“This place is… possessed!”

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If you want my opinion, Gerrit Graham is the whole show.

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Tony Dayoub’s DePalma Blogathon here.

Brian DePalma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE — his name is above the title, despite the fact that who the hell was he, anyway, in 1974? — is an oddity in his career, a career strung with oddities. Despite perhaps borrowing its bird imagery from PSYCHO, and featuring probably his funniest take on the shower scene, PHANTOM isn’t particularly a Hitchcock-referencing film, which sets it apart from SISTERS beforehand and OBSESSION afterwards. The movie does feature a replay of TOUCH OF EVIL’s opening long take, though, with a split-screen twist. I think in this case he ruins the song and creates confusion rather than clarity (for much of the sequence both images show basically the same action), but it’s still an amusing trope, somehow.

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Has DePalma somehow obtained custody of a dead little girl, and mounted the tiny corpslet on wires like some kind of macabre marionette? Or has he hired Paul Williams to act in his film? I’m not sure which is the greater outrage against taste and decency. Williams provides the score, which contains enjoyable but not truly memorable songs — the big problem is probably that they don’t feel specific to this story. The plot details the mounting of a rock opera based on Faust, but the songs don’t seem that specific to that either. Even when the Faust plot invades the main storyline in an outrageous and rather-unprepared-for supernatural twist, the songs don’t really mesh with it. But they’re good little toe-tappers while they’re on.

Depressingly, DePalma’s script derives more from the Claude Rains PHANTOM than from the Chaney, despite name-checking that film’s leading lady, Mary Philbin. This means that practically the first half of the movie is an origin saga, before the Faustian pact can get going, and the relationship between the Phantom (William Finlay, still working for BDP in 2006’s THE BLACK DAHLIA) and his muse, Phoenix (Jessica Harper) is relegated to a couple of lines of dialogue. That’s often been my trouble with DePalma’s “sweeping and Wagnerian” romantic side — he can’t spare the time or effort to suggest a real relationship, so the love interest is gestural and generic and totally fails to move me.

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But — PHANTOM is so popping with ideas, and so strikingly designed by Jack “the man in the planet” Fisk, that such problems, while certainly central and critical, do not prevent a good time from being had. Meeting Finlay in his pre-phantasmal geekdom robs him of all the grandeur Chaney possessed, but DePalma is aiming for a more pathetic creature of the night anyway, albeit one who has inexplicably acquired the ability to punch through walls.

“Style will always convince cinematic purists that the surfaces they admire contain depth, and that clear shortcomings in disguise. DePalma isn’t logical, so he must be impressionistic. He isn’t realistic, so he must be surrealistic. He isn’t scrupulous, so he must be audacious. He isn’t earnest, so he must be ironical. He isn’t funny, so he must be serious.”

So writes Martin Amis in The Movie Brute, his very funny, grossly unfair but quite well-aimed takedown of DePalma and his pretensions to greatness, written as BDP was shooting BODY DOUBLE (which would have given Amis a lot more grist to his mill had he been able to see it in time). Amis’s sarcastic remarks (leaving aside the fact that most of them could equally well apply to himself) are, in a way, literally true, in not quite the way he means — if only by default, DePalma is surreal and audacious and the rest. He can also occasionally be funny, but perhaps not frequently enough to fill a whole movie. PHANTOM is funny while Gerrit Graham is strutting and preening as rockstar “Beef.” BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES has André Gregory ranting about Don Giovanni (his introduction, given several times: “This is Aubrey Buffing, the poet. He has AIDS.”) RAISING CAIN has a fantastic John Lithgow turn, and another dead child in a fright wig (“It is a bad thing that you are doing!”). WISE GUYS has Joe Piscopo and isn’t funny at all.

DePalma addressed this comedic lack when he appeared at the Edinburgh Film Festival: after averring that he wasn’t afraid of anything, he admitted that he probably wouldn’t be making any more comedies anytime soon. And yet he practically began as a comedy director: that’s one word used to describe GREETINGS and HI MOM! anyway, and then there’s the Tom Smothers movie and PHANTOM. I think maybe DePalma’s sense of humour is a little too outre for popular taste, like Polanski’s, and his technique doesn’t really lend itself to chuckles — I can recall a 360 degree pan in WISE GUYS, and it didn’t really work as a gag-delivery mechanism. Plus Polanski and DePalma can’t help throw in unpleasant little details that make the laughter shrivel in your throat — here there’s a gratuitous tooth-pulling episode that leaves the Phantom with a ritzy set of steel gnashers. He doesn’t USE them, but there they are.

