Thursday, June 3, 2010

Brian De Palma: Get to Know Your Rabbit

For his first film to be made for a major film studio (Warner Bros.), Brian De Palma decided to make a film about financial security and the corporatization of creativity breeds self-loathing and apathy to the world. God bless New Hollywood. Like the rest of his films to that point, Get to Know Your Rabbit is a comedy. Unlike the obsessive, voyeuristic qualities present in Greetings, Murder à la Mod and Hi, Mom! that would be seen in the director's later suspense pictures, though, Rabbit contains a much more, oh dear, I almost said "traditional" form of comedy.

Anyone who's ever seen this buried movie, only recently made available on DVD, knows damn well that the last thing you could call its loopy brand of comedy is "traditional." Even by the director's standards, Get to Know Your Rabbit is just plain odd: a film with only one name actor -- Orson Welles, no less -- a concept in direct opposition to the movie's studio backers and an execution that, regardless of the quality of the finished product, set it apart from every other movie ever made. Despite its more polished aesthetic, Rabbit still looks like an early De Palma feature, using (and re-using) a limited amount of sets and filled with the allusions you might expect, including a take on the Golden Gate Bridge scene in Vertigo moved to New York to save money on location shooting.

It also contains that rebellious spirit of De Palma's early features. For the role of dissatisfied office worker Donald Beeman, the director cast Tommy Smothers, one half of the Smothers Brothers, a variety act who gained notoriety throughout the '60s for increasingly aligning themselves with the youth movement (Hendrix even dedicated a tune or two to them in concert) until CBS finally dropped them in '69 for stretching the boundaries of accepted behavior too far. Donald quits his job at the start of the film out of feelings of ennui and anomie brought on by his meaningless existence, a move that causes his fiancée to leave him and his boss, Mr. Turnbull (John Astin) to inexplicably go out of his way not to lose this employee who doesn't seem to do anything essential, nor with enough competence and enthusiasm to make his loss felt.

But Donald has a dream, to enroll in a nearby school to become a tap-dancing magician run by the enigmatic Mr. Delasandro (Welles). I wonder if Welles got the idea to center his "performance" in For for Fake as a magician from this film, or if De Palma understood as well as the man himself that Welles was the greatest illusionist and jovial deceiver in the cinema. No one ever questions why (or how) a man the size of Delasandro teaches such an oddly physical occupation, and Welles never does anything more complicated than stomp his feet to the rhythm of the music. Like a hyper-esoteric Svengali, Welles communicates his mastery of the form simply through his gravitas, which carries him no matter how many simple tricks he fails to perform. (The funniest part of the film concerns the severity of his "commencement" speech to celebrate Donald's graduation from magic school.)

Welles is one of many talented supporting players who commit to this absurdity. Astin plays what could almost be seen as a prototypical David Brent, barging in on Donald's private life as if he's either close enough to his ex-employee (or authoritative enough) to keep bugging the man. Allen Garfield makes a brief but memorable appearance as Vic, an ultra-slimy brassiere salesman and a complete pig of a chauvinist who drags Donald to some parties before instantly alienating the protagonist with his tactlessness. He's just one of a cast of oddball characters that filter past Donald to make an impression and disappear: at the start of the film, a piano tuner interrupts a post-coital snuggling between Donald and his fiancée, only to feel so guilty when he discovers that Donald has no piano that the man cooks our protagonist breakfast in bed to make up for it. Katharine Ross, making the most of a sorely underwritten part, plays Donald's new, magic-fetishizing girlfriend, who also describes her kink for paperboys, a desire that led her to prostitute herself one time in order to pay for a newspaper subscription. Sundance quirk wishes it could be that far-out.

