Chapter 22: Sleepless in Gerardmer
I hadn't broken bread with Dario in some years, and for a while I think I actively avoided him. I acted partly out of guilt over having left him in the lurch at Raleigh Studios and having unfinished business with his daughter. However, I suspect the real reason I kept my head down was that I simply didn't know what to say. I mean what is there to say about The Phantom of the Opera, other than 'no comment'?
Asia kept in touch for a while and I received postcards from distant cities on all four sides of the earth bearing cryptic, scrawled messages. As my career idled, hers hit the fasttrack with roles in La Reine Margot and XXX, thrusting her into the fickle limelight she claimed to abhor. In the hothouse glare her talent blossomed, just as the fortunes of all who loved and worked with her invariably seemed to flicker and wane, as if the creative energy had been juiced right out of them. While they seemed made for each other in theory, her attempts to collaborate with her father seemed to consistently misfire.
While I had tried to defend Trauma, and love Stendahl's Syndrome despite its flaws, Phantom was in a class of its own, and for once I had no desire to watch the film a second time. Sitting through it was like being forced to watch my parents making love, or more to the point, contemplating their naked, tangled corpses. The experience left me defeated, demoralized and diminuished as if a part of my childhood had not so much died as been tarred and feathered, set on fire and then drowned in its own vomit. The continuing theme of rebellion against the dominating patriarchy, now explicitly identified with the pedophillic director of the opera house, and the bland phantom's efforts to groom the young ingénue to stardom, only made it clearer than ever that Asia would have to escape her fathers loving clutches, if she were ever to fulfill her own potential, but to be fair on il maestro, he wasn't the only director to be overwhelmed and ultimately defeated by Asia's presence, hampering her budding career with a string of high profile disasters.
Michael Radford, recently feted by the Academy for Il Postino, fell head over heels for her hungry eyes and crafted the execrable B. Monkey accordingly. They say that love is blind but that's scarcely an excuse. Abel Ferrara fell just as hard and his erratic career took an abrupt nose-dive halfway through New Rose Hotel. And as for George Romero and Land of the Dead? What can I say? But it hurt. It hurt bad. You know it did...
Asia had worked with some of the best directors in the business, legendary figures one and all, and by now it must have been obvious even to her that she could do a better job with both hands tied behind her back. Betrayed by a string of would-be mentors and surrogate father figures, she did the only thing she could, and assuming responsibility for her own career took hold of the reins to direct herself in Scarlet Diva, a ghastly autobiographical glimpse behind the mirror, that comes across more like a cry for help than an actual 'for real' attempt at a motion picture. Nonetheless, it still packed a hell of a lot more anger and toxic energy than anything her old man had done in years.
Asia seemed to have not only inherited il maestro's pathological tendency to air his psychological linen in public, but had gone one step further by casting her mother, Daria Nicoldi, as her abusive, alcoholic mother and recruiting her friends to largely play themselves, happily tearing down the remaining barriers between the movies and so-called 'real life', the two blurring irrevocably into a single skuzzy, softcore gestalt.
Interesting, I thought. Not exactly a movie I wanted to take home with me, but definitely interesting.
Unsurprisingly, the public failed to identify with Scarlet Diva's central theme, just how damn hard it is to be Asia Argento, and the film subsequently vanished without a trace, performing just well enough on DVD to bankroll her second, more tightly focused opus.
While The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things marks a quantum improvement over Miss Argento's earlier work as a director, I couldn't help but wonder if Asia wasn't the only person on the planet not to have realized that author J. T. Leroy was really just a woman wearing a funny hat rather than a bi-sexual rent boy or bonafide hermaphrodite. Although this second purgative offering failed to register any more strongly on the box office radar than its predecessor, it was clear the maestro's heir apparent was learning fast and it seemed only a matter of time before she'd gather the courage to steal her father's rainmaking magic while he slept and finally come into her own.
I didn't run into Dario again until the premier of his subsequent feature at Gerardmer in the icy winter of 2001.
