Saturday, October 16, 2010

Deep Personal Commitment

A number of years ago the production company I was working for at the time was casting a new film and on this particular day there was what seemed like swarms of familiar That Guys coming through those doors practically nonstop. One of them, as it turned out, was Craig Wasson, star of BODY DOUBLE, GHOST STORY, ELM STREET 3 and others, still even then looking exactly like you’d expect Craig Wasson to look. I didn’t really interact with him at all but noticed that as he was leaving he happened to turn and say something to another actor who was there, commenting how they’d met before at such-and-such a place. The moment was almost exactly like a scene in BODY DOUBLE in which Wasson, playing the role of a working actor in Hollywood, appeared in such a scene opposite Gregg Henry which turns out to get the plot going. No one else around seemed to pay any attention to that interaction, but all I could think right then was that it suddenly, unexpectedly, was like I was viewing that movie happening right in front of me. Considering the layers upon layers in that film, suddenly for a brief moment BODY DOUBLE, of all films ever made about Hollywood, seemed to have actually come true.

I bring this up for a reason—a number of months ago in a piece I wrote on DRESSED TO KILL while discussing the structural experimentation in Brian De Palma’s thrillers I made a reference to the form being ‘possibly fumbled’ in the case of BODY DOUBLE, leading to some people leaving comments to defend the film. I felt compelled to reply that I certainly wasn’t trying to trash BODY DOUBLE since it’s not a movie I dismiss or even dislike. Some of it is extremely effective and I certainly have an appreciation for how iconic some of its imagery is (he said snickering, but you probably know what I mean). It certainly isn’t a case of my being offended by any of its content (sex, violence, yadda yadda yadda) but that was of course one of the main criticisms the film received upon its release on October 26, 1984 which had some calling for De Palma’s head on a platter while also receiving enthusiastic reviews, if not outright raves, from both Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert. It’s just that, for me, there’s a certain disconnect I feel while watching it, as if there’s an element within the film’s basic aesthetic that I feel resistant to as if the dreamlike interludes which drift through his other films that don’t have much to do with pure logic either simply don’t work for me here and I just emotionally check out. I don’t want this to happen. I want to love this film. If somehow I had never been aware of its existence then heard about what it was I would assume it had to be the greatest movie ever made. After all, how could it not be, right? Nevertheless, there’s something unexplainably off every time I take another look at it, much as I may admire certain sections, like the film is missing a key ingredient that prevents it from resonating very much with me. There’s always the hope that someday the whole thing will click together in my head and I’ll fall to the floor in total praise—I’ve never seen it in a theater so maybe that has something to do with it. And yet, an occurrence like that time I saw Craig Wasson is pretty much proof that the movie has always stuck with me, just as all of the director’s films stay with me and deep down I have a certain admiration for it. It’s De Palma—I guess there’s no getting around that.

Though I’ll try to avoid spoilers in this very twisty plot, Hollywood actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) has a terrible day where his performance in the low-budget horror film VAMPIRE’S KISS is ruined when he suddenly comes down with a massive case of claustrophobia in the middle of shooting a scene that gets him fired then when he goes home to his girlfriend and finds her with another man. Needing a new place fast he finds himself in luck when a series of chance encounters results in a friendship with fellow actor Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry) who just happens to need somebody to take over his house-sitting gig so he can take an acting job in Seattle. At the ultra-modern residence high up in the hills Sam alerts Jake to a small bonus via his high-powered telescope, the beautiful woman across the way in the canyon who puts on a little show every night, dancing erotically and ultimately pleasuring herself in full view. Jake quickly becomes fixated on the woman who he soon learns is the wealthy Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton) but he soon also realizes that she is being stalked and harassed by several people including a very imposing-looking Indian. As he begins to follow this woman who is already being followed by someone else, Jake soon finds himself drawn into this web of intrigue down a path that results in murder and also involves a porn actress who goes by the name of Holly Body (Melanie Griffith), with his claustrophobia possibly coming into play at the exact wrong moment.

