Saturday, August 29, 2009

Trailer: Carlito's Way (1993)

CULT TV FLASHBACK #89: She-Wolf of London: "The Juggler" (1990-1991)

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the horror genre experienced a dramatic resurgence on television thanks to syndication (and the successful path blazed by the high-rated Star Trek: The Next Generation).

This TV era gave viewers Friday the 13th: The Series (1987-1991), Freddy's Nightmares (1988-1990), Monsters (1988-1991), Dracula: The Series (1991), and also this relatively obscure one season effort, She-Wolf of London, created by genre icons Tom McLoughlin and Mick Garris.

Forecasting the birth of UPN and the WB in the mid-1990s, She-Wolf of London was designed to be the flagship program of the Hollywood Premiere Network (by Universal Studios), but things didn't work out so well. The hour-long horror series ran on WWOR Channel 9 in New York and KCOP in Los Angeles, but the series' first true national exposure occurred with a prime-time rerun on the Sci-Fi Channel in 1992. By then, of course, She-Wolf was long canceled...

She-Wolf of London invoked the title of the 1946 (Universal) horror film starring June Lockhart, but adopted a totally new premise. The 1990s series involved a beautiful American graduate student in England, Randi Wallace (Kate Hodge), who was bitten by a werewolf and therefore became one herself. The "cursed" Randi sought help with her "condition" from a local professor of mythology, the erudite and initially skeptical Ian Matheson (Neil Dickson). Soon, however, Ian saw Randi's transformation with his own eyes and realized he had to help.

Accordingly, Randi moved into the Matheson family's London bed and breakfast with Ian's "Mum" (Jean Challis), his nosy Aunt Edna (Dorothea Phillips), and a young American cousin, Julian (Scott Fults). Very soon, a (subdued) romance developed between Matheson and Randi. Aunt Edna always wondered what all that howling emanating from the basement was all about...

Each week on She-Wolf of London, Randi and Ian would investigate some mythological "creature of the week" in England. They looked into a bog man ("The Bogman of Leitchmour Heath,"), zombies ("Can't Keep a Dead Man Down,") a succubus ("She Devil"), a diabolical circus ("Big Top She Wolf"), even an insane asylum ("Moonlight Becomes You.")

Created in the style of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1975), She-Wolf of London was an old-fashioned-style series built on the sturdy pillars of character repartee, atmospheric locations...and a cool monster of the week. A few years later, The X-Files would hone, evolve, and literally perfect this style of horror TV storytelling, but She-Wolf remains an interesting missing link in genre history, landing between Kolchak and X-Files.

At the time of broadcast, the series drew mostly positive reviews. Variety noted that "Hodge makes an intelligent character out of the cursed young student, and Dickson gives the professor humor, a shade of early James Mason, and an absurd air...Writers-creators Tom McLoughlin and Mick Garris have the good sense to play Randi's predicament with a semi-straight face." (October 15, 1990, page 79).

One particularly atmospheric She-Wolf of London story was entitled "The Juggler," (by Jim Henshaw; directed by Gerry Mill) and first aired on October 30, 1990....right before Halloween. Here, an ancient Satanic cult sought revenge against a British reverend, Parfrey (John Carlin) after being evicted from the Church of All Saints on All Hallow's eve. The wrathful cult leader thus summoned the (French) mythical creature called the "Bell Ringer" (or Juggler), a demon known to prey on the children of enemies. This Devil Clown thus went after Parfrey's daughter, Liza (Claudia Bryan), in part because she had been given a gold ring which focused the Devil Clown's evil attention upon her.

In the course of the episode, Ian and Randi investigated the Juggler, and young Julian -- who had fallen for Liza -- ended up in mortal danger, wearing the Juggler's ring himself. At the same time, Randi continued to learn about her "wolf" powers, here developing a keen sense of smell, that -- according to Ian -- would "tell her everything" she needed to "know to hunt" down enemies. Naturally, before "The Juggler" is done, that new ability comes in handy in stopping the villain of the week.

Heavy on slow-motion photography, classic architecture (the crypts underneath the church...), Dickensian-style apparitions, and misty, gloom-laden night shooting, the story of "The Juggler," -- the so-called "Devil Clown," -- shows off the solid production values of She-Wolf of London, which were far superior to contemporary American-lensed efforts like Freddy's Nightmares or Monsters. The pace of "The Juggler" is a bit slow and plodding by today's standards, but like most She-Wolf episodes, it nonetheless boasts a palpable love for the classic movies of the genre, and develops in a manner that respectfully pays tribute to them.

After approximately a dozen episodes as She-Wolf of London, the entire series relocated to Los Angeles and became known for the last half-dozen shows as Love & Curses. This continuation featured an increased concentration on romance and humor over the serious horror. Today, both iterations of this syndicated one-season wonder remain unavailable on DVD, but some die-hard fans still remember She-Wolf of London with real devotion.

Friday, August 28, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Carlito's Way (1993)

"The Street is watching. She is watching all the time."

-Carlito (Al Pacino), in Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way (1993)


Al Pacino has portrayed more than his share of cinematic gangsters over the years, from Michael Corleone in Coppola's classic Godfather trilogy to the cocaine-addled Tony Montana in De Palma's own incendiary (and brilliant...) Scarface (1983).


Yet it is Pacino's Carlito Brigante, in Carlito's Way (1993), whom I personally find the most haunting. Perhaps that's because Montana was but a despicable thug who spiraled into utter madness and self-destructive violence. And the powerful Corleone was a man who had everything...but nonetheless permitted his paranoia, secrecy and quest for legitimacy to destroy the things (and people) he valued most.

Or perhaps it is because, of all of these flawed individuals -- Carlito Brigante remains the one man who came nearest to authentic redemption; to escape. To a throwing off of the role destiny had so cruelly carved out for him.


Viewing De Palma's Carlito's Way again last evening, I realized that my enduring identification with Carlito or "Charlie" was no mere accident or happenstance. Director Brian De Palma has fashioned not simply another crime drama nor film noir here, but rather -- as he did in the example of The Untouchables (1987) -- a film of authentic mythic quality: a modern day variation on the Greek Tragedy, specifically as that term is defined by Aristotle in The Poetics.


And -- since this is De Palma we're talking about -- the director vets his tragedy with dynamic, canny and meaningful imagery. Consider that Carlito Brigante dwells in a world of illusions and dreams -- the world where he miraculously "gets out" and "escapes to paradise." Accordingly, in many important shots, De Palma utilizes reflections in mirrors to indicate that Carlito is no longer entirely part of the sleazy world he inhabits...but rather the world he dreams about. He is half-in and half-out of "the Street," and as we see, that's not a good place to dwell. Not until the end -- and his tragic death -- is escape actually tangible for Carlito; is paradise a colorful, living thing where he can, finally, truly, let down.

Once more, I appear to be in a small (if vocal...) minority in my appreciation for a sterling De Palma film. Regarding Carlito's Way, Rolling Stone complained, for instance, that "there's a secondhand feel to the way this gangster movie delivers the goods."
The Washington Post lamented: "Watching "Carlito's Way," all you can think is, "Brian, why aren't you over this gangsters and guns and blood stuff yet?"

Imagine -- just imagine for one second -- a film critic suggesting the same thing to director Martin Scorsese after Mean Streets, Good Fellas and Casino. Come on Marty, what's with all the gangsters, huh? Grow up, Scorsese, why don't you?

In my opinion, many critics missed the boat with Carlito's Way. If viewed within the framework of Greek Tragedy -- the film emerges as one of the best and most affecting gangster films ever produced. It concerns, literally, the full breadth of a gangster's "way." And how that "way" -- ultimately -- proves a fatal trap.

This Dream of Mine is So Close I Can Touch It
In accordance with film noir tradition, Carlito's Way commences with a voice-over narration. It is spoken by Carlito himself (Pacino) -- our main character -- as he flashes back from his death bed (a paramedic's stretcher rolling through Grand Central Station...) to describe for the audience how he came to his untimely demise.

