Blogathon, Italian Style: Week 4

Well, the harassment has paid off! Many of my online friends, old and new, have joined this online festival of Italian cinema. Feast on the results—from art house classics to splashy genre flicks—below!

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Pete of Furious Cinema discovers the intensity of Girl with a Suitcase, which he describes as “a rollercoaster of emotions.” Introducing us all to a less well-known maestro of cinema, he writes, “The black and white cinematography by Tino Santoni and the seamless direction by Zurlini are both spectacular. The gray backgrounds of the Italian skies and the ocean give the film an almost dreamlike appearance.” Well, thanks, I’ve added this to my must-watch list!

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“Fellini captured something of Italy that still resonates in the public and global perceptions of the country,” observes  Miss V of Girls Do Film. She digs into the substance of La Dolce Vita‘s iconic sartorial style—and she’s even got labels and brand names for you to drool over! Re-experience this film through a fresh lens. For instance, did you know “Fellini often claimed that designer Cristóbal Balenciaga’s sack dress inspired his vision for the film”?

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Speaking of style, Miguel of Monster Island Resort explores the dark side of Italy’s passion for fashion with his analysis of Blood and Black Lace. As he notes, “Underlying the immediate fear of murder and violence that flows through Blood and Black Lace seems to exist another, more subtle fear. Perhaps it is the fear of the greed and alienation that tends to accompany high fashion.” 

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There’s epic and then there’s EPIC! Cabiria falls into the later category. of Crítíca Retrô tackles this monumental silent period drama and illuminates just how important it is to cinema history. “Director Giovanni Pastrone created astounding scenes, filled the screen with crowds, reconstructed the distant past, and pioneered the use of artificial lights and camera movement.”

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RayRay of WeirdFlix celebrates The Inglorious Bastards, a tough-as-coffin-nails 1978 WWII flick with gore to spare… sound familiar? Well, where do you think QT learned his stuff? “When you talk about macaroni combat films, one name inevitably comes up. Writer-director Enzo G. Castellari has been called ‘the poor man’s Peckinpah.’ [H]e certainly knew how to make action movies on the cheap.”

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Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled decodes the fabled “spaghetti Western” for us through an exploration of the three Sergios who produced some of the most outstanding examples of the genre. “While the term ‘spaghetti Western’ was originally considered a negative slur,” as Kellee informs us, the form won over critics and audiences alike with its “uniquely edgy” style that marked “a definitive departure from the predictable American westerns.” 

If you enjoyed these posts (and, come on, you know you did), be sure to check back for the next course on July 4. And be sure to check out the previous entries for Week 1Week 2, and Week 3. Gripping stuff!

And please consider blogging about some aspect of Italian film culture yourself. Click on the banner below to learn more. 

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Getting out of the Boat: Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now

2“Never get out of the goddamn boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were going all the way. Kurtz got out of the boat. He split from the whole f**king program.”

I’ve loved Apocalypse Now from the first time I watched that orange feathering of napalm burn through lush tropical forests to the lilting, funereal strains of “The End.” That opening shot spoke to me, whispering the truth of how ugly things can be beautiful and how the camera can charm that beauty forth.

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It was like looking through the eyes of another, not through a point-of-view shot, not even through the lens of a different philosophy—but through the eyes of madness, of someone for whom destruction was lovely. I had never felt anything like it. It horrified me, shocked me, inspired me, and changed me. It may have been the first time in my life that I encountered Art, that grand, fearsome, traumatic thing that we hear so much about.

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On the other hand, Black Narcissus refused me any such revelation until it was almost over. Having bought a Criterion DVD at a jumble sale (the poor fool who threw it away!), I played it one lazy morning. For the first hour or so, I liked it, thought it was visually pleasing and stimulating in an academic sense. It wasn’t until Sister Ruth revealed her awful, predatory true self that the movie pulled me into the heart of its darkness.

