|Twas Thursday last, the third of March, when blackness insidiously blighted the sedate, friendly California valley known as Santa Clara. The god Apollo had been seen racing his mighty steeds (in terror, some whispered) across the blackening sky, causing a deathly winter chill to settle upon the land. Playing children were dragged indoors by fearful guardians who bolted locks and shuttered windows. The sweet songs of birds became stilled and were replaced by the unholy melody of scampering rat claws. Flowers that had blossomed and proudly stretched upward to receive the warm kiss of the sun quickly cowered and curled their petals to protectively hide. An eerie, lunar light shone over all, as fearful shadows loomed to cloak both real and imagined horrors. From the bowels of the earth, melancholy Pluto delicately plucked a spider's web, playing it like a lyre while cold, slimy things that once slept underground awakened to rise and crawl and feed. |
Now astronomers, parents, and grave robbers will tell you that such phenomena are merely natural occurrences after nightfall (it was, after all, nine o' clock in the evening, Pacific Standard Time). But, I knew better. I knew the real reason darkness had descended . . .
Dario Argento, Master of Horror, was in town.
ARGENTO HONORED AT CINEQUEST
As I earlier reported, Argento was honoured in San Jose, California at the tenth annual San Jose Film Festival aka Cinequest.
Seeing Signor Argento in the flesh was, I hope, not a "once in a lifetime" experience for me. 'Tis my fondest wish that either he will one day return to The Bay Area (as his enraptured fans encouraged him to do) or (even better!) I will visit him while on holiday in Italy. Because, contrary, to my foolish preconception of him, he was a thoroughly charismatic fellow with a delightfully playful and provocative sense of humour. Not that I seriously expected him to behave like a psycho in one of his movies; I was just unprepared for what a truly charming character he is.
But, let me begin at the beginning . . .
||"I'VE GOT LOTS OF FRIENDS IN SAN JOSE"|
On Thursday evening March 5 Il Maestro blew into "Silicon Valley" to be tributed after a screening of Suspiria. The audience was informed that Argento had journeyed eighteen hours from Italy, yet upon making his appearance, he appeared daisy-fresh and tack-sharp, displaying no tell-tale signs of "jet lag." A short (about 5'7" or 5'8" tall. Hey, anybody shorter than I is short!), average-built fellow, he was clearly older than the photo used by Cinequest (he is 56, to be precise). Joe Franklin's charitable opinion aside (see the Anchor Bay Entertainment edition of Phenomena), Dario Argento is an odd-looking duck, "blessed" with the type of arresting visage that Federico Fellini used to adore in his movies. Despite a mug that, in the right light, could definitely seem sinister, he possesses a gentle, ebullient, and friendly personality (away from the job, anyway) that is quite winning.
|Although his English, "she's-a not so good," he was effectively able to communicate without the aid of an interpreter, who would have been entirely unnecessary because Argento does not communicate with words alone; to wit, he is a very emotional and theatrical speaker. He gesticulated, bounced, pranced and danced about, reminding me very much of his fellow countryman Roberto Begnini (another "subdued introvert"). An "Italian" trait, perhaps? Occasionally, mike in hand, he would calm down and, head bowed and eyes downcast, seem to be addressing the floor instead of the audience. But when discussing an especially tender topic e.g., the editing of his movies he would spring about like a possessed marionette and his voice would rise to a fever pitch. During such episodes, to describe his demeanour as excited would be putting the case mildly. |
He accepted (blessedly, intelligent) questions from the audience and seemed to be actually surprised that attendees were knowledgably informed about both him and his films. Yes, Cocteau was an influence on him when he made Suspiria. Yes, he co-wrote Once Upon a Time in the West with Bernardo Bertolucci. Further elaborating, Argento made a point that completely escaped me, a devout Sergio Leone enthusiast: OUTW is the only Leone western to feature a female protagonist (portrayed by Claudia Cardinale). Leone, according to Argento, did not feel comfortable working with actresses. Cardinale's character had been specifically created by Argento and Bertolucci because they felt a female presence would enrich the story.
