Q & A with author L. Andrew Cooper on horror film director Dario Argento

L. Andrew Cooper is an assistant professor of film and digital media at the University of Louisville and the author of the new book in the University of Illinois Press Contemporary Film Directors Series, Dario Argento.

Q: How does Dario Argento’s work fit into the genre of “giallo?”

Cooper: The “giallo” is an Italian crime thriller set apart by violent, extravagant set pieces. “Giallo” means yellow, and the term refers to the yellow covers traditionally associated with the crime novels (often Italian translations of English-language originals) that inspired many of the films.  Argento’s directorial debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) took the giallo to new levels of intricate mayhem, and his fifth feature, Deep Red (1975), experimented with nightmarish visuals that helped make it one of the genre’s most successful films.  Giallo conventions appear in almost all of Argento’s films, but Suspiria (1977) and other supernaturally-themed films stray too far from the giallo’s core of crime and mystery to qualify. His purest later gialli are probably Tenebre (1982), which features one of Argento’s easiest-to-follow (yet still awfully baroque) storylines, and Sleepless (2001), a late return-to-form that has helped to keep the giallo alive in the twenty-first century.

Q: Argento is thought of mostly for his horror films.  Is his work in other genres overlooked?

Cooper: Argento has often said that he can accomplish everything he wants to do with character and imagery in horror films and gialli.  His one feature outside these genres, The Five Days of Milan (1973), is worth seeing because it carries the director’s visual and narrative eccentricities into new territory, but it is a minor work.  In Argento’s films, genre provides a platform for stylistic experimentation unbounded by the norms of realism and rationality.  Horror is a starting point for thinking and feeling in Argento’s films: looking at where each film goes from that point, rather than focusing on genre as a limitation, might be the best way to approach Argento’s work.

Q: Early in his career Argento was called “the Italian Hitchcock.”  Was that a valid comparison?

Cooper: Yes and no.  The giallo, like its American cousin the slasher, builds explicitly on Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).  Because Argento gave the giallo visual intensity akin to what Hitchcock typically brought to his subjects, Argento was branded as “the Italian Hitchcock” almost immediately after The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.  As I argue in my book, Bird is already in dialogue with Psycho and the traditions it inaugurated; the label “the Italian Hitchcock” helped to extend this dialogue throughout Argento’s career, culminating in Argento’s film Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005).  Despite the obvious importance of Hitchcock in Argento’s work, however, the comparison is somewhat superficial.  Popular perceptions of Hitchcock frame him as a master storyteller with acute psychological insight.  By contrast, Argento’s films privilege neither story nor psychology, preferring disorienting, abstract imagery and narratives that defy human agency and logical sense.

Q: Who are some filmmakers which Argento has influenced over his long career?

Cooper: Filmmakers around the world acknowledge Argento as an important influence. George Romero (Dawn of the Dead, 1978), John Carpenter (Halloween, 1978), James Wan (Saw, 2004), Pascal Laugier (Martyrs, 2008), Mick Garris (Masters of Horror, TV, 2005 – 2007), Takashi Miike (Audition, 1999), Eli Roth (Hostel, 2005), and Quentin
Tarantino (Death Proof, 2007) are only a few of the filmmakers who have  explicitly acknowledged Argento’s contributions to their stylistic development.

Q: Many of Argento’s films are both violent and visually striking.  His critics have claimed his  excessive visuals are at the expense of narrative.  Is this a valid criticism?

Cooper: The many critics who condemn Argento’s films for bad storytelling and bad acting miss one of Argento’s most important contributions to the history of cinema: over several decades, his work has developed a sustained critique of narrative and psychological conventions.  My book explores this critique in detail, so here I’ll limit myself to saying that Argento gives horror/grindhouse audiences what Michelangelo Antonioni started giving arthouse audiences in the 1960s.  Like Antonioni’s, Argento’s films explore untenable searches for truth amidst the fragmentation of (post)modern
existence.  The two filmmakers’ generic and visual vocabularies differ radically, and they don’t always point toward the same conclusions, but their attacks on traditionally accessible narrative follow similar courses.

Q: How does Argento handle sexuality and gender issues in his films?

Cooper: Controversially.  I believe that the man himself has views of sexuality and gender that most people would call progressive, but the man’s views are less important than the difficult depictions of sexuality and gender in his works.  He most often comes under attack for the films’ graphic violence against women, whose bodies are objectified and torn apart in film after film.  As a result, some critics dismiss his films as misogynistic.  Such  dismissals rarely take into account the self-conscious strategies that the films use to call attention to the cultural processes that dehumanize women and men alike.  Some critics also see the frequent appearance of queer characters as symptoms of homophobia, but they also fail to account for ways in which the strikingly frequent appearance of queerness undermines sexual prejudice.  In Argento’s films, aestheticized violence turns toward ethical ends, and those ends include exposing misogyny and homophobia as shallow and ignorant structures of feeling.

Q: What was the most interesting thing that you learned while researching the book?

Cooper: Argento is one of the most written-about directors in popular cinema, but very little of that writing is academic.  Academics are often blinded to his work’s cultural significance because they can’t see past (or see with and through) the lowbrow status of the horror genre or the disturbing violence of the horrific imagery.  What surprised me most is how consistently and pervasively Argento’s films speak to academic critics’ concerns.  I find a lot of “auteur” criticism uninteresting because it indulges in myths of solitary artistic genius and fallacies of intention, but even as Argento’s films raise questions about the possibility of individual agency and the desirability of coherent narrative, the corpus as a whole is individually distinct and offers a remarkably coherent vision.  I don’t really care whether this vision was born from Argento’s conscious intent, but I see the vision clearly across his works, and the longer I look at this vision, the more profound it seems.

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