While hardly vintage stuff, Sleepless (2001) seemed a step in the right direction, a retreat from Phantom's abyss to the familiar territory of the 'giallo', the genre the master had made his own, yet the familiarity of the material only served as a reminder of the trailblazing frissons of his youth, offering a scratch mix of Deep Red, Opera and the Animal Trilogy that began it all, en lieu of any real personality of its own as if we were watching a slickly rendered homage to his own work, ersatz Argento rather than the real deal, like Geoff Love or Hugo Montenegro covering a Morricone original. And if il maestro was running on auto-pilot then so was his star.
The presence of Max von Sydow in the rehashed Karl Malden role (from Cat O' Nine Tails) raised my initial expectations, but the great man was too far down the pike from The Seventh Seal to be able to make any real difference to the formulaic material, sleepwalking through his turn as an Italian (!?!) cop every bit as unlikely as Asia's doomed Inspector Manni in Stendahl Syndrome, whilst grappling with some of the clunkiest English language dialogue in il maestro's ouvre, and running the very real risk of being upstaged by smartass talking parrot with whom the visibly uncomfortable lead finds himself closeted for much of the flick's running time, the latest and surely most ludicrous addition to the long line of Argento's crimebusting birds, friendly flies, cursed cats and other unlikely animal protagonists. The neo-Goblin score was a distinct improvement over Morricone's recent contributions to the canon, but il maestro's inexplicable obsession with dwarfs and the desperate slapstick that added the final height-related insult to Phantom's aesthetic injury, spilled over to infect even the normally dependable Claudio Simonetti, who hit an all time low with an insufferable 'funny midget' theme, that seemed to have strayed in from Living in Oblivion's darkest nightmares. Asia's absence came as a breath of fresh air, although she somehow managed to cast a deadening hand on the project even at a distance by penning the stilted nursery rhyme that the leads are forced to repeat over and over, as if in the hope it might somehow improve in the telling. According to Alan Jones, this worked a lot better in Italian but I remain to be convinced.
It had been seven years since that night at Raleigh Studios and at first I thought il maestro wouldn't even recognize me. I had been at the height of my fifteen minutes of pseudo-fame the last time we had met, with an office off Sunset, a p.a. to run my social calendar, limo service, the whole bit. Now I was an itinerant former dogman at odds with the intelligence community and up to my eyeballs in a smoky fug of post-9/11 paranoia, but Dario's gaunt, beleagured face lit up as our gaze met. The insouciance he'd shown at the National Film Theatre was gone, stripped away by the savaging Phantom had received, and while, to some extent, Sleepless marked a return to form, he was as keenly aware of its shortcomings as his sternest critic, and grateful for a friendly face in a crowd, he feared, had come to bury him regardless. A director is a general in charge of an army of traitors like any showman. An audience will love you, laugh with you and wait outside your stage door when you're hot and on a roll, but no audience is ever truly friendly. Not for long. Bore 'em or disappoint 'em - even once - and they'll turn on you and tear you to pieces, regardless of who you are or might once have been.
It was all the master could do to say a few short words by way of an introduction before making a bee-line for the exit, not wanting to stick around to see what happened, and with no intention of staying for the traditional Q and A. Those days of easy interaction with the fans were gone for good, it seemed, or until the stars came round again to their right place and time. It was the winter of 2001. Donnie Darko was plainly the film of the festival. My mentor was no longer the daemon he once was, no longer the undisputed master of the macabre. I wasn't even a filmmaker anymore, but that didn't matter to him now, any more than it had when we first met. All that really counted was that we were both still alive, still smoking and still friends despite it all.
Circling around the back of the cinema complex to avoid the festival organizers, we struck out across the surface of the frozen lake, giggling like school children as the world faded behind us, the far shore lost in the icy mist as if we had passed alive into Fulci's The Beyond. I had brought a li'l smoke for old times sake and for a while, it really was just like old times, all the better perhaps because neither of us honestly gave a damn about what anyone thought anymore. When the cold began to seep into us, we ducked into another preview theatre at random and found ourselves by chance in the front row of a sparsely attended screening of what turned out to be Ernest Dickerson's Bones (2001).
