provided in a highly unreal manner. The vocal performances aren’t always terrible, but they’re seldom emotionally in synch with the visuals, sounding either more strained or more relaxed than the facial expressions they accompany. Usually more strained, especially when the voice artist is TRYING TO SOUND LIKE the person onscreen.

I’m not sure I can say this is effective, but it definitely has an effect. A stoned effect. It makes spaghetti westerns more funny, sometimes a good thing, and horror films more unconvincing and dreamlike, also often good. I wonder, looking at Argento’s more recent films, if he’s been trying to make actors seem badly dubbed even when they’re not.

Anyway, Fiona soon ducked out of AUTOPSY and went about her business, shooting the odd remark at the screen whenever she passed through the room. “I’m glad I’m not watching this anymore,” that kind of thing. And on the whole she was right. The film starts great, with Morricone’s distressed orgasm women freaking out on the soundtrack, as sunspots erupt in astro-vision, while on the Earth various parties are offing themselves in colourful fashions (I mean the methods of self-immolation, not the 70s dress style, though that’s colourful too). One man puts a plastic bag over his head and jumps in the Tiber. “Why does he need the bag if he’s drowning anyway?” asked Fiona.

“He doesn’t want water in his nose.”

And Fiona, who swims with her head RIGHT UP, had to accept this.

There was then some good creepy stuff as Mimsy Farmer, with bad Lady Di hair, gets overworked in the mortuary where she’s working on her Masters Degree in Murder-Disguised-As-Suicide, starts to have visions of corpses grinning at her. Then the corpses indulge in interracial sex (is it supposed to be more shocking because one corpse is black? I mean, they’re DEAD) which is just funny, and a sleazy morgue cosmetologist tries to pick up Mimsy (that NAME!) with a stroke-victim smirk and the line, “Brains leave me cold, bit if you’re interested in a little warm meat, doc, I’d be glad to oblige. Modestly speaking I’m well-endowed,” spoken as he seductively deposits a handful of brain matter on a table.

Mr. Sexy

“That is the best chat-up line ever!” applauded Fiona.

That’s another thing about a lot of gialli (and especially this one), people say horrible things to each other all the time, and very often get away with it. These films come from another dimension (70s Italy) where sleaze and misogyny pass for polite conversation, and nobody bats an eyelid, or stabs an eyeball, at remarks that ought to cause rapid deployment of mace or electric stun baton.

I like a spot of giallo, but the combined effect of feeling simultaneously soiled and stoned is a bit like doing ‘shrooms in a flooded sewer…

“You Have Been Watching…”


Trans Europ Expression

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2007 by dcairns

The amazing DAISIES.

Reader Elver Loho writes from Estonia:  “You’ve recently blogged a lot about old European cinema and… I gotta admit, with a few rare exceptions, all the names and titles are completely alien to me. Despite being European myself. “The question I’d like to ask you is… What’s currently wrong with
European cinema and how do we fix it? Hollywood is cranking out huge global hits every year, but nowadays only a few European films become popular in USA. (Or in Europe for that matter) Even Asian cinema is way more popular on the global market. What is Europe lacking that Asia and USA have?” 
Lo-res Loho

There are a lot of questions there and they have to be tackled individually. I think the first statement is interesting and points to the problem of finding out about older films: many more of them are readily available to buy than ever before, but it’s not easy to know WHAT to buy, and television doesn’t play the role it used to in introducing kids to old movies. But Elver is obviously more than usually interested in cinema and will undoubtedly find his way to the films that speak to him. The second point has many possible answers, and I can only attempt to offer mine. Enough ROPE...

