Fallen Light: Mario Bava and Bas Jan Ader

My obsessive research on the relationship between horror film and contemporary art often takes me to unexpected places. For instance one day while I was viewing the artist films of Bas Jan Ader, I came across his Nightfall whereby I immediately and instinctually associated his light/dark tonal construction with Mario Bava. I find Bava’s horror movies to be magical experiences, touching and haunting, and I tend to automatically think of Ader in much the same way. The associations I began to draw out between them cement my thinking that the cultural and political climate of the 1960-70s fostered a sense of unease that can be felt throughout different mediums, producing some of the most enduring images of our time.

Italian filmmaker Mario Bava and Dutch conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader are cult figures, mysterious and evocative. They delve down into our sorrows and fears through an extraordinary expression of themselves. In considering how their bodies of work share structurally and thematic characteristics, we see how the subversively ingrained innovations of horror cinema are applicable in other art forms. Most importantly, their work addresses the crucial role the audience plays by watching and relating to what is seen onscreen.

Bava and Ader are two of the biggest creative influencers of the 20th century and yet they are still relatively unknown. Mario Bava, the grandfather of Italian horror cinema, ignited the giallo movement and the subsequent ‘slasher’ films in America. His innovative cinematography and directorial style are referenced in Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991), Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979(, and Roman Coppola’s CQ (2001). The small oeuvre of video, photography, and installations by Bas Ader, who lived and taught college in California until his mysterious death at sea in 1975, is the stuff of art world intrigue. There has been a documentary on his disappearance, Here is Always Somewhere Else (Daalder, 2007), the recent exhibition Suspended Between Laughter and Tears at Pitzer College that presented contemporary Californian artists whose practice responds to his legacy, and gallery exhibitions of his work appear at Patrick Painter Gallery in Los Angeles. In terms of popular culture Ader’s performances can be considered as a precursor to the Jack Ass era of bodily-harm-humour and hijinks.

Of course Bava and Ader had nothing to do with each other directly even though both were productive roughly around the same time (1960s-70s). This makes uncovering their unlikely relationship so poignant and fascinating. By looking closely at their films The Girl Who Knew Too Much (Bava, 1963) and Nightfall (Ader, 1971) along with other key works, certain specific structural commonalities emerge. Focusing on their usage of light and dark, interiors and isolation, endurance and the body, and death and tragedy provokes a new reading between cinema and visual art.

Light and dark
Bas Jan Ader and Mario Bava’s manipulation of light and dark is a stimulus for the onscreen action and the viewer’s response. This tonal construction is used to heighten the very natural human fear of being alone in the dark. Their contrasting usage of light and dark delineates space, establishing disorientation and ‘spectatorial identification’ with the audience.

In his black-and-white film Nightfall, Ader slowly takes us through the process of ‘becoming dark’. He is alone in what appears to be barn, standing before a large heavy chunk of concrete with two very bright spotlights on the ground. He struggles to pick up the stone, hold it, and then drops it onto the first light. He does this once more until he is obscured in darkness. Murnau’s silent classic Nosferatu (1922) comes to mind in its depiction of death through shadowy devices. In fact, Ader cuts a similar elongated, thin, morose figure. The vampire in cinema (and vampiric nature of cinema) is an interesting example of death by light but in Nightfall Ader is killed by the darkness. Using light as a visual prop and theatrical device, he guides the viewer’s sight lines, peaking our curiosity of what happens in this unseen non-visualized future.

A master manipulator of lighting and visual illusion, Mario Bava has a stylistic habit of highlighting the eyes of his actors. From the haunting black-and-white Black Sunday (1960) to the campy colorful Danger Diabolik (1968), the contrast between the light strip across the eyes and the dark surroundings is so striking that it compels the viewer to look.  This technique is used most effectively in The Girl Who Knew Too Much or La ragazza che sapeva troppo when heroine Nora Davis, believing she has witnessed a murder of a young woman, has difficulty discerning between reality and fantasy. The audience is left ‘in the dark’ along with her, receiving informational clues via Bava’s filtering of illuminating light as the narrative unfolds.

Interiors and isolation
Claustrophobia induced by isolation and interiors is an affective staple of the horror genre. Bava and Ader root their works in a reality by creating unease in familiar spaces such as the domestic interior of the home, turning them into a place of menace and distrust.

About his films Bava said, ‘what interests me is the fear experienced by a person alone in their room. It is then that everything around him starts to move menacingly around, and we realize that the only true ‘monsters’ are the ones we carry in ourselves.’ It’s true that in Bava’s films we never quite know if the characters are actually being pursued or if their imagination will be their ultimate undoing. In The Girl Who Knew Too Much, heroine Nora constructs an elaborate security system of string and powder (see Cape Fear) while alone in a friend’s house. At this point in the narrative, we don’t know whether the threat to her is real or whether it’s her imagination triggered from her passionate reading of murder mysteries. Two stories in Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963) trilogy, The Telephone and The Drop of Water, each feature an isolated woman in a state of panic, unraveling as she loses her good judgment and her mind. Also, the murders in Bava’s giallo classics Bay of Blood (1971) and Blood and Black Lace (1964) only occur when the victims are alone; designed to additionally hide/reveal the killer’s identity.

