Thursday, January 11, 2007

Phantom of the Paradise (Brian de Palma, 1974)

Phantom of the Paradise is wonderful fun, and not the least for the way it crams together stories and films--The Phantom of the Opera; Faust; Poe's The Cask of Amontillado; The Picture of Dorian Gray; Shelley's Frankenstein; Touch of Evil; Citizen Kane; Psycho; a climax straight out of The Manchurian Candidate; what films of Ken Russell were available at the time; plus far too many others to mention in one breath--into its cavernous maw.

No, we don't quite get a coherent sense of the Paradise, Swan's monumental rock palace, as we may want (presumably because of budget constraints), but we get intriguing glimpses--labyrinthine corridors, secret rooms, intimidatingly knobbed and dialed recording studios, private boudoirs for all kinds of decadent orgies, a performance stage ringed with balconies and secret nooks to observe without remorse the hapless performers below.

The film wouldn't work without Jessica Harper--is that her real voice?--as Phoenix. Real voice or not, you need someone who may not look striking at first glance (read: tall and blonde), but who can grow on you, entrance you, reveal a darker, more passionate, more sensual side along the way. Harper doesn't quite have a character to play (why, if she refuses to sleep her way to the top, does she come back for another audition?), though she goes a long way towards making us believe she does.

But De Palma really goes to town with Paul Williams' Swan, the rock impresario. I hear everyone from Gerrit Graham (who ended up as Beef) to Jon Voight was considered for Swan; Williams plays him as a cherubim seducer, with an insouciant way with words--he tosses off dialogue as if it were coins for an adoring crowd; even when he's being persuaded to sell his soul, he sells out to his own mirror image, out of the corner of his mouth, with a sense of irony and style.

And one risk De Palma takes, of turning the Phantom storyline into a more recognizably Faustian parable--pays off. I wasn't too sure I liked this additional curlicue of plot (in the original the Phantom was the Mephisto figure, the singer his Faust) until I saw it played out, and realized that Swan and his genius composer Winslow Leach (William Finley) are two facets of the same genius: Swan is Mephisto, full of evil and dark power, Leach that side of Mephisto that possesses artistic integrity (maybe the giveaway was when Swan electronically warps Leach's ruined vocal cords until it comes out sounding exactly like his own (like Williams')--a brilliant touch). That all other evils can reside in one man, but that a man's obsession with greatness requires a human vessel all its own--that, I think is an interesting statement. Swan recognizes Leach's value, but doesn't trust him more than he can throw him; Leach is forever being duped because he doesn't care about anything else except the music--and, well, Phoenix (but who wouldn't care about Jessica Harper?). When they struggle with each other, as when Swan decides Phoenix shouldn't sing Leach's songs, it's an artist in mortal conflict with himself over his work.

Significantly, when it all falls into ruin, it's Leach that Phoenix approaches. She recognizes in his ruined, dying face something "good" and "true"--recognizes only one who really gave a damn about anything, including her. Funny how a moment this romantic can come from a cynic like De Palma--or maybe only a cynic like DePalma can sell a moment this romantic, and make it stick in our craw.

Wonderful film, and actually more moving than you'd first think. Wish De Palma would do more in this vein--The Rocky Horror Picture Show should be so delirious, or beautiful, or pyrotechnically cinematic.


Your Evil Twin Brother said...

I remember seeing the original soundtrack in vinyl record at Unimart's records section for years and it was never bought. The cover looked lurid and fascinating. Years later, I learned who Paul Williams was (I learned he sang "Rainbow Connection") then I learned who Brian de Palma was. Sadly, I haven't seen the film. I have seen "Rocky Horror Picture Show" though, in Los Angeles at a midnight screening complete with dressed-up audience members, and I can imagine your comment would be correct. Rocky Horror has plenty of enthusiasm, but the directing is pedestrian.

Patrick said...

It's interesting to note that the scenes in the beginning with Winslow getting into all sorts of trouble before his disfigurement seems to evoke those silent-era slapstick comedies, even in the music. Finley even bears a resemblance to Buster Keaton.

Noel Vera said...

Patrick: yes, I noticed that, the silent-movie slapstick. I think it adds nicely to the film's rich, movie-savvy texture.

evil twin: I saw Rocky, but on DVD. Boy, was it dull. I think it wouldn't work if you tried a live performance with Phantom--there's too much going on, it's too dense and too smart. You need something a little flat that would improve with something live happening in front of it...