Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds, by Maitland McDonagh

Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento by Maitland McDonagh. University of Minnesota Press, 2010 (revised with new material from 1994 edition). Trade paperback, $22.95, 296pp, illustrated. ISBN 0-816-65607-X..

“As is always the case with studies of filmmakers who are still making movies,” author Maitland McDonagh writes in her introduction to Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, “this (book) can’t hope to be definitive. What it can do is single out certain tendencies in Argento’s work and examine them, while providing an overview of his films to date” (p. 34). Blogger-author-film critic, McDonagh’s insight into the works of her controversial subject Italian horror director Dario Argento stays above the minutiae of close deconstruction in favor of an overview of his films from his debut, The Bird with Crystal Plumage (1968), through to Trauma (1992). Her gender and academic credentials (the book got its start as her master’s thesis at Columbia in 1984) help in validating what some feminists dismiss out of hand as misogynistic excess due to Argento’s notorious violence against women in the films, as in Carol Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws. Having a female academic to guide us into these waters, one trained to spot misogyny swimming below the water level, seems more legitimate than, say, the typical nerdy Norman Bates-ish DVD collector. McDonagh plunges in with Broken Mirrors, and while the journey never achieves a madness in the prose equal to its subject, it does stay the course, unerringly, measuring out equal parts deconstruction, film history, cultural surroundings, and critical response, making Broken Mirrors/Broken Mindsone of the few extensive books on the Argento oeuvre.

Still, one can’t help but wonder if some of the really deep stuff got lost during the conversion from master’s thesis to mainstream publication, lending it a weird feint-and-jab approach, suggesting great depths before scuttling back to the high ground. A big plus is that McDonagh widens the usual Argento scope to examine the films he’s produced and the related work of his disciples/mentees, a few of which I bought online as soon as I read about them, like Michele Soavi’s Bloody Bird (available on DVD in the U.S. as Stagefright, 1987), with its owl-headed killer and the metatextual semi-legitimate Suspiria-name checking treatise The Black Cat (1984, available on Netflix Streaming). McDonagh also provides a welcome perspective as one who has frequented both the grindhouses of 42nd Steet remembering seeing a disreputable film at Cine 42 — “a shoe box of a grind house so dirty, claustrophobic, and relentlessly seamy that I remember it more vividly than the movie” (viii) — and Columbia’s master’s program in film history/theory criticism. As of her writing the 2010 addendum she could only find Argento’s Four Flies on Gray Velvet via R2 DVD, for example, but as for Argento, “the films he has made since the latest version of Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds can only be called problematic” (xiii-xiv).

The new material for this edition seems to be a bit of subterfugal advertising since “An Introduction to the Expanded Edition” is the expansion — as far as I can tell. Not to say his newer films are worth whole chapters unto themselves; McDonagh doesn’t really need to delve into Phantom of the Opera, Do You Like Hitchcock, The Card Player, Mother of Tears, or Giallo. They kind of suck. She does manage to suggest what’s wrong with each film. Of The Card Player, she notes, “Absent those visual tropes that always situated Argento’s films in some brilliantly deranged landscape of the mind, The Card Player looks sadly threadbare” (xxii). She points out that the final shooting script Argento worked with on Mother of Tears (instead of returning to the original script he wrote with Daria Nicoldi) “was a collaboration with American writers Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch, whose credits (individually and as a team) include Spiders (2002),Crocodile 2: Death Swamp (2002), and Tobe Hooper’s 2003 remake of The Toolbox Murders” (xxxiii). It’s typical of her restraint that McDonagh doesn’t draw the parallels implied with Mother’s dismal failure. Gierasch and Anderson probably know how to write a good toolbox torture scene (Mother of Tears offers plenty of that) or rote dialogue in some made-for-cable low-budget CGI monster movie, but when it comes to Italian nightmare logic, they are a far cry from Daria Nicoldi.

Argento’s own words (including an interview at the end of the book, along with an extensive filmography), and the denigrating and positive criticisms from reviews written during their original runs, are well-integrated into McDonagh’s overall discussions of each film in the main (original) text. She also explains the plots and resolutions, so let this be a warning to Argento newbies: see all the films first if you want the whodunit suspense angle. There are times when McDonagh becomes hamstrung by the need to justify a deep intellectual deconstruction of Argento’s work: “One may well ask why it’s worth expending the considerable effort needed to decode a film like Deep Red or Tenebrae whose conventionally intellectual concerns are threaded in among elements generated by crassly commercial considerations” (233). She might well be talking about film criticism in general, i.e. what some call the new criticism, wherein deconstruction deliberately probes aspects of the film that the auteur behind it most likely never considered, which some casual readers find irksome, feeling nothing can legitimately exist in a film unless the artist put it there. That said, McDonagh shouldn’t apologize to said readers. That she does is indicative of the same problems a filmmaker has with an executive producer’s worry about mainstream success, though doubled since so many thesis advisors in big, conservative-barricaded liberal arts schools praise “important” films no matter how boring, while horror film can never be considered a mine for theoretical riches since it’s too popular (this was especially true before the rise of DVD and anamorphic widescreen, which lends so much more power and clarity to directors’ intentions). It’s no wonder, then, that McDonagh feels compelled to note, almost apologetically: “By opting decisively for the low road, Argento has ensured that when he errs it’s always on the side of exuberant bad taste, rather than high-minded pretension” (234).

