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Don't Look Now (1973)


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I just watched this 1973 thriller and am anxious for some feedback from others. Darren references the infamous sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie here (and I was quite surprised to find that it still holds up as explicit, even by 2006 standards, although an otherwise tasteful depiction of marital sexuality). There doesn't appear to be any other discussion at A&F, though, at least not that the search engine turns up ... although appearances can be deceiving, ha ha, which leads me to a smooth segue ...

What most interests me is the idea of reality vs. perception that permeates the film, even in its title ('Don't look now' is almost a prophetic warning that looking in the wrong place at the wrong time, i.e., carelessly interpreting signs and wonders, will lead to disaster). I love the way Roeg sets up scenes and snippets which, in a traditional horror film, would drip with significance and be explained away with self-conscious exposition at a later point. But Roeg leaves them be, as if he's showing us snapshots we don't need to see, then letting us wonder at what is significant and what is extraneous. (I'm thinking of one extraordinary scene where two sisters, one of whom is clairvoyant, are about to meet with Christie's character and are seen laughing hysterically - perhaps malevolently? - in their hotel room ... a snippet which would have been a "clue" in a lesser film of this genre, but here is presented only as it appears, with no explanation).

In fact, right from the start, Roeg challenged all my perceptions of where each scene would lead ... from the significance of a boy on a bike breaking a glass plate, right on to the film's climax.

Also wondering if others found a significant spiritual undertone to the film: The priest who doesn't want to believe in prophecy but "has to"; the psychic who won't play around with God's providence for the entertainment of the living; the significance of the Venetian chapels. Are they conveying spiritual significance, or are they horror film props?

I'm really eager to delve further into this one. Let me know what y'all think, either here or in a PM. (assuming anyone else has seen it)

Mark

"The most important thing is that people love in the same way. Whether they are monarchists, republicans, or communists, they feel pain in the same way, as well as hatred, jealousy, fear, and fear of death. Whether you are a deeply religious man or an atheist, if you have a toothache, it hurts just the same." - Krzysztof Kieslowski

"...it seems to me that most people I encounter aren't all that interested in the arts. Most of the people who are my age ... appear to be interested in golf, fertilizer, and early retirement schemes.... I will stop caring passionately about music, books, and films on the day that I die, and I'm hoping for Top 100 album polls in the afterlife." - Andy Whitman

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FWIW, I haven't seen this film, but when I interviewed Scott Derrickson, he cited its sex scene as his favorite, "just because it's so raw and it's a man and a wife."

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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What most interests me is the idea of reality vs. perception that permeates the film, even in its title ('Don't look now' is almost a prophetic warning that looking in the wrong place at the wrong time, i.e., carelessly interpreting signs and wonders, will lead to disaster).

Great comments, Mark. One of my film professors suggested the movie is a perfect example of Freud's "The Uncanny." If I understand it correctly, the uncanny refers to our sensations of dread in regards to familiar but repressed things, often related to death. Freud pointed out how "wish-fulfillments, secret powers, omnipotence of thoughts, [and] animation of inanimate objects" are commonplace in fantasy but are frightening when perceived in real life.

I think that's a pretty good lens for this film, which tells a realistic and emotionally resonant story about a married couple attempting to come to terms with the death of their daughter, but in a very disquieting way that emphasizes Sutherland's undependable subjectivity through its recurring motifs, ambiguous sense of time, and dream logic. We're never really sure what's real and what isn't, but we seem to be drowning in Sutherland's psyche. I love the way you've emphasized looking, perceiving, and interpreting--I think these are really key to this film.

I love the way Roeg sets up scenes and snippets which, in a traditional horror film, would drip with significance and be explained away with self-conscious exposition at a later point. But Roeg leaves them be, as if he's showing us snapshots we don't need to see, then letting us wonder at what is significant and what is extraneous. (I'm thinking of one extraordinary scene where two sisters, one of whom is clairvoyant, are about to meet with Christie's character and are seen laughing hysterically - perhaps malevolently? - in their hotel room ... a snippet which would have been a "clue" in a lesser film of this genre, but here is presented only as it appears, with no explanation).

That's a great example. I hadn't thought about the movie in terms of its refusal to note what's significant and what isn't, but this lack of exposition is really an integral part of its effect. We suspect we're seeing some combination of reality juxtaposed with visions/omens/memories, but the fact that the film never distinguishes between the two realms is pretty unsettling. In a sense, everything is significant.

