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.


Principal Archivist said...

Thanks for this; it's one of the nicer pieces on the film I've read over the past 30 years, and your passion for the movie really comes through. I appreciate the shout-out, too!

Adam Ross said...

Another thanks, this was a nice surprise this morning. Great take on the split-screen scene with the Beach Bums, what I love about it is how you can hardly hear what Philbin's saying over the music. Listening to the soundtrack a lot lately, I realized I had no idea what the lyrics to the Beach Bums' song was, but it's a fairly brilliant satirical take on Winslow's Faust song (they both begin with "I was not myself last night...").

The end is a little abrupt, and I think the movie peaks when Beef dies. That entire performance by The Undead is such a show stopper, there's really no way to top it.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Principal Archivist--

Thank you for the amazing site, it was great to learn so much about this film! Glad you liked the piece!


I think I'd go a little further to the peak point, maybe past when Phoenix becomes a star. But yes, I do think that maybe the film's freneticism gets the better of it by a certain point. I'm still very glad that I revisited it after all this time.

Robert H. said...

There were rumors that Williams was working on a version of this for Broadway... it seems that it would be a natural, but since nothing has come of it yet, perhaps it is not to be?

SHOCK TREATMENT is definitely worth another look in the Jessica Harper Trilogy... like WRONG IS RIGHT, Time has proved it to be more on the nose than people ever suspected.

Anonymous said...

I've seen this several times, one of which was at Edgar Wright's New Beverly screening (paired with the equally deranged, "Bugsy Malone"). I really fell for it at the New Beverly as it's wildly inventive and features that titanic performance by Gerrit Graham as "Beef". The lightening bolt from the balcony never fails to send me into convulsions of laughter. Grand madness from a filmmaker I grow to love more & more. I'm hyped for "Scott Pilgrim" as well. I look forward to seeing your write up on that one, Mr. Peel. As usual, this one was aces.

- Bob

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Robert H.--

It seems like it would be a perfect fit for Broadway, but who knows? Maybe certain elements just haven't come together yet. Anyway, consider SHOCK TREATMENT added to my Netflix queue!


Thanks very much! I remember the Edgar Wright screening at the New Beverly but for whatever reason I had to leave early that night and only got to see BUGSY MALONE. Looking forward to SCOTT PILGRIM now...

Ned Merrill said...

Nice write-up, Peel. I've been on the bandwagon for this film since I was an awkward high schooler in the early '90s and found the old laserdisc in a bargain bin in a music store for $3. It remains one of the DePalma films closest to my heart, along with BLOW OUT.

I had the good fortune of seeing a print at BAM (where some of the exteriors of Swan's Paradise were filmed). The print wasn't in such good shape--this was in '01 and it the best available at the time, but the guests included producer Ed Pressman (the film was shown as part of a retro for Pressman), Gerrit Graham, and Bill Finley. Margot Kidder was on hand to discuss SISTERS, which played on the same bill.

Critic Jeffrey Lyons moderated and when he talked with Graham, the first thing he mentioned was how big a fan he was of Graham's turn in USED CARS. This drew a large cheer from the audience, myself included. Finley was along with his wife and young son and was extremely gracious. Kidder was irritated by an over the hill fanboy (who looked like he'd never left Mom's basement) who asked her about her diminished role in SUPERMAN III..."We're here to discuss SISTERS, NOT SUPERMAN III," was Kidder's brusque response.

As to the cult audience for this film, the screening I was at, and remember this was nearly 10 years ago, had lots of people in my age range at the time (20s) coming up to the stage with mementos, including soundtrack LPs, to be autographed. I imagine the audience has probably grown since then.

As to SCOTT PILGRIM, despite the presence of Michael Cera, who I think is way over-exposed and extremely limited in range, I look forward to seeing it. If it has even a 1/4 of the spirit, energy, and creativity of PHANTOM, it'll be worthwhile.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


What a strange and amazing night that must have been. I hope to see PHANTOM in a theater someday. Thanks for sharing that.

Em said...

hello mr. peel - so glad to see you finally (re-watched) POTP!! I have gushed about it enough but have to mention here that I did see it in the theatre (one time at the Nuart at a midnight screening where the projectionist made a last-minute arrival, carrying both reels and huffing and puffing as the audience chanted 'WE WANT SWAN!") + the second, at the aero theatre with Paul Williams onhand to explain that the stage version would involve...Melissa Manchester?

By now you must agree how "Depalma" POTP is - from the newreel timeline typed on the screen to the signature split scenes as well as a efficient usage of William Finley from film to film...I can't tell you how pleased I am that you love it too!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Great to hear from you. That sounds like an amazing screening at the Nuart. I look forward to seeing this in a theater myself some day. Thanks very much for your wonderful message, it really brought a smile to my face.

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

I haven't seen this since the 70s (since it was released?), but I'm afraid I couldn't take it seriously at all - Paul Williams is just so lumpy and uncool. It was like casting Neil Sedaka as a gang boss. Or like "Girls' Town", where Mel Torme is supposed to be a menacing hotrod delinquent.

But I'll watch it again, on your recommendation.

BTW, I saw it on a double bill with "Greaser's Palace", which I remember enjoying a lot.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Gee, isn't Paul Williams kind of cool? I guess if the film were set in a deliberately realistic environment I'd have that problem but in context I think he works pretty great. Hope you give it another try!

Ned Merrill said...

In hipster and music geek circles, Paul Williams is certainly cool again and has been for several years. But to each his or her own...

If you dig the tunes here, or Williams in general, I urge you to seek out his SOMEDAY MAN LP, which was reissued a few years back by Collector's Choice. It's a brilliant slice of late '60s AM pop. I think the physical CD may be OOP now, but it's available via iTunes.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Suddenly I'm beginning to think that listening to some Paul Williams may be just the thing to brighten my day...

le0pard13 said...

I showed this film for week during my stint as a projectionist (1976-7). It's a great one to see in a movie theater. Wonderful write-up -- it takes me back to that period. Thanks for this.