The legendary Latino gangster reflects on the final year of his life: 1975. He was unexpectedly released from a prison sentence of thirty years duration due to prosecutorial malfeasance. His feisty, corrupt lawyer, David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn), was the man who arranged his freedom. And because Kleinfeld "saved" him in this fashion, Carlito feels he owes the slick attorney a huge debt.

Yet after five years in prison, Carlito no longer desires to return to the mean streets of the city as an "assassin" and "purveyor of Narcotics." He has gone straight...retired, and wants to chart a new, clean path. Among other things, he re-establishes his relationship with an aspiring dancer: the beautiful and sexy Gail (Penelope Anne Miller).

But fate has plans for Carlito. Soon after Brigante's release, David asks Carlito to oversee one of his floundering investments, a disco club called "El Paraiso," where the owner, Ron Saso is skimming money. Meanwhile, another thug -- the up-and-coming Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo) -- is desperate for Carlito's approbation. But after a violent altercation between Kleinfeld and Blanco, Carlito makes a mistake. Instead f killing the trouble-making Blanco, Carlito lets him go.

And then, finally, Kleinfeld manipulates Carlito into a half-backed scheme to exact revenge against a Mafia, family, the Taglialuccis. When that scheme turns to bloody, brutal murder, Carlito realizes his only chance for survival is escape. "You killed us," he tells David, realizing that the mob will now hunt him down.

With $75,000 dollars in savings, a desperate Carlito arranges to meet the pregnant Gail at Grand Central Station, where -- God willing -- they will board a train bound for Miami. From there, it's the Bahamas...and a new life. But en route to the train station, Carlito must contend with betrayal, theft, vicious pursuit, the Taglialuccis and an unseen enemy he had not counted on...

Everything I Hoped For. Everything I Need


Aristotle defined "tragedy" as the tale of a great person who undergoes a dramatic reversal of fortune. In undergoing that reversal, that character's dilemma (and fate) evokes pity (meaning sympathy) and fear on the part of the audience until finally -- following the denouement -- there emerges a feeling of "cleansing" or catharsis.

And importantly, the all-important reversal of fortune is affected by something called "hamartia," a Greek word meaning a character flaw or foible. This is a critical distinction: a hero's sad fate is rendered not because of the character's intrinsic moral defects, but because of a mistake, because of some wrong action undertaken.

Eventually, in a good tragedy, the affected character comes to a final recognition about this wrong action, and experiences an epiphany about his existence; about destiny...and fate.

Let's consider Carlito's Way in light of Aristotle's definition of tragedy. Carlito is a "great person" indeed, especially in 20th century terms. He's a legendary gangster who once knew power, riches and fame. Carlito's reversal of fortune involves his arrest and incarceration. Going to jail changes Carlito in a critical way, and he loses a taste for the life that gave him "honor" and "glory" on the Street. When he is released from jail, Carlito notes that he has been "re-born" (like the Watergaters, he says...) and that he desires to start fresh.

This is not a con, nor a lie...but fact. And yet trouble finds Carlito, first in a pool hall shoot out, and then in his old associations coming back to haunt him. Still, in every meaningful way Carlito attempts to escape the pull of crime, the pull of the Street. But then, one day, Carlito -- now half-out of the "streets" -- makes a fatal mistake. He disrespects young Benny Blanco, a man described to Carlito (by Saso) as "you, twenty years ago." Then Carlito compounds that mistake by letting Blanco live following an altercation in the disco. At that moment (which De Palma's reveals in telling close-up), Blanco understands that Carlito's killer instinct is gone, and that he is ripe for the picking-off. Carlito is-- in the lingo of Blanco -- "over."

This mistake leads to Carlito's downfall and death. And certainly, this is where "fear" and "pity" both come into the picture. Let's tackle "pity" first. Gail is pregnant with Carlito's child. Carlito and Gail just want to escape the city with enough money to start a car rental business in the Bahamas. Yet Carlito can't let go of another mistake
: repaying his "debt" to Kleinfeld. Gail notes in one scene that she knows exactly how this story will end, "how the dream will end:" With Carlito dead in an emergency room while she weeps over his lifeless body. Carlito's tragic end is thus predicted, and so we fear that the prophecy will come true.

De Palma generates "pity" or sympathy by devoting special care to the love story between Carlito and Gail. Critic Janet Maslin termed it "grandiose romanticism." And Zach Campbell at Slant Magazine noted that "the scenes between Carlito (Al Pacino) and Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) are touching and expertly calculated illustrations of deep-seated romantic feeling: rainy streets, late night coffee shops, dim apartments." In other words, we are meant to feel that this is more than a simple romance, but a love story for the ages. The love story befitting a "great person" like Carlito, king of thieves, and, in his own words, "The Last of the Mohicans."

The "fear" part of this Tragedy equation arrives in what is surely the greatest climactic set-piece of any De Palma film (and that's saying something, given the Odessa Steps in The Untouchables or the split-screen Prom massacre in Carrie [1976]). To the tune of "Lady Marmalade" first, -- and then some anxiety-provoking follow-up compositions from Patrick Doyle -- De Palma arranges a sustained, fever-pitched chase sequence. This set-piece takes Carlito from his bar to a train, to Grand Central Station, down an escalator, and onto a train platform.

During this sequence, the camera is continually in motion, Carlito is constantly in motion, and even the trains are in continuous motion. Carlito grapples with the Taglialuccis, Saso's surprise theft of his money, a betrayal by Pachanga, and even an obese mafioso who functions as a kind of wild card; always lagging behind the other crooks as an unwitting but dangerous rear guard.


Carlito attempts to elude his enemies at the train station, and De Palma artfully takes up his hero's stance with the camera: dodging, lunging, retreating, trailing, and cornering in what amounts to a breathless, nail-biting race. Carlito informs the audience in his voice over narration that he "is angling all over," and the same is undeniably true of De Palma's direction:.it is sterling, gorgeous and, indeed, fear-provoking. It's angling all over, lifting us like a tide into waves of tension and suspension.

This electrifying denouement is so brilliantly staged that, at first, we don't even recognize the looming danger (Benny Blanco) until it's too late. Like Carlito, we're sprinting to that finish line...to Gail -- in the distance -- waiting by the train. The first time we watch the film, we don't even notice that danger (Blanco...) runs hand-in-hand with Carlito right up until shots are fired. And again, this is form deliberately echoing content. Carlito's tragic mistake was writing off Blanco; was not seeing and sensing the danger the young hood represented. De Palma grants us a deliberate visualization of that mistake in the seconds leading up to Carlito's shooting.

In the end, after Carlito is shot, Gail's prophecy of doom is proved accurate, but in his dying instants, Carlito finds some small peace; the catharsis or cleansing of Aristotle's definition. A son (or daughter) will succeed Carlito, and -- hell -- he lasted longer than any of his colleagues thought possible. In this fateful moment, De Palma allows Carlito (and the audience), to catch a small glimpse of that evasive, elusive paradise: a travel poster hanging on the wall of Grand Central Station. The poster reads "Escape in Paradise" and it is the only image in the frame to be shot in living, vibrant color. Everything else is gloomy black and white.

Suddenly, the dancer rendered on that travel poster becomes Gail -- in Carlito's eyes -- and begins to spin...free. She starts to dance. A gorgeous sunset looms behind her...and as the movie ends, the lovers' theme song ("You Are So Beautiful") underscores the feeling that all is not lost, or hopeless. Gail (and her child) will go on with the $75,000.00 dollars. Carlito didn't escape the streets, but his child will. The cycle of poverty and violence that gave rise to Carlito and his mistakes will, finally, be shattered, in his progeny.

Didn't You Ever Have a Dream? If You Can't Get In, You Don't Get In...

De Palma provides us a number of visual indicators that Carlito dwells in a different world than the criminal associates who interact with him.


For instance, as Carlito confronts the corrupt Saso early in the film, we see Carlito framed inside a mirror. And when Carlito deals with the treacherous Lalin (Viggo Mortensen) in his office -- again -- we see Carlito positioned inside the confines of mirror. This is a pervasive visual indicator that Carlito is "through walking on the wild side," just as he claims; that he is different from those men he still associates with. He is noble...they are not.

