Blind Tuesday: Eat the Pianist

Ran SUSPIRIA for some of my students the other week, particularly the cinematography student who wanted to see some interesting colour work. Argento’s film has that in spades — I can’t recall where I heard that the maestro of mutilation used discontinued Technicolor stock, and purposely replicated the colour schemes of Disney’s SNOW WHITE, but it seems to be true. At times, notably during the first double-homicide, Argento’s vivid hues land him in trouble, where the kaleidoscopic shifts in palette make the intercutting a touch confusing — is this a new scene? where are we? is that the same woman?

While Argento’s CAT O NINE TAILS features a sympathetic blind character played by Karl Malden, and must surely form the subject for a future Blind Tuesday column, SUSPIRIA has a minor blind character, a pianist, who is treated pretty shoddily by both the film’s ballet school/coven of witches and by Argento himself. First the poor chap is rudely ejected after an allegation, no doubt unfounded, that his guide dog bit a nasty little kid (Argento never bothers to clear up what really happened, but there’s a clear suggestion of canine provocation). During this scene, where Alida Valli gets to be gloriously nasty and flash her terrifying teeth, the pianist’s jacket and stick are flung on the floor where he has to fumblingly retrieve them. The ballerinas stand around, uncomfortably. That’s no way to treat the Bavarian Stevie Wonder.

This seems to me a pretty good example of Argento’ disinterest in character. It does the film no favours, in any conventional sense, for its heroine to stand passively by during this abuse of a disabled man. Having Jessica Harper step forward and help the guy out would’ve made for a sympathetic moment. As it is, Argento’s camera ignores her (is she even IN the scene? Why not?), dodging the question of how she would react and thus evading character insight.

That night, the pianist is gored to death by his own dog, in a scene which only makes sense if it’s a bit of diabolical influence from the Queen of the Witches. We never find out what happens to the dog, which departs, grinning, just as Harper will at the end.

For much of the movie, I was wondering, since Argento clearly has no interest whatsoever in dialogue per se, why he includes so much of it? It ought to have been reasonably easy to develop SUSPIRIA’s plot with action alone. But there is, occasionally, a weird virtue to his plodding conversations, where all the dialogue is utterly on the nose, as well as being post-dubbed in a variety of accents. It’s like listening to two chatbots talking in space. Sometimes it can actually make you feel high.

Udo Kier’s scene is the best example of this. As he tells Harper how she shouldn’t believe in witches, a wind picks up, ruffling their hair and the tablecloth and the potted plants and the trees in the background. Soon it’s going gale-force, with Harper struggling to act through her whipping coiffeur, to the point where one fears for the crew’s safety, but the soundtrack ignores it completely — there’s not even the mildest whistle of “Antarctic Whiteout” (Fellini’s favourite FX record). The result is simultaneously trippy and hilarious.

To cap it all, Kier then introduces Harper to a white-haired old expert who he claims can confirm everything he’s said. Instead, the  geezer starts talking about how witches are real, and have immense powers, but can only do evil. Kier has slunk off, so we don’t get his reaction, but Harper doesn’t find this contradiction strange, which is genuinely dreamlike — I think it might have been even better if Udo had stood there, nodding sagely, as the old fellow rubbished everything he’s just said.

No reference to the discrepancy is ever made — it passes in silence, like the wind.

Suspiria (Two-Disc Special Edition)

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12 Responses to “Blind Tuesday: Eat the Pianist”

  1. From what I recall, the Technicolor thing was re Suspiria being the final film to be processed in the world’s last functioning Technicolor lab… or something like that. I once watched this on DVD and the window of my (third floor) flat was somehow mysteriously smashed while I was watching. It’s a credit to the soundtrack that I didn’t even notice until I drew the curtains the next day.

  2. david wingrove Says:

    Totally adore SUSPIRIA, which is like THE RED SHOES remade as a psychedelic Post-Modern slasher movie. Any film where the voice of sanity and reason is Udo Kier…

  3. Right on the nose Mr. Wingrove!

    The wind is directly connected to the witches and their power in Suspiria, so not hearing it in that scene is perfectly appropriate.

    Udo currently lives in Palm Springs in a building that used to be a library but was converted into a mansion for him.

    Recently he’s had a sympathetic role as the wedding planner in Melancholia The world is coming to an end so logically the only voice of reason is . . .Udo Kier.

    For some reason Jean-Marc Barr isn’t in Melancholia Usually Von Trier casts them as a kind of team — the way Fassbinder made Udo and Raul Gimenez a team in his late films (eg. the dancing waiters in Berlin Alexanderplatz and Lola)

    Barr has the BEST Udo stories. If you should happen to run into be sure to ask him for a few. Udo always seems to be getting drunk, going after rough trade and getting beaten up.

  4. Udo is an axiom of cinema — both good cinema and really, really bad cinema. Just looking through his CV, I see he’s in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? as a character called Lee Meyers. Well, I’m sleepy so I misread that as Lee Majors and my mind expanded involuntarily by about a foot.

  5. Udo Kier playing ‘Lee Meyers’ makes me think of Bela Lugosi playing ‘Paul Carruthers’ in The Devil Bat, and then I think of how much I love it when a character’s name is so beautifully wrong for the actor.

  6. Some more nice Lugosi roles —
    Dr Paul Marlowe in Voodoo Man
    Dr James Brewster in The Ape Man
    Monogram were obviously too cheap to re-type the scripts after casting him.

  7. David Boxwell Says:

    My Son . . . has the most amazing cast of, erm, eccentrics of any recent film: in addition to Keir, there’s Dourif, Zabriskie, Sevigny, Shannon . . .

  8. David Boxwell Says:

    BLACK SWAN: the degree to which Aronofsky paid “homage” to (or ripped-off) SUSPIRIA was mostly overlooked here in the US. And we must not forget Joan Bennett’s woozy-lacquered greatness for Bava, however brief the appearance.

  9. David Boxwell Says:

    Correction: “greatness for Argento” (I am often confusing the two).

  10. I’m presuming it was Woman in the Window he cast her for…

    I was struck by not just the Snow White colours, but a couple of shots owing plenty to 30s horror: the sheeted silhouette reclining draws from Karloff in The Black Cat, and the taxi arriving at the ballet school in the rain uses a driving POV shot like The Old Dark House. Later, billowing drapes in a corridor again draw from Whale’s classic.

  11. Yay — I love a good lamp!

    Just proposed via Twitter that Argento should make a silent film. He could call it The Autist.

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