Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

Friday, March 25, 2016

The whores in hors d'oeuvres: A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY

Bring on the multitudes with a multitude of fishes:
feed them with the fishes for liver oil to nourish the Artist!
Stretch their skin upon an easel to give him canvas.
Crush their bones into a paste that he might mold them.
Let them die, and by
their miserable deaths become the clay within his hands,
that he might form an ashtray  or an ark.
  -- Maxwell J. Brock (A Bucket of Blood)
Italian art house cinema of the late 60s, she could be a-dangerous and dull. European critics, prepared with Hercules pens, alone could confront its many hydra heads without passing out from the ennui; American critics scattered to the four winds like frightened goatherds at the sign of subtitles unless they saw breasts... and fast. The Italian neorealist sentimentalism of the 50s needed Sophia Loren. But then came Antonioni's BLOW-UP in 1966, and there was no putting Italian cinema back together again. All the best corpses and models and stoop-shouldered socialist toothed birds a casting call could couch were then shipped wholesale to Rome for the imitators, the dime store Marxists masquerading as hip disaffected youths to win the tourist distributor's fickle coin. It didn't mean mainstream Italian cinema hadn't had its head handed to it on a Matisse bowler Salome platter by BLOW-UP's success, but it was quick to recover, grinding up the red telephones into pigment to redden the canvas of the artist.

By 1968, Warhol, Lichtenstein, LSD, Vietnam, radicalism, labor strikes, women's lib were all hanging around and kicking the bomb-blasted corpses of neorealist prostitute madonnas and pinball-and-cigarette pimps, and for some, that was great news. But, paralyzed with the realization any movement they took outside BLOW-UP's immediate blast radius would harden them into mock-ups of their plastic avenue parents, the dilated Now generation and the lecherous old intellectuals sleeping on their couches (or vice versa) stood frozen on the spot, paralyzed through fear of paralysis. There in the bone-splattered tiles and smoldering support beams they waited to decide how they were going to rewrite the history they'd just collectively admitted had been erased. Instead, they found where Fellini was hiding (under the ruins of mawkish life-is-a-carnival-metaphor merry-go-round) and strung him up by his heels. But when it came to slitting his throat, they were suddenly afraid of committing too far in the dark direction, of stumbling on their dad's mothballed attic-stashed Fascist Party parade sash. Finally, Dario Argento grabbed a razor and made the cut, for real, on the throat of the woman. And from that gaudy rococo throat gushed a dishwasher ocean of red... BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1968) soared aloft.. and immediately everyone who had been so reticent to do more than pretend to strangle their mistress or their husbands for a party game fake-out (ala DEATH LAID AN EGG) changed their minds and went scrambling through the ruins for a sharp shard.

Suddenly breasts and mod clothes and kinky psycho art shows weren't enough. While Ennio mocked from the playground slide whistle and tra-la-las, you had to kill 'em, fabulously, ironically, brutally--but not tastelessly. The Money urged them on and you had to be an idiot if you let your feeling of virginal castration angst hang you up instead of the other way around. The Money commands a sacrifice, and then another, as thirsty as an Aztec god.

Anyway it wasn't blood that flowed so free, but red -- pigment for the artist. BIRD was a horror film the way 1966's BLOW-UP was a conspiracy thriller, or PERFORMANCE a British mobster film, or PSYCHO a film noir.

When you film a girl in her scanties looking at tawdry X-rated photo books, thou has committed post-modernism AND made Joe Levine happy,

And that's where 
A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY (1968) comes in, for it is one of the weird, more vaguely satirical contemporaries of Argento's definitive Italian post-BLOW-UP giallo. It's the cool uncle the Argento generation never sees anymore except on rare holidays when they can get away to visit him at his 'funny' farm. They would never know from his address how cool he is, I mean what is up with that title? A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY sounds like a Squaresville Merchant Ivory bucolic revery, something only a half-asleep grandmother clutching her rosary could love. It doesn't even have a poster, for gods' sake. Is it deliberately trying to be lost to time?  That's why I made one (above), changing the name to u3prufj]gi]42go[ggr=gr. The line between artistic genius and psychotic mania has seldom before been so succinctly erased, and that deserves at the very least a more evocative title!

