Wednesday, July 09, 2014

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

The critics say they're indebted to Hitchcock for their tropes, obsessions and subjects, but what I really see in Italian horror director Dario Argento and Italian-American suspense director Brian De Palma is a bizarre split-subject psychic twin connection, a shared reptile dysfunction that springs from Catholicism, ancient Rome, and scopophilia-driven sexual obsession mingled into a love story linking across the oceans and continents from Rome to the USA, a round trippy immigrant passage between the old and new world / mammalian higher brain's compassion and the reptilian cortex of unsocialized pre-empathic killer. De Palma has made a few films exploring this sort of split-subject psychic twin connection (SISTERS, THE FURY, RAISING CAIN) while Argento oomphs his dark fairy tale sensationalism with it. Argento even wanted Jessica Harper for SUSPIRIA after seeing her in De Palma's PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. He said so!

And I didn't even know this when I started this post, but they were born the same month (September) of the same world war-ridden year (1940), six days apart. They are both Virgo, sign of the virgin, sign of obsession, poring over film strips and sound boards with the repressed energy of a thousand unreached orgasms (Catholic guilt, mama's bathroom monitoring, and god knows what else making masturbation a hairy palm-fearing no-no).

from top: Jessica Harper w/mic in PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE
(De Palma); w/knife in SUSPIRIA (Argento)
Both have been accused of objectification and misogyny due to their detailed gruesome violence against the female body. I used to agree with that diagnosis, but now I blame their reptile sadistic killer instincts on intense Italian mother-love and Catholic guilt (Hitchcock, too, was Catholic). The Devouring Mom's giant hydra apron strings cling to their minds no matter how much their onscreen avatars hack at them, each new woman's body a tendril-tentacle. I've come to feel my own feminist ire is founded in that same struggle, coupled to the unbearable level of anxious dread and soggy liberal arts (Protestant-atheist/Nordic) guilt--the compulsory mammalian instinct to protect the women (civilization, sterile) vs. the cold reptile desire to savage them (primal, fecund). When a camera doesn't look away from the horror wrought by our helpless positions as observers on the opposite side of the screen, caught like a masochistic spider in a sadistic web, then real horror can begin - on both levels at once. Feminists like myself blame the camera, the director, for our intense discomfort. Better we should have our eyes gouged out than see such traumatic butchery! Rather than examine this response and our own culpability in it (deep deep down, we feel the savage id stir), we lash out, labeling the directors misogynist in a vain attempt to scrub the horror from our eyes, not even realizing we're now part of the problem by associative vehemence.

Clara Calamai, Jacopo Mariani - DEEP RED
But Argento and De Palma will not let us look away. Even if we gouged our eyes out they'd find a way to reach us with these images.

Blood and black, from top: SCARFACE, SUSPIRIA (see Mater Testiculorum)
Argento and De Palma also use similar post-modern effects, deconstructing their own misogyny and their audience's demands for blood; each goes deep into the human eye, ever searching for what lies past the inscrutable inky black roundness of the pupil. Cameras, mirrors, photographs, film sets, stage sets, plays, taxidermy, and elements of performance-within-performance, masks behind masks, abound. I generally don't like dream sequences, they're like vents in which to dump cheap manipulations and sudden shocks without the burden of context, but De Palma melds and mirrors the dreams and reality together so completely that this harsh judgment doesn't apply; Argento does away with waking life altogether. Occasionally an Argento character wakes up in some exterior, drops by an outside a parapsychology conference for some exposition (as if a glass of water, or a quick trip to the bathroom), then it's back down into bed, the pillows, the mattress below it, the floor below that, the floor, the floor below... the floor... and then they're back and unsafe in the Freudian nightmare murk. 

from top: De Palma - CARRIE, Argento - INFERNO, De Palma -
Interesting too is that Argento's work has by critical consensus really sucked since 2001's SLEEPLESS, while at the same time De Palma's been pulling himself out of a sucky period (with 2002's FEMME FATALE). It's as if these aging auteurs are sharing a pair of traveling genius pants. De Palma's been returning to his old haunts, where cheap raincoats, razors, masks, split screens, double cross media-blackmail-stalk-and-snap PEEPING TOM post-modern media theory coupled to a PSYCHO-style cross examination, circular staircase POVs, and a psychiatrist's explanatory monologue wrapping the catalog of kinks back up in its brown wrapper before a final gotcha which often ends up being a dream within a dream, or was it (as in his recent PASSION)?

