December 2021, arsenal cinema

The Depths of the Uncanny - Films by Dario Argento and David Lynch


Horror and beauty, dark abysses and rooms of shimmering color, destructive violence and sensual visual discoveries: such seeming oppositions become inextricably linked in the cinematic worlds of Dario Argento (*1940) and David Lynch (*1946). The works of both directors plumb the unfathomable depths of the human psyche, finding piercing, universal images for individual traumas, obsessions, and states of mental emergency that are at once disturbing and touching. Following a career as a screenwriter, including for C’era una volta il West by Sergio Leone, Argento made his directorial debut at the age of 30. His first works called a whole new style into being, reconfiguring the crime film genre known as giallo as an avant-garde form. Supernatural and mythological elements began entering his films more and more, which became ever more opulent in terms of direction. Their explicit, highly choreographed scenes of violence are a ritual element rooted in painting and nightmare, touching on primal angst and the universal fear of death. The unique design of his films such as PROFONDO ROSSO and SUSPIRIA continue to influence (genre) cinema to this day. For his part, David Lynch was a painter before he discovered film. His first feature ERASERHEAD (which was also released in his early 30s) is a milestone in fantastical, surrealist cinema. Over the course of his career, Lynch developed an unmistakable cinematic language, which serves to abruptly transform seemingly perfect surfaces into frighteningly deformed, absurdist, bizarre distorting mirrors. Unlike Argento, he has been recognized as an auteur by film scholars for some time, with his oeuvre forming the subject of numerous studies. Both Argento and Lynch use the specific expressive possibilities of film—color, light, camera movement, music, editing—to create works that only fully reveal their all-enveloping quality in their original analogue format and in the cinema auditorium. This program curated by Gary Vanasian places selected films by both artists into a dialogue. Bringing together ten of Dario Argento’s films, this is the most comprehensive retrospective of his oeuvre to be presented in Germany.

ERASERHEAD (David Lynch, USA 1977, 3.12., with a video introduction by Georg Seeßlen & 16.12.) Henry and Mary Spencer’s child is born prematurely, half human, half animal. After Mary can no longer bear its nocturnal screams, she leaves Henry to fend for the little being himself. In nightmarish visions, he sees his head become transformed into the tip of a rubber eraser, creatures on other planets, and a woman that lives in a radiator. Lynch worked on his first feature for several years, at once a horror film and a surrealist vision in black and white that already achieved cult status shortly after its release. Consisting almost entirely of industrial noise and drones, the soundtrack is an experimental acoustic art work by Lynch and his sound designer Alan Splet.

SUSPIRIA (Dario Argento, Italy 1977, 3.12., with a video introduction by Georg Seeßlen & 19.12.) Young American woman Suzy Banyon travels to Freiburg im Breisgau to study at a renowned ballet school. On the rainy night of her arrival, she is already confronted with an image of horror: a woman runs through the dark forest in panic and fear and is murdered shortly afterwards. Further events occur that point to ominous powers inhabiting the ballet school. Argento’s famous film weaves together elements of gothic horror, literary romantic dread, and witchcraft myths to create a kaleidoscope of unforgettable images and ecstasies of color, propelled by the different instruments and sounds utilized on the soundtrack by the band Goblin. “SUSPIRIA is an artificial masterpiece, a film of bizarre elegance and painful beauty, the pure calligraphy of cinema.” (Hans Schifferle). The positive prints of the film were copied via a three-color print procedure just before the Technicolor laboratory in Rome closed its doors. We are showing the film print copied on Eastman Color positive material of the English version and the German cinema version as an original Technicolor print for the second screening.

BLUE VELVET (David Lynch, USA 1986, 4. & 9.12.) After his father suffers a stroke, young student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns to the small town where he spent his childhood. Next to the hospital, he finds a severed ear in the grass. When nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) becomes the focus of police investigations, he become gripped by a fascination for her. He sneaks into her room to watch her and witnesses how Dorothy is abused by the perverted criminal Booth (Dennis Hopper). Lynch’s thriller plays with colors and surfaces from the very first shot onwards, with the contrast between harmony and horror, humor and mania. Its smart dramatic use of color and the either gaudily colorful or impossibly dark Cinemascope images give the film a unique visual texture that references motifs from film noir and the giallo genre. BLUE VELVET also marked the beginning of Lynch’s collaboration with composer Angelo Badalamenti, who was to create the unmistakable floating soundscapes for all his other films except for INLAND EMPIRE

L’UCCELLO DALLE PIUME DI CRISTALLO (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Dario Argento, Italy/West Germany 1970, 4. & 10.12.) American writer Sam Dalmas becomes the witness of an attempted murder in a brightly lit gallery on a nightly walk through Rome: a figure in a black raincoat seems to attack the wife of the gallery owner. Over the course of the police investigations, Dalmas tries to recall what was the key observation he made while watching what happened. Dario Argento’s visionary directorial debut was made during the heyday of Italian genre cinema, with giallo having established itself as a form of expression to this end since the mid-60s. Film artist Mario Bavio left an essential mark on its perfectly executed visual structure. “The murder investigation as a cool psychological mystery, presented in elegant compositions and feverish fetish images which would leave a lasting mark on the visual language of the giallo: black leather gloves, glittering razor blades, and moments of voyeurism in twitching stills” (Christoph Huber) We are showing the film in the original Italian version as well as the English version distributed worldwide at the time.

