La Dolce Morte: a brief review
Above: La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film
I finished reading Mikel Koven’s La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo last night, and thought I’d say a few words about it.
First of all, as I mentioned before, this is an excellent study, and nothing else like it exists. Academics, for the most part, tend to shun gialli anyway, assuming them to be unworthy of serious study, but, even when one looks at things from a less scholarly perspective, there is a real dearth of available books focusing on this genre, with perhaps the only English language title dedicated to the giallo being Adrian Luther Smith’s Blood and Black Lace, a guide that is exhaustive in its breadth but, for that very reason, lacks depth.
Generally, it seems that most scholars ignore gialli because they don’t consider them to be “good” cinema, lacking the sophistication and “art” of the more highly regarded Italian films by the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini. Even those who do study giallo films tend to be dismissive of the bulk of the genre, focusing on the films of Dario Argento or Mario Bava at the expense of all others. Maitland McDonagh, for example, who was the first scholar to seriously study Argento, in her book Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds claimed that the “outlandish titles” of the non-Argento gialli are “the only interesting things about them”, effectively rejecting an entire genre, barring the output of one of its most prominent directors.
Koven’s argument is that such scholars are looking at these films in the wrong way. He points out that they were originally intended to be played to a working class, non-critical audience who had little interest in sophistication and intelligent plotting, preferring instead to be entertained by a parade of sex and violence. Viewing these films instead in terms of “vernacular cinema”, he therefore argues, removes the need to justify these films as being “artistic” (which, he claims, most are not), instead looking at them from the same perspective as their original intended audience. He builds a very convincing case for this over the course of ten chapters, establishing first the nature of the giallo and of its audience, before going on to dissect specific traits of these films - e.g. the role of the detective, attitudes towards modernity, the influence of the giallo on North American slashers. In doing so, he refers to a commendable number of titles, although there is, as usually tends to be the case, something of an over-reliance on Argento’s films.
Koven’s approach is, therefore, a perfectly valid one. The only problem is that I don’t agree with it, and at times I found his continued refusal to view these films in anything other than vernacular terms to be something of a stumbling block. In a sense, I completely understand why he did this - anyone putting together a case study, no matter how broad the scope, must set certain parameters or run the risk of waffling - but it should be remembered that this book really only shows one side of the coin. Koven is, I’m sure, absolutely right when he argues that, say, The Case of the Bloody Iris (Giuliano Carnimeo, 1972) was only ever intended to be watched as trashy entertainment, and that applying the sort of analytical methods that academics also apply to the films of Fellini and Antonioni is ultimately a poor fit. At the same time, though, to pass off the entire giallo genre as being “only” vernacular cinema is, in my opinion, unwise. I’ve already written at length about the films of Argento and a few select others that I believe can be analysed, at least partially, as art cinema.
To tar the entire genre with the same brush is therefore, in my opinion, problematic. There are certain traits that constitute a “typical” giallo (e.g. lots of sex and violence, screaming women and gallant male rogues saving the day), but what applies to The Case of the Bloody Iris doesn’t necessarily apply to Profondo Rosso (Argento, 1975). In looking at these films from a completely vernacular perspective, you run the risk of doing exactly what Koven accuses those who try to fit them into an art cinema context of doing. Yes, plenty of academics look down their noses at these films because they don’t fit the framework of a Fellini, but, if you try to put them in their own little box and claim that we shouldn’t even try to analyse them as art films, then you’re essentially just playing into the hands of the snobs, becoming apologetic for their very existence. (It’s a bit like what Stephen Thrower said in Beyond Cinema: The Films of Lucio Fulci: his argument was that talking about “justified” and “unjustified” violence was ludicrous, because, if a horror fan tries to defend his favourite gore scene in such terms, he is merely playing into the hands of the censors and automatically on the defensive.) By removing the need to justify them as “artistic”, on some level you prevent them, and their study, from being considered respectable at all.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression: I liked this book very much. It was an enjoyable read with a coherent argument maintained throughout, and I would like to think that it will pave the way for studies of the giallo from a variety of different perspectives. Ultimately, though, it only represents a single viewpoint, and one that, whatever the author’s intentions, seems a little one-sided in its focus.
Update, December 19, 2006 05:58 PM: Fixed dead link.