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The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) Oct 10, 2020

So, here’s what happened. On the last day of July 2020 the company where I worked was purchased by a larger corporate entity. The month that followed involved lots of work to ease the transition while applying for jobs, and learning I would not be joining my former coworkers in the new company. I was laid off, my last day of work was September 1st. The following month was spent figuring out unemployment and fervently applying for jobs. Then, in defiance of everything this blog was named after, I contracted Covid-19. I spent most of October in near complete isolation only leaving the house to take my dogs out and even then only in a fenced in backyard.

My wife looks forward to October the whole year. It’s when the spirit of Halloween compels us to drop the rigorous scruples of The List and treat ourselves to any horror movie, regardless of decade. Years ago we’d try to watch a horror movie every weekend day of the month. That grew into ‘Every day we could’, before mutating into ‘We’re watching a horror movie every day in October’. This year it got out of control. Quarantine plus unemployment plus October meant we had no excuse not to watch as much as we possibly could all day. Every day.

I’ve not been able to keep up with the blog since recovering from Covid and reentering the workforce and dealing with holiday obligations and for those literal handful of you who actually read this or, heaven forbid actually enjoy my drivel, I apologize. But fear not, we’re not so lackadaisical as to forget to keep a meticulous catalog of the films we’ve watched in the time since I was posting more regularly. No, if there’s one thing my wife loves more than me, it’s data. Thanks to her we have a comprehensive list of every movie we watched in order. So, without further delay let’s get to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

A long time ago my wife and I vacationed in sunny Seattle and visited the Experience Music Project (EMP as it was known then, it’s name has since changed to the more fitting The Museum of Pop Culture but it’ll always be the EMP to me). The EMP is an interactive museum of pop culture artifacts with rotating exhibits of famous or significant musical instruments, costumes, or movie props among countless other things. Their Can’t Look Away: The Lure of Horror Films exhibit is one of my favorite places, anywhere. It’s a crazy little room full of strange perforated three-walled cubbies in which TVs were playing short featurettes on a wide variety of horror films. I watched them all. The hours that followed flowed by as information about movies both novel and familiar poured over my cortical folds as I swam through a sea of masks, knives, and coffins. It is heaven. Present tense.

As I climbed the stairs out of the exhibit the overhead speakers announced that the museum was closing in 15 minutes. I had spent the whole day in movie history’s dungeon and I had nothing to show for it. But waiting for me at the top of those stairs, planted like the trap of a mad marketing genius, was the gift shop. I raced through the shelves hoping to find something to codify my experience. A token to take home that would transport me back to this cave of wonders whenever I chose to revisit. And there it was. Like a golden idol waiting to be replaced with a bag of sand (full of exactly $15 plus tax), 101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die. A small book, like a pocket edition of a coffee table book, full of recommendations on films I needed to see.

We went back to our room at a friends house and couldn’t decide what to do the rest of the night. It was too early to go to bed and too late to do anything else in the city. So we opened the book, landed on a movie neither of us had seen and drove to Scarecrow Video in the university district. Who goes on vacation to Seattle? Who spends their vacation time going to a video store and watching a movie? We do. Because despite how much content streaming services claim to have they’re still evolving… and we’re nerds. If you’re a child of the 90’s and miss the thrill of strolling through video store isles and picking out a two hour masterpiece or escapist fantasy then you’ve got to make the pilgrimage to Scarecrow Video. We returned to our residence as if in a time machine; plenty of snacks, a DVD rental, and no bedtime.

The movie we watched that night was Dario Argento’s Susperia from page 233 in the book. Susperia is beautiful, bizarre, and unnerving. Everything you’d want in a great horror film. From that single viewing spawned this whole silly affair and opened up the world of Giallo and Italian cinema to me. Ok, I lied about furthering the delay but without everything I’ve written up to this moment, we probably never would’ve seen The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and wouldn’t be able to discuss it… now!

Dario Argento’s first feature film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a fifty year old breath of fresh air. Its gritty independent film feel predates the DIY renaissance of the 1990s indy film scene. You can almost feel Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino watching the movie with you. Set in Rome, the plot follows an American who witnesses a murder. He attempts to go back home to America, but his attempts fail as he becomes further embroiled in a murder mystery. The cinematography of the murder sequece is incredible. There must be over 50 different camera angles in this scene that can’t last more than 8 minutes. It’s the kinetic catalyst that kicks off a plot with more twists and turns than the maze in The Shining. Argento’s attention to detail in his camera work successfully gives the movie a novel energy despite being half a decade old.

I couldn’t watch The Bird with the Crystal Plumage without noticing the delightful period set design. The movie is full of 50 year old cars, fashion, and antiquated police equipment. There’s a scene where detectives are using a sophisticated computer system that generates an image of the suspect based on crime scene data. Think of it as an IBM police sketch computer. All we’ve seen of the suspect up to this point is that he’s a tall man in a black duster wearing a fedora. The shot of the computers printing out the image is incredible. Behind our protagonist are 5 or 6 reel to reel computer decks stacked in a row all whirring and spinning and calculating mini-bytes of data per minute. Eventually the old carbon paper printer churns out the blotchy pixelated image… of a man in a duster wearing a fedora. All that, for nothing. Hilarious.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage might be the first (and so far only) Giallo film I’ve enjoyed. If you’re unfamiliar, Giallo is a mystery-thriller genre popularized in Italian pulp novels. The genre skews toward horror elements like gory slashers typically featuring liberal use of fake blood, vibrant colors, and dramatic lighting. If you still can’t picture them, think of the worst written episodes of Law and Order, add 70’s pastiche, and lots of blood. That’s Giallo. When the blood hits your lens, and it twists at the end. That’s Giallo.

Enough mollycoddling, it’s time to get critical. I enjoyed the twist ending, even if it wasn’t earned. Twist endings need to be in front of you the entire time, veiled but visible. There’s a good argument to be made that the twist in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is hiding in plain sight but at the end of the movie it feels tacked on, like it should’ve been very obvious and easily discovered immediately after the movie starts. Watch it yourself and tell me what you think.

Giallo isn’t my favorite genre, but The Bird with the Crystal Plumage‘s inspired cinematography shot it to second place in my “Favorite Movies of October 2020” list. Thanks for reading this far, hopefully I’ll catch up sooner than later and get back to writing regularly.

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