Thursday, July 24, 2014

OBVIOUS CHILD, GINGER SNAPS and Your Reproductive Lunar Cycle

Even in our modern age of 'chick-flicks' and 'rom-coms' that allegedly delves deep into women's sexual trials and truths, there are some issues which never get treated 'openly,' like female orgasms, menstruation, and unplanned pregnancies. The censorship codes of our grandparents post-code film die hard. Raunchiness is strictly for teenage boys, or hot girls patiently dating schmucks (like Cameron Diaz). That's why films like CARRIE and GINGER SNAPS are so shocking, and instantly relevant, like needed feminine mystique injections into a cinema choked with hormonal boy's gym clothes rankness. And when a girl winds up pregnant it usually involving both parties deciding to keep the child despite their differing levels of hotness, ala KNOCKED UP, and or give it up for adoption (JUNO), and/or the father is a religious nutjob trying every means at his disposal to save the 'receptacle' of his holy gift from destroying her chance at salvation even if it means her death (the odious STEEL MAGNOLIAS). If there's an abortion there must be a great deal of shaming, of tears and anguish over this decision--maybe its even a period film so its illegal and extra tawdry, or the abortionist is a patriarchal dickweed-- that will haunt the woman the rest of her life; now she can't have children even if she wants, or she bleeds out in the car on the way home. If she doesn't kill herself or sacrifice her life to save another, then she's murdered or ODs. If she is already fallen in some respect that she'll gladly die so her child may live --as in the horribly second-guessed ending of Blake Edwards' SWITCH or a host of pre-code films like LIFE BEGINS.

Slate at Cross's.
All of which is to say that like everyone else on the planet I feel strongly on the way the abortion issue is addressed in cinema, and so was overjoyed that the new and great comedy, OBVIOUS CHILD (2014) commits no last minute patriarchal womb co-opting or sudden influx of barbaric fundamentalist patriarchal 'Christian' or 'Muslim' values, and seems keenly aware of these possible trite pitfalls as it navigates uncharted waters straight into the sunset of iconicity. At Planned Parenthood-ish office, struggling comedienne Donna (Jenny Slate) says, "I would like an abortion, please," and respectfully declines hearing the other options, She likes the guy but even they keep seeing each other it's the smart decision. We never doubt Donna's sensitivity, or that her mind is made up and that she's smart and has considered her options and is neither martyr nor lost soul, checking her own tendency to crack jokes to leaven her inner tension while dealing with the issue, yet never presuming that tension is somehow 'valid' because of the surrounding controversy.

Written and directed by newcomer Gillian Robespierre from an original short, there's such a perfect flow between Slate and the material it's hard to believe it's all not happening in the moment with special attention to the way people actually talk --not 'normal' people, the kind of banal life-affirming doltishness Hollywood jadedly associates with the 'true America'--but real young Williamsburg-dweller college-educated witty individuals. Mining everything for great comedy right down to the drunken fumblings with a condom that are so often jettisoned in nights of drunken abandon, it's the kind of keenly-observed, brilliantly played interaction I've seen only in the best 'ensemble' comedy work--Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph in BRIDESMAIDS (2007) or Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer in BROAD CITY (Comedy Central) for example--women who've done the work to make their characters come alive, rather than by some clueless male or self-hating female screenwriter whose low opinion of young women masks a real cluelessness about how people clever enough to eke out a life on their own but still struggling with self-sabotage issues actually talk and think (as opposed to the grating dimwittedness 'hipster' girls in JUNO and FRANCES HA for example, who seem made by people who've been home schooled and never met a real girl before).

Broad City
Escorted by a solid batch of actors: Polly Draper as her business school professor mother; Richard Kind as her puppeteer dad; David Cross as a skeevy comedian chum; Gabe Liedman as the bitchy gay emcee buddy, and Gaby Hoffmann (see: The Little Mescalito that Couldn't) as the roommate, Slate and Robespierre usher in brave scenes of free-flowing actorly relations transcending all the usual chick flick malarkey. Sure, as is the problem seen on everything from the IFC shows GARFUNKEL AND OATES, MARON, and Mike Birbiglia's SLEEPWALK WITH ME, lovers tend to break up with you once you discuss the minutiae of your shared sex life in intimate detail onstage. But how else are you going to prick up audience ears in a crowded bar or wake up sleepy college students? When Donna busts the tale of her abortion out on stage we cringe and hold tight to the arm rests, teeth gritted, expecting yet another long, sad bombing like her previous performance, or alienation of this new man's affection. I won't spoil the endings but I wouldn't even be writing this post were the film to make any mistakes, or even tread familiar ground. Be prepared. 

Robespierre and Slate...
It's a sad, strange process, abortion, but what OBVIOUS does is far more daring than just that, it actually gamely takes the first shot at turning that process into legitimate material for a stand-up routine, its honesty translated right across the two usual extremes and long-held vow of silence, denial, and the drabness so many filmmakers confuse with 'importance'. I can see this becoming the film women watch while on the couch recovering from their Planned Parenthood journeys, something that won't make them feel bad about their decision while never making light of it either, seeing it just as a process, something you go through, with no need for self-hatred or permanent emotional scarring. May this be the beginning of a beautiful friendship and collaboration: Slate and Robespierre, the Tina Fey and Amy Poehler of a new generation!

