Contextualizing The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
While a pro-feminist rereading of a film such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage may be useful for rethinking signification in the film itself, in Argento’s corpus, and, to some extent even in the post-Gothic (Italian) horror film, it
becomes much more meaningful if inserted into a social and ideological context that helps render it plausible—that is, within the story of women in the years leading up to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. In sketching that story (albeit briefly, given its role as conclusion rather than substance of this chapter), I focus at times on the historical and at times on the cinematic representation, as befits Argento’s cultural formation.
Although the role of women has been and continues to be highly restricted in Italian culture (the number of women in Italian politics, for example, is woefully low in comparison with other Western countries), there have been moments of notable strength in the past fifty years. The one that comes to mind most readily, particularly in relation to a film released in 1970, is the women’s movement formed in the wake of 1960s student protest and the “hot autumn” of Italian labour discontent in 1969. However, because the movement, for the most part, succeeded rather than preceded the making of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, its “prehistory” is more relevant to the film than is the movement itself.
In the early postwar period this prehistory is reflected in (at least) two types of filmic representation that confer power or validation upon women. The first is the neorealist12 woman worker and “warrior,” symbolized by Anna Magnani, who struggles (though not always with success) against the harsh socio-economic realities of an Italy emerging from the devastation of war. This figure is grounded in the powerful role played by women in the Resistance, which, in turn, gave rise to L’Unione donne italiane, an association formed in 1944 that, as a wing of the Partito communista italiano, was instrumental in obtaining the vote for women (first exercised in 1946) and remained active throughout the postwar period in the pursuit of equality for women (see Birn – baum 1986, 51-65,198-21; Hellman 1987, 217-20).
This figure was relatively short-lived, disappearing long before L’unione donne italiane, which dissolved in 1984. It gave way to the 1950s international star figure best represented by Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren, and Claudia Cardinale. This figure is not nearly as validating as is the Magnani figure, reflecting less the power of women in Italian society than the Americanization of Italy—the “objectification” of Italy-as-woman in an increasingly mass – mediated world—as well as the colonization of Italian cinema by Hollywood. (Because of the huge number of Hollywood productions and personnel present in the Eternal City in the 1950s, Rome came to be dubbed “Hollywood on the Tiber” by American entertainment journalists.) Yet even though the strength of the Italian starlets derived much less from the characters they played than from their largely orchestrated star quality (see Buckley 2000), each
of them did, at various points, bring strong Italian female characterizations to the screen, thus rendering visible certain aspects of women-centred Italian culture that otherwise would have remained in the shadows.
It would be difficult to argue that the resistant warrior or the Italian glam queen have direct links to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, but they do form a significant part of the cinematic environment in which Argento was raised. Directly relevant, on the other hand, is a third female figure, who appears in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s:13 the bourgeois or bourgeois-aspiring protagonist seeking or forced to seek a new identity as woman in an Italy experiencing unprecedented prosperity, industrialization, and modernization.14 Argento’s bourgeois, urban, self-employed, and pathologically self-directed Monica, in an anything-but-conventional marital/family situation, has clear ties with this third figure.
Although the socio-cultural context that gives rise to this figure has not been a subject of extensive research,15 we can posit a number of contributing factors. As Luisa Passerini (1991,168) notes, women experienced “profound changes in everyday behaviour.. .in the 1950s”—changes that could be characterized as “informal emancipatory movements” More specifically,
These included the adoption of new behaviour patterns, above all regarding consumption, by very large numbers of women who were “on the move,” often literally through emigration….The changes in consumption concerned the body, the home, and transport. The changes also involved the modification of women’s lifestyles and their self-representation in everyday life: going out, walking in public, traveling, smoking, and the questioning, in part not yet translated into action, of sexual mores. (168-69)
Paul Ginsborg (1990, 244) notes that, while more Italian women than ever became housewives in the 1960s, they also became “individuated” and targeted within consumer society: “The women’s magazines and the television advertisements of the time exalted. the modern Italian woman.” In short, there was a significant shift, even within the role of housewife, from submission and sacrifice to self-gratification, which, in turn, reflects a growing urge for self-expression.
