Brian de Palma’s cult musical – a riff on Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Faust – is reissued in a typically spiffy new Blu-ray edition by Arrow Films today. Blake Backlash takes a look.
Because it is a musical, this is Brian De Palma’s best film. The opening number is ‘Goodbye Eddie, Goodbye’, a pastiche of 50s rock n roll that, amidst all the doo-wop sass, tells the story of a singer with a terminally ill sister and not enough money to pay for her life-saving operation. He kills himself because: Eddie believed the American people / Had wonderful, lovegiving hearts / His well-publicised end he considered would send / His memorial album to the top of the charts… and it did.
The song was written by Paul Williams (who also plays Swan, the film’s villain) and is a kind of bubble-gum overture, anticipating a number of notions that the film will kick around. So we’re turned on to the idea that this movie will be about how the music industry processes tragedy into sensation and sentiment in order to sell records. But the current of dark humour in the lyrics cuts that idea with a playful cruelty in the way it views Eddie: Well you did it Eddie and though it’s hard to applaud suicide / You gave all you could give so your sister could live / All America’s choked up inside. The overall effect is a three-minute summary of a worldview which, while more on the side of art than industry, is still ready to stick a pin in the way artists see themselves. There’s wit there and that wit is a gift from Paul Williams to Brian De Palma.
David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film makes a case against De Palma that seems capture much of why people who don’t like De Palma, don’t like De Palma. According to Thomson he is ‘ready to control everything except his own cruelty and indifference. He is the epitome of mindless style and excitement swamping taste or character… He has contempt for his characters and his audience alike.’ I’m not sure. When things do go wrong for De Palma he seems burdened not with cynicism but with an excess of moist-eyed sentimentality. One can find both sentiment and cynicism in De Palma’s films but what defines him as director is his excess. So both the cynicism and the sentiment often get given free reign. And the films are visually excessive too. De Palma is fond of lurid and striking formal techniques – split-screens, long tracking shots, slow-motion, and splashes of vivid colour – which demand the viewer either fall in love or fuck off. And sometimes, when the visual excess, the sentiment and the cynicism are all cooking at once, he delivers scenes that are marked by a vivid, sick purity.
Paul Williams makes that sentiment, cynicism and purity sing. He heightens the cynicism with lyrics that have a verbal sharpness lacking in De Palma’s dialogue. And he lends depth to the sentiment with the kind of melancholy early-70s torch-songs that seem perfect for capturing sadness and regret. Those songs are given voice by Jessica Harper who plays Phoenix, the woman both Swan and The Phantom become obsessed with in their different ways. The character eventually becomes jaded and Harper plays that well. But what she is especially good at is imbuing the times she sings as an ingénue with a hint of a tough survival instinct that could turn mercenary.
There is another affinity between the songs and De Palma’s technique. Arrow’s lush and comprehensive Blu-ray release includes a long interview between Guillermo del Toro and Williams. In it del Toro talks about the stylistic eclecticism of the songs and draws a parallel with the variety of filmmaking techniques De Palma employs. One of the conceits of the film is that the songs of Winslow Leach, the sensitive singer-songwriter who becomes The Phantom, are supposed to be debased when they are given a pop rewrite by Swan. So Winslow’s heartfelt ‘Faust’ becomes a cheerful Beach Boy’s pastiche called ‘Upholstery’. Inevitably ‘Upholstery’ is about ten times as much fun as ‘Faust’. And the scene where we see it is performed is the best scene in the film. Have a look:
When I’m in the right mood, I find this scene intensely pleasurable to watch. There’s something thrilling about the ways in which the layers of smartarse showing-off connect with one another. De Palma is trying to simultaneously reference and outdo Touch of Evil by having a bomb-in-a-car scene done with two simultaneous extended long-takes, instead of Welles’s one, and combining them in a split-screen, as characters move between both takes. The fact that the bomb is put in a prop car makes such intertextual riffing come off as light and playful, rather than stifling. There’s even a hint of a self-detracting joke, in the way the scene’s reworking of Touch of Evil mirrors the way Swann has reworked ‘Faust’ into ‘Upholstery’. And it’s just fun to be able to switch one’s attention between two different types of set-piece: the musical number, and the suspense countdown. Not only that, the two add a little pep to one another: I like how the ticking of the bomb compliments the song’s rhythm. I also like how the camera move on the right-half of the screen, which shows us first The Phantom and then Swann seeing the Phantom, works as quick bit of misdirection to distract you before the explosion in the left-half.