Speak of menstrual cycles, and the female orgasm, and female duos fighting the Broseph Patriarchy, GINGER SNAPS (2000) arrives on a stunning blu-ray/DVD combo from Shout Factory this week. As usual they've stepped up to the plate with a fan's loving attention to little details. A classic piece in the history of feminine hygiene horror, GINGER has a deserved cult, genuine badass attitude, existential morbidity, and a blood-drenched yet touching finish. Ginger (Katherine Isabelle) is the chosen wolf of course and younger introvert Brigitte (Emily Perkins) her faithful and similarly Thanatos-obsessed sister. They hate everyone in their nowhere Canadian high school and live in their own world, taking pictures of themselves in various death scenarios for a ghastly school art project. When a popular girl overhears their bitter remarks about her during field hockey practice, an escalating series of fights leads to Ginger being attacked by a werewolf. And as the full moon of her menstrual cycle lycanthropy turns her from HEAVENLY CREATURE into a strutting JENNIFER'S BODY-style maneater, Ginger becomes first hot, then kind of overbaked with a lame chest piece and cute button poodle nose, then an outright animal, both carnal and charnel. Younger Brigitte, meanwhile, has to begin the scary task of trying not only to help her sister by finding a cure and then cooking it up and injecting it, but by pulling away from their sacred death pact and passing judgment against the 'right' of might, i.e. killing humans is not a moral problem for werewolves, anymore than steak for most 'normal' eaters, but Brigitte isn't ready to make that jump.

 There's a few boys and meals to the side, including a helpful chemist/horticulturist/pot dealer who seems partially inspired Josh Hartnett's character in THE FACULTY (1998), but more than anything, this is a girl's horror movie, bloody like the menses-minded wolf.

I didn't really dig this film the first time around (renting it from Blockbuster, on VHS - talk about patriarchal oppression), but now on blu-ray and in full anamorphic glory the autumnal colors glow and the framing and lighting of director John Fawcett can be better appreciated, the echoes of fellow Canadian horror filmmaker Cronenberg better discerned. Its seductive comic book rhythm rushes past all the usual crap that bogs down most high school horror films, focusing instead on the two sisters and their gradual transformation from all-talk to genuine murder and too-late-to-turn-back-now violence escalations. the coolly ominous music score gradually cohering from the mist.

There's still a few problems like the less-than-stellar werewolf effects (there's no real transformation money shot ala HOWLING or AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON), the kinds of problems which could have been covered by CGI, but digital effects were still, as we learn in the extras, in their expensive infancy, and now that CGI is so pervasive, GINGER's reliance on analog latex is retro-cool and adorable anyway. Credit the film's real staying power to Emily Perkins, who makes scenes with the transformed Ginger come alive in ways the monster on its own could not. Like Slate in OBVIOUS CHILD we can read all sorts of inferences in her eyes--her understanding of the impassive rubber wolf mask's little gestures makes the mask come alive for us as well. She brings home the real sadness of being stalked by your own sister, the only one in the world you trusted, who know wants you to kill your new and only other friend to prove your devotion. With her sullen long face hidden in a deep foxhole of long protective hair, Perkins is so great and her rapport with Isabelle so solid, the minor problems all melt away and only beautifully framed horror film tableaux.

The wealth of extras include a somewhat rambling making-of documentary, deleted scenes, previews, and two separate commentary tracks. In these the director John Fawcett makes sure we know he's the feminist behind this, not all the women who worked on it, like co-writer Karen Walton (though she does get her own commentary track and surely had a hand in the rightness of the dialog, the way Debra Hill did on HALLOWEEN). They're currently working on the hit BBC show ORPHAN BLACK so they must still be tight -- but I thought that kind of credit-grabbing insecurity existed only in Hollywood; he'd be a lot better off letting Walton take the credit; hell, Jack Hill even invented a woman author for his SWINGING CHEERLEADERS script. (Fawcett does have some slyly deprecating things to say about the final monster, and how they had to keep it in shadow a lot to keep up the scariness --a nice way of saying it sucked - though he was the one who insisted it be hairless and albino, terrible choice, John!) There's some insight into the tax-funded Canadian film industry (there was a backlash when the script was sent around to casting agencies because Columbine had just occurred), audition tapes from the early part of the process, and what the actors look like now (or Emily Perkins anyway, who seems like a completely different person, below)

But the real juicy extra is a panel of female horror writers and filmmakers discussing menstrual horror films that deal with women's sexuality and how drastically apart films like GINGER SNAPS are from the bulk of slasher films and how that imbalance is an expression of man's horror of gynecology and the female orgasm, the scariness and pain for the girl of her first period being something a man can't quite face, and the way females can only achieve orgasm in movies if they also kill their lover immediately (or else are killed, for their sin). They give some love to the underrated JENNIFER'S BODY (a woman-directed film written by Diablo Cody that I like way better than JUNO, obviously), CARRIE (of course), and VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS, a film that could really use a blu-ray itself. And they seem to agree with me that TEETH is a nice idea that totally fails as a film, its makers second-guessing and sewing members back on right up to the time I turned it off.

The sum of their discussion is never voiced, but you can read it here: GINGER SNAPS is badass. It dares to never even approach the idea of a 'normal' life being worth a shit. We don't end the film with Brigitte cutting her hair and finding a nice boy her own age and all that garbage usually force-fed audiences by an out-of-touch Hollywood. And it's for that reason that it, and OBVIOUS CHILD for the same reason, are worth repeat viewings. GINGER has gone on to have quite a cult for itself, and even two pretty good sequels. I hope OBVIOUS CHILD gets the same, and that it blows Zach Braff's facile WISH I WAS HERE (which includes "Obvious Child" on its golden indie oldies soundtrack - as if snooping over Gillian Robespierre's shoulder) out of the water, and that more female writers and directors and actors have the balls, if you'll forgive the expression, to take the reigns of conveying the bizarre terrors of their menstrual and reproductive cycles openly and rawly on film, rather than leaving it to men for whom the vagina is still a disturbing void ever ready to swallow them up, but over which they presume control once they have successfully entered and planted their flag. Fuck them and their flags. If every abused suffering wife and daughter in a fundamentalist or abusive home just slit her husband's, father's or oldest son's throat in the dead of night, we'd wake up to a world free of violence. Am I the only one who thinks like this? Fuck the irony! Wake the Venusian Flytrap kraken, a screaming jock or frat boy bleeding from its every anemone tendril orifice! Asherah, rise! Kali! Kali! Frances Farmer! Awake!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Medusae of Asia: THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (1941), RAIN (1932)

