Though frequently still written off as a footnote in Brian De Palma’s filmography, Dionysus in ’69’s status as a difficult-to-see film has created an enthusiasm among De Palma fanatics counter to this. And, in any number of ways, the film probably deserves its status as a conversation starter in the De Palma canon rather than the entire conversation: it’s more theater director Richard Schechner’s and his Performance Group theater troupe’s vision, the cinematic experimentalism is scaled back to one single signature form (again De Palma shares “a film by” credit, this time with his two co-cinematographers Robert Fiore and Bruce Rubin), and any vague parallels to the Kennedy assassination were prescribed nearly 2,500 years in advance.
Dionysus in ’69 is a feature-length split-screen, a bifurcated recording of what was one of the New York avant-garde theater world’s more controversial productions: a loose interpretation of Euripides’s Bacchae performed in and around its audience in a garage that frequently detoured into simulated sex acts and modern political soapboxing. (It’s original title, Dionysus in ’69, is a campaign slogan for William Finley as Dionysus, who shatters the play’s—and film’s—illusions of Greek dramaturgy with an explicitly American context by repositioning the performance as a bloody, sexy cautionary tale—one that can only be remedied by replacing President Johnson with President Finley. Works for me.)
De Palma frames the entire performance as just that—a performance—to the best of his abilities. He opens with the actors on one side of the screen before curtain, stretching, purring their vocal exercises, centering, and shaking it out. On the other side, he shows the audience lined up around the block. (Unless my eyes deceive me, the sequence features one of De Palma’s only moments of self-referentiality when his camera finds The Wedding Party’s groom Charles Pfluger waiting in line.) While the performance of Bacchae (specifically, Finley’s dependably galvanizing performance at its center) is undoubtedly the primary element of Dionysus in ’69, De Palma’s contributions are worth considering, if only for context. The split-screen, so often an attempt to make the screen a psycho-physiological extension of the characters within the film, is here used as an attempt to unite one audience with another.
While it’s obviously impossible to get down and dirty with the actors from the other side of the movie screen, at least De Palma’s multiple choice frames-within-frames suggest the intimacy of the theatrical experience. The merging of political radicalism, melodrama, sophomoric humor, and turbulent sexual transgressions survived as a formula—with varying ratios—in basically every De Palma film to follow. After all, it’s worth mentioning that the film features a male-on-male make out session that predates Femme Fatale’s lesbian bathroom grope.