Also wondering if others found a significant spiritual undertone to the film: The priest who doesn't want to believe in prophecy but "has to"; the psychic who won't play around with God's providence for the entertainment of the living; the significance of the Venetian chapels. Are they conveying spiritual significance, or are they horror film props?
I'd probably need to rewatch the film to offer a detailed reading, but I recall them as elements that reinforced the film's connections between the seen, physical world and the unseen, hidden one. Venice is used very evocatively--I can still remember many locations even though it has been several years since I last saw the movie. Edited by Doug C
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I've seen Don't Look Now only once, and it was several years ago. At the time, I wasn't quite sure what all the fuss was about, but it has since become a kind of shorthand reference I use whenever I see a film that operates with a dream logic. In fact, Doug, I remember mentioning it after we saw Innocence last year in San Francisco.

"The Uncanny" seems a great point of entry for a discussion of subjectivity in the cinema, particularly when it's used to explore emotions we prefer to repress -- things like grief and horror and anger (as in Don't Look Now), but also transgressive sexual desire, rage, and maybe even heretical thoughts. In other words, all the stuff of the Gothic imagination. (Claire Denis's Trouble Every Day would be another really interesting test case.)

Mark, I'm glad you noticed my mention of the film's sex scene. I was disappointed at the time that no one else commented on it. That scene really is almost without precedent -- an intimate scene between a husband and wife that is about the comfort and complexity of marriage but that is also about, well, great sex and the various (and holy) needs it satisfies.

Edited by Darren H
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The sex scene in Don't Look Now is pretty much unique in cinema as it manages to be both tender and powerful at the same time. The fact that it occurs so naturally within the film's narrative and that Roeg cuts back and forth between the couple making love and their getting dressed afterwards only adds to the profound sense of intimacy. The overriding sensation is not of two actors being exploited for our titillation, but of a husband and wife healing after the loss of a child (the sex scenes in Roeg's later films are far more earthy and problematic). Steven Soderbergh admitted to having ripped off the scene in Out of Sight.

Perception was always Roeg's big theme, and he uses cross-cutting, ellipses and recurring motifs (the landscape of Don't Look Now is haunted by glass, water, darkness, and especially the colour red) to fracture and manipulate space, time and memory, forcing us to ask questions of the narrative. There's nothing new in that, of course, but what is rather amazing is that Roeg was able to get away with this in mainstream movies with big name stars (e.g. David Bowie, Gene Hackman, Tony Curtis, Harvey Keitel). It is a real shame that he has made nothing significant since Insignificance in the early eighties (I feel that Walkabout, Don't Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth* are his important works, while Performance*, Bad Timing*, Eureka and Insignificance are interesting failures).

*I haven't seen these films since I became a Christian, so I am not exactly sure how I feel about them now.

Edited by The Invisible Man

We are part of the generation in which the image has triumphed over the word, when the visual is dominant over the verbal and where entertainment drowns out exposition. We may go so far as to claim that we live in an age of the image which is also the age of anti-word and potentially is the age of the lie. ~ Os Guiness

So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17)

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:spoilers: ahead:

We suspect we're seeing some combination of reality juxtaposed with visions/omens/memories, but the fact that the film never distinguishes between the two realms is pretty unsettling. In a sense, everything is significant.

Yeah, I hadn't thought of how unreliable the narrative is, in terms of what's 'real' and what isn't, what is part of Sutherland's subconscious and what isn't ... after the opening and the girl's drowning, it occurred to me that the scenes in Venice might take place before her death, and Sutherland or Christie might be re-imagining them in a new context, but once I realized it was in the "now," I completely surrendered and never considered that some of those post-drowning scenes (e.g., the sisters laughing, the guy who screams from his window late at night, the priest's and the detective's seemingly strange behavior) might only be happening in Sutherland's imagination. And, at that point, Sutherland seems the more rational and mentally stable of the two; but this in fact plays into the theme of repression, doesn't it?

I like your comment that "everything is significant," which should be obvious, but maybe because so many films of this genre bash us over the head with "significant" events, I'm conditioned to sort out "significance" from "red herrings." And in this sense, even the events within Sutherland's subconscious (whichever ones they might be) are completely significant.

"The Uncanny" seems a great point of entry for a discussion of subjectivity in the cinema, particularly when it's used to explore emotions we prefer to repress -- things like grief and horror and anger (as in Don't Look Now), but also transgressive sexual desire, rage, and maybe even heretical thoughts. In other words, all the stuff of the Gothic imagination. (Claire Denis's Trouble Every Day would be another really interesting test case.)

