In the nascent stages of what would become film history, D.W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, and undoubtedly others who have not managed to make near such an impression upon our hearts, minds and sacred texts, developed the notion of montage as a way for the audience to process more than one thread or aspect of a narrative at once. In 1907 Griffith appeared as an actor in a short movie produced for Thomas A. Edison called Rescue from an Eagle’s Nest in which a baby is stolen by an eagle and must be rescued from a precarious cliff-side nest by the baby’s father (Griffith). The telling of the story of this gallant father and an apparently bloodthirsty bird employed rudimentary elements of editing and special effects which Griffith would begin immediately to improve upon as he took up directing his own films. In 1909’s The Lonely Villa Griffith began the kind of interweaving of narrative that would lead to the formal narrative breakthroughs of The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). Less than 10 years later Russian theorist and filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein would refine and perfect the notion of montage as a way for the viewer to psychologically and emotionally process colliding imagery and tension created by them with his 1925film The Battleship Potemkin. One could argue that everything in the history of the movies that has come since, from Hitchcock’s theories and exposition of suspense, to Godard’s breakdown and reconstruction of film theory and principles, employing, for example, the jump cut to replace the reassuring flow of imagery, has been either refinement, commentary, homage or outright theft of these ideas.
Filmmakers as different as Robert Siodmak, Claude Chabrol, Curtis Harrington, Curtis Hanson, Robert Mulligan and countless others have made use of concepts, ideas, themes and techniques “borrowed” from the Alfred Hitchcock playbook. Of these directors, it could also be argued that only Claude Chabrol has managed to separate his work from simple homage (or theft, the line between which is far fuzzier than it may seem) and create a worldview recognizably his own, perhaps through sheer determination, insistence and consistency over a large body of work. Themes in Chabrol’s work are recognizably consistent from his early films in the ‘60s straight through to his newest, A Girl Cut in Two (2007), a claim that might be harder to prove true over the course of Siodmak’s career, or, say, Hanson’s. (Harder, not necessarily impossible.)
It’s possible that the easier it is to see the work being referenced, the less fun, and the less original the movie may seem. Would audiences have loved Charade (1963) more if they’d not had North by Northwest or To Catch a Thief so fresh in mind? The fact is they did love it, and it’s stood the test of time even though its roots are fully on display. (Less so, maybe, Arabesque?) Those who saw and remember Joseph Ruben’s The Stepfather (1987) probably don’t process the influence of Hitchcock as theft because Ruben is smart enough to think up some of his own tricks, and he has an actor, Terry O’Quinn, who is so mesmerizingly good that he can distract viewers from the flaws that might fray the edges of this nifty thriller. Do audiences who flocked to largely forgettable suspense efforts like The Bedroom Window (1987), or The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), or more recently a clunker like Obsessed (2009), in which Beyonce Knowles and Ali Larter reheat the already warmed-over Hitchcock leavings sautéed by Adrian Lyne in Fatal Attraction (1987), care about the constant references and connections to Hitchcock and other films that made up their cinematic fast-food meal? Probably about as much as they cared about the films themselves as films, which is, I’d bet, not much. (All this, of course, is not to even mention what the Italian directors were doing with the giallo films of the ‘60s, 70s and ‘80s.)
The potentially maddening thing about the Quentin Tarantino Problem, as Matt Zoller Seitz and Keith Uhlich, tongues partially placed in cheek, termed it two years ago, is that audiences are constantly made aware of those influences, not the least by the director himself, so it’s usually the influences people, especially his detractors, tend to see first. The perfectly ironic thing about the Quentin Tarantino problem is that in 1992, when Reservoir Dogs hit big, not many outside of video store geeks like the director himself had seen much of Hong Kong cinema and the other influences Tarantino would blend up into his own special brew. (Of course, thanks to Tarantino and others that was all soon to change.) But by the time he unleashed Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2001), the enfant terrible was becoming more frequently shouted down by an increasingly aware audience as terrible or simply a cinematic infant, just about the time that his movie-fed vision was actually expanding, emotionally, texturally, thematically, empathetically. A friend of mine wrote in an e-mail earlier this week suggesting that though he admires Tarantino’s work, he suspects the director may never reach the operatic highs of the masters— Brian De Palma, Sergio Leone— to whose heights of cinematic genre exploration, the recasting of old wine into new wine skins, he most clearly aspires, simply because of his insistence on using old movies, and particularly “low cinema” as his texts.
