By Matt Zoller Seitz
Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia earned raves from a few reviewers and disses and dismissals from the rest. (As of this writing, its Metacritic score is a fulcrum-centered 49—a surefire indicator of a love-it-or-hate-it experience.) But whatever Dahlia's long-term prospects, it at least prompted widespread interest in De Palma, whose 40-year career has inspired wildly mixed reactions (with the conspicuous exception of The Untouchables, which was kinetic but shallow, and never sexy). Granted, he's not easy to defend; he wraps enlightenment inside neuroses, and his work can be elegant and obvious, sophisticated and silly, all at once. But even if you accept this caveat, Dahlia is still vexing. Even boosters are having trouble warming to it—a problem explored in detail by De Palma obsessive Dennis Cozzalio over at Sergio Leone and The Infield Fly Rule, in a lengthy essay that describes this writer's review as persuasive, but only to a point.
The Black Dahlia seems to me an intelligently mounted misfire, one that fails to make its central metaphor, the bisected body of an already degraded and humiliated starlet, who might just as easily have been ground up and spat in two halves from the gaping maw of the Hollywood machine, resonate with the kind of force that might have carried the movie to lofty, expressive heights....[D]espite its considerable craft and obvious serious of intent, [it] feels listless, indifferent, and disconnected from the film noir tropes, character conflicts, and even the meticulously reconstructed 1940s-era Los Angeles (shot entirely on sets in Bulgaria) it so tantalizingly recreates. And I think it is possible to recognize that in The Black Dahlia De Palma could very well be trying, at age 66, to reframe the strategies and conclusions of his entire career. He made a similar summation when he employed the technique he honed so brilliantly in Sisters, Carrie and Dressed to Kill to inform the personal paranoia and political outrage at the heart of Blow Out. The difference is that in Blow Out the result was an appreciable heightening of De Palma's abilities to express his personal concerns in filmmaking about and within the thriller form. The Black Dahlia may involve a process of discovery for De Palma, one which may yet result in another major work that couldn't have existed without the conscious reevaluation that Matt claims the director is engaging in here. But the film itself has the meandering feel of an artist in search of meaning, rather than one who has discovered it and is putting it to new and exciting use.
Christian Science Monitor movie critic Peter Rainer penned a similarly conflicted piece for last Sunday's Los Angeles Times. Curiously, though, Rainer's essay—which I've been carrying around in my bookbag and re-reading since my SoCal trip last weekend—seems afflicted by the same muddled POV it ascribes to Dahlia; the piece veers between defending De Palma as a misunderstood visionary and conceding that his detractors might have a point when they suggest that he's not really ambivalent about savagery, but flat-out digs it (particularly when it's directed against women) and that his sinuously expressive filmmaking may disguise an absence of depth. "The dread he parlays has never quite devolved into shtick because, even in a film as roundly slammed and wildly unsatisfactory as The Black Dahlia, there are moments when his ecstatic love of filmmaking comes through," Rainer writes. "But his ardor can be a mixed blessing. De Palma's technique alone can hold you, but sometimes we must ask: Technique in the service of what?" He goes on to write:
In the mid-'80s [De Palma] said in an interview, "I don't start with an idea about content. I start with a visual image." In the same interview he said, "I'm interested in motion, sometimes violent motions, because they work aesthetically in film."
But surely this patter about pure cinema is a decoy. A sports film, for example, offers abundant opportunities for dynamic movement, and yet De Palma has never attempted one of those. As a rule, things really get rolling for him when his camera tracks are slicked with fresh blood. The fact that the blood most often belongs to women, who are perceived as prey, or that sex is often the lure for violence in his films, fouls the air.
In Dressed to Kill, probably his most controversial movie, an unhappily married woman played by Angie Dickinson has a hot tryst with a dark stranger and gets sliced to death in an elevator for her troubles. The camerawork throughout all this is—no other word for it—gorgeous. It's an emblematic sequence for De Palma and the sickest of jokes: Sex, even good sex, can only end badly.
Despite the super-sophistication of his technique, in essence De Palma's movies express, at least for men in the audience, how sex was experienced as an adolescent. An early adolescent. They capture the rage and mortification, the guilt, the tingle of voyeurism. In Carrie, the slo-mo glide through the girls' locker room that opens the movie is every boy's porno fantasia.
