Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Semiotic, the Symbolic, and the Cruel: an Exploration of Gender in the cinema of Dario Argento

Tonight I am seeing Dario Argento in conversation at the BFI, followed by a big-screen outing for one of my favourite films, his horror masterpiece Suspiria. That in mind, I thought the time was right to publish my thoughts on Argento's work, and in particular the misogyny which some have interpreted to figure in that work. Contains spoilers for Suspiria, Deep Red and Tenebrae (Unsane).

Literally the scariest picture I could find.(

Dario Argento began his career by making giallo1 films, before moving on to making a certain kind of theatrical, stylised horror with which his name is now synonymous. His work was critically and financially successful, and influential- John Carpenter's work on Halloween is clearly influenced by Argento's giallo films, and James Wan claims that his film Saw had Argento's work as its biggest influence2. Despite its genre and popular success, Argento's work can also be counted as an example of auteurship, with the consistency of his films' stylistic choices and repeated collaborations with certain actors and musicians identifying him as a director with a vision and expansive body of work. So it seems Argento's work presents a quandary, walking the line between art-house and grind-house film. The tension between these two approaches can be seen in how Argento treats the topic of gender.
On first inspection, Argento's films seem to follow the normal approach to women in horror: female characters spend much of their time in various states of nudity, and are killed in highly ritualised, painful, baroque ways. But to align Argento with a misogynist view on this basis seems bizarre. For one, the men in Argento's films also often suffer horrific deaths; such is the nature of the genre. Furthermore, Argento himself thinks his films are more than just 'torture-porn', claiming that “without a little depth to these characters, to the psychology of the characters... it's just a film about violence and sadism, and there's nothing more to it.”3

Aspects of Argento's work make it hard to accept that he is simply misogynist, as many horror films unfortunately appear to be. His films contain many well-drawn, 'real' female characters, and some (Suspiria and Phenomena chief amongst them) actually have very few male characters at all. This shows that Argento has some interest in female experience as an artist. In addition, Argento's women are not always victims- in Suspiria, Phenomena, and Deep Red, the killer is revealed to be a woman. So it seems that in Argento's films women have agency at least to the extent that they can be killers and not just victims.

Argento's position on gender is more complex than it first appears, and deserves a closer examination. In doing this, I will offer a Kristevan analysis of several of his works, namely Deep Red, Suspiria and Tenebrae. Firstly, I will discuss the tension between symbolic and semiotic elements in Argento's films, before moving onto the abject content inherent in his horror, and finally conclude that Argento's supposed misogyny comes from an interest in portraying boundaries- between masculine and feminine, and symbolic and semiotic- as fluid.

Kristeva proposes that we distinguish between two kinds of experience or discourse: the semiotic and the symbolic. The semiotic is “suffused with feeling, and attuned to the physical, to music, and... to the rhythm of speech and the ambiguities of poetry.”4 For Kristeva, this sort of experience is associated with the feminine, because of the links between the semiotic and the semiotic chora, that state which children exist in before they can distinguish between their body and that of their mother. In Argento's work, what we can term semiotic content refers to prominent themes of madness and magic.
In Suspiria, the semiotic is expressed as chaos, opposed to rationality. This manifests as magic of a physical sort, controlled by witches. The witches act against any threat with immediate, unfathomable, chaotic manifestations: an attack from an upstairs window by a pair of hairy, emaciated arms, another attack from an otherwise friendly dog, and maggots falling from the ceiling. The physicality and incomprehensibility of these attacks link them to the semiotic, as well as their opposition to rationality, which is more typically identified with the symbolic. 
Even the presentation of the attacks on screen is chaotic: the transition to the space in which Pat is attacked in the opening murder is “extremely disorientating, as Argento refuses to clarify the relationship between inside and outside. It seems we may be looking at a rooftop enclosure, bordered by metal gridding... Whatever the spatial arrangements, we are given little time to ponder.”5 Throughout the film, Argento is careful to associate this chaos with femininity and childhood, two important signs of the semiotic.

The heightened, stylised performances of the teachers and witches who run the school constantly draw attention to their femininity: they wear heavy make-up, and talk in an unnatural way as if they are performing. Here, calling attention to the constructed nature of the witches' gender draws a link between their uncanny femininity and their magic. The arguing between the students, and the larger than usual sets which dwarf the characters, also bring connotations of childhood. Using these devices, Argento draws a link between what we would term the semiotic content inherent in his depiction of magic and chaos, and femininity and childhood.