The difference here, of course, is that Leone and De Palma’s unique (that’s right, unique) visions were formed through the synthesis not only of classical movie imagery and strategies, but also awareness of what those images and designs and narrative patterns meant for people of different, and convergent, sociopolitical experience, ideologies and development. Leone brings his experience, his thinking as a man growing up in post-war Italy to bear on the iconography of John Ford and comments not only on those images but on how his experience and that of those around him, his contemporaries and his elders, cause him to process them through a different prism. And does anyone think that the shower means the same thing to De Palma as it does to Hitchcock, despite the fact that De Palma makes no effort to hide the basic visual influences of Psycho on Dressed to Kill? (De Palma confuses the issue by referencing more than just one major filmmaker in tone as much as imagery, which is a stickier issue to separate.) Whether Tarantino ever manages to develop his vision, one that I believe has begun to expand beyond simple mimicry into deeper emotional levels, beginning with Kill Bill, and to a much greater extent Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds, only the passage of time will tell, and that’s as it should be. The hill on which the real kings of cinema are perched is littered with the bodies of hundreds of young filmmakers declared masters before the pudding of the work had really set.
Which brings me to Brian De Palma, whose mastery of form is not in any way evidence of his inability to make a bad movie, as The Black Dahlia ought to prove once and for all. But even in a mess like The Black Dahlia, hobbled as it is by blunders of casting, wobbly tone, and even a director who seems to be chasing his own shadow, there are elements of his black humor, particularly in the performances of William Finley and Fiona Shaw, that should be pure gold for fans of the director’s sense of how high the ceiling really is, and disregard for where the shards of glass fall when he shatters through it. De Palma is one of those filmmakers who seem to inspire either fierce devotion or fierce hatred-- there doesn't seem to be much middle ground when considering his films. (And considering his subject matter and his insinuating, exploratory, personally implicating way with the camera and story structure, should this be so surprising?)
I've always found De Palma to be a compelling filmmaker, particularly coming, as I do, from the point of view of a cinephile, even when I've found his work off-key or ill-advised. But since the release of Femme Fatale (2002), I've come to realize with just how much esteem I hold this director-- he's surely one of my favorites now, perhaps one of the two or three best American directors currently working, and remember, I’ve seen The Black Dahlia and Redacted, which is not frequently mentioned in the same breath with The Hurt Locker but deserves to be. I've never felt bound to look at his work with a blindly approving eye and, indeed, there are several movies in his oeuvre besides the one I’ve already mentioned that, despite their clear thematic relationship to the rest of his work and to the history of cinema he draws upon, seem fundamentally uninspired, tired, atonal.
I'm thinking primarily of movies like Obsession (1976), and also Body Double (1984), which I revisited about four years ago after a 20-year history of distaste for it. I revised my opinion upward slightly, but still don't think much of it (and we’ll get to that in a moment). But perhaps my greatest ire is reserved for the absurdly overestimated Scarface, which Pauline Kael called "a De Palma movie for people who hate De Palma movies." (More than one reader has reminded me that the much more enjoyable The Untouchables might also be a candidate for that honor, though I find The Untouchables, if slightly impersonal, much more fascinating and fun on a pure level of craft than the sloppy, boorish Scarface.)
I also think less of The Fury (1978) than do most De Palma enthusiasts. To my eye, it's filled with images of sinuous, beautiful rage and the poetry of emotional agony, and it sports some terrific performances-- John Cassavetes, Charles Durning, Carol Rossen, Amy Irving. Yet at the same time it seems rather misshapen at times as a narrative, hurried and choppy in moments where it should be languid and seductive, and I think it fails to build up a true head of black steam by its conclusion, despite the memorable dispatching of Fiona Lewis and, of course, Cassavetes. It's clearly a classic De Palma in its concerns and its approach, and compared to just about any other similar effort from just about anyone else it's clearly technically superior. But compared to some of De Palma's other works from the same period I just don't think it's as perfectly crafted or consistently imagined. All that said, I still enjoy revisiting The Fury every couple of years or so.
But ask me what De Palma films I think are great, either with the kind of minor reservations I'd have for any filmmaker, or with none at all, and the list is much longer: Hi, Mom!, Sisters, Carrie (probably the greatest act of sustained empathy for a character I think I’ve ever seen),Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Casualties of War, Carlito's Way, Mission: Impossible and Femme Fatale, with a second tier occupied by Phantom of the Paradise, The Untouchables and Raising Cain. My own personal mission is to revisit less illustrious De Palma movies like Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars, The Bonfire of the Vanities and hopefully even Wise Guys someday soon. With the possible exception of Bonfire, all of these movies have good things in them, and/or people willing to go out on a limb to support them, so I am more than willing to take another look.
