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The "mother" of all horror movies
Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977)
In this multi-layered examination of Argento's undisputed magnum opus, Linda Schulte-Sasse analyses the use of gothic spaces and sly references to fascism and the film's eligibility for being "Disney's hidden reverse."
Dario Argento has been called the "Italian Hitchcock" and the "Visconti of Violence." Perhaps, but if we must pin a catchy canonical label to Argento, my vote would go to "Disney's hidden reverse," and Suspiria (1977) is the best reason why. One of two Argento films with a supernatural theme (the other being Inferno ), Suspiria is a fairytale exhibiting a surface naiveté.
Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper), a young American girl looking not unlike Snow White, arrives at a famous Dance Academy in Freiburg, Germany, only to find she has entered a witches' coven. Though her investigation into strange occurrences puts her in grave danger, she destroys the coven. Not only does Suzy survive malevolent supernatural forces, but even a dormitory filled with ballerinas whose viciousness gives the witches some healthy competition.
Suspiria is part of a trilogy Argento planned based upon Thomas de Quincey's recounting of an opium dream about thee mothers, Mater Lachrymarum (Tears), Mater Suspiriorum (Sighs) and Mater Tenebrarum (Darkness). Suspiria makes no explicit reference to any of the mothers, but is cross-referenced in Inferno, which provides a detailed exposition.
Like Disney, Argento has no interest in realism whatsoever; Suspiria is self-consciously stylised, artificial and, as the first victim will remark in a kind of meta-commentary, "so absurd, so fantastic." The characters are not psychologically developed, but correspond with folkloric types: a protagonist on a quest by which she will lose her innocence; helper figures who show the way; and a malevolent maternal trio composed of dance instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), administrator Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett), the whiteness of whose name stands in ironic contrast to the "Black Queen" of witchcraft, Helene Marcos, a 19th-century Greek immigrant and now the school's elusive "Headmistress."
In a conscious if ironic tribute to Disney, Suspiria is about intense color as much as it is about anything; Argento has commented that "we were trying to reproduce the color of Walt Disney's Snow White; it has been said from the beginning that Technicolor lacked subdued shades, was without nuances—like cut-out cartoons." Suspiria is about sound as well, overlaid with a repetitive, frantic and compelling musical soundtrack by the rock group Goblin, whose sound has become a hallmark of some key Argento films.
So far, so Disnesque. But if Disney's artificiality invites us to share a beautiful fantasy of stability and reassurance, Argento's fantasmagoria goes for the exact opposite, destabilising every inch of the way and graphically visualising the bodily violence and dismemberment of many a Grimm fairytale (pun intended).
Already the soundtrack, which precedes the first image, effects a sensuous immersion, a sense of compulsion as opposed to control, drive as opposed to desire. The music is overlaid with enervating sound effects like whispers, screams and whines that add to the overall paranoiac mood. Sound is in perfect synch with visuals, but renders unstable the boundary between conventional, non-diegetic "mood" music and diegetic sound within the film proper, as we are haunted by sounds "from nowhere" that resemble, for example, Helene Marcos' inimitable snoring. Moreover, the power of the soundtrack makes silent passages in the film all the more tense, all the more silent.
Modern and gothic spaces
Like the standard fairytale, Suspiria is a story of travel and movement between two kinds of spaces, one realistic and high-tech modern, the other gothic—all located within a vague and dislocated "Germany." The film begins in the airport where Suzy's arrival is announced by male voiceover narration which combines the fairytale's "once upon a time" with the precision of modern temporality: "One day" Suzy departs "Kennedy Airport at 9am and arrives in Freiburg, Germany at 10:40 PM local time."
The airport is anonymous and interchangeable with any other, yet how "normal" is it? Already this pedestrian space is estranged through a color scheme that bathes the functional design in reds and blues. From out of the crowd a woman in red passes Suzy, walking ahead and exiting the airport door in the distance, her hair and clothes flapping in the wind. Though at this point nothing but a contrapuntal figure adding graphic interest to the image, the woman anticipates the woman in red (also young, tall, slender) who will be running frantically from the ballet school when Suzy arrives.