MULHOLLAND DRIVE (David Lynch, USA/France 2001, 5.12., with an introduction by Gertrud Koch & 15.12.) A young woman suffers concussion in a car accident on Mulholland Drive. Looking for somewhere to take refuge, she comes across Betty (Naomi Watts), an up-and-coming actress who wants to become a Hollywood star. She agrees to help the unknown woman, who introduces herself to her as Rita, in finding out who she is. Much like in Lynch’s previous film LOST HIGHWAY, one radical narrative decision is what determines the lasting influence of MULHOLLAND DRIVE. The dissolving identities of his protagonists are visualized by Lynch via repeated superimpositions and changes in their external appearance, similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s directorial decisions in Vertigo and those of Argento in LA SINDROME DI STENDHAL.

QUATTRO MOSCHE DI VELLUTO GRIGIO (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Dario Argento, Italy/France 1971, 6.12.) “Rock drummer Roberto is followed by an unknown figure who he unintentionally stabs to death when the two of them clash. But his actions are being observed—and photographed. Soon Roberto is receiving threatening messages and is plagued by nightmares, which has such an effect on his unstable wife that she ends up leaving him. In this final part of his animal trilogy, Argento allows the plot to glide along in the most abstract manner up to that point—our perception repeatedly fails in its attempt to work out the truth and only Bud Spencer as “God” has any idea what to do. Instead, unbridled, large-scale set pieces and details (the human retina as a visual memory of the murder!) luxuriate in bombast. The unforgettable finale can be put down to the super slow motion effect created by a special scientific camera, which shoots 30,000 images per second. Cinema as the suspension of time.” (Christoph Huber) Due to the lack of available Italian film prints, we are showing the German version of the film, which is available in a Technicolor print.

INFERNO (Dario Argento, Italy 1980, 7. & 17.12.) The second part of Argento’s mother trilogy, whose mythology is based on a 1845 essay by British writer Thomas De Quincey, begins in New York. Young Rose reads in a book that she supposedly lives in the house of Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness, one of three deadly witches who want to rule the world together. Shortly before her brother arrives from Rome, who she has informed of her discovery, she is murdered. In comparison to its predecessor SUSPIRIA, the colors in in INFERNO are more soft and pastel, the rhythm of the film slower and more elegiac. Musician Keith Emerson developed a multi-layered spectrum of sounds that range from Verdi’s opera music to choir music for multiple voices with prog rock influences. Beforehand, we are showing THE BLACK CAT (USA/Italy 1990), Argento’s contribution to the omnibus film Two Evil Eyes, to which George A. Romero contributed the other episode. Both episodes are based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, whose oeuvre is a big inspiration for Argento.

WILD AT HEART (David Lynch, USA 1990, 8.12.) “Lynch’s version of popular teenage daydreams, the story of an outsider couple confronted by evil inside and out as they flee across the US. There are some formal references to The Wizard of Oz which suggest a fairy tale interpretation behind the road movie/gangster film template. David Lynch permits himself an open narrative structure and abundant humor and plays with elements of bad taste.” (Georg Seeßlen)

IL GATTO A NOVE CODE (The Cat o' Nine Tails, Dario Argento, Italy/France/West Germany 1971, 10.12.) At the medical biological institute in Rome, a group of scientists prove the existence of chromosomes that produce criminal tendencies in those that carry them. At the same time, blind crossword puzzle designer Franco (Karl Malden) and his niece Lori become witnesses of blackmail. A series of murders begins, to which one scientist after the other falls victim. The plot that the film is based on seems to stem from a surrealist idea, which gives Argento all the more freedom and an ever greater lack of restraint in developing this reflection on the human senses and the relationship between the spectator and film perspective.

LOST HIGHWAY (David Lynch, USA/France 1997, 11.12.) Saxophonist Fred (Bill Pullmann) and his wife Renée (Patricia Arquette) start receiving video cassettes containing ever more sinister recordings of their own house. Fred visibly suffers from unexplained fits and sudden terrifying visions. Eventually he is arrested for a brutal crime that he can’t remember committing. LOST HIGHWAY is a disturbing nocturnal piece, peopled by eerie figures who embody mischief and insanity in equal measure. In the first part of the film, Lynch proves to be a true virtuoso in staging cinematic fear, before he moves on to freer, no less gripping forms in the second.

