Recently, Brazilian film critic Octavio Caruso asked me if I would mind answering some questions concerning Mario Bava and my views about his films, and I agreed. Yesterday, the interview was posted on his blog Devo Tudo ao Cinema, but only in Portuguese. With Octavio's kind permission I am reproducing the original English text of our discussion here. I encourage my bilingual readers to follow the link to his blog, follow his enthusiasm and share his findings.
OCTAVIO CARUSO: 1 - Tim, the work of Mario Bava has suffered and still suffers from the prejudice of much of the movie critics, who often do not appreciate genre cinema. In Brazil we are still fighting. Teachers at brazilian film schools undervalue genre movies. I write about the gialli since I started acting professionally in the area, colleagues like Fernando Brito, curator and movie critic, responsible for releasing most of Bava’s work on DVD, even taught courses on him. What do you think about the importance of genre cinema (horror most of all) for the formation of a film industry?
TIM LUCAS: We do not allow for prejudices in life, so why introduce them into our perceptions of art? Genre film is really just an academic term for popular cinema - the cinema loved by most people, the cinema whose revenues allow so-called "higher" kinds of cinema to exist. For some reason, the horror genre seems to excite greater passion among viewers than any other kind of film, perhaps because it is the most liberating of the imagination and the most politically pointed. You do not find film conventions dedicated to dramas or musicals or even art cinema. One of the key reasons I began to explore Bava's work in the first place, when I was very young, was because I had seen the same character in Bava's film OPERAZIONE PAURA and in Fellini's TOBY DAMMIT - I found both films marvelous, but the established critics insisted that the Fellini film was brilliant and the Bava film (if it was mentioned at all) was trash. It has taken decades for these preconceptions and prejudices to begin to collapse. Much depends on the persuasive powers of individual critics, and there were not many valiant defenders of genre film writing in English before the 1990s. I am delighted that we now live in a time when even ALL kinds of movies can exist on Blu-ray in 2K and 4K restorations.
2 – As a passionate advocate of Bava, what are the aspects of his films that make it so unique and timeless? And what makes Bava so appealing to you?
The first thing that appealed to me about Bava's work was its look, which was aggressively artistic and often metaphysical, in the same way that Steve Ditko's artwork for the Marvel comic "Doctor Strange" was metaphysical. As I learned more about Bava, I discovered that his family was deeply rooted in the arts, that he had come to the cinema not from the editing room but from painting. He was a filmmaker who was drawn to horror films for personal reasons of self-expression, to confront and analyze his own fears, and he did so in a very spontaneous and artistic way, in which you can see the influences of his grounding in painting, classical music and great literature. There is a great Dostoevskian streak in Mario Bava, but he also embraced great pulp writing. When I discovered his work in the early 1970s, I was astonished to learn that he was born in 1914 because his work seemed like the expression of a much younger man.
3 – Bava had good taste, which put him at odds with the Italian industrial system, as when he rejected some of the producer Alfredo Leone exploitative ideas. Can you talk about his lifelong fight to balance the market needs with his artistic interests?
Bava's great battle was that he was only permitted to make derivative films. It was all the Italian market would allow. He tried to get a horror genre started in Italy as early as 1955, but it was not until Hammer's DRACULA IL VAMPIRO became a surprise hit in Italy that he was allowed to make BLACK SUNDAY. Many of his film titles are deliberate parodies of more successful pictures - like ERCOLE AL CENTRO DELLA TERRA, which refers to JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. But he made films so cheaply, so economically, that no one policed what he was doing - the films couldn't help but make money internationally - so he was free to be artistic, even experimental. And yet he denied this till his dying breath and said in interviews that his own movies were terrible, that they made him feel like throwing up. It was how he continued to find work and to work with some measure of freedom.
4 – I think that “Rabid Dogs” is a true masterpiece, one of the greatest movies of it’s decade. It’s a rough cut assembled, an unfinished but powerful punch in the guts. What are your passional thoughts about it?
I agree that it's one of his best movies, even in its rough form. A fan of Bava's previous work could never have identified him as the director - it was a completely new, aggressive, reinvention of his persona. It proved that he could do anything he set his mind to. As action/crime pictures go, it is far better than anything that younger American directors like Wes Craven or John Carpenter were making at the time.
5 – Do you believe that there is room in the modern film industry for a professional as authentic as Bava? Can you see some of that creative sparkle on any director of this generation?