Like pre-code neo-Jacobean Tragedy's final, venomous wheeze, THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (1941) sinks its cobra fangs deep into the mongoose of censorship, self-abasement, and social taboo, to levels only Lon Chaney and Josef Von Sternberg dare go (Von Sternberg directed). Exploring an array of sins that the Breen Office demanded over 30 script revisions to obscure, that old devil Von Sternberg directed, and his old genius is still apparent! Somewhat! Oh for a Paramount budget, and Marlene Dietrich... instead there's her old 'sewing circle' pal, Ona Munsen (1) as a dragon lady named Mother  Gin-Sling, owner and operator of a Shanghai casino structured like the rings of Dante's Inferno: as the wheel spins and a Russian threatens to kill himself there's also gigolo-ing, gold-digging, murder, drug addiction, alcohol, white slavery, elaborate revenge, smoking, and Josef Von Sternberg's Super Masochist Sublimation Power, though by then that power was reduced in wattage by changing fate. Based on a play by John Colton, GESTURE bid 1941 America pretend Shanghai wasn't locked in a death struggle with the Japanese. But could we?

We've always needed a slinky broad for these Pacific fantasias to sizzle properly: TERRY AND THE PIRATES would be nowhere without the Dragon Lady; RAIN would be a mere drizzle without Joan Crawford; KONGO (1932) would be pure misery without Lupe Velez; RED DUST (1932) lost without Jean Harlow; MANDALAY (1934) an empty shell without Kay Francis shimmering as Spot White; and Josef Von Sternberg's whole oeuvre would be just chiaroscuro exotica not for the enigmatic Marlene Dietrich, as THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (1941) proves, for as the Medusa-like Madame Gin-Sling--a role that would have been perfect for the then-older Dietrich--we have Ona Munsen, game enough to go up against Walter Huston as a tycoon buying up her block and planning to evict her (at least it has nothing to do with morals). With eyes calmly alight, Mother Gin-Sling encourages our confidence she has a plan, but it all depends on fate's fickle finger dialing her New Years dinner party into a third act denouement of MADAME BUTTERFLY self-immolation.

Munson is certainly commanding and regal, she seems to be having fun, but maybe that;s the trouble; she lacks Dietrich's Hawksian ability to infuse a single glance or wave with subversive innuendo. Instead of Dietrich's hypnotized cobra calm, Munsen has Gale Sondergaard's relaxed but stiff-upper-back regality, a cokehead's way of caging her formal dialogue with nasally enhanced sonorous jubilance, and headgear wild enough to play an 'Oriental' Medusa in Flo Ziegfeld's Mythology Revue. In the end, her headgear is what we remember. I mean that as no disrespect, Munson plays the part well, finds a good balance of camp and tragic aria, but there's a splash of Norma Desmond in there, and in the end she's a good actress, but the role doesn't need a good actress, it needs a star.

Munson split our mortal plane in '55 with a note that read "This is the only way I know to be free again...Please don't follow me." Classic Munson.

The other players, meanwhile, seethe and stagger about the infernal never-closing casino but never quite find a frequency they can all share: Gene Tierney pouts and sulks as Poppy, an obnoxious daddy's girl gone wild, who Victor Mature (as Mother's perennially fezzed gigolo-pimp-procurer, Dr. Omar) seduces with Song of Solomon quotes and lines like: "My mother was half-French and the other half was lost in the dust of time, related to all the earth, and nothing that's human is foreign to me." Eeecch! There's a scene where she shows up drunk and in a jealous rage at his apartment, moments after the 'chorus girl,' Phyllis Brooks has also arrived. Omar can hardly be bothered to feign innocence. It's too bad drugs, drink, gambling, and sex only worsen Poppy's abrasive moods. Tierney here is more than a bit like Tippi Hedren in parts of MARNIE, where their so busy trying to act bratty and deranged they forget to still be charming (Marlene never forgot!). Meanwhile Maria Ouspenskaya hovers below decks as Mother's pint-sized Mongolian assistant; Eric Blore provides a welcome breeze as the casino's accountant and political connection forger; Mike Mazurki is a 'coolie' rickshaw spy (there's no real Chinese stars in the film, as far as I could see); Michael Dalmatoff is the Russian expat bartender; Ivan Lebedeff about to blow his own brains out as an unlucky Russian expat gambler, and of course, looming on the horizon... Walter Huston.

It's not up to his Dietrich collaborations at Paramount, but part of this could be the relative blurriness of the 'they did what they could' restoration. Part is also the attempt to have myriad threads instead of focusing on one character, the way Marlene was the focus in his earlier work. In those we had a very vivid feeling of the street or train in relation to the interiors, to each room. We entered Dietrich's domiciles via slow moving crane shots through rainy exterior street windows. In GESTURE, we have to take Von Sternberg's word for it that the bar and upstairs of the multi-tiered casino are even in the same building. There are some good crowded Shanghai street scenes early on and towards the end, during the big Chinese New Year celebration, shot in the same writhing cacophony of Chinese hustle and bustle (lots of rickshaws) that made the opening of SHANGHAI EXPRESS so effective, but again, they never feel connected to the casino nor the casino connected to its adjacent rooms and bars. Von Sternberg's ornate mise en scene surrounds Munson in exotic murals. Turns out they painted by Keye Luke, who--though Chinese--doesn't appear. The not-adding up things keep adding up. But Tierney is beautiful enough that disinterest seems a small price to pay. Even as you come to hate her character, you just know you'd jump off a bridge if she asked you to.

That said, slowness and pointless bits of business are the side effects of JVS's style--where every character is always moving towards or away from sex or death.  Here, unlike many of his later films there's no feeling this was ever taken out of Von Sternberg's fussy hands by anxious producers (i.e. Howard Hughes with the leaden MACAO or the genuinely sexy JET PILOT).

