Saturday, June 29, 2019

Body Double (Brian De Palma)





The second of the two trailers is a unique piece of editing with a more artistic flair. Though it doesn't really give a strong impression of what the film is like, but it's of interest for editors or film enthusiasts.

Brian De Palma's 1983 thriller/noir film (and/or neo-noir) which had mixed reception when it came out, though given high marks by Ebert and amassing a cult following over the years. It's heavily influenced by Hitchcock, most notably Vertigo and Rear Window—two films that De Palma screened with Robert J. Avrech, the co-screenwriter. De Palma is often dismissed as competent but unoriginal, lifting elements from Argento here and there, from giallos in Dressed to Kill, and frequently returning to Hitchcockian thrillers. 

But paying homage or updating the style with a modern director's own touches is fine. It's all about the execution—not every film needs to be original, but it needs passion and it's own identity, all the same—something the viewer can be mesmerized by, or it's just memory holed as a competent enough piece of cinema if you've already imbibed the greater offerings, and unfortunately, that's exactly what this is. De Palma's only update is usually a more cynical and depraved vision from a subsequent generation and some light post-modernist trappings. To date, the best Hitchcockian film, often out-Hitchcocking Hitchcock is Perfect Blue, Satoshi Kon's animated film, with dramatic color usage similar to Vertigo and the warped sense of reality of a Lynch film. This one is very typical by comparison. A movie De Palma is uncertain as to whether he wants it to be a run-of-the-mill, almost parodic, thriller, or an off-kilter art film with genre trappings (and/or deconstruction of said genre). 


It starts off swell enough with a kitsch cemetery scene, made all the more garish by the ginormous moon. out-of-place palm trees (who has ever seen palm trees in a cemetery scene?), and copious amounts of dry ice. The camera pans to a man in a grave, decked out in silly vampire garb and makeup, and the main character's weakness is revealed—his muscles lock up when he's anxious or in a tight place; a sort of catatonic state—a nod to Jimmy Stewart's case of vertigo.

The scene is revealed to be a film-within-a-film sequence, as if it weren't obvious from the props already, with a ridiculous movie director who looks just like Ron Jeremy (the film ended up being seedy enough that they might as well have casted him). 


Jake (Craig Wasson) is a struggling b-movie actor. He evidently doesn't know what sex sounds like, so even once he gets to the door with the loud sounds of his girlfriend engaged in coitus, he still has a smile plastered on his face until the door is yawning wide and he gets an eyeful of it. A dog is seen as he peeks into a messy room on the way to the big reveal—one of the age old symbols for fidelity, and being that the dog is surrounded by squalor, not to mention the sound, he should have known what to expect. 

The main character is an idiot and a loser throughout. Never doing the right thing. A sleaze bag.  A bad actor who plays in bad films. You wonder how he can even afford the place he's living in until it's revealed that he kicked himself out of his girlfriend's apartment. Passive, used, and powerless—he goes numb during many pivotal points in the film—and since the film is mostly about sex even when there's no sex being engaged in, it can be seen as a sort of impotence. 

Not long after the opening sequence there are several visual gags with matte paintings, revealed either by their carriers tilting the painting or the camera revolving around it. There's a regular return to elements of artificiality and film-within-a-film reveals, all the way up to the jarring and immersion breaking ending of the film. De Palma mostly plays it safe with this technique, but while some simply use it as a framing device and a minor commentary on filmmaking itself, he takes a somewhat ambiguous and alienating direction by the end, which I suspect is part of why the film wasn't terribly successful or popular among his oeuvre at the time. 


The cinematography by Stephen H. Burum is proficient, if not as spellbindingly technical as Szigmond's in De Palma's 1981 stab at the genre with Travolta as a sound man who stumbled onto a murder scene and conspiracy. Frankly, I didn't find a lot of scenes worth screen capping and the film relies more on the camera revolving around the characters and on cranes for the exteriors, and disorienting close-ups for much of the heightened scenes of stalking. Many of the static shots are actually fairly drab other than some of the moody interior scenes, and there is a reliance on quicker cuts in lieu of more dramatically staged sequences.