Not only is psychotic mania succinctly erased but there's also the by-far best performance of a young Franco Nero (dubbing his own voice in the English track), as an unhinged modern art painter named Leonardo. The way he tears around the crumbling estate, happy as a lark, reminds me of that old children's song by Napoleon XIV they used to play us in elementary school. Apparently he was shacking up with Vanessa Redgrave at the time, and they both really loved making this movie together, and it really shows, especially with him; he's alight with joy. If you're used to his terse inexpressive deadpan cool from DJANGO or THE FIFTH CORD, it might even be a shock to see how opened and giddy and light on his feet he is. Whether he's chasing the ghost of a nymphomaniac countess around his crumbling country mansion, or being chased by his needy art gallery owner girlfriend (Redgrave), he's gorgeous, magnetic, manic, and free.

Poor Redgrave, on the other hand, comes off quite busted.  She plays the bewildered needy clueless type, the one you kind of leave in the dust after your first big acid or shroom trip, who can't quite follow you over the edge, so hangs on the void's lip babbling about vacations and relatives and products, when that doesn't work she tries crying and stamping her foot but that suddenly seems so childish and manipulative to your open senses that you sneer instead of going 'awww' like you used to. Nero here is 'awake' to the world so has no time for it. Consider the episode where he takes flowers from the place where Wanda was killed and then throws them to Vanessa but she's too busy moving 'civilized' stuff in for him, like a dishwasher, to care. With his unkempt haircut and  "alive to the wildflowers that the plastic fantastic types cannot see" vibe, he resembles Francis "Brother Sun" of Zeffirelli's film leaving comfortable bourgeois textiles family to go starve in a half-restored stone church in the middle of nowhere. If you can imagine Francis' mom showing up after a week to move in a washer and dryer to keep his burlap rags clean, then you can imagine the entirety of Francis of Assisi's legacy might not even exist if he hadn't picked a church way far away from them, and kept it kee-deep in mud and offal. (Consider too Violet Venable following Sebastian to the Buddhist monastery in the Suddenly Last Summer backstory).

For a male artist struggling with his issues, the worst thing a woman can do is try curtail or control his madness rather than rolling with it, the second worst is to try and cajole their way into being part of it. It's the difference between a parent actually able to enter their kids' imagined world, seeing things through their eyes (very rare), a parent who just shrugs and says "oh you kids" and goes back to reading the paper (the average 'good' parent response), the parent who tries to enter the imaginary world but can't take it seriously enough and ruins the mood (the average 'anal' parent response), and the one who makes the kid stop imagining things altogether out of a kind of buzzkill jealousy (the bad response). Even the photographer Vanessa's PR guy brings on a studio visit has more of a grasp of the method to Leonardo's madness than Vanessa. He alone notices the flowers, still on the ground, or at least snaps a photo of them. This enrages Franco, as if the photographer is stealing his wildflowers' soul, this young turk setting himself up like an Eve Kendall, building his own art off the madness of Leonardo, who-- rather than lighting a cigarette and talking about Marxist aesthetics through opaque Armani shades--reaches out to grab him from his canvas hideout like an old dark house gorilla reaching through a secret panel in the wall above Paulette Goddard.

The only girl who understands him, who doesn't try to nail Leonardo down to sensible hours, clean dishes, and regular meals, is the ghost of the nymphomaniac countess, a combination anima (ala Rebecca or Laura), jealous voyeur (ala the male version of Quint in The Innocents) and a softcore libertine always dragging the film deeper into Poe territory while simultaneously pitching Leonardo's obsession dangerously close to his obsession with dirty magazines. As in Blow-Up there's something along the lines of a detective solving a murder as he collects old photos of her - but he's not a cop, just an insane voyeur, thrilled to hear all the old men reminisce about losing their virginity to her during the war. Is this just his distraction from doing any work or is this somehow mirroring his work? Or leading his work astray? Is the genius of art hinged at the edge of pornography? Is the madness caused by obsessive voyeurism really the same as investigative journalism? Unless one were to, say, spy on Alfred Hitchcock in his private life, see what pornography he looks at, if any, and if he peeps into his starlet's dressing rooms, it's a very tough tell.

