Genesis Cinema is leading the way, the first indie to reopen in London & now the first to resume their regular film club events. Cult Classic Collective featured regular rockstar host, Nick Walker, guiding us through the shock & awe of Dario Argento’s debut. Here’s our screen diary…
By RADIANT CIRCUS
Sometimes just being back in the darkened room is enough. If someone had asked whether or not Dario Argento’s debut feature THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970) would be our ideal return to the fine art of film appreciation – after months of cinema closure and withdrawal – we probably would have said, “haven’t you got something else?”
For all our horror fandom, slashers – or, to pack this film in its more sophisticated Euro genre, ‘giallo’ – are not our favourites. And we have particular beef with this one. If you’re unfamiliar with the Italian giallo subgenre, we wrote about it in an earlier piece to mark the release of modern retake, KNIFE + HEART (curiously, we never got round to posting the second part of that review…):
“Dripping in deviance and draped in an outrageous hallucinatory aesthetic, classic giallo cinema stages highly choreographed thrills where issues of gender and sexual orientation are routinely blurred and violently deconstructed (often at the blade of a knife).”
It’s not as if Argento didn’t go on to make far more extreme movies, but there’s something about the relative restraint of THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE that makes it feel more problematic. The blunt force trauma of watching SUSPIRIA (1977), where every one of the filmmaker’s now trademark techniques are out to assault the audience as much as the onscreen victims, means we see the graphic killings through the OTT lens of everything else that’s happening. We know Argento’s goading us into a response, but the audience becomes the ‘other’ that’s under attack. This makes watching SUSPIRIA as profoundly uncomfortable as say TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE with which it shares legendary landmark status.
Now, you could argue (to misquote Noel Coward’s Nude With Violin), that “all the murders are all wrong”, but we think the problem with THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE is that its murders are presented as sexual acts complete with breathy orgasms and dreamy lensing. If SUSPIRIA is hardcore Argento, this is his softcore equivalent, where much of his intent is achieved in the edit. It’s a film where women have limited agency and all too often fall into a catatonic state at the merest hint of threat. Watch it with a squint and you wouldn’t be able to tell your softcore porn from your softcore massacre: women simply ‘give it up’ for everyone’s satisfaction.
In his always excellent Horror edition of the multi-volume Aurum Film Encyclopaedia, Phil Hardy explains that by the time of SUSPIRIA et al, Argento’s films had become all-out “shock-machines”. We would argue that these later works succeed because of the displeasure you experience when watching them. THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE communicates its shocks as (narrative) pleasure, the onscreen women assaulted purely for our suspense and enjoyment. Is this Hitchcockian tongue in cheek game playing? Does the rapid exposition of the ending negate such concerns? Are there enough intelligently raised eyebrows about criminally vs morality, sex vs psychology to let everyone off the hook? We’re not convinced and always come away feeling grubby and displeased with our love of horror after watching it.
Now, there’ll be many other opinions on Argento’s attitude to women, but we like to think we’re one of the few sites to have quoted from one of Noel Coward’s lesser comedies when reviewing the maestro’s work… What’s clear about THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, and something the audience focused on in discussion at Genesis, is that it’s a masterpiece of widescreen framing, punctuated with a poptastic Morricone score.
As Nick explained, the early panoramic picture frame of the gallery window (and thus our cinema screen) is a slice of memory, complete with its own multi-layered depth of field. Solving the clues of what happened within this framing device becomes key to unlocking the movie’s success, both as an artwork but also as an unreliable whodunnit. The film’s many frames within frames really come alive on a big screen which is why, for all our misgivings, it’s essential to encounter THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE in a cinema, preferably in the company of others where its many Freudian issues can be analysed.
And that gets us back to the whole point of being at Genesis Cinema in the first place, and precisely why we’re glad no one asked us about what we wanted to see. Turning up to sample the wares of London’s cinema showmen and women is one our greatest pleasures and why we continue putting this blog together. It’s all about encountering films we know nothing about, think we already know, or might be challenged to see again in an entirely new light. This is why we always call cinema programmers “the sommeliers of the dark”, because that’s exactly what we trust them to do… serve up something sensational when the lights go down.
Nick gave a great introduction (despite nobly struggling with a clash of beard and face mask), welcoming us into the film’s controversies before stepping back and rejoining the crowd in the bar afterwards. If you’ve never sat and talked film with Nick in the afterglow of a screening, he’s knowledgable and welcoming in equal measure, coping with the often contradictory expert vs innocent needs and interests of his salon audiences. He always shares voices, insights and experiences evenly around the room, and gently steers attention away from any dominant or discordant interventions.
And it was wonderful to be talking film in the company of strangers again. If anything, RADIANT CIRCUS got a bit carried away, becoming one of those irritating new kids in the first class of school who has something to say about everything with waaaaay too much detail and enthusiasm. But we needn’t have worried… Throughout it all, Nick kept one steady hand on the rudder – the other readjusting his face mask – navigating the group through the sometimes challenging waters of film appreciation with consummate grace and flair.
The next film at Genesis Cinema from Nick and their Cult Classic Collective is likely to be HELLRAISER in a month’s time. We can’t wait.
[EDITOR’S UPDATE: Forgot to mention in the original post, Nick introduced this event by saying it was probably the biggest audience at Genesis Cinema since reopening day (04 JUL). Long may this continue. We wish the Genesis crew every success in these uncertain times.]
Main featured image: THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970).
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