SYRFILM’s October Surprise, Pt. 2: Richard Dyer’s “star” power

nancy keefe rhodes 10/26/09More articles

(Dario Argento’s 1982 masterpiece “Tenebre” provided the starting point for Richard Dyer’s Syracuse Symposium lecture, “Darken Our Lightness: The Italian Horror Film,” the first of three presentations the London-based writer made during his recent visit for the Forum on Sound and Music in Film.)

In moving to stake out and occupy the mid-October time slot it will occupy in 2010 after its first six years at home in late April, the Syracuse International Film Festival (SYRFILM) employed the unusual means of splicing together a high-end international trade show of film, digital and video equipment with a scholarly conference on sound and music in film, all slipped neatly into the narrow window of a weekend with no home football game at Syracuse University.

The five-day Expo/Forum (October 13 – 17) included film screenings most nights. These began with Cristiano Bortone’s Red Like the Sky, which took a number of honors at last springs film festival here and is the dramatized account of sound designer Mirco Mencacci’s childhood discovery of filmmaking while a student in a state school for the blind. The screening of Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis (1927) was a co-production with the Society of new music and accompanied by a live musical performance. A previous SYRFILM award-winning film Billo, il grand Dakhaar (which SYRFILM will soon distribute on DVD), is also a Mencacci film. The Steadicam version of La Traviata, which Zubin Mehta conducting, was shot live in Paris for the Millennium.

The Forum on Sound and Music in Film was co-produced by Owen Shapiro, SYRFILM’s artistic director and SU faculty in transmedia, and colleagues Theo Cateforis and Stephen Meyer of the Department of Art and Music Histories (formerly Fine Arts). The program included a master class in sound design by Mirco Mencacci, and talks and panels by leading scholars on topics ranging from musical accompaniment in silent film to scoring film versions of operas to 1930s cue sheets to love songs in Film Noir to Robert Altman’s musicals.

Doing triple duty was Richard Dyer of King’s College, London, who delivered the Syracuse Symposium lecture on Thursday night at Newhouse, led a three-hour registration-only seminar on Friday morning at the Humanities Center and then gave a talk that afternoon as part of the Forum sessions at the University Sheraton. Attendance at the five-day Expo/Forum waxed and waned, but Dyer, who always drew a crowd, evidently has a following among students and faculty alike.

Dyer has pioneered commentary in a number of areas: in stardom in cinema with “Stars” (1979) and “Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society” (1986), in queer studies in film with “Now You See it”(1990) and “The Culture of Queers” (2001), in the musical’s power to evoke utopia with “Only Entertainment” (1992), in racial representation with “White” (1997). His most recent book is “Pastiche: Knowing Imitation” (2007) and while here he said he’d delivered the final draft of his forthcoming “Ironic Attachment,” on the film music of Italian composer Nino Rota, about two weeks before coming to Syracuse.

The Syracuse Symposium lecture Dyer gave – “Darken Our Lightness: The Italian Horror Film” – resulted from his particular interest in serial killers in European film, the Syracuse Symposium’s theme of “light” and Dyer’s previous work on racial representation. He took as his starting point a 1982 film, “Tenebre,” which some have called the masterpiece of Italian horror master Dario Argento (we reviewed Argento’s “Deep Red” in June when it was screened at the Palace as part of the annual Shaun Luu Horror Fest). “Tenebre” concerns an American novelist promoting his latest murder mystery in Rome who becomes entangled in finding a real serial killer who apparently in copying murders from the book.

Although the film’s very name means “darkness,” it’s a film that’s filled with light, even the scenes shot at night, began Dyer, who showed clips of key scenes in the film with its repeated images of light glinting off shards of glass and knife blades and the killer’s toying with one victim by turning on and off the light. Dyer used this as a departure to discuss how notions of dark and light as images of evil and good are ethnocentrically-based.

“Gothic literature was an invention of northern Europeans,” he said, adding that in the colder climates of Britain, Scandinavia and Germany, light was feeble and short-lived for much of the year. “But if you live in the Sahara, light is dangerous. The Catholic cathedrals of southern Europeans are sanctuaries of darkness, but Helsinki’s cathedral if filled with light. Since there can be no dark without light, it follows that light may be as much a source of horror as darkness.”

