Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 11 
10 June
2002

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Dario Argento's L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, 1970) HORROR
Intimations (and more) of colonialism
Dario Argento's
L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo
(The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, 1970)

Opening up a new direction in Argento scholarship, Frank Burke here looks at the presence of colonialist themes and references in L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo. Among the forms of social domination present in this giallo classic are those of encagement, exploitation and compulsive accumulation.


Within the space allotted for this article on L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, 1970), I would like to focus not on the horror/giallo structure of the film but rather on an underlying issue that has not been sufficiently addressed in discussions of Argento's cinema: colonialism. It seems to me that much of the conceptual depth of L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo (a depth that is often undervalued) lies in the fact that it does not simply reduce violence to individual experience or psychosis, as does the psychiatrist at film's end, but points to broader social conditions and deforming social spaces as strong causative factors.

Colonialism and captivity

I use the term "colonialism" broadly to include not just the historical reality but a general tendency to relate to the world and the Other via control and subjection. In so doing, I follow the lead of numerous theoreticians who have explored the psychology of domination underlying colonialism and the broader phenomenon of which it is a part, namely imperialism.[1]

Dario Argento's L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, 1970)To a large extent, L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo emphasises this psychological tendency. However, there are hints of historical colonialism that help frame the more specific forms of domination evident in the film. They begin with the film's title, which refers to a bird kept in captivity in a zoo in Rome. Zoos, of course, though emerging somewhat late in the history of colonialism, nonetheless serve as powerful emblems of colonialism, yoking together science and the exploitation of foreign lands. The colonising role of science is linked to museum culture in the Fondazione Wilkinson (for whom the protagonist Sam Dalmas [Tony Musante] has written a book on the preservation of birds on the verge of extinction), with its rows upon rows of stuffed birds in glass cases.

The name of the bird with the crystal plumage, Caucaso (which I am inclined to translate not just as "Caucasion" but as "Whiteness"), further links the film's title to colonialism, particularly if we juxtapose it with "Black Power," cited on numerous occasions through a poster on the wall of Sam's and Julia's (his girlfriend's) apartment. It might initially seem a contradiction to give a victim of colonialism-a bird in a cage-the name of colonialism itself, however it is precisely the work of the coloniser to re-make everything into its own name and image.

Yet another hint at colonialism is the Native American painting that sits on a sofa in Sam's and Julia's apartment ready but never to be hung, replaced instead by a photo linked to the film's serial killings. Like the society from which it derives, the painting signifies pure expendability to Euro-American culture.

Perhaps most understated is the presence of the American (Sam), the good old World War II "Ally" who does nothing but "occupy" Italy, using it as a source of inspiration (he comes there because he has lost the ability to write in the US) and income, but remaining disengaged from the society and ultimately departing. Wartime occupation of Italy by the Americans was, of course, a principal foundation for the postwar cultural, political and economic colonisation of Italy by the United States.[2]

Colonialism and collection

Rather than claim that Argento is explicitly critiquing colonialism in L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo, I would be inclined to say that he has an intuitive sense of its presence, particularly insofar as it links to other things that the film seems more insistent about (hence the obliqueness of some of the colonial references). As the film's title (and probable citation of Hitchcock's The Birds [1963]), the centrality of the zoo, and references to the extinction of birds all suggest, there is a recurrent emphasis on the domination of nature. The most perverse example, which links domination to lunatic masculinity, is the painter Consalvi (Mario Adorf), who keeps scores of cats locked up in cages so they will get fat enough for him to eat. A less distressing instance, though one clearly consistent with the overall theme, is the race track where one of the victims is targeted for murder.

Dario Argento's L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, 1970)Perhaps the most subtle and pervasive form of domination in the film, linking colonialism (in both its historical and its more metaphorical sense) to capitalism, is collection. We have already noted it in both the zoo and the bird collection of the Fondazione Wilkinson. It is reflected in the art gallery, the film's most important space; an antique store that also proves central to the plot; the police forensic lab, which gathers, stores, and analyses information in ludicrously elaborate ways; and even Sam and Julia's apartment, littered with everything from posters to busts, bespeaking compulsive accumulation.

It becomes worked out in the gender logic of the film as Julia (Suzy Kendall), a pretty and passive model who is pretty much ignored through much of the film by Sam, is clearly his objet d'art, while Monica (Eva Renzi), much younger and more vital than her asexual husband and art gallery proprietor Ranieri (Umberto Raho), was probably "collected" as an aesthetic trophy.

Colonialism and encagement

People not only colonise, cage and collect others, they become victims of a world in which these modes of relationship are paramount. Ranieri's high-rise apartment is clearly compared with the zoo as just another (vertical) arrangement of cages. Consalvi's "cathouse"-a barn in the country from which he has eliminated all access except via a ladder from a second-story window-is nothing if not another cage. And Sam's and Julia's apartment becomes not just a cage but a fortress and trap for her when she is attacked by one of the killers near the film's end. The cage imagery is extended to buses (and in fact a bus depot or public transportation "zoo"), glass storefronts, televisions inside glass storefronts and, in the final scenes, a television studio and an epitome of contemporary "encagement": the airplane cabin.

