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Body Double (#110 of 4)

Double Reflections: Beyond the Shadow of the Double

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Double Reflections: Beyond the Shadow of the Double
Double Reflections: Beyond the Shadow of the Double

The theme of “the double” has exerted a complex and ambiguous fascination throughout the cultural history of the last century. Arguably, every form of contemporary art has been touched by this powerful theme and its many implications. Indeed, the double is more than a theme: it is a basic figuration, an archetype whose flexible structure can express multiple meanings and associations. In a sense, the double is, appropriately, a multi-faceted mental form.

The relationship between the double and the cinema is especially intriguing: we could say that the double, born mainly in literature and poetry, has found in cinema its natural medium of expression. The reasons for that are more structural than aesthetic: in fact, in film the double is often not only a theme or a form, but also a fundamental subtext directly connected to the particular nature of the cinematic experience.

Objects of Appalling Beauty An Appreciation of Brian De Palma

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Objects of Appalling Beauty: An Appreciation of Brian De Palma
Objects of Appalling Beauty: An Appreciation of Brian De Palma

“I’ve lived in empty places all my life. I don’t care where I live or what I look like.”

— Brian De Palma

“Critics—no maybe I should call them “reviewers” instead of critics—are looking for the latest thing rather than the truest thing.”

— Armond White, attempting to explain the critical abandonment of De Palma

In May, 2001, director Brian De Palma was honored with a one-month long retrospective, “The Responsive Eye,” at the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. Although De Palma had been taken seriously for decades by international critics, and had cultivated a large domestic audience, reviewers in the United States had been slow to recognize his achievements and progression as an artist. This event was seen by many as a breakthrough.

The Plausibles: The Problems of Make-Believe in the Age of Reason

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The Plausibles: The Problems of Make-Believe in the Age of Reason
The Plausibles: The Problems of Make-Believe in the Age of Reason

Yeah, right.

I’ve heard this a lot lately; I suppose you have too. We may have said it ourselves on occasion. It’s the common phrase uttered by people who believe a piece of fiction has drifted a little too far from reality. Alfred Hitchcock had a name for these people. He called them “the plausibles.”

All Is Loss Brian DePalma’s The Black Dahlia

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All Is Loss: Brian DePalma’s The Black Dahlia
All Is Loss: Brian DePalma’s The Black Dahlia

“Do you think you’re capable of playing sadness?” an unseen director asks a wannabe actress and future murder victim, in screen test footage that recurs throughout Brian DePalma’s The Black Dahlia.

“Sure,” she replies, her voice steady but her mind elsewhere. “I can do that.”

And so can De Palma, who provides the voice of that soft-spoken yet menacing director. One of the filmmaker’s most ambitious and formally complex films, The Black Dahlia is, above all else, a tragedy—and not just for the abovementioned Hollywood actress, Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), whose unsolved 1947 murder-mutilation in served as the basis for countless movies and books, including DePalma’s source material, James Ellroy’s 1987 novel. (Be warned: this review is all spoilers.) Ellroy’s book wove a fictional mystery around Short’s murder. Both a pastiche and a critique, it used Raymond Chandler-styled purple prose knowingly and ironically, cluing the reader to see through Chandler’s smoky machismo and understand that the same male swagger that’s sanctified via the hardboiled fiction hero exists in the real world, where it enables sexism, racism, xenophobia and the subjugation of the poor by the rich.

Screenwriter Josh Friedman’s adaptation frames the story within a heavily narrated extended flashback by ex-boxer turned L.A. police detective Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), who tries to solve Short’s seemingly random killing with help from his partner, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), and drifts ever closer to two women, kinky socialite Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank) and Lee’s blond goddess girlfriend, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). At first the film plays like Chinatown-style modern noir, in which the investigation of a singular horror reveals corruption within families, institutions and communities. But The Black Dahlia soon reveals itself as something more: the story of a young man discovering his moral code, then realizing how useless it is in the face of society-wide indifference, greed and cruelty.