“Tenebre” is one of the Italian “giallo” films, a popular genre so named for being based on cheap pulp novels usually printed with yellow covers. Dyer said these films as informed by an awareness that light is source of anxiety – the light may force a final horror in revelations of what we’d prefer not to see, be a source of torment or disorientation, or express the horror of being seen. Horror films over the past three decades have shifted, he said, from older imagined horrors to literally seeing horror. And against the idea of enlightenment – that knowledge is a good thing – Dyer sets the anxiety about knowledge of the Judeo-Christian tradition, with man having been thrown out of Eden. Dyer even supposes that linking horror with light may grow over the next century due to global warming.

Dyer’s Friday morning seminar was a more informal affair. Dyer is well-known for his work on how seemingly innocuous popular entertainment reflects cultural and political trends, beginning with his essay, “The Color of Entertainment,” which he’d first written for the popular British film magazine “Sight and Sound.” Dyer used the first half of the seminar to discuss a clip from the 1949 MGM Comden and Green musical comedy “On the Town,” directed by Stanley Donen and starring Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Ann Miller, about three sailors on 24-hour shore leave in New York City before shipping of to war.

Dyer looked specifically at the song-and-dance number “Carried Away,” perhaps better known as the “prehistoric man” piece, in which the sailors and their dates break into the Museum of Natural History and break into an irreverent production number that mimics primitive peoples against the backdrop of a museum exhibition; in the end the dinosaur skeleton collapses. (This particular clip is readily available on YouTube – see end of this article.)

“It soon enough becomes clear that what’s being referenced is non-white culture. It’s the dance of imperialism,” said Dyer. Here, said Dyer, was the “pleasure in a sense of expansion, the pleasure of taking over space, and that pleasure is founded upon the right to do that – something very American, as you see in Westerns, with riding about the space and rejecting restraints. There’s an assumption about the right to do that, but at whose expense?”

Dyer used the second half of the seminar to talk a bit about his forthcoming work on the film music of Nino Rota, who wrote film scores during the decades of the 1930s – 1970s for many of Fellini and Luchino Visconti’s films, two of Franco Zeffirelli’s Shakespeare films and for Coppola’s “Godfather” trilogy.

Finally, Dyer spoke later on Friday about the place of subjective music in film – “music that we take to express a character’s feelings, though we should be wary because it may instead be the film’s attitude toward a character or even what the film wants you to feel about the character.” Dyer used clips from two films that each used a well-known popular song as part of their score to cue the audience about a particular theme or character.

On Saturday morning Dyer agreed to sit down for a few moments before the last day’s session. Here is part of our conversation:

One thing I wanted to ask about is your choice of topic. Even though you are an academic writer, you choose very popular things like stars and musicals – the Italian giallo films are pulp films. Yesterday you said about having written for “Sight and Sound” that you’d like to do more of that. You’re someone who’s often talking about a low-brow topic to a high-brow audience. What’s going on for you that you’d like to take this conversation to the audience who may be watching so-called low-brow popular films?

RD: I used to do more of it. And also in “Marxism Today” and all sorts of publications, you couldn’t say popular publications exactly, but they are things which can be bought on the news-stands. Actually, I don’t see that much difference. I always think you should write as clearly as you can anyway and I really try to write without jargon. But you loosen it up a bit, you don’t bother with every qualification, every underlining, every dot. I think I probably write for students anyway. I’m always rather surprised when my fellow academics read it. That is the level at which something like “Sight and Sound” is pitched – it’s not a tabloid newspaper. But just thinking through what you’re saying in the question, most people in film studies, at any rate, and cultural studies, it’s sort of taken for granted that you talk about popular culture. And I also do perfectly happily write about high culture. I have absolutely no prejudice against high culture. In fact this book I’ve just written on Nino Rota, you could say it’s much more, some of it, high-brow. I don’t really want to make some case for popular culture. I want to respect popular culture by taking it seriously. It’s not the same as high culture, because it has different kinds of constraints upon it. It’s not that I don’t want to respect that it’s often about sensation, about pleasure – it’s often about entertainment, laughter – all of that I respect. I still think you should take all of that seriously, in the same tone as I would treat Marguerite Duras – one of my favorite directors. I don’t publish very much in [some top academic] journals because I don’t want to write quite like they want people to write. As somebody said to me recently, a graduate student – he’d been talking to another graduate who said to him, “How does Richard get away with not doing all these things that we have to do?” And I don’t think I would get away with it now. I think it was only because I was one of the first people developing this kind of work that I get away with writing in the plain, straightforward way I try to write in. I think that is a bit sad, actually. The academy doesn’t like it and in terms of credited academic work, writing for “Sight and Sound” doesn’t count.

