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a la Mod:
"I have written about Coppola’s film in more detail for Video Watchdog but De Palma’s is perhaps the more distinguished of the pair, if only because that cynicism which so frequently permeates his work ends up giving Passion greater thematic coherence – something which, for better and worse, is lacking from Twixt, Coppola’s optimism preventing him taking De Palma’s final leap into despair."
Stevens somewhat echoes Sara Freeman's essay on Passion, in which she suggests that the advertising businesswomen involved in the film's drama are each "living inside her very own Facebook profile or twitter account." But Stevens seems to delve even further into this idea-- here is another excerpt:
The plot involves a rivalry between two women working for a German advertising agency, the seemingly introverted Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) and her extrovert boss Christine (Rachel McAdams). Although the film is told mostly from Isabelle’s viewpoint, we learn almost nothing about her. Her sexuality, friendships, familial relationships, past life and nationality are all mysterious; as Christine tells her, “I don’t even know where you’re from or what you want.” Isabelle is the product of a social-media culture, creating herself through various manipulations and technological transactions, existing only to the extent that desires can be projected onto her by the people she encounters, ultimately disappearing into a state of uncertainty wherein everything is (or might as well be) a dream.
Stylistically, the film is divided into two parts. The first half is lit and framed like an episode of a television series about backstabbing among the jetset (Dallas, perhaps) while the second half is much lusher visually, with the kind of excessive mise en scène typical of this director. It is here that Isabelle abandons her former passivity and takes decisive action, successfully carrying out a complex scheme to destroy Christine. Essentially, she retreats into an ‘online’ world in which her fantasies can be realised without fear of exposure, and De Palma implies that this entire section is Isabelle’s dream.
But the earlier scenes take place in a world which is just as ‘unreal’, just as heavily marked by wish-fulfilment fantasies and stylish surfaces: Christine claims to have both a twin sister and a childhood trauma but may have invented both, and at times is so harshly lit that her face appears to be as white as the mask of herself she makes her lovers wear. This mask is eventually donned by Isabelle (who thus ‘becomes’ Christine) during a murder scene that might be a fantasy (but also might not). In a world where so many of our relationships are conducted via the internet, it makes little difference whether we are on or offline, awake or dreaming, guilty or innocent. Identity, sexuality and morality have all become provisional, subject to constant revision. As with Mitt Romney’s Etch A Sketch presidential campaign, it is always possible to hit the reset button and start again.
Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere (2010) shares many of these concerns and so far has not received any UK exposure. A few months ago, I wrote about a group of 80s films that critiqued American cinema’s dominant trends. These recent works by De Palma, Coppola and Hellman suggest the emergence of a new oppositional movement, one which challenges those hermetic CGI entertainments wherein the erasure of physical reality serves as a guarantee that we can leave our troubles at the door, that nothing will be permitted to disturb our involvement in corporate-controlled fantasies.
The song was written by Paul Williams (who also plays Swan, the film’s villain) and is a kind of bubble-gum overture, anticipating a number of notions that the film will kick around. So we’re turned on to the idea that this movie will be about how the music industry processes tragedy into sensation and sentiment in order to sell records. But the current of dark humour in the lyrics cuts that idea with a playful cruelty in the way it views Eddie:
Well you did it Eddie and though it’s hard to applaud suicide / You gave all you could give so your sister could live / All America’s choked up inside. The overall effect is a three-minute summary of a worldview which, while more on the side of art than industry, is still ready to stick a pin in the way artists see themselves. There’s wit there and that wit is a gift from Paul Williams to Brian De Palma.
David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film makes a case against De Palma that seems capture much of why people who don’t like De Palma, don’t like De Palma. According to Thomson he is ‘ready to control everything except his own cruelty and indifference. He is the epitome of mindless style and excitement swamping taste or character… He has contempt for his characters and his audience alike.’ I’m not sure. When things do go wrong for De Palma he seems burdened not with cynicism but with an excess of moist-eyed sentimentality. One can find both sentiment and cynicism in De Palma’s films but what defines him as director is his excess. So both the cynicism and the sentiment often get given free reign. And the films are visually excessive too. De Palma is fond of lurid and striking formal techniques – split-screens, long tracking shots, slow-motion, and splashes of vivid colour – which demand the viewer either fall in love or fuck off. And sometimes, when the visual excess, the sentiment and the cynicism are all cooking at once, he delivers scenes that are marked by a vivid, sick purity.