As per JVS' usual tricks, there's very few daytime exterior shots and only one bit of Shnaghai stock footage letting us know that it might seem like midnight in the casino ("Never Closes" is their motto) but it's actually a weekday morning. I love the idea of coming out of what seems like only a few hours of nightclubbing at a busy casino, drinks and decadence in full flower, to find the sun is up and fresh-scrubbed bright-eyed people are going to work etc. It brings back a lot of memories.

That would seem to conclude the tour, so what of the antagonist? What of the... Huston?

Maybe it's his clipped delivery and rigid military posture, dart-like rapid sudden movements, the way he kind of leans back as if ready to hurl himself across a table at his quarry as his vowels shorten, but Huston always excelled as inflexible moralist captains of industry, those never hip to their own flaws. He was a cop fond of beating the truth out of suspects in BEAST OF THE CITY, a tough-ass warden in CRIMINAL CODE, a King Lear-ish rancher in THE FURIES, and he bullied and cajoled threatened witnesses to testify. The rafters shook at his inflexible (but blind to its own prejudice) moral indignation. He was like the Old Testament of male authority, just as the New would become embodied by Spencer Tracy. I know it's a side note, but Tracy never worked with Howard Hawks, and I can see why: Hawks had a code, and it had nothing whatever to do with the following the letter of the law. Tracy's characters were law fetishists, treating the strict rules of conduct like Jimmy Stewart treats his flag. At his worst, Huston would use his moral weight to ruthlessly intimidate tribes of Congolese with juju magic tricks; Spencer might do similar things, but would think he was the good guy doing it, because he'd have a bible. He would do with a dopey smirk meant to win a Hepburn heart. Huston had no interest in being seen as good or attractive, only in achieving his grand design. Surely his son John drew on that persona for his own quintessential titan of industry in CHINATOWN.

So it's this paragon who goes up against Mother Gin-Sling. At a climactic "Chinee New Year" she tells him the lurid portrait of her grim early life feigning happiness after being abducted and sold to a 'pleasure boat,' and having pebbles sewn into the bottoms of her feet after she tried to run away (and these grim details survived the 30 rewrites!) And Mother Gin Sling even gives a New Years' eve floorshow out in the street in front of the casino, of girls being hauled up in cages as a reminder of the old white slave auctions. And that survived the rewrites too!

Chinese New Year, celebrating five thousand years of white slavery.

For Huston, it turns out, all this slavery and oppression hits close to home, especially as Poppy's his daughter and she's in debt to the casino, hooked on gambling, drinking, and presumably opium, and it's up to dad to pay her tab, like he's Colonel Rutledge in THE BIG SLEEP. And Huston's tycoon is his own worst enemy, as doomed to confront his past crimes the general in UGETSU. Alas, UGETSU this ain't, and the total of its parts adds up to a shocking denouement that leads inevitably to tragedy. Walter Huston always realizes sooner or later he's his own worst enemy, and that's a sad, crazy day. He's like the censor finally realizing he's cutting off his own genitals every time he cuts a film. He forgot he had a whole other world below his own belt and when he saw that thing rising up from the bedsheet depths in the morning he thought it was a cobra.

RAIN (1931) finds Huston trying to do the reverse, to get a very young Joan Crawford out of tropical prostitution but you know how it is. Once she learns he's arranged to haul her back from the tropics to stand trial (these expat prostitutes are always on the lam after murdering either a violent john or pimp, but it was in self-defense!) she gets religion and he finds her, finally, attractive. Turns out he re-baptizes slutty Christians only so he can corrupt them anew.

There's a great scene in RAIN I was lucky enough to see by chance while tripping one afternoon, wherein Joan's angry as hell, trying to escape up a set of stairs while he stands at the bottom, reciting the lord's prayer over and over again while she screams and yells and then starts moaning and sobbing in despair at the thought of going back to the states and certain execution. I never liked Joan until I saw this scene, on shrooms, watching as she went slowly in perfect modulation during the long single take, moving expertly from demanding him to leave her alone, to begging for mercy, to pleading for her life, to sobbing in despair, to finally joining him in his prayer. Somewhere along the line their two voices entwine, entrain, and she starts reciting the prayer too, stands up, super calm, walks down the stairs, ready to go; in her darkest hour, she finds the lord. Maybe it was the mushrooms that afternoon but I've felt ever since that RAIN is a horror movie. With her thick make-up, Crawford's Sadie Thomson has a ghoulish obscene demeanor; Dr. Mirakle in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE or Irving Pichel in DRACULA'S DAUGHTER could borrow her lipstick; and Huston is her Van Helsing, but thanks to being swamped into a remote midway station on his way to the interior to convert missionaries, he takes it as his duty to convert her back from vampirism, only to turn bloodsucker himself. Naturally because of the code (though it was still weak in '32) there has to be a redemption possible in the form of a Marine who just wants to marry her and lead her into a bright light of avoidance, ala Dorothy Mackaill in DOORWAY TO HELL.

As Marlene said in MOROCCO, "there's a Foreign Legion of women, too."

Kongo (1932)
But that's the thing, if there's an entrainment of the lord, there's an entrainment of the jungle, too. And it entrains Huston's Henry Davidson just as the lord's doctrine entrains Sadie. Huston who clearly doesn't have her interest at heart, but is just a sadist, adhering to the letter of the law out of a kind of continual self-denial, the way senators campaign against gay rights and then go have a men's room tryst.

Just how many movies had women of adventure expatriating in some remote tropical outpost, either servicing the local sailors, or just drinking with the other refugees? Oh, countless. But it all stemmed from two things:

1. Miscegenation -  It's important to remember that censors weren't just patriarchal prudes, they were racist: pre-code never meant no censorship, just less 'clear' rules of conduct: sex outside wedlock between two white people could occur if the woman was a divorcee or widow, or if it occurred in the land of savages--Africa, the tropics, Asia-- where they're more or less the only 'civilized' people around, and the jungle entrainment rules; usually the only thing remotely like a white authority figure is a drunk or junkie priest or doctor or ship's captain under some sort of fever or addiction, to further break down the veneer of modern civilization so that morality can't help but buckle. MGM was the worst, in films like RED DUST: being around 'the coolies' with only a small number of white people around, well the censors were so nervous about miscegenation breaking out that the white-on-white adultery and call girl-trysting was overlooked. A trick still used on racist parents by manipulative white high school girls to this day!