By contrast, Antonioni's madmen tended to be women, driven insane through lack of an artistic outlet. Here Redgrave structures and profits by the male artist's madness - and her love is based on his resistance and absence (expressed even to the point of his anima/the nympho ghost attacking her at odd moments). When Redgrave shows up, the whole house conspires to kill her via roof cave-ins and falling shelves and exploding pipes while Nero stalks her like a combination Italian spy and house cat stalking a mouse-shaped felt toy. Stifled by her suffocating sanity, her pedestrian conceptions of art, showing him her collection of electric knife sharpeners as if begging him to cut her apart, pleading with him to touch her and make her relevant, to shave off her consumerist edges, Nero can only channel his misogynistic kinkiness through mock strangling or Poe-like fits of Morella-Ligeia possession. That's how the film gets to be both horror and not, because it fits both quite well without committing to one side or the other.

If murders within a mise-en-scene can turn out to be just dreams and hallucinations instead of 'reality' it's very important that they still feel more relevant than the reality that surrounds them, otherwise it feels like a cheat. It takes a true surrealist (like Lynch, Cocteau or Bunuel) to recognize there doesn't need to be an 'it was all a dream' denouement in movies--no matter how dream illogical things get. Even the most masterful of visionaries feel often feel obligated to bring things back to Squaresville at the end, remembering logic and linearity like the dutiful spouses waiting at home to patiently chide them for not wanting to be patiently chided. Only Lynch, Bunuel, and Cocteau seem to realize you don't ever need to wake up from a dream in the movies. A film can be all dream, all the time, and logic, truth, and reality can go to the devil. We'll be fine, mom. You and your Fellini carnival megaphone can go end some other film. We already know life is a carnival, it's been drummed into us like a prenatal hearbeat.

So why is Quiet Place not more widely seen and praised? Critics pee their pants praising other surrealist portraits of Italian male artist egocentric sex addict dysfunction like 8 1/2, but Quiet Place makes Fellini look like that insecure childhood friend who tries to keep you reading comic books and playing D&D with him instead of going off with the bad kids to get high. TCM showed it this past Monday as part of their Creepy Art and Artists series, next to Mystery at the Wax Museum (the original) and Corman's Bucket of Blood. They're two favorites of mine, so the TV was still on afterwards, me in the other room half-listening, when I heard Ennio Morricone's unmistakable cacophonic counterpoint--it cut through my deep focus like a knife. I never in a million years would have found this film otherwise. What kind of giallo is called A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY!? I forwarded past it on the TV menu scroll a dozen times, the way I would any stodgy British costume drama or MGM B-unit musical.

TCM's entry on the film mentions it kind of disappeared off the radar and never came to the States at all, and the "only reason it probably received distribution in an English-dubbed version in the U.S. in 1970 was due to the tabloid notoriety of Redgrave and Nero, who were living together openly and had a child." Which is interesting since PERFORMANCE was also filmed in 1968 and only released here in 1970. Were they both considered too dangerous for the time? Too likely to spark a revolution, a riot, or a surge in mental hospital self check-ins? Well, even in 1970 nothing you could say on the poster could would lure anyone in to a movie called A Quiet Place in the Country. Good god... I know, because I never in a million years would have seen it nor be writing this if not for that Morricone muted trumpet recognition, because, frankly, I hate Italian period piece pastoralism and mawkish Merchant Ivory passions of the kind conjured by that drab title. I mean what kind of film has that bland name and then this is the first image you see:

You might look at this kind of self-reflexive indulgence and groan, thinking about incoherent image stringers like BABA YAGA or even annoying 'visualization of mental states' quirkiness like CARO DIARIO but hey, fellow, relax. Director Elio Petri is no whimsy-merchant or softcore hack anymore than he is giallo / gangster journeyman, a white elephant 'alienation' technician, nor some Marxist snot filming pinball and polemics through cafe windows. He's a bonafide pop art post-Marxist artist whose Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is on Criterion with all the hearty handclasps that implies. So even if Quiet is such a down and dirty mindfuck it would make David Hemmings cry like little Chester in The Fatal Glass of Beer, and even if the fantasy visualization bits are done so that we can't tell which is which, well, it's still Art, baby. We can wonder in this weird overly-symbolic opener if Nero is tied up as part of some contemporary art gallery show she's curating, is himself a performance art installation, or if this is just an abstracted sex scene, and rest assured we'll never be burdened by anything so crass as clarification on this or any other point of 'narrative' order. We can wonder if Leonardo is being haunted by a real ghost or whether he is just a paranoid schizophrenic sex addict, whether he's genuinely dangerous or just 'playful,' whether this is all meant to be a dream, an art gallery show, a critique of modern living, pair-bonds, or a couple hanging out in their apartment, with him feeling trapped in a tied-up situationist strait-jacket and she faux-enthralled by all the wonders of the electric age (demonstrating them to Leonardo with pleading eyes, she's the height of bourgeois neediness, he must go insane if only to escape her), again - we don't need to worry we got the wrong answer--the only answer is the only answer isn't.