Ader’s evocation of isolation is a much more personal experience. The loneliness in I’m Too Sad to Tell You (1971), where Ader cries and sobs to camera, is undoubtedly the most palpable. His falling film series – Fall I (1970), Fall II (1970), Broken Fall (Organic) (1971), and Nightfall – express gravity in the metaphoric terms of what happens when no one there to catch him: he blows over in the wind, rolls off the roof, winds up in darkness. But the most haunting cry of this undeniable and dreaded absence is the burst of light emanating from the words scrawled on the wall his installation Please Don’t Leave Me (1969) For Ader presence is established in relation to absence; it is in a perpetual state of mourning, searching for future outcomes.

Endurance and the body
Horror films are corporeal beasts and Bava’s films are no exception. With the opening sequence to his first feature Black Sunday he initiates the audiences’ affected reaction by nailing a spiked iron mask to Barbara Steele’s (a vampire witch) face. This film shows how the body exists beyond death, exemplifying physical decay and the possibility to resuscitate dead flesh. His later films Four Times that Night (1972), Bay of Blood, and Blood and Black Lace are less subtle in their approach to bodily destruction as characters are eliminated in classic giallo fashion; torturously chased by an unknown murderer, ultimately being killed by an axe to the face or repeatedly stabbed. In a scene infamously re-used in Friday the 13: Part II, Bava brutally pierced together a couple having sex with a long dagger. Ironically, the actual death scenes are rather quick. It’s the film in its entirely that marks its overarching endurance for the portrayed victims and the audience.

Unlike his California contemporary Chris Burden, Ader’s self-inflicted physical endurances are less aggressive and much more emotionalized. Yes, his Fall series is intense and dangerous but it’s not the act alone that we anticipate, it’s the act in relation to the body that makes the work empathetic.

Ader’s Nightfall is a choreographed test of strength where he uses his body as the main object that enables action. Tension radiates from the artist and permeates into the occupying space (and into the cinematic space) as he struggles to handle the weight of the block he’s holding. The audience feels this and is satisfyingly relieved when he eventually (and strategically) drops the block onto the lights, leaving him and us in darkness.  His Broken Fall (Organic) is similar in this respect – he hangs and sways from a tall tree branch over a creek. As the audience we know we are witnessing an in-between moment; a brief period of waiting until he finally loses his grip and falls onto the ground. Structurally akin to horror cinema, these paused moments of tension build up to the gratifying release for the person onscreen and for the viewer.

Death and tragedy
Since Bas Jan Ader vanished at sea in 1975 while making his last piece of work In Search of the Miraculous (his boat was found but he was not), his melancholic persona tends to overshadow the complexity of his work and our reading of it. Ader embodies death and tragedy on a personal level while Bava outwardly depicts violence onto others (he did make horror films after all). The main focus in Bava’s films was the overall design, including actors to backgrounds, while Ader is simultaneously subject and object. However different in approach, they both fuse together humour and tragedy in such a way that invests a proactive interest in life through the exploration of death.

Humour in a horror context can be interpreted as a way to release the tension and we can see this ebb-and-flow in their artworks. It’s hard not to giggle when Ader falls from the roof in a Buster Keaton-esque physical comedy or when he dangles from a tree in Broken Fall (Organic). And the jolts of laughter Bava provides at the end of Bay of Blood (the children wind up shooting their parents, hilarious!) or Black Sabbath (camera pans out to show Karloff riding on a dummy horse in studio as slapstick music plays) are actually quite amusing. Instinctively, Bava and Ader collate tragedy and comedy, making the intangible accessible through a little bit of therapeutic laughter.

To me, considering Mario Bava and Bas Jan Ader in the same context is a reminder of how powerful images can mirror the struggles and triumphs of life. Perhaps it goes beyond the influence of horror cinema on visual artists and extends into thinking about how social and political environments shape artistic practice. It is also an exciting provocation that the horror genre is successfully productive in differing mediums and not just scare tactics for silly cinema. Thus, my research gladly continues.

IMAGES (top to bottom, all stills)
1. Mario Bava, The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963)
2.  Bas Jan Ader, Nightfall (1971)
3. Mario Bava, Black Sunday (1960)
4. Bas Jan Ader, Please Don’t Leave Me (1969)
5. Mario Bava, funny ending to Bay of Blood (1971)