2. Maugham -Just advertising your film as about some hottie who thinks she killed a man taking it on the lam to the tropics where she hooks up with a junkie doctor means you want the public to associate it W. Somerset Maugham, the E.L. James of the 30s. Any film that wanted to have 'steam' just cherry picked plot points from his RAIN, SEVENTH VEIL, and THE LETTER.

2. Prohibition - Only America could be crazy enough to try to enforce such a law, so voyaging abroad where liquor didn't taste like Turpentine became double sexy. Also in the Post-WWI economy, the dollar went farther than most, so one could live the high life in Europe on a pittance, and the kingly life in the tropics. It was on everyone's mind. .

3. Exotica - There would still be flak from minority groups, but the Great War had forced us to get social; we came back interested in the art and cultures, keeping and even further weirding up the aesthetics, creating a picture of the 'other' as kinky, lurid, savage, totally class-conscious, but with exquisite and bizarre taste.

And the Brits always loved Egypt.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Two hearts stab as one: Brian De Palma + Dario Argento (a Reptile Dysfunction)

The critics say they're indebted to Hitchcock for their tropes, obsessions and subjects, but what I really see in Italian horror director Dario Argento and Italian-American suspense director Brian De Palma is a bizarre psychic twin connection, a shared reptile dysfunction that springs from Catholicism, ancient Rome, and the kind of scopophilia-driven sexual obsession (a good genre director must be obsessive, otherwise why bother?), all mingled into a love story linking across the oceans and continents from Rome to the USA, a round trippy immigrant passage between the mammalian higher brain's compassion and the cold cortex of unsocialized pre-empathic killer in all of us. De Palma has made a few films exploring this sort of split-subject connection (SISTERS, THE FURY, and RAISING CAIN) while Argento leans back on it for his dark fairy tale sensationalism, but he cast Jessica Harper for SUSPIRIA after seeing her in De Palma's PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE.

from top: Jessica Harper w/mic in PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (De Palma);
Jessica Harper w/knife in SUSPIRIA (Argento)
And I didn't even know this when I started this post, but they were born the same month (September) of the same world war-ridden year (1940), six days apart. They are both Virgo, sign of the virgin, sign of obsession, poring over film strips and sound boards with the repressed energy of a thousand unreached orgasms!

Clara Calamai, Jacopo Mariani - DEEP RED
Both have been accused of objectification and misogyny due to their detailed gruesome violence against the female body. I used to agree with that diagnosis, but now I blame their reptile killer instincts on intense Italian mother-love and Catholic guilt ( Hitchcock, too, was Catholic), wherein Mom's giant hydra apron strings cling to their minds no matter how much their onscreen avatars hack at them, each new woman's body a tendril-tentacle. I've come to feel my own feminist ire is founded in my discomfort, the unbearable level of anxious dread and soggy liberal arts guilt that is what being a man is all about --the compulsory mammalian need to protect the women and children. When a camera doesn't look away from the horror wrought by our helpless positions as observers on the opposite side of the screen, feminists like myself blame the camera, the director for our discomfort seeing it. Better we should have our eyes gouged out than see such traumatic butchery! Rather than examine this response, we lash out, labeling the directors misogynist in a vain attempt to scrub the horror from our eyes.

But Argento and De Palma stare long and hard. Even if we gouged our eyes out they'd find a way to reach us with these images.

from top: SCARFACE, SUSPIRIA (see Mater Testiculorum)
They use similar post-modern effects, deconstructing their own misogyny and their audience's demands for blood; each goes deep into the human eye, ever searching for what lies past the inscrutable inky black roundness of the eye. Cameras, mirrors, photographs, film sets, stage sets, plays, taxidermy, and elements of performance abound. I generally don't like dream sequences, they're like vents in which to dump cheap manipulations and sudden shocks without the burden of context. That said, De Palma entrenches the two together so completely that one must allow it and in SUSPIRIA and INFERNO, Argento does away with waking life altogether. Occasionally a character comes up for air, drops by an outdoor parapsychology conference for some exposition, then its back down into the candy-Freudian murk.

from top: De Palma - CARRIE, Argento - INFERNO, De Palma -
Interesting too is that Argento's work has by critical consensus really sucked since 2001's SLEEPLESS, while at the same time De Palma's been pulling out of a sucky period (with 2002's FEMME FATALE), as if these aging auteurs sharing a pair of traveling genius pants. De Palma's been returning to his old haunts, where cheap raincoats, razors, masks, split screens, double cross media-blackmail-stalk-and-snap PEEPING TOM's media theory is coupled to a PSYCHO-style cross examination, and a psychiatrist's explanatory monologue wrapping the catalog of kinks back up in its brown wrapper before a final gotcha which often ends up being a dream within a dream, or was it (as in his recent PASSION). Argento's simply lost his rudder in the meantime, he's like he's just another late night Cinemax director with more attention to disturbing gore and less to the tropes, post-modern insights, and tricks for which we love him. Maybe it's because De Palma is making smaller movies that suit his fancies, while Argento seems laboring under the pressure of his name. Either way, and as an aside, this does not betray my grand theory that they are twins linked by some strange telepathy, like Amy Irving and Andrew Stevens in THE FURY (1977). 