Finally, when Carlito allows his sense of "debt" to Kleinfeld to get the better of him, we again view Carlito framed in the mirror -- alongside Gail -- staring at himself. Angry over Gail's prediction of doom, he shatters the mirror with his fist. Carlito's destruction of the mirror (and his reflected image there) suggests that Carlito is no longer separate from the corruption of the Street (and from men like Lalin and Saso); that this venture with David (a prison break involving the Taglialucci's) will make him, again, a criminal. It will be his undoing.

In other words, the "mirror" image represents the good world -- the place Carlito wishes to dwell...but can't. When Carlito visits Gail in her apartment, he gazes at her -- the madonna -- in a mirror too, meaning that she is part and parcel of that world he can't attain or keep. He is separated from Gail and that world, incidentally, by a door and a chain too...another obstacle blocking his entry to "paradise."


Carlito's Way is dominated by brilliant and subtle visual touches such as these. For instance, on your next viewing pay attention to Benny Blanco's wardrobe and the way in which it changes and evolves each time he re-appears. At first, Benny seems a pretentious, unimportant clown (especially with the alliteration of his name: Benny Blanco from the Bronx!). Later, his wardrobe grows serious...as his threat to Carlito turns serious. And I also admire the way the film sets up Kleinfeld and Carlito on opposite/mirrr reflection paths. Carlito is the gangster trying to go straight; Kleinfeld is the "straight" man (an attorney) becoming a gangster.

It's impossible not to be swept away in Carlito's tragedy. Even though his fateful ending is a foregone conclusion, you still find yourself rooting for his success. The most admirable quality about Carlito, perhaps, is that he never stops reaching for that better life. Unlike Montana or Corleone, Carlito's "way" doesn't involve killing people, peddling drugs or broaching robbery. His "way" to a better future is closer to our way -- keeping his nose clean, minding his own business and working hard. That's the American dream and that Carlito's dream. In the end, that dream is something he's denied, and one composition in the film captures that failure. It features Carlito at war with gangsters, the American flag perched behind him on the wall. A study in contrasts: violence in the foreground; beauty and liberty in the background.

I suppose I identify with Carlito because he doesn't seek fame or power...he just wants to pursue personal happiness. De Palma's success in Carlito's Way is that he makes the audience identify with this gangster and his dream in a way uncommon for the bloody genre. Even Carlito's death brings about the pity of Aristotle's tragedy. "Sorry boys," Carlito tells the paramedics (in his mind), "all the stitches in the world can't sew me together again. Lay down... lay down."

And then, finally, Carlito contemplates Gail, the woman left behind. "No room in this city for big hearts like hers... Sorry baby, I tried the best I could, honest... Can't come with me on this trip."

It seems to me that carping movie critics could have made room in this city for a De Palma film like Carlito's Way.

One with a big heart.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Coming Soon: Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England's Last Mannerist

Very shortly, Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England's Last Mannerist (Scarecrow Press; 2009), will become available for purchase. This new, hardcover book is a collection of essays about the artist behind such controversial movies as The Devils (1971), Tommy (1975), Crimes of Passion (1984) and Whore (1991). The anthology has been assembled and edited by Kevin Flanagan, maestro of GameCulture Journal, dedicated Russell historian, and film scholar.

The critical anthology features essays by writers John C. Tibbetts, Barry Keith Grant, Paul Sutton, Brian Hoyle, William Verrone, Brian Faucette, and Thomas Prasch.

For Part IV: Critical Re-Considerations, I also contributed a piece, entitled "As the White Worm Turns: Ken Russell as God and Devil of Rubber-Reality Horror Cinema," which gazes at Russell's considerable impact on the genre in the 1980s with such efforts as Altered States (1980), Lair of the White Worm (1988) and, to a lesser-extent, Gothic (1986).

Here's a (very short) snippet of my work, which defines the nature of "rubber reality" and relates to Russell's visual style:

"In films of this genre sub-type, the dramatis personae easily, and in trademark Russell fashion, glide between alternate realities, often quite indiscernibly to audiences. There is often no traditional scene transition between these parallel “modes” of reality and fantasy. The phantasms of the unconscious and subconscious mind are often physically externalized as tangible and tactile. Furthermore, state-of-the-art special effects breakthroughs create these fantasy domains (in miniature, in matte paintings, etc.), just as in Altered States.

I've long admired Ken Russell and his bold visual imagination, so it was a great pleasure to be involved in this study and re-evaluation of his cinematic output and his career. Soon, I'll be interviewing Kevin Flanagan here on the blog about his new book, about the essays inside it, and about Russell's place in film history. Stay tuned!

Monday, August 24, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK #88: Automan (1983 - 1984)

From Glen Larson -- the man who brought the world Manimal (1983) and Nightman (1997-99) -- came this short-lived 1983 ABC series, an hour-long dramatic superhero adventure entitled Automan.

The series ran for 13 hour long episodes before untimely cancellation. The final Automan episode actually went unaired until a 1990s broadcast on the Sci-Fi Channel (now Sy Fy).

This vintage series starred Desi Arnaz, Jr., as Walter Nebicher, a computer expert and nerd working at the L.A. Police Department. Nebicher dreamed of action, adventure and romance, but his cranky superior, Captain Boyd had other ideas and wanted the genius to stay at his desk in the Computer Room.

So -- in rebellious desperation -- Walter spent his free time creating a heroic, handsome alter ego, Automan (Chuck Wagner), a computerized hologram that looked, sounded, and felt real: the world's first “truly automatic man,” (hence the handle Automan.) So special was Auto that he actually considered himself perfect. “On a scale of one to 10, think of me as an 11,” he boasted in one episode.

This unique superhero didn’t wear a costume—he was the costume, and his torso glowed bright blue with powerful "holographic energy." Automan also boasted a helpful sidekick, a buzzing computerized pal called Cursor, a hologram generator that -- in the lingo of the program -- could “rezz up” anything needed to pursue the bad guys of the week, particularly customized transportation. Cursor outfitted Automan with a zippy Autocar, an Autocopter and even an Automotorcycle!

Automan also had one defensive capability in his crime-fighting arsenal. In times of extreme danger, he and Walter could merge into a single unified entity (“The Great Pretender”) to avoid death or catastrophic injury. This perfect symbiosis allowed Walter to actually become the hero he had created.

But Automan was a successful police detective for another reason: he could interface with computers and mechanical devices of all shape and sizes, including slot machines (“Staying Alive While Running a High Flashdance Fever”), thereby permitting him access to a whole new kind of “street” informant. On one occasion (“Zippers”), Auto even seduced a female super computer, scandalously boasting that he would “penetrate” her memory core! A braggart, Automan was also prone to spontaneous and bizarre declarations such as, “I suddenly sense the presence of a microchip!”

Automan even had his own Achilles heel/Kryptonite, originating from the fact that his complex program required a tremendous amount of power. Sometimes, he was unable to operate during the daytime -- when demands on the California power grid were especially high. Luckily, Auto could re-charge himself via proximity to electrical outlets, sucking nourishing power through his fingers (“The Biggest Game in Town”).

Automan’s other major weakness was a psychological foible based on his personality. Like Lieutenant Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–94), this artificial life form a literal thinker. Although he fancied himself the “finest deductive reasoner on the planet,” he did not comprehend human nature. Instead, he would sort of mindlessly receive pertinent input (often “downloads” of movies and TV series) about human nature, and then he would studiously mimic that behavior to catch the bad guys. Think Neo in The Matrix (1999)...only sillier.

In the episode “The Great Pretender,” Automan absorbed data on gangster movies such as The Godfather (1972) and out-gangstered the bad guys... as a new mob chief called “Otto.” In “Staying Alive While Running a High Flashdance Fever,” he viewed Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Flashdance (1983), and these MTV-age productions provided our hero with studly moves on the dance floor; right down to his John Travolta white-suit.

