He Sold His Soul for Rock ‘n’ Roll

I really like The Phantom of the Paradise.

I’m not sure how I first came across Brian De Palma’s musical satire of the record industry, but I have a feeling it was around the time Daft Punk’s new album Random Access Memories was released. The band claimed that the centrepiece of the album was the song Touch by Paul Williams. Doing a bit of research into this campy voice, I found that Williams had starred in and wrote the music for a film called Phantom of the Paradise. Watching a clip from the movie, I was astounded at the costume design of the titular spectre. With a silver mask, electronic voice, and all-leather outfit, it was easy to connect the dots when I read that this was one of Daft Punk’s all time favourite films.

vlcsnap-2013-10-06-20h34m41s113
“Lose Yourself to Dance”

It makes sense that Daft Punk would have watched this film in their youth, since Phantom bombed on release worldwide save for two places: Winnipeg (that’s in Canada by the way) and Paris. Why it failed when The Rocky Horror Picture Show exploded in popularity one year later is a mystery to me, as the films share similar themes and subject matter. Regardless, this is one of the few De Palma films I actually enjoy, and I’m glad to see it being recognized more in recent years.

It’s hard to put into words what makes this film special – as difficult as it would be to track the countless cinematic influences that De Palma pilfered in making it (though rest assured, it’s loaded with Hitchcock references). The film itself is a mix of The Phantom of the Opera, Faust, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, to name just a few examples. At the very least, the soundtrack is excellent, jumping from one musical genre to another with ease. The film begins with a catchy 1950’s-inspired musical number before we are introduced to head-henchman Philbin, played by George Memmoli.

vlcsnap-2016-10-30-18h03m05s90.png
Hey, weren’t you in Mean Streets?

This is an interesting scene. Philbin appears to address the audience for over a minute before music tycoon Swan (Paul Williams!) finally responds. I’m not sure why De Palma decided it was a good idea for the audience (or at least the camera) to assume the perspective of the film’s villain in the first scene, but somehow it works. Swan and Philbin discuss the need for truly remarkable music to open up Swan’s rock palace, The Paradise. In the background of this shot we see our protagonist Winslow Leach, played by the other-worldly William Finley, setting up to perform. As he begins to play, Swan pays attention: he has finally found the perfect music.

Winslow continues to sing, and the scene plays out in a circular tracking movement around him. This is an effective way, at least in this instance, to keep the scene dynamic while focusing on a static subject. I’m not sure if De Palma is referencing Hitchcock or something out of the silent era of filmmaking here. Curiously, I was most reminded of the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will when watching this shot.

vlcsnap-2016-10-30-18h15m21s55.png
Bad hair, great music.

Thus begins Swan’s goal of stealing Winslow’s music for The Paradise. After being framed, put into prison, having his teeth replaced with metal (for a reason the film barely bothers to explain) and his face and vocal chords ruined, Winslow seeks revenge for having his music stolen from him.

Assuming the identity of a…Phantom? Winslow begins his vengeance by planting a bomb in the prop car of Swan’s band during a performance. I’m not sure I can call this a reference to Touch of Evil so much as an enthusiastic recreation of its opening scene. The key difference here is De Palma’s use of split screen, which I can only hope was inspired by the excellent The Boston Stangler. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work here, as the sound design problems of having characters speaking and a full musical performance at the same time leads to the audience being unable to understand either.

vlcsnap-2016-10-30-18h32m25s93
Touch of Paradise or The Phantom Strangler.

Swan confronts The Phantom, who is unable to kill Swan because…well, we’re not quite sure. Either way, Swan convinces The Phantom to write him one last rock cantata. He agrees, under the condition that the only person who can sing his music is Phoenix, played by Jessica Harper.

