Thursday, July 16, 2009
Using Movies As A Guide For Reality
OPERA aka TERROR AT THE OPERA may have been the first Dario Argento movie I ever laid eyes on, on VHS of course, but I’m not completely certain of that. It doesn’t matter anyway, but watching it again I realize that the earliest exposure you have to something manages to effect the perception you have of it from then on. In a variety of ways, a number of the things that I always expect from Argento in his work deep down can be traced right back to this film. Though I’ve seen it numerous times over the years it had actually been a while when I went to see it as the opening night film of the recent Italian Grindhouse series at the American Cinematheque. Returning to it after a number of years I wasn’t quite certain how it would play but once we hit that masterful transition early on from the apartment to the opening night performance of MACBETH the film had me and, for a brief period of time, I thought that the film might be even better than I remembered—it’s that powerful a moment and I wish the entire picture could live up to what that one brief passage promises. OPERA isn’t quite that good and yes, much of it is as ludicrous as it’s always been. But within all the madness it’s a striking example of the director really trying to dig deep into his own preoccupations and even if it all doesn’t totally connect much of it is extremely well done and effective.
When “The Great” Mara Cecova, world famous opera singer, is injured after storming out of a rehearsal of a new avant-garde version of Verdi’s Macbeth being helmed by horror film director Marc (CHARIOTS OF FIRE’s Ian Charleson) it falls to the understudy Betty (Christina Marsillach) to take over (“It usually only happens to people in the movies”) in spite of her own hesitation that she is too young for the role as well as a fear that she can’t quite articulate. In the finest tradition of old-fashioned backstage musicals Betty is a big success even as an accident during the performance gives rise to the fear that the opera is cursed. All seems to be well until, late that night while at home with boyfriend Stefan (TEXASVILLE’s William MacNamara) Betty is suddenly attacked by a masked assailant who proceeds to tie her up and uses his own means to force her to keep her eyes open as he stabs Stefan to death. Before leaving, the killer unties Betty enough to allow her to get away and she does, leaving Stefan behind without calling the police for reasons of her own. The crime is soon investigated headed by Inspector Santini (Urbano Barberini, recently seen in CASINO ROYALE) but as the company prepares for another performance the killer is out there preparing to strike again and force Betty to watch as someone else close to her is horribly killed.
Taking a fresh look at 1987's OPERA there seems to be something in it which sets it apart from standard Giallos, not to mention slasher films or Agatha Christie-type mysteries. There’s the feeling that, as mad as it all is, it’s possible Argento means all this to a greater extent than he ever had before, best represented in the central image of a killer who is forcing the heroine (and, by hopeful implication, the audience) to keep looking at every single unspeakably horrible thing that is occurring (“Keep your eyes open,” said John Goodman in Joe Dante’s MATINEE). It’s as if for the first time he’s trying to really confront the horrific nature of this violence and what it means for him to make films that express it, a concept he would explore further in THE STENDHAL SYNDROME which I still maintain is kind of a masterwork. The plot of TENEBRAE, made several years before was also to a degree about how madness informs the creative process had happened to him but, much as I love that film, it seems to be operating on a surface level. Maybe because the very world it’s set in allows for a more heightened display of emotion, OPERA seems like it’s trying to dig beneath that surface.
It’s arguable whether or not Argento’s murder sequences are any more vicious than in previous films, but there is a density to it all that feels different. OPERA is a particularly nasty film both in tone and in violence, feeling like a decidedly cynical look at the world and how people, good and bad, ultimately relate to each other. It’s the nicest characters most sympathetic to Betty who meet the most horrifying ends (with one key exception that I suppose even Argento couldn’t bring himself to depict), while the selfish ones, whether valid red herrings or not, wind up lurking around the outskirts of the plot unharmed, fitting in perfectly with the cruel reality this is all set in. I’m not even certain whether it’s the most violent of his films but the very nature of certain things definitely makes it seem more brutal.