Another revelation to me was that the actresses in Suspiria were stand-ins for young schoolgirls. Because of the violence in the story ("I make . . . strong movies."), he was unable to use children. Thus, he chose actresses who conveyed vulnerability and were "childlike," specifically, women who were built like girls: small-breasted or flat-chested and waiflike (hence, Jessica Harper). To further achieve the deception, he had the sets designed so that the women would appear smaller (e.g., doors were constructed with high doorknobs so that the actresses would have to reach up to turn them).
"THE TERRIBILE, ORRIBILE MUPPET SHOW OF STANLEY KUBRICK"
Queried about his collaboration with George Romero, Argento responded that he liked Romero and had enjoyed working with him, an aberrant occurrence, in his opinion. He disclosed that directors tend not to get along and generally have nothing either good or kind to say about one another. Then backing up his claim, he forthrightly expressed his views on the state of cinema today, singling out for especial excoriation George Lucas and Stanley Kubrick. Re Kubrick, as a member of that distinct MHVF minority who considered Eyes Wide Shut an excruciatingly soporific dud, I was very gratified to hear Argento cry "Fowl!" and roast that overrated turkey.
"Stanley Kubrick," began Argento, ". . . was great director . . . But . . . this film?"
He looked at the audience with a comically exaggerated gesture that dramatically broadcast his incredulity, raising his voice to almost a shriek,
"This film?! . . . and Tom Cruise! I mean, TOM CRUISE? And Nicole Kidman? NICOLE KIDMAN? They . . . they . . . they are . . . they are muppets!"
A mere transcription of Argento's tirade does not do justice to just his amusing performance. The audience enthusiastically applauded and roared with laughter during his spot-on critique. Perhaps they did so out of respect and politeness. Perhaps they thought that he was just a funny, entertaining little man. I prefer to think that they, as did I, appreciated an individual who did not automatically genuflect at the name of Stanley Kubrick and was unafraid to "calls 'em as he sees 'em." Bravo, Dario, for so humorously exposing that emperor Kubrick, in his swan song, had no clothes!
IT AIN'T THE SWORD THAT COUNTS, IT'S HOW A MAN WIELDS IT
On a distinctly more serious note, when asked how he handled directing his daughter in nude love scenes, Argento admitted that he felt "embarrassed" and uncomfortable. He cited the rape scene in The Stendhal Syndrome ("my best movie"), reporting that his daughter Asia ("It is not pronounced Aay-zha, but Ah-see-ah!") would cry. But, he asserted, she is an actress and he is a director, implying that one must behave professionally, rise above one's own shame and discomfort in such circumstances, and get the job done.
I was most surprised by the number of women in attendance at Suspiria (and throughout the entire Argento tribute) and was very amazed that Argento was not challenged about the extreme violence committed against his female characters. I was absolutely flabbergasted when I heard his answer to a question about the relationship between sex and violence in his movies. Citing the second murder in Suspiria (which, he lamented, had been cut), he explained that the violence was indeed sexual. He described that the victim had been repeatedly stabbed (not just once as was shown in the festival print). The knife symbolized a phallus and the multiple stabbings were like . . . like . . . como se dice . . .
". . . like . . . f***?" he ventured, his tone raised in query.
The tickled crowd assured him that was the correct term.
"Si! The knife, it is like f***! F***! F***! F***! . . ."
|With each "f***," Argento made a violent, stabbing motion. Hoo boy, I thought. Is he gonna get it! The location of the theatre was near San Jose State University, and I waited for outraged, assertive, college girls and appalled, militant-feminist academics in attendance to savagely rip into him for such a misogynistic (not to mention hackneyed) analogy. But such was the charm of Signor Argento that the enchanted audience (either more liberal-minded or more thick-headed than I presumed them to be) simply laughed off his disturbing (to me, anyway) rationale.
The audience similarly cut him some slack when he lambasted the Star Wars series. Silicon Valley is infested with a sizable science-fiction fan community, most notoriously "Trekkies" (hawwwwwk-ptooey!) and their equally fanatical counterparts, those for whom The Force is with (hawwwwwk-ptooey!). Perhaps Argento did not realize that he was in "the lion's den" while he was knocking that "sacred" saga, but for such a little guy so far away from home, he sure was (wickedly) cocky. Che favoloso!
