[1 April 2014]
What can it mean for Dario Argento, auteur extraordinaire, to forsake his unique melding of fearless style and fearless silliness and instead submit to Bram Stoker?
Even considering mankind’s propensity to shrink itself before delusions of the divine, we cannot fathom how superstition once terrorized the popular imagination. Man’s modesty before the immensity of the universe nevertheless represented a perverse form of “progress” for poor, pre-psychological Homo erectus, who once approached death with only natural fears, not socialized anxieties. When vacantly musing over decomposing, maggot-eaten mammoths and carcasses of giant sloths, he probably realized in some preconscious way that he, too, would feed the earth.
But he never dreamed of conquering death. Though he was surely selfish and enjoyed eating, screwing and shitting, he was no reflective narcissist—his joys were fleeting, earthly, and unembellished. Incapable of dualistic thinking or paradox, he hadn’t yet distinguished mind from body, nurtured a bruised or stunned ego, needed the escape of drunkenness, believed a soul would escape its fleshly casing, or struggled like Schopenhauer with the disenchanting frailty of human will.
Then came history’s watershed moment—for Freud, the rebellion of clannish sons against the primal father or, by whatever theory, the terrible invention of politics. You remember the well-worn fable from Totem and Taboo. In a stone-age bureaucracy of chrysalid egos and campfire power struggles, notions of authority and rebellion, of territoriality and erotic conquest, poisoned the human consciousness. The rational fear of death gave way to irrational social anxieties, to inferiority complexes, enslavements, and feelings of worthlessness—feelings possibly worse than death. Darwinian survival dissolved into mediated politics, while guileless nature was supplanted by paternalistic, infantilizing religion.
As self-appointed shamans now sifted earthly profanity from totemic mystery, the egoistic, Oedipal need for autonomy tried to conquer death, the most evil father of all. The battle, always lost, only claims art as mankind’s collective crack at timelessness. But for Freud, art’s supposed immortality is just another denial of death, another retreat into pseudo-religion. Such is the pessimism of Freud, himself one of the 20th century’s greatest artists—even the most damned Oedipal fight cannot negate the regressive allure of the womb. Against this circuitous, infantile trap stands only atheism which, bravely trying to refuse dreams of immortality, provides no rapturous aesthetic to assuage our dogged anxieties.
In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker identified the constant pressure for heroism as man’s undoing, the wellspring of his anxiety. Our desire for immortality—to heroically overcome death, the greatest paterfamilias—maddens precisely because we understand the special, inconceivable burden of having been brought into the universe. Such a precious and improbable gift demands that we, supposedly emancipated from the father-cult, live every moment gloriously, exaltedly, audaciously. Furthermore, that we have been cosmically “chosen” for life should be enough—to be chosen again for an afterlife seems gratuitous, or at least presumptuous.
But this single chosen-ness only makes the mandate to live more burdensome and morally crippling, impossible to achieve or adequately sublimate through eros, art, or other neuroses. Becker (channeling Erich Fromm) wonders why people, always buckling under the burden to transcend their mortality, do “not become insane in the face of the existential contradiction between a symbolic self, that seems to give man infinite worth in a timeless scheme of things, and a body that is worth about 98¢.” (The Denial of Death, New York: The Free Press, 1973, 24). In truth, I suspect we all do go mad—we just let ourselves off the hook by believing, like Freud, that our neuroses are as inescapable as death.
Still, we would not change places with medieval peasants, who found comfort in the Church not because they truly believed in Heaven, but because the Church absolved them of the existential pressures of heroism. Before religion’s collapse, everyone was buoyed by the same unsinkable, unheroic boat. No one worried about heroism because everyone could partake of the common, unlimited heroism of Jesus, whose emaciated carcass, when cloned in every chapel, proffered enough resurrected flesh to fatten up the faithful. Like death, or because he was himself a symbol of death, Jesus became a great leveler, and even the afterlife was a paradise where the spoils of heroism would have been earned not through willful exertion but through worldly self-denial.