Although nothing "happens" in the airport—"happenings" being reserved for gothic spaces—it sets a pattern of arrival and departure, and of Suzy's exchange with other characters as she steps into the place they left vacant (she will take up the failed investigation of the fleeing girl in red, then later her roommate Sara [Stefania Casini]). And it sets a theme of restricted agency: subjective shots of Suzy walking toward the airport's double set of sliding glass doors convey a sense of potential entrapment recalling Argento's first film, L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970), in which a man witnessing a stabbing becomes trapped between two such glass doors like a fish in a bowl; the subject and seeming master of the gaze becoming its helpless object.
Despite vast stylistic differences, Argento bears a certain affinity to Franz Kafka, in that his subjects enter a sometimes bureaucratised, anonymous world where they become easily disoriented and helper figures are decidedly unhelpful. Multiple taxis pass Suzy by in torrents of rain, the cab driver who stops only when she steps in front of his car ignores her request for help with her luggage, he doesn't (or doesn't want to) understand her directions and she is turned away when she gets where she is going. Besides being an experience which any contemporary traveler will recognise, the cab ride again functions to anticipate a breakdown of communication in the film. It prepares for a gothic world where employees don't understand the language and speak in incomprehensible tongues, where clues disappear and telephones don't work, where authorities speak plainly enough but harbour dirty secrets.
The main setting for the film is the gothic space (or what Carol Clover's taxonomy of horror would call the "terrible place") of Suzy's destination, the Dance Academy. This primary space will be echoed in several others (notably the apartment building where the first murder occurs), which have the distinction of being at once imaginary and historically overdetermined.
Although the Dance Academy is a famous historical building from 1516 named Zum Walfisch ("The Whale"), and despite occasional close-ups of a plaque saying that humanist philosopher Erasmus von Rotterdam lived there from 1529 to 1531, the Academy looks unreal, like a fairytale building, with an exterior in vivid red that is the most semiotically charged color of the film (reverberating in the red figures that start the film off, the corridors and rooms in the dance school, polished fingernails, red wine rendered artificial like paint and, of course, blood).
In Suspiria's gothic spaces, childhood fantasies of something abject or horrific "out there" in the dark come true, as Kafkaesque disorientation assumes a narrative and spatial dimension. A room may be inexplicably full of sharp wire coils, a bat may suddenly attack, maggots may drop from the ceiling into your hair as if to suggest a state of rotting within the house (at one point the blind school pianist Daniel [Flavio Bucci] storms out screaming "fresh air") or hands may grab you from outside your third-story window. With a method that is madness, disembodied Argento hands from nowhere invariably kill: that is who they are and that is what they do.
|Just walking the dog... for the very last time|
A different kind of gothic space in the film appears only once, but leaves an indelible mark; the public square where man's best friend most literally goes for the jugular when Daniel is murdered by his seeing-eye dog. The square is of interest first because it is clearly does not belong in the Swabian culture of Freiburg, Germany, but is strongly suggestive of Munich. The sequence begins with Daniel sitting in a pub featuring Schuhplattler
dancing, which is not only quintessentially Bavarian but provides a counterpoint to the rest of the film. It invokes a canny, folkloristic Germany of tourism by means of a dance whose bawdy and jerky body-slapping is in stark contrast to the smooth elegance of ballet and to Argento's signature traveling shots.
Daniel will die in the middle of a huge, empty square flanked by white buildings with Corinthian columns that is redolent of Munich squares like Odeonsplatz. The misplacement of the square with its neo-classical architecture in the quaint, medieval crampedness of Freiburg is significant because it recalls a very different moment of German history, National Socialism, which got its start in Hitler's infamous 1923 beer hall putsch.
|January 30, 1933 by Arthur Kampf, |
commemorating the Nazi seizure of power
The association of the square with Nazism may be illustrated by comparing Argento's set to that of Arthur Kampf's painting January 30, 1933
, showing a Nazi demonstration in front of the kind of neo-classical architecture Nazism privileged.
The buildings also call to mind Albrecht Speer's never-completed vision of "Germania," an architecture designed to visualise the grandeur and power of Nazi Germany, but that required a razing of all that had stood in its place; "Germania" stood for rebirth out of destruction or purgation. In this context, it is notable that Daniel's suddenly murderous dog is a German shepherd, the dogs most closely associated with the SS. Moreover, what is the Germanic Miss Tanner if not an allusion to the sadistic, Lina Wertmuelleresque, Nazi female guard?