I feel like I should be doing tequila shots while watching BODY DOUBLE. Not in any kind of drinking game way—it just seems like it would make sense to do shots, as many as I can manage, while making my way through the sleazy vibe of this look at Los Angeles and the obsession of certain women that can happen out of nowhere in this town. Nothing in the film is very realistic in terms of plot or anything (Screenplay by Robert J. Avrech and De Palma, story by De Palma) but little about Los Angeles seems very realistic on the surface anyway and it all serves as part of De Palma’s quest for total cinema. As a film it’s a parlor game of layers and mirrors, with the famed doubling of Angie Dickinson in DRESSED TO KILL serving as the obvious jumping off point, presenting visions of fantasy that are as phony as they are right in front of us, deliberately obscuring things at times to the point that I wonder if the blatant rear-projection seen behind Wasson a few times as he drives his convertible is just part of the game in this portrayal of mixing the fantasy of movies with the stone cold reality of the town. The lead character is an actor but there’s no glamour to any of it--even in just a few scenes the portrayal of how demoralizing the profession can be has probably never been so harshly portrayed (based on this, don’t tell me De Palma doesn’t have sympathy for performers) and almost hidden within the murder plotline (Is it even possible to write about this film without revealing its secrets?) is the stark contrast of the glamour of such a gorgeous woman—the ultimate fantasy of beauty that we all strive for in one way or another, particularly in this town—and what really is going on with her behind those windows, a drama so horrible for her (seriously, imagine a version of this movie from the point of view of Gloria Revelle, which seems even more bizarre but kind of depressing) that we can only ever guess at it. On the one hand it’s totally addictive to wade all through this nastiness with Pino Donaggio’s memorable theme always wafting through the background, but on the other I always feel somewhat removed from it even as I get lost in how brilliantly executed certain moments might be.

It’s not even the film’s fault but part of my own problem may have to do with its basic look which while technically pristine is something I always have an innate negative response to, but I suppose I have a deep dislike to that whole pastel 80s style which here represents the neon glare of Los Angeles. Or maybe that East Coast energy from some of De Palma’s previous films has been replaced by a more laidback West Coast feel which may be appropriate but still feels off, not the sort of rhythm I respond to in his work--Guy Boyd’s investigating cop (Dennis Franz can’t always play this role, after all) kind of drones on through his prolonged exposition sequences as if we’re getting Henry Jones when we really need Simon Oakland (all respect to the great Henry Jones, of course), though I like how Boyd’s voice drips with contempt every time he calls Wasson “Scully”. Unlike the stunning anamorphic compositions of DRESSED TO KILL and BLOW OUT this film, featuring generally strong work by Director of Photography Stephen H. Burum, takes in various minor landmarks throughout the city presented in the more square 1.85 format. That Beach Terrace Motel rendezvous point down in Long Beach certainly is ideal for this and it certainly goes with the view seen through a telescope as Jake Scully continually peers at Gloria Revelle’s late-night shows—hell, since the movie is about somebody who suffers from claustrophobia keeping the frame closed in almost seems like a given—but even through shots laid out like photos in a fashion magazine done in the best giallo style, among each of De Palma’s films shot in this format (he’s gone back and forth through his career and I’d be curious to learn why) this is the one I honestly wish were filmed in full 2.35:1 ratio instead. This would of course demand a different aesthetic for De Palma’s entire visual approach and maybe even reveal the film I’m looking for each time I watch it. Still, I suppose it’s a fair question to ask if it would make more or less sense to have a film about a character with claustrophobia presented in a wider ratio? Would the wider ratio accentuate the irony somehow? I don’t really have the answer to that but, then again, I’m not Brian De Palma.

And there are points when his extended dialogue free sections, particularly Wasson following Shelton through that high-end mall in Beverly Hills, as I wonder how he’s able to stay so close to her without being noticed, if it’s really possible to look at what’s going on in a boutique dressing room from the sidewalk, until I eventually get lost in all that imagery, lost in those giant sunglasses she’s wearing, but then I’ll just as randomly get snapped out from it again. Not to mention how I always check out from any reality in the film, even a fake reality, at the point of a certain love scene involving a 360 degree camera movement, one of those attempts to intermingle reality and fantasy the director is fond of attempting that in this case, for me, simply doesn’t work. The Hitchcock game is part of all this with elements of REAR WINDOW and VERTIGO tossed in together through De Palma’s own preoccupations, along with his style of deliberately holding things back is at times which is as frustrating as it is exhilarating, such as a key car crash happens offscreen just like the most important murder more or less does. The film also continues De Palma’s preoccupation with his continuing theme of a protagonist trying to save a helpless female and in a sense the resolution—hell, maybe the very foundation of the story—is like an extension of the bitter end of BLOW OUT, only here with this hapless doofus going up against that ridiculously enormous power drill/phallic symbol any chance of success feels futile almost from the beginning. As it turns out, no one appreciates what Jake Scully tries to do when he succeeds any more than when he fails, so there’s almost nothing to feel any relief about. Of course, it was the 80s—for someone as clueless as Jake Scully, there was probably no way to win, particularly in Hollywood. But De Palma keeps it all going even past that point and the final scene either disregards such bitter feelings or just admits to the madness as part of the expected 80s happy ending. I’m still not sure how much the final scene shown as the credits roll is really supposed to be part of the ‘film’ anyway but that’s part of the point—it’s all a film, every single frame of it.