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The bottom dropped out of reality. I just didn’t expect a pensive, patient little art film to do that to me—to come at me with a rush of cosmic fury and not relent for almost twenty minutes. “Holy ****!” I exclaimed to myself. “Sister Ruth got out the boat!”

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Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both won Academy Awards for cinematography thanks to the hypnotic, ethereal camerawork of Jack Cardiff and Vittorio Storaro, in 1947 and 1979 respectively. (Both films should have won Best Picture, but that’s a whole other blog post.)

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Above: Jack Cardiff. Below: Vittorio Storaro on location for Apocalypse Now

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Apart from the two movies’ shared aesthetic interest in exoticism, they are extremely different. In contrast to the classically trained, crafted acting style of the performers in Powell and Pressburger’s film, Coppola chose a stable of hardcore method actors. While Black Narcissus seemingly fits into the mold of a women’s drama, Apocalypse Now has claimed an immortal place in the annals of cinematic machismo.

Black Narcissus departs utterly from realism by shooting not in the Indian mountains, but in England—against huge blow-ups of aerial photographs of the Himalayas, brightly painted to striking effect. We all know that the production of Apocalypse Now, filmed on location in the Philippines, mirrored its plot. As Coppola lapsed into the Kurtz mentality and actors started to succumb to the harshness of the environment and the strain of shooting, reality bled into fiction.

Nevertheless, I cannot separate these films in my mind. To me, they’ll always be spiritual sisters. I don’t doubt that Cardiff’s vision for Black Narcissus influenced Storaro’s photography for Apocalypse Now, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

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Fearsome transformations….

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I have seen a precious few films that seem to be aware that they’re in color. I mean, yes, the costumes, the sets, the lighting in most non-black-and-white films have all been carefully selected for their hues and tones, but the emotional powerhouse of color remains untapped.

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Warpaint of different hues…

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Color speaks to us in ways that defy rational thought. Baudelaire once noted that color is the most important element of a painting, because even before we can make out the figures, at a distance, the harmony or dissonance of colors allows us to intuit the essence of the scene.

In my opinion, color needs to “put the zap” on our heads, to paraphrase a few lines of Milius’ brutally insightful script for Apocalypse Now. Seriously—this is why I tend to prefer black-and-white films. Why show me colors unless they’re going to astonish me? Color needs to tell us something, not in terms of symbolism, but in terms of emotion and reaction. Both Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now define dreamlike, vividly colored places, jungles and mountaintops, which not only magnify our perceptions, but also unleash our inner natures.

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Shades of observation: Sister Clodagh and Captain Willard.

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Apocalypse Now is not an anti-war film any more than Black Narcissus is an anti-religious film. Both of them transcend such unambiguous messages to tell us something much more vast about the soul of civilization. Sister Ruth certainly isn’t the charismatic genius that Kurtz is, since men have a cultural outlet for their madness—war—whereas women just get neuroticism. However, these two figures both revert to something primal and frightening. (Eventually Captain Willard does, too.) Sister Ruth and Kurtz split from the program of lies and moral rationalizations that govern the minds of their peers. Rather than persisting in fighting the call of the jungle, they give in. Their madness prompts some of the most fantastically beautiful images captured by a camera. 

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We watch traditions and codes of conduct plunge into a flamboyant psychosis that wasn’t so far away all along. Seductive, unreal colors, enhanced by sinuous camera strokes, hold us captive and enable us to feel the strength of those impulses towards annihilation, impulses that enthrall those who “got out of the boat.”

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As Nietzsche theorized, great tragic art must balance a tendency towards orgiastic self-destructiveness (the Dionysian) and the tonic splendor of appearances and expression (the Apollonian). If Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both depict the triumph of the Dionysian, of chaos and entropy, they nevertheless uplift us rather than depressing us. They temper our despair in mankind with our faith in art.

