Wednesday, July 28, 2010
And Dream It Never Ends
I’m sitting here, wondering what I should do now. No car. It was recovered but there’s the minor issue that it has no engine. Or carburetor. Or any of that other stuff that’s supposed to be in there. So that’s that, I guess. As a result, I’m just sitting here staring at the wall, trying to avoid the issue of just what I’m supposed to do next. Not to mention, just how am I supposed to get to the New Beverly now? Comic Con happened and I was there briefly, somehow managing to get into Hall H for the amazing TRON: LEGACY panel but I never had any decent encounters with one of the other films which got a lot of press during the weekend, namely Edgar Wright’s upcoming SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD. This doesn’t really upset me. I’ve got more things to worry about.
I mention the film because it was a few months ago now that I was at the New Beverly having a conversation with a certain correspondent for a well known film news website. The subject of Wright’s film came up and he was saying how the film was the director’s way of paying tribute to Brian De Palma’s 1974 rock horror comedy PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE which he’s more than a little obsessed with, his chance to make his own version of that movie. I nodded, remembering how I already knew that the film was a favorite of Wright’s and that that he had even screened it at the New Beverly once several years ago but, embarrassingly, it had been so long since I had seen PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE that I couldn’t add very much to this part of the conversation. I must have been too busy seeing HONKY TONK FREEWAY over and over again or maybe my rock comedy needs were filled by GET CRAZY. I also have never read the Scott Pilgrim comic book and as I write this I’m still waiting to get to see the film which doesn’t open for a few weeks though from the looks of Twitter quite a few have seen it already (I should add that Edgar Wright isn’t even following me on Twitter! What’s up with that?). I guess they could say something about these apparent similarities more than I can. Anyway, thanks to Netflix as Wright’s film was screening at the Con down in San Diego I took a look at PHANTOM for the first time in years, so long that it was almost like seeing it for the first time. It’s a truly unusual film partly because its satirical slant seems to be such a personal touch by the person who made it and yet on the surface it stands so far apart from the rest of De Palma’s career. If I had seen it more often and under other circumstances when I was younger it might very well be a favorite of mine now as well. As it is, it’s an enormously enjoyable movie and while I can kind of understand why it never became some sort of ROCKY HORROR-level cult favorite something about it feels more endearing, more personal, more edgy. And it’s a safe bet that it’s going to stick around more in my memory from here on out.
When mega mogul record producer Swan (Paul Williams) spots struggling songwriter Winslow Leach (William Finley) performing a song that he must have, he arranges to have the composition, actually an excerpt from Leach’s own musical version of FAUST, stolen. Winslow of course only thinks that Swan is taking a look at it but after stumbling into an audition that he realizes is for his own music and instantly falling for the beautiful Phoenix (Jessica Harper) who can sing his song like no one else his repeated attempts to get it back from Swan go bad by the time Leach realizes just what had happened. After being framed and thrown into prison he escapes but his attempt at getting back at Swan goes wrong and Winslow, hideously injured and scarred, is presumed dead…but he soon returns as a figure known as the Phantom, haunting Swan’s grand new theater known as the Paradise and intent on finally seeing his music performed his way although Swan has a few surprises of his own to reveal.
What strikes me about PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is how much on the surface it seems to have nothing to do with Brian De Palma’s other films—honestly, if I encountered this movie without credits I doubt I would have pegged it as being directed by him. But not only does every frame feel completely and totally personal in the sort of cinematic way that the more De Palmaesque films are but it does in fact contain certain similarities the more I think about it from various stylistic traits to the elements of satire which can certainly be found elsewhere in his filmography, not to mention the as well as the odd Hitchcock reference. But what PHANTOM does is to reconfigure various elements of legendary stories with the horror legends like Phantom of the Opera and Faust being the most obvious examples along with some DR. CALIGARI nods, taking these themes and combining them with a bizarrely satirical look at what must have been De Palma’s own take on what the music business was becoming during the early 70s. Waves of nostalgia, beach music, glam rock and whatever else come into play tossed together with Winslow’s strangely haunting Faust creation. Some of this certainly sounds like the work of Paul Williams—goofy, emotional, haunting—yet in its own exuberant fashion doesn’t feel particularly dated at all or at least not dated in a bad way. I also can’t imagine many end credit numbers I love as much as “The Hell of It” and in context it comes off as a full celebration of everything that this movie achieved.
