Saturday, February 28, 2009

Film Bookends Part III: "Blow-Up" (1966) and "Deep Red / Profondo Rosso" (1975)

David Hemmings in Dario Argento's 1975 Profondo Rosso (Deep Red)

My latest entry on the theme of Film Bookends allows me to discuss two of my favorite films, both by Italian directors: Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, from 1966, and Dario Argento’s Deep Red / Profondo Rosso, from 1975. Blow-Up, like so many of Antonioni’s film, is a powerfully intellectual film that operates on many different levels; one critic calls it “a deeply philosophical film.” Deep Red is, more or less, a slasher flick; Argento is known for his bloody horror films in which blood and gore are exaggerated, aestheticized, and relished. Antonioni is an auteur, but Argento has his own claims to auteur-ship, his films having something of a cult status. Argento delights in imagining ever more gruesome manners of death, and in capturing them in exquisite detail on film.

Blow-Up was Antonioni’s first English-language film, and it was set in London. It was scandalous at the time for its representation of the Swinging London scene of the 1960s, depicting pot-smoking and promiscuous sex. (The Yardbirds perform in a guest appearance.) But these aspects are secondary to its incisive character study, its formal design, and its meta-discourses on art, filmmaking, and vision.

I read Deep Red as an homage to Blow-Up, a tribute from a younger Italian director to a great Italian master. The first clue of their relationship is that both films cast the British actor David Hemmings as their star; the second clue is that they share a plot device, which is that they both involve mysteries that the Hemmings character attempts to unravel, based on visual evidence that is only available to him. Whereas Blow-Up frustrates the expectations of the “whodunit” genre by having all evidence disappear before the protagonist can expose the crime, Argento fulfills expectations by allowing the protagonist to catch and punish the murderer. Perhaps Argento wanted to compensate for Blow-Up’s lack of closure.

The films’ similarities go deeper than that: both thematize questions about the status and reliability of visual evidence, perception, and recollection. In Blow-Up, Hemmings plays a photographer who “witnesses” a crime, though in fact he does not know he has witnessed it until he finds traces of it in the film he shot that morning. However, he does meet a mysterious woman in the park (Vanessa Redgrave), whose desperation to retrieve the film from him suggests that something’s up. The Hemmings character pieces together and deduces the crime based on the sequence of shots he surreptitiously took of her and her companion; and though he passes an erotically charged afternoon with her in his flat, he never learns anything about who she is, her motives, who the murdered man might be, or who her accomplice is. The title refers to the repeated enlargements (ever larger and larger) that he prints from his negatives, which reveal (very indistinctly) the gun barrel peaking through the bushes, and the corpse.

In Deep Red, Argento contrives a pretty good mystery as well, which leaves the audience guessing up until the very end. The film begins with a psychic, a German woman named Helga, whose powers of telepathy are being demonstrated before an audience in Rome by two Italian psychologists. The murderer is in the audience, and Helga discovers the murderer’s violent thoughts. We see Helga perform the following monologue:

"There is something – someone – no – I don’t know – forgive me, I’m sorry. It was – I can’t explain it – something strange – and sharp – like the prick of a sword. It upset me, but it’s alright now. I can feel death in this room. I feel – a presence – a twisted mind – sending me thoughts – perverted, murderous thoughts. Go away! You – have killed – and you will kill again. There’s a child – singing – And that house! – death – blood – hard blood – aah! I’m scared! We must hide everything – everything in the house – back the way it was. Noone must know – noone – noone! – forget it – forget it – forget it – forever – forever – forever."

In the last two sentences the psychic is no longer stating her impressions, but serving as a medium for the thoughts and words of the murderer. In this opening scene, the director immediately makes his case for the centrality of “the house” as locus of family, of trauma, and of repression; these words will provide the clues that later will lead the Hemmings character to discover the killer’s identity.

In his interest in Freudian psychology, Argento obviously owes a huge debt to Hitchcock; but his debt to Antonioni is more pronounced. Antonioni used the photograph to represent the subjectivity of vision and perception. Argento gives his hero a few visual clues as well: the fleeting glimpse of a picture as he enters the dead woman’s flat in his attempt to rescue her (a picture which disappears almost immediately); a photograph of a haunted house, which he finds in a book that one of the paranormal psychiatrists recalls; and a child’s drawing of a murder, an image which he discovers in three separate places (and which he fails to apprehend correctly, or even to see completely). Another character discovers a clue in a word written on a steamy mirror, a word that becomes invisible as soon as the steam goes away. In all of these clues, knowledge is elusive; by not being shared, knowledge lacks its socially-agreed-upon status, just like the clues in Blow-Up.

Readers of this blog may recall that I am considering Deep Red for my course this fall on “The House in the Horror Film.” The importance of the haunted house as a plot device, and the explanation of the house’s sinister aspect being caused by traumatic events that took place there in the past, make it perfectly suited for this course. But the film has a couple drawbacks that could make it a problem for students: (A) the extreme goriness of the film; and (more significantly) (B) the dialogue’s constant switching between English and Italian, with no English subtitles available for the Italian dialogue. Most of the communication that is important to the plot takes place in English (except for an early conversation between the Hemmings character and his friend Carlo), but there is enough Italian conversation that English-speaking students could be put off by it. There is no apparent rhyme or reason for when English occurs or when Italian occurs; both languages have the appearance of being dubbed, and conversations between the same characters take place in both languages. It’s almost as if a restoration was created from two partial prints of the film, one dubbed in English and one dubbed in Italian. It’s distracting if nothing else.

But even if you speak no Italian, I urge you to see Deep Red. I also urge you to see Blow-Up, and then to watch the excellent commentary track available on the DVD.

My thanks to my friend and colleague Valerie Kaussen, who initially turned me on to Dario Argento’s work.

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