"You're in the Silicon Valley," spoke up one of the local technophiles, "which is defining motion picture special effects technology." Actually about 75 miles northward in upscale Marin County lies the "hallowed" temple of George Lucas: Industrial Light and Magic. Would Argento ever use "CGI" in his movies was the inevitable question. The director responded that it was a style of filmmaking that was very different from his own and one that held little interest for him (although, apparently, certain visual effects in some of his more recent movies would indicate that he is not as disdainful of computer generated imagery as he insisted that evening).
Argento then took the opportunity to lay into the entire film industry for making movies that are all the same, uncreative, and uninteresting. Citing The Blair Witch Project, he stated that everybody paid attention to it because the filmmakers proved you can make a box-office success without special effects. BWP was "not good," in his opinion (I love this man!), but at least it was different, an attribute for which he was appreciative and respectful. 'Twas during this particular rumination, that a distinct weariness even sadness became noticeable in Argento. He decried the formulaic nature of movies today and, most frustratingly, the diminishing opportunity to be as daring and creative as he was able to be when he made Bird With the Crystal Plumage. Referring to Suspiria, he complained that the print that we had watched was cut (Two-wenty-fiiiiivve cuts!) and was the "television" print. An Argento scholar behind me chimed in saying that the first murder was missing. The criminals who eviscerated his movies with their editing ("Cut! Cut! Cut!") should be arrested, bewailed Argento. They should . . . no not be executed, but put in prison or forced to do some kind of community service.
"Why?" he railed, why do they have to cut his movies, and make so manny cuts. Then answering his own question, he ruefully declared that it is because "they [the producers and distributors] think you are all fools . . . you are not smart enough . . ." to understand his movies. On an emotional roll, he revealed that, for him, the most enjoyable part of filmmaking is writing the story. He is less thrilled with directing, and his view on actors was certainly Hitchcockian. He disliked dealing with their insecurities ("Ohhhhh, I do not look good!") and frailties. The following evening, before the showing of Tenebre, Argento would skewer Anthony Franciosa, working with the thirsty star had not been a pleasurable experience.
"I don't care if you drink," he would exclaim, "Just don't drink on my movie!"
In response to a question about animals in his movies, he excitedly replied that he liked working with animals because they knew their parts.
"An ant is ant! A rat is rat! . . . It behaves like rat!"
Towards evening's end, Argento was given the Cinequest award, which he buffoonishly placed on his head like a hat. Then, in a quite peculiar moment (but not the most peculiar, as I was to later witness), he ebulliently and excitedly exclaimed (in that familiarly ebullient Begnini fashion),
"I am . . . bisexual! I love men! I love women! I love animals! I love you! . . . I love everybody!"
I could be way off base on this one, but I suspect that Signor Argento was not "coming out of the closet," but expressing, clumsily, his enthusiasm for his fans and his appreciation of their love for him.
LET ME ENTERTAIN YOU, LET ME MAKE YOU SMILE
The next evening I attended two screenings of Argento movies: Tenebre and Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Tenebre was shown late afternoon and, again, festival goers were blessed to be in the presence of maestro Argento. This time, however, "Crazy Dario" would shock the audience in a way that even hardcore Argento fans would never have imagined.
|Microphone in hand, Argento expressed his hope that the audience would enjoy his movie. Unsure about the print, he hoped that it was uncut and briefly repeated his tirade ("Why? Why must they cut my movies? Why?!"). He was touched by the interest in his movies that had been shown by Cinequest attendees who not only loved his films but knew so much about them . . . and him. Then in an amazingly bizarre moment that I doubt all in attendance will never forget, he handed the microphone to a nearby Cinequest rep, removed his jacket, shirt, undershirt, and dropped his trousers! |
I kid thee not.
Dario Argento, internationally renowned filmmaker, removed his clothing in front of a live audience and stood before them clad only in his underwear.
"You . . . you know everything about me! But you don't know this!" he cheerily exclaimed, his face beaming while he posed before us with his pants down around his ankles. Needless to say, the audience was in hysterics.
A spontaneous cacophony of frenzied shutter clicking echoed throughout the dimly lit theatre auditorium, which had become instantly illuminated by countless bursts of light flashing from the bulbs of a dozen or more cameras.
Dario Argento Live! In Person! And In His Underwear! Oh, yeah! Take it off, Daddy! Take it all off!
Stop the presses! Alert the media! Call out the National Guard! Famed Italian Film Director Does Striptease Before Festival Crowd!
Film at eleven.
