Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.5: Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise

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: 92 (A)

1973’s Sisters was a success, critically and (to a certain extent) commercially. De Palma now had a chance to get even more ambitious with a project he had been considering for years: 1974’s Phantom of the Paradise (originally titled Phantom until the makers of the comic-strip threatened to sue). A modern re-telling of The Phantom of the Opera (and Faust, with a dash of Dorian Gray) as a glam-rock musical, the film satirizes rock and roll, the music industry, and, by proxy, the movie industry. The film flopped at the box office and did not gain the cult following that 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show did. But while the later film is certainly fun, Phantom of the Paradise is some kind of weird masterpiece.

Winslow Leach (De Palma regular William Finley) is a struggling musician working in a club run by powerful music producer Swan (Paul Williams, who also wrote the songs). Swan hears Winslow singing a song from his Faust rock-musical and decides that his music is perfect to open his new club, the Paradise. Winslow is thrilled, but Swan steals the music and frames Winslow for drug dealing. Swan has the prison pull all of Winslow’s teeth (they are replaced by a metal set), and when Winslow escapes he is further maimed in a horrifying accident- his face is disfigured, his vocal cords destroyed. Winslow isn’t finished, however- he takes to haunting the Paradise theatre in a bizarre constume, sabotaging Swan’s show, and stalking the beautiful and talented Phoenix (Jessica Harper).

Phantom of the Paradise is clearly a bit different from De Palma’s other films, to say the least, but that’s not to say that he hides his personality. Quite the contrary: the film is just as voyeuristic and film-centric as his previous works. The film opens up with a knowing Rod Serling narration that paints a comically ominous portrait of what’s to come. De Palma brings in sped-up, irreverent comedy in the style of Richard Lester to the fold, not to mention anti-establishment feeling straight out of Godard. Godard shows up again when a bleeding, badly injured Winslow stumbles and runs around like Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless. There’s plenty of references to old horror films, from set-designs and costumes right out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to a scene in the Faust show that recreates the monster creation in Frankenstein. And of course, it wouldn’t be a De Palma movie without some sort of a Hitchcock reference, and the homage to the shower scene in Psycho might be the funniest scene in De Palma’s filmography (“never sing my music again!”).

As for voyeurism, Phantom of the Paradise is yet another film where it’s always crucial who’s watching who and why.  Winslow’s tragedy begins when Swann watches and listens as Winslow performs “Faust”, a song from his musical. The audience sees from the point-of-view of Swann, making us complicit with Swann’s crimes. Much of the rest of the film shows Winslow as he follows Swann, tries his hardest to get his music back, and finally tries to get revenge. He sees Swann’s decadent home and how he exploits women; this takes on greater significance late in the film as Swann manipulates and seduces Phoenix (and, in true De Palma fashion, the watcher is being watched). Perhaps the best touch, however, is an homage to the opening shot of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil- Winslow’s Phantom plants a bomb in the back of a fake car on the stage of the Paradise. The viewer sees this, the cast does not. We’re complicit in his crimes, as we know what’s going to happen before anyone else does, and furthermore, we side with him.

De Palma uses this scene to show his technical mastery as well- his use of split-screen shows both the back of the car as it edges towards the stage and the performers, blissfully unaware of what’s happening. De Palma constantly challenges the viewer to watch multiple things at once, be it double-voyeur shots, intoxicating swirling tracking shots that show both Winslow’s performance and the people paying little attention to him, and the Phantom’s attempts to sabotage a show while a performer sings onstage.

The songs in the film work as set-pieces, irreverent smacks towards the music industry (mostly from Williams, who was sick of hearing his songs maimed), and comments on the characters. “Goodbye Eddie Goodbye” and “Upholstery” shows Swann’s bubblegum bands singing fake, goofy (yet infectious) nostalgia songs that sound like cynical knock-offs of doo-wop and the Beach Boys, respectively, in bubble-glam form (Winslow isn’t too happy when he learns these guys are to sing his music). “Faust” is a song from Winslow’s show, but it also works as a commentary on his Faustian deal with the devil (Swann) while doubling as a David Bowie-esque glam-rock-opera in Ziggy Stardust form. “Special to Me” and “Old Souls”, both songs in Winslow’s musical, showcase Phoenix’s talent as a singer while commenting on her difficulty making it in the music industry. The funniest bit comes from the pairing of “Somebody Super Like You” with “Life at Last”, which shows glam-rock at its most bombastic with Gerrit Graham’s Beef (yes, his name is Beef) turning it up to 11 while Winslow exacts revenge for Beef’s butchering of his songs.

The performances are all superb, from a never-better Finley as the Williams/De Palma surrogate Winslow/Phantom (a geeky, awkward, likably weird genius) to Williams as Swann (smirking, sneering record exec monster) to Tess Harper as the gorgeous, intelligent ingĂ©nue Phoenix, a big-eyed dreamer about to be exploited. These three make up the central story of Phantom of the Paradise, but De Palma and Williams perhaps get their funniest shots at the music industry with Graham’s performance as Beef. Graham might seem to be playing a mincing, effeminate stereotype, but this is a De Palma movie where everything is in air quotes, and Graham’s performance as a glam-rock false idol is a wonderfully camp performance in the style of Ernest Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorious in Bride of Frankenstein (Beef does evoke Frankenstein several times), only amplified to the nth degree.

The satire on the music industry is all very pointed- Winslow is maimed by a record press. There are bullshit contracts of the Faustian degree (“all articles excluded shall be deemed included”) and a brilliant artist drugged and controlled by the music exec (Phantom/Winslow by Swann). The executive doesn’t care about the words or what they mean (“who the hell listens to lyrics anyway?”) and abuses young dreamers like Phoenix. The record company, originally titled Swann Song until Led Zeppelin’s label threatened to sue, is called Death Records. De Palma shoots the record company headquarters as a futuristic monster building towering over the world. Winslow even gets locked up at Sing Sing prison.

But while it’s ostensibly a music-industry satire, there’s no denying that De Palma, a man frequently burned by Hollywood, used Phantom of the Paradise as a slap against movie executives. The Faustian bargain made in showbusiness applies to film as much as it does to music, as does the “tortured artist” portrait taken from Phantom of the Opera. A scene in which Swann fiddles with music and volume levels to temporarily fix Phantom’s voice isn’t too far off from film editing. The film constantly acknowledges the artificiality of the medium (fake bubblegum singers, fake versions of songs, false idols, fake body parts), and Swann’s deal with the devil is straight out of Dorian Gray, only with a film strip instead of a portrait.

SPOILERS HERE: And while the film is a satire, Phantom’s roots in the story of Phantom of the Opera makes it the first De Palma film to truly take on the tone of tragedy- Winslow attempts suicide when he realizes that A. Phoenix has been seduced by Swann, and B. He’s responsible (De Palma’s Catholic guilt comes in here). There’s an enormous sense of retribution- when Swann attempts to assassinate Phoenix on-air in order to drum up publicity (De Palma’s fascination with the Kennedy Assassination is noted), it’s up to Phantom to stop it. He saves the day, but he cannot save himself, and Phoenix realizes he’s not the monster she thought he was, but rather the same kind man she met earlier in the film. But it’s too late.

Phantom of the Paradise did indeed bomb, but while its cult hasn’t reached as vast as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it has found an audience of cinephiles who appreciate it as a truly unique musical/satire/tragedy/spectacle, a unique entry into De Palma’s filmography, and a far better Phantom musical than Andrew Lloyd Webber could ever write (COME AND GET ME). It’s too bad that it didn’t quite catch on, but De Palma had to keep moving, and his next film, Obsession, would see him back in Hitchcock land.

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