Argento also calls attention to his fascism subtext by highlighting the very constructedness of this place that doesn't fit: the square looks fake, like a film set. Clearly Suspiria is neither a historical nor a political film in the conventional sense, and it makes no direct reference whatsoever to National Socialism. Why, then, would Argento incorporate this allusion? A key may lie in the film's second modern, naturalised space, the convention center plaza where Suzy queries two academics about "what it means to be a witch" after the disappearance of Sara, who in fact has been sliced to ribbons by a conveniently located room filled with barbed wire.
The interview scene is set outside with natural lighting, amid towering buildings that could, like the airport, be anywhere, and that match the scientific discourse of a sign announcing the "Sixth Meeting on New Studies in Psychiatry and Psychology." The younger of the men, Professor Frank Mandel (Udo Kier), is a rationalist, a psychiatrist who believes "in the material world" and is convinced "that the current spread of belief in magic and the occult is a part of mental illness. Bad luck isn't brought by broken mirrors but broken minds." In his world, Sara—Suzy's only reliable ally—is a "patient" deluded by "wild ideas." The old Professor Milius (Rudolf Schündler) is an occultist who understands witches as "an important appendage of contemporary psychiatry," and who declares that, skepticism notwithstanding, "magic is everywhere and all over the world it's a recognised factor."
Typically for Argento, academic authority disorients further by giving opposite readings of the same story. But though one authority explains mental illness as the cause of magic and the other sees magic as a real causal factor in psychiatry, both discursively intermingle the supernatural and the psychopathic. Psychosis and witchcraft (or as Milius's book is entitled, "Paranoia or Magic") emerge as two sides of the same coin: witchcraft takes on the dimension of a systematic and widespread accumulation of capital and a will to power ("their goal is to gain great personal wealth"); psychosis produces a destructive power that resembles magic in its capacity to cause real-life disaster, "to change the course of events and history."
Seen in the context of this universalisation of witchcraft's power, the willful insertion of a neo-classical, "fascist" architecture into Freiburg may seem less random. What was National Socialism if not a historical version of what the witches achieve on a seemingly apolitical level: a systematic reign of surveillance and paranoia, a disciplining of the body and social behaviour (those punished in Suspiria are the ones with a "strong will"), a process of selecting who belongs to the "we" and elimination of who does not.
The title of Robert Brasillach's French fascist newspaper could serve for the killer in any Argento film: je suis partout, "I am everywhere." The most prolific form of horror in Suspiria is not localised but oceanic: the maggots, the wire that entangles you more the more you try to escape, the absent yet omnipresent Helene Marcos. Moreover, Argento constructs the distinction between the magical and the paranoiac (and between his supernatural and giallo films) only to collapse it. If Suspiria's two naturalised, modern spaces provide a moment of relief from an undercurrent of violence, these spaces overflow into each other—indeed, the paranoia pervading Argent's cinema is consistent, whether its source is witchcraft or psychosis. Just as the red woman disturbs the banality of the airport, the "normal" scenes always echo the uncanniness of the gothic spaces. Why is the young psychiatrist's shirt the same bewitched green that Sara was bathed in before setting off to be killed? Does the blurred reflection of Suzy and Milius in a window suggest the fuzzy subjective boundaries of the gothic world?
Blindness and insight
If the hidden reverse of fascism's friendly face was brutality, Argento's cinema reverses Disney to show the source of beauty in rottenness and the impossibility of reliance—on the spoken or written word, on technology, on other people, on oneself. The story's quest parallels Argento's: to render visible the invisible, which always entails recognising and remembering, mapping an unmappable space and returning the other's malevolent gaze. Because the witches' strategy is to blind (a series of eyeline matches, for example, show Suzy succumbing with bodily convulsions to the gaze of the little boy and Russian maid, blinded by a triangular reflective shard in the woman's hand), agency means mobilising a vision that cannot see.
