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De Palma 101: Phantom of the Paradise

De Palma 101: Phantom of the Paradise

(This is an ongoing collaboration with friend and writer Chris Ludovici. Follow Chris on Twitter, or read his very good novel The Minors)

GENA: We’re zagging on you by starting with 1974’s Phantom of the Paradise, probably the least Brian De Palma-est film in Brian De Palma’s filmography. It’s a movie that exists in its own exclusive universe, a freewheeling experiment that De Palma seemed to have looked at later and thought “okay, I’m not trying any of that shit again.” It’s understandable, because at the time of its release, when it competed with both serious dramas like The Godfather II and Chinatown, and disaster spectacles like The Towering Inferno and Earthquake, neither audiences or critics had any idea what to make of Phantom. It was a flop everywhere except, curiously, Winnipeg, Canada, where it found a fanbase so dedicated that a documentary was released about it.

Those folks had their finger on an odd, random pulse, because it wasn’t until the past decade that the rest of the world caught up to reassessing and appreciating this baffling musical/horror/comedy/something or other that pays homage to The Phantom of the Opera, Faust, and the power of rock ‘n’ roll, written and directed by a man who’s clearly not a fan of rock ‘n’ roll.

CHRIS: Good heavens, Phantom of the Paradise, where to start? There’s an early scene that encapsulates my feelings about the movie in general, when the hero Winslow Leach (William Finley) is auditioning for Swan (Paul Williams) and he’s playing his song for the first time. He’s playing the piano, and the camera is slowly circling around him and there are all these people moving and flashing lights that look kind of like that old Simon game from when we were kids, but the camera stays right on him and he’s singing and he’s got long 70’s hair and coke bottle glasses and he’s wearing a grey sweatshirt over a black turtleneck and the sweatshirt has a drawing on it and it was just like, what am I supposed to be focusing on here, where are my eyes supposed to rest

What is Phantom of the Paradise? Is it a musical pastiche with 50’s greaser rock, 60’s surf rock and 70’s glam rock,or a horror movie about a guy who gets destroyed by the music industry (complete with a Phil Spector stand-in), or a comedy parody of a horror movie, or is it a modern spin on Faust or Phantom of the Opera? It’s like that shot, man, it’s all of that and more. It’s a movie that’s filled to the edge of every frame with details and references and jokes and crazy compositions and it’s just hard for me to feel anything about it. It’s so busy being everything that it’s really hard to get a bead on and have a relationship with.

GENA: If my dream of owning a movie theater were to ever come true, one of my first screenings would be a double feature of Phantom of the Paradise and The Apple. Though Phantom is the superior film in every way, they nonetheless bear some similarities. Both are incomprehensible, though Phantom feels like a deliberate overwhelming of the senses, while The Apple is merely a victim of incompetent screenwriting and editing. Both feature a villain who is either literally the Devil, or at least in league with him, though the names “Devil” or “Satan” are never used. Both of those villains are the heads of sinister corporations that seem to have infinite amounts of power. Both feature a pure of heart heroine who almost gives in to the dark temptations of fame and fortune, but is saved at the last minute by the hero. Both take place in the world of popular music (rock and glam in Phantom, disco and folk in The Apple), created by filmmakers who don’t know much about that world, but enough to know they don’t like it. But everyone else, the kids, they do, so that’s who these movies are made for.

What makes Phantom the superior film is its self-awareness. For a movie that features a woman singing a song called “Coming,” The Apple is remarkably earnest. It takes itself very seriously as an allegory for the story of Adam and Eve, with the main characters ascending to Heaven at the end. Phantom of the Paradise is Brian De Palma’s most overtly funny movie, and though much of the humor is a little too broad at times, it’s also a smart satire of how the music industry is forced to continue repackaging its product to satisfy an ever more fickle audience. The most clever, underrated joke in the whole movie is that Winslow’s softboi piano music wouldn’t have had to be remade to be cooler and more radio friendly. That was a popular genre in and of itself, headlined by musicians like Harry Chapin, Cat Stevens...and Paul Williams, who plays Swann, the villain dismissive of Winslow’s talent. Williams was not only in on the joke, he wrote the song Winslow performs, and it’s his voice that Winslow lip syncs. It’s a hell of a good joke.