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Jessica Harper, who’s had a surprisingly psychotronic career for such a nice-seeming girl (SUSPIRIA, SHOCK TREATMENT, SAFE, even MINORITY REPORT) has a big voice and a beautiful little-girl face. She’s good at looking perplexed, which is helpful here. And she dances like a mad aunty at a drunken party.

I don’t know why Gerrit Graham isn’t at least as famous as, say, Al Pacino. On this evidence, he should have his face on a stamp for services to lisping and mincing. It must be difficult to act this good without attracting the attentions of the vice squad, but anyhow we can cherish him in this film, threatening to erupt all over the audience like a protoplasmic Roman candle, a bipedal outrage who makes overacting a religious calling. He should be in every film, giving this performance. It would improve EVERYTHING.

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When he’s not about we can admire Harper and the sets (dressed by Sissy Spacek!) and stare slack-jawed at the multi-talented Paul Williams, with his tiny hairless body, bri-nylon cancer wig, groovy shades and jaunty philtrum (I want a film in which he plays Ron Perlman’s conjoined twin and I want it NOW). DePalma’s nightmarish, nihilistic ending, a sort of gothic Altamont revenger’s tragedy, left me feeling woozy and a little depressed, but I was glad I’d been on the PHANTOM ride. Always, with the pleasure, a little malaise.

1) At Edinburgh Film Fest, DePalma asked his driver, a friend of mine, for a lighter. My friend passed one over. DePalma pocketed it. Are other people just walking dispensers of stuff to Brian?

2) He tried to get a young female producer to sit on his lap, and when she politely declined, he spanked her.

3) Fiona walked with him from one party to another. “How much farther?” whined BDP, like a big baby. Quote from Amis’s profile ~

“‘Hitchcock was sixty when he made PSYCHO. I don’t know if I’ll be able to walk when I’m sixty.’ A curious remark — but then Brian is not a good walker, even now, at forty-four; he is not a talented walker.”

Still, at 69, Brian is still walking and still making films, and they’re still interesting and undiluted and personal. That deserves some credit.

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UK buyers:

The Moronic Inferno

Phantom Of The Paradise [DVD] [1974]

US buyers:

The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America

Phantom of the Paradise

21 Responses to ““This place is… possessed!””

  1. AnneBillson Says:

    What do you mean the songs aren’t memorable? I’ve had them on the brain for the past 35 years.

    Isn’t it as much Dorian Gray as Faust and Phantom of the Opera?

    God, I love the 1970s. Can you imagine a film as demented as this being greenlighted nowadays? Because I’m damn sure the remake isn’t going to measure up.

  2. Of course different people will respond to the songs in different ways. I’d forgotten them all as the end credits rolled.

    You’re right that the Dorian Gray syndrome enters the story in act three, subsumed into the Faust thing, but definitely there. PW making a deal with the devil to preserve his physical perfection is one of the best jokes!

  3. I was always struck by the strangeness of Paul Williams, his strange voice and that strange countenance, although what I found strange others might find cute perhaps. Just did a Wikipedia check on him, he’s quite an accomplished songwriter (won’t go into detail, but he received an Oscar for Evergreen, recorded by Barbra Streisand), and as an actor he was in SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT as well as PHANTOM , and was the voice of The Penguin in the Batman animated series (makes sense). One of his brothers was a NASA scientist (!), and I gather he’s had addiction problems, since he’s actively involved in lending his efforts to Recovery causes. When PHANTOM came out in 1974 it was the end of the Glitter Era, and at a time when my energies were directed toward the likes of Bowie, Iggy and Lou Reed, someone like Paul Williams just didn’t matter to me, just seemed too much of a lightweight. And he was strange, in a squirrelly, gnome-like kind of way.

  4. I may have said this before but Williams’ cameo in Rules of Attraction was a particularly grim delight, and perfect casting. I still want to see him as Hyde.

  5. I had a very weird introduction to Paul Williams, as he featured in both Famous Monsters of Filmland, and in The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries:

    So I got the impression that Paul Williams was in some way the most famous man in America (Forrest Ackerman’s hyperbolic style may have contributed to this).

  6. Paul Williams has an equally outre son Cole, who’s quite impressive as a manipulative bisexual in the sadly little-seen Race You To The Bottom.

    As for Geritt Graham he’s also quite fine in a low-key role in Donald Cammell’s exceedingly high-key Demon Seed — in which he’s dispatched in a most unusual way by a power-mad computer.