It's De Palma's engagement (hugely key word) with cinema and cinema history rather than just his ability to parrot that history that, plainly enough for me, places him outside and above the class of copycats with whom he's so frequently grouped. He's using key influences (Hitchcock, of course, but Antonioni, Godard, Kubrick, and fellow “copycat” Chabrol as well) not as signposts to clue movie eggheads in as to how smart and crafty he is, but as seedlings for the progression of his vision over the course of his career, as the foundation of a structured, astringently clear-eyed, yet sometimes subtly hallucinatory way of visualizing the world through the cinema. The audiences "sees" the cinema, but De Palma also uses the cinema itself to see, to reflect back on the world, on the audience, in a meaningful and not always comforting fashion.
De Palma's movies, sometimes because of their excessive stylization, can seem uneven, to have not "aged well." There are moments in both Dressed to Kill and Blow Out, both of which in my fragile mind are masterpieces, that seem thin, less well thought out. (Is it coincidence that they seem to be those scenes that feature Dennis Franz and Nancy Allen in one-on-one situations?) But each movie, even within scenes that may not seem to be "working" for sensibilities that have moved 20-25 years down the road, relies on revelatory visual strategies and cues that can often help the viewer past the occasional lumpy exposition or weak performance by engaging him or her in the film's structural purpose. I'm thinking here of how De Palma uses the multilayered framing and levels of sound in the interrogation scene in Dressed to Kill to tickle our imaginations and stimulate our perception during an otherwise potentially banal scene-- Keith Gordon eavesdropping on Franz's questioning of Allen-- seen through layers of windows, and through various and subtle deep focus/split screen techniques.
I think the same thing holds true for Blow Out. De Palma absorbs the Antonioni material, all right, and I'd even suggest he goes far beyond what Antonioni was able to achieve, or maybe even what h was interested in achieving, in Blow Up by embracing the crude "plot" elements of the witnessed murder. Where Antonioni abandons this narrative line, for reasons either based in existential malaise, or perhaps a disinterest in exploring the possibilities of mere melodrama, De Palma grounds his film in it and expands the elements Antonioni abandons into a vision of political paranoia and personal responsibility that is far more potent today than are his fellow Italian's mod London mind games.
I cannot imagine sitting through the first 20 minutes of Blow Out and not being completely glued to the screen to see the rest. That's an opening 20 minutes that holds within it the gruesome, salacious comedy and fake-out gimmickry of the movie-within-a-movie; the stunning logo of the movie itself (scored with near-subliminal, prescient use of some of the most integral and agonizing sounds that will be heard later in the film); the enthralling split-screen under the opening credits, which contrasts expository information setting up the importance of the Liberty Bell Parade and the emergence of the Kennedyesque political figure with Jack (Travolta) preparing to record sound out in the field; and of course, that absolutely perfect sequence in which De Palma heightens every sound (the owl, the overheard pedestrians, the faint squeal of tires) in anticipation of the recording of the sounds of the horrific event that will kick the film's primary mystery into gear.
And it's impossible for me to see Blow Out and imagine coming away, despite the apparent influences of Antonioni and Hitchcock, thinking of it as anything but a De Palma film, a work of art that couldn't have originated from anyone else. To downgrade an artist because he acknowledges the whole of the history of his art form, and specific avenues of interest that have sparked his creativity in the creation of his work, would be to deny the manner in which artists in every medium have taken previously known works and expanded on them, turned them inside out, made a clearly new creation from well-used parts. The idea that painters never looked at other printings and “stole” ideas which were integrated into their own process is ridiculous. De Palma is a polarizing artist whose output has never taken a straight line-- he gets better with age, it seems to me, even if there are disturbing, uneven zags and zigs from film to film. And even his work for hire (Mission: Impossible, Mission to Mars), while sometimes hit and miss, is shot through with this director's fury, deftness with chronology, visual confidence and, in the case of Mars, belief in the lyricism and power of the image to overcome the occasional insufficiency of the spoken word, or the banality of a given storyline.
But what about the stuff that doesn’t work? Nearly four years ago I participated in an informal poll hosted by the website 24 Lies A Second* regarding the films of Brian De Palma in which I casually commented that Body Double was one of three Brian De Palma films for which I essentially had little use. My friend Peet Gelderblom, founder of the site and a vigorously articulate De Palma enthusiast, expressed surprise in an e-mail that I could so blithely dismiss the movie, as he has had much love for it ever since first seeing it years ago. So I wrote back inviting him to talk about it, as I had never really heard anyone mount much of a defense for this movie, much less someone who I knew would have well-formulated opinions and a good handle on his own responses to it. Peet proceeded to drop a comment on this blog in which he took up my suggestion to elaborate upon why he holds Body Double so dear. Here’s what he said:
“I've always had a huge crush on this movie. I'm sure hormones played a part in that, since I was 13 or 14 at the time. But the film has never failed to mesmerize me since. It's one of the most hypnotic movies I know of and a masterpiece of mise-en-scene. I could marvel at that beach scene forever.
