Monday, August 15, 2011



A big chunk of the last two days has been dedicated to tearing through a couple volumes of Enrique Sanchez Abuli and Jordi Bernet's TORPEDO 1936, which has been such a pleasure in part because of the book's sheer nastiness and pitch black humor. TORPEDO is a Spanish comic, and began publication in 1981, running through the late 90's (I believe-- not 100% on the end of its run). The book takes place in the New York of 1936, following a Sicilian immigrant named Luca Torelli (not to be confused with Rhapsody guitarist Luca Turilli) a.k.a. Torpedo, who has found his calling in the new world as a hired killer.

That's about it. There is not a lot of genesis to his character, or variation to his exploits. Torpedo takes a job, figures out a clever way to kill his target, sometimes kills the guy who hired him, and once in a blue moon gets outwitted. Torpedo is not a hero, nor is he an antihero. He has no hint of a conscience, and has no prospects of redemption. A pure motherfucker. He kills for money, he kills for revenge, and sometimes kills for a punchline. He abuses his partner, Rascal, and takes advantage of women. Sometimes he rapes them. In one episode, he shoots a priest, splashes his face with holy water, and steals the alms box on the way out. In another ("The Tip Off", one of my favorites), Torpedo pretends to spare a target who has renounced his life of crime and is shipping off to fight Franco, then shoots him in the back as he goes toward his train.

The nihilism of the series was intense enough to drive off its original artist, the legendary Alex Toth, after two installments. However, it is my claim that the function of art is not the instruction of ethics, and the real question is what can be gathered from a story with an irredeemable protagonist.

A way into this riddle might be to look examine Torpedo's world, his place in the social order. Torpedo is contracted by all sorts of people, rich and poor, hardened criminals as well as "upright" citizens in a jam, and is thus granted a unique mobility, moving comfortably through all social strata. He also exhibits these chameleon properties in the course of his work, frequently employing disguises-- clown, nun, cop, groom, Santa Claus-- and passing effortlessly in every role (there is a bit of Souvestre and Allain's Fantomas in him).

The unifying factor is that he deals exclusively with people who are at their basest states-- desperation, greed, obsession, vengeance hungry, etc.-- and these conditions permeate through every level of the social body. Torpedo is really an agent of misanthropy and malevolence, a do-er of the dirty work, a genie of secret desire. He may pass himself off as anyone and anything, but in his true form-- killer-- he is repugnant, anathema, loved by no one. Indeed, he is a dangerous figure, not just for his tendencies toward bloodshed. He is evidence of a social undercurrent that undermines the mythology of the social order (ethical, just, evolved, enlightened, Land Of Opportunity) but is necessary for that social order in practice (savage capitalist, commodity reductive).

The brilliance of Jordi Bernet's pulpy style really comes through in these moments where the primal face of the social order is unmasked. He is an expert at conveying the mania that overtakes men on an obsessive kick, and his scenes of stylized violence give way to reveal an ugly brute intensity.

I want to say a few more words about the politics of disguise and substitution, particularly with regard to Torpedo's speech. The killer puns constantly, passing on grounds of his ostensibly bad english. "I've deformed," he tells a prison warden who inquires why he would snitch of the escape plans of his fellow prisoners. "I said I've reformed!" Torpedo's language forms a sort of shadow dialectic, drawing connections between the manners of a social order and the ugly condition beneath the signifier.

It ain't for the weak-in-the-guts, but for those interested in crime books, TORPEDO 1936 is definitely worth a look. It's currently being reprinted by IDW, who have been on a real winning streak with their crime books, also publishing Darwyn Cooke's excellent adaptations of the Donald Westlake's PARKER books (worth examining too to see the influence of Bernet on Cooke, which is clear).

This is some cold blooded shit, folks. Just the way I like it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Other assorted thoughts while writing the previous essay:

1. Interesting that the image of the murder is drawn on the wall of the old house, preserved invincibly beneath the paint. It is difficult to image a realistic circumstance in which this picture could have been drawn on the wall and not seen by somebody else, but of course that isn't really relevant. This seems evident of another tendency which strikes me in DEEP RED, which is that The Truth Must Be Revealed, or perhaps The Truth Must Be Uttered. Haven't quite fleshed this idea out, but started thinking about this theme (a recurrent one in horror films) while watching John Carpenter's third best movie THE FOG a couple of weeks ago. A secret can never lie still. In DEEP RED, Helga Ulmann refers to thoughts of a crime hanging around a place like cobwebs-- it lingers past the presence of the murderer, and rises to the surface of its own accord. In THE FOG, clues literally disgorge themselves from the walls into the public stage. In DEEP RED, it's as if the building inscribes itself with a memory of the crime.

There is something going on here with mouths as well. Mouths do all sorts of spewing and getting bashed in over the course of DEEP RED. Something to do with the fact of uttering, perhaps? Those that know the crime must lost their ability to speak? Both Helga and the killer release liquid from their mouths, what is the parallel there?

2. I realize that there is a kind of scene that I always enjoy, which is when we get to watch a character have an idea and put something together without getting too far inside their heads. The scene with Dr. Giordani in the bathroom is a really good example of this, and really captures the excitement of things clicking in your mind. Other similar sequences of note: Travolta matching his tape to the photographs in De Palma's BLOW OUT. McNulty and Bunk figuring out the trajectory of the bullet in the "fuck" scene during the first season of THE WIRE? Others that come to mind?



