Thursday, December 29, 2011

Film Theory III - Italian Vernacular Cinema

This lecture began with a quote from Werner Herzog: "Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterate." This relates to the word "vernacular", which means "made for the majority of people". Generally, films aren't made for intellectuals; they are available and viewed by ordinary people. They are not a matter of literacy and dialogue, but of visuals and spectacle.

When speaking of Italian Vernecular Cinema, it would be most fitting to mention Frederico Fellini, the auteur. As defined in my previous post, Fellini fitted the definition of "auteur" as his films are stylish, showcase technical mastery and express an interior meaning. Many of his films comment on the superficiality of the middle class and are seen as worthy of critical appraisal.

La Dolce Vita (1960), one of his works that is regarded one of the great achievements of world cinema, features his characteristic style and sophistication; Many of his characters wear sunglasses, which were at the height of fashion at the time. The film also has a story of a foreigner - in this case, Sylvia, an American - entering Italy.

The audiences of these films were generally of the working class. There was a strict division of the cinema in terms of class; it was divided into prima visione, seconda visione and terza visione. The first two were cinemas that attracted a sophisticated audience in major cities, who would select the film they wished to watch. Terza visione cinemas were present in less populated areas and were less expensive to attend. Films were more formulaic, designed to be popular and well-received, and would be seen out of habit.

The conventions of these 1970s working class cinemas were quite different to what we are familiar with. As these people wouldn't be able to afford television sets, they would instead go to the cinema. Predominantly a male audience, they would attend every night, without any particular film in mind, and treat the cinema as a social space; they would be allowed to talk, drink and eat during the film. They would also enter the film at different points, whether that would be halfway through or near to the end, therefore the films had to continually have moments that would capture their attention, with much of the focus being on the action rather than mundane dialogue.


In terms of genre, the Italian Vernecular films from the late 1950s to 1980s fell into the definitions of filoni, which although similar in meaning to genre is based on the idea of geology, of "veins" within a larger layer. These films were respectful of their traditions, some examples being: giallo, detective novels; Spaghetti Westerns; mondo, cannibal films; and poliziottesco, police procedural.

A famous Spaghetti Western would be The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), directed by Sergio Leone. Here we see many conventions of the Spaghetti Western, including foregrounding of music, lack of dialogue, use of eye line and cutting/fragmenting of body and Catholic references.

Giallo, Italian for "yellow", stems from the series of cheap yellow paperback crime and mystery novels that the films are based on. Some examples of directors would be Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. These films would be stylistic and expressionistic, but at their worst could verge on being of bad taste or exploitation/gross-out films. Nevertheless, their elaborate titles successfully sold the concept, with films such as The House with Laughing Windows, Death Walks in High Heels and A Lizard in Woman's Skin.

Mario Bava created the first giallo, The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963). It defined many of it's conventions: the private detective, often an American or English person who works in the creative industries, coming to Italy to view a murder; beautiful women often shown more as works of art than characters; an escapist evocation of a cosmopolitan jet set lifestyle, something which the working class don't experience; and all city scenes such as Rome and Milan.

The visuals are unusual and very expressive, again showcasing style and Italian architecture; many shots have clearly been done with an artistic eye. The Italian Vernacular has been referred to as "baroque" cinema, with it's heightened emotion and expression; it draws together art and style, and certainly isn't subtle.

The "killer" in a giallo film is distinctly recognisable. They are often dressed in a long black coat, black hat and black gloves, a key feature being that their gender is ambivalent. They would also often be hidden behind a mask, a pre-former for American slasher films.


So are these exploitation films worthy of watching? They certainly showcase innovation and auteurship and technical mastery. We must also keep in mind that we are critiquing the visual spectacle as opposed to the literary narrative. Examining these films further offers interesting insight into the contexts in which these films were made, and the different audiences who viewed them.

But what of the future of vernacular cinema? The advancement of technology means that audiences now watch films on DVD in their own homes, with trips to the cinema being a special occasion (something not helped by the increasingly expensive tickets). It isn't possible to socialise in the cinema; the social side to film watching is more often shared online or at home.

However films of the filoni, particularly giallo, have had a long-lasting influences on the films of today, and can be seen in many modern American and Canadian films such as Darren Aronofsky's stylish and sinister Black Swan (2010) and Tarantino's Death Proof (2007). The artistry of the films of the Italian Vernacular is fascinating to me; I really enjoy the expressionistic shots and stylisation. Personally I haven't watched any so I can't comment on the films themselves, but I'm certainly intrigued to begin exploring them in greater detail.

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