Top: THE FURY (De Palma), botom: PHENOMENA (Argento)
None of this is to accuse either Argento or De Palma of being a mama's boy, a misogynist, or potential murderer (or worse, derivative of Hitchcock and each other to the point of near-identity theft), though in a way the critical backlash against the slasher movies, teen sex comedies of the early 80s helped usher in the PC-era. With feminist ire building in nearly everyone the blatantly phallic drill, endless softcore strutting and groping in De Palma's BODY DOUBLE (1984) was like an affront, the drill scene being exhibit A in the case he's a misogynist. In Argento's similar films, sexual fetishizing is never an issue, except as far as elaborating on the madness of the mother or father fixation which then (usually) triggers a schizophrenic break with reality.

Now that I'm older though, I see the misogynistic violence of De Palma and Argento through this same schizophrenic break prism, and realize only by expressing these wormy fantasies can we expel them. How many hydra apron strings were severed or unstuck or untangled thanks to PSYCHO (1960)? It made such a splash on its initial release that the ripples haven't ceased in 50 years - it changed the way America went to the movies and gave armchair psychologists now had a gold standard for the dangers of maternal suffocation. Who knows how many closeted or overprotected men would still be living at home and doing their mothers' toenails on a Saturday night if not for PSYCHO? It kicked them loose. Who knows where De Palma or Argento would be without it? PSYCHO snapped the 60s off at the shower curtain 50s root, and tossed it into the inky black pupil drain, where emaciated 20 year-olds like De Palma and Argento at the time, were waiting with their celluloid nets. 

Color-coded patterns from top (alternating De Palma/Argento):

Naturally these psychic twins are not identical: Argento's psychoanalysis is perhaps deeper while De Palma is more into politics (Italy wasn't mired in Vietnam so Argento couldn't find his horror there). Argento's connection to music is more wryly contrapuntal than De Palma's, making innovative use of children's songs, whispering, percussion and even electric bass-driven funk from Goblin and Ennio Morricone. In DEEP RED, particularly a real break with convention is begun: swooning pop balladry as heads get slow motion sliced by shattered windshields--the glass a pop art snowstorm--and rattling nerve-grating, plastic cup echo-drenched percussion leaping into life and then stopping just as suddenly all just because David Hemmings steps on a bottle, then resuming just as abruptly when a shade falls--or accompanying an impromptu Daria Nicolodi vamp. This approach is the total opposite of the usual emotional-telegraphing of Hollywood, though De Palma gets great mileage out of Bernard Herrmann.

From top: NORTH BY NORTHWEST, DR. NO, the full ambiguity of
casual sex at its most chilling, and therefore truest.
Both both Argento and De Palma use romantic music in a subversive manner, riffing on the lovers-on-the-run style of Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) by having romantic comedy tropes tossed nervously in with the suspense, sifting through the queasy mix of dread and attraction that occur during a casual hook-up, when the other person's hot but it's all happening a bit too fast to not seem suspicious (where only Connery era-Bond or Cary Grant can safely tread). Is that what happens when a charming sociopath puts their moves on you? The winding up in bed with them is carefully crafted to make you think it's chance and fate, the night conspiring to bring you together, but already they're allying you away from your old life with surgical expertise. Even if she doesn't end up boiling your rabbit, or he doesn't have someone's head in a box, it can still be dangerous.  It's like a romantic comedy is coming true and you think somehow you deserve it, that you make the mistake of rising above your class and habit, or lower than it --and the top and bottom are far closer than the middle. What would mother think? Something's not right. A grown man shouldn't be sitting down to martinis with executives at the 21 Club and then exclaim aloud, "I forgot to phone mother!"

from top: De Palma (DRESSED), Argento (BIRD), De Palma, Argento - etc.
Over in the U.S, De Palma had Bernard Herrmann scoring a few of his last and De Palma's earlier films (SISTERS, OBSESSION), which cemented the Hitchcock connection, but genius of creating undulating nervous tension died with him, OBSESSION was his last. Even geniuses like Herrmann doesn't get how sweet romantic songs should accompany murders and suspense music play over romantic parts or that electric guitars and percolating Moogs are awesome under any scene; I've never been too crazy about the jazz music in TAXI DRIVER for that reason, it's like Herrmann doesn't get the ambivalence and Herzogian inscrutable stone face of the natural gods thing the way, say, Tangerine Dream got it for SORCERER. It takes a madness and the ability to convey the full breadth of that madness to another person so immediately they don't have time to pull away like you're crazy person. Wasn't that the genius of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, that it opened us up to genuine madness at such an advanced level we didn't have time to formulate a defense?

It's only when De Palma hooks up with an Italian composer (Pino Donaggio, Giorgio Moroder, Ennio) that he captures the full potential of music in a film as more than just telling the audience what they should feel from moment-to-moment. When Frankie Goes to Hollywood wedge their "Relax" video into the middle of BODY DOUBLE (1987) it's audacious but sensationalistic and gaudy, the love child of the porn world in that film and the T&A-filled killer POV horror film John Travolta works on in BLOW-OUT (1981).

They see you (from top: DRESSED, DEEP RED)

Lest we forget, BODY made its starlet, Melanie Griffiths (Tippi Hedren's daughter), an overnight star and that Nancy Allen in DRESSED TO KILL uses her sexy body as a weapon to overwhelm the killers gaze. It's this idea of feeling exposed as the viewer that activates the killer hiding in plain sight within the viewer's "normal" psyche-- such as when the psychic 'sees' the murderer while on stage at the psychic conference in Argento's DEEP RED. 

In point of fact, part of the feminist arousal of ire stems from the anger at being forced to feel what the murders are depicting, not just from the stabbed side but the stabber, the horror and savagery of the murders leave their mark our murkiest reptilian recesses. But they are meant to be disturbing, to heighten our senses through fear. That is the correct reaction to these violent depictions and to presume it's not is to presume a vast nation of rain-coated social drop-outs who get off on seeing sexy women terrorized. The response of feminist outrage is connected to the same repressive mechanisms that motivate the killers in De Palma's DRESSED TO KILL and Argento's DEEP RED. Seeing themselves being seen, they freak out - like Argento and De Palma are doctors who touch these viewers in places within themselves they don't want to admit exist, so the urge is to sue for malpractice, to accuse of chicanery and no-goodnicks-ism. And brother, I know because I was one of those, as a sullen 13 year-old hearing with shock as my Sunday school teacher and his kids gleefully recounted the details of every murder in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), which they'd seen with his kids the previous night. 

