Monday, April 2, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.3: Brian De Palma's Get to Know Your Rabbit

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: 50 (C+)

Following the release of his successful independent releases Greetings and Hi, Mom!, Brian De Palma was hired by Warner Bros. for his first big studio project. The film, entitled Get to Know Your Rabbit, is a strange satire of 70s-era America and the entertainment industry starring Tom Smothers of the innovative comedy show The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which satirized the Vietnam War, racism, and other social issues in the late-60s. Get to Know Your Rabbit was conceived as a star-making vehicle for Smothers, but De Palma felt the material needed work as is and that he needed to re-write and re-shoot much of the film. Smothers and Warner Bros. gave up on the film, fired De Palma, and dumped it into theatres in the summer of 1972 (despite its completion in 1970). The peculiar film isn’t particularly successful as a comedy, but it does show De Palma’s talent as a director.

Donald Beeman (Smothers), feeling boxed in by his L.A. office job, impulsively quits and takes up a new trade as a tap-dancing magician (yes, really). His girlfriend leaves him, and his boss Mr. Turnbull (John “Gomez from The Addams Family” Astin) won’t stop hounding him to get him back, but Beeman is an optimist, and he perseveres. After receiving tutelage from legendary magician Mr. Delasandro (Orson Welles) and taking pity on the recently fired Turnball by hiring him as his manager, Beeman goes on the road touring cheap clubs and bars with his tap-dancing magic act. Beeman is artistically fulfilled and even falls in love with a magic groupie played by Katharine Ross (yes, really), but when Turnball turns the tap-dancing magic act into an industry, Beeman starts to feel trapped again.

You’ve probably guessed it from the description, but even beyond that, this movie is weird. Screenwriter Jordan Crittenden brings in an odd sort of absurdist humor to the proceedings, but that humor is rarely funny. One scene shows an overly-enthusiastic piano salesman come into Smothers’ apartment and tries to harangue Smothers and his girlfriend into being his friends. Another shows the psychotically committed Turnball locking Smothers into a cupboard with his doddering parents, who insist he stays at his job. There are moments of genuine comedy sprinkled throughout (Allen Garfield as a brassiere salesman, don’t call it a bra; an opening scene where someone calls in a bomb threat only to be put on hold), but the film is lumpy, uneven, and arbitrarily strung together. Smothers’ comedic gifts on a variety show don’t translate into acting talent, and most of the relationships are pretty unbelievable. By the time we see two humping jokes in the span of ten minutes, we know we’re at sea here.

What makes Get to Know Your Rabbit watchable, other than the sheer oddity of it all, is De Palma’s direction. The film is more polished than Greetings and Hi, Mom!, but the same prankster is behind the camera (best shown in a scene where Smothers and his girlfriend argue while another, virtually identical couple has a similar fight next door), constantly challenging the viewer to pay attention to multiple things at once. De Palma started playing around with split-screen in Dionysus in ’69 (which I have unfortunately not seen), and he continues with it here as a way of visual storytelling. There’s still a handful of jump cuts and other French New Wave techniques, but the film mostly feels like a tribute to another inspirational figure for De Palma: Orson Welles. The film makes use of fluid tracking shots that give a great sense of the space around the L.A. offices and apartments. De Palma occasionally uses this as a way of peeking in on private moments of characters, but his voyeurism is kept at lower levels. This is more a satire on how Hollywood treats artists.

Welles’ welcome appearance as a talented magician/mentor tips off where De Palma’s head is at: Delasandro is a master magician and trickster; Welles was a master filmmaker, actor, and, as it turns out, magician. Delasandro doesn’t see the success he deserves, but he’s more than willing to train a sincere, talented individual like Beeman (Smothers’ variety show background provides another level considering Welles’ background in theatre and radio). The inherent artificiality of magic shows, meanwhile, is a clear parallel with De Palma’s fascination with the artificiality of film.

When Smothers goes on the road, he’s an independent magician just trying to do what makes him happy. His talent with tricks matches De Palma’s talent with set-pieces- they’re both using misdirection to dazzle. But when the executive (studio system) sees the money he can make off this, he exploits it to perverse degrees. Anyone can do this, it seems, and being part of the system doesn’t exactly feel great to Beeman. He’s just a stooge again.

De Palma envisioned a ballsy ending in which Smothers puts on an act so horrifying (sawing a rabbit in half live on television) that mainstream America shuns him…only to later reveal it was just another trick (because no matter how horrifying movies can get, c’mon, it’s not for real). Now he can do what he wants, off to the side, without corporate America hanging over his shoulder, and it feels good. Warner Bros. absolutely would not allow this, and instead shows a more light-hearted escape that ends with Smothers on the road again, now with a wife and child. It’s not a terrible ending, or anything, but had De Palma gotten a chance to do what he wanted and rework some of the material, the film just might have worked (might have, mind you- it really just isn’t very funny).

De Palma emerged from Get to Know Your Rabbit burned by the studio and committed to work without them (he would get burned by the studios several times throughout the course of his career). He returned to independent filmmaking, and he recognized how loose and often unconnected even the best of his early films often felt, and he determined to make a more tightly structured film. The result was his first masterpiece, and the film which determined what a De Palma film really was, 1973’s Sisters.

Side note: I hardly gave the film a ringing endorsement, but Get to Know Your Rabbit is available in full form on YouTube.

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