Reviews

Broken Mirrors / Broken Minds:The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento by Maitland McDonagh

Dario Argento assaults our senses and sensibilities with monsters from his own subconscious (and ours).


Broken Mirrors / Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento. Expanded Edition

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Length: 296 pages
Price: $22.95
Author: Maitland McDonagh
Amazon

Italian horror is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. Giallo, is a term for the genre that primarily means “crime fiction” but includes elements of horror and eroticism. It features shockingly extended murder sequences accompanied by soundscapes that rip and tear at the audience’s nerves. Suspenseful to the point of inducing real-world anxiety, Giallo makes many American “thrillers” seem watered-down by comparison.

Maitland McDonagh’s new and expanded edition of Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds explores the work of Dario Argento, the director many regard as the master of the Giallo form. Argento stands out among Giallo directors as one of the few to achieve limited success outside of Italy (Mario Bava would be another example). An auteur that specialized in blood and guts, Argento’s work fused the art film and exploitation cinema into a mix that McDonagh perfectly captures with the phrase “exuberant bad taste”.

Most American horror film fans will be familiar with the 1977 Suspiria, even if they know nothing else about Argento’s work. This garish, blood-drenched fever-dream features a weird aural atmosphere where pallid, fearful human voices compete with an operatic musical scoring that slashes and slithers like a prog rock band descended into madness. McDonagh gives a detailed synthesis of Suspiria and all of Argento’s feature films, providing a very close reading combined with some discussion of the history of criticism for each film.

Dream imagery, especially lurid dream imagery, appears in all Argento films and this becomes the basis for McDonaugh’s exposition of them. Argento has said that his movies are essentially twisted fairy tales from the subconscious that he has forced to the surface of his own mind and onto script and screen. McDonagh argues that Argento's willingness to probe into his own nightmares (and ours) is responsible for the sheer excess of his films, the added value quotient of meaning. Some film scholars argue that the willingness to allow narrative to lapse in favor of a frenzied excess of blood, sex and death gives the horror film its power. If this is the case, Argento is indisputably one of the forms masters.

A wealth of new material appears in this expanded edition. Based originally on McDonagh’s’s MFA thesis, Broken Mirrors / Broken Minds first appeared in 1991. Since that time, Argento has made seven feature films and been involved in numerous smaller projects. While most of these have been of indifferent quality, his work has become much better known to American audiences during the last 18 years.

This is both because of his direction of two episodes of Showtime’s popular Masters of Horror series and the wide availability of his films on DVD. Outside of Suspiria, sidewalk bootleg copies of his films had been the only way for American audiences to see most of his work until the last decade. McDonagh’s book provides a full update at a time when any horror fan can easily check out Argento’s masterful triumphs and, sometimes cataclysmic failures.

One of the gems of this book is the author’s description of the beginning of her love affair with Argento’s work. She first saw Deep Red in what she describes as the “international smorgasbord of sleaze” that was Times Square in the mid-'70s. She gives us an elegiatic evocation of the grind house shows and back alley theatres of the period, a landscape out of a Tom Wait’s tune where hookers slept on the back row and pushers “sold their wares from makeshift string and cardboard trays like cigarette girls in old movies.”

The lost world McDonagh evokes has a powerful authenticity that makes us want to follow her through almost 300 pages of film criticism. Her own experience tells us why we should care about these gore-drenched, and often purposefully exploitative films.

Broken Mirrors / Broken Minds acknowledges the importance of visuals in Argento’s work by including a wealth of photographs. Most of these are, of course, still shots from the films under discussion. However, McDonagh also pays tribute to the grind house by including some of the bizarre posters that appeared advertising Argento’s films in America, bizarro slicks that promised sex and gore and transformed bad taste into an art form.

Maitland, who maintains an excellent website of film criticism at MissFlickChick.com, has written a learned yet accessible entrepôt to Argento’s baroque world, a guide to the brilliant director's mind and his savage bedtime stories. This book, combined with other recent studies of Argento and the increasing availability of these once hard to find films, suggests that we are possibly in the midst of a minor, blood-spattered renaissance of “the Italian Hitchcock’s” oeuvre.

9

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image