Portrait of the Artist as a Madman

“My professor as a painter drives me to look attentively at the faces, the physiognomies, that present themselves in my path, and you know what a pleasure we draw from this ability which makes life more living and more meaningful to our eyes than to those of other men.”

                                                                                        Charles Baudelaire,

“La Corde”

 

 

 

[Abandon hope of spoiler-free reading all ye who enter here!]

A man hangs, his arms twisted over his head which lolls backwards. We cannot see all of him and it takes a moment to discern what we’re actually looking at.

The image crackles in distressed shades of sepia, sometimes overexposed and light, sometimes darker, but always fizzling, grainy, unstable. The figure, just shoulders and a jaw, bob in slow motion. It reads as a shot from a hand-cranked silent film.

And then the man screams. Thus begins Pupi Avati’s La Casa Dalle Finistre Che Ridono (The House of the Laughing Windows), a movie that opened up hitherto unsuspected realms of subtleness in the giallo canon for me.

The trauma of hearing that image—redolent of 1920s silent era textures—howl in agony shocks the viewer on a truly primal level. It’s as though you could hear a painting or smell a sound. Avati makes us feel like the image were extending across another dimension. The warped, distant sound of the scream heightens the impression not so much of hearing the man moan, but of hearing it in our minds. If you look at Edvard Munch’s The Scream long enough, you start to be able to hear it. Avati simulates this kind of artistic mind-meld that the most profound and morbid of paintings can produce.

Protracted, lyrical, and reminiscent of other times—the Renaissance as well as the 1920s—this opening credits sequence slaps us across the face with one of the key questions at the heart of horror as a genre. Should horror be beautiful? In other words, what are the moral implications of aestheticizing violence and death? It’s a tour-de-force introduction even before the obsessive, rumbling voice, that we later learn is the mad artist Legnani, begins to rant about his colors, the colors in his veins, the living colors…

The buoyant, undulating movements of this torture victim remind me of the surrealist short films, like Un Chien Andalou. The mismatch of beauty and brutality, visual lushness and moral ugliness generate a conflict collision in the mind of the spectator before we even dip a toe into the plot of the film. The dying man’s cries are also spaced out so that the spectator is allowed to linger in contemplation of the various shots of the body in agony before being brought back to the pain.

This kind of sequence practically traps us with the imminence of cinema. Even with letters of actors’ names appearing over these shots of stabbings and cries, we feel as though we are watching a man suffering before our eyes, at this instant. On the one hand, the look of the scene suggests that it occurred sometime in the past, but, on the other, the power of the image ensures that, on some level, it’s always happening now, right now.

This introduction etches itself so powerfully upon the brain that it takes a while to really concentrate on the plot, which concerns a young art historian, Stefano, called in to restore a mural of Saint Sebastian in a rural church in Italy.

Of course, the mural was painted by a deviant called Buono (should’ve been Cattivo, if you ask me…) Legnani, known as the “Painter of Agonia,” which means “death throes” not just agony in Italian. Along with his two sicko sisters, Legnani liked to be around dead people. However, his sisters actually like killing them, too, but I’ll get there soon.

Nevertheless, the mural will serve as a vital tourist attraction for the town—which is ironic, since so many shots in this movie look like they came right out of a 1970s tourist guidebook of Italy, only enhanced by slow pans and gliding shots from within classic cars. The film positively reeks of beauty and we, as audience members, have been trained to know that something evil lurks beneath that bucolic splendor—prepared by both giallo conventions and the indelible opener.

Don’t trust this travel-guide-worthy beauty!

We also recognize, in static form, the torment of the opening credits victim as soon as Avati shows us the mural. The director discloses the picture at the end of a long take which builds moment as a priest and Stefano walk down the nave of the church, when, with a graceful crane lift, the camera rises to focus on the picture.

We also get lingering, studious shots running over this mural, as a kind of visual imperative, “Look! See!”

Similarly, once the murders start (well, duh, it’s a giallo), Avati examines every hanging, bloody victim from multiple angles and shot lengths, cut together in a deliberate, pensive pace. He seems intent on giving us a class in anatomy—and in our own varied reactions to different parts of the same overall picture. The film resembles a painting, too, with its rich Rembrandt lighting, meticulous compositions, and abundance of frames within frames.

Art lives (and dies?) at the core of this film which forces us to become conscious of where our eyes travel and what they bring back. For instance, take the scene in which Stefano visits the town Mayor and surveys his collection of Legnani paintings, including one of the artist’s head on a woman’s body.

As the Mayor explains that the artist took to painting himself because no woman could satisfy him, we get a cut to a gauzy flashback (whose flashback, though, is not clear). The bare-chested artist smears paint on his arm, in a gesture reminiscent of a junkie shooting up heroine, and turns to a canvas.

I had to watch this sequence twice before I realized that we’re not actually looking at the artist, but at the artist’s reflection in a mirror. We see him looking at himself… looking at himself. It’s part of our own apprenticeship in looking.

