Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Suspirian Rainbow: Or, Why I love Technicolor

We have an extra special post today from guest writer Fred Aspbury to get you all in the mood for our screening of Dario Argento's Suspiria.

In 1976 the Italian section of Technicolor processing closed and was replaced by single-strip colour production. Two years later the British section closed; the last of the centres for Technicolor production in mainstream cinema. An age had passed, an age of gaudy greens and radiant reds. The writing, of course, had been on the wall for over twenty years, when single strip colour production became the norm in big budget productions. Yet many continued to use and love Technicolor thanks to the unique over emphasis it gave to primary colours.

                  When I think off Technicolor I think principally of three films: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938); Vertigo (1958); and Suspiria (1977). This last was the final major film to be made in Technicolor and thus represents the swan song of a process that had defined colour cinema since the Twenties.

                  We may ask, however, why Dario Argento chose Technicolor in the first place. As stated, single-strip processes had been widely used since the early Fifties and were much cheaper than the complex and light-hungry multi-strip process. Indeed, would Argento not want to use single-strip simply because it offered a more realistic, lifelike visual experience than the frankly garish acid-trip of its predecessor? My point is this: horror (chiefly horror that deals with elements that require huge compromises from the audience regarding suspension of disbelief, such as the occult) would be most effacious if it shows a world exactly like ours, with the horrifying elements sewn subtly into the fabric of that reality such that it is difficult for the audience to differentiate what exactly is or is not possible in the real world. Take, for example, probably the most talked about horror film of the last decade, The Blair Witch Project. The success of that film was to make the events depicted in it seem as real as possible. The handy-cam style, now so popularly aped, was relatively new and even the cameraman himself was a character in the plot. Never are we able to escape to the comfort of 3rd person shots or the psychologically effective yet unrealistic bozom of music. Indeed, even the occult aspects of the story are never explicit (the witch may just be a serial killer) such that we are left with the impression that this could be real and could happen to me... pretty scary eh?

                  Yet I do not like The Blair Witch Project. I found it neither scary nor entertaining. This is not to belie the artistic merit and the achievement of this independent film in scaring and entertaining many. I myself, however, prefer Suspiria, a film which genuinely is scary and entertaining in an almost unparalleled way. Part of the reason for this is that very use of Technicolor; that failure to even attempt to produce a real world on the part of Argento. Granted, the nauseating overabundance of red and green is partially explained in the setting by stained-glass windows, but the colour bludgeoning occurs in external shots too and one is left with the distinct impression that these two colours, along with a purplish black, are the only colours in the world. Some films, such as the aforementioned Adventures of Robin Hood, are simply grateful to be in colour; the predominance of primaries simply serving to produce a slightly camper, more theatrical Sherwood Forest. Others, such as The Wizard of Oz and Vertigo, use the accidental effect to create a dreamlike atmosphere either adding to the magic in Oz or to the sickening dizziness of guilt in San Francisco. Like Argento, Hitchcock could have spurned Technicolor  (Psycho, released two years later, was in black and white) but decided that the blurry, psychedelic visuals allowed the audience to share the confusing, hyporeal and dizzying perception of Ferguson. In both Vertigo and Suspiria the look of the film unnerves us; we enter a world, not of clear lines and mirror images, not a spatial world, but a world of emotion, confusion and horror. It seems, particularly with Suspiria, that the idea is not to manifest a possible experience in our world, but to show a nightmare, in all its bile-producing gaudiness, that may enter our heads in the sleeping hours.

                                    The unnerving irrealism of the colour scheme is augmented by an odd soundtrack. Like many Italian films (which were by preference overdubbed even for Italian audiences) the dubbing is atrocious. The actors mime in English and yet it seems almost no effort has been made to sync the mouth shapes with the sound. I’m not saying this is deliberate - far from it as it seems to be a feature of many Italian films – but it does add to the disorienting dreamlike effect the film has. We may perhaps think here of David Lynch who has often un-synced soundtrack and video track in order to nauseate the audience (see Inland Empire, Twin Peaks, and Mulholland Drive among others).

                  Finally, the musical score. Written and performed mainly by the Italian Prog-Rock group Goblin. It is not a normal score, written specifically to force home the emotions the creators want us to feel. Indeed, it seems that in many scenes the music does not fit at all. Not that the music is not emotive, it simply serves to creep us out in a way that does not require its partnership with the screen visuals.

                  In short, what we have with Suspiria, is a film that makes no attempt to be real, to scare us about what may happen to us on our next night-time jaunt through Munich. It is an aggressive concoction of incompatible and unrealistic colours and sounds that have us squirming with almost unbearable nausea before the plot even produces a witch or two. The Blair Witch Project makes us think ‘this is so real, maybe this will happen when I go into the woods;’ but nothing so rational, so explicit happens with Suspiria. We experience a feeling, difficult to define at first, not horror but... discomfort. And I don’t mean discomfort such as we experience when we watch torture porn films like Saw; when we say ‘ooh, a scalpel in the eye looks painful, that would hurt if someone did it to me’. The Suspirian discomfort is in the stomach, in the limbs, it haunts you entirely because it has no discernable cause. Not until you attempt, as I have done here, to separate the sound and image of the film, reducing their efficacy. Yet even so, such analyses are easy when you aren’t watching it; when the nightmare begins.  The Blair Witch Project may leave us too afraid to go camping in the woods but Suspiria, rather than making us reluctant to take up ballet, renders us afraid to go to sleep.

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