Monday, July 29, 2013

Mater Testiculorum: SCARFACE, SUSPIRIA, CARRIE

"Masculinity must fight off effeminacy day by day.
Woman and nature stand ever ready to reduce the male to boy and infant."
-Camille Paglia

"Son? I wish I had one! He's a bum!"
--Mama Mantana (Scarface)

 You can argue that gangster cinema began at Warners with Cagney and Robinson, but a few pre-code masterworks aside, the gangster never hit his grandiose peak until it became an Italian-American story was directed by an Italian-American. Robert Evans knew this, and so insisted on Coppola for The Godfather (1972). An Italian director for an Italian story. Defamatory? Maybe, but the Italian-American Anti-Defamation league was founded by one of the heads of the five families, Joe Colombo, so who can you truss? Me, 'ass who.

And an Italian-American director is going to ideally bring in a sense of Italian flair and artistry, the Scorsese drive and odd streaks of compassion, the Coppola darkness, and the De Palma operatics. And just the word opera should make you think of Argento, an Italian, straight-up, whose films have such elaborate beauty, brutal violence and strange rhythms (check out my 10/2009 companion to this piece, "Nightmare Drive-In Logic, Italian-style) they transform the work of everyone who sees them... whatever that work that is.


The Italian-Americans don't all love opera but it's emblematic of their artistic genes, along with the poetry of Dante, the art of Botticelli, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and the masochism of Catholicism (each centurion lash upon the wrecked torso of Christ fantasized about in excruciating detail). All this and more pumps, drives, twists the flagellant Italian heart, consumed by "original sin," which stretches its exposed raw nerve beating-heart history back through Roman orgies, gladiators, court intrigues, brutal inquisitions, the plague, the Mafia, and so on. Thus the murders in Argento and De Palma and Scorsese and Coppola play out like operas of the damned, in which every emotion is heightened, and played out in full, wringing every last drop of blood. They present characters who are adults, who sometimes joke around but never about business and when violence occurs to or through them it's always painful business, always transmitted across the screen with time for the victim to scream, or scrawl a note on the tile steam, or be crucified by butcher knives, or crawl away or bravely stare into the eyes of their killer, shouting "Fack Yew!"


In the good Argento and De Palma films, death may be cinematic and beautiful at times but it also hurts and no one dies easy; characters get time to register the horror of realizing their whole life is about to end, suddenly and with no good reason, and so much left undone, like a cloud of screwdrivers twisting vainly to the sticky in their widened eyes. They see death coming, and if they live they make sure their opponents get the same luxury. There's a feeling of what's really involved with killing people. In normal gangster films people just get shot, blammo! Whammy! But when being true to Italian operatic rhythms, one needs time to die, a lot of time, while Ennio Morricone strings play a semi-mocking eulogy overhead and you look at your killer with a slow turn from pleading to fear to anger and oaths, to resignation and then downwards or up into the infinite abyss. And if you can't make the turn all the way, the way Lopez can't, for example, can't kill your own enemy but got to hire it done, then you don't even deserve the top shelf bullets.


It makes sense then that De Palma has no real interest in capturing Latin culture, filling the score instead with the boss Italian synths of Giorgio Moroder, and the gaudy pre-fab architectures of the Italian disco. Hawks' 1932 Scarface bounced around with merry good-cheer and a mock-Italian comedy-team rhythm that made a stunning counterpoint to the violence; Paul Muni showed that thing we all love about our one Italian-American friend: their positive life force always on, never wavering, comical even at their baseline. Even when breaking your thumbs for not paying your debts they can joke around and make you feel like a regular guy and ask you how's your mother. And if you dated one then you know how nurturing they are, cradling your head when you throw up, and only crying and freaking out when they realize you are never going to stop drinking long enough to be much of a take-home-to-the-parents-style boyfriend.


Scarface's ice princess blonde, played as a bundle of nerves snaking themselves through sheer brass will into the shape of a svelte cat-eyed bombshell (Michelle Pfeiffer, making the grade) is the opposite,  so trapped in the narcissist mirror she can't wait to clear the lines off it, the better to see herself with. But if you can get her to laugh, a woman like that? Ah Manolo, she break her contract for you. Plus, she's forbidden. That's the boss's lady, ogay? But Tony values only that which he cannot have because he's too dumb to know in advance that attaining it will bring him no satisfaction. Instead he has to look closer to home, towards Taboo 2. He falls for his sister the first time he sees her as a young woman and that he's been in jail for five years in Cuba excuses it somewhat at first but then he makes no effort to reign in his incestuous impulse.


As Tony, Pacino is filmed first in long shots, his musky tan face paint dripping off when he's hot which is all the time, or being bathed in Angel's blood with a gun to his head, the blood and brown make-up swirling together to form a muddy rust. In the early scenes where he's bluffing his way up into Lopez's good graces he seems to fold into himself, like a sullen teenager, all terrible bangs and loud shirts, short frame and hairy arms, a peasant trying to cover up his innocence with tough talk and bravado and big cigars (see below). De Palma's camera doesn't circle but rather observes him from on high. As Tony increases in stature and drive, De Palma's camera moves in for close-ups and low angle shots, such as the shakedown from the narcotics cop, and Pacino quickly but imperceptibly mutates as well, oscillating back and forth between tough guy killer and loyal clown, gradually losing the clown aspect along the way and replacing it with self-absorbed money-obsessed paranoiac.