Paul Williams makes that sentiment, cynicism and purity sing. He heightens the cynicism with lyrics that have a verbal sharpness lacking in De Palma’s dialogue. And he lends depth to the sentiment with the kind of melancholy early-70s torch-songs that seem perfect for capturing sadness and regret...
There is another affinity between the songs and De Palma’s technique. Arrow’s lush and comprehensive Blu-ray release includes a long interview between Guillermo del Toro and Williams. In it del Toro talks about the stylistic eclecticism of the songs and draws a parallel with the variety of filmmaking techniques De Palma employs. One of the conceits of the film is that the songs of Winslow Leach, the sensitive singer-songwriter who becomes The Phantom, are supposed to be debased when they are given a pop rewrite by Swan. So Winslow’s heartfelt ‘Faust’ becomes a cheerful Beach Boy’s pastiche called ‘Upholstery’. Inevitably ‘Upholstery’ is about ten times as much fun as ‘Faust’. And the scene where we see it is performed is the best scene in the film...
When I’m in the right mood, I find this scene intensely pleasurable to watch. There’s something thrilling about the ways in which the layers of smartarse showing-off connect with one another. De Palma is trying to simultaneously reference and outdo Touch of Evil by having a bomb-in-a-car scene done with two simultaneous extended long-takes, instead of Welles’s one, and combining them in a split-screen, as characters move between both takes. The fact that the bomb is put in a prop car makes such intertextual riffing come off as light and playful, rather than stifling. There’s even a hint of a self-detracting joke, in the way the scene’s reworking of Touch of Evil mirrors the way Swann has reworked ‘Faust’ into ‘Upholstery’. And it’s just fun to be able to switch one’s attention between two different types of set-piece: the musical number, and the suspense countdown. Not only that, the two add a little pep to one another: I like how the ticking of the bomb compliments the song’s rhythm. I also like how the camera move on the right-half of the screen, which shows us first The Phantom and then Swann seeing the Phantom, works as quick bit of misdirection to distract you before the explosion in the left-half.
The scene has never looked and sounded better than it does on Arrow’s Blu-ray release. In previous DVD versions the soundtracks from the two takes tended to melt into each other, so the dialogue was impossible to make out. Arrow have cleaned up the soundtrack and used stereo to compliment the split-screen. That gives the scene a tingly immersiveness that adds to how much fun it is.
Early in his career De Palma talked about wanting to be the American Godard. And, since Godard attempted to take Brecht’s theories about theatre and put them into practice in the cinema, it’s maybe not too cheeky to call Phantom of the Paradise De Palma’s most Brechtian film. There is no attempt at realism. Winslow escapes from prison by climbing into a box on the production line he works. He’s half bursting out of the box and is accompanied by both guards and old-timey, silent-film chase music. But somehow the next shot is of the box falling off the back of a truck outside the offices of Swan’s record label...
In the closing credits William Shephard appears twice, for playing ‘Rock Freak’ and for doing the choreography in the climactic assassination/wedding scene. What this means is De Palma got him to do the kind of thing he did for Dionysus in 69, which was break down the barriers between the audience and actors. So you can see Shephard at the film’s climax dancing, getting in the extras’ faces, mocking Finley and causing trouble. De Palma filmed all this like he filmed Dionysus in 69, without really knowing what Shepard would do or how people would react. He also managed to film the carefully timed assassination set-piece happening at the same time. Then he and his editor Paul Hirsch put something together that interweaves uncontrolled excess and precision well enough to prove that De Palma is, at least sometimes, truly brilliant.
"That song is singled out as 'one of my favourites… of my whole catalogue' by Paul Williams in an extended interview conducted by friend by Guillermo del Toro, who is very open about his highs and lows of his career. Now clean and sober since 1990, he comments that 'you know you’re an alcoholic when you misplace a decade,' joking that the only thing he recalls about the eighties is 'the intentionally bad songs for Ishtar,' but stating he is now 'passionate about recovery and passionate about creator’s rights,' he could not be more different from the character her portrays."