Only by using other senses is investigation possible; one "noses around," one hears and counts steps to see with the mind's eye, tracing movement "like the thread of Ariadne," as Sara puts it. The blind pianist Daniel is the first to pose a threat by seeing through other senses. Though the reason for his killing is never explicit (and Argento is never particularly concerned with narrative coherence), when thrown out of the school, he repeatedly cries out the warning: "I'm blind, not deaf." What more fitting revenge than to let his own seeing–eye dog punish his transgression?
The culminating act of exposure in the film occurs with Suzy's invasion of Helene Marcos' space. First, Suzy stumbles in the dark and knocks over a miniature peacock with a multi-colored tail that contains the color scheme of the entire film, as if all color, like the evil it gives form to, emanates from Marcos' room (and as if Argento were paying homage to the NBC peacock).
Marcos qua the Thing itself has heretofore been seen only as an outline; Suzy's act of stabbing is not only one of killing, but of showing; when pierced, Marcos materialises, literally rotting like the maggot-filled building. As if the Thing were not graspable by the eye (recalling the alien thing in Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi horror film, Alien) the camera captures Marcos in fragmented form, as mouth, eyes, hands—only one shot grasps her as a whole.
This penetration of the heart of gothic space likewise brings to a culmination the inversions and exchanges that began at the airport: confronting Marcos' wrath, Suzy stands in a coffin-shaped doorframe as if already dead, holding out her right arm with a dagger poised to strike. At Marcos' command, the murdered Sara appears in the same doorway with a dagger in the same hand, a bloodied mirror image of Suzy (same hair, age, body type and clothing), yet laughing like Helene Marcos and aiming her knife at Suzy. Marcos thus answers Suzy's intervention by doubling and inverting, mixing and matching bodies and voices so that Suzy equals Sara equals Helene Marcos herself.
Friend becomes enemy, dead becomes undead, aggression against other becomes aggression against self. Even when evil is defeated, we're still not certain how relieved we should be. Marcos' death sets off an apocalypse, as the building shakes, crumbles and explodes in a fiery inferno just after Suzy has run outside into the rain from which she first entered. Particularly in light of this circularity, are we to read the rain as one of purgation or as a biblical flood taking us back to the uncanny taxi ride, where the camera cut ominously to torrents of rain overflowing gutters and gushing uncontrollably from streams?
If closure is unstable in Suspiria, so is the subject's status. Marcos no sooner asks "Who is it? Who's there?" than she answers her own question: "You're expected, I knew you'd come!" Whenever Marcos "appears" in the film, it is always in metonymic relation to Suzy; earlier when we see her outline behind a sheet, her head forms a right angle with Suzy's, who is in bed in front of the sheet. Like the gate to the law in the famous parable "Before the Law" in Kafka's The Trial (1925), "this one is just for you"; the subject's particularity is acknowledged in the moment of its annhilation.
Recurrent scenes in the film foreground Suzy's mirror image, notably one in which the left frame shows her mirror reflection and closes in on her red mouth while in the right frame girls joke that there is a hex on the house and an exorcism is necessary. The association between the mirror image and the dialogue remains ambiguous; is it an interpellation for Suzy to perform the exorcism, or is it indicative of her own vague implication in the hexing? Is there something to the homophonic relation between wicked old witch and "American bitch"? The interweaving of a hero-pervert, victim-assailant dynamic is one of Argento's most central preoccupations.
An awfully beautiful film
Indeed it would have been entirely appropriate had Helene Marcos, like the Wicked Witch of the West, reproached Suzy for spoiling "my beautiful evil." If the themes of instability and disorientation are not surprising in the wake of modernist literature from Kafka to Beckett, the lusciousness and beauty of Argento's destabilised world is. As much a reverberation as an inversion of Disney, Susperia's sheer specularity invites a more contemplative than narrative mode of viewing, even as a story of movement through space.
Throughout the film we are held captive by image and sound; each movement from space to space—whether the drive from the airport, a walk up or down the gilded school staircase, or a subjective traveling shot through the red Jugendstil corridor of the dance school—is experienced more aesthetically than in narrative terms (in one of her many exchanges of place, Suzy at one point dances into a school corridor as others dance out of the hall on the other end, her graceful movement building a choreographic counterpoint to the Russian maid and little boy, fixed in a tableau of watching).