Sam (Gregg Henry) is introduced to Jake and runs into him a few times before he offers him a gig housesitting a rather extravagant home with a set of fancy telescopes and plants that require daily watering. It's constructed like a tower, looming over everything else. It's across from another expensive home, where Sam has been peeping on an attractive woman (Deborah Shelton). Jake takes over as the neighborhood voyeur while Sam heads off for an acting role elsewhere. 

Long, drawn-out scenes with awful new wave pop is played while we're treated to a sound effect of Jake unzipping his pants and long telephoto shots of him tracking the woman, who seems to be dancing for his enjoyment, often in the nude and bedecked with diamonds. These scenes are tedious and not particular titillating, if that was the intention. Instead we're left to observe a character being titillated. Not especially appealing. The trashy pop music is indicative of his fantasies, and it doesn't carry the depth a character study usually would—this takes a back seat to unfolding the plot, the thriller and suspense elements, and Jake's threadbare journey from passivity to dominance.

It continues on like this for a bit, with little of interest happening other than Jake losing his acting role as a vampire (a point which becomes important later on). 


One night a strange man is doing electrical work on a satellite in the neighborhood. It's very strange seeing this, and he seems to be a voyeur of sorts as well, watching the woman. He is exceptionally ugly and sinister-looking, clearly indicating he's the villain of the picture.

When Jake spots the man trailing the woman, he steps up his game, going from mere voyeur to stalker, following the woman through the busy streets and her daily itinerary. It's not clear if he would have stalked her if not for the sinister man in wait, watching her, following her. This is the impetus for his stalking. In some ways its a fairly standard fantasy of the disempowered male who is fascinated by a woman out of his league (or whom he's simply too craven to approach).

Usually it involves a scenario where the male can rescue the woman and reveal his good traits and masculinity, which would have otherwise gone unnoticed. Of course it's taken on a more perverse, fetishistic form because of his midnight escapades as a peeping tom and the stalking. Yes, his stalking does have good intentions, but it seems to be just as much a product of his desires as it is to protect the woman. It's later mentioned by the detective that he could have called the police, which he fails to do. If he were to insure her safety, he would no longer be able to pursue his heightened fantasy. He'd be back to mere peeping from the safety of his telescope, never bridging the gap to more anti-social behavior or further contact with the woman (at least he would have no convenient excuse to be in her vicinity or approach her with). 


Looks an awful lot like a Philip-Lorca diCorcia street photograph.

Jake is often stated as being average or even an everyman of sorts. But it's hard to root for him as the underdog or feel sympathy for him with his role as a veritable loser after the peeping, however, which inevitably leads the viewer to be slightly repulsed, perhaps even disinterested in his plight. But perhaps that's just me growing tired of such characters.

One might liken the scenario to the proliferation of porn and the graduating stimulus required to be satiated. He's frustrated after the scenario with his ex-girlfriend and seemingly has few prospects. Voyeurism is its own genre of pornography, and even stripped of the commercial pornographic element can become a fetish, often accompanied by or leading to stalking, if not further indecencies. He watches porn on the TV (a very important plot point that leads to the second arc of the film), and he even gets involved as a porn actor to unravel the mystery, leading him closer and closer to despair and death. And predictably, this is another film that interlinks sex and death in the sensational scene of murder the film is semi-notorious for.


"He hit me again," the woman says on the phone as Jake listens.

There's the typical setup of adultery and a marriage gone sour that's slowly revealed over the course of the stalking sequence through the mall and the apartment complex at the beach. 

Feeding into the voyeurism angle is the scene where Jake is watching through the window of a clothing store, while Jake and the viewer get to see the woman dress and undress through a parting of the curtain.


Jake's other half.


Does he remain silent because he'd be implicated as a peeping tom or is he simply exhilarated by the chase? 


Those panties aren't going to sniff themselves...

A reminder of the combination of the threat on her life, which is a partial justification of his pursuit, and necessarily woven with sheer desire is, not just the scene with the woman undressing, but also Jake snatching her discarded panties out of the garbage right in front of her (they play the same trashy pop song that was used during the peeping scenes to connect them). 