The subtext of the film is all about De Palma raising his middle finger to the critics who slaughtered him for Dressed to Kill and Scarface. He openly confronted them with the very things they accused him of (excessive violence, misogyny) and made sure to enthrall them at the same time, just to point out their hypocrisy.
Feminists who hate the film will love me agreeing on this, but I really do think Gloria Revelle - her name says it all - is strictly an object of desire. Besides a bunch of other things, Body Double is very much about male fantasy. Gloria's good looks and vulnerable attitude make her the perfect projection of male obsession. There's nothing real about her. She's an ideal, a goddess. (Mind you, the way De Palma uses a sexual archetype in order to explore the theme of male desire is hardly the same as portraying ALL women as sex objects.)
Her death scene isn't exactly devastating, but a cold shower. Because De Palma puts so much effort into the visual "foreplay", Gloria becomes our object of desire as well. When the killer breaks into her house, we are torn between two extremes: wanting to save her and wanting to have her (there's no way I'll ever accept the drill is not a symbol for penetration, no matter what De Palma has said to defend himself). Especially because we don't get to see the actual killing ourselves, the emotional result is a double anti-climax. Not Gloria but Jake is the victim here, and it's ourselves we pity. In the end, the audience is revealed to be just as voyeuristic as Jake, and that thought made a lot of people uncomfortable. If Gloria's death scene doesn't seem emotionally satisfying, well... that's the whole idea, really... It's just about the cinematic equivalent of premature ejaculation if you think about it. De Palma's death scenes are really love scenes and his love scenes are really death scenes.
Despite the likes of Armond White calling him a "weak actor," I've always thought Craig Wasson was perfectly cast in this. Yes, he totally lacks the star power that could have helped to make the film a commercial success and he doesn't exactly deliver what can be described as a powerhouse performance. But the man's playing an unemployed actor, for God's sakes--a born loser, a regular Joe longing for a little excitement in his lousy life. A charismatic star like John Travolta in the same everyman role wouldn't have been believable.
Because Craig Wasson plays Jake as such a goody two-shoes, you never really believe he's a pervert, even though he's peeking at naked women and digging up panties from trashcans. I even like the part where Jake is pretending to be a sleazy porn producer. His performance is quite impossible to take seriously and it makes perfect sense, since we're looking at the reason why the guy's unemployed to begin with...
I guess it's more the character that the actor that annoys people, because weakness isn't exactly considered a virtue. But this is the story of somebody who tries to overcome his weakness. The story of an actor trying to act. The story of a sexless nobody wishing to become a stud. The weakness is an essential element of the narrative.”
I wrote back on the comments page that I was really happy to hear his words on the subject, and I promised I would respond. A little over a week later, with some good-natured prodding from Peet himself, I have finally done so. The following article is that response. Thanks for your patience, Peet, and again in advance for enduring the length of my comments. As you know, I am nothing if not long-winded, especially absent someone to crack the whip and wield the straight razor…
(Also, I am assuming, Dear Reader, a certain level of familiarity on your part with Body Double, which is why I have eschewed ** including a synopsis of its narrative. If you’re unfamiliar with what goes on in this movie, arguably one of De Palma’s most notorious, and still feel compelled to read on, you can catch up on a brief sketch of the plot before continuing on.)
Peet, the first thing that struck me when I revisited your comments re Body Double was that I didn’t really disagree with any of your observations per se, just maybe some of the conclusions. I never really cared much for Body Double when it was first released. Though it strikes me somewhat more mildly than it once did in terms of its subject matter, and, paradoxically, perhaps a little more potently as a whole film, I still think it’s among De Palma’s weaker efforts. (Is my tolerance/acceptance/understanding of Body Double a result of the aging process? Or is it that, in 2005, the envelope has stretched so far beyond recognition that a film so steeped in the desire to shock, to rub the audience’s nose in the supposed transgressions of its creator, seems relatively tame now compared to some of the raunchy roads traveled by R-rated films since it came out 20 years ago?)
I wrote in a review of the film in 1985 in which I expressed the opinion that one-upsmanship borne of anger was a fairly unstable foundation on which to build a film. I still feel that way. De Palma said in an Esquire interview at the time of Scarface’s release that he was so disgusted with the hypocrisy of the M.P.A.A. (the ratings board saddled the movie with an “X” until the director toned down the infamous chainsaw torture sequence) that he was really gonna let “them” (The M.P.A.A.? The paying audience? De Palma fans and supporters?) have it next time, saying, essentially, that if they want an “X,” by God, I’ll give ‘em one. The fundamental problem with .Body Double, as I see it, is not that impulse of anger itself, but how it seems to have clouded the director’s normally sharp instincts for what he can get away with, narratively speaking, through his visual style, even to the point of rendering that style itself relatively muddled, indifferent, uninspired.