Still, she successfully defends Argento’s overall gory sensationalism as an aspect of Italian culture reflecting roots in grand opera, inquisitions, and churches containing severed limbs of saints. McDonagh also points out “influences as diverse as American television policiers and liturgical ritual” make an Argento film “an engaging enterprise: dense, subtle, and infinitely rewarding on its own terms” (233). Differentiating from the above-mentioned bourgeois academe stigma, she compares an Argento film to something like Spielberg’s The Color Purple, which is about “‘big’ things like racism, the tyranny of the family unit, and one woman’s search for her own identity — but as a film . . . it’s seamlessly pretty, technically well-crafted and utterly vacuous — the message is the medium” (233).

With Argento, on the other hand, the medium is like a shattered glass screen: “You can look at the patterns (from naturalistic to stylized in a variety of ways), use of colour, styles of editing . . .  talk about the obtrusive foregrounding of the mechanical means of production, systematic subversion of the narrative codes of traditional mystery-thrillers, hieratic use of actors, obsessive encoding of allusions to perverse sexuality, tension between the use of certain avant-garde devices and the commercial orientation of all Argento’s films, or the shifting relationship between soundtrack and image, to name only a few. . . . You could make an argument for Argento’s use of post-dubbed sound as a stylistic statement” (234).

This is true, but one can’t help wishing McDonagh had made these arguments, rather than just touching on them. The book might get an edge of dangerous risk-taking to match its subject were she to take some deep-diving chances and segue into these areas. Instead, while the quotes from Argento are fascinating (many taken from Cinefantastique)she seems to take way too much stock in what Argento actually thinks of his own work, and as we all know, directors are sometimes not the best judge of their own genius.

As an example of this teasing outskirts of the pool-treading brilliance, consider Deep Red, a film that McDonagh keenly explores for its the connection to Antonioni’s Blow-Up, a connection Argento no doubt intended with the casting of David Hemmings in the lead (as a jazz drummer instead of Antonioni’s photographer, but caught in the same web of meaning-drained significations): “Blow-Up is overtly about the relationship between ‘reality’ (remember Nabokov’s admonition that the word means nothing without quotation marks) and image. Deep Red has a less conspicuously metaphysical slant, even as it dabbles in notions of fate and the abysmal nature of the world concealed by the safety of surfaces. One thing both films share, however, is a fascination with the process of representation; a fascination rooted in their mutual lack of faith in the veracity of two-dimensional representation” (112).

That fascination is never far from McDonagh’s mind, though never much closer than in the above quote. There’s no doubt that McDonagh deserves her master’s for this thesis as she nails all three aspects of the major, film theory, criticism, and history — but one does long for something that plunges fearlessly into the heart of darkness, uncovers paralyzing truths that neither Argento nor obsessive viewers ever imagined might be there. This review would be different if I read it ten years ago. I would have wanted something that made me obsessed with seeing the films, of finding them on DVD no matter what the cost, and devouring them with fresh eyes, something that absolved me not from Catholic guilt but from my liberal-arts-major PC feminist brainwashing (I was in college when she was writing this, the dawn of the PC mindset late ’80s) by having a female scholar’s absolution. With eyes now trained to know what to look for through McDonagh’s book, I would likely have become enraptured and horrified on an existential level. Argento deserves no less. But as far as taking these issues further in the 2010 edition, McDonagh has too many other, less theoretical, areas to cover: the family dynamic involved (Dario’s father is a film producer, his daughter an actress, etc.) and the collaborative friendship with Mario Bava, his son Lamberto Argento’s frequent assistant director, along with Michele Soavi; George Romero; Goblin and Ennio Morricone; Sergio Leone; and so forth, all of which are interesting for fans of Italian horror. McDonagh covers the weird gender permutations (such as casting real women to play transsexuals and vice versa) while never directly addressing the feminist backlash toward Argento and his sexualized images of murdered women.

But for the 2010 revision she should have reviewed Creepers under the full cut, Phenomena, and reevaluated it in the longer, more coherent version, one of my favorite Argento films despite its problems with trying to cram in too much in too short a time and never giving any one thing full attention. The same might be said for Broken Mirrors/Broken MindsIt covers a lot of ground as it lurches from generalized journalism to deep intellectual analysis and out to overall historical context, and for an expanded edition it might have re-evaluated some of the older movies (she wrote it long before DVDs, and most Argento on VHS were pan-and-scanned and edited for American markets) now available in their original running times in beautifully restored widescreen. But these oversights mirror Argento’s own later career, which — as his fan base grows thanks to DVD and Blu-ray — does not measure up to his earlier brilliance, and like his best films the book leaves you wanting more — to go deeper into the madness rather than pulling back to safer vantages — even as you’ve already seen far too much. As Peter Neal asks a reporter in Tenebre who starts grilling him on Catholicism and aberration, “I thought this was an afternoon show. Do you really want to get this heavy?”