Concomitantly, the 1960s saw a significant change in attitude even with respect to family or marital roles. Conducting research as early as 1961, Lieta Harrison noted signs of rebellion among younger women in Italy, and in research conducted in 1964-65 among over 1,000 teenaged girls from various parts of Italy, she found that 62 percent did not want to get married (Marwick 1998,93-94,386-87). In terms of emerging intellectual discourse around women, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex appeared in Italy in 1961 (it was published in France in 1949), while Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique appeared in 1963. The debates that developed around these books formed part of the intellectual background for Italian feminism of the 1970s.
Within Italian cinema, changes in women’s attitudes and roles are prophesied by the Ingrid Bergman/Roberto Rossellini heroines of the early 1950s, though the Bergman phenomenon is anomalous in terms of Italian culture because of her status as outsider, exacerbated by the scandal her relation with Rossellini provoked in the conservative Roman Catholic environment of the times. They are more thoroughly embodied in the work of Antonio Pietrangeli through the 1950s to the mid-1960s,16 which treated a variety of displaced and alienated heroines from both the provincial proletariat and the urban bourgeoisie trying to survive in an Italy in social and economic ferment. (Passerini’s comments above are particularly relevant to Pietrangeli’s provincial heroines.) During the same period, Italy’s premier woman screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico helped craft a variety of strong female characters, working with directors such as Luchino Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni.17
The strongest links between new 1950s and 1960s Italian cinematic figurations of women and the work of Argento lie in the films of Antonioni and Fellini. I earlier noted Argento’s tendency to cite Antonioni in his films. Intriguing in this respect is the fact that the actress Monica Vitti is the principal embodiment of the Antonioni bourgeois alienated, heroine (L’avventura , L’eclisse , and Red Desert ), and Argento’s heroine in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is named Monica. Even more intriguing are the links between The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Blowup (1966), the Antonioni film whose traces appear most frequently in Argento’s work.18 Like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Blowup is a giallo in which the protagonist becomes obsessed with the photographic representation of a violent event: the photo of Consalvi’s painting in the former, the protagonist’s own photos (which imply rather than depict a crime) in the latter. More important, in each case, the principal female figure (bourgeois, alienated) is initially viewed by the male protagonist as a victim, only to turn out to be much less innocent. In Blowup, the power of the female is not expressed through a visible artistry of violence; however its very invisibility and indefinability makes it uncage-able, allowing it to operate more powerfully and to culminate in the profoundly evocative dissolution of the male figure (masculinity/patriarchy?) in the final moments of the film. In Antonioni’s next film, Zabriskie Point, released in the same year as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, women’s violence will be far more in evidence, if only on an imaginative level when, in the penultimate scene, the heroine Daria envisions the apocalyptic “blow-up” of a house in the desert near Phoenix, representing, among other things American patriarchal culture.
The link with Fellini is clearest in terms of the latter’s Juliet of the Spirits (1965), a portrait of a bourgeois woman’s journey to independence and individuation, and a film whose traces are everywhere in evidence in Argento’s 1977 Suspiria. The anger and violence of women that we see in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Suspiria are, in Fellini’s work, as in Zabriskie Point, expressed largely in symbolic terms, through Juliet’s flashbacks, dreams, and vision. However, it is clearly there, making Juliet of the Spirits, in many respects, a woman-centred horror film rooted in childhood abuse both cultural and religious.