In Tenebrae, the semiotic content manifests as madness. Neal and Berti both suffer from a sort of psychosis focussed on women and sexuality, which manifest in violent, penetrative ways; in this sense, they attempt to regain masculine dominance over femininity. But their project is doomed because, in their rejection of the symbolic order (via recourse to insanity), they also reject masculinity; hence, they cannot satisfy their need for 'vengeance' on the women they perceive to have wronged them.
Madness also permeates the structure of Tenebrae; chance, instead of logical progression, dominates as a motivating force behind the plot. A girl discovers the killer's lair, not because she is looking for it, but because she is chased by a rabid dog; the animal, physical nature of this threat also links it back to the semiotic. Likewise, the first attack we witness in the film is unrelated to the murderers the plot focuses on: a homeless man attacks a shoplifting woman. Although this is related to the dominant themes of the film- namely, the intersection between sexuality, gender and violence- as the man is apparently motivated by the attractiveness of the woman, it is not directly related to either of the main murderers and so is tangential to the central events of the plot. In both these instances, chance overrides fate or reason as a plot motivator.

From these examples, it's clear that Argento's films contain much of what we could term semiotic content, and that they portray this by constantly drawing links between gender, and physicality and violence, through portraying magic and madness. This extends past specific instances and into the very fabric of the films; Suspiria is chaotic and dominated by the feminine, while Tenebrae's plot is convoluted and driven by chance.

Argento's work also contains some symbolic content. For Kristeva, the symbolic is that part of language which carries meaning- it is the 'meaning' of a word, what it denotes, as opposed to its tone or delivery. She also believes that there must be at least some symbolic content, as well as some semiotic content, present in an experience or work for it to be understood. So obviously Argento's films feature some symbolic content; without this, they would be incomprehensible. In Argento's work, the symbolic weight is almost always carried by a 'detective' character who imposes reason on the violence surrounding them by investigating the murders that take place.

However, these characters are almost always ineffectual or incompetent. In Deep Red, the detectives who are investigating the murders which drive the plot are unable to concentrate on anything but food and coffee; in Tenebrae, the 'detective' character, Peter Neal, is compromised when it is revealed that he has been carrying out some of the murders he's supposedly investigating. The most successful of Argento's 'detectives' is Suzy in Suspiria. She appeals to some psychologists to try and get a proper explanation for the events at her school, but they fail to convince her; they focus exclusively on attempting to find some rational, materialist explanation for her experiences. They discuss witchcraft as a historical phenomenon, as something which can be symbolically conceptualised; their explanations pale in comparison to the unbridled power of the semiotic Suzy experiences.

Significantly, in most of these examples, male characters are the ones carrying most of the symbolic weight of the narrative. In other words, the symbolic is identified as a masculine mode of discourse. The symbolic is also portrayed as ineffective, at least in dealing with the semiotic; it seems Argento doesn't care about showing rationality or deduction as viable methods for dealing with madness or magic. This extends into interactions between the films and their audience; for instance, Argento himself often records voice-overs to offer either introductions or resolutions to the plot of his films. Despite appearing on the surface to help the audience follow the plot of the films, in reality these voice-overs do very little to actually help the viewer piece together what has happened, offering either vague generalities or information already present in the main body of the film. In this sense, while on the surface they appear to be an attempt by the director to make clear the plot of the film, in reality they are another device which destabilises the symbolic content of the narrative.
Marcus realises where he first saw the murderer. (

Argento also subverts the genre expectations of the viewer, defying the usual conventions of a detective story (which, ostensibly, any giallo should be). In Deep Red, the killer appears in the background of the first murder sequence; theoretically, this means it is possible for a keen viewer to decipher the mystery central to the plot of their own accord. But in reality, the killer only appears for a few frames, so it would have been impossible for audiences at the time of the film's release to actually see the character. So Deep Red is “a murder mystery in which the revelation of who committed the murder is of no importance”6; in other words, Argento is not particularly interested in creating a straightforward, 'logical' detective narrative. A common critical reaction to Argento's films is that they are poorly plotted but well stylised; this is in line with my interpretation that his films have little symbolic content but are loaded with rich semiotic content.