Automan and the Tinkerbell-ish/R2-D2-like Cursor represented the only fantasy elements featured on the series, and the bad guys were run-of-the-mill “crooks” and thugs. In “The Biggest Game in Town” there was a trio of gamers conducting high-tech extortion; in “Renegade Run,” a corrupt sheriff (played by the ubiquitous Richard Lynch...) threatened Walter. No costumed freaks or aliens here, thank you very much. There wasn't even an evil holographic twin for Automan to combat.

Although it was far more entertaining and droll than Manimal (Glen Larson’s other superhero series of the same vintage), Automan did not fare well in the ratings sweepstakes. It aired for one month (December) in 1983 on Thursday nights from 8:00 to 9:00 and was crushed by the competition, the mega-hit Magnum P.I. on CBS and the Nell Carter comedy Gimme a Break on NBC. Then it was shuffled off the ABC schedule until March of 1984, where it lasted barely another month on Monday nights at 8:00, this time competing against Dick Clark’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes (NBC) and Scarecrow and Mrs. King (CBS).

Still -- in some ways -- Automan seemed the right superhero at the right time. In the early 1980s, home computers had started to supplant the Atari 2600 as the technological gadget of choice in American dens, and the hologram Automan seemed tailored to prove that high-tech gadgetry was helpful and "user friendly." Unlike the Terminator, Automan showed that mankind could control his tools and harness them for beneficial purposes.

These days, Automan functions best, perhaps, as a time capsule of the 1980s. The series was surely inspired by the 1980s Disney epic, Tron, which likewise had been set in the world of computers and featured "computerized" dramatis personae and environments. Another Reagan Age touch the late Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” plays in the background of “Staying Alive While Running a High Flashdance Fever"...an episode set entirely inside a disco. And stylistically, each story culminates with a humorous (and hackneyed) “freeze frame,” an old television tradition that was lampooned in comedies like Police Squad. Also unlike TV series of today, Automan consisted entirely of interchangeable, standalone stories that could pretty much be viewed in any order desirable.

With Tron 2.0 on the horizon, I predict it's just days now before Automan is re-booted as Automan 2.0...no doubt to be directed by Bryan Singer. This time, Auto will be a shaggy-haired, brooding, anger-prone hologram...with a computer-generated hook for a hand. Or something like that...

Friday, August 21, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Blow Out (1981)

"Well, the box-office failure of "Blow Out" was, I think, a tragedy for De Palma and for John Travolta -- it's just about the best work each of them has ever done. But it probably served as a warning to some of the people who might have wanted to do something politically sophisticated. It's as if people get penalized for sophistication."

- Pauline Kael, on
Blow Out (1981)

If -- as Brian De Palma has famously stated -- "the camera lies 24 times a second," then how often, we must wonder, do politicians lie?

And if our national leaders lie about important things -- like life and death -- then, in some fashion, is American liberty itself...a lie? If the history we all know and learn in school is merely "comfortable" fiction, then what do all our glorious symbols (like Old Glory and the Liberty Bell) and slogans (like Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death") really signify?

In blistering, paranoid fashion, Brian De Palma's Blow Out (1981) delves deeply into this frightening conundrum. Indeed, this cerebral, Reagan-age thriller starring John Travolta and Nancy Allen focuses on a political conspiracy that stabs at the very heart of the Great American Experiment, and at the heart of American democracy itself. It depicts a country in which holding on to power is paramount, truth is irrelevant, and justice is just another loaded word.

De Palma's caustic, blunt film makes clever use of real life, historical national conspiracies and cover-ups, including the JFK assassination, the Chappaquiddick incident, and Watergate in order to spin a tale of America the Corrupt, America the Fallen, and most certainly not America the Great, post-Camelot. Intriguingly, Blow Out makes this case by focusing on the technological medium of film itself -- particularly a fictional surrogate for the Zapruder film -- as Entrenched Power's vehicle for selling "The Big Lie."

Though a dramatic failure at the box office, Blow Out remains, perhaps, Brian De Palma's most successful film in terms of critical approbation. Roger Ebert noted in his 1981 review that "this movie is inhabited by a real cinematic intelligence," and that "
De Palma is more successful than ever before at populating his plot with three-dimensional characters." The late Kael, of course, lauded the film as "a great movie" in her famous New Yorker review entitled "Portrait of the Artist As A Young Gadgeteer."

With De Palma -- an incomparably skilled filmmaker who operates in several modes and genres successfully (mainstream, thriller, crime, war...) -- it's difficult to pick favorites or select one "best film" from among so many triumphs. Yet Blow Out represents something of a consensus favorite: an unimpeachable thriller rich in homage to film tradition (in this case to the canon of Michelangelo Antonioni). It's also gorgeously self-reflexive, focusing on the manipulative power of movies by taking us -- literally -- through the building blocks of film production.

And finally, Blow Out also boasts a heavily ironic use of powerful images, particularly iconic symbols of Americana. Thus the visuals brilliantly reflect and augment the film's paranoid content. Also, the ending here is particularly unforgettable: haunting, bitter and nihilistic.

The Biggest Thing Since The Zapruder Film

Blow Out is the tale of a sound expert named Jack Terri (John Travolta). Following a tragic incident in his past working for law enforcement (on the Kean Commission), Jack has retreated to crafting sound-effects for sleazy, low-rent slasher films, like his current project "Co-ed Frenzy."

Unluckily for Jack, even that job isn't going so well. He just can't find the "Perfect Scream" to accompany a shower scene murder in the horror movie. His temperamental director wants other original sounds too, because he's grown tired of library effects and "canned" material.

To appease the filmmaker, an intrepid Jack heads out by night to a remote country road and records with his microphone several new sounds: an owl hooting; a frog's call, even the night wind rustling leaves in the trees.

But then, suddenly, Jack records something sinister: the sound of a terrible car "accident." Appearing as if out of nowhere, a car races off the unlit road, into a deep creek. In seconds, it sinks beneath the placid sruface. Jack rescues one passenger, a floozy named Sally (Nancy Allen), but the driver inside the car drowns.

That dead driver turns out to be Governor McRyan, an up-and-coming politician who was about to announce his candidacy for President of the United States. All the national polls suggested that if McRyan ran for high office, he would easily unseat the current, unpopular President. If this were but a simple accident, McRyan's fate surely would be considered tragic.

But there's more to this incident than meets the eye (or ear). While listening to his sound recordings, Jack hears a very distinct gun shot precede a tire blow-out...meaning that this "accident" was actually a political assassination. Unfortunately for Jack, the authorities are not even mildly interested in this "truth." The police cover-up Sally's presence in the car that night, and fail to check the car's blown-out tire for signs of a bullet strike. Even as Jack begins to build a story of what actually occurred that terrible night by using a film of the accident photographed by the sleazy Manny Karp (Dennis Franz), officials begin to erase the real story from history. Better to settle for a comfortable lie, than expose a dangerous truth.

And worse, the villainous assassin, Burke (John Lithgow) is still nearby, cleaning up loose ends in homicidal fashion. As the Liberty Day Jubilee approaches in the Philadelphia, Jack enlists Sally to help him seek out the truth behind the conspiracy, unaware that Burke is also stalking her...killing lookalike women so that her eventual murder will be ruled part of a serial killer's psychotic pattern, not a "hit" in a far-ranging political conspiracy.



I Don't Watch The News. It's Too Depressing

Like all great art, Blow Out reflects the time period in which it was crafted. Writing for Slant Magazine in 2006, critic Paul Schrodt provides some of that historical context in his review:

"America had fallen into a deep funk by 1981—the year of Blow Out's release and Ronald Reagan's presidential inauguration. Still hung over from the Vietnam War and dealing with inflation on the brink of recession, the public's election of Reagan, on a platform of optimism, suggested a desire to move on and leave the past behind.

De Palma, as anti-establishment as ever, suggests this in itself is another lie. When Jack Terry (John Travolta) inadvertently records the assassination of a presidential candidate, everyone politely asks him to leave his conspiracy to himself. But he can't let it go....Everyone else would like to believe it was just "a freak accident," so the nation can quickly heal again. (Maybe De Palma was prescient: Five years later Reagan would secretly and illegally sell arms to Iran in order to free U.S. troops, only to then deny he ever knew about the deal, retaining his bright image.)"


