Saturday, April 14, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.13: Brian De Palma's Body Double

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 78 (B+)

From the beginning of his career, Brian De Palma has been a controversial filmmaker. Greetings was the first film to receive and X rating, and De Palma had to heavily censor the sex and violence filled Dressed to Kill to secure an R. By the time Scarface was released to heavy criticism over the level of violence, language, and drug use (De Palma again had to battle for an R rating), De Palma had had enough. With Body Double, De Palma envisioned another Hitchcockian thriller a la Sisters or Dressed to Kill….only this time it would be a full-on hardcore pornographic film as well. De Palma never went through with this audacious idea completely (although the result would have been…interesting), but Body Double was plenty controversial (and widely criticized) anyway. It’s easy to see why the film had so much trouble in theatres and with critics at the time: it’s De Palma indulging in all of his interests and obsessions in a film so excessive it’d make Scarface blush. But that’s part of what makes Body Double such a fascinating film in the first place.

Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) is a struggling actor in Los Angeles. He’s having a bad week- he just got fired from his job as a vampire in a sleazy horror film after his crippling claustrophobia kept him from going in a coffin; his girlfriend cheated on him; he has no place to live; he can’t land a decent acting job. Jake gets a break when he meets fellow actor Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry). Sam found a gig in Seattle and now needs someone to take over a housesitting job. There’s plenty of perks- the house is beautiful, there’s plenty of booze and movies, and to top it all off, the gorgeous neighbor Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton)  is a rich woman and an exhibitionist who gets off by doing a dance for any neighbors looking in. Jake has it made, but when he sees a strange man following Gloria, he starts to think that his new fantasy woman is in grave danger.

As always, De Palma proves himself a skilled technician and visual storyteller. The director uses split-diopter to show how Jake relates to people- almost entirely as a voyeur. He follows Gloria throughout a mall, but they’re almost never on the same side of the frame- he gets his thrills as a watcher. A later use of split-diopter shows Jake reacting to a cop’s questions- he’s deeply ashamed of his actions. De Palma spreads visual clues for what’s about to happen throughout the film, whether it’s the main antagonist watching Jake to make a patsy out of him or a man stalking Gloria off to the side. De Palma photographs L.A. as a gaudy, sleazy place that all but dwarfs the Miami of Scarface in its glorious tackiness. Just like in Scarface, paradise hides scuzziness (“Hollywood’s classiest adult theatre”) and danger. Best of all is how De Palma uses an early tracking shot to explore the Chemosphere, a modernist house that overlooks Gloria’s mansion. It’s the perfect refuge for a man without a home…and a voyeur’s paradise.

Yes, lest ye forget that this is a De Palma movie, voyeurism plays heavily into the story of Body Double. Jake is a classic peeping tom- he “likes to watch”. There’s an inherent thrill in watching someone, particularly if they like being watched. Jake’s not a dangerous guy, but it’s no surprise that people misinterpret his actions, or at very least find him creepy. He is creepy. He uses a telescope to watch the rich exhibitionist neighbor masturbating, and when he follows Gloria to “keep her safe”, he gets a lot out of watching her try on a pair of silky panties as well. De Palma makes good use of POV-shots and tracking shots to show Jake’s perspective in a terrific, nearly wordless sequence at a mall- we might be unnerved by his behavior, but we’ve become voyeurs as well, and we’re all enticed by what’s happening before our eyes.

SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH: He’s not the only voyeur, however- Sam (real name Alexander Revelle) is Gloria’s husband, a murderer who wanted a witness he could count on to fail his ill-fated wife. We learn that he picked Jake- a failed, desperate actor with severe claustrophobia- as the perfect, helpless patsy for his crime. Jake would see an Indian man (actually Alexander in a pretty terrible mask) murdering Gloria instead of him, and that’d be the end of it. Furthermore, that wasn’t Gloria dancing- Sam/Alexander hired porn-star Holly Body (Melanie Griffith) to dance for Jake in order to keep him watching. Jake was a voyeur, but as with many De Palma films, the watchers are always being watched.

The cast of Body Double isn’t as strong as some De Palma films, but it doesn’t harm the movie too much. I originally found Wasson’s performance a bit flaccid, and while it’s true that he’s occasionally not up to task for the more intense scenes, there’s a point to much of his weakness. Jake is hapless, helpless, and ultimately kind of a loser. He’s not a particularly gifted actor, and his claustrophobia and inability to help himself or others makes him the perfect patsy for the main villain. When he ultimately can’t save Gloria from her horrible fate, he’s overcome with overwhelming guilt and shame over his voyeuristic tendencies. He’s not a terrible person, and he has a more positive view of women than some of the other characters in the film, but he’s still a bit of a pervert and a loser.

