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Dario Argento: The Art of Killing After All These Years

by Filipe Furtado

          Cinephiles are often accused of being overly sentimental toward aging filmmakers. There are many reasons for this, some easier to explain than others. Movies made by veterans often move on their own terms, disappearing into fairly developed personal worlds, and recurrently show little interest in what is trendy now. The same qualities that make them alienate many audiences make them quite seductive to a few others. I would also argue that if you care a lot about movies (or music or books), you sometimes have an investment in the extratextual elements around them, and late movies are always very rich in that sense. Film critics often tend toward auteurism, but we can apply the same cinematic logic to a large investment in actors, genres, movements, or even national cinemas.

          Late career movies can be very divisive, but if you will find very few people who think that Martin Scorsese's films of the last twenty years are among his best, and hardly anyone who thinks so of Brian De Palma's, there are bound to be some cinephiles who are quite passionate about this stage of their oeuvres. Which brings me to the strange case of Dario Argento, who has recently released a new movie called Dark Glasses (Occhiali Neri). The curious thing about Argento is that, despite being acknowledge as an "horror master," there is no genuine movement to recover his more recent work. The usual question with the director is not whether his work lost strenght, but when. Some say it has been since Opera (1987) or The Stendhal Syndrome (La sindrome di Stendhal, 1996) - I personally would go with Sleepless (Non ho sonno, 2001). It is useful to point out that Dark Glasses is as far removed from The Stendhal Syndrome as this was from his debut The Bird of Crystal Plumage (L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1971) and that after this new one he has directed more films since Opera than before it. Argento has long since abandoned the "this is his best work since..." career stage, a relationship to which many critics sometimes resign themselves when talking about certain veteran artists, for something closer to "this is not as shameful as..."

          In any case, he hit a low point in his three previous movies, The Mother of Tears (La terza madre, 2007), Giallo (2009) and Dracula 3D (2012). These are orphan works to which the violent reaction against is almost unanimous. The first two are quite self-conscious. Giallo takes its title from the subgenre of Italian cinema of which Argento is supposedly the greatest master, and Mother is the long-delayed closure to the trilogy begun by Suspiria, his most famous work. They are rather unpleasant films that revisit violent territory for which Argento is famous with few of the artistic qualities that lift them: the murders remain there, they are not as visually expressive or confrontional as even in his more middle of the road work. Giallo and the somewhat superior earlier The Card Player operate as commentaries on horror fiction's obsession with serial killers and their tendency toward cruelty; they are aggressively contemporary in ways that late films rarely are, and Giallo in particular suggests a rather poor attempt at making a mid-2000s violent horror thriller.

         Dracula is both more likable and arguably worse, it is more obviously an assigment, which exists because it was easy to get funding for yet another Bram Stoker adaptation, and not because the novel stimulates Argento's imagination. He is not known as a master of gothic cinema, and while the supernatural does appear at times in his work, it is used as fuel for paranoia and great murder setpieces that are even more unrealistic (in Suspiria, especially), and the puritanism that dominates Stoker's writing is much more Protestant than Catholic. Argento's Dracula is an auteur killing time with recognizable but not very personal material and looking for a few distractions in between. The production was noticeably rushed and low-budget, at times suggesting Hammer's Christopher Lee movies, but it is at times clumsy, if marked by occasional strokes of madcap tasteless imagery. Giallo was a film by someone trying very hard to keep up with his times, but Dracula feels like that of someone who has given up for good. I find it likable very much for those extratextual reasons. Call me sentimental, but what was nice about the film was just how it was a diminished work of a talented artist operating at his end and not making much of an effort to hide it. A corrupted and defeated movie, perhaps, but out of nowhere it would come up with such absurd images that made me think: yes, there is something here.

          One last point about Argento's downward trajectory is how it reflects that of popular Italian cinema itself. Argento's films have always stood out for his great sense of spectacle, his films could be carefully thought out and structured, but one tends to remember his bigger moments when the images seem liberated and one embraces all their excesses, and the architecture and framing are taken over by a violent instinct. A former film critic and screenwriter, whose father was a producer, Argento was sometimes the victim of resentment from his peers because of the big budgets, more recognizable stars, and largereleases his films received. A certain grandiosity and abundant resources play a role in the most memorable parts of Deep Red (Profondo rosso, 1975) or Tenebre (1982).