When the film festival started six years ago, there were naysayers who said that these kinds of films won’t go here – “Americans don’t like subtitles.” And although this university has a long history of having film programs on campus, the idea of doing it for the region seemed riskier. Part of what the festival did was to initiate the project of making this a cinema-friendly region. There would be year-round events, they would have screenings across, like, a 50-mile radius, to ask people’s opinions about what should be in the festival. There has been a huge response. It seems this may be a time to add a piece like these seminars to the whole festival. Have you encountered this in other places – intentional raising the bar in the region rather than just catering to a specific, already converted audience?

RD: I immediately think of the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, which I think has worked very hard to be both regionally expansive – not only in San Francisco – but also to think of other kinds of spaces in which to show film and other kinds of events. A friend of mine used to run it so I saw a lot of these kinds of things – but it was peculiar to the festival, it wasn’t just him. And I also think of somewhere like Sheffield in Britain. I have talked quite a lot either at festivals or – we call them film theatres – kind of slightly alternative screening spaces. It often is related to some specific community, a particular interest group. I suppose I’m invited often to lesbian and gay groups. In some ways, you need someone who’s a good performer and who thinks about illustration. It sounds as though I’m thinking about someone like me! It’s very self-promoting! I just surprised that so many academics are shy. You know, I used to work in the theatre so I’ve got that kind of – I’m a show-off. Not everyone’s like that. But I’m surprised that more academics aren’t more concerned with communicating, and with being clear, and with drawing people in and so forth. Often they don’t seem to care about that. And that’s one of the difficulties when people are organizing these kinds of events, is to find the people who can modify a bit to an audience – not necessarily academics, but journalists and teachers and so on, there are all sorts of people who are very good at doing that, but you have to find them.

I think that another expansion is the fact that they invited you here as a gay scholar. And I don’t know that would have happened six years ago.

RD: Really – even as recently as that.

It’s very interesting because one of the most successful films shown at the festival several years ago was made by a lesbian filmmaker from Italy. When she came here she was very quiet about that. She’d shown a previous gay-themed film at the San Francisco festival. You know, you always wonder what’s going on in the communication that someone feels they just can’t say.

RD: Well it’s hard enough to be a gay man in Italy – to be a lesbian is even more difficult. Not because – oh, it’s too complicated, really, but attitudes toward women are just so, attitudes toward gender – it feels like going back in time. I’ve spent half my life in Italy. It could be she’s bringing that with her. It could be she just assumes Syracuse is not San Francisco. Of course there’s also the thing – I’m a great fan of Chantal Ackerman, and she’s very reticent about being lesbian. Or even, you could say, about being a woman, but she can’t disguise the fact that she’s a woman. Back in the 70’s she said, “I don’t make women’s pictures. I make Chantal Ackerman pictures.” I think there’s often that feeling, and I’ve often felt that too, that I don’t want to be thought as a “gay academic.” Perhaps my manner is so obvious, but I never go anywhere that people don’t already know I do lesbian and gay stuff. But nonetheless, a lot of what I’ve done isn’t lesbian or gay. I don’t want to feel limited by that. It’s quite hard to get right because at the same time, I put out two messages. Lots of us do. I’m saying, “I’m not just gay – but don’t forget that I am!”

About an hour before your talk on Thursday I went to another talk at the library – nothing to do with the film festival – the Library Association had invited Maureen Corrigan here. She teaches at Georgetown University and does book reviews for the “Washington Post” and National Public Radio, often about mysteries and detective stories. There were so many parallels between what you had to say about horror films as a popular form and detective stories and mysteries, especially how they are a working-out of what we know and what’s safe to know and what’s not. That evening I wished you had been at each other’s talks.

