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)
INTRO:
Italian art house cinema of the late 60s, she could be ah-dangerous-ah and-ah dull-ah. European critics alone could--with their Herculean pens dripping with the venom of modernism--confront its many hydra heads without passing out from the ennui. American audiences, by contrast, scattered to the four winds like frightened goatherds at the first sign of subtitles... unless they heard censors had tried to ban its import due to salacious content (i.e breasts). In other words, the Italian neorealist sentimentalism of the late 50s/early-60s needed Sophia Loren to keep it afloat (forgive the choice of verb, prurient reader!) in American screens, and birth the art house movement. 'Subtitles' became a kind of in-the-know shorthand connotative code, like French postcards.

But then--in 1966--came Antonioni's BLOW-UP. There was no putting Italian cinema back together again after that. As EASY RIDER would soon do to Hollywood, BLOW-UP handed then-contemporary Italian cinema's head to it on a Matisse bowler-bedecked Salome special platter. All the dime store Marxists no masqueraded as hip disaffected youths to win the tourist distributor's fickle coin. 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 countless imitations. Producers started grinding up their red telephones into pigment to redden the canvas of the artist. 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 in disguise (or for the first time out of one)--all now duly charged to make a wild art film that reached the signifier-trashing post-modern epiphanies of Antonioni (with a little sex in it)-- 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.

Finally, they began to rummage through the blast-darkened detritus, for old world survivors. They found where a wounded Fellini was hiding (under the ruins of a mawkish life-is-a-carnival-metaphor merry-go-round) and strung him up by his heels to finish the job. But when it came to slitting his throat, they were suddenly afraid of committing too far in that dark direction, of stumbling on their dad's mothballed attic-stashed Fascist Party parade sash in search for a political conviction's one sharp razor. Finally, Dario Argento grabbed the blade and made the cut, for real, right across the screen. 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 giallo shard.

Suddenly breasts and mod clothes and kinky psycho art shows weren't enough. While Ennio mocked you from the playground with deft slide whistle and tra-la-las, you had to kill 'em, fabulously, ironically, brutally--but not tastelessly. The Money urged you 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 on a hot summer day.

Anyway it wasn't blood that flowed so free, but red -- pigment for the artist, the telephone dust. 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. The father along the imitations trail, the less the post-modern art meta/artist trimmings framed the violence. That was the compromise: the finger points to the moon; Argento cuts off the finger as a tribute to Dali and Bunuel's LA CHIEN ANDALOU; the next generation just film bloody stumps pulsing red; the moon long forgotten.

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

And that's where 
A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY (1968) comes in, for it is one of the weirder, more vaguely satirical contemporaries of Argento's definitive Italian post-BLOW-UP giallo; it's the brother, not the son, the cool uncle the Argento generation never sees anymore except on rare holidays when they can get away to visit him at the 'funny' farm. The kids 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 reverie about "love, laughter, and a little bit of heart," the kind of film only a half-asleep grandmother with her old lady book club would love. It doesn't even have a poster, for gods' sake (PS - this has been solved, and now there's a nice Blu-ray - 5/18). Is it deliberately trying to be lost to time?  That's why I made one (above) poster, changing the name to u3prufj]gi]42go[ggr=gr.

Whatever it's called, 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 be a pleasant shock to see how opened and giddy and light on his feet he is. Whether he's chasing the ghost of a nymphomaniac countess, skipping barefoot around his crumbling country mansion, or being chased by his needy art gallery owner girlfriend (Redgrave), he's gorgeous, magnetic, manic, and free.

Redgrave, on the other hand, is his agent / gallery owner girlfriend, whose visits to the mansion often expose her to brutal pranks perpetrated by the previous inhabitant's maybe-ghost.  Redgrave is painfully convincing as the bewildered needy clueless type, familiar to any 'experienced' traveler, the one you kind of leave in the dust after your first big acid or shroom trip opens you all the way up, the one who won't or can't follow you over the edge, so hangs on the void's lip looking down, trying to lure you up by babbling about vacations and other prizes that until a few moments or hours ago you would have salivated over but now seem inane. When that doesn't work, she tries sex, then crying and stamping her foot but that suddenly seems so childish and manipulative to your open senses that you sneer instead of getting all paternal and supportive like you used to. 'Awake' to the world of the villa, like his own private wonderland, he has no time for such triviality. 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 Assisi's "Brother Sun", leaving comfortable bourgeois textiles family to go chant and dally in a half-restored stone church in the middle of nowhere, if his mom showed up after a week to move in a washer and dryer to keep his burlap rags clean. Francis of Assisi's legacy might not even exist if he hadn't picked a church way far away from his mom's apron tentacles, and kept the surrounding fields kee-deep in mud and offal so no cart carrying a major appliances might e'er trespass. (Consider too Violet Venable following Sebastian to the Buddhist monastery in Suddenly Last Summer).

For a male artist struggling with the usual individuation issues, the worst thing a woman can do is try curtail or control his madness. The second worst is to try and cajole their way into being part of it unless it's a totally natural fit, in which you're able to represent the the anima (the way say Pallenberg and Faithfull were animas for Richards and Jagger) rather than the devouring mother (like Redgrave here). It's the difference between a parent actually able to enter their kids' imagined world, seeing things through their eyes (very rare and precious), the parent who just shrugs and says "oh you kids" and goes back to reading the paper, but with one eye on them to keep their madness from spinning out of orbit (the average 'good' parent response) and the worst option: the parent who tries to enter the imaginary world but 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 or misplaced piousness (the worst response).

