Thursday, October 09, 2008

Movies: Don't you think it's time you stopped your crying?

All apologies to the New Colony Six for the title.

Who knew that Dario Argentio's Mother of Tears, the third and possibly last installment of his "Mothers" series, would be such a stumbling block for me? This is the second effort I'm making at this review.

The first attempt, not so cleverly framed as a phone conversation betwixt myself and the director, was posted yesterday. It was up for about five minutes when my wife, host of a very successful literary news and book industry blog, told me that I should really take it down. She said it was too nasty and bitter and was more an "I'm an angry jackass" piece than a review proper. She was right. The Interwebs has got enough "I'm an angry jackass" pieces to last us all several lifetimes, so I took it down.

For those who clicked over from yesterday's link on the League of Tana Tea Drinker's aggregator site, my apologies. For you, I present the only salvageable section of the seven-page rant:

CRwM: . . . You even work in a few in-jokes for the hardcore fans. That's nice of you.

DA: The monkey.

CRwM: Yeah. The monkey.

DA: Well you saw what they said about the monkey. How can people hate on a monkey? Monkey equals rad.

CRwM: That's why the UN-recognized standard global unit of fun is the barrel of monkeys.

DA: That's the very point of monkeys! Who doesn't want a monkey in their movie? Nobody, that's who.

CRwM: People are weird.


Weird indeed.

Today we do take two . . . and action.

Being aware of the critical/fan reaction to Mother of Tears before sitting down to watch the film myself, my initial reaction was, oddly enough, pity. I actually felt bad for Dario Argento.

For years, Argento's been flogging the dead horse of his shtick. He's made a name for himself creating flicks with nonsensical, elliptical plots. He's really good at this and he's managed to avoid either "cause" or its dutiful handmaiden, "effect," for many years. He's peopled his flicks with wooden, semi-disposable actors and actresses who don't act in these films so much as get they get stage-managed. Even when Argento had a future Academy Award nominee on cast, he managed to level them down to the status of prop. Stylistically, his rep rested mainly on three things: absurdly and unintentionally comical POV shots, washing scenes in colored lights so heavy-handedly that it looks like his shots were composed in crayon, and an enduring commitment to graphic violence.

In any other genre, this impressive list of creative limitations would have prevented him from becoming even so much as a dead link on some other director's IMDB page. But this is horror. Aside from the sizeable cult of tastemakers whose primary aesthetic interest seems to be the promotion of crap that one is supposed to enjoy ironically - the so-bad-it's-good-set that keeps the rotting corpse of exploitation cinema dancing around like a shopworn marionette - there's a strong sense across the community that any regrettable lack of skill, repeated often enough and earnestly enough, becomes traditional. Aside from one or two genre classics, most of what he's cranked out over the past three decades is notable for its stubborn adherence to his "style," constituting the aesthetic equivalent of a remarkably prolonged adolescence.

Despite the monotony of this output and the inevitable onset of diminishing returns, most of his fans never left him. Although their defense of his work came to sound more and more like the sort of intentionally-missing-the-point-complements one makes regarding the athletic performance of physically retarded children. A few die-hards even go so far as to suggest that Argento's actually "too good" for all those basic filmmaking skills he seems to lack.

That makes the reception of MoT cruelly ironic. Argento finally produces a pic that begins to meet some reasonable minimal expectation of quality. It has a plot that is built out a logical chain of interlinked occurrences, it's built it around the performance of a two-time David de Donatello Best Actress Award Winner, and it subtly integrates he's signature stylistic flourishes in such a away that they work with the film rather than feeling like a like a suffocating layer of slick but irrelevant armor. He nods to his previous films and pulls from the newest on-going source of inspiration, high art from the Renaissance and early Enlightenment.

So, after actually showing some glimmer of artistic development, Argento's fans ditch him. They more than just ditch him: They showed up in droves to absolutely shit all over your work. It's like some horror-geek version of DSP. People frame the film in terms of a personal betrayal. Some who normally champion any cut rate schlock-shocker so long as its got subtitles turned around and suggest that they actually have never liked him. And, in the classiest display of critical insight since film critics made easy copy out of Sophia Coppola's nose in Godfather III, several bloggers and horror site hosts have taken the opportunity to suggest that star and directorial off-spring Asia Argento is ugly.