After a while of amateur hour shadowing, Jake finally intervenes when the woman is accosted by the more malicious stalker. He never even learns her name until he goes through the contents of her purse. Prior to that, she seems to notice she's being watched, pursued, seems to even encourage it when she walks through the sand, as if searching.

Jake locks up again when chasing the stalker, in the darkness of the tunnel, a narrow space just like the one he'd been locked in as a child. One could see it as rather Freudian, with the womb-like imagery of the tunnel, and the interrupted love making that was to come. 


There's nothing sexier than making out with the better-intentioned of your two stalkers, whom you've just met.

The dramatic revolving kiss sequence has a hint of the artificial with the soft backdrop, and it almost appears that it will be revealed as a matte painting, similar to the earlier sequences in the film. Of course it also draws very directly from Vertigo here.

Later that night, unsure of how to approach her, still having failed to call the police, he witnesses the murder in progress. When he rushes to her rescue, he is assaulted by her dog. Much like the earlier scene in the apartment with the dog and his girlfriend, the dog here is a symbol of sorts—a far more vicious and large dog, looking like a wolf that prevents the protagonist from marching into the bedroom to interrupt the lurid symbolic sex of the cat and mouse sequence upstairs.


De Palma denies the implied sexuality of the scene with the oversized drill used as a murder weapon, but it couldn't be more obvious. It's cartoonish enough that it's often considered a parody of the hypersexualized nature of such films.

His interview with the police is highly reminiscent of his earlier interview for an acting role in a Shakespeare play, which connects the dual worlds of the thriller he's found himself in and his life as a fledgling actor—perhaps they're one and the same, but the film never clearly answers that as it goes on to intermix the two.

Up to this point his viewing of the woman next door was relatively tame, but he views pornography on the television. The viewing experience is not unlike the nudity he saw through the telescope lens, though it has all the hallmarks of the typical porno of the time. Reality and irreality are confused as he sees a lookalike of the murdered woman in Holly Body (Melanie Griffith), an annoyingly plucky and naive porn actress whose routine also bears a resemblance to the performance of the dancing woman on the previous nights.

He seeks her out, starring in a porno and presenting himself as a porno producer. The movie Jake stars in at first appears to be part of the film proper, despite the terrible musical number performed by new wave group Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The crew is soon revealed in the mirror as he meets Holly, continuing the trend of the film-within-a-film setup. When he kisses her it mirrors the scene where he kissed the stalked woman. De Palma even cuts between the two sequences.


Surprisingly De Palma didn't cast the same actress to play both roles, similar to Luis Bunuel in so many of his erotic films. He gets a second chance with Holly, a stand-in for Gloria, but he has to deceive her to keep the act up. It's never made clear if he had the same desire for Gloria (the mirrored kiss scene would suggest as much) or if he merely wanted to solve the murder case. His body language and the framing of the scenes seems to suggest the latter.

He attempts to save Holly, again, given a second chance. The mask of the murderer is torn away. The dog growls at him from inside the stalker/murderer's car. Once Jake conquers his fears and overcomes his catatonia, he's grappling with the murderer, and the enraged dog breaks out of the window of the car as Jake emerges from the grave. The dog plays an important and escalating role throughout the film. It can be seen as both a symbol of some aspect of the strange adulterous ensemble presented: the original intersection of Jake, Gloria (the woman being stalked), and the murderer are a depraved love triangle, and this setup is similar, only with Holly in place of Gloria. The triangle ends with the dog pouncing upon the murderer and sending him to his watery grave. 

As the film seems to be heading toward a happy ending, it takes a turn for the bizarre.


He says he's trying to help Holly, but she views him as a sex pervert, sinks into the grave, and ceases to move as he pleads with her. He's branded as a necrophiliac and a corpse fucker by Holly, perhaps suggesting the escalation of voyeurism, to stalking, to murder (similar to how he viewed the escalation of his sinister counterpart). In some sense the roles here are reversed. Holly is in the grave unwilling to move and he's attempting to help her, much like how Gloria helped him out of the tunnel when he was in his catatonic state. The scene is similarly dark and narrow. Both scenes are near the water. The water is also connected with life and death, just as sex so often is in art. As he rises out of the grave, his fears conquered and the situation seemingly resolved, she falls into it, vulnerable, unmoving. It's at this point that the thriller would find the love interests coming together to match the romantic music played during the beach scene when he was stalking Gloria, but that doesn't happen. 