From my argument so far, it might seem that I'm proposing that Argento's work concerns rigid conflicts between the masculine and feminine, or the symbolic and semiotic. But in fact, a constant shifting of femininity and masculinity characterizes Argento's films. Because of these shifting boundaries, there is much abject imagery in Argento's work. We can describe the abject as “what disturbs boundaries, identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules”;7 It is whatever is “neither inside nor outside, neither subject nor object, troubling identity and order with the instability of boundaries, borders, and limits”8. Our first experience of the abject is when we transfer out of the semiotic chora and into the symbolic realm; it is the experience of shifting boundaries that bring about abjection. Abject entities instil horror in us due to their blurring of the boundaries between subject and object; the most disturbing horror stories focus on abject material because our reaction to it is so profoundly negative. Furthermore, “the degree to which a sense of horror is aroused by an image or text stems in part from the presence, absence, or deliberate degrading of protective ritual formulas”,9 so those works which toy with our expectations of the handling of abject material are more disturbing that those which deal with it safely. This is why horrors which end unresolved- with a killer still on the loose, or a curse still at work- are more disturbing than those which have a clear resolution.
Neal's emasculation (

A clear example of abject content in Argento's work can be found in Tenebrae. The second murderer of this story, Peter Neal, is implied to be motivated by an incident in his youth where he is emasculated by a woman: after slapping her, she gets some other boys to hold him down, and she pushes her heel into his mouth. The shifting boundaries between masculinity and femininity in this scene create a sense of the abject: as the scene ends with the woman's heel in Peter's mouth, “it may be assumed that Peter Neal is haunted, like many other men, by the consequences of his inability to conceive of power as a pan-gender phenomenon”10. Boundaries between male and female are blurred as the unnamed woman takes power, her symbolic phallus, the heel, driven into Peter’s mouth as an act of rape; this blurring is further enhanced by the fact that the actress playing the woman is transgender. Peter's murders can be seen as attempts to regain masculinity and power from this woman- first by murdering her, then others.

The ending of Tenebrae also constitutes a direct refusal to deal with the abject content of the film. In the last minutes of the film, no less than four characters die, including Peter- the main character and secondary murderer of the story. He dies by accident, impaled on a sculpture, in the same room as his victims. Faced with a room of dead bodies and blood, Anne (Peter's secretary) stands in the doorway to the room and screams. Her screams continue as the film fades to black and play over the credits. This ending is notable in that it does not resolve any of the main detective plot, nor comfort the viewer by showing any proper disposal of the bodies or the killer coming to justice. Berti's motives are only guessed at, and Peter's never become clear beyond vague hypotheses about jealousy by the detectives, or the viewer's insight into his memories about the girl on the beach. The bodies (and a severed limb) are left, strewn all over the apartment. Peter doesn't face justice in any way; even his death is accidental and not brought about as vengeance. We aren't even offered the thoughts of Anne on the subject, or a resolution of her character arc; instead, we have a lasting image of animal pain, a primal scream. By refusing to offer any resolution here, Argento exploits our discomfort with abject content, and leaves the viewer disturbed.

The style of Argento's films contributes to the abjection inherent in much of his work. In rejecting realism, Argento removes the comfort that a traditional narrative can offer; in one reviewer's words, “Argento disengages from the easy virtues of sequential storytelling”.11 Dream sequences or unannounced flashbacks are common; the sequence where Peter has the heel in his mouth is one of many “ambiguous passages that may be dreams, recollections or fevered fantasies [which] are interpolated seemingly at random and without contextual elaborations”12. Disorienting edits, loud music, and extensive dubbing reduce the sense of realism further; this is most apparent in Suspiria and Deep Red, where harsh, brightly coloured lighting, loud progressive rock, and cuts between long camera moves and static, tight close-ups contribute heavily to the atmosphere. Argento's use of set-pieces also add to the effect by disrupting the narrative; Tenebrae in particular has an extended crane shot sequence, and Suspiria opens with an infamously choreographed death sequence. These sequences draw attention to the created nature of the films; “there's something alien and unerotic- and important- about the degree of theatricality”13, and this unsettles the viewer.

Finally, self-reflexivity is also used in Argento's work to destabilize boundaries, in this case between reality and fiction. For example, Argento also often plays the murderer himself,14 toying with the audience's expectations of a horror director as some sort of pervert. Self-reflexivity of this sort permeates Tenebrae: one character tells another that “Tenebrae is sexist”. The character who says this refers to the book within the film, but drawing attention to it so brazenly briefly pulls the viewer out of the fiction, tricking them for a moment into thinking that the characters are aware of their own fictionality. This line also references debates about Argento's supposed misogyny, adding another layer of commentary to the scene. In this way, self-reflexivity attacks the boundary perhaps most significant to fiction, that between it and reality. In doing this, the film itself becomes a site of abjection.
From my discussion of gender, the symbolic and semiotic, and abjection in Argento's work, it should be clear that Argento dramatises conflicts between shifting boundaries, particularly those of gender- in Kristevan terms, the conflict between symbolic and semiotic discourse. Much of what appears distasteful in Argento's work, particularly with regard to gender, such as the theatrical and ritualistic deaths of multiple women, is a product of the abject material inherent in discussions of gender boundaries. Furthermore, by prioritising discussion of semiotic content and linking it with femininity, while destabilising the symbolic content of his work, Argento actually explores feminine experience in a way much horror cinema does not. By emphasising abject material in his films and by defying usual cleansing rituals regarding that content, or insisting upon change in them, Argento signals a new identity or new order.15 On this analysis, Argento is no misogynist, but rather an artist deeply concerned with portraying and questioning the content of feminine experience.