We'd missed the first ten minutes but rapidly surmised that we were not only watching an uncredited remake of the 1979 blaxploitation thriller J.D.'s Revenge, but a homage, intentionally or otherwise, to our own material with the nods extending to Snoop Dogg returning from hell complete with black hat, coat and glowing eyes. The spectacle of Snoop trying to make like a certain demi-goth from Stevenage seemed somehow even more absurd than Ali G. trying to make like Snoop, and before long we were both in hysterics. "What have you done to these kids?" muttered Dario. "It's not my fault. You started it!"
But it wasn't our fault at all - at least not directly - as the end roller duly made clear. Our mutual friend Adam Simon, who had given Dario his translation of the Sefir Yetzirah, the Book of Creation, had been responsible for the screenplay, if not specifically for Snoop's costume, and the sight of his name brought us full circle to that night in Malibu, one more tiny link in the invisible lattice of coincidence, an ironic reminder of the forces that had really been in charge all along, that directed our actions through dreams, through pulses in secret rivers, through signs in heaven and changes on earth, heraldries painted on darkness and hieroglyphs graven on the tablets of our brains. They wheeled in mazes. We merely spelled the steps and tried to read the signals. They conspired together and on the mirrors of darkness our eyes had traced the plots our waking minds could scarcely contain. Theirs were the symbols. Ours the images, that struggled to convey them...
Then the munchies kicked in and retreating to the far corner of a late night bistro, I watched Dario put away two courses, while I got him up to speed with what had happened in the Pyrenees, slipping the bleeding stones from my pocket as proof I hadn't been hallucinating all along. Then, casting one eye over the dessert menu, il maestro began for the first time to discuss the Third Mother. He had just gotten back from a sojourn in Haiti and like myself, was increasingly convinced that the ecstatic faith of the magic island was a living example of what had once been a pan-European phenomena, an ur-religion rooted in the Goddess worship of ancient Rome and the so-called 'Tarantula Cults' of the dark ages, a white Voodoo that survives hidden by successive masks down through the ages. She had been waiting for her time to come round for so many years, haunting our dreams but from the very first time I heard the icy tinkle of those tiny silver keys and glimpsed her pale bowed face in my mind's eye, there had been something hauntingly familiar about her high forehead and long, dark hair. There was even then only one clear choice, only one vessel, one conduit, one player who could truly embody the role.
We both knew how much was at stake, Dario most of all, and he had put off the inevitable for as long as possible but we were running out of time and he had to finish it, to complete the circle while there was still a chance. He knew what was at stake and tried to distract himself developing a script entitled Dark Glasses and then abandoning it, along with a rough sketch for a Venetian giallo, marking time with The Card Player while the last few pieces of the puzzle fell into place.
And in the meantime the lunatic soap opera we take to be 'real life' roared on.
The second Gulf War broke out just as I was sitting down to breakfast with Alejandro Jodorowsky in a dingy hotel dining room in Brussels. When I pointed out that this had happened before the last time we met, Jodo' blanked on me, unable to recall the events in question. He was quite adamant we had never met before, nor had he ever seen or heard of my work or served on any festival jury such as the one I described. In any case, he insisted he was a poet, not a filmmaker, and claimed to have no further interest in motion pictures which he considered a passing fad rather than a medium suitable for bona fide adult artists. I nodded along, keeping one eye on the television screen in the corner of the room, content that at least this time the great man didn't seem to have any problem with my smoking, which passed unnoticed.
Jodo' had come to Brussels to perform his much touted 'magical cabaret' for the last time, and anxious adherents had come from all across Europe to get the benefit. Sadly, events in got in the way just as they had precluded any chance of esoteric discourse when we had first met back in 1990. Canceling his show at the eleventh hour, Jodo' announced to a packed house that magic had no place in wartime and that instead he would read them an epic composition he had recently penned as an 'act of revolutionary poetry'. The screed was in French so I didn't stick around, and later I heard Jodo' cut his impromptu reading short and bottled it when the crowd turned ugly. Perhaps I should have reminded him that a magician and a poet is still a showman and a general like any other, but I doubt he would have heard me. Not that I had an audience myself, mind you, but then I didn't need one. For now the magic was reward enough!