Of course, one century’s utilitarian faith is the next era’s tragicomedy, and history advances far too slowly for us to take it seriously. The desire for immortality, represented equally by resurrected saints and cartoon coyotes impervious to dynamite, always had absurd underpinnings. If absurdity and romantic longing are two sides of the same existential coin, the distinction becomes blurred in the immortality of the vampire, a tortured Peter Pan who promises eternal youth only as a decadent, fearful disease. The onetime fear of immortality suggests a concomitant fear of an individualism achievable only through witchcraft. As A. N. Wilson observes, it “was only in 1824 that the Laws of England felt safe enough to allow suicides to be buried without the customary safeguard of driving a wooden stake through the victim’s heart.” (Dracula, ed. A. N. Wilson, Oxford: Oxford University Press) Such measures inoculated the suicidal dead against vampirism in era that saw suicide as mortal sin, not Camusian exertion.
I can’t say what whim of Parliament was responsible for liberalizing industrial-age burial customs any more than I can ascertain why the Vatican believed the ‘90s were the right decade to absolve Galileo. Suffice it to say that history is something of a timely anachronism. By their conservative nature, institutions still crawl when their human creators have learned to walk—this is the essential tragedy of human history.
Except in fundamentalists’ bruised psyches, the age of superstition is rightly dead and buried—except, of course, in cinema, whose vampiric myths mirror a medium increasingly more life-draining than invigorating. Nonetheless, the pseudo-Christian legend of the vampire remains among the dominant representations of immortality in popular culture. Other humanoid monsters who defy death—zombies or Frankenstein’s Cartesian ragdoll—tend to do so temporarily, always falling to pieces at fearful or didactic junctures.
Like the crudely Jungian werewolf, the vampire expresses humanity’s dualism not through a Cartesian mind-body split but through a literally polymorphous body that assumes either exalted or libidinal forms, either romantic idol or parasitic eremite. In this, the vampire and werewolf are really inversions of one another—the vampire’s exalted state is his aristocratic-human shell, the werewolf’s his fecund, animal soul. The retrogressive werewolf, an affront to Darwin, never bothers to claim immortality: the human who exposes his animalism is as doomed as the savage gunslinger exiled from the civilized frontier. The vampire, concealing his rodential pestilence beneath a romantic façade, remains more humanlike—as if to expose his weepy sentimentality, the vampire’s staked, “broken heart” is his Achilles’ heel.
The vampire’s morbid romanticism discloses dubious literary origins, far removed from pre-Christian heroes who braved death without thinking their hubris was tainted by sin. The long-winded, overheated prose of Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) and Stoker’s quaint, Christian notions of female purity and redemption have long saddled the mythology with Manichean sentimentality and Victorian heavy breathing. The conservatism of early vampire films, of course, framed the monster’s predatory immortality as an affront to the passive, meekly inherited immortality of Christian dogma. One feels guilty for accusing the great Murnau of any aesthetic misdeed, but Nosferatu’s heavenly-sunlight-dispelling-the-monster finalé dispels far too easily the audience’s reasonable desire to live monstrously forever, to become the primal father—that is, a lecherous clan chieftain who dominates the female spoils.
The heavenly solution must have disappointed even in 1922—it’s as anticlimactic as the conclusion of Wegener’s The Golem (1920), in which a delicate twist of the monster’s Star of David abruptly halts its rampage, and as timid an ending as the final reconciliation between slaves and masters in Lang’s Metropolis. The ending of Metropolis demanded real rebellion (this was Siegfried Kracauer’s old complaint), much as the Dracula myth cannot be presented honestly unless the vampire, like Lucifer, can conquer the crucifix and give God a run for his money.
