Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Catchup review: GIALLO: reputation and reality

A cab careens through Rome, taking a young woman somewhere she didn't ask to go. Later, Linda, visiting Rome, waits for her sister to knock on her hotel room door. A filthy basement holds a number of women strapped to tables. Gotcha, it's a crime thriller.

Linda goes to the police to report her sister missing and is led to the young but gruff Inspector Avolfi, chewing pizza in a basement  wallpapered with grizzly crimescene photos. He's pursuing a serial killer who's ... abducting young women .... So they're on the case, working in tandem as only happens in movies like this where civilians are given temporary dispensation to act as police officers. Meanwhile we see the killer in shadow, tanking up on nitrous oxide and speaking in a funny voice to his victims. The game's afoot.

I might come across as dismissive there but really, most serial killer thrillers are cut from this cloth. They only distinguish themselves by exemplary service in departments other than generic plotting. The subgenre pretty much exhausted itself after a decade (the 90s) of mounting silliness as each new entry tried to outdo the ookykookyspookyness of the perp. That, combined with the mounting sense of numbing deja vu that its jaded public was experiencing.

So, how does a 2009 serial killer film stack up? Meh. However ...

First, some context:

Giallo means yellow. It's also a genre of Italian crime thrillers notable for their strong atmosphere, baroque visuals and plotting and eye-popping violence. The connection between the genre name and the colour is variously claimed to be the pulpy paper of the source novels, the generic colour of their spines or that yellow is the colour of fear. Let that be debatable. Starting in the 1960s the genre assumed its own identity and grew ever more convoluted and bloody as the years raced, borne on the shoulders of a number of auterist maestri. One such maestro is Dario Argento.

Argento took the style of pioneer Mario Bava and stretched it to breaking point with masterpieces of the genre like his debut The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, Suspiria etc. And then from the mid-80s on his mojo seemed to drain from him and every subsequent outing proved more feeble than the last. An exception is The Stendhal Syndrome with its intriguing take on the role of women in gialli. But mostly it was highly stylish nice tries like Sleepless or the crushing disappointment for every fanatic who had waited decades for the final of the Three Mothers Trilogy, Mother of Tears.

Now Argento has made a film simply called Giallo. It's a crime thriller where the title refers not only to that but to a characteristic of the killer at its centre. Does what it says on the tin.

Some more context:

More than half the audience I saw this with in a micro cinema did not know any of this. The screening was introduced with a mix of affection and dismissiveness by a friend of mine who admires Argento's works. His spiel wasn't the problem? What problem?

Starting with a few titters here and there at this or that perfectly generic dialogue and the killer's werid squeaky voice the greater part of the audience began to laugh at almost everything that was said. Almost none of it deserved it. They responded to the wrenching violence in some scenes appropriately but, curiously, there wasn't a squawk of nervous laughter. And then, when the flow of the narrative resumed they seemed to wait until every line was finished and then burst into unbelievable laughter. This wasn't, in other words, the laughter that masks a scream, it was a kind of automatic derision.

They hadn't listened to any of my friend's more scholarly comments on the filmmaker but they heard every syllable of his downtalk. And that's how they received the film, as a kind of Ed Wood derision magnet. When I used the word automatic about their laughter I meant it. The sounds were those of merriment but there really was nothing so funny that it warranted such deafening hilarity. The film is not one of Argento's best but it's not that bad either, it stacks up perfectly well against anything that Harrison Ford or Ashley Judd might appear in, any old Hollywood crime thriller. Same with the dialogue. Standard. I got the definite feeling that they wouldn't laugh at something like What Lies Beneath or The Fugitive.

As the film progressed I began to brace myself against this noise toward the end of each line and then winced when the simian shrieks were again loosed into the air. Important observation: the dialogue does contain some intentionally funny moments. Almost none of these were noticed. The sole sound of laughter was this weird Pavlovian din making every few minutes feel like feeding time at the chimp enclosure. And the more it progressed the more unthinking and fake it sounded. Every now and then one of the tabloid tv current affairs shows features a story on the laughing cure, a kind of encounter group that meets to relieve its stress through laughter. Great idea except when you turn a camera on to it all the laughter sounds like asthmatic wheezing. Well, that's how this sounded. Not a note of genuine joy in any of it. Just pure response to a perceived direction of laugh.

Ok, I have no problem with anyone laughing at something they think is ridiculous. There are a lot of false steps in the cosmos of cinema and any time something on a screen tries to scare you by saying BOO! you are going to laugh. I'm guilty of the kind of derision I've just described, or I was. Younger, I'd happily join in with the rest of the company of friends or flatmates. It was something we were sharing and, even as a big sulky cinephile undergraduate, I was happy enough to render the film to its tv screen sized smallness, even as I was appreciating its great grave movieness. But that's not what this was. This was wilful flatlining ignorance that was far more ragingly clumsy and try-hard than the film it was aimed at.


However much I loathe this kind of ostentatious 'phistication I'll have to admit that they were only reacting as they might given a slight but definite signal to find fault. Why, after all, should they care that this was the work of a director who at the height of his powers was a master of the form? They were sitting in front of a movie they had been told was under par. What would it matter to them that it's not a classic giallo, or isn't very Suspiria-y or Profondo Rosso-y?

Giallo is the tightest and most effective movie Dario Argento has made for decades. That's not saying much but it's still true. I can't say the same of Roman Polanski's Ghost Writer or Martin Scorsese's The Aviator. Great filmmakers are seldom great for their entire careers. Big deal. But Giallo does work, it's a little cheesy but it brings its own without needing to resort to a lot of arch self-reflexive bullshit or self-conscious irony. It's a straight-up genre film that wouldn't raise a slight titter if any of those shrieking sophicates stumbled on it while channel hopping.

On the other hand if the screening introduction had been serious and respectful and included a coloured but digestible filmographical sketch, they might well have sat through it quietly and seen a moderately effective thriller and wondered why it was worth leaving the house for on a chilly Autumn night. To them the name of Argento would be synonymous with undeserving mediocrity. And with what they'd been given, they wouldn't be wrong.

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