To be honest, I never really considered the repression angle until now, but I did find it odd that the couple seemed so well-adjusted such a short time after their daughter's death (at least it seems like a short time later, since the son is not much older, I think). Of course they're repressing - from Sutherland's insistence that their daughter could not be communicating from the grave, to Christie's insistence that she is communicating from the grave - and Sutherland is certainly repressing his own perceived complicity in the daguhter's death. Another amazing piece of subtlety in the script and Roeg's direction, is the merely implied feeling we get that Christie blames her husband for the drowning. (Why? What came before that opening scene? Does she believe he has "second sight" and should have predicted the tragedy sooner? Maybe more importantly, does he believe he could have prevented it?) Anyway, it's amazingly restrained on Roeg's part that none of this is portrayed on screen or in exposition, as it almost certainly would have been in lesser hands (and probably will be in the reported remake).

And that also makes the sex scene more amazing, because of the love between these two characters after such a tragedy and with the simmering feelings of guilt and blame just under the surface.

That scene really is almost without precedent -- an intimate scene between a husband and wife that is about the comfort and complexity of marriage but that is also about, well, great sex and the various (and holy) needs it satisfies.

I was trying to come up with some contemporary comparison, and the only one I could think of that comes close in terms of explicitness is Monster's Ball. That scene portrays something similar, but different, I think, in terms of repression of grief and using sex as a healing salve - although the relationship between the characters and the depth of emotion is completely different. (Slight tangent, but that MB scene was one of the few "realistic" scenes, IMO, in a film that thought it was "gritty" and realistic, whereas the Don't Look Now scene was quite consistent with the characters' behavior and relationship in a film that blurs the line between reality and perception. Ironic.)

The sex scene in Don't Look Now is pretty much unique in cinema as it manages to be both tender and powerful at the same time. The fact that it occurs so naturally within the film's narrative and that Roeg cuts back and forth between the couple making love and their getting dressed afterwards only adds to the profound sense of intimacy. The overriding sensation is not of two actors being exploited for our titillation, but of a husband and wife healing after the loss of a child (the sex scenes in Roeg's later films are far more earthy and problematic).

I will admit to getting a little queasy whenever intense sexuality is portrayed on screen, and have to get past the "oh my gosh those two actors are buck naked and all over each other" reaction. But yeah, I agree completely that it was a profoundly intimate moment (or several moments, as the scene was quite long!) and a powerful depiction of the couple's relationship. (According to IMDB, Roeg only added the scene toward the end of shooting, because he felt that without it, the marriage appeared too argumentative.)

Perception was always Roeg's big theme, and he uses cross-cutting, ellipses and recurring motifs (the landscape of Don't Look Now is haunted by glass, water, darkness, and especially the colour red) to fracture and manipulate space, time and memory, forcing us to ask questions of the narrative. There's nothing new in that, of course, but what is rather amazing is that Roeg was able to get away with this in mainstream movies with big name stars (e.g. David Bowie, Gene Hackman, Tony Curtis, Harvey Keitel).

Does anyone know how the film was received by mainstream audiences? Granted, in '73 experimental films got significant exposure in the mainstream, but this is such a different film, I couldn't help wonder how it fared, and how it would have been different if, say, Hitchcock, directed (he came to mind since he worked with Daphne du Maurier adaptations previously).

For anyone who gets the DVD, watch the trailer, and tell me if a trailer like that would ever be made today ... it's as ambiguous and seductive and puzzling as the film itself. You can bet a contemporary release would give away the farm in a three-minute trailer.

"The most important thing is that people love in the same way. Whether they are monarchists, republicans, or communists, they feel pain in the same way, as well as hatred, jealousy, fear, and fear of death. Whether you are a deeply religious man or an atheist, if you have a toothache, it hurts just the same." - Krzysztof Kieslowski

"...it seems to me that most people I encounter aren't all that interested in the arts. Most of the people who are my age ... appear to be interested in golf, fertilizer, and early retirement schemes.... I will stop caring passionately about music, books, and films on the day that I die, and I'm hoping for Top 100 album polls in the afterlife." - Andy Whitman

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I love the way you've emphasized looking, perceiving, and interpreting--I think these are really key to this film.

More precisely, I should've written that I love the way you emphasized the dangers in looking, perceiving, and interpreting. ("A prophetic warning that looking in the wrong place at the wrong time, i.e., carelessly interpreting signs and wonders, will lead to disaster.") I'm thinking this is what gives the film its uncanny feel. Lots of films merge reality and unreality, but only some of them do it in a way that suggests impending disaster or death. Magic realism, it seems, is more poignant or even ironic at times; the uncanny produces anxiety.

In fact, Doug, I remember mentioning it after we saw Innocence last year in San Francisco.
Ah, that's is a great example. Which reminds me of Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock and particularly The Last Wave, which is completely immersed in dread through its focus on visions, omens, etc., in a realistic urban environment. (The use of sound is very evocative, too, as I know it is in Innocence; I'm trying to recall if Don't Look Now is notable in this regard?)

