the dark precursor is not a friend
- G. Deleuze
14 minutes into 1952's Nobody's Children (I figli di nessuno), whose story reaches its women's prison riot conclusion in 1955's The White Angel (L'angelo bianco), a man who owns a quarry and a woman whose father guards that quarry are kissing in a stone storeroom.
Around them are hanging coils of rope, tools leaning. He has just told her that he is going away for a while. She's wide-eyed, a little pissed, nervous. The film cuts back and forth past their shoulders as he and his careful mustache reassure her. She voices doubts. They both half-turn their heads screen left, stretching the elastic band of their eye contact - and hence swelling their doubt - until her face is framed again over the shoulder, and a hand grabs her chin and tilts it up. Her head is on his chest. Profile face-off once more. He keeps clasping her, her hair in an airy false grip, her upper arms. Periodically, his fingers reclutch, they knead and press. He's playing her like an accordion. Their bellows are both heaving a bit. And so they are kissing again. This time it gets hotter and heavier. Keep positioning their hands, squeeze out all the negative space between them, heads all jammed up. His hand snakes around her back's middle, and her hand begins to slide downward.
Just then, just as her hand moves down, her father exits the house and moves down the stairs. He calls her name a few times, muttering at first. Doesn't sound so hot. Elsewhere, earlier, he complained about his lungs. He was reassured - by the man kissing his daughter - that he wouldn't lose his job. Their dog lies along the triangle formed by the steps, but he stands up, barks in the direction where the storehouse lies. It is raining, or at the least, the film is streaked by lightly pulsing lines of white. No impact or collisions of water, however.
At this point, it's merely an issue of cross-cutting. Luisa came down these same steps and stepped directly into the storeroom. Her dad walks down those same stairs. He is looking for her. Presumably he will continue down them and enter the frame where she and Guido are grabbing at each other. Or she will hear his voice and take the few steps back to him. Presumably he will have bad news - this is, after all, a melodrama - that will wedge a wrench into their gears. And the next shot preserves the logic of cross-cutting between two discontinuous spaces with a limited causal connection: Guido and Luisa now exit the storeroom, having heard her dad's voice, which must, given the time elapsed by her previous passage from stairs to his arms, be no more than ten feet or so away, just around a bend. The voice passes from that space, aiming right, they exit, listening left.
Even here, though, something is off. There is a sense of transference between those two passages - their kissing and the dad walking down the stairs - that exceeds simply picking out the voice through the rain. Most basically, it's a diagetic transference, shoved together: she is missing because she is off doing this, therefore her father will search her out. Not what is going on in the storeroom but merely her presence there provides the occasion for her father to exit the house into the rain.
But more than that, it seems something has blown leftward as well, from their kiss to him, less her absence from the domestic zone and more a scent of lust picked up on its own wind. As though the father just sensed - nostrils widening, hair pricking up - that arm pulling closer, that hand going south, and both he and the film as such step in abruptly, with perfect prohibitionary timing ("remember, you're still a daughter, and I'm sick and old!"). It's a necessary dodge that both prevents things from getting too tawdy and insists that they have done exactly that. Until the film returns a too-brief 10 seconds later and spoils the fun, that cut away both spares-denies us the sight and indicates just what is going on (read: they knock boots). The cut is equally necessary in providing a necessary interruption to what otherwise would have no internal moment of breakage: how could that kiss end, other than in what won't be shown, or in that continuous thrum of high-pitch affect, those mawkish/horny tears that are intolerable every time they appear in these films. It cannot break itself free. One cannot decouple.
Although they do decouple, far more than can be imagined. For this will be the end of them as a couple that touches one another. It will be the last time they really kiss, not even 15 minutes into a 196 minute slog of piety, shame, missed connections, nunnery, a whole lot of not getting over one other, and a whole lot more of not doing much of anything to change that fact.