  7. Gerritt Graham is also quite amusing as a men’s movement (Spartanetics) loon in HOME MOVIES (although I think Nancy Allen steals that one with her rabbit act)

  8. Gerrit Graham was one of DePalma’s finds (like DeNiro and Allen Garfield – DePalma was very canny about talent) from the early underground films. He’s the paranoid Kennedy conspiracy buff who gets shot in Greetings! (waving enlargements at the camera purporting to show the man on the grassy knoll, yelling “See!”), among other things. The number of stolen plots and homages in PotP is really amasing and if you watch it as a filmmaker’s fun box (and leave your taste at the door – c’mon that’s required with DePalma, it can be a lot more enjoyable. I found he’s really indifferent to some of the conventions we cling to (the dialogue between Finley and Harper is a real wet blanket), so there’s a tendency to underrate DePalma’s abilities. He’s not funny in a conventional way (he should never be let near a comedy for his own good) but his twisted jokes are as transgressive as any – think of Angie Dickinson finding out her stud has an STD after she’s sated and satisfied in Dressed To Kill), are funny and shocking at once. It’s a joke that’s almost impossible to laugh at, but yet it’s still funny.

  9. Another similarly twisted joke is the blowjob scene between Nancy Allen and John Travolta in Carrie.

    BTW, I always wanted to intercut Gerrit’s mini lecture about the Spartans in Home Movies with scenes from 300. Well, I also wanted the T-shirt that said “Those who know…know” also.

  10. I have a soft spot for the songs, if only because they are such bitter 70s song parodies.
    I think, humor-wise, the movie never quite tops the opening sequence, when the SHA NA NA stand-ins, while singing one of the most transparent “rock ‘n’ roll as religion” songs ever, take advantage of and assault everyone around them, including their fellow band-mates.

    And as far as introducing the Faust theme, in a way, the song itself, about a singer who kills himself for fame, sets it up.

    My other favorite moment: when Paul Williams is trying out different arrangements of the songs, and we literally see a band from each genre appear.

  11. Yes, that’s nice. It seemed like with a little effort that opening number could have been smoothed into the plot, making the suicidal singer a real character from Swan’s stable of stars. It just feels like Williams and DePalma never quite got together to pool their efforts.

    Really want to see Home Movies now!

    My favourite Paul Williams perf is probably in The Loved One (as “Gunther Fry”), definitely a movie he was born to be in.

  12. Home Movies is a minor low budget stew of weird parodies (ISTR even a Harold Pinter parody in it), implausibilities (who’d buy Nancy Allen with Keith Gordon together in this film?), and very off-the wall humor (Nancy’s rabbit puppet, who fights with Gerrit for control of her). At least it’s straightforwardly told. I should warn it’s a comedy, but one where he parodies himself as much as anyone else, You might get irritated at one moment and laugh the next.

    Kirk Douglas has a big role in it as an egotistical film school teacher (not only does he direct the camera moves in class, he acts out a scene with a student, clobbers him, and before the student can get up and hit back, he yells “Cut!”, stopping the poor sod in his tracks. ) who uses Keith Gordon as a tragic case study in his class.

    If DePalma ever had a Mary Sue in his films, Keith Gordon was it.

  13. KG is certainly playing an idealized young BDP in Dressed to Kill. Intriguingly, The Devil’s Candy, Julie Salomon’s account of the making of Bonfire of the Vanities, recounts how the teenage DePalma once plotted to murder his father’s mistress, an (imaginary) event which reads like the primal scene at the heart of his cinema.

    I quite like some of Keith Gordon’s films as director, but I miss him as an actor. A shame he couldn’t continue to do both.

  14. Gordon is fun–everyone who participated in Legend of Billie Jean is alright in my book!

  15. I’ve never seen LBJ, as I suppose we must call it. But I like Robbins’ Dragonslayer a lot.

  16. Tony Williams Says:

    Despite Martin Amis’s sneers and DePalm’s flaws, I can not imagine the former ever doing something like REDACTED or CASUALTIES OF WAR today.

  17. Some of Amis’s essays do tackle serious matters in an interesting way. But of late he’s made some extraordinary racist pronouncements on the need to crack down in Muslims, statements he’s attempted to distance himself from but for which he needs to apologize fully. Seems he’s turning into the same kind of bigot as his late father.

  18. re; Nice Guy Keith Gordon

    I’ve maybe mentioned this before but he used to be a regular contributor to the alt.movies.Kubrick group on the old usenet about 10 years ago.

    And his adaptation of William Wharton’s A Midnight Clear is majestic.

  19. I was somehow disappointed by that one. It wanted to evoke the tragedy of war but didn’t connect enough to reality to do that. I might have accepted the implausibilities if the film had achieved a stylised effect that justified them, but it didn’t quite get there, for me. Some very lovely images though, and there’s something about a young Ethan Hawke that breaks your heart!

  20. […] areas, and yet who would be surprised?  Anyone who heard her in director Brian DePalma’s Phantom of the Paradise, singing songs written by the multi-talented Paul Williams, knew that she had a lovely voice and […]

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