Barbican and Cigarette Burns presents: She’s so Giallo


It’s always nice to see Italian thrillers of the 60s and 70s: big screen, small screen, whatever screen. It’s also great to hear them …

They’re trashy, slashy fun, a harkback to the times when design elements and sexualised violence were bold, brash and in your face. They’re also usually very well made, with an eye to composition, lighting, colouring and editing that unfortunately one has to call ‘old school’; as in verging on high modernist.

And then there’s the soundtracks, always being ‘rediscovered’ for their increasingly nostalgia-tinted early electronica elements, Morricone-style syncopated soul and general Euro-catchy-number-ness.

Mmmm … nice.

Cigarette Burns and the Barbican are now halfway through a short season of such films – known as ‘giallo’ for the same reason that the French called crime films ‘noir’.

The season is themed around re-evaluating the portrayal of women in such films. The films come from a time when female nudity put bums on cinema seats; and when more bums would be attracted by cinematic representations of acts of violence. The awful ‘hi-concept’ synergy was inevitable: let’s kill naked women on screen.

The films Cigarette Burns and the Barbican are showing display a range of female role types from the genre – but it is safe to say that they are obvious ones: petrified victim, hysterical psycho, vengeful dominatrix … none of these films are trying to be Cries and Whispers, let alone Persona.

Goddam though, these films ooze a sexualised style that is now totally absent from contemporary cinema. The press release calls the female characters ‘hypersexual’. I had to look that one up but it seems to me it applies much more to the films themselves, every quivering, aching, lusty frame of them.

To me this season is less about sexual politics than about the political economy of repertory cinema; and the real star here is the Cigarette Burns approach itself, which is trailblazing for a type of pure Event Cinema that’s a far cry from the ponderous and portentous likes of Secret Cinema.

Cigarette Burns sources reasonably priced 16mm and 35mm prints, prints that are in a reasonable state for screening; the print is the event. In part, you are paying for the discretion of Cigarette Burns – you need to work out whether your definition of ‘reasonable’ coincides with theirs. This print won’t be digitally restored and it’ll probably look a bit crummy relative to, say, a pristine Arrow Video release. Prints are likely to be old, bashed-up like much-loved children’s toys. That’s because they’ve been run through projectors for 40 plus years, slowly scratched and peeled by machines that are now more redundant than the sprocketed reels that were fed through them.

There’s a good blog entry from Cigarette Burns on their approach – which shows an admirable yet necessary level of transparency, the sort of transparency that is still lacking from, for example, the BFI’s approach to screenings of older prints.

You have to know this before you turn up – this is a ritual and you are part of a community, coming together to honour a dead or dying god, up there on the screen, on a raised eyeline.

by Colin Dibben

Colin Dibben

Author: Colin Dibben

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