Let's talk specifics about the flick. A follow-up to your earlier Susperia (one of the previously mentioned genre classics) and Inferno (a moronic mess that even Argento glosses over in this flick), Mother of Tears involves the release of the third of a trio of witches – the Mother of Tears – in Rome. The MoT is, as several characters inform the viewer, the most beautiful and cruel of the three witches. I don't know about relative cruelty levels, but the beauty thing isn't hard to cinch: the first mother took beauty tips from Norman Bates's mom and the second turned out to be a Grim Reaperish figure just slightly less scary, or believable, than an off-the-rack Target Halloween outfit.

The MoT's evil is contagious and a sort of plague of moral malaise spreads through the Europe. Random citizens are committing violent acts while others calmly go about their day, only vaguely interested in the mounting body count and social disintegration.

Ultimately it is up to Sarah (played by Asia Argento), a staffer working in the art restoration department of a museum in Rome, to defeat this makhashaifah. Sarah, it turns out, is descended from a long line of "good witches." Wicca, like the Force, has binary good/bad aspects. Sarah, the last of her kind, must find the lair of the MoT and destroy her before she can usher in a Second Age of Witches, which would probably be pretty awesome if you were an evil witch but would must assuredly suck for everybody else.

Curiously, for all its dependence on supernatural elements, this is the most narratively cohesive of all Argento's works. Though it belongs in same fairy tale/quest story category as your 1985 flick Phenomenon (the other genre classic I was thinking of earlier), it's logic is considerably less willy-nilly. Sure, there's some inexplicable magic shenanigans afoot – as one might well have with witches running about – but for the most part the story is linear and comprehensible. Compare the random acts of violence committed in MoT, which are explicable in light of the Mother's viral malevolence, with the random attack by the meat wagon dude in Inferno who, for no reason, chops up one of the film's characters. The latter is vintage Argento, the former represents a newfound respect for something we call "sense."

Even Argento's famed obsession with color-coding his scenes seems less slapdash here. Previously, he was overdoing the lighting, as if he was afraid his audience was to dim to get it. He's still color-coding everything – which is cool if that's his bag; he's the director. But now he does the same thing through costuming, set design, and prop selection. Instead of feeling like an invasive add-on, the visual schemes seem of a piece with the film. For example, instead of just washing the catacombs of the Mother's lair in red light, he lets blood, red clay mud, and brick colored tunics do much of work. It doesn't feel so desperately stylish, like an amateur's idea of advanced techniques.

Even the supernatural touches feel multivalent and woven into the story. The much-maligned monkey familiar of the Mother of Tears is a good example. Riffing off the Renaissance art he surrounded Sarah with (not to mention the "see no evil/hear no evil/speak no evil" idols that usher in the MoT's reign of terror) he makes the familiar a monkey: a common symbol in of human irrationality, sin, and the Satanic impulse to impersonate beings of greater stature in Renaissance painting. It also let's Argento send the MoT around, via familiar, while keeping her off-stage as long as possible. Finally, it's a nice little wink and nod to the other great female quest story he's done: Phenomenon.

Even the jump-scares show how a commitment to detail. Though folks have pretty much dismissed the flick's one jump-scare as cheap throwaway gag and a sign of Argento's dwindling prowess, careful viewers can see that the screaming demon figure that scares the poop out of Sarah in her dream is, in fact, the killer sneaking into the house. The whole point of the scene was to demonstrate, through a premonition, that Sarah's witchpoo powers were manifesting in increasingly powerful ways.

These dismissals are, to a degree, Argento's own fault. For years, he was lazy about the logic and rigor of his flicks. He made mysteries that couldn't really be solved by considering the evidence. He never bothered to connect dots or explain anything – or, more honestly, make things that could be explained. He trained his fans to not think to hard about his films. Now that he's making links and connections, what are fans supposed to do?