The supporting cast is mostly just fine, from Gregg Henry as the obvious bad guy setting Jake up for a fall to Deborah Shelton as the doomed woman, but there’s one shining exception: Melanie Griffith as Holly Body. Griffith had shown promise in other films, but Body Double is her true breakthrough. Griffith is the ostensible femme fatale, but she’s far more than a type- she’s an intelligent, spunky, casually crude porn star with big Hollywood dreams. She’s unwillingly part of a dangerous game, but De Palma and Griffith don’t judge Holly’s actions. She’s easily the strongest character in the film.

Body Double is another film in which sex and violence mix in alluring and dangerous ways. Jake’s sexual frustration early in the film gives way to his inability to take action later in the film. Jake can ultimately only watch as Gloria’s unseen, shadowy husband (hint hint) abuses her. Things get more serious in a horrifying set-piece in which a badly scarred man uses a power drill to kill Gloria. Many saw the clearly sexual, penetrative violence as ultimate proof that De Palma was a misogynist who took pleasure in tearing up women. That’s missing the point. Yes, it’s horrifying, highly suggestive, and pornographically violent, but the key to De Palma’s movies is that he never sides with the killers. Oh sure, there’s something thrilling in the violence (and De Palma has admitted that growing up with a surgeon as a father made him more tolerant of violence), but there’s weight to Gloria’s horrible death, and it’s not as if this is Friday the 13th where we’re supposed to take pleasure in her death (although there’s a tie-in here, which I’ll come back to in a minute).

De Palma throws in several movie references. The peeping tom plot is like an unapologetically sleazy take on Rear Window, and the bits about the Jake as a patsy who follows a doomed girl and later finds a double comes right out of Vertigo (not to mention two make-out scenes that play like an even more sexed-up version of the famous kiss in Vertigo). Jake is a hard-drinking noir patsy in the style of Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity, whereas Holly is a new wave take on the femme fatale. There’s numerous references to Carpenter’s Halloween and its many knock-offs (most notably an attempted strangling with a phone-cord). De Palma even gets self-reflexive with the conspiracy against Jake (that often makes him look like a nut) is a conscious throwback to his own Blow Out.

Blow Out is referenced in the opening of Body Double as well- the film starts out as a sleazy, goofy horror film (in this case a vampire movie rather than a slasher movie), and although everything feels a bit off, it’s still pretty thrilling. When De Palma pulls the rug out from under us and shows off just how artificial everything is, we learn the stakes- Jake is slumming it as an actor (just as Travolta’s Jack Terri was a slumming sound editor in Blow Out), and he can’t even hold on to his job in this sleazy movie.

De Palma thumbs his nose at the crappy horror movies that followed more talented auteurs like John Carpenter and himself, but it goes deeper than just the fake movie set. When De Palma brings a goddamned power drill in for the kill, it’s almost as if he’s mocking the sadism of the slasher movie (where the only reason to go is to watch naked girls and see how creative the kills get). The film even has a more ridiculous plot and climax than most De Palma movies (although the Brechtian turn near the end doesn’t entirely work). De Palma goes even further by juxtaposing the slasher-movie plot with a headfirst dive into the pornographic world, filled with a number of people who take their work very seriously (“I’m no stunt-cock, I’m an actor!”), complete with some tongue-in-cheek reviews of pornographic movies from such prestigious publications like Screw Magazine.

De Palma’s going into intentionally ridiculous and sleazy territory throughout Body Double, so it helps that composer Pino Donaggio brings a gloriously over-the-top score to the fray. The scenes on the crappy vampire movie are soundtracked by “scary” music that’s practically going “booga booga”.  The lush love/lust themes are wonderfully silly synth-themes (complete with orgasmic moaning) that still give off a feeling of distant longing. Even the genuinely frightening scenes have goofball horror music playing underneath, lest we forget that this is part black-comedy/satire. The best bits come from the goofy new wave soundtrack: when Jake discovers his girlfriend having sex with another guy, a new wave song on the TV features a guy singing “My my! Uh-oh!”

The best scene in the film, however, combines the sleaziness of the porn world, De Palma’s fascination with voyeurism and artificiality, and the aura of 80s New Wave. In a virtual music video/mini-movie , Jake gets a job as a porn actor (don’t ask) with Holly. The song “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood plays as Jake enters an oversexed bar filled with drugs, drink, and lots of innuendo. It’s clearly fake, but it’s thrilling nonetheless, and when Jake approaches Holly with “I like to watch”, there’s a perverse thrill to it all. That’s Body Double in a nutshell- sleazy, goofy, subversive, and endlessly entertaining.

No comments:

Post a Comment