Sunday, August 10, 2014

Book Review: THE ARGENTO SYNDROME



If you’re a Dario Argento fan, you undoubtedly remember the first time you saw one of his films.  For me it happened in 1996, when I was carrying around Dennis Fischer’s encyclopedic Horror Film Directors 1931 – 1990 like a personal bible.  Fischer’s book introduced me to scores of films I couldn’t find at my local video store (although the 1986 doc Stephen King’s World of Horror was technically my introduction to Argento), and every time I visited a new mom and pop rental shop I looked for films by Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Amando de Ossorio, Ulli Lommel.  In those days it wasn’t easy to find foreign horror.

So I vividly remember the day I found Argento’s Suspiria and Fulci’s The Gates of Hell in the same store.  This was my real introduction to Italian horror movies.   I remember watching the opening sequence of The Gates of Hell, where a priest ceremoniously hangs himself in a foggy cemetery.  The strange alchemy of gothic visuals and pulse-pounding synth score cast a genuinely eerie spell.  The first 20 minutes of Suspiria made an even stronger impression.  Argento’s use of primary colors, Goblin’s aural assault, and the generally dreamlike quality of the narrative made it clear that I was experiencing something completely new.  (New to me, anyway.)

The same store offered access to a few related gems: Argento’s Trauma, Lamberto Bava’s Demons and Demons 2, and a robust selection of Michele Soavi films (The Sect, The Church, Stage Fright and Cemetery Man).  This was a mixed bag of films, but it heightened my brief obsession with Eurohorror.  Around the same time, the twisted saints at Anchor Bay Entertainment began releasing their own Eurohorror Collection, with a particular emphasis on Argento’s “classics.”  I snapped up the new titles as soon as they became available: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was released in 1998; Phenomena and Tenebrae in 1999, Deep Red and Inferno in 2000, and Opera in 2001.  By the time Opera came out, I had seen most of Argento’s later work as well.  I was impressed with The Stendhal Syndrome, in spite of its hamfisted DVD presentation by Troma, and enthralled by the first fifteen minutes of Sleepless, which I saw at a film festival in London in the summer of 2001.  For the most part, however, the thrill of discovery faded, and with it some of my enthusiasm for Argento.

So I approached Derek Botelho’s new book The Argento Syndrome mostly with a sense of nostalgia.  I hoped it might rekindle my excitement for the filmmaker's work and, to a certain extent, I was not disappointed.  Botelho’s fascination with Argento started much the way mine did, although he pursued his obsession with more fervor and longer-lasting dedication.  As a result, his book is the deeply personal and highly intelligent tribute of a true fan and a dedicated cinephile.   

Because the author originally planned the career overview as a documentary film, he has plenty of interviews to draw on.  The language barrier (and perhaps a bit too much fawning) precludes a truly illuminating interview with his main subject, but the book hosts plenty of fascinating insights from other actors, writers and filmmakers.  John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon and Mick Garris wax especially poetic about the nature of Argento’s “dream logic.”  Gordon insightfully alludes to Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, and Carpenter offers a positively brilliant rumination on the philosophical differences between Argento and fellow filmmaker Luis Bunuel.  (I love Carpenter more than ever, knowing that he’s a huge fan of Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire.  It’s also fascinating to hear him talk about the influence of Deep Red on Halloween 2.)

And there’s no question that Botelho knows his subject, offering a concise tutorial on the filmmaker’s gialli influences and an illuminating analysis of the development of his unique aesthetic (which, according to the author, began with Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and started becoming repetitive as early as Phenomena).  Unfortunately he doesn’t have much to say about the influence of Mario Bava, but perhaps that’s intentional.  It would be difficult to compete with Tim Lucas’s brilliant contextualization of Italian horror cinema in All the Colors of the Dark, although a few references to that groundbreaking work might have been appropriate. 

Naturally, Suspiria gets plenty of attention.  The author wisely presentes it as a European fairy tale, providing more of a literary context than a cinematic one, although he curiously fails to mention Thomas De Quincey’s “Suspiria de Profundis.”  Even more interesting to me is the section on Inferno, a film that the author relates to the writings of Russian mystic George Gurdjieff.  I made a similar comparison between Gurdjieff and Wes Craven in my recent book Beyond Fear, and I am fascinated by the idea that there is an even larger mystical strain in modern horror cinema.  Another particularly worthwhile chapter is “La Dolce Giallo,” a personal travelogue in which the author sets out to explore Rome in the shadow of the film Tenebrae.