Dario Argento's L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, 1970)But perhaps most subtly and significantly, people encage themselves. Caucaso points to this in that his feathers, we are told, are "like glass." The most striking examples are provided by the killers, Monica and Ranieri, who don black vinyl or patent leather "skin" in a radical denaturing of the self similar to that suggested by the glass feathers. (Self-encasement is of course a common motif in Argento's work.)

It is in this world of people radically dissociated from themselves and their world, both agents and victims of colonising impulses, that violence explodes. It originates in the kind of alienation associated with Caucaso: "They have to keep it isolated. It can't get along with the other animals. They're going to have to move him… He can't even stand the smell of them." And with Consalvi: "Nobody gets inside unless I want them to." And as Caucaso's and Consalvi's maleness would indicate, it is heavily gendered. The triggering event, ten years in the past, was Monica being attacked by a man. Although the males of the film-the police, Sam, the television commentator and the psychiatrist-come to "blame" most of the violence on Monica, not only is she responding to male violence to her, but their "blaming" is not supported by what the film actually shows us.

Beginning early in the film, with Sam's witnessing of knife play at the art gallery, entrapped between a glass door to the gallery and another to the street, violence is explicitly linked to cages and being caged, collecting and being collected.

Conclusion

To me, the gender issues that are so central to the film are "produced" within this context of (male) alienation, colonisation and self-colonisation, opening up the possibility for a strong critique of masculinity. However, this is not the place to carry out this critique.[3] Instead I would like to conclude by carrying my discussion of colonialism abruptly forward to the film's end, suggesting that the television program and psychiatrist that seek to provide "closure" to the events of the narrative are just the reassertion of colonising masculinity upon the disruptions offered by women's (here Monica's) violence.

Dario Argento's L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, 1970)In this context, Ranieri's copycat killing are principally an appropriation and colonisation of Monica's authentic rage. The hermetic enclosures of the television studio and also of the airplane where Julia and Sam presumably find happy "containment" ever after, just reinstate the problematic conditions that gave rise to the film's violence.[4] Thus, I view the ending as thoroughly ironic, similar to that of Psycho (1960), which I find echoed in the proclamations of the shrink.

How ironic? I would ask the reader to return to the film's final seconds, contemplate the extraordinary juxtaposition of the words of the psychiatrist and the images of Julia and Sam, and draw his or her own conclusions.

Frank Burke

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Also of interest
About the author

Frank Burke is Professor of Film Studies at Queen's University, Canada. He has authored Federico Fellini: Variety Lights to La Dolce Vita (G.K. Hall, 1984) and Fellini's Films: From Postwar to Postmodern (Macmillan/Twayne, 1996) and has co-edited Federico Fellini: Contemporary Perspectives (University of Toronto Press, 2002). He has published numerous essays on Italian and North American cinema and is currently working on the Italian filone (sword-and-sandal epic, spaghetti western and horror film) in the context of the "long" 1960s (ie 1950s to early 1970s) in Italy.


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Footnotes

1. See, eg, the works of Frantz Fanon (Black Skin, White Masks [London: Pluto Press, 1985]), Homi Bhabha (The Location of Culture [London: Routledge, 1994]) and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues, ed. Sarah Harasym [London: Routledge, 1991]). Edward Said distinguishes between imperialism as "the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory" and colonialism as "the implanting of settlements on distant territories" (Culture and Imperialism [London: Chatto and Windus, 1993], 8).return to text

2. To summarise three moments in American postwar influence:

  • In the immediate postwar period the Americans intervened quite visibly in the first major set of national elections, which brought the Christian Democrats-pro-American, anti-Communist, anti-Socialist-to power for nearly 50 years. As Paul Ginsborg puts it: "American intervention was breath-taking in its size, its ingenuity and its flagrant contempt for any principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country" (A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988 [New York: Penguin, 1990], 115). A huge amount of interim aid was provided for Italy until the Marshal Plan, the principal instrument of postwar American economic imperialism, came into effect. On 20 March 1948, just prior to the elections, Marshall warned that all help to Italy would end in the event of a Communist victory. In addition, "there were proposals for encouraging anti-Communist insurrection, with financial and military assistance to clandestine groups, and for the direct military occupation of Sicily and Sardinia. As it was, the Americans strengthened their Mediterranean fleet, and in the weeks preceding the election their warships anchored in the waters of the main Italian ports" (Ginsborg, 116).
  • In the late 1950s and early 1960s, to quote Mario Mignone, "the American way of living penetrated…the Italian working-class house. ...Italy turned into a consumer society along American lines" (Italy Today: At the Crossroads of the New Millennium, Revised edition [New York: Peter Lang, 1998], 115).
  • From the 1980s to the present, as Riccardo Ventrella notes, "American influence... [has] continued to spread…through cinema, literature, music, fashion and sports.
    [P]rivate television has constructed much of its success on American serials like Beverly Hills 90210, and Melrose Place. As the world shrinks into an ever-smaller global electronic village at the end of the twentieth century, American influence in Italy has never been greater"("American Influence," in Encyclopedia of Contemporary Italian Culture, ed Gino Moliterno [New York: Routledge, 2000]).return to text

3. I do so in a far more extensive essay on L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo that is part of an anthology entitled Killing Women: The visual culture of gender and violence, ed Annette Burfoot and Susan Lord (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, forthcoming).return to text

4. Of course, television and aviation are consummate contemporary vehicles of colonialism, particularly as they bring American culture and militarism, respectively, to all corners of the globe. return to text

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