The vampire’s “revolutionary” immortality not only renders him a romantic but places him in the company of pre-Christian heroes who hubristically wandered among the earth, the heavens, and the underworld. As Becker observes, the antediluvian “hero was the man who could go into the spirit world, the world of the dead, and return alive.” (Ibid., 18) Exactly how heroes and demigods conquered death was a test of their cult’s cleverness.
In a later tale of Gilgamesh, not included in the original 11 tablets, the hero literally splits open the ceiling of an icy hell to rescue Enkidu, his friend condemned by the Gods. This sort of heroism, however, is too confounding for common people to identify with or emulate, inspiring only fear, not desire. Christianity’s rather brilliant solution, entirely against all Mesopotamian and Greek history, was to remake heroism as a humility that was not only comprehensible but practicable. Belief in Christ allowed people to see the tiniest acts of mercy as immense, symbolic heroisms, while the truly heroic sacrifice is deferred to a dualistic hero who, because he is at once mortal son and immortal father, can internally reconcile his own Oedipal conflict. Of course, this internal “reconciliation” is a sham: Jesus, unable to usurp the father, is instead absorbed into him, becoming a sacrificial example to a mankind desperately looking for ways not to be heroic.
The polyamorous body of the vampire, always recoiling before the image of supplicatory Christ, attempts to redress Christianity’s cop-out dualism. The vampire’s own dualism is not a conflict between transcendent mind and profane body; rather, his psyche is undivided in its erotic thrust, and the split is displaced to his physicality, alternately represented as dominating father (a Count) and the fanged, lusty animal repressed by Abrahamic religion. Unlike the werewolf, a slave to lunar phases and other signs of nature, the vampire is a master of self-control, though the source of his control is deliberately mystified. The mystification thus obscures the vampire’s wolfish, parasitic, yet nevertheless “active” heroism, much as the mystified duality of Christ obscures his victimized, holy, and “passive” heroism.
The demonization of vampire’s Luciferian heroics was, of course, only compounded by the Hays Code, which demanded that vampires’ victims remain sexually repressed or perish for their unguarded penetrations. Nevertheless, nearly every filmmaker from Tod Browning onwards has attempted to swell and penetrate the vampire’s erotic aura, even if audiences would have to wait until George Romero and John Carpenter—or at least Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955)—for horror to fulfill its promise of ungodly, amoral apocalypse.
In any case, the vampire myth has provided enough metaphorical baggage for filmmakers to rescue it from Victorianism and glorify its wanton, contagious otherness. Unlike the monstrous (if initially alluring) stranger of Polidori, today’s vampires are not abject others but desired, tempting ones; we desire from them not diseased immortality per se, but the heroism that comes with death-defying. Notably, the monster’s victims, willing or unwilling, are as passive in their vampiric rebirths as they were in their natural births. Thus, “turned” victims are heroic only to a point, for they still serve a paternalistic, godlike master whom they cannot disobey. It is no accident, then, that the monster’s “active” bloodsucking becomes a perverse parody of Catholicism’s sanguivorous Communion, for the vampire’s bloody alliance promises freedom but delivers only a new kind of religious enslavement.
After the relaxation of censorship in the late ‘60s, the vampire’s perversions took on the form of blatant male fantasies, particularly the nubile lesbian eros of Jean Rollin, Hammer Films, and José Ramón Larraz (Vampyres, 1974), all privileging Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, not Stoker. The new cultural liberalism also exposed the subgenre’s socialist or revolutionary themes. The father, always a caped aristocrat, was now a landowner bleeding the peasants. This commonplace theme was lampooned in Andy Warhol’s Dracula (1974), in which Joe Dallesandro’s Marxist, Brooklynite farmhand plots insurrection against and (with an axe) finally deconstructs Udo Kier’s decadent count, one spurting limb at a time.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, when leftist allegorizing was no longer fashionable, the vampire’s bloody contaminations became convenient metaphors in an era colored by AIDS-fueled paranoia and fatalism, as in Habit and The Addiction (both from 1995, when AIDS awareness reached its height). Elsewhere, erotic contaminations served as veiled “racializing” metaphors, particularly in the Blade: Trinity (1998-2004), which featured an African-American actor (Wesley Snipes) playing a miscegenated (i.e., half-breed) vampire battling purebloods intent on dominating racial inferiors.
