Friday, August 25, 2006

Salutations From the Other Side- Image and Power in PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE

Note: This is my modest contribution to an ongoing Brian DePalma blog-a-thon leading up to the release of THE BLACK DAHLIA. If the rest of you would have me, that is...

SPOILERS to follow. Because 32 years is enough time for you to have seen this one in my opinion.

The first time I saw the (awesome) trailer for Brian DePalma’s latest film, THE BLACK DAHLIA, I was particularly fascinated by the scenes featuring Elizabeth Short (Mia Kershner) auditioning for a film. She gives a solid but unspectacular line-reading, and the unseen man behind the camera coldly goads her on, trying to get her to express a deeper, more authentic kind of sadness. What struck me most profoundly about this moment is the combination of the director’s insinuating tone and Kershner’s performance, which turns this ingenue into a helpless victim of the camera’s unblinking gaze.

However, it wasn’t until the second viewing of the trailer that I realized something- the man behind the camera is played by DePalma himself. This isn’t the first time a great filmmaker has used his own presence in a film to underline the power wielded by those behind the camera and the powerlessness of those in front of it. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Michael Powell’s late masterpiece PEEPING TOM- this film contains footage from the protagonist’s childhood, when he was constantly and mercilessly filmed by his own father, played by Powell himself. As indebted as DePalma- by his own admission- is to Hitchcock, there’s a fair amount of PEEPING TOM in many of his films as well. Indeed, he takes PEEPING TOM’s major theme- our compulsive need to watch- to its logical breaking point. In Brian DePalma’s world, he who controls the image has the power.

In many of Brian DePalma’s best films, the central storyline involves two or more parties who jockey for control of the image. BLOW OUT finds John Travolta as a soundman trying to piece together an assassination using evidence, and as such attempting to wrestle the truth from a shadowy government cover-up. FEMME FATALE is about a female criminal who re-invents herself as a diplomat’s wife, and the photographer who becomes obsessed with finding out about her past. But never has this plot dynamic been put to more purely entertaining use than in PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. BLOW OUT remains my favorite DePalma film, but the dark and painful recesses into which the film descends by its finale (a masterful combination of an emotional sock in the gut and a twisted punchline) can be hard to take at times. PHANTOM, on the other hand, is a ball- over-the-top but never willfully campy, with great Paul Williams music and that inimitable DePalma style, which even at this early stage in his career was in full flower.

Of course, “image” isn’t just about what is shown. Just as often, it can be what is withheld; in short, it’s the public’s perception rather than warts’n’all reality. Swan (“he has no other name”), the rock’n’roll uber-producer played by Paul Williams in PHANTOM, is a master most of all of molding the public’s perception, and his masterpiece is himself. The opening voiceover in PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE summarizes Swan’s rise to power- his first gold record at 14, his bringing of the blues to Britain, his lobbying to get his gold records deposited in Fort Knox. He’s rarely photographed, and then only by those with rights to his image. Heck, we don’t even see Swan’s face until roughly twenty minutes into the film. Instead, we see the fuss everyone else makes over him- the hushed waiting for his approval at a concert, the kowtowing toadies and lines of groupies attending to him, the low doorways that force the tall to bend down to his level.

By contrast, Winslow Leach (William Finley) is an amateur in the image department. He is first seen clumsily pasting his name over a billboard of Swan’s most popular band, The Juicy Fruits, and when he crashed the concert venue to take over the piano after the Fruits’ set, there’s something distinctly off-putting about his stage presence. As Leach pounds away at the keys and sways wildly as he sings his rock version of FAUST in the hope that Swan will take notice, DePalma’s camera insistently circles around him, creating the same unsettling effect that would later pop up in CARRIE’s prom sequence. Swan likes what he hears but not what he sees, and after prying the music from Leach, he proceeds to grind his image into the ground- dressing him up in women’s clothing, planting drugs on him to have him arrested, and even having his teeth removed as a prison “health experiment.” Eventually Leach, attempting to exact his revenge on his oppressor, has his face disfigured in Swan’s record press and is left for dead.

