Sunday, July 18, 2010

Bava and the spectacular

It isn't easy going back to normal movies after watching a few by Mario Bava. The exquisitely delicate (yet always, always kind of tacky and garish - lovely) color and lighting design seems to mark Bava as one of the few filmmakers who really learned something from Eisenstein's second Ivan the Terrible.

Watching Blood and Black Lace last week, on something of a whim, I very quickly realized that there was no way I could avoid discussing Bava and the Italians. I had avoided jumping into the gialli because I know little of the genre and had never had much enthusiasm for Argento. Horror is a genre that attracts ardent and very knowledgeable fans - or, rather, it's subgenres do. Tackling J-horror is a heady enough task for a project devoted largely to American output, but at least that consists of a much smaller archive of both films and writings about the films (particularly in English). The Italian horror film is such a large topic, with so much written and such expert devotees, that I feel a little overwhelmed, and more than a little like a dilettante. But I think that I've decided I need to focus largely on Bava, whose relationship to both the American slasher genre and, to a less explicit extent, the Japanese horror films of the 90s make him immediately relevant to my project. His spatialization of the threat and his concern with the unseen becoming seen makes him both a direct progenitor (especially, I'm told, of the Friday the 13th films) and a valuable contrast with the later films. Blood and Black Lace was made in Italy in 1964 and would have clearly fit in with perfectly with American films of 15 years later, much more than it would fit in with the Americans of the time or of the intervening years. Here's where I start to create more work for myself, of course, because the Italian context would seem to be essential to understanding where Bava's coming from. But, first, I have more Bava to watch.

From the few Bava films that I have seen, it's clear that Bava is much more concerned with visual tableaux than he is with narrative or even suspense, which sets him apart from the Americans but perhaps not as much from someone like Argento. The American horror films (and I included the Canadian Cronenberg here, as his films enter very clearly into the conversation between North American horror filmmakers in the 70s and 80s, even if his non-USA background is equally important to grasping his filmography) concern themselves with visual spectacle primarily when the scene is one of what I'm tentatively calling "spectacular abjection" - a half-paradoxical term that nicely sums up the motivation for much of the gore that started dominating the genre after Romero's opening salvo.

The other kind of tableaux one sees in the American horror film has a clear genesis in the genre's earliest entries: the monster, particularly his face. Robert Spadoni's writing on the face of Frankenstein's monster doesn't need to be elaborated on, as it's a brilliant explanation of both the power of monsters' images as well as the cinema's fascination with the human face - not to mention one of the best pieces written on early sound film. In the post-Night of the Living Dead modern horror film, you tend to see this more in the larger budget horror film. Regan in The Exorcist - but even there the abject substances being oozed and expelled by the monster mark its modern pedigree. I have an awful tendency to efface films like that because they're much less interesting and - more shamefully, also explaining the former a bit - they don't fit my arguments or the frameworks I've developed for reading modern horror; I keep telling myself to be less afraid of engaging these films head on, because they don't invalidate my arguments and can actually be made to strengthen them, but with an attention paid to films that I actively dislike, i.e. The Exorcist. (I aggressively roll my eyes at trashy genre films that try to rationalize their trashiness through high-minded thematic discussions. For a theological horror film that takes theology seriously, try John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness, which is far creepier and way more fun.)

The abject tableaux and the localized suspense of the stalking sequence are matched in the slasher film, where the abject display of graphically opened bodies frequently resolves the suspense of the stalking sequence. It is, I think, very significant that the visual spectacle is based in the attack and the victim rather than the monster/killer. DePalma might be the primary practitioner of Bava's style of spectacle in the following decades of American horror.

Bava's stalking sequences are themselves elaborate visual spectacles in which lighting, color, and movements of both camera and actress (usually) engage in a complex choreography. They are gorgeous, remarkable eye candy that is arch and perverse but most of all it is spectacular (to keep re-using the same word over and over again until it's run into the ground... sigh). That is, suspense provides an ideal vehicle for structuring the sequence, but Bava's stalking sequences are overpowered by the visuals - tableaux isn't the right word because they're rarely without movement, but it's close because there's a sort of frozen, posed quality to everything. Bava's a master at injecting life and movement into the stillness of the tableau, of course, because his compositions manage to be rough and sloppy while remaining intricately controlled (and, to repeat myself, choreographed). But the reason why the stalking sequence makes the ideal subject for someone like Bava gets right to the heart of the appeal of the horror film for its makers and its audiences: there is a deep, visceral reaction to these scenes of terror and suffering that are unique among film genres. For a stylist like Bava to tackle narratives of abject (ahem) terror is to inject a gut-level emotional response into the film that gives even the most cerebral exercise in style a powerful pull for an audience. And Bava's films seem to fail if considered only in larger narrative terms. They string together remarkable set pieces and brilliant, highly effective individual sequences, and momentum between these sequences tends to lag. If the viewer foregrounds the visual progression of the film and to appreciate the rhythm of the intense (stylistically and dramatically) sequences within themselves and as a sort of rhythmic composition throughout the film, then they work.

Bava is an important, influential figure in the genre, I think, largely because the power of his images shift the spectacle away from the monster to the act of stalking and killing. Romero and the 70s filmmakers, and then the gore-comedians of the 80s like Raimi, Stuart Gordon and Peter Jackson, would shift the emphasis even more to the body of the victim. The slasher films would do so as well, but not because they don't try to emphasize the stalking - it's just that Tom Savini and co.'s makeup effects are much more effective and powerful than the editing or mise-en-scene of everyone besides Carpenter and Craven (which leaves about 6 years of relying on gruesome makeup before Nightmare on Elm St. reinvigorated the genre and the sub-genre).

The film of Bava's that works the best narratively is also one of his most striking visually. The Wurdulak section of Black Sabbath is only about 30 minutes long, and is a perfect film. Reminiscent of The Leopard, and the sort of garish, astonishing melodrama that Fassbinder would have admired, it's another horror story in which the aging, vaguely aristocratic patriarchy turns monstrous and preys on the young. Here, the vampire Boris Karloff's greatest thirst is for those he loves the most, and he begins with his grandson. He shows affection for the boy, before it's clear he's a vampire, in a way that seems both caring and dangerously predatory - in a way that threatens bodily harm, bodily consumption, more than sexuality. The film works so well narratively because it basically builds up to a single stalking sequence, one that is more elongated and geographically dispersed than most stalking sequences but rhythmically and structurally that is the best way to understand it. It shows a narrative economy that suggests Bava's gifts as a storyteller come when he can focus on visual solutions to dramatic problems rather than building characters. The progressive menace of Karloff's patriarch is performed subtly and strikingly, while Bava's features tend to wander when characters have to discuss points important to the plot and to their own placement within it.

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