CHRIS: Yeah, the thing that separates, Phantom with something like Xanadu (I haven’t seen The Apple, so I’m going with another insane 70’s disco disaster) is that it’s absolutely like that on purpose. And don’t get me wrong, I liked it, sort of a lot, but its surface overwhelms everything else about it. It was so busy impressing me with how clever and well-made and outrageous it is that I couldn’t ever settle in. Which is a shame because it’s not empty spectacle; it’s about how commerce destroys art by flattening and homogenizing and twisting it into shapes it was never intended to fit into and how the spectacle of pop culture and the desire for fame turn crowds into mobs and people into monsters. But none of it got through to me because there was so much happening on screen in any given moment it was hard for me to take the time to think about or retain anything.

Like, Winslow writes this song, right? And Swan buys it and starts fucking with it and you hear it again and again throughout the movie in different tempos and genres by his house band who have different looks and styles every time. The idea is that the song is supposed to be perfect the way Winslow played it back in that first scene all alone on the piano and all the other more stylized theatrical interpretations gussy up and ruin it, but I have to be honest, I didn’t know it was the same song every time until I watched the special features. And if I don’t recognize that it’s the same song, I don’t understand the tragedy of what’s happening to it, and how that mirrors what’s happening to Winslow.  

There’s so much in every scene to process that I’m not going to recognize the same lyrics over and over sung in different styles. Okay, this time it’s a KISS-style glam band, and those are the same guys as before? It’s hard to tell with all the make-up and there’s definitely that one new guy Meat, but I think they’re mostly the same. Boy, look at those costumes, ha, funny production values in the performance, kind of cheap, am I supposed to think this is a good performance or not, oops, the Phantom is up to something, is he gonna hurt someone? That’s a neat shot of him on the catwalk above the band… I can’t listen to the lyrics and recall that they’re the same as in some previous scene where the song was done like a Beach Boys tune, in part because that scene uses split screen and long takes to do an extended homage to the opening of Touch of Evil and so I wasn’t paying much attention to the lyrics then because I was trying to follow the bomb in the trunk of the prop car and marveling at the impressive choreography. 

Watching the movie was like copying down someone’s brilliant lecture as they spoke in real time, I’m too busy focusing on making sure I have the words down on the page right to retain anything, I have to get what’s coming next, not remember what just was. Like I said, it’s super impressive and never boring, but I had trouble remembering what the fuck it was about a day after I saw it.

But I’d absolutely recommend it, it’s fucking bananas, and it’s DePalma, who, outside of a couple true bombs like Bonfire or Mission to Mars is always worth at least checking out. It’s glorious to look at, in its vulgar 70’s paisley and velvet kind of way, and there’s really nothing like it. As much as we try and compare it to other movies of the era, Phantom stands alone because it’s a bunch of really talented people all doing exactly what they intended and not apologizing for any of it. 

GENA: In my imaginary theater (which would have both assigned seating and a strict “you text and we smash your phone with a hammer” policy), another screening I would offer is a double feature of Phantom of the Paradise and Velvet Goldmine. Though Velvet Goldmine shows a richer knowledge and genuine love for the musical world it exists in, both films capture that exhilaration that the right piece of music can cause, that sense of “I don’t know where I am or what’s happening, but as long as this song never stops playing I’ll be fine.” 

Again, I don’t get the impression that De Palma, as opposed to Todd Haynes, is a big fan of rock music (certainly not glam rock, which he portrays as a little gross and deeply, unpleasantly weird). But he gets how it can make a person feel, which is a little crazy and frantic and dangerous. There’s a reason why this stuff used to be called “the Devil’s music,” because there’s a sense of dark magic behind a lot of it that drives you to want to fight or fuck and shock the little old ladies in your neighborhood. Now, granted, none of the music that’s featured in Phantom of the Paradise is going to inspire any of that. It’s the mood that De Palma manages to capture. He wants you to be perplexed and exhilarated and feel a little like you’re stumbling around a funhouse both enjoying yourself and looking for the nearest EXIT sign at the same time. The Faust pastiche is secondary. Phantom of the Paradise is all mood.

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