History and Art Elevate Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria… with Legal Consequences

Watching the 1977 Dario Argento version of Suspiria, heightened my anticipation of the new release by director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name, The Bigger Splash, I Am Love). Minimally based on the storyline from the original Dario Argento 1977 film – a young dancer, Susie Bannon (Dakota Johnson) joins a dance company/school in Berlin (Helena Markos Company) only to discover they are actually a coven of witches – the new version adds layers of complexity connected to Freudian psychology and post-war history as set in 1977 Berlin, but only touches on the strong aesthetics of the original – via filtered red light and architecturally stunning sets. The original had some more substantial subtext about space and place than is usually discussed, but that is a different matter entirely, which Linda Schulte-Sasse wrote about in great detail.

Setting aside the original, this updated story by Luca Guadagnino and his screen writer David Kajganich, adds layers of intellectual and cultural substance to the movie that most people miss. Some writers have given this genre of horror movies the moniker “Elevated Horor”,  indicating a horror film with deeper meaning, not dependent on jumpscares and potentially designed as a “slow burn.” – all criteria used in referring to Suspiria.

Having Tilda Swinton play three characters, Guadagnino intends her to embody three Freudian aspects of our psyche – the Id (Madame Blanc, the choreographer), the Ego (Helena Markos, head witch) and the Superego (Dr. Klemperer/Lutz Ebersdorf) came from the filmmaker’s interest in Freudian theory and a desire to have fun with it, he says, using Swinton’s talents and enthusiasm for the idea. They kept up the ruse for a while, saying Swinton played Lutz Ebersdorf, who plays Dr. Klemperer. She even had other actors call her Lutz when she was in makeup and costume on the set and she created an elaborate biography for the “actor” which has since been removed. Swinton even insisted they create a penis and set of balls for the final scene.

The history touched on in this new version includes the survival during WWII of Dr. Klemperer, and the background noise from the TV (think Fassbinder on this layering of sound) tells the story of the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF), Baader-Meinhof group, and the German Autumn of 1977 when terrorist bombings and a hijacking created a heightened sense of fear, particularly in Berlin, as radicals confronted the residual issues in Germany following WWII. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (author of a book on Argento’s Suspiria) argues it is as much a remake of Fassbinder’s The Third Generation as it is a remake of Argento. Many Fassbinder actresses play roles as witches – Angela Winkler and Ingrid Caven, to name two.

Pina Bausch (pictured left) & Tilda Swinton as Madame Blanc in Suspiria, 2018 (pictured right)

Outside the entrance of the TANZ building (actually an abandoned hotel in Italy, with an unusual resemblance to Berlin’s Volksbühne), the Berlin wall looms as another source of ominous confinement. The psychoanalyst Klemperer traverses Friedrichstraße repeatedly, which you might miss if you don’t understand what divided Berlin was like. He traverses and in a parallel sense moves back and forth in history – from his apartment to his Dacha (old GDR/Russian word for cabin). In Argento’s film, the reference was back to Hitler’s well known locations connected to his rise to power, here it refers back to post-war losses and complications experienced by a whole generation forced to live in a divided world.

The final layer of substance in the film and ultimately what I want to address in this piece, is how the new Suspiria borrows from modern dance and feminist art. The dance comes from, according to Guadagnino, mostly German choreographers Mary Wigman (Hexentanz-expressionist dance) and Pina Bausch. Somewhat influential is also Martha Graham, I would argue particularly in choosing to have the main character come from a Mennonite family is a veiled reference to Appalachian Spring – and in Madame Blanc’s hand gestures when she runs them over Susie’s head – a common gesture of Graham.

The movement in the film is choreographed brilliantly by Damien Jalet, a Belgian-French choreographer, who was hired after Guadagnino saw his piece performed at the Louvre – Les Meduses” online. The costumes and the vibe evolved from there and the similarities are clear. Here, the choreographer used his own piece, so no appropriation can be claimed. Whatever inspiration he took from the other feminist artist’s for the final scene, involving a lot of blood and earth, are less direct.

Movement can be related and inspired and close to an artist’s, but dancer’s work always evolves from the work of the past, and there does not seem to be any breeches in the dance part of the movie that would be called appropriation, despite the similarity in appearance of the characters. And of course the influence and collaboration was rounded out by Sasha Waltz. There is an entire history of 20th century modern dance slipped into the film, as they reference a piece created in 1948 being revived. Jalet needed to wrestle with history to create a plausible dance which they called VOLK.

“Les Meduses”, 2013 (pictured left) & Suspiria, 2018 (pictured right)

In interviews, Guadagnino expresses how he was inspired by 70s feminist body art aesthetics, so much so that one artist‘s estate and gallery, Ana Mendieta, a video and installation artist, sued and settled for an undisclosed amount and the removal of the appropriated content. He said about his intention: “I hope that this movie, made by a man, turns out to be experienced through its horrors as a sort of fierce showcase of the female artistic experience”. Guadagnino added in another interview: “I think we really wanted to be very immersed in the femininity of this movie. This is a movie about the world of females. I really worked a lot with people like Teresa MccRee and I had also a very great conversation with Lea Vergine. They’re two important art critics. Both have explored the world in connection to body art and feminist art. That was our point of departure.”