AN INDIFFERENT STYLE AS SUBSTANCE
I agree wholeheartedly with the contention of your latest 24 Lies a Second essay that style can often be substance, especially in “the strange case of Brian De Palma”—and maybe this assertion is at the root of my own indifference toward the movie, because his visual style here seems wildly inconsistent. Body Double showcases, to my mind, one thrilling set piece-- the porno production number which doubles as a Frankie Goes to Hollywood video— but the movie seems more heavily weighted and mixed up with riffs on past, more successful efforts. To look at actor Craig Wasson as Jake Scully peering across the canyon at a woman dancing in her apartment, and then ultimately being stalked and attacked by an “Indian,” is to revisit a similar situation that was much more cleverly and fruitfully staged in Sisters; Wasson following Deborah Shelton through the maze of Beverly Hills shops and stealing her discarded panties is a warmed-over, and not nearly so heart-stopping, rehash of Angie Dickinson’s museum encounter in Dressed to Kill; the fetishized seduction at the beach tunnel recalls the florid theatrics of Obsession.
Most damning, though, is the indifference with which De Palma stages the many expository scenes required to get the little engine of the plot cooking. For the first time in his career, the director comes across as being bored—most of the conversations between Wasson and actors Gregg Henry and Melanie Griffith are comprised of flat-out uninspired, routine two-shot/medium close-up visual designs that have seemingly little going on in them other than their function to clunkily advance the narrative. All you have to do is look at the staging of the conversation between Griffith and Wasson in which she describes what she won’t do in a porno film up next to comparable scenes between, say, Nancy Allen and Keith Gordon in Dressed to Kill (the Psycho parody, for example, in which Allen explains transsexuals to Gordon and is overheard by some horrified diners), or sound man John Travolta describing his increasing paranoia to Allen, framed by the technological tools of his trade and shot by a probing, gliding camera, in Blow Out, to see how detached De Palma’s style seems in Body Double. Ironically, I find myself agreeing with almost all the observations you make about the movie and still feeling like it’s a half- baked project because of this tendency I perceive in the director to rush through the setups to get to what he must have, at the time, looked at as “the good stuff,” the stuff that would rile his detractors in the wake of Scarface’s initial M.P.A.A. reception. Body Double seems at times so detached from the hot red blood running through most of the rest of De Palma’s films that it almost feels like it was made by a De Palma imitator.
The director’s “fuck you” to the ratings board turns out to be more of a threat, in retrospect, than a reality though because, despite its setting in the sleazy underbelly of the Hollywood entertainment industry (and De Palma takes swift satiric aim at the idea of the legitimate movie business and the porn industry being two sides of the same coin), nothing in Body Double is nearly as graphically violent or as grotesquely, comically over-scaled as what could be seen even in the expurgated version of Scarface. That drill murder can’t hold a candle to the chainsaw sequence in Scarface, even if it was cut down, in terms of bloodshed or emotional intensity, and some of your observations about what’s going on in that drill sequence—the idea of Gloria being simply, and unapologetically, an object of desire, and the audience being torn being wanting to save her and simply wanting her, and then of course being made implicit in that fatal penetration—touch upon why.
I think you’re essentially right about that infamous scene. The drill clearly is a none-too-subtle visual metaphor for penetration, or more accurately, I think, rape. But is metaphor even the right term here? It’s such an explicit image, and the use to which it is put so closely resembles a savage sexually violent act, right down to the way the scene is framed, and the way the actual murder is alluded to—the drill emerging from the ceiling above Scully’s head—that to imagine it having even the slightest level of ambiguity that an assignation as metaphor might imply seems patently silly. De Palma going on the defensive to deny that this was his intention is either an instance of uncharacteristic submission to the general outrage of responses to the scene or, more likely, I think, a perverse way of continuing to goad his detractors and call attention to the elements that were being focused on in the press at the time. (Do you remember in what context his comments were made?)