Whew! To paraphrase the lyrics of a popular tune from Dumbo,
Ah be done seen ev-er-ree-thing
but Ah never thought Ah'd see Dario's fly (unzipped)!
The cruelly unkind who witnessed that jaw-dropping spectacle might cattily opine that the sight of a near-nude Dario Argento was more terrifying than any grisly murder in his entire oeuvre and heave a sigh of relief that Il Maestro spared them the sight of the "fruit" from his 'Looms. As for me, 'twas an incredible moment, indelibly burned within my brain, that I shall carry with me to the grave.
Flash! MAC Exclusive: Signor Argento is a boxers man.
| "I AM NOT ANGRY"
Well, after a several minutes of freezing his capezzoli, His Nipples . . . err, I mean His Nibs decided to quit the Chippendales dancer act and rejoin us the fully clothed. After the audience calmed down (and he had picked up all the dollar bills I make-a da joke!), Argento bid everyone arrivederci.
"He'll be back after the movie," assured the Cinequest rep.
"No!" rebutted Argento. He would not be back because he was scheduled to appear at the 10:00 p.m. showing of Bird with the Crystal Plumage. He had spent a busy day in San Francisco, that beautiful, foggy City by the Bay that is famously adored by Europeans.
"I love The Bay Area!" he exclaimed, then reported that he had been to Chinatown and The Castro (the notorious flamboyantly gay district in San Francisco) The poor chap had been on the run all day (San Francisco is about an hour's escape from San Jose, depending on the nightmarish traffic); he was hungry and wanted to eat dinner. The audience understood, bid him "Buono appetito!" and settled down to enjoy Tenebre.
. . . which was a poor anticlimax after Argento's impromptu burlesque performance. Instead of a theatrical print, the Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD was shown on the huge screen. A presentation that was . . . como se dice? . . . how you say? . . . tacky. I am not at all up on aspect ratios but the DVD image did not fill the screen, which meant that the audience "enjoyed" the film with the familiar black bars framing the picture (Yee-ha! This is jes like watchin' it in mah livin' room!). Conversely, after the movie ended and the tardy projectionist allowed the disk to continue to play, the DVD menu appeared "full screen." Besides the annoying letterboxed effect, the picture quality was not very satisfying. The experience confirmed for me that no matter how "big screen" and "high res" the TV and no matter how digitally tweaked the transfer, viewing movies (in whatever format) at home simply cannot compete with the superior experience of watching 35mm celluloid prints on a motion picture screen.
Later that evening I returned to the festival for Bird with the Crystal Plumage and another rib-tickling session with Signor Argento. This time, though, Argento was noticeably tired. He assured the audience that he would be keeping his pants on (Oh, that man! He's such a tease!), then spent about five minutes, eyes cast downward, addressing the floor.
"This movie . . . when it first come out, everybody hate it," he soberly reported.
As he continued with his introduction, I again sensed a weariness in Argento and not just because he had been on the go all day.
"For me, writing the movie is the best time," he iterated; directing his movies was not very satisfying.
Argento reported that Bird had not been as savaged by editors as were his later movies. After listening to his now familiar jeremiad ("Cut! Cut! "Cut!"), I perceived his physical reaction to the "criminal" editing of his movies as almost psychosomatic; he genuinely seemed wounded by the damage that had been done to his movies by vandalistic editors. During the discussion after Suspiria he had declared that he preferred that people watch his movies on DVD because he was closely involved during the DVD production process and had more creative control over the presentation of his films. The theatrical prints were disappointing and depressing bastardizations committed by ignorant producers and distributors, and because they were bastards, he (understandably) disowned them.
"I return to Italy tomorrow!" Maestro Argento announced, refuting the Cinequest publicity and schedule, which promoted that he would be a guest throughout the entire series, which was to end on Sunday.
"Come back again!" cheered the audience.
Then the theatre darkened; as the presentation started, Argento sat down a few rows in front of me.
"Mamma mia!" I thought, "I'm going to watch a Dario Argento movie and Dario Argento is going to be sitting right in front of me! I hope that he doesn't talk, for cryin' out loud."