          As the 1980s progressed and Italian cinema found itself with less and less access to the international markets that were central to its financial health, Argento's projects began to look untenable. Indeed, one could argue that Opera, Argento's last unanimous film, is the final piece of resistance of Italian mainstream cinema, a violent and deliriously out-of-control variation on The Phantom of the Opera whose size matters and, as its title promises, offers horror as opera, and its grandiloquence and excesses are as essential as its violence, a film that communicates through its ideas of spectacle.

          After Opera, Argento tried unsuccessfully for a move to the American industry, and when he returned to Italy in the mid-1990s, the industry that had offered him support was barely there. You can feel him negotiating the increasing absence of resources, and the more simplified nature of the films doesn't always fit with his strengths. He happened to make a traditional version of The Phantom of the Opera (Il fantasma dell'opera, 1998) around this time, and despite some inspired scenes, the distance to Opera is its most memorable quality. In a way this becomes a central part of the text in Sleepless, starring Max Von Sydow as a retired cop who must fight against failing memory to solve an old case. The film opens with a rather expressive murder scene that seems designed to make people say "Argento's back!" and then settles into a pleasant minor key that at times seems to want to suggest the glories of the past without the grandiloquence associated with it, as if the film is consistently commenting on the inability to actually bring back the old Argento.

        In some ways Argento was placed in an unlikely position as the cult around him grew and he went from being seen as a schlocky purveyor towards an artist worth of respect. But even with books, retrospectives and tributes about his greatness, his newly released work seemed increasingly diminished.

       As one can imagine, the main reason I'm writing this article is because Dark Glasses is among us. More importantly, most people seem to agree with me that it is good, which took me by surprise, since it is certainly eccentric, and not a typical "return to form" film. The context has somewhat changed: instead of releasing a mediocre film every two or three years, Argento has been struggling with financing. It has been ten years since Dracula, and absence can always be a good thing in such cases. Argento has come up often in recent years in semi-prestigious contexts, first with the misbegotten big-budget remake of Suspiria, directed by Luca Guadagnino, a bad film that remains fascinating for its fair attempt to locate a number of ideas and images from Argento's film and transfer them to a completely different context, a film that made many people watch the original Suspiria and many others defend it. Last year, French director Gaspar Noé used Argento as an actor in Vortex, a morbid film about the death of an old couple, and the Italian filmakker comes across as a symbol of better times in cinema coming to an end.

         Dark Glasses was an old project that Argento had been trying to make since the days of Sleepless. The original production company filed for bankruptcy, and the film was dead for years. It is a "metagiallo" about the amount of death Argento has staged as a way of living over the last few decades. It does not start on a high note and then settles down like the previous movie, but approaches its murder scenes in a more intimate manner. There is plenty of blood and violence in what amounts to their results, but the killer's attacks in the film are devoid of the expansive qualities we associate with Argento; instead they are sad and tired. The focus is less on the killings and more on the collateral damage they leave behind.

         Dark Glasses is about a high-class escort who survives the killer's attack but is left blind. A couple die in her escape and leave behind a young boy, and most of the last hour of the film is less about the "catch the killer" investigation, as is usually the case in the genre, and more about the relationship between the blind woman, the orphan, her new dog, and their shared pain.

          The subsequent murders become a form of punctuation between these scenes. It's hard to imagine an Argento film without the murderous gaze, but that's what he more or less tries to set himself with Dark Glasses. In a typical Argento film, the camera wanders around the potential victim, sometimes taking on the killer's point of view, at other times it is more objective, but either way, in addition to the paranoia and desperation of the victim being emphasized in these scenes, a considerable amount of the focus is on the gaze behind the camera, and it wants to kill. The audience's bloodlust is implicated: if you take pleasure in giallo, you probably enjoy artistically lit and framed murders, but above all it exposes the artist himself and his darkest fantasies.

          Argento's most personal film, Tenebre, with Anthony Franciosa as a horror novelist dealing with a killer who imitates great murders from his books, deals openly in how his imagination is filled with violent imagery (most of it, as frequent in the genre, involving women). With the help of the great Luciano Tovoli's camera work, the murderous shots are radical, and each cut against the flesh of his actors seems even more steeped in blood than usual. It all contributes to a portrait of the artist as having a troubled, hyperactive mind, and it never tries to elevate Argento as a more intellectual and distant figure above his on screen stand-in.