What's interesting is that in art the genders are often reversed, with the father able to enter the imaginary world easier than the woman who gets roped into playing authority figure the way the father is outside of the imaginary realm. Even the photographer Vanessa's PR agent brings on a studio visit to the crumbling mansion has more of a grasp of the method to Leonardo's madness than Vanessa. He alone notices the flowers, Nero has thrown on the ground for Vanessa to notice, or at least snaps a photo of them - recognizing that a photo of this tossed-off natural bouquet might constitute his own art--in a future photography exhibition (outside his PR job).

This photographer's snapping the flowers 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 during this PR visit--reaches out to grab the photographer from inside his canvas hideout like an old dark house gorilla reaching through a secret panel in the wall above Paulette Goddard.

As for other, non-Vanessa girls, there is only one who understands him, who doesn't try to nail Leonardo down to sensible hours, clean dishes, and regular meals, and that's the ghost of the nymphomaniac countess, an obscene combination of obscene nymphette and ghost anima (ala Rebecca. In order to find a similar ghost we have to hop genders to examine the ever-corrupting Quint in The Innocents. In covering both roles, she both sucks the film deeper into Poe's mournful quagmire while simultaneously dragging to dangerously close to the purely obscene/pornographic (his obsession with dirty magazines is defiantly not MOMA-ready). As consumes the photographer in Blow-Up, Leonardo winds up on a kind of scavenger hunt/detective thriller hole climb, solving her possible murder (initially written off as WW2 collateral damage) as he collects old photos and memories 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 smut? Is the madness caused by obsessive voyeurism really in the same league with conventional investigative journalism?

Antonioni's madmen tended to be women, driven insane through lack of an artistic outlet while men turn their bodies into temples to be worshipped or defiled; by contrast, Redgrave is a warm sane human who structures and profits by her male artist's madness. 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). He's the cracked one, and he's full of outlets but resists making any actual conventional art. 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 - that becomes his art. 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  (it's never been this easy, especially with our patented three speed process!) 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.

To avoid a feeling of being cheated or that the film is copping out on a satisfying ending, murders within a mise-en-scene can only turn out to be just dreams and hallucinations instead of 'reality' if it's unclear enough whether or not the 'all a dream' ending is itself the dream, that either way, reality is severely jarred (as in, say, De Palma or Bergman) and will never quite be distinguishable from fantasy ever again. It takes a true surrealist (like Lynch, Cocteau, Argento or Bunuel) to recognize there doesn't ever need to be an 'it was all a dream' denouement in movies-at all-no matter how illogical things get. We can tell when things get 'dream-like' that we're in a special in-between place.

The feeling of cheating and disappointment comes when there's a lack of trust in the audience, the producer or writer doesn't think we're mature enough to handle surrealism, that without a solid reality to go home with society itself may crumble. 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 chide them for not wanting to be patiently chided. But if they let go and trust in their audience, then the 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. Now sashay... away.

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 until your 21, instead of going off with the bad kids to get high or chase girls. TCM showed it this past Monday as part of their Creepy Art and Artists series, preceded by 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, folding laundry in the other room, half-listening, when I heard Ennio Morricone's unmistakable cacophonic counterpoint 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 had already forwarded past it on the TV menu scroll a dozen times, kind of a priori dismissing it from my attention's channel surfing filter, where I note and dismiss things I deduce to be turgid British costume dramas or saccharine musicals.

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? Even for a town that saw the receipts for Easy Rider?

Regardless even in 1970, nothing you could say on the poster could would lure anyone under 40 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 even at 50, if not for that Morricone muted trumpet recognition while in the other room. After all, 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 student film self-indulgence and groan, thinking about incoherent image stringers like Baba Yaga or even annoying 'visualization of mental states' one man show quirkiness like Caro Diario but hey, fellow, relax. Director Elio Petri is no whimsy-merchant, ego tripper,sooty  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 implieth. 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, Capital A small R, small T.

In other words, 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 not worry anything so crass as clarification on this point will deign to be offered. We can wonder if Leonardo is being haunted by a real ghost at the villa; whether he is just a paranoid schizophrenic sex addict; whether he's genuinely dangerous or just 'playful;' whether this is little window of tied-up hairiness is meant to be: a dream or an art gallery show; a critique of modern living, the pair-bond social system, 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 with pleading eyes as he stares emptily, 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 and why it's not getting more love from the fringe contingent. I think it's first the title then the way it is defiantly not any one genre. It defies expectations for a giallo while riffing on them in a deadpan absurdist abstraction that puts it more aligned with Spasmo and nothing else.

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 it is.

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, and that demands valuation.

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.

EPILOGUE

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 own 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 --and too late, 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 demented past comes slithering out across the galleria floor like the molasses lava flood tide 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-- affect its own final image. Blow up as many post-neorealism hacks and paint as many graveyard hussies as you can find, dear Petri, but Wanda will never be sated, not 'til it's your soul dripping from her sexy gorgon fangs, and every Redgrave is dug deep for her departure.


NOTES
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, so Bava turned back to the traditional genre forms. Argento's '68 film was on the other hand an influential success and explores a far wider post-modern field than just fashion and soapy backstabbing.

2 comments:

  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)

    ReplyDelete
  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.

    ReplyDelete

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