PHENOMENA (Dario Argento, Italy 1985, 11.12., with an introduction by Marina Ghersinich & 16.12.) As her parents have no time for her, Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly) is sent from the US to a girls’ boarding school in rural Switzerland, where a series of brutal murders occur. Jennifer walks in her sleep and is able to communicate telepathically with insects. With the support of an entomologist (Donald Pleasance), she tries to get to the bottom of the murders. Argento has referred to this film as his favorite and most personal. PHENOMENA is suffused with a wistful sadness that is also expressed by the cool, muted palette of colors used in the film. Argento’s use of an Iron Maiden song in a scene of an entirely different nature is memorably bold—and comparable to the use of a Rammstein song in LOST HIGHWAY.

INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch, USA/France/Poland 2006, 13.12.) “INLAND EMPIRE can be seen as the final part of a trilogy of anti-linearity after LOST HIGHWAY and MULHOLLAND DRIVE. This time, the theme is filmmaking itself, which gives the director the opportunity to cast a few sarcastic sideways glances. Everything begins with a song: “A little girl wanted to play, but she got lost, as if she were only half-born”. The lost girl is now a Hollywood actress who gets caught up in a terrible labyrinth of dreams and threats.” (Georg Seeßlen)

LA SINDROME DI STENDHAL (The Stendhal Syndrome, Dario Argento, Italy 1996, 14.12.) 
When Anna Manni (Asia Argento) enters the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the artworks start exerting a hypnotic power over her. While looking at Pieter Bruegel’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (which is actually exhibited in Brussels), she faints and afterwards loses her identity. In a possible reality or dream, she is raped by a blonde man who was with her at the gallery and spoke to her after she fainted. She soon remembers that she’s a police officer who was sent to Florence to track down a rapist. Via the piecing choral musical leitmotif composed by Ennio Morricone, the film becomes a drama on the fragility of existence from the very first images onwards. Computer generated special effects were used in an Italian feature for the first time here, allowing the protagonist to literally dive into the paintings.

LA TERZA MADRE (The Mother of Tears, Dario Argento, Italy 2007, 17.12., with an introduction by Jochen Werner) A coffin containing objects that apparently belong to legendary witch Mater Lachrymarum is transported from Sicily to Rome. There it is opened by Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento) and her assistant, whereupon the latter is killed. Violent incidents now start happening in Rome. The voice of Sarah’s dead mother helps her in her attempts to end the curse. LA TERZA MADRE is the rousing finale to the Three Mothers trilogy that started with SUSPIRIA and continued with INFERNO. Critical consensus on Argento’s late work, which is far more contemporary in its direction and colors that his films from the 70s and 80s, is conscious by its absence, also among his fans.

TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (David Lynch, USA/France 1992, 18.12.) In a small town in America, the body of a young prostitute is found in a lake. One year later, in Twin Peaks, 17-year-old Laura Palmer is suffering under the influence of her father, who has seemingly been transformed into a monster by mysterious forces. The film was made shortly after the end of the second season of the legendary TV series of the same name and was conceived of by Lynch as a prequel to the events of the series. “The color scheme has an almost musical quality, with the blue of yearning and sad sex blends with the red of passion and lost innocence, like embers with ethereal smoke, like heaven with hell.” (Hans Schifferle)

PROFONDO ROSSO (Dario Argento, Italy 1975, 18.12., with an introduction by Maximilian Brauer) In a room decked out in Christmas decorations, a murder takes place, albeit one which only visible as a series of shadows on the wall. Music teacher Marcus (David Hemmings) is in Italy for work. A medium called Helga Ulmann is murdered shortly after taking part in parapsychological conference. From these different plot threads, Argento creates a thriller of gripping, psychologically analytical images that explores the relative nature of memory and the fatality of personal traumas. We are showing the 35mm film print of the English export version, which has several dialogue scenes cut and doesn’t contain the genuine colors, but retains the outstanding texture of an original print. As the first reel of the print is lost, the opening of the film will be screened as a DCP of the Italian version. (gv)

arsenal cinema: Unknown Pleasures #12
 – American Independent Film Fest

07:00 pm Cinema 1

Outside Noise

Outside Noise Ted Fendt Germany/South Korea/A 2020
35 mm German OV/EnS 61 min

arsenal cinema: Unknown Pleasures #12
 – American Independent Film Fest

09:00 pm Cinema 1

Hester Street

*Hester Street Joan Micklin Silver USA 1975
With Steve Yeats, Carol Kane
35 mm OV/GeS 91 min