Negarestani and Pridham Go to the Movies: Deep Red by Argento

One thing I like about facebook is I have really smart friends who can take a sometimes superficial status message post by moi and turn it into a fascinating discussion. In such cases, you sometimes want to preserve it in a more formal context, like a blog.

Case in point, I posted this status recently about Argento’s movie Deep Red: “The mansion scenes were very cool. Mise en scene very good. Climax not so hot. Lots of slow, weird scenes. Didn’t understand the odd intermittent dubbing/subtitles/subtitles while actors dubbed Italian while speaking English. Several continuity errors too.”

Reza Negarestani and Matthew Pridham then engaged in the short conversation reproduced below, and which I found fairly fascinating. I love the implication of a movie being haunted, perhaps intentionally, perhaps not.

Negarestani is the author of Cyclonopedia, one of my favorite weird texts of the past few years. Matthew Pridham wrote the great “Renovations,” a Weird story from the point of view of a haunted house. (That story is available online here, and I highly recommend it—unfairly overlooked.)

This discussion contains spoilers.

Reza Negarestani: What I like about Argento’s movies (aside from the glamorous 70s decor) is that, as you suggest, they are full of these weird dissonant scenes and plot holes from which I always get the impression that there should be at least one more plot brooding in the dark, that a story far more terrifying and convoluted than the actual story is behind the colorful superficial facade of his movies, something that seeps in and out on its own. And that the seamless surface is only there to dam the twists of this brooding plot which we never encounter in full.

Matthew Pridham: @Reza I completely agree with your experience of Argento’s fragmented narratives! The dream-like nature of his movies create a sense that hidden connections and unseen plots abound. I can’t watch “Suspiria”, for instance, without thinking that young Suzy shares the nature of the denizens of the ballet school (trying to avoid spoiler language, here.) This is a quality of his Giallo noticeably absent from most other representatives of the genre, with the exception of the films of Lamberto Bava and Michele Soavi. If it is a matter of his plots truly just being messed up and projection on the part of certain viewers, what a fortunate fall!

@Jeff Coming from an Argento-phile, this sort of explanation may seem suspicious, but I would encourage a reading of his movies that allows those weird, sometimes seemingly purposeless scenes room to percolate. Some of the inconsistencies in his plots end up being my favorite aspects of them. Sometimes, on re-watching his movies, I have noticed even viewers somewhat hostile to the man pick up on resonances which begin to make sense. I think almost every one of his movies is best viewed as subtly supernatural or at least unnatural in the sense of a Kafka story… Carlo’s death, I have always thought, is a weird sort of fate, one tied to how he has lived on the periphery of violence and catastrophe. He has been dragged into this situation from before he was even a teenager, and I find his “accident” to somehow make more sense than the usual “death by cop” a character such as he would have normally experienced in a “crime thriller.” Also, some of Argento’s strange casting and settings have nuances which go beyond the obvious. Carlo’s “boyfriend”, for instance, was actually played by an androgynous woman (a situation which is reversed in his “Tenebre”) and this makes a weird sort of sense when you consider the reversal of gender expectations re. the real killer. Many people find the end sequence of his “Opera” to be similarly bizarre and inappropriate, but there is an almost obvious reading of the film that makes sense of it too. Maitland McDonagh’s book “Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds” is a great introduction to this way of “reading” his movies.

And the unexplained, shall we say pseudo-natural aspects of Deep Red would certainly have to include the behavior of the puppet, the psychic reading at the beginning of the movie, the “accidental” deaths of both Carlo and the killer, and the barely mentioned “strange cries” which come from the old, abandoned house (the ghostly echoes of a child’s scream, a child who wasn’t even dead yet!)

Reza Negarestani: Matthew, excellent and fascinating commentary. This I guess calls for a new genre of narrative: Xenopoetics i.e. poetic unraveling of a work on the basis of an irrevocably alien (xeno) presence in the work. This alien presence can be just a… room number that camera focuses on a bit longer than usual, a sound whose source is not in the scene, a gun that is hidden in a drawer but is never used (anti-Chekhov gun), etc. I am sure Jeff also agrees that these alien-to-plot elements harbor an exciting aspect of the weird but I think the key is the careful and thought-through deployment of them.

As for Argento’s plot holes, it also reminds me of another well-known director whose works—for unknown reasons—I have never paid enough attention to—David Lynch. Lynch’s movies are full of plot holes but I haven’t really got excited by them. Maybe it’s because of the proportion of plot holes to the plot. Only the right proportion makes a story truly weird. It seems Lynch’s movies are saturated by plot holes to an extreme extent that they relapse onto esoteric psychoanalytical narratives. In Argento’s movies, however, the plot functions precisely like a dam, a superficial wall that brings these plot holes into focus rather than dissipating them into total chaos.

Matthew Pridham: @Reza Xenopoetics! I love it! A technique which certainly requires a delicate touch. I’ve tried some of this myself, and find that, particularly in written narratives, these details are often passed over too quickly to make the needed impact. This is an area where film may have an advantage over literature: a strange focus in a movie seems harder to disregard than in a text, possibly because people expect text to contain quite a bit of “superfluous detail.” Have you read Robert Aickman? He is not for every taste, and some of his strange stories are too subtle even for a hardcore fan such as myself, but when he was at his best he could create a dizzying panorama of possible meanings with the most innocuous of additions to the plot. Your plot/dam metaphor is fascinating. This may be the difference between an “open text” and one which is, shall we say, “half-closed.” Lynch certainly veers in the direction of the “wide open” and I can see where the resulting super-abundance of possibility can make his movies come off as too inward.

On the use of absence, or hidden presence, this xenopoetics, have you ever read about Salvador Dali’s fascination with Millet’s “Angelus”? His obsession with the erased image in that painting has given me a lot to think about in connection with this “hidden plot” mechanism. One of his recreations, “Archaeological Reminiscence of Millet’s Angelus,” gives me chills (and ideas) everytime I look at it

4 comments on “Negarestani and Pridham Go to the Movies: Deep Red by Argento

  1. The music on that clip is superb.

  2. Ben Jones says:

    Reza’s idea for “xenopoetics” is pretty intriguing. I think I’ll be thinking on that one for a while.

  3. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Isn’t it?!?!?

  4. Hadley Burns says:

    Hello Matthew
    I have been doing research on the Pridham family for about 7 years …. During that time I have quite often run across the name Matt Pridham as a fellow genealogist and someone that has submitted family trees to the internet …. Is that Matt you ???? …. If so I would be interested in exchanging Pridham info with you as I continue my genealogy endeavours ….
    Until soon
    Hadley Burns
    Cambridge ON

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