Bava's "sparkle" was that he had a complete understanding of the basic mechanics of cinema. He was a complete filmmaker: he directed, wrote, photographed, edited and created the special effects for his films. He could do all of this without ever spreading himself too thin creatively, and without ever looking like an egomaniac because, if anything, he was a Garbo-like figure who hid himself away from critical discovery. Today's cinema is not about that kind of efficiency; it is more about the respect that is commanded by bigger and bigger expense and wastefulness. I do not think you can have another Mario Bava today because 1) film is no longer film, and film had a different texture - video is like painting on glass rather than on canvas, if you can appreciate the analogy, and 2) today's filmmakers tend to be informed only by recent movies, and do not make films in which you can discern the influence of all the seven arts.
6 – What do you think about the horror movies made nowadays, films like “The Babadook”, “The Conjuring”, “The Witch”... ? Can you see Bava’s influence on some of these pictures?
I see references to Bava, but no real influence. The most exciting work being done now along his lines are the films being made by the Belgians Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani, which acknowledge the Italian horror tradition while forging excitingly new, progressive work.
7 – Do you remember your first contact with a movie from Bava? What movie? And try to describe, not as a movie critic, but passionately, what this movie made you feel.
I saw BLACK SABBATH (I TRE VOLTI DELLA PAURA) and KILL, BABY... KILL! (OPERAZIONE PAURA) on television in 1970, when I was 14. BLACK SABBATH I liked very much in general but it had a few moments that scared me in ways I wasn't used to being scared - as when the undead child kneels outside the door and calls for his mother, whose maternal feelings become so dominant that she murders her own husband to answer his cries. So, it was horror with an adult, sophisticated, poetical touch. There was something very deep, unusually so, going on in both of them - and OPERAZIONE PAURA really changed my life, in showing me how film could be used to express the metaphysical side of life. I wrote my first piece of professional film criticism for CINEFANTASTIQUE within a few weeks of my seeing it. And when they were over, I couldn't remember them as I remembered other movies I saw - to think about them was more like trying to remember a dream or nightmare that I'd had.
8 – My favorite Bava’s movies are: Il rosso segno della follia / 5 bambole per la luna d'agosto. What are your favorites, and why?
I have a complex response. I believe that I TRE VOLTI DELLA PAURA and SEI DONNE PER L'ASSASSINO are his finest formal achievements. However, OPERAZIONE PAURA is my absolute favorite, for the reasons I have given - a small but very precious film. To call something a favorite is to isolate it and I prefer to regard Bava's work as a gallery of marvels rather than as a single masterpiece. I am very fond of the two you mention, which are very inventive stylistically, in ways I don't think they have yet to be fully discussed. They are continuing to reveal themselves to me, while the formal achievements feel already fully disclosed.
9 - A question out of topic: Do you think the film critic profession is endangered? How can we combat the declining interest of people to read texts with more than three paragraphs?
There are many, many kinds of professional film critic. There are people who write about film because it's an easy living, and then there are others - like me, perhaps like you, Octavio - who write about film because it's bloody hard work! We do it because it's a way to better know ourselves and to become a more aware individual. All art is a mirror, but as in Cocteau's ORPHEE, the mirrors are portals to a connecting network that leads us to our kindred spirits, our spirit guides. Since the beginning of time, there have been sleepwalkers and the cognoscenti. Both die, and there might be arguments about which of the two spends their life more alive - because living is not just being conscious, but being active and adventurous. I guess what I am trying to say is that truly committed film critics will continue to write, regardless of publication, and there are now more outlets for such writing than ever. Perhaps this is the lesson to be taken from this lifetime - the importance of continuing to do what matters to us, what defines us, regardless of profit, regardless of reward, even regardless of an audience. But I believe that good work always finds response.
10 – Tim, thanks a lot for you generous time. Please, send a special final message for my readers, the Brazilian cinephiles.
One of the most exciting memories of my early theater-going was being, perhaps, 10 years old and seeing a trailer for Marcel Camus' ORPHEU NEGRO. The music and colors exploded from the screen, showing me a world so different to mine that it might have been scenes from life on Neptune or Jupiter. I waited a long time for that movie to come to my local theater and it never did. For years after, I would sometimes wake up in the morning with the memory of that trailer in my consciousness. I finally saw it, many years later, for the first of many times - and thanks to it, Brazil holds a special place in my creative consciousness, particularly my musical consciousness, as I love samba and bossa nova music. I often listen to it when I write. Also, Brazil seems to be the home of an emotion that I often write from, and to which I always respond very emotionally in art, that emotion called "saudade." I feel it when I look to the cinema of Brazil or the French new wave or when I hear a song like "Telstar" by The Tornados - a feeling that these abstract things might be my truest home.