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Broken Mirrors Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams Of Dario Argento (#110 of 2)

Death by Art Andrew Cooper’s Dario Argento

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Death by Art: L. Andrew Cooper’s Dario Argento
Death by Art: L. Andrew Cooper’s Dario Argento

“What the fuck is this bullshit psychoanalysis?” are the wonderful words spoken by Jeremy Irons’s Beverly Mantle in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988), and if you follow the arguments of L. Andrew Cooper in his new book, the films of Dario Argento often share a similar opinion. Cooper claims Argento, though labeled early in his career as the “Italian Hitchcock,” spent his early, gialli-focused years lambasting and lampooning “Freudian proclivities,” most notably in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1969), which positions itself as a Psycho (1960) homage, only to jest at Hitchcock’s insistence upon closure via psychological ends. In fact, Cooper argues that aesthetics, especially beginning with Deep Red (1975), become a replacement for both psychoanalysis and narrative in Argento’s films, leading him toward an interest in visual excess, which would culminate in Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), films that “in their combinations of wild visuals and storylines that challenge storytelling itself, were unlike anything the world had ever seen.” If the previous claim reads slightly clunky and definitely hyperbolic, it’s likely because Cooper’s book, on the whole, is torn between its academic and populist inclinations. Unlike Maitland McDonagh’s revelatory Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, which strikes an invigorating balance of analysis, theory, and historicizing, Cooper states from the onset his desire to “eschew a traditional auteur approach.” Necessarily, this leads him down a rather predictable post-structuralist path, replete with deconstructionist close-reading after close-reading—all of them informative and knowledgeable, certainly, but few, if any, of them truly illuminating the depths of Argento’s oeuvre, beyond relatively fundamental distinctions between form and content and Argento’s non-normative subversions.

Review: Maitland McDonagh’s Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento

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Review: Maitland McDonagh’s Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento
Review: Maitland McDonagh’s Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento

In winning over new converts, champions of Dario Argento’s horror films have to fight a nose-bleed-inducing uphill battle. First off, his kinky, surreal chillers have been consigned to that special circle of exploitation purgatory reserved for Euro-schlock, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, as Argento has always half-boasted and half-lamented, most of his films have been censored and subsequently released in multiple cuts (he’s pretty much the Terrence Malick of Italian sleaze).

This has made the man and his acolytes extra-defensive, as is evinced in Maitland McDonagh’s interview at the back of the new edition of her Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento. By the end of their Q&A, he seems exhausted (“Why don’t you just make up a reason for me,” he retorts, as if he were ready to limply dangle a white flag above his head). And this is after McDonagh, a dogged defender of the man’s work, playfully teases him with a non-question like, “Do you lie on the beach thinking of disgusting ways to kill people?”