The second half of the book, like the latter part of Argento’s career, is less inspiring.  Botelho acknowledges that Opera (1988) is, at present, the filmmaker’s final masterpiece.  He also recognizes that his mentor Maitland McDonough, whose book Broken Mirrors / Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (1994) was the first comprehensive overview of the filmmaker’s career, has perhaps wisely avoided writing about the later work.  He quotes McDonough as follows: “I don’t think it’s possible, without being intensely negative, to write at length about the newer work the way I did with his earlier work.”

Botelho isn’t intensely negative, although he’s honest.  He praises The Stendhal Syndrome as “a brave, strange, and challenging film,” but also justly admits that Phantom of the Opera is “hackneyed and nonsensical,” Sleepless is often silly, and The Card Player “flat.”  He offers modest praise for Do You Like Hitchcock? and Argento’s Masters of Horror episodes, and saves his most vitriolic rants for Mother of Tears – the long-awaited sequel to Suspiria and Inferno.  It is interesting to read screenwriters Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch reflect on the making of that film.  Ditto Sean Keller’s reflections on the subsequent Giallo.  The writers suggest that Argento is no longer interested in the aesthetic schemes and philosophical underpinnings of his early work, noting that he now seems to prefer naturalistic storytelling and surprisingly drab color palettes.  I can’t help but wonder how these films might come across to viewers who have not arrived at them with prior expectations and preconceived notions about what an “Argento film” should be.  Would they stand up better on their own?

In 2012, I attended an Italian film festival in Los Angeles where Dario Argento was the guest of honor.  The main event was a screening of Suspiria at the Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, followed by a sneak preview of the director’s latest film Dracula 3-D.  I hadn’t seen Suspiria in years.  It was every bit as brilliant and compelling as I remembered it being.   The preview of Dracula 3-D, on the other hand, was one of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever witnessed.   I admit I saw only snippets of the finished film, but it seemed to me to be completely lacking in a genuine sense of awe and wonder.  A friend sitting next to me responded, “He should have his Master of Horror license revoked.”  Yes, it really was that bad.

Botelho quotes a revealing comment from Argento about Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 interpretation of Dracula.  Why, Argento wonders, would anyone be interested in “drug-addled fever dreams”?  It’s an unlikely question from a filmmaker whose best-known work was inspired by Thomas DeQuincey’s other confessions of an opium-eater, and whose best work (period) is an inimitable expression of delusion and madness.

So what happened?  Maitland McDonough opines, “In some cases, you’ve said what you have to say.” She wisely alludes to the 2009 film Amer as a true modern example of Argento’s brand of horror.  Botelho, the true fan, holds out hope.  Either way, it’s a somewhat depressing note to end on… one that makes me more inclined to mourn the bad films that Dario Argento has made, instead of celebrating the great ones.  At the end of the day, I have to agree with McDonough’s decision to quit while Argento was ahead.   The most interesting part of the second half of Botelho’s book is the chapter focused on Asia Argento’s directorial efforts. 

I wish that the author had dug deeper into the early work (there is nothing in the book about Argento’s work on spaghetti westerns Five Man Army, Today We Kill Tomorrow We Die, Cemetery Without Crosses, and Once Upon a Time in the West – and I would love to learn more about those) and also focused more on Argento’s influence on other filmmakers—especially Lamberto Bava and Michele Soavi—rather than devoting so much ink to Argento’s lesser films.  Fans of the filmmaker will, of course, need this book on their shelf along with McDonough’s, but there may yet be another volume  to be written on the subject.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot: The Critical Edition


After many years of hard work, the team behind the T.S. Eliot Editorial Project has completed the first two volumes of The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, now available via Project Muse.  This is important not only because literary scholars now have definitive editions of the poet’s influential early essays (including “Tradition and the Individual Talent, “Hamlet” and the whole of The Sacred Wood) but because scholars and non-scholars alike now have access to a wealth of previously uncollected material by one of the 20th century’s most influential writers – material that has been teasing readers since the 1952 publication of Donald Gallup’s Eliot bibliography.

VOLUME ONE, edited by Jewel Spears Brooker and Ronald Schuchard, is divided into three sections.  The first section gathers a few pieces of juvenilia, including a pair of college essays on Rudyard Kipling, and a few early prose experiments that (ironically, given the “unduly harsh” nature of the aforementioned essays) demonstrate the strong influence of Kipling on the young writer.