To repay this favor of no wrong/right answer duality, let's talk about this film getting it more love from the fringe contingent. For one, there's no 'poster' or icon for it whatsoever. There's only apretentious and aesthetically demoralizing off-off-Broadway S&M club amateur night shot of Nero in a wheelchair and Vanessa Redgrave (The 'It' girl of BLOW-UP) standing behind him in a nurse's outfit, or Amazon's generic stock 'blank cover' (I refuse to even link to them here, for they are both abominations.

I've only read one review in English that gets it, on Electric Sheep (from the UK, naturally):
Petri’s foray into experimental horror. It’s a film that demands repeated viewing as it is all too easy to get engrossed in the intricacies of the delirious plot. Once you know how this flamboyantly elusive tale of a troubled abstract painter obsessed with the ghost of a nymphomaniac young countess pans out, you appreciate all the more how brilliantly it is all set up. Blending sex, love, madness, identity crisis, alienation, death, art, consumerism and social commentary in a hypnotic, dazzling visual swirl of bold colours, powerful emotions and artistic expression, it is a feast of experimental visual imagery, but not without Petri’s typically dry, caustic touch. - Pamela Jahn
One of the legendary Situationist ad campaigns hushed up by A.O Range
All the Candide clowns you crayon can't compete with a single electrically-sharpened switchblade slash from the sandman's blood-blackened brush!
In dreams I'll find
who's there?
'Ennio Morricone carving bologna from the fattened calves of the schmaltz-fattened phonies"
Ennio Morricone carving bologna from the fattened calves of the schmaltz-fattened phonies who? Damn right.
Insanity pays dividends (done ideally without real violence), regardless of the severity of the strait-jacket. The trick is to be successful enough in the market that they wheel you to the nicer home, the funnier of farms, the satin strait-jacket, with pretty views and indulgent staff, and access to paint and brush.

You wouldn't get that kind of treatment if you defected to Russia, so use your time wisely. Only when safely contained, looked after, but working unfettered, can you really crack it wide open. If Pollock had been medicated and under house arrest, with an alcohol-detecting bracelet, he might still be alive. If you care.

Usually the flights of fancy --the imagination of the artist whimsy--bother me, but not here when Leonardo's identity is so fluid. As his suffocatingly bourgeois capitalist girlfriend Flavia, Redgrave is the perfect blend of depressive neediness and reminds me of three of my own past loves; their relationship is one of an artistic egocentric person trying to be nice and involve the other in his/her aesthetically rip-roaring child's eye view of the world, where--like kids with toy army men--size is a matter of dilating and contracting perspective (children can easily enlarge the small and shrink the large in their imagination, like Alice eating mushroom stems in order to match the height of each new character). It's the zone where mania, spiritual enlightenment, and madness intersect and liberate consciousness from the old self's locked parameters,

But your old lady, man, she's still locked up in her old self's parameters, and she says you can't go out to play with your friends, because she wants to stay with you, like a dwarf star albatross anchor of bore-o-drome. She can't follow you into that zone of play, so she can only try to lure you back out of it, which makes her seem suddenly small, shallow, pathetic, and irritating--in ways impossible to alter via the aforementioned spatial perception flux.

It's like if Hemmings' photographer had his elderly accountant interrupting constantly his 'flow' of jazzy image-chasing in Blow-Up, nagging him why he won't sit down and do his taxes, trying to steer the whole movie out of this kinetic signifier-melting 'Now'-ness and into fiduciary logocentric absolutes. A three can never be a four in accounting, but in Blow-Up the only difference between those two numbers is that four has no curves and three no lines. Other than that they are identical. Flavia can understand this as his agent--she's been cultivating his mystique to make them both richer--but as his lover she hungers for some kind of traditional pair bond.