In other words, what candidate Reagan was "selling" the electorate in 1980s was a "new morning in America" (post Carter-malaise) when, in fact, nothing really changed at all. As I wrote in my review of Body Double, Ronald Reagan was the all-time champion of image-making, an affable Hollywood actor skilled at saying one thing and doing another thing all together. In his inauguration, Reagan stated boldly that "Government is the problem," but during his two terms, Reagan actually grew the government dramatically. Reagan's sunny demeanor also involved a "New Patriotism," and "New Confidence" in America and its institutions, and that 1980s trend is the very image that De Palma repeatedly and successfully undercuts in Blow Out. The film is dominated by stirring images of America and American patriotism...but these images are the background for horrible, monstrous events. The symbols of American freedom are mocked, because in this setting, they are empty representations.

For instance, the finale of Blow Out is set against the backdrop of "The Liberty Bell Jubilee," the first instance in a century that the Liberty Bell has been rung. All too quickly, this patriotic parade and celebration of American history becomes an opportunity for the psychotic Burke (Lithgow) to stalk and murder Sally.

Ironically, this vicious killer views himself as a patriot, and it is strongly implied that he serves at the pleasure of the President (the man, ultimately, who would benefit from the death of McRyan). How do we know? Well for starters, Burke wears a Jubilee Button that reads "I Love Liberty" throughout the film's final sequence. It's not difficult to extrapolate that Burke is a fictionalized version of zealous, right-wing thugs such as G. Gordon Liddy, the enthusiastic criminal who was convicted for conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping for his supervisory role as a Watergate "plumber" during the Nixon Era.

Liddy's mission was to keep Nixon in office, and Burke serves the same function in this fictional tale, offing the President's competition before he can prove dangerous to political continuity. Again, in real life, Giddy (who served eight years in prison for his crimes), also considered murder (of Jack Anderson) -- at least according to his own autobiography -- to preserve Nixon's hold on power. (Liddy, G Gordon, Will. St. Martins Press., 1996) pp. 208–211.

At the conclusion of Blow Out, Burke drags Sally up the steps of a grand building as glorious fireworks explode in the heavens above. Then, he strangles her to death against the backdrop of a colossal American flag.

There can be no question about the significance of these particular images. As Sally dies before Old Glory, the red, white and blue lights of the fireworks suddenly turn lurid, sleazy and ugly...soiled by those who kill in America's name. By positioning Sally's death against these powerful and patriotic symbols, De Palma successfully makes the point that the "reality" of America is very different from the glorious imagery that dominates her landscape, and inspires such fervent nationalism.

In attempting to rescue Sally, Jack accidentally runs his jeep into a storefront window that is decorated with the American legend, "Liberty or Death." This is, again, a literalization of Jack's agenda. He is in search of truth...or he will most certainly die, at the hands of a corrupt government. When Jack crashes through the transparent glass window housing that legend, he is literally crashing through the illusion of American liberty.


Even Burke's murder of a hooker in a train station bathroom is framed deliberately so as to feature a message about freedom and liberty. The most prominent object in one high-angle shot of a bathroom stall is actually a tampon dispenser decorated with the brand name "Stayfree." "Stay Free?" How can people stay free if the truth is hidden?

In Blow Out's most ironic and mocking use of iconic American imagery, Jack arrives too late to save Sally from Burke, but De Palma's camera triumphantly spins around the tragic duo nonetheless. As an "average" citizen dies below so the powerful may continue to "serve," in the heavens above fireworks explode with orgasmic glee and abandon.

The illusion of freedom and liberty are alive for all to see in the sky, even if Sally (and the truth...) die right here; their ends acknowledged only by Jack.

Sally's personal story in Blow Out also serves as a metaphor for disillusionment and disenfranchisement in America. Sally begins her journey as a disinterested observer, just minding her own business trying to make a buck any way she can. She doesn't even watch the news "because it is too depressing." When Sally finally does get involved in the "political process," in a quest with Jack to reveal the truth about this conspiracy, what happens? She is brutally murdered.

In this case, a murdered innocent in a movie may very well represent a disappointed, disillusioned electorate in real life. Most people don't get involved in politics, and those activists who do so inevitably face disappointment because things don't seem to change, or get any better. The parties in power may alternate, but the entrenched interests don't. Killing Sally in Blow Out is, essentially, killing hope in the democratic process; it's killing political involvement. From a certain perspective, there are no reak "good guys" in Blow Out because even the guy in "search of the truth," -- Jack himself -- exploits the simple-minded Sally (representing the American electorate) for his own purpose. He ruthlessly uses her for his ideological agenda...and she ends up dead, even though that agenda was inarguably noble.

Writer Rob Nelson, of Minneapolis Movies wrote about Blow Out in 1996 that:

"Jack's increasingly selfish and obsessive sleuthing reflects an '80s tide turning away from political action and toward selfishness and misogyny: A woman whom he'd saved from the crash, a makeup artist named Sally (Nancy Allen), becomes no less a pawn of Jack's scheme than the villains'. The film is full of male manipulators bound together in a vicious circle: The dead man's political rival had used Sally in an attempt to frame him; a smarmy TV news reporter manipulates Jack; and Jack in turn exploits Sally by subtly goading her into wearing a wire for her meeting with the killer...In the amazingly hyperbolic finale, DePalma conflates patriotism, dirty tricks, violence against women, and slasher movies into a single sick joke, one that's all the more dark for how fully it resonates with the real zeitgeist."

Indeed, this is where some critics detect misogyny on De Palma's part, but as I offered last week, I see this as the director's commentary on misogyny. Sally is brutally used. Buy one political side (the assassins) to discredit a "good man." She is then used by the opposition ("Jack") to get at the truth. After she ends up dead, she is, finally, used again, this time by the media. Her "perfect scream" (her scream at the moment of her death...) gets exploited by filmmakers to be enjoyed in a bad slasher film. This is a comment on exploiting women in the culture all right, but it isn't De Palma who is doing the exploiting. He's exposing the exploitation. And I don't think he's talking about slasher films either: he's talking about our predilection to be distracted by tits and ass, bread and circuses, while the business of the nation passes us by.

I Didn't Hire Her For Her Scream. I Hired Her For Her Tits

As Vincent Canby wrote in his New York Times review, "more important than anything else about ''Blow Out'' is its total, complete and utter preoccupation with film itself as a medium in which, as Mr. De Palma has said along with a number of other people, style really is content. If that is the case, ''Blow Out'' is exclusively concerned with the mechanics of movie making, with the use of photographic and sound equipment and, especially, with the manner in which sound and images can be spliced together to reveal possible truths not available when the sound and the image are separated."

Canby is correct to note Blow Out's obsession with the technical aspects of filmmaking. Early in the film, De Palma provides a split-screen image of Jack hard at work at his Independence Film offices. On the right side of the frame is a TV news story covering Governor McRyan. On the left hand side of the frame is an insert shot of Jack at a sound editing machine, adjusting levels, labeling tapes, etc. The implication here is one of routine, tech-ish multi-tasking. The eye goes to the report on the TV, while the hand goes to the work of sound cutting. This is before the car accident/assassination occurs...and so Jack still handles his job in a work-a-day, routine fashion...not thinking about the serious implications of what he does.

When Jack goes out to the creek to record various sounds, De Palma also reminds us of the breadth of our technology, revealing in detail how a directional microphone picks up authentic sounds from great distances. A series of staggeringly beautiful long-shots join the percipient and the perceived within the same frame. We thus see Jack connected (in the background), to a majestic, hooting owl (in the foreground). Yet importantly, these "real" sounds are soon to be placed over unreal events; ones staged especially for movies. And movies, of course, are false narratives. It's another explicit reminder from De Palma that movies do lie; both in images and sound. That although the sounds may be "real," their context has been altered in ways we can't begin to imagine by the time they reach our ears.