Each room of the school is highly ornamental, as are the film's other gothic locales; wallpaper may provide an artificial nature backdrop (the irises by Madame Blanc's desk) or graphically match characters (flowery wallpaper repeating girls' curly hair). Many frames have a painterly composition, with characters positioned in doorways or mirror frames that set them apart graphically from other characters. Indeed, spatial aesthetics connects to story when the key to the narrative enigma ("turn the blue iris," which will open a door to the witches' hidden lair) turns out to be a reference to design and color, again to an artificial design, an artificial flower.
Nowhere does aesthetic contemplation triumph over story more than in the narrative-retarding murder scenes, virtuoso exhibitions of extremely complex mise-en-scène and editing. The first murder provides a superb example: Pat (Eva Axén), the girl in red whom Suzy sees running away from the school upon her own first arrival into Freiburg, flees to a friend's apartment house, a deco version of the renaissance Dance Academy filled with geometric shapes but cast in the same orangey red. Frightened by a storm that blows open the window of her friend's apartment, she peers into the darkness when an arm appears out of nowhere, pushing her head through the glass, after which she is stabbed through the heart in a crawl space by the same bodiless hands, placed in a noose and dropped through a glass skylight into the foyer of the apartment house where she hangs dripping with blood while her roommate is impaled by falling debris when she runs into the foyer (try figuring out the spatial logistics of this one).
Bizarre enough (since we have as of yet no clue to the storyline, to the identity of these characters or the motivation for killing them), but the scene functions in two crucial ways, one thematic, one stylistic. First, it anticipates the theme of mirroring and punishment of those who look. It is as if Pat brings on her own destruction by her quasi-guilty fascination with the window. The silky black lingerie hung outside and flapping in the wind mirrors her own dressing gown, and the window itself becomes a mirror as she pulls a lamp close, which logically impedes her vision of the dark outside and enhances her view of herself. The spooky, faceless eyes that suddenly look back from outside seem nothing but an echo of her own gaze turned against her; her shriek recalls that of someone who accidentally sees themselves in a mirror in the dark.
Second, the scene gains its spectacular quality through editing and graphics. What could be shown through conventional cross-cutting between girl assaulted and roommate frantically beating at the door from outside gains a new dimension through radical shifts of perspective. The alternation of shots from extreme close-ups to extreme long shots gives the spectator at once the feeling of omniscience (our gaze is everywhere as we share "impossible," unclaimed perspectives) and total helplessness.
One long shot showing Pat looking out the window is taken from outside (letting us share the Thing's point of view), and forms a composition in which the window, itself framed by ornamental shades, becomes a frame within a frame imbued with reds and blues, surreally offset by black lingerie flying in the wind. The hysterical roommate is shown from a series of long shots that similarly render her a miniscule part of the graphic design of the art deco architecture surrounding her. The intensity of her emotion is subsumed by the laws of aesthetics that literally reduce her to an objet d'art, and our reception shifts wildly from the closeness of identification to the pleasure of aesthetic distance—a pleasure that is disinterested in a very different sense than that meant by Kant.
This early double-murder sequence is paradigmatic for the film, in that our attention is drawn to graphics, whether the squares of the grid Pat is stabbed against (picked up by the design of a dancer's stockings later), the design of the skylight she falls through (squares and diamonds inserted alternately into each other) or the right angle of a frame and the glass wedged into the dead roommate's skull. Here and everywhere in the set decorations we see triangles (an occult symbol used by freemasons) and especially inverted triangles (these abound in the interior décors, for example, in Helene Marcos' room and even form the neckline of a black dress worn by Madame Blanc). Much like the blue iris, it is as if the décor itself refuses to remain ornamental, threatening to intervene in the story, to plunge downward as a weapon. The final series of tableaus in the murder sequence (the hanging Pat and the skewered roommate) synthesise the geometric order of angles with the random formlessness of bloodstains; they resemble nothing more than an expressionist painter's messy, colorful pallet.