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Cardiff and Storaro extensively studied the great masters of painting—the color palette of Narcissus was based in part on Vermeer, and there’s quite a bit of Caravaggio in the way Apocalypse Now uses virtuosic contrasts of color and blackness. The compositional brilliance and luminosity that the cinematographers lend even to scenes of abhorrent violence or confusion strike a balance between these elements to produce cathartic experiences that, for me, have not been equaled by any other films.

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From lips to eyes… and from eyes to lips. Contemplating empty faces (Sister Ruth’s and the face of a Khmer statue) with camera tilts.

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Jack Cardiff had to campaign to get the sort of surreal, opalescent color contrasts he harnessed for a subliminal effect in Narcissus: “I was always fighting with Technicolor [representatives] because they wanted complete realism, whatever that was.” Instead, in certain scenes, he filled shadows with green light and colored the arc-lights slightly blue to suggest the distracting crystal coolness of the skies. Cardiff reflected that few viewers, perhaps one in ten or fifteen, would consciously notice these things, but that the choice would impact the mindset of the audience and contribute to the story.

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In addition to these more subtle manipulations, gathering momentum as the film unfolds, Black Narcissus overwhelms us with exaggerated panoramas of the edge of the world. The screen celebrates the giddy delirium that courses through Sister Ruth as she rings the bell on the edge of the cliff. We experience the rush of that chasm, shown in breathtaking canted angles.

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Later, through the translucent deep blues, febrile oranges, and acid pinks of her freak-out, we feel the terrifying release of Ruth’s transformation into a strange, unnatural creature—part modern woman, part painted devil.

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Kurtz’ poetic insanity penetrates the eerie iconography of Apocalypse Now. The glowing amber quality of light, the oppressive Prussian blue skies, the sulfuric yellow and psychedelic lilac gas flares, the impenetrable greens of the jungle all exteriorize the jewel-like ferocity of his Zen psychosis.

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“We’re all his children, man…”

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Kurtz, this faceless demigod, the diamond who cuts through bullsh*t, realizes that those who win wars must fully embrace “the horror.” But that appalling clarity, that knowledge also rots away at him from the inside out. Captain Willard’s voice-over tells us some of this, but such verbal information would be meaningless if Storaro didn’t paint this decay into every lopsided, eclipsed shot of Kurtz.

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Storaro, referring to his revolutionary use of color shading in Apocalypse Now, spoke of how he used the visuals, especially rich shades of black, to get in touch with the barbaric, “unconscious side” of humanity that Conrad’s novel conjured up: “The heart of darkness that he was looking at does not belong to another culture, another place, but part of our self.”

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Cardiff and Storaro both found intense, wordless ways of representing this slip into a primordial darkness, into a place beyond reason. When Sister Ruth begins literally to “see red” the screen suddenly snaps to pure blue as her rage forces her to lose consciousness.

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The first time I saw it, I though there was something wrong with the DVD, it startled me so!

Similarly, Apocalypse Now gives us an amazing shot in which the camera literally turns upside-down and then right-side-up, and then up-side-down again as Kurtz’ acolytes drag Willard through the mud to meet the elusive Colonel for the first time.

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Cinematography literally means writing with light and motion. Cardiff and Storaro wrote disorientation and temptation into the screen with shadows, with movements, with delicate shadings of color.

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The call of the jungle… Sister Ruth and Captain Willard stalk their prey.

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Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both dwell in the realm of exoticism, in the amplified Other that’s really just another guise for something flickering within us. These movies let me see Western civilization, the epicenter of my own values and all that I hold dear, transplanted and fragmented into a vibrant nightmare by the prism of madness.

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They also take me full-circle back to the primitive psychic engines of that civilization—Eros and Thanatos, sex and aggression—without asking that I transgress, without asking that I myself get out of the boat.

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~          ~          ~

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by three of the nicest ladies, coolest movie mavens, and best film bloggers out there, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled. Check out their blogs and this wonderful blog event! Find the blogathon on Twitter by searching the #31Days hashtag.

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.