Interview with Maitland McDonagh

More good news for Argento fans this month - not only does March see the publication of my own book on Argento’s film work, but also - and far more excitingly - the publication of a new edition of Maitland McDonagh's seminal Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento.

McDonagh's cerebral book is regarded as the cornerstone of all Argento studies, and with the latest edition the writer brings everything bang up to date as she takes a look at Argento’s recent output from The Stendhal Syndrome onwards. Ms McDonagh was kind enough to have a quick chat with me about the new edition of Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds, why she admires Argento’s work so much and why she believes he has made such an impact in the horror genre...

Why do you admire the films of Dario Argento so much? What is it about his work that speaks to you most?

It was the combination of incredible images and seductive sound that first drew me to Argento’s movies. They were so lush and seductive and allusive that most American horror movies of the 1970s paled by comparison.
Once I discovered Argento I began searching out other European thrillers and horror movies, and discovered that they came from a completely different cultural notion of horror: They may have been sensationalistic and shocking, but they were aesthetically rooted in hundreds of years of literature and sculpture and painting… They blew my mind and sent me scurrying to explore the sources.

What made you decide to base your thesis on Argento – and then expand it into a book?

When I started thinking seriously about my masters’ thesis, I knew two things: That I wanted to write about a horror film or filmmaker and that I didn’t want to be backed into a narrowly defined corner where I’d have to dissect some scrap of minutia missed by earlier generations of writers who took the genre seriously enough to devote serious thought to its history, influences and structure.

A friend suggested Argento and it was a “voila” moment: Although there were lots of interviews, reviews and articles about the filmmaker and his films in genre publications, no one had written a serious, rigorously analytical academic study of his work as a whole. And Argento’s movies leant themselves to such scrutiny: They were smart, allusive and informed by centuries of literature, painting, sculpture and movies.

My thesis became a book because an English archivist named Anthony Blampied began writing to me after a chapter was published in an academic journal called Film/Psychology Review. At first he just sent me Argento-related clippings from European magazines, but after about a year he called me and said it had always been his dream to start an independent press and would love to make Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds its first title.

I think I said something like, “Sure… why don’t you give me a call when you get that pulled together.” And much to my surprise, he did. Thank you Anthony! He went on to publish a number of fine books under the Sun Tavern Fields imprint, including David McGillivray’s Doing Rude Things: A History of the British Sex Film and David Greenberger’s Tell Me If I've Stopped: Voices from the "Duplex Planet".

Why choose now to publish an updated edition?

The first version of Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds – my Columbia University MFA thesis -- was written in 1985; the first edition of the book published in 1990 and the second came out in 1995, when Argento was 55. No longer a bright young thing, but far from packing in; Argento has since then directed seven features – The Stendhal Syndrome, The Phantom of the Opera, Sleepless, The Card Player, Do You Like Hitchcock?; made for Italian TV, Mother of Tears and Giallo – as well as two episodes of the made-for-cable Masters of Horror series, Jenifer and Pelts. That’s a lot of catching up. This new edition also gave me the opportunity to correct errors – some large and some small – that had made it through the first two editions.

As a graduate student you co-founded and edited Columbia Film Review. How did you go about this?

My friend Robert Lang, who had also come to Columbia’s Graduate School of the Arts by way of Hunter College (CUNY), and I were shocked that there was no equivalent of Columbia Journalism Review in the film department. So we wrote a proposal to start one and it was accepted; it was even approved as a work-study project, which was no small thing for students paying our own way through graduate school.

When did you decide that you wanted to work in film theory/criticism? Has it been a difficult path for you?

From the time I was a young teenager I loved movies, especially horror movies, and I was fascinated both by the practical history of horror filmmaking and by various theoretical approaches to the cinefantastique. Once I graduated from high school, I always had full time or close-to full time jobs, so I felt entitled to pursue whatever course of study I chose. I began publishing when I was an undergraduate; when I finished graduate school and was only working a 40+ hour a week public relations job and writing movie reviews and articles on the side, I felt as though I was on vacation.

Was it hard? I guess, but I was young. Now, after spending 13 years as’s senior movies editor and chief reviewer, I find myself in an environment in which print outlets are dying daily and online outlets don’t see the value in paying an experienced, educated critic when they can syndicate reviews – their thinking is that users don’t care and apparently they’re right. That’s hard.

When you sit down to watch a film, can you choose to ‘just watch’ it, or are you constantly ‘reading’, analysing and dissecting?

I never just watch, but I don’t see that as a bad thing; to me, part of the pleasure of watching a movie or reading a book is engaging with it.

How do you usually approach a film in order to write about it?