Besides, there are some real bad choices in there. The character of the spirit mother that acts as Sarah's ghostly Obi-Wan is given so little to do that she becomes more annoying than dramatic. The centuries-old tunic that the Mother of Tears wears looks like it was made with a Bedazzler and the members of the global coven look like extras from an Adam Ant Halloween special.

Still, compared to some of the crap Argento has let stand in your older films, those are strictly small potatoes.

In the final analysis, Mother of Tears is better than many of the films he's made. And while it falls short of Susperia, it isn't even the worst of this particular trilogy: that would be Inferno.

More importantly than all of that, Asia Argento is still awesome. Admittedly, she's a bit miscast here. She needs roles that aren't to white bread, but the argument that she's somehow lost the ability to command the screen or has lost her looks strike me as bizarre.

Asia Argento was never beautiful in any conventional way. She looks like that chick nobody remembers inviting to the party, the one the boys want to hang out with, but who has no use for all other the chicks in the room. She looks and moves like a boyfriend stealer – but worse, the kind of girl who steals a woman's man and leaves the poor alteh moid wondering what in world this scruffy, uncouth, outsider, tramp has that she doesn't.

Well. What to do? Should Argento go back to making half-assed reworkings of the same handful of flicks his fan base likes?

Personally, I think he should do non-horror. He should adapt Lucarelli's "De Luca" trilogy or do Carlotto's The Goodbye Kiss. Fast moving crime stuff. He'd get to use his strengths but it would help him shed the luggage of his own mediocre mid- to late- period stuff and help him scrape off the fans who insist that he exist as a museum piece.

12 comments:

Maxim de Winter said...

I loved yesterday's piece... is it okay to say your wife was just a bit wrong?

CRwM said...

De Winter,

I'm glad you liked it, though I still side with She Who Must Be Obeyed. And not just because I hate sleeping on the couch.

I usually try hard to avoid alienating people and I don't dig blogs that just thrash about with negative criticism, dumping on anything and everything. I try to keep it positive.

Yesterday's post was atypical of me and I regretted the moment I posted it. The wife's input just confirmed what I already knew.

I think it was best to zap it.

Still, thanks for reading.

Absinthe said...

Am I the only person who likes Inferno?? I liked the fact that the main character kept getting killed off and a new one stepping in and the story itself - sure there were moments of WTF but I **shocking I know** like this one better than Susperia.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Absinthe,

First, let me welcome you to the "Screamin' Family." Regular commentors/fans/stalkers/chatty critics of ANTSS who've stuck by the blog for some time get the honorific "Screamin'" in front of their name - in recognition of their awesomeness and as a tribute to Screamin' Jay Hawkins, spirit guide of ANTSS.

I dub you Screamin' Absinthe!

Second, Inferno definitely has is fans. More than MoT does, I'd wager. Though I suspect Argento himself isn't too keen on it. In MoT they recap the plot of Susperia for fans but don't mention Inferno except to say the witch died - um - somehow.

You really dig Inferno more than Susperia? I thought the whole art deco absinthe-era set design alone would place you firmly in the Susperia camp. Goes to show you never can tell.

Anonymous said...

I missed yesterday's review, but it must have been pretty unforgiving - even this one seems like an "angry jackass" piece to me, albeit one directed at Argento's fans and not himself (although suggesting that MoT is the first Argento film that begins to meet some reasonableminimal expectation of quality is brutal too).
This makes it fairly hard to argue your points without coming across like one of the aforementioned fanboys, but there are a couple of points where I disagree:

- I liked MoT and I like most of Argento's earlier work, but don't think his latest one is any more coherent than his earlier works - actually all his movies up to Suspiria (not Susperia) are fairly solid crime mysteries and Tenebre also had a decent story line IMO. Given that Bird with the crystal plumage, Deep Red and Tenebre are usually considered amongst his best films (next to Suspiria) and more or less exactly what you suggested he should concentrate on (fast moving crime stuff, ok the fast moving is arguable), I'm not sure if that part of your review is really all that accurate.

- I agree that calling Asia ugly is silly (although I don't find her that attractive to be honest), but her acting certainly is horrible, but the same has been said about her in earlier Argento films, so again it doesn't seem to be a point that is particularly related to MoT.

