There are precious few films about childhood. Many aim for an audience of children, but most look down upon them in their assumption that they will eat up any and all immature entertainment simply because it is handed to them. It is the rare film that tries to peel back the layers behind childhood and to give us a look at what growing up entails. Because it is difficult to focus on children in film without rendering them types, either immature simpletons who do not understand the world or wise-beyond-their-years precocious types who “know” better than the adults around them, it is rarer that a film succeeds at presenting childhood with a quiet sigh, knowing a certain maturity without ever losing itself in the adult desire to judge and moralize to children. There have been a number of great films about childhood, but none stand taller than Francois Truffaut’s debut film, the work that kicked off perhaps the most important movement in film history, the French New Wave: The 400 Blows. Continue reading
Eyes Without a Face (French: Les Yeux Sans Visage) is technically a French-Italian co-production, but it was made by a predominantly French crew, by a French director, and is told in French. Plus, if we want to talk the style and feel of French vs. Italian horror, Eyes Without a Face is about as far on the French side as humanly possible. So, you know, deal with it.
In the annals of time, 1960 might just go down as the greatest year ever for horror filmmaking. We have the obvious game-changing genre classics like Psycho and Peeping Tom from the English speaking world (poetic that those two harrowing critiques of the directorial gaze came to fruition in the same year) and the Italian film industry bursting forth from the womb with Mario Bava’s Black Sunday. The ’60s were also the greatest decade for Japanese horror, and Nobuo Nakagawa’s1960 release Jigoku saw that trend kick off in ultra-fine style. In the midst of this, a film had to be something special to hold its own, and perhaps one of the most special horror releases of all is Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, a work of horror wholly at odds with the norms of the genre.
Franju’s classically-trained but down-to-earth style is intoxicating, intentionally treating the material with the soft delicate hand of a piano player prone to liberating fits of more chaotic frenzy. He proves able to switch on a dime, creating a film at once modern for 1960 and elegantly timeless. Moments of carnage ring out, but its the thoughtful finishing-school haze that evokes Lewtonesque minimalism and Victorian era dreaminess that sweeps over the film and sticks in the memory the longest. Other than Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie, Eyes Without a Face may just be the most impressionistic horror film ever released.
Edited in April 2016
Jacques Tati’s Playtime is the sort of ambidextrous work that grants a reviewer the blessing and curse of confronting opening lines from all angles. One might look to the evolution of Tati’s carnivalesque visionary depiction of modern society over the course of twenty years of filmmaking. Or the fact that this 1967 feature, his magnum opus in more ways than one, almost bankrupt him and went six times over budget as the famously meticulous Tati spent months upon months refilming sequences with psychotic perfectionism. Then we find the brilliantly twitchy physical comedy in the film. And the warped classicisim of the imagery and sound design that distorts and reinvents not only modernity but our place as fleshy individuals in the world. Then there’s the commendable commitment to throwing narrative cinema by the wayside in favor of Tati’s vision of space and place as human savior and human assassin, depending, of course, upon how we interact with the world around us. Continue reading
If Italian cinema went high-brow with fine style, so too did it go low with head-first zest and no less rigor. If an argument is to be made for the 1960s as a golden age of European cinema, the undernourished portion of the claim is genre cinema. Not that genre cinema was at a low during the ’60s. Why in France alone we had Clouzot doing an all-time Hitchcock impersonation even as he ushered action cinema to the next level, Franju giving us grisly, poetically classy horror, Melville abstracting crime thrillers to their icy, cosmic cores, and even Godard and Truffaut dipping their toes in the water with their playful noir pastiches Bande a Part and Shoot the Piano Player, respectively.
But the crown jewel of ’60s European genre cinema cannot but be Italian cinema. The elephant in the room is Sergio Leone, elevating the Western by drawing out its cartoon core and emphasizing tactile feel over all else. Deeper still, however, we have a treasure trove of that most unholy of film genres: horror. Giallo would come in full force with the arrival of the glistening crimson reds and sickly yellows of the ’70s, but the ’60s saw no shortage of pristine, pitch-black Italian horrors, most of them admittedly directed by the master of the form: Mario Bava. Most famous for his color-first lurid later cinema that re-propositioned horror as a ballet of human motion and painted-on color, Bava got his start much earlier than we usually assume. In fact, his first film, and arguably his greatest, is a chiaroscuro masterwork fresh from the grave, a Hammer Horror pastiche that beat Hammer at its own game. I speak of course of the fiery death-drive of Bava’s Black Sunday.