(As far as melodramas go, this two-film span ranks up there with Max Ophüls' Letter From an Unknown Woman in terms of sheer dumb deferral and solitary pining away, such that what stops you from getting your very obvious object of desire is little more than, in the Ophüls, your preference for flirting by constantly standing outside his house and, in these films, the fact that lust, admiration, and love aren't allowed to quite merit de-habiting a nun, even if she is that nun. Needless to say, these films lay the sexed groundwork, in viewers' memory banks and in the common imagery of upturned face, bosom-stretched-to-burst black serge, and bleached wimple, for a very different sort of film to come, more closely associated with Jess Franco, Joe D'Amato, and Norifumi Suzuki. They are a prolegomena to any future nunsploitation.)
This will be their last hopeful kiss. After all, it does kill her father.
For as soon as she exits screen left, after kisses and promises of reunification, the film cuts to her father dead on the ground. The dog ("il cane Full") paws at the corpse and then begins to bark. It's a startling, and deeply comic cut. Her father was not in the best of health, but the film refuses any transitional sequence that might show him tumbling or clutching his chest. He was on a dark stairway, alive, with a dog. He is on the flagstones, dead, with a dog. It's a cut that flawlessly contrasts with the incapacity of lovers to leave one another, to break contact and all their weepy hugs, all that lingering. This, instead, is mercenary effective. His act of death won't be marked, or remarked upon, other than as a given fact. We don't watch him die.
And no wonder this distance, which traverses between two incommensurable moments: she enacts in time the area, the filler, skipped by that montage that slammed together kiss and corpse. It's there she runs, alongside the detritus of the quarry, on tracks which prescribe a fixed path of motion over which we've shuttled unaware.
And it is only to be walked alone, doubling in her movement the story followed throughout all of the Matarazzo work, in which the film - and the characters themselves - inserts distances, blockages, passages, and obstacles in the way of what could otherwise be solved easily. (Most commonly, it could be solved by a conversation, by speech, the very hallmark of melodramatic staging. It is not. It is blocked by the written word, which is missing when it is needed or capable of being read against its "intent." Writing on this problem of writing to come soon.)
From all this, two other lines to follow.
First, as brief as the point it makes: the obsession with saving time, with dumping info as fast as possible. All to get back to what we're there to see (Yvonne Sanson wring her hands in a bed with her dark hair falling around her, weaponized children coming to torment their parents with pathos, sloppy cluttered spaces opening onto white walls and prison bars, wipes and dissolves). In many cases, it resorts to whatever devices necessary, such as the visual declaration that, yes, our leading man is indeed in London:
The second inquiry is of the consequences of that sort of pacing: namely, the accordance of filmed events, the ramping up of coincidence toward a world in which all aspects (separate events, discontinuous spaces, restricted information) will come to function as if part of a unified causal chain or a predetermined string of occasions. This isn't necessarily uncanny or comic as such, and most genre films, as well as the major swath of mainstream film, turn on this. One too rarely sees a film in which, for example, the two gunfighters just don't quite wind up in the same saloon, or that you just don't happen to be sitting next to the wise guru/celebrity musician (whose opinion you respect for reasons that are never justified) on the airplane, who gives you some sage advice about how much work it is to have a good relationship and how despite all the drugs and women, he still thinks about that one he let get away and how you aren't going to let her get away, are you man? because nothing - and I mean nothing - is worth that loss.
Accordance is the sense of a chaining together, a torqued form of Kuleshovian montage, in which we don't get a + b or ab or a as determinant of b's affective or symbolic potential or vice versa. Instead, something that oscillates between
1. a and b are varieties, modulations, of the same substance (the clutchy kiss is of the same order of sadistic sentimentality as is the death of her father),
2. a and b may be distinct but any sort of intermediary distance between them utterly collapses (as in, the rapidity with which Matarazzo moves things along compresses into a chained, consequential sequence what otherwise would be cross-cutting), or
3. a causes b in a much more direct way than can be rationally explained (that kiss killed, or, wait a minute, what of that dog...)
