Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Brian De Palma: Body Double

In some respects, Body Double may be the quintessential Brian De Palma film. This is not to say that it is his best, and it may not even mean that I even like the damn thing (there are too many clashing perceptions to sort out a coherent view on the first go). Instead, it summarizes the director's strengths and flaws to such an extreme that the film does not veer between brilliance and garbage so much as jump between the two without transition as if using wormholes for transportation. Only one film removed from Blow Out, Body Double develops the ideas of that film to their apex, mixing De Palma's anarchic form of brutalized Godardian experimentation with his corkscrewing thrillers.

If Scarface represented a sort of warning shot across the studios' brow, Body Double is outright war. De Palma views his opening shots as a means of putting the audience on-guard, never easing them into a movie via what he views as the boring, wasteful helicopter shots of city skylines or montages of neighborhood life.* Here, he opens in such transparently schlocky terms that for once no one can seriously believe what we're watching is not a put-on. With dripping blood titles and midnight-feature mise-en-scène, De Palma goes for broke, establishing a film-within-a-film so unbelievably campy that it's all he can do not to walk out like Alfred Hitchcock at the start of The Wrong Man and warn the audience what they're in for.

This reflexive opening shot moves over various tacky props that awkwardly and amusingly mix Western Gothic with Eastern mysticism before setting on a vampire sleeping in a coffin. As the music builds, he raises up in one of those cheesy vampire "blah" poses, and he freezes. The moment is uncomfortable: is this intentional? Why is this being held so long? Suddenly, we hear "Cut!" and a film crew takes the man out of the prop coffin, and we learn he's suffered a panic attack from claustrophobia. De Palma wastes no time building on the reflexive layers by suggesting the man had an attack less from the confinement of the coffin but from opening his eyes and seeing a camera a foot from his face. He also highlights the trashy nature of the upcoming film when he follows the actor, Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) back home: De Palma frames him beside a ludicrous hot dog joint luring in customers with a mock-up of a wiener nestled in the bun from the side, making for an image so transparently sexual it scarcely counts as innuendo. Dejected and afraid he'll be replaced by his double and then cut out of the part entirely, Jake returns home, only to find his girlfriend in bed with another man. He's been replaced everywhere.

To do much more than give the most basic of plot information following this bizarre sequence would not only be a sidestepping of critical responsibility but also damn near impossible. This is a savage, uncompromising film, one that replaces the satiric wickedness of De Palma's early films with a brutal desire to shove his aesthetic and intellectual choices down the audience's throat. He tried playing their game with Scarface, giving the plebeian hordes all the blood and excess they could ask for with that movie and getting ignored in the process. But if the critics were going to willfully miss what he was trying to do and crowds would follow suit, then De Palma might as well tell them what he really thinks. In addition, he must have suspected he might be tossed out of the studio system, so he also strives to get in one last exercise of his pet themes.

Body Double folds in on itself routinely. Jake heads to an acting class to try a form of acting therapy to overcome his claustrophobia, and when he freezes up the instructor berates him with cries of, "You have to act!" But the artistically impotent and physically cuckold Jake is useless, and De Palma channels Wasson's exceedingly limited range and his lack of movie-star looks (he resembles a young Bill Maher with the least charming traces of Steve Guttenberg thrown in for good measure) to ensure the audience never connects with any one dimension of diegetic reality.

Having taken his suspense prowess to its zenith with Blow Out, De Palma sets about not only deconstructing suspense tropes and building blocks but demolishing them. Jake runs into another struggling actor, Sam (Gregg Henry) who just happens to need a flatmate for a house that no actor fishing for bit parts in B-movies could afford for all the sexual favors in the world. It looks as if someone made a house out of one of those tacky rotating restaurants designed to make eaters feel like royalty (or gods). Sam takes out a telescope to show Jake a woman across the way who dances erotically every night with her blinds open. It's obvious the woman dances for someone, obvious that the Rear Window framing of this voyeurism will lead to some kind of trouble and obvious that Sam, who disappears from the film completely for the next hour or so, is a bit too eager to point out this lady and get the hell out of Dodge.

If one is to connect on any level with Body Double beyond frothing disgust, it is necessary to step back and see how defiantly De Palma refuses to let the audience engage with this film. I admit, it's a tedious process; the "it's meant to be bad!" argument has become so ubiquitous I begin to suspect that bad movies no longer exist, only ironic ones. But De Palma has enough reflexive cred to back up the notion he wants the audience to see the film as it is being constructed and not simply accept the images before them. Wasson's inability to find the tragedy in his Vertigo-esque claustrophobia lends his Edvard-Munchian facial contortions an open comedy, and De Palma ensures that every panic attack breaks up the film: when Jake chases the (other) man stalking the woman he loves from afar into a tunnel, he seizes up, and the man stops as if waiting for him. When the woman, Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton) catches up and thanks Jake for recovering the purse the thief left for him, their kiss instantly shifts the background into poor-quality rear-projection that broadcasts its falsity.

To even sort out the titular issue of doubles, one must be prepared to find multiple splits within each major character. It starts off literally, with Jake fretting over his double replacing him on-set, then he becomes a double for the creepy man watching Gloria with murderous intent. When the assailant finally strikes, Jake soon finds another woman, a porn actress named Holly Body (Melanie Griffith) who dances the same dance that transfixed him. Tracking down Holly leads to a number of role reversals and newly fabricated personae (Jake, heretofore unable to act his way out of a paper bag, instantly slips into the role of porn producer). On top of all that, when you get a good look at "the Indian's" face, the garish creepiness of it is undercut by how it is obviously the result of makeup and masks.