Without those traveling pants, Argento is floundering; he's become just another late night Cinemax director paying more attention to disturbing gore, gaudy sex and no art-as-violence fairy tale tricks for which we love him. Maybe it's because De Palma is making smaller movies that suit his fancies, while Argento seems laboring under the pressure of his name (and his refusal for example in MOTHER OF TEARS to go with his ex-wife's fairy tale script which might have rocked, and instead some nobody American guy's, one can only imagine it was because his had less art and more gore which is all he cares about these days, don't get me started).

Either way, and as an aside, this does not betray my grand theory that they are twins linked by some strange telepathy, like Jennifer Connelly with her flies in PHENOMENA (1984), or Amy Irving with Andrew Stevens in THE FURY (1977). 

None of this is to accuse either Argento or De Palma of being a mama's boy, a misogynist, a copycat, or a potential murderer. For better or worse (mostly better), the critical backlash against their movies has helped usher in the PC-era. With feminist ire building in nearly everyone, the blatantly phallic drill, endless softcore strutting and groping in De Palma's BODY DOUBLE (1984) was like an affront even to his defenders and defenders of the 80s in general. In Argento's similar films, sexual fetishizing is never an issue, except as far as elaborating on the madness of the mother or father fixation which then (usually) triggers a schizophrenic break with reality.

Now that I'm older though, I see the misogynistic violence of De Palma and Argento through this same schizophrenic prism, and realize only by expressing these wormy fantasies can we temporarily-cathartically expel them, or at least depressurize them so they don't explode and cause real-life damage. How many hydra apron strings were severed or unstuck in American families thanks to PSYCHO (1960)? It made such a splash on its initial release that the ripples haven't ceased in fifty years. It changed the way America went to the movies and gave armchair psychologists a gold standard for the dangers of maternal suffocation. Who knows how many closeted or overprotected men would still be living at home and doing their mothers' toenails on a Saturday night if not for PSYCHO as a warning? "You better move out before you end up like Norman Bates." Who knows where De Palma or Argento would be without it? PSYCHO snapped the 60s off at the shower curtain 50s root, and tossed it into the inky black pupil drain, where emaciated 20 year-olds like De Palma and Argento were waiting with their celluloid nets. 

Color-coded patterns from top (alternating De Palma/Argento):

Naturally these psychic twins are not identical: Argento's psychoanalysis is perhaps deeper while De Palma is more into politics (Italy wasn't as mired in Vietnam). Argento's connection to music is more wryly contrapuntal than De Palma's, making innovative use of children's songs, whispering, percussion and even electric bass-driven funk from Goblin and Ennio Morricone. In DEEP RED, particularly a real break with convention is begun: swooning pop balladry as heads get slow motion sliced by shattered windshields--the glass a pop art snowstorm--and rattling nerve-grating, plastic cup echo-drenched percussion that stops when David Hemmings steps on a bottle, then resuming just as abruptly when a shade falls. This approach is the total opposite of the usual emotional-telegraphing of Hollywood, of which De Palma is part, preferring the usual overwrought orchestras. De Palma had Bernard Hermann scoring (De Palma's first films, and Hermann's last) which cemented the Hitchcock connection, but the genius of creating undulating nervous tension with an orchestra died when he did. Even geniuses like Hermann don't get how mellow pop songs should accompany murders and suspense music play over romantic parts. I've never been too crazy about the score of TAXI DRIVER for that reason, it's like Hermann doesn't get the ambivalence and Herzogian inscrutable stone face of the natural gods thing the way, say, Tangerine Dream got it for SORCERER. It takes true madness and the ability to convey the full breadth of that madness so those listening don't have time to recognize and escape it. It's only when De Palma got an Italian to score, Ennio or Nino Rota, that it really gels.

From top: NORTH BY NORTHWEST, DR. NO, the full ambiguity of
casual sex at its most chilling, and therefore truest.

Argento and De Palma use romance in a subversive manner, riffing on the lovers-on-the-run style of Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) by having romantic comedy tropes tossed nervously in with the suspense, sifting through the queasy mix of dread and attraction that occur during a casual hook-up, i.e. when the other person's hot but it's all happening a bit too fast to not seem suspicious (where only Connery era-Bond or Cary Grant can safely tread). Is that what happens when a charming sociopath puts their moves on you? The winding up in bed with them is carefully crafted to make you think it's chance and fate, the night itself conspiring to bring you together, but already they're spiriting you away from your old life with surgical expertise. Even if they don't end up boiling your rabbit, or bringing you someone's head in a box, it can still be dangerous to bring them home or go home with them. Every hook-up is a risk. It's like a romantic comedy is coming true and you think somehow you deserve it, because your hormones scream oui oui. But something's not right. A grown man shouldn't exclaim aloud, "I forgot to phone mother!" while sitting down to martinis with executives at the 21 Club, expecting all these peers of yours to understand.

from top: De Palma (DRESSED), Argento (BIRD), De Palma, Argento - etc.