It’s almost not even a question of good or bad from my viewpoint, as De Palma’s expertise is always present, his command of displaying point of view is at times masterful. There’s just something in my wiring that’s preventing me from going for the ride the way I can in some of De Palma’s other films which, for me, find a genuine emotion to connect to through all that cinematic delirium whether it’s John Travolta’s desperation in BLOW OUT, observing the stalking of Angie Dickinson and Nancy Allen in DRESSED TO KILL or even just suffering through Lolita Davidovich’s whining about her marriage in RAISING CAIN. Here the dreamlike vibe is there along with the sinuous drops of sex and violence but it all feels a little too clinical as if I’m looking at it from a distance (or through a rear window, I suppose) and with these characters (every name sounds like it’s a reference to something, I just can’t figure out what) there’s no actual emotion in the blending of these two women in Jake’s life through his eyes, which may be the film’s single biggest flaw—Shelton’s Gloria Revelle is intentionally left blank, Griffith’s Holly Body with her clothes on is all business and, amusingly, never quite realizes she’s in a thriller and Wasson’s Jake is just kind of a wimpy schmuck (enjoyably so—he can’t even pretend he’s talking on a pay phone convincingly so what kind of actor is he?). I’m not saying this is a bad thing and certainly there are any number of Italian giallos that I enjoy which could hardly be called emotionally believable but coming from De Palma it just feels like in this one particular film there’s something I’m just not connecting with, even though as I watch Craig Wasson trail Deborah Shelton from Beverly Hills down to Long Beach I’m always feeling like I should. It’s almost like the entire film is a joke that I’m almost but not quite getting the punchline of, which I admit is possible.

I barely even know what to make of some of this stuff as the movie gets lost in De Palma’s own apparent obsession to stop everything to make a ridiculous porn film/music video in the early days of MTV (actually, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax” is still a pretty damn good song) and while this may be where a fair amount of my disconnect comes from that doesn’t mean that I don’t get completely absorbed by it anyway. Almost while thinking about any random scene even while criticizing it there are points where I can let any critical or intellectual process drop away and just get lost in whatever it all is, but this is my responding to the moments of pure visual De Palmaness as opposed to the actual story--I’m not sure that the gimmick of claustrophobia is really strong enough, or visual enough, in the end to base so much of the film on (and I’m trying very had to not compare this to a certain plot point involving acrophobia). Not to mention that when the final piece of the puzzle is all put together I always wonder, is that really it? Shouldn’t there be an extra twist on a twist somewhere? But asking that indicates that the plot is really what the film is when it’s really all about the layers, the subtext, that music, the question of unreality which always seems to be there in Los Angeles at certain times of day or night. I actually love the moment when Wasson says to her that he’s not following her when, of course, that’s exactly what he’s doing and the fact couldn’t be any more obvious and when Jake Scully is asked why he’s following Gloria Revell to begin with he can’t come up with an answer because, well, there is no answer beyond that he’s already seen her. Or he thinks he’s seen her. Maybe there really is no difference.

Watching Craig Wasson in this role can be a bizarre experiment almost as if the movie knows he’s never going to be anything other than this ‘hopeful’ actor, who as Jake Scully seems like a decent enough Midwest guy who has gotten beaten down in his journey through the Hollywood maze and started to drink maybe a little too much a little too often. Hell, he can’t even bring himself to confront his girlfriend when he walks in on her cheating. A few years after this film Wasson appeared in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS, in one scene being thrown into an open grave as dirt is shoveled on him just like what happens to him here and I have to believe this brief allusion was absolutely intentional. Then many years later I saw him in a film production office and BODY DOUBLE was all I could think of. As a screen presence, for better or for worse, that’s turned out to be his destiny. There’s an awkwardness to Wasson’s performance here in how he can’t become the Jimmy Stewart figure he no doubt wants to be deep down and yet as the lead character of BODY DOUBLE Wasson is absolutely, completely Jake Scully.