Later, we watch in detail as Jack creates a sort of film strip of the car accident by utilizing photographic film stills (featured in a popular magazine). We watch him laboriously photograph these stills one-frame-at-a-time, and the result -- when we watch it assembled -- is a visual record of the governor's car accident; one that gives the incident new life, new shape. Yet, as illuminating as these visuals remain, without the sound of the accident, there is no hint at all of a gun shot; only the accidental "blow-out." The truth is not in the film. At least not obviously.


But the important thing here is that De Palma is including us in the process, just as he did with the split-screen multi-tasking. He's showing us the building blocks of film so we can understand how pictures, how sounds, can be created and manipulated. This is the crux of the story, of the conspiracy.

In one beautifully-crafted scene, Jack returns to his studio to find every single one of his reel-to-reel tapes blanked out...erased. De Palma shoots this scene in novel fashion by spinning his camera around the studio in a series of sequential, overlapping (time lapsed) circles, as though we are positioned on one of those damaged reels ourselves. This round-and-round movement of the camera mimics the movement of the reel tape; and we get the idea that Jack is "spinning" on his heels himself; ambushed by Burke's erasure of the critical sound recording.

The film's punch-line, of course, marks the (grim) line between the film's "reality" and the "fiction" within the film. Jack spends much of the film trying to locate the so-called "perfect scream" for the horror movie he is working on. The director brings in several actresses to record new screams...but they are all lacking in some fashion. They lack passion. They lack authenticity. In the end, Jack uses Sally's death scream in the slasher movie. Her scream is blood-curdling because it is real. It is the voice of terror. It is that real scream which is applied to the fictional film-within-a-film to lend the shlocky enterprise some sense of authority or gravitas. The horrifying truth, of course, is unknown except to Jack. It's sort of a small-scale conspiracy balanced against the national conspiracy. But nobody seems to care about the truth anymore...

In the film's last shot -- slowed down for emphasis -- Jack hangs his head low, hands over his ears, as the scream repeats. Jack was a man who wanted to "hear" the truth, but ended up hearing too much. Now he just seeks silence. He wants to hear no evil.

The fetishistic attention to technical detail (editing, sound recording, etc.) in Blow Out reminds us that nothing in the art of film is what it seems on a simple viewing. The component parts -- the parts coming together in a final cut -- can literally be anything. The truth can be exposed...or hidden in film depending on the whim of the director. Or the President of the United States...

You'd Be Amazed What Some People Would Do For a Story Like This.

An obvious foundation for Blow Out is the similarly-titled 1966 Antonioni film Blow-Up, which concerns another artist (a photographer, instead of a film's sound engineer...) becoming embroiled in what he perceives to be a crime...a murder.

In that film, the lead character, played by David Hemmings, begins to lose focus on his "real" life. He begins to obsessively question reality itself. In some senses, that's also the journey of Jack in Blow Out, but he starts to question political reality -- the images of patriotism and nationalism so proudly displayed.

De Palma's other sources here arise not from movie history, but from conspiracy lore. The setting of the car "accident" at a creek -- and the presence of an unmarried woman in the passenger seat of a married politician's automobile -- clearly recall the July 18, 1969 Chappaquiddick incident involving Senator Ted Kennedy.

The Karp film, which -- because it lacks sound -- cloaks the truth of the conspiracy rather than exposing it, recalls the much-debated, much-analyzed Zapruder Film. In this case, Manny Karp, the originator of the McRyan film, had foreknowledge of the car "accident," so he could be present at the creek to film it. That fact retroactively raises questions about the late Zapruder, and how he came to be filming the Kennedy assassination. Indeed, some people have suggested a connection between the late Zapruder...and the CIA. And, as I mentioned above, Burke is pretty clearly a model of the Watergate Plumber, namely the most infamous of the lot, Liddy.

In referencing all of these terrible incidents (JFK's assassination, Chappaquiddick, and Watergate), De Palma asks the viewer to consider the tumultuous and bloody nature of modern American history, and how much we really "know" for certain about it. Indeed, Blow Out was released just months after the attempted assassination of President Reagan by another lone gunman (and friend of the Bush family...), John Hinckley.

Just ask yourself, how would history have been different if an unvarnished Ted Kennedy -- having no Chappaquiddick incident to mar his personal history -- had run against Nixon in 1972? How would history have been different if Reagan had not survived his first term, and George Bush ascended to the Presidency in 1981? I believe what De Palma was prescient in Blow Out, making us feel that kind of paranoia as a sort of palpable fear. We begin to understand how politicians and the media can manipulate images and sounds; manipulate truth using certain indelible images.

The attacks of 9/11? Dukakis in a tank? Bill Clinton hugging a beret-wearing Monica Lewinsky in a crowd? Willie Horton's mug shot? Bush Jr. with a bullhorn on the rubble? "Terrorist" fist bumps? "Let's Roll?" "The Fundamentals of the Economy are sound?" These "clips' were brought to you by a selective corporate media. Why?

In Blow Out, De Palma delves into a dark place, one where seeing and hearing is not necessarily believing. He tells us, again, that film can be a powerful and insidious tool in the court of public opinion. But trenchantly, the master manipulator himself shows us the tricks of the trade this time. De Palma lifts the curtain and reveals how the magic works. And it's not all in the wrists.

It's in the microphones, the editing bay, the scissors, and the camera lens.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Woodstock (1970)

It was forty years ago today that a generation came together in upstate New York to celebrate a vision of the future that included good music, peace and love...and perhaps a recreational drug or two.

Yep, the Woodstock concert is officially four decades old in August of 2009, and given that landmark anniversary, I thought it would be appropriate to remember Woodstock -- the movie -- today.

This Academy-award winning non-fiction film endures as a remarkable document, one that pain-stakingly charts a specific time and place, particularly Bethel, New York, on the specific weekend when 1.5 million kids descended on a parcel of farmland for what ultimately became a free concert (much to the surprise of the show's concerned financiers).


It's no hyperbole to state that Woodstock is a giant among documentaries (and concert films), much as the event itself remains a colossus among concerts. If you want to witness the dark side of the Vietnam generation, check out (the equally amazing, if depressing...) Gimme Shelter. But Woodstock has the good vibrations. It delivers just what the film's subtitle promises: Three Days of Peace and Music.

Yet what I admire most about the movie Woodstock is that director Michael Wadleigh depicts two engaging stories simultaneously. One is the story of the music itself, of the on-stage performances. You've got Arlo Guthrie, The Who, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Virtually everything about this facet of the film is sterling; from Joan Baez on stage at night by her lonesome, singing about her incarcerated husband (a draft dodger), to the always energetic Jimi Hendrix, doing his particular brand of hard rock.

But today, I'm even more fascinated by the other story depicted by Wadleigh. It's a tale of logistics; of preparations; of amazing, vast scope. In other words, Woodstock is a film that doesn't merely provide shots of teeming masses, it's one that desires to reveal how those masses lived for three days (and nights) in that farmland setting. The film shows us how, where, and when concert-goers slept, carving out territory for themselves and pleasantly "saying goodnight" to their neighbors. It reveals how people made the best of a difficult situation when the sky opened up and it began to rain. Before long, the ground had turned to slick, messy mud...

The film shows us concert-goers standing patiently in line to use a pay phone (and check-in with their worried parents). At one point, we even learn that a baby has been born at Woodstock. And then realization dawns that this is not merely a "shitty mess" as one person suggests, but rather a full-blown, ad-hoc city. There's health care (forty-five doctors from the Army have arrived; all toiling without pay), there's food, there are even bathing facilities (meaning a place for co-ed skinny dipping.)

Improbably, Wadleigh even arranges an entire sequence around the toilets; portable chemical port-a-johns that service the vast crowd. And finally, at the end of the film, we see volunteers cleaning up the deserted field, picking up what appears to be a vast sea of garbage. "Just love everybody and clean up a little garbage on the way out, and everything will be fine," one organizer optimistically suggests.