But Winslow Leach survives, taking up residence instead in Swan’s newly-built musical Xanadu, The Paradise. He raids the wardrobe, donning a mask and a cape, becoming the titular Phantom. His hunger for revenge has never been greater, and once Leach becomes the Phantom, an interesting thing happens- as his presence becomes more shadowy and enigmatic, he becomes a more formidable adversary for Swan. Whereas Leach was just a man, and a weak one at that, the Phantom is fascinating. Swan comes to realize this, precisely at the time the Phantom detonates a bomb during rehearsals for Swan’s production of FAUST.

This sequence employs one of DePalma’s favorite tricks, split-screen, in a way that simultaneously makes it an archetypal DePalma moment and underlines his thesis perfectly. One half of the screen shows the Phantom carrying out his plan, and the other shows Swan’s perception of the event. Swan, sitting in the Paradise balcony, is none the wiser until just before the bomb explodes, when he notices the Phantom sneaking around in the rafters, by which time he’s powerless to do anything about it. His face slackens as the explosion occurs, although less it seems from the tragedy (which rarely fazes him otherwise) than from the loss of control.

Like any powerful man, Swan isn’t willing to back down, so after quickly deducing the identity of the Phantom he works overtime to get him on his side. He convinces his upstart rival to re-write FAUST for him and pins him down to a lifetime contract, signed in blood, in the hope that the hard work will neutralize the Phantom’s new-found power and allow Swan to maintain control of the proceedings. And so, when the Phantom demands that the soulful Phoenix (Jessica Harper) - who he fell in love with at an audition early in the film- perform his cantata, Swan defies him by instead casting strutting glam-rocker Beef (Gerrit Graham).

With the Phantom being kept on a steady diet of drugs and kept under lock and key while he toils away at his music, Swan goes ahead with the production, giving Beef free reign to make the music his own (Swan, ever-reluctant to pin himself to a specific sound, is always futzing with FAUST’s musical style). However, when the Phantom breaks free on opening night and electrocutes Beef onstage (with a neon thunderbolt, no less), it’s a curious moment, and typical of the moral grey areas typically found in DePalma’s work. Rather than turning into a momentous tragedy, the evening ends in triumph, as Phoenix takes the stage to calm the crowd and becomes an overnight sensation. Naturally, the crowd eats it all up (“how often does a rock star fry onstage? They know they’ve been fully entertained”) and Swan happily proclaims the show a greater success than he could have imagined.

All this leads up to the film’s most explicit expression of its thesis, during a scene in which Swan seduces Phoenix inside his home. The Phantom, forever pining for Phoenix, follows them, and he climbs onto the roof to spy on them. It’s in this scene that DePalma inverts the dynamic between the watcher and the watched- for someone who is doing the watching, the Phantom is strangely powerless. Perhaps it’s the way the scene is shot- Swan’s bed is situated directly under the skylight, as though he wants to be seen. Finally, Swan pours salt in the Phantom’s wounds, so to speak, by turning the gaze around. As he lies next to Phoenix, he turns on a remote camera on the rooftop directly behind the Phantom, watching he who watches him, taking back the power.

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve no doubt either seen the film and already know how it ends, or you haven’t seen the film and would prefer not to have it completely spoiled. For you, I’ll oblige, taking only the opportunity to remark how the film’s finale (a) manages to remain relatively faithful to the FAUST legend it so extensively references, (b) allows Leach the opportunity to take back the image once and for all, and yet (c) transpires in a way that Swan would almost certainly have approved of, in the abstract at least. If nothing else, the crowd keeps dancing, which I’m sure he would have enjoyed.

Of course, the greatness of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE doesn’t begin and end with the idea at its center. For one thing, the music is pretty great- awesome as Paul Williams’ work with the Muppets was, it’s light-years away from his songs here. While both Swan and the Phantom, true to the film’s thesis, are both more compelling as archetypes than as flesh-and-blood characters, they’re surrounded by a colorful supporting cast, particularly Gerrit Graham’s Beef, a truly inspired comic creation. And DePalma is at the center of it all, directing with a sure hand and great panache, following his muse while putting on one heck of a show. In PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, as in so much of his DePalma’s work, he’s in full control of the image, and we, his audience, are powerless in the face of it. Personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

No comments: