31+ Days of Horror. 33 Horror Movies. 33 Reviews. Hooptober Challenges and Bonus Tasks.
View my 2016 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watch Pile Shame-a-thon Statement here.
Nature of Bird with the Crystal Plumage Shame:
Unseen (and two-years borrowed) Blu-ray
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist:
Master Classers – Argento
#29. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Guess what? YUP. This is still going on. My steadfast pursuit of an end goal that nobody even cares about impresses you, doesn’t it? No? Screw off, man. I’m working for the common good. Here I am, mid-late November still plugging words into bl-g posts about horror movies. Once the election happened, this all slipped into the background when I fell into a 24/7 news cycle of disbelief, conspiracy theories and #facepalm. Movies remain a sanctuary. Things make sense again. I didn’t get my bachelor’s degree in film theory for n0thing. NO COMMENTS FROM YOU, READER. Reader, dear reader. I’m sorry. Continue reading, maybe?
I believe in the powers of proximate viewing, especially when it comes to viewing multiple entries from the same director. Having viewed Deep Red (for the first time!) and Tenebrae (for the first time in ages!), my reading of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage shifted drastically. Elements from Bird reappear in both Deep Red and Tenebrae. And I’m not just talking about the giallo genre tropes either. Let’s focus on one element from each and contemplate how Argento evolves from Bird to the latter film in his filmography.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red & Perception
Bird opens with a man (Tony Musante) witnessing the murder of a woman inside a glass-walled art gallery. Right from the get, Argento foregrounds one of his favorite broad themes — perception vs. reality. But not only that. As we’ve seen in Deep Red, Argento also loves to explore art and interpretation. Art is at once a basic reality and the myth that you, the viewer, interpret based on your individual frame of reference. By setting the catalytic murder sequence within a modern art gallery, Argento is again directing your interpretation from the outset of the film.
Deep Red devoted lengthy bits of dialogue to the nature of perception vs. reality. There is not one reality; but rather millions of realities based on individual perception. What is real? Argento turns Deep Red into a meditation on art. He evokes Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks with a nifty bit of set design and lingers on classical architecture and sculpture. Impressionist paintings play a major role in the narrative.
In his earlier film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento cares less about “Art” as a recurring motif and more about interpretation. Like Deep Red, his protagonist in Bird makes assumptions that direct his investigation of the witnessed murder. What has he seen? What does it mean? But Musante’s Sam doesn’t meditate on this interpretation; instead, Argento uses Sam’s perspective (and consequently our perspective) as a red herring. We, like Sam, witness the murder while trapped between two panes of glass at the art gallery. Face value vs. reality. Art vs. interpretation.
It’s not until Sam recognizes that he’s misled himself through his own assumptions that we, too, understand that our reading of the film has been improperly directed by cinematic tropes and expectations. Argento’s dastardly twist relies on the fact that we, the audience, understand the predictable language of the horror film. That we will also fall back on easy expectation and interpretation.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Tenebrae & the ‘Misogyny’ Argument
I regret that I’m reducing term papers into paragraphs, but thinking’s good for you and maybe if I don’t pummel you with thousands of words, you’ll revisit these films and form your own deep thoughts.
I glossed over some stuff at the tail end of the prior paragraph because spoiler reasons. The part I yada yada‘d concerns how we see horror films and specifically the giallo genre. Black gloved murderer kills beautiful young women. We try to figure how which woman-hating male has perpetrated the crimes.
Tenebrae acts as Argento’s response to the argument that giallo films hate women. He opens the discussion with a writer being interviewed by a particularly aggressive female journalist. She questions author Peter Neal about how his novels hate women since they’re regular victims, prey, chattel. Neal responds with an incredulous laugh. “You know me,” he says, suggesting of course that it’s absurd to consider him a misogynist. The reporter responds, more aggressively this time. But your books are — explain yourself.
Films in the giallo genre succeed when they undermine viewer expectation. What separates giallo from your average slasher is that the giallo is equally concerned with discovering the identity of the murderer as the murders themselves. The giallo is part procedural investigation and part slasher. Argento’s finest gialli follow the boilerplate but innovate and usurp expectations. One of his favorite ways to undermine expectations is to invert the sex of the murderer. In Tenebrae, Argento not only inverts the sex of the murderer, but he also examines misogyny from multiple angles.
Again I’ll stop short of fully explaining Tenebrae‘s ending, but the multiple twists force the audience to similarly examine these questions of misogyny from multiple angles. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (and to a lesser extend Deep Red) use our expectations as misdirection. Tenebrae, of course, also cares about misdirection, but the questions left when the credits roll intentionally inspire further reflection rather than gee whiz admiration for a keen narrative twist.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a terrific example of an early giallo that shaped the giallo genre. Like Bava with Bay of Blood, Argento’s first film has confidently elevated the form with a stylish and clever slice of intelligent exploitation. As a direct precursor to both Deep Red and Tenebrae, Argento provides much fodder for analysis and direct comparison. Together the three films provide a generous give and take of interpretation and narrative understanding. View them in close proximity and in order of release and prepare to have your giallo-loving mind expanded.
30Hz Movie Rating:
Earlier 2016 31 Days of Horror entries:
#1. Vampyros Lesbos / #2. A Chinese Ghost Story / #3. The Haunting of Morella / #4. Delirium (1972) / #5. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin / #6. She-Wolf of London / #7. Son of Frankenstein / #8. Killerfish / #9. The Bride of Re-Animator / #10. A Bay of Blood / #11. The Seventh Victim / #12. The Fly (1958) / #13. The Fly (1986) / #14. Deep Red / #15. Dracula’s Daughter / #16. Day of the Animals / #17. The Unknown / #18. Kuroneko / #19. Komodo / #20. Tremors / #21. Tremors 2 / #22. A Nightmare on Elm Street / #23. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge / #24. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors / #25. Tenebrae / #26. Salem’s Lot / #27. Veerana / #28. House of Wax