Third Degree Screen Burn

I think it’s OK to reprint this — my first piece for Sight & Sound, on Montaldo’s CIRCUITO CHIUSO (CLOSED CIRCUIT). Frame grabs are new. Maybe the first review published in Sight & Sound in the form of a police interrogation.

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Okay, wise guy, what were you doing on the night in question?

I was watching a film. A perfectly harmless –

So you were watching a film. What film?

Um, it was called Closed Circuit.

Never heard of it.

It’s an Italian film, from the seventies. I wouldn’t expect you to –

Tell me all about it.

Well, it’s not easy to describe –

Try.

Well, it’s actually a TV movie. Made during that half hour when Italian TV was making interesting stuff like Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem. A time capsule from before Berlusconi.

He mixed up in this too?

No, thankfully. Anyhow, it’s all set in a cinema –

Thought you said it was a TV movie.

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It is. Set in a cinema. And for the first half hour, nothing much happens. People come in, we get glimpses of the staff, the routines, the different kinds of characters. But it’s fascinating, because the filmmaker, Giuliano Montaldo, who’s still working today, shoots everything with a wonderfully fluid moving camera, and a choreographed approach to action. Plus the sound, all post-dubbed in the Italian manner, creates a sense of everything happening just as it should. Like fate is running smoothly.

The movie being screened is a spaghetti western. And there’s something very nostalgic for me about the way that widescreen image gets crimped and cropped by shooting through doorways or blocking the screen with a foreground character. It’s like when I was a kid and saw Sergio Leone movies for the first time, and they were panned and scanned on the BBC, sliced down from 2.35:1 to 1.33:1. You could see this was wide, expansive cinema, but it was oddly telescoped. It seemed like a kid’s-eye view, watching the world from under a table or behind a couch.

Anyhow, the focus on bit-players, the artificial sound, and the plotlessness, sort of recall Tati. But then somebody gets shot. A middle-aged cinephile comes in late, sits down, and gets a bullet in the heart. There’s panic. The cops arrive and stop everyone leaving. They make a search but can’t find any gun. They interview everyone but can’t find any motive.

It’s a cop movie?

Well, the young detective in charge is as close to the lead as the movie has. And I guess it’s kind of a giallo, but without the sex and gore. It expands on the weird self-reflexive quality you get in some gialli. But the weird thing is, all this set-up hasn’t established anything that could make for a plot, anything which could lead to murder. So they decide to stage a re-enactment. An excitable usher takes the dead man’s role, they start the film again, and at the exact same moment, just as a climactic gunshot goes off onscreen, the usher gets shot.

Uh-huh. A serial killer.

Well, here’s the thing. The audience members are really freaked now. The sense of entrapment and repetition recalls Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, even down to the media circus gathering outside the theater. Now one geeky guy comes to the cops with a hair-brained theory. They won’t listen, but he does succeed in finding a bullet-hole in the movie screen. A search behind the screen fails to find anything, but this arrogant police chief who’s come in –

Careful, buddy.

– this arrogant police chief insists on another re-enactment. To prove they really have the crime scene pinned down now, that the killer can’t possibly do it again. Because, maybe, the cops are starting to dread that the sociologist is right. There’s a superstitious terror in the air, a feeling that the movie may be cursed, may be a film maudit.

A film mud – ?

A cursed film. See, the sociologist is suggesting that the movie killed the first guy. And having adjusted itself to that fact, it will now repeat the action whenever it’s projected. Because it’s a movie, and movies are always the same each time you watch them. Or they’re supposed to be. And, you see, we know he’s right, because the movie hasn’t set up any crazy killer or villain who could possibly be the real guilty party.

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So they stage the final re-enactment. And even if we now see it coming, Montaldo pulls out all the stops. Just as the forensics guy arrives with the news that the first bullet came from a Civil War Colt, the projectionist finds his projector won’t stop, and the police chief panics as the big cowboy on the screen tracks him across the auditorium with his giant pistol. It has the same kind of hilarious, scary panic as the Ed 209 bit in Robocop.

See, once the film has become a killer, it can’t stop. Because what happens in a film always happens the same way, each time. And maybe that’s why everything in this movie feels so choreographed, so fated. Rewatching a movie gives us an overview of predestination and prophecy.

And it’s all about, basically, the power of the image.

That’s the screwiest thing I ever heard. I don’t believe there is such a movie.

But I –

Take him away.

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10 Responses to “Third Degree Screen Burn”

  1. Sounds like Goodbye Dragon Inn reconceived as a giallo.

  2. The most mysterious audience member is quietly underplayed by Aurore Clément who appears to be in-character as Anna Silver from Akerman’s LES RENDEZ-VOUS D’ANNA made that same year. Faintly uncanny.

  3. Wow!

    I like odd intersections like that, like Burt Kwouk’s hamburger-themed Soho appearances in both Expresso Bongo and Deep End.

  4. In common with GOODBYE DRAGON INN, Montaldo’s cinema does feature a little cruising in the gents.

  5. Oddly enough, I have just completed a project on the original Dragon Inn, but failed to make the connection to this.

  6. chris schneider Says:

    The title that occurred to me — a wild guess, since I haven’t seen the film — is Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS.

  7. The Montaldo does indeed have a similar feel to the quieter parts of DEMONS and also Bigas Luna’s ANGUISH.

  8. Indeed! I may screen something for myself tonight in memoriam.

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