The second, and most intimidating, section collects Eliot’s philosophy papers from his years at Harvard and Oxford.  During the author’s lifetime, the only remnant of the period that saw publication was the poet’s PhD dissertation, Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley – which has now been out of print for many decades.  When I first discovered Eliot, one of my favorite teachers kindly loaned me her personal copy, with a warning that it might not help me to understand the poet any better.  Eliot himself issued a similar warning when he published the thesis in 1964, saying, “Forty-six years after my academic philosophising came to an end, I find myself unable to think in the terminology of this essay.  Indeed, I do not pretend to understand it.”

Understanding the dissertation—or at least understanding the mind that produced it—is made a bit easier by the publication of the academic essays that Eliot wrote immediately prior.  The point of departure is a trio of essays on the idealist philosophy of Immanuel Kant.  These notes toward a philosophy of nondualism should be read in conjunction with editor Jewel Spears Brooker’s related essay “T.S. Eliot’s Theory of Opposites: Kant and the Subversion of Epistemology,” included in her 2001 book T.S. Eliot and Our Turning World.   Eliot’s subsequent essays on F.H. Bradley, Henri Bergson, and Walter Lippman’s A Preface to Politics show the development of a personal philosophy, which Eliot attempts to sum up, in an essay called "The Relativity of the Moral Judgment," as a kind of thoroughgoing idealism without the feeling of pessimism.

The second section also includes analyses of works by sociologist Emile Durkheim, ethno-psychologist Luciene Levy-Bruhl and anthropologist James George Frazer—all of whom would prove to be lasting influences on Eliot—as well as one essay on Plato and four on Aristotle.  One of the shorter essays in this section also references the Monadism of Gottfried Leibniz, an important clue to Eliot’s perception of Bradley.  (Two of Eliot's later essays on Leinbiz were originally appended to the 1964 version of Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley, at the urging of  editor Anne C. Bolgan, who recognized their importance.  Those essays are included elsewhere in the Complete Prose, but Brooker and Schuchard have helpfully added footnotes that link them to the newly-edited Knowledge and Experience.  How I wish I’d had this scholarly edition when I was studying Eliot's dissertation for the first time!) 

The third section of Volume One is, for me, the most exciting.  It reveals Eliot’s initial efforts to distinguish himself as a professional critic, developing and testing his own nascent theories about art and religion.

In a 1916 review of a book by Paul Elmer More, for instance, he asserts his own intellectual conservatism and lays a foundation for future Classicism v. Romanticism debates with John Middleton Murry.   His subsequent review of Reflections and Violence illustrates the pivotal influence of T.E. Hulme on Eliot’s concept of Classicism.  (Ronald Schuchard elucidated this important connection many years ago, in the essays that led to his book Eliot’s Dark Angel, but it's nice to see the proof for oneself.)

That same year, in reviews of books by Clement C.J. Webb and Durkheim, Eliot ruminates on the nature of religious instinct, providing notes toward a type of religion that might be worthwhile to  him.  Reviews of Mens Creatrix by William Temple and Religion and Philosophy by R.G. Collingwood suggest a surprising open-mindedness to the teachings of the Anglican Church, while expressing the poet's intellectual reservations about religious conversion.

In his review of a contemporary translation of Euripides, Eliot hints at defining statements to be made in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” about the alchemy of poetry – his paramount obsession during these early years.  He writes:

“… the value of translation lies in the exact combination of fidelity and originality.  Faithful, because otherwise the translator will produce only eccentricities; he would do better to write an original poem than to devote himself to a false veneer: original, because the fusion of the minds of two languages, the vivifying force, takes place within the translator’s mind.  What he produces must be foreign, but not strange, something that is new, but to which we have rightful claim.” 

He might just as easily have been talking about his own future – as a poet who would take the old, the primitive, the traditional and make it new and modern by recalling and rejuvenating the original essence of printed words.  In “A Note on Ezra Pound,” he seems to justify the allusive style he will use in The Waste Land.  In a subsequent review of Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr, he states his mission as a poet:

“A poet, like a scientist, is contributing toward the organic development of culture: it is just as absurd for him not to know the work of his predecessors or of men writing in other languages as it would be for a biologist to be ignorant of Mendel or de Vries.  It is exactly as wasteful for a poet to do what has been done already, as for a biologist to rediscover Mendel’s discoveries.”

Eliot was at the same time asserting the importance of intelligent criticism, in his essays “Observations” and “Studies in Contemporary Criticism.”  These are perhaps the most useful fragments in the volume, because they begin to elaborate a scheme for the seven volumes to come, and for the future of literary criticism.