SEXUAL OBJECTIFICATION AND THE MYTH OF MISOGYNY
I do agree with you that Gloria can really only be seen and taken seriously as an object, a projection of fantasy; I might even describe her as an abstraction. But given that this is how we are encouraged to see her—as Scully does—I think in sharing, as you describe, Scully’s indecision about wanting to save her and wanting to have her, we end up coming down fairly squarely on the more conventional side of saving her. Had Gloria been conceived in a more fleshed-out manner, had she been a real character (on the order of Dressed to Kill’s Kate Miller, say) rather than a relatively simple erotic abstraction, I think those of us who find Body Double a hollow experience might have found this scene as compelling and ambivalently disturbing as your description of it. We might have found Scully’s (and our) implication in her fate far more haunting in the way I’m sure De Palma intended. And given this “if,” perhaps even the charges of misogyny that seem to focus most intensely and insistently on this scene in De Palma’s oeuvre would have been at least partially defused—it’s harder to imagine, at least in my mind, a director being perceived as expressing a blanket attitude toward a gender (or an ethnicity, or a sexual orientation) if he’s taken the time to make the character who takes the brunt of his alleged violation a “real” person. In her mannequin-like beauty, actress Deborah Shelton comes across as an inexpressive actress in a straitjacketed role—therefore there’s no character to distract from the far more simplistic reading of her as simply an empty receptacle in which to contain the director’s supposed feelings of hatred and disgust for women.
In fact, one of the major revelations for me upon this viewing of Body Double was how little water those time-honored and quite tired accusations of misogyny seem to be able to hold. I’ve never felt that the charges made much sense in regards to De Palma anyway. Films like Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie, Obsession, The Fury, Dressed to Kill and Femme Fatale are erotically charged, to be sure, and it would be silly to insist that De Palma hasn’t an appreciation of the sensual quality of many of the women in those films. But, as SLIFR reader Blaaagh has observed, De Palma’s films have always featured interesting women, women who have been subjected to as great a variety of directorial attitudes as one would expect they would encounter in the real world, a quality they share with the male characters in his films. Not many film artists working in the suspense genre, perhaps not even Hitchcock, have approached a variety female characters as rich as Carrie White, Margaret White (Carrie), Daniele Breton/Dominique Blanchion (Sisters), Kate Miller (Dressed to Kill), Sally (Blow Out) or Laure Ash (Femme Fatale). To say that De Palma is a misogynist, or even a sadist, because some of these characters meet horrific fates, or are the cause of horrific violence, or are the victims of some fairly sardonic jokes orchestrated by the director, is to dismiss all the other levels on which these women operate dramatically and emotionally, and quite satisfactorily so.
I think you could add Melanie Griffith’s Holly Body to this list too—she seems to literally hot-wire the second half with sexual impertinence and confidence, she’s very funny and likable and, whether credit is due to her leather bustier or her magnetism as an actress, Griffith and her comic turn are the elements that have made for my strongest associations with Body Double over the years. Shelton’s Gloria Revelle, of course, cannot exist on the same plane with these women because, as you point out, she’s explicitly a fantasy, as opposed to Holly, who embodies fantasy but is clearly a woman with her own thought processes and desires. She is insistent that she not be perceived as anyone’s pawn, though it will be revealed to her that she has, in fact, been used exactly this way in the villain’s plot. Gloria Revelle, on the other hand, amounts only to a pawn to get Scully, and the audience, in the right place at the right time. It’s a miscalculation to assume that she can sustain that level of visual/narrative abstraction when she’s being tortured and eventually cored out by a three-foot drill brandished by a man who will turn out to be her husband. But given the fact that gender has never been a meaningful boundary when it comes to De Palma and the assignation of dire fate to his characters—can John Cassavetes and Andrew Stevens in The Fury, or Lisle Wilson in Sisters, or Michael Caine in Dressed to Kill be said to be any luckier than Deborah Shelton?—it seems absurd to label this confrontational director, who has never courted easy responses to either his characters or his scenarios, as a misogynist based largely upon his treatment of one of the most plasticized characters, female or male, in his entire body of work.
At the same time, I don’t think I’m buying that De Palma’s strategy was to rub the audience’s collective noses in the more extreme elements of his narrative, and then make sure to enthrall them at the same time, in order “to point out their hypocrisy.” There just doesn’t seem to be much evidence, in box-office numbers-- the movie was a financial disappointment-- or anecdotal ruminations on the film from those who did pay to see it, that the audience was sufficiently enthralled. (Peet, you’re perhaps the first person I’ve known who has clearly loved the movie, had it speak to you in a profound way, and been able/willing to articulate why these things were so.) And you’re right-- it would be an act of supreme hypocrisy to rail against the violence and perceived misogyny of Body Double, then slink to the nearest multiplex, submit to the spell it might cast, enjoy (openly or not) those aspects of the movie that were once the focus of your ire, and then come out claiming to have been disgusted by what you saw on the screen. But I honestly don’t think many people approached or experienced the movie this way. Those who saw and loved it clearly are comfortable with the elements of the film that De Palma escalated in order to assault the sensibilities of those who would be offended at the mere announcement that he was making such a film. Those who saw it and were dissatisfied with it (like me) are obviously capable of holding the movie accountable for perceived insufficiencies that have less to do with the size of Gregg Henry’s drill and what he does with it than with De Palma’s script and direction of the entire film. And those who were shocked and horrified when they heard what De Palma intended to do probably stayed away, which may account, in some part anyway, for the movie’s tepid ticket sales in the U.S.