There was so much footage shot for Woodstock that, at times, the movie cuts to split-screens, ones two-and-three frames strong. To Wadleigh's credit, he marshals the technique when it is merited -- as balance and counterweight, mostly -- not when he's simply attempting to be flashy. The result is a visually dazzling film that's never less than compelling.

Unlike the rowdy, contentious Town Halls we see on TV today, the Woodstock concert didn't require policemen to step in and maintain law and order. Instead, people behaved themselves and didn't act on ignorance or bigotry. Fifty thousand teenagers were expected...and over a million showed up. And yet there were no major incidents to report.

I suspect there's a lesson in that somewhere.

The radical right wing in this country has been very successful at marginalizing, ridiculing and lampooning the Peace Generation (with a little help from the "libertarian" South Park). But that's okay, because the Left has this film -- an authentic time capsule -- capturing Woodstock in all its glory, wonder and peace. And undeniably, this the finest moment of that Peace Generation.

Rent Woodstock, watch Woodstock...and commemorate a time in America when an event like this could actually happen without courting disaster. At this point -- what with those pesky Death Panels and all -- I don't think it's going to happen again soon.

Friday, August 14, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Body Double (1984)

"You can't believe everything you see," declared the tag line for Brian De Palma's 1984 thriller, Body Double.

That statement might also adequately serve as the film's mantra or statement of purpose. Because that which is perceived and that which is real almost never align in this tricky, droll Reagan-era suspense movie, and even the title recognizes that fact.

After all, a "body double" is itself a visual cheat, a substitute "body" (or physique) for a lead actor or actress. For example, when the lyrical camera lovingly panned down Angie Dickinson's nude torso in the shower stall during the preamble of Dressed to Kill (1980), there was that almost-invisible transition from middle-aged A-list actress to twenty-five year old stunt double.

And as Brian De Palma might himself remind us, the camera was doing what it does best at that very moment.


Lying.
24 times a second.

We believed we were seeing one thing; but reality was entirely different.

In the scandalous and controversial Body Double, De Palma points the camera's "lying" eye toward Hollywood and the tricky, even deceitful milieu of filmmaking. This is a land of constant illusion and artifice; of uncertain loyalties and unexpected betrayals. It's a world De Palma has much personal experience with, and so the movie is a blistering critique of Hollywood politics. A director can love you one day, and fire you the next. A fellow actor can be your best friend, and then stab you in the back...all for a prized role. One day you can be the cock of the walk, and the next day, you're a feather duster, to quote Tina Turner.

And down to the often sub-standard rear-projection/process work -- a deliberate signifier that certain scenes are not "real" and form the basis of another visual "lie" -- director De Palma constantly reminds us in Body Double that our eyes are not to be trusted. Ever. This is the perfect approach for a thriller featuring many twists and turns because it challenges us to keep up and to watch closely; to register the underneath bubbling below the glitzy, shallow surface.

Notably, De Palma deploys two popular movie trends of the times to make this particular thriller so effective. The first is the so-called "dead teenager" or "knife-kill" slasher films of the period, which had come to feature ever more dramatic and over-the-top murders (like the drill homicide in Slumber Party Massacre [1982].)


The second trend exploited here is the "music video," the short-form, self-contained music clip that had recently been popularized on the newly-founded MTV Network and in feature films such as Flashdance (1983) and Footloose (1984). In Body Double, De Palma stages a hypnotic video sequence to Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax."

In both cases, we ask if we can really trust our eyes. Is the perpetrator of the horrific violence for real? A lunatic Indian?! Is the music video love scene represenative of the film's "reality" or simply Hollywood movie-making reality? Is a winsome, lonely wife more than she seems? Less than she seems? These are the questions on which we obsess.

I'd Like You To Meet My Favorite Neighbor...

Body Double tells the tale of actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson), a struggling actor having a very bad day. He experiences a claustrophobic panic attack on the set of his new low-budget flick, Vampire's Kiss, and the director (Dennis Franz) wants to fire him.

When he is sent home to relax, Scully discovers his girlfriend in bed with another man. Scully starts drinking again and unexpectedly meets an actor friend, Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry) at a bar. Sam suggests that Scully camp out at his sub-let, a strange futuristic home overlooking the Hollywood Hills. With no place to go, Scully promptly agrees.

Once living in the strange apartment, Scully watches through a telescope as a beautiful neighbor dances topless each night at exactly the same time. Over days, Scully becomes obsessed with the sexy siren, Gloria Revelle (Shelton), and begins to follow her...even as a gruesome, menacing Indian man means to do her harm. Ultimately, Scully arrives too late to save Gloria from being brutally murdered.

Despondent, Scully later recognizes something familiar in the seductive dance of a porno star, Holly Body (Griffith) and realizes that's he been made a patsy; transformed into the perfect witness to a crime...so that the real culprit can get away, scot-free, in the murder of his wife. To catch the murderer, Scully descends into the world of porno movies in an attempt to meet Holly and learn the truth behind that dance...

Take Off Your Clothes: I Want to Take Some Pictures

As critic Andrew Kopkina wrote in The Nation, De Palma's Body Double boasts "clearly ironic intent" in that it's a movie "about the culture of sex and violence rather than about the awful events of the plot." (November 24, 1984, page 562). That's a distinction worth noting, I submit.

Because I believe that De Palma's ironic intent goes a very long way towards defusing the charges of misogyny perennially lodged at Body Double.

Clearly, however, not everybody concurs with that assessment. Entertainment Weekly's Ty Burr called the film "the most unbearably cruel of De Palma's Hitch rips" and pointed out that "the scene of a helpless woman (Deborah Shelton) getting power-drilled to death is too viciously gloating to forgive." (January 15, 1993, pages 56-47).

Reviewer David Sterritt at The Christian Science Monitor noted De Palma's skill in crafting Body Double, but derided the "sleazy material he's peddling, which feeds largely on a vision of women as objects to be ogled or butchered." (November 13, 1984, page 52).

So again, we're back to that point of demarcation with director De Palma. This is the elephant in the room. De Palma is either ironically commenting on the state of movie-dom and 1980s Hollywood; or just cravenly "peddling" viciousness and misogyny. He's either rewriting the language of contemporary film (not to mention Hitchcock thrillers...) to satirize other movies, or contributing to the crisis of a crass, lurid pop culture. Or perhaps, he's doing both simultaneously.

It won't surprise you to learn that I don't consider De Palma a misogynist, even in Body Double. For one thing, his violence is directed at men and women here; Scully is paralyzed with fear and nearly buried alive at one point....which is pretty sadistic.

For another thing, De Palma's intent to parody Hollywood's ongoing obsession with on-screen violence has very real antecedents, as I noted above. In the aforementioned Slumber Party Massacre -- a film directed by a woman, Amy Jones -- a male killer with a drill goes around homicidally "screwing" women in a fashion not at all unlike Body Double's killer. Is she a misogynist too? Or is violence against women acceptable (and not anti-woman in nature) when orchestrated by a female director?

Furthermore, when Jones has a woman with a machete chop off the killer's drill/phallus, -- thus metaphorically castrating him -- in Slumber Party Massacre, is she being anti-man? I haven't heard any cries of misanthropy there, and nor should I. Jones, like De Palma, transgresses in order to make a point; she utilizes symbolism (the drill, the machete, etc) to craft points about the nature of violence; about male power; about female vengeance, etc.

Is Gloria in Body Double "objectified?" Undoubtedly. Scully is drawn to her because of her nude dance...because of her sexy body. That's the lure to spring Sam's trap, but it's more an indictment of Scully's character (and a comment on men in general), then it is a fault of Gloria "as a woman." Also, we should ask: are women's bodies objectified in Hollywood outside the world of De Palma? In porno movies? In mainstream movies? If you think the answer is "yes," then again, De Palma ought to get a pass: he's noting (and commenting) on a real life context; not crafting some personal vision of hatred towards women.

Perhaps more specificity is required here. Body Double is charged with misogyny particularly because of a murder scene in which Gloria is drilled (bloodily) to death. Indeed, we witness the murder in graphic terms. There's a shot of the drill whirring, coming down between the (male) killer's legs -- like a giant cock -- as it penetrates the helpless, supine female.