Peter Turner, Filmoria
"It’s an enthusiastic early directorial effort from the director who would later tone down the excess but rarely be better. It riffs on Faust, Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray and in one silly send up, even Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s packed with nicked ideas and wonderfully inventive technical showmanship and builds to a frenetic climax of colour, light, bright red blood and murder. The story might be cobbled together from all sorts of clear influences but the style is original and way ahead of its time. Even after forty years, Phantom of the Paradise is still fresh, frantic and funny...
"Extras... Guillermo del Toro interviews Paul Williams with the pair sharing a wonderful rapport. del Toro is in awe of his friend Williams and draws out some fascinating revelations from his subject. It’s over an hour long and only very occasionally cuts to clips from the film. Mostly it is two outsiders who clearly share a strong bond talking about a movie they both have a lot of love for."
Rob Munday, Front Row Reviews
"What is our problem with Brian?
"Brian De Palma is one of the best directors to emerge from the New Hollywood rejuvenation of the 1970s yet still he seems to be treated like an errant little brother who refuses to shut up and leave the train set alone. Perhaps it is the broadly drawn characters, the refusal to be constrained by realism, the joy in playing with the possibilities of cinema. His career may be patchy but anybody who has made Greetings, Carrie, Blow Out, Scarface, Carlito’s Way and Redacted deserves some props. The fact is there’s no one else you’d rather direct the prog-rock fandango that is Phantom of the Paradise...
"Histrionics take centre stage here, pushing promising characters into the wings, and bending the plot to fit the tune. But De Palma brilliantly handles the overblown, creating a dizzying blend of prog-rock tragedy with the virtuoso work of Jack Fisk (production design), Larry Pizer (director of photography), and Paul Hisch (editing), making you believe that maybe this is what New York was really like in 1974.
"The Blu-ray vividly captures the fantastic visuals and grandiose music that makes this as close to Giallo as American films ever got. Dario Argento would later use Harper in Suspiria, and the feeling lingers that De Palma remains the greatest Italian genre director that never was.
"As the extras on this edition detail the film was hampered by a number of lawsuits with the most damaging involving the use of the Swan Song records name (Led Zeppelin got there first) that meant considerable compromise in the final edit (ironic for a film that champions unfettered invention in the face of corporate power). Despite this it remains ripe for re-discovery. Before The Rocky Horror Picture Show, before Little Shop of Horrors, this bombastic melodrama went balls-out in the face of mediocrity."
Dr. Svet Atanasov, Blu-ray.com
"Written and directed by Brian De Palma, Phantom of the Paradise is a terrific piece of psychedelia. It is colorful, wild, mesmerizing, frustrating, kitschy, hilarious, odd and beautiful. It is also a musical of sorts - one that bends forms and styles in such a wicked fashion that one must wonder what was going on in director De Palma's life when he shot the film...
"De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise reminded me of American expatriate William Klein's Mister Freedom. Both films allow for two profoundly different reads of their stories - one where the audience isn't required to pay close attention to the numerous references they contain, and another where reading between the lines is essential. Both films also seem fairly comfortable with the idea that kitsch allows for great storytelling so long as at the end the kitsch is somehow rationalized. In Klein's film the kitsch is used to effectively criticize America's imperialistic ambitions; in De Palma's film the kitsch is used to satirize the showbiz.
"The flavor of the kitsch in Mister Freedom, however, differs considerably from the one present in Phantom of the Paradise. In Klein's film the exaggerations are blunt and frequently quite vulgar. As a result, the main protagonist is impossible to like; the political overtones in the film are also extremely easy to detect.
"In Phantom of the Paradise the main protagonist is so weak that once he begins to suffer it becomes quite easy to feel for him; he is the ugly duckling that no one wants. Yet instead of embracing him De Palma proceeds to exploit his misery, thus ensuring that Phantom of the Paradise does not evolve into a cliched soap opera.
"Visually, Phantom of the Paradise is overwhelming. What takes place on the screen has to be seen to be believed. During the film's final act it literally feels as if De Palma demanded everyone to go berserk in front of the camera, just like Fellini did in a few of his films. The only difference here is that Phantom of the Paradise lacks the grace and elegance of Fellini's films which, arguably, is precisely what makes it so special...