VOLUME TWO, edited by Anthony Cuda and Ronald Schuchard, is subtitled “The Perfect Critic” because much of the writing collected therein elaborates Eliot’s personal critical theories.   While developing his own alternative canon of English literature (in a series of essays for the London Times Literary Supplement and the 1926 Clark Lectures at Cambridge), he offered insights on literary criticism itself.  These essays are well worth collating for the Internet age.

In a pair of articles that appeared in The Egoist in the fall/winter of 1918, Eliot divides critical writing into three main categories: (1) biography, (2) historical criticism, and (3) philosophical criticism.  (“Reviews” are a less important fourth category – serving only to “call attention to something good and new,” and useful only in the most practical terms, to help a writer make a living.)  He seems to value philosophical criticism above the others, and writes that the useful critic compares and analyzes, rather than merely judging and appreciating.   Writing in The Athenaeum a few months later, he adds that the best criticism expresses the “personal point of view” of the critic.  A careful reading of Eliot makes it clear that he is not talking about opinions, but about a thoroughly educated perspective on art. 

Like a lot of readers, I have always been slightly baffled by Eliot’s “impersonal theory of art” (espoused in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” 1919).  On one hand, Eliot says that true art is never a reflection of personality or an expression of personal emotions.   On the other hand, it’s easy to read Eliot’s own poetry as pseudo-autobiography, and he himself once claimed that The Waste Land was a personal “grouse against life.”   Setting aside the fact that no poet is obligated to follow his own critical prescriptions, I have always wondered if I have misapprehended the precise meaning of Eliot’s impersonal theory of art.    The new essays provide some clarification.

The important critic, Eliot says in a December 1919 article for The Athenaeum, is “the person who is absorbed in the present problems of art, and who wishes to bring the forces of the past to bear upon the solution of these problems.”  The same is true for artists, because “the critical genius is inseparable from the creative” and “every form of genuine criticism is directed toward creation.”  Although the artist-critic has a heightened awareness of the past, he does not repeat it.  By combining a comprehensive awareness of historical philosophies and techniques with an intense absorption in the present problems of art, the artist-critic transmutes the old into something new.

One of the most revealing new essays in Volume Two is “Modern Tendencies in Poetry,” published in Shama'a magazine in April 1920.  This essay reiterates that poetry must be more than a product of youthful personality.  Eliot writes: “[I]f we take poetry seriously as a work and not as the mere ebullition of a personality, we shall find that the poet’s training and equipment is parallel to the training and equipment of the scientist; we find that his purpose is parallel; and that his attitude toward his work is parallel.  First, his equipment: his knowledge of what has been done in the past.  This is germane to the question of modern tendency; for it is only in relation to the past that anything is new.” 

Eliot goes on to suggest that too many “contemporary” poets merely pour out their feelings, without considering the fact that these feelings have already been expressed better by someone else.  The value of poetry as true art, he says, is comparable to the value of science in that both are discoveries, and both must be cumulative.    A scientist does not start from scratch.  He stands on the shoulders of giants and, if he makes a genuine contribution, he in turn provides the same support for future scientists.  Eliot says the same is true for artists – and that is the key to understanding his impersonal theory.   The personalities of great poets disappear into “one great Mind.” 

There is a profoundly spiritual quality to this theory that I’ve never fully appreciated before.  In deep meditation, a person surrenders his or her individual "story" and embraces a larger consciousness -- what many Eastern philosophers refer to as The Self.  The implications of this concept are simple: Individuals do not create stories, or poetry, anymore than we create science.  Rather, we find these already-existing truths.  Perhaps more to the point, we allow them to find us. 

Eliot uses the metaphor of alchemy to explain this idea, which is why I wanted to title my Eliot book The Alchemy of Words.  For the medieval world, alchemy was never simply a matter of combining two base elements to create gold.  It was not a hard science.  There was always a mysterious spiritual component to the process--something beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend and express.

Eliot's later essays in Volume Two explain and develop his ideas within the context of other art forms (modern theater and, briefly, cinema) and criticism (literary reviews and anthologies), and begin to stray cautiously into the realm of religion and politics, his main arena in years to come.  For me, the most compelling instance of foreshadowing appears in a 1925 essay from The Nation, in which Eliot reflections on the distinction between urban and rural poetry.  He seems to regard the latter as an anachronistic product of Romanticism (although he never says so explicitly).  Still he refuses to dismiss it, instead expressing a curiosity to better understand the impulse behind it.  Just as in Volume One he showed an openness to the teachings of the Anglican Church that would significantly define the second half of his life, so this essay hints at his future as a poet—suggesting a point of departure for the rural meditations of his mature masterpiece Four Quartets.