RD: It’s interesting because I almost feel more that I have to defend high culture, particularly when I’m talking with television people. But it depends. In some situations you feel you’ve got to show that Italian gialli ought to be taken seriously, but in others, you know – I don’t think things are good because they’re popular, anymore than they’re bad. Whether they’re good is a whole other issue. So it’s quite situational in a way, what you feel you need to make a case for. I don’t want to say, “I think we should take these things seriously.” I just want to take them seriously. I want to, by example, show that there’s some value in doing so. I think it’s important to see them on a par, to treat them with seriousness – which is not at all to treat them as though they are the same. It’s a bit like thinking of lesbians and gay men and straight people – you should treat them equally, which is not the same as treating them the same. Toilets are the best example of this. You know, often space for women’s toilets and space for men’s toilets is the same. And that looks like equal treatment but actually it’s unequal because of – you know, the basic physiological facts.

Another thing that really struck me was your analysis of how, depending in where one comes from on the globe, darkness or light could be good or evil, and how that links to how we racialize things. I think we are accustomed in this country to hearing a lot of objection to having black equated to evil, but not much working out of how that happens or how it could be seen differently. And you’re someone who seems to be interested in a lot of diversities – how did you make that leap? So many of us are interested only in our own identity and it seems to me transformational to make the leap to other identity groups.

RD: Well I suppose you could say that to write about “white” was to write about another identity group. It’s just that sort of progressive white people tend not to want to claim it. I’m sort of not proud to be “white.” I’m not ashamed of it – it’s just a fact. I think there’s a particular problem with gay men – but I think we could say this of white women – who think, “Oh, because I’m gay there’s no other problem. Because I’m gay I’m not privileged.” As a white middle class man, of course I’m privileged! In all sorts of ways. Okay, there’s a way that being gay takes the edge off being privileged, sometimes. But in lots of ways it doesn’t. So that’s always troubled me about gay radicals who somehow think that because they’re gay, there’s no issue about gender or class or racial belonging. At the same time there were a lot of Black scholars and Black activists saying, “White people really need to take responsibility. It’s all really well and good, you writing about Black things, but you’ve got to take responsibility for your own identity and also see that you are just a particular kind of thing.” And also there are some personal things – I had a relationship with an African American man when I was living in New York and that taught me a lot. I write about it in the book, actually, when I suddenly realized I was a particular kind of person. I was a white person and there was nothing wrong with that. I’m just a particular kind of person. Really it’s some sort of combination of all of those things. One has to take responsibility for all aspects of one’s identity. I haven’t written much about class, for instance. So it seemed like a logical place to go but it was terribly difficult because somehow whiteness is very hard to see. It just seems like human – being human. It so saturates everything. But that’s what I tried to address. That’s as far as I got in that book. It’s only much more recently, and really because of Argento’s “Tenebre,” I was thinking when I’d say darkness was associated with evil and you shouldn’t do that, people would say, “Well isn’t it just natural?” And I would say, “Well, surely if you live in the Sahara, it’s natural to want to shelter in the dark.” It’s safer. Or if you live in Australia, and Australia’s famously a continent on which huge amounts of people have skin cancer from the sun because they – because they’re white people who haven’t learned the dangers of light. So it isn’t “natural” to think only that dark is dangerous.

Actually I just read an article in this past week about what they’re calling “photo-pollution,” which is too much artificial lighting. It confuses the birds and it confuses our sleep patterns.

RD: Yes. I hadn’t thought about artificial light. Yet outside of the main station in Rome, it’s extraordinary if you’re there in the evening, because it’s constant, incredibly loud – these birds are flying about, screeching – because of the light. I’ve noticed that. And it must be effecting us too even if we don’t quite recognize it.

We’re almost out of time. I always like to end an interview with “What do you wish I had asked you?”

RD: I can’t think of anything. I’m so sorry. But I thought that we might talk a bit about lesbian and gay issues – not that I wanted to, but I thought we might bond over them! [laughs] So I thought we might come round to that and I’m really pleased we did.

Nancy covers the arts and writes the Syracuse City Eagle film column “Make it Snappy.” Reach her at nancykeeferhodes@gmail.com.

TAGS: Syracuse Symposium lecture,the Syracuse International Film Festival (SYRFILM) ,international trade show of film,Nancy keefe rhodes,owen shapiro,syracuse film,digital and video equipment Richard Dyer,Tenebre,Darken Our Lightness: The Italian Horror Film,
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