Stefano, like many a hapless giallo protagonist, dies. I’m sorry, but I think pretty much anyone would see that coming. This likelihood allows the viewer to taste the bitter irony of every shot of Stefano restoring the mural. As he pulls away the plaster to reveal two wicked hags and adds life to the picture of Saint Sebastian’s death, he’s participating in his own demise as well. His act of restoration and creation engenders his destruction.

If art both gives life and takes it away, drawing from the subjectivity and the life force of a painter, what are we to make of recording, of mechanical ways of preserving life? It turns out that Legnani’s cuckoo sisters believe Norman Bates-style that they’re keeping their brother alive. Buono Legnani immolated himself in a final act of depravity and macabre fascination.

However, his elderly sisters keep his charred body preserved in formaldehyde and play his gravelly, heavy-breathing voice on a tape recorder.

In the top shock-horror scene of Laughing Windows, Stefano discovers the witchy sisters stabbing a victim to death when they proceed to show them their “brother,” the corpse and the recording.

The camera, from Stefano’s perspective, looks shakily from the one to the other twice, as if to ask, “What insane person could call this anywhere near a representation of life? Or even of death?” This facsimile strikes me as a grotesque parody of a person—it’s skin and bones and it speaks, what more do you want? A repeated voice recording and a husk of a body. It also reminds me of some of the intensely gross medieval depictions of death as the utter defeat of the flesh. By preserving their brother, the sisters totally miss the point of his art—capturing fleeting glimpses of human life slipping away, not worshipping cadavers.

This corpse-revelation launches a deeply disturbing scene. It could’ve been played for humor, but it’s not. The sisters are hacking up another sacrifice in hopes of reviving their brother. A lot of very stirring horror films revolve around this idea of preserving something (The Mummy, DeToth’s House of Wax, Psycho, all come to mind) and I think in this way that they’re attempting to cope with the cinema as a form of embalmment. Laughing Windows pokes fun at hollow mechanical or technical means of merely preserving or even of reanimating a dead person. Avati instead hints that the only things that truly live forever are those which have been strained through the filter of human creativity. Legnani may have been a nutso great artist—his sisters are just nutso.

Stefano is too dizzy, judging by the waffling of the handheld camera, to protest when they urge him to take a look at the slaughter. He doesn’t resist and his somnambulist pliability in the situation gives the whole thing the fuzzy, unreal vertigo of a nightmare. And then a blade flashes into him. We could’ve seen it coming, but somehow, we just don’t expect it when it comes.

And so, to the final sequence.  Stefano manages to flee with his open chest wound to a local church where he hopes to ask for help from the kindly priest. Well, the priest turns around, smiles, and begins to speak in a female voice. “He” is actually one of the hooded sisters. Stefano stares wide-eyed, unable to respond as the other sister waddles in, ready to finish the job. Avati cuts back and forth to the painted hags torturing Saint Sebastian in the mural and the film comes full circle.

Stefano is about to meet the fate that was right under his nose the whole time. We brace ourselves for viscera and more struggling torture.

We get a cut away to the façade of the church. Is that cut merciful or cruel, though?

After all, we can still hear the Legnani sisters twitter and giggle as Stefani moans. We don’t see it, but it’s there for us on the soundtrack. Now, there are actual “laughing windows” in the film…

But the windows of the church really laugh at us, a laugh of complicity, because we know what they conceal.

Seriously, now, you can try and tell me that Martin Scorsese didn’t totally think of this ellipsis when he came up with that terse, horrifying last shot of the Lighthouse in Shutter Island, but I won’t believe you.

With the final shot of The House of Laughing Windows our apprenticeship in looking is complete. We, the spectators, now occupy the position of the painters of horror, having been trained to look at ugliness, beauty, surrealist spectacles, details, life, and death. And as those witchy cackles and cries punctuate the soundtrack, we can imagine, we can make the image in our minds, although we might not want to fill the ellipsis. We can conjure up the fuzzy tormented elegy of the beginning (since that credits sequence is an accurate depiction of what’s going to happen to Stefano) or we can mold a new vision.

We become the painting, we become the cinema. It’s not the first time I or anyone else has made this observation, but great movies often invite audiences to “remake” or to participate in them. They’re constructed as partnerships, kept fresh and living by the disgust, pleasure, and, above all, the creativity of the viewer.

Preservation is not art, Avati tells us. Nor is cinema mere preservation, capturing living things as they are—soon to be were. The cinema dwells in gaps, lacunae, death in life. Truly knowing how to look and how to fill in those gaps renders us capable of seeing things as alive. And something alive is always on the edge of death. Perhaps the greatest art always flirts with death, absence, non-meaning and needs something else to complete it.

When we learn not only to look, but also to see, we are art, which is the intersection of life and death. And that should scare the hell out of us. I give a lot of credit to La Casa Dalle Finestre Che Ridono for pulling all these threads together in a giallo.

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