Their deal is altered when Swan decides to go with the androgynous Beef (Gerrit Graham) as his lead singer instead of Phoenix. This culminates with The Phantom issuing a warning with a brilliant reference to Psycho. Beef enters the shower. The Phantom approaches with a knife. This is a De Palma film. We just know that this is going to be another Hitchcock reference. The strings squeal, the knife tears through the curtain, and just as Beef catches a glimpse of his attacker, he is silenced by a toilet plunger. For what it’s worth, this is an excellent subversion of audience expectation.

vlcsnap-2016-10-30-19h31m00s168.png
It’s silly, but this is Phantom.

The music in Phantom, as I’ve mentioned before, is excellent. Throughout the film, Swan hears music written by Winslow, steals it, and uses it in his own work. In a film about the record industry stealing from musicians made by a filmmaker who steals ideas from other films, this is just brilliant. Listen here to a segment of Swan’s Life at Last which steals from Winslow’s Old Souls being played side by side (30 seconds):

And again, with Winslow’s Faust and Swan’s Upholstery (52 seconds):

Speaking of stealing, there is a long-standing rumour that the band KISS was inspired by the Somebody Super Like You sequence in this film. Both Phantom and KISS entered existence at roughly the same time so there’s never been a concrete answer, though I find it unlikely that the band would have even been exposed to the film. On De Palma’s end, the makeup and set design used in this scene is an obvious reference to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

vlcsnap-2016-10-30-19h13m18s54

vlcsnap-2016-10-30-19h11m08s255
We get it, you like other films!

As for the rumour that De Palma’s friend George Lucas was inspired by The Phantom’s outfit and electronic voice box when creating Darth Vader, that’s up for audiences to decide.

Phantom of the Paradise is an incredibly dense work for its 91 minute runtime, and I could honestly talk about it for hours. Rather than subject you to my rambling love for this film, I would recommend checking out The Swan Archives if you’d like to learn more about it. It’s a well-researched fan website for all things related to the film, so much so that they were involved in the recent Blu-ray version of Phantom (as was I, to the extent of correcting a typo on the front cover before it was publicly released).

Thank you for reading, and Happy Halloween!

Advertisements

The Razor’s Edge or: how I learned to stop worrying and love dramatic Bill Murray

I like The Razor’s Edge.

I have always enjoyed Bill Murray as a dramatic actor, from Rushmore to Broken Flowers. He just has that something that no amount of training or practice can muster in any other actor. The Razor’s Edge claims to be to Murray’s first starring role in a dramatic film (although perhaps a case can be made for Where The Buffalo Roam being a drama). However, it was not this tidbit that brought the film to my attention. Rather, like many films I end up watching, it was because of its excellent poster.

the-razors-edge
Glorious.

Indeed, I am a sucker for beautifully illustrated posters, and the way the light is hitting Murray’s chin in this is just sublime. Reading the poster’s text, we are treated to all sorts of mysterious and impressive sounding sentences that reveal nothing concerning what the film is actually about. The official plot description of this film is this:

“He had everything and wanted nothing. He learned that he had nothing and wanted everything. He saved the world and then it shattered. The path to enlightenment is as sharp and narrow as a razor’s edge.”

Oh boy, was I hooked.

It turns out this film is an adaptation of a novel by W. Somerset Maugham. Something of a passion project for Murray, he agreed to star in Ghostbusters only if Columbia agreed to finance this film. He also co-wrote the screenplay, and although most critics were quick to point out that the dialogue was incongruous to the 1920’s time period, I felt it gave the characters a relatable edge in a more eloquent way than, say, using rap music in the 1920’s as in 2013’s The Great Gatsby. On that note, the film reminded me in many ways of an F. Scott Fitzgerald story, which I am always drawn towards.

The first thing I noticed watching this film was its pacing. This film moves fast. I’m not sure if they had a hell of a lot to squeeze into 129 minutes or if they just didn’t realize how much they were going to have to cut in the editing room. I swear, we have only just met Larry, our protagonist, before he is off saving lives in a world war and back to his pool within the span of 20 minutes.