Never afraid to seem manly or ghoulish, like some monstrous lesbian from an Aldrich hag movie one minute and a sexy carefree bird the next, trying on thing after another to reach him, Redgrave is achingly sad, funny - almost painfully human yet still full of British fire -seemingly beyond the confines of Britain's class system but nonetheless hung up on Leonardo. We're invited to see her from his side, her crying in a deep manly choke, in ways only Fellini would probably be moved by. Wanda, the ghost nymph, is not moved, and scalds Flavia in the bathroom. We would cheer...

if we were able to close our agape mouths.


If you're still lost in the Italian 60s art house morass after this movie, still need to understand the bizarro world Joycean dialectic at play here, hey, I relate. Watch the newsstand scene where he orders all these dry political news magazines, calling their names loudly while whispering the names of the dirty ones below, alternating back and forth like a kind of crazy counterpoint jazz, building and building in mania while Ennio Morricone's score chides him like a gang of rock-throwing Catholic school truants. Got it? Now watch BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (with its sing-song chiding chorus) and then you will maybe not even or finally never know that any confusion on your part is the correct modernist response. Even Antonioni wasn't able to handle that level of all-consuming cinematic signifier meltdown. He followed his clown's candy-colored exhaust trail to the American Southwest for ZABRISKIE POINT in 1970 but within that confining vastness even he, the titan of lostness, was lost. Here the threes meant threes and love meant love and red state bullets meant the same as they always did--freedom, man --it's gone. So written history was blown in slow motion to Pink Floyd but there was only so many angles you could film the explosion in, so many speeds, to hide that fact that without the old world's effigy to throw rocks at there was nothing in the air to knock one out.

"I can hear him saying it now," the writer says at the end of CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, "it's a peaceful country, nothing ever happens there." Argento knew that art was the time travel portal where the dead and demented past comes slithering out to stalk and slash its way across the galleria like the renaissance of the living dead. No need for Dario to chase hippies around, he'd chase the artists themselves; he'd chase Antonioni as the effigy of the curious artist, fit to be gutted or at least scared; the photographer voyeur suddenly face-to-face with the killer he's been chasing, the painting reaching out from the frame to stab the artist in his disaffected eyeball--to at the very least at last affect it. Blow up as many neo-realists and paint as many graveyard hussies as you can find, dear Petri, Wanda will never be sated 'til it's your soul dripping from her sexy gorgon fangs, and every Redgrave is dug deep for departure.

1. you can argue Bava was the first to mix fashion and gory murder --in 1964's Blood and Black Lace, but that movie was a failure at the time, never released to the States (which was thick into the Gothic Corman Poe series back then), so Bava turned back to the traditional genre forms. Argento's '68 film was on the other hand an influential success.


  1. This is a comprehensive thesis, its own form of jazz. I read it when you published it, and rereading it after seeing the film, it is spot on from every angle. I am hoping to find the soundtrack somewhere, Ennio as John Zorn's spirit guide! I don't think I have heard him more beat, but he has been so prolific for so long, it is hard to imagine finding everything. I really appreciate your take on the Whole Thing being a dream. Is the sepia tone perfection of Kansas any less surreal than the technicolor Oz? They are populated by the same characters, after all. The older I get, and I must add, the more I write, the more I find myself needing to say, It's all a story. It's all one body. One organ can't do its work without affecting another. Elements, details, I loved in this, besides the soundtrack and the acting and the clothes and the contrast between Rome and the villa, were the objects. The vulvic elipses carved with a slot and mounted to wires like a crown of thorns, and the pleated red fabric with the zipper, what a perfectly useless object! It wasn't torn from a garment, it was made exactly as it was shown. The plug extender in the opening scene, sticking erect out of the wall for the girlfriend consumer can plug into it for power. It was great! And it even had a happy ending! (the Criterion of Citizen Above Suspicion really needs more domestic attention, in light of this past year
    especially) Again, thanks for the heads up! Even after reading this write up, the movie was one surprise after another. Great to know that Franco Nero dubbed his own voice. (so, in writing my thing I am writing, I found an odd fact about our identity crisis in reflection of our forward minded nostalgia: Billboard Magazine's #1 hit record for 1966 was Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets." I think those coke ads would have worked, until they didn't)

  2. thanks Johnny. I was hoping someone would 'get' my uber-dark Coke ads. Your reading on the bizarre household objects and art is spot-on.


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