Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: De Palma Blog-A-Thon: Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

De Palma Blog-A-Thon: Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

by Pat Piper

[Pat Piper of the Lazy Eye Theatre brings us a look at one of Brian De Palma's more unusual offerings. Lazy Eye Theatre is a film blog that provides multi-layered, multi-faceted, multi-colored commentary about the amazing film world that's all around us. For all your film needs, shop Lazy Eye Theatre!]

While it's easy to dismiss Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise or at least forget about it, I might make an argument that it's one of his purest pieces of work. Or I might not make that argument at all. We'll just have to see.

Phantom of the Paradise is one raw piece of meat. It's a cobbled together piece with mostly unknowns who poorly lip-sync to catchy pop by Paul Williams. And damn if it isn't a beautiful thing. I wouldn't go as far as describing Phantom as a throw away film, but when looking at De Palma's scope of work it comes off like that. A movie that feels like it was made over a weekend with some friends on the thinnest of shoestrings. It's far from perfect, but there's a fuck-it spontaneity about it that makes me want to revisit it over and over again.

The synopsis is familiar if you're familiar with Phantom of the Opera and Faust. Talented artist falls for beautiful singer. Talented artist becomes horribly disfigured. Newly disfigured talented artist declares his love for beautiful singer by writing her a cantata to perform. Devil steals the soul of the now not so newly disfigured talented artist along with the cantata and the beautiful singer, thus making the disfigured talented artist a vengeful monster.

De Palma's usual suspects are here. A scene with the Phantom (William Finley) sabotaging a performance at the Paradise is beautifully choreographed and presented in wonderful split-screen. And of course, there's a nod to Hitchcock involving a shower scene with a plunger as the weapon of choice.

Where Phantom of the Paradise takes a well thought out turn is in its commentary of the music industry. To me, its message is decades ahead of its time and it's one that has yet to be topped. The Phantom's slow descent into madness has nothing to do with his talent and everything to do with his "look" or lack thereof. There's a great scene where Swan (Paul Williams) is trying to pick the next new sound and it's not unlike watching an episode of American Idol. Music today is all spectacle with a small side of substance and this message is hit home hardest in the finale where a dying Phantom makes pleas for his life to the audience and is dismissed as just an interesting part of the show. In today's bigger-is-better world filled with nipple slips and seventeen story screens where everything is expected and nothing is surprising, one wonders how far we are from live sacrifices. And if we saw it, would we greet it with cheers or shrieks?

It's hard to watch Phantom of the Paradise and not think "they sure don't make them like they used to." That's less a statement about quality and more of a statement about trailblazing. About putting stuff out there for people to love or hate, without overthinking if they're going to love or hate it. Phantom feels like an experiment in filmmaking. Not a complete success, nor a complete failure, but a positive step for a filmmaker on his way to a brilliant career.


Ryan Kelly said...

Great piece on one of my very favorite De Palma's, my friend. Like you say, I just love how inventive and energetic it is --- that's certainly as valuable, perhaps even moreso, than a 'perfect' film. Glad someone not only chose this film, but did it justice.

PIPER said...

Thanks Ryan.

I've always loved this movie for, like you say, it's energy. Not to say that all movies aren't made out of love or passion, but you really feel like this was a film close to DePalma. It's fun from beginning to ending frame.

Adam Zanzie said...

I'm right up there with both of you in nodding that The Phantom of the Paradise is one of De Palma's purest works. It is also, I have to say, the first time I ever noticed William Finley as a strong force in De Palma cinema. It's perhaps much easier to forget Finley as Margot Kidder's wicked assistant in Sisters, but man, was De Palma taking a gamble when he cast Finley as the star of the show in this one! Though the film didn't succeed at the box office, a lot of De Palma's great films don't; box office isn't much of a factor in his quality, after all.

1974 was a smashing year in film, wasn't it? The Godfather Part II, Scenes from A Marriage, F for Fake, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Amacord, The Phantom of the Paradise, the list goes on. I'll bet De Palma was proud to be sharing the year with a bunch of other legends!

PIPER said...

I think what's pretty amazing is that Finley sang the song "Faust." And what's pretty funny is that he sang the song and then did a lousy job lip-syncing it in the movie.

Finley really has had no career outside of DePalma movies.

Madame Enfer said...

Nice review! That 'fuck-it spontaneity', mash-up quality is what keeps me coming back again and again. All the cheese, the music which is more complex than at first imagined, the fact the hero is a bug-eyed six-foot-four bondage-outfitted freak and the villain is a five-foot-two babyface, the gothic horror/grand guignol elements, giallo-style cinematography, tragicomedy and utterly random dialogue mesh together to create what is perhaps my favourite film of all time