Always superseding these incidental themes is the adolescent yearning for transcendence, a desire too often fostered by genius. As a high schooler, I wondered why the Elizabethans were so obsessed with “immortality in verse”—to a 16-year old, it seemed ironic that literary giants were thinking like 16-year olds, believing a few centuries of literary persistence could constitute eternity. The immateriality of music, perhaps, transcends better than dried ink or the temporally fixed image incapable of rubato. Wagner’s Liebestod or Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration signal the unnatural union of Eros and Thanatos better than any vampiric penetration not so much because they pretend to spiritual epiphanies but because music—even programmatic music—is an abstraction immune to cellular or celluloid decay. Yet the Liebestod’s fiery ecstasy is matched by its absurd belief in the human will to transcend nature. The Buddhist’s sand mandala, meant to be washed away by shifting tides, portends a far more rational aesthetic.
The denial of death lends itself to easy comedy (recall Warner Brothers’ coyote, resurrected at will), and after Hammer’s heyday, the genre fell into parodic disrepair. Consider Christopher Lee stalking mod Londoners in Dracula A.D. 1972, George Hamilton’s disco-era count in Love at First Bite (1979), or a frail Peter Cushing in the French spoof Tender Dracula (1975). The vampire comedy reached its nadir in the borderline racist British parody Vampira (aka Old Dracula, 1975), featuring David Niven as an effete Count fretting over a tainted infusion of blood that has turned his mate African-American, thrilling to Jim Brown in Black Gunn. Under the spell of adolescent culture, delusions once romantic, then comic, have descended into the pricey puerility of Twilight, into the chaste, franchised fantasies of pubescent girls. Perhaps only George Romero’s satirical, anti-romantic Martin (1978)—whose teenage vampire is merely a neurotic, bloodthirsty mortal, only fantasizing about torch-wielding villagers—succeeds at ironizing the vampire’s adolescent allure.
Yet Stoker’s pulpy ghost lingers, insurmountable and paternalistic, haunting filmmakers into future centuries. Wilson un-ironically suggests that Stoker’s pulpiness was his saving grace, for only a second-rate writer could succeed at producing a colorfully second-rate classic. A Dracula written by Tolstoy would be unimaginable, or at least unimaginably tedious. (Still, a Dickens Dracula would have been tantalizing—and far preferable to A Christmas Carol.) Stoker was no true believer, however, and his sensationalism was basically exploitative, not romantic. In 1910, Stoker published Famous Imposters, a monograph debunking sorcery, mesmerism, and even witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins (famously portrayed by Vincent Price in The Witchfinder General). Were he alive, Stoker would doubtless find amusing the ingenuousness of the genre he birthed.
With vampirism submerged in such a freighted, convoluted history, what can it mean for Dario Argento, auteur extraordinaire, to forsake his unique melding of fearless style and fearless silliness and instead submit to Stoker, yet another domineering father? The auteur isn’t necessarily a father-killer, but he (and it’s still usually a “he”) ideally should resolve, not replicate, the Oedipal conflict. Though Argento never really cast off Hitchcock’s anxious influence, he here substitutes Stoker as a paternal model.
Unfortunately, now liberated from Hitchcock and the giallo’s requisite voyeurism, Argento has nothing left to do, nowhere to gaze. Inexplicably faithful to Stoker, Argento does nothing narratively innovative; the story, now deadeningly familiar, demands revisionism and irreverence. Critics and audiences who prize passivity and allegiance tend to use “faithfulness to the source” as a criterion of value when judging literary adaptations. Unfortunately, faithfulness is little more than a euphemism for slavish illustration of the familiar. A better criterion is “transformation”—the degree to which the artist, though inspired by a work, can both transcend its influence and create an independently living text. Art is not found in a pair of handcuffs.