At least as far back as the 1920s, European cinema has been dwarfed and dominated by the U.S. Hitchcock suggested that this was partly because the United States was composed of foreigners, so they could easily address the rest of the world. Certainly Hollywood could afford to buy up the best talent from around abroad, enhancing its own output and incidentally disabling the film industries of Germany, Sweden, Britain…  But this isn’t to say that European film has always been in a state of crisis (just Britishfilm). There are clear roles for European films which are both commercially viable and culturally essential. We can and must tell our own stories in Europe, which can sometimes travel the world, or might simply stay within national boundaries and make their money at home. I’ve written already about some uniquely British cultural oddities which haven’t been much seen outside the U.K. All that’s necessary for the above scenario to work is for the European countries to make films which, at the very least, appeal somewhat to their own populations, at a level which allows recoupment. I would expect many of these films to incidentally also have international appeal, as most good stories can stand translation. So, if there IS a crisis, it would mean that European countries are not making popular films. On the whole I think some are, some aren’t. I think some countries, such as Britain, suffer from a rather strong division between purely commercial junk on the one hand and miserable downbeat “serious” cinema on the other.


I don’t believe, personally, that “serious” is or should be the same thing as “depressing”, and I find a lot of British film depressing, either because it tries like mad to BE depressing, or it tries to entertain in a mindless and sometimes vicious way. I don’t think either of those are great options for “commercial” or “art” cinema. In Scotland we have a whole, recognised tradition of “miserablism” which is driving Scottish audiences away from their own national cinema.

Note that I have blogged before about extremely dark films like COME AND SEE and SEPPUKU, which don’t seem to me to be depressing at all. 

Roving back to the 50s, 60s and early 70s, when “arthouse” was at its height, we can see that a lot has changed, irrepairably. In those days, art cinema could be sold on sex. Nowadays, people who want sex can get it, in abundant variation, in porn. Sex only really sells if it involves movie stars, since that at least has novelty. And America can buy up all the movie stars.





But looking back at the cinema of those bygone glory years, we also see that art cinema was incredibly entertaining. THE SEVENTH SEAL is a very funny film. EIGHT AND A HALF is funny and dazzling and exciting. DAISIES is sexy and silly and hysterically funny. And filmmakers working in this tradition today are still getting small-but-sufficient audiences because they offer something different, unique. David Lynch’s films freak us out more than any mainstream horror film can. And they also provide sexual thrills far removed from anything likely to be packaged in a regular drama.


If an Eastern European lesbian can make a funny film, what excuse do the rest of us have?  

What I’m not suggesting is that we all go out and make American-styled films. I’ve seen British films with steaming manhole covers, and it doesn’t work. We don’t have that over here. We can by all means steal from the Americans, and from anybody else (somebody, steal from the Japanese! PLEASE!), but we have to be telling our own stories. There needs to be a core of Britishness, Frenchness, Germanity, Czechismo, Turkhood. Something that differentiates our stuff from the Americans’ — precisely because “everybody” prefers American films, nobody wants cheap knockoffs.   

I’m not a huge fan of NIGHT WATCH and DAY WATCH, but my favourite bits are precisely those that have a Russian flavour. I find Luc Besson’s stuff absolutely intolerable, but there’s a soupçon of Frenchness that I guess stops them plunging forever into a midatlantic chasm like the hero of THE BIG BLUE. They don’t QUITE feel like calling-card films, and indeed Besson has remained a French filmmaker even though I presume he feels quite out of sympathy with the critical culture of Cannes and Cahiers.


Hyperactive CGI shenanigans.

This national identity is a delicate thing, hard to pin down. It doesn’t require that all Greek films should be full of people throwing plates on the floor like Jules Dassin’s NEVER ON SUNDAY (though I would support such a move — Angelopoulos’ films have great visual style but not nearly enough smashed crockery for my taste). It just means that a Dutch film, for instance, should be something that could not have come from anywhere else. Paul Verhoeven’s BLACK BOOK satisfies this requirement admirably, whatever else one thinks of it.



One of my Central Tenets is that when a film is successful it’s because it appeals, not because it reflects the society it comes from. But reflecting society is a small but vital PART of the appeal.

The Red Shoes.

I admit this is all pretty vague and on-the-surface. A more nitty-gritty approach to these problems shall be made manifest when I grasp the nettle and blog about producers and funding bodies…