Edited June 2016
With Fellini long lost down the surrealist tube and intentionally distancing himself from his earlier realist days, someone in the early ’60s had to fill the neo-realist hole left by the likes of Rossellini and De Sica. Of course, it wasn’t going to be Michelangelo Antonioni, the chilly director of physical space and undersexed human boredom, but he would do in a pinch. Yet, if Antonioni studied the neo-realists well, he was his own beast altogether. Neo-realist classics like Bicycle Thieves attained a certain warmth in their intentional focus on human activity elevated to the realms of mythic quest, but Antonioni was very much fascinated by human inactivity.
Furthermore, he didn’t follow the neo-realist mantra of letting his people do the talking while his camera shakes and rattles about. Instead, Antonioni took a hands-on approach, positioning his characters delicately, defining them in wide compositions that sequester those characters into personal hells. He calculated every frame with a spatial dogmatism akin to Bresson or Hitchcock, but his mantra was more geographic, more geometric than those individual-centric directors. Antonioni, more than any director before, acclimatized his audience to the physical space around his characters. While the typically open-oyster cinematic world usually carves space out for individuals to thrive as the focus, Antonioni curdles space into a malevolent force that fights back. Antonioni’s genius is in how he exposes his characters’ world through methods his characters might approve of; his filmmaking is detached and rigid because his film is about the detached and the rigid. He was making a film for his characters, but a film that deeply laments those characters as they eschew a world of connection and turn the human-world relationship into a war of attrition.
With Italian cinema, one tends to think of Antonioni as the extension of neo-realism’s elusive, analytical, and slippery, intangible qualities, its modernism and post-modernism, and Pontecorvo as expanding the style’s more incendiary, ground-level spontaneity, its immediate “realism”. But although The Battle of Algiers is a punchy, vicious shiv of a movie, it isn’t merely surface-bound. Or rather, it sometimes uses its surfaces as cryptically and mysteriously as Antonioni, not simply exposing a conflict to us with an incendiary call for action but teasing out the various intangibles and uncertainties in its ability to call for this action, to participate in this conflict, to even see it without mediation. As swift and instant as the film confronts us, it also confounds any so direct a reading by intimating the limits of its ability to “experience” the reality that its verite aesthetic purports to glimpse first-hand.
Which is to say, Pontecorvo’s work reveals mysteries of its own as well, and it exhibits a vision of existence as brutally existential as L’Avventura and as protective of its secrets as Blow-up. And although it’s certainly a white-hot cinematic firebrand, open-hearted and unafraid of its convictions, it also exposes more subterranean depths the more I see it. For instance, the distinctly modernist (even post-modern) composition of the infamous scene where the veiled women expose the bombs hidden within their outfits. The three veiled women are viewed through a mediating, veiling mirror in the film’s most famous shot, the mirror projecting a cinematic self-consciousness about the mediating cinematic process. It suggests that what we experience in cinema is a mirror of ourselves, not a reflection but a warped and thus incomplete refraction, or a reflection which hovers between a direct reality and a displaced representation of that reality. Or, as Homi Bhabha says in the intro to Frantz Fanon’s famous Black Skin, White Masks on images more generally: the “image—as point of identification—marks the site of an ambivalence. Its representation is always spatially split—it makes present something that is absent—and temporally deferred—it is the representation of a time that is always elsewhere, a repetition. The image is only ever an appurtenance to authority and identity; it must never be read mimetically as the “appearance” of a “reality.” (XXX). The women veil themselves, cinema veils them, and post-modern cinema thrives on its skillful manipulation of its own self-awareness about the way it veils reality.
Pontecorvo’s film plays with this gap, this veil between past and present, this sense in which we can witness a mediated past through film, where film is a ghost which touches the past but is not the past. Particularly set against the historical containment of black and African bodies within film scenes, their objectification and imprisonment within frames which tend to view them head-on as curated objects lacking any curiosity or internality or resistance to being viewed, the veiling gestures in Algiers – the characters registering an opacity of their own, not fully acquiescing to our desire to “understand” them – are provocative. In other words, the film comments on its own veiled language, questioning its and our ability to truly know them via its and our gaze, to look at them head-on as the Westerner in Fanon’s frame might want. As gritty and “realistic” as the film appears on the surface, it also veils and unveils itself in various ways, debating truth and fiction in its faux-verite aesthetic rather than merely reminding us of a reality we didn’t know beforehand.