Okay, I didn't quite think that, but I was thrilled that I would be sharing the same carbon dioxide with Maestro Argento while watching with him what some critics regard as his best film. Alas, after five minutes, he arose and quietly exited the auditorium. Apparently, he'd already seen the flick. Or maybe he just didn't want to be again disappointed by what butchering distributors had done to his film. I had not seen Bird in a theatre since it had played in the U.S.A. in 1969-1970 when my father had taken me to see it (we might have seen it with another Italian import Investigation of A Citizen Above Suspicion). How could I, then a towheaded fourteen-year-old lad, have ever imagined that the next time that I would theatrically behold this stylish thriller would be while I was (briefly) sharing the company of the director. The print was decent, a little speckled and faded by age, but remarkably intact (except for one brief break in dialogue). Whether or not, it was a "cut" print, I could not say, but it seemed to resemble the print available on the VCI DVD (apart from the controversial panty snafu, of course).
Thus was my weekend with Dario Argento. The following evening, Saturday, I attended the final instalment in the series, Inferno. I had never seen this movie and was delighted that the print was absolutely pristine the best print in the entire series. As for the movie itself, its plot is a typical "EuroCult" muddle: elliptical, erratic, episodic, and, maddeningly, inconsequential. After it ended, I recalled the sentiment of a local film reviewer: Argento made stylish psychological thrillers that, after an initial viewing, he had no desire to revisit. Another critic, in his report of the Argento series, described Argento's horror films and gialli as "an acquired taste." Regarding Inferno, I'm inclined to agree with them on both counts, but chacun à son goût, as the Frenchies say.
Although I would never describe myself as a rabid Dario Argento aficionado (extremely sadistic "ultra-violence" is just not my cup of tea), I do admire his artistry as a filmmaker. Had he remained longer at the festival, I would have liked to have engaged him in a lengthy discussion about why he makes the movies that he does and asked the (perhaps naive, perhaps judgemental) question, "Why, Signor Argento? Why the violence? Why the graphically explicit blood and gore?" The answers have been, undoubtedly, published in horror magazine articles or a biography, but I know that hearing an explanation from his own lips would be infinitely more meaningful.
"I make . . . strong movies," Argento had stated during the opening night presentation. Later he declared, "I make angry movies . . . but I am not angry."
I interpreted "angry" to mean violent. I do not think that Argento is "angry" (in either sense of the word), based upon the lamentably brief time that he shared with me and everyone who attended his tribute. His criticisms of Kubrick, Lucas, Cruise, et. al. were, I think, not jealous, mean-spirited attacks on fellow filmmakers but simply the expressed frustration of a "maverick" artist who is bored, and feels creatively stunted, by the influence of "Hollywood" on international cinema. He is also a passionate man who, I perceive, regards filmmaking as not merely a vocation or artistic expression but life itself. His movies are his children, and it hurts him when he sees them abused and disrespected.
My perception of Dario Argento is that he seemed to be a genuinely friendly and hospitable chap with a marvellously audacious sense of humour. He was very approachable, was not surrounded by an intimidating phalanx of bruiser-bodyguards (unlike some celebrities whom I could name) during each of his appearances. He graciously shook hands and cheerfully posed for photos with admirers; to wit, he is an utterly warm and congenial gentleman. Perhaps he is so because as has been claimed about himself by another horror meister, Stephen King the mayhem that he commits in his art is a catharsis that purges his psyche of demons that might (were they not to be exorcised) manifest themselves in truly horrifying and terrible acts in real life.
Though the opportunity seems remote that Argento shall ever return to Silicon Valley (and I would not blame him one bit if he didn't; the bland, industrialized flatland of the terminally suburban "Silly Valley" evinces all of the breathless beauty and charm of a computer chip), I do hope that one day I will again have the opportunity to see Signor Argento and mayhap engage him in a philosophical discussion of his art and learn the appeal of graphic, sadistic violence for both him and his fans. It wouldn't have to be a humourlessly intense debate. Just a casual chat, a very friendly meeting over cup of cappuccino and a dish of spumoni.
Clothing optional, of course.
(pronounced 'djallo, plural gialli) is an italian 20th century genre of literature and film, which in italian indicates crime fiction and mystery. In the English language, however, it is used in a broader meaning that is closer to the french fantastique genre, including elements of horror fiction and eroticism.
The word giallo is Italian for "yellow" and stems from the origin of the genre as a series of cheap paperback novels with trademark yellow covers.