The fact that it occurs so naturally within the film's narrative and that Roeg cuts back and forth between the couple making love and their getting dressed afterwards only adds to the profound sense of intimacy.
I know the way the love scene celebrates their domesticity and routine--in the middle of the day before going out--has been cited as one of its most unique aspects. It's shockingly passionate, yet completely ordinary.

Perception was always Roeg's big theme, and he uses cross-cutting, ellipses and recurring motifs (the landscape of Don't Look Now is haunted by glass, water, darkness, and especially the colour red) to fracture and manipulate space, time and memory, forcing us to ask questions of the narrative.
Well said, IM. I think it was Ebert who remarked that there is a disturbing connection, too, between the child's drowning and the couple's move to Venice, of all places. As they say in Chinatown, water again. Edited by Doug C
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And inevitably...

IMDB

We are part of the generation in which the image has triumphed over the word, when the visual is dominant over the verbal and where entertainment drowns out exposition. We may go so far as to claim that we live in an age of the image which is also the age of anti-word and potentially is the age of the lie. ~ Os Guiness

So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17)

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And inevitably...

IMDB

Ah yes. Mark and I were discussing this remake via PM. Apparently, it will not be set in winter, will not be set in Venice, will feature more sex, and will omit the little surprise in the last few moments of the film.

I reason, Earth is short -

And Anguish - absolute -

And many hurt,

But, what of that?

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Hey, Dudes, Don't Look Back! (2007) A Starbucks Manager obsessed with the Kabalah, and his wife, a marketing guru, grieving the loss of a child to a tragic Spelling Bee Accident, move to Sedona, AZ, where they have sex among the red rocks, hounded by a series of strange events involving tarot cards, crystals, navajo medicine men, real estate agents, and hippies. Shirley MacLaine co-stars.

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Brief story here.

Money quote:

Gordon said that Berloff's script will contemporize the 1973 version, which was penned by Allen Scott and Chris Bryant. "The original was very atmospheric, so we'll provide a little more of the narrative that audiences expect," he added.

::bang::

"The most important thing is that people love in the same way. Whether they are monarchists, republicans, or communists, they feel pain in the same way, as well as hatred, jealousy, fear, and fear of death. Whether you are a deeply religious man or an atheist, if you have a toothache, it hurts just the same." - Krzysztof Kieslowski

"...it seems to me that most people I encounter aren't all that interested in the arts. Most of the people who are my age ... appear to be interested in golf, fertilizer, and early retirement schemes.... I will stop caring passionately about music, books, and films on the day that I die, and I'm hoping for Top 100 album polls in the afterlife." - Andy Whitman

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And, at that point, Sutherland seems the more rational and mentally stable of the two; but this in fact plays into the theme of repression, doesn't it?

Excellent point. Rationality isn't all it's cracked up to be, you know. :) (It can include all those pesky things like illusion of control, assumption of order, and intellectual presumption.)

I like your comment that "everything is significant," which should be obvious, but maybe because so many films of this genre bash us over the head with "significant" events, I'm conditioned to sort out "significance" from "red herrings." And in this sense, even the events within Sutherland's subconscious (whichever ones they might be) are completely significant.
Exactly--although it was your initial comment that made me begin to think in these terms. It creates a kind of viewer hypersensitivity to everything that is full of tension, almost a cinematic "paranoia." Is there a connection between this and that? Is that red significant? Is that a clue? Is this real? Etc., etc., etc.

Of course they're repressing - from Sutherland's insistence that their daughter could not be communicating from the grave, to Christie's insistence that she is communicating from the grave - and Sutherland is certainly repressing his own perceived complicity in the daguhter's death.

Very intriguing...!

Another amazing piece of subtlety in the script and Roeg's direction, is the merely implied feeling we get that Christie blames her husband for the drowning. (Why? What came before that opening scene? Does she believe he has "second sight" and should have predicted the tragedy sooner? Maybe more importantly, does he believe he could have prevented it?)
Doesn't she say something about wishing he hadn't let their daughter play so close to the water? And the death scene is amazing cinema...the way Sutherland spills his drink--which, incidentally reminds me of Decalogue One and the spilled ink--that inspires a feeling of dread that compels Sutherland to race out of his house to discover the tragedy waiting for him.

Does anyone know how the film was received by mainstream audiences? Granted, in '73 experimental films got significant exposure in the mainstream, but this is such a different film, I couldn't help wonder how it fared, and how it would have been different if, say, Hitchcock, directed (he came to mind since he worked with Daphne du Maurier adaptations previously).
I'm not sure, but as IM suggested, it definitely helped that the film starred two A-list Hollywood names at the time. That was probably enough to get it in theatres, at least. And like you suggest, there was a small vogue for more experimental supernatural or SF films then, like A Clockwork Orange or Zardoz or Slaughterhouse Five.