As might be expected, there are the usual plotting issues that always seem to be there with the director—even watching it at home you can almost hear the audience mumbling in puzzled laughter as Betty leaves the first crime scene without a moment’s thought (right now we won’t even discuss what has to be swallowed to allow the final twist to work). After seeing it all these times I can barely track the killer’s true motivation as well as the demons that haunt Betty but I’m not so sure it really matters. There are demons present as there would be for any artist and they have to be confronted—to be truly looked at—before you can admit to yourself who you really are, which, if this film is to be believed, may in itself be a form of giving into the madness. Whatever else you want to say about the denouement, which was not in the print that was screened and is certainly difficult to defend on any rational level, it does give the impression of coming from a very personal place, just one that it’s difficult for us to enter. Maybe the film is about accepting that artist within you and learning to no longer be afraid of being alone. I can’t be certain—within the film’s density is a seemingly genuine insanity and there are points in the movie, like during the endless attack by the crows or during the legendary peephole sequence (“I want to see your face again!”) we become enraptured by the camerawork and imagery so all we can do is just surrender to the lunacy in front of us.
It of course could be looked at as one of Argento’s most personal films whether it’s about his own relationship to what he creates, the type of artist he wants to be (“I always jerk off before I shoot a scene,” Charleson admits at one point) or the nature of his relationships with the various young leading ladies he often works with (like perhaps PHENOMENA star Jennifer Connelly?) years before he began making films with daughter Asia. It’s telling how self-critical he comes off in much of this, one of the most endearing touches of the entire film. As undeniably powerful as much of it is—the remarkable camera work by Ronnie Taylor deserves special mention--it’s not quite the cohesive whole that I would want it to be deep down. The scattershot nature of the music is a good representation of how every part doesn’t quite connect together, veering from Verdi to Simonetti’s heartbreakingly beautiful main theme to the metal by Steel Grave underscoring several of the murders. That stuff in particular doesn’t work, not meshing well with everything else, it’s not particularly good and, in its hair metal way, dates the picture back in the 80s more than anything else onscreen. The print shown at the Cinematheque titled TERROR AT THE OPERA had the Orion logo on it, for a release in the 80s that never seems to have happened (did it ever play any U.S. theaters, even on 42nd Street?) and has the same dub job that I’ve always heard with it, not the worst in history, but not all that great either. The gore seems to be uncensored (at least, I think it is—no way would this ever get an R rating) but several dialogue scenes have been cut down or missing altogether, including that somewhat notorious coda. On the visual side, the DVD (the most complete version) is letterboxed at an ideal-looking 2.35 Scope, while the print shown is a flat ratio at 1.85 or even 1.66, a slight drawback in how it makes this film seem somewhat visually less than what it is.
Located within all this madness is one of the better ensembles that Argento has had in his career, particularly Marsillach and Charleson both managing to find a human connection in all this madness, even if the script (not to mention the dubbing) doesn’t always make it easy. The film is filled with interesting faces that work well together (even those who don’t have any lines seem to make an impression by appearing slightly suspicious), almost as if they’ve been cast not for a horror film but a dark, character-oriented comedy. Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, who I’ve always really liked, in particular seems to be playing her role as if she’s the overeager best friend in a screwball farce and the bounciness in her character is so enjoyable to watch that it even overcomes how she seems to have been dubbed by a much older English woman and makes it all the more shocking when certain developments finally happen.
When viewed again in a theater OPERA, flaws and all, offers a reminder of how good Argento can be at his best and how absurd he can be during those times as well. Seeing it this way allows the darkness of its emotion to seep down within you, allowing the imagery to take hold. The genuinely brutal determination it has to really make you watch—to keep your eyes open—transforms it into sort of confrontation that makes it truly memorable. I can’t quite remember exactly what I thought of Argento and this film when I first saw it, but I’m glad that I kept watching to try to figure out exactly what these films were and what they wanted to say. Sometimes when you keep watching the greatest rewards can occur.