Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Friday, February 27, 2009

Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971): Cinebolically Dario


The long-awaited decent DVD release of Four Flies on Gray Velvet is a late-inning coup for anyone trying to lose their moral compass, and you should be trying, because it's harder than you think. Luckily, Argento's films--even at their worst--are never "safe" and always rich in moral ambiguity: Good guys are hipster artists driven to risk their friends' lives in finding the killer, more out of perverse fascination than genuine empathy for the victims; the killers have their reasons and police hardly matter except as deadpan mashers waiting around on the sidelines with their pages of red herring exposition.


In Four Flies for example, there's arrays of death iconography: an "experimental procedure" where lasers project the retinal image at the moment of death; a surreal trip to a coffin-makers convention with a bohemian named "God," and lots of... surreal chase scenes, psychedelic wallpaper, chic 70s menswear, and fantasias of being a successful artist jet-setting around Rome. There's also hot chicks, mincing gay stereotypes, and gruesome stabbing but even us paranoid feminists can get into the kinky murders of Argento. He's always feeling the pain and everything's a double-edged sword of entendre and labyrinthine cinebolism.


If you're a big lover of Bird with Crystal Plumage you might long for one of Morricone's children's music box leitmotifs to run through his score for Flies but like Exorcist 2: The Heretic, his nerve-jangle drumming, mashed piano, heartbeat bass and dropping luggage on piano strings gambits don't show up until halfway through the film. Before then it's all silence or generic lounge psych jams by the group our hero drums for. Argento's more into the long suspenseful silence thing for Flies, with hiding in closets and hearing faint footsteps getting louder up the stairs all the time louder, silence in which one strains to hear the faintest scraping. The pitch blackness stretches sometimes over 3/4 of the frame, all but daring you to wonder if there's even a movie going on. There is, but a lot of it nods to other films, by Val Lewton (a whole walled-in park sequence mirrors Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's 1943 masterpiece, The Leopard Man).


It may have been a little too quiet and dark on a cropped blurry dupe, but with the widescreen DVD from Blue Underground we can luxuriate in every darkened corner and realize that this movie resembles Lynch's Lost Highway in its poetic use of hipster musicians standing blankly around in the darkness of their retro chic decadent apartments, waiting... thinking... standing... As Roberto, Michael Brandon is like a handsomer version of Roger Waters but Waters could act, or at least occasionally move a facial muscle. Brandon is so out of it he thinks he's still in make-up (since he's had a long career I presume this was Argento's directorial note). And, as always, there's a hot frail androgynous girlfriend (Mimsy Farmer in short blonde hair). In Rome then, as well as in America, the pretty people are so privileged they become emotionally arrested zombies, alienating those around them until they're as ugly as everyone else.


There's a lot left undone that would have made this movie hum with the brilliance of Plumage, but there's no doubt it's Argento at the helm--in full control--so even if it doesn't add up to much, it's always "in the moment." And for the psychotronic scholar it's fun to connect this 1971 film to all that came before (The Leopard Man, Peeping Tom, Psycho) and all that came after (Death Proof, Bladerunner, Eyes of Laura Mars). Who knows why it's so important for people like Dario, Ennio, and Lucio that someone's slow decapitation or eye-gouging should be accompanied by languid orchestral pop balladry?! Maybe it's some anti-Catholic thing, but goddamn it, those are the moments one lives for.


Another moment is the climactic "lost footage" restoration which adds sickly minutes to an already tense situation, the suddenly reverting into Italian is a great example of Argento's unheimliche conjuring power. In the Argentoverse scenes collapse and disappear, whether by your mental suppression scissors, or someone's real ones, only to return, decades later, in Italian with English subtitles.


Argento's films are always worth owning instead of renting as they can be re-watched repeatedly without ever seeming like the same movie. They're as faceted as an one's own inner romantic torment or open wound. Part of it, I think, is that our mind instinctively buries trauma, even imaginary ones if the vicarious dread is intense enough, so we "block out" all traces of the pain as it happens, leaving just a jewel-like shimmer in our retinae. What was it Caligula said? "Oh, If all of Rome had just one neck..." he said that because he was itchy for something that only a genius like Argento could provide, and he kept breaking necks to find it. Dario breaks the necks so we don't have to. Dario, the cinebolical Caligula of post-modern Rome!


Read my less worshipful piece on Dario's Mother of Tears here, and more worshipful piece on daughter Asia's Scarlet Diva here

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