They see you (from top: DRESSED, DEEP RED)

Lest we forget, BODY DOUBLE made co-star Melanie Griffiths (Tippi Hedren's daughter), an overnight star for her bubbly voice and her so 80s window striptease VERTIGO honey trap; Nancy Allen in DRESSED TO KILL uses her sexy body as a weapon to overwhelm the killer's gaze. It's this idea of feeling suddenly exposed as the viewer in the audience that activates the killer hiding in plain sight within the viewer's "normal" psyche-- such as when the psychic 'sees' the murderer while on stage at the psychic conference in Argento's DEEP RED. Dude, she's seeing us.

Part of the feminist arousal of ire perhaps stems from the anger at being forced to feel what the murders are depicting, not just from the stabbed side but the stabber, the horror and savagery of the murders leave their mark our murkiest reptilian recesses. But they are meant to be disturbing, to heighten our senses through fear and make us paralyzed in our seats. That is the correct reaction to these violent depictions and to presume it's not, that it's sadistic and somebody's getting off on it, is to presume a vast nation of rain-coated social sadists who get off on seeing sexy women terrorized. The response of feminist outrage is connected to the same repressive mechanisms that motivate the killers in De Palma's DRESSED TO KILL and Argento's DEEP RED. Seeing themselves being seen, they freak out. It's as if Argento and De Palma are doctors who touch these critical viewers in places within themselves they don't want to admit exist, so the urge is to sue for sexual harassment. But maybe he was checking for a tumor! Maybe she's reading too much into it based on her own hang-ups?

The stuff that really traumatizes me now is not the gore of De Palma and Argento but the unconscious, casual cruelty of other films (like VACANCY or WOLF CREEK), that aren't necessarily good or scary but leave me damaged for days, just imagining anyone would ever want to see or get off on that kind of torture porn brutality. Argento and De Palma are more compassionate; the very idea of film violence obsesses them to the point that they can target and exorcise it through a double blind mirror-to-the-audience gaze reflector, such as the movie screen-shaped white art gallery entrance in THE BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (below), or the (wider) screened window of De Palma's BODY DOUBLE (below that).

In these shots/scenes we're given a profound metatextual illustration of the perverse appeal of violence on the big screen, and the reason for our sometimes violent offense seeing it -- our urge to rush the screen and pull it down before the unthinkable happens, and if we fail, to find the director and pour our drink on his head and kick him in the nuts. When I was young in the 70s-early 80s, seeing an R-rated murder like in SUSPIRIA or HALLOWEEN was the equivalent of a scary roller coaster, a rite of passage, something you needed friends to go to with (at the drive-in or dangerous downtown theater). But if the audience laughs and cheers the murder (as they would going down a roller coaster hill) and someone is there alone and sulky to review the film for the Times, would they not worry, hearing the cheers and giggles, that these films are mere pornography for vicious misogynist freaks? I know that's what I would have felt. I read those reviews and developed a whole irate feminist vulnerability complex because of them, or imagining the audience cheering slaughter of sexually aware females, as if the theater reverted to some biblical age-style adulteress stoning.

But I now think these murders are meant to tap into our mammalian protective instincts far more than reptilian cortex sadism. More than cheering brutal murders, we scream at characters onscreen in helpless frustration not to go back in the house, or basement (hence all those 70s horror titles DON"T ANSWER THE PHONE, DON'T LOOK IN THE BASE etc.). But our anger over their counterintuitive behavior might be our attempt to shirk our responsibility. We want desperately to feel like the endangered woman brought it on herself for making so many counterintuitive decisions, that believing she deserved it will absolve us of the guilt that we couldn't be there to save her, that her death onscreen is the result of our real-life absence from our own lives, but it's not our fault!! Damn you for even tricking us into thinking so.

untraversable screens - from top: Argento, De Palma, Hitchcock (viewer helpless to help, or look away)

But it's really the powerlessness of being tied (more or less) to our chair and unable to be heard through the screen (often represented in De Palma like a shower stall or rainy window), and guilty at our own bloodlust, the deep dark reptilian-dysfunctional part of our viewing brains (the type that eats their young and has no empathy), that we're reacting to. It's simplistic to call that misogynist, because if we didn't feel that way, if we relished her weakness and bad choices as chances to strike, then we reduce ourselves to the lonesome status of the reptile, or cokehead, a sociopath rather than a compassionate mammal-reptile hybrid. As so often in Argento films, we shudder enough watching the stalkings and killings that we need our own avatar for that shuddering, someone similarly trapped outside the screen - unable to save and unable to look away - the reptile mind holding our terrified mammalian eyes on the blood with the same insistence as the administrator of the Ludovico Technique.