We learn from books like The Devil's Playground that De Palma knew something about cocaine, and if you look at this movie and the bloated satire of Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) and The Untouchables (1987), as a trilogy, you get a saga of desire, loss, and how empires might be built on the underbelly of America's endless attempts to inflict the morals of senator's wives onto America, the importance of not getting high on one's supply is understood so deeply you can feel De Palma's good judgment slipping away as the film goes on. But that fits both the operatic paradigm I've drawn (especially La Traviata, which begins in a beautiful party and a rich paramour's baubles and ends with her broke, all her stuff being carted away as she dies in bed, alone but for a nurse who wonders if she'll ever be paid.


Despite all these problems, Tony lives on today, twenty years later, as a kind of living demi-god. As a character he has aged less well than the the emulators might think, however. If there's something heroic about his "say 'ell to my leedle fren!" last stand, it's tempered by his blindness to his monitors, his letting his security team get slaughtered, his own impulse killings of Manny and Alberto the Shadow. Mired in cocaine and confusion, he pulls the plug on his existence by blowing the hit, letting his coked-up ego and repressed love of kids and guilt over his mama--"sensitive weakness"--knock him into a winner-lose-all fugue state. His final shoot-out can be read academically as a zero point tantrum of grief and self-absorption. He doesn't know how to handle success, but blazing shoot-outs? This he knows. And like Tony, and Tom Hanks in Bonfire Capone's unlimited wealth doesn't compel him to hide his working class roots, such as the pic below where he's getting shaved by his old barber in a beautiful palatial space under twisted dark manly flooring. This is wealth spent by the man, to realize his aesthetic, not to placate some rich wife's drive for respectability. No flowers, white tiles and dinner parties with all the best snobs. This is instead the nouveau riche bachelor in full flower, wherein the dark sleek look of the Corleone compound, the Italian aesthetic, free of female meddling, allowed to flower in its own dark orchid fashion, and it is beautiful, because darkness is.

Fade to Black, from sun to setting sun image to dark marble death
Looking back at it now on an anamoprphic DVD, Scarface looks shoddy in spots, badly blocked: sets seem to end a few feet from the side edges of the screen and the backdrops often look like freestanding drywall in the midst of waterlogged-curling. Loepz's BMW dealership back office with its tropical sunset (above, middle) cuts off into a blackness on every side, with the setting Miami sun wallpaper giving off that flat chintzy feel of a direct-to-video porn film or travel agency. We start the film sensing this will be a big budget panorama: Cuban refugee stock footage, crowded sweaty scenes under-highway encampments, dishwashing, stabbing, twilight phone booths, the wild Colombian chainsaw set piece, but then the gradual tightening noose of opportunity boils it all down to that La Traviata garrett. As Tony "makes his own moves" there are few places that are seen twice in the film, and fewer actors stick around as the scenes tighten up in a forward Apollonian arc that begins to wither into a fecund limpness: real Miami sunshine devolving to that car dealer image of a sunset, hot disco ladies devolving into some dorky dancer dressed like 'El Gordo' and more and more mirrors diluting Tony's vibrancy, as if the vast empire of Scarface merchandise was already draining his snarl of tragic meaning. The architecture eventually turns to gold trim and black marble (a symbol of death like the 'X' markings in the 1932 version) that Gina enters like a ghostly echo with her flimsy negligee open and gun, daring him to come over and make love to her, like the fish-eyed demoness at the climax of Suspiria. I'll go even further on a limb and say that Suspiria borrows quite a bit in color and nightmare logic pacing from De Palma's big break-out Carrie which came out the year before (1976 -though Carrie was still in theaters, and drive-ins by then, as it had become such a cultural landmark even parents were going to see it. It did for proms and telekinesis what Jaws had done for sharks and the ocean two years prior).



But this crazy "Fuck me Tony" scene with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and her nightmare black halo and temple of Dionysus sacrificial dress is where De Palma truly comes to life: mixing that queasy, death-saturated Argento color scheme and slowed-down time (which he mastered with the nightmare pace of the prom queen stair climb in Carrie) and the queasy sense of post-modern sexual displacement of his idol Hitchcock (i.e., he can't realize he's in danger until it's 'on TV'). Not until this final bloody incestuous kiss-off does De Palma find the pitch black death rattle wide-eyed in the face of horror wit that Hecht and Hawks understood better than most, though for them the preparation for facing death was great, the actual death a bit of a joke, whereas with De Palma death comes before there's much time to fix a game face, but the actual process of dying stays as felt and faced as in the grimmest of Italian horror films.  