This film about travel is a trip, and one can scarcely write about Suspiria without apologising, since what makes the film so extraordinary is beyond the grasp of language, not to mention scholarly language. If ever there was an aesthetic that epitomised Raymond Bellour's description of film as an "unattainable text"—as one that defies verbal description and cannot, like literature, be quoted—it is Argento's, and Suspiria in particular. If you have ever talked yourself into a verbal corner trying to put a film, thousands of pictures, into words, you will sympathise with this writer's resort to the old cliché: You've just got to see it!
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1. See Maitland McDonagh, Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (New York: Citadel, 1991), 127-61. Argento has never completed the trilogy; his 1982 film Tenebrae is a return to his usual giallo or thriller format.
2. This kind of meta-commentary is characteristic of the "knowingness" of postmodern horror cinema, which, far from naïve, consciously flaunts artificiality and is complicit in its own game. Philip Brophy refers to modern horror as a "genre about genre": "The contemporary horror film knows that you’ve seen it before; it knows that you know what is about to happen; and it knows that you know it knows you know." "Horrality-- The Textuality of Contemporary Horror Films," Screen 27 (1986): 5. See also Steven Jay Schneider, "Kevin Williamson and the Rise of the Neo-Stalker," Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities 19.2 (2000): 73-87.
3. McDonagh (131-33; 138-41) traces the film’s adherence to and departure from folkloric patterns as identified by Vladimir Propp in his Morphology of Folklore.
4. The casting of Valli and Bennett in these roles (respectively) suggests an homage to the film noir tradition, as Bennett appeared in several of Fritz Lang’s American films and Valli famously in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949).
5. Quoted in McDonagh, 142. Argento and Photography Director Luciano Tovoli used lab manipulation to achieve their effect: "We used the same procedures as they did in the fifties with Technicolor, with very vivid colors; it’s a matter of using three film matrixes for the three base colors: red, green, and blue, and then superimposing them while each time stressing the color you want to have stand out." Ibid, 144.
6. At times the narration will also exchange one character for another. When Suzy rides the taxi presumably to a hotel after not being received at the school, we see a woman arriving at a building, which by the laws of continuity editing should be Suzy; instead, it is the soon-to-be-murdered Pat, whose fate threatens Suzy later.
7. Perhaps the most famous Kafka example is the policeman (called in German "Schutzmann" or protector) in his parable "Give it up." Asked by a lost man how to find his way, the policeman retorts with indifferent laughter, "You want to know the way from me? Give it up!" This parable can be found online.
8. Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).
9. Here Argento clearly pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), as he does in several other films, notably Opera (1987). The bird motif is picked up in the wallpaper in the first murder scene of the expelled girl Pat, who stands so that the wallpaper birds seem to be heading right for her, and in the sound of flapping wings as the camera swoops from a god’s eye perspective toward the musician Daniel prior to his murder. Birds have been a favourite Argento motif since his first film, L’Uccello dalle piume di cristallo. Finally, a close-up of a drain with water spiraling down it in Suspiria also honours Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).
10. When Suzy first enters the locker room filled with dancers, a young woman immediately wants to report something to Miss Tanner, recalling Nazi or GDR surveillance.
11. Though clear-cut decoding and allegory are inimical to Argento’s cinema as I understand it, I trust the reader will forgive me for noticing that the two victims at this point in the film have Jewish names, Sara and Daniel!
12. See, eg, Tenebrae, Opera or La Sindrome di Stendhal (The Stendahl Syndrome, 1996).
13. The cinematic expression Argento gives the antinomy between the eye and the gaze bears a striking resemblance to Lacan’s theorisation of the same structure in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (trans Alan Sheridan, New York & London: WW Norton, 1973). Lacan locates the gaze as outside, as something that looks back at us (as opposed to our assumption that it is the point from which we see): "I see only from one point, but in my existence I am looked at from all sides" (72); "In the scopic field, the gaze is outside, I am looked at, that is to say, I am a picture" (106).
14. See Steven Jay Schneider, "Murder as Art/The Art of Murder: Aestheticising Violence in Modern Cinematic Horror. In Necronomicon: The Journal of Horror and Erotic Cinema, Book Four, ed Andy Black, Hereford: Noir Publishing, 2001: 65-85.
15. Raymond Bellour, "The Unattainable Text." In The Analysis of Film, ed Constance Penley (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 21-27.
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