These in-film splits define the constantly shifting nature of its meaningless reality, which De Palma uses not only to peel back the layers of film but expose how cynical the '80s love of materialism really is. By preventing the audience from looking at this movie as anything other than a movie -- from its splintered fragments of plot and genre to its outrageously bad ensemble casting, using not only unskilled actors but ones that don't even play off each other -- he points out the seediness of Reagan's America. This is especially true when De Palma does location shooting, the malls and clubs in which he films looking not all-together classier than the putrid pastels and leopard prints dotting the porn set Jake visits. The glass elevator of a mall ties in with that absurd Modernist house in which Jake lives, presenting the idea that yuppies deserve to be seen looming over those unworthy of bourgeois delights, while the gauzy nightclub where Jake goes with Holly could be another porn set.

Building off that, De Palma mercilessly takes the extremes of sex and violence to new nadirs here, rubbing the mainstream's nose in its shit. The sheer amount of screen time devoted to breasts suggests he felt the only way to get away with this heady exercise in lowbrow sleaze was to make it as sleazy as possible, and he frames the violence in outrageously suggestive terms. When "the Indian" comes for Gloria, he kills her with a power drill, and De Palma frames the fatal blow from behind to show the drill pushing down between the man's legs into the woman, and we see the grisly aftermath below as Jake sees the bit drive through the ceiling and blood spurt through the hole. This comes before Jake's descent into the porn world, but it stands as the most concise, vicious summary of De Palma's equation of the pornographic underworld with the seedy one that's taken root in the mainstream.

At least there are a few lighter jokes and sly allusions here to buoy the intensely confrontational nature of the blacker comedy. As Jake watches Gloria through a window in the mall, the store's owner calls security, but when a guard asks Jake, "Can I help you?" our man simply says "No thank you" and walks away without consequence. Later, when Scully moves into porn acting to get close to Holly, his bad acting in "legitimate" movies inverts when a producer responds to his ridiculous questions with, "What are you, some kind of method actor?" I also wondered if Gloria Revelle was a play on "se réveiller," meaning "to wake up." Of course, without the reflexive it would mean more along the lines of "to get it up," which she certainly does for Jake.

Throughout, you can see De Palma tearing down everything, and I found myself confronting my disdain for irony as a defense mechanism with this film, which is so bad on so many levels but clearly seeks to be unpleasant. But the difference between De Palma's style at its best and the sort of approaches I find tedious is that De Palma doesn't stand outside his movie and act as if he's above it. Instead, he puts himself right in the shit with the actors (and the audience), embodying all that he hates and digging deeper into his themes and issues because of it. It's essentially another iteration of the split between A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs: both are movies condemning fascistic violence in supposedly evolved social structures and privileged characters, but one looks down the with condescension while the other truly gets inside the moral abandon to find motivation. De Palma, like his clearest successors, the Neveldine/Taylor duo, works best when he throws his camera into the fracas and treats even the most brazenly reflexive moments with fierce conviction. He certainly like to have a laugh at his own films, but there's nothing more serious to a comedian than comedy.

By the end, everything collapses, the circular motion of the film from the coffin at the start to the open grave at the end proving what a self-involved exercise it all was. And when the villain starts screaming "You've got to act!" there's no way to find some kind of coherent logic to all this. The pieces don't add up, intentionally so, and you can practically De Palma asking "Oh, what do you care anyway?" as the credits roll over one last shot of breasts. This may be the most contemptuous I've ever seen a movie be to an audience, which is all the more disturbing because it might be, on some level, deserved.

*De Palma says this in an interview recorded between him and director Noah Baumbach for the Criterion Collection's superlative DVD and Blu-Ray release of Blow Out, which includes, among other things, a remastered, hi-def version of Murder à la Mod.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, and naturally agree with you on many things you've pointed out here. That wormholes reference, very funny. Very mastabatory for De Palma fans.
    Very astute, but of course I differ in opinion in one area - the acting, man! I know I'm bias in the positive sense towards actors, often when people are being more negative than me about certain actors I'll realise compared to me they are just being neutral, and I'll check myself before saying something. But dude, you are scathing! Since Deborah Shelton needed a voiceover I'll grant that she was little more than... well, what she was - an image of a beautiful woman that would be better characterised ironically by a completely different woman. But personally I think theres a big different between inept out of control bad, and playing along bad :p

  2. Nice that this old classic get some attention. Its actually a guilty pleasure of mine and made it onto the life in movies post:

    I like that he plays with the layers so much, surely its a very uneven movie compared to Scarface, Carrie, Blow Out or The Untouchables but it certainly has a charm that those movies lack and I think the cinematography is way superior to.

  3. I think Blow Out trumps it for grace but yeah, I'd rank Body Double over the others you mentioned. I find The Untouchables a hollow affair although I hope my opinion changes when I revisit soon.

  4. If Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' was a woman, 'Body Double' is the movie that beats her, rapes her, kills her, buries her, exhumes her, desecrates her, eats her, shits her out, *then* rubs our nose in it -- while the De Palma devotees tell us all the while it tastes like honey flecked with gold leaf.