Monday, October 02, 2017

A touch of Hell

Bodies that balked at quaking with fear at the cinema can find a belated revenge in the TV screening of horror films. Without a darkened auditorium, fear is no more contagious than laughter. To be afraid you need to know you’re more alone than others and smaller than the screen. The only effect a TV-miniature can produce, gory though it is, is unease. There is unease at taking the guided tour of sites and scenes where, in principle, there was horror and panic. Unease at obliquely entering the intimacy of fear. From Psycho to The Shining, for a while now there’s been nothing more disturbing than ‘site visits’ and those increasingly cinephile and mannerist returns to the ‘scene of the crime’. 
In Dario Argento’s Inferno (1979), an architect called Varelli has built three houses and written a book. In the book, he relates how he has made these houses for three ‘mothers’. Mater tenebrarum (the Rome house), Mater suspirorum (the Freiburg house) and Mater lacrimorum (the New York house) are but one whose identity is revealed only at the end of the film. Inferno doesn’t tell old Varelli’s story, but follows a series of characters, mostly young, who are fascinated by the book and are all destined for ridiculously gory deaths. All but one (the insipid Mark) to whom Varelli confides in extremis: ‘This house is my own body . . . and its horror has become my own heart.’ The owner of the house, the single name of the three mothers joined together, is indeed Death, whose scythe and skeleton are centre-stage in the final conflagration. 
The amused boredom aroused by the TV viewing of this cult film derives from the way Argento alone has fun with it. A mannerist, he multiplies the signature effects so that every one of his images will cry out that it is stamped with the name of Argento and knows it. Red or blue filters, flattened lighting (Romano Albani), Carl Orff-style score (Keith Emerson), wild discontinuities and soft padding, red herrings and animals of all kinds. This is all pointless but not unlikeable. Thanks to Argento in particular, there is ample time for a bit of general reflection on mannerism in general. 
Let’s take one example. At one point young Sara (who, like young Rose, will soon come to a bad end) finds one of the three houses in Rome and, fearing nothing, one night she makes her way into a library that’s open, then into a cellar, where some faceless alchemist (who has a corpse-like hand) turns his back to her before hurling himself upon her. All the same, Sara takes fright and runs away, tearing her dress, gets home, where she asks a neighbour to keep her company, which he does quite willingly before winding up with a knife across his throat and with the reckless Sara quite inconsiderately stabbed. Just as she’s getting out of a taxi opposite the library, Sara pricks her finger on something sharp and inconspicuous (let’s say a nail) attached to the vehicle. It all happens very quickly, even too quickly: a close-up of the nail, a close-up of the nail and the finger, a close-up of the finger with a drop of blood. The odd thing is that this detail has no dramatic purpose whatsoever, since in a matter of moments, Sara will be skewered. The odd thing is that it is too hastily constructed to have any function, even of premonition. The odd thing finally is that the appearance of this nail is virtually confused with the ‘function’ that it has, a function that is rigorously pointless. 
The same goes for characters as for objects and for everything in Inferno and in mannerism. It’s a matter of a fake functionalism where things and characters (which are seen like things) are only there to serve no purpose. The passage from mannerism to the baroque is the passage from "serving no purpose" to "only serving the nothingness", the great Nada that needs great dispositifs*. Mannersism, for its part, can choose to be as modest and carefree as a schoolboy exercise. It’s in this respect that the Inferno made ten years ago, was already a film for our times. For if the advertising aesthetic is the serious face of mannerism, the parody of the horror film is its facetious face. You only had to see Inferno interrupted (just after the guillotine scene) by nine commercials in a row to superimpose the two faces of mannerism. For a while now commodities have been filmed like the nail that pierces Sara’s poor little finger: they only occur for the moment they’re good for, except that they’re good for nothing

* The author cannot help thinking that if once again the baroque were to succeed mannerism, this would only be achieved by dynamiting the space of the cinema or the small screen. Will there one day be some kind of ludic engineering of collective illusion? Perhaps this is something for a new species of creator: an adventurer in communications, a machine of technological warfare, an iron-willed organiser, a transversal agitator. Goude’s parade in July ‘89? 
First published in Libération on 13 January 1989. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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