The day before the start of his 20-film retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Dario Argento spoke with film historian Rob King in front of a small delegation at the Italian Cultural Institute. King began by pointing out that the director has now been making giallo movies for 53 years, which is “four years longer than John Ford has done westerns.” When asked what gender meant, Argento replied that he had been asked this question thousands of times and that “one more time” he would reply, “I don’t know”. When asked if his approach to directing giallo had changed, he also replied, as he always has, no. He just follows his instincts.
Of the 20 films in the retrospective, 17 have been newly restored to 4K resolution. Labor, as Italy’s Consul General in New York, Fabrizio Di Michele, said in his introduction, is “to blame for many sleepless nights.” But after fabricating all those bloody murders for the screen, the filmmaker said he slept “very well” himself. King referenced Thomas De Quincey’s 1827 satirical essay, “On Murder Considered One of the Fine Arts,” before asking Argento, broadly, what the relationship is between murder and art. . The filmmaker called Quincey’s book “crazy,” then slightly dodged the question, saying, “I think people like horror movies because they cause such strong feelings that they don’t understand. I have friendship and solidarity with these horrible stories -[I receive] a feeling of great pleasure from these terrible ceremonies.
King ended the conversation by asking, “Are there any murders that you imagined that you didn’t shoot or that were cut from your films?” Argento replied, “All the ones I imagined shooting.” The small crowd applauds.
Prior to the conference, I interviewed Argento with translator Michael Moore in an archive of the Italian Cultural Institute. Having read that his films often start from “little ideas” which “hustle” him, I asked him if he was afraid of anything in his own films. He said, “No, I’m not afraid of my own films. These are stories that I tell that come from deep within me, I know them well. So once they’re done, I don’t see them. I rarely see them, if ever, because once they’re done, I want to work on the next project and look ahead.
I wondered if creating or finishing movies had ever helped him ease the fears that inspired them — if he found filmmaking therapeutic. In the middle of the question, Argento started mumbling “No. No,” he added, “Cinema is not therapy. It’s a very important work, but it’s focused on the story. It would be too easy if the cinema were a form of therapy, because everyone, rather than going to a psychoanalyst, would go to the cinema. Cinema neither cures nor cures anything. What cinema is is telling the story of something that comes impulsively from within you, from your soul. In my case, it is something that is suggested from deep within me. I start with a very small idea, and around that idea, I build the puzzle, and I add to it until I have the whole film. It’s a small but very important idea.
“So why am I making movies? Maybe because in reality I want to be liked by the public.
I postulated that going to the movies in the United States today can even be an anxiety-inducing experience, that I had paranoid thoughts while sitting in a theater – preparing to go out or imagining what I might do if a shoot were to happen. I said those fears are more pronounced when you see movies reminiscent of those whose premieres were targeted by shooters, like the Batman movies. I remember a statement the LAPD made when police amped up their presence in theaters across the country for the Joker premiere: “The Los Angeles Police Department is aware of the public concerns and the historical significance associated with the premiere of Joker.I was struck by the “historical significance.”
After a moment, Argento added, “I don’t think it’s because superhero or Batman movies express any particular form of violence. They are very simple films, and even a little stupid. But what they do do is attract a very young crowded audience. So when the shooter goes to the theater, he knows he will find it full of people and he can kill as many people as possible. That’s why it happens with these movies in particular.
I found interviewing filmmakers to be like his own film education, so I asked Argento if he still had any lessons or memories from the directors he interviewed as a young film critic.
” I learned a lot. Before becoming a director, I was a journalist, and in my work I interviewed many famous directors, for example, Fritz Lang and John Huston. I particularly remember an interview with Jean-Luc Godard which was very strange and bizarre. There were many more, many that I don’t remember. But what I learned from them is what cinema is. It’s different from literature or painting. It’s very mysterious. He was born inside of you. You have to say it not on the page, but through images.
Back in his interview with King, Argento argued that “the camera is the most important element of cinema.”
One of the director’s first projects was to help Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci write Once upon a Time in the West, which he says helped him start formulating creative on-screen deaths or murders. His first feature film, The bird with crystal plumage, featured many of what would come to be known as the maestro’s tropes and qualities – a disembodied killer, searing camera work, an ubiquitous score (this time by Ennio Morricone), and more. Despite the toxic relationship between the director and lead actor Tony Musante, the film was a critical and box office success. I asked him what he thought of negative collaborations that still yield interesting or positive results on screen. Argento’s response focused on his memory of Musante, a story that occasionally and suddenly inspired its members to become quite animated and spider-like.
“I don’t have a very good memory of this tense relationship. It’s a horrible memory, actually. I remember every morning going to the set was like a nightmare – the fact that I was going to bump into Tony Musante. On set, we were arguing and arguing. When the movie ended and he had to go back to the States, I got home, it was 10 p.m., and then I heard this knock on the door. I look through the peephole, and it’s him! And he kept knocking, louder and louder, at that big, heavy door, shouting: ‘Argento! Open the door! Open the door!’
“I haven’t opened it. It’s ten o’clock, why should he even think I’m home? So I shut up and he finally left. When the movie came out and it was a big hit in the States as well, he called me and said how awesome it was and how great it had been to work together, and I said, “No, it wasn’t great working together. Please don’t ever call me again.
After coming to life to tell his story, Argento quickly relaxed again.
With hindsight, I would have liked to have asked the director more about his work pleasures than about his fears and anxieties. Watch the beautifully restored darkin which the director plays with his own likeness through the protagonist Peter Neal, an author of detective novels, it is these strange and pleasant “sensations” that stood out, and which Argento prioritized at every turn.
Inside of Dario Argento: two or three things we know about himthe great book that Cinecittà (which restored the films) publishes in tandem with the retrospective, are a series of interviews and essays surrounding Argento’s work through the decades – proof that the maestro has over the years spoken of his films and his production in more or less the same way.
Argento’s answer to John Carpenter’s question “Where does the fear, the darkness come from in your films? which the book adapts from a 1999 interview at the Turin Film Festival, echoes many of his responses to me, King, and moderators and audience members at Lincoln Center today:
“That’s the hardest question anyone can ask me, so I’m going to ask you the same; that’ll teach you ! Fear is instinctive. I’ll be honest with you: I don’t know where it came from — from deep inside me — from when I was a kid, from that long hallway I had to walk down at home to get to my room. You remember your first horror movie in 3D. I remember the first horror movie I saw…The Phantom of the Opera– which really changed my life. It introduced me to a world I didn’t know – a world where ghosts and dark passions lurked underground. I had no idea these things existed. I think it fascinated me. I had a long illness when I was a teenager, so I stayed home for a few months. I couldn’t move because of my rheumatic fever. Then I went to my dad’s library and started selecting books and reading whatever I could find. I devoured everything like an omnivore: essays, Shakespeare, the lot. At the end, I came across an Edgar Allan Poe storybook. I fell in love! It was so much more than The Phantom of the Opera: it was the most incredible fantasy, and I think these tales changed something in my life. They showed me this famous door that we open, behind which there is this panorama that we have never seen before, revealing different colors and emotions. People ask me: ‘Why don’t you make other films, other genres?’ It is impossible, because once through this door where one has felt such violent and destructive sensations at the limit of the impossible, how to reconnect with the story of everyday life, of normal life, just of life …? Someone like you, so used to fantasizing and conjuring up monsters that come out of holes and possess you; someone who imagines a girl who goes to boarding school only to find out that all the others are witches. Can you imagine doing anything else?