Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Genius of Mario Bava, Revisited

Yesterday I found this gif over at Giphy and it helped me to focus on the makings of a shot I've long known but always looked past, seeing it as a bridge to action rather than as action itself.

It's a shot from Mario Bava's HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON (Il rosso segno della follia, 1969) and features Stephen Forsyth as the murderous John Harrington and Femi Benussi as his ill-fated wedding gown model. If you haven't seen the film, shame on you, but it's about the owner of a wedding gown salon who leads a double life as a serial killer - but he's a serial killer with a quest. He doesn't kill out of anger, nor even for destructive reasons. Each time this closet narcissist kills, he finds that he is able to recall more of the traumatic childhood incident that caused him to embark on this twisted lifestyle in the first place.

Here is the full scene as it appears in context. Note that the shots in question all take place in the first five seconds of this montage.

Look closely at the mechanics of this shock effect. Viewed in a loop via the gif (I wish Blogger would allow me to present it as a looping accompaniment to my notes), one can only gasp at how simply and effectively Bava was able to illustrate the inner workings of his anti-hero's psychosis. As the cleaver slams down, we see no blood, no cleaving. Instead, it blacks out the violence in metaphor. Bava cuts to a split red-saturated (make that a double metaphor) graphic of Benussi's eyes, which is then pulled apart to uncover more of the trauma buried in John's unconscious - an image from the incident that started it all. So original, so dynamic, so uniquely cinematic!

While it shows the influence of 1960s graphic art storytelling (ie., comics), it's hard to imagine narrative cinema getting at this information any other way. It's just as hard to imagine such a narrative conveying such a moment as effectively in a static art setting. In its own way, it's as revolutionary as it was for Quentin Tarantino to relate backstory in KILL BILL, VOLUME 1 in an anime format. More than 40 years further on, this moment still looks fresh - and because it was never the point of the scene it helps to play out, it hasn't been remade to death.

The idea of going from a hot red image to a cool grey-blue one alone - without cuts - shows such a profound understanding of color and cinema. Today's films are wall-to-wall with rich color so that it rarely has a chance to have meaning or effect.

Every time I look at this gif (which - as you see in the clip - happens so quickly in the film, it doesn't give us the opportunity to deconstruct it), I see something different. At the moment, I find myself deeply impressed by how Bava's zoom lens appears to be zooming in and back in a single reflexive movement, though it unfolds on three separate layers and had to be edited together from at least two separate zooms - one for live action, one for the graphics.

And I keep wondering about that second layer - it doesn't appear to be an optical, so was it printed out on saturated red photo paper and pulled apart by hand? Or was it pre-scored and affixed to some weighted mechanical contraption that, with the pulling of a lever, dropped the two vertical halves to horizontal rest? Notice how the abrupt change in color is produced on the level of the printing of the image and not by lighting. So impressive!

How many people working in film today would even think to involve printed static images to produce a shock effect? The more we agree to continue moving toward a "post-print" society, the fewer the opportunities there will be for movies to become anything other than what we have seen before.

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