If Argento’s Giallo (2009) floated uncomfortably among deconstruction, pastiche, and homage, his Dracula 3-D (2012) is an unmitigated disaster, the most uninspired—indeed, most pointless—film of his career. When Coppola’s Dracula was released in 1992, Argento was openly critical of its lushness and commercialism, but his rendition makes Coppola’s film (inept Keanu Reeves and all) seem trailblazing. Bereft of cultural insight and buoyed only by his lingering auteurist aura, Argento shows none of the surreal inspiration that enriched innovative essays in the subgenre, such as Jaromil Jireš’ dreamlike Valerie and her Week of Wonders (1970) or Juan López Moctezuma’s Alucarda (1977), the latter heavily influenced by Panic surrealism. To say Argento’s humdrum comic-strip is as enervated and moribund as a blood-drained cadaver is the kind of glib, childish comment a bad journalist couldn’t resist—yet the film’s idiocy reduces one’s thoughts to such undignified levels. Only the sudden appearance of a giant, computerized grasshopper that proceeds to disembowel the mayor provides the film with a moment of welcome, impromptu surreality.
That Argento’s descent into traditionalism is abetted by longtime collaborators offers little solace. When not acquiescing to CGI, Sergio Stivaletti provides a few gruesome makeup effects, and Claudio Simonetti’s score employs a haunted solo violin and decidedly retro, Theremin-like effects before succumbing to more mainstream tremolos and thumping. In its expert use of color, Dracula’s first scene admirably recalls Argento’s glory days, its “stained”, oversaturated hues echoing those of Suspiria and Inferno. As stalked lovers rendezvous in a mysterious woodland, bright green foliage stands out against deep grey forests. The brown, wooden underbelly of a winding Tudor staircase glows strangely amber from foul sunrays, and later, Thomas Kretschmann’s morose, uncharismatic Dracula, propped on his castle’s parapet, stands amidst radiant red bricks that contrast dramatically with a cooling sapphire sky. Unfortunately, the film’s interest begins and ends with its fairytale palette, for the story itself is an all too known quantity.
Only the misguided might have assumed that Argento, never an able plotter, would benefit from a literary source. Argento’s strengths reside in deliria that narrative coherence would only temper. Suspiria is a singular masterpiece of style and a travesty of dramaturgy—and that is his best work, so he should logically delve purely into style and abolish the straitjacket of narrative altogether. Though Argento’s Mother of Tears (2007) received a critical drubbing, its fanciful, diabolic nonsense was at least the director’s own. Moreover, Argento offers no understanding, let alone elucidation, of Stoker’s themes. Rutger Hauer’s haggard, moribund Van Helsing fails to evince the character’s necessary balancing act of lingering faith and ascendant science, a reconciliation meant to overcome the vampire’s clashing desires for erotic enfleshment and transcendent immortality. Van Helsing’s balancing act was always something of a cop-out, but here it is just ignored, not critiqued, as Hauer sleepwalks through his vampire-slaying duties.
Unexpectedly conservative, Argento’s Dracula refuses any sort of deviance, narrative or erotic. If we believe gender theorist Judith Halberstam, the vampire’s overriding attraction is his polymorphous sexuality, encased in a literally polymorphous body; Argento’s vampire, however, is a routinely cruel bloodletter, subverting nothing. Nevertheless, even if Argento did make the kind of “subversive” overtures expected of cult horror, I’d probably not enrobe Argento in psychoanalytic or genderized jargon anyway. Though his thrillers invite intricate technical analysis, Argento has, unsurprisingly, invited little “serious” criticism apart from Maitland McDonagh’s Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento and one or two cursory monographs that do some perfunctory, undergraduate sex-and-gender theory.