His catatonia prevented him from fulfilling his fantasy of saving Gloria during his first chance at the beach. Now it's cured, and he saved Holly, the stand-in, but it doesn't matter. Both he and Gloria and Holly were or became damaged individuals who met under peculiar circumstances. An adultress, a porn actress, a peeping tom. Love shan't flourish under such circumstances in real life, and it doesn't come to fruition in De Palma's Hitchcockian world either. These fantasies aren't really about love, anyway.

However, it's clear she's taking on the passive role he once embodied. Lying in the grave, waiting for her death at the hands of the man looming over her, just as the girl awaits her own death in the vampire film, as she takes on the role of fodder so many women before her have in thriller and horror films. 

He stares at her in confusion because while he is now dominant and behaving normally and has conquered all, his transcendence is solely preoccupied with what happens in the vampire film. This thriller storyline is no longer important, so it is discarded.

Jake is catatonic in his opening role as a vampire and is fired in the following days despite the director assuring him it'd be fine. He's compared to a baby during the acting sequence, and he has to overcome his childhood fears to transcend this role—to even act. When the murderer is shoveling dirt into Holly and Jake's grave, he says he'll give him one more chance to act. He awakens in his vampire garb, the opening scene replaying, but he has the knowledge he didn't have before. He confronts his fear in the coffin instead of walking out by redoing the scene. Back in the thriller scenario, he breaks free of his catatonic state. By overcoming his fear he successfully completes the movie and overcomes the murderer simultaneously. In the vampire film, he's essentially resurrected, the walking dead, who lives only to drink the blood of others, specifically fetishized women.

In the ending—the vampire film—he's groping a girl and on the verge of sucking her blood. It's a slow scene with the crew swarming around them and a c-stand arm in the frame. A realistic portrayal of a film set, with the cinematographer swooping in to meter the scene. The first girl is switched out for a body double, just as happens in the thriller portion of the film. Holly even makes an appearance with the last line of the film, connecting both stories even further. 

It's hard to tell which of these parallel worlds are real, if either are real. It doesn't really matter. It would seem that the portions with the vampire are real enough and he has to go through the trial and error of fantasy to transcend his more passive role of non-acting or voyeurism into acting and activities of a more active nature than mere voyeurism. It seems De Palma is keen on using the gore and nudity of the genre film to deconstruct the nature of these films—to say something about the process of transformation from being a viewer to actually engaging in such acts (whether it's of the mock nature of film or even that of the actual sadomasochist). 

I prefer to see Jake as a weak, not especially masculine man trying to overcome his insecurities, but he's manipulated into deviance—voyeurism, pornography, and the like. This all becomes passé, no longer a strong enough high to please him. Eventually he does what he would never have done before to satisfy that need to sate his hedonism. By the time he's at the end of the line in the thriller film. His path is already set. His fears no longer hold him back. And he hasn't taken on a positive masculinity, but a negative one as seen in the vampire film. Yes, it's just a movie—something artificial. But this is what he's been striving for all along? To play a terrible role in a terrible film that's only fancy is gore and nudity? It seems the only end is a mingling of the erotic with violence and a glorification of it for sadistic pleasures. Nothing about his life or either scenario of the film seems real. It's all fake. It's a confused mess of one fantasy world devouring the other and vying for dominance.

Additionally, there is an androgynous, freakish appearance to Jake when dressed as a vampire—a further debasement of his masculinity into something negative.

The whole thing seems too tongue-in-cheek and parodic, only farcically cerebral—pointlessly so. A pastiche of Hitchcockian motifs with De Palma's more brutal and misanthropic spin. It really has nothing new to say and the ride to get there isn't that compelling. Had they stuck with the basic thriller scenario and omitted the post-modern ending, I'd have been disappointed. I'm also disappointed with the final cut. A mildly entertaining and stylish film that deconstructs the thriller/horror genres, but not an essential one.

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