In the introduction to Slant’s symposium on the director, I mentioned that Brian De Palma was possibly the only mainstream director capable of lobbing a hate crime in the form of a pop film a la Godard’s Weekend. What I didn’t mention is that he already has. Body Double, De Palma’s relentless declaration of war against his critics, bars no holds. The only other time he stepped this close to the precipice over the pit of nihilism was with the first 90 minutes of Femme Fatale. The later film, of course, flowers into something considerably more life-affirming and benign. The saving grace of Body Double is that De Palma could willfully make a film so successfully debased and still position the entire experience as an apparatus to prove the axiom “it’s only a movie.” It’s more than that. It’s a movie movie in the same sense that Little Caesar offered “pizza pizza”—a diminutive svengali selling a cut rate product that gets the immediate job done and leaves a lot for leftovers.
“What are you, some kind of method actor?” asks a grimy porno producer to failed actor Craig Wasson halfway through the movie. I call the failed actor Craig Wasson not because I can’t remember the character’s name but because Wasson’s off performance is one of the crucial keys to understanding De Palma’s Herschell-Gordon-Lewis-meets-Radley-Metzger-by-way-of-Bertolt-Brecht routine. No, make that porno Pirandello! Call the whole film Six Set Pieces in Search of a Sleazy Subtext (or maybe Six Movie Reviewers in Search of a Beatdown), but appreciating Body Double means taking stock of the ways the film’s pieces don’t add up. You could say that Wasson isn’t a particularly convincing actor as an actor, but he’s not supposed to be. Wasson’s transparency makes him the perfect fall guy for the hideously ugly man who wants to murder an extremely sexy woman. Similarly, Wasson’s swing-and-miss performance (from a technical, emotional standpoint) in Body Double helps De Palma achieve more radical distancing experimental tropes than he’d ever attempted to pull before while ostensibly in Hitchcock thriller mode.
More than any other De Palma film, Body Double requires the audience to step outside of their role as spectators and, instead, examine the fissure between what the director is conveying and how they’re processing it. In other words, they have to observe how they observe. He does this by inserting movies within the movie. Wasson is filming a movie, or was until he gets fired for his inadequacies. Melanie Griffith’s porn pixie Holly Body stars in Holly Does Hollywood, a movie dubbed the Gone with the Wind of porn. The two meet on the set of a porno sequel that recreates the making of the earlier film. (A mirror shot that Wasson claims he created reveals the camera crew.) Body Double even begins and ends with deliberate deconstructions, tricking the audience into accepting scenes at face value and then breaking down the reality of a film set’s goings on. (Of course, we’re watching De Palma’s false setups of the film-within-a-film’s false setups, which compounds the complication.) It’s heady, but the cavalcade of titties help the medicine go down, which is why Body Double has far more potential to demonstrate avant garde concerns, techniques, and cognitive dissonance than anything by, say, Peter Kubelka. (Unless, of course, you prefer your breasts National Geographic-style. Then, by all means, double bill this one with Unsere Afrikareise.)
Though it’s evident that De Palma was taking petulant pot shots at the bluenoses who turned Dressed To Kill’s classy, good-natured ribaldry into the purported number one cause of all rapes committed between 1980 and 1981, Body Double’s manufactured assaults never cross the line. Like Godard, who was also a master of mixing bile with a steady sense of fatalistic humor, De Palma isn’t capable of perpetrating hate crimes. Just hate humps. Not every attack on the hypocrisies of what is and what isn’t acceptable in mainstream sensuality comes from the business end of an erect power drill. For instance, whenever Wasson catches a glimpse of his own “Madeline”/“Judy” double (i.e. a doppelganger of a doppelganger) dancing in nothing but headphones and panties, De Palma has Pino Donaggio score the discovery as a parody of Tangerine Dream’s “Love On A Real Train” from Risky Business. Without drawing too fine a point of it, he seems to be mocking the set of standards that romanticize the corruption of virile, high school boys at the hands of non-Chlamydia-carrying whores. But heaven forbid a middle-aged woman should have a remotely risqué sexual fantasy life without the middle-aged film director taking the flack.
Body Double, while not his finest, is the best candidate as De Palma’s signature film. It’s a wicked, feature-length double entendre from a Doublemint era. Take it at face value, take it for its prurience or take it for all it’s worth. Hell, try taking on all three at once. Ever since Dionysus in ’69, De Palma has force-fucked the intellect with the libido. Even though the assistant director on the set of Holly Body’s new porno epic quips, “I thought we were doing Body Shop here, not Last Tango,” that’s no reason for you not to masturbate over the footnotes. What are you, some kind of method cinephile?