Contemporary Film Directors: Dario Argento
(University of Illinois Press)
The number of friends I have who are familiar with Dario Argento is diminishing. Where once I ran in circles that held his work in high regard, now partaking in Argento’s films has become more of a single-viewer activity. Which is a shame for me, and a lot of others; Argento’s mixture of hyper-visual imagery, fetishistic violence, and unbridled suspense cannot be easily replicated—nor can it be easily explicated. And the kind of fearless genre filmmaking that Argento is capable of is sorely absent from contemporary cinema.
Applause then goes to L. Andrew Cooper’s entry in the Contemporary Film Directors series, Dario Argento, for crafting deep and layered discussion about Argento’s films, his thematic elements, and his critical subtext. Its longer on summary than necessary, but Cooper’s text is deep and probing, throwing light onto the darkness and the bloodletting of Argento’s world; and perhaps rescuing him from the abyss of contemporary cinema.
Cooper sets up his text by breaking out Argento’s films and categorizing them by negative categories; the sections are denoted as “Against Criticism”, “Against Interpretation”, “Against Narrative” and “Against Conventions”, but the text runs seamlessly from section-to-section with no pause for breathing room. In a small, albeit similar manner, Cooper emulates an Argento film, moving hurriedly from one scene to the next, leaving little time for scenery chewing. However, much like Argento’s films, Cooper’s text must be absorbed through the blood, digested slowly and thoughtfully. You can rip through it in one sitting, but there’s more to explore than exists on the surface—like Argento’s extravagant settings.
Doing his best to touch on nearly every one of Argento’s films no matter how small, Cooper compacts an often messy and scattered filmography into tight realms of observation and criticism. The “Against Narrative” section is of greatest impact because it addresses Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, Suspiria, Inferno, and Mother of Tears, along with Phenomena, arguably the director’s finest work. Eschewing traditional narrative for the pleasures of the visual, the “Three Mothers” trilogy is a study in the possibility of horror and how Argento exploits the medium for his own version of beauty. Or as Cooper describes it using Thomas De Quincy as a model, “From an aesthetic standpoint, a horrific spectacle is not supposed to be beautiful in the same way that a calm pastoral vista can be beautiful. Horror’s nature is to be imperfect, to be horrific, so the more horrific the horror, the more perfect it might be.”
Narrative, though overlooked, is one of Argento’s strong suits. Although he seems to have a predilection for allowing imagery to supplant traditional scripting needs, Cooper’s “Against Narrative” section is especially worthwhile in exposing Argento’s methods of non-traditional narrative, mainly by detailing the mess that is Inferno. Previous to his supernatural horror films, though, Argento focused specifically on narrative, in his first four gialli. Gialli, or yellows, named after the bright yellow covers of detective murder mysteries, provide the template for Argento’s first films. Cooper draws out how Argento works within the confines of the giallo while also nodding towards the supernatural horror that he would soon undertake: the voyeurism in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the fetishism in Cat O’ Nine Tails, the psuedoscience in Four Flies on Grey Velvet, etc.
Of course, without full familiarity of Argento’s films, the reader might be lost. In one sense, Cooper’s text, much like Argento, creates a conflict of audience. Argento works in genre; a niche within a niche. Having mainstream audiences be oblivious to his stylized, hybrid supernatural/horror/detective films isn’t surprising. But a devoted fan of Argento would surely devour Cooper’s text—and simultaneously not require the amount of plot summary Cooper dedicates to Argento’s films. Conversely, an amateur Argento fan gains too much plot exposure, effectively ruining the twists of Argento’s films. It’s easy to make an argument for Argento’s works being more about the experience, the visual thrill of a stylized onscreen murder, and less about the whodunnit factor, but having the curtain pulled before stage time is disappointing to say the least, frustrating at worst.
The nature of the Contemporary Directors series doesn’t lie in Cooper’s hands, however. And Cooper’s subject has long deserved an updated in-depth critical analysis rather than passive dismissiveness as some critics are want to cast.(As Cooper reminds us, some critics have been less than appreciate of Argento’s films.) Cooper traces his subjects’ roots by invoking the macabre thoughts of Poe and De Quincy and the psychoanalysis of Freud. Cooper tilts his analysis of Argento’s early giallo films toward Freudian psychoanalysis and the supernatural horror films are linked more to De Quincy and Poe, with the latter analyses connecting to Argento’s direct appreciation for gothic horror. All the while, Cooper dissects Argento with a surgeon’s precision, making him imminently accessible, readable, and, ultimately, more viewable, offering a deep study and appreciation of Argento’s craft.
There’s no shortage of study on Argento, but Cooper’s research casts him as both a fan and scholar, a kindred soul to Argento and a worthy author to wrestle with the offputting nature of such grim material.