This is not to say that the pacing of this film is not effective, just awkward. We are treated to an excellent Brian Doyle-Murray as the ill-fated Commanding Officer Piedmont, whose habit of giving scathing eulogies to fallen comrades is repeated by Larry in a near-touching moment when Piedmont himself is killed in battle.

vlcsnap-2016-10-24-15h04m56s143.png
Low angle BDM.

I say near-touching because we have only just met these characters, and Larry’s eulogy for his fallen comrade loses its impact since we have just heard the same thing 5 minutes earlier. Still, this tragedy is a believable set up for Larry questioning his life’s meaning, and travelling around the world in search of different philosophies.

Along with Doyle-Murray, the film gives us another actor who is a treat to watch, Marcus from Raiders of the Lost Ark (or Denholm Elliott, to use his real name)! Playing a man whose goals in life are status and opulence, Elliot is an uncanny force in the film, and I was never quite sure whether I admired him, disliked him, or pitied him. He serves as a glimpse of the fate for those who seek material comfort in life, as opposed to Larry’s noble and isolating goal of knowledge for the sake of understanding.

vlcsnap-2016-10-24-15h23m06s41.png
Marcus!

If the editing in this film is rough around the edges, then the cinematography can be marked under the banner of “passable”. The camera treats us to some interesting angles, especially around the film’s Parisian apartments, but overall not much is happening here out of the ordinary. What is extraordinary is how bad the DP (Peter Hannan) is at lighting locations at night. Seeing one grainy scene with its exposure pushed past the limit is one thing, but for it to happen twice in one film is a faux pas right up there with the soft close ups in Interstellar and Spectre (come on Hoyte!). Perhaps the decision to push these exposures was a studio one, and I’m sure a couple of grainy shots don’t take audiences out of their immersion, so I’m willing to accept personal bias on this one.

This is all to say that one shot in the film is absolutely brilliant, the moment where Isabel leaves a bottle of vodka with her butler, and the camera tracks and pans to reveal her recovering alcoholic frenemy Sophie in the other room. I love this shot, because we are shown in blunt terms Isabel’s two choices: warn the butler not to serve Sophie, or leave the vodka allowing Sophie to inevitably self-destruct. Heavy-handed it may be, but it perfectly illustrates the character’s frame of mind in a way that doesn’t rely on dialogue.

vlcsnap-2016-10-24-16h01m39s76.png
Trust me, it’s even better in motion.

The film caused me to think about my life, and life in general, and I think any work that causes its consumer to reflect on questions outside of itself could be classified as some kind of art. I loved how dark the film’s characters could get, and although Murray is something of a passive protagonist, it’s a part of the film’s plot, and the magnetism the actor brings is enough to keep us invested.

Despite the journey of the film, I still cannot answer the one question I shouldn’t be asking after a film ends: what was the point of it all? Yes, Larry learns important things about life and happiness and suffering. But at the end of the film, when he has no friends left and his fiancée is murdered, he decides to go “home”. “But where is your home, Larry?” the butler asks. “America.” is the reply.

America? What does that even mean? Is the point of this film to show that, after reaching enlightenment, one has no choice but to turn towards nihilism and return to the country of their birth? I just don’t get it, and a majestic shot of Murray ascending a set of stairs doesn’t do much to fool me that that the end of this film has a purpose other than to see the credits roll. It just feels like a wasted opportunity.

I have it on some authority that Wes Anderson is an enormous fan of this film. Seeing Larry, dressed in a white suit, running away from children upon travelling to India, I’m certain that Murray’s character in The Darjeeling Limited is some sort of homage to this film. Do The Razor’s Edge and The Darjeeling Limited both exist within some weird Andersonian multiverse timeline? At the very least, without The Razor’s Edge, we may never have enjoyed the dramatic talents Murray brings to his roles in Anderson’s films.

vlcsnap-2016-10-24-15h48m12s237.png

Screen Shot 2016-10-24 at 3.42.35 PM.png
It can’t be a coincidence!

Thank you for reading what has been my first film “review”. I hope you have enjoyed this piece, and if you have any suggestions on format or any films you would like me to talk about, please leave a comment.