Thursday, May 03, 2007
I do not know what price I will have to pay for breaking what we alchemists call Silentium.
I often go to the movies in my dreams. There are a few different cinemas that exist only in my imagination which I return to from time to time, often to attend repertory screenings of films I've seen in reality. But when I watch a film in my dreams, details such as plot, dialogue, casting and even the film's images may be drastically different. This is not a failure of my memory - I've seen The Shining too many times to count, and yet in my head, the rotting corpse lives in the bedroom of Room 237 rather than the bathroom (analyze this however you like). Rather, it seems as though my mind rearranges the details of a film to communicate its own meaning; the result is sort of a "dream director's cut." I thought about this during a scene early in Inferno, Dario Argento's thematic sequel to Suspiria, during a scene set in a cab that almost replicates a scene in the earlier film - the lighting and composition are almost identical, and the same actor plays the cab driver in both films. But Argento also plays with our memory of Suspiria, altering the visual and narrative perspective enough so that this allusion becomes disorienting rather than reassuring. Inferno is a Through the Looking Glass to the earlier film's Alice in Wonderland, both deepening and contorting our understanding of Argento's cinematic universe. It's also a masterpiece in its own right, serving as a Rosetta Stone for Argento's work and, more broadly, the power of scary stories.
The second chapter in Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy (the third, starring his daughter Asia, will be released later this year), Inferno opens with an excerpt from the book The Three Mothers (Argento's fabricated reworking of Thomas de Quincey's Suspiria de Profundis), by the architect and alchemist E. Varelli. The three mothers are the source of all pain and sorrow in the world; the first, Mater Suspiriorum (the mother of sighs), resided at the dance academy from Suspiria, while the second, Mother Lacrimarum (the mother of tears) resides in Rome (and makes an almost sublimal appearance here). Mater Tenebrarum, "the youngest and cruelest," is said to reside in New York; when Rose (Irene Miracle), a poet living in New York, reads Varelli's book, she becomes convinced that she lives in the building occupied by Mater Tenebrarum. As she begins to investigate the building and becomes afraid for her life, she writes her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a student in Rome, to come home. This begins a chain of events that draws an assortment of characters to the house, where they invariably meet with terrible fates. The characters are intentionally blank, used as symbols; Argento's aim is to tell a story not through a linear progression of events, but rather to depict evil as something that spreads like ripples atop his ever-present bodies of water. While those who demand interior logic and meaningful characterization are likely to hate Inferno (and the late-70's haircuts and 'staches don't help), the meaning of the film can be found in what Argento denies us; these characters are pawns manipulated by forces beyond their control, unable to protest the nastiness waiting for them around the corner.
In the absence of a dense plot, Argento directs our attention towards specific symbols - keys, doors, mirrors - that are loaded with connotative significance. But Argento also denies us a logical (or at least linear) narrative progression, severing the connection between the signified and the signifier. Like the film's characters, we become adrift, disoriented, out of control, as though we were dreaming. But where lesser directors employ dream logic to gloss over narrative shortcomings, Argento is very deliberately acting in a diaboloical manner not unlike the alchemists, giving us a sort of cinematic cryptogram that confounds our methods of deduction. Inferno is a self-contained work of art, filled with allusions to other works but, like Varelli's book, possessed by its own singular vision. One does not watch Inferno so much as dream it.
Inferno is largely faithful to Suspiria's surreal color pallette in its lighting and design - both films look like 1950s MGM musicals as directed by Francis Bacon. But the effect is drastically different; the scares in Suspiria revolve around shock, the mysterious machnations of the witches ultimately manifested in Argento's trademark gloved slasher. The horror in Inferno is disembodied - its roots can be found in those remarkable moments in Suspiria (Jessica Harper passing through a set of sliding doors, for instance) where nothing overtly scary is happening and yet we're fild with an overwhelming sense of dread. Argento sustains this unease throughout Inferno - an early scene where Sarah descends into a hidden pool beneath her building (Mario Bava contributed to this and several sequences in the film) creates a mounting sense of anticipatory anxiety, so that the scene is not about the inevitable "boo!" moment so much as our own expectation of that moment. The entire film unfolds with the same precise understanding of the uncanny, aided in large part by Keith Emerson's often melancholy score. When we meet Mater Tenebrarum, Argento finds in a single image a definitive statement about horror - why we are at once repelled by and drawn to that which frightens us, and what is at the center of this obsession.
In the opening narration, Varelli writes that "the life experiences of our colleagues should warn us not to upset laymen by imposing our knowledge upon them." Argento's film, too, infects its audience by exposing them to the roots of their fears and desires. In this, Inferno becomes a work where cinema and dreams intersect; there's a purity to this film, as though Argento is projecting his unconscious directly onto the movie screen. As a meditation on the horror genre, Inferno is perfect, a work of pure film; as an example of the genre, it's scary as fuck.