-Argento's last "colour-intensive" movie was probably Inferno and the last one that placed style over substance was Opera, which came out in 1987, so I'm not sure why you think MoT is such a great stylistic departure for him, especially since all the stuff preceding Suspiria was done in a rather more subdued style too.

I guess the rest is just personal taste and I won't get into a discussion about Argento's abilities as a director (unsurprisingly I disagree with you on that too), but -although I'm sure it wasn't intended to come across this way- the review does read like someone trying to be a contrarian just for the sake it.

CRwM said...

Anon,

We'll have to agree to disagree. As matters of taste go, everybody ultimately answers to their own criteria. However, I do believe some of your statements don't accurately represent what I said or Argento's work.

1. I pointed to lapses in Inferno as exemplary, but we could go on. Even as late as The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) - which prominently features the title condition without, as far as I can see, any justification or reason - we've got story telling that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Why does Anna have Stendhal Syndrome? Why does it matter? What's the point of her visions of walking through water falls and kissing fish? Is it because he attacker eventually falls in water? What does the "Fall of Icarus" have to do with anything? Are we supposed to understand that Anna is punished for overreaching her powers? None of it holds together well for me and, like almost all of Argento's thrillers, the "solution" to the crime is essentially inscrutable until he decides to reveal it.

As for the "fast moving crime stuff" - my recommendations at the end refer to a historical police procedural, a cop story set in the fall a fascist Italy, and what would amount to a heist flick full of double-crosses. I don't believe either would fit the giallo format he's worked as recently as The Card Player (2004). I've seen both the films you mention and neither are particularly like what I'm suggesting he should work on. Both Lucarelli's "De Luca" trilogy and Carlotto's novel are available in excellent translations from Europa Press should you be interested. I don't think I'm asking him to revisit territory he's already worked over.

2. For every critic of Asia's work, we can find boosters as well. She's is, as I mentioned, a two-time winner of Italy's equivalent of the Best Actress Academy Award.

Honestly, whether she's a good actress or not isn't really the point here. I brought it up because I have specifically read where reviewers of MoT mention that they don't like her looks, as if her face was a clumsy effect or bad CGI job. Whether you think she sucks or not is, of course, a matter of opinion. And even I think she was miscast for this role, so it isn't like I'm defending her role in this film. But to write off somebody's role because you think she's ugly seems oddly, I don't know, junior high-ish. And writing her off for just that reason is specific to MoT insomuch as other reviewers did so.

3. As for the extreme use of color - are you forgetting the blue-washed sex scenes in 2005's Jenifer and or the orange and red apartment of Meatloaf's love interest in 2006's Pelts. There's the pink and red rooms of Sleepless (2001) as well as the blue-lit hallway chase scene and the green-lit dance club bit (though, arguably, a dance club could be green-lit so that maybe doesn't count). I would further add that his inexplicable mauling of Phantom of the Opera (1998) is a good example of him letting his stylistic impulses, especially his love of gore, run rough-shod over a story to no good end. To claim that Opera marked the end of Argento's stylistic excesses is to ignore 5 of the 6 projects he made up to MoT (I must admit to having never seen Do You Like Hitchcock).

Finally, while I've certainly been accused of being a jackass before and I have no defense against that, I don't think it is fair to say this is a contrarian stance I'm taking just to sound off on MoT. I've held pretty consistently to my position on Argento and the things I mention here appear again and again in my other reviews.

CRwM said...

Oh, and Anon,

I should have added this to the above:

Thank you for reading as carefully as you did even though you disagree with my premise. It's generous of you to hear me out and answer in a serious, thought-out way. I appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply - I must admit I 'm not familiar with Carlotto and Lucarelli, but will check them out now. Nevertheless, I still don't think this would work in Argento's case (his 5 days in Milan is a period piece and so bad that it never received a rellease outside of Italy as far as I know), but I guess we can just agree to disagree.
I realised that you were using Inferno just as an example, however, Argento's last movie that was primarily characterised by an extreme use of colour was arguably Inferno (or Opera - when Stendhal syndrome came out many felt it was disappointing due to a lack of style (and I think it sucks, but have forgotten most about it, so I can't argue your assessment)), so a "lack of style" has been apparent in Argento's work for at least 20 years now and all the stylistic points you make might just as well be applied to any of his recent movies. Now most of these admittedly sucked, but his fanbase still defended him, so I just don't think that style has anything to do with MOT's reception amongst Argento fans - if anything, it's probably the casual fans that still associate the "Suspiria/Inferno-style" with him.
The same goes for Asia - most Argento fans seem to like her already for her last name alone and I'd expect the "she's ugly" reactions from casual fans, but not from Argento fans.
That's really been my main complaint (although rather poorly worded) - you seem to target the wrong group in your criticism and all the positive aspects you mention are what I've read coming from Argento fans - I guess that's also why I felt the review read like it was written by a contrarian (no offense intended btw.).

To me, MOT's reception is ironic for a different reason - MOT is just another attempt (in what has been a fairly long list of films by now) to go mainstream and arguably one of his more successful ones, but unfortunately the mainstream seems to have decided that they want the Argento of old - almost as if a switch of preferences has happened between the two fan groups (a phenomenon were seeing more and more in general I think - just look at the increasing number of horror fans complaining about "Torture porn"/Saw and Hostel, Hollywood only going for unhappy endings in today's horror movies, the current wave of extreme horror from France ("it's not Fukci...") etc.).

Postmodern times indeed, so I guess we really have to agree to disagree anyway.

AndyDecker said...

Asia Argento is ugly: In other news, internet blogger still write a lot shit :-)

I also like Inferno. It doesn´t makes a lot of sense, but still. I saw if first at an impressionable age, and some scenes I will never forget.

I havn`t seen MoT yet, but will see it of course. Frankly I don´t have high hopes for it, but even if it is as lame as an episode of Charmed, who cares. It´s the new Argento, and it will surely be more interesting than a lot of todays Part umpteenth or the countless remakes polluting the market.

CRwM said...

Anon,

I see what you're saying. In retrospect, I lumped several different types of fan under a fairly generic rubric - "Argento fans" - without appreciating the mischaracterization of some fans that would necessarily result.

I also would have to admit that Argento's stylistic flourishes have, since, say, Opera, become less pronounced - though I think we'd continue to disagree on the degree to which this is true.

Perhaps I should have gone for a third revision.

CRwM said...

Andy,

Asia's as ugly as I'm am rich - and I ain't never won no lottery.

The whole "first exposure" thing is something I left out of the equation. I suspect I overrate Susperia and, in some way, think of it as essentially Argento just because I saw it first of all his flicks and the impact on me was the rawest.

AndyDecker said...

I saw Inferno at the cinema, at the dawn of the Video-age, when you had to pay attention or you missed those invariably one week only showings. This must have been 1980 and the idea that you have such movies at home at your fingertips was more SF than Star Wars.

And the movie left a deep impression. Maybe because the narrative was all over the place and all the training you had received on how a story works couldn´t apply here. Or those fascinating set-pieces. The sunken cellar under the cellar with its swimming corpse. the evil alchemist in the library, the cat-drowning guy who gets eaten by rats, great stuff. And of course the music by Keith Emerson, of which I was a fan at the time.

Maybe this was the first reason I went to see this movie, because even being 20 years old I wasn´t much into the arcane science of horrorfilmmaking. The name of the director didn´t meant anything for me. But at the time I thought the music of ELP great.

What so many of todays critics forget when writing about the so-called classics is the fundamentally changed cultural landscape. Here in Germany we had 3public tv-channels at the time, so the video-revolution had a tremendous impact. Today this is quite laughable, but back then you watched a movie when it was avaible because chances were that you never could see it again for some time. Especially in little towns like the one where I grew up. Maybe it is because of this movies - and especially horrormovie which always had trouble with censorship - left a more lasting impression. Today a movie seems not much more relevant than yesterdays paper. (If you buy a paper and not read it on the Net for free). Guys like me know most classics, but have trouble to name one movie produced in the last ten years which I would consider a "classic".

Todays audience is a much different beast. But this a topic we already covered :-) Guess I should put Inferno and Suspiria into the VCR this evening. Haven´t seen them in a while.