The stuff that really traumatizes me now is the unconscious, casual violence of other films (like VACANCY or WOLF CREEK), that aren't necessarily good or scary but leave me damaged for days. Argento and De Palma are more compassionate in that the very idea of film violence obsesses them to the point that they can target and exorcise it through a double blind mirror-to-the-audience gaze reflector, such as the movie screen-shaped white art gallery entrance in THE BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (below), or the (wider) screened window of De Palma's BODY DOUBLE (below that). We're given a profound and very arty illustration of the perverse appeal of such violence on the big screen, and the reason for our sometimes violent offense over it -- our urge to rush the screen and pull it down before the unthinkable happens. When I was young in the 70s-early 80s, seeing an R-rated murder like in SUSPIRIA or DRESSED TO KILL was the equivalent of a scary roller coaster, a rite of passage, something you needed friends to go to with (at the drive-in or dangerous downtown theater). But if the audience laughs and cheers the murder (as they would going down a roller coaster hill) and someone is there alone and sulky to review the film for the Times, would they not worry that these films are mere pornography for vicious misogynist freaks? I know that's what I would have felt. Because these murders also tap into our mammalian protective instincts, disrupting the thread of narrative immersion as best we can, causing us to scream at characters onscreen in helpless frustration. But our anger over their counterintuitive behavior is our attempt to shirk our responsibility as men, we want desperately to feel like the endangered woman brought it on herself for making so many counterintuitive decisions, to absolve us of the guilt that we couldn't be there, that her death onscreen is the result of our real-life absence from our own lives.

traversable screens - from top: Argento, De Palma, Hitchcock


But it's really the powerlessness of being tied (more or less) to our chair and unable to be heard through the screen (often represented in De Palma like a shower stall or rainy window), and guilty at our own bloodlust, the deep dark reptilian-dysfunctional part of our viewing brains (the type that eats their young and has no empathy), but it's simplistic to call that misogynist, because if we didn't feel that way, if we relished her weakness and bad choices as chances to strike then we have no mammalian brain. Do this and we reduce ourselves to the lonesome status of the reptile, rather than a mammal-reptile hybrid. As so often in Argento films, we shudder enough watching the stalkings and killings that we need our own avatar for that shuddering, someone similarly trapped outside the screen - unable to save and unable to look away - the reptile mind holding our eyes on the blood as well as the Ludovico Technique.

It's also true that when other artists tries to mix media theory and sex and violence, then giallo tropes can't help but appear--as in Irvin Kirshner's John Carpenter-scripted EYES OF LAURA MARS (1978), which somehow manages to be very Italian just by being into fashion and photography (via Helmet Newton) in New York. To incorporate cameras and films within films and musicians and sound engineers hearing something they shouldn't or seeing something they can't quite remember, is to enter a realm where De Palma and Argento can ace you in their sleep. And they understand something those other films don't that even Fulci and Bava don't mess with, (though I'd say the recent BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2013) does, and Michel Soavi's 1987 STAGE FRIGHT ), the meta-framing of the performance of horror as a rite, an ancient re-enactment of pagan sacrifice older than modern civilization can even grasp but ever present in our DNA just waiting to come out.


AVENGING ANGELS and DEMONESSES: They might be scared and a victim but they shall rise, oh they shall.

from top: Argento, De Palma, Argento, De Palm -etc.
ART: art galleries and artist studios represent art as the crucial outlet to legitimize scopophiliac expression, allowing for more a broader palette of associative symbolism. Via headless statues and statue-less heads, Bosch and Bruegel, Escher and surrealists. Through art, Laura Mulvey's concept of the male gaze is equalized, or at least - broadened. It's where pornography goes legitimate or even further, into the realm I call the gaze of Mecha-Medusa (wherein the object looks back, freezing us with the uncanny, skeevy horror of our own initially lewd stare). See also: subliminal screens, metaphors for the immersive film viewing-experience, the mass hypnosis of the theater where for awhile we merge into a group mind caught in the grip of a crazy person.

Associative and literal misogynistic devouring / dismemberment / triggers

from top: Artento, De Palma, Argento, De Palma, Argento, etc.
There are other tangents and shared motifs:

BLINDNESS: blindness allows for heightened variations on the HVR or helpless viewer response (we can't help them across the street); fetish objects for objectifying scopophiliacs (they can't look back); seeing eyes are ever threatened by what they see (as in the blind men other matriarchal coven-ruled social order in the 1978 TVM, THE DARK SECRET OF HARVEST HOME --blindness as symbolic castration).

Argento x 2, De Palma x2
MIRRORS / DOUBLES: They fog, and when something or someone looks in them and freezes stock still, they become their own objects. DOUBLING is related to that --evil twins, and the inherent split of actors and characters (as in the split between the woman playing a terrified woman in a horror film, or literally split in the case of the body doubles in De Palma's BLOW OUT and BODY DOUBLE, figuratively in the separated twins of SISTERS or RAISING CAIN or the eerie similarity romances (someone looks just like someone else the protagonist was in love with and saw die-- stemming from VERTIGO - -Geneveive Bujold in OBSESSION, Melanie Griffith in BODY DOUBLE, Margot Kidder in SISTERS, the two raincoats in DRESSED TO KILL, and so forth.

PRIMARY COLOR SYMBOLISM: Deep Red is the color of menstruation, child birth, the link to sex and excitement, flushed cheeks, heat / dark blue the color of swollen wounds, the chill of the deep, dark death, etc.