Written by its director, the story feels paced within an inch of its life in all the best ways with a continuous array of invention in scene after scene lends itself to a tone that feels not just uneasy and uncertain but genuinely dangerous, setting itself apart from the simple camp of ROCKY HORROR. It’s satirical, but never arch. There’s a passion to it as bizarre as every scene ultimately is with this world of the Paradise coming off as a place of mirrors, layers—it’s a film where reality can’t be easily determined because there is no reality. There is a certain frenetic feel to the film which means that reading up on how it was apparently a somewhat disorganized production (as discussed in the very comprehensive website The Swan Archives) such as how they had to deal with the total removal of the name Swan Song Enterprises (sometimes just seen as Swan Song) as the name of Swan’s company for legal reasons and it added touch of chaos to the editing by Paul Hirsch actually feels appropriate--it’s hard for me not to wonder if this is one of those cases where the editor deserves a huge amount of credit for what’s achieved--even if within the chaos of the climax there is a slight feel of abruptness to how everything ends.
The tone is so truly off-kilter much of the time that I can imagine when I first saw it years ago I may not have even quite known what to make of it all. In some ways I think I still am but looking at it now its portrayal of the literally soulless world of popular music co-opting the ambition of someone like Winslow Leach after years of American Idol make all this strangeness seem all the more real. I guess you could say the madness of the world has caught up with the madness of PHANTOM and the result is at times exhilarating, shot in a way that you can feel De Palma pushing himself even when his inspirations are obvious—an extended take which builds to a bomb in a prop car is an obvious TOUCH OF EVIL homage but also incorporates a split screen effect (an obvious De Palma troupe) and the way it is staged with the timing between the two works extraordinarily well, combining the warring portions of audio and incorporating trickery that may make it one of his most successful uses of the device. Even an obvious PSYCHO shower scene parody feels like De Palma was deliberately trying to make it as little like a PSYCHO parody as possible—as it happens, the joke becomes something else altogether. The entire film is satirical and energetic but it’s never just simple parody—you feel De Palma’s love for music even as he skewers it, his love for difference kinds of horror as he embraces it, making it his own through continuous invention and as a rock/visual phantasmagoria—which I’m guessing is what Edgar Wright is trying to do with his own movie—it’s just thrilling. There’s no other De Palma film quite like it. There certainly isn’t another rock horror comedy like it.
Just as Winslow Leach does when he meets her, I watch this movie and find it impossible not to fall in love with Jessica Harper, a beguiling screen presence that makes her stand out instantly from all the other girls and this combined with SUSPIRIA just makes me want to bow down to her. When she sings her audition of “Special to Me”, sliding around the stage in that absolutely bizarre dance and giving beguiling looks to the camera I can’t think of anyone who could have pulled this off the way she does. De Palma seems to be in love with her too, making her seem like the perfect seventies waif and yet near the end photographed as if she would be right at home in a thirties movie. Give an 'introducing' credit, her screen technique still feels unformed somehow but the effect she gives off is totally adorable, utterly beguiling and her talent is undeniable. It makes me wish that we lived in a world where more movies worshiped Jessica Harper like this one does (now I’m curious to revisit SHOCK TREATMENT, the ROCKY HORROR sequel where she plays Susan Sarandon’s role). The very oddness of Paul Williams is extremely well-utilized as Swan, making it clear how in this extremely bizarre world he is able to rule over everyone around him. He embraces the part completely making it truly memorable. It’s hard for me not to love Paul Williams because of things like THE MUPPET MOVIE and yet even normal close-ups of him here look somehow indescribably creepy to me. William Finley, one of the leads of SISTERS and seen recently in THE BLACK DAHLIA, is absolutely fantastic as both sides of Winslow and the Phantom infusing the part with the right amount of pathos and danger just as any monster who has been wronged should. I also wonder just how he’s able to bulge out that eye visible through his mask so wide. As glam-rock star Beef, the great Gerrit Graham of USED CARS owns every single second he’s onscreen, making it seem in retrospect that he has a much bigger part than he actually does. Archie Hahn, a future Joe Dante regular, is one of the Juicy Fruits (and the Beach Bums and the Undeads) and with CARRIE still two years in the future Sissy Spacek is listed in the credits as the set dresser.
Even without seeing SCOTT PILGRIM yet, knowing Edgar Wright’s approach to things I could believe there are a lot of obvious influences throughout the film. Naturally, I’m looking forward to it, although from the looks of the Internet when opening day finally comes I may be the last person to see it. As for PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, it does have a devoted following, if not an outright cult, with websites devoted to the film as well as fervent appreciations of it that I’ve read over the years. It’s so full of life, energy and cinematic daring that I can definitely understand this, even if my head is elsewhere right now. I feel a little like Winslow Leach, I suppose—no success with women, dealing with something valuable being stolen, feeling trapped in some bizarre dark comedy with wide angle lenses. Part of me is a little afraid to find out what happens next. Maybe I’ll just drink some wine and listen to “The Hell of It” one more time while I try to avoid thinking about anything else for the time being.