These goofballs make up for Smothers, who, despite his considerable comic pedigree, is not much of an actor. Granted, he's meant to play something of a bashful dope forced to perform his fresh-faced act in dingy nightclubs and honky-tonk juke joints (the only places that will book such a show), but Smothers' approach is simply too flat. Presumably, as it was with John Entwistle in The Who, someone needs to just stand around while everything else goes mad in order to provide that one solid anchor of sanity, but De Palma wastes the opportunity to make more of Smothers' talent, and his counterculture cred, and to push the material into even more absurd territory.

Visually, Get to Know Your Rabbit shows De Palma using his larger budget to pull off his most complicated camera movements and stylistic rip-offs yet. De Palma wedges in his sped-up, silent film technique for a flashback of Turnbull falling apart without his beloved employee Donald, while the film's first moments break into a split screen of two characters moving away from each other to conduct their various affairs around the office. An impressive crane shot serves to pull off a gliding pull-back from Donald as it climbs the ceiling without breaking the shot before gliding over the tops of the sets in the same manner Scorsese would shoot the end of the climax of Taxi Driver. Aside from the relocation of the Vertigo scene, De Palma also amusingly recreates the back-and-forth between the splitting couple in Godard's Contempt in fast-forward, Donald's fiancée packing up and walking out as the director tracks across rooms so quickly you'll wonder what was powering the dolly.

It is not particularly surprising that Get to Know Your Rabbit failed, given its mash-up of esoteric satire and film-as-film-school that was already De Palma's stock and trade but had not yet been exposed to the mainstream. As it happens, this was not the film to break him, as Warner Bros. struggled for two years to figure out some way, any way, to market the thing and finally dumped it briefly before pulling the film and never going to much effort to make it available in any stage of the home video era. A notable step down from both Greetings and especially the masterpiece Hi, Mom!, Rabbit nevertheless has its moments. De Palma's zany vision makes for a surprisingly lucid portrait of a society that is too rapidly putting a dollar sign on everything. Donald's boss is so used to his bureaucratic routine that he receives a bomb threat and places the caller on hold, and later he becomes Donald's manager and turns the happy, fulfilled naïveté in the magician's travel postcards into catchy corporate slogans to attract new customers to the magic show. In the end, Donald founds himself back where he started, with tap-dancing magic now a wild capitalist success, complete with a logo for the new company. Ridiculous as it is, this finale suddenly snaps the film into sharp focus: what if De Palma was saying that something as inane as Donald's new profession is the only form of artistic self-expression left that hadn't been compromised by business interests, interests that long ago claimed music and cinema. Is it any wonder, then, that Donald uses his final trick to commit suicide in the face of the conquest of this last bastion?


  1. Yeah, I had to buy this movie off Amazon--it's still not available for renting anywhere. I wasn't too impressed with it; I might watch it again someday, but for now it's probably just going to loom silently in my DVD collection. You're right that Tom Smothers isn't much of an actor; he was better off offending LBJ with those transparent anti-Vietnam, anti-government rants he'd deliver on his variety show (I only know about that because PBS did a special about variety shows last year).

    You can also sense when watching Get to Know Your Rabbit that De Palma didn't have much control. It was originally supposed to end with Smothers sawing a rabbit in half on live television, and it just gets so bloody that nobody wants anything to do with him--then he reveals privately that the rabbit was unharmed, and that it was all a trick. But now the movie just ends with him "disappearing", and there's no dramatic conflict there. He's not rebelling against anything.

    I had been thinking about reviewing the film, and was even going to use those F for Fake implications you've used here (turns out De Palma and Welles got along pretty well on the set). But Get to Know Your Rabbit honestly didn't stir me passionately enough to want to write about it. Somehow you have, though, and that's a superhuman strength if there ever was one.

  2. I know this is a long time after the fact, but Welles was doing his magic acts for many years before this - he used to saw Rita Hayworth and Marlene Dietrich in half to entertain the troops in WWII. His role in Casino Royale was pretty much just him doing magic tricks one after another, and he used to do them on talk shows a lot. So I doubt that this particular instance was the primary inspiration for his schtick in F For Fake.