Say what? Having seen Carrie on a big screen just last weekend at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—my first time seeing it with an audience in about 15 years—that final description rings false for a number of reasons, particularly its employment of the all-encompassing phrase "every boy's," which not only denies the possibility of male empathy for Carrie at her moment of humiliation, but also implies (perhaps inadvertently) that the opening sequence is mainly interested in embodying teenage male anxiety, and that there's nothing in it that might resonate with women.
What floors me about the opening sequence—beyond its nightmarish control of composition, movement, editing, color and sound—is its empathy for its heroine as she experiences her long-delayed first menstruation in public, mere moments after enjoying a rare moment of guilt-free sexual bliss. Until this moment, Carrie's maturation has been stunted by her fundamentalist mom, who wants her to remain desexualized—emotionally and physically fixed, therefore docile and dependent, a receptive vessel in every sense. Suddenly and horribly, Carrie is confronted with direct physical refutation of her mother's values (which are not innately feminine values, but regurgitated patriarchal scare tactics handed down through two millenia). That blood represents her essence as a woman and a human being, the true self she been forced to deny. Then, at what's surely one of the most humilating moments of her life, representatives of the gender that logically should sympathize with her dehumanize and persecute her, pelting her with tampons and sanitary napkins while crowing, "Plug it up!" (Teachers who want to illustrate what it means to internalize an oppressor's values should screen Carrie in class.) The crimson spilling from Carrie's body prefigures her killer Christ explosion at the prom—drenched in pig's blood, she kills the pigs. Rainer describes the ending as "ghastly comic justice," but it's no joke. The film's nightmarishly hopeless opening and demonically empowered climax mirror—in some ways answer—each other, superimposing multiple cultural and religious associations (Old Testament admonitions, Puritan witch-hunting, Catholic iconography, Freud's greatest hits) upon the tragedy of Carrie's life, making the archetypal personal. Most impressively, the two sequences accomplish all this via picture and sound, mostly avoiding explanatory dialogue. Psychological, religious and political complexity conveyed without words: that's commercial narrative filmmaking at its zenith.
Meanwhile, in an alternate universe where there's nothing on TV but The Wire, Bethlehem Shoals of the excellent blog Heaven and Here observes that Honey Nut Cheerio-craving rip-and-run artist Omar Little and rising drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield are the show's two most nearly-mythic characters—and wonders if they can both survive the season.
"Put simply, The Wire is not big enough for both Marlo and Omar," Shoals writes. "Omar more or less stalks a make-believe world, in which homosexuality hinders not his fearsome rep, his tight-knit crew is invincible, and his whim dictates city-wide drug trade policy. Of course, all of this is unabashedly true, making Omar one of the few characters on The Wire who defies the show's insistence on stark realism. It's been said that Omar is more myth than man, more urban legend than rendered individual; while I agree with this reading, you have to wonder how we're then to understand his intersections with the less ethereal beings in the narrative....The equally unstoppable Marlo seems to now verge on this hallowed terrain. Impossibly cocky, shrewd and determined, he's the closest we've seen to the perfect criminal. So far this season, there have been hints that he might be overreaching, or that this unprecedented badness might be one long delusion on his part. As of #41, though, we viewers have no reason to believe that Marlo's not at least a decent fraction of the model kingpin he's seemingly styled himself as. And even if his form of perfection seems more deliberate than Omar's felicitous stash house tour, Young Stanfield is still set up as someone close to achieving his ideal....Of course, this in some ways seems at odds with the rest of The Wire in which the very notion of "perfection" is a ruse designed to replace complexity with invidious "imperfection." Few characters on the show could, in their functional capacity as police, administrators, criminals, or politicans, be described as effortlessly, seamlessly fulfilling their role's basic duties. In fact, if one compares almost anyone else to the sheer mastery that is Omar or Marlo, only Lester and Prop Joe come off as anything less than distracted, even bumbling...The imminent Omar/Marlo showdown, then, confuses me for a number of reasons. On one level, it's fucking awesome; on another, it seems to foreground the two characters least representative of the show's way with fiction...[D]oes this battle between two creatures from beyond the pale of realism confound The Wire's atmosphere, turning it into a playground for figments of the urban fantastic?"
