Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Under The Soles Of Your Shoes

The first image we see in Dario Argento’s INFERNO is a giant close-up of a large knife. Considering what is to come over the next few hours, this is not so surprising. But slightly unexpected in this context is its initial use, to assist in carefully moving through the pages of a certain very old book. Of course, what results from reading this book, moving through a history that is in the process of being uncovered, pretty much has the same result. The second entry in its director’s famed Three Mothers trilogy, INFERNO, which was made in 1980, has never been an easy film to pin down. Not so much a sequel to the previous entry SUSPIRIA, which it shares no main characters with, but an alternate take on several of its themes, in some ways a retelling of the earlier film but in a harsher, more minor key. While that film has the completely human presence of star Jessica Harper and its one key location of the Dance Academy for us to focus on, INFERNO hops around the map a little more, as well as seemingly experimenting with how long it can go on without actually starting the narrative we expect, as well as giving us a character who we believe will be the lead. This does eventually happen, almost by default, and it’s not necessarily the person we would have chosen. The key has to be to accept INFERNO for what it is, if only for the effect it ultimately has on us. There is art in this madness of Argento’s but he doesn’t always make it easy on us to take it in.

I could attempt a brief synopsis of the plot, but it wouldn’t be easy. While SUSPIRIA, set in Germany, told of Mater Suspiriorium, the Mother of Sighs, INFERNO moves things to New York to focus on Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness. In New York, Rose (Irene Miracle), a young poet who after reading a book by Varelli on The Three Mothers which she purchased from a nearby antiques dealer begins to suspect that her building is actually the dwelling of the Mother of Darkness and writes to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a music student in Rome, of her suspicions and fears. Both of them, as well as a number of people around them, find themselves strangely drawn to learning more about whatever is going on, leading to much carnage as one of the characters begins to become closer to the roots of this mystery.

Even less than SUSPIRIA, possibly less than any other film Argento has made, the story being told is not important. The imagery, the mood, the undeniable sense of something truly other, is. The story we expect to receive becomes delayed in starting as we follow several different characters into their own corners of the tale, leading to horrible ends that are often punctuated by fade outs which always seem reminiscent of the end of the Arbogast murder in PSYCHO. In some ways INFERNO could be looked at as a PSYCHO-type of experience if we were introduced continually to other potential lead characters after Janet Leigh who met horrible unexpected ends as well, stretching our ideas of what this narrative should be to the absolute breaking point. To say that the film makes little sense is like saying it’s also in color—an appropriate way to look at it considering how beautiful those colors are. It’s a cold, harsh film, one that barely qualifies as having any sort of sense or humanity. The logic is one of a nightmare, where a major character thinks nothing of lowering herself into some bizarre flooded ballroom in a setpiece which makes no sense in several different ways, yet is undeniably beautiful in just as many. Imagery seen throughout is left unexplained on any level but nevertheless always manages to serve as a warning that evil is definitely nearby. The lack of a real sense of place certainly ties into that. Some of the film was actually shot in New York (just like other Italian genre films from this period, usually in an interesting way) but really very little. Of course, it isn’t set in the real New York that we know (or the real Rome in those scenes, for that matter). It’s another type of reality, a world where looking for the world of the past can lead to horrible results—in some ways, the past and the supernatural could almost mean the same thing in this context and every time somebody looks for one the other gets unavoidably intertwined.

Whereas the setup and logic of SUSPIRIA could be compared to that of a fairy tale (Imagine: “Once upon a time there was a young girl who went to a strange dance school…”) INFERNO is considerably more labyrinthine in its approach (Such as, “Once upon a time there was a young woman who lived in a strange building. Oh, and she had a brother. Oh, and he…”) which muddies things a bit and taking this sort of opposite approach is a bold step that doesn’t always work (the prolonged nighttime Central Park sequence always begins to lose me a bit). Jessica Harper was such a crucially believable presence amidst all the madness of that film and the women who might possibly have had such a sensuous effect here (namely Irene Miracle and Elonora Georgi as Mark’s girlfriend in Rome) seem deliberately not given the chance to have such an effect. Instead we get Leigh McCloskey who makes next to no impression at all and it is this coldness that always makes INFERNO more of a schematic experience than anything, even as densely layered as it feels much of the time. That we have to follow him through the film means that our ultimate destination isn’t going to be completely satisfying—of course, the climax of SUSPIRIA wasn’t the strongest part of that film either but that was for different reasons(at least the lead of this film gets to actually confront somebody). INFERNO is a fascinating and, in some ways, daring work by its director but at times maybe too disjointed to entirely connect to any sort of emotional state. Still, it’s hard to deny how much the very best moments really do linger in the brain long after it concludes and at its best there is a genuine power in there.

