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Saturday, February 19, 2022

Over at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Sarah Welch-Larson has written a deeply fine-tuned analysis of Brian De Palma's Phantom Of The Paradise, accompanied by a beautiful illustration from Toronto-based artist Tom Ralston. Go read the entire article from start to finish, but here's an excerpt:
Where the Juicy Fruits come across as unselfconscious and ironic, and where Phoenix comes across as earnest almost to the point of desperation, their successor (Gerrit Graham) is willing to lean into knowing camp, and all the excesses that come with it. Even his improbable (incredible!) name—Beef—is a wink toward voracious appetites, and more than just a nod to sexual innuendo. Beef is artificial, swimming in irony. Beef knows the rules of the production game, and he’s in on the joke. He matches Swan’s excesses with excesses of his own, slipping across the stage in wooden high-heeled shoes, his hair caked in glitter and coiffed like that of a classical Greek statue. He pronounces the word “professional” with extra syllables. The Juicy Fruits’ presentation might have been cobbled together from genre to genre, but Beef beats the label band at their own game by performing dressed as Frankenstein’s monster—a man created by the label purely to sell music in spectacular fashion.

And De Palma—like Swan and his cronies—sells spectacle here, more than anything else. The entire film is soaked in color: crimson and gold in the hallways of the titular Paradise club, metallics shining in the microphones and musical instruments, and the flash of neon lights in pink, green, and yellow in the background at every show. Paradise attendees and auditioning hopefuls wear clothing in natural fibers and floral prints, nature untouched by Swan, the devil in a shag haircut and leisure suit. The performers on stage, in contrast, wear sequins and spandex, synthetic materials in spectacular colors and shapes. Phoenix starts off dressed simply enough, but dons a coat made entirely of pheasant feathers once she’s been crowned Swan’s newest favorite. The Phantom wears black skin-tight leather, a void of a man who’s been emptied of his art by a soulless producer. Even the blood, when it’s finally spilled, is cherry red. It pops off the screen, mortal seriousness masked in a cartoon shade.

The cartoony nature of the visuals sells the faux-glamor of the Paradise better than any realistic style could; the exaggerated nature of the sets, cheap as they might look, gives the movie an appearance of being that much larger than life. Swan’s production company, Death Records, features winding, impractical black-and-white corridors that twist through the building with no discernible logic, in an inefficient and extravagant use of space. Before he becomes the Phantom, Winslow Leach enters the building hoping to be signed by Swan. He finds nothing of substance: no recording studios, no instruments, no producer, just a woman in a Death Records t-shirt filing her nails behind a desk, and a record press that will maim Leach’s face, driving him to haunt the Paradise for revenge.

Where Death Records is sparse, the Paradise is ornate: the club is festooned with mirrors, doing double duty to make the building’s interior look bigger, even though the images those mirrors reflect have no real substance. Swan can see himself from any angle in those mirrors, can admire his own self-declared perfection whenever he’d like. He knows himself for the devil he is. The Phantom, on the other hand, can’t confront himself in those same mirrors. He shies away; they magnify his burned face, and with it his failure to hold on to the rights to his own music. The Phantom covers his face in shining metal armor to protect him from pity and scorn, including his own.



Before it all goes to hell, before Leach is signed to a contract under Swan, before he’s disfigured and trapped within the Paradise’s walls as the Phantom, before the opulence of the Paradise is shown to be a sham, Leach plays piano in a club. He might be an unsigned artist playing unpopular music, but De Palma treats that art with respect. The camera swirls around Leach as he plays and sings, the lens holding a tight focus on his face. Everything else falls away. There’s no artifice: Leach’s music, with no frills added, is the only art in the world that matters. He’s certainly the only artist in the building; he’s playing to an empty club. The only person in-film who can hear him is Swan, and tragically, Swan doesn’t hear Leach the way we do. He only hears a song that he wants to repurpose for the opening of the Paradise.

Months in the future and miles away, Phoenix is pushed on the stage at the opening of the Paradise. Beef has flamed out on stage, murdered by the vengeful Phantom, and in his desperation to keep the show going, Swan turns to the singer he’d rejected for being too perfect and too innocent. She steals the show with a song Leach wrote for her.

“Old Souls” is an anomaly—a slow love ballad, far more restrained than any other song in the film. The piano accompanying Phoenix’s performance takes a back seat to Jessica Harper’s voice. The maximalist stage setting from Beef’s performance is gone, replaced by a simple velvet curtain; the raucous audience screaming that they want Beef is silenced. They’re held rapt by everything Swan has previously discarded. Instead of glitter, darkness; instead of Beef’s stagy hypermasculinity, Phoenix’s unpracticed and unguarded femininity; instead of processed false youth, a song about a love older than the lovers experiencing it.

“All souls last forever so we need never fear goodbye,” sings Phoenix, and for a moment, the artifice driving Phantom of the Paradise falls away. There’s no need to sell youth anymore, because there’s nothing to fear from aging. Phoenix’s song is genuine because it embraces change and age, and it refuses to put a price tag on the love around which the lyrics turn. Phoenix isn’t selling anything to her audience; she’s giving it away for free.

Posted by Geoff at 6:01 PM CST
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