         Argento's usual approach to actors is to treat them less as characters than bodies. If you are onstage in an Argento film, you either are a detective, killer, or potential victim, and your main function is how the light falls on you and how to be framed in a way that best accommodates an image that continually promises your demise. Dark Glasses reverses this idea by remaining a film surprisingly endowed with compassion. Ilenia Pastorelli doesn't give the best performance in an Argento movie or anything like that, but she is liberated in a way that most of his actors are not. She moves outside the very thought out mise-en-scene, she is not victim or detective, but a survivor whose wounds matter to the movie. One can observe the change of approach in the opening murder: unlike Sleepless, here there is a very different statement of principle. It's the old "woman walks at night and is attacked" that Argento has used more than a hundred times in the past, but he shortens the walk by having the woman be grabbed almost immediately by the killer without the usual stalk and slash scenario. There is few thrills, a close-up of the actress fighting as her throat is destroyed, then the body falls down the sidewalk and the film cuts to the many horrified pedestrians as they find her in her last gasps, the bloody throat prominently displayed, last words ("what happened?") in the air and people watching. The focus transferred from the spectacle of the murder to the impact of it.

         It is an idea that remains throughout Dark Glasses. The first attack on Pastorelli is longer, but is staged through a car chase in a twist on genre expectations and made much more distant as a result. The shot of the dead bodies of the orphan's parents after Pastorelli's car hits them is made the centerpiece of the scene and again closes with third parties running to their bodies. In Dark Glasses, bodies are not on screen tobe killed with cruelty as much as they are there to be found. The violence is in the end result much more than in the act itself.

        Much of the remaining film is built around all of the central character's ambivalent feelings about what happened, her adaptation to blindness, her relationship with the boy who represents how she survived (he is more symbol than character), and her new dog. The scenes with the animal are among the best Argento has done in the second half of his career. One tends to remember how Pastorelli and the dog develop a relationship more than violence. That goes until the climax, when the dog opens the killer's throat in the film's most memorable shock, and Argento can finally marry his focus on the relationship between survivors and his talent for violent imagery (even here Dark Glasses allows the camera to linger longer than usual over the destroyed, lifeless body).

        An underrated aspect of Argento's work is its sense of abandonment. The citizen playing detective and the incompetence of the Italian police are hallmarks of the genre (you can count on one hand the number of minimally useful cops in Argento's films), but these films have a very strong relationship to their cities, and Argento was always good at isolating characters against their architecture. The idea that you are alone in a dangerous space that is conspiring against you is strong in them. There has always been a sad desperation to Argento's ideas of film space, and this must be the great continuity between Dark Glasses and his earlier films. Argento's character always seems forgotten in the urban landscape. This is an oppressively nocturnal film with almost no daytime scenes. The longest and most important sequence involves the blind woman and the boy running off alone through the night, their connection to each other reinforced as much as their disconnection to their surroundings. It goes on forever but remains well controlled, it's about fear but not anticipation of death as often in Argento's films, and it foregrounds the fragility that has always been an important part but rarely the focus of these films.

       I don't want to oversell Dark Glasses Argento may be a bit out of his element in the dramatic scenes, the low budget shines through, and his relationship with digital photography remains uncertain. What I can say is that there are few moments in Argento's cinema that I find as touching as the last scene of Pastorelli and his dog. Does that make Dark Glasses the most exciting movie for those looking for a tense thriller? Perhaps not, cinephilia sometimes run on a very different lane than  "the market" and that brings us back to Dark Glasses' position as a late film.

       It would be foolish to describe it as a kind of mea culpa or a twist career summary, but it is certainly disruptive and enriched by a long history of movies. It suggests a veteran master trying to deal with a number of issues of representation for which he has been searching for the right image for a long time, and is quite exciting as such. Movies like this exist in a broad dialogue with the past, with our relationships to it, with what the present means to the artist. It may sound absurd, but Dark Glasses would not be itself without the mediocre films that preceded it. I would never bother to write so much about Dracula, but films like Dark Glasses serve as a reminder of how this kind of rich dialogue is possible and, when one is willing to have it, it can make cinephilia and the experience of cinema that much richer.

October, 2022

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