To speak of “themes” in Argento usually means trotting out the usual gazes and sadisms, or citing Lacan, Jung, and other antiscientific theorists few people actually believe in. Critiquing Argento is like singing about sculpture—to hold forth on mothering complexes or the eternal feminine or prismatic specularities (or whatever) in Argento’s canon strips the films of their delirious mystique (and without mystique, Argento doesn’t have much left). An academic critique of Suspiria might be a necessary ordeal for students, perhaps—but Argento is now 73, and our study time is over.
If the problem is partly criticism, it might be too easy to blame Argento for Dracula’s obvious shortcomings. Had this Dracula been made by an unknown, we might deem it unexpectedly good. Our problem is the name attached. At one time, auteurism was a practical necessity for a medium with an inferiority complex. Even if some new wavers hated Jean Renoir, he still needed to be elevated to the plane of his father, the impressionist Auguste—a more equitable solution to the Oedipal conflict. In their theorization of auteurism, the Cahiers critics were good neurotics but bad psychologists, prizing visible symptoms of the artist’s personality not merely as signs of precious creativity but as evidence of social mastery and superhumanity.
For the faithful, the auteur’s canon is destined for immortality; for the skeptical semiotician, the auteur is exalted by cultists because his megalomaniacal neuroses, when realized on film, are more aesthetically interesting than compulsive hand-washing or smothering one’s children. Able to sublimate more beautifully than mortals, the auteur sees his exhibitionism not as a character trait but as his raison d’etre.
I haven’t perused classical auteur theory in a while (who wants to?), so I’ve forgotten how age becomes a qualifying, magnifying, or mitigating factor in the analysis. When auteurs slip and fall, we are disappointed because we believed their beautiful neuroses were immutable and untreatable, impervious to time or medicine. (Imagine if Kubrick had taken Zoloft or Effexor mid-career—a disaster!) Because the auteur has an essentialized “core personality”, his artistic development proceeds along predictable or predestined paths. We aren’t supposedly to know exactly where the auteur will go next, but we know where he shouldn’t go and are quick to express feelings of betrayal. Shackled by audience expectation, the auteur isn’t free to develop a precious defiance—and neither are we.
Films that don’t fit anticipated auteurist patterns are often ignored or suppressed. Even today, Satyajit Ray’s children’s films and adventure films are commercially unavailable in the US, as is Jodorowsky’s (admittedly misguided) children’s film Tusk (1980), which hasn’t the sex or violence to please his fans. Narrow expectations persist even for “problematic” or perennially flawed auteurs like Argento: we’d be disappointed not only in a useless work such as Dracula, but also in an Argento work that was too perfect, that was not anticlimactic (like Suspiria and Inferno), that fulfilled all the director’s latent potentials, and that betrayed none of his customary absurdities. Indeed, the problem of expectation is intensified for contemporary horror directors who, because of the tenets of their preferred genre, must make “oppositional” or just inhuman films, and do so forever.
The agelessness of the auteur, like all essentialist dogmas, inevitably creates unrealistic expectations and disappointments. Woody Allen is a good example: though he tried to reinvent himself multiple times, first with Annie Hall (1977) and Interiors (1978), then with Husbands and Wives (1992), and again with Match Point (2005), at root his neuroses were never solved, and he never truly braved the existential dreads he pretends to entertain.Certainly, he never really addressed his neuroses because his auteurism encouraged them; had he been culturally free enough to become someone other than his auteur persona, he would not have aggrandized his angst with the anti-therapy of cinema.