Last July, the estate of artist Ana Mendieta, managed by her sister and niece, filed a lawsuit in Seattle against Amazon. I reached out to the Gallery and this was their Statement:

“Galerie Lelong & Co. wishes to issue the following statement: Galerie Lelong & Co. and The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection work closely to monitor Ana Mendieta’s legacy. The Estate oversees and implements a stringent rights and reproductions policy. All requests to reproduce images of her work are submitted to the Estate for approval. In general, image permissions are only granted for art historical contexts such as academic journal articles and informational articles directly related to the artist’s work and practice. Permissions are not granted for commercial reproductions. Barbara Hoffman, the Estate’s legal counsel, stated that it is unfortunate that the director, Luca Guadagnino, purports to pay homage to women artists of the 70s, yet Amazon has forced the Estate to bring a lawsuit to redress the damage suffered from the continuing usages of Mendieta’s iconic images in connection with Suspiria.”

So what is at issue here? Appropriation, in this case, in the film included images that look exactly like the artist’s work. The suit was settled and no details were released to the public. A total of eight images were removed from the final cut. Some specific images that have been mentioned to look like Mendieta’s ‘Rape Scene’, and ‘the Siluetas’ series. The ‘Rape Scene’ was a reaction to the violence against women she was experiencing via friends and public cases at the time. Her ‘Siluetas’ are sheets with blood red body imprints on them and were installed in various places around the world. These are from the first cut of Suspiria and have since been removed.

The similarities are not haphazard in any way, similar up to the stripes on the shirt and the location of the sheet in a stony area. The images show up in a rapid succession of images in the dream sequences – when the witches feed the dancers their dreams at night. These images that are clearly a sorted collection of images from 70s women artists. The case actually mentions other artist’s work, but only Mendieta’s estate sued for damages.

“Siluetas”, 1978 (pictured left) & Suspiria, 2018 (pictured right)

Mendieta was a influential and popular Cuban-American artist who died tragically young when her then boyfriend, artist Carl Andre, noticed she was missing after a drunken argument, and it turned out she had fallen 34 floors to the flat roof of a bar below. Andre was accused and acquitted of her murder. Her erasure from art history has led to the protective stance of her estate, and led to protests #whereisanamendieta when the Tate reopened a few years ago. At the Tate, protestors painted their arms red and covered a Carl Andre piece to question why his work was installed in the museum and hers was relegated to storage.

Sergio Sarmiento is an art lawyer who specializes in appropriation. In a recent interview he talked about his die-hard painter friends who would mix their own colors, never considering using a premixed color from a tube, but appropriation, he says, “has become like painting out of a tube – anyone can do it.” Art schools are not properly educating artists about appropriation and the laws have changed since the era of pop art, when borrowing imagery from say, Brillo pads as Warhol did. Knowledge based intellectual property is relatively intangible – artistically in the 20th century, artist have had an increasing understanding of their influence on the world and advertising, – from Duchamp to Shepherd Fairy. Artists have always appropriated or simply borrowed from other artists. Designers and advertisers have also appropriated from artists, now the question is expanding and becomes artists vs. artists, artists vs. commercial interests or in the Dana Schultz case at the Whitney Biennial culture vs. artist – and here in the case with Suspiria, we have artist Mendieta vs. corporation Amazon.

The fine line between copying and stealing for a profit has been regularly a battle for artist Jeff Koons and Richard Prince, they win some they lose some. Stealing imagery in films from paintings is not new, and though usually the paintings quoted are older , this kind of legal case in film is unprecedented. According to Sarmiento the shift is that artists are now for-profit like corporations, and we are learning how it changes their relationship to actual corporations. Intellectual property of artist’s work becomes licensed content in a new way.

So this is the rub. What would have happened if Amazon had asked Ana Mendieta’s estate? Could the appropriation have benefitted Mendieta’s estate if it were done legally? They could have offered to pay for the rights. Either way, they have to pay. Without asking in advance, they paid AND they had to remove the images from the movie. (Some confusion arises which could be from the removal of the images as we wonder what happened to the runaway Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) – she was probably shown tied up like the “Rape Scene” image.)

“Rape Scene”, 1973 (pictured left) & Suspiria, 2018 (pictured right)

Fair use is an escape route for places like YouTube – US law for this article. Simplified, it looks like this: Fair use is a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances. Section 107 of the Copyright Act provides the statutory framework for determining whether something is a fair use and identifies certain types of uses—such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research—as examples of activities that may qualify as fair use. Yes, this is often not the case and that is why so much gets removed those platforms hire thousands of people to troll for infractions.

Hot off the press regarding copyright and appropriation in the EU, new regulations in the works under a copyright directive, platforms like Facebook and Google may be held responsible for tracking who has the original rights to an image. They do some tracking now but laws don’t hold them responsible for the misuse of copyrighted images.

“Cinema of the senses is the tamer name for horror movies”, Guadagnino believes. “I hope that this movie, made by a man, turns out to be experienced through its horrors as a sort of fierce showcase of the female artistic experience,” the director says. “The relentless, unsentimental idea of femininity that I grew up witnessing, that I’ve been accompanied by in my life. It’s going to be the witches are back.”

Guadagnino shows us the possibility that cinema can be a sort of assault of the senses, bag of memories and emotions that you go through. He mines the history, memories and emotions of 1977 and lets the witches dance through a world of feminist art imagery. Luckily, Amazon can afford to pay the price so that viewers can enjoy the intelligent and beautiful work done by this director and his collaborators. For all the controversy, Suspiria is replete and resplendent with imagery and movement inspired and empowered by female artists, dancers and mixed media artwork.

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