Of course, De Palma does takes advantage of the setting of the movie’s second half for some pretty explicit talk, particularly when Melanie Griffith’s Holly Body rattles off that very funny laundry list of porno “don’ts” to Craig Wasson’s Scully, whom she believes to be an adult film producer. Griffith, back when she was a recognizably unaltered beauty has a budding starlet’s excitability, piquancy and ripely funny sexuality (her body is only one consonant removed from holy) that really wakes the movie up from listless pacing through its overly familiar, and far less interesting, suspense motifs. But one of the most striking things to me about revisiting Body Double 20 years later is how relatively innocent it seems vis-à-vis its own sleaze factor, and I think this might be a direct result of De Palma, all anger and frustration aside, discovering, in the process of either writing the story or making the film, that that anger was giving way to his sharper satirical instincts. The second half of Body Double seems to perk up considerably, not just because of the luscious presence of a pre-plasticized, robustly curvy Griffith in a leather bustier and spiky dye job, but because De Palma puts his own shaky suspense story into lower gear in order to lounge around in this MTV-friendly porn universe for a while and have some fun with his characters, particularly Scully and his desire for role-playing in roles for which he is entirely and obviously inadequate as an actor (desirable stud, slicked-back porn entrepreneur, and finally, heroic savior).
HOLLY'S BODY: BODY DOUBLE'S EROTIC COMEDY
I think Body Double is much more of a success, and much more fundamentally interesting in the light of the rest of the De Palma canon, as a satirical jab at the movie business, especially in the way it indulges in a somewhat playful compare-and-contrast between the trials and tribulations of a underemployed actor and the comic undertones of the porn business. The Frankie Goes to Hollywood sequence is terrific, both as a parody of the ridiculous plotting of porn films (an excess which has all but disappeared in the video age) and a parody of music videos at a time when the phenomenon was still in its white-hot infancy. (Is it my feeble imagination, or did De Palma actually direct a video for “Relax” incorporating elements of this scene which actually played on MTV?) It’s also a terrific stylistic sequence that serves to reflect Scully’s heady disorientation at being plunged into this world and at the same time dismantle what it is we’re seeing as it is happening-- the surprise of seeing the film crew at one point reflected in a mirror is shocking and funny and emphasizes the artifice of the situation even as Scully finds himself responding to Holly sexually during the scene (a big porno no-no?) and remembering/superimposing his earlier moment with Gloria on the beach upon the on-set encounter. Finally, the end credit sequence of Body Double, which visualizes and parodies what we imagine were the behind-the-scenes action during the shooting of Dressed to Kill’s opening shower scene, must have had Angie Dickinson rolling in the aisles. It’s a premier example of the director’s multileveled design that works as comedy, as titillation, as an exposure of the utter absence of eroticism on a movie set (the blotchy-faced body double instructs Jake, holding stiff for the camera in full vampire regalia while she gets into position in the shower, to go easy on her nipples—they’re extremely sore due to her having just started her period) and as a means of encouraging the audience to tally up the ways in which a real situation sheds light on elements of their fantasies. The movie’s final image is a close-up of blood overflowing from the vampire’s arterial feast and trickling down the chest, over and between the painfully sensitive, but nonetheless lovely breasts, of the body double, and it’s funnier, more exciting and alive and provocative than almost anything else in the movie. It’s here that Body Double reveals its true place in De Palma’s work less as a pastiche of themes utilized more effectively in previous films than as a fitfully vital kissing cousin (with bared fangs) to the satirical sensibility displayed in films like Hi, Mom! and Phantom of the Paradise.
CRAIG WASSON, LEADING MAN
Finally, your comments have managed to shed light on one of the elements of Body Double that has always been problematic for me—the casting and performance of lead actor Craig Wasson. Over the past 20 years, whenever I’ve thought about it, I’ve always marveled that such a nondescript talent had, for a brief period in the early to mid ‘80s, such a run of work, and his appearance in the De Palma film always seemed to me the apotheosis of his white-bread “appeal.” But your argument is a very convincing one:
“I've always thought Craig Wasson was perfectly cast in this. Yes, he totally lacks the star power that could have helped to make the film a commercial success and he doesn't exactly deliver what can be described as a powerhouse performance. But the man's playing an unemployed actor, for God's sakes--a born loser, a regular Joe longing for a little excitement in his lousy life. A charismatic star like John Travolta in the same everyman role wouldn't have been believable. This is the story of somebody who tries to overcome his weakness. The story of an actor trying to act. The story of a sexless nobody wishing to become a stud. The weakness is an essential element of the narrative.”