With Allen, we’re left with a static auteurist canon that grows naïve as the audience matures. By the time we’re adults, the old auteurist solutions, arrested in their psychic development, no longer work. In Hannah and Her Sisters (1985), suicide is a Jewish joke, a crisis easily solved by a visit from the Marx Brothers; Shadows and Fog (1991) misunderstands horror as a pastiche of shadowy style and sweet affectation; Midnight in Paris (2011) boasts a clever premise, but its insights into Picasso, Buñuel, and the creative process are limited to the kind of sophomoric quips we’d expect of Allen at age 25. (Allen’s joke that Buñuel himself wouldn’t understand the premise of The Exterminating Angel is awfully shallow, even insincere.) Only Stardust Memories (1980), a semi-autobiography that openly mocks the problems of auteurism, and to a lesser degree Deconstructing Harry (1997) hint at the horror Allen is still afraid to fully express. But since no one liked Stardust Memories in 1980, Allen was forced along less bitter, less honest, and more “auteurist” paths.
Much as the vampire’s timeless bargain robs him of humanity, the auteur, destined for immortality, surrenders his ability to age, to err beyond a certain threshold, to become feebleminded, or to entertain fantasies that violate his assumed authorial disease. The vampiric auteur, a prisoner of arrested development, is doomed to drain the same creative wellsprings forever. And when auteurs do stray, they do so temporarily; Scorcese’s Kundun (1997), for example, was only a brief multiculturalist excursion before the director rightfully returned to his sacred cult of pugnacious machismo.
So what of Argento’s position in the auteurist mousetrap? I see two possible solutions. First, he could impose anti-auteurist limitations on himself as a means of organic therapy, to force himself in new expression directions. For example, he could forbid himself the use of color, blood, music, or any other constraining or reductive marker of his style. For that matter, he could forbid himself actors and make a puppet film like the Brothers Quay or Jan Svankmajer (whose films are far more horrifying than anything in Argento). Or, like Dreyer in Vampyr (1930), he could reduce sound to a minimum, investing himself fully in uncontaminated visual design. Certainly, many have argued that censorships, voluntary or otherwise, birth innovation.
The other option was unfortunately passed over, mainly in silence, four decades ago—but could still be revived. McDonagh’s Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds gives it short shrift, but Argento’s Five Days in Milan (1973), a sometimes violent picaresque satire about the socialist chaos of 1848, reveals a potent, unexplored path. Part Voltaire, part spaghetti western, Five Days in Milan is Argento’s only non-generic film, political rather than supernatural, difficult to categorize and richer than his genre work from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1969) through Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and from Two Evil Eyes (1990) onward.
Five Days in Milan also represents the only time Argento’s violence is informed by (intentional) comedy, mainly achieved through the objectivity of long shots. The giallo’s fetishistic close-ups of dilated pupils, leather gloves, and crimson hatchets are jettisoned in favor of madcap, revolutionary burlesque. The film stands or falls entirely on its own, without the crutch of genre-based auteurism. Admittedly, had Five Days in Milan been a commercial or critical success, we mightn’t have had Deep Red (1975) or Suspiria—but we also might’ve been spared Trauma (1993) and Giallo. More importantly, Argento could have escaped his giallo pigeonhole and explored more intellectual trajectories, perhaps becoming a crueler, bloodier Marco Ferreri or Bertrand Blier.
Orson Welles once remarked that an artist creates his best work in his 20s and 70s, in the flower of intrepid youth and at the acme of sagacious age. The theory is wrong on many accounts, and not simply because Welles made his best films—The Trial and Chimes at Midnight—when he was in his late 40s and 50s. Perhaps Welles was thinking about “most artists”, who begin headstrong, are overcome by self-doubt in middle age, and then recover their wits or sanity for a final redemption. But Welles’ obsession about “categories” of age misunderstands the possibilities of the artist nearly as much as auteurist agelessness. At the risk of sounding irrepressibly naïve, we must believe the artist is possible of unexpected transformation at any moment in life and is not crippled by prearrangements of identity, persona, ego, or projected desire. Even Argento, now in his 70s, still has a little time left to murder some fathers and become human again.
Andrew Grossman is a regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, the editor of the anthology Queer Asian Cinema: Shadows in the Shade (2001), and a contributor to The New Dictionary of the History of Ideas.