Deborah Shelton is undoubtedly gorgeous but the schematics of the film have her be more of a figure than an actual character, let alone a human being, but considering how the actress seems to have been dubbed (apparently by Helen Shaver) the element of distance actually makes sense. Interestingly, while going through the film I found myself realizing that the actress actually sometimes seems more compelling when certain shots are freeze-framed than when she’s in motion and this actually adds to the inherent unreality of the whole thing. But at the least, within what is a mostly silent performance there is something kind of hypnotic about her. Gregg Henry, who went on to work with De Palma several more times, kind of rules in the role of Sam Bouchard (I guess I can’t say anything more than that) and Dennis Franz offers a few laughs in his small role as Jake’s director, apparently based by the actor in his mannerisms on De Palma. As the fearless porn star Holly Body, Melanie Griffith takes a role which really doesn’t come into things until well past the halfway point and shoots the movie’s energy to the stratosphere providing an unexpected quality to her already off kilter nature as she casually lets Jake know what she will and will not do in a role. Declining at first to go for a drink with Jake because “I don’t even know you” right after they’ve just shot a sex scene together, Griffith is absolutely fantastic in her relatively brief screen time, hugely enjoyable to watch in every second she has onscreen (he said snickering, but we should really avoid spoilers) and in providing the movie with a much needed dose of humor, very funny as well. What the hell, let’s just say it—All hail Melanie Griffith in BODY DOUBLE. Barbara Crampton of RE-ANIMATOR appears briefly as Jake’s girlfriend, seen only when he walks in on her. She doesn’t get a line but I like the look she gives him, after a flash of guilt, which indicates that this isn’t something she’s about to apologize for. It’s the sort of look that stays alive through an entire movie, reminding us what kind of world this is.

As much as I may feel something isn’t quite resonating for me with the end result of BODY DOUBLE I remain kind of awed by some of what De Palma achieves here. I just wish all of the elements were somehow able to come together in a more satisfying way so I could feel as strongly about it as I do several of his other films but I suppose that veil of resistance is going to remain for the time being. The director’s frank admission of its flaws on the DVD documentary (as well as commenting on the things people hated about it, which isn’t the same thing) got me to feel better about some of my own conflicted thoughts regarding the film and writing about it has certainly insured that I’ll never be able to fully shake it from my head, just like I never fully shake some of those women I encounter on those Los Angeles days when I’m about as effective in what I want to do as Jake Scully is. I may still have these issues with the film and I may still feel that it is irrevocably flawed, but that doesn’t mean I won’t keep watching. And watching.


Adam Ross said...

Another interesting review selection. I just tried to re-watch this a few weeks ago and experienced the same feeling of not quite being able to get into it, even though I enjoyed it the first time through. One thing BODY DOUBLE has going for it if you're not familiar with it, is a prolonged feeling of "just where in the world is this going?" through most of the movie. It's so odd and ambiguous for most of the running time, that (like you said) you keep expecting a final twist, which never comes.

Unknown said...

All of the flaws you mention make perfect sense, but damn do I love this movie anyway. It's bizarre and playful and gory and yeah... the song "Relax" really does hold up after all of these years. Another great essay, Mr. Peel.

Unknown said...

I haven't watched BODY DOUBLE nearly the amount of times I have of other De Palma faves (THE UNTOUCHABLES, SCARFACE, BLOW OUT) but I do like this. I don't disagree with the flaws you point out but I think the film still works. It's a movie about making movies and so obviously he is playing on the whole self-reflexivity thing. While the film isn't one of De Palma's greatest, I still enjoy watching it on the odd occasion. Another highly enjoyable post, Mr. Peel!

Recovering Booth Rat said...

Mr. Peel,

I have a question unrelated to Body Double. You seem to be the guy to ask.

I'm interested in watching some good/great films made and set in Los Angeles during the 70's.

I've seen The Long Goodbye and I am all set to watch Hickey and Boggs for the first time.

Recommend as many as you can think of. Thanks in advance.


Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks for the great comments, guys, sorry I wasn't able to reply until now but very glad that you liked the piece.

Matt, is ZABRISKIE POINT too early? I think that was 1970--MODEL SHOP is '69 but has some great location stuff. I'd also check out CISCO PIKE and would recommend THE OUTSIDE MAN, but it's kind of hard to find. EARTHQUAKE of course has lots of L.A. footage and you can find some in various blaxploitation films from the period like TRUCK TURNER. Heck, even ANNIE HALL has the entire L.A. sequence.

Recovering Booth Rat said...

Thanks for the titles.