1A genre of Italian detective film.
2Wan, James. Interview by Maitland McDonagh. AMCTV Blog, 26th May 2010. Accessed 12th April 2013.
3Argento, Dario. Interview. Den of Geek, 15th April 2008. Accessed 12 April 2013.
4Goodnow (2009). p30.
5Thrower, in Gallant (2001). p136.
6Grainger, in Gallant (2001). p123.
7Kristeva (1982), p4.
8Zakin, Emily. “Psychoanalytic Feminism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N Zalta (ed.).
9Goodnow (2009), p52.
10Barber and Thrower, in Gallant (2001). p179.
11Thrower, in Gallant (2001). p137.
12Barber and Thrower, in Gallant (2001). p179.
13Thrower, in Gallant (2001). p137.
14Argento portrays the hands of a murderer in Tenebrae and Suspiria.
15Goodnow (2009), p48-49.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Why We Need Less Great Filmmakers

Hey there,

With another needlessly controversial title, I want to talk today about why having 'great' filmmakers on a canonized list is a very, very bad deal.

Name a great director! I'm sure you can. Here's a list of names I commonly hear:

  • Stanley Kubrick
  • Alfred Hitchcock
  • Stephen Spielberg
  • Akira Kurosawa
  • Francis Ford Coppola
  • Quentin Tarantino
These are the kinds of names you hear from people all the time. We even have adjective forms to apply to movies like theirs: Kubrickian, Hitchcockian, Tarantinoesque. So these guys live on a list of people whose work is, at least in popular film discourse, untouchable. Far be it from the likes of you or me to claim that their work is not good.
Now most people won't claim this directly. Instead, you'll be in a conversation and confess that you haven't seen a big movie by one of these guys. Myself, I regularly have to warn people that I haven't seen The Godfather. (You may have no idea how much this angers people.) When this shameful fact is acknowledged, suddenly that person wants your blood- how dare you disrespect the canon, they will yell. What they're asserting is that a) I have no right to ignore this movie and b) I have no right to not like it.

I'm going to isolate myself here and say that I actually go out of my way to avoid watching The Godfather, primarily because of people like this. I have no issue with the existence of great films or even their constant praise: A Clockwork Orange is magnificent, Jaws is almost perfect, and I'm a massive fan of Jackie Brown (despite its inexplicable dismissal by many). My problem with this is that it establishes a list of legitimacy, therefore ignoring other films with their own worthiness. If a film is on the classic list, you have to see it, or your opinion is meaningless; therefore you should prioritise watching only classics until you have seen the 'true' works.

All of the stuff I've said so far is admittedly more a problem with how you treat films made by great filmmakers rather than with those films themselves. But this leads on to another, much bigger problem: once you're a 'great' filmmaker, you can get away with anything.

Take Quentin Tarantino. Now Tarantino is undoubtedly a very gifted filmmaker. In fact if anything his film talent is far too innate: he just is a product of film history up until that point, his particular brand of frenzied violence and pop culture natter simply the inevitable end point of a certain trend of American action cinema. But yes, definitely very good filmmaker. I never rated Pulp Fiction as legendary like everyone seems to, but Reservoir Dogs is a fantastic achievement, and the aforementioned Jackie Brown is a damned fine screenplay done justice by good directing and some excellent performances.

But we hit an issue getting past those movies. Because QT is so sure that everything he does is gold, and so is everyone else, that he can get away with making a movie like Inglourious Basterds.

So my main issue with Inglourious is that if anyone else had made it, it would be lambasted- but because it's QT, suddenly it's great. And the fact is that it isn't; it's half an hour too long, it feels like an hour too long, the plot repeats itself several times, and he can't decide whose story he wants to tell so tries to do both the Basterds and Shosanna and ultimately tells neither well. It's a few good ideas held together by his Hollywood acumen and the inability of other people to tell him what doesn't work. It's made especially painful because it almost runs counter to Tarantino's gifts. The master of the tight indie thriller makes a bloated, unwieldy mess; the king of character development through dialogue makes us sit through long, pointless dialogues. It's a shame, because sometimes the movie actually shows his old brilliance; unfortunately, it's just a counterpoint to how poor this particular work is.

