Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Misogynist! Genius!

The title is a line from Le Tigre's "What's Yr Take on Cassavettes?" but applies equally well to Dario Argento, and all accusations and adorations are true. On a freezing Saturday I start to write but end up reading endless reviews of giallo dvds I'll probably never see, on sweet sites like the Mondo Digital, the Cinebeats, the Final Girl, the Tenebrous Empire, the Bleeding Skull and my long-time favorite, Eccentric Cinema. I love reading about movies from other people's perspectives, and something about giallos seem to bring out the best in people. I think it's the feeling they have to justify their love of the genre in the wake of "feminist accusations of misogyny." That's not a put-down but an observation of myself in particular. Perhaps discussing Argento DVDs is just the codex some of us use to disguise topics too horrifically ambivalent to deal with directly.
I was reading Stuart Willis fine Giallo Collection piece on and its mentioning the misogyny accusations of Argento's Bird With Crystal Plummage:
The razor-slicing of a female character in a lift is justifiably famous for it's shocking impact, and in recent years the reinstated footage of the killer slicing apart a woman's knickers has become a talking point too. Savage, suggestive and yet another piece of ammunition for the insane brigade who think Argento hates women.

Now, I both agree and disagree that Argento hates women. Any artistic complexity--and Argento's is bottomless--naturally results in oppositional interpretations being always valid. The reason law has to be so exact is to prevent this sort of thing, a bar is set in the shifting sands of human emotion/action, and that is all we have to prevent a full reversion to savagery. Art on the other hand must always remind us that this bar is not really set at all, to remind us not to rely on it too heavily but instead find the bar within, before it closes forever and you're left high and dry. 

The problem isn't in discussing misogyny in relation to Argento, but in understanding the way an artist deals with issues of gender--especially in a country like repressively Catholic Italy, where single women are harassed on the street and mothers are sanctified martyrs, their apron strings like tenacious tentacles that can only be removed with violent razor attacks--and the way critics subsequently respond and the way a wide array of interesting viewpoints can lodge in the drying cement around a film's reputation.  Argento both indulges in and criticizes this approach--a metatextual deconstruction that was the style of his time and place during his formative years (Antonioni, Bertolucci, Fellini) and the ascription of pain receiver is feminine as the female body is considered more vulnerable, a more 'open' source of anxiety, more conventionally able to feel agony due to the ravages of menstruation and childbirth. Woman becomes mom/whore/wife/victim chimera on which conflicted viewers work out unresolved issues of castration, post-weaning depression, and the blood of conquerors like the Moors tossing angrily in their glands. Argento is like Hitchcock getting stabbed through the looking glass eye with a sharp PEEPING TOM poker, making us aware that we're all part killer, part bug-eyed victim and it's this continual self-inflicted violence that both defines us and prevents us from effecting real change. We'd be better off blinding ourselves, like Ray Milland in THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES.

What saves us though is that feminist criticism has effectively brought the idea of misogyny and violence against women into the popular critical consciousness. Now a cheeky lad like Stuart Willis can enjoy Argento's films while engaging in a dialogue with a feminist Other who monitors his arousal responses like a disproving clinician, thus allowing him to transfer and exorcise collective guilt. At the same time this Other provides a kind of anima projection superego which prohibits and therefore enhances certain shades of sadistic enjoyment. Internalizing the feminist backlash against the film's violence in this way may add metatextual goodness to one's viewing pleasure.

Criticism perhaps needs to be over-the-top and make grand sweeping pronouncements, resting assured that whatever critics write won't actually start a revolution, but just plant seeds hither and yon. We can be confident that sooner or later something's bound to actually grow to fruition, but that's not our job - we're the sowers. The seed planting then becomes a reward in itself, the Johnny Appleseedian spread-sewing motion like Tai chi. For embracing change is not the same as trying to change the world, but rather to realize it is always changing and it's our own perceptions which are stuck in the illusory field of time, wherein gravity weighs us down with age and boredom.

No great art actually solves problems or answers questions but instead brings confirmation to doubt, a sense the answer to that question you were obsessed with as a child and have perhaps since forgotten and is still out there, waiting for you to pick up its breadcrumb trail. To firmly believe in two simultaneously contradictory opinions is to free to enjoy your own enslavement, which is all true freedom is, or as Bob Dyaln sang "You gotta serve somebody," and the king is dead. Long Live the King... of death and sex cinema, and his unholy feminist backlash queen!


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