As a way that makes it slightly frustrating, it’s also hard not to think of it as very consciously the middle chapter in a trilogy which may have been concluded at that time. There are elements (some set design, uses of color, actor Fulvio Mingozzi playing a cab driver in both films) which provide deliberate, almost subliminal echoes of SUSPIRIA, as well as tantalizing hints of what may have been yet to come of Argento had proceeded with a third entry soon after in Ania Pieroni’s brief unexplained appearance as a character listed in the credits merely as “music student” but who no doubt is supposed to be the mysterious Mother of Tears, not quite ready to take center stage. Of course, Argento finally concluded his trilogy within the past few years with MOTHER OF TEARS which I’ll admit I enjoyed more than a lot of people did but I’ll certainly admit that when compared to the first two films, coming so many years later, it just wasn’t the same.

Unlike SUSPIRIA, INFERNO never received a real theatrical release in the U.S. by Twentieth-Century Fox and didn’t play New York until a brief engagement at the Thalia in August 1986, when it received a bemused review in The New York Times. (“shot in vivid colors, with some striking angles…but the script and acting are largely routine.” They may be ineffectual, but I don’t know if ‘routine’ is really the issue here.) But as the cult of Argento has grown over here the film has achieved its own small following, evident by the packed house at the New Beverly for the midnight show on Saturday October 17th. Helping with the special night was the appearance of star Irene Miracle, Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer who composed the film’s remarkable score (my favorite use of music in the film may me the conclusion of the Central Park sequence which, with its shots of the city skyline, comes off as some sort of perverse Gershwin moment). Also at the theater, in from Cincinnati, was Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas who is also the author of the truly astonishing Mario Bava biography All the Colors of the Dark. Bava, as it is known, was responsible for some of INFERNO’s key special effects in what turned out to be the last film he ever worked on. Despite being claimed in the past by various sources, he did not work on the famed underwater sequence, but was responsible for some of the more subtle effects of the film, such as the continuous shots of the moon, which Lucas deemed as sort of Greek Chorus to what we might perceive as the narrative. The lovely Irene Miracle, clearly enjoying herself immensely, talked about how she basically took the part for the money and that due to Argento’s health problems he wasn’t even on set at times, essentially directing by proxy. She also explained some of what might be termed the abruptness of her part’s length by saying that while she was cast thinking she had a much larger part, her own health issues at the time may have led to it being cut down. More surprisingly, she spoke of how she shot numerous scenes that did not appear in the film including “discovering a body in Central Park” which indicates that there was possibly a good deal of restructuring going on both during the shooting and the cutting (could Daria Nicolodi’s character have been expanded because of this?). Keith Emerson spoke with great enthusiasm of the process of scoring the film, including screening all of Argento’s previous films just after arriving in Rome while suffering jet lag as well as how his up tempo version of the selection from Verdi’s Nabucco that we hear during the cab ride was meant to simulate the rickety nature of riding in cabs in Rome! All three people were immensely enjoyable to listen to and afterwards most people seemed to agree that it was one of the best q&a’s that we’d ever seen at the New Beverly (You’d think it would have turned up on Youtube by now).

What we were then treated to was an absolutely gorgeous print of the film, making it clear that INFERNO is one of those films where, no matter how good the DVD looks, somehow needs to be seen in a theater, both for the dark clarity of the print, but also because it provides you with less of an escape. Even without a strong narrative, the film can be a pummeling experience, both in the immense degree of gore and in how it refuses to make it easy on how to say exactly what the hell is going to go on, if the story has already begun, if it’s ever going to begin. It feels slightly longer than it needs to be. Maybe some cutting to move a few sections along faster wouldn’t have been a terrible thing but even this feels intentional in a way to get the rhythm of the film such that it wants to stretch out certain sections to an almost agonizing degree.

The night went late, but it was a wonderful screening with the film playing just great for the packed house. As it turned out, when we emerged from the theater in what was by then close to the middle of the night a heavy fog had come down up on the city, making driving home a somewhat treacherous experience. At that late hour, you could almost believe that you would have been driving off into some strange unexpected encounter, a strange force from the past. But nothing of the sort happened and as I left that screening where I got to express my admiration to Tim Lucas for all his work over the years the power of INFERNO was undeniable. When a skeptical minor character in the film is asked what he believes he replies, “In whatever I can see and touch.” It’s a clumsy line in how it comes across and he’s off the screen soon enough, presumably as a punishment for saying it. But even though such a idea goes against what the movie ultimately tells us, the line stays with me as a reminder of such a rational belief in the face of such madness. And besides, nights like this one at the New Beverly, made so enjoyable because of the film shown as well as the people there with a tangible connection to it reveal the statement to be true.


Scott Bradley said...

It's a lovely piece, Peter, that pretty much sums the movie up in all its insanity, beauty, and weirdness (and also sums up how great the screening was!).

Little bit of trivia: Argento's first choice for the Leigh McCluskey role was James Woods!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

That really is what the night was like, all those things, in the best possible way. It was a fantastic time. Thanks, Scott, glad you liked the piece.

christian said...

Ah, I shoulda gone.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

You should have! It was amazing! Of course there's always the next big event at the New Beverly. You know there will be one.