I want to propose a methodology for looking at horror films, although it certainly need not be strictly confined to that genre alone. The method is this: consider the protagonist, and consider the menace, and imagine that the protagonist is at the center of the whole universe of the film and has somehow called the menace to him, has conjured it despite himself like a repressed dream. Now consider the protagonist at the beginning and the end of the film and the transformation that he has undergone, and often this is what indicates to us what the film is really about. What desire has called this horror, this one and not another? What emerges from him when he faces it, and what is shed to make way?

This is hardly an original approach, and it may not work in every single instance, but for me it certainly helps to crack Dario Argento's giallo masterpiece DEEP RED. A few notes on the film before we get any deeper. The film was made in 1975 and looks like it, which I mean as a compliment. It is often called Argento's best film, and though I do not like everything about it, I do think it is pretty terrific and one of the best giallos I have seen. It is basically a slasher movie, and though it attains transcendent heights that most of its peers do not approach, it adheres pretty close to the slasher premises. Getting your head around it will certainly provide some insight into that subgenre as a whole.

It is also the earliest Argento film to star an actor that I have seen in anything else (for whatever that's worth), the actor in question being David Hemmings a.k.a. Mr. Miserable a.k.a. The White Slacks King a.k.a. Frowny Starks. If I had infinite time, I would compile an epic montage of David Hemmings moping around and looking irritated and being unpleasant to women in movie after movie. I do not have infinite time, so you will have to do the research yourself, but trust me, the evidence is out there.

DEEP RED concerns a serious of imaginatively grisly murders committed by the requisite black-gloved killer. Ol' Black Gloves, you scamp! The whole affair is set in motion when a psychic catches a whiff of murder-mind in her audience and proceeds to publicly flip out. This psychic is of course the first victim to be dispatched, and the act is witnessed by conservatory pianist/perennial gloomboat David Hemmings. The rest of the film concerns his attempts to uncover the original crime while eluding a cleaver to the melon.

The thing unfolds in a surreal, baroque Italian cityscape, captured beautifully by Argento. Despite its miraculous ornamentation, it seems like a fairly miserable place. Figures sit on benches smoking idly, people stand unmoving in the nearly empty bar, the palate is all grays and pale greens and anemic blues and off whites, the characters move and speak with a sort of woodenness amid all their marvelous rooms. Can we blame Mr. Hemmings for being so dour? The absurd dub (I watched the American version) actually works in the film's favor, adding a further level of disembodiment between the characters and the words that come out of their mouths. The photography through most of the film is actually rather stagy; the camera fixes or slowly pans across meticulously composed sets as the characters awkwardly shuffle through them.

And suddenly the rigid composition breaks. It happens at moments of action, of revelation, of violence. Abruptly the camera spins in a frenzy to disorienting angles, the phantasmagoric theme erupts while diegetic sound attains a startling intensity. We must notice the camera during these moments; sometimes we are behind the killer's eyes and sometimes we are floating in the third person. This is not a HALLOWEEN perspective-of-the-killer trick. Rather, in these moments we are coming up against the walls of the stagnant symbolic order and passing over into the furious libidinal economy which churns beneath it like a swirling sewer. Water streams out of an open mouth, steam fills a room-- sudden explosions of elemental force intrude into the pacified civilized domain in discharges of repressed erotic and violent desire (note the steaming pot on the stove in the background of the origin-of-the-crime scene!). The signifier for all of this is, naturally, the "deep red" of the title, the red which surrounds our doomed psychic as she first senses the presence of murder and of the glowing ring of Hemmings' flashlight as he nears the hidden secret and of the blood that spurts over the rococo interiors. A red message glimpsed in a school lavatory: "KILL YOUR MOTHER AND FATHER". It may as well read "DEATH TO THE SYMBOLIC ORDER!"

"I'm the proletariat of the keyboard, and you're the bourgeoise," Hemmings is told by his drunken piano player friend/double Carlos, and this turns out to be the critical statement of the film. Poor, repressed David Hemmings! How isolated is he from the elemental, grounded in his plastic modernist hell filled with soulless set pieces, toying constantly with cigarettes that he never manages to smoke (his ashtrays are empty too)! Contrast this to the mad world of the killer, whose assortment of objects are cathexes of powerful energy. Can we blame him for being drawn to this world of primal violence?

(I will intrude here to say SPOILER ALERT sort of)

Much of the criticism I've seen regarding DEEP RED focuses on gender, which I am not very interested in, as the film's gender politics seem fairly incoherent to me. To that end, however, I will say that it seems relevant that the "original crime" involves the murder of the patriarch. It is this act that banishes Marta from the symbolic order (hetero-bourgeois-materialist) and strands her in its underbelly. Her pancake-makeup look seems kind of like a burlesque of the feminine object, the corpse of the iconic female.

(end spoiler alert)

Escape, David Hemmings! Escape wooden world, escape endless drudgery! Find power! Find desire! Find violence! He does, and by this is animated, and is immersed, at last glimpse, in deep red.

(This trailer is pretty super great, but gives away most of the kills and some of the plot as well, so I'm going to go ahead and SPOILER ALERT it for those who haven't seen the film and are interested in its intrigue as well as its sensual pleasure.)