Sunday, November 4, 2012


Here are ten reactions of various size to Brian de Palma's 1974 film Phantom of the Paradise:

1—holy shit

2—It very strongly—although the parallel isn't exact—reminds me of the first Velvet Underground album, in that you can see the next several decades of the medium foretold. Brian Eno's famous (apocryphal?) remark that everyone who bought the first Velvet Underground album formed a band feels like it applies to Phantom of the Paradise—a commercial non-entity upon first release; even the version I watched Friday night was a (gorgeous) French import Blu-Ray—in terms of cinematic influence. Other directors had been futzing with quick cutting, but de Palma's melding that with flamboyant theatricality directly prefigured the MTV of a decade later. His “is it an homage or is it outright theft?” nods to things like the Touch of Evil tracking shot (not to be outdone by like Orson Welles or anybody, de Palma did it in two immaculately blocked shots in split screen just to flex his nuts because Brian de Palma fucking rules) anticipate the post-modern 90s. And hey, the fact that Quentin Tarantino was spearheading that particular tendency just adds layers to layers. If you wanted to be glib, you could say Quentin Tarantino stole being Quentin Tarantino from Brian de Palma, who stole every shot, camera move, and cut that wasn't bolted down his own self. Of course, pastiche is a lot more complicated than that, but still. Further in keeping with the Velvet Underground & Nico parallel is the dark humor and sexiness than pervade, not to mention the drugs. Oh, drugs.

3—I want to go back in time, make a t-shirt that says “I can tell drug-real from real-real!” and wear it from the ages of 16 to about 26.

4—A friend, who shall remain nameless to protect his good name as a cinephile, identified Jessica Harper as “a 19 year old Karen Allen; that's Karen Allen in her first movie!” upon her first appearance. Now, to be fair, we were a liiiiittle drunk at this point. My reaction was, “Whoa, she must have done a lot of fucking drugs between this and Animal House, damn.” And for the rest of the movie, whenever Jessica Harper would be in a shot, I'd focus on her really intently. What this meant, of course, was that I spent a lot of really intense energy watching Jessica Harper, which is a net win because goddamn. She fits right into that Debra Winger/Barbara Hershey/Carla Gugino “fuck yeah brunettes” continuum. And she's good! Her singing's perfect for what it needs to be, and her dancing is just lovely.

5—Expanding on that last: Women in the 70s were haaaawwwwwwt. Ridonkulous threads and hair, and it was before the establishment of the Skinniness Fiat. Good times.

6—While we're talking about the music, holy shit Paul Williams. Homes is about four-foot-two, as far as I can tell, and looks like a Muppet (maybe I'm just projecting because of the whole Rainbow Connection thing, but barely), and he is fucking awwwwwwwwwwwwwesome in this. His first line in the movie is, referring to William Finley, who's at the bottom of a pile of girls, “Get this fag outta here.” Delivered perfectly. It's one of the great “all right hold up pause it a second so I can laugh til I start crying” lines ever. Then later, “You know I abhor perfection in anyone but myself” is just heavenly villainous preening narcissism. Paul Williams's Swan is one of the great villains in cinema, a fabulously 70s creep with dashes of various figures of literary evil and vanity.

7—Of course, Mr. Williams (we need two separate points to talk about how great he was in this) also wrote the songs, which are goddamn fabulous tunes. Just wonderful. Lyrics-wise they're as close as we get in the movie to tying story together in any textual sense, and which elaborate on the the literary themes in at times hilariously on-the-nose fashion.

8—Brian de Palma had one big fuckin stack of books, from which he took this and that because it'd be awesome. And it is. There's the larger story, equal parts Phantom of the Opera and Faust, with a heavy dash of Dorian Gray in Swan. Then there are the movie references: the Touch of Evil dick-swing referenced above, as well as the shower scene in Psycho (before that was played out and because throwing one love to Hitchcock is one of de Palma's signatures as a director, the equivalent of Hitch's cameos in his own pictures), a fucking sweeeeeet shout out to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in the big finale, etc etc etc. One of the reasons Brian de Palma is awesome is that he knows what the fuck “more” means. You can always count on that.

9—I finally get the outpouring, when he passed away earlier this year, of love for William Finley, who played the titular Phantom, a songwriter who gets fucked over royally by the evil Swan, and who kills to get his beloved to sing his songs. William Finley is so gloriously weird in the role of Winslow Leach that to poke holes in his acting ability, calling it rough and so forth, misses the point that that's a large part of what makes his performance so great. He's weird, he's a dork, he's all over the place over the top, and that's why he rules in it. His imperfections are what make him perfect, a statement that could be made of de Palma's filmmaking to a large degree as well.

10—This fragmented, artificial approach, that looks random but is totally on purpose, is exactly what Phantom of the Paradise, formally, is. It makes not one bit of logical sense, instead using image, montage, and sound to create sensations. The continuity in the movie is entirely emotional and sensational, a cinema not in any way beholden to literature or the stage, which is especially weird considering that so much literature and theatricality went into its creation. It's a big, bursting paradox, endearing yet sleazy, erudite yet raving, beautiful and yet fascinated with the grotesque. Phantom of the Paradise is a radioactive neon marquee proclaiming Brian de Palma, auteur. It is an utterly fabulous thing, just absolutely lovely.