I haven't seen Django Unchained yet, so I'm hoping it's better, but I'm terrified it'll be more of the same. Funny thing is, QT should know this phenomenon better than most; in a 1992 interview about David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, he said "After I saw Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me at Cannes, David Lynch had disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie until I hear something different. And you know, I loved him. I loved him." (book)You may not agree with his appraisal of Lynch (I love TP:FWWM), but it's the perfect way to describe this sort of problem. That's a young Tarantino, riding high on the success of Reservoir Dogs; I think if that Tarantino could see Tarantino now, he would have to say exactly the same thing about his own work.

So what next? Well, three things.

Firstly, David Lynch got a proper kick up the arse from those terrible reviews, and gave us Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, two of his best (and riskiest) works. If Tarantino can get a proper kick up the arse also, maybe he'll stop making tripe.

Secondly, film critics and viewers need to stop treating talent as untouchable just because they made great films in the past. If we treat filmmakers with critical distance no matter what the weight of their previous work, then we will end up with a much fairer balance of interest in films. This isn't just an anti-filmmaker method: this will actually encourage filmmakers to make their best works.

Lastly, we can stop telling people there's a magic list of films and filmmakers that should be adhered to at all costs. The funny thing is, if you look at the work of those filmmakers, they are all revolutionaries in their own ways. Kubrick's films are radical and change constantly, almost directly attack the viewer; Spielberg is a quintessential populist, invented the blockbuster. These are filmmakers who would not agree with this bizarre idea of a canon. Sure, tell people what's good; don't tell them what they have to see, or devalue their opinion because of what they don't know yet.

Okay. /rant. Pray for QT. Enjoy niche films. Watch Night of the Hunter if you get the chance.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

The Shawshank Redemption: Reviewing 'Classics' You Don't Really Get

Hi there blog readers.

Because I'm a film-maker at heart and because I find talking easier than writing, a lot of my posts will have some video element, many of which will be my film reviews. To give some background: about a year ago, I decided to try to watch and review 100 films in the year. I failed, rather abysmally, but did watch more- and a wider variety- than I had before. It was a great little experiment, and one I hope to finish now that University is over and done with.

Every ten reviews, I'd post a longer one- some special analysis. These tended to get more views, just about, and were often a little more fun to make: time to get right into the core of what I was watching. I also tried to respond to significant movies, and so my first choice was The Shawshank Redemption; it's that movie that people always say is their favourite film, and I'd never seen it, so I wanted to watch and understand why it's seen as so significant. Here's my thoughts (more after the video):

I guess I feel like it was great, and truly inspiring, but not particularly important as a film. I'll break down that claim a little further:

  • It's a great film. You can't deny the film-making skills of Frank Darabont: the man knows his story through and through, punctuates it with excellent, concise character beats, and tiny but beautiful flourishes of detail. Every frame is precisely composed, every shot justified.
  • It's truly inspiring as a story. Shawshank is, in the most focussed way possible, entirely about the inherent freedom of the human spirit in the face of adversity. This is something that should speak to everyone! It's definitely something I'd like to make movies about.
  • It's not an important film. All said and done, and taking into account what I've said about the film, it should be clear I mean no disrespect to this movie. But it breaks no new ground whatsoever. It didn't contribute new technology to cinematic production, it didn't contribute new phrasing to cinematic language, and it didn't push the envelope as far as structure or editing is concerned.
Of course, you say this about Shawshank and everyone loses their minds. "But it's so inspiring!" Yes, absolutely. "But it's so well made!" I appreciate that entirely. But that doesn't make it important as a film. Let's go for another, perhaps less controversial example.

Have you seen The Railway Children? It's a 70s adaptation of the novel, starring Jenny Agutter. I love this movie to bits. I think it's very well made and the story is wonderful. Certainly, it's very special to me; but this isn't enough to make it important or significant as a film. The Railway Children, despite its soft focus and lovely dolly-work and heartfelt performances, didn't contribute much to cinema. For that reason, despite my own feelings on it, you've got to admit: it shouldn't be held aloft in the history of cinema.

Great films- like The Shawshank Redemption, or The Railway Children, don't need us to hold them up in some ideal canon. As great stories and works, they flourish on their own. But those that push the envelope can be pushed aside by the mainstream appeal of these works: so it is these other films- the truly significant, which contribute to cinema as an art form in itself- are those which need attention.

I'm very happy to end my first blog post sounding like a massive twat.

Talk to you later,