The scene has never looked and sounded better than it does on Arrow’s Blu-ray release. In previous DVD versions the soundtracks from the two takes tended to melt into each other, so the dialogue was impossible to make out. Arrow have cleaned up the soundtrack and used stereo to compliment the split-screen. That gives the scene a tingly immersiveness that adds to how much fun it is.
Early in his career De Palma talked about wanting to be the American Godard. And, since Godard attempted to take Brecht’s theories about theatre and put them into practice in the cinema, it’s maybe not too cheeky to call Phantom of the Paradise De Palma’s most Brechtian film. There is no attempt at realism. Winslow escapes from prison by climbing into a box on the production line he works. He’s half bursting out of the box and is accompanied by both guards and old-timey, silent-film chase music. But somehow the next shot is of the box falling off the back of a truck outside the offices of Swan’s record label.
You already know that the film grabs bits of Phantom of the Opera and Faust, so it probably won’t surprise you when it throws some of The Picture of Dorian Gray in there too. But the archetypal familiarity of the plot works because that’s all you need to hang a series of songs and cool set-pieces on. The characters are archetypes too. But man, De Palma hired some good actors who really knew how to play that sort of thing. He was still hip enough in 1974 to be interested in the avant-garde New York theatre and filmmaking scene. The Arrow release also includes the documentary Paradise Regained about the making of Phantom. It’s great – and one of the best things about is hearing William Finley talk about acting.
Finley knew how to play non-natural and still be riveting. In a version of The Performance Group’s Dionysus in 69 filmed by De Palma, the play came to a climax with Finley declaring ‘William Finley has many faces! William Finley has many shapes! Some of the things you thought would happen here tonight did not happen here tonight. And for that you should be grateful. For I have found a way to what no one else has found. A way! To end! This! Play! Forever!’ as the cast and members of the audience carried him out into the street. There’s a moment in Paradise Regained when Paul Williams (who was originally cast as The Phantom) says something like ‘Bill Finley could do more with one eye than I could ever do with the whole of my being’. And he’s got a point. Finley had an allergic the reaction to the mask he had to wear, so for much of the time he was The Phantom he was in excruciating pain. And that one eye you can see looks like it’s hurting. There’s a redness to it that speaks of The Phantom’s diet of insomnia, uppers and unrequited love. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then William Finley’s eye makes it look as if The Phantom’s soul is bleeding.
Finley isn’t the only Dionysus in 69 cast member to give Phantom some juice. In the closing credits William Shephard appears twice, for playing ‘Rock Freak’ and for doing the choreography in the climactic assassination/wedding scene. What this means is De Palma got him to do the kind of thing he did for Dionysus in 69, which was break down the barriers between the audience and actors. So you can see Shephard at the film’s climax dancing, getting in the extras’ faces, mocking Finley and causing trouble. De Palma filmed all this like he filmed Dionysus in 69, without really knowing what Shepard would do or how people would react. He also managed to film the carefully timed assassination set-piece happening at the same time. Then he and his editor Paul Hirsch put something together that interweaves uncontrolled excess and precision well enough to prove that De Palma is, at least sometimes, truly brilliant.
And you know what else that final scene proves? It proves something that the rest of the film – with its unreal but vivid characters and crude but stirring gothic-politics – also proves. It proves that David Thomson was right! Mindless style and excitement has swamped taste and character! But, Davy baby, even though we’d get dirty, confused and then probably a little bit fucked up, wouldn’t you want to get lost in that swamp with me?