The first option is the general texture of melodrama when it fires on all cylinders. And when it does, it can allow for some breathing room: it will insert visual textures or light relief (minor subplots, children who say idiotic things but at least are not ceaselessly clinging and crying Mama, why did you have to leave me now?). It's only in the wilder and more hurried directors that this dissolves into the stranger, and often funny, space of the second. In many ways, it produces an obscure match cut. Even if you don't find Dad's death as funny as I do (it is difficult not to), the affect generated indexes a form of humor, because it produces a semblance of causality where there should be none, merely by dint of extreme proximity. In that way, it has a key function of preserving the integrity of the melodramatic moments (they don't fall apart under their own weight, after all) while giving us a necessary breather from them. This will be the function of the wipe as editing technique in Matarazzo's films, a strangely prevalent one, in which a scene is not "cut" or dissolved but is rather kept entire as it is slotted out, shoved aside, allowed to remain whole and merely displaced.
The third mode of accordance mentioned deserves more space, especially in terms of the full fledged deployment of overly literal metaphors - "storm of emotion" - into diagetic materials and settings. In this context, what stands out is the sense of consequences that follow but can neither be explained nor explained away: you betray your class and kiss the Count who owns the quarry, your old father dies. Despite other instances in which characters are reassured in the mode of "don't blame yourself, even if he came out in the cold to find you," here that doesn't obtain. We remain with such an extreme complicity and proximity of actions and a collapse of diagetic transitional spaces that what obtains is:
the impossibility of not blaming
the incoherence of spaces and durations (raised to further extremes elsewhere in the Matarazzo films, such that it is only a child getting a whole lot bigger that allows us to index a duration
the simultaneous elevation and dissolution of separation (those spaces cannot be traced between, because we do not see the passage between them, and the actions can only occur as a chain of isolated incidents. However, that separation exists as an impossible stop-gap, compromised by the lack of material between occasions, and leads instead to a contagion and transference of information, enmity, and affect. See also this wipe as an instance of that piling up of separate zones.)
Therein lie some of the more Catholic aspects of these films, although we should take them as much closer to a world of dark forces that have immediate consequences, rather than a balance sheet before St Peter. And worse, there are no coherent rules that govern them. We don't know why exactly your kiss killed your father. But we cannot doubt that exists in a chain of causation. There is little analytical editing/ decoupage in these films compared with the Hollywood melodramas against which they stand out, but there is a placing in temporal sequence actions and sites that don't belong to the same filmed space: in short, there is a somewhat occluded return to forms of montage more closely associated with silent cinema, at least in the big narratives of a history of film style. This is, then, a cinema in which montage isn't concerned primarily with how these things combine or evoke or illuminate through generative dissimilarity. This is not cinema of metaphor. It is a cinema of pressing effects and collisions, of hidden causes.
Of those hidden causes, one remains present in the film, perhaps as a flight to a different kind of cinema, yet exerting tension on the load-bearing generic structures at hand. That is, normally, in the grammar of a film, if a character enters a dark space alive with something that has sharp teeth and, in the next shot, is dead beneath the paws of that fanged something, we have reason for suspicion. And so, even while il cane Full is the devoted companion, the film's compounded syntax and insistence on hustling ahead at top speed can't shake off a different thought about who's to blame.
And strangely, this counter-reading is borne out in the film. Without descending into fantasies of canine revenge or conspiracy, the dog has appeared before in cross-cutting connection both with these bouts of making out and with bad turns of event.
Guido and Luisa are having a furtive little encounter of kissing and telling each other how they feel about each other. Film cuts from Guido leading Luisa to sit down on the grass...
Cut back to them, who start to kiss, and right when it hits that certain pitch of grasping and clinging...
And so the other possibility hangs there, that the dog is not only transition, not only breathing room, but, as a consequence of the extreme compression of data, an agent that exerts unclear effects, a precursor who can't be tied properly to a range of consequences. That it is his shame, his renunciation of watching, that impels another to come and see who can use that sight to ruinous effect. That, in fact, it was he who killed the father, who stewarded his death and stood over his kill. He who enacts what we truly want to see, this covering of our eyes, this barking laughter. This need to break the stymied air that stifles us all the more given that we choose to breathe it, that no matter how we protest, we are, after all, here of our own volition.