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Rationality isn't all it's cracked up to be, you know. :) (It can include all those pesky things like illusion of control, assumption of order, and intellectual presumption.)

Oh, how true! (easy for someone like me to relate to all those "pesky little things," as I could completely identify with Sutherland's character and the flaws in judgment that lead to him interpreting signs mistakenly ...)

Doesn't she say something about wishing he hadn't let their daughter play so close to the water?

Yes, I should have clarified that post. The subtlety is in the way it's presented - Christie mentions it, Sutherland sort of reacts - says something like "Thanks for the memories" - and they proceed in their conversation, without an emotional blowup, which almost certainly would happen in a traditional treatment of the story.

And the death scene is amazing cinema...the way Sutherland spills his drink--which, incidentally reminds me of Decalogue One and the spilled ink--that inspires a feeling of dread that compels Sutherland to race out of his house to discover the tragedy waiting for him.

Yes!! The Decalogue ink blot rushed to my mind during that scene. I even wondered if Kieslowski wasn't influenced by it, since the themes are similar (drowned child, guilt-ridden father, a sense of otherworldliness or divine presence).

"The most important thing is that people love in the same way. Whether they are monarchists, republicans, or communists, they feel pain in the same way, as well as hatred, jealousy, fear, and fear of death. Whether you are a deeply religious man or an atheist, if you have a toothache, it hurts just the same." - Krzysztof Kieslowski

"...it seems to me that most people I encounter aren't all that interested in the arts. Most of the people who are my age ... appear to be interested in golf, fertilizer, and early retirement schemes.... I will stop caring passionately about music, books, and films on the day that I die, and I'm hoping for Top 100 album polls in the afterlife." - Andy Whitman

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I even wondered if Kieslowski wasn't influenced by it, since the themes are similar (drowned child, guilt-ridden father, a sense of otherworldliness or divine presence).

Rationality versus intuition... ;)

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  • 4 years later...

I've only seen three films by Roeg: DON'T LOOK NOW, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, and BAD TIMING. Of those films, DON'T LOOK NOW appeals to me the most, but nevertheless, it's a film I can't bring myself to unabashedly adore. I think it has a phenomenal opening and a phenomenal ending (one of the best, really), but the middle section of the film seems to have quite a bit of slack, despite some effective character work.

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  • 6 months later...

A killer midget, though?

I mean, c'mon. I must be messed up, because I started laughing. The rest of it I liked well enough, though as Ryan mentions, the middle seems to sag a little bit. I did like the elliptical nature of it. But the end? Bah.

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A killer midget, though?

I mean, c'mon. I must be messed up, because I started laughing. The rest of it I liked well enough, though as Ryan mentions, the middle seems to sag a little bit. I did like the elliptical nature of it. But the end? Bah.

You're not alone. DON'T LOOK NOW's ending has inspired both horror and guffaws. This is something that is true of many great horror moments, since horror often occurs on the edge of outright silliness (a truth that David Lynch understands probably better than anyone). The revelation doesn't make sense in any kind of "real world" logic, but it does have great symbolic value, and, personally speaking, I find the visual shock of that scene incredibly unsettling. It's a moment that could have come straight out of a nightmare.

And, FWIW, DON'T LOOK NOW is more a story of altered mental states. It may be that the ending, as it is presented, is not even a portrait of the actual events, but yet another one of Sutherland's hallucinations/psychic sight.

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  • 1 month later...

It's long been rumored, but unconfirmed, that, during the filming of DON'T LOOK NOW's graphic sex scene, Christie and Sutherland actually had intercourse on-set. Then-Paramount executive Peter Bart says he was there and that the rumor is, in fact, true (link may not be safe for work, due to some quotes with somewhat vulgar description).

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The link includes an update in which Sutherland denies both the rumor and Peter Bart's supposed presence during the shooting of the scene. And Roeg himself denied the rumor (somewhat forcefully, if I remember correctly) on the audio commentary of the UK DVD of the film.

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Peter Bart responds to Sutherland ... very disingenuously.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 1 year later...

I watched this last night, and the "Venice in Peril" signs that show up in the background of a few scenes caught my eye.

Don%2527t+Look+Now+Venice+1.JPG

Do we have anyone on the board who knows Italian? I'm curious if there's a reference to Little Red Killing-Midget on the sign somewhere.

It's the side effects that save us.
--The National, "Graceless"
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