I would also argue for a link between Argento and another major Italian director, Marco Ferreri.19 In some ways the evidence is more tenuous here because there is no obvious citation of Ferreri in Argento’s early films. (For one thing, as a younger director than Antonioni or Fellini, Ferreri lacked the corpus, in the 1960s, to draw upon.) Yet the link might well be as strong or stronger, in that Ferreri had strong pro-women politics of which Argento was directly aware. By 1967 Ferreri had made two films dealing with the exploitation of women, La donna scimmia (1963) and L’harem (1967). As a film reviewer for the daily newspaper Paese Sera, Argento knew Ferreri’s work and noted in print his desire to meet with him (Della Casa 2000, 31). In fact, he did interview Ferreri in connection with the L’harem and, inevitably, on the theme of women. Describing L’harem, Ferreri tells Argento:
E’ la storia di una donna che non e aiutata da nessuno. Vede, viviamo in una societa maschile dove si fa un gran parlare della donna, della liberta della donna, dell’emancipazione della donna, della parite della donna. Ma nessuno veramenta auita la donna. Perche e una societa maschile. Le donne sono l’ul – tima colonia. (Della Casa 2000,32)
It’s the story of a woman who is not helped by anyone. You see, we live in a male society where a lot is made of women, of the freedom of women, of the emancipation of women, of women’s equality. But no one truly helps them. Because it is a male society, and women are the last colony. (Translation mine)
Ferreri then displays a clear awareness of contemporary proto-feminist discourse: “La donna a quaranti anni e finita. Ella passa per i quattri stadi: prima e la fidanzata, poi l’oggetto sessuale, quindi diventa madre, ed e finita” (Women at the age of forty are finished. They pass through four stages: first there’s the girl friend, then the sex object, then they become a mother, and then they are finished [Della Casa 2000, 32, translation mine]).
In fact, L’harem is a brutally frank film, particularly for an Italian male director, about a woman who seeks to express her sexual independence, only to be ganged up on by the four men in her life, reduced to a housewife, and ultimately killed. Its treatment of violence against women, women’s containment in traditional roles, and their punishment outside those roles clearly links up thematically with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
The woman-centredness of Antonioni’s, Fellini’s, and Ferreri’s work from the late 1950s to the late 1960s (or 1970, if we include Zabriskie Point) combine a growing desire for individuation and independence; a growing ability for selfexpression, at times, violent; and a growing sense of victimization and resentment that reflect perfectly a climate in which women are becoming more alienated, political, separatist, and expressive. These films anticipate but also, in many ways, instantiate a world in which women’s discussion groups (originating in 1969) will evolve into more political affiliations, such as Rivolta fem – minile and Movimento della liberatione delle donne italiane (1970) and Lotta fem – inista (1971-72), which, in turn, will contribute to the organization of successful referenda on divorce and abortion in the 1970s and to an awakening far beyond the confines of feminism itself to women’s issues. (Unfortunately, as suggested earlier, this awakening has not translated itself into any radical increase in women’s involvement in Italian public life.)
These films also, of course, represent an environment in which Argento’s abused and enraged heroine Monica becomes ideologically possible and perhaps necessary, even if she remains unrecognizable to her male pursuers, both professional and amateur. The one factor Argento adds to the work of his three Italian contemporaries is a degree of explicit violence that reflects not the women’s movement but, rather, a (masculine) 1960s climate of dread and bloodshed grounded, among other things, in the Cold War, American aggression in Vietnam, campus and urban violence in the United States (to which the Black Power poster in Crystal Plumage alludes), Third World revolutionary guerilla warfare, and, in Italy, the endorsement of violence as an acceptable strategy on both ends of the political spectrum, leading to the right-wing bombing in Piazza Fontana (Milan) in 1969 and acts of right – and left-wing terrorism throughout the 1970s. Cinematically, the 1960 ethos of violence is reflected, with strong critique, in the work of American directors such as Sam Peckinpah and Arthur Penn and, with less critique, in the Italian horror film and, more important, in the spaghetti western cycle initiated by Sergio Leone.
This conjunction of masculine violence with women’s political resistance provides an appropriate note on which to conclude this analysis and contex – tualization of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. The very same sort of conjunction has created what I have argued to be a misunderstanding and underestimation of Argento’s film. His intermingling of violence and gender resistance, though necessary in terms of the film’s signifying strategies, has rendered it extremely difficult for horror critics (and, we may assume, the public) to separate the latter from the former and, far more important, to give the latter its due.