Okay. This is undoubtedly excessive. But excessive doesn't equal misogyny, necessarily. Let's recall that Body Double was created in the decade of excess, the 1980s, and the whole film practically explodes with excess. It isn't merely romantic...it's melodramatically, balls-to-the-walls over-romantic, with De Palma's tongue-in-cheek camera spinning in a frenzy as Scully and Gloria share a first kiss and the soundtrack swoons. The film isn't merely sexually provocative, either, it takes us head-first, blunt-faced into the sleazy world of pornography, culminating with a complaint (from a production assistant) that the director didn't get a needed cum shot. Indeed, this scene became such a touchstone that it was mirrored and "homaged" in Boogie Nights in 1997.

Given the excessive nature of the entire film, I suggest that the drill kill isn't really misogynist...just intentionally and willfully over the top. I judge this by the nature of the film, but also from De Palma's cinematic work, taken in totality. Femme Fatale (2002) is the opposite of misogynist, since the main character resists the "dream" that types her as Barbara Stanwyck. Raising Cain (1992) is also rather pro-woman, since the only "heroic" personality in Carter's mad brain is a female, Margo. And sure, Nancy Allen in Dressed to Kill (1980) is a hooker...but she's taken the profession back for women; much more a savvy Wall Street investor than a victimized damsel-in-distress. I can't always adjudge deep complexity to De Palma's females. Indeed, he often goes for the Madonna or Whore thing (Ness's wife in The Untouchables is an example of the former...) but again, that's not misogynist...just archetypal. And very, very Catholic.

This is a personal assessment, but for me misogyny doesn't enter the picture until we hit a few specific points. For one, there has to be some form of "blame" cast on the women for their own murders. In other words, the movie or moviemaker must make clear...it's their fault the bad things that happen to them. And the other side of the coin is that the men have to come off as blameless and superior.

Not to upset anybody here, but the most blatantly misogynist story I can recall arises from the Old Testament: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. That blasted, curious, grasping woman, Eve seduces innocent Adam right out of Paradise, and -- the poor guy! -- he suffers the consequences for Eternity! In Body Double, by point of contrast, Gloria doesn't do anything to earn her gruesome fate, save marry the wrong husband. And her husband, Sam, is defined in terms of pure evil...hardly let off the hook. He's clearly the movie's villain; not someone we feel sorry for or identify with.

I think critics cry "misogynist" because De Palma is never satisfied until he nudges his films over the precipice of good taste. That's the mission of great horror movies: to shatter decorum and transgress societal standards. So De Palma adds the sexual component to the drill kill and it instantly becomes far more memorable (not to mention disturbing). If the director had simply removed the shot of the drill going down between the man's legs, I don't think anyone could rightly complain that Body Double's major set-piece is any more misogynist than Marion's murder in the shower in Psycho; or Tippi Hedren's attack by sparrows in The Birds. But Body Double is about excess, and so the sexual twist on the murder certainly fits the tenor of the film.

Porno, Politics and Moving Pictures

On the surface, Body Double echoes Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) to a remarkable degree.

Both films tell the story of a voyeur who "happens" to witness a crime by using a sight amplification device, whether binoculars or a telescope.

In both productions, that voyeur is a man who professionally toils in the visual arts (either as a photographer, or as an actor).

And in both cases, the voyeur sees a crime committed against a woman; and is dragged into learning more; his foibles and idiosyncrasies hooking and dragging him in deeper and deeper (and tying a noose around his neck, metaphorically-speaking).

In Rear Window, Jimmy Stewart's character is literally crippled -- injured and confined to a wheelchair for a time; while in Body Double, Wasson's Scully is damaged too; given to paralyzing bouts of claustrophobic panic.

We have seen in other films how De Palma uses a Hitchcock film (such as Psycho or Vertigo) as a foundation or template; a well-spring for creativity. He then builds on the precepts and motifs of that older production to synthesize something fresh and original. The same is true here, because Body Double travels well-beyond (the admittedly-brilliant) Rear Window in asking the audience to accommodate competing realities. Are we watching Gloria dance in that darkened apartment, or is it Holly performing? Is the driller killer a strange Indian man, or just an actor in heavy make-up disguising himself so as to cast suspicion elsewhere? Is Scully trapped in a real burial plot, or appearing on a low-budget horror movie set that mimics the appearance of a grave? Is Sam a helpful friend, or a maniacal psychotic?

And Scully is not just a simple voyeur, he is an actor appearing in a movie within a movie, especially during the Vampire's Kiss scenes and the porno movie shoots. So, as an audience, we must constantly recalibrate our senses to understand at which "level" we are witnessing things.

The "Relax" music video is a perfect example. The sequence begins in self-contained fashion, commencing to the tune of the Frankie Goes to Hollywood song. Without introduction, explanation or pre-text, we see Scully enter a stage; a debauched world of leather, lasers and lust. All around him, lascivious sex acts occur in a setting reminiscent of Cruising (a film De Palma was once slated to direct). Scully goes through a silver-curtained doorway labeled "SLUTS" and then finds himself gazing into a dressing room at Holly Body. He watches her dance on one side of the frame; while a mirrored image of Holly dominates the other side. On Holly's invitation, Jake enters the room, and the mirrored doorway suddenly swings ajar.

At that instant -- bam! -- the mirror reveals the porno movie crew shooting the scene; a scene occurring between actors Holly Body and Jake Scully. They are no longer merely the characters in a porno, but players in the larger drama. Then, De Palma breaks down the sequence even further, substituting the dead Gloria for Holly in a series of interrupted camera spins.

So to be clear, we're essentially witnessing a character (Scully) playing another character (in the porno movie) remembering not the woman he is actually with (an actress playing a character in a porno...), but the women he fell in love with; whom Holly unwittingly doubled for.

Got that?

De Palma is doing two things in this film: First, he's satirizing Tinsel Town, a domain where "friendship" is as illusory as are special effects. It's an alien world to most of us, which is no doubt the reason that Sam's pad resembles a flying saucer that has just set down in the Hollywood Hills. And secondly, De Palma is reflecting that form (a satire of Hollywood) with self-reflexive content, twisting and turning the tale so all motives are suspect.

In the end, Body Double is a perfect reflection of the excessive 1980s. De Palma's leitmotif that "you can't believe your eyes" was especially resonant at the time. A Hollywood actor named Ronald Reagan had actually become President of the United States. And he very much brought Hollywood illusion and facade to the White House with him, excelling in stagecraft, if nothing else. Consider:

Reagan claimed to be a family values President...yet was the only divorced commander-in-chief in our nation's history.

Reagan was elected to reign in the Federal government...but on Reagan's watch the Federal government grew by 61,000 employees.

Reagan claimed to be a tax cutter...yet he signed into law the Tax Reform Act of 1986, the largest tax increase in American history at that point.

Reagan was "hired" by the American people to cut spending...but the national debt on his watch accrued to a staggering 2.7 trillion dollars, again, the highest total in history at that point.

Reagan was supposed to be a resolute warrior, but what was Reagan's response to a terrorist truck bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed 241 U.S. Marines? Two days later, he courageously ordered the military invasion...of a small island nation named Grenada!

Yet Reagan played his role perfectly...he was -- in essence -- the perfect "body double" for an authentic "conservative." It didn't matter that reality didn't match his rhetoric...because when he was on camera, we believed in him...even if the camera lied 24 times a second.

So in Body Double, as in American politics of the day, the audience finds it difficult to discern truth from fiction. Like Jake Scully, we were taken in by lies, paralyzed by our fears ("bombing begins in five minutes!"), distracted by sex and violence, and then waiting for the next directorial/presidential sleight-of-hand to make it all right again.

Because in Hollywood the ending is always happy, after all.

But caveat emptor: those fine, perfectly-formed breasts you have just ogled may not actually belong to Angie Dickinson.

20 Years Ago: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

After the box office disappointment and mixed critical notices of  Mars Attacks!  (1996), director Tim Burton returned to theaters in...