Monday, September 3, 2012

Like Fine Wine: Happy Birthday Dario Argento!

May 23rd, 2010: The day that one of my GREATEST dreams came true!

This Friday, September 7th, marks the  72nd birthday of the truly ageless Dario Argento, my favorite filmmaker of all time and a human being whom I have come to regard as “my artistic father” in more ways than one. I love all of his films, and in fact prefer a bad Argento film over a good movie by any other director. It’s much like my love of Madonna, in that I connect so personally with the origin of his work that I can rarely fault it the way other people can. There are, however, a few films in his canon that I adore less than others, though most of these I grow to love over time. Such was the case with Trauma, his first and last American feature (excepting the 20th Century Fox-funded Inferno). 

Trauma was the film that first introduced me to Dario Argento when its production was covered in the pages of my favorite magazine, Fangoriain 1992. Yet it was not until the 2005 Anchor Bay DVD that I was able to give this film its proper credit, and to see the movie that Argento clearly saw when he was making it. It’s actually quite a shame that Argento’s 90s output remains so underrated, for his films during that decade were far more personal and mature than many of the highly entertaining neo-giallo thrillers he would go on to make in the first few years of the 21st century. I consider The Stendhal Syndrome to be his finest film, and his outrageous take on The Phantom of The Opera (which many consider a work of cartoonish lunacy) to be his most underrated. I don’t have that same passion for Trauma, but I do love its romance, its personal insights, and its odd sentiment, set against Midwestern bloodshed and confused actors. It may not be up to par with earlier Argento films, but it is still as “unabashedly Argento” as anything he has ever made.

I wrote this paper at Emerson College for one of my favorite classes with one of my favorite professors: American Independent Cinema with Professor Rachel Thibault. I wrote about Trauma because it is, technically, “an American independent film”, and I wanted to expand the horizons for what that term could encompass. Also, while at Emerson, I took every opportunity I could to write about the greatness of Dario Argento

I made a few minor changes to better relay my thoughts, but I did not amend the glaring omission of any details about the plotline. Apparently I got so drawn into my own reactions that I failed to reference what I was reacting to. More than that, I am embarrassed that in my paper I failed to credit the role that Christopher Rydell’s sensitive, highly effective performance had in renewing my appreciation of this film. It is his chemistry with the ever-brilliant Asia Argento that fuels the film’s tender love story. This love story distinguishes the film from most of the Dario Argento films released in the twenty years that preceded Trauma.  It also anticipates the bizarre romances on display in his films made in the twenty years since, particularly The Stendhal Syndrome, Phantom of The Opera, The Card Player, and Jenifer. Trauma is the definitive turning point in Dario Argento’s career. Whether that is a good or bad thing is up to the viewer to decide. But when it comes to the ever-expanding body of Dario Argento’s work, I, for one, am happy to stay onboard for the whole ride. 