From top: Suspiria, Untouchables, Bonfire of the Vanities
To get back to the sister, Tony doesn't really understand the way desire for her as just another hot young stranger is all amped up by brotherly love, paternal instinct, and narcissism. I know the effect of seeing your relative whom you've only seen every five or six years suddenly showing up in your neighborhood as a bona fide hottie. It's so so wrong, and for the mentally aberrant, like Tony, it's the ultimate. Just as it was for Caligula, another crazy Italian powermonger, Tony sees all taboo as dares.
Carrie
The only real separation between Italian-American gangster films and Italian horror perhaps is that death is where the gangster film stops, but horror has a few more places to go. And the brutal circumstances of that trip, the violence of going out, is everything. If you look at non-Italian American horror of the same approximate time, death doesn't dawdle. Even most slasher films, the American ones, like Halloween, are really about the stalking and POV camera: when death comes it's almost a relief, since as I pointed out in "A Clockwork Darkness", we now know where the killer is so there's no more worrying from where and when he will strike, how the person will die or if they will escape. No onscreen death can match our dread of the potential for it. But Argento's murders, Depalma's or Scorsese's or Coppola's first two Godfathers, are the exceptions: the moment of the first bullet, stab, or slash doesn't necessarily end the escape chances of survival, or mean a close to the episode. Death throes might go on for a full reel of near escapes, feeble cries for help, and forlorn looks up at the uncaring sky or (as in Fulci's Don't Torture the Duckling) busy highway, pleading for someone to stop...


And architecture plays another part in prolonging the sense of helplessness. In the apartment building where the first murder goes down in Suspiria, the multiple reflective frosted windows, the bizarre wallpaper, strange vertical angles, unholy lighting, and the howling, strange music and create a sense of complete alienation, an inescapable interior 'Hotel Overlook'-style space (though far less recognizable) we feel we recognize it from our own nightmares. We're never sure what is a mirror and what a window; the smoked glass of the bathroom shower stall seems to look right out on the hallway elevator! While De Palma is more rooted in the concrete at least in Scarface, and his vision less baroque, De Palma has a natural tendency to use crane shots and the architecture itself to create a mood of unease. In the climax, it is Tony himself who is the Mater Suspiriorum, or rather Mater Testiculorum Fide and the Bolivian hit squad is Jessica Harper sneaking in with her sewing scissors. 


In the above quotes at the top of this article I wanted to exhume the roots of the Italian artistry as the constant need to escape from mama (or even kill her symbolically, as in Suspiria). In the end of Scarface, Tony realizes even a macho endeavor like criminal empire management can turn him matronly ("Got tits," he drunkenly laments to Manny, visualizing his future as another complacent Lopez, "need a bra"). I say unto thee, blessed is the filmmaker who can recognize his own mom-haunted apron-string slashing anger as art and not feel the need to apologize to both women and the social order in general for his venting. As long as he's conscious of it. And both Argento and De Palma revere strong women, but fear them as well. A strong woman can make a man feel outgunned at every step, emasculated (since nothing he can do--even killing--- will ever measure up to the raw violence of giving birth) but if he can stare death square in the face and say hello to his little friend --this is balls. And balls alone can deliver us into the sad twisting architecture of the last breath, the byzantine nightmare realm where reality and dreams switch place, and life disappears like you just woke up and forgot everything about it like we do so often with dreams.


Mom would pull you back from that void, she's afraid you'll fall. If you heed her, you no longer have your balls, just your word to be good. Being a safe distance from the void may please her, but bores the rest of us stiff. God bless the director who says mama, back off a me, and then dives right over the ledge with his camera

He who chooses hell over heaven, death over life, he is alone truly free of those apron string jelly fish stingers. He looks at the modern reverence for life, health, the family, and winces; knows these gym rats and granola moms are all just scaling heights to nowhere, preserving their mortal husk on entomology's display board in vain  or vanity (or that old excuse, 'for the kids'). We men are from birth trained to apologize for our own measly drives, even our desire for death, and to follow some vague plan of being 'good' or even 'true' -- yoking ourselves ever further beneath the plow to compensate for our inexcusable appendage. Missing the brass ring circle of light on the swim out of the merry-go-round abyss we may and probably will wind up permanently trapped in Lucifer's pool filter. All we can do when that happens is throw some of our magic seeds out onto the grass over our heads and hope it's enough to leave some kind of stain on the earth in our name. All we had in this world was balls and words, but this world didn't want either. Our writing is still ours, unless-a someone pays us for the rights, but our balls are yours, Cook's Tours! Take them around that womb globe. Sow their seed like Set sowed Osiris's chopped up body, or get stuffed, into the palatial tree coffin, the polluted womb. Marry well and often and love your chil--no, don't do either, just run! Run before she gets here she .../// Vito! Where are you going now, you silly boy! 


10 comments:

  1. jervaise brooke hamster04 August, 2013

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  2. jervaise brooke hamster04 August, 2013

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  3. jervaise brooke hamster04 August, 2013

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  4. jervaise brooke hamster04 August, 2013

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  5. jervaise brooke hamster04 August, 2013

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  6. jervaise brooke hamster04 August, 2013

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  7. jervaise brooke hamster04 August, 2013

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  8. Erich Kuersten04 August, 2013

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  9. This is a disturbing comment thread.

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  10. thanks for pointing that out, JOhnny.... I missed a few of his dozens of obscene comments, I need to ban that Jervaise guy...

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