DREAMS / DREAMLIKE FLASHBACKS: De Palma relies on them but drags them really slow and methodical and dream-like, without any dialogue and often backwards; Argento flashes to them now and then, more out of stories told or childhood memories of the asylum or before or after (where everyone acts like automatons). De Palma links dreams with horror movies worked on by characters of his movie (John Travolta in BLOW-OUT), or wordless operas, or the clockworkiness of Bergman's WILD STRAWBERRIES or Dali's dream clocks in SPELLBOUND and MOONTIDE.

CIRCULAR STAIRWAYS: Great for chase sequences and as symbolic of the 'descent' into the unknowable squirmy recesses of the subconscious.

frop top: Godard, Coppola, Argento, Argemto,  De Palma, De Palma

SOUND RECORDING: The visual screen is just part of it, of course. Coppola's THE CONVERSATION was hugely influential on both De Palma and Argento (the scopophilia kink extends to eavesdropping); eavesdrops through a listening device while the 'screen' of the detective's office is visible to the left. They both similarly took notice of Godard and Truffaut (as in the DON'T SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER-style arc of BLOW OUT) whose incorporation of the recording studios and screening rooms they were using into the films themselves indicated an unhesitating post-modern bent. Godard, especially, began to show the workings of recording machines obsessively in his films, even if they were eventually spouting communist rhetoric.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Antonioni's BLOW UP, Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW and Powell's PEEPING TOM are huge (obviously) influences to both directors. To a lesser extent, TAXI DRIVER (if Travis had a 16mm movie camera to point at the mirror and the pimps, imagine the movie he would make! It would look exactly like TAXI DRIVER!)

SUBLIMINAL SCREENS: De Palma is more obsessed with the hot female body threatened by the gaze (and threatening to it as well) while Argento is obsessed with childhood dreams, fairy tales elaborated into operatic tableaux (the automaton movements of the characters in the DEEP RED flashbacks, etc.) Argento's is more centered directly on metaphors for media viewing itself (note the way the shadows in the picture above makes the childhood drawing look like its projected on the wall or the radiated light from a TV, or a window (into the primal scene of a killer's squirmy mind); below that is the image from BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE: a theatrical screen-shaped door that the anxious writer can't cross to rescue the bloodied damsel (his desire to enter eventually results in a different screen toppling down on him like a slab); in INFERNO, the screen defenestrates the PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO-style traverser.

For De Palma it's not the art house he recreates but the drive-in, the NASHVILLE or TARGETS or PATTON-style backdrop, such as the flag behind the climax of BLOW OUT or the blue behind Carrie at THE PROM (just as in SCREAM or THE RING it's not the theater or drive-in but the TV), like a kind of multi-media breakdown (the intern introducing the film festival is stabbed onstage right as she's announcing the after-screening Q&A).

I don't see anybody else here.
(for DRESSED witness two lights like eyes with Allen's sexy back the nose
and the phone the mouth, that's the Other!)
THE GONE-DEAD GAZE: De Palma's films are never, to my mind, as focused on art, instead dwelling more on politics and on the curvy flesh of hot girls and how the act of sex leaves one vulnerable; the orgasm as last rites; and the terror of that objectifying being reversed, of the woman desired returning the gaze, provoking a response which is always in direct relation to the viewer's fear of being viewed, of being judged by the image with the same ferocity with which we view it. Feminist critics attach too much power to the male gaze, seeing it as ownership, which is like wanting to arrest someone for looking at merchandise without buying it, for "owning it with his eyes" - the killer's look isn't the source of the homicide, it's power but only until the seen looks back, at which time the killer is as exposed as his intended victim, even if we in the audience don't see who it is, the person being attacked has seen As men we love to imagine what studs we'd be in the sack with some hottie we pass on the street. As long as she doesn't turn around and invite us upstairs for a tryst, we're safe in our delusion of male infallibility. But if she drops the pretense and offers or asks for sex, even the most courageous of studs will usually rear back like a startled mare --it's too sudden, too soon, we perceive it almost as a violent slap, we're like Medusa flashed by a mirror raincoat.

And so it is that the ideal object that arouses or fascinates the killer is one that never looks back (portraits with the eyes cut out aside), allowing unchallenged staring. When the portrait of LAURA suddenly appears, in a raincoat and bad mood, the enchantment is instantly dispelled. The murderer's fantasy is to keep his prey from being able to return the gaze (by turning around, taking the killers' mask off, etc.) to becoming simply another object-- the vision of her killer reflected in her dead dilated pupils clears up like a post-PSYCHO shower bathroom mirror. Unless they scan the last image your eyeball saw and project it onto film (as in 4 FLIES ON GREY VELVET), or you come back from the grave, you'll never be able to make amends, divvy up your fortune, go through the seven stages of grief, hide your porn, or tell us who your murderer was. "Poof!" You are inanimate. God knows what strange pains and ecstasies such sudden death would bring as you soul wrenches loose from time, place, and space. I imagine it would depend a lot on your mood at the time whether there was a light to go into or not, and how many Ahmet-style demon dogs were waiting just off camera to devour your heathen soul the moment it pops free of our earthly plane. They sniffed out your soul's immanent arrival like a pack of bears plucking salmon from the river. God knows when, but the cinema of Argento and De Palma know those bears are coming, and prepared for the rending gnashing rip from the mortal coil to come.

Lastly, don't forget AMER (2009): perhaps so meta as to transcend narrative altogether, it presumes a certain familiarity with Argento and De Palma's oeuvre and their shared psycho-sexual roots as well as the distinctly Antonioni-esque experimental ambiguity where Jungian fairy tale subtexts go so deep down they come out the top like digging to China. One of the rare feature length films credited as being directed by a couple (she's French, he's Italian), the film is truly split, not just into three chapters but into experimental and narrative, not scene-by-scene but shot-by-shot, moment to moment, it's the ultimate - here the twins of fairy tale sexual psyche are united, the children of the giallo are born, and the unification of male and female halves make a unique whole, the fulfillment of the promise in Argento and De Palma's most dream-like works, distilled with all the plots and narrative weeded out. Glorious.