It makes sense to me that De Palma would have an understanding that Wasson is no Jimmy Stewart everyman here—he’s investigating a very specific backstage world of which not many people outside of Hollywood (all efforts of Entertainment Weekly to the contrary) have any real understanding-- and it would be silly to think that’s what he had in mind. Nor does it seem much of a stretch at all to imagine a formally experimental film artist as De Palma playing with expectations to such a degree that he wouldn’t hesitate to cast a “regular-Joe” actor as a “regular-Joe” actor. So to that end I can accept that Wasson’s casting could be, in the terms laid out by the film, a success. And I can also accept that weakness can be, and perhaps is here, an essential part of the narrative. But again, to invoke Vertigo, Jake Scully is no Scottie Ferguson-- Hitchcock uses Scottie’s weakness to infuse his film with a creeping malaise and undercurrent of dread, to allude to the ever-present shadow of curdling obsession. But it seems De Palma embraces Jake’s weakness to such a degree that the film is less an illumination of that weakness as a subject than a victim of it as it is manifested in De Palma’s own relatively by-the-numbers approach. The weakness may truly be essential to the conception of Jake Scully as a character, but in Body Double it is also a symptom of a director momentarily spinning his creative wheels, looking to pump fresh blood into concepts he perhaps felt compelled to revisit for essentially compromised reasons.
20 YEARS LATER...
Looking at Body Double 20 years later, knowing that De Palma would recover his bearings, that works as masterful and resonant and audacious as Casualties of War and Femme Fatale were laying in wait, and even that he would rediscover his commercial footing with one of the most formally adventurous of Hollywood blockbusters (Mission: Impossible), it’s easier for me to forgive some of the flaws that I still find so apparent. And it’s even easier, given the passage of time, to look at the movie with new eyes and see that it’s nowhere near the viral offense to decent sensibilities that its most vocal detractors claimed in 1985 and still do today, that it actually does have some value, even though I still value it less than almost every other De Palma film. Why, I dare say I even had a good time seeing it again. It’s nice to be reminded that even the lesser films of a genuinely gifted film artist can yield plenty to think about and connect up with other films if given the space in a viewer’s mind in which to expand. In a million years, even at my most logorrheic, I would have never imagined that I would have been able to spend this much time in consideration of Body Double so long after its initial release. Such are the delights of considering cinema closely, I suppose. Thanks, Peet, for giving me yet another good reason to do so!
* 24 Lies a Second was the excellent, though sadly now defunct, site devoted to intelligent film writing founded by Peet Gelderblom and James Moran. It was Peet and Jim who first reached out to me and asked me to contribute an article to their site, thus expediting this particular stone’s moss-gathering roll down the hill toward a satisfying experience in film blogging.
** “Eschewed”? Jesus. Why couldn’t I have just said ‘avoided”? If I had written this piece today, I would have. And I guess that’s what I’m doing right now!
(Great huge portions of this “new” piece, synthesized in a manner not at all similar to that of De Palma or Leone, originally appeared on this blog, in their unaltered form, as posts entitled “The Black Rhapsodies of Brian De Palma”, “Brian De Palma: Critical Black Mass” and, most significantly, “Don’t Look Now: Revisiting Brian De Palma’s Body Double”. If you should feel so inclined as to click on any of these links and investigate the original pieces, please do follow all the way down through to the comments section on each post, which not only provided me with the opportunity to elaborate on things that needed to be elaborated on at the time, but also to host an excellent collection of insights from very smart people who chose to read my words and offer their own illumination upon them, most often leaving Your Humble Narrator in the dust.
And as this whole enterprise constitutes my participation in Tony Dayoub’s Brian De Palma Blog-a Thon, please click the link to read sundry wonderful pieces on not just the great stuff, but also the not-so-great, which is all fair in this game of cinema love. (And belated happy birthday to Mr. De Palma too, by the way.) But also, during the Blog-a-Thon and beyond, please do not miss the opportunity to check out Tom Sutpen’s brilliant gallery of Brian De Palma images. And I would also direct you to Slant magazine’s excellent feature roundup, “Auteur Fatale: The Films of Brian De Palma”, an excellent critical overview of the director’s career that was published in 2006.)