Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle

Friday, February 27, 2009

Four Flies on Grey Velvet: 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 or 'confused'--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; we're expected to laugh when the hapless noir fall guy throttles an innocent mailman just for looking suspicious in the rain; the killer/s have their reasons and the victims have theirs; homosexual stereotypes (limp-wristed, palm-tickling, mincing) are trotted out for pre-PC revulsion (but at least visible, and generally capable); murders are situated with almost unbearable intensity, which--more than gore--is what sharpens us up as viewers, like hard slap to the face; we're expected to drop our horror and laugh when a "hallelujah!" snippet plays with the arrival of someone nicknamed "God" (short for Godfrey -played by ubiquitous bear  Bud Spencer) who takes our hero to a coffin convention (to keep things in perspective), and police hardly matter except as deadpan symbols of a laggard but inexorable law and order, their tape computer banks, autopsies and fancy procedures  where lasers project the retinal image at the moment of death, coupled to their ability to let nearly anyone past them (coming in and going out) when guarding endangered witnesses.


In Four Flies, the third in Argento's 'animal trilogy' and the most comedic and uneven. Aside from the disparate list I just mentioned there's an ongoing gag with the mailman delivering pornography by mistake to an uptight old lady neighbor; there's some great psychedelic wallpaper, chic 70s menswear, and fantasias of being a working prog drummer married --in a kind of pre-Lynchian fugue--to rich girl Mimsy Farmer, with her hot cousin (Francine Racette) always trying to get you into bed (and succeeding when the wife leaves for London to get away from all the death). Everything's a double-edged sword of entendre and labyrinthine cinebolism. No matter who it is, we hate to see them killed, especially the gay but capable detective (Jean-Pierre Marielle) whose managed to win us over despite his mincing and slovenly eating.


If you're a big lover of Bird with Crystal Plumage you might long for another one of Morricone's children's music box leitmotifs to run through his score for Flies but like Exorcist 2: The Heretic, Ennio patiently waits until the film's half over to make his move: a discordant melange of nerve-jangling percussion, mashed piano keys, heartbeat bass and luggage dropped on harp strings all swirl in like a dust storm once the pin-drop quiet stretches and generic lounge psych jams are finis. The main theme has a tinny little pizzicato string echo bouncing off an eerie but playful "cheep"-style female vocal, a ceremonious Bach refrain and a faint jangle of... jingle bells? Maybe car keys? Either way, it's so slight as to be almost inaudible, but audible it nonetheless is, because the whole confection is so slight, so minimal we can hear pins drop, if Ennio so deigned to drop them. He could make a world class score out of nothing but a rubber band, a single note, and a broken harmonium. And here he just about proves it, which perfectly serves Argento's plan for long silences, with scared girls hiding in closets and hearing faint footsteps getting louder up the stairs all the time louder, until the 'didn't I have a nightmare just like this as a child?' deja vu creeps up on us. Alas, Argento and Morricone fought over some of these aspects (supposedly Dario wanted Deep Purple to do the score originally, heaven forfend) and Dario moved on to using Goblin for most of his subsequent films, which worked out well, though some of his latter musical choices (bits from Iron Maiden and Rick Wakemen especially) haven't aged at all well, while Ennio's scores--all 500 or so of them--are almost all like fine wine. Regardless, it's all the past, we're moving on. We can't just wish the awful Rick Wakeman score for Argento's Suspiria follow-up Inferno away and ask Ennio to step in an re-score it. This isn't AIP in the 60s, and Ennio is not Les Baxter.

 In addition to quietude, darkness: pitch blackness stretches sometimes over 3/4 of the frame, evoking in its shadowy stillness the brilliance of Val Lewton and Jacquest Tourneur, especially their 1943 masterpiece, The Leopard Man

All this dark and stillness may have been too dark and still 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 predates and prefigures 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 sitting in the make-up chair (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 (American giallo star expat Mimsy Riot on Sunset Strip Farmer! Is it redundant to mention her short blonde hair?). In Rome then, as well as in America, the pretty people are so privileged they become emotionally arrested post-Antonioni zombies, frozen in place lest a camera catch their bad angle, revealing them to be just as ugly as everyone else.

There's a lot left undone that would have made this movie hum with the brilliance of its 'animal trilogy' predecessors, it lacks the eerie spinal cord drilling of Plumage or the B-mystery-homage kinetics of Cat O'Nine Tails 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," i.e. more termite art than white elephant. And, for the psychotronic scholar, it's fun to connect this 1971 film to all that came before (Leopard Man, Peeping Tom, Psycho) and all that came after (Death Proof, Blade Runner, Eyes of Laura Mars). Who knows why it's so important for people like Dario, Ennio, and Lucio Fulci 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. Here in the States if we get a headcrushing, John Williams mickey mouses intense strings so we know we're supposed to think this is wrong! Bad! Bad killer! But in Italy they don't give you a moral compass. You're on your own, and if you're afraid not having your emotional reactions pre-ordained might activate your latent sociopathy, well, you need to grow up sometime, Raymond. Why not play a little solitaire?

Special shout to the new DVD's restoration of the full climactic killer monologue, which adds sickly minutes to an already tense situation. The restored footage is only available in Italian, while the rest is in English, and the suddenly eruption of this 'new' footage into the classic text is a great example of the trilogy's unheimliche conjuring power. In the Argentoverse scenes collapse and disappear only to return, decades later, in Italian with English subtitles.


I'm not getting Blue Underground kickbacks by saying this, but Argento's films are always worth owning instead of renting. They can be re-watched repeatedly without ever seeming like the same movie. They're as faceted as 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. We remember it as tense or thrilling or scary but not what exactly scared or unnerved us. As long as we don't play it all over and over in a conscious mind like a repetition convulsion obsessesion we can delve back in a year or so later and find ourselves wondering "is this the same version?" as if the sneaky Blue Underground replaced the disc in the dead of night... while we slept.

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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