Discuss, preferably while eating Honey Nut Cheerios.
Talking shop: At the screenwriter-centric blog Mystery Man on Film, the pseudonymous author, a screenwriter, grooves on the recent explosion in film and TV blogging, then poses a series of rhetorical questions to fellow screenwriters:
The film bloggers expound upon every little obsession they have about movies - the people they love, the faces they love, the filmmakers they love, the techniques they love, the great compositions of shots, the art of visual storytelling, and on and on. They continually feed each other and they are revolutionizing the way people talk about film. They reveal everything because they have nothing to lose...We screenwriters, on the other hand, reveal nothing, because we think we have everything to gain by keeping it all to ourselves.
Who gives a flying flip if you—OH MY GOD - reveal the things you've learned about the craft? Or what you love about movies? Or the script-to-screen studies you did six years ago? Or the insights you have about film technique, formatting, characters, dialogue, style, structure, or anything else you love about screenwriting? How else are you going to grow if you don't talk to others about the craft and ask questions and get the kind of feedback that takes you to a new level?
Frankly, I've never understood the cult of secrecy enfolding Mystery Man's profession. Seems to me that in screenwriting, as in any creative pursuit, how you say something matters as much as—usually more than—how you say it. It's an art form, and art can only deepen if artists talk shop.
Tangentially, I've also found that writers who habitually decline to discuss what they're working on out of fear that somebody might steal their ideas have few ideas worth stealing—and if they do, they'll soon learn that secrecy is no defense against the mathematical probabilities of the zeitgeist. Chances are, if a strong, easily graspable idea for a story just suddenly came to you out of the blue, that means it was floating around in the pop culture unconscious, which in turn means that at this very instant, dozens of screenwriters all over the world are working on vaguely similar concepts, one of which will probably get produced first, not necessarily because it's the deepest or most exciting take on the subject, but because the screenwriter knows somebody who knows somebody who works for ICM. Seems to me the only sane response to fear of idea theft is to reject it as a waste of precious mental energy—though I'm sure the 438 still-unknown screenwriters who penned scripts about snakes on a plane may beg to differ.
Who's your Dada? Should Jackass Number Two be in contention for a Best Documentary Oscar? The question isn't that radical; in fact, it came up back in December of 2002, when factions within the New York and Los Angeles Film Critics Circles argued that Jackass: The Movie was the best nonfiction feature in a year that also saw the release of Frederick Wiseman's monumental Domestic Violence. Although I haven't yet seen the sequel, I get the first movie's popularity (it's old-fashioned circus geekery with an X-treme comedy makeover). And the contrarian in me respects anyone with stones enough to claim, among other things, that (1) Johnny Knoxville and company are Dadaists, (2) that boisterously crazy straight dudes obsessed with inflicting pain on their nether regions are actually closet cases, and (3) that the Jackass phenomenon reveals that the essence of male bonding is sadomasochism. (For a provocative if brief case for point #1, see Nathan Lee's New York Times review.)
Granted, far less original talents have been nominated for Oscars and won, and the idea of Academy having standards to defend is Dadaist humor of a different sort. Still, Jackass-as-great-surrealist-subversive-populist-etc. sounds, at worst, like an attempt to intellectualize a visceral response, and it makes one envision practitioners of the old, square version of nonfiction filmmaking (choosing a subject, doing interviews and research, editing to bring out motifs and themes, etc) reading such arguments and thinking, bitterly, "I get it—if I want critics to get really excited about nonfiction cinema, I need to videotape myself sticking thumbtacks in my forehead." (Having said that, I'll see the Jackass sequel soon and eat crow if required. Not literally.)
Along these lines, A.J. Schnack poses good questions: "Now, it's unlikely that Johnny Knoxville and company are looking for an Oscar nod. And even if they qualified, it seems unlikely that they'd make it through the screening procedures and short-listing. But does the film deserve to be considered? Is it even a documentary? And if it isn't, what disqualifies it? The 'scripted' stunts? Is setting up a specific stunt any different than setting up an interview?" Then the writer concludes, "There's no question that Jackass [Number Two] will be the biggest nonfiction film this year; the question is whether anyone, in the doc world or out, will acknowledge it."
Discuss—preferably while dropping baby scorpions on your t'aint.