Why Dario Argento thinks the gory scenes of movies are "the most important parts"

The Italian master of garish and supremely elegant horror discussed his beginnings in the film industry as part of the BFI Southbank's Gothic season.

I haven’t seen more than a handful of Dario Argento movies, nor am I an aficionado of giallo, but Thursday evening’s on-stage interview with Argento as part of the BFI Southbank’s Gothic season was a delight. In his chirpy, heavily accented English, the Italian master of garish and supremely elegant horror discussed his beginnings in the film industry, first as a critic and then as co-screenwriter with Bernardo Bertolucci on Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

Argento himself will never make a western. “I don’t like horses. I don’t like pow-pow-pow [he mimed a quick-on-the-draw gunslinger]. I don’t like landscapes. I like cities. Lots of cities. I like buildings. I like streets.” Leone, he soon discovered, had no truck with talk. He taught Argento that “the camera is master.” “He said, ‘Films are all speak, speak, speak, speak! I don’t like speaking. I like silence. This is cinema.’”

It was a lesson Argento learned well, as proved by one of the excerpts shown during the interview: the sequence from Tenebrae in which the camera prowls up one side of an apartment building, over the roof and down the other side. But in conversation he used words beautifully. At one point, he broke off to recount to us all the story of how he was the victim of a cashpoint mugging in London this week; the way he mapped out the movements of himself and the thief had the zinging clarity of a storyboard. And there was a choice moment when he began a story with the words, “One time I was in jail…” Hold on, hold on—why was he in jail? “Well, a policeman had come into my home, something to do with the finances, and he said, ‘Maybe you have drugs here?’” A small stash of hashish landed Argento in prison for several days. “It is a good experience,” he chirruped. “I meet lots of people. I remember when I was in college—it was no different. Maybe for long time it is terrible…”

A remake of his film Suspiria has been mooted for many years—the director David Gordon Green was trying to make it fly at one point—but Argento was dismissive. “The film is there. If you want to see it, just put the DVD in.”

He was not particularly enthusiastic, either, about most modern horror. “Fear has disappeared. No more fear. In Asia it is different. They’ve discovered again the fear and the psychology of the characters. Without psychology, the horror film doesn’t exist.”

For good measure, we saw a clip from his 1987 film Opera in which a woman has needles taped beneath her eyes to prevent her eyelids clamping shut while her lover is brutally murdered: she has to watch, or risk tearing her eyelids to shreds. A perfect metaphor for the cinema of Argento. He hates it when he hears that viewers have closed their eyes during the gory sections of his movies. “They are the most important parts.” He said that he wishes those needles could be handed to audiences on their way in to see his films. We all laughed—nervously.

Italian film director Dario Argento poses during a photocall for Dracula 3D on November 20, 2012 in a hotel in Rome. Image: Getty

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era