A stark, harrowing portrayal of the Algerian war, The Battle of Algiers is a message movie, but it doesn’t feel like one. It’s brutal, unflinchingly human, and confrontational to the core. It depicts people engaging in horrible acts and forces us to try to make sense of it as best we can, for it knows it cannot. This film never lets up, using a gritty, clear eye-on-the-wall camera to depict the harsh day-to-day realities of colonial and revolutionary violence to force us to confront that which we’re afraid to. Rather than emphasizing philosophy or discussion, it focuses on action and reaction, conveying how this environment, in its perpetual dehumanization, allowed no room for anything else. Colonialism, as depicted here, was a violent regime that dehumanized its victims and gave them no recourse for action excepting the very violence perpetuated onto them. And the film doesn’t suggest it – it burrows it into our soul. It emphasizes gritty, hard-earned hyper-realism and puts us in the trenches of an urban jungle marred by guerrilla warfare. It allows us no comfort. Unlike many Italian masterworks of the 1960s, it is not rooted in impressionist professionalism, carefully modulated for impact and respectability; instead it unleashes itself upon the audience as a primal, implacable fact that doesn’t end when the frames cut it off. It cries out, refusing to be left unheard.
Update late 2018: Watching Argento’s film again in light of the remake, I’m struck by how thoroughly anti-psychological Suspiria is, and how seriously it suggests a more mid-to-late-century continental, European perspective of wider social-structural reality rather than, say, American horror cinema’s (or earlier European cinema’s) frequent equation of maturity with internal, individual psychology. Which is to say, while many viewers legitimize horror through a frame of psychological modernism – the ability to peer beneath a layer of reality to expose the psychological warp and weave of experience in the mind of one figure who doesn’t see the world as we do, or as according to some ultimate and inescapable “truth” – Suspiria almost never imagines horror as something from within.
Unlike, say, Rosemary’s Baby, it only seldom plays on the often enlightening but sometimes rote, automatic, manufactured “ambiguity” which validates horror from without by reminding us how it might be horror from within, a perspective which thereby resolves the terror of the knowable world by ensconcing the film in the mind of one person who is implicitly figured as delusory, an unreliable perspective on what would be an objective reality outside their mind. This perspective, wonderful though it can be, is often timid when it comes to more fundamental interrogations of social reality; it allows a film to preserve a “real” truth that one character simply may not be able to see, couching itself in a kind of medicinal American individualism which sees reality as either objectively true at a macro level or completely manipulable at the level of individual mind; the world effuses from within, and conflict is ultimately a question about how to reconcile individual creativity and perspective with the structural violence of society, often figured as limiting to individual consciousness rather than constitutive to it.
Suspiria, frankly, seems to resist any such ideological safeguards; it seems to be ontologically and epistemologically decomposing regardless of who is on-screen or whose “perspective” we are being granted. It oblique maneuvers intimate not a glimpse into one character’s warped mind but a flickering vision of a more fundamentally unstable reality, a world where occult speculations dance with modern materialism and problematize any resources – including the “it’s all in her head” frame I allude to above – we might dress the film up in so as to contain it. Argento, in this sense, is a more singular creature, and Suspiria a truly untamed beast in the annals of modern horror cinema.
Edited March 2016
It only seemed appropriate to open the post-Halloween month with a review of one of my absolute favorite horror films.
When I initially chose the four films to cover for my exploration of Italian cinema (as I choose to call my attempt to really just put up more reviews in the early stages of my writing loosely wrapped around some semblance of a theme), I concentrated primarily on the esteemed classics. And indeed, the Italian neo-realist movement in the late ’40s and the new wave in the late ’50s and ’60s (populated by the likes of Fellini and Antonioni) are two of the most densely-packed periods of filmic invention ever. But then I realized something … the cinema of a nation isn’t defined by its most traditional paragons of greatness, but by all the films it produced, including its genre films. And few nations have produced more genre films than Italy, especially during the ’60s (Spaghetti Westerns) and the ’70s (giallo horror). Having already published a review of my absolute favorite Italian Western, Once Upon a Time in the West, I decided to return to my bread-and-butter, horror, to kick-start the month with some blood-red pizzaz. And if I was going to do Italian, it needed to be giallo. No, it needed to be THE giallo, a B-picture that not only defies conceptions of artistic veracity but recreates them to its own liking. Ladies and gentlemen, Dario Argento’s Suspiria.