It's also true that when other artists tries to mix media theory and sex and violence, giallo tropes can't help but appear--as in the John Carpenter-scripted EYES OF LAURA MARS (1978), which somehow manages to be very Italian just by being into fashion and photography (via Helmet Newton) and set in New York at the height of its crime-ridden grittiness. To incorporate cameramen within films and musicians and sound engineers hearing something they shouldn't or seeing something they can't quite remember, is to enter a realm where even we as the viewer are not safe. It began with REAR WINDOW (1954), became entwined with the counterculture in BLOW-UP (1966) and its imitators, and continues with Argento's and De Palma's descendents, like Strickland's BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2012), and  Michel Soavi's 1987 STAGE FRIGHT. The key in each is the meta-framing of the performance of horror as a rite, an ancient re-enactment of pagan sacrifice older than modern civilization, ever present in our DNA just waiting to come out, powerful even if the victim is just a barleycorn effigy.



from top: De Palma (x2), Argento, De Palma. Argento
Art galleries and artist studios legitimize scopophilic behavior, allowing for more a broader palette of associative symbolism. Stretching the sexual gamut, via headless statues and statue-less heads, Bosch and Bruegel, Escher and surrealists lead the way to where De Palma and Argento follow.  Through art, Laura Mulvey's concept of the male gaze is equalized, or at least - broadened. In subversive horror films, the male gaze is declawed, rendered impotent, because the desired woman onscreen looks back at us. She sees our evil toad thoughts and doesn't flinch or bow submissively, freezing us in our motionless tracks. Hence my term Mecha-Medusa (wherein the desored object looks back, freezing us with the uncanny, skeevy horror of our own initially lewd stare). See also: subliminal screens, metaphors for the immersive film viewing-experience, the mass hypnosis of the theater where we merge into a group mind caught under the sway of a dangerous crazy person.

Associative and literal misogynistic devouring / dismemberment / triggers

De Palma, Argento (etc.)

from top: Argento, Argento, De Palma.

Blindness allows for heightened variations on the HVR or Heightened Victim, or Helpless Viewer, Response (we can't help them across the street, being blocked by the traffic of the screen); fetish objects for objectifying (they can't look back); they cannot be threatened by what they see, hence are not a threat (as in the men blinded for seeing by matriarchal coven-ruled social order in the 1978 TVM, THE DARK SECRET OF HARVEST HOME --blindness as symbolic castration). At the same time, some--like Malden in CAT O'NINE  TAILS above--use their other heightened senses to advantage (linking their hearing to the sharper hearing of animals, or Travolta's field microphones).

Argento x 2, De Palma x2

They fog, and when something or someone looks in them and freezes stock still, they become their own objects. Doubling is related to that --evil twins, and the inherent split of actors and characters -as in the split between the woman playing a terrified woman in a horror film, or literally split in the case of the body doubles in De Palma's BLOW OUT and BODY DOUBLE. There are the separated twins of SISTERS or RAISING CAIN and the eerie similarity romances (someone looks just like someone else the protagonist was in love with and saw die-- stemming from VERTIGO) - -Geneveive Bujold in OBSESSION, Melanie Griffith in BODY DOUBLE, Margot Kidder in SISTERS, the two raincoats in DRESSED TO KILL, and so forth. In Argento, there's the impersonation of the killer as PTSD obsession in THE STENDAHL SYNDROME or TENEBRE, the fraternal twins of INFERNO, the impersonation doubling in PlUMAGE --actually, I guess it's more of a De Palma thing come to think of it, as he's way more into VERTIGO than Argento is. 

Deep Red is the color of menstruation, child birth, the link to sex and excitement, flushed cheeks, heat / dark blue the color of swollen wounds, the chill of the deep, dark death, etc.

De Palma relies on them but drags them really slow and methodical, without any dialogue and often backwards so that they're as relevant as 'reality' within the film; Argento flashes to them now and then, more out of stories told or childhood memories of the asylum or before or after (where everyone acts like automatons). De Palma links dreams with horror movies worked on by characters of his movie (John Travolta in BLOW-OUT), or wordless operas, or the clockworkiness of Bergman's WILD STRAWBERRIES or Dali's dream clocks in SPELLBOUND and MOONTIDE.