Robert E. Jeffrey
Prof. Rachel Thibault
September 27th, 2005

         “Like Fine Wine”: A Renewed Appreciation for Dario Argento’s TRAUMA

Dario Argento is an Italian filmmaker best known for his 1977 surreal horror classic Suspiria, which became one of the most prolific and commercially successful European horror films of all time and gave new terror credibility to a director whose previous commercial success writing and directing crime thrillers earned him the moniker “the Italian Hitchcock”. It is a label that remains to this day despite two very different—if similarly inspired—film catalogues (Jones 15). I first saw his 1993 American thriller Trauma in the summer of 1999, when I was beginning to immerse myself in the Argento canon. It was the first Argento “giallo”—a uniquely Italian horror/thriller hybrid steeped in sexuality and violence and usually involving heavy shades of Catholicism and Freudianism—that I had ever seen. I had previously been exposed only to his most surreal works: the hallucinatory Suspiria (1977), the nightmarish Inferno (1980), and the outrageous Phenomena (1984). Trauma was also unique from the previous Argento pictures I had seen in that it was not a European production: in fact, it remains Argento’s sole American feature.
When I first saw the film, I was disappointed by how different and relatively uninteresting the film seemed in comparison to the over-the-top, dreamlike Argento films that I had recently discovered. The film lacked the style, wit, and scares of the three aforementioned films, and felt highly unimpressive—at times even incompetent. I would soon discover that the film is also in stark contrast to earlier gialli like 1969’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and 1982’s Tenebrae, which boast more vivid color schemes and flashier setpieces. The film is presented in a muted, occasionally bland color palette, riddled with some embarrassingly over the top performances from actors who often seem either bored or frustrated (or both). It’s backed by a Pino Donaggio score that often feels over-the-top and poorly synched with the visuals: fine but perennially inappropriate music often pops up out of utterly powerful silence, abruptly punctuating onscreen action as though one were jarringly transported into vintage Disney/ Spielberg territory. For years, I held against the film the fact that this would be Argento’s only American film: I hated it for ruining Argento’s long overdue shot at Stateside success. And yet, in my years of posting Argento reviews and bulletin board posts, I’ve often been surprised by how many fans include Trauma among their Top 10 or even Top 5 Argento films….when most, including myself, would be inclined to put it at the very bottom of such a list.

I made several attempts to re-watch the film, hoping to find something that I had somehow missed, but could never move past my own prejudices against its drear-drenched look, cartoonish score, and mostly lousy acting, save for a touching turn by Dario’s daughter, Asia Argento, that I felt wasted her talent and the commitment she brought to her performance. That this depressingly inconsequential film came from Dario Argento, the man whom I considered the single most inspired, fascinating, and consistent icon ever to emerge from the “Italian Horror” subgenre, made me absolutely loathe Trauma. That was until August of 2005, when Trauma was finally released in America on DVD courtesy of Anchor Bay Entertainment, at long last in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Finally, I could view the film as Argento had intended for it to be seen. In doing so, I was able to appreciate Trauma as I never had before. What I once thought was rationale for its reputation as his worst film I now see as evidence of Dario Argento’s unrivaled genius: viewed properly, all the pieces come together to craft a film far more profound, affecting than it would have been if it was, by most standards, a “better” American independent horror film.
Trauma is in many ways, technically, a “bad” film. Yet this is part of what makes it so great: Dario Argento is too sharp and too acute to make a “bad movie” without being well aware of the game he is playing. In regards to the “aloof” performances, I realized that the film plays into Argento’s predominant direction of screen performers: Argento is privy to utilize “bad movie traits” such as blatantly unrealistic and awkwardly delivered dialogue and inappropriate emotional turns in response to various plot points to his advantage. He fulfills the needs of his most desperate and devoted viewers, those who crave cinema that rebels against a tradition of pristine reproductions of daily life onscreen: he delves instead into the realm of dreams, where things look like real life yet feel very, very different. This might also explain the strangely placed musical score, which achieves what would seem a deliberate effort to throw off an audience’s emotional connection to what is happening onscreen. However, such a design is not new: both Suspiria and his 1975 giallo masterpiece, Profondo Rosso, utilized overbearing rock soundscapes to disorient viewers’ sensorial intake during the most intensely suspenseful sequences. But Trauma is a deeply personal affair, arguably more so than those far more audience-friendly films. With Trauma, Argento is unprecedentedly revealing. He allows his most personal nightmares—the anorexia of his stepdaughter with ex-wife Daria Nicolodi and the toll his career took on Asia Argento, his daughter with Nicolodi—to take shape as they might in his own unadulterated, unconscious mind. (Jones 216)

Despite the presence of Dario Argento’s unusual direction of actors and placement of music, the film still feels inappropriately “American”, and largely due to the equally strange choice to light and photograph the film as if it were intended to be viewed on the small screen. Trauma is expertly composed in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but the colors are soft and bland, lacking in vibrancy, if not aesthetic appeal—especially when compared to the “eye candy” of Argento’s most celebrated films. In spite of a few surreal setpieces, Trauma is never as dreamy looking as Suspiria or Inferno, but its visuals are equally distinct, and just as vital to the film’s emotional core as primary colors were to the aforementioned films’ overbearing sense of impending death. Trauma, along with Argento’s infinitely more well-received 1982 thriller Tenebrae, liberally steal their respective looks from American television of their respective eras: the bright, washed out look of detective shows for Tenebrae and the dull, gloomy look of movies-of-the-week for Trauma. One might surmise that the anorexic back-story to Trauma contributed to its looking like a modern network telefilm, as that was certainly the most commercially appropriate American means for dealing with anorexia when Trauma was being filmed in 1991. Trauma utilizes a familiar American aesthetic for exploring empathetically human issues (ie. anorexia in teenage girls) and inserts into the mix surreally Argento fare like a trunk full of severed heads and a therapy session involving hallucinogenic berries. It serves its purpose as “an American horror film”, arousing familiarity in the American viewing audience, before brazenly exerting its independence from American horror expectations to analyze the mind of its creator.

Trauma was Dario Argento’s chance to emerge as in icon of American independent horror a’la John Carpenter and Wes Craven. When it turned out not to be the fan-satisfying yet commercially viable vehicle for expanding his American audience, many thought he blew it. Yet this negative judgment demonstrates the need for an archetype, for rules to be followed, for responses to be predicted by past film experience and fan expectations. As I look back on my earlier feelings about the film, I realize that I was no different from the other fans that disliked the film based on its perceived inability to deliver what Argento fans felt “an Argento film” should give to its audience, each and every time. I look back and see how fixed my expectations were, and how selfish I was as a viewer. Rather than allow the maverick of horror to take me to a new world and a rarely touched side of life-terror, I expected to be taken back to the old ones he had long since passed over. I was too preoccupied with my own need for “an Argento fix”, and I failed to realize how much I had reduced his films to little more than an effective formula that could and should be repeated to satisfy paying customers. By very deliberately choosing not to abide by such a philosophy, Argento sheds his commerciality and demonstrates his commitment to expressing himself through art as faithfully and unabashedly as possible. In his own unexpected way, he demonstrates an understanding of his fan’s expectations—and the importance, sometimes, of subverting them!—by asserting himself as a very conscious observer of American culture, cinema, and preconceived notions about what to expect from genre filmmaking. Beneath what one would be apt to call a “bad film” is in fact a far more lush, personal, at times disturbingly close-to-life statement than most of the works that made him a legend in the first place.  
Reevaluating the film six years after my initial viewing, I have fully come around to appreciate the very faults that initially lead me—and so much of the Argento fanbase—to label Trauma not only a career low, but also a genuinely bad film. In retrospect, I deeply regret having been so ignorant, and so unable to trust Argento’s vision.  Trauma serves as an exercise in demonstrating what one expects from specific genres and specific filmmakers, particularly when certain familiar ingredients are put before the audience. Unconsciously, audiences tend to put films together themselves, and criticize the film they are watching for how they either do or don’t conform to our expectations. Trauma very consciously bucks this trend, with Argento offering up what should be an old-fashioned giallo before twisting  his concoction into a device for filtering his recurring obsessions (family secrets, sexual dysfunction, crimes of passion) through his personal relationships. As a stand-alone, technically efficient horror/thriller picture, the film is inevitably deemed a failure by low-budget American independent horror standards, which generally requires a certain amount of suspense and violence and audience catharsis as measures of successful filmmaking. By such standards, Trauma may be an unusual, slightly uncategorizable, and very off-putting picture to most American audiences. But as a personal insight into the mind of Dario Argento, one of horror cinema’s most cleverly unique and truly mature filmmakers, it is a hauntingly personal and vividly realized work of film art.

Works Cited
Argento, Dario, dir. TRAUMA. Overseas Group/Anchor Bay Entertainment, U.S., 1993/2005.

Jones, Alan. Profondo Argento. London, UK: FabPress, 2004.

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