Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Monday, July 29, 2013


"Masculinity must fight off effeminacy day by day.
Woman and nature stand ever ready to reduce the male to boy and infant."
-Camille Paglia (proud Italian-American)
"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 a distinctly Italian-American saga, directed by an Italian-American with maximum tactility. Robert Evans knew this, and so insisted on Coppola for The Godfather (1972). An Italian director for an Italian story, this according to Evans' Kid Stays in the Picture. Defamatory? Maybe. But the Italian-American Anti-Defamation league was founded by one of the heads of the five families, Joe Colombo, as a front for mob activity, so who can you truss? Me, 'ass who.

And so you need an Italian-American director, or an Italian straight-up, one who is going to ideally bring in a sense of Italian flair and artistry, i.e. the Scorsese 'boy pack' forward momentum, 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 that he even called on of his films Opera (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 may be. Mine included

Italian-Americans and Italian-Italians 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, Il Duce. 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 and pain. 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, always transmitted across the screen with time for the victim to scream, or scrawl a note on the tile steam, or be confronted by his own pulled-out small intestine, to try and crawl away or--with some visible screwing up of macho courage--to stare one last time into the eyes of their killer and shout "Fack Yew!"

In Argento and De Palma films, death may be cinematic and beautiful at times but it also hurts. No one dies easy; no one just gets shot or strangled and dies in a second. 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. They see death coming, and if they live long enough to kill in kind 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! But when being true to Italian operatic rhythms, one needs time to die, a whole scene with one lengthy tortured aria, 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, or on some busy Rome street while passers-by hustle past you on your way to work and it's not until you fall face down and the blood pools in the middle of the sidewalk do they stop and scream. Death isn't the scariest thing in De Palma or Argento films, it's the loneliness of it that hurts the worst --only your killer is there to hear your last words.

It makes sense then that De Palma has no real interest in capturing Latin culture of Miami and Tony Montana, 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 Elivra (Michelle Pfeiffer in her big breakthrough) is the opposite of the gaudy Italian persona. She's so trapped in the narcissist WASP 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 the ultimate taboo of incest. 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 rein in his incestuous impulse. He can't even admit he feels it, so makes no attempt to question the violence of his jealousy.

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, he's an illiterate peasant trying to cover up his clueless 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, in a kind aloof regard. As Tony increases in stature and drive, De Palma's camera moves in for close-ups and low angle shots, subliminally accentuating his rise in stature. Pacino's performance 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, as if Elvira's glum narcissism is seeping into him through prolonged proximity. 

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 thirst for solace; the futile attempts to inflict the morals of senator's wives onto the common people while their rarely-home husbands get rich from under-the-table kickbacks, the money increasing relative to the intensity of government crackdown. 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, for he too is breaking that rule.

To bring it back to opera, consider that Verdi's La Traviata 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. Substitute Tony's paranoia for Camille's noble self-sacrifice, i.e. her betrayal of her courtesan code by turning noble, and the way Tony sacrifices his empire because of some dumb refusal to kill kids. 

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 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. He's comfortable when he has nothing to lose, but having everything is too much responsibility.

And like Tony, and Tom Hanks in Bonfire, Untouchables' Al 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 WASP petit-bourgeois wife redecorating, allowed to flower in its own dark orchid fashion, and it is beautiful, because darkness is and because today's man gets only one room, his 'man cave' in which to express his taste.

Fade to Black, from sun to setting sun image to dark marble death
Looking back at it now on an anamorphic 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 slow 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 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 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 emblematic 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 incestuous desire for her as just another hot young stranger (his having been in jail in Cuba while she was maturing with mama in Miami) 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.

The only real separation between Italian-American gangster films and Italian-Italian horror perhaps is that death is where the gangster film stops, but horror keeps going. 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, De Palma'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 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!

De Palma is more rooted in the concrete at least in Scarface, and his vision less baroque, more enthralled by the surface, the mirrors reflecting Tony in ever increasing distortion. De Palma has a natural tendency to use crane shots 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. They are conscious of the animas' warped ferocity and respectful of its power. 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 his 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 those fading scraps of a dream after you just woke up.

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, and the words is: be good, call more often, and take out the trash. 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. He knows these gym rats and granola moms are all just scaling heights to nowhere, preserving their mortal husk on entomology's display board both in vain and vanity (or that old excuse, 'for the kids'). We men are from birth trained to apologize for our own measly drives, our desire for younger girls rather than the husks our own age; we apologize even our desire for death, and so we 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 well 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 weed in our name that will survive the mower. All we had in this world was balls and words, but mama's world can find no use for either. Our writing is still ours, at least, unless-a someone pays us for the rights. Either way, 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 else 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! 

See Also:
Two hearts stab as one: Brian De Palma + Dario Argento = split/subject psychic twins of the reptile dysfunction


  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. Erich Kuersten04 August, 2013

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  8. This is a disturbing comment thread.

  9. 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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