Great for chase sequences and as symbolic of the 'descent' into the unknowable squirmy recesses of the subconscious.

frop top: Godard, Coppola, Argento, Argemto,  De Palma, De Palma

The visual screen is just part of it, of course. Coppola's THE CONVERSATION was hugely influential on both De Palma and Argento (the scopophilia kink extends to eavesdropping). They both similarly took notice of Godard and Truffaut (as in the DON'T SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER-style arc of BLOW OUT) whose incorporation of the recording studios and screening rooms they were using into the films themselves indicated an unhesitating post-modern bent.


Antonioni's BLOW UP, Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW and Powell's PEEPING TOM are huge (obviously) influences to both directors. To a lesser extent, TAXI DRIVER (if Travis had a 16mm movie camera to point at the mirror and the pimps, imagine the movie he would make!)

SCREEN METAPHORES: De Palma is more obsessed with the hot female body threatened by the gaze (and threatening to it as well, quid pro quo) while Argento is obsessed with childhood dreams and traumatic repressed childhood memories drawn on the wall and then painted over, fairy tales elaborated into operatic tableaux (the automaton movements of the child in the DEEP RED flashbacks, etc.) Argento is more centered directly on metaphors for passive viewing (trapped and forced to watch), while De Palma focuses more on the cinematic apparatus (projectors as well as screens). Note the way the shadows in the picture above makes the childhood drawing look like its projected on the wall; below that is the image from INFERNO, the screen as opaque window about tot be slammed down on a neck, or slowly torn through by a dying woman. Unlike the earlier example (in BODY DOUBLE or OPERA), these screens aren't there to mock our powerlessness to save a woman (or alert to the danger behind her--the common thing in the crowded cinema of audience members shouting at the woman onscreen to turn around), but to threaten our sanity by either coming through the screen (like a broken head through a window) as in Lamberto Bava's DEMONS or beckoning us through it (as in DEEP RED)

From top: Patton, Blow-Out

For De Palma it's not the art house he recreates with his traversable screen, but the drive-in, the NASHVILLE or TARGETS or PATTON-style backdrop, such as the flag behind the climax of BLOW OUT or the blue behind Carrie at THE PROM (just as in SCREAM or THE RING it's not the theater or drive-in but the TV), like a kind of multi-media breakdown.

Find the skull gazing back!
(from top: Hithcock's NOTORIOUS, DRESSED TO KILL)

THE GONE-DEAD GAZE: De Palma's films are never, to my mind, as focused on art, instead dwelling more on politics and on the curvy flesh of hot girls and the terror of that objectifying gaze being reversed, of the 'object' returning the gaze, provoking a response which is always in direct relation to the viewer's fear of being viewed, of being judged. Feminist critics attach too much power to the male gaze, seeing it as ownership, which is like thinking you can get fat from looking at pictures of cake. Like dogs brave and combative on the leash but cowardly off it, we love to imagine what studs we'd be in the sack with some hottie we pass on the street; as long as she doesn't turn around and invite us upstairs for a tryst, we're safe in our fantasy. But if she drops the pretense of not seeing us and offers or asks for sex, even the most courageous of studs will usually rear back like a startled mare --it's too sudden, too soon. We perceive it almost as a violent slap, we're like Medusa flashed by a mirror raincoat.


And so it is that the ideal object that arouses or fascinates the killer is one that never looks back (figures in magazines with the eyes crossed out, blind people, etc.), allowing unchallenged staring. When the figure in portrait of Otto Preminger's LAURA (1944) suddenly appears, in a raincoat and bad mood, the detective's enchantment is instantly dispelled. The murderer's fantasy is to keep his prey from being able to return the gaze, to rip off our mask. Unless the cops scan the last image her eyeball and project it onto film (as in 4 FLIES ON GREY VELVET), or she comes back from the grave, she'll never be able to identify the killer.

Lastly, don't forget AMER (2009): perhaps so meta as to transcend narrative altogether, it presumes a certain familiarity with Argento and De Palma's oeuvre and their shared psycho-sexual roots as well as the distinctly Antonioni-esque experimental ambiguity where Jungian fairy tale subtexts go so deep down they come out the top like digging to China. One of the rare feature length films credited as being directed by a couple (she's French, he's Italian), the film is truly split, not just into three chapters but into experimental and narrative; not scene-by-scene but shot-by-shot.  At last he twins of fairy tale sexual psyche are united, the children of the giallo are born again, and the unification of male and female halves make a unique whole. AMER is the fulfillment of the promise in Argento and De Palma's most dreamlike works, distilled with all the plots and narrative weeded out but still riveting. It's glorious.

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