"I have mixed feelings about this new release of Phantom of the Paradise. Its basic characteristics are unquestionably superior to those of French label Opening Distribution's release, which we reviewed in 2010. Indeed, grain is better resolved, dirt and specs have been carefully removed, and the encoding is superior. The color timing and contrast balance of this new release, however, are drastically different. In fact, the discrepancies between the two releases are so big that when comparing the two it actually feels like they enhance entirely different qualities -- the look of the French release supports the kitschy qualities of De Palma's film, while Arrow's release supports the film's lusher musical qualities. Generally speaking, on the Arrow release there is a much wider range of well saturated browns and yellows, which appear to have replaced a good range of nuanced reds/pinks that are prominent on the French release (compare screencapture #1 with screencapture #4 from our review of the French release). The contrast and brightness settings are also different. As a result, the film looks darker but also lusher (screencapture #6 with screencapture #2 from our review of the French release). However, not knowing whether the new color scheme has been in any way approved or endorsed by director De Palma, one will have to rely on one's instincts to choose the 'correct' version of the film. My feeling is that the color adjustments performed at Fox are too strong...
"Special Features and Extras:
"Guillermo del Toro Interviews Paul Williams - in this wonderful new video interview, acclaimed Mexican director Guillermo del Toro and Paul Williams (Swan) discuss the actor's fascination with music and cinema, the production history and style of Phantom of Paradise, the mystery of Swan, etc. r. Williams also talks about his alcohol addiction, making Ishtar, artist rights, and the importance of following your creative instincts. In English, not subtitled. (73 min)."
Mike Pereira, Bloody Disgusting
"I’ve been a Brian De Palma advocate ever since I first laid eyes on the iconic Scarface and soon after Carrie. Whether you like his stuff or not, De Palma’s majestic approach to filmmaking is cinema at its absolute purest. After the trend-setting techniques established by the brilliant Alfred Hitchcock (which he’s frequently been accused of being nothing more than a carbon copy of), this polarizing artist has continued on that fine tradition and in my opinion, took that cinematic language into new majestic heights. The horror/musical Phantom of the Paradise which he also wrote is a clear standout among his filmography. Sure, it contains his signature visual style and bag of tricks (split screen and POV shots aplenty) yet by operating in the musical realm, De Palma is liberated to take his operatic tendencies to new places. It’s a match made in heaven...
"As with most musicals, everything is played in broad strokes on just about every level. Phantom of the Paradise plays it big yet by doing that it somehow connects the viewer to its main character’s plight and the potent themes being explored more so. The filmmaker is greatly assisted by his terrific cast who play their parts with conviction...
"De Palma gets consistently discredited for his reliance on style over substance. His work can consistently be enjoyed for its superior craftsmanship however in much of his finer work you can see a genuine personal connection to the material. A chunk of his films like Blow Out, Snake Eyes, The Untouchables, Casualties of War, The Fury are about his protagonist’s valiant yet seemingly futile, obstacle-ridden crusade to unravel an ominous, corrupt system. Phantom of the Paradise is no different and might very well be the best, most poignant example of this. While De Palma is clearly taking aim at the music and film industry, it’s easy to connect this satire with corporate greed in general. All of these elements are sadly still every bit as vital today which makes Phantom of the Paradise as effective today. Strip all that subtext away and you still have one feverishly fun horror/tragicomedy. De Palma is clearly having [a] blast. He packs this wild romp with unfettered imagination, not to mention some clever nods to his influences (Psycho and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fans will no doubt be amused) for good measure. Phantom of the Paradise is still far and away my favorite musical of all time and having it work on a horror level as well makes it all the more endearing to me.
"The video is very different than the one found on the French Blu-ray release. This latest transfer shows more information in the frame, presents much warmer colours and what may cause some debate; a darker appearance. The contrast is strong and at times can swallow up some of the background detail. It never gets to the point of distraction in my opinion but I can see many being bothered by this. As for the sharpness, the video is every bit as good as the French release. The print is also in great shape, the cleanest it’s ever been. Now I haven’t seen the film during its theatrical presentation so I can’t say if this is what De Palma had intended or. Overall though, I find this transfer to be the most visually striking to date. With the deeper contrast and gorgeous colourization, De Palma’s stylish aesthetic stands out like never before.
"While the video might rattle some feathers, the audio definitely won’t. Arrow presents the original 4-Track Stereo Mix in all its lossless glory. Williams’ memorable soundtrack has never sounded so good. Also, the bass channel packs more punch than I could have ever imagined. There is also a very fine 2.0 Stereo PCM track but it never quite matches the more engaging DTS-HD 4.0 Master Audio."