I just watch and respond; at this point I’ve been seeing movies, reading books, looking at paintings and pieces of sculpture, attending dance pieces, exploring city streets and who knows what else for more than four decades, and I have the kind of mind that thrills to connections. I get a rush like an electric shock when I see what two apparently disparate things have in common.

Its been 25 years since you started the initial research that would become your Columbia University master's thesis – do you think film studies and academic approaches to film criticism have changed much over the years – particularly in relation to horror cinema?

I think academic film writing has fallen down a rabbit hole of self-referential irrelevance.

There’s been some debate recently about the ‘art’ of film criticism. In the days before the internet, film viewers may have relied on a small number of 'established' critics’ opinions when deciding what to watch. Now anyone can share their opinions on the latest films through blogging, twitter, Facebook etc. Do you think the 'art' of film criticism – in the traditional sense - is dying out?

I hope traditional film criticism isn’t dying, but right now it’s seriously undervalued. The fact that movies are a popular medium has led to the fallacious notion that everyone’s opinion carries equal weight. But if I want to start exploring, let’s say, East German Westerns, I want to read reviews and essays by writers who can put the novels of Karl May and the movies they inspired into a social, political and historical context - I want to learn from someone who knows more than I do.

Was it difficult going back to Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds – did you have to re-watch earlier Argento films and re-visit the last edition to pick up your train of thought – so to speak?

It wasn’t hard at all. Argento’s best films are as audacious and astonishing as they were thirty plus years ago. Watching Anchor Bay’s stunning DVD of Suspiria triggered a positively Proustian flashback to seeing it at the once-grand Victoria Theatre on 46th Street and Broadway.

How did you prepare yourself to tackle Argento’s recent material for the new edition of Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds?

I didn’t. I just took the DVDs off the shelf and watched them. I hadn’t seen most of them since their first theatrical or video/DVD releases, so while they weren’t new to me, they also weren’t stale. And because some time had passed, I was able to see all of them with fresh eyes.

What do you think of Argento’s recent work – the films you’ve covered in the new edition such as Mother of Tears, The Card Player etc?

Sadly, I feel that my thesis coincided with the last hurrah of Argento’s great and innovative work, with the exception of the often underrated The Stendhal Syndrome.
I must confess that I didn’t much care for Stendhal when I first saw it - though I was stunned by Asia Argento’s performance from the start - but I’ve come to appreciate the sly, subtle exploration/subversion of Hitchcockian tropes that underlie its superficial coarseness and brutality.

What is your take on the allegations of misogyny so often directed at him?

I’m over it. Many genre conventions are rooted in an atavistic fear of women, but that doesn’t make individual filmmakers misogynists.

Why do you think Argento still has such a devoted following – even though many critics and fans have not shown much appreciation for his recent output?

Because Argento’s best movies are extraordinary. Orson Welles never made another movie as breathtaking as Citizen Kane, but you know what? One Citizen Kane buys you a lifetime pass to fuss and dither and self-sabotage and not live up to your potential, because you’ve made a movie that will be knocking people’s socks off long after you’ve crumbled to dust.
And Argento made more than one: For my money, Deep Red, Suspiria, Tenebrae and Opera are all breathtaking.

How do you see Argento fitting in with contemporary thriller/horror filmmakers? Is he still ‘relevant’?

Argento is absolutely relevant: I see his influence, and the influence of his influences, everywhere.

What is it about horror cinema that appeals to you so much?

For me, horror movies are like dreams, and dreams tap into a deep, primal part of the mind.

Of all your own writings throughout the years, which has proved most compelling to research?

I couldn’t say – it’s been my experience that, as soon as I start to really dig into something, it always turns out to be fascinating.

What is next for you – any other forthcoming projects you’re working on?

Right now I’m focused on promoting the new edition of Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds. After that, I have two projects I want to pursue, and neither involves horror… More on them as they develop!

The new edition of Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento is out now!

For more information on the latest edition, go here.

Feel free to visit Maitland's website Flick Chick and indeed, why not drop by and say 'hi' on Facebook.


Scare Sarah said…

I need to come back and re-read this later. Awesome interview!
Anonymous said…
I love her so much! She is my idol.
If I haven't told you the story of how I brazenly approached her at Fangoria... remind me to (although I think I have) ;-)
James Gracey said…
Sarah - Thanks!

Christine - You have indeed told me about your encounter with Ms McDonagh! You're so lucky and I'm still very envious of that. ;o)
deadlydolls said…
Great interview with someone I admire very much. Can't wait for the book James!
Excellent interview James - this is pretty much the holy grail of Argento books and one of the most welcome reprints/updates since David Pirie's second edition of A Heritage of Horror. Hopefully your own effort can became as important a contribution. I'm sure yours will improve on Alan Jones' sycophantic and anecdotal Profondo Argento.

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