Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal. Plumage: Caging Women’s Rage
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It is no secret that Italian cinema is heavily masculine. If we look at middle – to highbrow Italian film (the work best recognized internationally) we find that, until recently, there have been only two women directors of note, Lina Wertmuller and Liliana Cavani, from the immediate postwar period up until the late 1980s.1 Moreover, women characters have tended to be secondary, reflecting only male characters, male attitudes, and male values. Even the work of Wertmuller and Cavani can be criticized from a gender perspective. The former has tended to enact a structural critique of power relations that, at best, places women within male roles or role-emulations and, at worst, within regressive, passive, “typical” female behaviour. The latter, particularly in a film such as The Night Porter, carries out a psychological critique of power that leaves its woman protagonist with only the possibility of regression and, worse still, self-degradation.2 If we turn to lowbrow Italian film—the genre or subgenre films such as the sword-and-sandal epic, the spaghetti western, thegiallo3 (or thriller), and obviously the sexploitation flick—the situation is even worse: no women directors and consistently problematic constructions of women.
The one place where women have consistently achieved centrality and representational power is in the Italian horror film, particularly through the persona of Barbara Steele during the heyday of Italian horror in the 1960s. It is arguable that this centrality constitutes merely a misogynist projection of male anxiety along the lines suggested by Barbara Creed (1993,7) when she says: “The presence of the monstrous-feminine in the popular horror film speaks to us more about male fears than about female desire or feminine subjectivity.” However, it is also arguable that, in individual instances, the Italian horror film may offer woman’s “monstrosity” not just as male projected horror but also as a consequence of women’s rage, grounded in and justified by women’s experience of violence and oppression. In fact, I would argue that Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) presents its female protagonist-killer not merely as a projection of the author’s or the horror genre’s male angst but as part ofa comprehensive critique ofthe condition of women in a male world.4
Making claims for a serious reading of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage may seem a bit of as stretch. Leon Hunt (2000, 326) claims, “if Italian horror has been an extreme case of the [horror film’s] outlaw status, it is also difficult to imagine a ‘progressive’ reading of Dario Argento’s films.” However, as Chris Gallant (2000,7) notes at the outset of Art of Darkness: The Cinema of Dario Argento, Argento’s films “invite analysis” at least partly because they situate themselves “between the European art cinema and a genre labeled ‘Exploitation.’” Argento’s films establish themselves as something more than a mere reproduction of genre “pulp” partly through referencing more selfreflexive practitioners of horror: Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell in Peeping Tom (i960), and one of the quintessentially “serious” filmmakers of the 1950s and early 1960s, Michelangelo Antonioni (see Gallant 2000,11-19; Newman 2000,108; Thrower 2000,129). Moreover, they do so in terms not just of style but also of socio-political issues and, even more so, issues of masculinity.
“Seriousness” aside, it may also seem wrong-headed to proffer a profeminist reading of Argento. Critics such as Barbara Creed (1993) and Carol Clover (1992), though opening up significant new possibilities for reading recent Hollywood horror films in the context of gender, have made it difficult to see them, in the final analysis, as anything other than a reinscription of patriarchy and masculinity.5 However, recent analyses of Argento’s work (see Knee 1996; Gallant 2000; Balmain 2002; Shaviro 1993; Kinoeye 2002a, 2002b) have drawn different conclusions by focusing on issues such as identity, subjectivity, and the fluidity of cinematic signification in his films.
A pro-feminist reading of Argento must also confront his own most frequently cited comment about gender: “I like women especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man” (Jones 1983, 20). In fact, Argento’s words (a provocative reaction, I suspect, to the usual restrictive line of questioning imposed by the interview format) are belied by his films, which repeatedly subvert the conventional duality of male-fetishizing-assailant and female- fetishized-victim. As Adam Knee (1996, 215) notes:
While Argento’s work does tend to have more female victims (two of his films are even set in schools primarily for women), he nonetheless includes quite a few male victims and often dwells on their deaths at some length. Argento’s protagonists are themselves fairly evenly split between male and female. Moreover, where Clover sees the killer as being male in most slasher films.. .Argento’s killers, in their variety and obscurity, tend to frustrate. such generalizations about gender.
In addressing Argent’s “gender bending” I seek not only to provide a new reading of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage but also to situate that reading within the film’s historical moment: 1969 Italy. I suggest that Argento’s film reflects the increasing self-expression and visibility of women in postwar Italy that led to the women’s movement—a phenomenon that arose virtually at the moment The Bird with the Crystal Plumage appeared. And I link the film to manifestations within Italian postwar cinema (despite its masculinist bias) of women’s growing strength in Italian society as well as to growing representations of violence in the 1960s, which provide a context for Argento’s linkage of women’s self-expression, political protest, and violence.